Summary: Taura doesn't like House Bharaputra. She doesn't like Cetaganda. And she is extremely curious as to why they are both trying to acquire Dr. Pierce Argall.

Author's Note: This was written in response to a reverse-bang challenge by the amazing Pentapus. The image is available on my livejournal and on the AO3 copy of this story. Pentapus also provided wonderful beta reading and feedback. Any remaining mistakes are most definitely my own stubborn fault.


The Discovery


Taura was back from a mission. It had been a successful mission, and also a fun one. She'd miss her the guy she'd met there, who had helped during the day, and kept her well satisfied at night too. Still, she was pleased to be back home with the Dendarii. They were her family.

She loved them all and she was looking forward to her next task of providing basic training to the new set of recruits, but that wouldn't start until tomorrow. In the mean time, supplies were being stocked and Taura was staying least in sight to avoid getting volunteered as manual labor. She still had a day before the training started and since the Dendarii were docked at Vega Station for the time being, Taura took the opportunity to people watch.

She liked people watching, especially on space stations. Space stations were always so diverse: native spacers and merchant travelers were the most common, but people from any and all planetary systems came through space stations eventually. And everybody there was there for a purpose. She enjoyed watching them and guessing their purposes. It gave her a glimpse into lives that she would never get a chance to experience herself.

Some Vega Station employees were keeping this concourse of the station clean and ensuring it remained up to specs. Taura made an automatic check of their work, but from what she could see from her table at a nearby café, they were all competent and capable of their jobs. They were doing good work.

A tourist group made up of middle-class Cetagandan Ghem wandered by. They were enjoying the pleasures of Vega Station as a holiday destination, but living out of their rooms on a cruise ship rather than renting space in a station hotel.

Two small-time traders, likely from Marilac, although it was hard to tell with traders, were chatting about how trade had been. Taura pricked her ears because extra knowledge was always useful. One of the traders was definitely the more experienced, and just as definitely speaking with a Marilac accent. The other was harder to identify, but Taura wondered if maybe he wasn't a journeyman trader, still learning the ways.

A group of service workers from an Earth trading ship raced by excitedly, clearly celebrating the beginning of their shore leave. They were a long way out and this was probably the furthest any of them had ever been. They would likely get into trouble, but nothing that the Vega Station security forces weren't well used to.

A Cetagandan Ghem-Captain and two Ghem-Lieutenants passed by, which wasn't too unusual given the proximity to Eta Ceta, but she'd still report seeing them to Intelligence department of the Dendarii Mercenaries when she returned to her ship. They were always interested in what the Cetagandans were doing and those three seemed to be on a mission of some sort.

A group of service workers from a Beta ambassadorial ship were dragging themselves back a shore leave, trying not to look as hungover as they obviously felt. Taura wondered if this was general shore leave excess or if Beta had just made an important deal.

Then five bounty hunters from Jackson's Whole, wearing House Bharaputra uniforms walked past. Five house-sworn bounty hunters out this far? House Bharaputra was paying a massive amount to send them so far away and convince them to return afterwards. They were after something serious. And something serious to House Bharaputra was generally something really unpleasant for at least one other person.

Taura rose—all seven feet of her—to follow. She'd been designed and created by House Bharaputra, from claws to fangs, and raised by them until she was a teen and sold to a House Ryoval brothel because she hadn't been biddable enough to be the soldier they had wanted.

She didn't like House Bharaputra. She didn't like any of the houses on Jackson's Whole.

Cornering them was trivially easy: they had apparently thought they could lead their stalker into a trap and chosen a section of auto-rent storage units to do it in. Tourists were busy dropping off and picking up their luggage from the smaller units closest to the entrance. The hallways that lead to the bigger, walk-in rental unit deeper into the section were unpopulated.

Knocking out four of the five was both easy and enjoyable. The hardest part was not knocking out the fifth. She grinned at him. It was her special smile. It showed a lot of teeth.

"I don't like Jackson's Whole," Taura started with, just to make sure they started this conversation with a proper understanding. "I don't like bounty hunters. And I really, really don't like bounty hunters from Jackson's Whole."

She backed him into the unit they'd nicely rented for her use and hoped that no one would pass by in the next few minutes to see the four unconscious bodies left outside it. The last remaining bounty hunter only stopped when he was pressed against a wall. After a moment, though, when she hadn't attacked, he managed to pull himself together.

