Nov 242012
 

Read me the story:
eerie-looking shark behind rainbow gradientGavith Frenholm tapped the call response tab. The double-blink indicated it was a ComWeb transfer, but there was almost no delay in the connection. The Kyth Agency paid for the highest level of ComWeb service, and then added its own transmission boost from a beacon in the Maccadon system.

The glamorous-looking face that appeared in the receiver might have been a socialite or tridim star. Fashionably ice-blue hair was piled high, and the iridescent “butterfly” pattern face paint offset a bone structure that might have come straight from a top biosculpt studio. But that was deceptive, because Magalin Faris had never had more than the occasional tempsculp job- the planed cheekbones and graceful curves of brow and jaw were entirely her own.

“Gav. What’s up?” The beacon-lag was only a few seconds.

“Boss wants to talk to you. Sealed at your end?”

The brilliant eyes widened slightly, and she nodded. “Sealed now.”

“Putting you through.”

The boss was in a meeting, but as soon as he’d identified the caller, Gavith had pinged his comchip. By now, Ren Dylart would be activating his own secure receiver. Magalin Faris was one of half a dozen trouble-shooters deluxe, “special” employees of Kyth Interstellar who had immediate access.

At her end, Magalin waited, humming a pleased, tuneless little hum. She’d been doing some fairly routine, somewhat boring work at the Central Ophiuchus Consortium Shareholders’ Decennial Conference, and the request to contact the Maccadon office came at just the right time. The Conference was breaking up the next day.

“Mags, I’m sending you a shortcode squirt with a routine personnel consult- an executive vet for a new client, Holiday Safari Worlds.”

He could see her eyes sharpen with interest when the transmission reached her. Dylart flagging her on an assignment that would normally go to one of the many sharp, skilled operatives that populated the Personnel division at Kyth’s Orado HQ, told her the assignment was non-standard. But even on a sealed circuit he wouldn’t give details.

“All right, I’ll get right on it. You’ll be getting my report on the Consortium Conference in about 24 hours, give or take.”

He nodded, and shut down the connection.

The shortcode squirt popped into her in-box an hour later. She deactivated ComWeb transmission, made other security adjustments, and dropped it into the decryption algorithm for the current time and location.

A little over a hundred hours later, she debarked from a Lodis Lines passenger ship to the main nexus port in orbit around Tayun, one of the major commerce nodes in the Ophiuchi Circuit. Gone was the butterfly makeup and the stylish updo. Daynas Oquav (registered alias) wore conservative business attire appropriate to a middling-high subexecutive for a big transcluster firm like Kyth Security.

Even by the laissez-faire standards of the Ophiuchi Circuit, Tayun’s mercantile operations rated the term “swashbuckling.” Friendly colonial government, minimal regulations, excellent family connections with various power nodes in the Hub Mercantile Council, and a long tradition of tolerance for borderline and even outright shady enterprise combined to give it a reputation as one of the Hub’s more vibrant and entrepreneurial business environments. Strict interpretation of the Hub Conflict Conventions and a well-developed “Commerce Logistics and Tactics” sector—the polite euphemism for “mercenaries and assassins” contributed to a history of bloody commercial vendettas that had by now grown their own set of sub-rules and traditions beyond the HCC.

Tayun, in other words, was no place for the timid or conservative to establish business operations. On the other hand, if you were planning on bending rules…

Kyth maintained only a cursory visible presence on Tayun. A small office in a modest towerblock near the shuttle depot. She checked in just after opening time, greeted the local staff, updated her secure Kyth datafile, and then called the client on a standard comservice connection. Two hours later, after a review of the case and a meal, she was at the hotel room door of Jen-zi Cheyn, Commercial Representative of Holiday Safari Worlds.

“Cheyn” was a registered alias, unsurprisingly. Kyth files had supplied the public history of the alias, and an assessment of possible core identities, but with low probability ratings. Bit of a mystery man, Jen-zi Cheyn.

He answered the door of a middling high-grade residential suite in casual business attire that had a hint of Central Axis to it, to Magalin’s experienced eye.

“Ti Oquav?”

They scanned each others’ ID chips. She noted good commercial security masks. He gestured for her to be seated.

“Ten Cheyn,” she began.

“Jen-zi, please, Ti Oquav.”

