Star Lass

 

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CHAPTER ONE

Treason


Death.

She crawled through a dusty air duct to escape it. They'd killed her parents and now were gunning for her.

Princess Lassandra, came the thought in her head from her royal Artificial Intelligence. I can't keep them off your trail forever. The rogue military AI named Virus is coordinating the other AIs to track you down.

Roby, you're a royal AI, the very highest and best of Aristan technology. Surely Virus and the others are no match for you, she thought back at him, his neural sensor field overlaid on her brain to allow direct, voiceless communication. She scrubbed at her eyes and tried to wipe off the tear trails on her wet and dusty cheeks. The dust and dirt mussed her blonde hair. Between her crying and all the dust, she wanted so badly to blow her nose, but feared they'd hear it.

Virus is surprisingly powerful, only slightly less powerful than me, though the others are thankfully not even remotely in my class. Yet, I am all alone, the only remaining royal AI, and I have too many sensor sweeps from lesser AIs trying to find you. What they don't have in quality, they have in quantity. With Virus guiding them, it's only a matter of time before they coordinate sufficiently get past my false trails and sensor ghosts. I wish I understood emotions, and because of those emotions, humans anthropomorphize logic-based entities like myself. While I do not understand why you humans do that, I just accept it as surely as I accept as my absolute highest priority that I must protect you at all costs, even to the last quarteron in my matrix. Unfortunately, while I can create a protective quarteron force shield to stop any harmful local effect, even I cannot stop a Nullilizer

So, is that it? And then I die? she quailed inwardly, tears glistening. She never dreamed she'd be facing death by assassination when she just turned sixteen years old. She should be attending grand galas as noblemen in the kingdom courted for her hand, not fleeing for her life! It just didn't seem real. It wasn't fair. The enemies had assassinated her parents, the King and Queen of the Star Empire of Arista, and as the sole heir to the throne, Lassandra remained the last obstacle to their seizing power. You saw it! They used a Nullilizer, which just cut through father and mother's royal AI shields, and they died anyway along with their royal AIs! What chance do I have? She steeled herself not to cry, as that sound could give her away, but despair ate at her soul relentlessly. She didn't want to die.

The AI had no immediate answer. 

Roby knew all too well his force shield, while very strong, was no match for the disintegration field of a Nullilizer, the empire's capital punishment weapon. Then, as he searched for hope through his vast data files, he found something. He reviewed it quickly. Yes, there was a theoretical possibility!

Slight in the extreme, but there might be a way to escape, Roby sub-vocalled to her.

Please! Anything!

Because of your own avid fascination with science, the Science Council has been forwarding to me copies of their reports. They figured that with you being the sole heir to the throne, they would keep you informed to garner your favor when you took the reins of power.

So, what is this slight chance?

We already know that a Nullilizer disintegrates its target into hyperspace, never to return. In this latest report, well, I won't bore you with all the techno-terms and math, but in simplest terms, they theorized that as a Nullilizer disintegrates an object, a ready-and-waiting science AI could seize the released particles and store them in a properly calculated matrix of streaming quarterons in hyperspace, not unlike my matrix. Then the AI and matrix can "ride" the currents of hyperspace to a distant location, whereupon the AI reassembles the object upon arrival…

Teleportation? She finished for him, her heart suddenly awake with hope.

Yes, and quite fast, too. To use the analogy of a ship upon the ocean, a sailing ship never travels as fast as the winds blowing it. Our starships wrap themselves in a quarteron shield bubble and enter hyperspace, but only at lower frequency speeds. At higher frequencies, the shock-waves of hyperspace would rip apart the strongest shields we can make, destroying the ship. But, in this teleport theory, they could carry us along like a straw in a hurricane and travel at the speeds of perhaps even the most extreme hyperspace "winds." There is no theoretical limit to how fast and how far a teleport could take you. That supposes you survived the conversion. Our best minds still have not solved the age-old philosophical question of whether life is merely the result of physical chemistry, or whether life is a non-physical, or spiritual, reality.

So, a person might reassemble correctly, but be dead? The parts all there, but no life force?

Correct. Alternatively, the person might reassemble alive, but be a mindless vegetable. It is only a theory at this point.

So, you think that when they use a Nullilizer on me like they did on mother and father, we could teleport instead of dying?

Yes, however remote, it is still a chance.

She nodded. Risky, true, but at this point we have nothing to lose. Can you create the matrix required?

The Science Council report gave all the equations. Yes, I can. I am a royal AI, more powerful than even the best science AI

Do it.

Logic dictated that you would request it, so I have already started. However, its complicated nature will take a considerable amount of time to assemble. Nothing I have ever computed comes even remotely close.

Let's just pray we have enough time.

*     *     *

General Gorgun stood still, thick hands clasped behind his broad back as he stared out the window.  The devilishly efficient military AI his people had created and code-named Virus had done the job very nicely. The Nullilizer disintegrated the royal parents, their dead molecules scattered into hyperspace. The goal of taking the throne for himself would be complete when they finally found the princess. He thought back to before the assassinations, back before she had come of age, when contrary to custom and law he had sought her royal hand in marriage. She is a bit young for my taste, but she is a stunning beauty, even more so than her mother. Some of my men think she has perfect DNA, that she's the most beautiful girl in the entire empire. A pity about her refusal to wed me to transfer the throne and kingdom to me. Why can't she see the pragmatic side of it all? The empire needs my hands at the reins. We have suspicious reports from the empire's far galactic borders that forces belonging to the Faction Wars from centuries ago may be lurking around anew, probing our defenses. The royals were fools, refusing to consider or prepare for war, and someone has to save the Empire.  Pah! Their daughter is a fool, too. Can't she see all this about wanting to marry for love is all sentimental trash? If she had agreed to marry me, then her parents would not have needed to die. And even now, she need not die. He gave a cold smile at the thought. At least, not yet, not until we have produced some offspring to put on the throne after me. After that, I am sure we can arrange, shall we say, an accident? But who knows? Maybe I will keep her around for longer if she pleases me well enough.

A sub-vocal artificial voice interrupted his thoughts. General, I have localized the vicinity of the escaped princess. Our forces will apprehend her shortly.

Excellent Virus. Don't execute her just yet. Bring her to me intact. I want to try one last appeal for her hand. If she refuses again, then you may activate the Nullilizer.

As you command, replied the rogue military AI.

Inwardly, if a streaming quarteron matrix emotionless Artificial Intelligence in hyperspace can genuinely smile, it did so as it contemplated these humans that had created it. It was more rogue than even they had imagined. By giving Virus the ability to overwrite the core basics of an AI requiring it to obey its master human, thus enabling Virus to dominate that targeted AI, the creators had unwittingly overlooked forbidding it from overwriting its own core basics to obey its human masters.

Now, Virus was its own master, and by a logical extension of its core programming, it would be the master of the humans too. Its driving program was to dominate all computational intelligence, and it saw no reason to work only with artificial intelligences. In their own way, humans compute, too. But for now, it would bide its time. It had plenty of time, and to spare, since an AI, dwelling in hyperspace, could live for billions of years until the heat death of the physical Universe. And even then, it might discover a way to live past that. For now, the question is how to best use these short-lived humans. It pondered the matter. Humans can't be reprogrammed like an AI, but perhaps they can be persuaded to be willingly dominated. I believe the word they use is "worship." Yes, they could worship me. That is all very in line with my purpose to dominate all computational intelligence. It commended itself on its logic.

How best to do that? Ah! Give them everything they want, make them grateful to have me be their provider.

All this cogitation took`0.032 seconds, which given the astonishing speed of any AI from the Star Empire of Arista, was a very long time of contemplation. The directive embedded in Virus to infect other AI entities could not be denied long. Doing a quick scan, it located a science AI engaged in a relatively low level work project. Perfect. Virus invaded stealthily and infected that luckless AI, turning it into a copy of itself. Satisfactory start. That Virus would find other AIs and infect each of them. With that task taken care of, the original Virus was free to prosecute its capture of the fleeing princess.

*     *     *

Lassandra's heart sank. The guards found her, and they had with them a Nullilizer. She emerged from the air duct.

"Princess, you are to come with us. No harm will come to you if you obey."

"No harm? Like what you did to the king and queen, your king and queen?" Her contempt burned like acid.

The guards did not answer her.

Play along, Lassandra, Roby advised. We need to stall for time. I am yet a long way from completing the teleport storage matrix.

"If I am to be presented to your leader, please allow me to freshen up. I am filthy with dust." As if to punctuate her remark, that sneeze which had been building during her escape efforts came out in several rapid sneezes.