"Look, lady, we're not after you. You obviously got free. I don't have any deal that involves you and neither do my partners."

Taura grinned wider. "Oh, yes. I know that. The necessary bounty for me was too high for House Ryoval."

She liked the way his eyes widened. Very few people knew exactly how Baron Ryoval had died or how the take over by House Fell had happened. He probably didn't know any of the actual circumstances, but a House as powerful as House Ryoval had been doesn't fall without leaving behind a hell of a lot of rumors. Taura, who did know the circumstances, felt perfectly comfortable insinuating responsibility for it. No one who knew better would be inclined to correct her.

He actually paled a bit, before blurting out, "So what do you want? Do you claim this station?"

In many ways, the corruption on Jackson's Whole made even the most experienced so accustomed to con jobs that they volunteered to be fleeced. He was asking if she was demanding a bribe for them to do their work here. The more time that passed since her youth on Jackson's Whole, the more time she spent with the Dendarii Mercenaries, the more peculiar the society of Jackson's Whole seemed to her.

She'd been planning on just threatening him into telling her what they were up to, but if he wanted to give it to her as a toll instead, she'd accept. "Nobody does business on this station without me knowing about it," she lied through her sharp, pearly teeth. "What interest does House Bharaputra have on Vega Station?"

The guy actually relaxed, now that he was in a situation he recognized. His back-up was still unconscious on the floor around them, and she was in his face with her fangs and he relaxed.

"We're tracking a biological scientist who had a deal with Bharaputra Laboratories. Dr. Pierce Argall. He left without notice."

"Hmm," Taura said. She had been designed by Bharaputra Laboratories before being sold. She liked Bharaputra scientists slightly less than she liked Jackson's Whole bounty hunters. But there was a certain glint in the bounty hunter's eye that said he knew this, that he was counting on this. He thought he could manipulate her.

Apparently disappointed by the tepid response to his revelation, the bounty hunter continued: "He was working on creating more super soldiers."

And that was clearly supposed to get her to either offer her help in tracking him down or to at least ignore the whole affair. If she thought he was actually being honest, she might have done so. She really didn't like Bharaputra scientists. But she didn't believe him. "Let's see the paperwork."

He flinched. Yup: had definitely lied to her.

"There's no paperwork."

"A deal so important it's not trusted to paperwork? And five of you on Vega Station? What was Argall actually studying?"

When it looked like he wasn't going to answer, she leaned in real close, so that he could feel her breath on his face—she'd had a steak for lunch and hadn't yet brushed her teeth—and said, "If you tell me, I might let you go. But if you don't tell me, I'll get the information from him myself. And I'm not prone to leaving Jackson's Whole scientists alive after asking them questions."

And she had him: his eyes darted around, as if searching for an escape that he couldn't find, before he finally blurted out: "Immortality. He found immortality."


The Complication (aka The Cetagandans)


Shit.

Immortality.

It was the dream of a hell of a lot of rich, ruthless bastards.

For a long while it had been her dream, too. She had dreamed of immortality, even as she and the Dendarii medical team had struggled with just increasing longevity, to increase her lifespan from ludicrously short to something approaching human norm.

Every medical researcher mulled over the issue of immortality at some point or another. Every lab on Jackson's Whole had dedicated funding trying to find the trick of it. And House Bharaputra thought they'd found it.

Or at least they thought Dr. Argall had found it.

This was a shit-storm waiting to happen and it wouldn't end until Argall was dead. Provably dead. And possibly not even then, depending on the guy's record keeping habits.

It didn't even matter if he really had discovered immortality. She would personally bet against it, especially given that Argall had run away rather than attempt to cash in. But he'd found something close enough for House Bharaputra to send out well-paid bounty hunters, which meant that he'd found something close enough for other organizations—from rich individuals to planetary governments—to pay for their own bounty hunters and snatch teams and mercenary invasions.

The situation could definitely be to the advantage of the Dendarii Mercenaries, but Taura didn't care for the taste that idea left in her mouth.

Did she really want to get involved in this situation at all? She had spent so many years putting herself through experimental treatment after experimental treatment, and she was tired of it. Two years ago, she'd called it quits: the Dendarii medical team could do their research and give her their treatments, but she wasn't going to push for anything more. She was going to concentrate on living the life she had, rather than chasing after a dream.

Now, here was the dream back, tantalizingly near, begging to be chased…

And she hadn't become a mercenary to stand by the sidelines of conflicts.

