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[ Read more about author J-F Dube ]



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One would think you’d have enough on your plate just being one of the six Recon team of C-MET, the most technologically advanced military project on Earth. Then your boss asks you to meet face to face with outsystem emissaries: those so-called New Humans, the accursed mutants who left the Earth 200 years ago to colonize the neighboring solar systems. It was good riddance, wasn’t it? And the few of them that stayed here are a constant pain in the you-know-what, so, what good can come out of such a meeting? Well, Team Leader Tamby Wa and partner Nagga Fox, the two most dangerous women on the planet, backed-up by invincible bodyguards hidden in a constructed universe and the might of 24th century True Human science are ready for anything. Or are they really?


Mutant Blues

by J-F Dube

*_Mutant Blues_*

by J-F Dube

*This book is dedicated to family and friends. Not a big crowd,*

but one that counts.

*Part one:*

*The enemy of my enemy...*

* * *1*

*Tamby:*

The fine art of shooting pool consists of keeping your concentration on the current shot: not the next, not the one after that... but I'm not a pro, so don't take that for more than an opinion.

Environment is not a factor considering my particular talents and training. Well, a really good-looking man strolling in -let's say bare-chested just for the fun of it- could have caught my attention. The chances of that happening in a place like this are next to no fracting way in hell.

This is not a disparaging remark about the _Gorgon's Lair_, where I do feel comfortable. This is my turf; why I drag Nagga here once in a while. I have a bit of the salmon in me. I like to come back home. I don't mean I was born in a moderately crowded clandestine bar, but I was born and raised under Boston Dome and the house where I grew up was as dark and smoke-filled and _things_ would happen there. Bad things; exciting things too. Dad was not a choirboy. He was performing _activities_. Often there were _troubles_. He never hit us much, my two brothers and me, but when he did, you never ever knew it was coming. _"Training for the future, girl,"_ he'd say: a visionary man. He was kind of dangerous my dad, but like most dangerous men, one day, he just didn't come back.

So, this is the _Lair:_ a dark and smoky place filled with all kinds of people having fun and doing whatever business one cares to imagine. A couple of hundred years ago, when conditions outside weren't so bad, some moron declared that the Domes, among other things, would bring about the end to illegal activities. Criminals all over the world must have laughed and laughed at that one... Anyway, the _Lair_ isn't such a bad place, it's just that you won't find it in any directory and about once every so often it changes location. My partner Nagga and me can even play pool and drink in peace here, and we're fracting cops! Okay, not cops: C-MET. We don't do domestic stuff, consequently we couldn't care less, but still...

Attitude: just one of the obvious things that I can acquaint my partner with; she who's from that exalted world most of us barely hear about. Attitude is a bit like a bad habit: it gets engrained and an integral part of you. Unlike a bad habit, you adopt it voluntarily. Inside the Lair, a good part of what's going on can only be recognized if you can interpret attitude. So, us being here is for educational purpose, really.

"Geez, call it already!" complains Nagga. That's her: 1.53 meter and 52 kilos of Teratron coated muscles and hair-triggered augmented synapses. You can't see that just by looking at her though; only how beautiful and graceful she is. And the sheer energy she puts out... she always makes me feel like a big oaf. That's okay. I am a big oaf.

"Three ball in the side pocket," I say, giving her a slight smile.

She doesn't react, playing distractedly with the end of her long braid. She never goes out with loose hair: too dangerous. The small colorful C-MET tag on her left temple stands out. When you're C-MET, you don't have to hide it. Most people don't know what it is anyway, but for the few who do, it's kind of a strong warning. Of course she knows what shot is coming, but she's a stickler.

The red ball goes in, a finesse shot, and the cue rolls on to give me a clear view of number four. It will be an easy shot, so let's be a bit more careful.

Across the room there's Tobo Hech dealing cards and not playing for chips that's for sure. There's an opium fad that's been going on for about a month and he's got plenty to spend. Lucky since he's a real bad player.

"I am _not_ calling this one."

This is my temper boiling over. I'm the team leader after all. I'm fracting hopeless, I know. Her eyes tell me she'll let that pass... this one time. I ask: "So, you're going to talk to him or do I have to do it for you?"

Her eyes flick to the bar where a very nice looking biker, not a regular I'd say, is having a quiet drink. Nagga is at least half-Hawaiian, with the skin and the jet-black hair and amazing dark-green eyes. Between that, the incredible body and the C-MET tag, she has to ask when she wants to meet someone. Men are fractin' cowards.

"Yeah," she says, smiling. "A biker. And he's not completely disgusting."

She pauses as I knock the four ball in the corner pocket, then adds: "He did check me out and didn't choke seeing my tag."

"Well, bearing disaster, I already won this game," I say, lining up the five. "Go on and see if you have better luck with him than with me."

She makes a show of thinking about it, but she knows she'll play spectator for the rest of the game. She sticks her tongue out at me, forgetting her serious character, and leaves for the bar, strutting her stuff. I love her; in some ways, she's like a puppy.

Me, I'm older and wiser and certainly more cynical. Getting weary of failures and rejections, I envision being a spinster for the rest of my life. That can't be all that long for a C-MET Recon team leader.

Now, see this guy entering the bar? Middle age, middle height, forgettable face, and generic clothes; I don't think he's a regular, but I have a feeling that I've seen him somewhere. He does blend in, but, what is it? Not the right attitude perhaps? Taking my time for the shot, I access the Subnet, and data start scrolling in my field of vision. While he sits at an empty table, I get a match for the face: one Gary Menkel. There you go: he's flagged in the C-MET database as a possible contact for New Humans in our territory.

The cue ball has not carried far enough and number six won't be as easy as I would have liked. More people coming in and out of the bar now. Nagga is talking to the prospect and he doesn't seem ready to bolt. In fact, he's perked up quite a bit since her appearance. Good for her. Figuring vectors for the cross-side shot, I continue to spy Menkel's progress through the big crowded room. Just as I take the shot, he turns his head and stares at me. I mean really stares at me for a brief second.

I don't entirely miss the cue ball, but the fracting perfect game is down the turbocrapper.

He walks past the bar, passing near Nagga who doesn't notice him at all. She's having a nice time with her conquest, it seems...

Menkel continues on toward the back, but doesn't enter the men's room. Instead, he steps out through the back door. Well, if that's not evasive action, I wonder what would be...

Terminally curious, I leave the table and follow him outside. What could happen to me? I consider sending a head's up to Greyzer or Nagga, but hey, let's not get carried away.

I know the place very well. No surprises: behind the door is a short flight of stairs -five steps down- then a right hand turn into a short open-ended corridor. No sign of Menkel. He must have fled like a scared rabbit. I've almost reached the alley when I feel the buzz. It seems to be inside my head and all around me at the same time, and suddenly I realize I'm cut off from the quantum Subnet.

This, of course, isn't possible. The quantum Subnet doesn't use energy like radio waves. It can't be filtered or scrambled and since I've been a full operative with C-MET -nearly four years now- I haven't lost the link even one time. I'm so shocked that I make a mistake and let my steps carry me out in the alley. Fortunately, at the same time, the SHChip in my head instantly shifted numerous body functions into overdrive. The defense mechanism saves my life, but barely: I'm getting airborne, marveling at the speed and power of the blow I just half-blocked, half-deflected. I can't believe that someone would be insane enough to attack C-MET personnel, but I better face the fact, cause I'm fracting flying through the air!

I land rather awkwardly in a pile of cardboard boxes filled with garbage. All systems intact, I guess, but this is bad and getting worse. The next attack is already under way. I can smell it; not a gas -my SHChip would spot that- more like a pheromone. It's invading my system, getting past millions of nanobots coursing through my arteries and veins, shutting me out of overdrive even as I try to get back on my feet. It's not Menkel. Menkel is nowhere to be seen. But hunched in the darkest part of the alley, four or five meter from me is an all black figure. Damn. There is a face standing out in the gloom. The stranger is not good-looking; he's fracting beautiful! Truly, he could be the man of my dreams: any girl's dream in fact. His hair is golden, crowning a high forehead. I can't see the color of the eyes from here, but the nose is perfectly straight and he seems to be smiling.

"Why are you doing this? " I ask, " I've got _protection_. " He doesn't seem impressed; in fact, he smiles a bit more and corks his head, like he's challenging me on that affirmation.

And I realize it's true: I'm cut off from the Subnet; from Nagga; from my own considerable resources... but much more frightening, I'm cut off from Greyzer, my protection, my bodyguard.

I stagger backward; fall on my ass, suddenly closer to panic than I care to admit to myself. I can almost feel my SHChip going through emergency protocols, nothing working. Mr. Beautiful moves then, revealing legs that aren't attached to the body the way they should, nor are his arms. The smile on his beautiful face widens, and widens. It's impossibly large, seemingly splitting his head in two. I can see other teeth behind, inside his mouth, like rows of shark teeth. I almost gag at the sight. It has to be a mutant. A New Human killer, here, inside Boston Dome!

My ideal man has now lost much of his sex appeal. He comes forward and stands over me. It's the creepiest thing I have ever seen.

I wonder if I was targeted personally, or if it is an attack against C-MET personnel in general. I can't help but think about Nagga inside who could be in danger too...

My SHChip has found what is attacking me and is reprogramming my nanobots. It can do that on it's own, even without the link to the Subnet. In about three minutes I will be able to get in overdrive and at least defend myself. Unfortunately, that should be about 2 minutes after I'm dead.

Mr. Beautiful lifts a hand to strike me, but it's not a hand anymore; it's a paw. A big black paw, with claws at least ten centimeters long.

If we were on a mission, there wouldn't be any problem: Greyzer would spy on me every second and already be here. But this is our free time and I can't expect him to watch out for me continuously. Now that the link is down for real, I just can't believe it. Ever since he's been assigned to me, ever since I've met him, I have felt a connection with him that has been much more than the simple sublink to the stasis non-space. I may say he's my _protection_; but he is in fact my _protector_ and to me at least, it's a big difference. Looking around for something I could defend myself with, silently I call for him. I call his name with my mind and my soul. The claws start to move toward my throat, and, down on my back, half paralyzed, I know without a single doubt that he's the only one that can save me: in my head I call for Greyzer.

The black line appears in mid-air behind Mr. Mutant. It's perhaps three meters tall, two millimeters wide, but getting instantly wider. The door to the stasis non-space is wholly black and nothing can be seen inside until Greyzer steps through: 2.2 meters and 150 kilos of complete and relentless dedication to my safety. His skin, mostly covered by a tight fitting blue-black Diamondweave armor, is the hue of copper. His eyes are a luminous green and aside from eyebrows and eyelashes, he doesn't have a trace of body hair.

His face is all angles; not really good-looking but not ugly either... mostly... strange, I guess. The sheer mass of muscle on his frame is astounding. And as impressive as all this is, it doesn't even begin to cover the amount of enhancement that has been done to him. I look like a high school kid science project compared to him. But living in the stasis non-space requires uncommon abilities.

Stasis non-space is not the real name. It's kind of a description. The real name is ridiculously long and has words like `toroidal shifts', `step-phased' and `virtual tension field' in it. It's extremely exotic physics and has to do, as all new physics of the last 100 years, with residual dimensions leftover from the earliest moments of the Big Bang and other bizarre things that I have no hope of ever comprehending. You can store things or people in it and take them with you wherever you want. No cost, no space taken, no energy spent; no hassle. It is kind of magic, but hugely complicated magic.

Apparently unaffected by whatever has paralyzed me, Greyzer moves forward as Beautiful Man turns around with inhuman speed and rakes his claws on the torso of my protector. The Diamondweave outfit can take it, but Greyzer's main intent is on grabbing the other hand encased in a small black box. The pavement is smoking and opening up at his feet where the box is pointing. As fast as this guy is, Greyzer is even faster and while the claws lift for another strike, his free hand goes through a non-space hole and out comes the cylindrical shape of a kinetic weapon. There is an enormous impact as most of the mutant's internal organs are liquefied. Mr. Beautiful hits the ground with a boneless `smack' and doesn't move anymore.

Greyzer kneels besides me.

"Okay?" he asks, his huge arm behind my back, helping me to sit up.

The buzz isn't there anymore and all links are restored.

"Yeah... I couldn't call you; how did you know?"

His huge eyes bore into me, like he is searching for something that can't be seen.

"I felt you Tamby. I felt you inside..."

"Inside," I repeat, not quite a question. His face is very close, and then, suddenly, his lips are touching mine. So softly, so softly... It lasts forever.

He gets up. The doorway appears, and he walks back into stasis non-space without another word. The door shuts. I'm alone with the body and so confused I forget to get up for at least ten seconds.

Nagga appears as I'm making the call for a clean up crew through the Subnet.

"You were offline! What happened?"

"Close call. Greyzer saved my ass," I reply calmly, holding it together.

"Yeah?" There is relief in her green eyes. "Well, so what else is new?" she says looking over the inanimate form of the NH.

`What's new?' I ask myself. Only that a NH killer is after us for reason unknown; and Greyzer kissed me; and oh, by the way, I just realized I've been in love with him since the day we met.

"Go back to your date, Nagga. I'll take care of this."

"You're sure?"

"Yeah."

I'm okay. Getting through life, it's just like pool. You concentrate on the moment. Not the next; not the one after that. And yeah: I'm fracting hopeless, I know...

* * * * *2*

*Nagga:*

I am team leader material. I know it, Tamby knows it, and the boss knows it. My future is so bright I have to watch out for sunburn. But right now, the best way to show it is to be a good trooper.

After two years with Tamby, I know that something spooked her. I also know when to back off. All will be explained in good time.