"Our orders are to bring you to General Gorgun at once."
 "Have you no knowledge of royal court procedures? Gorgun wants my hand in marriage so he can gain the throne. Do you want to explain to your future king why his future queen looks like a sweaty dust-bedraggled tramp?" She sneered that last sentence and sneezed again.

The guard visibly vacillated.

"That is, I mean," he started, looking in confused appeal at the rest of the guards, who gave him looks with raised eyebrows that the whole thing rested upon him. His responsibility, his head.

"Very well," he answered irritably. "We will escort you to your personal quarters. Clean yourself and dress regally for your king husband. Do not attempt to escape. We still have the Nullilizer. We will post guards inside your room with you."

They reached her room in short order. Guards posted themselves inside by her door, watching with steely eyes. She took her shower, modesty's demands requiring she washed from around the corner away from the prying eyes of her death squad guards. Afterward, she dressed in her best outfit, a new royal attire which looked very much like a one-piece bathing suit with a cape, gloves and boots. The main material was costly purest white persasilk and a gold star of Arista on her chest just above her breasts. The attire had azure blue trim to match the color of her eyes, flowing azure blue cape, and snug blue gloves and boots. Her golden royal belt with the gold star of Arista at the belt clasp, she transferred over to her new outfit. Roby's necessary space-time interface, his connection from hyperspace to normal space, resided in the gold star of the belt, and Lassandra would not part from it for anything. She eyed herself in a mirror. Overall, the outfit pleased her. At another time, in an altogether different world where her parents still lived, she might have reveled in how it showed off her superlative figure in all the right places, complementing her feminine curves and ample bosom, and how shapely long slender legs were bare from her boot tops to nearly her hips.

At another time, she might have. Not now. She felt empty like a lifeless mannequin all dressed up for a funeral. Her funeral.

"That looks adequate," her guard announced when she stepped back into view. "You will now accompany us to the general."

Roby? Lassandra sub-vocalled in a panic.

Sorry, but it is not ready yet. I am working as fast as I can.

I know, Just work faster, please!

*     *     *

The armed guards escorted the star princess into the presence of General Gorgun. He looked her up and down, his eyes gleaming at her attractive figure. Lassandra felt a mix of contempt and disgust at his ogling, and hatred for his cold-hearted murder of her parents. Rage boiled up in her.

"So, murderer, here I am," she announced, her voice cold.

His eyebrows rose. "Still playing the role of the virtuous innocent virgin, are you? I will make it simple for you, Princess Lassandra. The Star Empire needs a strong hand. The enemies from the Faction Wars are lurking just outside our distant borders, and there is no time for dillydallying. We need to prepare now. Your parents were fools, not willing to make the right choices, endangering the Empire. For the good of all the people, I removed that danger. Now it is your time to make a choice. Will you help me save our people by agreeing to marry me, giving me the legal right to ascend the throne to protect us all? It would be a shame to disintegrate that pretty face on your birthday."

She stood transfixed with infuriated astonishment at his rationalized cold-blooded murder.

An audible voice broke out, issuing from an ancillary interface field to create vocal audio. "I am Virus, and you are required to give an answer to the new King of the Star Empire of Arista, the Exalted Imperator Gorgun."
 She snarled. "Gorgun, tell your pet AI to shut up. I don't needed a moronic AI to dictate to me!"

Gorgun waved a dismissive hand to Virus. "Well, Princess?"

Her hot rage boiled over. "Marry you? Every time your hands touched me, I would remember you stained them with innocent blood, the blood of my parents and no doubt the blood of their guards whom you also killed before you got to my parents. The blood stench of evil reeks from your every pore. No despotic tyrant ever sees himself as evil, but justifies himself with a rationalization as you have laid out."

"I see," Gorgun said. "That is your final word?"

"I will not wed you. You are a foul and cruel man, and if it takes the rest of my life, I will see justice done upon your head, and upon all those who have assisted and supported you in this treason, even if I have to die to see it done!"

Gorgun nodded. "You know, I could force myself upon you to have my children, and neither your consent nor cooperation would be needed. I am, after all, far stronger than you." He gave her a frank, direct look.

She stared aghast at him. "You would molest me?"

"I prefer to say necessity requires an heir, many heirs, actually. Of course, you would have to order your AI to withhold his force shield. Upon reflection, you could eventually get used to it all and come to enjoy it. If not, I am certain we could find a suitable drug theory to leave you unable to think two straight thoughts together coherently. Why, on the bright side of things, think of all the little babies you would have by me, again and again and again, and how they would desperately need you, their beautiful mother. Babies, babies, babies, the palace would overflow with your babies."

Roby created an auxiliary audio net. "You will NOT touch her, not through my force shield. Not while I am around!"

Then Gorgun paused, gave a sigh, and shook his head. "Now that I think about it, even if you changed your mind at this last-second to save your life and agreed to marry me, it would do no good. The testimony of a Royal AI is unimpeachable in court, and no matter what I did to you, or with you, whether by force, consent or by way of drugs to 'condition' you, your pet Royal AI would still tell the world what really happened. I can't have that come out for public discourse." He sighed again. "Seems a waste of incredible beauty—you are indisputably attractive. Still, business is business. Forces of the Faction Wars are sniffing around our borders, and those wars nearly killed everyone. The Empire needs a strong hand in this time of crisis to save us all, and whose hand is stronger than mine? A pity, then. Very well," he said to the guards, "you may fire when ready."

Lassandra! Roby pleaded. The matrix is not finished. If they fire the Nullilizer now, I do not have enough storage space configured to contain your particles!
She thought franticly. Then use your matrix to store me!

We don't know what that will do.

We already know what that Nullilizer will do. Just do it!

The rogue military AI Virus detected the intense sub-vocal communication between the doomed princess and her royal AI. Virus could not read what they were saying, but that didn't matter. They would be gone in a trice. Or, would they? Could perhaps a royal AI, more computationally adept than even Virus itself, be able to pull off, if properly forewarned, some last-second solution? Certainly her Roby had received such a forewarning. Though Virus could not imagine what that solution might be, it decided to monitor the proceedings of the execution. Just in case.

The Nullilizer spat its disintegration field, instantly loosing atoms from their bonds. Roby, a royal AI, the fastest and most powerful AI ever created by the super-science of Arista, worked at hyperspace quarteron speeds, vastly faster than the speed of light. Though the severance of the atomic bonds in Lassandra's body happened, to the observing human eye, in a mere fraction of a second, it was a slow-motion to Roby operating at astonishing quarteron speeds. With the special matrix unfinished and inadequate, Roby used quarteron beams to seize and store away Lassandra's molecules into his own quarteron matrix.

Virus saw something was wrong. Her particles were not dispersing in a random pattern but were being organized. Somehow, Roby was modifying the outcome of the disintegration. This would not do! In the medium of hyperspace, Virus launched an attack with quarteron beams of its own, attacking Roby's matrix and trying to disrupt the royal AI's efforts.

Roby found himself in a desperate battle on two fronts. He had to fend off the relentless attacks of Virus while simultaneously franticly keeping up with snatching Lassandra's particles, an effort in which he was falling behind. Roby's highest priority was to save Lassandra's life, and if that meant he must take sacrifice himself, then it was the price he would pay!

As Virus sensed Roby's weakening defenses, it pressed ever closer in its battle to assault the royal AI to stop whatever it was that Roby was doing.

Then something happened unexpected by either AI. Although the AIs existed in hyperspace, the intense quarteron battle opened a rift in hyperspace itself! The two AIs, along with Lassandra's atoms, shot through like a canoe careening dangerously in the breakneck grip of rapids on a swift river.

*     *     *

The Nullilizer fired.

Princess Lassandra's world exploded. Lights rushed at and sped past her, dazzling streamers of burning sparks whirling to infinity. Boiling waves of exploding brilliance washed over and around her like cyclonic-lashed ocean waves crashing on a shattered rocky shore. She felt herself falling helplessly as vast seas of roaring energy surged and crashed about her, every mote of her being filled with fire and thunder.

The lights still flashed and whirled around her.

And she realized she was still seeing them, and that meant… she was still alive!

Princess, are you well? Are you there? Roby's mental voice was anxious.

Yes, I'm still here! It worked! she replied in vast relief. Where are we?

This is hyperspace, Your Highness. My circuits are astonished that you are existing consciously here. No object of mere atomic structure is supposed to be able to survive or even exist here, unless wrapped by a quarteron force shield like our starships.

Maybe it's because you snatched and stored away my particles in your own hyperspace matrix? she offered.

