Chapter Five

The problem with our hearing, the team leader thought, is that when people think you've fouled up, you know. Waiting outside the Commandant's office, the Prime could clearly hear a pen tapping rapidly against a desk. Of course, he knew the commandant's bitch session would be precisely that: a speech from one of those weak military idiots who would be very calculating in his rage. Because if the commandant miscalculated and pissed him off too much, his executive officer would receive an early promotion into a bloody office. Of course, there would be a stain in a corner all would smell, but none would see.

The smell of fear, of Betan blood.

One advantage to being a Prime among these Betans, he reflected, is that only one will ever dare defy you. The smart ones kneel before you.

The tapping stopped. The leader, Go'ra'ba by name, smiled outside the door. Let him cry all he wants. If he cries too much, he'll be crying for mercy.

"Go'ra'ba!" The shout came, loudly. "Get your ass in here."

Go'ra'ba blinked. So, that's going to be his mood today. His smile widened. The Commandant had spoken in Terran English -- a deliberate insult, as their kind always spoke Velorian to each other. Perhaps the idiot's body should be left in one piece.

Go'ra'ba opened the door, letting his smile and his brooding eyes send the message to the doomed man. At least he'd get to kill something today. Brave, for someone so foolish, Go'ra'ba realized: the man didn't even react to his smile, but all the more maddening, continued in English!

"Well, Go'ra'ba, congratulations. Not only have you landed on the six o'clock news -- as the top story -- you let some grey cloud scare you off. And you've put the Protectors bitches on alert. So now it will take a much larger force to achieve your objective. Larger, in fact, than we can commit in the near future. Thank you, coward, you also have really angered the American public, whose support we happen to need, and quite possibly the whole planet could be lost to us. Again."

Coward was too much. Go'ra'ba charged him.

The building experienced the equivalent of a sudden -- and sharp -- Richter 5.6 magnitude quake. Three floors down, two Betan majors looked at each other and shook their heads.

Go'ra'ba groaned in pain, stunned. A woman's voice whispered in his ear, "I suggest you listen to him." Also, in English.

Lying on his stomach, he croaked, "Who..."

"The name's O'mara." Again, an angry whisper. Go'ra'ba's eyes opened in shock. O'mara was the second T'set'lar on Terra.

The commandant, adding insult to injury and insult, remarked coldly, "I believe you're supposed to be at attention." The commandant was still seated behind his desk, unforgiving.

Go'ra'ba considered the situation for about a second, then pushed himself off the floor. He brought his left knee forward and slowly stood up. Go'ra'ba wondered if he instead would die today. He tried not to let it show.

Good, the commandant thought. "You do realize that we are in an undeclared state of war with Velor?" he asked sarcastically, adding a southeastern USA accent to the barbarian tongue. "Recent activities both here on Earth and elsewhere have brought a very high level of tension into our galactic politics. It may not have been obvious to your Prime friends just how dangerous the T'set'lar and their Velorian counterparts, the Sarayen, have made life for others of our kind. Foe or otherwise."

Go'ra'ba got that message very clearly, fear on his face.

"Now, a battle, which is what you have while you are at war, is not a barroom brawl. There are objectives to obtain, with serious consequences for everybody is somebody fails to reach it."

"Sir!" It was the one word Go'ra'ba dared raise, in present (silent) company.


"What about Zela?" Knowing he was risking his life, he plowed on. "Didn't she fail in her mission?"

"Absolutely not. Her mission, her objective, was to rip the Protectors team apart. Publicly. And in doing so, she spread a lot of uncertainty and doubt -- which is our Primary Objective -- among both the Terran population and the Velorians. Until today, we thought that the Velorians were not at full strength. Your failed mission has proved otherwise: the only bit of good news, a trivial piece of intelligence, which came from your mission."

The commandant fell silent. Go'ra'ba's attempt to distract had failed. Then he realized something. Zela had died for her objective.

Suddenly, he wasn't sure he was that committed to objectives.

"It doesn't matter if you're willing to die, Prime," O'mara spoke up then, from behind him. How did she... "If you don't obey orders, I'll kill you anyway." Softly she spoke, evenly.

The commandant added, "I trust you won't fail an objective a second time. Because you won't live long enough to have a third chance." The words hung in the air. Go'ra'ba said nothing. "Report to your quarters and stay there until roll call tomorrow morning. Do NOT be late for roll call. Dismissed."

Go'ra'ba turned, caught the look of determination on O'mara's face, and walked out of the office. . He was thankful he could still walk.

After the Prime was well out of earshot, the Commandant reverted to Velorian. "Thanks for your help."

O'mara nodded. "As long as I think your plans will be helpful, I'll support you. So, what now?" She kept her pheromones off -- the others must not know she had been here. It was a rhetorical question anyway -- she'd know the answer as he thought it, before he spoke it.

"I don't know. I'm going to need a few hours to plan our next move, perhaps a few days. That microfusion process is really important to control, and now it may be years before we can try again." He sighed. "At least the media haven't tied us to it yet; their police are discounting the cafeteria as an old weak floor. I'll yell at the other one, Than'ya, for that later. Primes are always so arrogant."

O'mara smiled. "We're not much better."

The commandant returned the smile, well aware of how truthful that was. "No, you're not. And I don't believe a 'tear gas' would affect him or my men; especially since nebulas are part of Prime training. No, just simple incompetence on his part."