It's been two hundred and seventy-five years since the BioGen corporations have taken over governments in Africa and then Asia. They had free rein doing all the nasty things they couldn't do in America or Europe. They promised more than a survival chance for the Third World; they promised progress, and they delivered: something nobody had done up to then. But the cost... they split Humanity forever. The NH fed themselves with crops and animals never seen before on Earth, and then adapted; reengineering their human body to withstand pollution, cosmic radiations, whatever... and then they went to the stars.

We True Humans, on the other hand, went on with our technological progress. The Computer Age became the Quantum Revolution. What NH did by tailoring their genes, we accomplished with nanobots enhancing our bodies. We discovered anti-gravity; the Stengram Holistic Chip that could link quantum computers and organic brain, the Fractal Shunt for virtual strings, teleportation, engineered bubble universes, and much more. But all this didn't prevent us from being afraid of our continually evolving NH counterparts. How glad we were to see them leave in their giant LivingShips!

Then, around fifteen years ago, the great migration stopped, leaving perhaps as much as 250000 New Humans scattered mostly in east Africa and south Asia. Why? We don't know for sure. That's not much compared to our 0.9 billion, but it's a great deal more than none at all. There have been some reports of spies, but as far as I know, it's the first time that one actually been caught inside a Dome.

Getting back inside, I receive the vidfile from Tamby's SHChip. Unfortunately, there is no surveillance I can access in the _Lair_, the place being totally illegal. The feed from her visual cortex, stored in the submatrix of the quantum computer linked to her SHChip, will have to do. Of course, the level of detail you can get when your camera is an augmented human eye is often surprising. Gary Menkel may have fled, but if he is implicated in this strange attack, he will soon learn what it's like to mess with C-MET. No fun at all. After a quick tour of the place and a peek out front, I get back to my conquest, patiently waiting at the bar. Of course he is. What else could he do? Leave? Ha!

His name is Kel Denner and hard to believe, he is a successful artist. He has paintings actually hanging in galleries and museums. People pay ridiculous amounts of money to have them in their living room, so he tells me. And he is not bad looking at all, with dirty blond hair, dark shadow of a beard, big blue eyes in an oval face... He looks like a grown up kid. He is a wise ass too, no doubt about it.

"Sorry about that: business intruding. You know how it is?"

He smiles a bit sadly. "As a matter of fact I do. I consult a bit for the government on the side... from time to time."

"Really? What branch?" Now he's got me curious and alarmed. Arts and government? _Not an IRS puke! Not an IRS puke driving a vintage Harley!_

"Can't say. It's kind of a hush-hush deal."

"Come on, you think I won't find out if I start looking?"

He smiles at me. A big, warm, affectionate smile you give to a kid or a pet that is trying hard to please you. I thought only Tamby could dish out one of those. Damnation!

"I don't know you yet, Nagga Fox," He tells me. "But I'm already so impressed, I feel I better keep you guessing as much as I can. Just to hold your interest..."

He slips a card on the bar toward me and adds: "Call me if you want to see me again. You _know_ I want to see you again."

He grabs his helmet, and by gods and fairies, winks at me before turning around, heading for the exit. Now I really, sincerely hate his guts, and most other body parts of his. _This is not over_ I say to myself, crumpling the card and flipping it in a trash bin behind the bar. It's an easy thing to do since I have already memorized the number, but a girl has to make gestures in public. It's a rule.

So, that done, I start wondering in earnest what exactly is going on. There has been nothing from C-MET Bridge since Tamby cast the warning, but an acknowledgement of the situation.

This attack is quite a bold move from the NH. Had someone warned me of this turn of events, I probably would have dismissed it as impossible. Now it is staring me right in the face: they have access inside the domed cities and they are attacking us. Worst, they are quite boldly striking at the best that we have.

Calling home again, I receive the short reply `_Come back to the Bridge ASAP'_. Well, duh!

Damn that smoke-filled hole. Have to get myself a ClearLungs inhalator as soon as possible. I exit by the front door and walk around to the alley, checking things up, but there is nothing that stands out. The recovery squad van is lifting up as I get back to Tamby.

"That was prompt service..."

"Yeah," she says pensively. "Nothing more to do here: better get back to the Bridge."

I look at her, calmly brushing dirty spots on her clothes with her right hand, and still, I cannot help but being slightly amazed by her poise.

I had it so easy compared to her: loving parents, great education and schooling, no money problems. I have been groomed for success. An adventurous streak got me in C-MET, eventually, but I could have been a brain surgeon too.

Tamby, as far as I have been able to figure, had a really crappy childhood, capped by the death of her father and her two brothers. That produced a very serious, very guarded individual. I can say without a doubt that she is the most unassuming person I've ever met. She is tall, athletic and a natural blonde with wide-set light gray eyes, but she usually refers to herself as a `big girl' or worse. She has the whip-like speed and the fierceness of an alley cat, but says she is clumsy. Perhaps what she hides best is a really keen, very astute intellect. All of that make me realize that the powers that be, overseeing C-MET, have had at least the wherewithal to spot this gem inside her protective shell.

Me, I was easy to find, and a natural to boot, but even if I have a very good opinion of myself, in no way do I think I would do a better job than her as a Recon team leader. She is my guru.

A silent guru all through the subway ride to the Boston terminal, I must say. In fact, there's not a peep from her until we settle in first class seats of the intercontinental maglev, and firmly belt ourselves in. The ride used to be real smooth, but since they cranked the speed over a thousand kph, there are some intermittent wobbles that warrant the precaution. The first leg of the trip is underground, so there is nothing to see by the tinted windows but the illusion of incredibly fast moving concrete.

"Okay, this is what happened," Tamby says, finally acknowledging my presence.

I lock up, preventing myself from involuntary movements, and then, taking a deep breath, I access the full packet. Vast quantities of data flow from a quantum behemoth buried who knows where to my SHChip, and I am there, suddenly. I am Tamby, walking down the short flight of stairs at the back of the _Gorgon's Lair_. It is all there: the subdued light, the smells, and the humidity of the alley... I can feel the unexplained buzz shutting down all links; the helplessness of dropping out of overdrive... I may have taken steps against moving in my seat, but I certainly can feel my flesh crawl along my back at the sight of the NH mutant.

I am so glad when the buzz start to falter as he is standing over me -over Tamby- and so relieved she is able to link with Greyzer who appears instantly, saving the day...

I unlock myself, batting eyelashes a few times. "Yeah, that was a close call."

She stares hard at me, but her lips do not move. Instead, her reply comes to me through our own private secure channel. A very small, very high-tech, very expensive device is implanted in my neck and hers and linking us in the old radio medium with redundant encryption vectors. This is just us. No C-MET, no going through our SHChip, no records. It is good for maybe two kilometers: primarily a security precaution for heavy battle action. We do not like depending too much from distant computers when in danger, even with outstanding Subnet links.

_"This is the official version,"_ she says to me, her voice clear in my ears even if there is no sound to be heard, and her meaning inescapable.

_"You have edited this?"_ I ask, totally impressed. _" Even in the C-MET Records?"_

_"Just did."_

_"I did not feel a hint of it. It was seamless!"_ I say with a new respect for her. She just shrugs, so I ask: _"You want to tell me what really happened?"_

_"No. But I will anyway, I suppose..."_

Outside, the concrete has disappeared and the dark blue sky is now visible. The maglev is chasing the setting sun upon the blur of the countryside.

_"If this happens again,"_ she continues, _" if you ever feel that buzz, Nagga, you fractin' get away. You hear me? `Cause it never stopped. I never relinked with Greyzer while the NH was alive."_

Still bewildered by her feat of not only bypassing the Records security, but also tinkering successfully a multi-sensory file, I am a bit slow on the uptake.

_"Wha... But who saved you then? Or he did not attack?"_

_"Of course he did. And Greyzer saved my ass, but I didn't call him through the link. I used another... connection, I guess."_

_"You guess... What other connection? Some kind of telepathy?"_

She thinks about it for what seem to be a long time.

_"No, not really. I couldn't describe it. Most probably it was a fluke. That's why I want to keep it between us."_

_"Hmmm... sure, why not? It has no impact on anything. I just hope you don't get caught. If Beckman from Records ever learns what you did, she will blow her head gasket."_

"Yeah..." she says, finally relaxing in her seat and giving me a small smile. "Like I give a fracting crap about her."

With the short stop in Atlanta, the trip to Houston dome is about three hours long. Tamby will nap at least half of that as usual. Time enough for me to take care of that most important business: Kel Denner, artist and flippant jackass. However, and to my great shame, an hour later I am still completely in the dark as what he could do for the big G.

I had found loads, well, not exactly loads, but enough about the more or less `known' artist. And many references concerning mathematical art, of which he is some kind of master. A very young master and the word genius is mentioned one or two times in a serious manner by serious peoples. _All this is too pat; it has been sanitized. Professionally sanitized._

I keep at it a while longer, but obviously I am hitting a wall here: tall and wide and extremely solid. The question is: who put it up? Himself, a private party, or the government? As far as organizational structure is concerned, C-MET is pretty high up, but in a kind of exotic way: a small R & D branch of the Army's Special Forces on a joint program with FoxGate. There are civilian outfits that are well connected too. If not better. My clearances go pretty high, but I have no illusions of omnipotence. I know some who can dig much deeper than me, though. We will see.

Dennis Wallenberg, one of C-MET best pilots, meets us at Houston Central station. If it flies, glides, floats, or moves on wheels, Dennis is the man to drive it. In fact, in his own mind at least, Dennis is the man.

"Hi girls, the boss sent me to collect your nice booties. I've a chopper waiting on top."

"Weren't you in Africa?" asks Tamby.

"Just back. Got tired of getting shot at on pointless reconnaissance missions."

Tamby doesn't add anything to that, knowing that his discourse would mostly concern his outstanding flying abilities or more to the point, the size of his cojones... Five minutes later, we are airborne in the amber light of the sun filtering through the dome.

The Houston Dome, like all the others, is an engineering tour de force. Fifty miles across from Richmond to the west, and includes a quarter of Galveston Bay in the east. It is an achievement that has been made possible only with the invention of what is called SCM, for Structurally Coherent Monofilament, better known as Diamondweave.

I have read somewhere that near the end of the twentieth century, advances in computing power revolutionized cinema, giving the filmmakers the ability to represent anything they could imagine. Diamondweave and other synthetiQ materials, as they are called, have done the same for post-Quantum engineering. Today, anything can be built and if the materials needed don't exist, you design them, often from scratch with tailored properties. Of course there are huge costs to be factored in...

Tamby laughs about that: the `quantum everything'. She says before `quantum' was `solar', before that `digital' and before that `electric'. And before that, who knows? She says it is only biology: that need to name things and to categorize; an extension of the way our bodies work, of sensory acquisition, and by the same token a reminder of our skewed perception of the universe. As an agent in the field, it is a fact to be wary of... Well she doesn't say it quite in those terms. She also says to shoot first, ask questions later.

The C-MET Bridge is our principal place of business. It is not a bridge at all, but an old twenty-story building about two and a half kilometers from the bay. It was built in 2233 by Jonathan Bridge, heir of a declining pharmacological empire, and was always known as `the Bridge'. C-MET Bridge since about 20 years when C-MET was created. The man had to have a serious personality disorder to give his name to such a nondescript building.

In keeping with the folklore of such agencies, the administrative part of C-MET occupies the building. More interesting are the labs and technical departments of the 40 sublevels extending far and wide under the Bridge.

Dennis drops us on the roof after a short uneventful flight and the strict minimum of flirting needed to maintain his reputation. Five seconds later he takes off with a smile and a wave through the clear cockpit.

We receive the message to meet the boss in his basement office. The elevator drops us 50 levels in about 12 seconds. Thank gods and fairies for gravity control.

After a quick scan, the doors slide open and we are admitted in one of the most secret places in the world: C-MET central command.

*3*

*Tamby:*

If life were a vid, C-MET central command would be an impressive room of glass and chrome full of high tech equipment and people purposely buzzing all around. Well, the room is kind of vast, but there's not much glass or chrome to be seen. The furniture is old and decrepit, cobbled from the leftovers of many different departments. The walls and partitions are institutionalized gray or green and at this hour there are not too many people around. Joe Public would be disappointed if he could see this.

Personally, I don't mind it much and the essentials -the personnel and the equipment - are really first rate.

With Nagga in tow, I meet up with the boss as he exits from his office.

General John W. Wincott doesn't wear a uniform anymore -we're not that kind of outfit- but he doesn't need to. His family has been involved in Special Forces for generations. I've heard the expression `ramrod straight' to describe the bearing of military personnel. Wincott's has evolved far beyond that, in the realm of the mystical: he towers over people much taller than himself. That pipe-smoking bastard can be real scary when he wants, but he's also been like a father to me for years. We go way back.

Not enhanced like us, he has his Q-link notebook under one arm and a beautifully polished ebony box in his other hand, which he gives to me.

"A gift? For me, boss? You shouldn't have..."

"No gift for you two," he says, his voice as gravelly as ever, " but consider yourself promoted."

"We are?" asks Nagga.

"You got it. You're Team-one."

"Finally got tired of those two freeloaders, boss?" she says.

"You fired their asses, or they went on to bigger and better things on their own?" I can't help but ask, frowning.

"Kind of the latter," he replies seriously. "As a matter of fact, you're holding what's left of them."

I'm frosty; I've been around, so I don't drop the box, but it's a close call. Pol Kemper and Roy Mandano were Team-one. We never were that close, but they were really good; almost as good as Nagga and me. Whoever got them must have been very clever, or have used major firepower. That could explain the box.

"Same thing that happened to me?" I ask, flicking a glance toward my partner.

"Possibly, but we know nothing for sure. Their protection never had a hint there was any danger. All macho bantering aside, I don't need to tell you how disastrous this really is. And you don't know half of it."

