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Ill Wind (Chaos Witches Volume Two)

ILL WIND

Chaos Witches : Book Two

By Tal Turing

 

All characters appearing in this work are fictitious. Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.

© Tal Turing 2016

Published at Shakespir

Shakespir Version 1.0

All rights reserved

 

 

This ebook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This ebook may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each recipient. If you’re reading this book and did not purchase it, or it was not purchased for your use only, then please return to Shakespir.com and purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.

Table of Contents

Cover

Dedication

Disclaimer

Synopsis

Cast of Characters

Prelude to the Series

Transit

Annabelle’s Search

First Techview Interlude

Miriam and the Bugs

Second Techview Interlude

The Transom Asset

Third Techview Interlude

The Borderlands

Fourth Techview Interlude

Hospie

Realizations

Gala

Abduction

Lynda

The Storm

Aftermaths

Notes from the Author

[]Cover Artwork

Cover artwork created by Marin Atanasoski and used with permission.

http://spirit815.deviantart.com/gallery/

[]Dedication

This work is dedicated to a woman whose name came to me only through her death – Jyoti Singh. If you don’t know the name, please google it at some point.

[]Disclaimer

Warning: This work contains some adult themes including depictions of violence, sexual assault and sexual behavior, thus is suitable only for adults who are not easily offended. Any apparent political or religious endorsements are unintentional.

[]Synopsis

The Witch is dead. Or did you simply not recognize her?

The consequences of book one, The Assets of Techview, play out in a new setting: the colony of New Berlyn, itself a domed city, a younger and rasher version of its sister city of Techview.

Cynnamon, bonded to Transom Industries, has no choice in this return to her childhood home, it was part of a promise she made, a barter to save her friends. She must complete one assignment before she can return, but what does it entail?

Miriam, freed of her corporate chains, now finds herself fettered to a sociopath, a bond forged by the strange viral colony which lives and grows inside her. One which she helped to create.

Annabelle comes to New Berlyn of her own free will, determined to find a missing member of the Seven Sisters Sanctuary, dead or alive. With few clues to start, can Ann succeed or might she also disappear?

New Berlyn welcomes them and any whom it can ruthlessly use in its frantic, desperate rush for power and fame, a desire to be the brightest jewel in Las Joyas.

[]Las Joyas

The Domed Cities

Techview

Fulton

New Berlyn

New Chicago

Palenque (abandoned)

The Mega-Corporations

Transom Industries

Humantis

SkyTran Corp

Daneel Tech

Urbanic Corp

Corporate Officers

Miriam, Junior Officer, Humantis (former asset)

Donyden Cabb (Donnie), Senior Officer – Corporate Strategy, Humantis

Dr. Maximilian Petyr, Senior Officer – Director of Special Projects, Humantis

Paul Harilla, Executive – Operations, Transom

Steve Harilla, Senior Officer – Strategy, Transom

Edwyrd Harilla, Senior Officer – Security, Transom

Bradley Harilla, Officer – Operations, Transom

Lysander Barrett, Executive -Security, Transom

Tym Matheson, Executive – Strategy, Transom – Techview

Sams, Junior Officer – Security, Humantis

Mother, Director of Operations, Transom – Techview

Villagers

Annabelle Paige, Techview

Pol Gente, New Berlyn

Lynda Thorgen, New Berlyn

Pur Sarkov, New Berlyn

The Assets

Cynnamon CC34F, Operations, Transom

Carla K342G, Corporate Hospitality Services, Transom

James D3T12, Operations, Transom

[]Prelude to the Series: Chaos Witches

Witch. Such a silly word, so useless and infantile that I could have gone a lifetime, several lifetimes without ever uttering it, a term used by children and story tellers.

But it sprung into my mind one day as she arrived. As I watched, the door opened and she stepped through, like so many times before, but this time my subconscious puzzled and wondered and unable to do any better, spit out that single word. Witch.

I never saw her bend the fabric of space or vanish into thin air and all the strange occurrences which manifested in her presence could be explained rationally. Still, I questioned and I wondered.

I can’t claim to have made the connection myself, it was offered in a dream. She rose from a black pool, the sea of the cosmos, the inky drops of liquid stardust sliding off her skin as she emerged and walked onto a rocky beach, a mysterious smile on her face.

Still, I am not sure, and I have known her and of her all these years, but have kept her secret of my own free will. Or so I believe.

[]Transit

The Train

The dark, thick clouds moved rapidly over the valleys and foothills of what was once the North American Midwest, bringing pelting rains and obscuring the light of the moon, the stars, the milky background radiation of the Universe itself, sights precious to those who had lived before the age of Maltiempo.

The thunder boomed and lightning ripped through the air, burning it in its intensity. The winds raged, stressing the trunks of the trees which remained standing, not yet broken, and pushing the limbs and leaves of the fallen further into the muddy earth.

A strange object appeared at the rim of a valley, undaunted by the storm. It is long but not rigid, segmented, like a snake, and it moved quickly, above the ground, its belly sparkling with a strange white-blue static. The creature moved through the air, like an eel through the water, but it does not fly, it does not rely on air pressure to keep itself aloft, rather it is somehow held to the Earth itself; myriad invisible, paradoxically rigid tethers stabilize the vehicle on its path. The ground beneath trembles and shudders as it passes overhead.

A large tree branch, torn loose by the storm, is hurled toward the thing; which does not react, does not evade. Upon reaching the murky envelope of air cloaking the strange machine, the projectile is shredded and dispersed as the vehicle moves on its way.

The segments of the eel-like vehicle are the cars of the train, those in front holding the living, while those in the rear are configured for storage. But the last one is currently at cross purposes.

In Storage

The last car of the Earth Hugger train was claustrophobic and dimly lit, the various metallic canisters and containers, stacked and bundled to each other, filled the chamber leaving only narrow aisles and tiny spaces. The terrible lightning from the storm illuminated the room with an eerie, greenish glow.

Cynnamon’s olive skin seemed almost blue in the strange environment but that was the least of her worries. An announcement had been made – they were nearing the valley of New Berlyn, their destination. Time was running out.

On one side, blocking her exit, was the impostor. He was speaking but his lies no longer mattered. Although omnaudient, she could ignore even though she heard. Beyond, his partner was leading a disoriented female out of the chamber.

Worse, on her left was a large container, cracked open like a lunch box on its side, revealing its contents – an evil-looking machine consisting of a padded chair surrounded by an array of digital displays and translucent tubes. The arm restraints were clearly visible, opened to release its previous occupant.

She was familiar with the test it would perform, a fertility assessment, a painful one, so much so that the subject would be injected with a non-anesthetizing paralytic, its purpose to reduce damage to the machine by the otherwise frantic and desperate escape attempts of its patients.

Cyn looked back at the man, he had moved toward her slightly, still relying on his words to further his purpose. And there was the mystery – what was his purpose? And why this awful medical procedure? It was more than likely that he did not even know, only those who would pay him understood the reason.

The exit door closed shut, abruptly ending the whimper of the other female, a human asset just like herself, a corporate slave, but younger, less experienced. She would not be the last. That made up her mind.

Take care to wander where you wonder

Cynnamon hummed to herself a song of her mother as she maintained a trusting and passive demeanor, allowing him to lead her to and into the chair. But she looked away as he quickly, expertly, closed the guards on her arms.

Still there was time, there was still a way out. Her strong legs were within striking distance of his head and if she knocked him out or worse, it wouldn’t be long before they had arrived and the unloading began. But she allowed the thigh bar to be lowered and now there was nothing even she could do.

Fallen Guard

“Get back to your damn seats!” snarled the guard, a behemoth clad in a strange, black armor, its surface rough, sharp and irregular as if fused by a lightning strike into bitter glass edges. The frustrated voice from the human within was distorted into an evil hiss, just as intimidating as his appearance. And in response, the many curious and alarmed passengers scattered like roaches.

The angry guard lifted a figure, also armored but unconscious and bare-headed; the motors inside his stibnite armor whined softly as the load was lifted into the air. Then, the lead guard walked off, leaving large bloody footprints, noticed only by the third guard who hurried afterwards.

“You fucking traitor,” the lead guard snarled at the delirious and bleeding man when they had gotten him safely into a private security compartment. “You are a disgrace to the uniform, to your city, to your family!” He spat the accusations as his large, gauntleted hand closed in on the man’s unprotected head, squeezing.

“He was acting strange, Dwyn!” the other guard insisted, “Did you hear his voice? It didn’t sound like him. Maybe it’s not his fault…”

“Or maybe he was showing his true colors and he had the nerve to call us traitors in front of those people” the lead guard snarled as the motors in his armor hummed. Suddenly the man moaned and began to scream. But that ended when the room was filled with the dull crack of a human skull.

The other guard watched the now-dead man’s head flop back, the muscles in his neck proffering in the air. It was then that he saw the puncture wound near the carotid artery. Or perhaps it was just a drop of blood. What did it matter now?

Hiding the Evidence

Annabelle pushed the taller, younger woman in front of her as they fled the scene. The other girl did not resist but neither did she completely obey, turning her head back toward the large hulks who were bellowing, locked in combat against one of their own.

“Enough, Miri, back to your seats like the nice men asked…”, Ann pleaded.

“He doesn’t sound so tough now, does he?” The bombshell whispered with obvious joy.

Ann pulled Miriam into an empty compartment, vacated by bored passengers anxious to view the commotion. She bent in back of one of the large SkyTran Hi-G turbulence chairs, retrieved the spent needle and pushed it into the fabric of the chair, where it would spend the rest of its inanimate life.

“You did do something!” Miriam challenged her in an excited but girlish exclamation.

“Did not,” Annabelle replied slipping past her and taking a furtive peek into the aisle. There was no one there. An automated voice implored:

Please return to the protection of your berths and activate your harness. We will arrive in New Berlyn soon. When you purchased your ticket you agreed to abide…

“We should do what it says,” Ann suggested. It was to be her first trip to this city and she had been dreading it but now she couldn’t wait to get off this train.

“You shouldn’t have done anything, I can handle myself,” Miriam spoke simply, frankly as she looked into Ann’s practical, blue eyes and gave her hand an affectionate squeeze. “I am tougher than I look. But where is that Cyn girl? We should make sure she is okay…”

Ann bristled. If any of them would avoid a domer jail, it was that one. Why would they imprison their own slave?

“That one? Don’t worry about her. We will be arriving in New Berlyn soon, you should get back to your Doctor, right?”

“Yes…I should,” Miriam replied mechanically as if the word triggered a trance, her lithe frame suddenly stiffening. Then, after a moment, she returned and spoke quickly. “But wait for me in the station, the Doctor has a ride arranged. We’ll all go together. Promise me you’ll both wait for me. For us.”

Ann sighed. Anything to get her back to her seat.

The Doctor

Miriam slipped into the large, private compartment, one of the few of its kind on the train, a pricey corporate accommodation, arranged by her benefactor and lover. Maximilian Petyr was a rising star at Humantis Corporation thanks to the spectacular successes he had achieved…with her help.

The Bugs bristled at her proud thought, she let the feeling seize her and pass, like an allergic reaction. She knew they were there but she could handle them, although it was increasingly tiresome to do so.

“Did you enjoy yourself my Dear?” the older man called, his eyelids heavy on her, like a snake, “Celebrating your promotion, your liberation from the shackles of Sponsorship?”

Miriam’s outrageously feminine figure walked gracefully to him, despite the shudder of the train. She slid into the berth nearby, her beautiful green eyes sparkling.

“Thanks to you, Petyr…”

“Thanks to us…consider that we are no longer two, but one. Even I did not realize my own genius. We are joined in a much more significant way than those fools who speak of soul mates, bonds and becoming ‘one’.”

Her eyes widened, was he going to propose? Or was he mocking marriage? She was clever enough to not react to the idea. The Bugs might not like it, she was not the marrying kind. But he was right. They were connected and in more ways than he realized.

“As you say, Petyr,” she smiled.

“Did anything interesting happen?” he asked. “Why all the announcements to return to seats? When I was out there I could find hardly a soul away from their berth.”

Miriam could not deflect that question, the Bugs would not allow it, they were awake, watching her. She could feel them, their collective attention piqued like prairie dogs.

“There was a fight…among the guards, can you believe it? One of them went crazy and attacked the others.”

“That is unfortunate, but you had better get used to it, my dear, these Berlyners are animals.”

It was not enough. The Bugs insisted on further disclosure and for a moment she fought them.

“They are pigs. I had words with one of them, right before the fight.”

“You had better keep that to yourself, my dear.”

Excellent. That was exactly what she wished to do. She closed her eyes as the train swayed and the interior chambers rotated and twisted, minimizing the impact of the motion to its passengers.

Questions of a Child

The pre-teen girl watched the angry storm through the view port, and felt the vehicle bank to the right and her chair shift in the opposite direction, softening the jolt to her small frame. Even at her young age, she had experienced the phenomena many times; her Uncle used to intentionally rotate his dome vehicle in order to show her how the seats worked.

But that had been within the safety of one of Techview’s many domes. Now they were miles away from their city, in the middle of a storm, within Maltiempo itself, and although she wanted to be brave, she was worried, it seemed the storm got worse the longer they traveled.

She spoke out in an effort to calm her nerves.

“I’m not afraid of Maltiempo, are you?” She asked looking up at her mother.

“No, Dear, there is nothing to worry about. We are almost there.”

“I’m not worried. It’s a silly name, right?. Mal-tee-empo, what does it even mean?”

“Shhhh, I think some people are still sleeping, the lights are dim.”

“But what does it mean, Mommy?” the girl complained.

“It means bad weather, that’s all,” her mother assured her.

“It means bad times,” declared a voice from another berth within their compartment, a brash, young male. “Bad as in ‘bad man’, a guy who doesn’t like you. Everyone knows…”

A gruff male voice spoke out and the boy stopped in mid-sentence.

“Think of something pleasant dear,” the girl’s mother instructed with a squeeze of her hand.

“Okay, why do we have to travel so far just to go to another city?”

“Domed cities can only be built in special places, like our valley. When I was a girl there were only two cities in Las Joyas. Do you know how many there are now?”

“Five”

“No dear, there are four.”

“It’s five! They built five but everyone left one of them. We learned that last year, I told you about it, Mommy!”

“Fine, but we are going to New Berlyn.”

“But Techview is the best and the brightest, right?”

“Shhh. Everyone thinks their home is the best.”

“But ours really is, isn’t it? The first and the brightest jewel in Earth’s muddy crown.”

“Where did you get that?”

“From a song we learned in school.”

“Okay, but don’t sing it here.”

“But where is ‘here’, where is New Berlyn?”

“I don’t know, Sweetie. No one knows.”

“Someone must know.”

At that moment, someone stood in the darkness and emerged into the dim light. The mother and daughter looked up in surprise, only to be startled a second time when they saw the figure’s face, or lack thereof. It walked by them and out into the aisle.

After a minute, the mother leaned over to her daughter and whispered.

“She probably knows where it is.”

“Who was that?!” the daughter whispered excitedly, her mind finally distracted from the storm.

The Navigator

The navigator walked from the compartment, the shiny, mirror-like face plate that she wore made her stick out in every situation save when she was with her own kind, so she did not bristle at the tone of the child’s voice. She did not envy that ‘normal’ child, she pitied her if anything at all.

Her special AI, a unit that even corpers had never seen, unlocked the various secure portals which led to one of several, redundant cockpits. The chamber was large enough to fit two people but there was no one else present. She knew that one of her partners was located at the other end of the train and another near the middle.

She strapped herself into a safety harness, her arms falling to her sides and her fingers motionless, not needing AI gloves. The soft lights of the instrument panel reflected on her mirrored face plate but she was not looking back, she knew the data before even the dashboard could update itself.

But she had heard what the child had said about ‘Maltiempo’. She had asked her own mother the same types of questions when she was a child. She sighed, even a member of the Daneel Collective was not beyond longing for the comforts of the past and for her own mother. She envied the offspring of her people today, they would never be without their mother, or their father or any loved one.

And Maltiempo was not such a bad thing. Weather had not been the lethal enemy of mankind, rather it was change itself. Besides, it was only in the age of Maltiempo that the planet had witnessed the next evolution of man, something new, something never seen in all of its history, something only imagined – a burgeoning collective intelligence, a hive of human brains connected in a profound way. They dreamed that one day every human would be connected with every other human, in real time. Some day. Not today.

Thus she was not alone, even as she sat within a speeding, levitating train, her mind was connected, to some degree, with many, though not all, of her compatriots in the city she had left as well as the one which she approached. And they in turn were connected to others who were then connected to others of their kind, of their ‘corporation’.