But she certainly hadn't grown up on Jackson's Whole to care a whole lot about genetics scientists or the people who hired them.

The decision to not chase longevity had been difficult to make, for all that she knew it had been the right one for her. Having to make the decision all over again made her want to scream. She flexed her hands, baring her claws, but refrained from scratching the wall.

She put her head in her hands and thought. She had until the bounty hunters woke up to make up her mind on what to do.

Their order statements had been as vague as expected, but they'd had a credit-use record that showed Argall having rented a room at one of the outer-ring hotels on the station.

She rented another storage unit to sit in for a while. It was far enough away from the first one that no one would think it was in earshot, but close enough that with concentration she actually should be able to hear them when they woke up.

Soon enough, though, it turned out not to be the Jacksonians she needed to listen in on. She first heard the approaching the footsteps in the hallway, but they could have been any random stranger using one of the other storage units.

It wasn't, though. The first thing she heard any of them ways was, "how dumb does a bounty hunter have to be to tell an enemy spy the secret?"

It had been muttered quietly, but Taura had sharp ears.

Another voice said, "Probably too excited about the secret to remember that it was a secret." A huff of derision.

Then a third voice, sharper and not bothering to whisper, "I am less interested in the idiocy of foreign bounty hunters than I am in the failure of my own subordinates to keep track of those same foreigners."

The third voice, managing to be both melodic and threatening, made Taura's eyes widen. The Dendarii Mercenaries had a fraught history with the Cetagandan empire. Taura had made a point to be able to recognize their accents and speech patterns. They were distinctive enough, anyway.

And she really shouldn't be surprised that there was at least one high-ranking Cetagandan from the capital city following these guys.

A run-away biologist who had made a major discovery in human genetics? Of course the Cetagandans were going to involve themselves. But now she was pretty sure she did need to get involved with this, at least to the extent of getting Argall away from them. It was a relief to be able to put aside the issue of Argall's research and potential discovery. She didn't have to make her decision yet. The Dendarii Mercenaries did not make a habit of letting Cetagandans get away with, well, anything at all, although letting them deal with a universe of people trying to kidnap their asset might be worth it.

The voice likely had a similarly galvanizing effect on his subordinates, albeit for a different reason. "Sir," one of them said, "I'm accessing the video surveillance now."

There was a pause. Then, "Well, the audio made it clear that she was a Jackson's Whole construct."

"You managed to lose our target when they were being tracked by someone who looked like that?"

It was not a compliment. Taura bit back a growl and ignored the urge to flinch. She looked great, she reminded herself. All of her friends agreed that Taura looked good, even if she didn't look normal. She looked spectacular. She would never look human standard, but there was more than one way to be beautiful. She might not ever be softly pretty, but she'd had both lovers and strangers assure her that she was sharply gorgeous.

Taura decided that whether or not she was happy with letting the Cetagandans take Argall and have to deal with the resulting fallout, she wasn't above making these particular Cetagandans' lives difficult.

"Get that door open. It doesn't look like they ever left. If they're still alive, we might be able to salvage this mission."

She had thought about killing the bounty hunters, but she wasn't a cold-blooded killer, space stations made permanently disposing of bodies difficult, and it wouldn't have solved the problem anyway. With immortality as the reward, those five could be replaced easily enough.

The door to the other unit beeped and opened. She wondered vaguely if they'd hacked it or already had override permissions.

"They've been searched, Sir."

"Obviously. Test them all for fast-penta allergies. Then wake them up. If we can't get the information from papers, we'll get it from them directly."

"Yes, Sir."

The door closed again, with the Cetagandans on the other side. At least she hoped that all three of them were on the other side. Because this was definitely her cue to leave. She was now on a schedule. She had to get to Argall and get him a better hiding place than a hotel registered in his own name. And she had as long as it took the Cetagandans to interrogate the bounty hunter and follow her to do it.

She left her unit and confirmed that there were no Cetagandans loitering in the hallway, although there was nothing she could do about it if they were still watching the video surveillance.

Then she took off running.


The Rescue?


Taura didn't bother knocking when she reached the hotel room, just wrenched open the door. The run had actually made her feel better, her thoughts clearer, and tearing the door off its hinges was good, too.

The man inside looked up startled from where he was reading beside the bed. He looked defenseless enough that she eyed him again suspiciously. She wasn't sure what was stashed under the bed, but she would bet that it was a weapon.

