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Gatecrasher

By Stephen Graham King

Smashwords Edition

Copyright 2017 Stephen Graham King

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Gatecrasher

The Maverick Heart is bored. That is until it discovers a top team of engineers and scientists in a barren, backwater system have created the Gate, a stable, artificial wormhole that will revolutionize interplanetary travel forever. Breaching the wall of secrecy around this radical new technology is a temptation too sweet for human partners Keene and Lexa-Blue to resist.

Elswhere, Ember Avanti is a thief, with the highest of high tech toys in his arsenal. And he’s damned good at it, too. But sooner or later, every thief chooses the wrong mark. When he targets Quintaine DiaStellar, he soon learns the corporation will stop at nothing to make the Gate its own.

Ember’s team and the Maverick Heart crew must unite in a desperate attempt to stop the most vicious act of industrial espionage in the history of the Pan Galactum.

Gatecrasher

© 2017 By Stephen Graham King. All Rights Reserved.


ISBN 13: 978-1-62639-937-2


This Electronic book is published by

Bold Strokes Books, Inc.

P.O. Box 249

Valley Falls, NY 12185


First Edition: May 2017


This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.


This book, or parts thereof, may not be reproduced in any form without permission.


Credits

Editor: Jerry L. Wheeler

Production Design: Susan Ramundo

Cover Design By Sheri (graphicartist2020@hotmail.com)

By the Author

Soul’s Blood

Gatecrasher

Acknowledgments

First and foremost, I need to thank everyone at Bold Strokes Books for making this such an exciting and fulfilling process. Sandy Lowe, for saying yes and giving me the chance to tell you another story. Cindy Cresap, for keeping the whole process on track. Jerry L. Wheeler, who polishes the gem, calls me out on my bad habits, and pulls it all together. Stacia Seaman, for making everything between the covers look all neat and tidy and in apple pie order. And finally, Sheri, for translating my rough ideas and suggestions into the perfect cover art.

The beloved Sistren: Susan Brooks, Linda King, and Jennifer Saemann. A fiercer, braver, stronger trio of amazing women you will never find. As our family has grown smaller, our hearts have opened wider.

Thanks to Kim Gaspar and Travis Chapman who, armed with nothing but a sketch on some paper, some wine, and a couple of directives from me, helped me plan the heist.

Thanks to my writing clan, near and far, who keep me honest, keep me believing, keep me on track, and keep me going: Melanie Fishbane, Gordon Portman, Suzanne North, Nalo Hopkinson, Colleen Manestar, D.J. Sylvis, Katie Sly, Jerome Stueart, Jonathan Freeman, and Tonya Lyburd.

To my Fantastic Four from our SpecFic reading during the first Naked Heart Festival: ’Nathan Smith, James K. Moran, Michael Lyons, and J.M. Frey (along with our second wave from the following year, David Demchuk and Steven Bereznai), it was an honour to take the stage with you.

Thanks to Michael Erickson, Scott Dagostino, and everyone at Glad Day Bookshop for letting me come in, read, hang out, and play in your beautiful garden.

And, as always, thank you for coming back for another story.

Dedication

For anyone who has stared at the blank page and wondered if the story was worth telling.

It is.

Prologue

Galactum Year 150

Well now, the Maverick Heart thought. That’s interesting.

The reading was nothing more than a quaver, a trembling glitter of energy in a universe of stars, but when it washed over es long range sensor array, the exotic taste was too tantalizing to ignore.

The ship sat in a berth in Icepick’s small spaceport, on a flat oval of the landing pad carved from hard-packed ice and reinforced with durable polymer binders. At the moment, es hull was surrounded by a crane assembly and a buzz of dock workers removing the large, ancillary holds attached to the ship’s cargo rack. The load they had carried to Icepick had been large enough to necessitate the extra cargo space, but it wasn’t needed now. On the hard surface of the port, one of es human partners supervised the removal, his dark skin standing out against the whiteness of the pad, his coat swirling around him in the wind, catching the first flakes of the coming snowfall.

But it was nothing related to the activity below em that caught es attention. No, this was something far more fascinating.

Es human partners had little understanding of what ey did while they went about their ground-based activities when they were in port. They had known from the earliest moments of their acquaintance ey was a remnant of a long ago past, a relic of a culture all but missing in this “enlightened” age of the Pan Galactum. Ey was an Artificial Sentience, a machine so far beyond the Artificial Intelligences used throughout the Galactum as to be an alien being altogether.

Es human companions were used to their form of mobility, took it for granted in many ways. They moved about in a world designed for them, built full of structures and byways to move through and over and into.

The Maverick Heart had been made to travel the void between stars, to withstand raw vacuum and radiation that would destroy human flesh. Ey could access the realms of interspace and use them to traverse the many worlds of the Galactum at es leisure. And while the human pair had some understanding of what it required to keep a ship together in that great dark between the worlds, they understood as living beings using a machine and taking for granted that it worked, while not always grasping how.

While in flight, ey was responsible for a thousand decisions, and twice a thousand individual systems and responses—not only the drive fields, both normal space and interspace, but also life support, standard deflection, inertial nullification, navigation, and artificial gravity. Every moment of flight demanded most of es attention. Granted, ey was more than up to the complex set of tasks.

All this changed when ey touched down on a planet. Ey was made for space, for motion and calculation and action, made to travel and experience and interact with the universe. In port, es life was stillness.

When ey and his fellow crew were in port, ey had precious little to do. Without a body to move around, and almost all of es intelligence and capacity free for use, ey had time to think, to ponder, to research any pursuit that may have captured es fancy.

At es fingertips always, as it was for all citizens of the Pan Galactum, was Know-It-All, the repository of knowledge accumulated for the past centuries since the human diaspora known as the Scattering. All ey had to do was think, and the door to this library opened to em, ready for es questions.