“Jen-zi. And I’m Daynas. Your case request says HSW is looking for a Chief of Operations.” Tayun business etiquette—right to the point.

“That is so,” he smiled. “I represent the HSW investment consortium, and in fact, I am the Chief Executive. We are soon moving to a new phase of active operations. For this, we require the right mix of talent and qualifications in an operations chief.”

“Kyth Personnel can certainly help you,” she smiled. “We have already done an analysis of Holiday Safari Worlds, naturally. You have interests in the Central Axis Worlds and the Tirvath Cluster—adventure resorts on a dozen colonies, including Procyon Delta-IV and Tantriga, as well as the Jontarou Shikari Xenopreserve.”

He nodded. “And now, we are planning an expansion. We are looking at opening up additional preserves, both Xeno-themed, and terratype, on an unprecedented scale.”

She watched him closely as they agreed on terms for an Executive Search contract—a very standard transaction. About two-thirds of the way through the negotiation, he began to flirt gently with her, and she followed his lead. An agreement reached, he suggested a drink to ratify the agreement—again, all according to Tayun business etiquette.

“Perhaps in the lounge? I would not wish to imply anything irregular.”

Demurely, they proceeded down to the hotel’s major lounge, a rambling, expensively-decorated oasis well-supplied with discreet nooks, many equipped with privacy guards. A host escorted them to one of these.

They made light conversation while drinks were ordered and delivered, then “Cheyn” engaged the alcove’s privacy shield, and fiddled with a control on his wrist-talker.

A glance at her scan showed Magalin that an additional layer of anti-surveillance protection had been activated. She removed a small device from an inner pocket, and twisted the top half to engage her own scrambler shield. Its automatic sensors would warn them now, if anyone approached within half a meter of its protection radius. Anyone looking at them from outside the shield would see their movements and expressions subtly altered, delayed, projected in reverse or out of sequence, and hear only a low, meaningless babble of sound. It would attract no undue attention, having the superficial appearance of normal conversation. But it would defy any attempts to lipread, eavesdrop, or even make sense from the progression of facial expressions and gestures. It would also override any known snoopscan devices not already foiled by the alcove’s privacy shield or “Cheyn’s” snoopscreen.

She sat back, and sipped her drink.

Her companion glanced at the device, then got the abstracted look of someone querying an implanted comlink. His brows went up.

“That’s quite an interesting device, Daynas,” he commented.

“I had the impression you were more than ordinarily interested in privacy, ‘Jen-zi.’”

“Very much so. It might tell you why if I give you my real name: Artavai Orms.”

Magalin had thought she was prepared for any surprise, but her jaw dropped, all the same. “Orms. As in…?”

“Tranest Corporation, yes. Those Orms. I’m, er… not exactly the black sheep of the family. More along the lines of a remittance man.”

The Orms family had held a controlling interest in Tranest Corporation, the terraforming giant, for more than two centuries. The family’s other interests were rumored to reach into almost every other major profitable enterprise in the Ophiuchi Circuit, the Central Axis worlds, and half a dozen other major Clusters in the Hub.

“I see. Then Holiday Safari Worlds…?”

“Has no connection, legitimate or otherwise, with any Tranest interest. I bear my aunt no personal ill-will, please understand. The, ah, estrangement is purely a matter of business. But I have scrupulously observed the separation. HSW represents my own interests, and those of the other capital investors.”

‘My aunt’ could only be a reference to Nadis Orms, Chair of Tranest Corporation and the latest in a line of corporate sharks that had successfully maintained control of one of the richest, most monopolistic corporations in the Hub.

“That…more than adequately explains this elaborate charade, Ten Orms.”

The Tranest solons might want him to keep a distance from the family’s operations, but they unquestionably kept an eye on their remittance relatives—family members paid, in lump sums or regular disbursements, to disappear from the family orbit for various reasons. And they could afford some of the sharpest eyes in the surveillance business. Magalin resisted an impulse to look over her shoulder.

“Please, let’s stay with Jen-zi. I rather like my alias,” his mouth twisted wryly. “The specific problem I’m tossing in to Kyth’s lap is somewhat related to my status with Tranest. I have, as I’ve said, kept out of their business. Now I’m looking for ways to keep them out of mine.”

She made a neutral “hmm” noise, inviting more information.