"We don't?" asks Nagga as we exit Central Command through an armored door, getting into the really sensitive part of C-MET. Before us there's an enormous hole we call the galleria, perhaps 500 meters wide and 80 deep. Here, people are milling on the galleries circling the hole: many people and vehicles and robots. Down at the bottom, I can see one of those giant bulbous G-nerators being towed slowly toward one of the quantum laboratories.

"No, and you'll have to catch up fairly quickly. What do you know about Project Dionysos?"

The question makes me frown and I send a query through the Subnet, not finding anymore than I expected on the subject, which is nothing at all. " Humm... very secret. I _know_ nothing about it, but I heard it was a task force mandated to find a suitable planet for emigration. I doubt that the NH make it easy for them."

One level down, there's a group of people with the wraparound headgear allowing non-space personnel extended stays in our reality without disorientation. They suddenly awake the tactile memory of Greyzer's lips touching mine, and I have to make an effort to keep following the conversation.

"Not totally untrue," says the boss, entering a secure conference room, " but it's nice to see that some secrets are being kept."

There's a nice oval table inside, with about twenty very comfortable seats. We are alone. Sitting on his side of the table, and opening his notebook, John looks as close to nervous as I've ever seen him. This is going to be an eye-opener...

"Pay attention ladies, this is important. If there was ever a reason why we invested millions giving you the tools you have, or why you trained and learned and trained again; this is it. About twelve years ago, Project Dionysos was created for the purpose of finding one or more planets suitable for our needs. As your have expressed yourself, at the time, it was thought that the NH would not be happy with this new concept. We found out later, I say we because I was called in as a consultant early on, that the NH were quite willing to help us find what we were looking for."

"We have contacts with the NH? We have _relations_?" asks Nagga, not quite believing it.

"We do. Up to a certain point. You have to understand that the New Humans don't have a monolithic society anymore. They have more than 100 planets and settlements in a hundred light-years radius. There are the NH remaining here on Earth; there are those out there; there are factions, some hating us still.

Anyway, their good will is not totally disinterested anymore, as they've met something out there. They have made contact... with an intelligent species. Brutal contact: it seems these aliens are not that happy to meet us."

Us. Suddenly, just like that, the New Humans are us again. I find myself leaning toward him, shocked and frightened at the same time.

"They tried to kill us. They killed Kemper and Mandano," I say, tapping the box with my right forefinger.

"Not the people we're dealing with. At least, we don't think so."

"But what do they want?" asks Nagga. "Our technology, as always?"

"More than that, we believe. They want a fighting chance. Whatever they encountered, it's bad. We're talking genocide on an interstellar level here. We're talking extinction. New Humans, True Humans; there's no difference at all."

Nagga is taking it better than me. I'm just sitting there, seething. "I don't know, boss... It all seems farfetched," she says. "Why a so-called intelligent species would be hell bent on war and destruction? Imagine the cost, the inconvenience, in an infinite universe."

"We're asking ourselves the same questions. That's why we're sending you," replies Wincott, looking satisfied.

"Sending? Sending where?" asks my partner.

"The Moon first. Neutral ground: the old telescope array on the far side. The meeting is tomorrow. You'll have all the data that Team One had, and more. Now go home and get some rest. I'll see you in the morning."

"Yeah, fine... Maybe tomorrow all this fracting shit will make some sense." And there I go; up on my feet and out of the door, not caring one bit about the boss and my lack of manners.

"Tamby?" Nagga on my heels, as ever, actually sounds a bit worried.

"You realize that I'm getting _emotional_ about this? Shit!"

"Well..."

"This is preposterous. It's good-bye to our way of life for the past two hundred and fifty years! Aww right! Those bad NH have fracting fucked up; they lost their way and soiled their holy genetic heritage, in fact they are worst than vermin... and oh by the way we suddenly just decided that _now_ it's no big deal! We can live with that..."

"OK, you may be right about that but..."

"I don't hate those mutants on principle! I've seen some of the things they've done. You too."

"Yes, I have..."

"There's not one fracting good thing about this whole situation."

"I believe you."

"Kemper, maybe, but Mandano? The guy was much more than a killing machine; he had real intelligence... great, great abilities. And as a master strategist, he would not have gone down easily. This is going to be dangerous.

"So we take the job?"

"Of course we take the job!"

"Of course..." she says, not totally convinced.

"It's not about the job," I say, feeling my temples throbbing. "It's about life. It's about being pissed off and not being able to do a fracting thing about it."

"Yeah, I know. I know... Listen, you want to crash at my place tonight?"

I'm almost tempted, but... "No thanks. I need to mope alone for a bit. See you in the morning, Nagga." We have reached the underground parking lot and she's backing toward her vintage Ninja, still worried about me.

"Okay. Take care."

"You too kiddo." I can't help but smile. She's just too nice for her own good.

I get inside my own transportation, which is a perfectly ordinary two-seater Gyro-5, and float on to my apartment, near the bay, on autopilot. It's not even eight o'clock when I get home. The setting sun, getting through the blinds in the living room, makes horizontal bars on the Torsk speakers array. Music is my only hobby. I don't have time for anything else.

Moving on to the bedroom, I undress, thinking of Roy Mandano, thinking of his zest for life... Later, under the multiple sprays of the shower, I recall the great chemistry between us, and the one night we had spent together. But without a single common interest, and considering the nature of our jobs, we'd left it at that: one great night and mutual respect. That was five years ago, so I'm not really sure why I've been sitting here weeping for half an hour. Delayed stress probably. Nearly getting killed does that sometimes.

So I get up, wash my hair and everything else, and exit the shower about one hour after I went in. Therapy it's called. After taking care of this and that, I put on a one piece underwear and...

_"Can I come?"_

For a moment, I can't even breathe. "Sure." Not my most steady voice ever...

The black doorway appears in front of me, making an impossible but very real dimple in the fabric of space. Greyzer steps in my bedroom, which suddenly appears a lot smaller, his green eyes almost glowing in the half-light.

"Hi..."

I can't talk. I must look like a deer in the middle of the road, facing a truck.

"I don't want to bother you..."

"You're not!" Geez, the mouth is finally working. Now, if only the brain could get started.

"I could come back at a better time..."

"I have to eat. You want to eat something? With me?" Smooth. I'm a 12 years old girl all over again. He too seems to relax a bit as well.

"I'd like that." He starts to move, but I stop him, putting my hand lightly on his chest.

"That was very brave what you did, this afternoon."

"Not really; and it was my job you know..."

"I meant kissing me."

"Oh, yes, that... I thought so myself." He's actually smiling. I think I've never seen him smile before. It's eerie and heart warming at the same time.

"As for saving my life..." I take a step, and hug my strange partner for the first time in two years. I was afraid it would be like hugging a brick wall, but it's not. He is warm, and the fabric of his shirt is soft, and he smells very faintly of something fresh, like mint. His big arm around my shoulders is something I've never felt before. It makes me want to cry. Gods! I'm such a basket case today. "I should have done this years ago. I just didn't know I could."

In two years since he's been assigned to me, we've fought together exactly 27 times. Because this has been the nature of our relationship: training, fighting. Five of those times were very hairy situations, two in which we've been severely wounded.

I finally let go and lead him toward the kitchen, holding his hand in mine just a few electric seconds. "Let's eat. You want a drink?"

"No thanks," he replies looking around. "Nice place. You've got something against furniture?"

"No," I say, smiling. "I just don't need it much. You're on a diet or something?"

"Enhanced digestive track and metabolism," he says with a smile. I could eat dirt if I had to."

"Not on my menu. How about a crab salad, fresh bread and a glass of white wine?"

"Great."

Padding around bare feet in the kitchen, I desperately don't want to talk shop.

"Sorry about the undies, but it's mostly what I wear at home. And now that you caught me..."

"You're very attractive, Tamby. I like you very much in your undies."

I feel myself blush and I duck in the refrigerator to cover it. "Thanks. I always felt I was too tall to be considered attractive."

"Don't be silly; you barely reach my shoulders."

I have to laugh at that. "Good point." Greyzer is drifting toward the living room and the giant sound system. "You have a home? I mean, in the non-space?"

"Of course. It's a cozy wood cabin on a grassy knoll, near a stream, overlooking Monument Valley."

"There's a grassy knoll overlooking Monument Valley? Monument Valley, Utah?"

"The Arizona side actually. And yes, there is a grassy knoll in non-space. With palm trees."

"You're pulling my leg!"

"I do not," he says, coming back in the kitchen. "And it's sounds like paradise, but there are drawbacks. For one, it's always early evening there."

"I honestly don't know if you're laughing at me."

"I swear I'm not," he says, now really laughing. "They call it a temporal extrusion in a fractal segment. I don't pretend to understand any of it. I just live there."

I just can't stop smiling. He's so _big_, he's so _here_, and all for me.

"It's very nice; a great fringe benefit. But it's not the real world. Can I help?"

"You could open the bottle and pour us some wine."

As I busy myself with the salad, I notice the great care he takes in doing this simple task and I realize that he is so incredibly strong that he has to apply himself when he does ordinary work. It's awe-inspiring. "Greyzer?"

"Yes?"

"Are we doing something... not permitted? I've never heard of non-space personnel having `contacts' with ordinary people."

"Contacts, as you say, happen. Not often, but they do occur... although I've never heard of it happening in a C-MET Recon team. Does this feel wrong to you?"

"No! No... Gods I'm making a fool of myself!"

He is standing just next to me. It's a miracle I haven't cut off a finger or two while chopping the red onion. The attraction is that strong between us.

"Well, it's not that bad. I mean, look at me, trying to find a subtle way to kiss you..."

"Oh?" I almost choke myself. "You could just go ahead and do it." There: I am a slut... it's official!

Greyzer steps behind me and places his hands on the countertop on each side. I can feel his hot breath on my neck, just before his lips and nose make contact. It gives me shivers from head to toes. I can't help myself: I back up a bit, pressing my backside against him while he's kissing me under the ear. It feels so absolutely, incredibly arousing...

"I'm sorry Tamby," he whispers, his voice like a caress.

"Why?"

"Because, the crab salad will have to wait."

I let go of the knife, wipe my other hand against my thigh and I push strongly against him. His tongue is tracing the edge of my ear, slowly, while his left hand finally touches my breasts. I'm melting. I'm going to come right here in the kitchen. I feel like we've had this courtship that's been going on for two years; I was just too dumb to realize it. I don't really know him, but on the other hand, combat has joined us in ways even old couples couldn't dream of.

I turn around and unbutton his shirt, revealing perfectly smooth copper skin over thick muscles. I kiss his huge left pectoral, then, stand on tiptoes and let myself go. Now, I don't even know how I got to the bedroom.

About two hours later, after eating and then making love a second time, we lie in bed going through all the data that has been unclassified for us.

"Don't you need that visor-helmet thing to stay here?"

"No. At least, not yet," he says. "Your presence, or whatever we have between us is kind of grounding me. Very peculiar."

"So, what is that `whatever' between us?" At first, I think he hasn't heard me, but finally he replies:

"Love. I think it's love."

"How can it be? We don't even know each other."

"Don't we? I know everything that I need to know about you. I like you so much, I don't even mind that you shot me in the back." That was almost a year ago and, overall, not a very nice memory.

I slap his massive arm and hurt my fingers a bit. "Not fair! I shot that thing with huge teeth on your back before it ripped your neck to shreds!"

"The bullet went right through it..."

"And rebounded on your armor."

"It hurt like hell all the same," he says, laughing again.

"Poor baby." I love it when he laughs. It's been something totally unexpected. "I have dreamed about you, you know; about how you were when not fighting."

"Dreaming?"

"Daydreaming, thought about; you know what I mean!"

"And?" he says, squeezing my shoulder, pulling me tight against him.

"And I never pictured you even once laughing. You're like a regular guy... How can you be like a regular guy?"

"I'm like you, Tamby, just different. They put things in; they don't remove parts of me, or at least nothing important."

"Lucky me!"

"Don't touch that. It's tired."

"Well, it should be..."

"They need us. They so very need us. You realize that Tamby? Four million years of evolution, five thousand years of war, a thousand years of scientific discovery. We're it. If we don't get the job done, nobody will."

"So they throw us away. Give us to our worst enemy..."

"Come on, it's not like that at all and you know it."

"Yeah... I just have, what? The mutant blues, I guess... I've been lied to so often when I was young. It causes me to react badly sometimes. But it'll be a test, Greyzer, you better believe it."

"I know. It's always a test, Tamby. Always."

Later, drifting into sleep, I find the strength to whisper: "Hey, Greyzer, that's your whole name?"

"Hmmm..."

"Ever had a first name?" There's the longest pause, and then, finally:

"Jerome..."

"Geez... Don't mind if I stick with Greyzer?"

"Thank you Tamby," he mumbles, caressing my stomach.

Mutual understanding: that's the ticket.

*4*

*Nagga:*

That outburst from Tamby caught me by surprise and in fact, the whole day made me realize just how many things I still don't know about her.

Downshifting and leaving the expressway, I enter more slowly the south part of the bay where there is no clear distinction between the land and the 2 km wide aggregation of floating docks, barges and boats of all kinds that stretches toward the southeast end of the dome. The vintage ZX-9R is not the most agile ride and, in an era where the majority of the vehicles float or fly, you have to watch out for whatever could be lying on the road.

I reach an old warehouse that I own, near the water. The first two floors are unoccupied. I enter a freight elevator directly from the street, immediately accessing the security log from the Subnet and checking if anything got red flagged by C-MET security. Up on the third floor, my flat is divided in two. First the mechanic shop where I park the 900 cc Ninja next to the Enfield Bullet 350; the second part is where I live, one big room of about 250 m with antique hardwood floors. When I was very young, this kind of place was my dream. I used to wonder what it would be like to take a shower in the middle of a big place like that. It's drafty.

