Sep 212013
 

Read me the story:
Pek-psMohv Quiddik was accustomed to being able to assess a situation quickly, sum up people with considerable accuracy, and create a reasonably reliable mental map of any given situation. But here at Headwaters, his talent kept eluding him.

They’d debriefed the target, gotten the permissions they needed to establish a perimeter for Anisala m’Anhadon and her— team? staff? family?— for the journey to Farn-Amli and the duration of the Small Cluster conference. As he’d assumed, he was Team Lead for target protection, with Declan Rawl in charge of threat assessment. The deal had been that they’d work alongside Anisala’s people, who, she explained, normally provided a perfectly adequate level of security.

Mohv took no one’s word about “adequate security,” but he’d been reasonably impressed, so far, with the arrangements at Headwaters. Among the rambling structures was a very well-equipped, well-designed saljo, and everyone worked out daily, including the children. Even Anisala did shadowflows from the Parsi tradition of hzajlit.

Mohv had wangled himself an invitation to work out with Chun and Stav, first using competition Tenso rules, and then freestyle. They were pretty good, and Stav was as fast a gun hand as Mohv himself. They’d urged him to work out with what they’d called, smirking, “the girls,” Pek and Tularik, whom everyone called Tuli.

“The girls” were regular sleep-shift bodyguards for Anisala. A little toning up would probably be helpful for them, at that.

Mohv showed up in the saljo to find them in mid warm-up. Pek was holding her right heel at full vertical extension, balanced on the ball of her left foot, left arm extended to balance—a moment arm as she tumbled forward, a blur of motion, the right leg slashing in full arc, right knee pulling in, bringing the left leg around in the same arc, landing with three-point balance, right hand and balls of her feet. Tuli, apparently paying no attention, was practicing lunges, but as Pek hit the three-point balance, Tuli changed the direction of her lunge, and one arm swept out to knock her off balance.

There was a flurry of limbs, some grunts, and the two women were locked together on the mat, Pek atop, her forearm jammed against the other woman’s neck, knee in the solar plexus. Tuli was hampered by having one arm beneath her, but her other hand was wrapped in Pek’s hair; she pulled, hard, but lacked leverage. Pek leaned in deliberately, and bit Tuli’s earlobe, eliciting a little gasp.

Mohv was glad his workout pants were loose.

“See what you get when you try to show off?” Pek eased up on her forearm. Her Translingue had a noticeable Mesrami accent.

Tuli grimaced. “Oh, I was the one showing off?” She looked significantly over the other woman’s shoulder.

Pek chuckled. “We have company, yes.” She rolled off her lover and to her feet in one smooth motion. Tuli bounced to her feet, stood beside her. Both tall women, not so tall as Mohv. Both dark-haired and slender, but there the resemblance ended. Pek was brown-skinned, dark-eyed, six or seven years older, with an aquiline nose and high, sharp cheekbones. Tuli’s fairer skin offset startlingly blue eyes, an unusual dark shade of blue, deep-set under straight, thick brows.

“Welcome Mister Quiddik, so you have decided to join us for a spar today?” Pek’s Mesrami accent had become more strongly marked, and Mohv wondered if she was putting it on for him.

“If you don’t mind, ladies,” Mohv was genial.

They both seemed amused. “Not at all. We like having new sparring partners,” Tuli assured him. “Will you warm up?”

Mohv nodded thanks, and began some stretches, a few shadowflows, loosening up. He felt self-conscious, although both women had turned away to do stretches of their own, alternating between solo and duo.

“Duo stretches, Mister Quiddik?” Tuli offered.

“Please, call me Mohv. And thanks, yes.” He positioned himself for isotonic deltoid stretches, offered an arm.

“I will help you warm up for Pek. She will take you on first.” She put her palm against his, locked her wrist, and leaned. Not much weight, compared to Mohv’s usual spar. He was careful to adjust tension. But as they moved through the six point stretch, she proved surprisingly strong.

They switched sides, and then swapped out direction, moving slowly through the standard variations. Once Tuli grunted disapproval and jabbed him lightly with an elbow when he was pushing too lightly, then grunted approval when he added pressure.

“All right, thanks.” She stood back, and nodded, and a grin flickered over her face. “Mohv… A word of advice?”

“Yes?” He lifted an eyebrow.

The flicker steadied into a smirk. “Don’t pull your strikes. If you try and take it easy on Pek, she’s likely to hurt you.”

Mohv nodded, gravely. “Thanks. I’ll be careful.”

Tuli’s smirk widened to a grin. “Your funeral.”