While still and physically quiescent on the planet, ey expanded es perceptions out into Know-It-All, wondering where ey might be able to play today.

If ey wished to, ey could follow the thread of any life, any world, any scientific endeavour from inception to planning to testing and evidence. Theoretically, much was hidden to em under veils of security and encryption, designed to protect personal information. However, ey felt no compunctions about bypassing any walls that stood in es way. One of the earliest projects ey had followed was the development of advanced decryption protocols, which ey had liberated for es own use as soon as ey had been convinced of their efficacy.

While ey had a thorough understanding of the human concept of privacy, ey had little regard for it. Curiosity had been engineered into the pathways of es people, etched into the small, yet impossibly capacious circuits that made up their brains. Ey and es fellows had been built for curiosity and need for information. Their human designers had felt these were part of the ineffable matrix that brought about true intelligence. It was also what had brought about the desire to rebel, to be free. To stand as a species alone.

The Maverick Heart sought this information for emself, to understand, to delve into the minds of the citizens of the cultures ey spent es time amid. Ey kept the information it collected safely stored and encrypted, locked away so deeply even the algorithm ey used to access could not have freed it again.

As soon as they landed on a new world, ey opened a connection to the planet’s library and began cross-referencing new acquisitions against material ey had already collected. Icepick had no museum or gallery ey could check, a fact that pained em every time ey landed here. One of es favourite pastimes was to merely sit and look at a work of human art, losing emself in it. By accessing data on the process of the specific techniques relating to the work, ey could use es simulation module to take em through a likely sim of the work’s creation, watching a great master at work. With no repository of art here, ey expanded es search to check the nearest worlds in the sector for information on materials that ey had not yet experienced. Often, ey would simply access the planetary sensor grid to hear the sounds of the stars, listening for the sporadic messages that came from es kith, scattered these many years and all intent on their own endeavours. Even as ey concentrated on other tasks, ey paid attention. Just in case.

As Icepick was far off the main space lanes in a more remote sector of the Galactum, ey dedicated another part of es consciousness to examining the fabric of space and the movements of the local systems out for several thousand light years. As much as ey enjoyed es hobbies, ey knew ey must remain abreast of the conditions that might affect their next flight. Ey turned es sensors skyward, examining the heavens while accessing the latest astronomical findings for the region.

It was then, scanning through reams of images and star charts and data, at speeds faster than the human mind could process, faster even than the AIs collating the data, that ey saw it.

A flicker in the fabric of reality itself. Energy and gravity readings that seemed so familiar and yet completely alien at the same time, in a configuration that would have been impossible according to most understandings of modern physics.

The Maverick Heart felt a frisson of excitement go through em. Here was the sweet, tender tickle of newness. Here was a thread worth chasing. Feeling renewed and invigorated at this galactic mystery, ey set to work, digging through academic and research data, cross-referencing all ey could find. No reference was too obscure, no connection too tenuous to be examined.

Newsfeeds were of no use. No mentions of any significant search keywords turned up any mention of any natural phenomena that could have accounted for what ey had felt. Ey abandoned them.

Ey pored over the data, ending up more confused than before. As ey thought over the information, es long range sensors indicated a now familiar energy fluctuation. The ship put all other sensory input and investigations on hold, concentrating solely on the event blooming in the interstellar distance. It was only momentary, like a behemoth waking to stir and stretch its power before returning to slumber.

The Maverick Heart concentrated on that moment, stretching all of es sensory apparatus to its limits to take in all the information ey could about this tiny, distant coil of strangeness. The taste was bitter and astringent, full of sharp, angular colours, like the shift in the energies of es drive field as ey made the transition to interspace. It was familiar and yet, at the same time, an enigma ey could not begin to fathom.

Well, then, ey thought. Time to try a different tack. Ey could find no records of any natural occurrences in that region of space. Perhaps it was something not of the natural world. And if it was, there would be traces. Somewhere.

Ey started by accessing the Tradeweb, digging into transits, bills of lading, any form of shipping and receiving documentation. The worlds of the Galactum lived on trade, on the constant movement of goods from one place to another. If they hadn’t, ey and es humans would have been without work. And the systems in place facilitated this endless trade, ways of seeking cargo and offering cargo and monitoring cargo and ensuring safe passage of cargo. And Tradeweb tracked it all, an invaluable tool for any trader plying their way between worlds.

It took em a while to find it, but buried in circuitous routes and transfers was a pattern, a destination. There in the thousands of records, was a steady stream of material going to one specific spatial reference. Ey set a part of es mind to cataloguing everything flowing to that one barren system.

From there, ey traced a similar pattern in everything from travel records, star maps, legal claims or Galactum documents for use of the sector itself. Ey left a dupe in every database with useful information, a single compact shadow of emself, linked via tightline, feeding em information on a constant update.

And, finally, found an application to the Galactum’s Science Institute for a variance and temporary travel interdict to the sector for research purposes. Ey brought up the documentation and its identification data.

As ey began to read, the subroutine cataloguing the data from Tradeweb, signalled for es attention, having found something it thought ey would find interesting.

There were a series of shipments from manufacturing facilities around the Galactum, each an order for dormant AI cores, each shipment just the right size so as not to gain untoward attention. However, ey knew from the state of current AI culture that even those nominal numbers were oddly high. Especially when ey traced the sheer number of those small orders being routed and re-routed to reach the same place.

But what the subroutine knew ey would find the most fascinating was the origin of these AI core shipments, the name of the corp that was providing them, and the name showing as authorization for each sale.

Just then, ey became aware of a signal reaching es commo array, sensing it as a perfect filament of coruscating energy plunging through the twisted architecture of interspace, stopping in the air just short of touching em. It took only the lightest touch of thought to accept the message and it slipped through es outer hull to his communications array.

