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Apex Predators

It was small and out of the way, one of those kitschy eateries that tried after the aesthetic of a bygone age. The theme was Americana, and both the menu and decor were trying to take the diner back to when that word meant something, back when a place in Old Sol had been known for checkered tile floors, stiff coffee, and breakfasts that required three different animals to create. The last was the reason Montauk spent every morning there. As far as the retired Inquisitor was concerned, there was no finer delicacy in all the stars than drippy eggs, toast soaked with the fat from animal milk, and strips of pork that sizzled on your plate. And considering Montauk never managed to stay in bed until after the station’s simulated sun-rise, the added benefit of the place being open all-hours was one of the best strokes of luck he’d had since leaving the force.

“Two coffees,” said a voice from down the counter one morning. Montauk froze. It wasn’t that there was rarely a customer besides him this early in the day, it was that he could have picked that voice out from a crowd of ten-thousand. He turned slowly on his swivel stool, and even though he’d known the raven-haired woman would be standing there, his jaw drooped a little when she tipped her large-brimmed hat in his direction.

The Khakian fry cook brought out the coffees and she snatched them up, starting toward Montauk. “Looked like you needed a refill,” she said, the deep rasp of her voice rattling. The ex-Inquisitor’s eyes drifted to the scar that ran from her chin and disappeared beneath the low cut of her jacket. She tried for the seat beside him, but Montauk put his hand out to block it.

“Not here,” he said, managing not to look straight at her. Even with the dark glasses she was wearing, he wasn’t going to risk it. “If we’re going to do this, let’s at least have the decency to find a dark corner.” He turned to the fry cook, “What’s it gonna cost for you to lock up for the hour?”

The Khakian’s mood membrane flashed a brief, excited yellow. “Treee—eh—tree hondored,” he said, his alien accent coating each of the human words.

“Two-fifty, you ruddy bottom-feeder,” Montauk growled, tapping his payment cube against the till module. “If you want another twenty-five, you’ll fuck off and give us some privacy, as well.” When the Khakian opened his wide mouth to rebut, Montauk didn’t let him. “Yuri, I’ve been coming here every morning for nearly six months, I know two-seventy-five is more than three times what you’d make in the next hour.”

The Khakian stared at the both of them for a moment then grumbled a few commands to the console behind the counter. Shutters came down over the windows that advertised the ancient Americana to the passersby on Helios street and the overhead lights grew brighter. “One-a hooour,” said Yuri, tossing his stained apron over the counter and heading out the back.

They posted up across from one another at a booth in the back. Montauk, who still hadn’t given the woman more than a glance, looked up when she sipped loudly at her coffee. She’d removed her hat and pushed her hair to one side, exposing more of her scar and chest than before. Montauk turned away, focusing his energy on trying not to turn red.

“Pretty when I’m not in handcuffs, hmm?” asked the woman, her black-red lips twisting into a smirk.

“What’s this about, Delilah?” asked Montauk dryly.

The woman scowled behind her dark glasses then plucked up a strip of bacon from his plate, inspecting it. “Meat? I thought you Council-World folk were elevated beyond such barbarism?”

“It’s factory grown.”

“Should have known by the smell,” Delilah said, making a face and dropping it. “Tell me, Sujan, have you ever had real meat?”

“No,” said Montauk, a sudden sneer taking shape when she used his first name. He did his best to hide it fast, if she knew how much it bothered him there was no hope of her stopping. “Feeding on livestock isn’t legal on any of the Council Worlds.”

“Oh, that’s right,” Delilah said, dismissing him with a wave. “You always did let the law get in the way of a good time.”

“Well, I was an Inquisitor.”

“Was?” she said, lowering her glasses. “It’s true then.”

“What’s true?”

“That you’ve given up on me.” Her lips peeled back and she gave Montauk a full smile, her front-left canine, a diamond replacement, winking at him as it reflected the light from the lamps above.

“I didn’t give up,” said Montauk. “I chased your ass from star to star for almost twenty years. Even caught you a few times, remember? But every time I read about you breaking out, about a family or trading band you slaughtered for an escape vessel, it started to eat at me.” He shook his head. “Just got tired of putting you in a cage you could wriggle out of so easy, don’t know if you can rightly call that ‘giving up.’” He looked up and, as if on cue, she pulled away her dark glasses and for the first time in years Montauk found himself staring into the featureless veil of Delilah’s black gaze.

He couldn’t help but shudder. She’d had normal eyes the first time he’d tossed her in his brig, but when he ran into her again two years later they’d been replaced with the black spheres he was looking at now. They were modifications, just like the plasma cannon she’d had her left forearm hollowed out for, or the hydraulic actuators that gave her legs enough force to punch clean through a man’s torso. Yet of all her grizzly improvements, Montauk was convinced her eyes were the most deadly. Not only could they sense changes in body temperature, it kept him from ever getting a decent read on her. If the eyes were the window to a person’s thoughts, Delilah had hidden hers behind one-way glass.