Twenty minutes later, Mohv understood. He stood back, massaging a very painful hip, and eying the older of the two women with considerable respect. He’d fought better opponents to a standoff, but none of them had been women. And he had an uneasy feeling that she’d been pulling her strikes a bit. He’d like to think it was a biomod alteration, but there were none of the signs. She wasn’t that strong, but she was unbelievably fast. And mean.

For her part, Pek was also massaging a shoulder, and there was a slight deepening at the corners of her mouth that might have been the ghost of a smile. “Not bad, Mister Quiddik. Not bad at all. Now would you like to take on Tuli with the blades?” She nodded to the practice blades on the wall.

“Let him fix that hip, first, Pek.” Tuli had gone over to an equipment locker and was rummaging in it. She turned, and tossed an ultraheal wand in Mohv’s direction. He caught it easily, nodded to her.

“I would, yes.” He bowed to Pek, a Tenso bow, which she returned, politely. “And please, it’s Mohv.”

“Alright, then, Mohv.” Pek’s Mesrami accent had almost vanished. She was stretching her shoulder, grimaced. “I’ll take the wand when you’re done, please.”

He applied it to his hip, feeling the warmth spread through, sharpen, and dissipate. He lunged once or twice, balanced a bit, then handed it to her, and walked over to inspect the practice blades.

Another twenty minutes later, he had no doubts at all of this particular bodyguard team’s ability to deal with ordinary close-order protection of the target. Tuli wasn’t Pek’s equal at hand-to-hand, but with the blades she was, if anything, faster. And uncannily accurate.

Sparring completed, the two women had exchanged glances, again, and then invited him, politely, to share a soak in the saljo’s radiant tub. By that time he was quite sure they were lovers, so it didn’t mean anything other than friendly courtesy, which was how he treated it. “Thanks, I’d like that.”

He went around the corner from the tub, where there were hooks and cubbies for the accommodation of guests, and stripped off his loose shirt and pants. He was half-hard, but what the hell, that happened occasionally during workouts. If they were single-sex oriented, it wouldn’t bother them, if they weren’t, well… again, what the hell.

Tuli was in the radiant tub already, and it was filling, the thick fluid glugging merrily out of the taps. Pek had a towel around her neck, and was bending over the tub control board. Mohv nodded to the women, and climbed into the tub without bothering to use the steps, hoisting himself over the side without apparent effort, and settling on the bench. It was designed to accommodate four, but he was a big man, so when Pek slung her towel on a rack and joined them, the tub was almost full. Tuli waved at the tap sensor and it shut off.

The three of them sat in silence for a few minutes, letting the heated radiant fluid swirl the tension out of them.

Finally, Tuli sighed, and stretched her arms along the tub rim. Pek scooted over just a little, to lay back against Tuli’s arm. She half-closed her eyes, but Mohv could feel her scrutinizing him. A lazy smile stretched her mouth; now, she looked more than a little beautiful. He was glad the radiant fluid was only translucent, not clear.

Tuli grinned, watching Mohv with a kind of bright interest. He swallowed, suddenly feeling much less relaxed. The grin broadened. “Stop it, Pek. We’re making Mohv nervous.”

“You’re making him nervous, maybe. I’m not the one with a taste for polemeat.” Pek chuckled and sat up, opening her eyes. “Don’t worry, Mohv. We won’t, um… eat you.”

Mohv considered several responses, settled on bland amiability. “I’m glad to hear it.”

“We like you, Mohv,” Tuli explained.

Mohv wondered why that didn’t make him feel all warm and happy, having two attractive women sharing a radiant tub naked tell him they liked him. He suspected he knew.

“Uh-huh,” Pek concurred. “We do. So, we thought we should tell you some stuff.”

“That’s right.” It was almost like a cross-talk routine. “We think you’re mostly honest.”

Mohv blinked, started to say something. But they’d moved on already.

“And we’ve done a fair bit of backwork on Kyth,” Pek informed him.

“Well, Nelauk has.” Tuli amended.

“Uh-huh. And we think as mercenary outfits go, it’s not the worst.” Pek continued.

Mohv was abruptly hyper-alert, as if in the presence of a threat. But what could it be?

“And Anisala wants to go along with this extra security deal. For now, anyway,” Tuli said.

Pek smiled, a warm, melting smile. “So we’re going along with it. For now.”

“But we wanted you to know something about that,” the friendly sincerity in Tuli’s voice could have sold used drone tugs to asteroid miners.

