Deathstalker Rebellion (3 page)

“You’re no fun,” said Hazel. “What did the others think? I suppose they all wanted to pussyfoot around, too?”

Owen frowned. “Giles wanted to spend the next few years gathering data from a distance and develop hidden power bases throughout the Empire, before risking catching Lionstone’s attention. If we’d listened to him, we’d still have been sitting on our ass twenty years from now, wondering if it was the right time yet. He hasn’t been the same since he killed Dram. He’s gone all cautious and noncommittal. Jack Random wanted to raise an army on the strength of his name and fight the Empire world by world, like he used to. He had to be reminded rather forcibly that his old way hadn’t worked then and wouldn’t work now. Ruby Journey just wanted to kill someone as soon as possible. And the Wolfling … wanted to be left alone. So I’ve been making
most of the decisions, of late, because everyone else was too busy sulking.”

“Maybe I should have got more involved, after all,” said Hazel.

“We all asked you at one time or another. You didn’t want to know. You were always off on your own somewhere, preoccupied with your own business. Whatever that might have been. Target shooting with your new toys, or trying to seduce a Hadenman, probably.”

“I was busy experimenting with the new abilities the Maze gave us,” Hazel said hotly. “You might be afraid of the changes it made in us, but I’m not. We’re all stronger, faster, fitter than we were, but there’s more to it than that. There’s a connection between us now, a mental link on some deep, basic level. It’s not esp. I can’t read your mind or anyone else’s. But we’re … joined now, in some new, primal way. Mind to mind, body to body, soul to soul. Anything you can do, I can do, and vice versa. For example, I can boost now, just like you.”

Owen looked at her sharply. Boost was both the gift and the curse of the Deathstalker Clan. For short periods he could become all but superhuman; inhumanly fast and strong, unbeatable with a weapon in his hand. A combination of mental training, engineered glands, and secret chemical caches deep within his body, boost was a jealously guarded Clan secret. It was also more seductive and addictive than any drug could ever be. Owen had learned to use it only sparingly. The candle that burns twice as brightly lasts half as long. Too much use of the boost would quite literally burn him up. Hazel knew some of that, but not all, and not nearly as much as she thought she did. Owen kept his voice carefully calm and even as he spoke:

“You must be mistaken, Hazel. The boost isn’t some esper phenomenon; it’s the result of inherited characteristics, physical changes in the body, and a hell of a lot of training.”

“And I’ve got it.” Hazel smiled triumphantly. “I’ve been practicing with it. You never told me it would feel so good, Owen. I hadn’t thought about physical changes being involved, but you’re probably right. So what? It just means my body has adapted itself as necessary. Interesting. I wonder what other changes I could make in myself, just by thinking about it …”

Owen leaned closer, so he could look her right in the eye.
“You’re heading into dangerous waters, Hazel. We don’t understand enough about what’s been done to us to just experiment wildly. You’re jumping off the edge with no idea of how deep the drop is. We need to take this one step at a time, under carefully controlled conditions.”

“You’re just frightened of the possibilities!”

“Damn right I am! So should you! The Maze was an alien artifact, remember? Designed by alien minds for alien purposes. The last people to go through it ended up creating the Hadenmen. Every time you experiment blindly, you’re risking your very humanity. It’s important we take this very slowly, very carefully.”

“There isn’t time! The rebellion needs us now. You’re the one who said we had responsibilities, who keeps going on about how important this mission is. If we’re going to survive this mission and the ones that follow, we’re going to need every advantage we can get our hands on. If you’re not prepared to lead the way, stand aside for someone who is. Don’t you worry, aristo; once I’ve reached my full potential and I’m the superhuman you’re so afraid of becoming, I’ll take over the rebellion and you can go back to your books. You’re too soft to be a real warrior, Deathstalker. You always were. You still dream about that kid you crippled on Mistworld, don’t you? Let it go. She would have killed you without a second thought.”

“That doesn’t matter,” said Owen, still meeting her gaze with his. “She was a child, and I cut her down without thinking, without caring, because I was caught up in the thrill of battle. I won’t do that again. If I have to be a fighter, I’ll be the kind of fighter I choose to be, not the kind my Family or you might prefer. And I won’t give up my humanity in the name of necessity.