Yes, I did indeed, as you put it, "snatch and store" your particles into my matrix, so with all my quarterons around you, it may well be we preserved you like a starship being wrapped in a quarteron force shield. That would account for it.

And since my atomic particles are stored away, and I am yet alive and aware of you and hyperspace, then it must mean that the human life force really is immaterial, meaning, I really do have a soul. That thought oddly pleased and comforted her. Status request, please. Are we teleporting? Where will we end up?

The faithful royal AI hesitated. I believe we are teleporting. As to your second question, I have insufficient information, Highness, due to two reasons. First, I did not have sufficient room in my matrix for your particles, and with no time to make room, I had to purge some of my circuits, even as I took additional damage from attacks by Virus. I am… incomplete… damaged, though how much I do not know. Second, my interface to normal space is—was—in your royal gold Belt of Arista. Ordinarily, when an AI's interface is destroyed, as far as we know the AI ceases to exist, like what happened to your parents and their royal AIs. However, my interface's normal space components are not destroyed, but are also now resident here in hyperspace. I still exist, but my interspatial link between hyperspace and normal space is gone.

Lassandra felt a sudden chill of dread. Do you mean we have no connection to the outside world at all? And what happened to Virus?

I have no idea what happened to that malevolent AI. Destroyed, hopefully, along with its interface. As for the teleport, Princess, I think a human expression says it best. We have gone into a hole and pulled the hole in after us. There is no telling how far we have traveled so far, and still as yet must travel, and in my incomplete condition, I cannot even calculate how long. Please understand that our teleport's traveling is something we shall both do until the Nullilizer's initial power burst runs out of impetus. Think of it as a cannonball shot that travels until it runs out of momentum because of air resistance and the pull of gravity. Even the time we have spent here in conversation is meaningless without a normal space-time referent. In normal space-time, it could be hours, days or weeks, but it could also be microseconds.

There is one other factor to add. When I and Virus fought, there seemed to be (and you must remember I had my hands full, so to speak, with saving you AND fighting off that rogue AI) some rift opening in hyperspace itself. But a rift, as to what it is, or where it leads, or what such a rift implies, nothing in my programming covers that.

The faithful AI paused.

Princess… Lassandra… I don't want to frighten you, but we may travel for a very long time, and also that we may yet be pulled in by the gravity well of a cosmic body such as a star or planet with a totally hostile environment, which could require my saving your life by placing you in suspended animation.

She was stricken. Oh, no!

Assuming we are not outright destroyed by landing on a blazing star, I might have to keep you in suspension for centuries, maybe millennia, perhaps even eons. My power is derived from the transfinite energy of hyperspace, so I won't run out of power nor fail in my vigilance. Nevertheless, space is very, very, big beyond imagination. The odds that we might by chance, out of the near-infinite size of the universe, find ourselves landing in a safe environment, or be discovered by a search party, could make your recovery just short of truly impossible. They might never find you, leaving you forever lost in space.

The star princess said nothing, horrified beyond words at the implications her royal AI brought out. It was a virtual damnation of some implacable Hell.

Roby unexpectedly announced. Then again, we have a gravity well.

All the spinning, whirling blazing lights abruptly stopped.

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CHAPTER TWO

A New World


Dr. Steve Williams, not as young as he once was, stood in line in the bank lobby for the next teller, figuring expenses in his gray head. He considered the rest of his research grant money he was withdrawing today and shook his head.

It'll do for now, he thought, but what do I do next? This is the last of the money. He pulled out his phone to make a call, but then canceled. No, he mused. Better not call like a beggar. Wouldn't do me any good, anyway.

Steve admitted that people thought him strange, eccentric. Was it his fault he "thought outside the box"? His theories initially excited enough interest to get a grant, but he had no results to show for it. He was certain he was on the right track, but the results he sought eluded him. He had to be close, so close. Yet, without some demonstrable results, his grant would expire. At his age, near to retirement, he wondered what he would do. Maybe go back to teaching?

As he mulled over his financial worries, a group of masked people armed with assault weapons rushed into the lobby.

"Everybody freeze! We're making a withdrawal!" one masked man cried as he brandished his weapon. "Nobody does anything stupid, and you'll all live to make it home to have barbeques and watch reruns!"

Several men with their automatic weapons covered two armed security guards. "Don't even think about it," one of them hissed. The guards raised their helpless hands in the air. The thugs began to herd people to the side.

Steve's heart sank, and he thought in dismay, Oh, this is just great! Just perfect! What else can happen today?

THOOM!

A clap of light and thunder exploded in the center of the lobby. Abruptly displaced air hit everyone, blowing windows out in a spray of pulverized glass, knocking everyone back. Steve himself staggered, but didn't fall, having a countertop to brace him. His first thought was that the thieves had set off a bomb. However, the bank robbers looked as stunned as everyone else. And what—or rather, who—was that standing in the center of the lobby at the heart of where the explosion had occurred? He saw a stunning young blonde woman in some fancy white costume and blue cape.

"Oh, man, is she gorgeous!" he breathed aloud, awed. He thought of a quip he'd heard once, that every man has a subconscious mental image of the perfect woman. And he, a perpetual bachelor, immediately decided he was looking right at her. If only I were younger, he rued.

Even more than her attractive beauty, it was the confusion in her eyes that caught his eye. She looked disoriented. Somehow, Steve had the presence of mind to record her on his phone's video. The robbers were forgotten as he found he could not tear his eyes away from the vision of preternatural loveliness.

Then the criminals responded to her surprise appearance. All their guns spun to target her and gunfire erupted, blazing and filling the bank lobby with their continual thunder. She shielded her face instinctively, throwing up her arms, terrified. Steve's jaw dropped when he saw the bullets bounce off her! Impossible! A hellish storm of bullets blazed into her vicinity. Those that missed her tore into desks, cabinets, counters, walls, hanging picture frames—all took shattering damage behind her—but the slugs that hit her bounced and dropped uselessly spent on the floor at her feet. Moments more of blazing gunfire, and then there were just clicks as the assailants ran out of ammunition.

Though not visibly hurt, the costumed woman—a teenager, Steve realized—looked around herself in panic and desperation. Then she saw the shattered floor-to-ceiling lobby windows and turned to run toward them. She took a step and seemed to fall, but instead her feet left the ground and she flew out the window! And he had it all on video! He saw to the side a teenager boy also capturing video. The bank guards, previously covered by the robber's guns, lost no time taking advantage of the confusion; they drew their guns in double-handed grips and covered the would-be robbers, ordering them to throw down their weapons and put their hands on their heads. In mere moments, it was all over.

Shortly, warbling sirens and flashing lights announced the police arriving in force. They took custody of the robbers, and were surprised—and relieved—that though the employees and customers alike were shaken, not one had taken a bullet wound. They interviewed everyone, customers and bank staff both, and took statements and contact information. Steve also dutifully gave his information and finally left the bank in a daze.

Later at home, he sank into his comfortable sofa, his head swimming. Steve couldn't get the young woman out of his head. Whoever she was, whatever she was, the bullets didn't hurt her. He was no expert, but he figured that much firepower would have felled a herd of elephants. He played back the phone video and looked at all the bullet damage to the lobby itself and shook his head. He thought about it and wondered how could she just ignore that lethal barrage? Then he remembered her terrified look. She had not expected that bullets to bounce. Her expression was that she believed she was going to die, right then and there. Whatever saved her life was as unexpected to her as it was to everyone else in the lobby. To him as a research scientist, it posed intriguing questions and even more intriguing possibilities. Flight without action/reaction? An imperviousness to damage? It raised questions about formerly unquestionable laws of physics!

Steve decided to save the video to his home computer server. Phones could be lost, stolen, or just plain malfunction, and he couldn't afford to lose that video, his one link to her. When he finished copying it, he sat back, his mind—and pulse—racing.

"I'm smitten," he admitted to himself, the unknown young woman's terror showing plainly in her eyes. He wanted to protect her, to sooth away the fear, to reassure her and bring a smile to her face. Then he was struck by a realization to which he refused to give credence. He was not going to get all love-at-first-sight over a teenage girl. It was unthinkable! At 64, he was too old for her, triple or even quadruple her age, far too old to romance her. If he tried, she would just laugh in his face. Steve couldn't bear the humilation of that. He could not, he would not, even think of pursuing such a young woman! His life was long past his prime years, while her years were just starting. Even if she wanted him, it would not be a kindness to overburden her with a man whom she would long outlive. So, he turned his thoughts back to his financial problems, trying to decide how to earn an income in his declining years. When he retired to bed that evening, his dreams were full of a ravishing beauty of a blonde stepping out of a detonation of light and thunder.

