Jul 292013
 

Read Me the Story:
Basic CMYKThe Lodis Chevron arrived in normal space just outside the Plena system one Relative Elapsed hour earlier than predicted on the liner’s itinerary, well within standard parameters for that route. Another six point eight hours on Insystem drive would put them in orbit around Plena Revene, which would already have shuttles standing by to launch and receive the holiday makers headed for Holiday Safari Worlds’ premier resort complex, Plena Leisure Parks.

During an average local day cycle, between eleven and seventeen major passenger ships called at Plena Revene, serving a daily average of 28,000 arrivals and departures, which called for efficient traffic management from the six Plena ports—Palmwinds, Glacierflash, Rivermusic, Junglethrob, Mountainair, and Forestwater. It also made it relatively easy for a traveler to be unobtrusive in their arrival and departure.

Jen-zi Cheyn, Chief Executive of Holiday Safari Worlds, liked being unobtrusive. He normally booked commercial transit for his site inspection jaunts—and nothing about this trip would vary significantly from his normal practices. Equally normal, though not invariable, was calling for a special pickup from Plena Parks management complex.

The small atmosphere-to-orbit vehicle that had been dispatched to the Chevron to fetch Jen-zi was not one of the Plena Parks’ fleet of shuttles. Unlike those larger vehicles, it was designed to carry a maximum of six passengers, could be piloted by a single individual, and it had a fast field-bounce drive unit that made it ideal for short hops between the fourteen separate Parks facilities dispersed over the surface of Plena Revene.

“Ten Cheyn?” the driver wore a standard coverall and the patch of Parks Management. She was a cheerful-looking, athletic young woman who differed from standard HSW guest services personnel only in a slightly heightened alertness. When he settled in the front seat next to her, she cleared her throat, and said diffidently, “Excuse me, Ten, but I was instructed to verify…?” She indicated a security jack on the operation console. He stuck a finger on the pad for a micro-sample and DNA match. The indicator winked blue, and she smiled. “Thank you, Ten Cheyn.”

“Thank you, Ti…?”

“Navrit. Luras Navrit.”

“Thank you Ti Navrit.” He sat back and let her do her job, but once the initial flight check was completed, she turned to him. “I was told to take the final coordinates from you, Ten Cheyn.”

She had the clearance, or she wouldn’t have been assigned to this task. He gave her the coordinates of the officially nonexistent research and development facility. She entered them, then looked at him blankly. “Needs additional clearance?”

“Oh, right.” Jen-zi activated his implant and provided the extra key. Once the nav board went blue, the pilot carefully disengaged from the Chevron’s gravmag field, made a few minor adjustments with the directionals, and applied just enough thrust to drop them back into the Plena Revene gravity well.

An hour later he was being greeted by Ros Maklenan. “Jen-zi!” Ros was jubilant. “We’ve done it!”

His excitement was contagious. Jen-zi found himself walking faster, and by the time they reached the centropticon, they were both practically running.

“We started with a micro-habitat. Three hundred and sixteen eukaryotes, all from Procyon-D biotopes, and a thousand, eight hundred and nine prokaryotes, most from Procyon-D, but this is the amazing thing—we couldn’t get true life-tropes—well, you know that part. I really have to give the credit to Mayala T’quan, she was the one who thought of tracking the levels of proteinogenic biosynthites. The amazing thing—we were seeing high levels of a pseudo-aminoglycoside, a homolog of the kacin series…”

Jen-zi racked his brain for the specific biochemistry, had to ping his implant for help. It had been too many years since he’d spent any time in a life-lab. “And that would jigger up several classes of prokaryotes?”

“Jigger… Well, yes, more or less. We went looking for a congruent dystope. Scanned the entire Procyon-D biobanks, every known storage facility.”

“And wasn’t that FunCluster Central.”

By this time they were at the control station, and Suva had joined them. She grinned, a flash of white teeth. “We had to route our search requests through so many proxies I am thinking some of them are still working their way through the U-League documentary protocols. And in the end, for nothing. It wasn’t a…”

Ros interrupted, his glee bubbling over— “It wasn’t a xenobiote at all! That’s the amazing thing! It was a terratype—a virus! Well… viroid, really. And… this is the great part… it’s a common one!”

Suva made a noise not unlike a snort. “If you can call a viroid a biotope.”

“If it acts like life…”

They were clearly off and running on chapter two hundred and twelve of an ongoing publication.

“But it worked?” Jen-zi yanked them back to the topic at hand.