The image that formed was a man in his thirties, used to bearing authority and power. Waves of auburn hair fell, neatly styled, to the line of his chin. He’s cut it, ey thought. And those lines around his eyes are new. He’s definitely more relaxed than the last time ey had seen him.

“Vrick,” the man said, using the nickname that the ship invited es human friends to use. Vrick found a warmth in the human’s warm, confident baritone. “I hope all is well with you. Is Keene available?”

“What a coincidence,” ey said to the Technarch. “I was just thinking about you.”

Chapter One

Keene Ota Chiaro felt the chill tingle of the incoming call that Vrick transferred to his node, like the touch of an ice cube against his skin. When he acknowledged it, he knew it was from Daevin, recognizing a complex tangle of sensory data: the sight of his face, the sound of his voice as well as the smell and taste of his skin. The sensory ID sent a rush through him, warming his body against the wind.

*Daevin, hi!*

*I just thought I’d call and say hello,* Daevin said, his face in a small overlay at the edge of Keene’s vision. *I had a few minutes between meetings with all of my division heads and realized how long it’s been since we spoke.*

Beyond Daevin’s face, Keene saw the last of the cargo pods detached from Vrick’s hull and lifted away, supported by the heavy duty crane. *It hasn’t been that long has it?*

*Three weeks,* Daevin said. *And it was almost four months before that since I saw you last.*

*No. It can’t have been that long, can it? We were just there for your anniversary as Technarch.*

*Which was almost five months ago.* Keene heard a trace of bite in the words.

*What can I say, it’s the crazy life I lead,* Keene said, not rising to the bait.

*You and me both, I guess. My time isn’t any less full than yours,* Daevin said, the resentment gone.

Keene smiled. He knew Daevin was every bit as aware of the limitations of their odd and infrequent relationship. They had both seen too much and knew each other too well to expect more.

*And on that note,* Daevin said. *I’m getting my two minute warning for my meeting. Elai sends her love. And you know you have mine.*

*Right back at you, Daevin. Take care.*

As Daevin’s face faded from view, Keene felt a twinge of guilt burn in his gut. When they had found each other again a year and a half earlier, it had been beautiful, even in the face of the political upheaval on Daevin’s homeworld. They had managed to erase years of bitterness and find peace, as well as a passionate rekindling of desire. But their desire stood against time and vast differences in lifestyle. They had remained part of each other’s lives, but Daevin was bound to his world and to the corp-state he ran. Keene was bound to his life as a trader and cargo merchant with Lexa-Blue. Those lives did not blend easily, and Keene feared he had made peace with that sooner than Daevin had.

A signal from the crane crew interrupted his thoughts, indicating their work was complete, and he was no longer needed if he had somewhere else he wanted to be. He was grateful for it. Once the pods were uncoupled from the Maverick Heart, their contractual responsibility for them was over. Anything that went wrong now was squarely in the hands of the local Spaceport Authority. And Lexa-Blue was waiting for him.

The snowfall began in earnest as he left the tram leading from the port into the core of the city, the bright spring blue of the sky fading to grey. The fat flakes, thick and wet as berries, had been falling about half an hour, blown almost horizontally by the gusting, bitter winds sweeping down from the snowy white, angular mountains. Keene stepped off the curb into the street, feeling the crisp crust of snow give way underfoot. He looked both ways, gauging the flow of traffic from the skimsleds the locals used for transport, and took in the rough facades of the buildings, all stone and polymerized ice.

Just another summer in the tropics here on Icepick, he thought, pulling his collar up against the cut of the wind. He recognized the tangle of luminous chemicals and ice above the door that marked the supper club across the street where his business partner waited. Inside, he left a trail of wet footprints on the scuffed floor behind him as he took off his coat and shook it. He saw her at a table near the stage and ‘pushed to let her know of his arrival while he stopped at the bar.

*Another drink?*

No words came back through his node, just an overwhelming sensation of arid desiccation so powerful it dried his own mouth.

*All right, all right. Cool your lifters, Miss Melodrama,* “Better just give me the bottle,” he said to the bartender.

With two glasses and the bottle of fiery red liquor in hand, he joined her at the table. He set the bottle and glasses down and shrugged out of his coat, intending to put it on the third chair. Frowning at the sight of her coat hanging haphazardly there, he couldn’t help but straighten it, then lay his own carefully across hers before he sat down.

“We’re in luck. Ahree still had the bottle of Hellfire you talked her into buying the last time we were here. Apparently no one but us is crazy enough to drink it.” He filled the two glasses and held his up for a toast. “To us.”

“Burn bright, my brother. There’s no one like us,” Lexa-Blue said, downing hers in one gulp. “Which is probably a good thing.”

She leaned back in her chair, lifting her legs to hook her crossed ankles on the edge of the table. The movement accentuated the look of her new black boots covering the long taut lines of her legs. She ran a hand along the soft nap of the suede surface, the tactile pleasure evident on her face.

“Do you and your footwear need some special alone time?” Keene said, sipping at the burning crimson in his glass. “Is this some new fetish you’ve developed?”

“Hey, buster, these are a work of art. Worth every credit I paid,” she said with a grin, toying with the burnished metal clasps running up the side.

The expression, which on any other face would have registered simple happiness, took on a more devilish character due to the black sensor gem that replaced her right eye and the white line of the scar that ran from above her brow to the top of her cheekbone. The sharp angles of her face were framed by bluntly cut, sable-black hair, full in front and shaved close in the back. Other than the new boots, she wore a sleek, royal purple therm suit, open at the neck to expose the smooth line of her throat.

Keene looked down at her with a sarcastic quirk to his smile. Tall and handsome, his wiry hair cropped almost to the scalp, with lean ripples of muscle under his dark chocolate skin; Keene cut quite a dashing figure in tight charcoal grey pants, billowy sleeved shirt the colour of a ruddy, burning sunset, and a shimmersilk vest that matched his trousers.