Nothing worth mentioning from security. One look in the fridge is all it takes to confirm that a trip to the market is mandatory. I take the g-tube down to street level. The market starts one block from my place; a sprawling jumble of shops and kiosks where a newcomer can truly get lost. At this hour, everything is still open.

Walking there and meeting all the shopkeepers is a treat. I have lived here for nearly two years and I know the neighbors, more or less. Getting the groceries for one meal, with minimal conversation, is a half hour job. Mom would be appalled and dad would be disgusted. I love it.

I love it less when I'm under surveillance. I do not see anyone, but the feeling is unmistakable. Time to go home.

_"Kong?"_

_"Right here, Nagga."_

_"I think I have an interested party here. You see me?"_

_"Yes. Looking for... Ok, I got him. Behind you and to your left. 50 meters. Keep going and turn right as you would to get home. Get in the first doorway and I will take him from behind."_

_"Look for others."_

_"Oh we are. I've got help on this. There won't be a repeat of Team one's screw up."_

I am rounding the corner. The only two people on the street are far ahead and will not be put in danger. The doorway is about five meters farther and is in fact a garage door. The recess is deep enough to hide my fat grocery bag and me from my follower.

I put down the bag carefully and at the same time, a black, two-dimensional hole to stasis non-space appears just next to my right hand. I grip the heavy stunner hidden inside, a truly vicious-looking gun. One bolt touching a man anywhere on his body and he is guaranteed to drop instantly. Kong will carry the serious firepower. I have accessed the surveillance Subnet feed so I can spy the progress of the man. He is about to reach the corner. For once the reception is good but his face is not visible in the bad light: he wears a kind of windbreaker with a hood over his head.

I let him turn around the corner and walk about three paces, then, smoothly, I step before him with the stunner pointed straight to his chest. At the same moment, Kong steps out of the stasis non-space, in full armor, with a Mark IV Powerbolt rifle under the arm. Behind him, the black square shrink down to a six inches wide hole in which disappear the flextubes for the cooling and powering of the gun. The bore of that black thing is at least 4 inches. Just one look at it is enough to make every hair on your body stand up and want to leave.

"You?"

"Sorry." he says, pulling back his hood and not yet aware of Kong behind him. " I had to see you before tomorrow."

"That was not a prudent move Dr. Denner," says Kong, pointing the Mark IV gun to the sky."

The voice is very deep, very throaty, very menacing. It gives me a real thrill to watch Kel slowly turn to see who is behind him, and literally freezes at the sight of Kong. If my bodyguard were a billboard, this would be written on it:

*_Don't fuck with me._*

*_Don't touch the girl._*

Zi Kong is the toughest, ugliest and meanest son of a bitch I have ever met in my life. He is not the best in any field except one: getting the job done.

"I can see that..."

The voice is a bit squeaky, but the fact that Kel can speak at all is a sign of character.

"You know him?" I ask of Kong.

"Yeah. Kel Denner, bigwig in the NSA and other scientific outfits. You want me to fry him?"

From Kong, that is not entirely a joke. The NSA is an old, old agency. It has been terminated for 115 years, at least. But, as it happens often with these mighty organizations, it survived in another form; a more secretive entity. We know them, they know us; we all keep to ourselves and we try to keep out of each other's way. Kel turns back, his eyes still a bit wide.

"Sorry again. It's kind of important to me," he says seriously.

"Okay. Thanks Kong."

"Yeah."

He backs up into stasis non-space, still staring threateningly at Kel Denner. I put back the stunner in its place; pick up the groceries, and head back home. Kel has to run to catch up.

"Okay _Dr._ Denner, from the mysterious and elusive NSA, what was so important you had to risk your life dropping unannounced on a C-MET operative?"

"Yeah, well, I know it doesn't look like a very good move, but professionals like you tend to dislike the overuse of force," he adds sheepishly.

"True enough, except when it suits our purpose, or when we have advanced warning of a danger. You would be well advised to remember that."

"I would, wouldn't I?" he says, still the wiseass. He is looking me up and down; like it's the first time he is seeing me. That's fine; I feel very good in this tight blue jumpsuit, and the high leather boots make most men drool besides being very comfortable.

"Keep that up and you will stay alone on the sidewalk."

"Great. I was afraid you wouldn't let me come up."

"I may not yet, if you do not start explaining yourself soon."

"Yes, yes... You have to know I'm kind of embarrassed... Well, I was looking at the stat sheets of the C-MET top Recon Teams and I noticed you were collecting motorcycles..."

"Whoa! What do you do for the NSA? And how did you get files on us?"

Now he really is looking uncomfortable, checking right and left as we near the door to the g-well.

"That's even more embarrassing..."

I let him squirm a bit, then relent and open the door.

"Okay, you can come up."

The good thing about being tidy is that I am never embarrassed when comes an impromptu visitor. This is going very well. I mean, I have him all flustered and apologetic, and he hasn't done anything wrong that I know of. I would know about something important, I think...

While unpacking, I watch him make a very short circle in the flat and come back to stand near the window by the g-well. He has the good sense not to remove his coat: looking outside, looking at me then outside again, sighing.

"I'm a genius. The real deal," he begins. "You may have heard about the phenomena. I'm not talking about people with high IQ; I'm talking about the capacity for conceptual groundbreaking. You know how many we are on this continent? Six. At fourteen I invented teleportation."

This is known and easy to verify anyway. "Percy and Reinholt discovered how to teleport."

"They were my teachers. They figured out some easy way of making it happen, but the original idea and the formulated theory is from me. I gave it to them."

That is a mild shocker, to say the least. About a thousand questions come to mind at this instant, but I wisely keep them to myself. Kel seems to be on a roll:

"So, anyway, as I said to you earlier, I'm a consultant for the Government. For the NSA, sometimes. I have doctorates in mathematics and physics, but my interests are diverse. When people, or companies, or whatever organization, get bogged down with really hard problems, I come in and fix it."

"As simple as that?"

"Pretty much, yes." The tone has the flatness of total sincerity. Clearly, Kel is not attempting to pull a fast one here. "So I get a call from the NSA about this _situation_. They send me all pertinent information, as well as the files of people I might be working with. Yours was there too and you seemed an interesting person, so I arranged to meet you. Just... to meet you..."

This is getting complicated. "You traced me to Boston and rented a vintage Harley to hopefully catch my attention?"

"Yes and no. Luck was involved as I live in Boston. I took advantage of one of your regular visits with Tamby Wa. They are not a state secret you know."

"And we are going to work together?"

"Yes. But we were not supposed to. Team one was assigned to me, but got killed I gather. Now, you will be assigned the mission if it isn't already done.

"It is done."

"But I wasn't aware of that, this afternoon when I first met you."

"I see." I don't see shit, but no need for him to know that. "Okay, you can take off your coat, I'm having a late dinner."

He finally turns to me, surprise in his eyes. "I can?"

I cannot help but laugh at his reaction. "I will not hold against you the fact that you wanted to meet me. Besides, C-MET is a military organization. You have an idea what our briefings look like?"

"Not as such..."

"We get _guidelines_ and _mission parameters_, from which, with luck and perseverance, we sometime deduce what is _expected_ of us. I would much rather have you explain it to me. Being a genius and all..."

I get a smile for that last one. Goody! He looks so much better with a smile.

"Can I do anything to help?" Good manners, and good intentions: nice.

"Can you cook?"

"I can boil water, but that's physics not cooking."

"Well, in that case, get a beer and check out the place. I will do the work."

"Fine. It'll likely be my role for the next few days."

"What?"

"Trying to keep out of your way," he says getting two beers from the refrigerator.

"The glasses are in there. And what else will you do?"

"Checking out the competition; assessing threat levels. My bosses need more than data. They need me: someone who understands how the universe works, so whatever guise takes the other party's technology, I can hopefully determinate how deeply in it we really are."

"With the NH?"

"With the aliens. You are aware that our New Humans friends have had a nasty encounter with somebody or something 90 light-years from here?"

"Kind of... We have just learned of it. You know anything more?"

"I don't even know that, officially," he replies, starting to go around the vast room, checking out the bikes first, and then the content of the four five meters long bookshelves. "Real books... that wasn't in your file."

"Good. You think we can hold our own against aliens?"

"Who knows? Fifty years ago I would have said not a chance, but today... we'll see. Soon enough I might add."

"Are you aware that my partner Tamby lost her access to the Subnet _and_ her link to non-space, during an attack this morning?"

"Sorry, no..." he says, disappearing behind the shelves. There is a fairly long pause, then: "But it can be prevented, this flaw has been known for some time. It speaks well of the NH that they found this... rather exotic way to cut into our system. You see, as our comprehension of the Universe is graduating from one level to the next, we realize that what looked complicated before, is really simple and elegant. However, there still are peculiarities: things that seem to break the flow. Last time I checked on this one, six months ago, they had just started the preliminary mapping of the function. The patch must be nearly completed by now."

"You mean this is a software problem?"

"No, I mean the solution to the problem is a software adjustment. Quite a big and complicated patch is needed I surmise, with embedded commands in the structure of the SHChip."

"And you knew all that beforehand?" I keep the tone of my voice light, not wanting him to clamp down. "You understand all this?"

"Well, it's my field of expertise..."

"And you could have written that patch too?"

"First I'd have to learn the SHChip language, which is fairly complicated, dealing with string placement and all that. We have teams of scientists and quantum computers to do that. To me, it's just nuts and bolts."

I replay this last statement in my head, realizing what he really meant was: yes easily. And I get it, finally: Kel is totally at ease with things that very bright and educated scientists can barely grasp. He can get his mind around anything ever discovered by man, and more. By gods and fairies he _is_ the real deal! Walking around my own flat, circling the big oval bath with a frown on his face.

"Say, isn't it drafty when you take a shower?"

Yep. He's a genius all right.

* *

*5*

*Tamby:*

* *

Very early in the morning, Greyzer gets up, gathers his clothes, kisses me and then vanishes. Ah, men! Always fleeing the scene of the crime. In this case however, it's a considerate gesture that allows both of us, to keep our morning routines and tweak ourselves silly, as we always do when we're about to operate.

Of course, checking my body in the mirror after showering, and telling myself that I have really nice boobs is not actually a part of my routine. Bah! Whatever...

Nagga accepts my offer of a ride and she is waiting outside when I arrive, 7 o'clock right on the money.

"Mighty chipper this morning Miss Fox!"

"Thank you, and you look truly fine yourself Miss Wa."

Well well well... I'd bet a week's pay that there's something going on...

"Tamby, what in the world happened to you? Last night you looked ready to give your notice, and now..."

Damn! She beat me to it. "And now what?" I ask as we lift off the ground for C-MET Bridge.

"I don't know; did you meet God or something?"

Might as well be out with it. "This, my young friend, is the look of a woman who just quit celibacy."

"Really? No... really!" I can almost see the wheels turning while she puts two and two together. Suddenly, her eyes get bigger, and then bigger yet as she lifts her hands to cover her mouth. "Oh gods and fairies, you and Greyzer!" Her expression turns to neutral while she thinks about it. "Well, hell, why not?" she adds with a big smile.

Girl talk occupies all the time needed to arrive in the underground parking, but Nagga refuses to let on just why she looks so smug this morning.

"You will see later today. Be patient." Okay... The whole morning is rather hectic anyway. It's always like that when we prep for a big mission, even more so today.

The tech guys seem more fidgety than ever but at the same time, confident that the communication failure won't happen again. Then there's always the equipment update; the fitting of the new version of the Diamondweave armor, and so on... The level of energy all around us is sky high and I must admit I've never seen everybody so keyed-up. Good.

After a light meal, we all meet in the prep room of lab 5; we being Nagga and myself, Greyzer and Kong, General Wincott and the NSA guy we'll be saddled with. That last one is evidently the surprise Nagga had in store for me. What in the world is that all about?

_"Isn't that..."_

_"Yes! Play along, I shall explain later."_

Wincott is the first to speak:

"Doctor Denner has been partially augmented and should be able to follow you even if things get fuzzy. As he is somewhat important in the scheme of things, I would appreciate if you could bring him back in one piece."

"He will do fine," says Nagga with conviction.

"Yeah? Well you take care of him," I reply with a gruff voice. _"See, I can be nice!"_ I send through our private channel. Nagga bites her lips and manages not to smile. Denner seems to enjoy himself, and our bodyguards, for all they show, might as well not be there.

"I know this can lower your efficiency," adds Wincott, "but we think his input will far outweigh any other consideration."

"Yes, sir!"

"And Tamby; stop teasing me."

"Okay boss."

"Just see if you can work with them. This, at least, should prove interesting."

"Yes Boss. We'll try hard not to fuck up."

"Good. See you later."

Wincott exits the room; Greyzer and Kong exit to non-space, leaving us three to make acquaintance.

"So, doctor Denner, what do you do for the NSA?"

"He is our own genius," says Nagga, just brimming with joy and admiration. "A real one. He knows everything!"

Denner manages to look annoyed and having fun at the same time.

"She is a pest. Nice to meet you Tamby Wa. My job will be to assess the capabilities of the aliens, if at all possible. They thought sending me with you for the Moon meeting would be a great practice. I'll try like hell not to be a nuisance."

"Fair enough. If you value your life, I hope you know how to follow orders."

"Like `drop to the ground' or `run for your life'?"

"Like _anything_ I or Nagga say"

"Sure. What if she has a different opinion? Do you always give the same order?"

"After two years as a C-MET Recon team? You must be joking."

"I am, I am."

"Do not be crass, Kel," says Nagga.

"One date and she's already bossing me around."

