The Empire – Enemies Unite
“Well, well, well, look at who decided to grace us with his presence. If it isn’t our former Tech Commander.” The hostility rolled in waves towards Adrian the moment he entered the Science Lab.
The speaker, a man with an arrogant air and a perpetually tanned face, was a familiar figure to Adrian. He wore a white knee-length lab coat with a swirling science emblem like his. The Tech Commander markings were new and nearly made Adrian’s lips curl in sarcasm, but he maintained a blank expression.
Alan Kegan was a dangerous little sycophant with no talent, ordinary intelligence and a disgusting ability to do ‘favors’ for those who hid his ineptitude and advanced his career. If his family had not been rich and had the right political connections, he would have spent his life in the junior ranks. A spoiled, vicious, nasty product of his class; the youngest son only marking time until he inherited his family’s fortune. Adrian had detested him the moment he set eyes on him. The toad appeared to have come up considerably in the Empire food chain. Kegan had been a simple lab tech—one who required constant supervision—on the Neutron Wave Project.
Pain piercedAdrian’s head again and he gritted his teeth in annoyance, but otherwise he remained stony-faced.
Kegan came up to him, toe-to-toe and a nose shorter. A few lab-coated scientists and gray-jumpsuited techs were working around the room but they kept their heads down, hoping to stay out of the line of fire.
“Professor Stannis.” Kegan spat outAdrian’s name and his nose flared. “You nearly ruined my career with that little stunt of yours. To think I admired you once. But things are different now. I’m in charge.”
“Are you really?”Adrian’s voice was acid on unprotected ears.
“You think you’re smart but who’s laughing now? All I need to do is tell the Admiral you’re not cooperating. Then what do you think will happen?”
Adrian’s lips lifted in a snarl and his eyes were penetrating, a blade of ice poised to strike. “What do you think will happen to you if this project doesn’t produce results? I doubt if the Admiral is a patient man and you are the Tech Commander. Push me too hard and I will bring you down with me.”
“Is that a threat?” Kegan’s face was so close, Adrian saw the individual hairs of the stubble on the man’s cheek and his hot breath carried the smell of coffee with too much sugar.
“I do not issue threats, only inescapable facts.”
“I can make your life very uncomfortable.”
Adrian tilted his head slightly, his eyes full of insolence, but he didn’t say anything. He didn’t need to.
“I’m the Tech Commander,” said Kegan, his voice rising.
“Are you trying to convince me, or yourself?”
Kegan’s tone abruptly changed. He became friendly and his eyes were sly. “If you do well, I could see to making things a bit more pleasant for you. The Admiral and I are close.”
Adriansnorted in derision, thinking the Admiral had very little taste and even less in brains. “So that’s how you received a promotion you are supremely unqualified for.”
“You’ll pay for that.” Kegan’s eyes flashed murderously.
“If you’ve finished this charade, I’d like to start work.”
Kegan picked up a large screened datapad and threw it at him. “Here! Phase One. You remember it don’t you? The one I was working on?”
With reflexes still dulled by his ordeal, Adrian nearly dropped the pad. “You mean the one you botched and I was brought in to fix?”
“Well then you should be able to do it faster, won’t you? You have one month.”
“That’s impossible,”Adriangripped the pad tightly, the only outward sign of his growing anger, “Phase One took—”
“I know how long it took.” Kegan stepped too close again. Adriandecided that sugar in coffee was disgusting and he would never have that combination again.
The insipid man continued, “I told the Admiral you would be able to complete it in a month. He likes fast results and I intend to give it to him.”
“You’re a fool. It took two years to generate the right compression wave.”
“Yes, but we know how to do it now, don’t we?” A rankly sweet smell punctuated every sentence as Kegan tried to intimidate, his shorter frame accentuated by hands placed on his hips. “I must hand it to you, Stannis. You made sure you were the only one who understood the whole thing. The rest of us looked like idiots after they found out what you’d done. None of us could reproduce the results.”
Adriangave a cynical laugh, a corner of his lips curling in disdain. “You tried?”
“Fat lot of good it did. A whole year wasted and we couldn’t get past Phase One. Then they decided to bring you back in.” Kegan paced, circling Adrian, treating him like a caged animal. “Some people wanted to have you executed. Did they tell you?”
So the Sedener had been an illusion, thoughtAdrian. No one believed he was just a failed researcher, an embarrassment who needed to be put out of the way. In reality, they had given him a long leash and reeled him in when they found him useful again.
Kegan sneered, smelling success. “How does it feel to know the truth?”
“Do you think death scares me?” The answer was cold, a man with a foot in an icy tomb.
An archly cynical female voice said from behind him, “Adrianisn’t afraid of death.”
Adrian’s back stiffened as the woman’s voice chilled the room, and there was another stab of pain in his head.
“He’s only afraid of life. Isn’t that right?”
Without turning to look at her, Adrian already imagined the steely black pupils and jet-black hair in his mind’s memory. There was no reaction in his voice, only a passive acknowledgement of her arrival. “Professor Boudreaux.”
“We weren’t that formal with each other once upon a time.” She came around to face him, another figure in a white lab coat but one possessed of an icy beauty, almost like a colder, female version of him. Her coat was pristine, with no markings, designating her as a civilian.
Tamara Boudreaux was a brilliant woman in the field of Wave Dynamics. A ruthless, ambitious climber. They had got on well and the sparks between them had provided for some spirited discussions. Adrianalways appreciated intelligent people who didn’t waste his time.
His eyes locked on hers, their past relationship seemed like yesterday and her face was as he remembered; her ice-chiseled features, the high cheekbones that most models would be envious of, her lush dripping-red lips, and the eyes that mesmerized. He said, “Times have changed.”
“So I’ve noticed.” She ran a finger along his collar, a teasing motion that stirred old urges as he stood, a man needing to be a statue. “You haven’t changed.” Her chuckle sent ripples of excitement and apprehension down his spine.
His teeth clenched. The time with the Therapists was too close and Boudreaux was too much; she had always been too much. His mind was in chaos, a confusion of revulsion and old desires.
“We’re working together?” He kicked himself for such an obvious question. His mind was no longer working at full capacity; control was slipping through his fingers.
“Does that displease you? Or make you uncomfortable? I hope it does you bastard.” Her eyes flashed with fury. “You nearly destroyed my career until they found out what you did.”
“I warned you to leave.”
“Yes, but you didn’t tell me why!”
“Then you’re after revenge?” He wondered how many in this room had the same agenda.
“I will get my revenge one way or another.” She came close, her voice an icy whisper only the two of them heard. “I’m not a fool like Kegan. I know how to make you squirm.” Her voice was seductive in its menace. “You have a consort now, don’t you?”
“No,”Adrian reacted before he could control himself. His heart was racing.
Boudreaux took a step back, with a satisfied smile that was far from her eyes. “You should never have crossed me, Adrian. I’m not a good enemy to have.”
“Do we plan to start Phase One today?”Adriansaid grimly, his mask back in place. “Or would you like to save time and tell the Admiral we’ve already failed to meet the target?”