“If that was the case,” she said. “Then why didn’t you kill me?”

“You mean other than the time I gave you that?” Montauk asked, nodding to her scar. “Almost had you once out near the Sirius cluster. You’d just stuck up an entire fleet of Dutchman-class merchants and your haul was too big, it was slowing you down. We had target-lock and everything, but my damned Artillery Officer got cold feet and pulled the trigger just a hair too late. The payload hit your trajectory less than half a minute after you and the rest of your merry-men had jumped to warp.”

Delilah tilted her head skyward, tapping a finger to her lip as if trying to recall something. “What was that kid’s name again? Damon? Duran?”

“Dorin,” said Montauk, curiosity sending one of his eyebrows upward.

“Ahh yes, Dorin,” said Delilah. “His feet weren’t cold– well I guess you could say they were, but only because I was holding the ice to them. He had a lovely wife, you know, such a shame what happened.”

Montauk took a deep breath, making a set of fists beneath the table. It took every bit of restraint he had to keep from bounding over and driving them into her, but he didn’t. That was what she wanted.

“It wasn’t easy keeping such a close eye on your crew, but it always payed off,” Delilah went on, stirring her steaming coffee with one of the slender fingers on her left hand. “Couldn’t have any of them spoiling our fun.”

“Fun?” Montauk fumed. “I’d call what we had a lot of things, but fun is far from one of them. You’re a criminal, Delilah, don’t think you can just waltz in here, shake your tits at me, and think I’ll forget that. I knew Dorin and his wife, I knew other folk whose blood you spilt, and I won’t be forgetting them anytime soon.”

“Good,” she said, punctuating the word by bring her coffee cup down so hard against the table that Montauk was surprised it didn’t shatter. “I’m a bad girl, Sujan, and I like being a bad girl. I like that people flinch when I walk into a room, and cross the street when they see me coming. I didn’t come here to convince you I was some sort of saint, I came here to see what happened to the one person with enough balls to look me in the eye.”

“Well, you’ve got your answer,” Montauk said, looking back down at the cold breakfast between them. “I got tired of playing a game that was rigged. Besides, private security pulls in about twice as much as an Inquisitor’s salary.”

The woman scoffed. “Please, we both know you’re wasted on that cheap thuggery. I’m surprised you haven’t put a gun in your mouth yet.”

“Figured if I lived long enough, you’d do me that favor sooner or later,” Montauk said. “And what the fuck do you care anyway? I’m not standing in your way anymore, the Council Worlds are yours. You’ve got twenty systems on a string, what are you waiting for?”

“You really don’t get it, do you? You were never my problem.”

Her eyes were on his again and this time they were so transfixing that Montauk wasn’t able to look away. It wasn’t until he felt her hands on his, one warm, one strangely cool, that the spell was broken.

“What–” He pulled away. For a moment he couldn’t find the words, for a moment all he could do was try and process that the most dangerous criminal in all the Orion Systems had just tried to hold his hand. “A-are you mad?”

“Only as mad as everyone else,” she said, reaching for him again. He pulled further back. “Come on, is it really so crazy?”

“Yes—it is,” said the ex-Inquisitor, trying harder than ever now to keep his eyes from straying toward her plunging neck line. “You’re a criminal.”

“And you were the only cop who could ever catch me,” she shot back. “In some ways we know each other better than anyone else ever will.” Starting at her cheek, Delilah took a finger and followed her scar down until it disappeared into her cleavage, her eyes fixed on Montauk all the while. “Do you remember the night you gave me this?”

“Of course,” said Montauk, his neck growing warm. “It was the first time you broke out of my brig. Twelve of my crew died that night.”

“Mmm,” she said. “And you could have killed me too, gotten revenge, but you didn’t.”

“It wasn’t for lack of trying,” said Montauk. “One of my greatest regrets was not checking your pulse twice before letting those coroners cart you off.” He stopped, noticing Delilah was struggling to stifle a laugh. “What’s so funny?”

“It’s just so cute,” she said, “After all this time you’re still calling those men ‘coroners.’”

Montauk ground his teeth. “You’re not kidding, are you? You really think there’s something between us.”

“Can you admit it’s at least a bit romantic?” she asked. “You chasing me up and down an entire arm of the galaxy, me always one step ahead of you, always just beyond your reach.” Her fingers skittered across the table again until her hand, the warm one, was squeezing his again.

Folding it into his own grip, Montauk spoke in as stern a tone as possible. “Listen, you were bad-folk and it was my job to catch bad-folk. That was it. Now that that’s not my job, I wouldn’t care if you burnt all of Cerberus or even Merovingia to the ground.”

