Terry MacDonald

Apr 112013
 

Read me the story

For every effect is itself a cause, just as every cause proceeds from prior causes. So was the Divine Warrior doomed to fight battle after battle, each battle the effect of the previous and the cause of the next. Not until He saw the tyranny of the temporal imperative was it given Him to cleave Time and open the Gates of Eternity.
Immutable Truths, v. 7-8
The Book of the Third Avatar
New Standard Revision

coffee tokenThe only possible justification for conquering Veran, Senior Lieutenant Rynart Joklan reflected, was that the alternatives, in their limited array, were all so much worse. He shook his head, trying to clear it of the thought. Mordant humor was common these days but it had never been his style. He broke the tab on his ration pak and waited for the red line to appear. He didn’t think much of Fleet catering, although you couldn’t deny that they were dealing with the overload pretty well.

“Hey, Ryn.” The voice came from behind him, and he turned his head, looking up enquiringly.

“Hey, Mat! Grab a ratpak and park the fundament.”

He was peeling the seal back from his own pak when his friend returned. “Haven’t seen you since…” Joklan stopped himself. No one referred to the past if they could help it, these days. “Well, congrats on the promotion, anyways. First in our class to make Kenterum, no less.”

Donley shrugged. “Just means you get chewed out by Colonels and Hartmans instead of Hartmans and Majors. I saw your name on the manifest but I’ve been on deadwatch all the way, so far. And they’ve got this crate so crammed full of bodies you’d never find your legs if they weren’t attached to your ass.”

Joklan glanced around. The mess compartment was pretty quiet compared to the usual mob scene, but then he was usually sleeping by this time. “It’s not bad, at that. Maybe I should put in for a duty transfer. Gotta be better than wetnursing a bunch of civilian eggheads.”

“Yeah, I heard you were moving in exalted circles. Practically the inner-inner, heh? So maybe you can answer the question everybody and his squadmen are asking.”

Joklan took a spoonful of reddish-brown stuff, lifted it to his mouth, chewed meditatively for a moment, and swallowed. “Chili, I think.” He eyed Donley. “Ask, O Seeker. The Oracle hears.”

Donley snorted. “Oracle. Two years in an Intel battalion and he’s an Oracle now. So riddle me this, oh well-informed one: Why in the name of the Holy Warrior and all His Avatars are we taking this much ordnance to dance with a bunch of sword-wielding savages? And for that matter, why in the name of the Warrior’s Blessed Bride are we dancing with savages at all? Whose brilliant brainstorm was that? Faithful Seekers want to know.” He spooned up some greenish-brown glop from his own ration pak and shoveled it in. His nose wrinkled. “Moogoo Gaipan. Bleah.”

Joklan assumed a consciously superior smile, and shook his head pityingly. “Such assumptions, my son. It’s easy to see that someone, despite his exalted rank, hasn’t been listening with attention to his Mission Updates.”

“Awww, haven’t you heard? Flitter jockeys are exempt from everything but flight briefings.”

“Oh, that’s right. Can’t risk overloading the limited cognitive abilities required for pilot training,” Joklan grinned, then lost the grin abruptly. “Actually, your questions come very apropos, in spite of the unreasonable assumptions.”

“Unreasonable how? Are you going to tell me that they’re not sword-wielding savages? And yes, I know about the whattayacallems, the Guardians, with their flash pistols and their concussion blasters and their sonic artillery and beam cascaders and feckall. But there’s only three thousand of them, right? There’s twenty-eight thousand of us. And our ordnance has a considerable edge over beam cascaders.”

“We think there’s three thousand of them. Crap, Mat, do you have any idea how little we actually know about these jonzos, not to mention the planet they’re on?”

Donley shrugged. “What’s to know? They’re Anachronists, right? Bunch of back-to-primitive-purity types, playing noble savage beyond the perimeter of inhabited space. Nutjob infidels with some kind of fetish about nature. Why them? We couldn’t find anyplace a little more, uh, civilized, to go for?”

“No,” Joklan said baldly. He was scraping his spoon around the main compartment of the ratpak, now, getting every last chunk. “We couldn’t. There isn’t a feckin’ thing within reach that will both get us off the Galactibank scanners, and provide a safe haven and the resources we need to rebuild the colony. Oh, great, cherry cobbler,” he gazed down into the supplementary compartment and made a face. Everyone hated the ratpak version of cherry cobbler, which tasted like cardboard soaked in cherry antifreeze.

“Lucky you. I got… mmmmm, chocolate profiteroles,” Donley spooned up a chunk of soggy, brown-streaked wrapping paper. I don’t get that thing about the Galactibanks. Did they really mean that, about all of us being subject to the Default Clauses?”

“Every double-decayed word of it, my friend. As soon as the Klaros colony is officially in default, we can expect every mercenary outfit this side of the Hub to descend on us, confiscate every confiscable asset—including all of us trained sojers, don’cha know—write up debt-bond contracts for everyone, and start the auction, selling everything—again, including us—to the highest bidder. Thus dispersing the Creator’s Chosen throughout the decadent heretical worlds of the Hub. So, in their infinite and Divinely-inspired wisdom, our revered Oligarchs decided that the only viable (and doubtless, Divinely-ordained) course of action is to sneak off the scanners, find ourselves a planet that will support life with the pittance of resources we have on hand, and breed ourselves back up to a respectable threat to interstellar peace and security, in a few centuries or so. That’s the strategic summary, you understand.”

“Timps, whatta feckup.” Donley crumpled his ratpak, spoon, and napkin, narrowed his eyes at the cloaca inlet on the bulkhead opposite the table, and lofted the wad neatly to oblivion without touching the sides. “I think I’ve earned me a coffee.”

For all the offenses of Fleet catering, the coffee aboard the Time Ripper atoned nobly. Unfortunately, like everything else, it was on ration. There was a brisk trade in coffee ration chips among wardroom poker players. Donley fished a handful from his pocket, and glanced at his friend. “I’m feeling generous, O Oracle. Wanna cup?”

“Thy sins are forgiven thee, my son. Plus I owe you one.” Joklan was a lousy poker player. Chess was his game.

Donley shoved two chips across the table. “You can do the fetching, then.”

Joklan disposed of his own debris and returned with two cups of steaming, heavenly-smelling, lifesaving fluid. “Here. I evaluated them both. This one’s better, so you can have it.”

“You dickhead.” Donley eyed the cup, which was not quite full. “You drank out of it!”

“Hey. Evaluation is my job. Don’t thank me,” Joklan grinned benevolently.