"It was not a date!" She seems rather vehement about it. Possibly not the first time the subject came up between them. We start walking toward the lab proper and I ask:

"Was there food involved?"

"Yes!" replies Kel. "And intimate conversation for nearly four hours. I could have spent the night if I had pushed for it."

"Like hell you could! Besides, it can only be a date if you invite me first."

"You invited me! And you cooked us supper."

"I cooked myself supper. I gave you the leftovers."

"What do you think, Tamby?" asks Kel.

"Gosh, darn! Hey, kids, why don't you get married or something?"

That Kel is naturally joining in our shtick, I take for a good sign. It's also a good show for the rest of the team, since at the same time we are strapping weapons and mags to ourselves: always go for bravado.

The cavernous lab is really something to behold, especially for a first time visitor. The outlandish design and exotic materials used for the gigantic machinery are awe-inspiring by themselves. But checking out the numerous workstations and realizing just how much computing power there is in this room alone, that is truly astounding. Myself, an old hand at this, I like the pretty colored lights.

All along the way familiar faces greet Nagga and me with smiles; some give us the thumbs up sign. There is comfort here, first, because being sent as virtual particles is still not that common an occurrence, and second, they've seen us come back in pretty bad shape more than once. They know we risk our lives on these missions. The platform at the front of the enormous room is not that impressive, but is as close as the original Star Trek transporter as was technically possible to make it.

"Just curious; why do you bring a gun and all those ammo clips when everything is available in non-space?" asks Kel.

"For one thing, I trust the system but not _that_ much, and then, while my adversary is watching if I reach for my gun, I reach in the stasis non-space and spring a bigger one. It's called `survival of the dirtiest'."

He seems suitably impressed with the logic of the argument.

_"Nice. Now, do not waste your time telling him how the machine works; he invented it."_

_"What?"_

_"I swear."_

"PLEASE EVERYONE, TAKE YOUR SEATS, WE'LL BE READY IN JUST A FEW MINUTES. WE HAVE CONFIRMATION FROM THE MOON SITE: THE NH SHIP HAS LANDED."

"Damn I wish I knew more about that contraption!" mutters Denner. "You've done this many times?"

"Well, yes. But Nagga tells me you invented it."

"The theory, not the machine." he says frowning in her direction. "Does it hurt?"

"Being zapped away? No."

Now that we are on the platform, he seems more nervous. Turning to Nagga, he asks:

"So you take care of me?"

"Yep."

"And Tamby takes care of you?"

"She always does."

I have the sudden feeling this could go on, so I cut him off: "Relax. Stop thinking. Step on the light, please." That last instruction is irrelevant, but it looks better...

"Sorry."

The process might be scary, but everything is handled very smoothly. There is a final `good luck' from Bob Yashta, the Ops Director, and we pop out exactly where it's been planned: in the cafeteria of the Conrad Large Array on the far side of the moon.

The great thing with the Subnet link is the constant flow of information. There is a tough adaptation period, but eventually, the payoff is fantastic: while talking with Kel Denner, I have constant feedback from Greyzer and from Mission Control; I have access to the atmospheric conditions inside CLA, to the floor plans, to the security system, to the recon report made a few hours ago; I can check on the live feed of the NH ship docked on the other side of the complex. It's all there for me to use.

The Conrad Large Array has been totally abandoned for five years. The two brand new observatories that have been placed 30000 light years over and under the plane of the Milky Way do most of the astronomy chore nowadays.

As per Article 14 of the Revised Space Act of 2174, the CLA has to be maintained with atmosphere and power in case of emergency. It doesn't mean it has to be comfortable. The air is dusty and cold; it can't be much more than 5 degrees in here. And everything is some shade of gray; I mean _everything_.

"Nice place." That's coming from Nagga.

"I guess lunch won't be served today," says Kel, eyeing the bare cupboards and serving counters.

I myself refrain to add anything: our counterparts are coming. Two men, two women and their four `pets': I see them walking-shuffling purposefully in the low gravity of the corridor leading here. Moving well in the low-g, they are in a diamond formation, one man in the lead, one man closing the march and the two women in the middle, about two meters apart. Each human is accompanied by a thing that may be a kind of dinosaur, or a strange genetic mix of Komodo dragon, tiger and kangaroo. They are about waist high and walk on four legs; the front pair seems to be capable of handling things, even with the long claws, and the hind are obviously very powerful. They have a meter long tail ending in a kind of scaly double blade that looks quite dangerous. The head is topped with extremely thick bone forming a ridge on each side, protecting the yellow-black eyes; frighteningly intelligent eyes. The jaw is square and powerful and ten centimeter long shiny black canine teeth are visible. Every movement hints of power and speed, and they seem to handle the low-g well enough.

I shut off the video link when the doors at the other end of the cafeteria start opening. They enter cautiously, men and beasts, and stand there, about twenty meters from us.

"Here we go," I say with a nod to Nagga. " Kel, you stay a bit behind us."

"Right."

_"Greyzer?"_

_"Everything's cool. I can vaporize the lot of them in half a second."_

_"You're so delicate and subtle... Try to restrain yourself."_

_"Will do."_

"There's something wrong..."

The observation comes from Nagga, just as I pick up on it. "Their hair. Their hair is moving and there's no wind."

"Cool."

We walk forward, each group shuffling-bounding toward the other. The beasts stay close to their masters. Touching them in fact, most of the time. They are covered in a very short gray fur with faint black stripes. My guess is they can change their color like chameleons.

The NH look like... humans. Nice looking; not monsters like in most media depictions we see everyday. Tall and thin. The women are beautiful, with Asian features and that long dark hair that is woven in small tresses and really seems to move on it's own. The men are severe in their appearance, their skin much darker although the features are more European than African. They all wear what seems like dark red leather pants and long coats, sturdy footwear; no weapon visible.

I stop at about 3 meters from the leader and everybody follow suit. Well, at least they look civilized. Of course, Mr. Beautiful yesterday had looked nice for a short while too...

"Welcome to the Moon. I'm Tamby Wa. This is Nagga Fox and Kel Denner. We are from C-MET."

The leader doesn't seem overly impressed with my welcoming speech.

"We were expecting... Recon team one. Mandano and Kemper." The voice is nice and smooth. He rolls his `r' a bit.

"Yes. They are dead. Nagga and myself are team one now."

"And him?"

"He is a... technical advisor."

The man seems to consider all this for a time, and then, finally: "Very well. Jijuma and Nihanda are technical support too. Akk Toggen behind me is... an enforcer. I am Omda Ven-Dess, Security Overlord for Dyell sector. Those four are shr'anqs: protectors. They will behave, unless we are attacked."

"Good. We won't attack unless they don't behave, so we should have a cozy meeting here."

I get a response from Toggen: just a sliver of a smile. The man is pitying us for thinking we could hold our own against the beasts or whatever else they could dish out. I turn to Nagga who winks at him, daring him to try anything and reap the consequences. Ven-Dess, very alert, sighs and replies:

"Yes, we all are aware that trust won't come easily, and that each sides would like to keep as many secret as possible. However, as _we_ know and you still have to discover, that luxury is not something any of us can afford anymore."

"What I know is that just yesterday, a NH tried to kill me right on the street in Boston. Aliens haven't killed Roy Mandano and Pol Kemper either. As far as I'm concerned, this could be another trick to get us... but my boss tells me it's not the case."

"It's not. You must understand that we NH, are numbering nearly 60 billions and scattered on more than 150 worlds. Those still living in the Solar System represent a tiny fraction of that number. We ourselves see them as a strange and twisted kind of sect. Out there, our thinking has become much more universal. Some of your decision makers have understood that when they started looking for planets to colonize. And they have embraced our view of things, up to a certain point, during the course of Project Dionysos."

"Are you telling me that only the NH present in our Solar System hate our guts, and everybody out there feels the other way?"

"Not at all," he says with a slight smile. "I'm telling you that to the vast majority out there, TH don't even exist. You are almost a legend. Stories we tell our children. Of course, some of us have a good idea of your scientific and technological accomplishments. We are aware of the power you can wield if you wish to do so, even if you occupy a single planet. We know, probably better than yourselves, that eventually you will leave your home. People can't live under domes forever; not when there are so many planets out there."

I check the faces of my two companions. No alarm there to be seen. Like me, they find all this concordant with the facts that we know.

"Fine then, let's say all this is true. What do you expect from us?"

I feel it, just at that moment: an almost imperceptible lessening of tension. Putting myself in their shoes I can understand why; coming all this way to an unfamiliar place, facing old foes so to speak, not being sure of anything... He slips his left hand in his pocket and brings up what seems to be a memory stick in a small transparent box.

"You should be able to access this."

We both advance toward each other and I take it from him. "This is what? Video?"

"And sound. Look at it first, then I will explain. Do you have access to a reader here?"

This has been anticipated: I open a hole in non-space and out of it comes an analyzing chamber. It's kind of fun to see the reaction of an unprepared individual to this phenomena: the quite bizarre distortion of space around the pure black hole and that impossible two-dimensional intrusion in our universe, looking the same whatever your point of view. I put the device inside the round metallic chamber and it retracts slowly inside the black hole. The non-space opening closes itself immediately after that.

"This is what you call stasis non-space?"

"A door into it. We have people in there that will check it out and send it back to us. I will be able to see and hear it directly in my head."

"Impressive."

"And practical." I'm trying hard not to stare to the nightmare on four legs at his side. It must weigh at least 75 kilos and could easily reach up to my throat. The right hand of Ven-Dess is almost constantly touching its neck or back, like it's a way of communicating between them. "How intelligent are they?"

"Very."

"They can keep calm in a novel situation?"

"We have total control," he says with a frown. "Why?"

_"Greyzer? You and Kong want to meet them?"_

_"Why not?"_

__"Because I want to bring out the rest of my team. Don't be alarmed."

A hard thing to do, but they kind of handle it as Greyzer and Zi Kong step out of non-space behind us, in full gear, weapons drawn but not pointing at anything in particular.

"Meet _our_ protectors. The big one is Zi Kong; the bigger one is Greyzer."

They both manage a civil nod. In their operational mode you can't expect much more than that. That Toggen guy looks suddenly a bit more alert. If he only knew the reaction time of our protectors or the firepower they wield, he'd be much less confident. However, I never let the presence of Greyzer and Kong lure me into thinking I'm invincible. We're not trained to be fools, and things can go awry incredibly fast on a mission. You never know.

"I'm impressed. How intelligent are they?" asks Ven-Dess.

Humor. That's reassuring. "They even have diplomas from reputable universities" I smile and then add: "They will leave now, but they're never far away."

Greyzer steps back into non-space, then Kong. At the same time I receive a message from C-MET Bridge: _"Vidfile analyzed, cleaned and downloaded."_

"I think I like you, Overlord Ven-Dess. I sure hope you don't prove to be a disappointment. How about we get comfortable? Would you like something to eat or drink?"

He looks back at his friends for the first time and says: "Tea. If you have it, tea would be nice."

I send a request to C-MET and they immediately respond that it's on the way. We have very efficient people working with us. They don't often get caught unprepared. Nagga, ever the fussy one, starts to clean one of the long tables to our left. The four shr'anqs, as one and without a gesture or spoken command, leave their masters and settle themselves in a tight group near the bare serving counter.

As we take our places on rather cheap plastic chairs, facing each other, a big tray loaded with thermos, cups and even cookies, gets pushed from non-space to the table's surface. The guys are getting really good. Our guests seem impressed by the trick too.

I decide to play hostess which, thinking about it, is not that bad. It's certainly better than fighting. Damn! I must be getting old. Yeah, old and soft and serving tea. Time to check the vidfile:

_"Nagga, make polite conversation while I look at that file."_

_"Okay; go ahead__."_

I settle myself as comfortably as possible and close my eyes. The vidfile is only a few minutes long. I don't think I could have taken much more than that...

* * *6*

*Nagga:*

"Tamby is looking at the vidfile," I say to Kel, and turning to the two women, I ask: "Are you sisters?"

"Fraternal twins," replies Nihanda, the slightly taller one. Her sister is sipping her tea, holding the cup in both hands. It is so cold in here that I have not removed my Diamondweave gloves.

"So let me ask you this most important question: what is going on with your hair?" I got them with that one. They look at each other and smile.

"It's tailored gene-stuff," says Nihanda. "A fairly new invention. A g-engineer, a woman named Sanjio Zao got tired of brushing and combing."

I think my jaw just dropped on the table. "You mean it... styles itself?" I ask, noticing that each of her hair is many times thicker than an ordinary hair.

"Pretty much, yes. Look." She takes one slim tress between thumb and forefinger, and the thing actually start unweaving on its own. My eyes must be bugging out by now. Both girls start laughing, but there's no malice in it. Even the dour Toggen smiles a bit.

"We take it for granted," says Jijuma "but it really saves time."

From the corner of my eye, I catch the swift movement of Tamby suddenly getting up, and this alone tells me she has gone to overdrive. Her face has become so pale that I almost instantly go in overdrive myself, but at the same instant she sends to me:

_"It's okay. I'm okay..."_

Like hell! I can see that it is not and she is not either. The four shr'anqs are suddenly very alert, but stay on the floor, like the good little beasties they are. We all look at her as she walks some distance toward the back of the vast empty room, getting over the shock of whatever she has seen, and getting angrier by the second. I can see that by the set of her shoulders and arms, and when she turns back to face Ven-Dess, there is so much indignation and fury in her gray eyes...

"This _must_ be the work of a demented moviemaker."

Ven-Dess shake his head, for the first time his eyes showing real emotion: infinite sadness.

"It happened less than ten days ago."

"These _fuckers_ were going after children for sport!"

"Yeah... and women, and men, and animals, and plants; whatever was in their path. They killed the entire planet."

