In the absence of justice, what is sovereignty but organized robbery? St. Augustine
The inner airlock doors slid open and the two of us stepped into the ship proper. There was no reception committee, which is always a good start where larceny is concerned. Frank glowered at our Spartan surroundings, but then again, he glowers at everything. "Wealthy as sin and this is the best he can come up with? I've seen better appointed bus shelters."
I had to admit the access corridor was functional to the point of bleakness. Not exactly what you'd expect aboard a star yacht owned by the reclusive tycoon, Lucien Ghent. Everyone we'd spoken to on the space station had assured us the Scaramanga was a veritable star-faring pleasure palace. Needless to say, none of the inhabitants of Nebula Gateway had ever set foot aboard, but all knew of someone who had.
Our sources reported that Ghent had gone loopy - if you could break in then he'd let you walk out with as much loot as you could carry, free and clear. I'd done my research and that sounded mad enough to be true; Ghent hadn't been seen in public for almost three years and seemed to treat interpersonal contact as an unnecessary evil. He'd even replaced most of the crew with automated systems, not that the Scaramanga was going anywhere in a hurry. It was tethered to the space station by a host of hawsers and semi-permanent umbilicals - a parasitic entity that pretty much summed up the great man himself.
So it was a challenge, but seeing as how Frank is a psychopathic killer and I can crack any electronic lock ever made, we figured it was worth a punt. However, if our initial surroundings were anything to go by then it looked like we'd be leaving empty handed.
There was a flash of light and I felt my skin tingle. Frank hissed at me, as if keeping his voice down would somehow help. "You said we'd be invisible to the on-board systems. So how come-"
A synthetic male voice issued from the wall speaker. "Welcome aboard the Scaramanga. Gentlemen. Please wait one moment."
I could well understand the system's hesitation as my immediate social circle were heavily into gender morphing. To get back in shape I'd taken a blitz course of Tee-He, leaving me with a bad case of drug-induced priapism. Strapping my dick down in an enforced 'dressing on the left' had left me with a pronounced limp, to the extent I needed a walking stick to get about.
Water vapor materialized around us, like we'd suddenly flown into a cloud. I heard Frank cursing but he was lost, obscured by the billowing white folds. As suddenly as it had appeared the mist dissolved away, as if burnt off by the rising sun.
And it had.
We were standing on a rock outcrop, a kind of ersatz observation platform jutting out from the hillside. The sun had just cleared the ridge behind us, throwing the semi-tropical valley below into stark relief. There was no sign of life, let alone civilization, to mar the lush sweep of vegetation. Away to the left lay the blue haze of the ocean, and that was that. We were at altitude, but nothing uncomfortable. I took a deep breath of fresh air which quite lacked the antiseptic tang I'd gotten used to during my time in space.
"It's quite something, don't you think?" The voice came from behind us; male, sounding amused. I knew instantly I was going to dislike him.
I turned awkwardly, leaning on my cane. The speaker and a woman stood a few meters away. He appeared squat in comparison to his companion but that was due to his wide shoulders and heavy-set features. The woman had catwalk elegance and eyes the colour of dead neon.
The man gestured out across the valley. "It's a topographical recreation of Madeira, an island on Earth, complete with micro-climate. Occasionally we manifest a small villa down on the coast but other than that the place is uninhabited. I find bringing visitors here, with its sense of isolation, leaves them feeling-"
"Disconcerted?" I smiled. Frank chewed on a fingernail and said nothing.
Our host inclined his head. "Quite. I'm-"
"Arturo Roth, your employer's go-to guy and proxy on the board of Ghent's corporations. Your companion is Sara Hotchkiss, the proverbial 'personal assistant'. But not personal enough, apparently, to warrant a bodyguard when she leaves the ship. Whereas you, sir, never go anywhere without a small army in tow. Some might call it paranoia but given the number of enemies you've acquired I'd say your precautions are entirely justified."
Roth kept up the smile although his eyes hardened. "I see you've done your homework. Unfortunately you have us at a disadvantage as I rarely interest myself in those who-"
"I'm Jerry. This is my brother, Frank."
Cutting him off like that obviously got under Roth's skin. He dropped the forced good humour and his tone turned dismissive. "Well, it's been a pleasure meeting you both. I'll leave you in the capable hands of Sara for the duration of your stay but I'm afraid we won't meet again."
I grinned. "You never know. It's nice here, so Frank and I might still be around when you get back. I have to say, as virtual reality environments go this one is top-notch."
Roth paused in the act of turning away. "Virtual? Oh, no. This may be a shining example of artifice but there's nothing artificial about it, I assure you. And what I should have said is that you'll be dead long before I return. Please accept my apologies for any confusion that might have caused." Before I could reply he went from three-dimensional to bas-relief to no more than a cardboard cut-out, and dissolved into nothingness.