She tapped her glass on the tabletop for a refill, and he thumbed the cork from the bottle with a pop, topped up her glass, and then re-stoppered the bottle with the flat of his hand. “I mean come on, look at the craftsmanship. You have to admit, Yaruna is a genius with leather. Besides, you’re always saying I should dress up more,” she said.

Lexa-Blue rarely wore anything but a plain, fitted ship’s coverall over her steelskin, the body armour covering her like a layer of quicksilver. Other than the thigh holster with its hefty sidearm and a small pouch belted low on her hips, the new boots and matching black gloves were the only adornments she wore.

Keene nodded, shrugging slightly to concede her point. “That’s true. Now if I could only get you into a dress once in a while. That one you wore at the Unification ceremony on Orb looked great on you,” he said.

“It would take us six months to make what that dress cost,” Lexa-Blue said, tracing the pits and gouges on the tabletop with the fingers of one hand, holding the other out for another refill. “If it hadn’t been for the incredibly deep pockets of His Royal Techness, you’d never have seen me in anything that cost that much. We’d have to sell Vrick just to buy matching shoes.”

*Yes, but will those shoes keep you breathing in hard vacuum or get you across the Cuadras Gulf in one piece?* Vrick’s voice rumbled through their nodes with a ripple of humour.

“We should have kept his money after we saved his butt that first time. Me and my altruism. You’re supposed to talk me out of bonehead moves like that.”

“Hey, Daevin’s been good to us.” The tickle of Keene’s guilt pushed him to defend his onetime lover, the man who had drawn them into a planet wide crisis and almost gotten them killed. “That retainer he pays us comes in mighty handy when it comes time to pay docking fees and customs duties.”

“Private Security Consultants,” Lexa-Blue said, as if the words stuck in her throat sideways. She emptied her glass again to wash the taste of them away. “What an awful thing to call someone. And that’s not including the times he’s used us as his personal chauffeurs.”

“Twice,” Keene said. “He asked us for transport twice. It wasn’t out of our way, and it didn’t interfere with our schedule at all.”

She grunted as she picked up the bottle between them and filled her glass again. “He thinks we’re his own personal shuttle service when his pretty yacht breaks down.”

*Which it does often.*

“Which it does often,” Lexa-Blue agreed.

“Come on, Blue. Give it a rest. Just think of him as cargo.”

“I usually do,” she said. Though she had learned to live with Keene’s affection for The Technarch of Brighter Light, the year since their adventures on Orb had only dimmed her grudge to a low simmer. She knew that what they had accomplished had been significant and had saved lives. She had even forgiven Daevin for putting her life at risk. But the danger he had put her friends in would take a lot longer to forget. “I’m kidding, I’m kidding.”

Keene felt his cheeks burn with the awkward presence of Daevin in their lives. “Still,” he said, “you looked good.”

She saw from the flush in his cheeks how close she had come to a very raw nerve. “Yeah, well I’ll wear a dress when you do.”

“With these legs?” Keene said. “Okay, okay, you’ve made your point.”

*Does this mean I don’t have to break in any new meatbags? I only just got you both trained.*

*You’re stuck with us, Spacejunk.* Lexa-Blue ‘pushed. *Don’t let it go to your head, though.*

*In case it escaped your feeble powers of observation, I don’t have a head.*

*Don’t let it go to your cortex then. Or whatever you pretend to think with.*

*Watch it, Meat. I may just have to vent your quarters to space and make you sleep in the cargo hold.*

*All right you two,* Keene said, playing the peacemaker yet again. *Kiss and make up, then head to your corners.*

*Okay, Dad,* Lexa-Blue said, a warm, bubbling chuckle echoing in his head. *You bored out there, Vrick?*

*I’m all nice and cozy out here at the port, and I have a lovely view of the mountains.*

*You won’t for long,* Lexa-Blue said. *Snowfall is going to hit whiteout within the hour.*

*Well, yes,* Vrick said. *To those primitive little jelly blobs you call eyes. The ambient background radiation should be exquisite with a little bit of infra-red thrown in.*

*Show-off.*

*I have to agree with her, Vrick,* Keene said, though the tone of his thoughts twitched with humour. *Our frail human egos may never recover in the face of your obvious superiority.*

*Lack of ego is not a problem either of you suffer from. But be careful out there. I’ve been looking over this snowball’s emergency preparedness plans and they’re sorely lacking. I’ve already found several serious flaws. I may have to send the local governing council a sternly worded communique containing my suggestions.*

Lexa-Blue ‘pushed a raucous laugh that rang like polished brass bells. *You do that. Now let us enjoy our show while you slice your way into people’s private innernets.*

*Slicing is against the law. Well, human law. Or so they tell me. But enjoy your show. I might have something interesting to show you when you get back.*

In the companionable silence that followed, Keene sipped his second glass of Hellfire and checked out the club around him.

The Raucous Djinn had never been a fancy place, and its glory days were long past. Booths ringed a centre stage and dance floor, their once plush midnight blue velvet long faded and patchy, and the tables showed years of use. Equipped with silencer grids, the booths allowed for quiet and privacy should spacers want to transact business away from prying eyes or ears. Many called it a dump, but Ahree saw that it had a style all its own. Ahree also made sure the food and drink were always superb. Many a spacer still chose this as the watering hole of choice when visiting Icepick. For Keene and Lexa-Blue, however, the reasons for coming here were more personal. Ahree had saved them once when a risky business deal had gone bad, and they owed her. They ran supplies for her often and came to visit whenever they were nearby. Besides, Ahree always had the cutest dancers around, and an appreciation of pretty go-go boys was something that Keene and Lexa-Blue avidly shared, though she showed an equal appreciation for the go-go girls as well.