Just as humans do not think with a single neuron or even a single region of their brain, neither did the Collective think with one of its constituent entities nor even with two of them. It was the sum of the minds which formed and influenced the whole. It even debated itself.

Transom Industries was an excellent choice for our purpose.

Large, but not too powerful.

Pervasive, but prone to our intimidation.

They will speak of our grievance with them and will be believed.

More than if we had spoken ourselves.

Because many fear us.

Many love us.

Some think us insane.

Many envy us but trust our technology.

But assimilation remains our greatest challenge now.

Granted. Then why did we take only one of the Transom assets?

The plan was to take both. We took only one.

The point was made.

Taking both might have resulted in undue resentment, Transom might still be useful.

A partnership?

A takeover?

A working relationship.

If only one should be taken why not the asset CC34F? The female?

Females are better contributions for obvious reasons.

The male was known to have compatibility issues.

We always intended to take the female. That is why she was summoned.

We changed our mind. We offered her a choice.

Which she rejected.

It was not the plan.

Plans are not rigid things. We changed our mind. We changed the plan.

It is done. Move on.

But why was it done? We were not all present. We are not yet capable to be all-present.

We, who were present, changed the plan.

Why?

She did not try to manipulate us.

She respects us. She may be a useful liaison.

She has a pretty face, are we even now so shallow?

She sang us a song. Of paths which cannot be retraced, decisions which cannot be un-made. Something we know well.

She understands us, she may join us willingly, and others will follow.

Many will join us when they realize all that we are.

Many will hate us for what we are becoming.

Perhaps.

Perhaps we were fooled.

Perhaps she fooled us.

Perhaps we felt sorry for her.

Perhaps we felt sorry for her.

Perhaps our gesture will be remembered.

Perhaps we were moved by a song.

Perhaps we were bewitched by a pretty face.

“Perhaps we were bewitched,” echoed the thoughts of the faceless woman from within the cockpit of the strange levitating train as it rose above a ruined forest and moved on its way, obscured by darkness, protected by fear of the storm. Mostly.

Raiders

The train passed over piles of tangled and interlaced tree limbs and vines, once an orderly forest. Huddled beneath a makeshift igloo of lumber, garbage and debris, white eyes looked out from beneath just in time to see the strange object pass overhead.

Caught by surprise, Agnetha had no time to duck her head back, and she felt the tremble of the ground beneath her, beneath them all, and she was sure they had been found out. She closed her eyes in despair and waited the consequences of her mistake. But the blue-sparking thing passed them by.

Raider. Others had named her and her people as such. But they were mistaken; they didn’t understand. They were traders. And she has heard the tales of a few who had managed to barter with the owners of the flying eel. And profited greatly.

So she has led her companions far off the normal travel routes, using only glimpses of the creature and her own guesswork as guidance. But the storms favor the bold with luck. Now, with this new sighting, she adjusted their heading once again and would continue on, hoping to find the lair of the people who have created such a machine.

Darren

Although he pretended to be gazing out the dark window of the hugger train as it neared New Berlyn, Darren was actually furtively watching the young woman in the berth across from his own. So while his eyes technically received light from the smokey fire within the toppled forest below, he was distracted and his brain simply did not realize the significance – that the ruined forest was harboring human life. He had bigger fish to fry.

For Darren, it had been a productive trip, garnering two potential human contracts, two females anxious to better their lot, to decrease their corporate debt by trading owners.

The first subject was easy, young and naive; she had just reached the stage of her serfdom to have realized how long it might be before her debt could be paid but not yet experienced enough to know that corporate profits are not easily discarded. There was no such thing as a free lunch, not even a discounted lunch.

The other, the woman he now watched, was more experienced and thus more suspicious, but Darren was a consummate salesman and knew to play the game to the last, pressing every opportunity and being persistent to the end.

It had paid off. He was constantly amazed how the desire to improve one’s social and economic status so easily overruled better judgment.

It wasn’t that the deal was too good to be true. But sometimes the devil you know is much better than the devil you don’t. And this devil, the one to whom he would sell them, didn’t want them to work for years, gradually paying off their debt through paltry commissions. No, he wanted them simply as medical assets, hosts, expendable bodies and that was the real reason such a large fraction of the debt could be written off and they would never get the chance to pay off the reduced balance.

Still, he was concerned. This one, the olive skinned Transom asset, had a satisfactory fertility score, determined through the Paulson test, a procedure he was told was extremely uncomfortable, the word he preferred to use. And most subjects emerged disoriented but functional and aware. But this one had not.

Instead, she didn’t seem to recognize him or her surroundings. He had been forced to help her back to her berth, fighting her attempts to fall backwards, restraining the wide circular motion she tried to make with her arms, as if she were swimming. If she attracted too much attention, a medic might be called, and they might test a sample of her blood.

He had hoped she would regain her senses during the remainder of the trip but she sat quiet, without speaking or reacting, her eyes lifted toward the ceiling of the passenger car as if she was looking up into the heavens.

Suddenly, he realized that the train had stopped, safely docked in a hugger tube beneath New Berlyn, and the passengers were starting to gather their belongings and leave. The girl, however, did not react and remained seated, even as others rose and collected their belongings.

Darren’s eyes caught a young man eyeing the dark hair and smooth, tan complexion of his prospect with a look of concern. What if the intruder tried to strike up a conversation with her and became alarmed? Darren rose to his feet and approached her, possessively, and stood, as if waiting patiently. Finally, the man moved on. Then Darren reached down and put his hand on hers, and pinched her, hard.

To his relief, the girl reacted, pulling her hand away. But unwilling to cast any further suspicion on himself, he simply muttered, “Wake up, we’ve arrived,” and then he walked to the threshold of the car and began to work his way into the aisle of disembarking passengers. He took a final look at her, and his heart sank, she was still in her seat.

“Hey,” he began, and then whispered privately to a uniformed attendant, “there is a girl in that compartment…well I told her that we arrived but she just went back to sleep. She has been like that the entire trip, probably too much partying. I hope you won’t leave without her?”

“No chance of that,” the conductor replied seriously. “We go into the yard until tomorrow evening. But I’ll roust her out.”

Only partially reassured, Darren filed out with the rest and walked quickly into New Berlyn Station. He walked slowly up the wide, stone stairs toward the station exit, stopping frequently, even as people passed him and the station quickly emptied. Long range hugger trains always arrived in the dead of night and everyone was anxious to catch a ride to a soft bed.

Finally, with his hand on the exit door, he saw her tall, dark form emerge from the tubeway. Thank the gods, he thought. He would sell her contract right away, before any complications developed; he could make up the credits when he sold the younger one. He made that decision as he pushed through the door and strolled out into the dome.

Cynnamon

She was swimming in the sea of everything, the dark liquid of space-time cool against her cheeks, the tingling of spontaneously created particles dancing before her eyes like fireflies before embracing their twins again and vanishing. She felt the soothing hum of the Universe filling her ears. She was relaxed and happy, her arms and legs executing a slow, gentle, back crawl as she swam through the void.

She had purposed toward it, the impossibly black center around which everything else swirled, but as she grew closer she realized her aim was off, her speed increasing quickly. She stopped trying to correct course, she was now moving too fast and could no longer significantly change her trajectory. She looked toward the eye of the maelstrom as it whipped her body around it. And flung her back the way she had come.

Next time, she mused, her aim would be better but no matter. She closed her eyes and savored the sensation of stardust against her skin as she sailed through it all.

Suddenly, she was interrupted by a distinctive sound, a bell, a chime. She opened her eyes to find a floating island of rock. An illuminated door had opened in one facet of stone. Through it she could see a small room, shelves in one wall, each of which held many small, golden boxes.

Instinctively, she knew the containers belonged to her. Each a reminder of something she needed to consider or wanted to do. Over the years she had come to the realization that some of these mementos might remain on their shelves forever, unfinished.

The bell rang again.

Cynnamon slipped out of the sea and stepped onto the rocks, sparking drops of liquid emptiness rolling off her gold hued skin, falling back to where they belonged.

Curious, she walked to the door and passed through finding herself now in a brightly lit hallway. The music of the Universe was gone, replaced with a low, mechanical vibration. A solitary man stood ahead of her, gesturing to her and pointing.

She moved forward, following his direction, along another corridor until she reached a closed portal, its window revealing the smooth, rounded walls of a strange corridor beyond. The portal remained closed.

She turned back toward the man, confused, and watched as he made another motion and repeated his gesture. She turned and watched as the door parted before her. She stepped through.

[]Annabelle’s Search

Arrival

Annabelle Paige stepped out of New Berlyn station and received a nose-full of dry, metallic, dome air. She took a moment to gaze over the tops of the buildings which surrounded the raised station and into what appeared to be an unobstructed night sky, complete with blazing stars and a full moon. She smiled as another, smaller red moon sailed across the sky. This could not be real. These domers were so extravagant! Didn’t they see that there was beauty in clouds as well?

The mustached man, Miriam’s companion, was not distracted by the unexpected sight, perhaps he had been here before. Rather, he waved them toward a waiting cab.

Ann was ambivalent as to whether she should part ways with the couple now, but her inferior villager AI unit had been unable to secure a ride and it was well after midnight, so she decided that she would not pass up the offer. She took a seat opposite the pair, determined not to stare.

The man, a doctor of some sort, had a clean cut, dapper appearance and even, reddish-brown hair with no signs of gray, though that meant little these days. He had a stocky build and ruddy skin so Ann pegged his age in the mid-forties, a stark contract to Miriam’s trendy fashions, silky young skin, glittered eye lashes and beauty contest winner looks.

Ann was amused to see the normally aloof Miriam fretting.

“I hope she isn’t standing in the middle of that old building waiting for us? It’s late with few taxis,” Miriam complained, her large doll-like green eyes blinked slowly.

“Then she will call one herself,” Ann assured her. “but it’s much more likely she is long gone by now, attending to the whims of her corporate masters.”

“Nothing wrong with that!” the Doctor smiled happily at Ann. “And by the way, who the hell are you?”

“Be nice,” insisted Miriam, “This is Ann, my friend from that church, I told you about her.”

“I remember something about a church, now you have a friend there?” He asked turning toward Miriam.

“I bumped into her on the ride down. And yes, two meetings is enough to call her friend.”

“Annabelle Paige,” Ann offered her hand but the man just looked at her.

“Doctor Maximilian Petyr,” he smiled pleasantly. “What do you do Miss Paige?”

“Well, I am a botanist in Techview, but I’ve always wanted to see New Berlyn,” Ann lied.

At least that was her story, what she would tell everyone here, even Miriam. And while she would have to see something of this dismal valley, her main purpose, the only thing which brought her so far from her Techview home, was to investigate the disappearance of a member of the local Sisterhood; and not just any member, but its figurative leader, the First Sister of New Berlyn.

“Really? Why?” the Doctor laughed, and then he relented. “Perhaps you came to see Transom Gardens? I hear they are spectacular, even by historical standards.”

“Fragile dome flowers do not interest me, I live in the villages,” Ann declared.

“Don’t you mean under the villages?” Petyr responded with a glimmer in his eye, “in some fox hole?”

“Do you have a place to stay, Ann?” Miriam interjected, placing a hand on Petyr’s forearm.

Ann looked at her blankly. She had thought to stay in the Sanctuary but the building had been abandoned and it was late.

Miriam did not wait for an answer. “We have two rooms allocated, but as I will stay with the Doctor, you will take the other.”

Both Petyr and Ann looked blankly at Miriam who now seemed satisfied and began arranging her full light brown hair.

“Miriam, I can…,” Ann began, uncomfortable at the thought but realizing it would be convenient. She needed to begin her search first thing the next day and it would be better to accept this offer rather than registering her credentials at some corper hotel. It was still a working theory that Sister Lyn had been kidnapped to satisfy some corporate need.

“And have breakfast with us as well,” Miriam said seriously, looking up at her with lovely green eyes, “Then you can go off sightseeing and attend to your business. You could have shared the room with that Cyn girl if the bitch hadn’t ditched us. I hope that is what she did. Tell her it’s okay, Petyr.”

The strange man shrugged and looked over at Ann as if it were now his mission to convince her.

“If you are traveling alone,” the Doctor explained, “then Miriam is making sense. New Berlyn frowns upon unescorted females. It would be better if you appear to belong to our party; they will think you are Miriam’s mother.”

Ann scowled inwardly although she had a daughter exactly Miriam’s age.

“So what if I am unescorted? What nonsense is that?” Ann demanded.

“Yes, you will definitely need an escort as you travel within the confines of New Berlyn, preferably a male escort, you can hire one if needed.”

“You are joking,” Ann replied indignantly.

“I do not joke,” Petyr assured her. “What is the point? To confuse? To provoke laughter? I just never understood the concept.”

Miriam leaned forward, speaking directly to Ann.

“He is not joking, I am sure Ann. We can discuss tomorrow, okay? Please?” Miriam’s pretty lips pouted and she looked pleadingly at Ann with large doe eyes.

“Well, okay, thank you. Thank you both.”

And now Ann realized that the stories about New Berlyn were not as exaggerated as even she had thought.

The Doctor looked at her now, as if he had found a piece of animal feces in his back yard. “So you are religious, Miss Paige? Interesting. I have a coworker who is an ardent member of the ‘Faithful Sons’. Would you be from that order?”

Ann hid the disgust on her face. The Faithful Sons? “No, the church I attend is a small denomination and not very big on beliefs. We prefer not to speak of them even between ourselves. We run a school and an outreach program but I like to tend their garden, that is where I met Miriam.” She flashed Miriam a fond smile.

“Outreach program? Outreach to who?” the Doctor asked and then suggested answers, “The heathens? The unenlightened? The confused?”

“I did not know any of that,” interjected Miriam, “But they have a wonderful garden with plants from the valley, ones I never get to see since moving to the Domes, so I am going to help Ann with that when we return.”

“If you are looking for flora, there is plenty of that to be found here, but god wouldn’t be caught dead in New Berlyn,” laughed the Doctor.

Breakfast with Miriam

Ann slept soundly, woke refreshed, showered and met Miriam for an early breakfast. Ann dressed in simple village style, a long skirt over leggings and ankle boots. The tips of her straight, sandy-blonde hair strained toward the tops of her shoulders and her turquoise necklace complemented her pale blue eyes.

Miriam, in a copper pant-suit and heeled boots, hugged her and led her to a table in the small restaurant where they ate and talked.

“It’s already done. We hired you an escort.” Miriam insisted as she skewered a piece of root pear with a dainty fork and popped it into her mouth. But Ann thought she saw a mix of melancholy and contentment on the young woman’s face. But there was confidence in both and Ann firmed her own voice in response.

“Not going to happen,” Ann huffed, leaning back into the hotel’s overly-comfortable dining room chair. “In all of my fifty years I have never needed some man…some boy to watch over me so I sure as hell won’t be starting now. Besides what…”

Miriam held up her hand, her beautiful face full of determination, “You’ve been telling me every chance you get that sometimes I need to follow the rules, even the silly ones, to get things done. So here is your chance to take your own advice. I know you don’t need it but I am told you could get detained or hassled if you don’t. And you have things you want to do and see right? So why risk it?”

Ann was silent on that and Miriam smiled a bratty smile, sensing victory, and added “Be good and later we can go look at these Transom Gardens that the locals brag about, I am sure the whole thing blows clouds and that is why I can’t wait to see them with you. You are so funny.”

Ann played with the thought that this child was much more successful in getting her way with Ann than even the other Sisters of the Triumvirate. It was a good point, she had a mission, a goal, so this was no time to make symbolic stands against this animal farm of a city.

Ann hesitated and Miriam sealed the deal with a quick peck to Ann’s flushed cheek.

Ann rolled her eyes and looked at the waiting young man decked out in a light blue Humantis uniform. She stood and walked up to him.

“Are you armed?”

“No ma’am,” he replied simply with a touch of confusion.

“Wonderful,” Ann sighed before walking off.

SkyTran Dome

Ann and her escort, Lars, took a bus to SkyTran Dome in order to meet Belinda Gothers, a city resident. In truth, Ann had never met the woman, but she knew that Belinda had worked at the New Berlyn Sanctuary and would have had daily contact with the missing First Sister.

The bus was similar to those of the Techview Domes, which Ann had always avoided, so this was her first experience inside one. The long cylindrical object dropped from the sky and hovered above the landing pad as the doors opened and they boarded. The seats were cramped and closed in, giving her plenty of leverage and support as the vehicle lifted again, headed quickly toward a tunnel entrance, a gaping diagonal hole in the ground, and slid in. After a while, Ann relaxed her grip on a bar, realizing that her body was held in place on its own and that her grasp was not helping at all.