They sipped in silence for a few moments. Around them, personnel drifted in, in ones and twos, to draw their midwatch ration paks. There was a low hum of conversation, but no one was sitting nearby.

When Donley spoke, it was in a different tone of voice. “You aren’t too happy about this Veran thing.”

Joklan shrugged. “I’m just a lowly analyst. The Lord Commander doesn’t share his strategic and tactical planning sessions with me, neither does Old Steeleye.” He used the nickname for General-Hartman Ursek, the Intel Chief—a reference to the mythical Eagle who spied out the ground for the battles of the Divine Warrior.

“Well, the Lord Commander has an unbroken string of victories, my friend. Against opponents far more formidable than a bunch of Anachronist sword-swingers.”

“Maybe. I mean, yes, his victories are impressive… Timps, we would have mopped up Hecht and handed it to the First Legion on a gold plate if we’d had a couple more weeks, and Hecht was a tough rock to shatter. But as Old Steeleye says, what we don’t know can really hurt us. And we don’t know so much about Veran it makes me hurt just to think about it.”

“What’s to know? You think Caslon’s out of date? Inaccurate?” He referred to Caslon’s All the Colonized Planets, the standard almanac of the Hub, maintained and regularly updated by the University League, and published by a Galactibank publishing consortium.

“It’s not that. Well, it’s a little out of date—they don’t update on fringey systems like Veran more than once a decade or so—but that’s not a lot of information. And we don’t have a whole lot else. Articles in various publications, U-League archives, an Independent Fleet trade facilitation package and some intercepts between I-Fleet traders and various military hardware suppliers… and that’s it, brother. That’s all.”

Donley was startled. “You’re right, that’s not much,” he said slowly. “Why so little?”

Joklan shrugged again, a little uncomfortably. “It’s never been on any of our regular watch programs—for Bridesake, who’d ever have imagined we’d give a ping about it? And after the mess-up, the last thing we’d want to do is draw attention to our, ah, interest. So we had to go with what was on file. And that’s pretty much feckall.”

Chimes sounded on the ship’s intercom, five tones. They finished their coffee, and stood.

“Well, I know you don’t have much confidence in luck, Ryn. But you can’t play poker for crap. Me, if I’m going to bet on anyone’s luck, it’ll be the Lord Commander’s.”

“It’s not the Lord Commander’s luck that worries me,” Joklan said drily. “Let’s face it, Mat. Klaros Colony’s luck is one long string of cloaca flushes, for a long time now.”

Donley grimaced acknowledgment as he headed out the hatchway that led to the flight decks.

Apr 052013
 

Read me the story
monozygotic

Of all politics, family politics are the worst. For sheer, bloody-minded, cutthroat viciousness, nothing can match the games played in families. But I’d never expected to kill my brother, for all the times I wanted to. I’m a peaceful type, in spite of all the combat arts training and the marksmanship medals.

Although, if it hadn’t been for Hiro, I never would have taken all those combat arts classes. I learned very early on that I’d need to protect myself. I was his personal punching bag for some years, and he was expert at not leaving marks or evidence.

When we were about seven, one of the House Security officers discovered me curled up under a table in a back hall, soaking wet, shivering, rocking with pain and trying to stifle the noise. Hirotai had jumped me in the grown-ups’ bathroom, and used the high-pressure sprayer. There were no security monitors in the grown-ups’ bathroom. For some reason, our bathroom door hadn’t opened when I tried it. Hiro was good at stuff like that.

“Arti? It’s Arti, isn’t it?”

I’d nodded, still unable to talk coherently.

She’d studied me for a minute, then hauled me gently out, frowning as I winced. She’d called another security staffer to relieve her, and taken me into the staff lounge to dry off. Then she made me drink a cup of hot camsang tea, heavily laced with honey. When I finally stopped shivering, she asked me what happened.

I wasn’t going to tell her. It had already been made clear to me that my father considered me a “gutless whiner,” and my mother believed that my problems were the result of “not thinking positive thoughts.”

The House Security staff had their orders. I’m sure they would have intervened had Hiro actually tried to kill me within range of any of the monitors. But they knew how the pecking order worked, and they liked their jobs.

“Alright, Arti. You don’t have to tell me if you don’t want to.” She’d just sat quietly with me for a while, then started talking about the combat arts classes at the Minorki Club. Not that she belonged to the Club, of course. But she was an instructor in her off time, for a little extra cash.

Mother had always encouraged us to find interests at the Club, to “play with the other youngsters.” It gave her more time to attend gallery showings and luncheons.

My diligence paid off and Hiro let up on the physical attacks. I still had to check my bed every night, monitor the power systems in my room, and learn a whole range of skills to keep my datafiles unhackable. All of this might have played out to my advantage. We were expected to grow up smart, and vicious. It was a family tradition, after all.

Theoretically, Hirotai and I shared exactly the same DNA: monozygotic twins. We were raised together. You know all that stuff you’ve heard about twins? Some of it’s true. We had our own language— Hiro used it to let me know when I was “in for it.” We could tell, sometimes, what each other were thinking. That saved my life a couple of times. Didn’t save Hiro.

But some of it—“twin bonding?”— we had a bond, of sorts. Maybe on some twin-consciousness level we knew, like the old tridee series Night Whispers: ‘Only one may live.’

I don’t remember anyone spelling it out, explicitly. But we always knew what we were: Pieces in a very high-stakes game for power in the Orms family. Our father had written a fertility clause into the pair-buyin contract; mother had complied. They had paid extra for in-utero gene therapy to maximize the expression of 72 selected gene-complex coordinates prior to the twinning. High-end stuff, nothing like run-of-the-mill genmod work. Not cheap, not cheap at all.

Father got what he wanted: We tested out off the high end of the scales at our first four Annual Evaluations. We were tracked for the Caventysh Academy on Retsa Starna from the time we were five, immediate admission at twelve— the earliest age allowed. But I never got there. By the time I was twelve, I’d already been in the Kovik Youth Authority facility for over a year.

I didn’t blame my father for not buying me out of the rap. On some level, I felt I deserved it. It had been a better-than-even chance, in my near-instant realtime threat assessment, that the ‘armed intruder’ reported by the security system was Hirotai.

And somewhere under the adrenaline-pumped terror and excitement, there had been a cynical voice in my head speculating that if it worked, he’d claim with convincing sorrow and distress that it was a “prank gone wrong.” And get away with it. And if it hadn’t worked, it would just be a “prank” that didn’t come off, and he’d get docked some minor privilege. Or not, if he claimed he was just testing House Security.

