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.

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.

Sep 192012
 

Read me the story:
A drawing of a large campus set on a hillside, with solar collectors for power, raised walkways, etc.A little holocon popped up on the corner of Lennath Makforsith’s desk. She caught its eye and nodded. “Ren Dylart of the Kyth Agency,” it announced. Len touched a desk control that would enable Dylart’s visitor tag to guide him through the complicated warren of staff offices, study carrels, work areas, labs, and meeting rooms that formed the History Department. She suspected he didn’t need it. It was a good .15 hour walk, though, so she returned to running simulations based on the latest trend modeling tags.

A polite tap on the side of the doorframe and a simultaneous “ping!” from the tag announced the Kyth operative’s arrival. With a gesture, she retracted the datatap that connected her to the Colonial School’s main History Archive, and re-focused her eyes.

Dylart had the kind of alert, unobtrusive competence she expected, and something about the set of his eyes and the small lines around them argued for a sense of humor, too. She gestured to a chair. “You can move the boxfile. Just set it on top of those others.”

He glanced at the apparent chaos, but complied without comment, and sat. Offering hands wasn’t a custom in the Central Hub nexus, but he nodded politely.

“Professor Makforsith, I’m honored to meet you. I found your comparative analysis of the post-Conference Charter Conventions in the Ophiuchi Circuit most insightful.”

“Indeed. You have an interest in Conflict History?”

He smiled. “An occupational interest. Kyth takes on a good many Private War contracts in downeast, as I’m sure you’re aware.”

She smiled back. “Quite so. I’d be interested, sometime, to hear any commentaries your organization could provide on its involvement in the Wylenth/Kim Sons disputes.”

He didn’t appear surprised. “If such commentaries existed, which of course I cannot confirm or deny, they are naturally restricted to internal distribution.” She was right, there was a sense of humor there.

There was a brief silence. She glanced at the window, where late-afternoon sunlight caught just the right angle to sparkle on the nanofilter screen embedded in the polysilicate. Her office was on the fourteenth level, well below the traffic lanes for stratcars, and far above the pedestrian traffic on the walkways that connected this cluster of Colonial School buildings. The angle of the sun was now such that not even a very good snoopscope filter could enable someone to see into the office from the Culturology building, a hundred and ten meters away.

“Colonial School has a Small-Cluster conference coming up, on Farn-Amli,” she began. “In conjunction with that conference, we’ll be having a series of meetings, sponsored by various commercial entities, to discuss the progress of the Devlin Survey.”

His gaze sharpened. “There is progress?”

“There will be, by then.”

The Devlin Survey was a U-League project, underwritten by a consortium of commercial and political interests, to review the sub-Optimal status of a number of systems in two adjacent star clusters in the downnorth node. If the status was upgraded, the planets in those systems might be released for terraforming and subsequent colonization. Given the comparative scarcity of desirable planetary real estate in that node, there would inevitably be considerable maneuvering to obtain and use the information to the advantage of interested parties.

Potentially bloody, savage maneuvering. It would undoubtedly be one focus of the Conference to minimize the radius and intensity of the anticipated damage.

Dylart’s head angled. “ULeague Security normally handles your conferences, doesn’t it?”

“They do, and they will.”

He waited.

She waited.

His eyes narrowed and the corners of his mouth twitched. “Would it help if I observed that you have a quite astonishing suite of anti-surveillance tools active in this office?” The smile deepened. “Astonishing for a quiet academic, with nothing to hide, that is. Even if I wanted to record this conversation, I’d be unable to do so.”

“I am a quiet academic,” she pointed out blandly. “But who doesn’t have something to hide?”

He nodded. “I imagine that a Colonial School Regent might have one or two items that don’t come under the Information Availability charter clause.”

Lennath didn’t advertise her status as a Regent. It was publicly-available information, of course, but you’d have to know where to look. She nodded, rather abruptly.

“All right. You do your background. If you know that I’m one of Colonial School’s Regents, you probably also know that I have other administrative concerns. One of which is, very specifically, exactly the charter clause you mentioned.”

“Information availability.”

“That, yes.” She sat back, and let her gaze drop to her desktop for an unhurried breath. “It’s always been a key difference between our responsibilities and those of the Mercantile Council. And a certain amount of…” she paused to select a word.

After a beat or so, Dylart offered one: “Skullduggery?”

“Just so. We expect a few skulls to be dugged, now and then. It runs both ways. We get by on what is essentially a tacit agreement that if anyone can successfully break the rules– and the definition of success is somewhat fluid– it might be added to an account here or there, but it won’t provoke the kind of retaliation that could lead to extended and undesirable levels of conflict.”

“I imagine that both parties put a certain amount of emphasis on preventing those rules from being broken, then.” His brows drew together slightly. “The University League doesn’t necessarily seem to be… er… playing in the same class, when it comes to such objectives.”

“You cannot have thought it through.”

He eyed her speculatively, and did so. The dawning comprehension on his face brought a smile to hers. “Exactly. Where do you think innovative technology comes from? Certainly not from corporate R&D budgets. And also… we have students.”

“Interesting. I must suggest to my analysis division that we restructure some of our models.”

“I expect so. Consider it lagniappe.”

She glanced at the window again; turned back to Dylart. “We have two problems that Kyth can assist us with. One is a perfectly ordinary personal security assignment. There is a guest scheduled to attend the upcoming conference. As she is not associated with the University League, and there is no official endorsement of her views, it would not be appropriate for her to be covered by our security. On the other hand, we have reason to believe that there are those who would prefer she not be present.”

Dylart nodded. “That sounds fairly straightforward.”

“It is. We may not all agree with Anisala m’Anhadan, but it is perfectly consistent that we would enable her to bring the information she and others have compiled to the table for this discussion. No one will be surprised, though there may be –dismay– in some quarters, that we arrange Kyth protection.”

The name conveyed nothing to Dylart. “We’ll need a full threat assessment briefing. When would you like protection to start?”

“Now, if possible. You were certainly seen arriving. By the time you reach the main gate, the reason for your visit will be known.” She held out a mylar wisp. “This is everything we’ve put together on the threat assessment so far, and I or one of my staff will be available if you need additional information.” She touched a sensor faired into her chair arm. “You should be able to call out, now, on a shielded band.”

Dylart reached into the breast pocket of his very conservative business jacket, and extracted a very ordinary-looking viewer. He slid the wisp onto the top sensor, and then tapped in a few codes. “According to your information, m’Anhadan is currently on Siriran, at Tanhesh. We’ll have a team on her in,” he glanced at the readout, “about an hour, allowing for beacon lag at the Auriga nexus relay.”

“Good.” Lennath imagined that the invoice eventually submitted from Kyth would make for some serious heartburn in the Bursary. She restrained a smile, leaned back, and again touched the sensor on her chair arm.

“The other matter is… unofficial.”

“Yes?” Dylart waited politely.

“You’ll receive a request. In the next 48 hours, I should imagine. I’m not at all sure what name will be attached to it, but it will involve a routine background check for a potential senior executive hire, for a new company providing adventure entertainment. The person you assign this to should be someone who is capable of dealing with matters more complex than a routine background check.”

He watched her closely. “But not, for instance, myself. Or any other known senior Kyth operative.”

She nodded, pleased by his comprehension. “Just so.”

It was completely unnecessary to caution him that this conversation had never taken place.

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