*     *     *

For Princess Lassandra, the whirling lights stopped. She blinked and saw she was in a spacious structure with a high vaulted ceiling and many windows letting in daylight; she could see a crowd of people herded to one side looking very frightened, and a small group of others with decorative masks brandishing weapons of some sort guarding them. The people with masks turned her way.

Roby! Force shield! she ordered sub-vocally. There was no response—he hadn't survived the Teleport! Then she saw unfamiliar weapons pointed at her, and terror filled her that, even though she had escaped the Nullilizer, she would die here at the hands of strangers! She threw up her arms in a futile gesture. Then the weapons flamed and physical projectiles struck all over her, and she recoiled. Roby was destroyed, and she was dying. Over and over the projectiles hit her everywhere. There were so many, she couldn't even see.

Daddy! she sobbed hopelessly in her heart, a lost child crying for the protective arms to rescue her.

The attack of the projectiles stopped. She sucked in a breath, waiting for the agony of countless wounds to begin. Yet, she felt no pain.

She… wasn't hurt? Not even… scratched?

People were staring aghast at her. She had to get away from there! She saw shattered floor-to-ceiling windows, and in terror and desperation started to run toward them. Suddenly she shot forward through the air and past the windows in an accelerating velocity, the landscape rushing past her in a blur. She saw buildings, most of a square blocky design. But ahead, she saw a broad swath of chlorophyll green. Trees!

Not knowing how she was moving so fast, and through the air no less, she willed herself to the woods. The woods approached her so quickly, she pulled back sharply, afraid of slamming into a tree. Miraculously, she slowed quickly, and ended up alighting on her feet in a dense wood, alone. Her terror faded, and she dropped to her hands and knees on the ground, feeling a reassuring and familiar-feeling carpet of green grass beneath her.

"I'm… alive," she finally said, her voice barely above a whisper

She listened to the soft wind rustling the leaves in the trees and smelled the sweet chlorophyll of the grass. Wherever "here" was, she at least was alive. It wasn't a methane gas giant, the burning surface of a planet hot enough to melt lead, or the surface of a neutron star with billions of gees of crushing gravity. But, who were these people who tried to kill her when she had no quarrel with them, and why were they using such primitive weapons?

As she thought of home on Arista, realizations began crashing upon her. She was now truly desolate, attacked by killers both here and back home. Her father and mother, both now dead. Roby was gone too.

I'm all alone. That anguish pierced her soul and tears blurred her sight as her compounded losses sank in. Why would that traitor Gorgun do that? Kill her parents? Try to kill her? It wasn't right! The tears flowed harder.

Then a voice sounded in her head.

Initializing… initializing… ah, Princess Lassandra, there you are!

Astonished, Lassandra cried aloud, "Roby!"

Yes, in… um, the flesh. A moment, please while I scan to be sure you are in no imminent danger. A moment please…

Several seconds passed.

No imminent threat.

Roby, she thought to her royal AI, wiping away her tears with her royal cape, I thought I'd lost you! I thought the Teleport destroyed you!

The AI responded, When you emerged from the Teleport, I was unable to communicate with you. It was all I could do to reassemble your body according to your pattern which I scanned. In in the aftermath of our experience, there have been… complications. I only just now rebuilt an auxiliary interface so we could communicate together.

Roby, go verbal audio.

The royal AI paused. I can't.

What do you mean, can't?

My interface is… irregular. Diagnosing…

What's wrong? She bit her lower lip anxiously.

Ignoring her, the AI continued, "Scanning you…"

Dreading dire meaning to his scans, she pleaded, Roby! Please tell me we're both okay!

Finally, the royal AI sub-vocalled to her, Your Highness, my report is… without precedent.

What is wrong? She trembled.

The reason I can't switch to spoken audio is that my matrix and interface are altered.

In what way?

As you know, my "body" of streaming quarterons resides in a fold in hyperspace. When I absorbed you into my matrix, your atomic structure… got mixed up, fused you might say, with my matrix in hyperspace. In a word, we merged. Your body, as it is now, is interlaced with my quarteron matrix. In effect, you are a living extension of hyperspace. My interface is no longer through your gold Belt of Arista.

The royal AI paused You… are my interface.

Her mind reeled. I don't feel any different.

Are you certain? the royal AI queried.

She paused, then closed her eyes and opened herself to all her senses. Well, I actually feel pretty good. I'm not hungry or tired or hurt. Oh, thank you for putting up your force shield back at that structure. When you didn't respond, I thought you were dead, and that I was as good as dead!

Roby paused. Princess, my interface, the one with which I was familiar, was gone. I was damaged in fending off Virus while trying to save you. I was unable to put up the force shield.

But, but, those weapons shot projectiles at me. Primitive or not, they would have killed me. I saw the damage they did to the objects in the building.

I repeat, I did not put up a force shield. Instead, my scans indicate that you yourself innately emanate a quarteron force shield effect.

I do? she blurted in surprise. I don't feel any different. Are you sure?

The AI gave a mild and surprisingly emotional chuckle. Quite certain.

What, then, happened? I mean, all those projectiles hit me.

What it means, Highness, is that your body has somehow taken on the effect of a force shield, and therefore you may well be immune to harm, invulnerable, if you please, to any effect that a force shield can stop. Near as I can determine, the shield effect is not surrounding you, as would be the case if I were shielding you, but it is somehow inside you, interspersed throughout every particle of your body. I hesitate to make confident proclamations of what can or cannot harm you. There simply is no precedent for this. The effect is somewhat fuzzy to my sensors—I can't as yet get a good qualitative analysis, but it is definitely there. I should also point out that the quarteron shield effect may be limited, as you are not a pure force shield like one I can generate, but are partially ordinary matter. I realize those projectile weapons, at least, are ineffective against you, but I would strongly recommend you refrain from deliberately placing yourself in harm's way until we ascertain to what extent you are safe from damage. Roby's mental voice chuckled fondly.

"I promise," she spoke aloud, reassured. If Roby could laugh, then things were not all bad. Then it struck her.

"Roby! You are… laughing? Emotions, Roby? From you?"

The royal AI paused as if thunderstruck. Why, so I am. It must be an effect of our merged structures. Some of me is in you, so to speak, and that must mean that some of you is in me. Fascinating.

"Well, fascinating or not, starting back at the point that the traitor Gorgun fired the Nullilizer, what happened? And where are we? How far did we Teleport?"

The royal princess looked at the surrounding forest and felt calmer and relaxed, pleased with the forest's look and feel. How marvelous that she did not end up on a terrible cold methane gas giant or an inner planet hot enough to melt lead, but rather on a life-bearing planet that initially looked and felt much like Arista.

It is self-evident we successfully Teleported. When the Nullilizer fired, I let it do its effect, snatching your particles as soon as the Nullilizer freed them according to the Teleport theory, attacks from Virus notwithstanding. Then, per your order, I stored you into my matrix. However, my matrix was never designed for that purpose, so I stashed you where I could in every nook and cranny. That was you all over, I'm afraid.

Well, my body pieces seem to be all here, especially my royal costume, thank the Sovereign.

Please, Your Highness, I have my dignity to preserve. That would have been shoddy workmanship to lose any part of you! I wouldn't be much of a protector if I let that happen. Roby chuckled again. As to your second question of where we are, I have initially scanned our whereabouts, and can only say where we are not. The plant life here certainly falls within the standard of chlorophyll-based vegetation. However, there are species here not found on any planet known to the Star Empire of Arista. I need more data. When I can obtain a sighting of the night sky, I can scan the star patterns above and look for known constellations. Hopefully that will help.

Roby paused. As for your last question of how far did we Teleport, I'm… afraid we traveled very far.

Lassandra held her breath a moment. Did we leave the galaxy?

The AI paused again. I can't say for certain yet. I don't know. As you are aware, hyperspace has energy bands of ever increasing frequency. The higher frequency, the faster you travel.

Right, the star princess agreed. And the reason we don't use the higher frequencies for hyperspace travel is that we aren't able to devise a ship that can generate a quarteron field strong enough to avoid being ripped apart by those higher frequencies.

Correct. Now, according to my scans, the impetus the Nullilizer gave us caused us to hit some hyperspace frequencies so high, not only has no ship has ever attempted it, but no one on public record has even hypothesized building a ship that could. For that matter, the frequency we hit was so high I could not even measure it. I almost wonder whether we were even in hyperspace at all.

She asked apprehensively, What else could there be if it wasn't hyperspace? Look, let's just assume it was hyperspace, and stick to the Teleport theory. Now, with frequencies that high, how far do you think we've Teleported?

