The coffee shop was old and musty. The scent of fresh brewed coffee warred with old books and fought it to a stand still.
"Wow! Actual paper books."
"They use them out here, where even a trickle of power can affect the mag net results."
"Oh, of course." She blushed and looked down.
What was Crow thinking? Tosca is way too young for this sort of mission. Just begging for all sorts of negative attention from every man out here on the frontier. And shy. "So, you're from California?"
"That's where I was born, but my parents split when I was nine." The shoulders she shrugged were both slim and muscular. Well worth drooling over. "Mother took me with her to Georgia, so I grew up there."
Mike grunted. "Hate the humidity. I was stationed at Canaveral Base for four years when I was a young punk."
"My dad was a Marine. Served in the war." A faint wistfulness in her tone. "So, how long have you been in?"
"Twelve years now. I enlisted right out of school. I've been catching college classes here and there ever since." Mike diverted the chat back to her. "Sounds like you miss your Dad."
"Yeah, he told the best stories. He was a writer, but he always gave me the 'secret version.' Made it up as he went. I've tried to write them down, but it's just not the same."
"You see him often?"
She shook her head. "When they divorced, it got pretty acrimonious. Mom said he wasn't the father, got a DNA check. Not that Dad cooperated, but being a former marine, his DNA was on file. Mom got a court order, and that was that. He wasn't my real father, just the man who'd tucked me into bed every night and told me stories. Played games with me." She looked away. "So, you have a good family?"
"Apart from being too large? I've got two brothers and a two sisters. Mom says she wasn't going to quit having babies until she had a daughter. Then she had twins."
"Five of you? Wow, I'll bet you got the glares."
"Oh yeah. 'How could you! We've finally got the world population under control, and you set this horrible example!' As if the population wasn't plummeting."
"Yeah. It's weird how everyone is brainwashed into thinking this is a good thing. I hate seeing all the empty houses, the rundown, boarded up wrecks apartment buildings turn into." She shifted uneasily. Her eyes focused beyond Mike's shoulder, and she stood up suddenly.
He jumped, turned to see who . . . no one between him and the bookshelves.
She reached out and pulled one off the shelf. "I didn't realize they'd printed my dad's books. All I have is electronic versions."
Mike craned his neck to read the title, and froze. Causis Belli by Joel Cottrell. Oh. Dear. God. That's why the ambassador brought this particular young secretary along.
Eleven years ago he'd been an ignorant little shavetail, six months on duty when the shit hit the fan in a quiet restrained don't-let-the-press-find-out sort of hidden panic. A child's DNA proved that she was the daughter of one of the supposedly dead and disintegrated genetically engineered soldiers that had turned the battlefields of China into such a horror. And now they realized that one had survived. And proven himself fertile. One of them had managed to swap his identity with another man's, and had lived among the sheep he'd been designed and created to kill.
I was way too low to ever learn the details. Whispers about how many might have survived, how many murders and rapes and disappearances might have been committed by them . . . And Quinton Haight appeared on the most wanted lists, labeled extremely dangerous. One of the very few labeled kill on sight.
That's why the ambassador brought along a young, inexperienced secretary.
The girl is bait.
"So you're going to pay for your crimes." The Ambassador held the girl close, a death grip on her hair.
"The only crime I ever committed was to exist. To dare to save my life, to escape from slavery."
"And now, to save your daughter, you are going to kill yourself."
The girl looked more angry than frightened. She said something in a whisper.
Mike caught a faint " . . . Brisbane Hunt then Station Zero." Poor thing's comparing her plight to a story in a book? Mike stiffened. Where the hostage daughter was killed by her own . . . He started to move, but the Gennie fired.
Tosca gave a single sharp cry of pain. Her hair pulled out of the ambassador's horrified grasp and she crumpled to the deck. The Ambassador staggered away, hunched a bit, a red stain spreading over his left ribcage. Dangerous, that much penetration on a space installation.
Mike dropped down beside Tosca. Her breathing was jerky, not much blood. On the outside.
Pierre knelt cautiously on her other side, breathing in panicked gasps.
The girl's eyes turned to stare at the ceiling. Fixed and unmoving. Her breathing stopped.
"I don't have a daughter. DNA test proved that." The big man stalked forward.
The Ambassador scooted away, sliding along the wall, hand flat against his ribs. "No. No. That was how we caught on to your survival. The DNA test was against Joel Cottrell's DNA file. But the girls was clearly not his. Not normal. Genetically engineered."
The Ambassador backed further. Pierre leaped to his feet, skittered in front of the ambassador. "Stay back. You can't . . . the ambassador has . . . " the boy stuttered to a halt.