We were expected to be bright, tricky, and aggressive.

But it could have been a genuine intruder, a real assassination attempt, focusing on the children’s wing, aimed at my little brother, or my sisters. Or me. We were Orms, my father was far enough up in the hierarchy and a skilful enough player to be a threat. There were plenty of ambitious cousins. And the security breach had been effected with truly professional skill. Well done, Hiro. He’d apparently been sufficiently frustrated by my ability to lock him out of my files to do something he hated almost as much as he hated me: work.

But I didn’t know that at the time. And I didn’t know he’d built a most clever and untraceable “poison pill” destruct failsafe into his stealth gear and weapon. All I knew was that someone in stealth gear was coming, armed with a seriously lethal Denjik-9 hound-bot.

With a hound-bot, my instructors had emphasized, your best hope is to destroy the operator before he activates it.

They didn’t tell me what to do when the stealth gear dissolved into a shapeless blob that might have been a cheap Karnaval domino, and the headless corpse underneath was dreadfully familiar.

Nor what to do when the hound-bot devolved to a pile of components that was apparently an elaborate version of the ordinary Karnaval effects generators that created lights, music, and holoprojections. It had been three days before the first day of New Year.

Mar 132013
 

Read me the story
invasionColonel Father Jartyl Haldred wasn’t surprised by the summons (phrased as a polite request, of course) to meet with Lord Commander Karth Tallis. In addition to serving as the Director General of the Chaplain’s Corps for the Second Legion, he’d been Tallis’ assigned Chaplain for more than twenty years. It was a working relationship, not personal, but it was productive for both of them.

The Lord Commander was not alone. General Hartman Ralin, the new Senior Admiral, Vrag Manchuk, the Lord Commander’s Adjutant, Ord Hartman Callet, Commander Praukent, and formerly-retired General Hartman Jamed Ursek, Old Steeleye himself, were all present. There was no need to ask about the security level of this meeting. Haldred placed a silent bet with himself as to whether he’d be greeted as “Colonel Haldred” or “Father Haldred.”

He won.

“Colonel.” Tallis nodded to him. There were no introductions. They all knew each other, at least by sight and reputation.

Haldred took an empty seat and hoped he was adequately prepared.

Praukent was apparently doyen for this confab. “The Oligarchs have reviewed the recommended course of action with reference to Klaros 3. As you anticipated, Jamed, they did not approve the Guran Wen option. They leave the choice between Vynar Nisk’ta and Veran to us, but the Supreme Commander’s opinion is that they lean strongly to the Veran option, based on known population variables. And it is likely the softer target.”

The Commander exchanged a glance with Old Steeleye, who shrugged. “I’ve said my say.”

“You have.” Tallis nodded. “But for a good many reasons that have nothing to do with military strategy, we’re targeting Veran. Expeditionary planning’s underway, as speed is very much of the essence.”

Praukent continued. “Planning for long-term civilian occupation dictates that the Expeditionary force will carry both a large contingent of civilian engineers and technicians, and a Church Legate and Secretariat.” He touched the presentation control, and a chart appeared.

“Our Civil Advisor will be Imberton Baleth, a sub-Minister from Rations,” Praukent tapped a name. “But his Engineering Consultant, one Kelm Poquard, is likely to be pulling most of the strings. Director of Materials Manipulation at Center University. Our Engineers think we can work with him. He’ll be focusing primarily on adapting habitat and adding capacity for our population. Baleth will be keeping tabs on things for the Speaker.”

There were nods. All of CivAdmin’s Seated Members tried to ensure they had a couple of mid- to high-level snouts in each others’ Bureaus. Baleth’s brief would be mainly watching, but he’d toss up an elbow if either the military leadership or the Church looked like making a grab for CivAdmin power.

“What do we know about Baleth?” Manchuk rumbled.

Praukent shrugged. “Career ’crat. Exec-class family connected loosely to Parkel interests. Been solidly parked in the Moonstation administration of Rations for the past four years and looked to remain parked. Married for eighteen years, three children. Shareholder in three Democratic Companies.”

“And this Legate?” Ralin glanced at Haldred, one eyebrow-fragment lifted.

Haldred nodded. “Lorgan Edrell was a Senior Interlocutor for Doctrinal Purity, before his elevation to, uh, Assistant Home Provincial for Klaros 3, and Cardinal Legate. He has the reputation of an ambitious man, I believe.” He said no more, but there was no pressure to do so in the short silence that followed. The implications of an ambitious prelate being appointed to the post of Legate would be appreciated, variously, by everyone present.

Praukent switched the display to a timeline. The tension in the room thickened perceptibly.

“This is the overriding factor in tactical map construction: Time. More so even than usual. Our schedule is dictated by economic logistics and population management. Transit: About ten thousand hours. We are allocated a generous two thousand hours for military operations. Another two thousand hours for engineering and preparation for the colony landing, including habitat preparation. A very generous thousand hours or so for contingency.”

Haldred swallowed. Even a Chaplain could correctly asses this as borderline realistic in a situation with plenty of reliable intel. Surimaka Delta had come in just under three thousand hours for Second Legion operations, with another fifteen hundred hours to set up habitats and infrastructure civilian Protectorate administration colony.

Ursek’s smile was grim. “So they’re giving us a five thousand hour head start. They think they can hold off the wolves that long. The First Legion and Fleet will manage the evacuation of existing protectorates, bases, and other facilities, and rendezvous with the evacuation from Moonstation and the Insystem facilities. They’ll show up at Klaros 3 five thousand hours or so after we get there.”

The Lord Commander’s voice was carefully expressionless. “Therefore, gentlemen, our strategic matrix will be dictated by the need for speed first, and the need to preserve and pacify the native population second.” He glanced at Old Steeleye, and nodded.

Ursek returned the nod. “That doesn’t mean, however, that we can sacrifice the second priority, as it will be the most critical determinant of long-term success. We need those population resources.”

“We know far too little about them to construct a detailed profile that will allow us to fine-tune at this point. We have to assume, based on what we do have, that the ideological and philosophical goals that inspired them to adopt a semi-anachronist Charter have shaped their cultural motivators over the colony’s history- more than fifteen hundred R-Years of it. So a key tactical consideration will be the early establishment of an anthropological database, and development of tactical modeling inputs based on that database as it evolves.”

Old Steeleye’s gaze turned to Haldred. It reminded him of how the General Hartman had gotten the nickname.