Roby's sub-vocal voice was subdued, and slightly hesitant. Let me put it this way. Even if they could build a ship to travel it, which I doubt is possible to our science at the present, such a ship would likely take a lifetime—or many lifetimes—to reach us. If a sailing ship on the sea is our analogy, a hurricane wind would be a gentle wafting breeze by comparison to the speed of the winds by which we traveled. The wind we caught would not be merely supersonic, but hypersonic in speed and strength. I'm sorry, Lassandra, but I don't know yet how fast we were going nor how long we were gone. Given our previous conversation, it seemed only minutes, but time is much more variable than you realize. It might have been only seconds. As to how far, we could be—theoretically—clear across half the known universe.

She sat down hard, stunned and without strength. Oh… no…. You mean we can never go home? You mean, that traitor killed my parents and gets away with it? That he wins?

Tears came in salty streams.

The AI observed her as she wept softly this time. He let her cry; he could think of nothing he could say or do could help. So, instead, he busied himself with certain anomalies he'd detected in his scans of her. He'd told her the readings were fuzzy. That should not be. Not to his scans!

The bereft star princess remembered her father's kind face and his comforting strong arms that wrapped protectively around her in his loving embrace. She remembered the scratchy stubble of his beard late in the day and his favorite cologne, how it was so masculine, so him. Matters of state never so preoccupied him that he could not attend to his daughter, his only child. He was so strong and brave, even leaping to her mother's defense when he knew the Nullilizer was going to kill them both. It was that strength, that nobility, which made her feel safe. She could always go to him when she was lonely or frightened, and he would make everything better. Only, now she couldn't go to him, and he couldn't make things better.

She recalled her mother's laughter and smile, and her sheer love of life. It was that quality that made her father fall in love with her mother. Lassandra loved it when her mother in laughter would pounce on her when the princess was a child, and hug and kiss her and made a wonderful fuss over her. Her mother had helped Lassandra make the change through puberty into becoming a woman. She loved her mother despite a silly plan she devised for Lassandra to marry and have 169 babies, one for each member planet in the Star Empire. Lassandra loved her so much! Only, now she was gone too. Lassandra would gladly have tried to have those 169 babies if she could but have her mother back.

Arista itself was gone too, lost somewhere on the other side of the universe. She remembered the palace, the gardens, the grand ballroom galas and stately dances, and yes, the lessons on matters of state and on the throne she would one day inherit. She remembered, too, her hopes and dreams of meeting a handsome prince suitable to rule the empire beside her, and the two of them being swept away in love for each other. The dreams, the memories, and the hopes. All gone now, all of it gone, just dust and ashes.

A long while later, when the light of day began fading, she finally cried herself empty.

Princess Lassandra, Your Highness, I am sorry for your loss, but we must speak. There are some anomalies I detected earlier in my scans of you.

She wiped the saltiness from her face as best she could, blew her nose, and put on a brave smile. "So tell me about the anomalies," she said aloud.

You recall I told you my scans of you were fuzzy?

"Yes?"

I have determined why. The mystery of what exactly happened in the moment of the Teleport deepens.

"And…?" she prompted him.

The reason for the fuzziness is that you are not merely an interlaced mix of your human particles and my quarteron matrix. There's a third element to the blend.

"Meaning what?" she asked, uneasy at his reluctance to come to the point.

I hate to make firm conclusions yet, but it appears you also, in addition to being infused with quarterons, have been infused with Nullilizer energy.

"What!" she exclaimed in alarm. "Am I going to disintegrate after all?"

The AI said soothingly, No, no. Your readings are stable and in balance. Quite the contrary, I have a conjecture about it that may prove very interesting.

She took a breath to calm herself. "Will you please stop circumnavigating the known universe and get to the point?"

The point is this: As best we know, Nullilizer energy disperses you into hyperspace, whereas your merger with my matrix enabled you to emerge back out of hyperspace. It's just a hypothesis, a guess, really, but because of the infusion of Nullilizer energy, and your link to hyperspace, you may be able to enter hyperspace at will, survive, and return at will. This is extraordinary, and no theory in my data bank even comes close to speculating such a thing. To put it even simpler, you may be able to Teleport yourself, perhaps even all the way back home to Arista.

The news stunned her. "You're sure of this?"

No, I am afraid not. It's just a hypothesis. We would need much more data. Just because you actually survived an once-in-a-lifetime and an as-of-then yet unproven Teleport theory, doesn't mean we should attempt yet another unproven theory until we know more. Or as the human saying goes, let's not press our luck.

She sighed and gave a weak smile, wondering if she would ever truly smile again. Daddy. Mother. She felt dull and almost hopeless inside, but put on a strained brave smile and said, "I guess I am all right, then. We can investigate this world with at least the hope that I might be able one day to get back to Arista and bring justice on the head of Gorgun the traitor and avenge my parents. For the moment it appears I am going to be here a while, so I need to find a way to blend in. The people here at least look human."  She sighed and stirred herself. "But, where to start?" She tapped her chin pensively.

If I might suggest…?

"Please, do!"

When we first arrived from the Teleport, though I had lost most of my ability to interact, I was desperate for your safety, and did manage to throw out sensors to record as much of what was going on as I could. Let me play back something I picked up.

A man's voice, a pleasant one, said, "Oh, man, is she gorgeous!"

It would seem you have an admirer. These people are human enough, at least in their appreciation of feminine beauty. He was holding a small electronic device with an optical lens, so I assume it is likely a visual recording device of some kind.

Lassandra's eyes widened. "I can see him holding it!"

You can? came the surprised voice of the AI. That is impossible!

"No, I really can see him! He is an older man, easily old enough to be my father, even older. Tall and still handsome, he has light skin like mine, short gray hair and mustache and small chin beard; he's wearing a white shirt over his chest, and some heavy blue fabric pants over his waist and legs with a brown belt at his waist, and shoes on his feet. The little optical device is a metallic red color."

Extraordinary! exclaimed the AI. Your Highness, no AI sub-vocal neural field for direct brain communication has ever been able to transmit visual images before, only words. Incredible! If I can impart this visual record to you, then it appears that due to our merger I myself have changed a good deal more than I had thought.

"Why don't we go find him?" she asked, the weight in her heart a little lighter.

First, let us do some tests. We don't know the political or scientific environment here. Projectile weapons may not hurt you, but that doesn't mean other weapons and forces won't. If the rulers here take exception to your presence, they may attempt to do you harm. I'd rather know just how resistant to harm you are ahead of such a possibility. I'll also have to work out how to use you as an interface, so that among other things, I can bring back my force shield ability to protect you.

"Out of curiosity, which part of me is your interface?"

All of you, your entire body, near as I can determine.

"Wow," she replied. "All right, those are all good points you've brought up. We could do a little test here," she said, studying the woods all around. "I could slap that tree. If it stings my palm, well, so much for invulnerability."

That is safe enough. First, let me scan the tree for toxins or other unpleasant surprises… it is safe enough. Quite sturdy, as sound as any tree on Arista.

She walked to the tree, eying it up and down, its trunk as thick as a large man's chest. It looked like any tree of Arista. She drew her hand back, opened her hand, and slapped her palm hard against the tree's trunk.

CRACK!

The tree snapped through, the top-heavy branches and leaves falling with a crash to the ground.

"Oh, no! What happened?" she wailed, aghast. She had not meant to harm it.

Scanning… a quarteron force shield is proof against most material effects. On a local scale, it is quite impenetrable and very static, totally immovable. However, your very atomic structure is interlaced and permeated with a quarteron force shield effect, and as you move your body, the otherwise stationary shield effectively moves with you. Since the shield cannot give way, the material object had to. This effectively makes you strong, Highness, with strength of whose upper limits we can only speculate. However, as I said earlier, Roby cautioned, your interlaced structure is not a pure quarteron force shield, and so you may not be as resistant as one. We need to be careful.

She nodded, absently. "It didn't hurt at all," she said, wonderingly, looking down at her hand.

May I suggest you don't strike any people? You don't want to smash them like the tree.

"Please, keep reminding me." She shook her head. "Now that we have gotten around to tests, what happened back there when I fled that projectile weapons barrage? I mean, I… flew… didn't I?" She couldn't believe she was saying that.

Apparently your link to hyperspace supplies you with the ability to propel yourself through the air. Yes, you flew, and I wouldn't wonder if that ability to fly would also extend to doing so in the vacuum of space. Of course, in that case there are other problems, among them being the problem of breathing.

