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.

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.”

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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