Haldred swallowed, but he was prepared. “The Church has, from time to time, discussed the theological basis of conversion. Naturally, the loss of half a billion of the Creator’s Chosen has re-ignited this discussion. But the doctrinal basis for Chosen status remains unambiguous: The transmission, from father to children, of the Divine Imperative. Children of converts attain Chosen status not from the profession of the father, but from their eventual union with a Bride or Warrior of the Chosen, and the children of that union are naturally Chosen themselves.”

Manchuk gave an impatient nod—everyone knew this—but the Lord Commander was sitting back, attentive and apparently relaxed.

“Given the doctrinal clarity on the conversion issue, the Church is unlikely to divert already-stretched resources to missionary practice on Klaros 3. However, the ongoing theological debate on the question of whether union with an infidel who has not converted, invalidates transmission of the Divine Imperative, can be regarded as settled. The Cardinal Prelate is even now formulating a Doctrinal Memorandum clarifying that while the union of a Chosen woman with an infidel will produce Lost children, the union of a Chosen man with an infidel will transmit the Divine Imperative in full, to produce Chosen children.”

No one was surprised.

Praukent glanced at Ursek, and shrugged. “I’m not sure this will be as large a factor on the early tactical map, although I agree with regards to the long-term implications. We can assume substantial initial casualties if the native population undertakes armed resistance, but we’re dealing with Anachronists, here, not Hub infidels. The casualties are more likely to be among the male population- the fighters. And with, what— twenty-eight million or thereabouts? –we can afford a high casualty rate. Might even be beneficial in the long run.”

Haldred’s indignation overcame his calculated good sense. “We cannot think like that! The Creator values all His creation, even the Lost and the infidels.”

Manchuk shrugged. “We are doing His work, we are His Chosen. Isn’t the re-vitalization of His Church a worthy death that will open the Gates of Eternity, even for the Lost and the infidels?”

“Enough. We can presume substantial casualties, but we do not have sufficient intel to determine the effects of those casualties. Therefore we’ll start by the application of overwhelming, but targeted and focused, tactics aimed at producing a victory while limiting casualties to combatants.” When the Lord Commander used that voice, discussion of a particular topic was finished.

“Operational planning will begin on that basis, and proceed on an accelerated timeline. Divisional assessments will be in the Intel database fifty hours from now. We’ll have a workable pre-Ops plan in seventy-five hours. Logistics will have two hundred hours to implement and the Expedition will depart,” he glanced at the chrono projection, “In three hundred hours.”

The meeting was over.

“The widest gate for evil to enter Time is not the heart of a man bent on doing it, but those comfortable rooms where well-intentioned groups of men make practical plans for attaining the greatest good of the greatest number.” Father Haldred found himself recalling the day in Divinity School when they’d studied the writings of Avatar Kanstan. That long-ago discussion had been in relation to the Civ, of course—the management of Democratic Companies and the CivAdmin. The Mutiny had just been crushed.

He avoided thinking about why it had popped into his mind today.

Mar 012013
 

Read me the story
convapodSomething was beeping somewhere. Too loud to ignore, but not loud enough to give a clear sense of pitch or rhythm. It came and went. It was… annoying.

Eventually it was annoying enough for Deran Chagarth to notice.

There wasn’t anything else to notice, in the formless iteration of consciousness provided by a convapod. But the sensation of noticing the annoying noise added enough stimulus to simple awareness to begin coalescing into a more complex awareness. Chagarth became aware of existence, first.

Some time later it occurred to him that existence implied identity. He rummaged around the available concepts to see if any of them would attach to “self.” But they hovered tantalizingly out of reach. And it was too much effort to go after them. Much easier not to try.

Time floated past him, spiraling slowly. It seemed to have qualities, but again nothing to which he could attach concepts. It occurred to him that it would be useful to have a way to differentiate and define… things. Ideas. Thoughts. Awareness. Thoughts…

That produced something definite. Defined. Thoughts. There. “Thoughts.” It was a… word.

The time that had been spiraling leisurely past him seemed to rush into a tightening vortex, and then he lost awareness of it in that form. But another word appeared. “Time.” “Time” was… “passing,” yes. A linear process. The spiral was gone, replaced by this unsatisfying linear progression.

Words. He had four, so far. “Thoughts.” “Word.” “Time.” “Passing.” It was a lot. It felt heavy. Consciousness receded.

In the control module of Medbay 2 aboard the Taskmaster, Ord-Colonel Helset Morvaine reviewed the neuroscans from convapod 9c and frowned. Very slow comeback from Trooper… she glanced at the chart readout, Trooper Chagarth. A further review of the chart enlightened. Chagarth had been on the very limits of the triage criteria for cryostasis and revival. If the surrender hadn’t come through just as they were dispatching Medcorps for pickup, he’d probably have been downchecked and left dead.

She glanced at Major Qualar, their cryo expert. “Options?”

He pursed his lips, eyes narrowing. “We can try neurostim, or give it more time. The neurostim… we’ve had good results with the cad-GABA nanites, but we’re almost out of those. We’d probably have to use the Adran-4 sequence, and that…” he trailed off.

Her grimace matched his. The Adran-4 nanite suite was a specific for neurological trauma repair, and Chagarth’s brain hadn’t sustained any. Oxygen deprivation and toxic saturation from the aspiration of chemical byproducts of suit environmental systems failure were a different type of problem altogether. In some similar cases the Adran nanites had been known to actually cause injury. “Well, we’re not in a hurry, for a change. Let’s leave it for now.”

Qualar scanned the chart and agreed.

They turned their attention to the next convapod just as the shipwide alert tone sounded.

“All personnel, prepare for loading and transit. All personnel, prepare for loading and transit. Transit will commence at 2300.”

“What in Kronnos…?”

Colonel Morvaine shook her head. “No idea. I thought we were on station.”

The Major sighed. “No one ever tells the Medcorps.”

The Colonel’s handunit signaled. “Hey, look! Someone’s going to tell the Medcorps something, apparently.” She scanned the instructions. All Divisional Staff chiefs and seconds required at a… “security briefing?” she murmured.

She exchanged eye-rolls with the Major, just as the Medcorps Division Chief, General Kenterum Orlot, pinged her unit.

“And it seems that I’ll need to take over for Scharnav, on the Steelflame, while he accompanies the boss to HQ. Great. Do the best you can, Javak. I think we had all the evac personnel accounted for, but there’s still that skiff on the supply run. Make sure the Loading Officer knows we’ll be using extra supply cubage.” The Major nodded and threw her a salute as she left the bay control module.