“I’m making the decisions in this rebellion because I’m the only one who’s studied wars and insurrections from the past, and how they’re won and lost. We’ll fight the Empire through sabotage and subterfuge, and by winning the hearts of the people. No innocents will ever die by our hand. And if you think people will flock to follow some strange, superhuman leader, you’re wrong. They’d scream for the Empire to hunt you down and kill you, just so they wouldn’t have to be afraid of what you might do. We’re going to attack the Income Tax and Tithe Headquarters as planned. It’ll be the
signal for a new kind of war, a new kind of rebellion, where no one has to die unnecessarily.”

“Like I said. Soft. And still far too prone to lecturing people. I was hoping the Maze might have cured you of that, but apparently not.”

“Then why are you here, Hazel?”

“Damned if I know, Deathstalker. I was hoping I was in for a little excitement, but it seems I was wrong about that, too. Doesn’t matter. This is the start of the rebellion, and I’m not missing out on it. And if things do go wrong in your carefully worked-out plan, I’ll be there to save your ass with my inhuman powers. Fair enough?”

“You don’t understand, Hazel. I’m not afraid of the abilities themselves, just the price we might have to pay for them farther down the road.”

Hazel looked at him expressionlessly. “You’re a fine one to talk. You took that new metal hand of yours from the Hadenmen fast enough. They could have built all kinds of hidden surprises into it, and you’d never know till they activated them.”

Owen looked down at the gleaming golden artifact that had replaced the left hand he lost fighting a killer alien the Empire had brought to the Wolfling World. The new hand was perfect in every detail and responded to him just as readily as his real hand had. Though it always felt subtly cold. He looked back at Hazel and shrugged uncomfortably.

“It’s not like I had a choice. I needed a new hand, and I can’t trust regeneration machines anymore. Not after my treacherous personal AI programmed the last one with control words the Empire could use against you and me.”

“Ozymandius is gone, Owen. You destroyed him.”

“Doesn’t make any difference. Who knows what other surprises might be lying in wait for us in any other Empire machine we trusted our bodies to? I don’t trust the Hadenmen completely, I’m not a fool, but right now they’re the lesser of two evils. They can only mess with my hand, not my mind. Besides, they did a really good job on this hand. Full sensory analogues, and far more powerful than the original. And I don’t have to trim the nails on this one.”

“It’s still a product of the Hadenman laboratories,” said Hazel. “And I don’t trust anything that comes out of them further than I could spit into a hurricane. The last time the Hadenmen took on the Empire, it was as Gods of the Ge
netic Church, bringing transformation or death. Become a Hadenman or become extinct. Remember? You must have read about it in one of your precious books. And now here they are again, born again, and so polite and helpful and reasonable it’s downright spooky. I want to jump out of my skin every time one of them approaches me. I keep waiting for the other shoe to drop.”

Owen nodded. He knew what she meant. They both looked silently at the augmented men running the golden ship. There were twenty of them, connected to their strange machinery by thick lengths of cable plunging into their bodies or immersed in gleaming technology like a man half submerged in water, their inhuman minds communing directly with their unfathomable technology on a level no human mind could understand or appreciate. Each Hadenman had a specific function aboard the ship and performed it perfectly, for as long as required. They did not suffer from boredom or fatigue, from inspiration or original thought. At least not while they were working. Perhaps off duty they were real party animals, but Owen rather doubted it. From what he’d seen of the Hadenmen as they went calmly about rebuilding their strange and unsettling city deep below the frozen surface of the Wolfling World, the augmented men had no attributes that were not strictly logical and functional.

The only Hadenman Owen and Hazel had known at all well was Tobias Moon, who’d traveled with them for a while, but he’d spent so long among humans that he’d acquired a surface gloss of humanity—or at least a very good copy of it. He’d worn out most of his energy crystals down the years, losing many abilities and functions along the way, and freely admitted he was only a pale weak version of the real thing. Still, it had to be said that even on his good days he’d been a disturbing son of a bitch. The glowing eyes and inhuman buzzing voice hadn’t helped, but it was in his mind that the real differences lay. Tobias Moon thought differently, even when he tried not to.