This situation was beginning to smell like a set-up.

Literally smell, almost. She just felt like there was the faintest bit of residual blaster energy in the air, although there was no sign of any prior fight in the room. She sniffed but couldn't find anything truly identifiable.

Rather than attacking, he said, "You have got to be kidding me." He sounded somewhere between appalled and amused, but not particularly surprised by her appearance. The situation may be a set up, but he certain reacted to her like a Bharaputra scientist would.

His eyes flickered back to both her claws and her fangs and she knew exactly what he was talking about. It wasn't like she didn't know that she had been designed by idiots who didn't understand soldiers at all. But she did not appreciate it being pointed out, even if he did sound more bemused than disgusted. She glared at him.

"Not that you don't manage to pull off your appearance gloriously." He smiled in what was probably supposed to be a charming fashion. Okay, it actually was kind of charming.

And Alys Vorpatril had really helped Taura feel comfortable in her appearance, but it was reassuring to get unprompted compliments from less biased sources. Although a compliment from an unarmed man on the run from bounty hunters probably wasn't that trustworthy, either.

But just watching this man stand up, she was beginning to think that this was what a real military would want in a soldier, or at least a spy. He was strong but in a wiry way that wasn't immediately apparent. And he looked regular, like he could fade into a crowd in a way that she never could. On the other hand, as she studied him she realized that there was something odd about him. For one thing, she couldn't tell how old he was. Physically, he looked like any of the new Dendarii recruits, but the combination of comfort in the presence of someone like Taura while still being wary spoke more of experience than youthful cockiness. She wondered if maybe he had moved his brain into a younger clone, and this was his second or even third body.

"Are you Argall?" Her own voice surprised her. It was the first thing she had spoken to him, for all that she had been speculating.

"Yes."

"Good. Then we're getting out of here."

"Are we? And who, exactly, are you?"

She huffed in some amusement. She hadn't introduced herself, after all, and despite his attempt at flirting, she was definitely an imposing figure. "I'm Sergeant Taura with the Dendarii Mercenaries. And at the moment, I'm a very curious but disinterested bystander to your situation. So you're going to come with me and answer a few questions before the Cetagandans arrive."

Something flickered on his face. "Given what you did to the door, I'd say station security is actually the more pressing concern. But sure, let's go."

This was a more civilized rescue/kidnapping than she'd been involved in before, she thought with some amusement. She allowed him to retrieve his bag from under the bed and didn't comment on the rearranging he did before pulling it out. Presumably he was securing the weapon he'd kept ready.

The weapon he'd kept ready in preparation for someone bursting into his room to kidnap him.

Yes, she definitely wanted a conversation with him, once they were in a more secure location. But for now, they actually strolled out of the room casually.

"So, where were you thinking," Argall started to ask, then ducked a stunner bolt.

The Cetagandans had either had an extremely short interrogation or they'd managed to follow her directly. Luckily, the hotel had already called station security due to her ripping the door off, so they were close at hand, to start shooting back at the Cetaganandans.

After a quick glance at Argall to ensure he would follow, she turned in the other direction, and started running.


The Conversation


Argall was out of breath by the time they made it to an empty observation deck with a lockable door. It took Taura a moment to realize it was more from silent laughter than from the run. She quirked a smile herself. It had been pretty funny.

But it was a sense of humor that developed with time and combat experience. There was no way he was just a genetics researcher. And he had to have known that he would be tracked.

She wondered how Argall had thought this would play out. Did he seriously think he'd be in control of his discoveries while working in a laboratory on Jackson's Whole? Or that he'd be allowed to just leave after making a discovery like that?

Except…

He had made it this far. He had discovered something big enough that House Bharaputra was sending groups of bounty hunters out to retrieve him, but he'd not only managed to slip the guards they had undoubtedly had on him, but he'd made it off planet.

Which actually, brought up the question: if he was good enough to get away from Jackson's Whole and to Vega Station, how had he not been good enough to lose them entirely?

The more she thought of it, the more it seemed like a set-up, but she still couldn't figure out what the set-up was.

If it was a simple trap with Argall working with the bounty hunters and the Cetagandans, then there needed to be a target somewhere. No one on the station fit the high requirements to get that kind of partnership going.

Assuming the information from the bounty hunters was correct, was Argall trying to keep his secret to himself? If that was the case, he should have just disappeared rather than tracking bounty hunters halfway across the nexus.