Back in convapod 9c, a random series of stimulations—sound, light, tactile—continued slowly, timed by the unit’s analytical processor based on its assessment of Chagarth’s brain activity. Now and again, consciousness surfaced. The battle between a subconscious that believed in his death, regarding the concept of consciousness too painful and demanding to endure, and the ongoing currents of life flowing through the brain’s physical architecture, continued.

(Special thanks to TWYRAH for sound assistance. You know who you are.)

Feb 192013
 

Read me the story
vivid deathThe evening after she raised Veran Banner, the Lady drew me aside, after the daysend meal.

“Ilvren, I need you to return, now, to thinking as a Guardian.”

This I had been anticipating. Raising Veran Banner now could mean only one thing—that the Lady had determined to continue resisting the barbarian invaders, and that implied military action of some variety.

“My life is Veran’s, Lady.”

She looked at me for a long moment, then nodded. “Let us, then, summarize what is known. First: The invaders are indeed techno-barbarians, world-killers from the Hub. They issue their demands in the name of a place called Klaros.”

This was new information to me and had doubtless been included in the information brought by Captain Matyas’ bird relay. “Alas, Lady, the study of the Hub and its many powers and worlds was not part of my Guardian training. I can tell you nothing of these particular barbarians.”

She accepted disappointment philosophically. “Second: The King perished at a great battle in the foothills of Quavi north of Traaki Citadel, to the west of Gallyvaran Pass, nine- no, ten, now- days ago.” She canted her head. “Speculate upon the implications of this, please.”

I was already feeling the old thought-patterns sliding into place. It was not dissimilar to a planning exercise during Practice Wars.

“We know the blood-banners were sent forth the day we set forth from Bellflower House. That leaves a period of nine days for the levies and Militias to gather to their muster-points. The Traaki Citadel was already overcome, so the principal gathering would have been at either Nendaari House or the Charter City of Pequavil. Both are designated muster points. Nine days…” I tried to recall what I had known of the strength estimates for those karils, but most of my actual experience had been in the west.

“Perhaps eighteen thousand Militia, and another sixty thousand levies. The supply caches at Pequavil, Missar Valley, Old Syxarth, and Nendaar Gorge would have been available, and anything scavenged from Traaki.”

She frowned. “But Traaki was destroyed on the first day.”

I realized that she would, in all probability, know little of the matters concerning the Guardians and the Emergency Protocols.

“If the Captain of a Citadel judges an attack to be of clearly overwhelming force, his primary objective becomes to enable as many Guardians as possible to escape, using secret ways, and taking as much as possible of the Citadel’s materiel. It is certain that at Traaki, Captain Erillas will have made that decision.”

Her brows were drawn together, assimilating this. She nodded for me to continue.

“In any case, Lady, however many Guardians survived to fight at Quavi, they will all have perished quickly. To preserve the King’s life, and remove him from the battle zone to a planned fallback fortification would have been the task of the most skilled and best-equipped fighters that the Marshal could appoint. If this was not accomplished, it would seem to indicate that these Klarosians attacked in overwhelming force, and quickly destroyed all of the Royal forces.”

“It’s likely, however, that the Mayor of the Palace and other key Royal Officers will have not been at the battle site, and some may have survived. They will be making their way to dispersed muster points, and enquiries there may give us more information. Information is what we need the most. We cannot formulate much more than a broad strategy until we know more about what we are facing.”

Again, she nodded. “And that broad strategy…”

“Well, the basic strategy in a barbarian invasion scenario has always been the same, Lady.”

Her eyes darkened, the pupils dilating with emotion, but she did not speak, merely nodded again for me to continue.

“Increase the cost of their objective to where they will abandon the attempt to achieve it.”

“And what is that strategy likely to cost us?” She asked, her tone both dryly ironic, and curiously fearful, as though she knew the answer but hoped to be proven wrong.

“Lives, Lady. Many, many lives. Perhaps millions.”

Her eyes dropped, and there was a long silence, before she thanked and dismissed me.

We stayed another night at the Lyrin Chancel. The Lady sent one of the marsh women back with a message for Captain Matyas; she left with the Chancel’s debt-send in the form of metal slugs and powdered dryland herbs. The rest of the morning, the Lady spent with Leifara and Canon Lennari, preparing the messages that would send the banner forth throughout all Veran. No more, just now, than that the blood-banner of Veran was raised—that would suffice to let all the karils and Great Houses know that she lived, and thus Veran lived, and the world-killers had not prevailed.

After daymeal, I was summoned to Canon Lennari’s chambers. He and Elder Kevrilaasya, Leifara and the Lady, were gathered there, discussing Chancel business. The Canon and the Elder greeted me politely, and then took their leave.

“Ilvren, we must set forth the possibilities for our course,” the Lady began, without preamble. She seemed less weary and tense than at the banner-raising.

I nodded. “I am at Veran’s service.”

“I must assume that the Marshal of the Guard is dead, and the eastern and western Captains-Major, too. I have no experience in military matters, nor do I feel hopeful that military action—as I understand it, and my understanding is limited, I grant—will serve our purpose well. Nevertheless, it is a fight, and I must now lead warriors. You must teach me what you can.”

I nodded.

“You told me of Citadel Captains’ strategies—buying time for Guardians to escape, for the salvage of weapons and materials.”

“Yes. In the Protocols, that strategy goes by the name of Relnara, after the plant that scatters itself as it dies, to live again from each piece.”

She smiled. “How apt.”

“Precisely so, Lady. Like relnara nodules, surviving Guardians will be dispersing themselves as widely as possible, and seeking the resources which will enable them to raise a new generation of fighters.”

“Ahhhh…” Her eyes narrowed in comprehension, and she nodded for me to continue.

“Dispersal helps to avoid competition and make efficient use of resources, and increases the chances that some may avoid the notice of our invaders, as the relnara escape the rootling snouts of mountain talgar.”

“And how should Veran use this resource?”

“We do not yet have enough information to determine that, Lady. We must know more of the enemy.”

Her brows drew together. “But you were a Guardian, Ilvren—surely you know how barbarians fight?”

“In general I do. But as to particulars—there are thousands of worlds in the Hub. They share some technology and an economic framework, but little else. How an enemy fights is only one aspect of the intelligence we need to be effective against them. Why they fight… who they are, how they conceive of themselves… what tactics they favor, what they avoid… their strategic biases…” I shrugged. “It is all important.”

Her eyes were on mine, intent, narrowed a little. “I see. It is like striking a balance. You can’t be effective until you understand how all the elements fit together. How will we learn this?”