O'mara quickly checked Go'ra'ba's memories. To her surprise, she found the commandant was wrong. She then checked the commandant. He wouldn't believe her if he she told him: he was that sure of himself. Which meant he didn't need to know.

She then wondered if she herself was vulnerable.

She decided she didn't really want to find out. Instead, she asked, "Anything else I can do for you?"

The image of him on his knees before her, a cheap (for them) gold ring with a cheap (for her) diamond presented to her, in a local church with the words, "Will you marry me?" -- all presented theatrically with only the slightest of seriousness -- floated through his mind. Before he could even say a word or move, she burst out laughing.

A Betan and a T'set'lar? As hard as the latter tried to be gentle, her "husband" wouldn't survive the wedding night! Stories aside, nobody was that crazy. Some Primes were homicidally sadistic, but they were rare.

No, they'd never love each other, and he'd never lay a finger on her. She needed someone like that bastard who'd just walked out, physically, if that someone was to survive one night with her. One-night stands didn't appeal to her either, especially when she could crush someone she cared about. Those who cheated on her never breathed an apology.

Professor Brown was in a foul mood. Microfusion. And he had the keys to the kingdom. If only these damned super-beings would let him get to the lock...

After interviews with the campus police and Chief Richardson in particular (no, he wouldn't talk to the press for some time), he found himself in the Cal Tech tokamok lab. Right now, he was as irritated as his mentor had been, many months ago. And his anger would fade just as rapidly.

"Hello, Professor. I've got something I think you should see." Brown only grunted. The student shoved a printout at him.

Over the past week or so, they'd started modeling energy tracks (differences in intensity) within the "MF thing", as some jokingly called it. (Brown was not amused.) Higher energy vectors were brighter and bluer; cooler vectors were a dark red. The center had a bright blue, shading to yellow and then red as you moved from the center.

Except for eight reddish dots, seven of them very close together.

"These dots we have no explanation for," the student added. (He was a midget, and stood on a stool more often than not.) "They were not there yesterday, except possibly one we detected a gradient for on the edge."

Brown looked at the dots, rotating the paper in his hands -- and then it came to him. "Were the dots moving?"

In hushed tones, the student asked, "How did you know that??"

"Richardson," the voice came over the speakerphone.

"Chief," Professor Brown blurted.

"Well, hello there, Professor. What can I do for you?" (The chief's tone indicated he was in an important meeting, but his words carefully did not.)

"Can you pull up maps of where everyone was today, including my attackers?" Brown was very agitated. Understandable, the Chief thought.

After a moment's pause, he said, "Sure."

"I'm coming over."

Brown strode into the station at a very brisk walk, holding a DVD floppy high. "Got a second monitor?"

The Chief was already there. "No, sorry."

"Okay. Show me your map, and I'll show you mine." They hunched over a console. Richardson tapped a few keys and clicked his mouse. Brown inserted the floppy into the appropriate drive. A couple minutes later, Brown took over the console and opened the only file on the floppy.

The chief whistled appreciatively. "An exact match to the aliens."

"That's what it looks like. This floppy has your copy; your team might be able to confirm that match."

"Interesting indeed," a deep, dry voice behind them said. The two of them turned. "I'm Special-Agent-in-Charge Harold Peters, FBI."

In a dangerously pleasant tone (you're on my turf), the Chief replied. "Ah, good. Glad to have the Feds around when we need them."

The reply came back, professional. "Yes. Professor, what you've found here dovetails nicely with an ongoing investigation. I regret dropping in unannounced, but I was here to meet with the Chief and fill him in on the investigation. I thought I might share some info, maybe get some back." The black man spoke in D-C-ese as far as Richardson was concerned. But he went on, "Professor, if it weren't for the high profile of your experiment, I'd put you in Witness Protection right now."

Brown hated that. "Look, I told everyone around me, I'm not going to be quiet about this project. We need all the help we can get!"

"And you'll get it," Peters responded smoothly. "I'm a Fed, all right, but I'm not here to shut you up." Brown blinked at that. "On the contrary, I want your help." Peters helped himself to the water cooler. "We at the FBI have been investigating these 'Homo Supremis' for a loooooooong time. But we haven't been able to pin them down in any site where there's no violence. To take them into custody, we need to find them. Your experiment may give us the first chance, ever, to do that. Would you be kind enough to talk to the Cal Tech legal department? We probably will want to call you as an expert witness on your experiment, and we want to make sure that the defense can't punch any holes in our case. That is, if you're willing to help us."

Brown was flabbergasted. He could only nod in approval.

Peters raised a hand. "Yes, you'll get funding. Straight from our discretionary budget on Operation diGriz."

The Chief had enough. "Operation Degrees? What does temperature have to do with MicroFusion?"

Peters chuckled. "Not degrees, as in temperature. Dee-eye-capital gee-arr-eye-zee. You really should read some more science fiction. James Bolivar diGriz, in one of Harry Harrison's best known series, was a Stainless Steel Rat. And we're trying to catch a bunch of rats, who are as tough as stainless steel."

Then he chuckled again, darkly. "You have quite a sense of irony, Chief. It's just occured to me that your reference to temperature isn't entirely inappropriate. After all, once you start thinking about grilling a stainless steel rat, you better start packing some heat."