“Oh, but I think you do,” said Delilah, leaning in. Montauk opened his mouth to refute her, but she didn’t give him time. “Isn’t it more than a little strange that a private security thug, whose shift doesn’t start until late afternoon, is always up before station-sunrise getting breakfast at the only diner on the whole station that’s open this early?”

Montauk’s eyes narrowed. “I sleep in the morn–”

“You don’t sleep at all,” she said. “And I’d appreciate it if you quit bothering to lie.”

“Fine, I’ve had a bit of trouble getting my lately. What does that have anythi–”

“And those insomniatic-inhibitors you got from Dr. Ellsby, those didn’t help at all?” The way she said his name, like it was some sort of magic-word, told Montauk all he needed to know.

His face flush, he raised a trembling finger. “You leave him out of this, you hear? This is between you and I, no one else has to get hurt.”

“Of course it’s between you and I,” said Delilah, smirking again. “Your doctor was just a pawn.”

Was. That was it. That was his breaking point.

Montauk leapt across the table, sending a fist so hard into Delilah’s jaw that he felt something crack. She toppled over, sliding sideways down the booth and he followed, bringing both his heavy hands down around her neck. She didn’t scream as he squeezed, she didn’t struggle, she just stared up at him with that void-like gaze, the skin around it growing redder until she opened her mouth and whispered something shakily. “L-l-look down.”

In all the commotion he hadn’t heard the soft clicks, the whir of her false hand retracting and reshaping itself. Now, nestled uncomfortably against his groin, was the barrel of a plasma cannon. She pressed it up against his manhood and his hands left her neck, shooting into the air above him.

“Look at that,” she said hoarsely, “You do still care.”

“What in all the hells is wrong with you?” he shouted. “Why can’t you just leave me alone.”

Delilah sat up. “You know just as well as I do,” she whispered. Her words were heavy now, the playfulness gone from them. “This isn’t something you just walk away from. I’m all you’ve ever had. You never had a family, never took a wife–”

“That’s because I pissed all my time away chasing you.”

She leaned in closer, until their faces were just inches apart. Montauk searched her empty eyes trying to see if, even at this intimate distance, they were still impenetrable. They were.

“You didn’t piss anything away, you made a choice. You saw that life and saw what you had with me and you knew which one meant more. Nothing was thrust on you, you chose me.”

“Fine,” he grunted. “Maybe I did. But I un-chose you too, didn’t I? I got tired of your game and I quit playing.”

Delilah moved the cannon up his body, keeping it mashed up against him. “You don’t stop playing this game,” she said. “We’re apex predators, Sujan. We might pause for a drink, or wander off to rest for a night, but the hunt doesn’t end until one of us tears the other’s throat out.” She pushed the barrel up under his chin, forcing their eyes to meet again.

“Do you want to know how I found you?” she asked. “About six months ago an old informant tipped me off to a request at the Inquisitor’s Bureau for some of my old files. I wouldn’t have given it much attention normally, you know how the biographers fawn over me, but this request was different. They weren’t asking for the blockbusters, the Legion Job or any of my other claims to fame, they were asking for the small stuff. Flipping hover-carts on Za-ed, my ET prostitution ring in the Grissom system, cases only a few Inquisitor’s with keen memories would have ever known belonged to me.

She brought her other hand up and buried it’s spider-like fingers in Montauk’s hair. “Does a man who doesn’t care pore over old records? Does he lose sleep thinking about how I’m still out there, raising hell across so many suns? The lion can only stop hunting when he’s fed himself, but you, dear Sujan, you’re still hungry, aren’t you?”

She pulled him to her then, her black-red lips pressing firmly against his. He struggled, tried to pull away, but Delilah didn’t allow it. She brought him closer, kissed him deeper, and before Montauk was fully aware it was happening, he was kissing back. Hers was unlike any touch he’d felt before, it had such a heat to it, so much fire, it was as though she believed that if she stopped kissing him all the worlds would end. And just as he was beginning to melt into her, Montauk heard a hard click beneath his chin.

His eyes shot open, the sweat on his forehead turning to ice. He pulled away from Delilah, gasping, and took a few moments to make absolutely sure his head hadn’t become some sort of indiscernible jelly.

“That’s the only warning shot you get,” she said, pulling herself out from beneath him. She took her hat from where she’d hung it beside the booth. “Next time, I’ll be packing heat.” She tapped the cannon and it reconfigured into a forearm, complete with a set of fingers that she twiddled at Montauk before sauntering toward the door.

“Wait,” he shouted after her. “Where are you going?”

She stopped in the frame, placing the dark glasses back over her even darker eyes. “Don’t know,” she said, her lips peeling back until her diamond fang shimmered in her smile like a star amidst the night. “Why don’t you come chase me and find out?”


Bombus and the Cold Times

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