I had been turning an idea over in my head for some time. Not an attractive idea to me, personally, but personal considerations no longer held merit.

“We are making for the Westmarch. There is one there who might provide a starting place.”

“A Westmarcher?”

I nodded. “He is the brother of Westmarch’s mother’s mother. He served four terms in the Guardians and became Elder Preceptor of the War Academy, before he retired. The Hub and its worlds were his particular study—I believe he even took ship with an Independent Fleet trader once, and visited some Hub worlds. Back in my mother’s time.”

“If he is still alive,” I added, belatedly. “Arrestar must be over a hundred and twenty by now.”

“We will hope he is still alive.”

Feb 182013
 

Read me the story

TargetsMOST SECRET:

Transcript

Strategic Briefing to the High Command

General-Hartmann Jamed Ursek

“The notion of planetary conquest may be a crazy one, but then, we may all qualify as madmen anyway. How else? With our homes destroyed, our families dead, our colony facing bankruptcy and repossession, ourselves facing forced debt-contracts for sale by the Hub Galactibanks that hold the colony’s notes, insanity seems the least of our concerns. Let’s concentrate on feasibility, instead.

There isn’t even anyone to blame, since whichever ham-handed idiot stumbled onto the catalytic reaction at Rayki Weapons Lab, was certainly the first to die. We can only pray that the death that engulfed half a billion of the Creator’s Faithful within hours was a swift and painless transition to Eternity.

The Church promises it was so. And they have presented us with a rationale for planetary conquest: The dissolution of the Klaros Colony would mean oblivion for the True Faith, scattering believers among the heretics and heathens of the Hub, and placing them under the influence of the corrupt anti-Church of the Old Colonies.

Therefore, they as well as the CivAdmin have proposed the remedy: Find another planet to become Klaros III. And since our about-to-be-bankrupt condition rules out the normal route of contracting with one of the big terraforming combines to transform a fresh planet into a human habitat, we’ll have to steal one. A planet already inhabited.

And it will have to be from someone who can’t put up much of a fight. We have plenty of military assets left, since most of them had been off-planet among the various Protectorates, mining facilities, or Insystem bases, but there is no longer a colonial infrastructure of population and resources to replenish personnel and supplies. We must be very careful about how we spend what remains.

The chosen planet will have to be situated so as to take us off the scanplots of those who would be eager to pick our colonial bones dry as soon as the news of the disaster percolates through the far-flung communications network of the Hub. Better than a thousand hours, by subspace transit, from the thickly settled clusters of the Central nexi. Someplace our remnant population of nearly a million can hole up for a couple of centuries and breed itself back into a respectable threat to Galactic peace and security.

Oh, yes—and someplace with plenty of women. With the exception of the population center around the Moonbase complex—Pykalt and its various exurbs, the Treasuredome recreational resort, and a couple of female monasteries of the escape-the-world variety, none of the surviving clusters of Klarosians has much in the way of female population. Men currently outnumber women by better than ten to one. Which leaves a most unfavorable ratio for the Divine mandate of propagation laid upon the Faithful. One way or another, we’ll need to get more women into the mix.

Although somewhat impeded by the necessity of maintaining sequestration from the standard datanets, my staff have identified three potential targets:

Target one is a Vynar mining base, colonized for its location in a system whose Kuiper Belt was assayed rich in transuranics. The planet still has a good hundred years or more left in its terraformed lifecycle, but the Vynar has been pulling their people out to work a new claim much nearer to the mother colony. Whether they’d devote substantial resources to defending and/or reclaiming the relatively minor remnant on Vynar-Nisk’ta is doubtful at best. However, it is a bit less than a thousand hours interstellar from the Pvronich Cluster, the nearest Hub commerce center and Mercantile Authority subsector.

The second target is a Rim daughter of Wen Amashi, colonized fairly recently, far enough off the main axis of Wen’shi population to make its defense problematic. The downside here is the Wen’shi reputation for ferocious tenacity. It is just possible that they’d mount a real defense—and if they do, they are a pretty even match for us. The other downside: The Wen’shi are heretics of the Neo-Tritemprian cult, which would expose the Faithful to a particularly pernicious form of spiritual contamination. The Church may find this target problematic.

The third target is called Veran, a thousand hours interstellar from Klaros and perhaps half again that from the nearest Hub commerce nexus. What little intelligence we had on it comes from a sketchy entry in Caslon’s All The Colonized Planets, a few Independent Trade Fleet references and old University League records. It’s well off Hub scanplots, its sole contacts with the rest of human-inhabited space being an occasional I-Fleet trader. It is reputed to have decent planetary defenses primarily of the orbital type, to discourage potential piracy, and a small contingent of modestly-equipped planetary forces. It was initially colonized by some fringe group of Anachronist fanatics to be a non-tech colony, so long ago that little information is available on its charter and terraforming. But non-tech colonies had much longer terraform lifecycles, and the few recent I-Fleet references indicated that its habitation resources remain substantial.”

Dec 232012
 

Read me the story
"Wings of Infinity" insignia of the Supreme CommanderThe Joint Command meeting was the first opportunity for Klaros’ military leadership to discuss strategy. Now that the Lord Commander of the Second Legion was back from Hecht, they could begin figuring out how to clean up after what might have been the biggest military fuckup in human history—although the military was, naturally, attributing it to civilian contractors’ disregard for safety procedures. No one would ever know, and by now, blame was irrelevant.

The Supreme Commander had to be replaced as the first order of business. Senior Admiral Drell had been Acting Supreme Commander based on his status as the ranking surviving Command officer in Klarosian space, but now the Command Staff would be required to confirm that position. Tallis was the wild card. Lord Commander Taglev had died, along with the Supreme Commander, when the Conflagration had engulfed Jait Hurst, and Lord Commander Kestarrat had perished with the rest of the Home Legion’s High Command at Morj Alpha.

It had taken awhile to sort out the surviving chain of command for the First and Home Legions, but Garch Vardak of the Pykalt/Insystem regiment had been in line for promotion to Commander anyway, so it wasn’t much of a stretch for him to take over the Home Legion. There had been some back-and-forth among the surviving First Legion Command, but seniority had won out. It was just a lucky fluke that the Third Corps’ Commander Strun had been on his way back from an inspection tour of the maintenance depot at Marduk base.

Tallis was technically senior to Drell—his date of promotion was more than a year prior to the Senior Admiral’s. And the last Supreme Commander from Fleet had been Stabnov, of Mutiny infamy. Some senior Legion officers had been muttering about deciding Supreme Command “the old way,” and no one doubted that Drell would have no chance against Tallis on the takho, if it did come to a challenge.