When the bus emerged within SkyTran Dome, suddenly the exterior world was bright; the ground below them was lush with green and the domed sky was in the middle of yet another sophisticated and overly-cheery animation. Ann could not imagine how much money had been spent to make it so and neither could she help imagining how quickly Maltiempo could destroy this fragile facade if it ever got the chance. These people were deluded.

It was only as they approached their stop that Ann took a look at the other passengers. Most of them were men and the few women on the board were accompanied. However there was one older woman who seemed to be riding by herself. Normally, Ann would want to ask this woman some questions about the whole ‘escort’ thing but not with Lars present. It occurred to Ann that it was a red flag that already, on her first day in town, someone had been assigned to be with her, everywhere she went. Could she be identified so quickly? But she did trust Miriam, as much as she would trust anyone she hardly knew. She decided she would allow this silly escort business for about a day or two until she got her bearings, then she would end it.

The bus let them off in a park near the downtown. Ann noticed that, unlike most other domes she had seen, this one had bothered to engineer and maintain the ground, almost encouraging foot travel.

When they arrived at the residential complex, Ann would not allow Lars to go in with her. There were limits to her patience and he did not seem to mind.

Belinda was a woman in her late 40’s, similar to Ann, and had worked at the Sanctuary for two years.

“They have an orphanage there you know,” the attractive, well-dressed domer woman told her. “And many various programs, but I prefer to work with the young girls, it’s my passion. It might sound funny but once they get older they become too secretive and preoccupied for my liking.

Sometimes, I was called to help with those in Sponsorship, you know, assets. I have worked corporate previously and my husband still does, so I was able to answer some of their very naive questions about what it means to work for the companies. I know assets are an important part of our economy and our growth but I don’t see why anyone would subject themselves to that.”

“The Sanctuary, why was it shut down?” Ann asked, redirecting her even though it was refreshing to meet a corper who admitted what Ann had always said.

“Oh, I don’t think it is closed,” the woman responded, shaking her head sincerely, “but we were told that the staff was not to report on-site until further notice. I still do about ten hours of virtual tutoring and mentoring a week.”

“But why, what happened?” Ann knew the answer or at least part of it.

“Well, to start, you have to understand the nature of what we do at the Sanctuary. Things can change quickly. People abandon their children but may return for them weeks even months later. Women come to us, seeking shelter from domestic violence and they may stay with us for years or leave the next day. It is the same story for program participants and even for the domer and village volunteers who work there. So while we try to offer stable, consistent services, the human element is very dynamic.”

Belinda paused to gauge if Ann was following her.

“I’ve heard stories…” Ann nodded. There was no need to disclose that she was associated with the Techview Sanctuary.

“So we are used to that,” Belinda continued. “And of course there are the occasional threats from angry family members, spouses or lovers. It happens.

So when some of the assets complained of harassment, well we weren’t all that surprised and as they legally belong to their host company what can we really do? It is sad fact of their lives. But…but then our villagers started to be harassed. Sometimes they were detained by dome security, in some cases they were ‘mistaken’ as assets themselves and then some of the girls were assaulted.

But it got worse. Remember I told you that people tend to come and go? Well, more of them started to go and it was hard to blame them…but we heard that some of them had disappeared permanently. It was hard to be sure, and we weren’t sure, until we received a package which contained personal possessions; jewelry, clothing the like.”

Ann felt the chill of those words.

“Who…did you find out to whom they belonged?”

“No…and for all we know they didn’t belong to any of our girls, but maybe they did and the fact that someone would even send the package, without any note of explanation, that was very worrisome.”

Ann nodded. It was one reason she had voted in favor of closing the Sanctuary.

“But you said that someone was detaining and harassing some of your staff. Who were they?”

Belinda shrugged.

“New Berlyn guards, Corporate security, I don’t know. Almost every building in every dome has its own security team. I know that some of the girls identified a Transom crest, but that isn’t helpful; in case you didn’t know, Transom provides security services for almost half the corporate world, naturally the are going to do what they are told to do, that’s their job.

Anyway, shortly afterwards, we received the notice not to report on-site until further notice.”

“So no one is there now?”

“Sister Lyn might remain, she lives there. I think there are some others as well but I am not sure.”

“Have you heard from Lyn?”

“Well, no. I just assumed she is very busy. I am surprised you haven’t asked about the children, the orphanage?”

Ann raised her eyebrows.

“Where are they? Another orphanage?”

“No! Well, we couldn’t leave them, so everyone took one, it was like passing out gifts at a Festival. So now some of them are in the villages and some are in the Domes.” Belinda looked at Ann meaningfully.

“Well…that sounds great, it was wonderful that your co-workers were so generous as…”

“You think this is a good thing?”

“I wish the building didn’t have to be closed, but it seems a happy ending for the children.”

“I’m surprised you would feel that way, you being from the villages and all, Techview?

You know, when they were with us, there were always plenty of people around, other children, younger children, older children, the other Sisters and workers.

Now they have lost all of that and have just one or maybe two guardians. I do respect my co-workers, I am just not sure all of them should have sole responsibility and control over a child, one with its own history and background.”

The Village of Las Tunas

Ann decided that her next step was to travel to Lyn’s home village of Las Tunas, the logical place to look for her or get information. But it would take hours to get there. As a fringe benefit, she found that Lars was unwilling to leave the Domes. He took one look at the storms outside the exit portal and firmly announced that he could not go further. It was the best news Ann had heard all day. Still he tried to dissuade her. The whole time she prepared, he complained that she could easily schedule a V-meeting, that there was no reason to go in person. It was a typical corper viewpoint.

She felt she could still hear him complain even after she was across the field and entering a ruined forest. Ann adjusted her vents, allowing the cool air to circulate and brush against her skin, flushing his squeal out of her ears and brain.

She looked up through the trees at the swirling, green clouds of Maltiempo even as she navigated among the branches and roots one at a time, always one strong hand securely fastened. There was no need to use the tunnels on this day, though her portable device had found some for her. It was a considerable trip both in terms of effort and time but she enjoyed it.

She had no trouble finding an entrance to the underground village of Las Tunas. Like Ann’s village, it consisted of several large communal rooms, ‘longhouses’ as they were called. It was refreshing to be immersed in the sea of voices, the activity, the whoosh of the tubes as they redirected water through the tunnels.

Only in the villages would one see groups of people occupied in different activities while sharing the same space. Villagers did not subscribe to the one room – one purpose philosophy. Life here was one long festival. And it didn’t take long to find one of the First Sister’s relatives.

“We haven’t seen her, not in a while, but it didn’t used to be that way,” the eldest sister explained. “Lyn used to be the perfect village girl, a good guajira, she…”

“What is a guajira?” Ann interrupted, unfamiliar with the term.

The woman looked back at her with blue eyes.

“Well, maybe I shouldn’t have said that, it can be an insulting term to some. A ‘guajira’ is a village girl who immerses herself in the life, in her responsibilities here, one who is never going to be anything else, go anywhere else. You can imagine that some feel it is a pejorative term but more and more I use it in praise.

As I was saying, she was exactly the perfect village daughter, even more than her older sisters, I can admit that.

Then, one day, one of the other girls ran away to the Domes. It happens, we understand that. Since the Sponsorship laws were enacted, all villages have witnessed the defection of some of the malcontents and less industrious. We see it as no big loss. To use a corper phrase, it’s a win for both sides, as these corporate assets spur domer growth which then leads to more demand for our products and services.

So when we heard rumors that the runaway girl, Mira, was having problems with her new ‘life’, many of us decided that she was getting exactly what she deserved and we made sure all the youngsters knew about it.

Then, some unfortunate things happened. First, Lyn, my younger sister, insisted on going to the Domes to speak with Mira and try to help. We never should have let her do that because the real disaster was that somehow our bright and resourceful Lyn was able to find a legal resource center which intervened on Mira’s behalf and, for a price, the Sponsorship agreement was challenged. I never imagined that could happen.”

Ann was seldom surprised, but this trip was full of the unexpected. She had never heard of anything like this, corpers attempting to free their own slaves, just to make a profit?

“What happened?” Ann asked eagerly.

Lisa sighed again and sat on a stone wall near a wall and waited for a water capillary tube to clear so she could be heard again.

“She was successful, that’s what happened. The Sponsorship was broken and Mira went to live in another village. I’ve since heard that she is happily married and I wish that was the end of it.

But it was not, it changed Lyn’s life; it became her mission to help these selfish, restless, deluded girls who run off to the Domes seeking…whatever they seek. Lyn went to work for this, this ‘Sanctuary’ and she never fully returned to us. She started spending more and more time there and what we thought was a temporary phase, became a fixation instead. One day she announced that she was moving into that place. In the Domes! I still can’t believe it.”

Ann nodded, genuinely sympathetic.

“Was anyone…especially angry with her? A boyfriend perhaps?”

“All of us!” the woman declared. “We were all unhappy with her, we begged her to listen to reason but she was completely unmoved by our pleas. I was so angry with her. I suppose I should regret some of what I said, but I am glad I tried. And that is all I know. She seldom visits and has not been here recently.

You are free to ask around but if anyone had heard anything from her, I am sure I would know.”

The Sanctuary of New Berlyn

When Ann returned to the Domes, it was late and the villager exodus had begun. She was happy to find that her ‘escort’ had also gone home for the day. It was the perfect time to visit the Sanctuary.

“You are a villager?” the cab driver spoke to her as he brought the taxi up and into the air, quickly ascending. Ann had expected him to head toward the tunnels and so she became alarmed when he kept ascending.

“You know I am,” she said quickly. She didn’t have an AI implant for him to read. “Where are you going?”

“Urbanic Dome, to the address that you gave me…”

“Then why are we going up? The tunnels are the other way?”

The man nodded, calmly, “Yes, but Urbanic Dome is right next door and there is a direct connection. It is much faster.”

“Oh.”

Urbanic Dome, named for the corporation which perfected dome technology, was the first and oldest dome of the valley. Ann noticed, right away, that it lacked the bright colors and festive atmosphere of SkyTran.

Rather than hide the fact that the city was protected by a dome, Urbanic seemed to emphasize it. The sky was like an aurora borealis of lights and form which highlighted the structure and the details of Maltiempo as it pressed up against the rotating, protecting structure. It was spectacular in its own way.

The taxi descended to a landing area at the intersection of several building-lined streets.

“I can walk…” Ann offered as she opened her portable AI to pay the fee.

“It is already after hours, the city is dying and you shouldn’t walk alone. I will wait for you.”

“I am not going to pay you to wait, I might be a half-hour or longer in there. I may even stay the night,” Ann protested as she left the vehicle. The man did not respond.

She walked down the street, the ground rough and uneven. It was only the most prestigious streets which had raised walks for pedestrians. The corpers took vehicles everywhere else, it was no wonder they all seemed so thin and lacking muscle. Ann, on the other hand, although short in stature, had a thick, athletic body and healthy, almost ruddy, skin. She was proud not to look like a corper or be one.

But there were disadvantages sometimes. Ann did not have an AI implant deep in her skull, so she frowned when she reached the entrance of the building and was confronted with a corper security portal. There was a sign as well.

The Sanctuary is Temporarily Closed

Well, it was half-right, Ann thought. She tried using her portable unit to communicate with the building AI, but it did not understand. How would she get in? And since many of the Sisters were residents of the village and normally would work within, wouldn’t there be some way for them to enter?

She traced the front of the old building and found a narrow alley way which led to the service entrance. Thankfully, it was equipped with a retina scan. That was good enough and although Ann had never visited before, it recognized her and welcomed her as a member of the Techview Sisterhood.

She huffed as she walked in and down a dark hallway. The lights were dim but it was enough for her. She called out a standard greeting and heard the echoes of her voice die away as she listened.

On the ground floor she found rooms containing clothes and toys, and Ann was reminded that this place was also an orphanage of sorts, she also noted that the donated items were from both the villages as well as the domes themselves. Apparently there were some good people even in the cities. But then corpers usually had slightly different reasons for the things they did.

Sure, an orphanage within the Domes seemed a good thing. But it was also yet another way for the corporations to attract humans into their web of slavery. She picked up a listening helmet and sighed. For some it would make a difference. Sometimes it was those differences that counted.

She shrugged and moved on, her boot heels striking the stone of the hallways; it was delightfully reminiscent of Techview even if the rooms were more plain. There, she said it, was she becoming so spoiled? She entered a restroom and turned on the water to wash her hands. The water was cold. Good.

Sister Annabelle worked her way back to the entrance. The halls were clean, the racks devoid of jackets or weather suits. She found nothing that suggested an on-going daily routine, the refrigerator was near empty, the coffee maker had been washed and placed in storage. It didn’t seem anyone planned to return anytime soon. But what about the First Sister? The one who had boldly stated that she would not leave.

She found a brochure in a waiting room and flipped through it; it concerned those damn Sponsorship Laws, the things that allowed village children to become corporate slaves. She found a Q/A section near the back.

Q:I heard that Corporate Assets are akin to indentured servants – Answer – An indentured servant normally works for a specific amount of time and they are still considered as having individual rights, similar to a contractor or an employee. A corporate asset serves as long as it takes to pay off their debt and until that time are considered corporate property.

Q:Isn’t it true that if sponsorship isn’t working for me, I can return to the villages? – Answer – Although technically the Sponsorship Laws have no jurisdiction among the villages of Las Joyas, many of those villages see assets as traitors and will not accept them back. Further, the asset could be reclaimed if they should enter corporation jurisdiction in the future.

Ann scowled, replaced the brochure and moved on.

The second floor of the property was more familiar to her, large rooms dedicated to common and group activities: sleeping quarters, dining and training rooms. Although the rooms were now devoid of people, Ann could picture the similar rooms in Techview but with people, lights and activity. It was like walking the halls of school during a festival break: both soothing and lonely.

She found the sanctum on the third and top level floor. It was so bare and simple that Ann’s first thought was that it had been looted, stripped down. But there were benches arranged in a circle, a wooden platform near the center and Ann realized that it was easy enough for her to criticize the corpers for surrounding themselves with luxury while the Inner Sanctum of Techview was clearly extravagant compared to this.

It was only when she stepped near the chamber center and looked up, through a damaged skylight, that she realized how intentional the room was. The sky light was clear and in the dying light of the day, she could clearly see the swirl of the storms above them. It was both awesome and hypnotic and now she could understand the attraction of living in this dome.

It took her much longer to find the First Sister’s quarters but when she did, she was sure what it was: a room designed to be both functional and for living. There was a small kitchen with accompanying table and chairs in one corner, a larger discussion area in the center and a reading alcove and bookcase opposite the kitchen.

It was only when Ann looked beyond a half-size book case that she found a small sleeping area. There were filing cabinets filled with articles and papers on various topics: counseling, family law, psychology, depression, philosophy, and of course the Sponsorship Laws and how they were interpreted among the various cities and villages of Las Joyas.

The lair of a true believer.

The bed was made but she found a glass of water placed nearby, some books spread out on one side and a pair of boots at the foot of the bed. The space was clearly lived in and its occupant expected to return.

She found a picture of the First Sister among a group of teenagers. She took in the short black hair, the pale complexion, the dark blue eyes. Ann felt sure she could recognize her again. But somehow she neglected to take the picture with her.

Miriam

Ann arrived back at the hotel long after dark. The lobby of the opulent establishment shined in its floors and sparkled from its ceilings, but other than some hospitality assets, aka hospies, the area was empty. But the sounds of reveling and dining filled the air from the over-crowded taverns on either side.

Emerging from behind a gilded column, Ann spied the leggy body and flashy costume of a female party-goer. But the woman held her bright, coral-colored, head between two clenched hands. It was Miriam.

The girl saw her as Ann approached and flashed a wan smile but her face was pained.

“Everything okay?” Ann called.

“Yeah…hi Annabelle. sorry, I just have such a headache, its a leftover gift from all those surgeries I had last year. They give you pain medicine but withdrawal is a bitch if you’ll excuse the sexist terminology.”

“Why would I mind?” Ann smiled back. She knew that corpers all had electronic implants lodged in their skulls, but there many cosmetic surgeries available as well and there was no telling what horrors the poor girl had endured in order to reach such a high level of physical beauty. Ironically, Ann thought Miriam’s eyes and her smile were her best features. “So when did you want to go see these gardens everyone has been touting?” Ann began the conversation, but she had less interest in seeing domer flowers than she had in talking to Miriam about her Sponsorship. In particular, how she was able to leave it so quickly. When the two had first met, Miriam was a deep-in-debt medical research asset, distraught over the death of her brother and the separation from her family. Now, somehow, she was an officer and barely in her twenties.

“Not today…not tomorrow, I’m swamped.” Miriam blurted irritably.

“Sure, it’s no problem. Just let me know,” Ann replied.