“Yup. Just a little thing.” Pek’s dark eyes suddenly pierced like lasers. “If there’s anything hinky planned, and you… or Kyth… is any part of it?”

She paused, but Mohv prudently chose to remain silent.

“I’ll kill you.”

Mohv looked into her eyes and believed her, absolutely.

Sep 302012
 

Read me the story:
Impressionistic landscape with golden and peach hills, and blue-shadowed trees and house in the cleft of the hills.The navlink pinged. They were approaching the point where the stratline’s autonav would drop them. Mohv fed a Kyth shortcode to the interface that enabled them to use the stratline powerlink without the system recording it, and let the flowcar descend slowly to a contour altitude well below the now sparsely-occupied traffic lane.

The evening color display was being replaced by the pale radiance of starblaze. Beyond the Center dome, the tavis fields didn’t dim the blaze for nightcycle except with local overrides, so it was plenty light enough to view the rolling terrain sloping down to the Park on their right, and the widening gaps between dark-shielded or artificially-lit clusters of human habitation.

The clusters grew further apart and they seemed to be navigating across entirely uninhabited territory. Only a faint glow on the far horizon, the Pelarati College domes, gave any hint of why a stratline led in this direction. Mohv glanced down at the position ping on the nav board, then squinted into the hills ahead on their left.

“Says it’s up there.”

A faint blue light appeared in a fold between two ridges. “Must be that.”

Rawls was still staring into the scanfield. “Yeah, the security field is registering on the PPS now. Should I ping them?”

Quiddik shrugged. “Why not.”

“Standard acknowledgement, no voice, no vid.”

“Okay.” Quiddik warmed the aux power battery and released the stratline link. The flowcar slid smoothly out of the traffic pattern, the starblaze giving it a faint shadow on the uneven terrain below.

“Big!” Rawls was surprised. The habitat ahead was dark-shielded, but through the polarized screen faint lights were now visible, indicating a sprawling, many-structured habitat spread along the bank of a stream that fed into the Park’s riparian network. As they got closer the blue light resolved itself to a fieldgate indicator.

At their approach, a pleasant tenor voice, apparently a recording, wafted through the nav board’s speaker. “Hi, welcome to Headwaters. We don’t have accommodation for guest vehicles inside the security field, but you’re welcome to park on the secure pad by the gate. We’ll be with you shortly.”

The two Kyth operatives exchanged glances. Quiddik maneuvered the flowcar gently down on its grav-cushion while Rawls confirmed their arrival for Dispatch, and activated various recording devices.

The fieldgate was a simple archway with a stone pad in front of it. As they stepped onto it, the gate irised open. There was no one on the other side, but a disembodied voice from the stanchion just inside addressed them in a slightly husky alto: “Please come through to the main house, ahead and to your left. I’ll send Stav to meet you.” In the background, they could hear a murmur of subdued conversation, someone playing a vianallo—quite well—and a tenor voice saying “why me?” while another laughed.

Again they exchanged glances. Rawls indicated in Kyth silent-talk that they were in a surveillance field and presumably being recorded, and that their live-transmit recording device was being efficiently jammed, but not the static recorder. Quiddik shrugged and they set off in the direction indicated.

A series of ground lights came on, illuminating a path that wound between a dim-shrouded variety of shapes breathing living scents into the cooling air. The stream in the distance burbled gently over rocks, adding a background soundtrack. Quiddik was conscious of an impulse to relax—but that only made him more alert. He blinked, purposefully, to activate his IR lenses.

With that assistance, the landscape was revealed as strips and patches of garden plots, winding along the path and extending back from it. At least, he assumed they were garden plots. Plants arranged in various configurations, some orderly, some less so, some crowded, some sparse. Here and there a bench or an array of stones or some other apparently purposeful object varied the arrangements.

A bright figure approached along the path, presumably “Stav,” and he deactivated the lenses. As his eyes readjusted, additional lighting activated, this time from above, glare-free but light enough to make out the amiable expression on Stav’s face. He was almost as tall as Mohv, not so muscular around the upper torso, but he moved with supple poise and easy assurance. He might be in his thirties.

He approached, and stopped, unostentatiously out of arm’s reach. “Good evening. I’m Stavann Kassinger. A call came in from Kyth just a few minutes ago. I’m to ask you each for a code?”

Codes given, as well as their names, Stav nodded. “Thanks. This way to the main house.” He gestured, and then stood aside to let them pass him. They walked ahead of him about fifty meters along the winding path, to the single-level, rambling building. Quiddik had the hyper-alert feeling he generally associated with being observed through a range-finder, and wondered why someone had bothered with the Kyth Agency at all.

