Karthos could have been so beautiful. A surface gravity 95% of Earth's, a 19 hour day-night cycle, continents and oceans, a low axial tilt giving it mild seasons and milder weather, even a biosphere that had blessed it with an oxygen atmosphere long before humans even existed — it had all added up to a choice paradise, a second Earth that would have welcomed any human visitor. But its colonists had been separatists, who wanted nothing to do with the rest of humanity. Some of them went further, and imagined that by careful control of every citizen's genes, they could create a populace better than the rest of humanity. To every modern Karthosian schoolchild, these early pioneers were lauded as heroes, leading Karthos to a glorious future that no Outsider could hope to attain.
At one end of the ornate chamber stood the three-meter-tall metal-skinned behemoth known to Outsiders as the Starlane Destroyer. At the other end, ten men and women stared at him across the top of an oaken table. They were all three meters tall, just like he was, and the prime physical specimens that their Karthosian genes had molded them into.
Only a single plastic transceiver box broke the polished void of the tabletop. A solemn mechanical voice wafted from the transceiver; the Starlane Destroyer's voice. "All right, what do you want this time?"
Ten pairs of eyes fixed themselves on the cyborg before them. The man at the center gripped the table slightly as though it would protect him, then jerked his hands away. He had to project power, not fear.
"Your deuterium consumption has been unusually high on your last three missions," another man spoke into his jacket microphone. He didn't have to transmit his words; the Destroyer had already taught himself to read their lips.
"That is an engineering problem," the speaker on the table replied, "Not mine." The cyborg shifted his head slightly as he transmitted it.
"No," a woman retorted, "That is your problem! You're already a damned liability in cost overruns without wasting precious energy doing who-knows-what aboard those craft before you destroy them. Karthos has invested a fortune in you —"
"I know, I know," interrupted the tinny voice from the speaker, "Just so you'd have some vehicle to use The Artifact." He heaved the club in his right hand to eye-level; he was surprised they let him take it into the audience chamber at all. "You found out that this little wonder-from-a-dead-civilization would only do tricks for you by drawing its energy from a biological source. So you tacked a control handle onto it and let some of your flunkies test it, only to discover that it can exhaust even a Karthosian human in a few seconds. Then you kidnapped me, put me through that hideous operation, fired up my deuterium furnace, and channelled the equivalent of a small sun through my metal-cased body so that your alien toy would think that all that energy was coming from a biological source; and you did it all just to blackmail the rest of the human race. I'm surprised The Artifact fell for it."
The silence tightened enough to choke the room. 'Perhaps,' the Destroyer figured, 'I shouldn't have said all that.'
The woman who'd just spoken to him drew a breath. "Do you know who you're speaking to?!" she insisted.
"Certainly," he said listlessly. Even though his hand was built like a mitten, he gestured as though pointing a metal finger at her. "You're Histori Nancina Urlin of Karthos, chief efficiency consultant for military operations. You were the one who came up with the Karthosian blockade in the first place." He re-aimed his arm so that it pointed at the man next to her. "And you're Frisco Dissern of Karthos, head mechanical consultant for military operations." He pointed at the man in the center, the one sitting next to the transmitter. "And you're Bourne the Third of Karthos, commander-in-chief for military operations." Lastly, he pointed to himself. "And I'm Strangen of Karthos."
"NO!" Bourne shouted. He slammed his fist against the table, sprang up, and pointed vehemently at the cyborg. "You are not Strangen of Karthos! You are nothing! You got that?! NOTHING! We built you, we financed you, we give you your orders! We gave you a shell that had the familiar shape of a human body —"
"Because you didn't stop to think that another shape might make a more efficient killing machine," Strangen's metallic voice interrupted.
Bourne continued to rant undaunted. "We built a force field generator into your mechanism —"
"Because the first vessel I attacked nearly blew me to pieces."
"We added the Deflect mode to The Artifact's handle —"
"So I wouldn't waste so much of your 'precious' deuterium on using my shields."
"ENOUGH! You know what will happen if you cross us! We only keep you around because you haven't worn out your utility, and because we've already wasted too much effort on getting you built this well! Never forget that the entire Karthosian space fleet could rip you to dust!"
'And never forget,' Strangen reminded himself, 'That they know about Dorsa, too.'
Shaking with still-unspent rage, Bourne chunked himself back down into his seat. "Now get to Orbital Station Eight, load up your deuterium tanks, and await further orders there."
The metal-plated man paused, finally replied "Yes sir" through the transmitter, and clanked lethargically out of the room.
The sight that greeted him outdoors would have turned his stomach if he'd still had one. Surface visits by the Starlane Destroyer were rare; this city population wanted to be there when he came out of the building. And so it was. Thousands of three-meter-tall, selectively-bred and genetically-engineered Karthosian humans mobbed the building's exit, barely giving him enough room to walk into their midst. Hands grasped at him as he clanked slowly through the human dam. The whole mob jumped, and waved — and cheered. It cheered with its mouths open wide, it whistled with fingers stuck in its cheering mouths; it made what he figured must have been a terribly loud din, all for a steel-armored experimental killing machine.
It almost made him glad he was deaf.
"Request permission to ascend," he transmitted to the local air traffic control station.
"Granted," a voice as cold as his finally echoed back.
He glanced sternly at the cheering mass surrounding him, then down at his thruster-legs. Aviation laws prohibited the use of thrusters at less than 500 meters above ground level when you were over urban areas. Sometimes he wished those laws weren't there; then he could vaporize these people as he left. Sometimes he wished he had the courage to just go and do that anyway. Hell, what courage did it take to kill people you despised when you'd already killed over a thousand whom you didn't even know?
He'd never been able to find that kind of courage. He never, ever did. He turned his metal head to the sky, kicked in his antigrav coil, and wafted away into the clouds.