“I’m sorry, it’s not you, it’s…well other things are taking all my time…”

Ann smiled at the girl’s pretty green eyes and her pouty lips that reminded her so much of her own youngest daughter, always so much going on in her life. Ann did not envy that at all.

“Miriam, don’t worry about it. Anytime that works…”

“The day afterwards?”

“You don’t have to commit…”

“The day afterwards,” Miriam insisted, “we’ll go in the afternoon. Now I have to run to this stupid mixer where I’ll be asked a million dumb questions by a hundred over-sexed corper males.”

“Sounds like fun.”

“Only when it’s my idea,” Miriam sighed, waved and hurried away.

The Temple of the Faithful Sons

It was the next day and all of her attempts to contact people who knew Sister Lyn had stalled. So Annabel Paige changed tactics. An hour later, she and her persistent, annoying escort arrived back in SkyTran Dome’s spectacular garden district. She left the man outside, on the beautiful street while she walked within a transparent walkway, a dedicated entrance to a large, white temple. Even as she entered, the sounds of the dome at noon were muffled and she felt alone.

The Believers will be Saved

The Saved will be Rewarded

The Rewarded will be Believed

Each line appeared on a wall, and then disappeared before the next appeared. She walked by, uninterested in how or if it cycled.

The floor was carpeted and the temperature comfortable, upscale without being gaudy. It reminded her a bit of a university until she walked into the Chapel.

The walls fell away into a huge room, filled with seats and aisles facing a giant stage and altar. The insignia of the Faithful Sons blazed in a silent fire even now.

A portly woman appeared even as Ann turned back.

“Are you seeking guidance?” the woman asked with a glare at Ann’s weather suit.

“I have a meeting with Brother Ambrose, he wasn’t specific about where I should meet him.”

“I would know if you had a meeting with him, at least if it was a significant meeting. Hold on.”

Ann watched the woman’s eyes as they went distant, no doubt now inundated by images and sounds from her AI. Ann looked down at her portable assistant, it did not indicate a message. Perhaps she was meant to wander the halls of this place until she found the prominent religious leader who promised to grant her some of his time. But soon she noticed the woman had motioned to her and was leading her back out, up wide stairs and to an office.

The sanctum of Brother Ambrose was lined with ancient tomes and artifacts and Ann wondered how he came into possession of some of them. The back of his office held a window which looked out into the Chapel and even from there she could see the eternal flame. It held no comfort for her, quite the opposite.

“Tell me more about this Sanctuary which you represent?” the man spoke with patience and indulgence.

“We are a small society, but with a strong interest in aiding and guiding women and children, especially those who have left their homes in the villages and are often separated from the love and support of their families.”

“It is important to provide food to the hungry,” interjected Ambrose firmly, “a place to sleep for the weary, but nurturing the soul should be left to those who can obtain the sustenance that it needs. Miss Paige, have you considered that life guidance is not as important as spiritual direction? Do you not believe that the actions we take here on this earth pale compared to our duties in the after time?”

“I suppose,” Ann replied as she got the feeling this meeting would not be fruitful.

“Things happen in phases. For millennia the corrupt world has been allowed to pursue their self-serving agenda and then, in the span of a decade, it all has changed and their world has ended, just as the Book has said it would and we are left in the final fight. I just can’t understand why so many of us yearn to go back to the old ways.”

“But it is you who live in the Domes, isn’t that their purpose? To restore mankind to its former glories?”, Ann pointed out.

“Don’t think I am judging you,” the man smiled. “I am a sinful, imperfect man, I know that. What I am trying to point out is that it matters much less what we do than whose side we are on. We must support the side of Good.”

“I am not disagreeing with you. But my immediate concern is the whereabouts of one of our leadership and although our local sanctuary is not part of your conference, I hoped and I still hope that you will assist me.”

The man nodded quickly, waiting for her to finish.

“I am all about cooperation and unity and I know many important and influential corporate citizens that I am fortunate to have as both friends and parishioners. But they will not think the same way as me; they will not understand any expenditure of energy that does not directly benefit our Father and the Faithful Sons. Which is why I have a proposal.”

Ann tried to keep her practical blue eyes from distancing. If he already had an answer, he had readied it long before he had heard what she had to say.

“Your building is abandoned, it’s staff scattered!” he declared. “That could never happen in one of our satellites. We will bring you into our fold, you would still be able to provide the physical encouragements which are so important to you, but we would oversee the spiritual counseling which is essential. Then, as part of the Faithful Sons, I can demand a full inquiry and get results.”

“What if she is being held by a company?”

“Very doubtful. What would they want with a villager when they have their choice among their own assets? Believe it or not, there is a strong symbiosis between the Domes and the villages. As we grow, we need more of their goods and services and they are happy to take our money. It is a win-win. Companies find themselves competing for the best village workers and so no corporation is so stupid as to antagonize them in this way. But she may be in a hospital or a med den, she might be in a hospital or with a boyfriend. Who knows, but we might find out.”

“I know what you are asking but I don’t have the power to make that decision…”

“Come now, Miss Paige. We know who you are and where you are from. Certainly a member of the Techview leadership can make that decision or can convince your fellows.”

“That decision would take time and I need immediate help.”

“Sometimes bold action is needed. Your local presence is broken anyway, I am offering you a chance to rebuild it in a single day. Think about it.”

Ann’s mood was dark as she left the office and descended the stairs. Upon reaching the ground floor, she could hear activity in the large chapel and took a step in that direction. Perhaps she should look around a bit?

“Miss Paige.” came the voice of the woman who had met her before. Ann turned. “I believe your appointment is finished? Let me help you find the way out.”

Ann followed the woman who walked several paces ahead of her, back into the walkway which led back toward the place where she had entered. As they reached that position, the woman waited for her.

The woman spoke quickly.

“If he ever found your friend, she would be in much greater danger than wherever she is now. He calls himself a ‘sinful’ man for good reason.”

Ann’s mouth dropped open at these unexpected words. She was more than surprised, she was shocked.

“Why…why would you tell me this?”

“It is not that I don’t believe in our cause or that I do not love the Father. I do, more than you can understand. But it is written that much anguish and pain will be felt by the unbelievers. I can’t change that, but neither must I aid it. The end will come as it should either way. I don’t expect you to trust me, but I have told you my truth.”

“Can you help me, with my friend?”

“No. If they have taken her, though I doubt it, then she is lost to you. And otherwise he will not care to even look. His interest is only in the small fraction of lost souls that find their way to your sanctuary and showing them the error of their ways. Think on that, Sister.”

Transom Security

It was becoming clear to Ann that it would not be easy to find the missing woman. Lyn had not returned to her home village, her friends had not heard from her and the abandoned Sanctuary yielded no clues. She had asked for help from a leader of one of the largest religious sects in Las Joyas and he offered nothing unless the Sanctuary was brought under his supervision.

Despite what Brother Ambrose had said, Ann still felt that it was likely the First Sister was in control of an area company, but which one? It was then she remembered the story she had been told about Lyn, that she had somehow engaged one corporation against another. It was an interesting idea and then she saw the sign with the rotating golden globe and the lettering:

Transom Services – East Transom Villages Branch

She walked into the building and told them her problem. She was shuffled around to many different counters until she found herself seated in one of many semi-private cubicles facing a line of attendants over a long counter which separated them.

The person before her was a young man dressed in a light gray uniform which sported another of the globe symbols on his breast.

Ann thought that it was a strange choice. There was no longer a global community, there was only a planet ruled by storms, by Maltiempo, and the humans were relegated to an microscopic fraction of the Earth’s surface. An island would be a more apt representation.

She explained her problem but the man on the other side of the counter did not seem to understand her.

“Without a proper AI, you’ll have to enter your request for an escort manually…”

“I have this,” she responded holding up her portable AI unit.

“As I said, without a proper AI, you’ll have to…”

What? Because she didn’t let them drill a hole into her head and stuff it with electronics she would now have to write things on paper in order to be understood. And then she realized he had said ‘escort’.

“And I don’t need an escort, I need help with a missing person.”

“You certainly do need an escort and otherwise it makes no sense for me to even send you anywhere else. Does that unit allow me to charge it?”

“Oh!” Ann almost laughed. “So my AI is too antiquated for you to send information unless it is a payment request?”

Ann’s voice was laced with annoyance as she looked around the room. She hated corpers so much. It was just as she envisioned it would be, no surprise at all. The monotony of the Domes.

“What does she need?” a stern voice came out of nowhere. She looked back to find another man, this one shorter and his uniform black, had somehow emerged from the bureaucratic chaos. His eyes were dark and his hair was straight and cropped short. The newcomer was certainly older than the greeny in front of her, but probably not a senior officer.

“It’s nothing, Deputy,” assured the man in gray. “Some foreign villager here without an escort. I’ll get one for her even if I have to process it all manually.”

Ann shook her head.

“I asked you what she wanted, not what she needed,” the ‘Deputy’ spoke evenly and calmly despite a stiffening of his posture and a flashing of his eyes.

“But I told you, she has to have…”

Ann spoke up. “I am looking for a friend, she is missing and I would like to contract your services to find her…”

“You said she wanted an escort,” the shorter man’s tone was accusatory.

“I said that she needed one.”

“Take a break,” the newcomer offered.

“I’ll take care of this…”

“Go,” the Deputy prodded with a quick tap on the back of the man’s chair.

The attendant sighed, rose and walked off while the new officer sat down easily, his eyes scanning whatever notes had been left for him. Ann started to speak but he lifted a lazy hand.

“Annabelle Paige? From the village of Corousel, Techview?”

“Yes, that is me.”

“You are a guest in our dome?”

“Yes, I suppose I am,” she admitted. She had almost reached her hotel when she had seen the sign and become inspired by Lyn’s previous success.

“How can Transom Security Services help you?”

“You could help me understand why I need a male escort to walk down the street?” Ann began. He had asked so she would get her money’s worth.

The Deputy shrugged, “The growth of our city and our population is of primary importance these days and so women are of special importance. The public wants to see that they are protected, especially here in our domes.”

“I can understand escorts for citizens who want it or need it, but this is a required practice? Really?”

“It is not required, just recommended.”

“Recommended for women more than men.”

“Yes.”

He looked at her, his eyes darting back and forth behind his black spectacles, the fingers of his hand moved with purpose within a glove on the counter before him. She got the impression he was attending to other matters while conversing with her. Still, he did not seem hurried or impatient.

“Would you recommend it?” she asked.

He shrugged.

“That is like asking me what style boots you should wear or how to style your hair. If you hire an escort, a profitable business for us, it will make people that you meet more comfortable around you and it will be less obvious that you are a tourist. If you don't have an escort, some may refuse to speak with you and some may go out of their way to do so. In the end, it is up to you and I will offer you a 20% discount. Now tell me about this missing person.”

“I traveled here to visit a friend, but I find she is missing, no one has seen her and the facility where she works has received threats. So I am concerned.”

“How do you know that she is missing?” the question was quick.

Ann gave him the basics and was prepared for more questions.

“Good. Now I understand what you need. Even if she were corporate, I would have limited jurisdiction unless she were our own. But as you have said that she is from Las Tunas, we have even less jurisdiction. I can’t go into the villages, but you can. My suggestion is that you continue your investigation there.”

“I have been to her home village, they have not seen heard from her.”

“Perhaps she is staying with friends in another village or even here in the Domes. With a boyfriend perhaps?”

“I don’t believe that is the case, but I can’t be sure,” Ann admitted. “If she were being held against her will…”

“If she were being held in the villages, I can do nothing for you. If she were being held in the Domes, then it is a crime even here. There are some who do not approve of Sponsorship or what happens to those villagers who enter into that agreement, so we have enough trouble without antagonizing those villagers who do not, many of whom work in our Domes. Here in Transom, we provide a shuttle and escort all of the workers in to start their day and then we bring them back out at the end of the day. We don’t want any trouble.”

“If I could prove that she was being held somewhere?”

The man raised his eyebrows.

“Do you have such proof?”

“I just want to know if it makes sense to ever come back here no matter what I find…”

“If you had proof, we would help you.”

“Why?” Ann tested.

“I told you why. But, additionally, in New Berlyn, just like all of Las Joyas, crimes by corporations or their members, come with monetary penalties. We would take a share of that, probably a large share. Is that what you expected to hear?”

He handed her a card. She looked down at it.

“No, Deputy Harilla, but neither does it surprise me. Thank you for your honesty.”

Junior Officer

“Tell me how you did it, Miriam?” Ann asked as they walked back to their hotel. “How did you become an officer so quickly? How did you get out of…out of Sponsorship?”

“Good question!” Miriam laughed nervously. “Why are you asking?”

“I don’t mean to pry, and when I’m not at the Sanctuary in Techview, where we met, I spend very little time in the Domes. Still, I do meet some of you…I mean corporate assets and I have always felt sorry for them, thinking that they will never pay off their debt or whatever. I have similar concerns for that Cynnamon girl you met on the train. To be honest, I was ready to wager that I would never meet anyone who made it through and now here you are, an officer..”

“Junior officer,” Miriam corrected her.

“Still, you are a free woman, right? You can do what you want? You can travel the Joyas, return to the villages, go where you want.”

“I wouldn’t say that…” Miriam said carefully.

Ann looked over at her friend, the pretty forehead was wrinkled.

“So…it’s not true?”

“No, no, don’t get me wrong,” Miriam turned to her with sincere, intelligent green eyes, “It is true: once your Sponsorship is paid you are free, a full citizen, with all privileges and benefits. It’s just that….I wouldn’t know where else to go or what else to do. I can’t imagine going home.”

“But it is possible, right? You are the proof?”

“Anything is possible. It’s possible to get swept up into Maltiempo and that it will let you go. I’ve heard that story. It’s an anecdote, just as I am. It means almost nothing.”

“But you know how it worked for you…”

I don’t know how to answer your question, Ann,” Miriam said irritably. “You are trying to get me to make a general statement and I can’t. You have no idea…there isn’t ANYONE who can fathom what I have been through or the price I have paid. Some days I can’t believe I am so fortunate and other days I envy everyone else…”

“Miriam, are you worried about something else? Does it have something to do with Petyr…”

“No, no, no!” Miriam cried, her eyes fading into frantic innocence. “Don’t even say that, I love my life, I adore the Doctor. It is all I ever wanted!”

“But you just said..”

“I said I have a headache and this makes it worse! I have to go back to my room.”

New Escort

Ann was not put off at all by Miriam’s behavior from the previous night. It just confirmed what she already suspected – there was something going on in the young villager-turned-asset-turned-corper’s life. Ann decided she would just need to be more subtle in the future to find out exactly what.

Meanwhile, she was making little progress in her search for the missing First Sister. Her conversations with all of Lyn’s family and friends had not unearthed any leads, the influential and odious ‘Faithful Sons’ were willing to only try to help but in exchange for being absorbed into their fold and corporate security admitted there was little they could do, even for money.

Still, Ann had been satisfied that the corporate officer’s belief that Lyn was more likely held by her own people, a rival village perhaps. Her own sister had admitted that many had become angry with Lyn when she left the villages to accept her role as ‘First Sister’, so she decided to follow that path. Rather than speaking with Lyn’s friends and family, people who might omit an important piece of information in order to avoid making her look bad, Ann decided to seek those who seemed critical of this missing one. That strategy got her a name, a woman from another village.

Ann was preparing to leave the Domes when an unknown man arrived.

“Ann Paige?”

“No more escorts, get lost,” Ann muttered without looking up. How did Miriam always know? It didn’t matter, she was done with these Humantis toadies hampering her investigation.

“What?” The voice seemed confused. “Dr. Petyr sent me, he asked me to try to help out. You are leaving the Domes?”

Annabelle had finished checking and adjusting her weather suit, intending to simply leave the man behind. But when she looked up, the escort, a man older than his predecessors, had finished equipping himself as well. Surprised, Ann even took the time to walk over and inspect his work and him at the same time.

The man was tall, with a medium build and graying hair. His limbs seemed toned and able unlike those of the corpers which were either corpulent or bone-thin. And this one’s skin had the healthy glow of someone who waded in the storms. So he was a villager by birth and must now be another corporate slave, unable to pay his debt even at his half-century mark. Or perhaps he started late?

“I don’t need anyone today. Perhaps tomorrow.”

“Are you sure?” the man called as he moved into the storm with her. Ann had chosen a exit which was closest to the forests but still it was never wise to be too exposed to the weather so she moved quickly into a low, quick, jog.

“You are from Techview, right? You don’t know the lands around here, it is best to travel in groups,” the man said over the communication link as she approached the trees.