He and Rawl stopped politely on the stone threshold.

Stav smiled apologetically. “Gentlemen, I’m certain that you’re armed. We have a rather strict policy about who’s allowed to carry weapons indoors at Headwaters, so if you don’t mind, I’ll ask you to leave your weapons in the stash?” He gestured to a recessed panel, with a simple thumb lock on the frame, next to the door on the left.

He’d maintained that unobtrusive, arms-length distance from them, and had quietly dropped into a flanking position that left several possible lines of fire from concealed observers. Somewhat bemusedly, Mohv glanced at Rawl, and the shorter man, with a slight shrug, reached out and activated the thumb lock. The panel slid open; it was a featureless cube, but Mohv knew battlesteel in all its guises.

He and Rawls placed the obvious guns inside, and then, without even a sideways glance, the less obvious weapons each carried. Rawls thumbed the lock again, and the panel closed. Stav smiled at them. “Thanks. We have our little ways. Appreciate your cooperation.”

The door opened. Another man, this one possibly in his late twenties, stockier-built, but with a round, innocent-looking face under a shock of black hair, stepped back and smiled. “Welcome to Headwaters. I’m Chun.” He glanced at Stav. “Ani says take them through to the workroom.”

Their guide nodded, and led them along a convoluted route that included hallways, short staircases, rooms, a few ramps, out through a courtyard with more garden in it, back in, around corners, down another ramp and then through a wide, low-arched doorway into a torrent of sound that resolved itself into two women and a man jamming on vianallos and a set of kanga drums.

There were five other people in the room besides the musicians; three adults, two children in the between-toddler-and-teenager range. One of the adults was a rather thick-set woman who might be in her fifties, possibly sixty—middle age, at any rate. She had a long, gray-streaked braid of hair over one shoulder and wore a loose, colorful coverall in the Parsi style. She looked up, saw the three men in the doorway, smiled, and waved, gesturing to one of the long sofas, and then turned her head back to the musicians, who were reaching some kind of climactic musical moment. Quiddik wasn’t a Vils fan, but he recognized the driving lilt and layered rhythms that characterized the style. He and Rawl sat.

The music drove to a torrential conclusion, with a coda, and a flourish, and the three musicians sat back, grinning and laughing. The others all applauded; the two Kyth men grinned politely. The woman with the braid turned to Mohv and Declan. “You will be Mister Rawl and Mister Quiddik,” she said in Translingue, but with a Parsi lilt to her speech. “I am Anisala.”

She looked around at the others. “Stav and Chun you have met.” She gestured to the male and female vianallo players. “Varanada and Pek, and our kanga player is Tularik.” She indicated the other young woman, who had a scan console in her lap. “Nelauk.” The children were now staring curiously at the strangers. “Come, Gavanne, Hetra, meet Mr. Rawl and Mr. Quiddik.”

The children nodded politely.

“And now, Gavanne, what was the deal?”

The girl, who might have been around ten, looked annoyed, then shrugged resignedly. “One more song, and then bed.”

Anisala smiled, and looked at the remaining adult, a slender man wearing his long dark hair in elaborate Parsi pattern-braids. “Teshi v’arhaql an, Manchiv.”

He grinned. “Only when they’re here, Ani. They’re trying to impress you. Night greets, Hetra, Gavanne.”

The boy, a year or so younger than his sister, reluctantly got to his feet. He put his palms together, fingertips under his chin, and bowed to Manchiv, and then Anisala. “Night keep you, taka, and my father.”

“Oh, courteous young warrior!” applauded the female vianallo player, detaching the keyclamps from her fretboard. She grinned at the boy, and he bowed to her as well, then rather spoiled the gravity of the gesture with a slight bounce. “That’s right, isn’t it, Pek?”

“Just so, Gav. More tomorrow.”

The girl sighed, and stood up as well, and took her brother’s hand. “All right. Night keep, Father, Ani.” She glanced back over her shoulder at the two Kyth operatives as she exited.

It wasn’t lost on Mohv that Stav and Chun’s casual-seeming positions were angled precisely where he and Declan might have been, had they been on alert protecting the target.

Sep 282012
 

Read me the story:

Colorful skyscape with vivid rose, purple, blue lights and stars against night sky.It was around the hub of the evening in glorious Tanhesh, the capital of fabled beauty Siriran, Empress of the Neopars’anii Worlds Federation. The tavis field lightly filtered the last rays of the Peacock Sun, sending random fountains of green-gold and turquoise light flaring through the graceful towers of the Forbidden Hive. Declan Rawl and Mohv Quiddik of the Kyth Agency, in a flowcar negotiating the tail end of mainshift rush hour, were oblivious to the stunning display. It was old stuff to them.