“Well, not at first.” Mayala had arrived. She gave Jen-zi a nod and a grin. “In fact, at first we wrote it off as contamination and were ready to dump the whole arcodish.”

Ros took over again. “But then Maya thought of taking the biosynthite levels one more time, just to establish a reference for another iteration. And there it was! Sustenance and reproduction, throughout the spectrum.”

“At first,” Suva pointed out. “Then we started seeing a bloom-die cycle among the oratinids. We managed to stabilize it by taking some of the low-UV ’topes out and replacing them with higher-sensitivity range versions. And then…”

She stopped, probably because of the hand gesture Jen-zi was making. They all stopped, grinning at him—a grin reflected on his own face, where it looked unaccustomed, but welcome.

“So?”

They looked at each other. Ros made a “follow me” gesture.

They went through a vacuum-lock, coming out in a small room with a scattering of tools and equipment leaning up against one wall, and a rack of meters and sensor probes on the other. At the far end was a simple—and unlocked—airlock-type exit door. He grabbed a multiprobe from the rack, handed it to Jen-zi. “Here. You’ll want this.”

They stepped practically together through the door. Ros was obviously trying to hang back, to allow the boss the experience of going first, and equally obviously couldn’t control himself, he was so eager to get out there.

To anyone accustomed to the lush habitats in the Plena Revene resorts, it would have been mystifying and a little disappointing. They stepped out into Plena’s natural sunlight, only slightly filtered by a tavis field. There was no jathrin dome here.

And he was breathing.

He could see the edges of the tavis field. This wasn’t a large space, maybe two and a half klicks in diameter altogether. The terrain was uneven, sloping upward steeply to the left, and irregularly, like a line of miniaturized mountains. A natural crevasse—Plena Revene’s surface had many of them—cut the landscape obliquely, near the far edge of the tavis field, ahead.

Unlike the spectacular vegetation featured among the resort habitats, life forms here clustered loosely, thinned out, apparently vanished altogether, in spots. A flash of motion caught his eye to the right, and vanished. Too quick to see what it was, other than macro-dimensional, and motile.

There was an odd effect around the edge of his vision, and suddenly Jen-zi realized he had forgotten to breathe, and filled his lungs with an explosive gasp. He looked down.

Life was everywhere. Stains on the rocks were lichen homologs from the Procyon-D life banks. Among the scree and dust around his feet he could see organic matter, tiny scraps of the dusty blue-green, lavender-brown, and rusty colors that predominated among specimens he’d seen, until now, only in stasis slides or tri-dee repros.

He realized he was holding something—the multiprobe. He took a few simple readings. Oxygen, carbon dioxide, hydrogen, minute traces of nitrogen and methane. Airborne prokaryotic biotopes. Ros, still grinning, was watching him. He touched the boss’s arm, said softly “Don’t move. Look to your left, and down, about one-thirty-five-degrees, about six meters ahead.”

Jen-zi looked, moving only his eyes. This time the flash of motion resolved itself… About half the size of his closed fist. He’d only seen them in holos. They’d been a major, almost dominant, life-form in the tundra-like equatorial zones of Procyon D prior to its terraforming. They were small, unspectacular omnivores. Unlike a few xenobiotopes that had been preserved and replicated, researched and integrated into various commercial and recreational functions (Holiday Safari Worlds used most of them, in various settings,) this creature had never offered any promise of entertainment, function, or profit to humanity. And so, it had languished in the life banks, for centuries. Catalogued, described. Of interest only to a few xenobiologists.

“A lorrtel.”

Ros nodded. The creature sensed the motion, vanished from view. “We introduced them nearly a year ago. They have a very short reproductive cycle, you know? Three generations, already.”

The quiet pride in his voice was more eloquent than his earlier enthusiasm.

“Higher life forms.”

“Uh-huh. And look—” he gestured again. A tufty bit of vegetation Jen-zi didn’t recognize, with a greenish-blondish color to it.

“Terraform?”

“It’s a version of the danthonia that’s employed in the early stages of the Type-4 terraforming process. Do you know, we had to retro-engineer the DNA? I think we got close to its original form, but I wish we could consult with one of the paleobotany people at New Lexandri. Strivek or Mellanbel, maybe.”

He was asking permission, obliquely. “I’ll see what I can do, Ros. Maybe there’s a way.” New Lexandri was heavily subsidized by the big habitat-design industries. U-League security was a sieve when it came to information, and that by design, but it posed a continuing challenge for anyone who wanted to stay off the radar of mercantile R&D espionage.

And now, their own operational security had just ratcheted up to a whole new level.

(Special thanks to Chuck and Peter for voices.)

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.

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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