Perhaps, she thought, but she refused to wait for this…this ‘escort’. She meant to look around to see how far the stranger had fallen, but, to her chagrin, he had kept up with her and returned her glance even as they reached the dark and twisted limbs of the forest and started to ascend a hill. She sighed, she would not be so infantile as to push herself harder than usual just to try to lose him.

It was just over an hour later when they arrived in the village of Guisa. The man, whose name was Ryk, had stayed with her the entire way.

“You really will return to the Domes tonight?” the woman named Charlee asked as she served tea first to Ryk then Annabelle. “You are welcome to stay the night…if you wish,” She added giving Ryk an extra smile before sliding into a chair.

Ann realized that her escort might turn out to be useful after all. They had spoken only ten minutes and already this woman, a science teacher, seemed to resent Ann’s questions while simultaneously enjoying Ryk’s polite small-talk.

Charlee’s short, well-sculpted, sandy blonde hair clung to her dark complexion and piercing green eyes. She shooed her young boys away so that the adults could speak.

“Thank you for the offer, but the trip over was pretty easy,” Ann began and then added tactfully, “of course my companion might not be up to it. I really would like to ask you about Lyn.”

Charlee flashed Ryk another smile, “You are both welcome, or either of you, of course,” she spoke, her smile fading as she turned back to Ann. “Well, as I told you over the comm, I worked at the Sanctuary for about a year and submitted status reports to Sister Lyn once a week as well as progress reports, lesson plans and the like. But I didn’t find her all that easy to know. She was one of those who speaks rather than tells, if you understand.”

“I don’t, could you explain?” insisted Ann.

The woman took a sip of her tea and then spoke quickly and plainly. “I mean that she hardly ever spoke about herself, she was too busy advising others how to live their lives or telling them how things should be, I found it off-putting. Don’t get me wrong, I respected her, I just didn’t often agree with her.”

“I have never met her, myself,” Ann interjected, “In any case, I have some important business to discuss but have been unable to locate her, could you help me with that? Perhaps you overheard her plans about where she would go when the Sanctuary was abandoned?”

Charlee shook her head.

“I did ask about her plans after she told me about the hiatus but she told me she couldn’t leave, that she had to stay with the Sanctuary, that some one must be there at all times. So I just assumed that is what she did. Now you tell me she left, can’t say I’m all that surprised.”

Charlee rolled her eyes and gave Ryk a meaningful glance. She clearly was not a fan.

Ryk leaned forward, entering the conversation. “This Lyn, did she often say one thing and do another? It might help Miss Paige if you provided some examples.”

Ann looked over at him pleasantly even as she wished he would keep out of it. But the words seemed to resonate with the woman.

“Sure, no one is perfect, I know, but it’s hypocrisy which really rattles my cage. For example, Lyn was always pushing adoption of village orphans rather than having our own. I even heard her give a talk where she declared that bearing children was a selfish act. Can you imagine? Do you have children Miss Paige?”

“I do, I have two girls and a boy, all grown now. I don’t agree, of course.” Ann said with an air of indignation. She didn’t want the woman to edit herself in any way.

“Well, then here is the killer!” Charlee muttered as she stood and scrambled to fetch more tea. “She comes in one day, and I overhear her arguing with her boyfriend. Come to find out she is pregnant!! After all that talk about adoption and selfishness? And all that talk about ‘living in the Sanctuary’? She’ll be going off to live with him, that’s what she’ll be doing, if you ask me.”

“She had a boyfriend? Did you know him?” Ann asked calmly, but her heat was beating quickly.

“I never saw him before, but he was definitely a corper and I am pretty sure he is the boyfriend because they were arguing about which doctor to see. He insisted on going to TRS rather than the villages so not only is he probably the father but…”

“TRS?” Ann asked.

“Transom Reproductive Services,” Ryk and Charlee answered in unison.

Miriam’s Uncle

“How long has your friend been missing?” Ryk asked as he held out his hand to Ann. She looked at it. She would have grabbed a limb and pulled herself up but now he was blocking the way. She grasped his hand and he pulled her up easily and without delay. She used the impetus to move past him and into the trees.

“A couple weeks at least.”

“Well, I am very sorry. I know what it is like to be completely cut off from someone that you care about, knowing that they might be reached if you only knew how. So frustrating.”

“Yes,” responded Ann, “It is that. I did not fully appreciate it. Our Sanctuary works with many women and it is not uncommon for them to just go away and never return, to break contact. I am somehow used to that. But this is…as you said, frustrating.”

They walked on, but Ann thought about what he had said and she thought she detected some pain in his voice.

“So, you will look for the boyfriend?” the man was continuing.

But she was turning around, not wanting to ignore what he had said.

“You said that you lost someone?”

Ryk looked confused. “Well, Miri was out of contact for more than a year, and for us it was the same…”

Ann stopped completely and pushed back toward him, directing him behind the trunk of a large toppled tree.

“Miri? Who is Miri!” but of course it was coming to her.

“Oh, you know her…Miriam? I’m her Uncle.”

“You?!” Ann gasped. “You are that Uncle? The one who is checking on her child?”

“Yes, I did that. But as it is safe in a development chambers…well naturally I wanted to see her. You didn’t know?”

“No,” Ann admitted. It had been so hard to get any time with Miriam recently. And she was so distracted and irritable when they did talk. “Okay, let’s get back. I think you could use a drink and it is your lucky day because so do I and I’m buying.”

The two sat in a tea shoppe in downtown Transom, ignored by busy corpers shuttling in and out.

“This is quite good,” Ryk said happily. “Root pear beer, huh? Is it a local product?”

Ann flashed him a delighted smile. “No, I didn’t expect to find it available here. It is from Techview, we have it in Corousel, we developed the root pear.”

“It will give me an excuse to visit…”

Ann’s eyebrow raised slightly.

“I’m intentionally feeding you some drinks so I can get some answers on Miriam or Miri as you call her.

When I met her, she was still in Sponsorship, she was decked out in magenta hair and nails, flashy corper boots and such, like so many other young ladies who show up at our door and will again and again. I’m no expert, but from my experience, a young corporate asset can expect to work twenty years minimum before they can pay off their debt and that is if they are both lucky and abnormally successful.

But now, not even two weeks later, Miriam is a citizen of the Domes, an officer. I am happy for her, of course, but puzzled how it happened. I have tried to speak with her about it but she avoids the subject. Do you know what happened?”

“I know even less. This is the first time I have seen her in a year. She has promised that we will have time to talk, to catch up, but she’s been so busy…and frequently so tired. I am also curious about this Dr. Petyr who is apparently the father of her child…”

“Maybe if we both spoke with her…” Ann offered hopefully.

Now it was Ryk’s turn. He smiled a warm, knowing smile and held up his hand.

“Now here is something that I do know and I say this with the greatest of love, even adoration, for my niece; Miriam doesn’t divulge her secrets or her thoughts until she is good and ready and even then she may not. She is outgoing and sociable but has an amazing poker face with no tells; and when she finally reveals to you what she has been withholding you will never even see it coming.”

“We will see, but do you know why she did it? Became an asset?”

“It might be more than one thing. Her parents refused to let her continue her studies, but we all assume it was the arranged marriage that did it. She was gone within a week of that, I was out of town but she left me a note. Again, they didn’t see it coming. In many ways, Miri was a perfect village girl and immensely popular, with the adults, with the children, with her family and certainly with the boys. And she seems very easy-going but the trouble is that one can’t tell what things she will accept and what she won’t. Besides, her parents never told her about the plans, somehow she found out from her brother. And that is a sad story in itself.”

“I know that her brother died. She told me about that, she was very upset that she couldn’t go home for the funeral. It was only later that I understood why. She confided that some from her home village wanted her killed. Is it true? I didn’t believe that such things were still done!”

“It’s true, but it’s even worse than you think,” Ryk spoke softly and with obvious pain.

“Obviously they did not succeed…” Ann began slowly.

“It was her brother, Mirk, who traveled to the Domes to kill her.”

“Oh, my,” Ann looked deflated as she tried to imagine one of her family in such a role.

“Many in our village believe that it was Miri who killed Mirk,” Ryk began.

“What?!” Ann gasped.

“And so do I.”

[]First Techview Interlude

Introduction

Every new civilization has its roots somewhere, whether it be the banks of the Nile, a hill in Italy or a port city in Massachusetts. For the peoples of Las Joyas, who believe theirs is the only advanced society that has survived the continuing onslaught of Maltiempo, that birth place is a deep valley located on the North American continent, a valley of underground villages, a valley modified and re-engineered for their use and their survival.

It was there that the first Urbanic Dome was built, followed by another and another leading to a dometropolis –a city of various sized and interconnected, domes.

Thus, said properly, Techview is not a name for that city, rather it refers to the complex symbiosis of domed urban areas, underground villages, the engineered and adapted valley and finally Maltiempo itself.

Success breeds confidence and eventually another favorably adaptable valley was found, far from the first and another domed city was built. But even as new domed cities emerged across the continent, there was never any doubt as to which one was the grandest, which one was the center of knowledge, of new culture, the model for the rest, the yardstick for all.

And, of course, excellence breeds envy.

Ryk

Ryk walked the white halls of Humantis Corporation’s Techview North campus. He followed the signs to Laboratory C as directed by the digital message he had claimed from Transom Communication Services, yet another over-priced, under-staffed, branch of the mediocre corporate giant. He would never have stepped foot within their sprawling building nor paid the exorbitant delivery fee except that the sender of the message was his niece, his favorite niece if he were pressed and even if he were not. And he had not seen her in over a year and there had been a long period of time when all thought her dead.

He had arrived the previous day and spoke with a woman named Kya but she had been no help at all. She claimed that Miriam had worked there once but did no longer and that was all she knew. She seemed bitter and irate. The best she would do was direct him to the incubators where he spent half a day before he was able to locate the chamber which held Miri’s child. She had added his name to the access list or he would never have gotten that far.

He paid for a reproduction lawyer and they reviewed the current state of the fetus and verified that all proper procedures were being followed but there was nothing more to do. It would grow safely in the chamber for another half-a-year. So now he wanted to see his niece.

But his return to Laboratory C was unfruitful. The same research asset was the only one present and she seemed uninterested in discussing Miri further, she almost seemed hostile on the subject.

His mind worked on a plan as he left the facility and made his way to downtown Transom Dome. It was then that someone touched his shoulder from behind. He turned to find a pretty blonde girl, with kind blue eyes. Her hair was blown out of place by the wind and she seemed just a bit out of breath. She smiled and brushed her hair back into place with a single sweep of her hand.

“Hello, you were asking about Miriam? She was my…she is my friend. I’m on break if you would like to talk?”

It was now clear to Ryk that she had hurried after him. Had she followed him from the lab?

“You worked with my niece?”

“Oh! You are her Uncle Ryk? The one with the swamp farm?” she beamed, “We were all good friends, miserly loves company and the life of a research asset is not glamorous.”

“Research? I had no idea? What type of research?”

“I am Gya, by the way, could we talk somewhere else? There is a tea shoppe around the corner? I’m on break and will have to get back…”

Ryk looked at the girl, she was roughly Miri’s age. Then he was suddenly ashamed that he had not even thanked her for coming after him.

“Of course, Gya, I really appreciate you taking the time. I was getting nowhere…”

“Its no problem. I really like Miriam.”

They sat at a table in a crowded tea shoppe.

“You haven’t heard of Prianova?” Gya asked. “It is a big buzz word around the city these days. It is supposed to make us a lot of money. I should be happy, if it does really well I could get some significant residual commissions…”

She stopped in mid thought and shrugged.

“Because the more commissions you make, the sooner you can pay off..” Ryk asked, trying to show he knew the basics. Villagers understood the whole corporate indentured servant thing, it was the reasoning that was elusive. He wondered if Gya were an orphan or perhaps wanted to escape an arrange marriage…like Miri.

“Well, yes, I hope,” she smiled weakly. “It just seems so far off now. It all seemed so good from the outside; I thought I would learn new things, make large commissions and meet some nice people. In reality, I work so hard that I don’t meet anyone except other assets. But Miriam was always so upbeat, so determined, I loved hanging around her. She’s cheeky and bratty sometimes but she is funny too.”

Ryk drank in every word, delighted that he had asked about Gya but now heard something, anything about his niece.

“You were both research assets? You worked together?”

“We worked in the same lab but I could never do what Miriam did. She worked with the bugs! I was so frightened for her, no one wanted that job.”

“Really? What types of insects? What did she have to do?”

“No, not that kind of bugs,” Gya whispered, leaning forward, “she worked with virus colonies…she drew that job on account of being the new girl, you know?

She would come home completely worn down, sometimes with bruises, but she would be the first one up the next day. I think she really liked it, she was always making little notes for herself. Anyway, I think she did a good job because the project started to turn around. The Doctor says it was because she followed his directions but one guy almost died tried to work with those things! We didn’t…we were worried she might not make it…but she did.”

“Bruises? How would she get bruises working with a virus?”

“Well, because they could make her sick, or even faint. That is what she told me.”

Ryk thought about it. And then, suddenly, he thought of Mirk and how he had died, the convulsions, the way his body jerked and thrashed against the floor, as if he were a doomed puppet controlled by a malevolent force.

Gya continued, happily.

“Anyway, the virals are used to help with fertility, that is how Prianova works and before Miriam arrived it never worked, but now it does. She and the Doctor went to New Berlyn to meet with some investors. She told me you might come looking for her. Please tell her I said hello.”

“I will do that, thank you so much, Gya.” he said sincerely, looking into her eyes.

“It is my pleasure and now I have to hurry back. Somehow we got sucked into another project and it’s crazy. I hope Miriam comes back soon.”

“One last question, Gya, I found Miriam’s baby, I mean the development chamber…”

Gya nodded. She understood.

“You want to know who is the father?”

[]Miriam and the Bugs

Breakfast

Miriam watched Ann reluctantly go with the escort she had hired for her. Being an officer had its benefits, especially with the type of expense account that the Doctor’s project allowed. She felt bad that she would not have much time to spend with her new friend but at least she had found a way to help her. It occurred to Miriam how few friends she had. Once, she had too many kith and kin to count, before she had run away to the Domes. Now she could count those she trusted on a single hand. Of course Petyr was the most important but her child, their child would need family and friends, that was obvious. And that is how she had sold her summons for Uncle Ryk and her friendship with Ann to the Doctor…and to them.

But she truly liked the older woman, Annabelle had spunk and style. Miriam hoped she herself would be like Ann in the distant years when she also had grown children and time to travel.

Miriam’s smile faded and she stiffened as a pair of men approached. Pretending not to care, Miriam took short sips of her tea even as she scrutinized them.

The Doctor, as always, was in a hurry and walked briskly, speaking as he went. Whatever subject he had begun, his personality would force him to finish, whether it was something he wanted her to hear or not. So she was paying special attention to his words.

The man with him was tall and handsome with an athletic build and a head of golden curls. If she did not know better, Miriam would have thought he was one of the hotel hospies, perhaps a masseuse or a sex toy. But she did know better, this was Donyden Cabb, a Senior Officer with Humantis here in New Berlyn and was Petyr’s prospective partner. She wondered if he would stare at her chest as much in person as he had over the virtual conferencing link.

She quickly tried to prepare the vile creatures inside her, before they objected to the looks she planned to give Donnie.

We have discussed this already. Petyr does not want me to reveal our bond. I am even to flirt with the other one if it will serve our purpose. So just calm down while I look him over.

“Of course Prianova is a male treatment,” the Doctor was saying.

“I have to admit,” Donnie replied, “I am sold on the effectiveness of Prianova, thanks to the material you supplied, but I am confused. Why isn’t the treatment administered directly to the female? It seems a little indirect to start with the man.” He seemed genuinely interested and perplexed.

“My dear boy, you have asked the wrong question. You should be asking why are fertility rates so low? You must first identify the problem if you hope to understand a solution, my solution.”

“He is telling you that the problem is with you men, with your seed, not us.” Miriam chided Donnie, looking up at them for the first time. “But tell me, why it is so important? Sure, couples can’t always have their own child, but they can always buy their own custom genetic material. It’s done all the time in Techview. Why the fascination with conception and natural pregnancies and all that? No one does that.”

Donnie slipped into the chair next to her, positioning himself between Petyr and herself. His head nodded as she spoke.

“We know how it looks. We do,” he said seriously. “But we are at war. It might not appear that way but it is true. There are too many among the Las Joyas who see New Berlyn as a penal colony, an ugly step-child, the necessary pit stop between Techview/Fulton and the wild west of settlements in our future. We are the rightful third city but New Chicago gets more press than we do and I wouldn’t let my dog live there.”

Miriam listened attentively but she also caught the gleam in Petyr’s eye. Of course he was pleased. It was their inferiority-complex that made them extra receptive to his proposals.