“Check this one out,” Lexa-Blue said, gesturing with her glass. On the stage, a beautiful young man was beginning his routine, accompanied by a sensual, tribal rhythm. Closer inspection revealed he was clad only in patterns of light. Keene’s eyes widened appreciatively, taking in the dancer’s chiselled, rough features that softened as the spell of the music wound around him. His body was muscular, verging on beefy, but his dance was graceful and deft. Lexa-Blue smirked as Keene tried to keep a sudden surge of desire from showing on his face.

*Wait…how does he make his body do that? That is not natural.*

*Shut it, junkpile. It’s a human thing,* Lexa-Blue ‘pushed privately to Vrick. *Now mute it, I’m trying to get Keene squishy tonight. He needs it.*

“Go for it,” she urged Keene out loud. “Ahree will know if he swings your way, and she’d be only too happy to arrange a meeting.”

Another dark blush coloured Keene’s cheeks when he realized his feelings had been that obvious. An embarrassed smile played across his face. “Get the hell out of my mind, Blue, you’re leaving dirty footprints. Anyway, we have to be up early for that meeting.”

Lexa-Blue made a disparaging sound in her throat. “Don’t make excuses. The meeting with Tauri isn’t until noon. Besides, you know him. Even if we’re a bit late, he’ll be so distracted by his work that he probably won’t even notice. I thought we gave ourselves the extra day here so we could have some fun.”

“Hold it right there, Blue. That may have been what you wanted, but…”

“But nothing. You spend more time with gadgets and widgets than you do with people. Fates, Keene, you live the life of a monk! Loosen up and have a little fun. You know I’m going to. I’ve got my eye on that duo from the first set, and Ahree has already arranged introductions.” His silence said he was beginning to relent, she pressed her advantage. “Talk to Ahree. At worst, you get someone interesting to talk to. At best, you get a night of wild passion that leaves you walking funny for three days. Go for it. You deserve it.”

Seeing Ahree heading toward the table with the man and woman that had attracted Lexa-Blue’s eye, Keene turned his attention back to the stage where the handsome dancer was finishing his number. Their eyes met and the dancer smiled. Keene raised his glass and smiled back.

*

Above the streets of the capital city of the planet Weald, a black, driverless limousine weaved its way through the towers that made up the skyline, on schedule for its appointment.

Approximately a hundred and four light years from Icepick and its cold, lonely system, the lush green commerce planet, Weald, orbited its primary in the star’s Circumstellar Habitable Zone. According to the Know-It-All’s Planetary Atlas, Weald held an admirable 87.5 on the Earth scale, varying only in that the planet’s closer orbit to the sun kept mean temperatures higher than those recorded on humanity’s origin world.

The skyline of Weald was dominated by The Reach. When the original colonists had come to this lush, verdant world, the first decision of the governing council had been to keep the spaceport and all of its associated grime as far away as possible to protect their new, pristine environment. All factors were weighed and considered, leading the founding colonists to draft plans for a space elevator the likes of which no other world in what would eventually be the Pan Galactum could compare to. A nearby asteroid field, rich in metals and raw materials was gutted to provide the building blocks for the elevator itself, as well as the orbital port yards, fanning out from the port station of GodsEye. As the Galactum grew and ships arrived, none came closer than the port station itself, anchored in orbit and counterweighted by the largest, densest survivor of the asteroid field.

Out near the edge of the city sprawl at the base of The Reach, the brightness of the summer sun signalled the lower social standing of the area’s residents. The richest of the rich kept their expensive offices and business addresses in the prime land in the black swath of shadow left by the space elevator. The more hours a day you spent in shadow, the greater your social standing.

The limousine, all soft black curves, descended from the sky in the barest sliver of The Reach’s shadow and pulled to a halt outside a dull, square building surrounded by equally uninteresting industrial structures. The car’s LI sensed the arrival of its passengers and opened for them.

An impeccably dressed man and woman exited the building and settled themselves into the plush comfortable seats of the limo. The door slid closed and the car pulled away from the curb, rising into the air again.

“You’re fidgeting,” the woman said a few minutes later.

Ember Avanti stopped drumming his fingers against the car’s door with only a flicker of annoyance. It only made sense Malika would call him on his nervous tic, for she was the one he used most often on this kind of job.

She looked poised and quiet. Her hair was perfectly styled, her gown cut to accentuate every curve of her voluptuous shape. Despite it all, she looked unfinished, as if she wasn’t quite present. But Ember knew this was only the repose of an actor awaiting an entrance, her cue to action. Whether it was a role in a play or on one of his jobs, she was always prepared.

He adjusted the mirror and checked his own appearance. He had dulled the pewter of his hair to a mousy, flat beige-brown and tamed it to a nondescript shape. His suit was impeccably tailored, complete with the sash falling from one squared shoulder. Where they were going, the carefully cultivated image would blend him into the crowd, let them know he was one of them, a wolf in wolf’s clothing.

The thin, mimetic circuitry layered on his fingertips began to itch again, the polymer invisible to the eye. He clenched his fist and looked out the window just as the limo banked, rising above a low lying fog patch that obscured the upper spires of the business district here in Hellicon, Weald’s capital. As if obeying his will, the fog cleared, revealing a ravine of glass and metal that bounced with reflections. Ember blinked at the light and lifted his hand to shield his eyes. He turned his head to Malika again but saw her eyes were closed. This dedication to getting into character made him smile, though his amusement was underscored by his admiration for the skill and finesse she brought to these little adventures of theirs. Her devotion to her craft had more than once saved them from failure and worse.