"And you couldn't do anything?"

"I wasn't there at the time, but I couldn't have done anything anyway... My wives and kids were there, and I would be dead with them..."

Tamby takes a long shuddering breath, getting rid of all that pent up emotion, and then reaches in non-space for a portable computer, presenting it to Kel.

"Look at that and tell me some good news, please..."

He grabs the Q-link notebook and places it on the table. I could look at the screen over his shoulder, but it will be much better, or much worse, in my head directly from the Subnet. I turn toward the grimy windows where there is not much to see since it is night out there, and close my eyes.

The vidfile starts with a wide black screen progressively filled with the outline of a gorgeous blue-green planet. There is a tag saying _`Mamita: Dallec System'_. It is like a sparkling jewel, highlighted with feathery clouds: a marvel to behold. The point of view rapidly shifts: the surface closing in. A space station passes by, enormous, tentacular and organic looking, like the NH usually build them. Between the smallish polar ice caps is what appears to be one giant ocean, but peppered with so many thousands of islands that in some places, it looks more like an endless series of lakes. There is no scale available, but I have the feeling there is no landmass bigger than the old Great Britain or Madagascar.

The view shifts to near sea level, closing on a group of islands. The scenery is not totally different from what we used to have here on Earth in some places like the Sea of China, but it still feels very alien indeed. The water is incredibly clear and a turquoise color that has not been seen on Earth in a hundred years. The sky has a hue subtly different too. Coming up, in a roundabout way, on a big island now and climbing again. It feels a bit like a roller coaster, but it gives me a good view of the island, a fat horseshoe perhaps fifteen hundred kilometers long, five or six hundred wide. It seems to be a very good imitation of paradise. I can see high plains, in the center of the island, covered by cultivated lands and to one side a small spaceport. There are numerous villages all along the coast and at least one medium city on the inside part of the horseshoe. Going straight at it. What a beauty! It stands between the most incredible beach with slightly pink sand, and an enormous rocky formation in the shape of mushrooms, hundreds of feet high, covered in strange vegetation and thin waterfalls. There are beautiful buildings and plenty of strange people and animals that...

The view shifts again and there is a change in the picture quality, even with the clean up done by our imagery team. This seems to be some news or amateur footage. There is a crowd in a beautiful plaza, around some kind of metal cube, perhaps 4 meters tall, on which strange luminous symbols change constantly. It may be a sculpture or a clock... The symbols disappear suddenly. I can hear people talking excitedly in a language I do not recognize... Cries now: cries of terror as the picture vacillates and everybody starts to run in every direction. Zoom in on somethi... Gods and Fairies what the hell is that? Big creatures or vehicles, I wouldn't put money on one or the other. Bigger than a car but smaller than a big truck and kind of oval shaped, they seem to move on longitudinal tracks spaced evenly around their bodies, so turning them over would not disable them in the least.

Now the view comes from above, possibly a fixed camera on a building. There are thousands of these things swarming the streets destroying everything and killing everyone. Glistening appendages extrude from their front or back ends from time to time: thorny or cutting arms or pincers, depending on the need. They are amazingly agile and fast: much faster than a man running. They use that to their advantage, crushing people and things, sometimes jumping ten feet up in the air to inflict more damage. Their big supple bodies are, between the moving tracks, covered with bony or perhaps metallic plates. They really seem unstoppable.

Words fail me to describe the successive scenes. Bloodbath and carnage do not come close. And I can see that the people have, at some point, caught on the fact that it is a fight to the death. I see beasts not unlike the shr'anqs jumping on the back of the attackers, breaking teeth and claws trying to rip out the armored plates; I see people crashing vehicles into them at high speed, but to no avail.

They are simply too many and too strong. Nothing seems to hurt them, at least not the weapons available to those poor people. The last shot of the vidfile is one of the space station breaking up over the planet streaked with enormous clouds of black smoke.

I realize that I have been staring in space for some time, clenching and unclenching my fists, wishing that I had been there. I feel the profound need to destroy something, anything...

"So?" The impatient question comes from Tamby. Kel has just finished watching the vid. He wipes his forehead with his right hand.

"Back off a bit. Let me look at it again."

I turn to Ven-Dess. "That metal cube, what was it?"

"A warning. It appeared about twenty hours before the strike."

"Appeared? From thin air?"

"As far as we know, yes."

"And the aliens?"

"Same thing. No ships were ever seen. They were there the second the cube stopped displaying the signs."

"The attack lasted how long?"

Ven-Dess sighs and take his time before answering. Obviously this is not easy at all for him. "One day."

"One day to wreck an entire planet... No provocation on your part?" A bit of a cheap shot, but it has to be asked.

"Let me be perfectly clear about this," he says, pitching forward over the table. "We've been searching like hell for nine days if we could somehow be responsible in any way for this, but so far, we've got nothing. Never had any contact; never knew they even existed."

"But it's conceivable that you simply wandered in their territory," says Tamby.

"Yeah... We've never seen any marker of any kind, and we've been there for at least 45 years, but it's a possibility."

Kel turns off the display of the notebook and asks, nodding toward it: "This is a demo, isn't it? You have more data than that."

"Yes. Not many, but some people got off. And there were some cool heads in key posts. We have loads of very discouraging and inconclusive data. There was a big installation on the other side of the planet that got a heads-up of nearly four hours before being wiped out. They tried anything they could think of; they even tried to capture one to get it off-planet."

"So, what do you think? Are they machines or living organisms, or both?"

"Still don't know." replies Nihanda. "We know that toward the end, our people tried very toxic compounds. Not quite weapon grade stuff, that wasn't available on Mamita, but agents that could kill most living thing on contact. No apparent result."

"Conventional weapons and explosives?"

Akk Toggen replies to that one: "Ineffective, but there wasn't much of that. Some chemists cooked up high explosives, old recipe like C4 or possibly HMX we think, but they had no good delivery system. Although no visible damage was inflicted that way, we know they respond quickly to that kind of attack. It stands to reason that they can be destroyed if enough force is used."

"Okay, Mamita wasn't prepared and didn't have the resources to wage war," says Tamby. "What if it happens again?"

"It would be an entirely different fight," replies Ven-Dess. "However, it doesn't mean we would win. We don't know where they come from, and we don't know what their resources are. We estimate that the ratio of the invaders versus the inhabitants of Mamita was more than ten to one. There was around 3 millions people on the planet. Is 30 million units most of their force, or only a tiny fraction? How can we know?"

"We find out by finding them," says Kel. "And we do that first by going back to Mamita. Have you done that?"

"Not yet. We're currently keeping an eye on it from a ship in high orbit. First we wanted to move assets to Dyell Sector where we still have four more inhabited worlds. We think that after killing everything on land, they moved on to kill the sea fauna."

"What if there is a repeat performance?" I ask. "Can you evacuate an entire planet?"

"We think so. These are frontier Systems, roughly 105 light-years away; none have population over fifteen millions." That seems truly impressive to me. Evacuating fifteen millions in less than 20 hours has to be some kind of organizational feat. "We have to get one of them, or at least a piece of one to be effective," he muses. "Build them a monster or two..."

"You really can do that in a reasonable time period?"

He thinks about it for a few seconds, not, it seems to me, about the feasibility; more wondering if we should know that. "If we find out how they are built, we'll design something so lethal you won't believe how fast they'll fall apart."

"So, let's go get one. As soon as possible." Coming from Kel Denner, profession: genius. After seeing that vidfile... hmm, ballsy.

"Do we have the computing power?" says Tamby. "It's a hundred and five light-years."

"Not C-MET alone to get a quick fix. But we can sublink with NSA and even requisition time on the quantum behemoths at MIT for the preliminary solution. Once we're anchored in the system, the rest is easy."

Now our visitors look bewildered. "Are you talking about teleportation?" asks Jijuma. "From here to the Dallek System?"

"Well, how much real time did it take you to come here?" replies Kel.

"About four realdays... our foldship is fast."

"Right, so you want to waste four more days, or be on Mamita tomorrow? You, the shr'anqs, us... with full access to stasis non-space..."

I cannot help but smile. Kel could have put a live grenade on the table and not get a more stunned reaction.

"You came here for what exactly?" asks Tamby with just a touch of defiance. "Political endorsement, or real action?"

The lips of Omda Ven-Dess spread in a genuine smile for the first time since his arrival. "I think I like you, Tamby Wa. I sure hope you don't prove to be a disappointment."

"Very funny. I just got approbation for this plan. We need to make a scan of each one of you. It takes about five hours. It can be done while you sleep. You came here in a shuttle?"

"Yes. Our ship is in orbit. It's not equipped to land."

With the help of Director Yashta and General Wincott, we work it out so they can park their ship in orbit around the Earth and land their shuttle on a military base just outside Houston dome. By the time everything is settled to the satisfaction of all parties, the mood in our small group is so much more relaxed that we end up walking them to the airlock.

"We should be on the ground in six hours," says Ven-Dess as we all shake hands carefully in the low gravity. "Will we see you before tomorrow?"

"Very likely," replies Tamby. "If experience serves, we will end up sleeping at C-MET Bridge too, so see you later."

"So, what do you think?" asks Tamby as we watch the bulbous shuttle lift off the pad.

"It almost went too well... But damn! What a nightmare for those people..."

"Mmm... And you, Doctor Denner?"

"Hard to say. My guess would be that what we saw are not the aliens proper. Perhaps they are machines, or constructed organisms, which are programmed or guided in some way by the aliens. They seemed very resistant, but weren't put to the test with real firepower. What scares me is the fact that our mutant friends haven't located ships. That could mean really advanced technology, on par with ours or even better. Of course, that's just one aspect of the problem."

"The NH might think they have done nothing to provoke the attack, but it does not mean they are right," I say. " We have to look at it from the aliens point of view. Imagine you are observing this corner of the galaxy from afar. Everything is quiet, and then, poof! In less than two hundred years these human creatures have taken over most systems in a hundred light-years radius. I would be frightened."

"I could argue it's peaceful expansion." replies Tamby.

"I, as an alien, do not know that. At the very least it is aggressive expansion. Have you read the last report of the negotiations in Project Dionysos?"

"Skipped through more or less."

"There is an expression they used in there that caught my attention: _assistance in locating suitable planets and providing necessary biosphere adjustments_. They number 60 billions on more than 150 systems. You think they ask lower life forms if they can occupy their world? You think they do not get rid of the very dangerous ones before settling?"

"Hmm... good point Nagga. Okay, let's get back to C-MET Bridge."

Aah! One of the better things about the work of a C-MET recon team: the hero's welcome.

*7*

*Tamby:*

Bob Yashta may have looked up to see if our molecules haven't been totally scrambled on the trip back, but if he has, he's certainly the only one.

"Nice welcoming party," notes Denner upon seeing the total disinterest caused by our arrival.

"If we'd been covered in blood and gore, the reception would have been much better. But think of the good side, doctor Denner: cleaning up will be so much easier."

"Mmm... Hey Tamby, I did okay back there?"

"Sure, why?"

"How about cutting me some slack and dropping the `doctor' bit? I'm a 29 years old regular guy, you know. Not a pompous old fart lecturing at the local university."

"All right, Kel. Better than that, I name you honorary member of Recon Team One. Until you get tired of us or get your ass shot off, whichever comes first." Nagga laughs a bit nastily at that one.

With audio and video directly downloaded from our heads, the surveillance from stasis non-space and everything else they have, you'd think that debriefing after a mission would be over in ten minutes. Not so. In fact they probably are worse than in the good old days. Now it's `how did you feel about this' and `what's your interpretation of that' and `stress analysis show such and such, do you concur, and why or why not', and blah blah blah...

I, as team leader, get the nice extra-long version. Then there's the mandatory meeting in boss Wincott's office where he asks me, as always: "So, Tamby, what do you really think?"

"I don't know Boss. I feel they're for real, but I don't know them. You were in Project Dionysos; you've dealt with them before, what do _you_ think?"

"I think they're for real too, Tamby."

"In that case, Boss, they're in deep doo-doo. And we may be too in the near future. My advice is, you get the big G to vote an emergency budget, you tell the armed forces to shape up, and you uncrate the big guns."

"Yeah..." He pauses to light his pipe, then continues from the middle of his smoke cloud: "Interstellar war... I didn't think a thing like that could happen."

"Well, for now it's a hundred light-years away. Better it stays and ends there than comes to find us here."

"Mmm. Can't fault that reasoning, Tamby. Okay. Get the hell out of here. Go relax or something. If everything goes well with our new friends, tomorrow will be a heck of a day." Yessir, thankyouverymuchsir.

I have a permanent room with a view over the hole. It's very similar to a luxury hotel room. I arrive there still wearing my gun and my Diamondweave armor. No way I'm going back to the prep room to get all this off, when I can do it here sipping a cold beer. The tall boots with the built-in kneepads can easily sustain a land mine explosion, but they're a bitch to take off.

I don't know if I'll ever be able to rid my mind of those images. The screaming little girl getting her arms and legs ripped out... Gods I wish I had been there to save her!

Well, when you can't do anything else, never underestimate the healing power of great music. I call up an album by a long forgotten jazz guitarist: there's an amazing piece called `Are you going with me?' that nobody knows anymore. That's the advantage of having a good knowledge of that field. There is always some piece of music that can make you feel at least a little bit better. You just have to know which.

Once rid of the armor and the sweaty undergarment, I step in the shower. The water starts to rain on me at the preset temperature. I close my eyes. Heaven. Now if only...

"Hi beautiful."

It's the slight air current on my wet skin that warned me of his arrival. I turn around and blink in the pouring droplets, the sight of his enormous bulk bringing a smile to my lips.

"Hi lover. I missed you."