Siriran had originally been the product of a plutocrat’s fancy, purchased as the culmination of a couple of generations’ worth of wealth accumulation in the lucrative interstellar shipping sector. Farahay Nirajin had been the last controlling owner of a Galanian combine that dominated most of the far-flung nexus of daughter and granddaughter colonies. At the end of his life, he’d been consumed with the idea of creating a private colony based on his own artistic concepts.

Money can buy just about anything. In Nirajin’s case, it bought an Optimal-2 planet charter, a thousand-year premium terraforming package, a top-of-the-line habitat engineering support system, and three of the Hub’s more astonishing habitats, before changes in shipping routes, heedless expenditure, and mercantile mopery and dopery bankrupted the project. And Nirajin.

The planet was a bit of a white elephant—one reason a private buyer had been able to afford it was its lack of any discernible economic assets, another was its (then) inconvenient location in an offshoot node of the Bharagat Circuit, well outside of normal Galanian nexus trade routes. But the relocation of Arvash Galan and expansion of the IPC beacon net routes in the Circuit placed it very favorably indeed when the original Pars’anii terraforming was winding down and the much-expanded colony needed a new home. Parsi culture being given to the extravagant gesture to begin with, it seemed to be, in the native argot, “kazhmé” (fate).

Siriran became the capital world for the growing Federation. Pars’anii being a polyglot bunch to begin with, their open-door policy for long-term visitors, immigrant groups, and habitat sub-lessees produced one of the Hub’s more colorful worlds.

Quiddik eased the flowcar onto the stratline that linked the west end of Tanhesh Center to the meandering series of smaller habitats that fringed the vast Kirancj Park system, built against the foothills of an old, rounded-off mountain range. He selected a departure station two stops up from the stop that served the m’Anhadon compound, and released it to auto. It would ping him when they were approaching the stop. He turned to Rawl, who had activated a scanfield and connected to the Kyth datahub.

“What have we got?”

Rawl’s fingers twitched delicately, manipulating the data returned, adding more levels, re-arranging the relationships. “Something interesting.”

“Interesting how?” Quiddik had enough data handling skills to make him formidable in any average commercial or academic context, but he wasn’t in the lofty data-wrangling class of Kyth’s elite. Kyth had acquired his strategic skills and experience, as well as his general utility in any kind of mayhem, when it had become too dangerous for Quiddik to continue his employment with Tranest Corporation’s Security Division.

A faint line had appeared between Rawl’s thick, straight brows. “Just a minute… Nope.” He angled the display so that Quiddik could view it. It took Mohv a bit longer than it had taken his colleague, but the net result was the same: A very effective, polite lockout on private data of any kind related to Anisala m’Anhadan—including a very effective security screen on the compound itself. “Can we bust that?”

Rawls shrugged. “Well, sure. Anything can be busted. But untraceably? Not from here, and not before we get there. And I’m pretty sure they’d regard the attempt as an unfriendly gesture, which is not the impression we want to make.”

“Huh.” Mohv frowned. “So, what did the public profile generate?”

Rawls called it up. Kyth’s profiling was as thorough a CRAP utility—collection, review, analysis, and presentation—of publicly-available data on anything, as you could get outside of a U-League research lab. And there was a surprising lot of publicly-available data on Anisala m’Anhadan, for such a low-profile individual. Very little of it was directly related to m’Anhadan herself. But the second- and third- order connections were copious, and the patterns were revealing, of… something.

Both men were frowning as the profile marched down the display field. “OK, that’s…” Rawls muttered. “…weird.” Quiddik finished it for him.

“So… is she an academic? Or an entrepreneur?”

“Or an artist?”

“Or an entertainment packager?”

“Researcher.”

“Yeah, but that’s a damn’ peculiar mix of fields.”

Quiddik shook his head. “And a damn’ peculiar mix of first- and second-order associates.”

Declan frowned. “It doesn’t add up. Why would she be going to a Colonial School Small-Cluster Conference?”

Quiddik shrugged. “And why would anyone care? Why would someone want to keep her from going to the Conference?”

Now Declan was shaking his head. “Ours is not to reason why,” he pointed out.

“Yeah. But this is shaping up to be an interesting assignment,” Mohv Quiddik grinned.

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