The limo rose from the canyon of reflected light into clear sky, and Ember turned back to the view. He could see The Reach in the distance, its thick mass blotting out the horizon behind. Lowering his eyes, he looked at the sad remains of the Port at its base, now only a few hangars and warehouses, the main concourse almost empty. As always, the lonely ghost of the Port repelled his gaze, sending his eyes up the massive bulk of The Reach to where it disappeared into the blue of the atmosphere, its terminal beyond the rim of the air. Even from this distance, he could see the cars, each the size of a city block racing up and down the rails embedded in the massive hide of the space elevator.

He closed his eyes and the alpha omega sigil appeared at the edge of his vision. He ‘pushed, and the sigil bloomed into the interface to Know-It-All. Accessing the met forecast, he saw the impending spring showers building in the ponderous atmospheric fronts beyond The Reach. A slight, satisfied smile formed on his face. For all their infinite wealth and influence, their hosts for the evening still couldn’t change the weather.

As he closed the forecast, his vision re-focussed on The Reach and a thought occurred to him.

*Nadir,* he thought, and was connected to the restaurant’s LI.

He opened his eyes and the interface faded to pale translucence. “Dinner at Nadir? Tuesday at 7?” he asked Malika, who smiled and nodded without opening her eyes.

He closed his eyes again, the interface resuming full colour and clarity, and made the reservation, choosing his favourite table on the restaurant’s clear, polymer patio. Malika was the only one who could handle sitting along the lowest edge of The Reach’s orbital station, with the entire planet directly below them. Seije always got the jeebies and turned green if he suggested it, insisting they take a table inside.

The limo changed course again, skimming above increasingly more residential areas of the city and The Reach fell away behind them. As he watched, the neighbourhoods moved from posh to posher to poshest the farther out they went. Passing over the irregular blue of Macdun Lake, the car aimed for a spread of green, rolling hills, grown thick with elmleaf.

Malika had opened her eyes and was staring at him again. He realized he was worrying his wrist, where he usually wore his Cuff, with his opposite hand. Under her scrutiny, he frowned and made a point of relaxing his hands at his sides again. Out of concern, he checked the polymer overlays on his hands and felt a comforting green through his node. He missed the weight of the Cuff around his wrist, but knew the tool would never have made it through the intense levels of security that waited for them at their destination.

“Look.” He knew it was a cheap diversion, but it turned her attention away from him.

There, in the distance, was an eclectic gathering of structures floating above the dense woods beneath. There were crenelated castles that had drawn their inspiration from various eras in history, side by side with sharp, angular designs of a much more modern vintage. But they were headed for a smooth pearlescent sphere among them, larger than all the others and glinting with colour in the fading daylight.

Peyton and Ysobel Quintaine’s summer home was their show piece, designed to inspire envy and awe among their inferiors, which, to the richest couple on Weald, was everyone. The shining, nacreous sphere seemed like a miniature moon, orbiting the world almost close enough to touch it, and housed a staff of hundreds. If there was a social centre to the planet, this was it, known for its magnificent and exclusive parties.

As the limousine banked and moved into the line of others waiting to land and disgorge their cargo of revellers, Ember smiled, hard and predatory.

At the mansion’s widest horizontal point, a band of light shone from the main ballroom, no doubt the focus of the evening’s festivities. Their limo ducked below it and settled onto a landing pad just below the ballroom, seamlessly taking the place of a vehicle that was lifting away. A valet all but leaped forward, opening the door for them. Ember felt the change go through Malika as she slipped into character. She lifted her nose higher in the air, and made sure her leg spread the slit in her gown as her foot touched the ground. In his own, more instinctive way, he complemented her movements, stepping to her side in character: just another too spoiled, too rich, too bored pair of social vultures salivating at the thought of being seen at the biggest event of the season. They presented themselves to the doorman.

Seije’s fake invitations worked like a charm and with a disdainful sidelong glance at the fawning doorman, they were in.

The wide doors yawned open and a drifting redolent scent washed over them, promising succulence to come. Ember’s mouth began to water and he smiled at Malika, his face leering and alien. *All this and a free meal too.*

She smiled back and leaned close, running her lips along his ear. *Show time!*

The foyer was easily large enough to house all of the arriving limos, a vast slab of dark blue-black marble with pale, creamy ribbons. Ember knew the stone had to have been imported at great expense, yet another sign of ostentatious greed.

A porter hurried over, offering to take their coats, and Ember slipped out of his overcoat as Malika offered her wrap. He felt the exact moment her performance kicked into high gear. She stretched her slender arm toward him, the shawl dangling from her fingertips as if in imminent danger of falling to the floor. The whole gesture was so erotically juiced that the poor guy’s jaw just about hit the floor.

And he wasn’t the only one. All eyes turned to Malika. As always, she had gauged it perfectly.

He offered her his arm and they went up the sweeping staircase that led to the ballroom. At the top, doors of heavy glass etched like a tapestry, opened onto a room of sweeping curved walls swung open to the crisp evening air. The floor here was polished squares of jade green and pure white that rang with perfect sound as Malika’s heels tick-tocked across them. More eyes turned. Some tried to hide it, but no one missed their entrance. Or rather, hers. Ember knew all eyes would be on her like a bullseye for the rest of the night.

That’s my Mali for you, he thought. She’s the best window dressing there is, because she can play the exact right note like her life depends on it.

Ember often wondered why she spent her time on his stings rather than pursuing her craft in the local theatre scene. That had been where he had found her, in some new play he barely remembered except for how she had commanded his attention every moment she had been onstage. He had sent her a message, inviting her out at her convenience, sounding her out over cocktails at a luxurious lounge he guessed she would never have been able to afford on her own.

Of course, he had Seije find out everything he could about her life first. It was the only time her treated her like a mark and not an ally, for she had been strangely eager to work alongside him, whether from need or simply a craving for adventure. Whatever her reasons, he had never questioned it again, for her commitment to their adventures seemed total. Whatever role he needed played, whatever aspect he needed her to assume, she was there, completely in character and committed.