Frank giggled, nervously.
With Roth gone Sara seemed to come alive but I cut in before she could speak, pointing at the spot where her companion had stood. "That's a phase-transfer distortion effect, meaning all this..." I gestured around us, " is a live matter stream. But it can't be, not on this scale. Even if your ship were just one big fusion reactor it couldn't generate nearly enough power to support a reality bubble this large."
She smiled; all perfect teeth and insincerity. "Ah, but the Scaramanga is powered by a Beaumont Singularity, more than adequate for even our exorbitant needs. All this, as you put it, exists merely as a mote on the event horizon."
I shied away and even Frank looked worried. My voice trembled. "Fuck that! There's a damn good reason why a Beaumont is proscribed technology these days. If your containment field so much as twitches then this ship, the station, maybe even the entire system, will collapse in an instant. So if you don't mind my brother and I will piss off, sharpish."
Sara brushed an errant strand of hair back into place. "But I thought you were here to rob us? Isn't that why you came aboard?"
"Look, sister, even if that were true then you have to admit the set-up isn't exactly as advertised. Or is this all some elaborate joke where Ghent lures us aboard and then watches while we starve to death in his pocket-universe playpen?"
She laughed. "Oh, no, he really is indifferent to your fate, I assure you. But being marooned here will be the penalty for attempting to escape upon your return to the ship proper. This is essentially a Stone Age environment and I seriously doubt you possess the skills to survive for long, even on a diet of fruit and wild vegetables."
"Yeah, yeah, I get it. Either we rob you blind or perish in the attempt." I sniffed. "So, tell me, if we do manage to pull this off, will we get to meet Ghent in person?"
Sara seemed to consider this for a moment. "Well, I'm sure the novelty would appeal to him, and he has been known to witness the climax of a break-in attempt, if it's been sufficiently entertaining up to that point."
"You're not exactly filling me with confidence here, girl. Still, there's no point in hanging about. Frank?" He nodded, I nodded. "Right then, Sara, let's be having you."
The world around us seemed to snap shut and open again. We were back in the access corridor, on our own. I laid a hand on Frank's arm in case he felt like bugging out, but I needn't have worried. He shook off my grasp and flexed his fingers. "Anything to say we can't just murder everyone and bugger off? I don't like being screwed with."
I snorted. "You and me both, man. However I think full-on homicide might upset the natives a tad, so rein it in for now."
Frank grunted and set off along the corridor with me trailing in his wake. My augmented vision was sensitive to electronic emissions and heat bloom, but there were no obvious sensors or hidden anti-intruder nasties. The phrase 'all too easy' sprang to mind but there was no option but to press on. Around a dog-leg in the corridor we ran into a set of double pressure doors blocking our path, with no obvious release mechanism.
I heaved a sigh of relief. "So now it begins."
My companion shrugged. "Assuming they don't just open onto vacuum."
"That would be crude, and if anything this whole set-up reeks of over-sophistication. Anyway, by my reckoning we've almost reached the heart of the ship."
"See if you're wrong, I will so kick your arse in Hell."
I smiled, handed him my cane, and stepped up. My fingers contained an embedded tracery of electro-magnetic sensors and micro induction field generators, meaning I could 'feel' and manipulate circuitry - even when they were concealed beneath layers of ceramic and armour plate. The locking mechanism was complex, subtle and booby-trapped. Any attempt at brute force would trigger the deployment of lateral reinforcement bars, requiring a thermal torch to make any further headway. Not insurmountable, and the whole setup seemed designed to frustrate and annoy the intruder rather than stop him dead in his tracks.
I stepped back with a flourish as the doors slid open - to reveal a short section of corridor and another set of doors. Frank gave me a slow hand-clap as I limped forward and started over.
I opened the second set of doors.
And the third.
By the time I started in on the fourth set Frank was bored; scratching Anarchist League graffiti on the walls using the metal tip of my cane. I glared at him. "Will you stop that? It's an antique original, not some cheap reproduction. This whole setup is giving me quite enough grief without you busting my balls as well."
He pouted. "You're the technical one, so get technical. But I'm warning you, if there's another set of bloody doors beyond this lot I'm breaking out the binary explosive."
I snorted. "Oh, very subtle, I'm sure. Even if you did manage to blow a hole big enough to climb through, don't you think the fire suppression system might sit up and take notice? They usually go for oxygen depletion in space, not retardant foam, and I for one don't fancy finding out which is in use aboard this tub."
Frank grunted and switched to twirling my cane, majorette style, while I got back to work.
The doors opened.