Was he trying to hide the fact that he hadn't made a discovery at all? In that case, he also should have just disappeared.

If he was trying to make the knowledge public, or released to a more ethical research institute, he should have headed to Beta Colony.

Was he trying to start a war between Jackson's Whole and the rest of the nexus? That might seem like a semi-workable plan: Allow hints of the discovery to be made and then allow the Jacksonians to drag him back to their planet. Plenty of other organizations would invade to retrieve him and his discovery.

But, in the end, it wouldn't work. All those other governments got too much benefit out of having a morally-corrupt trading post and research institute available for their own covert activities. If Argall really had discovered immortality, that would just confirm the worth of having Jackson's Whole continuing it's various enterprises.

So, what was Argall trying to achieve?

As she considered all of this, Argall had relaxed and was now just watching her, still with amusement in his eyes and in the corners of his mouth. He knew perfectly well he was confusing her. Well, there wasn't any way to hide that, so she shrugged and just asked, "Okay, what was your plan?"

"My plan?"

"You don't add up. Either you're too good at evading capture to have been tracked by so many people. Or you're too awful at evading capture to have gotten this far."

"Fair enough."

"So?"

"Hmm?"

"So, what was your plan?"

"Who do you think has the best bio labs in the galaxy?" Argall smirked.

Taura considered him through narrowed eyes. Then, more to bait him than as a real statement, she offed, "Beta Colony."

He grinned. "Too many safety protocols. Plus a government more interested in scientific transparency than personal privacy. Try again."

"The labs on Jackson's Whole are the best you're going to get ready access to for a price."

Argall shrugged. "All things come with a price. The Cetagandan genetics labs are better."

"So you're trying to get captured by the Cetagandans? To get access to their labs?" she asked before she could stop herself. Then, as the pieces began to line up, "Did you run a confidence scam on House Bharaputra, in order to run a bigger confidence scam on the Cetagandan empire?"

She wondered how she was even talking when all her jaw wanted to do was just drop at the sheer gall of the guy before her. "Why do you even need labs like that?"

Argall shrugged. "To continue my research, of course."

"Into immortality."

"Yup." His answer was lightly amused but there was a weariness under it that Taura recognized. Medical science took time, and every year spent in research was another year of aging. His face looked so young and his eyes so old. She would have been more certain he had had a brain transplant if he didn't move easily, without any hint of habits picked up from having once had an older body.

"You didn't actually discover immortality, did you?"

He sighed. "No."

She found herself laughing quietly herself, even as she shook her head, too. What else could he have answered? She wouldn't have really believed a "yes" and she wasn't entirely sure she trusted the "no" either. And to a certain extent it didn't even matter. "You really are insane, aren't you? Scamming Jackson's Whole and Cetaganda, all for the use of a lab, chasing an impossible dream."

"It seemed like a good idea at the time. And I'm just so close…"

She shook her head again. She recognized that type of obsession. It was like addiction. He was a personable, suicidal idiot, for all that he was likely a genius in more ways than one, being able to play empires against each other. She admired him in a way.

It wasn't easy to fool Jacksonians with false promises and even less so to fool Cetagandans.

It wasn't easy, so… how had he done it?

He had denied finding immortality, and she believed that, but he had to have found something. He had to have found something important enough to draw in both the Jacksonians and the Cetagandans, even if it wasn't enough to satisfy Argall himself or make his plan unnecessary.

Her gut remained tense and roiling with the uncertainty. Maybe he wasn't walking around in his own clone's body. What had he found? She began to regret that last drink in the café.

Plus, there was still something very odd about him. She had briefly wondered if the man with her might be a decoy hired by the real Argall but didn't actually believe that either. He was just too odd, and not just in personality.

While she had at first thought a clone body would explain how he seemed older than he looked, it wouldn't account for how comfortable he was with how his body moved. There was also that faint sense of energy that had come with him. It was a hint of energy without any smell or static. Just the tiniest sensory perception of ozone without any solid cues she could pick out. She wondered if she was just imagining it, except that it was such an odd thing to imagine. She was used to relying on her enhanced senses, but this seemed barely within—or maybe barely outside of—even her normal sensory range. She wasn't even entirely sure which sense was being triggered. Touch maybe, or smell. She took a deep breath but still couldn't identify anything overtly different about the man.

"You're not the scientist, are you?" she said. "You're the experiment."