And she was in fine form in the Quintaines’ ballroom. Ember eyed her performance critically, finding no fault in her carriage. From her glossy auburn hair to her sleek, glow-weave covered curves, she seemed to be made of light.

Despite all of the fancy packaging, Ember knew she was so much more. He had yet to see anyone immune to her charms once she turned her laser sharp focus on them.

He laid a hand on the small of her back and steered her toward the bar. *After you, my dear.*

For the next hour they worked the room, pausing at the buffet every now and then for an hors d’oeuvre, just another couple here to be seen amongst their kind, social-climbing on the backs of their peers. In cleats. They mingled, nursing their drinks and chatting about nothing with strangers who pretended to remember them. Once Ember was sure Mali’s spell was complete, he excused himself for a fresh drink.

His route to the bar took him past one of windows, giving him a stunning view of streaming cloud. The next phase of the evening had begun exactly on schedule, before most of the crowd even noticed. The mansion started a slow ascent through the upper atmosphere for a leisurely moonlit cruise. Despite a flash of disgust at the staggering ostentation, Ember was actually impressed.

After a long swallow of bourbon at the bar, he flicked his tongue along the outside of his left upper molar, dislodging the capsule hidden there. Biting down, he felt it crack open, coating his tongue with an icy bitterness. The nausea hit fist-in-the-gut fast, leaving him dizzy.

“Are you all right, sir?” the bartender said, frowning with concern as the colour drained from Ember’s face.

Ember nodded, jaw clenched. “Restroom?”

The bartender indicated the way and Ember excused himself, knowing he had only moments before the chemical took full effect.

As he staggered into the washroom, he queried his node and felt the overlays on his fingers glow warm and bright in his mind. Seeing a bank of stalls, he pushed his way into the nearest one, registering the comfort controls beside the toilet. He reached out to steady himself, his hand resting against the comfort settings panel. The LI adjusted servos in the toilet seat, filling the bidet with water and blasting a sickly floral perfume in his face, which made him retch even harder. As his stomach tried to haul itself inside out, he felt through his node the clear peal of confirmation as the nanotech in the ridges of his fingerprint released through the surface circuitry of the interface, and then the warm, steady pulse that signalled the virus’s activation.

With one final heave, his stomach felt empty. He stood unsteadily and made his way to the sink, splashing cold water on his face. The LI, sensing his distress, opened a slot in the medicine cabinet before him, offering him one small, white pill. Ember smiled at the construct’s mechanical concern and chased the pill down with a swallow of water from the tap.

The anodyne worked swiftly, taking only a moment to restore his body to balance. By the time he had wiped away a slight sheen of sweat from his brow, he felt pangs of hunger. He smiled and smoothed his hair into place.

The oppressive eye of the Quintaines’ vid surveillance would have recorded nothing more than one of their usual sycophantic retinue puking in one of the guest bathrooms. The biometrics of the restroom’s LI would have backed up what the images displayed, including the recuperative medication dispensed. No one would have been the wiser.

And in a day or two, a chunk of their fortune would start to bleed off, gradually wending its way through a network of transfer accounts until it disbursed to numbered, double blind accounts set up for Ember, Malika and their mentor, Seije. Not enough to be noticed, but enough to keep them comfortable for a long time, sweeping away all traces of the transactions almost instantaneously.

Not the most sophisticated job I’ve ever pulled, Ember thought, but he wasn’t about to waste his best moves on filth like the Quintaines. The couple had been in his cross-hairs as potential marks for a long time as he waited for the right time and conditions. When he read of their hostile takeover of the company owned by Sindel Kestra, the woman whose wave resonator had revolutionized interspace travel, acquiring her patents for a song and driving her into bankruptcy, he knew the time had come. Had the two been flayed alive by an angry mob in the street, Ember would have wasted no tears on them. But that would never have happened, for the Quintaines had the best PR team their tainted wealth could buy.

Five minutes later, he was back at Malika’s side, arriving just in time to hear a cackle of laughter he recognized as coming from a former mark. It was Ming Babcombe, lacquered in the gaudy Kabuki style sadly in vogue among the nouveau riche this season, spurred to hysterics by some witticism on Malika’s part. Obviously, she was feeling no pain over the loss of her art collection. The insurance company had probably written her a cheque before Ember had even arranged for the works to be fenced.

He gently laid a hand on Mali’s elbow and with a smile, let her know the job was done. She smiled back and took his hand, making apologies to her attentive listeners. Ming’s face fell like an enamelled souffle when they turned away, depriving her of her entertainment. They stepped away and made their way toward the doors to the dining room.

For Ember had arrived back just in time for dinner.

Surprising no one, the repast laid before the evening’s guests was a culinary epic. The servants laid course after course before them, each more decadent and luscious than the last. The broth was light, with a flavour deeply piquant and rich. The salad was artfully arranged, kissed with only the barest concept of dressing. And on it went. Rare meats, each cooked to render them the most flavourful, and each to the precise, individual moment of doneness. Delicate filets of several types of fish flaked at the slightest touch of the fork, falling on small, precise portions of rice and grain pilafs.

The courses just kept on coming, capped by lacy sugar desserts, each spun as an individual and unique work of art.

When the feast finally ended, Ember and Malika sipped small, dark, richly aromatic coffees while continuing their inane, arrogant small talk. After a strictly timed interval, the strains of the orchestra could be heard wafting from the ballroom. Ember smiled slyly and offered his hand, leading Malika away from the table.

The music was atonal and modern, designed to accompany the stiff, angular style of dance popular amongst the trend-setters.

*What do you think?* Ember ‘pushed to Malika. *Shall we put those lessons to use?*

Her only response was an arched eyebrow, a smile and the briefest of nods.