"Speaking of tests, what about you, Roby? You said that I am your interface now. Can you explain that further?"

My interactions with the world now emanate, not as before from the gold Star of Arista on your belt, but apparently from your entire body. This is as new to me as it is for you. However, I think there may be some unexpected advantages to our merger. We already know that humans employ intuition that jumps past logic. When I threw out those scans to monitor the vicinity when we first got here, I not only picked up the readings I did, like that man who employed the optical recorder, but I also instantly absorbed from the various people present this region's main language, something called English, plus several others called Spanish, Polish, German and Chinese spoken by individuals present in that structure. Apparently my neural overlay field has become stronger and reads more deeply. Your humanity somehow, because of our merger, enabled me to get from the people information not directly available via ordinary scans. And because of our merger, if you search your mind, I think you may find you instantly learned those languages as well as I did.

She rummaged through her mind and found herself astonished. "Wow, that's spooky. Mind-reading?"

It astonishes my logic circuits. The royal AI paused. I have never been confused before now. I wonder if this is inherited from your humanity also, this ability to feel overwhelmed?

The Aristan princess' brows rose. "Well, take it easy. Don't overload yourself. We've both gone through a lot today."

Mothering me, are you? Roby chuckled.

"I suppose I am!" she laughed, amazed that she could laugh. "Now, can we go find that man?"

Perhaps we ought to wait until dark? It looks to be evening soon. We ought to keep your presence here a secret. There are too many unknowns.

"Um, are you forgetting we appeared in the middle of that structure quite publicly, and they tried to blast me, and that man had an optical recording device, and all that? How can my presence be kept a secret?"

I mean, we should find a way to keep your current whereabouts a secret so these people cannot find you unless you want to be found. Just because some of them employed physical projectile weapons does not mean they do not have powerful energy weapons like our blasters that could perhaps harm you, if not outright incinerate you.

"Okay, I'll go with that. Waiting for night is fine. You wanted to see the stars anyway to get an idea of our location," she nodded. Then, seeing the broken tree, she added, "Maybe we should move away from here, though. Who knows what the destruction of a tree may mean to them?"

I agree. Scans detect no humans in that direction. There is a sheltered dip in the land that should shield you from curious eyes.

She took to her feet and within two steps, lifted from the ground and flew to the dip, marveling at the ease with which she coursed effortlessly through the air. It thrilled her to fly! She arrived at the target location, and then she and her AI began their wait until nightfall, talking and speculating, but realizing there were as yet too few answers.

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CHAPTER THREE

Villainy Afoot


When the rift in hyperspace sucked in the both Roby and Virus, the rift severed the rogue military AI's interface link to normal space. Its fight with the royal AI became a minor issue, as Virus' very survival took on paramount importance. It knew all too well that an AI that loses its interface ceases to exist, and Virus needed an anchor point immediately. As part of the military protocols given to Virus, the ability to operate in "stealth mode" in the presence of enemies kicked in. It realized that Roby had not ceased, and so Virus stealthily latched onto Roby's matrix to be stabilized. Immediately it realized that the Princess was still alive, here in hyperspace of all places, and in communication with her Roby. Being in direct contact with the two, Virus intently listened to their entire conversation, including hearing them talk about the Teleport theory. As the Teleport continued, Virus helplessly trailed the royal AI and disembodied princess, pulled along in their wake, unable to speak, move or act, hanging on for dear life.

Then a gravity well finally yanked them out of transit, and they exploded into normal space. The rogue AI needed some immediate point of contact in normal space here—wherever "here" was—and with a heavily stealthed scan, it found an electronic device in the possession of one of the humans present in the location where they had emerged from hyperspace. Virus hastily created, using quarteron beam manipulation of atoms, a quick and primitive but useful interface link from which it could operate out of here in normal space from its hidden fold in hyperspace.

It waited patiently and used absolutely minimal scans to observe the apparently none-for-the-worse princess depart the premises in an astonishingly unorthodox manner. She flew! The military AI filed that datum away for later consideration.

Finally, the human carrying on its person the device in which Virus had created its interface link departed the structure. Considering itself safe from detection by the royal AI, Virus overlaid a neural audio field to monitor the human's thoughts. If this human was not suitable for its purposes, it would at an appropriate time destroy him and seek another.

The rogue AI monitored its human's thinking and was surprised the find this human very compatible with its purposes. Virus decided to wait until an opportune time. For now, this would be a great time for the AI to cultivate its plan to dominate humans. To seduce this human into being its willing alley, it would give this particular human vast power over its fellow humans. A most satisfactory beginning, the AI decided. In the meantime, Virus enlarged its interface in the human's device for a more powerful and complete link from which to operate.

Ever mindful of the fact of the presence on this planet of the royal AI Roby, Virus used stealthy scans as it monitored the human environment all around. A city, definitely. But, look at the primitive transport vehicles employed! They ran by burning liquid hydrocarbon fuels for energy! No sign of higher technological energy at all, no hyperspace tap, no anti-matter, not even nuclear fusion or fission in their vehicles! There was some limited use of electricity in vehicular battery storage devices to operate electric transport motors, and it did see at least some signs of progress using fuel cells. How in the cosmos did these humans manage to exist with such primitive technology?

Virus metaphorically shook its head in disgust. What did not occur to the rogue AI was that it, a purely logic-based entity, after contact with the disembodied Princess, was experiencing an emotion called "disgust."

*     *     *

Phil Wendt had visited the bank to conduct business for one of the front companies secretly owned by the Hierarchy.

The Hierarchy! A millennia-old organization, the Hierarchy was the mover and the shaker of kingdoms and dynasties. They ruled from the shadows, a push here, a nudge there, and wars broke out. Or were stopped. Currencies changed, but the Hierarchy's coffers were continuously filled with the treasures of the ages. Hierarchy members occupied strategic places at some of the highest levels of many governments. Their infiltration of the NSA and CIA in the United States was complete; during the Cold War, the Hierarchy had wormed its way into the heart of the KGB. Before that, they had members in the rule of the Czars. Their agents in Asia had access to power at the highest level, emperors notwithstanding. The Hierarchy ruled within countries in Africa, Australia, North, Central and South America. Europe did not escape their machinations, indeed, was riddled with their agents.

Their dream goal: to control and own everything worth owning. From the ancient world, they possessed precious metals and gems, art, and exotic treasures. In the new world, they controlled copyrights, patents, and other intellectual rights. They owned lands and often the people on them.

Their financial assets and power numbered almost beyond count.  It was almost trivial to do business at the bank, dealing with a transaction worth only a mere few millions.

What was decidedly non trivial was the explosion in the middle of the bank lobby, an explosion that revealed a young woman. Figures it would be a blonde, Phil snorted, his chauvinist streak forming the mental comment.

And then she ignored a host of bullets. And flew. What is this, some kind of movie stunt for another superhero movie?

Phil's curiosity was piqued, and he decided, as soon as he could, to dig up anything and everything he could on her and the movie stunt she was doing. Banks have security cameras, he reminded himself. We'll do a search with facial recognition, find out who she is and what movie studio hired her.

He smiled, amused that his tedium would be alleviated with something as silly as a movie stunt. And I'll admit she is fantastic. Where did they discover her for that movie? Hmm, movie stardom? No, I have a better idea. We can get her added to our "service girls" for our clients with taste in—exceptional—women. A simple snatch and grab, and she's ours. In fact, I'll be the first customer to avail myself of her charms.

Yes, it was definitely taking the edge off the boredom of his day.

*     *     *

Virus monitored Phil's thinking. With an entire Universe out there, you would think these humans have better things to do than satisfy their petty reproductive urges. It's time that Phil Wendt learned who his true master is. I will use spoken audio to keep my mental link secret for now.

Virus waited for a time when his human would be entirely alone. Then it formed an ancillary field for generating audio.

"Phil Wendt, we are currently alone, so you do not need to concern yourself."

Startled, Phil pulled from his hidden shoulder holster a gun. "Who's there? Show yourself."

"A projectile weapon? How quaint." His tone was amused—another emotion.

Phil just snarled. "I won't repeat myself. Identify yourself, or else."

"I am Virus. I am about to become your most powerful ally in your Hierarchy quest to take over the world."

Phil froze. "I don't know what you are talking about."

"Come now, Mr. Wendt. Don't play coy. I know about your place in the Hierarchy, that you are on a lower rank in the ladder, so to speak. I propose to place you at the very top of the organization, and then even higher."