Is there anything more erotic than kissing naked under the rain, even if it's artificial rain? Yeah, well, there's washing each other with plenty of soap, and the actual lovemaking that's not bad either... Later, bodies entwined on the bed and dozing, he tells me that he loves me, and I tell him that I love him. And for a short while, nothing else matters.

Hunger gets us out of bed. We could order something and eat in the room, but... "You want to go to the `Ria?"

"Sure. Why not? Lets make people talk."

"Lets."

He goes back to his place in non-space to get dressed while I fluff my hair a bit and put on a short skirt and a nice blue top. It may be a poor excuse for a first date, but I intend to look like a girl for Greyzer. He's seen enough of me in armor or military jumpsuit.

He comes back from home dressed casual in a tan shirt, jeans and loafers. The visor thingy is on his head and that's too bad since I can barely see his beautiful eyes. But hey, he's perfect enough for me.

"You need that thing now?" I ask, just to be sure.

"Not around you, but we can't give up all our secrets."

"Good thinking. Ready to face the world?"

His answer is to take my hand and out we go. The `Ria, two levels down, is not that far. But the short time to get there is quite enough for me to realize that Greyzer and I, strolling hand in hand, won't go unnoticed.

"This is amazing," I say as we enter the `Ria. "I mean, I could shack up with three dozens underage boys and nobody would care. But now, will you look at that!"

With most of us working day in and day out underground, they put some effort in the design of the place, which looks mostly like a good restaurant with it's many levels and alcove separated with potted plants and trees. It seats close to 400 persons -a quarter of our subterranean workforce. All in all it's a very pleasant room and the chow is generally first rate, hence the `chi-chi' surname `Ria.

Since it's almost 19:00 hour, there can't be more than 150 persons present. Of course we know most of them by sight, many better than that, but dammit, are the applause, whistles and various teases really necessary?

"They're just happy for us, Tamby. That's not so bad..."

Greyzer says, pulling me toward the soup counter.

"Right."

We manage, however, to have a very nice time, talking about ourselves and our families, well, mostly his... I never thought about it before, but it has to make an impact around you when you decide to spend at least two thirds of your life in stasis non-space. I gather his mom still hasn't got over it.

Toward the end of the meal, the discussion shifts to the problem at hand, when we receive notice that Overlord Ven-Dess' party has arrived and settled in the restricted quarters. We have a quiet laugh thinking about the distress the shr'anqs might be causing. But it's hard to laugh when thinking about the aliens.

"I'm scared, Greyzer."

"We all should be."

"Not only because of what we've seen on the vid, and not only because of the unknown danger it represents. I'm scared because, from the first moment I saw those things, I've had this urge to kill... It never happened to me before. It's the first time that we encounter real intelligence out there, and I have to ask myself if we're built like that. Are we condemned to fear and hate every sentient race we'll encounter in the future? Is it the same for them?"

"I don't know, Tamby. But I know that these instincts that have served us so well since the dawn of man, they may not do so at this stage of our evolution. It's like... running in front of a train: not a bad idea at first, but you also have to figure out the thing will catch up and that you have to get out of the way. The purpose of evolution can't be to wage bigger and bigger wars."

"That's ironic, coming from somebody many would consider a killing machine."

"I don't see myself as a killing machine. I'm not even a soldier: I'm a bodyguard, nothing more. How do _you_ see me?"

"Oh, easy: you're a dream come true."

"Come on, Tamby!"

"I'm serious. I'm 27. I've been with C-MET for nine years now. That's 2 years pre-training, 1 trainee, 2 full partner and 4 years as Team Leader, the last two with you and Nagga. Nagga... She's the closest to a friend I've ever had, but I keep her at arms length, being nominally her boss..." I find myself blinking back tears, but keep on going cause he needs to know what it's gonna be like with me. "You, I'll love you as my lover, but I'll love you even more as my friend. I'm very strong, you know..."

"But it's been very tough..." he says, finishing my sentence like he's known me forever.

"Yeah."

"Friend or lover. You think it has to be a choice?"

"I hope not," I say, smiling at him.

"Good. I don't think so either."

I receive the call from Nagga just as we leave the `Ria.

"You want to come?" I ask Greyzer.

"To the morgue? Very tempting, but I need to put practice time on the new chopper. We might need it tomorrow. See you later?"

"Sure." I kiss him before he disappears, then walk over to the morgue where Nagga, Kel and the NH are waiting for me.

"Hi everybody. Strange place to hang around."

"Kel's idea of a good time," says Nagga with a smile.

The morgue's lab may be a big place, but with the seven of us and the four shr'anqs, it doesn't feel like it. The doc and the technician try to be helpful while keeping as far as possible from the `little beasties', which seems quite hopeless.

"Sorry. I was thinking about your strange encounter yesterday, and then the reaction of our friends here, to stasis non-space. It raised an alarm in my head..." says Kel.

"What do you mean?"

"As I explained to Nagga yesterday, cutting you off the Subnet is a kind of small tour de force. It's a really clever trick, requiring a very good understanding of virtual fields generation in quantum multi-space. Anyway, Jijuma and Nihanda, while no experts, think they can't do it."

"But..."

"Exactly. Dr. Ketelsen here, found it about an hour ago, embedded in the brain of the subject. Nihanda says it's been grown there, not implanted. We had to program a batch of nanobots to remove it. Look," he adds pointing to a screen.

The thing is long and thin on the screen, but the scale says the total length is 0,67 centimeter. One end seems metallic, then, at the halfway point, becomes more organic in appearance with hundreds or thousands of tiny hairs. The magnification is high enough that nanobots are clearly visible, navigating a clear fluid and connecting minuscule leads to each hair. It's a kind of fascinating aquatic ballet.

"It's not dead yet?"

"A better question would be was it ever alive?" he says quietly, watching the screen.

"And you might confirm this thing is responsible for cutting me off the Subnet. Fine, but since this problem has been resolved this morning, why are we all here?"

"As mister Denner said," replies Jijuma, "we can't do this trick."

"So the NH still on Earth can do something you can't. You stated yourself they are, what was it; a strange kind of sect?"

"They didn't make this thing either. Not our technology. I'd bet a gelfeg leg on it. Sorry, it's an expression..."

Yes, and we need news like that like a kick in the head. I turn to Kel and ask: "If it's not theirs, is it ours?"

"I've got a NSA team coming here to pick it up for analysis. Doc Ketelsen believe it's not ours either. I'd say he's right, but it's just an educated guess."

"You know what's the fractin' third choice is, don't you?"

"Hmmm... Aliens?"

"Damn! Could this mean they have access to stasis non-space?" asks Nagga.

"Can they attack us from there too? Can they attack our people already in there?"

"Hold on you two," says Kel. "It's not as easy as it seems. We're dealing with infinity here, nothing less. I'll take care of the quantum angle, though. I know the right people; the theorists and those who are really good on the technical side too. We'll come up with some answers."

"Does that mean we scrap the trip to Mamita?" asks Ven-Dess.

"I'd say it makes it even more important, but we should definitely consider the aliens' possible access to teleportation and maybe some version of stasis non-space. If you take care of this," I say turning back to Kel, "I'll go back to Wincott and take care of some other things."

I have the sudden feeling that I'm going out with my back flap open. That's not a pleasant feeling for an operative and taking my time to get to the Boss' office I figure out what my demands should be.

Wincott wasn't ready to call it a day by a long shot, but by the time I finish explaining the facts and what I want from him, I can see it won't be easy.

You heard about the ship, hey?"

"I get around... Is it operational?"

"Yes it is. It's not ours though..."

"Like I care about that. I want it there; I want access to all inhabited worlds of that sector; I want the ammo, the nukes and the really nasty stuff."

"Half a million rounds for every gun is a lot to ask, Tamby. Even if we get them, we'll need the autoloaders, and that is even harder to find..."

"The aliens attacked one city with five to ten million units, Boss. It's always been the idea behind stasis non-space: not getting caught with our pants down. If you can't accommodate me with the ammo, somebody better step up production, and fast." I know he understands my point of view; that the problem for him is more political and organizational. But I have to think worst-case scenario, and that vidfile was scary as hell.

He suddenly takes a phone, dial a number and after a few seconds, says: " This John Wincott. I have to talk to the President."

It is always good to have some pull. John has lots of it and in many, many fields.

"I know it's late, but it is important... Of course I'll wait." He turns to me, as if surprised that I'm still there, and says: "That's okay: Trent and I go way back. You can go."

No need to tell me twice: I get the fracting hell out of his office. `Trent' is not the President of the United States by the way. Trent is Trenton Z. Gorensen the United World President.

I check with Nagga if everything is cool with our guests.

_"Sure. They have been cleared to tour the premises. Would you believe the shr'anqs have a sense of humor? They have begun to play tricks on people!"_

_"Okay. I've made my case with the Boss. We're going in with back-up exit and major firepower."_

_"He can pull it off?"_

_"Should. When I left the office, he was calling the fractin' World President. By his first name."_

_"Really? Damn, am I glad he is on our side!"_

_"Tell me about it. Okay, call me if you need anything."_

_"I am fine. Go play with that new man of yours."_

_"Bitch!"_

__I can almost hear her laughing as I cut the sublink. Then I open another to call my new man.

_"Hi, it's me!"_

___"I know it's you Tamby. What have you done? Everything is going crazy in here."_

_"Not just me, but we've changed our assessment of the aliens' capabilities. No way we're going against them with fracting slingshots."_

_"I can see that. They're bringing in quantum charges by the truckload!"_

_"Good. I requested at least half a million rounds for every firearm in the arsenal."_

_"Damn girl! You're not advocating subtlety..."_

_"You've seen the vidfile? No way this happens again on my shift!"_

_"I'm with you on that. What are you doing now?"_

_"Going back to my room. Can you spend the night with me?"_

_"That's an invitation I can't refuse. I should be able to close up shop in a short while. See you in about an hour."_

_"Okay bye."_

Since I'm wearing street clothes, I suddenly get the urge to go out. Not for long: just enough to get something for Greyzer. I'm very proud of myself for thinking about it, at least until the challenge reveals itself... What present do you get for a seven feet, 150 kilos superman you don't know all that well and who doesn't even live in our universe? That's a stumper...

*8*

*Nagga:*

I wake up early in the morning, bright eyes and ready to kick some alien butt if necessary. I get out of bed and it's time to get my fix: forty-five minutes of advanced yoga. If Kong is indiscreet, just too bad. Some of the positions just might drive a man totally bongo. Then it is shower time, then hair braiding time, and then I call him.

_"Hey, big boy! You awake?"_

_"What do you think, skinny rump?"_ His voice in my head is especially cavernous this morning.

_"Got an eyeful?"_

_"Of what? Your morning routine? Not that interesting. By the way, I'm so gay you wouldn't believe it."_

_"Right Zi. You do not have a gay bone in your body. That particular bone included."_

_"Nag, you're such a dirty mouth. How come I'm the only one who knows about it?"_

_"People just believe what they want to believe. By the way, Kong, last night I was feeling too strung out to sleep. So I started to think about your incredible body while doing the unspeakab..."_

_"Over and out, scumbag! I'm not talking to you for what's left of the morning!"_

_"It is not even seven o'clock!"_

_"Too bad! Next time, be more respectful."_

It is true: I am a bad, bad girl. Ah well... Another communication coming in. I am so popular!

_"Yes?"_

_"Hi! It's me. You're up?"_

_"Very much so, Kel."_

_"Still in your room?"_

_"Yes..."_

_"Stay there. Don't move."_

"How mysterious..." I muse out loud. Not even two minutes later there is a knock on the door, which opens at my command. Kel is standing there behind a small cart laden with what appears to be a copious breakfast for two.

"I think I owe you a meal," he says with his big kid smile. Where does it say a genius has to look like a nerd? "However, I will definitely count this as a date."

What can a girl say? "Come in."

"Thanks. May I add that you look amazingly good this morning?"

"You certainly may and thank you kindly. I think it is the perspective of spilling fresh alien blood."

"Oh... And to think I was going to add some crap about inner beauty."

"Forget the crap; let's dig in. This looks delicious, and I am ravenous."

What a fantastic time a simple girl can have, wolfing down crpes and talking about the discreet properties of virtual quarks in multidimensional vector physics! There is a knack to nodding at the appropriate time when you don't follow one word on a given subject.

"You didn't understand a single thing I said, did you?"

Obviously I don't have it. "Well, the food is really good and you seem to enjoy yourself."

"Yeah, sure, but I don't want to bore you..."

"Bore? I am not bored. Who could be bored in the face of such passion? Besides, I got the gist of it."

"Which is?"

"You had a brainstorm with some really, really bright people and we may have a few aces up our sleeve."

"Yes, maybe. And in the meantime, we've tried to take some precautions. More coffee?"

"No thanks. Listen: if we get caught in some action, if it gets scary, keep cool. You stay about three paces behind me and to my left if possible. Anyway, if it gets ugly, we will ship you back first anyway. Do not play hero and follow our lead. If you see something or figure out something, speak up. Even if we are really busy, we will be in overdrive and receptive to your comments. All right?"

"Yeah. Now I'm scared."

"Don't be. You are the best at what you do; Tamby and I are the best at what we do. That is a very fine arrangement. Moreover, I have the feeling our mutants friends are also the very best at what they do. So..."

"Aliens, watch out!"

"I'll drink to that."

Yesterday was a hectic day. Today is insanity on the back of a zoo. We enter the big Lab One with not much time to spare. Tamby and I are wearing full armor with helmets and carrying a Tsungord T Ripper rifles. Kel is unarmed, but wearing Diamondweave too and carrying a small Q-link portalab. The four NH refused politely our offer of armor in favor of their own long coats, possibly there is more to them than we can see. And of course there are the shr'anqs who, for some reason, are looking particularly carnivorous today.