“Are you going to take him?”

Grotal Ralin was one of the few people who could, by reason of long friendship as well as cold nerve, put such a question to the Lord Commander.

The two men had been reviewing the promotion lists for Second Legion senior ranks. Neither had slept much since arriving at Orbital Base One, the new location (by default) for the Military High Command of Klaros.

Tallis’ eyes glittered. “We really can’t afford self-indulgence in the High Command.”

Ralin barked a laugh. “How long has it been since you’ve had a good spar?”

“We were on our way to Hecht.” Tallis’ tone was dry.

“Well, the question remains. Even without a challenge, you probably have the support.”

“Can you see me as an Oligarch?”

Ralin grinned. “Someone’s got to do it.”

“I get more leverage by letting Drell have it.”

One of Ralin’s thick brows rose. “Leverage for what?”

“I can see an infinite number of strategy options that will make the level of pudu we are wading through deeper and hotter. How many potentially viable plans have you heard over the last few days?”

Ralin’s expression answered for him.

“I trust Drell to look good in the Supreme Commander’s uniform and keep the Civ and the Church off our backs. Especially if he knows he’s wearing it because I gave it to him. I do not trust Drell to manage any kind of operation that might be required to pull us out of the waste tank, assuming the Creator in His Infinite Mercy provides a feasible option.”

The Lord Commander glanced at the wall chrono. “All right, let’s get to the meeting.”

“Me?” Ralin blinked.

Tallis turned the notescreen he’d been noodling on. The final promotions list had an addition: Grotal Ralin, promoted General Hartman and appointed Chief of Staff to the Lord Commander.

“Ooh, a desk job. Just what I’ve always wanted,” he smirked.

“Enjoy it while you can.”

When they arrived at the Joint Command meeting, Drell was already there, seated in the Supreme Commander’s traditional place, but not wearing the uniform. He nodded to Tallis, warily, and got a noncommittal chin-dip in return.

Drell asked for reports. The meeting was about an hour old before someone seemed to recall the main order of business—Vardak, unsurprisingly. He grabbed the table baton, on the heels of a supply summary. Drell nodded to him calmly. “Lord Commander Vardak has the table.”

“Comrades, we have to ratify an Oligarch.” Vardak stared pugnaciously around the table as if expecting an argument.

There was a suppressed murmur from the lower table where the Generals, Admirals, and Commanders sat. Glances were exchanged, a good many eyes turned, overtly or covertly, in Tallis’ direction. He seemed unaware of the scrutiny.

“We should settle the matter, hrhrm…” Lord Commander Strun trailed off with an ambiguous throat-clearing. The wording might have been deliberately provocative, or simply infelicitous.

Drell nodded calmly. “Then it is time to appoint a Military Doyen. I suggest our Comrade, General Hartman Jamed Ursek.”

There was a pause. It was a good suggestion; when retired and reserve officers had been re-activated, Ursek had been one of the first to report. The ones poised to object, on principle, to anyone the Senior Admiral might have suggested, hesitated and lost their moment when Strun and Tallis signed their assent in the traditional way, pounding fists lightly on the table. Vardak hesitated a moment, then placed the table baton back in its place, and followed suit as a thudding chorus from the lower table ratified the choice.

As Ursek stood and walked to the high table, Drell rose from the Command Seat and took the Senior Admiral’s chair.

Ursek wasted no time. Standing behind the vacant Command Seat, he asked. “Who, by virtue of rank or by virtue of combat, rises to claim Supreme Command?”

There was a long, long pause. The Lords Commander and the Senior Admiral did not exchange any glances.

Someone at the lower table drew a deep breath, audible in the silence, and then the Senior Admiral stood. “I rise to claim Supreme Command, by virtue of rank.”

Almost every eye in the room was on Tallis. He continued to look blandly ahead at the lower table, catching no one’s eye and avoiding no one’s eye.

General Hartman Ursek glanced at him, then at each of the other Lords Commander in turn. He turned to Drell. “A claim is made, by virtue of rank. There are others here who might claim by virtue of rank. Do I hear any challenge?” He glanced over the Lords Commander again, allowing the silence to stretch for just the right number of seconds.

“There are no challenges to the claim by virtue of rank. Do I hear any endorsements?”

You might have been able to hear a dust mote settle, Ralin thought. He was afraid if he grinned, it might be heard and attract attention.

“The Second Legion endorses the Supreme Commander,” Tallis said matter-of-factly. A little sigh of tension releasing rippled through the room.

The other Lords Commander offered their endorsements, rather anticlimactically, and General Hartman Ursek pulled the empty Command Seat back. “The Lords Commander have endorsed, will the Joint Command acclaim?” He fixed the lower table with the gaze that had won him the nickname “Old Steeleye” when he’d been General Hartman of the Intel & Recon brigade. Fists hit the table in a ragged rhythm.

Drell stood, and walked back to the Command Seat, Acting no longer, but Supreme Commander by military law.

With all the headaches and appurtenances thereunto.

Dec 032012
 

Read me the story
Colored electron microscope image of a cell.The Tranest Aureole loomed in the orbit of Ponik Retsa III like a third moon, nearly as big as the airless planet’s two artificial moons, but more streamlined. In a luxuriously-appointed dining room in the Executive Suite, the Executive Committee of Tranest Corporation was sharing breakfast.

The six women and men consuming swan-hawk omelets, sake-marinated pearl shrimp, and slices of iced jasmine melon represented more raw economic power than many entire colonies, or even clusters, in the Hub’s central axes. Everyone was on their best behavior. No one relaxed.

There was no one else in the dining room. Beverage service had been provided, when they first arrived, and an exquisite buffet had been arranged on the sideboard, but now they were alone. Not even bodyguards were permitted, although everyone present had been scanned with a thoroughness that most security services could only dream of achieving.

An active toxscan field over the sideboard showed a reassuringly pale-green nimbus. As the host was Nadis Orms, it was safe to assume that the toxscan covered all of the staggeringly vast array of assassination tools that could be applied in the context of a meal.

Conversation, while they ate, remained casual. Although the Orms family, and its several branches, controlled nearly seventy percent of Tranest, two of the board members present could not be considered family. Nadis had strict rules about discussing family business when non-family members were present. Light family gossip was exchanged, comments on the latest Hub Mercantile Council election, and the occasional discussion of a newly acquired art object or other collectible.