Beyond lay a large oval chamber, surrounded by a mezzanine metal-grid walkway that served no obvious purpose. At the far side, opposite the doorway, stood a wide sofa.
Sara sat there, her arms stretched out along the back of the upholstery. She gestured to the ice bucket and glasses on a side table. "A glass of champagne to celebrate getting this far, gentlemen? I assure you it contains no poison or sedative."
It was hard to pay attention as behind her, piled high as a backdrop, was enough wealth to turn Ali Baba green with envy. I could see piles of gold ingots, drifts of precious gems, works of art that hadn't been heard of in over a century. Plus a selection of proscribed technology that any major corporation would give their eye-teeth to reverse-engineer.
Frank handed back my cane and we made our way over to our vapid hostess. I bowed from the hips. "I'll join you, if I may, while Frank deals with whatever comes next. And there is something coming next, isn't there, Sara? After all, a series of locked doors seems somewhat perfunctory."
She patted the sofa beside her. I placed my cane on the table and sat down, accepting the proffered glass of bubbly. Sara smiled. "Oh, we used to have guards, electronic wizardry and an array of bio-mechanical nightmares defending the treasure room. But every guard can be bribed, every lock can be picked and every cybernetic entity corrupted. Now we simply depend upon our Hideo."
As she spoke a man entered the room by the way we'd come, the doors closing behind him. He was small, oriental, dressed like a dock-side supervisor in short-sleeved khaki shirt and loose pants. The 'Hideo' were a class of vat-grown assassin, stone killers from the genes up. These neo-ninja possessed enough augmented senses and jacked-up reflexes to make weaponry superfluous at close-quarters.
The temperature in the room seemed to drop several degrees.
Main lighting died away to be replaced by a shifting array of multi-coloured strobes mounted on the floor, gantry and ceiling. Octagonal mirrored columns rose from the floor and began to rotate, turning the chamber into a kaleidoscopic visual assault course. Frank turned to face Hideo, drawing a handgun from the pocket of his coat. He held his arms loosely by his sides, waiting.
Sara leaned in close to me, her tone conspiratorial. "What is he carrying? It didn't show up on our weapons scan."
"A gas-powered needlegun. Ceramic and plastic, firing glass projectiles."
She paused for a moment, frowning, as if listening to an internal voice. Then she laughed and clapped her hands. "Oh, oh, a themed robbery! We haven't had one of those since The Joker and may I say how much we appreciate the effort, Mister Cornelius."
I inclined my head by way of acknowledgment. "This setting is also a tribute, and one no less obscure. Now, I'll sit this out, if you don't mind. Frank is the one for the rough-stuff."
"Oh, absolutely. Although you do realise you'll share your brother's fate?" She frowned. "Is he really your sibling?"
"Him? Christ, not even close, but we work well together. As to sharing his fate, well, I wouldn't have it any other way." I sipped my champagne.
Sara raised her voice. "Hideo, you may begin."
Frank pointed his gun at a spot three meters to Hideo's left, then seven meters, then four meters to his right. His arm fell to his side.
Hideo's expression didn't change but his stance altered, almost imperceptibly.
Frank pointed his gun at a spot five meters to Hideo's right, then six to his left. His arm fell to his side.
Sara sounded more confused than concerned. "What is he doing? Is it some kind of ritual?"
I shook my head. "Frank is pointing at the positions, in sequence, where your man planned to be."
"I don't understand. How is that possible?"
"I don't understand it either, but that's his singular talent. In combat situations, where he's directly threatened, Frank can predict the actions of his adversary."
Hideo bowed again, then turned and walked away, immediately lost from view amidst the visual cacophony.
Now Sara sounded nervous. "What's going on? He can't simply leave."
"He's been defeated and is acknowledging that fact. No matter what he does, no matter how random his movements, Frank will nail Hideo before he gets within reach."
Frank's arm snapped up and he fired off to his right; the twee-twee-twee of a three-round burst barely audible. The columns ceased rotating and descended. The strobes cut out, to be replaced by main lighting.
A small, crumpled, khaki figure lay on the decking.
I sighed. "He had to try, I suppose, even though he knew it was a futile gesture. Failure in his line of work isn't habit forming." Frank giggled, spun the needlegun on his finger, and returned it to his pocket. I stood up, placed my glass on the table and retrieved my cane.
Sara's face registered surprise and anger before settling for a forced smile. "Congratulations, gentlemen. It would be churlish of me not to honour the terms of our agreement, even if it was only a rumour. Therefore, to the victors, the spoils. So please take whatever you can carry and depart, with my blessing."
I twisted the silver top of my swordstick, unlocking the blade. With one draw-and-slash I severed Sara's throat, right through to the spinal cord. Her head fell back, dangling down the back of the sofa, secured to the torso by only a few tendons and strip of skin. Blood fountained, causing me to step away.