Oblivious, Donnie waved at a hospie for some tea as he continued.

“And that is why we have to work harder, out maneuver, over-deliver and think bigger than your associates in Techview. And we have to grow, but smarter. We don’t want to fill our cities with opportunistic foreigners, or by constantly scraping the villages for assets as you do. We want our future in the hands of our own sons and daughters, loyal New Berlyners, the best and the brightest.”

Petyr shot Miriam a smile from across the table. He loved it.

“You see through us, my dear Donnie,” Petyr laughed. “Prianova solves only half of your problem and that is why we are perfect partners. Techview has little need of what I offer. Yes, fertility rates are lower in the Domes, this is true across Las Joyas, but while Techview is content with a marginal population increase, bolstered by an accumulation of lowly village assets, you demand better!”

Miriam’s inner self wrinkled its nose at his words even as her physical face remained placid and controlled. Lowly assets!

“Improved fertility can increase the size of your families,” Petyr continued, “but as the old adage goes, you can lead a horse to water but you can’t make it drink.”

“So I have heard,” laughed Donnie, his blue eyes sparkling. But then he seemed confused. “but how does that apply to us?”

Miriam rolled her eyes even as she pressed one sharp nail into her palm. Did Petyr really see her as lowly? She was no longer an asset, but she had been and nothing would change her villager blood. They were partners now, he had said that. He had declared that they had a special bond, a unique relationship.

“My dear boy,” the Doctor continued, “if you can’t instill loyalty in your females, then it’s all for naught. You want a fertile consort, but you need her to be loyal. You want her to bear your children but also to raise them faithfully. Our Prianova will promote a pregnancy but it can’t establish the strong bonds of trust and service which will truly make your house great. It can’t.”

“And you think that loyalty can be promoted in the same way as fertility? Through a drug?” Donnie asked intently.

“Which is why we are here, but keep in mind, it is a procedure, not a simple drug,” the Doctor concluded.

Loyalty? Miriam thought. It was more than loyalty, it was like an addiction, a consuming need. She thought of their unborn child and her heart swelled. She would do anything for it and for Petyr. She realized that some of her feelings were encouraged by the Bugs but who is to say if she wouldn’t have felt that way in any event, especially with the baby. But did he really mean to artificially create the same relationship, the bond they shared, in others? For a price?

Even as the question formed in her mind, she knew the answer. Of course he did. And she would support him she assured herself and the Bugs. And they were happy.

Donnie looked over at her and mistook her somber expression.

“Well, I am anxious to hear more, but it’s time for that tour I promised this young lady as she does not seem the type who is accustomed to waiting.”

Hangar

The sky was dark but it was a relatively mild weather day and so the vehicle was able to avoid the tunnels and leave the protection of the Domes in order to move above them, affording its occupants a view of the forested walls of the valley, the thick greenish clouds above and the collection of domes below, each a slowly turning mass of shadows.

They descended into the valley’s newest dome, two years in the making and activated only that month – New Humantis Dome. Humantis did not have a dome anywhere in Las Joyas but decided they liked the sound of the word ‘new’ up front.

The dome interior was a darker, quieter version of the outside. The ground was littered with patches of tangled grass and lumpy soil but there were also signs of beautiful, tall, slender trees, colorful gardens. Things that could never exist outside.

“Mostly the workers are landscaping right now,” Donnie narrated as they descended over a patchwork of gardens and groves. In the distance was the skeleton of a large mansion-like building. “But you can see that Humantis House is almost finished, some of our executives are already moving in. Next they will start on the downtown.”

But the vehicle did not move toward the construction area but found instead an old structure, pre-Maltiempo, long and narrow with a height of three stories. The building seemed to be formed from large metal sheets. A huge door took up most of one face of the building perhaps to accommodate some large craft of old.

“It is a mystery how this old airplane hangar even survived the storms,” Donnie continued as they approached the battered structure from the air, landing near a small portal. “Perhaps that is how the city founders knew that this valley would be a good candidate for settlement.

We are advertising that this will be a museum, an attraction to set us apart and it will. But for right now it is also the perfect cover for research and development which we have not yet announced.”

The Humantis vehicle was equipped to tether to the specially designed portal. The door of the vehicle opened and they were able to directly move to the interior of the building without ever stepping outside.

“Convenient for moving human cargo discretely in and out,” Donnie commented as he moved into the building. The Doctor followed quickly.

Miriam followed, slowly, into the entryway of the building, a sterile room with a simple desk and a series of lockers. The ceiling was a coarse metal grating which separated the first floor ceiling from the vast attic space of the large building. She looked up, through the spaces in the ceiling. It was dark up there but she could see some light in a far corner, perhaps from an old window, a vent or even a hole in the roof. It never rained in a dome so it didn’t matter.

The men had left this room and walked down a corridor so she followed, slowly, taking the time to inspect everything. The hallway was also white and sterile with small offices and storage rooms lining the right hand side. But the left side contained only windows which looked into a large room beyond. She peered in to see more, finding a space not limited by a make-shift ceiling but extending all the way to the roof. The far side of the room contained the large, metal door she had seen from the sky.

The impressive space was a laboratory, a huge one, filled with standard Humantis equipment: medical refrigerators, analyzers and even medical diagnostic stations. Miriam had seen it all in Techview, but these seemed brand new. Donnie wasn’t kidding about making resources available.

Still Miriam was not impressed. She knew that the development phase of Petyr’s second experiment, Peithonova, was complete. She was living proof, though of course the Doctor would not reveal that fact to Donnie.

What they really needed was test subjects, not medical machines. Perhaps she could even convince Donnie to volunteer? She was rewarded as she presented the Bugs with an image of Donnie bending to the Doctor’s will. But he could not be so easily manipulated, could he? She watched as the Humantis officer stated, then re-stated the obvious: that he had a facility at his disposal.

“Fine, we get it,” pouted Miriam trying to keep the boredom off her face. She was already tired of plans for greatness and product profitability and all that. She wanted to go back to Techview, back to their life, to their child. “But so far it is all just talk and I would think that you and your investors would want to see something concrete, something real. And for that, we need test subjects, which you promised, and that is why we came to this…this boom-town.”

Donnie stopped and looked at her, clearly interested and Petyr seemed amused rather than worried He seemed to have complete confidence in her now…ever since Mirk.

“Please continue, Miss…what should I call you?”

Miriam’s green eyes did not flinch. Assets did not have last names, they only had corporate identifiers. She used to be Miriam WIN23H. But now she was a full corper, so could she choose her own name? What would happen when they returned? Would she and Petyr marry? Would she take his name? The Bugs loved the idea but somewhere in her core, her gut had another reaction.

“Miriam is fine, Donnie.” she smiled sweetly, happy to once again be the center of attention. She strode easily into the room to them, her heels clapping. “Humantis is publicly releasing Prianova, meaning that your rivals will be preoccupied with impregnating their actual spouses rather than the hired help. So they still won’t see any return on their investment, any worker growth until, what, 15 years? We are offering you the opportunity to increase your loyalty base right now, among the villagers, within your company and even…” Miriam paused as she tossed a lock of her light brown hair and nodded to a monitor which displayed the ubiquitous daily corporate rankings. “Even with a competitor, a rival.” She smiled and continued. “Think merger, think acquisition or even hostile takeover. That is what the Doctor’s research is offering so why not try it out, now? Put us to the test.”

Donnie was nodding.

“We could show you how it works…” Miriam began even in spite of her intuition. To be able to trap Donnie with the Peithonova would require much more subtlety and planning, but she was desperate for some progress and…to please the Doctor. And to get the Bugs off her back. It was too soon. But she couldn’t resist. “And I am not talking about testing some asset slave who already has to follow your orders. It should be an officer…you might want…” Her train of thought broke and she lost her usual articulate flow. She was rushing this.

“I like the way you think,” Donnie jumped in, smiling. “But I am a man of my words and I already have something lined up for you.”

He led them back into the corridor and to the end of the hallway. There they moved through a security door into another, smaller passage, one with several, mostly closed, doors.

One door was wide open, exposing a simple, small, room. She saw a sink, a locker and in the center of the room was a Humantis diagnostic station. It was very similar to the one which had held her while the Doctor performed routine tests, the one she had slept within when she was confined to the lab, before he had learned to trust her and the…the things inside her.

“Welcome to our resident wing,” Donnie said simply. “We are still recruiting but we expect that it will soon be full. You asked for a test subject, one which had no reason to be friendly toward us. Well, I have the perfect patient.

She is a village girl, one which caught the interest of one of our executives. He had hoped that she would be happy living as his consort but unfortunately she was less than thrilled with the idea. Worse, she comes from an influential village family so we can’t really release her with her current…attitude. How is that for a challenge, my dear?”

Miriam smiled the way she always had, the way she could when needed. It seemed genuine from the muscles around her mouth to the flash of her eyes. And months of learning to cope with the Bugs kept her theatrical talents in peak condition.

She had hoped they would test Peithonova on some officer or better an executive, she had no problem with that. She had not counted on this. Why had she not foreseen it? Of course they would experiment on some villager.

“Perfect, Donnie. Just perfect,” she beamed.

The Conspirator

“You are there? How much were you able to see?” Donnie spoke into the empty room after the Doctor and Miriam has left. He waited.

The air in the far corner shimmered as the holographic projectors constructed the cloud, and began adding color and form, all from signals transmitted from a remote location. Donnie waited impatiently, he did not understand why his partner insisted on using this slow, visual communication mode when he could simply speak. The only reasons for the visual interfaces today was so that the Doctor could be observed.

Finally the air cleared and the sparking image of a man appeared. He flashed a conspiratorial smile before beginning to pace the room. As if trying out his virtual legs.

“He does not seem to possess the intellect that I was led to believe he had,” his tall partner began in his usual style.

“You think everyone is beneath you,” laughed Donnie.

“You must remember not to let the Doctor see the props we have installed. He would not understand our theatrics, he might mention it to someone.”

“What is the point of hiding it from him? Petyr is a Humantis Officer, albeit from Techview, a rising star and keep in mind that, assuming he works out, we will want to strengthen that relationship. He could easily find other partners within our competitive ranks, you know that.”

“I am very interested in this new procedure of his. But we must put him to the test. Let us see what he can do with the village girl. She is a feisty one, took a bite out of her lover’s ear just today.”

“I would have killed her,” muttered Donnie, his finger tracing the outline of his own perfect ear.

“I wouldn’t have. At least not at first,” laughed the phantom.

Plans

“Where are you…Dr. Petyr?” Miriam spoke over the communication link her AI had established between her implant and a similar one within the Doctor’s skull, it was standard corper equipment. “We were supposed to meet with Donnie and he has brought along a friend.” She emphasized the last word slightly.

“Yes, I recall, but I am stuck working to establish the bug lab, the shipments are arriving from home.”

“But I can help you Petyr!” Miriam protested. “You have better things to do, I’m sure and besides, those things are dangerous.”

“The Bugs?” Petyr laughed. “We are old friends, besides we now have some of our Techview equipment. I have a Colony Incubator and I’ll set up the interlock chamber by the end of day.”

“Breeding colonies is dangerous, Petyr. The number of times those things…”

“Calm yourself, my dear,” the Doctor purred. “I understand your desire to protect me but I promise you I know how to manage the viral populations, you did an admirable job with them, but never implementing the exact mixtures I wanted…”

That is because your formulas needed tweaking!

Miriam couldn’t help but think that and the Bugs allowed it even though they did not fully enjoy it.

“Besides, I need you to guide our man, Donyden. You can handle him while I remain here at the lab.”

“Petyr, I can’t let you…” Miriam protested and now her voice had risen in desperation. She knew the dangers, better than anyone, he could be hurt!

“That’s an order, my dear, I know what is best.”

When Miriam returned to the conference room, Donnie had left but his friend remained.

“Donnie got called away, but I didn’t want to run off without letting you know. I’m going by your hotel, I could even drop you off?”

The man continued his pleasantries, thinking that Miriam was paying attention but she was considering. It was truly careless for Donnie to leave the subject unattended. But then he did not realize how far the project had progressed. She realized that this was a rare opportunity and she was prepared for it. Well, she was almost prepared for it, her secret batch of virals was kept in a security box at a local financial institution. If she retrieved it, she knew a private room would be provided while she inspected the contents. Very private.

“Could you drop me by our bank?” She asked sweetly.

Laboratory 8

A man with an ego like Maximilian Petyr could not feel threatened, certainly not by a girl. But the success of his viral manipulators, after months of failures, did invigorate him with the desire to get back into the laboratory. Besides, it was better for Miriam to work on the implementation of Peithonova while Petyr worked on his new secret project, one he had not even discussed with her. If she knew he were working on a brand new formula, she would be frantic.

The containment lab was constructed now – a series of interlocking chambers that ensured that technicians did not carry contaminants in or let anything harmful out. In the center was the ‘Bug Lab’ itself including the Colony Incubators that grew the virals. Previously there had been two formulas: Prianova and Peithonova. The first was a powerful pregnancy inducer and very specific. The latter was his second creation, a variant of which lived inside of Miriam. There would be other variants…but first he had to make sure he would have unfettered access to the lab and the test subjects. In short, he needed to convince his new friends of what he could do for them. He would start that conversation and he knew Miriam would bring it home.

It was like being haunted, Petyr decided, as the dark cloud which had formed in a corner of the communications office and which was shaped like a humanoid, now began to move toward him, following.

He supposed that the mock eyes and mouth were to give the impression that he was meeting a something real, something present, but he knew quite well that he was alone with a virtual projection emanating from some other place, the person’s physical appearance and voice intentionally blurred as his guest, Donnie’s silent partner, wished to remain anonymous for now.

Donnie had told him to expect the visitor. It was if he were Scrooge on Christmas Eve, the Doctor snorted. He did not care if it was the Red Death itself, as long as he or she or it was willing to fund his projects.

Once again, Petyr had proven himself a master of working the corporate game. He had used his first project to obtain resources and equipment for his second project and now he was using the same leveraging game for his all-important last project.

A normal person might have waited for the phantom, recognizing its underlying humanity and perhaps a desire to walk together. But Petyr would not have done so for a flesh and blood guest, even an important VIP, so it did not come to his mind.

Instead, he strode boldly through the empty lab, into a corridor and down to its end, to the security door. Soon Sams would be here and he would have his own security officer but right now Petyr would have to do it. He worked the code, stepped through and closed the door behind him. The door auto-locked after hardly ten seconds.

He heard the ghostly voice and turned. The thing was still on the other side of the door. Interesting, so the security door even blocked the communications hologram? It made sense. Impressive. He opened the door and it stepped through.

“You know the history of the subject, I assume?” the Doctor called out as he passed a series of closed cell doors and lowered his voice as he approached the last one.

“Summarize,” the thing hissed as it caught up with him like a lazy, foggy shadow.

“Certainly,” the Doctor replied happily. “This patient came to us from the villages after having a violent episode. She had attacked her boyfriend, biting off a piece of the executive’s ear. She was restrained and sedated but her propensity toward violence remained strong.”

It didn’t matter to the Doctor that his words were false. He was merely describing the world the way his hosts wanted it to be seen. It was not the first time he had to show that he was a team player for corporate, and he expected the same from those who worked for him. Some of it was true, especially the part about his ear.

“And…then?” It asked.

“Then we administered the Peithonova to the man. He did exhibit some uncomfortable but ultimately harmless side effects before spewing out the compound through his nasal cavity. At the time my assistant was still playing around with the Exodus routes and so…”

“Don’t care.” the thing hissed again. It was as if it was loathe to speak or discuss anything in length. Who spoke in such brevity? Perhaps it was concerned that Petyr would recognize it from its speech? No matter, Petyr was accustomed to dominating a conversation.

“Well, you can see the current state,” the Doctor spoke as he turned and flipped on the monitor.

A large bed sat in the far corner of the room, strangely luxurious for a medical cell. A man and a woman were huddled together on top of the covers, the woman barely dressed. The man, older, wore bed shorts and a night shirt.

“And this is from earlier today, fairly convincing I would say,” he played the clip but did not bother to watch it. He had seen it before. “You can see that the girl is still quite aggressive but it a decidedly more pleasant way. Of course if you…”

“No. This is fine. We’ll talk again. Later.”

As Petyr watched, the thing dissolved and he heard the communication link close. Pleased that he had impressed the other investor, Petyr now decided to satisfy his own curiosity.

He hurried back to the communications office in time to catch the communication ID on the display. It was not enough to tell him the identity of his unknown visitor but it would narrow down the sending location. Petyr had once tracked down an ex-girlfriend in the same way in order to cull some inaccurate statements she had been making. It took Petyr only a few moments of time with his AI to determine the source dome.