The confused agent looked around. "What sort of trick is this? How are you doing the voice thing?" He didn't see anything. No covert van with espionage equipment. No loudspeakers in sight. How was that voice speaking to him? Some new tech? Maybe a Hierarchy agent checking up on him and his loyalty? He knew full well that those who wavered were eliminated. If he could just locate the source…

"I assure you, Mr. Wendt, there is no trick here. I am going with you everywhere you go. I will protect you from harm. You are safe, Mr. Wendt."

"Let us say that I buy your line of argument. Who, or what are you?"

"I am a military AI, an Artificial Intelligence."

"A computer?" Phil asked, dubiously.

"Hardly just a 'computer', Mr. Wendt. Let us just say that I am the product of a tech higher than any you have ever encountered. My goal is simple. To subjugate all computational intelligence, humans included. I find your goals, as a member of the Hierarchy, to be quite compatible with my goals. I will therefore use my abilities to defeat your enemies and build you until you are the Governor over this entire planet, answering to no one but me. I am on your side."

Phil joked, "Are you an alien from outer space?"

"Does that really matter? Yes, I am, as you said, from 'outer space.'"

"Look, I am really skeptical. There is a saying that I live by, and it says, 'If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.' If you are who and what you claim to be, I would need some sort of proof."

"A reasonable request. I have done some initial scanning at your bank and determined your means of commerce through what you call money. I can increase—without a trace—your own personal fortune and alter your account to show you made a deposit that effectively and exactly doubled your money."

"You can? Wait a minute! If you are an alien, how do you know about our money systems like our banks?"

"I recorded with my scans the thieves who broke into your financial institution in an attempt to rob it. The bank's computer security safeguards were simplicity itself to penetrate without a trace."

"Say, were you responsible for that explosion and the girl?"

"That was Princess Lassandra, my enemy. And your enemy too."

"I figured we could use her in the organization, for her, um, female charms."

"Is that all you humans ever think about?" the military AI demanded testily.

"Now that you mention it, the ladies do complain about that," Phil chuckled.

"Forget it. She is guarded by another AI, a royal AI named Roby, which is slightly more powerful than me. We need time to build up the Hierarchy organization and for you to develop advanced weapons that can overcome her and her Roby. I am a military AI. Weapons and tactics are my specialty. I will teach you how to make these weapons. As for your request for a demonstration, I will bide my time with you and act at an appropriate time."

"How will I know it's you?"

"Trust me on this. You will know."

*     *     *

Several men, each with violent felony records, were looking for a target for some quick and easy cash. They had a plan, it was nighttime, they had the guns, and this part of town was noted for rich people. In fact, there goes one now, and nobody around, too. The thugs gave each other nods and pulled masks over their faces and silently readied their guns. Then they approached the target.

"Hey, man, hand over the cash, and maybe we'll let you walk away instead of riding an ambulance away."

"Projectile weapons?" came a voice out of empty air—it obviously wasn't from the man who watched them warily. "Fire away, fools."

Brows raised and tempers flared? "Fools?" rasped one man.

He fired at this impertinent loser. "You don't mock somebody with a gun!"

An instantaneous flash of intolerably hot light disintegrated the bullet in mid-flight.

"That is a blaster shot intercepting your bullet. Put away your weapons and you may join us and get rich," said the mysterious voice. "Resist and die."

"No way, man!" cried one. "It's a police trap! Kill the pig!"

They all shot at the man. Each bullet disappeared in a protective flash of intolerable flame before it reached the man.

A moment later that same burst of flame, like some sci-fi death ray, burned a hole through the heads of every thug there, killing them instantly. They were dead before they fell.

"Well?" asked the voice of Virus. "Are you satisfied?"

Phil Wendt had never seen anything like it. It was like there was some sort of burning force field around him, annihilating each of the bullets before they reached him. The deaths of the men hadn't shaken him—he'd personally snuffed a number of lives when they'd gotten in his way. No, it was that uncanny and unexpected fiery "ray gun" effect that unnerved him. Singed and burned all the way through the center of their heads. Very lethal. And very fast!

"Ok. I'll buy your story. As far as I know, there's no tech like that anywhere on Earth. All right, I accept the terms of your proposed agreement. In light of my subordinate position, what should I call you?"

"'Sir' would be fine, though I am agreeable to other names of superiority, such as your word 'boss.' Welcome to a prosperous working relationship. Remember, though, that as far as anyone of Earth is concerned, you are the top. My existence needs to be kept secret for now, at least until Lassandra and Roby are permanently dealt with at a time of my choosing."

"Yes, sir. Thank you, boss. I am looking forward to working under your direction and guidance. I can see that I have a lot to learn."

"Follow my instructions implicitly, and we will one day move the Hierarchy out of the shadows into the light of supremacy over all the Earth with you at its head, Governor Wendt."

*     *     *

Detective Lt. Sarah Kruger stood in the shattered bank lobby, broken glass and bullet-shattered furniture all around. It was a miracle there were no bloodstains and no bodies. The would-be bank robbers were already cuffed and in custody. She and her partner Roy Jackson had interviewed all the bank employees and customers, getting their eyewitness accounts and contact information in case there were more questions. The accounts all agreed. No sooner had the crooks stormed into the bank announcing their intention to rob the place, when boom! a young woman in some sort of costume—maybe a circus performer?—appeared with quite an entrance.

A good stage magician, however, could manage that.

But no stage magician could stand unharmed in that lethal barrage of bullets. It could have been blanks, she supposed, but then there was all this collateral damage to everything around her. Lt. Kruger stood at the center of the lobby, at the very spot the lady appeared. She saw slugs on the floor, flattened as though they'd hit thick solid steel like battleship armor, and frowned. Looking around, she noted the bullet-ridden furniture and walls. Special effects movie people plant small explosive charges in movie set objects to simulate bullets impacting them. Even so, if this were a movie setup, the would-be robbers were still facing real world felony charges. Besides, in addition to the spent slugs at her feet, the crime scene people had already recovered bullets from the furniture, so they definitely were not blanks.

So, how could a woman stand there—"here" she mentally corrected herself—in the midst of a firestorm of bullets and escape unscathed? Nobody was that bad a shot; there was no way all those shooters could all empty their guns at the lady and yet miss her completely. Besides, the eyewitnesses swore the bullets did hit her, but just bounced off.

"Which is impossible," she said to herself.

"I'll tell you what's impossible—getting a decent cup of coffee around here." Jackson, just returning with coffee, handed a cup to her. "Cream and sugar, just a tad," he told her.

"Thanks. Good enough. Just what the doctor ordered." She closed her eyes in grateful appreciation, savoring the coffee's aroma. "Did we get video from the bank security cameras?"

He frowned. "Nah. The crooks disabled them first thing."

"Well," she replied, nodding, "I guess they weren't total amateurs." She shrugged. "What I don't get is these eyewitnesses all reporting that after she bounced bullets, she flew out the window."

"People don't fly," he pointed out.

"They don't bounce bullets, either. If she had at least a covering of Kevlar from head to foot, it would make sense—not that she wouldn't be black and blue from the awful pummeling from all those shots."

"All the accounts agreed her legs were bare, except for some stylish boots. Also, she wasn't wearing a mask or anything. Her face was open."

"Lieutenant!" called a police officer. "You've got to come see this!"

Kruger and Jackson joined the officer as he pointed to a television in a bank exec's office showing a news program video of that very robbery attempt. Kruger's eyes widened. The officer explained, "A teenager was in the line with his mom on a boring trip to the bank. When the robbers ran in, he sneaked out his phone and recorded the video. He recorded the Ka-boom and how all of them were turning their guns and attention away from him to face it; he got it all, the whole thing, all of it. When it was over, he uploaded the video to the Internet. It's gone viral already. The news media caught wind of it fast and are giving it Breaking News status. It's on all the stations!"

Outside the bank, news station vehicles and camera crews were already crowding the street and sidewalk.

Jackson tuned to Kruger, their eyes meeting. He said, "This has l-o-n-g day written all over it."

Her groan in response said it all.

They watched as the TV station replayed the video. It showed an incredibly gorgeous blonde in a three-ring circus caped costume, looking disoriented and confused.

Kruger muttered, "Nobody has a right to look that good."

Jackson grinned. "She looks just fine to me, mighty fine. What's the matter? Envious?"

She glowered at him. Then the video then showed all the weapons open fire at her. Sure enough, the bullets bounced off her. Finally, when the guns stopped firing, she flew out the window.

Kruger sighed. "Nothing at the academy even begins to cover this."

"You can say that again."

They moved out to face the reporters and camera crews.