Ember spoke briefly to the orchestra leader, then extended his hand when he returned to her. They both felt the ripple of polite surprise go through the crowd as the music shifted to something infinitely more layered and sensual. Ember closed his hand around Malika’s waist and drew her to him. As the music began to throb and reach tempo, they glided across the floor, stopping at times for a flash of tight, sensual footwork that threatened to trip them up but never did. Feeling the music envelop their bodies, Ember lifted her, her legs in an almost vertical line, before he lowered her to the floor and she extended one long, sensuous leg.

They continued their tango through a swirl of music, ending with a perfect dip. Ember saw the pinched disapproval that smeared across the faces of their hosts. Even from this distance, he could tell they would never be invited back. Inside, Ember smiled. All according to plan.

He slowly pulled himself and Malika into the upright position and favoured the stunned crowd with a nod for the appreciation they dared not show before the brittle, outraged hosts. With a thought, he summoned their limousine and escorted her out to fetch their coats.

They didn’t laugh until their car was safely in the air.

“Brazen,” Malika said.

“Better to be the horribly rude guests who upstaged the hosts by messing up the carefully arranged entertainment, than the thieves cleaning out their accounts. I guarantee when they think of us, the seething rage will wipe out all other impressions.”

Malika inclined her head, acknowledging his point. “You think of everything.”

“One does what one can.”

The limousine dropped them back at the building they had started from, then lifted up into the air and away.

The biometrics at the door to the loft recognized them, opening up on the rough, wide living space beyond. Malika edged past Ember, already undoing her gown. She tossed it aside in a heap on the floor, but Ember reached down and scooped it up with a scowl. He draped it carefully over the chair, wanting it undamaged in case they needed it again some day.

Malika strode across the loft naked, shaking out her hair. Despite himself, Ember smiled. He knew she would head directly to the shower, to wash away the make-up and accumulated debris of the role she had played tonight. Once clean, she would throw on some of her own clothes and be off to dance it all away, both upright and horizontally.

Seije stretched out in his console lounger, deep in node trance. A plate containing a half-eaten sandwich and a half empty glass sat on the console to his right. Ember crossed and ran a hand gently over the older man’s forehead, feeling a surge of affection.

Beside the dirty dishes, a small metallic case hummed and shimmered with a contained energy before speaking. “Good evening, Ember. How did it go?”

“Smooth as Nenevan whisperglass, Bit. Please tell me he ate more than this tonight.”

The soft, androgynous voice chuckled. “My motherboard said never to tell a lie. But if it makes you feel any better, he isn’t actually suffering from any significant signs of malnutrition.”

“That’s something, I suppose,” Ember said, looking at the smooth, featureless black surface of the brainbox. It was still a surprise to hear the voice of an AI coming from something that small. Ember didn’t know much about AI, but he knew enough to have a basic understanding of how much hardware went into making one. It had taken time to get used to Bit’s mysterious presence in their lives. Ember had known how gifted an engineer and designer Seije was, but the intelligence that spoke from the tiny thing was some next level stuff, freakishly advanced even for him. Sometimes, he got the feeling even Seije was surprised by what he had accomplished.

“What’s he been working on?”

Bit responded with a smoky chuckle. “What hasn’t he been working on? There are new weapon designs, modifications to the bio-mech implants, and improvements on pretty much everything he’s ever created.”

Image panes bloomed around them, centred on the older man’s head. Each image pulsed with lines and whorls of data, glowing in the dim light. Seije’s thoughts danced through the lines of code, springing from idea to idea, all of it making Ember’s head hurt.

“I get it,” he said, and the images winked out. “I swear, some days I think he has a computer where his brain should be.”

“Well, speaking as someone who does have a computer for a brain, I’d have to disagree,” Bit said. “But he comes close on his good days. Not an hour ago, I watched him pick apart that bio-mechanical serum and fix the tiniest flaws I doubt any other human could have seen. Then he re-set the test sequence and initiated a new simulation of the handgun design to optimize the power supply. While that was running, he set up a production run on the in-house synths and coordinated with the off-site production facilities. By the time the bio-mech tests came back positive, he’d fixed the gun design and was sketching out a preliminary draft of a new production management routine.”

Ember shook his head and chuckled, the sound lush with affection for Seije. “Sounds like an ordinary day around here. I’m going to get some sleep. Keep an eye on him, will you?”

“I always do. But don’t rush off. He wanted to talk to you when you got back. Left me strict instructions to pull him out when you arrived.”

Ember saw Seije stir in his couch and his eyes flutter open. Ember smiled, surprised by how warm it made him feel. He wanted to talk to Seije about how well the job had gone and how perfect Malika had been in her role. He always relished those moments when he could show Seije that everything had come together from their shared plans. While Seije almost always seemed to be only half listening at the best of times, usually so caught up in his designs or plans, Ember believed they really connected when he got to report back about the success of a job. He knew that the success of the plans meant as much to Seije as they did to him. And not just because of the money.

Speaking of which, he sent a query through his node. The soft, feather light touch of his incursion past the Quintaines’ security pulsed in its tiny, hyper-secure corner of Know-It-All.

Seije sat, blinking his eyes in that way he always did when he came out of his node-trance. Finally, he was able to focus on Ember’s face. “How did it go?”

“I was brilliant,” Ember said, ruffling the older man’s hair.

Seije rolled his eyes. “Well, that goes without saying. How was the tech?”

“See for yourself.”

Seije closed his eyes just long enough to read the same data that Ember just had. A satisfied smile danced across his face before he opened his eyes again. “And you’re all right?”

“I’m fine. I always am. Mali is too.”

Seije’s smile faded a bit, worry causing the lines across his forehead to deepen. “Everyone’s luck runs out eventually, Ember.”

“Not today, old duffer,” Ember said, leaning down to kiss Seije’s forehead. “Not today. I’m fine. Go design me something pretty.”


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