"Diplomatic immunity? Don't make me laugh."
Mike stood up and stepped over the body. "I always thought the stories about the brutality of the Genies was exaggerated. Guess I was wrong."
Haight snorted. "The Chinese slaughtered their own people. We were the best excuse they'd had in centuries." He switched his gaze back to Ambassador Crow. "I always did admire the way you could find these incredibly gullible toadies." His smile widened. "And now it looks like you have hostages to fortune. I wonder which one I should shoot?"
As his gun shifted from Mike to Pierre, Mike swung up his gun.
Haight moved so fast he blurred, slapped the gun out of Mike's hand and shoved him into Pierre and Crow.
"Pathetic. Don't you even remember what we can do. Oh, a look of puzzlement. You never told them you were our commander, did you? Never happened to mention your crimes that we had to cover up for you. Never mentioned that the only atrocity any of us ever committed was by your orders, and you joined in the slaughter." The Genie showed strong teeth in a crocodilian smile. "I heard all about it, from the genies that were there. Before you killed them. You knew how to pick the ones that were weak enough to follow your orders. But you misjudged me. You actually thought I'd kill myself? You thought I believed you'd let the girl live? She only survived this long because you saw her usefulness."
Pierre swallowed. "Ambassador Crow would not . . . "
Haight laughed. "You pack of stupid fools."
A flick of movement to his left, the hatch swung closed, the wheel spun and air hissed . . . Tosca was not on the floor.
"What part of 'my daughter' did you not understand?"
Mike leaped for the hatch. The wheel was jammed.
Pierre snickered, controlled what looked more like glee than hysteria. "Brisbane Hunt—she told you to shoot her. And Station Zero. She's out there lowering the air pressure now, isn't she? Because you can take it but we can't." The boy gave into laughter and thumped against the wall, slid down gasping. "Brilliant."
Which it wasn't, because the lights were going dim . . .
And brightening. Mike was urged to his feet and steered down some wobbly passage. He snapped alert, turned, was slapped back against the bulkhead and wobbled, trying to keep his feet . . .
"Hey! Hey! What are you doing to my husband! What the hell do you think you're doing!"
"Madam, I am kidnapping your husband, on the theory that no one will try to destroy my ship with him aboard. Feel free to join us, although I highly recommend you remain behind and raise the alarm."
"But, but, but . . ."
"Oh, well, you're right. The longer before the alarm goes up, the better all around."
Mike was shoved, bounced off a hatchway and was yanked through. He gawped at Tosca, on her feet. Behind him a female voice, "Hey, hey, let go of me!" then Mitzi Crow bumped him and they wound up in a tangled heap on . . . an airlock floor. He rolled over, his head finally starting to clear. Tosca pulled him through another hatch and down a short corridor to a room with a dozen acceleration couches, mostly unoccupied.
Tosca pointed to the seat next to Pierre. "Strap in, we'll be leaving soon."
"Going where?" He sank into the seat and tried to concentrate around dizziness transforming into a massive headache.
"The new wormhole. Don't worry. We'll dump you four off in a life capsule before we go. The Ambassador is just coming along in case someone tries to stop us." Haight released Mitzi and eased the limp ambassador off his shoulder.
Tosca helped Haight get the ambassador into a seat and strapped him in. With an extra loop with a lock . . .
Mitzi fluttered into the seat beside her husband, and Tosca eased away. There was blood on her blouse, a ripped hole.
She caught him looking. "I've always known. Whenever I got a cut or scrape, I'd just watch it heal. I wasn't dead sure about getting shot, but . . . No guts, no glory."
"But what are you doing? Where are you going?" Mike looked around.
"I don't know. Finding my dad was pure serendipity." She looked around at the Genie. "Now we're in the middle of your plan, aren't we."
He relaxed suddenly, a genuine smile spreading across his face. "Yes. Come take a tour. Your friends will be safe here."
Mike thought about rushing the door, the hatch, but it swung shut.
Pierre wobbled across to it and tried it. Shook his head. "We're locked in." He looked around. "Standard Conestoga, at a guess."
"A colony ship? A bit of overkill for one man."
"I suspect there's more people aboard. Haight does have a reputation out here. Asteroid miner, wheeler dealer, we believe he's been active in the wormhole hunt since the very beginning."
Mike sighed. "We? Would that be CIA? NSA?" He eyed the weedy fellow dubiously. "Military Intel?"
"Yes. Well, as to specifics, I think 'none of your business' is the appropriate response."