Upon seeing his answer, Petyr laughed, remembering the company’s slogan: ‘All Roads Lead to Transom’. Indeed they do.

Transom Downtown

“I feel like I’m drowning!” complained Donnie. He was dressed in extravagant corper attire, lots of metallic tones but his face was flush with discomfort.

“That’s good. It’s my new Exodus pattern, the virals are coming out in your mouth, it won’t be so obvious that way,” commented Miriam as she examined herself in the mirror rather than being concerned about the tall officer’s well-being.

“And why do you give the stuff to me? That doesn’t make any sense does it? Can’t we give it to…you know, the subject?” Donnie complained.

Why couldn’t the Doctor find a more intelligent partner? Miriam sighed to herself. She knew she should be more respectful of a Senior Officer especially as she was at the bottom of the employee hierarchy with not even half a month as an officer.

“Think about what it does, Donnie. The Bugs have to learn about you first. How else will our target be bonded to you and only to you? And the bond will be strengthened when exposed to your chemistry, your distinct fragrance and DNA markers; that is why it is important that you spend time together right after infection.”

Certainly Petyr had spent plenty of time with her afterwards. And she with him. She with him. It was her deepest secret that she had infected him as well, although with a weak population; she could still not be sure if it had made any difference. But that was the beauty of her planning, the influence was not strong enough for him to realize it. Subtlety was a strength on to itself.

“Tell me something, Donnie,” she continued. “Why this person? I saw him earlier, heard him speak. Shouldn’t we be aiming…higher? Why are we wasting…”

“Baby steps,” Donnie chided her. “Besides, this is the non-obvious way to move forward and I hate being obvious. Now let’s go. That place fills up fast.”

Transom Dome had gone dark for the evening. Although the structure tended not to let light out, which is why it looked like fuzzy, dark shadows from the outside, still it was too great a chance for its residents to accept. Not that there was anything left on the planet with the ability to understand what was beneath; but if such creatures did exist, they were exactly the ones from with the domers wished to hide. They knew well the history of Maltiempo and what humans did to other humans in the following years.

Donnie brought Miriam to a popular corper pub, ‘The Watercooler’. It was a place to meet other New Berlyners especially those from rival companies. Theirs was a social meeting with a business purpose. Her Doctor was supposed to attend as well but he pulled out at the last moment. Miriam was disappointed but she knew it was for the best; it was difficult to maintain the illusion that their relationship was platonic and with him absent, she could concentrate fully on her tasks.

The music was loud and the people were louder, laughing and debating and complaining their frustrations away. They met up with some of Donnie’s personal friends and fellow Humantis officers, Gunnar and Brock. But Donnie had invited some family friends from Transom Industries as well.

In typical corper fashion, the members of the rival groups sat together on opposite sides of the table. It was an unwritten rule that it should begin that way.

“Has anyone here not scanned my AI?” Miriam’s beautiful green eyes flashed at them only five minutes into the evening. She knew that men, for some reason, found her extra alluring when she was annoyed and so she made sure to look each of them in the eye.

Still, she was truly miffed. Donnie had introduced her, but these ‘gentleman’ had lost no time in querying her AI, fetching her company credentials including her rank and home office. She was sure, that upon seeing her, they had decided she was a hospie and were unable to keep from confirming their guess. How rude! Couldn’t they simply ask her? She would have been happy to tell them that she was, indeed, a Humantis officer. But now they already knew it and worse, they knew she was a junior officer. The only positive was that now they all knew she was from Techview, the First domed city, the best and the brightest and she would use that to needle them.

“So what is there for a girl to do in New Berlyn?” she batted her long silver lashes, “I’ve haven’t seen anything here but dingy domes, ugly laboratories and poorly decorated lounges. Do you have any nice stores? Or do you have to ship things from Techview?”

They laughed politely except the short, dark-haired man who suppressed a scowl. She rewarded him with a smile, she was pleased to know she had chosen a good retort. There were four officers from each company. The one who scowled was one of the Harilla brothers whose father was head of Transom operations in this cow town, so it was no surprise that somehow all his sons had high positions as well. Apparently, nepotism was one field where New Berlyn could best its big sister.

Donnie had told her that the Harilla and Cab families were old friends but an older man had come with the Harilla brothers. He was short, balding, with beady eyes and he was above them all: an executive and the head of Transom security. Why hadn’t Donnie chosen him?

Miriam’s laughter was like music as she tossed her purple streaked hair backwards, in the same motion leaning back, her large, firm breasts pushing further into the air as her back arched back. She did not need to count how many eyes dropped.

Donnie changed positions, crossing to the other side, so that he and the tall Harilla with the sandy hair could continue their inane argument. But otherwise, she tried to give the rest of them equal time.

“How long will you be with us, Miriam?” gushed Bradley.

As little as possible she thought to herself. “Oh, I don’t know. I’ll be here for a while, longer if I like it, I am so sure.”

“You aren’t married? That is a a crime in itself,” purred the formally stern but now-happy Lysander Barrett, the executive.

“Not yet, Mr. Barrett, but give me some time,” she smiled.

“Oh, you can call me Ly,” he laughed.

Really? She thought. It was hard to believe anyone called him that.

The conversations continued but Miriam was easily able to handle the table, skillfully leaving one conversation and interjecting herself into another, finding out names, analyzing personalities and stowing away little pieces of information. She had been brilliant back in her village days before becoming a research asset hence going for long periods of time seeing no one at all, except the Doctor and the Bugs.

She noticed the first time Donnie initiated contact with the target; it seemed natural enough but the second time seemed forced and she slid her heeled foot under the table and pressed into him. She might be overly cautious as the liquor was flowing and some of the officers had even applied a recreational patch to their neck. But a quick check and she realized that one of them has stayed very sober and unaffected, but neither did he seem suspicious. She needed to draw any attention away from Donnie’s attempts, futile as they might be.

Miriam also had kept her head clear, the med patch she had applied was inactive. And if she seemed extra happy and even giddy, it was the thrill of hunt, the excitement of seeing her audacious plan in motion, the satisfaction from knowing she was working everyone at the table. Although the Doctor might have reservations on her scheme, as it obviously would increase his power, the Bugs were okay with it. It had taken her two intense minutes of lobbying and showing them the results in order to sway them to her side. In this case, Petyr’s absence helped her.

She caught the target’s eye and saw his pupils react. She was sure his infection was growing, but only now would he be able to take her commands; and for that, she needed to have him alone.

At that moment, the elder Harilla brother was savaging the reputation of Techview. She could use that.

“…just like the ancient Romans, that type of megalomania led to inbreeding and…”

“Have you ever even been to Techview?” she snarled, her sensual, full lips quivered with manufactured anger. “I knew it. Now, excuse me while I powder my nose…if this barn has a clean rest room.”

Her metallic skirt swished as she alighted from the table with the grace and ease of a dancer and her heels clipped lightly as she walked away. She took only a couple minutes waiting in the rest room, staring in the mirror, while her AI removed the purple highlights and replaced them with gold, less audacious, more conservative. She judged he would need a couple minutes to leave the table, so she took some extra time and then returned to the hallway.

When she saw him walking up the hallway towards her, she couldn’t suppress the smile. Was she really this good? Or was life just too easy sometimes? She decided it was the latter. She was always a practical girl, even if she looked like a doll.

“Don’t I know you?” she purred.

“I wanted to apologize…Steve didn’t mean anything…”

Such a gentleman. But there was no time, she needed to strengthen her virals within him, to make sure they could handle those of Donnie. She brushed by him, her slender fingers brushing his hand, one nail tracing a line, leaving ruptured skin cells in its wake and depositing another sample of the colony.

Her perfume and fragrance wafting into his space as well, entering through his nose. He would not need much. Now, she needed to give him the command. He followed quickly and she spoke softly and distinctly.

The man Donnie is the key. You must make him happy if we are to be together.

They had left the hall and entered the main room of the tavern and so she didn’t look back at him to make sure he understood, she didn’t want Donnie to suspect what she had done. They were now in visual sight of the table and one of his compatriots looked up at them. She walked toward that one.

“He’s such a gentleman, to apologize and walk me back to the table. I never had a guy do that for me before. I might just settle down here!”

And everyone was delighted with the idea.

Donnie

Donnie Cabb applied a rough squeeze to the officer’s neck. It was not the virals which were exuding through his sweat glands, Miriam told him they would leave in his mouth, so he must really be nervous about this. But who wouldn’t be? It was something he had done before, that he enjoyed…but never with someone he knew. He had run the idea by Miriam and she had told him to go ahead.

“Besides, you want proof that Peithonova works? Certainly he would never allow it if he weren’t under your control, right? Just do not try to break his family loyalties yet. It will be a couple days before you can broach those.”

He looked into the other man’s face and saw both confusion but also resignation and suddenly Donnie was reassured that this was really working, that it would work.

But then he was unsure again. The two had known each other since they were boys, perhaps it was the wrong choice. But then he thought about something Miriam said. That he should remember the years of jokes that this man and his family at leveled at Donnie and at his company, jesting about the size of their company, their lack of a dome. He had laughed but it wasn’t funny. He has known the humiliation of being a member of a small company even while his friends advance in prestigious ones. Only the strong survive. The bold win the day. His strength returned and he pushed the other into the corner.

If it was up to him, he would have chosen a smaller, thinner male partner. But gratification was not the point here. He needed to spread his virals further in this subject and get the proof he needs. He dropped his trousers and then, annoyed at the other, shoved his down as well.

There was some resistance but nothing significant and Donnie was on him and then in him. He didn’t want their absence to be noticed so he rushed it, making the act more violent and, surprisingly, more satisfying.

Donnie’s virals jumped onto the man from multiple directions. From his hands, from his chest, from his penis and mouth. But almost as quickly as the things could inhabit their new home, they expired, killed off by the more powerful colony which had a full day to establish and which had recently been reinforced. It wasn’t even a fair contest.

Ryk

Ryk could feel his patience waning. Incredibly, the man was still talking and every attempt Ryk made to ask about Miri seemed to only perpetuate his babble, but at least now, finally, he was speaking about her rather than himself.

“She told me, then you are the uncle, the swamp farmer?” the man asked with a smirk. “Yes, Miriam has spoken about you and the disgusting bogs you both bathed in. You know, she really seems to feel her childhood ordeal has somehow made her a better lab tech. She insists on it, no matter how many times I tell her that it is the faithful implementation of my instructions…”

“May I see her?” Ryk tried to hide any signs of impatience or disinterest and he fought every impulse to break down in front of this man, to tell him how it felt to lose his beloved niece, to learn that her own family, his family, had attempted to kill her, and then, when he thought he would never hear from her again, to get this message from her. He had traveled since then, first to the Techview Domes and now to New Berlyn, to find her. And to help.

“She told me she had sent for you,” the man observed, pinching the tip of the left side of his mustache as he spoke, “but I thought you were to tend to our child? Why are you here?”

And for the first time, the man stopped talking and looked at Ryk with amused eyes. Our child? He was the father? So this was the Doctor?

“As you know, “ Ryk began, reciting his planned speech, “the child is safe within its fetal development chamber and the amount of monitoring and care administered by the facility you chose is extraordinary. I have reviewed and checked all I could and find that nothing has been left to chance. So as they will keep it for another six months at least…” Ryk stopped and looked to see if the man was satisfied, but he was still waiting. So Ryk continued.

“You must understand, I have not seen Miri in more than a year; for a long time I thought she might be dead. I am here to help her in any way possible…she’s family, Doctor, surely you understand?”

“Family?” the Doctor guffawed. “Ryk, the last time she received a visit from a family member, he brought the largest knife I had ever seen. I had only seen such a thing in scavenger shops and old entertainment clips.”

Ryk was both relieved and puzzled, relieved that this man seemed to really care about Miri’s welfare but why was he so calm, so unconcerned about such a thing? At least it solidified what they all had thought: that Mirk had tried to kill his own sister, an honor killing.

“The brother, yes,” Ryk muttered as, suddenly weak, he took a chair opposite Petyr. It had been almost forty minutes since he had arrived and no chair had been offered, but now he needed one. “Thank god he failed, I can promise you that after they saw what had become of him, none of them have the stomach to ever try something like that again.” Ryk hoped his subtle praise would work in his favor and the man did seem pleased.

“Yes, exactly as we planned, Ryk. And I must admit that while certainly a competent medical technician, under my instruction, I have learned that Miriam can be quite clever and resourceful when she has the mind for it, and loyal as well. I do not question her when it comes to decisions involving our child or her request to bring you into our circle.”

Ryk was relieved, almost overwhelmed and he felt a tear form in his eye.

“I do not doubt you for a second, Doctor, she is a most…”

At that moment, Petyr and Ryk were interrupted by a tall, leggy, young woman who slipped into the room so quickly that the Doctor did not notice until he saw Ryk look past him and start to rise.

Her hair was long and lustrous, a red bow tied within, framing a bronzed face, brilliant green eyes and pouty, pink lips around impossibly white teeth. A crimson and white striped skirt clung to her impossibly firm and sharp curves. Her matching heels, sparkled and clicked against the floor as she entered, her eyes surveying the room and both men as if deciding where she should stand.

“Don’t you recognize me?” she threw a sudden, dazzling smile at Ryk even as her long, thin arm slipped to the couch, near where the Doctor sat. As she spoke, he could see the small mole near her mouth.

“Of course I recognize you, even over the new clothes and hair.” Ryk spoke, checked by her unusually calm response upon seeing him for the first time in more than a year.

Miri turned, leaned over and planted a quick kiss on the Doctor’s hand before turning back to him.

“Oh Uncle, you know that more has changed than just some hair coloring!” she smiled but did not approach.

Of course it was true. Miriam had always been attractive, the envy of the other girls and the desire of the village boys; but the creature that stood in front of him now was on a different level, like a corper advertisement, a computer generation of a woman. Still, there were those same bewitching green eyes, the smile and that mole, he would have known her anyway.

“I am just so glad that you are okay, Miri. You look well and happy and that is all I care about,” he said quickly, fighting the impulse to let her see how worried he had been. And still was. “And I went over that incubator with a fine tooth comb, I checked everything they would let me check and called every inspector possible. They are taking perfect care of your child.”

Ryk said those words while looking at Miri but quickly looked back over at Petyr as if reassuring them both.

Miriam looked over at the Doctor.

“See? I told you he would be perfect and completely trustworthy. He will be ideal to help us with our work and his timing is perfect as I am so busy handling our new friends in New Berlyn. And you don’t even have to pay him. He is family.”

She looked back at Ryk with an approving glance but there was something else in her eyes, a rigidity he did not recognize.

“Of course, my dear”, Petyr purred, his expression still amused still comfortable. “That actually solves some problems as I wish to replace the lab personnel with only those we can trust, a skeleton staff. I am bringing Sams in to do security, you remember Sams?”

“Of course, but my Uncle must be tired. I will show him to the guest room and then we must talk, Petyr.”

“For a short time, Miriam”, the Doctor responded, “and then I must be off.” He turned back to Ryk, “We will still pay you, Ryk, your niece is sometimes overly efficient and protective of my interests.”

“He does not need nor want our money, Petyr” Miriam insisted, “he came to help us, and I never doubted he would come.”

With that, the girl plucked Ryk’s hand from where it hung and pulled him and his bag toward a room.

“You must rest and get your strength back. I will have work for you tomorrow,” she called back to him even as she led him into a small, but comfortable guest room. She dropped his bag into a chair and turned to appraise him.

“Do you remember when I was a girl? The way I would almost knock you over whenever you came to visit? Once I think I even frightened you, I was so quick!” she smiled.

“I do,” Ryk laughed but his eyes were melancholy. Time had gone by so fast, it seemed only yesterday he had returned from an appointment to find her in a weather suit scouring the bottom of a bog for an earring she had lost. ‘It is the only one that matches my favorite dress!’.

He had barely started to experience the memory when, in a flash, she flew across the space between them, her thin body slamming against his, pressing into his chest, her arms wrapping around him.

“Caught you!” she laughed even as she burrowed closer to him. “I am very glad you are here,” she said, “and I will explain your duties…after you have rested.” And then in a whisper she added “Doctors need them, so do you.”

And then, just as quickly, her lips pecked his cheek and she was gone, the door closing behind her. Ryk looked at the closed door, feeling a mixture of delight and concern, familiar emotions when it came to Miri.

But why the little parting riddle? It was something parents tell their children – Doctors need them and so do you. Patients. Patience. It was a way to say ‘be patient’.

Miriam

Miriam sat making small talk with the oldest Harilla, and he with her. And, she was pretty sure, both were pretending they were not interested in the interaction between Donnie and Brad, who were were seated at a table nearby.