Frank chewed his bottom lip. "Messy. You should have let me plug her."
"No disrespect, man, but I had to make sure of taking out her central nervous system." I walked around to the far side of the sofa and lopped off the top of Sara's skull. "Come look." He edged around the spreading blood pool and peered at the dull-blue crystal lattice I'd uncovered. I gestured with my swordstick. "Frank, meet Lucien Ghent."
He sniffed. "So he's not Roth then? You were taking one hell of a risk."
"Not Roth, he's got all the finesse of a fist, and Ghent himself was never that direct. As I said, Sara can come and go as she pleases - a classic case of hiding in plain sight."
Frank stooped and picked up a handful of emeralds, letting them drop slowly through his fingers. "We could just take the money and run."
"True." I placed my fingertips on the lattice, interfacing with the neural net. "But why clean out the till when you can steal the entire bank? Ghent may be gone but I can access the firmware femininity protocols that he used as Sara. With these and my drugs I can morph into a facsimile of her, one good enough to fool even Roth. Well, for as long as it takes to dispose of him."
Frank grinned. "And what if he's shagging her? I'd love to see your face if he starts cozying up in private."
"Trust you to think of that, but somehow I don't see Ghent canoodling with the hired help." I sniffed. "Anyway, he's not my type."
"Oh yeah? Wait until you've put your chromosomes through the wringer, then tell me you don't fancy a piece of rough like our man Arturo."
"Enough, already!" I walked around and slit Sara's blouse open. The head of the eWurm had already emerged from her navel. "Biomass technology, the cutting edge in living machinery. With this I can control the ship, and everything in it, just like she did."
My companion-in-crime made a face. "Creepy. You really going to let that thing inside you?"
I eased the interface free of the corpse and unbuttoned my waistcoat and shirt. "Damn straight. It needs a living host to survive and is too simplistic to support any concept of loyalty to Ghent." I held the eWurm against my stomach and felt it start to burrow in.
Frank went pale and took a step back. Despite his propensity for violence he can be quite squeamish at times.
The pain made me grimace but I kept talking, albeit through clenched teeth. "I've run the financials. Ghent funds his lifestyle, the Scaramanga, from the corporate 'Discretionary' account - it takes a small percentage of the net profits from his investments. With Roth out of the way I can steadily increase the percentage draw-down and the automated accountancy routines will do the rest."
"Yeah, yeah - but how long will that take? Before we came aboard it was a case of you becoming this dude and cleaning him out in nothing flat. Now we have to wait while you liquidise assets and off Roth as well? What happened to 'easy in, easy out', or is my memory playing tricks?"
The pain began to ease and I squared my shoulders. "Look, man, you've got the attention span of a retarded goldfish. If I'd said this was going to take weeks, maybe even months, would you have been interested in the big picture? No, you wouldn't. Instead we'd be on our way out of here with a fortune in our pockets and a price on our heads. Or do you really think we can kill someone like Lucien Ghent and walk away scot-free?"
Frank plucked at his bottom lip, a petulant gesture of his. "You were the one who sliced him, her, whatever. He was willing to let us go."
I sneered at him. "Yeah, right. His type are all smiling bonhomie, right up to the instant they start losing. We'd have walked off the ship into a hail of gunfire, courtesy of Roth's little army."
"Still nothing. Look, this way I convert everything to bearer bonds and then its Core systems, here we come. First-class all the way, no expense spared."
He gestured to the wealth on display. "What about all this, then? We just leave it behind?"
"Even if it's real I bet it's tagged in some way, traceable. Anyway, it's just a drop in the bucket compared to what Ghent's investments are worth." I tossed him my cane. "Now, I hate long goodbyes, so PISS OFF!"
Frank grinned, gave me the finger, and walked away. I called out after him. "Hang on, you gonna' keep up the 'Frank' persona or what?"
"Not sure, but you can leave a message for me with Crank, he'll know who you mean. See if you were my older brother, though, I'd have killed you years ago."
"See if you were my younger brother, you'd never have been born."
He laughed and left the chamber. I sat down, feeling the ships systems starting to impinge on my consciousness. It was strange, like standing in a familiar room and realizing there were far more doors leading off it than before. The housekeeping crawlers would dispose of the bodies and clean the place up. I'd transition into Sara so that the next time Roth came calling he'd be dead long before realizing anything was wrong. Or maybe I'd dump Arturo in our vest-pocket Madeira and let him go native, lord of all he surveyed.
I smiled and lifted a glass of champagne. All in all this was going to be a very tasty world.
A very tasty world, indeed.
©Martin Clark 2014 All Rights Reserved
Date and time of last update 13:48 Thu 27 Nov 2014
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