“Tranest has no commercial interest in a small-time operation like HSW. If anything, they’re happy that I’m keeping myself occupied profitably, at a sufficient distance. But some of our new ventures might, if brought to the attention of the wrong people, provoke some unwanted interest.”

“In other words, you want whoever is selected for your Operations position to be unaffiliated with any Tranest interests.”

He nodded. “We do have the usual contingent of information channels, formal and informal, at various levels of the company. We’ll leave them where they are. But I’d like to keep specifics about our planned expansion under the radar as long as possible.”

“I see.” She waited, to see if any more information was forthcoming, but he just raised his eyebrows. “Is this something I can rely on Kyth to undertake, discreetly, as part of the executive search process? And if so, what are we talking about with regards to cost, and what arrangements would you suggest for payment?”

Magalin was calculating what it might take to fulfill such a contract. Mercantile espionage at the level of Tranest Corporation would involve cluster-spanning activity, and maintaining discretion would necessitate a very tight, very high-level team. The interface with an ordinary executive search would have to be handled with great delicacy not to raise alarms among Jen-zi’s Tranest monitors.

But the process, if undertaken, would undoubtedly yield a good deal of useful data—secondary benefit for Kyth. And she rather liked Jen-zi, so far.

She named a price.

Jen-zi just nodded. He’d been prepared—Kyth didn’t come cheap even for standard security or investigative services.

“Payment arrangements?”

“We’ll let you know.”

She deactivated the scrambler and made it clear that although Daynas Oquav wasn’t averse to a little pleasant flirtation with a client, it was strictly professional courtesy.

They parted amicably, Daynas on her way back to the local Kyth office to register the executive search contract, and set the standard procedures in motion. There was no detectable sign of any surveillance on Jen-zi Cheyn.

But then, there wouldn’t be.

Nov 092012
 

Read me the story:
Brilliant red fungi growing in bright green mossy surrounding.It was a four-day journey from Dev’rash Cloister to the Ra’anir Chancel. A younger woman might have made it in two, but L’anriyl was over ninety, and she chose to take her time. Besides, it gave her the opportunity to observe the terrain, and think about the upcoming Moot.

The first two days were easy- a bantan brought them down the lakes to Mirdenay on the southeast shore of Rath Lake. A night’s rest at the Lakewarden’s Station restored her wonderfully. They made an early start the next day, L’anriyl disdaining the folding hoverchair they’d packed, but prudently perching the solar charger atop her kilay’s bundle. She set out with long, easy strides that matched the younger ones without apparent effort.

They crested the low rise that lipped the Bright Valley, behind the eastern shore slopes of Rath Lake, shortly after mid-day. Before them, the valley unrolled lush and vivid, copses of upland forest, punctuated with the open spaces of meadow and the unraveling skein of riparian lowlands. Here and there, just discernible at this distance, the network of roads and hamlets delineated a human presence. Conscious of the others’ assessing looks—she’d been noticeably slowing, the last hour or so, and the uphill slope had definitely taxed her—L’anriyl called a halt.

“Let’s eat here. And Ne’khat, you can go ahead and break out the chair, if you’d be so kind.” She tacitly admitted that she’d reached the point where she would slow them down more by trying to walk, than by using the air-cushion chair.

It was the down side of being an Elder in chronology as well as rank. L’anriyl perched on the slight bank that defined the road margin, and enjoyed the upside, watching serenely as the others went about the business of preparing a daymeal, unpacking and unfolding the chair, and attaching the powercell and charger.

Cenna brought her a napkin with two journeyrolls of mixed grains, seeds, and nuts bound in soft herb-flavored kounne and wrapped with flat, chewy journeybread. Sunairi brought cold pavi to drink, and a crunchy, sweet biscuit with a filling of mellot preserves, and they all seated themselves. Her kilay looked at her expectantly. Ne’khat was fedranh, born and raised in the high Vallars, and a devout believer.

The offworlder with them had already indicated he had no particular beliefs and was offended by none, and the others were at least moderately devout, so a blessing would not come amiss, she supposed.

“We offer gratitude that Veran feeds us, and we bless our company by the Power that sustains us, the Presence that inspires us, and the Light that guides our steps. May we never want for discernment of the Balance.”