"PLACES EVERYBODY, WE'RE ON A SCHEDULE." The call is from Bob Yashta who isoverseeing this mission. He is a great guy, and an organizational wizard. The schedule is important for the fact that we want to reach our objective at noon, local time. What an amazing concept: trying to avoid jetlag on a 100 light-years trip!

Anyway, everything is set; we have robots inserted and data coming in steadily; in about three minutes we will be walking on the plaza we all have seen in the now-famous vidfile.

"Come on everybody," says Team leader Tamby, " lets earn our pay."

We take our places on the pad. This is not the smallish teleporter of Lab 5. The pad is a huge square, at least twenty meters long, with access ramps for the loading of vehicles or anything really...

_"Ready Kong?"_

_"Always."_

_"See you on the other side."_

__I kick myself up in overdrive, bringing my focus first inward, then expanding outward to include, first my team mates for this trip, and then the gigantic Lab One with all the people and machines and equipment... Bob giving us the thirty seconds sign... Pushing the autoload button on my rifle, feeling the mechanism engage the first 50 micro pellets of the 2500 rounds magazine... Checking the latest images from the site...

Zap!

Without any transition, we are now standing on the plaza of the capital city of Mamita, second planet of the Dallec System.

We instantly spread out, watching our footing on the rubble. A finger snap from Toggen and the four shr'anqs take off, each in a different direction, matching easily, as far as I can judge, the speed of a leopard.

"What a mess..." Tamby says, appalled.

Of course, it is just an expression. The reality is much, much worse. Nothing of the city is left standing. Everything has been burned. Even the roads' surfaces have been gouged and split in many places. From where I stand, I can see the high cliffs we have admired in the vidfile. They are blackened; the luxuriant vegetation now incinerated. On the other side, the once emerald sea has turned to dirty brown and is slowly churning, heaving itself on the ravaged beach like a dying animal. There are no birds in the air: only thick gray clouds. There is no sound at all but the wind in my ears.

"I don't see any bodies," says Kel.

"Let's take care of that first, then we'll look around," replies Tamby.

She is talking about the alien metallic block, still there, abandoned by its makers, a hundred feet from us. We all sort of drift in that direction, attentive to every detail.

_"Kong, you see anything I don't?"_

_"No, but the feed isn't worth shit right now. I'm much better with what you're sending."_

__We have the ability to poke mini holes in the fabric of non-space and spy on the real world. It can be done in the vicinity of someone like me who is linked via an SHChip. We act as markers. However, for reasons nobody has yet figured out, the images they get are of varying quality, ranging from fairly parasite free with faint colors, to very `snowy' black & white like the antique VHF television system. What we send on the Subnet is perfectly clear if you are willing to disregard the half-second download and treatment lag. Go figure...

_"Wait; I will launch a couple of hover cams."_ I send the proper code and from a small square opening in non-space, I get two of them, programming one for fifty meters and the other one for five hundred. They fly right up and disappear. _"Okay?"_

_"Receiving 5 by 5."_

Tamby is almost at the death clock. That is what I call it in my head. Kel is scanning it with the portalab.

"No radioactivity. Nickel and iron, mostly... Complex internal structure, but looks harmless enough."

"Don't touch it," says Tamby throwing a sticky marker on it. "We've got specialists to take care of that."

Everybody stand clear as a black square opens about a meter over it, and then slowly starts to lower itself upon the alien thing. Since this thing has not been recorded, it cannot be teleported and has to go through non-space. This is not something we can improvise easily, but we knew in advance that that thing had to be brought back and studied, so preparations and computations have been going on for some time prior to this: in less than 20 seconds, the big metal cube disappears and the door to non-space close up.

"A bit anticlimactic, isn't it?" says Ven-Dess.

"The day is still young," replies Tamby, not bothering to explain the huge amount of computer time needed for this simple pick-up. Unfortunately we still are far from being able to grab anything at will like in a S-F vid. One day perhaps...

From the corner of my eye, I see Akk Toggen move his head as if he had heard something.

"Shr'anq-Te is in a fight," he says turning to the east.

"With what?" asks Ven-Dess.

"I don't know, but he's bringing it back now."

_"Kong?"_

_"Nothing yet... Oh yes; coming in at one o'clock, eight hundred meters. Damn these things are fast!"_

__I don't see anything... Yes, yes there he is. If it was not for the movement, he would not be visible, so effective is his camouflage. Shr'anq-Te is not subtle about his retreat, making great jumps over the biggest obstacles in his way. Yesterday we have learned their individual names: Te, Lla, Ne and Tar. _"You see something on his tail?"_

_"No, but he's got some ugly critter in his maw."_

_"Yes, I see that. It means we have something to watch out for."_

_"So we do. The shape and the color are already entered in the targeting computers."_

The thing is a bit longer than a human forearm, wormlike but with a hard upper shell. A great many hooked legs, like a millipede, can be seen sticking out of the underside. The head, big as two fists seems mainly made up of a nightmarish opening full of nearly transparent teeth with a few eyes on top. I can't see exactly how many as they are covered in some kind of yellow goo.

The shr'anq open his massive jaw and let it fall to the ground before taking his place near Toggen. From the reaction of Jijuma and Nihanda, I can see it's not a native specie. They crouch close to the worm to check it out while Ven-Dess, Tamby and Kel stand behind them, looking over their shoulders. Everybody start to make comments about the worm-bug, but all of a sudden, I can not seem to get interested in a biology lesson. Instead I walk to a mound of earth that must have been a floral arrangement just a few days ago, and take a look around.

On an impulse, I shove the Tsungord rifle in non-space and replace it with a big Kayro particle gun capable of delivering upward of 8000 energy bolts every minute. The shielded power cable and the cooling hose trail down to a black non-space opening that is anchored to the gun's position.

_"Jumpy Nag?"_ The move has not gone unnoticed with Zi Kong.

_"Yeah. This thing gives me the creeps. The whole place in fact..."_

I was prepared for the look of things, but not, I realize, for the eerie feeling that comes with it. _Like walking with ghosts around us._ Tamby must feel it too for she cuts short the discussion by taking the tail end with a gloved left hand and shoving the ugly thing in a recording chamber out of non-space.

_"You want me with you?"_ asks Kong.

_"No thanks. Keep watching things out for us."_

_"I'm right here Nag, right here."_

__"Shr'anq-Lla has found something big," says Nihanda, " that way."

Tamby turns to me. "I'll take the point, you cover our tail."

I give her a nod, and then watch for the other two shr'anqs as we move out. Wherever they had been, they catch up fairly quickly and then go on ahead of us with shr'anq-Te. I must say they look much more watchful and clever than any dog I have ever seen.

We follow what would have been a main road, now hard to follow even on foot, with all the burnt husks of vehicles and debris from the downed buildings. Still no sounds, except for those we make.

Gone are the towering trees shaped like exclamation mark and the graceful buildings topped with blue and gold pagoda style roofs. Hard as I try, I can see no logic in such determined, such complete destruction. The mass killing could have been achieved in much simpler ways, but apparently it was not enough.

Following the shr'anqs, Tamby turns left and enters a field of rubble harder and more dangerous to navigate. I choose a higher path on top of successive mounds of stones and concrete blocks. The footing is tricky, but the view is quite good since anything of significant height has been effectively leveled.

Kel leaves the group, coming up to see me with athletic leaps, probably enjoying the new feeling of physical augmentation.

"So, what do you think?" he asks with a sour expression, surveying the depressing scenery.

"Mainly, I wonder for whose benefit all this was done."

"Hmmm... Very good question, Nagga. You realize we missed something?"

"What do you mean?"

"All this," he says with a sweep of the arm, "hasn't been done by those yellow oval tanks. Something else was here besides them and the gray wormlike things."

Yes, it makes sense: the tanks kill everyone, then the worms clean up the bodies and finally something we have not seen yet blast and bulldoze everything that is left. Maybe not always in that order, but...

"Systematic and efficient, I guess... What will they do when they encounter real opposition?"

"It's a bit early to venture a guess," he replies. "Look: they've found it, whatever it is."

I fact, what they have found seems to be a hole of some kind. I take a last look around, and still seeing nothing threatening, I say: "Lets go down."

The four shr'anqs have already been dispatched to perimeter guard, and Tamby and Ven-Dess are kneeling side by side near a deep trench.

"See the fluid traces underneath," she says pointing down, " it has to be dead or broken or whatever..."

"Yes. Probably got a little too enthusiastic about the killing and destroying; fell down the basement and got buried. Think you can retrieve it? I'm starting to believe you can do anything."__

"Not at all, but for this mission, they arranged for sufficient computing power. Bob? You getting all this?"

On the common sublink, I can hear the reply of the mission director: _"Of course Tamby. Throw a sticky marker on it if you can."_

"There's tons of debris on top of it," says Tamby, getting a marker out.

_"Yes, we can see that. Careful is our middle name. You keep well clear though; we might get enough stuff to create a major shift."_

"What is it?" I ask. " An oval tank?"

"Yeah, crushed under there..."

She takes the sticky, aims and throws it in the dark pit casually: no hesitation whatsoever.

"Okay folks, lets back away from this."

We all do. Quickly. Back to the street as we feel the ground shake a bit under our feet. A quick look behind reveals a small cloud of dust lifting up in the stale humid air, nothing more spectacular. Everything is still going perfectly well... so why do I feel so spooked?

_"Tamby,"_ I send on our private link, _"do you feel it too?"_

_"Loud and clear, Nagga,"_ she sends back. _"Certified goose bumps since we've been zapped here. But I still don't see anything that warrants them."_

She stops and wait for everybody to catch up, then says, more to Ven-Dess than anybody else: "Okay; we've got what we came for. Nagga and I have a real bad feeling about this place, but since there's nothing to justify it up to now, is there anything more you want to do here?"__

"I don't know... I feel as you do; we all feel it, even the shr'anqs. It's like being watched all the time." His dark face is very serious: small beads of perspiration visible on his forehead.

"We get out of here. Right now," says Kel firmly.

Tamby turns to him, frowning. "You know something we don't, Kel?"

"I ask myself: what is their next move here, and how soon will it come? There are way too many possibilities. The fact is, until we get at least some indication of their motive in doing this, we really have to be extremely careful. We've been very lucky to find what we needed so fast, but that may not hold."

"So we leave..."

"We leave, we keep this place under observation, we study what we've got and we prepare. There is absolutely nothing we can do here for the moment, unless..."

"Unless what?" asks Tamby.

"Unless there is still people or data to be saved," he says, looking at Ven-Dess. "Is that a possibility?"

The four of them seem taken aback by this. I mean, really shocked would be more like it.

"Are any of you from this planet?" I ask. "I know you said that your family died here..."

"My family was on a vacation, visiting a relative," says Ven-Dess in a soft voice, "but I am not from here."

He turns to Nihanda, whose eyes are showing white all around and who has taken a step backward, bumping into Toggen's chest. He puts his arm protectively around her shoulders.

"I have lived here for a time and I never even thought..." she begins.

"Easy Nihanda, calm down," says Ven-Dess firmly. "Our data says there are no survivors and it's probably the case. Anyway, we didn't have the time or the means to execute a rescue operation. But we can now, so think about it: is there a place on this planet where someone could have taken refuge from this kind of deliberate destruction?"

"Perhaps the place you talk about on the other side of the planet?" suggests Kel.

"No," replies Akk Toggen with certainty, "that site we know is totally destroyed."

"Schhh, let me think, let me think!" says Nihanda.

We all give her some space, and I take the time to access the link to both hover cams floating somewhere above us. Nothing: nothing to see in every direction but charred ruins. Still, I have this feeling of impending doom, as if all this is not enough, as if there is worst to come.

"The Tiabadan cave, near the aquarium! If there is a chance to find somebody alive, I think it would be there."

"Where exactly?" asks Ven-Dess, getting a small computer from inside his coat.

"Tiabadan on Daos Island. That's about ten, twelve thousands kilometers east of here. I've never been there, but I've seen reports on it. The cave is vast: kilometers to explore. It's near sea level and there is an underwater access, but it is very dangerous. The public goes down there through a gravity well about a hundred meters deep. There is also an elevator and possibly a staircase, I'm not sure..."

"I have the exact coordinates. Can we teleport there?" asks Ven-Dess after a search on his pocket computer.

Tamby takes a look and almost right away Bob Yashta announces on the common sublink that they are sending probes.

"We'll know real fast," says Tamby. "How come you didn't think of that before? Don't you care about your people?"

"I'm asking myself the same question, believe me. I guess there's a convergence of factors: the shock of being attacked by aliens; the thoroughness of the destruction and the sophistication of our technology... It may be that our analysts discounted too easily the chances of surviving this disaster while setting up the costly and complicated process of regrowing all those people."

_Regrowing all those people._ It is like an echo inside my head. Damn!

_"Be advised: we have a hot zone of operation. Our friendly gray worms are there in force. We are clearing them out presently."_

"We'll need a ship that can execute a fast landing and take on many passengers," says Kel.

"I can take care of that," says Toggen, opening what looks like one of those antique cell phones of the early 2000. He starts a conversation in a language totally unknown to me. It has to be some kind of Subnet communicator. Not as advanced as ours, but good enough to do the job. He flips it off and adds: "It's done. On our call, it will come in. Fifteen minutes."

"We're in business," says Tamby. "Bob?"

_"The bugs have been wiped out in a radius of one kilometer, and we'll continue to cover you, but watch out for survivors. Be advised: there is less than one hour of sunlight left. Transit in ten seconds."_

"In ten seconds folks!" says Tamby.

I shove the particle gun in non-space and replace it with a DPR recoilless shotgun. It is absolute hell on cheating husbands, convenience store robbers, and all kinds of alien critters.


 

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