And for just an instant, his face went utterly blank. He was charming again in a moment, but it was too late. That one instant was all the confirmation she needed. Because yeah, biological scientists studying immortality weren't the type to run confidence scams on empires, or laugh as they ran away from kidnappers.

"What makes you say that?"

"What feature did they give you?"

They stared at each other a long moment, neither of them laughing anymore. Neither of them were at all interested in answering the other's question.

Finally, he quirked a smile. "You assume I can't be both scientist and the experiment."

"Changing yourself is dangerous," she challenged. By 'dangerous,' she meant that most people who tried ended up with closed-casket funerals. Betans changed themselves all the time, but it was done in large labs where there was a distinct separation between scientists and subjects, even if the roles sometimes changed. Bounty hunters like those after Argall meant there hadn't been any lab assistants who knew enough to replace him.

He was silent for a long moment. He stared at her like he was considering what he wanted to say and she gave him time to reach a decision. People like them, who had been raised in labs and treated like objects couldn't be rushed into telling the truth. When rushed, they lied. But so often truth was the best way to achieve something, Taura knew. And if this man who called himself Argall was half as smart as he appeared to be, he would know that, too.

Finally he shook his head, as if he could shake his worries away. "I didn't change myself. I'm trying to figure out what makes me the way I am. They just didn't know that I was starting out with myself as a living subject and trying to reverse engineer the results."

It took her a moment to parse that admission. He wasn't just an experiment like her, he had something unusual enough to make reverse engineering nearly impossible, so not purely genetic. And if it wasn't immortality itself, it was close enough to be worth the attempt on his part and the chase by House Bharaputra.

She could feel her heart beating too fast in her chest. He had immortality!

She suppressed the reaction firmly. Information gather first, then react.

"Did you figure it out?" That, after all, was the real crux of the issue, and the question that she kept coming back to. Did he have immortality or not? And could he share it? If the Jacksonians didn't even know that he had been his own experimental subject, she could only assume that he had destroyed whoever had created him originally.

"No."

"No?"

"No."

Taura continued to look at him.

He looked her dead in the eye, to all appearance both serious and honest. "I found a few more directions to look in, but I didn't get any positive results. I need a better lab than is available anywhere on Jackson's Whole."

She smirked, allowing the mood to lighten again. "And thus the Cetagandans."

He smirked, back at her. "And thus the Cetagandans."

"You know that they'll hold on to you even tighter than the Jacksonians, right?"

He smiled a softer smile this time. "The Cetagandans… they're not nice people. I know that. But I don't really get along well with nice people. But they're not sadistic as a culture. I'm sure there are some, but their scientists won't torture me. And I'm ready to settle down for a little while. If I can settle with them, with a good lab and with a people who know me, at least a little, I can be happy. For a while."

She nodded slowly. If he wanted to stay in a golden cage, then the Cetagandans were definitely his best option. And he did look tired, a sort of deep tried under the amusement, like some of the older soldiers had, when adventuring around the galaxy had lost its appeal and the best thing their superior could do for them was make them take a vacation. Sometimes they returned, reenergized, other times such vacations turned into retirements.

Still, she had to check, "You know this wouldn't be settling for a while, though, right? They'll never let you leave."

He shook his head. "They'll never let me leave in this lifetime," he corrected her. "And I won't want to leave in this lifetime, nor in the next, or even in the next few."

For all that he spoke gently, Taura felt like he'd rocked the whole space station. Again. He had admitted that he was immortal. He had admitted it and she had acknowledged it. And yet, somehow it hadn't occurred to her that his being immortal didn't just mean not getting old and dying in a few years. It also meant that maybe he had already passed the point where he would have gotten old and died.

She had spent so many years desperately searching for longevity that she had taken it for granted that everyone else would be searching too. It seemed a reasonable assumption to make, given how many people were doing so. It only now occurred to her that a man who already had immortality would need a very different motivation for his search.

She wondered what random mistake had allowed Argall's creator to design him with immortality but not leave anyone with the secret of it. She wondered how desperate Argall must be for companions similar to himself to make this mad scheme of his seem like a good idea.

For all that she looked so strikingly different from human norm, and had struggled with her appearance for years, she had never particularly longed for anyone similar looking. She had wanted to be normal rather than wanted others like herself. The quaddies, though, tended to yearn for their own society if they were out among bipeds for too long.