The augmented men who’d emerged from the Tomb of the Hadenmen, after Owen released them from their long restorative sleep, had moved like living gods. Their eyes blazed like the sun, their movements perfect and graceful. They still scared the shit out of Owen, even after the past few months of getting used to them. They called him their Redeemer and were always quiet and deferential to him, but Owen knew
better than to warm to them. He’d studied the old records of their attacks on humanity. Seen the sleek golden ships running rings around the slower, clumsier human ships, blowing them apart with perfectly aimed weapons. Seen the tall shining figures stalking through blazing cities, killing everything that lived. Seen what happened to the humans they experimented on, the living and the dead, in the name of their Code of the Genetic Church. When you no longer have to worry about human emotions or restraints, you can do anything; and the Hadenmen had. They created abominations, seeking always an inhuman perfection of man and machine, a whole that would be greater than the sum of its parts.

They would have won the war if there had been more of them and less of humanity, but in the end they were thrown back, their golden ships outnumbered and blown apart, and the few survivors had fled back to the safety of their Tomb, hidden deep within the endless night of the Darkvoid, beyond the Rim of Empire. But they had come very close to wiping out humanity and replacing it with something altogether horrible. Owen remembered what he’d seen in the records, and all the politeness in the world wouldn’t make him forget what they had done—and might yet do again.

But none of that mattered a damn for the moment. He needed them. The rebellion needed them. And if he was to go up against the Empire, there were going to be times when he’d need an army of trained fighters to meet Lionstone’s armies. And that was where the Hadenmen would come in. Assuming they could be controlled or at least pursuaded to follow orders. Owen was under no illusions about the danger he’d reintroduced to the Empire. Given time, the Hadenmen might become a worse threat than Lionstone could ever be. Owen tried not to think about that too much, for the time being. It helped that he had so many other problems to worry about.

“Let’s talk of more cheerful things,” he said determinedly to Hazel. “Assuming we get past Golgotha’s defenses as easily as the Hadenmen have promised, this will be our first chance to make real contact with the underground. They’re practically the only organized rebellion left in the Empire. Mostly clones and espers, as I understand it, but with a great many useful fellow travelers; some of them quite influential. We need them on our side. Hopefully, kicking the crap out
of the Tax and Tithe HQ will make a good first impression and convince them we’re a force to be recognized. Jack Random’s name should open a few doors. He’s given me the names of a few people he swears we can trust, but they could be years out of date. Or dead. He betrayed a lot of people when the Empire mind techs were working on him in their interrogation center. Which is not going to make him very popular in some quarters. His name could work
us as much as
us. Same with my ancestor Giles, the original Deathstalker. Having a living legend on your side is very useful in recruiting people, but there’s always the chance those same people will be disappointed with the reality rather than the perfect legend.”

“Assuming he really is the original Deathstalker,” said Hazel.

“There is that, yes,” said Owen unhappily. “He does seem to know a hell of a lot about what’s been going on recently, for someone who’s supposed to have been in stasis for the last nine hundred years.”

“So if he isn’t who he says he is, who is he? An Empire plant? A clone? Some madman with delusions of grandeur?”

“That’s certainly some of the possibilities,” said Owen. “But I had something rather more disturbing in mind. There’s always the chance he could be a Fury.”

Hazel looked at him speechlessly for a long moment, struck dumb by the very thought. The Furies were terror weapons created by the rogue AIs on Shub to act as their agents in the world of men. Creations of living metal within cloned flesh envelopes; identical to humans as far as the naked eye could tell, but capable of appalling havoc and destruction if detected. Unstoppable killers and merciless opponents. Luckily, the Empire hadn’t encountered too many of them down the years. An esper could spot them easily, and disrupters didn’t care how strong the Furies were. But there was always the possibility there were still some around, undetected, living their fake human lives, reporting back to Shub, and waiting for the order to destroy humanity from within.

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