Long prayer before meals was a nuisance. She nodded for the others to dig in, and set the example by taking a bite of journeyroll.

The offworlder was seated next to her. He’d been visiting the Cloister for nearly a year, but she’d had little contact with him. Then he’d asked the privilege of observing the Balance-Moot, and the Canon had seen no reason to deny it. He’d been a pleasant companion, speaking little and taking a cheerful part in the various journey-tasks. She smiled at him.

“I have never met an offworlder before you,” she told him. “Tell me, Sain El-..Ellgradis,” she stumbled slightly over the unfamiliar phonemes, “how this journey finds you?”

He smiled “It finds me well, Elder. It was my first opportunity to journey by bantan, and see so much of the Lakes. And I am looking forward to seeing a Balance-Moot. Though I have been seven yearturns among the Chancels and Cloisters, this will be my first opportunity to see a Balance taken.”

L’anriyl calculated mentally. “This will be my eleventh Balance, sixth as Scalemistress. The Presence be with us! It will not be an easy Balance to strike, I fear.”

“Why is that?”

The others had been listening, now L’anriyl nodded to her kilay to respond.

“The last Balance, more than ten years past, was a difficult one. A good many of the Holders Minor along the northern shore were disappointed of their hopes for greater investment-rights. Some blamed the Gatherers’ Guilds, some blamed each other. There was a series of ugly bloodfeuds, for several years after.” Ne’khat’s tone was curt, not quite to the border of discourtesy. Nearly twenty years in lowland Chancels and Cloisters had won from the fedranhi a reluctant concession of humanity for the rest of Veran, but the mountain insularity remained when it came to offworlders. L’anriyl suspected there was another source of tension, as well. The off-worlder was a good-looking fellow, in an exotic way.

A faint line appeared between Ellgradis’ brows. “I don’t understand. I thought that a Balance under the Great Law has no jurisdiction in Constitutional management?”

Cenna chuckled. She seemed to like the offworlder. “Well, I’m as fond of Ra’nethi shallon as the next person, but if it comes to a choice of where to expand investment shares, Lord Ra’anir can hardly be blamed for allocating the rights to Guilds and small-holders.”

Ellgradis’s brows drew together a little more as he digested this, then offered, “So… the Holders Minor were hoping for larger investment right in agricultural production for the shal crop. But the right went to gathering and smallholding? Aren’t those normally lower in the zhahir?” He referred to the measure used to calculate the value of investment shares.

L’anriyl gestured to the Dev’rytaran Herald. “Sunairi? It’s a Herald’s calculation.”

He shrugged. “It’s a Lord’s calculation, in the final analysis. But, look— the zhahir is basically an arbitrary monetary value, a legal fiction. Lord Ra’anir had the choice of righting half a dozen Holders Minor to increase shal production, or righting the Gatherers’ Guilds. Guildfolk generally cluster in small holdings or hamlets, and although they’re denser in cluster population impact, they’re strung out to have a much lower cahrrhan cost in any one niche. So they support a larger karil-right— greater population. Ra’anir Valley had two bad waves of barren-fever seventeen and eighteen years ago. Work it out.”

The offworlder nodded. “So, Lord Ra’anir opted for population. But why were the Bloodfeuds focused on the Guilds? Wasn’t the Holders’ Minor’s issue with Lord Ra’anir?”

Ne’khat’s jaw dropped. “Call challenge on their liege Lord?” The unspoken “only an outlander would think of something that stupid” hung tangibly in the air. L’anriyl judged it was time to move on. She shook her napkin, and asked Cenna for the waste-kit. The others took the hint, and started packing up.

When she rejoined the groups, Ne’khat had started the chair. It hovered at about forty centimeters, the aircushion generator humming gently. It was a costly item, and L’anriyl still felt a flare of resentment at the debt-balance, but she knew she wasn’t up to a long march, and if they were to reach the shelter of Blessingcopse Wayhouse for the night’s halt, she couldn’t slow them any more than necessary. With a little sigh, she climbed into the chair. It sank slightly, but the road from Mirdanay to Varantar was dressed, so she didn’t bother to adjust it.

She looked at the charge indicator. The reservoir was full, but the intermittent sunlight promised only a moderate offset. Debt take it. She’d use the directionals; if the charge failed she’d just have to put up with being pushed the rest of the way.