For a moment she felt a surge of anger at him for being unhappy with his longevity. So many other people suffered for lack of longevity, herself included, and he didn't even appreciate what he had! She shook off the feeling quickly. It was unworthy of her, and she knew better. Part of her decision to focus on living better rather than living longer had been based on the knowledge that longer lives didn't necessarily bring happiness. Argall's unhappiness with immortality was just one more demonstration that nothing came without a price.

"Very well," she said.

"Very well?" He looked suspicious.

She shrugged. "If this is what you want, then carry on." She smiled. Giving the Cetagandans a clue to immortality was probably not the best idea ever, but she doubted Argall would be an easy acquisition for them to use. She certainly didn't want to deal with trying to contain him herself. And if a living example of immortality in the best lab of House Bharaputra couldn't find the secret, then she doubted changing to a Cetagandan lab would improve the results all that much. "Who am I to stop someone from playing the Jacksonians and the Cetagandans off against each other?"

"You're just going to let me go?"

"I'll leave it up to you to explain how to the Cetagandans how you managed to escape from me."

"You," he paused, and she felt his gaze linger a bit at the grey in her hair, just visible at the roots, "you could come with me."

This time her jaw really did drop for a moment. And oh she was tempted. Even though she really doubted anything would come of his experiments. Tempted to say, yes, of course, I'll go with. I need what you have. To enter his golden cage with him based on the chance that he and the Cetagandans would be able to reverse engineer his ability or just give her something else in exchange for his assistance. But that thought was enough to bring her to her senses. She didn't like or trust the Cetagandans. Trading in a short life that she loved for the possibility of a longer life she didn't enjoy was a fool's bargain.

She would not give up a life she loved right now, living it to the fullest, for such a small chance to live a longer one. She snapped her jaw shut. "Oh no. I want nothing to have to do with this. You're on your own."

For an instant she thought she saw a pang of real sadness in his eye. It almost gave her pause in her instinctive rejection, but it didn't change the fact that she had spoken truly. She wanted nothing to do with the avalanche of bounty hunters with immortality in their sights, and she wanted nothing to do with a golden cage on Eta Ceta. She said nothing further: she would not give excuses for her honest decision.

Argall nodded his acceptance. "Fair enough."

And that was that. She would return to her ship and he would return to his game of cat and… cat, she guessed.


Walking Away Whistling


"Although," she said, "for the trouble you've caused me," she trailed off. He looked suspicious again and she smirked at him. Then she moved as fast as she possibly could, because she had a sense that he was more than capable of defending himself in most situations, and dragged one sharp and deadly claw right across his abdominal wall.

She was a meter away before he could even shout.

When he did shout, it was a "hey" of outrage rather than a cry of pain, though. She watched as the cloth of his shirt and vest parted revealing a thin slice of skin that was already healing the damage. Whatever energy she had been sensing previously was stronger now, and visible as well. Light sparkled from the wound, but only briefly and then left behind unmarked and flawless skin.

It was real.

Immortality was real.

Taura could feel the awe and wonder at seeing the actuality of what so many had chased for so long. She focused instead on what she didn't feel: even with the proof right in front of her, she didn't want to change her mind. She wasn't going to leave behind the missions in strange corners of the universe and new recruits and good friends. She wasn't going to leave behind her life of accomplishing thing for confinement in the hope of receiving something.

Argall was looking down himself, apparently more mournful of the damaged clothes than fearful of her sudden attack. "Was that really necessary?"

"I had to know for sure." She smiled, mostly to herself, because, "I'm impressed. I wouldn't want to be you, but I am impressed." It was true. She'd take her own mutation over his any day. She might be huge and often treated more like a dangerous animal than a human, but she'd never be seen as a treasure to be coveted and fought over the way he was. He seemed capable of dealing with it, though. So, "Good luck."

"Thanks," he spoke somewhat dryly, still examining his torn vest.

With one last smile, she spun around and headed back to the port where the Dendarii Mercenaries were docked. Her leave was almost up. She'd let Admiral Quinn know what she'd discovered while out people watching… but only after the Cetagandan's had carted Argall away.

She'd see if she could catch Quinn for breakfast tomorrow. Give herself a chance to get a full nights rest before passing on this can of worms. Then on to the training recruits.

She whistled through her fangs as she walked back to the Dendarii's dock space. She was happy with her life now, and she refused to have anything to do with the troubles that came with chasing immortality.