Ni-quan !Xe, senior representative of the !Xe subclan, was seated opposite Nadis. On his left, Stenevra Orms Chuko chatted with Dantas teVrenth-Wansi, who represented the Ermetyne Finance Conglom’s interest in Tranest. Tranest had two representative on Ermetyne’s board, too, as well as Executive Committee representation.

On Nadis’ left, Mengath Farfrazi Orms discussed Mercantile Court politics with Den Kaddets, whose family held the largest single share of Telnas TPEFab, the beacon manufacturers.

The pace of consumption slowed, and finally Nadis winkled the last pearl shrimp from its shell, popped it into her mouth, set the pick down beside her plate, and leaned back in her chair.

There was instant silence.

She gestured to Mengath “I think we could all use a little more coffee.”

He went to the sideboard and picked up the carafe, and moved from place to place like a waiter, topping up the gold-rimmed shell porcelain mugs at each place setting.

“Now. The Colonial School Small-Cluster conference will be opening in less than 600 hours, to discuss progress on the Devlin Survey. Would anyone like to comment?” Nadis glanced around the table, and nodded thanks to Mengath as he topped her coffee, setting down the carafe in front of her and resuming his seat.

Dantas teVrenth-Wansi smiled. “Plus or minus thirty-seven currently sub-Optimal planets potentially released for colonization. We have retainer deposits on escrow for sixteen, and are currently negotiating for another six. I understand Transcluster Finance has nine retainers on deposit.”

Ni-quan !Xe frowned. “That leaves six known potentials available, as well as an additional…” he glanced at a wristcom datafield, “fourteen that might come up as well if the survey is sufficiently, ah… generous.”

“Just so.” Nadis Orms reached for her coffee cup. The green stone in the ring on that hand—the only jewelry she wore—sparkled with red highlights. She picked up the cup, and smiled. “We have put a good deal of effort into ensuring a favorable report on the classification stratae from the Survey.”

She lifted the cup, but not to her lips. “Mengeth. I really think you’d enjoy this more than I would.”

There was a sudden heavy, sticky feeling to the air, and a breathless silence as everyone else looked at Mengeth, whose face had gone an unattractive, muddy shade.

“Nadis, I…”

She continued to hold out the cup to him, a slight smile on her face. But her eyes glittered like ice shards. “Mengeth.”

He shook his head, swallowed.

“Mengeth.” Her voice was velvet over steel. “You’d really prefer it to the alternative.”

He shook his head again.

“Dear me. My new toy,” she glanced at the ring, still glittering with red undertones, “isn’t equipped to provide a precise analysis, but may I assume that you indulged yourself? That we’re not looking at something discreet, and comparatively merciful, here? No apparent myocardial infarcts, or massive cerebral accidents? Something a little more… baroque, perhaps?”

Her eyes had returned to his, and he was unable to look away, even as he shook his head again. “Nadis, it wasn’t my…” he trailed off.

“Not your idea?” Her smile widened. “What a surprise. Well, let me reassure you, Mengeth. If you had co-conspirators, they’ll be treated to something infinitely worse than whatever you provided for me here.”

The silence gathered layers, poised itself on a knife edge, as she held the cup out to him. His eyes searched hers again, and the muddy color paled further. Slowly, he reached out, took the cup, and drank, gulping it down almost frantically.

Someone at the table drew a breath, as though about to speak, and she held up her hand. She sat back, watching with clinical detachment, as his eyes bulged, and he began making unattractive, breathless mewling noises.

His body spasmed in the chair, and rammed hard into the table. His arms twitched, his mouth opened, the tongue protruding swollen and grotesque.

Nadis sighed. “I’m not really a sadist, you know,” she murmured.

In a gesture too swift for the others to follow, she grasped the table pick she’d just laid beside her plate, and plunged it into the back of his neck where the spinal column meets the skull.

The body went limp, sliding with a messy thud against the table, then off the edge of the chair, which tipped momentarily and then righted itself even as what had been a senior Tranest executive landed in a heap on the floor.

She touched a panel on the table edge. “Cleanup crew, please.”

The silence grew spikes and danced a slow waltz around the room while a couple of imperturbable crew members removed the remains of Mengeth Farfrazi Orms, tidied away the place setting, refilled the coffee carafe, and set out fresh cups for everyone.

When the door slid shut behind them, Nadis poured herself a fresh cup of coffee. The ring sparkled a reassuring green.

“As I was saying, we’ve invested in assuring a positive survey result, but there may be some… unforeseen factors, arising at the Conference. I’d like to do a little contingency planning.”

Dec 022012
 

Read me the story:
Meal packs in plastic wrap“Look, I’m telling you what I’m telling you, and that’s that as far as I can tell, we have three hundred days, maybe if we stretch it, three hundred and fifty, worth of raw substance to run through these processors.” Vetkar Allis tried not to let the panic seep into his voice, telling himself that there was no real need for it, since he didn’t know what resources were elsewhere, stockpiled by whom, or even what production capacity existed among the remaining Klarosian habitats.

The bureaucrat, a plump, harried-looking man with the rather dark UV-affected complexion of a low-status Moonstation native, shook his head. “But that’s unacceptable. This is the largest processing facility in Moonstation and we’re responsible for the bulk of production. I can’t go to Chair Levett and tell him we’re going to run out of substance in less than a year!”

“Not telling him won’t change how much substance is in those warehouses, Citi. The best we can do is restructure the production matrices to give us Basic ratpacs, that will stretch the output another hundred days, maybe. But a calorie is a calorie, Citi. You can’t make machines produce calories that aren’t there to be processed.”

“Basics! That won’t do, we’ve got less than ten thousand res-class allocations to fill! I know we can’t do specialty runs, but we have to produce at least a Grade Three suite!”

“Then you’re back at three hundred, maybe three hundred fifty, days of production, Citi.” Vetkar said patiently.

The bureaucrat stared at him in baffled frustration, then turned on his heel walked away, muttering something about “ignorant agronists” and “need a real maintenance engineer.”

Vetkar’s hands were shaking as he turned back to the control junction box. He hoped he’d not talked himself out of a work assignment, and a good one at that. He could have lied, of course, told the damn’ ’crat what he wanted to hear, but what good would that do? Sooner or later it would become obvious even to a bureaucrat that the vats in those warehouses held enough raw substances to keep the processors running less than a year. If they had a year.

There’d been a broadcast last night, that Speaker talking reassuringly about the civadmin confiscation of private cubage being a purely temporary measure, just for the duration of the emergency…

How long was the “duration” of a destroyed world? Vetkar turned back to the chip array he’d been working on, pulled his work goggles down dialing up the mag as he did so.

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.

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