Ne’khat was already behind the chair, though, fiddling with the handle. “Leave that,” she ordered. “I’ll use the directionals.”

“Yes, Elder.” He collapsed the handle without comment, and she allowed him to help maneuver the chair up the slope and onto the road crown.

By mid-afternoon, she was fidgeting a bit. If they stopped to collapse the cursed chair, it would delay them. Or, someone would have to push the empty chair just to give her a chance to walk the fidgets out. She sighed. If she stayed put and allowed her kilay to push the chair, she could at least withdraw her attention inward.

On the other hand, she’d already observed several anomalies that would need regarding in the Moot. Cenna and Ne’khat were good, but you could never have too many angles of perception.

Marin Ellgradis was walking beside her chair, matching his steps to her pace. She glanced at him, curiously. “Sain Ellgradis?”

He nodded, gravely. “Debt-favor, Elder?”

She considered. “Speak.”

“Favor me, can you tell me more of the Balance Moot, as we travel?”

Here was a solution. “No debt, Sain, if you will push this cursed chair for a bit, and allow me to walk beside you.”

Ellgradis sent a flicker of a glance at her kilay, but nodded politely. “Mine still the debt, Elder, but thanks.”

She disengaged the directional control on the aircushion and let the chair hover. The offworlder steadied it unobtrusively as she climbed out, and then engaged the handle, turning the chair on its cushion so that he was pulling it along with his right hand. He knew better than to offer her his left arm, and did not even flicker a glance over his shoulder when he felt Ne’khan looming up behind them.

Oh, that was better! She felt her senses sharpening as the walking increased her bloodflow. “What is it you wish to know, Sain Ellgradis?”

“Marin, favor me, Elder.”

“Marin, then. You have seen the Little Balances, have you not?”

“Yes. Although “Little” seems an inexact description. At the Midwinter Estimate there were nine hundred and seventy-two Reckonings considered.”

“And that but a tithe of the kaaril-lore,” she was amused. “You found it over-comprehensive?”

He shook his head. “No! No, I realize it was only a survey—but—” he hesitated.

She glanced at his face, sideways and upwards. A person wore such an expression when trying to formulate a question without giving insult. Interesting. She could almost see him abandon the query, and her curiosity got the better of her. She prompted him. “But?”

He let out a little explosive breath. “Well— you could have done the whole thing in a few minutes with just one lociridium processor. I know you have them—I saw them in the labs at Vaathir Chancel. I know they’re used at Holla Fari, at the Observatory.” He glanced at her, to see the degree of offense he might have given, but she was smiling.

“You think machines would make our jobs easier, is that it?”

He nodded.

She returned the nod. “They would, indeed.”

He waited.

“Many of the things we do could be done more quickly with machines, it is true. But think further along.” It was a favorite saying among the Savants of Veran.

“I have thought, but I have not seen,” he said, humbly. If they used just a few computing arrays, they could do all they did and more, with fewer people, faster.

“If we did these things with machines, we would become good at using machines,” L’anriyl said. “It is true, we have some. Not many. But it forces a choice. We can cultivate the ability to make a machine, and to make that machine do a job, or we can cultivate the human abilities required for the job.” She canted her head. “I know that these machines can do things of amazing complexity, with amazing speed. That they can be taught to make choices based on millions of factors, more factors even than the conscious human brain can begin to encompass.”

“Ah.”

“Yes, ‘ah.’ Just so. I heard you, at last Midwinter, ask the Canon if these are “paranormal” abilities. I believe you were referring to some of the Games?”

He remembered the feats of biocontrol, the virtuosic displays of memory, ability, seemingly preternatural reflex and anticipation, and nodded.

“Yes. I see. I think I see, anyway. You do have your own science.”

Her nose wrinkled. “Science is a very misleading word. You’ve looked at our Great Law, if I recall. Do you remember the opening words?”

“‘Veran is the evolution of humanity to our world.’”

“Just so. Machines can ‘adapt.’ Machines can identify the causes in a causation chain. But only humans can ask ‘why?’”

Her steps were slowing. “And that is perhaps the best short explanation I can give you of a Balance Moot. It is where we ask ‘why?’” She glanced over her shoulder, lifted an eyebrow at her kilay. “And now it is time for me to resume my chair, Marin.”

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