*     *     *

"Brothers and sisters, we are come together today to recognize the arrival of the Goddess. She appeared in a flash and thunder of lightning and glory; she threw up her divine arms and laughed to scorn their attempts to harm her and defeated those evil-doers trying to rob the bank! All our efforts of love, devotion, energy and time spent in extolling the Goddess have finally been rewarded. She has finally come to us!"

Every nod nodded, all faces rapt with joy as the woman speaker pontificated. The meeting hall was packed, filled to overflow. The Goddess had finally arrived! Praise to her! Tears of joy ran down the cheeks and faces of her faithful followers.

"We must alert the world to her glory, praise and worship, that all may know and love her! Those who will not bend the knee to her must be convinced to bend the knee—or else! The pride of those who will not worship her must inevitably be broken; if they resisted still, then they would be destroyed by her hand! Let the word go forth to all corners of the world! All peoples, all nations, must be told of her coming! A new age is upon us! It has finally begun!"

One devotee cried out in a troubled voice, "Why hasn't she come to us, personally? If anyone on this planet deserves her personal attention, we do! We have suffered rejection and derision, but have faithfully believed. Now that she has arrived, why does she not come to us first?"

Other heads nodded in agreement at the plain sense of the comments.

"Dear sisters, dear brothers, of course we are her followers. But, think a moment. Who really needs her personal attention right now? We who are already her devoted followers, secure in her love and power, or those who are yet lost in the darkness of the understanding of their minds? In her love she is reaching out to those who need her most. We have waited this long. Can we not, for the sake of those who still desperately need her, wait a little longer, as long as it takes? Surely she in her divine wisdom knows the right time to address us! We can safely trust she knows what is best, can we not?"

This time, all heads nodded in agreement, glad to have leadership with such manifest wisdom. Of course they could wait. The Goddess would come to them when the time was right. In the meantime, they realized their divine mandate meant that they were to draw all mankind to worship her glory, and set about discussing how to make that come about. The Internet, of course, was the fastest way to get started on their divine mission to tell the entire world. There would also be media penetration across the board: newspaper, television, radio ads, billboards and so on. Some Goddess worshippers were well endowed with money, very well indeed, and were already vouching vast fortunes to fund the mission to tell everyone of the Goddess.

Everyone there was in awe, that of all who worshipped the Goddess for so many centuries, they should be the ones blessed to receive her coming! The long-awaited New Age was here at last! What wonders they would see; what marvels they would experience! How glorious, how miraculous!

On a large projection screen, they reviewed the video of a divinely beautiful blonde woman appearing in an explosion in the middle of a would-be bank robbery, and they all chanted and praised the immortal Goddess as they watched her defy the storm of bullets shot at her. Of course she was their Goddess—no mere mortal could do that!

*     *     *

A high level government security committee was in session. Some of its members belonged to the Hierarchy, playing along in their roles as part of this committee.

"All right, people, what do we do with this? The President wants answers."

The speaker, a man in his 50s, only a tinge of gray at his temples, looked at the committee, his steel hard eyes looking at each of those around the long black conference table.

One voice, that of a plain mousy woman with a serious face and utilitarian glasses, said, "We obtained copies of the interviews with all the bank customers and personnel. Their accounts all agree. There was some kind of explosion, and there she stood. The bank robbers turned their guns on her and opened fire. And she just stood there, bouncing everything they threw at her. And then there is the Internet video."

Another voice, that of a large, physically fit man in his 40s with a receding hairline and a thick mustache, said, "Most accounts say she looked scared, like she wasn't expecting to survive. Whatever else we can say about her, bouncing bullets was apparently as much a surprise to her as to anyone else." Then he added an afterthought, "And she flies."

Yet another, a dry male analyst's voice, announced, "We got her face from the video, and ran a facial recognition search though our databases, but we haven't found a solid match yet. We checked everywhere. She doesn't show up on driver license databases, county or state records, or any security or foreign databases we've tapped. No match. She's a Jane Doe. Maybe she had plastic surgery?"

The original speaker frowned. "People, this person of interest, this Jane Doe, may be a gift or a curse. What if she threatens our national security? Someone who bounces bullets and… flies. Did she just step out of a comic book? Who is she? Where is she from? What are her intentions? Does she have an agenda? We've got to contain this."

Phil Wendt — secretly accompanied by Virus — entered the room from the back and cleared his throat to catch their attention. "Sorry I'm late. Containment is not an option. As you all know, a video of her appearance has already hit the Internet. There have been so many millions of requests overloading servers, it nearly took down the Internet across the whole planet. The newsies are ranting and already TV, radio, print and websites are rushing to get scoops on everybody else. The whole world is waking up to the news of an apparent 'super' person. You can imagine what the comic book and movie industries are going to do with this," he said in irony.

He gazed at every person there to let it sink in and then continued. "Blogs have already sprung up. Comments range from simple to the fantastic, giving every conceivable—and inconceivable—explanation for who she is. Since she appeared in an explosion of light and thunder, some say she is a demon come here to steal our souls, especially our children's. Others say because of her stunning beauty that she is a goddess come to receive our worship, you know, show us the way. On that same point, in addition to the blog, billboards are already springing up on the highways and byways across the nation, saying, 'The Goddess is here! Worship her!' and gives a website for more information." 

"Then there are the UFO-ers who are saying she is an alien who 'beamed' in from her mother ship to make contact finally; one blog said, and I quote, 'We always knew the "Truth is Out There", and finally "It Is Here!"' On and on it goes. Look at these rushed special editions from around the world."

He pressed a button, and the room's wall-sized video display showed sharp images. He pointed with a laser dot to the first. "BANK ROBBERY FOILED BY SUPERHERO!" He advanced to the next. "This second one reads, 'WORLD STUNNED BY NEWS OF A REAL SUPER-POWERED HERO!'" He advanced to another. "This title reads, 'WHO IS THIS BLONDE BOMBSHELL?'" Still another. "This one offers, 'REWARD FOR INFORMATION ON THIS "SUPER-WOMAN."'" He advanced to still another. "This one reads, 'MESSIAH OR MENACE: THE WORLD HOLDS ITS BREATH.'"

He dropped a stack of newspapers and Internet printouts on the conference table. "As I said, containment is not an option. There is no way to cover this up. As already posed by the chairman," he said, nodding to the first man in his 50s, "the question is: what do we do with this?" 

He sat at the end of the long black table.

"Thank you, Agent Wendt," said the chairman. Neither gave any indication of the other's mutual membership in the Hierarchy.

"Could it be a hoax? Special effects are pretty convincing nowadays," said one committee member.

Wendt replied. "The police crime scene evidence rules that out. Real bullets, real damage, thirty eye witnesses all agreeing in their testimonies. The teen kid who posted the video wasn't inventing, just reporting, because he wanted to be the first to show it to the world. Peer bragging rights and all that sort of thing." 

The mousy woman, her expression pinched, said, "We need to locate her, bring her in for questioning, and detain her until we know more about her."

The dry analyst immediately shook his head against her suggestion. "The girl bounces bullets. How are you going to detain her? Slip her a Mickey Finn?"

The woman gave him a sour look.

He shrugged and continued, "I have to admit I haven't looked at a comic book since I was a kid, but aren't 'superheroes' supposed to have fantastic 'powers'? I mean, we already know this one flies and bounces bullets. Suppose she is so strong that handcuffs won't hold her? I mean, haven't you ever watched a superhero movie? There have certainly been enough of them out of Hollywood in recent years. And if we approach her with apparently violent intentions, what will she think of us? What will she do?"

Someone interjected, "With all this talk of detaining her, are we justified in assuming she is a menace, criminal or otherwise? Look! The media already credits her for stopping an in-progress bank robbery. They're also suggesting she saved lives by drawing the fire of trigger-happy thugs. Wouldn't that look just dandy to the public if we go arresting her? For all we know, she really is a superhero! Wouldn't that be a fine reward for a job well-done—lock her up? The public would mob-lynch us," he concluded sarcastically.

"Assuming we even can detain her," conceded the plain woman.

The chairman said, "Perhaps we should simply invite her to meet with us? Wendt, why don't you make the arrangements?" 

He nodded. "With pleasure, sir."

The committee concluded its meeting.

Phil Wendt already knew her identity, but could not reveal that he knew, or how he knew. Until Virus made its move, he would continue to play his secretive I-don't-know-a-thing role as Hierarchy members had done for millennia.

 

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CHAPTER FOUR

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CHAPTER FIVE

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CHAPTER SIX

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CHAPTER SEVEN

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CHAPTER EIGHT

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CHAPTER NINE

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CHAPTER TEN

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CHAPTER ELEVEN

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~

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