Steve Harilla, Senior Officer of Transom’s Corporate Strategy and Relations branch, was present because this was an official meeting, during business hours. In theory he was meeting Donnie who had a similar rank with the similar branch at Humantis. But Steve had allowed himself to be distracted by Miriam and Donnie had walked off to speak with Brad. But Steve was acting a part.

Sure, he was looking at her in a familiar way, and his questions and comments were standard, but his heart wasn’t in it, there was no fire. He was engaged in a ruse, the same as she, but she knew why she was playing this game. But what was he doing? Could he be so easily distracted?

Perhaps she was wrong, maybe he really was that into sitting with her and listening to himself speak. But she didn’t think so.

She decided to put her theory to the test, before the Bugs woke up and she became useless.

“Shouldn’t you be with them? As chaperon?” she teased Steve, “What if our Donnie is fishing secrets out of your brother?”

Steve looked at her, first amused and then indignant.

“The Cabbs and the Harillas are family friends, and Brad can take care of himself,” he added.

“No offense, I’m new in town remember? But back in Techview, a private, informal conversation between a senior strategy officer of one company and a mere officer of another would be considered taboo. Still I suppose you have different rules here,” she smiled deviously. “I wonder what they are talking about? Donnie seems fascinated…”

She stood up. Steve tried to dissuade her but she walked toward the other pair. Brad saw her and gave her a happy smile as he chattered on like a drunken schoolboy. Of course he would be delighted to see her approach. He was, after all, bound to her, not Donnie. So although there was a good deal of deception and double-dealing going around, she was much more in control than any of them could guess.

“What are you boys whispering about?” she smiled. Donnie looked at her, concerned. Brad looked at her, his eyes delighted. She did not reward him, she needed to keep the focus on the relationship between Donnie and Brad.

“We were just speaking about the silly passwords that people choose, you know, like your pet’s name or the middle name of a family member,” Brad replied helpfully.

“Just ask him,” Miriam said under her breath to Donnie, “he is in stage two, you won’t have any problem…” but at the same time, her finger swept across Brad’s hand and she knew he would respond quickly to whatever Donnie asked. She turned and walked away just as Steve joined the group. As she retreated, she could hear Bradly explaining to the two men what he knew about Transom Security passwords.

Alone, in a corner, Miriam had her own manipulators with which to contend. The Bugs were awake and were unhappy. So she called Petyr.

“Petyr, where are you? You are supposed to observe the subject with me…” she complained.

“I trust you to handle that, I need to be at the laboratory.”

“But my Uncle can do the lab work…that is why…”

“Have you forgotten? You said he could escort your friend around the villages…so he is not here.”

She had? Miriam paused for a moment. Yes, she remembered that now, but she hadn’t intended it to be a priority over Petyr’s work.

“I had forgotten. I will come over myself.”

“No, no, my dear. I can handle it. You stay there and attend to our friends. Make sure they are convinced as to the effectiveness of the Peithonova.”

Finally, the Bugs, already uneasy, prodded and cajoled her until she just said it.

“Petyr, is everything okay? Are you…are you unhappy with me?” As those words escaped her lips there was a part of her that was revolted at her neediness. But the Bugs insisted and waited, in full attention, for his answer.

“Don’t be silly, my dear,” he spoke with just a touch of annoyance in his voice. “I’ll see you when I get back, probably tonight.”

Then the comm link was closed and he was gone. And the wrathful song of the Bugs rose in her ear, so loud she could hardly think. And, worse, she now could feel the full effects of her opioid addiction. The Bugs were no longer blocking that pain.

[]Second Techview Interlude

Gwenyth

The First Sister of the Techview Seven Sisters Sanctuary made her way around the various exercise rooms observing the sisters as they talked, taught and ran drills. Gwenyth scolded herself for having appeared today for a different reason than to simply watch or to be a part. Before coming to Techview, she had been an instructor and had loved it but now, as First Sister, there were so many tasks and duties and meetings.

“Thank you for coming, Sister”, whispered an instructor, approaching from the side.

“That is her? Over in the corner?” Gwenyth asked.

“Yes, Kirsten has been with us almost a year but she tended to keep to herself. At first, I thought one of the games would bring her out of her shell and in a way, I guess it has. But now her only interest in the others is in defeating those she has not already beat. I was even silly enough to play her, despite knowing she was pretty quick, it seemed so important to her. She is not a very gracious winner, I will tell you that.”

“We may need to start communicating the purpose of these games more effectively,” Gwenyth declared softly as she walked toward the novice. She had already spoken to others about this and had made up her mind.

Kirsten was delighted to receive the attention of the church elder and brightened up immediately. After some small talk, the First Sister changed topics.

“Kirsten, I have heard that your reflexes are as quick as a cat and then some?”

The pretty, blue-eyed girl smiled, pleased.

“I am undefeated in the lightning game, honestly it hasn’t even been close, I just…”

“Really? I was pretty quick back in my novice days as well,” Gwenyth placed a mild emphasis on the word ‘novice’ and then looked away slowly, allowing a look of disinterest to form on her face.

“Ooooh, please grant me a contest?” Kirsten pleaded, “It won’t take even a second.”

“But I hear you are the best of all the novices, it is unfair to…”

“I have beat all the sisters, well most of them. The ones who dare to play me…” Kirsten’s liquid blue eyes gleamed.

Gwenyth took a step closer, her straight yellow hair, pale skin, frumpy gown and slippers contrasted to Kirsten’s lush, golden hair; short, athletic, curves; and pink, leaper shoes.

“I don’t believe it is even the same game as when I was your age. How do you do it? You just pull your hand away?”

“No,” Kirsten insisted helpfully, “you press your hands together and hold them out in front of you. Then, just try to pull them away. Anytime you want! The other sisters make you wait until they make the first move but I’m much better than that. You can try whenever you want. It’s an advantage for you!”

“How? Like this?” Gwenyth raised her arms lazily into the air, her white hands pointed toward Kirsten but her attention was distracted, her eyes drifting over to a pair of sisters engaged in voice coding.

“You have to try!” protested Kirsten with a pout, “It’s no fun if you don’t! Please, First Sister? I’m sure you are very good. You said you were.”

“Of course, dear, I will try my best,” Gwenyth smiled indulgently, pressing one hand into the other like a slow clap, her eyes drifting into those of Kirsten and subtly locking them as one finger twisted the ring of another finger. Then Gwenyth flinched.

Kirsten’s hands were a blur and her face broke into a wild smile as her palms closed on those of the First Sister, slapping them hard from both sides. Gwen’s face remained calm, even as she felt the impact. The younger girl cried out, releasing her and falling back, large drops of blood splattered the floor as Kirsten wailed in confusion and pain.

Conversations stopped as the other sisters turned toward the pair. Kirsten cried in disbelief, tears streamed down her cheeks.

“Did you win?” the First Sister asked simply. Her calm and controlled demeanor reassuring the others as they crowded around with interest to hear what Gwenyth had to say.

Gwen took a lazy step forward, closing in on Kirsten.

“Why?” Kirsten blustered even as her muscles spasmed and she crumpled to the floor.

“I thought we were playing a game?” Gwen continued, “To see who was better? To see who was more prepared. Answer my question, did you win?”

“Not fair,” Kirsten cried as her chest heaved.

“No? Perhaps you don’t understand what we we do here,” Gwenyth began, her voice level rising even as she turned around, making sure the rest were paying attention. “We do not train you for jest, or so you can compete like dumb males or brag about your conquests. We train you to stay alive, to protect yourself and each other. So what was your strategy here? Did you think I would try to best you where your strength lies? Do you think that even men are so stupid?”

A red-haired woman broke into the circle and fell to Kirsten’s side, assessing her condition. She looked up at the First Sister, questioning.

Gwen held up one arm, a dark-green loop surrounded her pale wrist.

“This bracelet is alive, a piece of a hybrid vine that my village developed. It is alive, obtaining nutrients and moisture from my skin and light from its surroundings. All of you would not be enough to pull it apart. But you could cut it off in a second.

You’ve seen the stibnite armor worn by the corper guards? Neither a knife nor a laser nor a bullet would pierce it; the full weight of a vehicle would not deform it; and if you were foolish enough to grasp it with your hands, it would cut and burn you. But if you look carefully, you’ll find small openings beneath the scales of the knees, the elbows and the side of the neck.” Strength is just a word we use when defining weakness.”

“She’s having trouble breathing,” Sister Victoria muttered.

Gwen did not respond to her fellow elder. “We engage in games, but it is not for sport. We role play, but we are not making theater. Each of you, each of us holds greatness within, but renown is nothing we seek. Knowing why is core to being a Sister of this Sanctuary.”

She waved her hand and two of the older novices helped Kirsten to the infirmary.

Sister Victoria glared at Gwenyth.

“You did not have to make an example of her like that,” Victoria spoke evenly and authoritatively to the younger First Sister.

“I considered it carefully, do so yourself and we can discuss it later. If Annabelle were here, she might feel I was too lenient.”

“Fine but there is another matter, Gwenyth,” Victoria insisted, her beautiful gray eyes still agitated. “I am concerned you have interfered in yet another of my girls.”

Gwen’s kind yellow eyes looked back at Victoria, concerned.

“I have an appointment, you can walk with me?”

“Fine,” Victoria agreed walking quickly beside.

“When you say ‘your girls’?” began Gwenyth.

“A corper girl, an asset.”

“Okay, but I do not consider any…”

“Conceded. But did you grant an assignment to one of them? And then neglect to tell me?”

“I did not…” Gwen began, “Wait. I am mistaken. I did ask a favor…”

“Cynnamon?”

The First Sister, stopped walking.

“Yes, a small matter, I only asked her…”

“Gwenyth, she has left the city, she is in New Berlyn. You sent her there?”

“No!” Gwen exclaimed, and then checked herself, continuing in a whisper, “I asked her only to keep her ears open, that was all. I learned she is from New Berlyn, I thought she might know someone or hear something and…and I told her about Sister Lyn. But I did not ask her to go there! I told her to be passive, no ripples.”

“Okay,” Victoria sighed. “I didn’t really think you were able to pull corporate strings and have her sent there. But her handlers did just that, for whatever reason. And my contacts in Transom tell me that no one has heard from her since and that she can’t be reached.”

“What does it mean?” asked Gwenyth, perplexed. “It can’t be a coincidence. Have you spoken to Ann?”

“Ann is making some progress. The question is whether we should ask Ann to look for Cynnamon, as well. It might bring her unwanted attention…”

“We will wait on that,” Gwen answered. “I am aware that we do not all agree on embedding our girls with the corpers, but living underground is their life, what they learn to do, the water in which they swim. We have to let them function in that capacity. At least for now.”

[]The Transom Asset

The Station

Cyn walked along the great hugger train, inside the large, white tube which held it. Numbers were painted on the wall in regular intervals and they decreased one by one as she walked until, finally, she left the bright tube to be swallowed up by a large, dark chamber, one that was distantly familiar to her.

New Berlyn Station was not as large or ornate as the one in Techview, where she had begun her trip, still she felt as if she had been thrust into the distant past. The walls were tainted, old stone and the ceiling was at least three stories high, too grandiose for anything modern, even by corper standards. The floors shone from recent polish but were marred and scratched by generations of travelers. Thus the building itself must be a relic from the days before Maltiempo. She thought with helpless sadness about a time she had never seen and would never see, when the sky was bright and the air was still and warm; a time when humans covered the Earth.

The hull of the building was, no doubt, scavenged from some bus depot or train terminal of an old city whose name no longer mattered and which no longer existed even as a shadow of its former self. The room was littered with long, brown benches, also scavenged, the new paint couldn’t completely hide the etchings and writings of travelers past.

Even upon entering, she witnessed the last of her fellow travelers leaving, hurrying for cabs or buses or whatever would take them away from here. And as they left, she began to hear her own boot heels sound against the floor causing echoes in the building.

Cynnamon spied a large bag, alone just like her, within a caged compartment. She moved quickly toward it, in steady strides from her long legs, eager for anything that would retrieve her fully from the persistent, clinging dream which had lingered. She reached the metal cage but it was locked. Then, remembering her AI, she pulled the black rimmed spectacles from her face for inspection; the unit was off, but shouldn’t it be on?

Acting on instinct, she activated it, a function she had performed countless times in her life, and her temples buzzed as the device made a connection to the sensory implants nestled within her brain, surgically placed on the same day she was accepted into Sponsorship, into corporate slavery. It was one of many mandatory procedures.

Now, the unit engaged, she saw the world differently. The cage was asking her for an obscenely large claim code which her AI presented promptly. Then the door opened and she retrieved the bag, her bag.

But as her AI had become active, it reached out into the station, querying for information and announcing her presence. And the station was responding, querying her unit back, sending announcements, invitations and offers of assistance.

A large wall shimmered to life, first displaying only digital lettering but soon adding sound and animation as well. It was some sort of status report broken down into only two categories: Winners and Losers.

She had seen displays like this before, corporate rankings of all the companies of Las Joyas, all of known civilization now. In Techview, only the top rankings were displayed, the so-called ‘winners’. She had never seen listings of those at the bottom of the rankings and if they had been shown they never would have been labeled as ‘Losers’. Obviously New Berlyn was a harsher and more competitive place.

As she watched, the name in the top position, the #1 position, sparkled and shimmered in gold and the room was filled with the soft sound of that institution’s anthem.

But then a new category was announced and new rankings were shown, and another anthem was played. And on it went. Some companies seemed to always be near the top, companies like Urbanic Inc, SkyTran Corporation, Halstrom, Providence and Daneel Tech, the makers of her AI spectacles.

The categories changed: gross sales, net sales, dividend payout ratio, dividend yield, earnings per share, price to earnings, price to earnings ratio to growth ratio, price to book…

Cyn walked on, toward an empty bench, they were all empty. Then she stopped, familiar music entering her ear. It was not agreeable, but it was strongly familiar. She turned and looked up again at the wall of rankings and there it was.

The category was ‘Number of Services Offered’ and in the lead position was Transom Industries. Its slogans: ‘Anything as a Service’ and ‘All Roads Lead to Transom Industries’. Its anthem was a silly jingle she had heard countless times before and the crest had been animated to become a slowly spinning, segmented globe, its vertical and horizontal grid lines forming cubicles which themselves held icons representing various aspects of the huge conglomerate. The lock represented Transom Security Services, the quill representing Transom Legal Services, the shield: Transom Security Services, it went on and on. Transom, as far as she knew, had never been the most powerful nor the most profitable company in Las Joyas and they had never been able to develop a wildly successful product, but its depth and breadth of services were unsurpassed.

Transom Industries, the company which had accepted her from an orphanage, educated her in its procedures and provided her food, shelter and purpose. In exchange, she was legally bound to them, corporate property, until the day she could completely repay her debt. It was under Transom orders that she was sent away from her home valley of New Berlyn to Techview and now it was Transom that demanded her return, to complete one assignment. But even her handler in Techview did not know the details. And that had worried her. And now it worried her again. Why the mystery? Why was she here?

Her head clearing, Cynnamon walked away from the wall of rankings, toward the exit doors. But as she began to ascend the wide stone stairs, she felt a shooting pain between her legs. She cringed and stopped, a wave of distressful remembrance washing over her brain. Something had happened to her, on that train. She had been trapped, bound in a medical chair, an examination station. One by one, the little mementos she had stored away were coming back to her. Reminding her who she was and what had happened.

Greetings.

Cynnamon jumped, startled by the very formal voice which seemed to come out of nowhere. Now there was someone there, a woman, in impossibly high heels, her gown flowing in slow motion. It spoke to her.

Are you satisfied with your skin? Ninety three percent of the local populace have lighter skin than yourself. What if you could change your skin color, your hair color, even your eyes to suit the place, your mood or even your man? You can. Let Humantis show you the way.

She groaned at the advertising angel just as two others materialized in her virtual space.

Never buy medical services straight from a provider. We can help you get the best price at a pre-negotiated rate…

Warning! Humantis seldom works with third party brokers. You would be wise…

“That is enough,” she sighed as she instructed her AI to block all advertisements. The angels disappeared with a mournful gaze and she was alone once again.

She continued her ascent toward the doors when suddenly two more angels appeared in front of her. They had large, dark, metallic wings, curly blonde hair and sandals, their robes bore the crest of New Berlyn and they seemed less than pleased.

Do NOT proceed. Stop your progress.

You are NOT authorized. NOT authorized to leave this terminal.

Return to the security office.

She stopped and looked at them as they continued their warnings. They were not real, visible only through her AI, and they could not harm her though they had certainly startled her. But their threats were real enough. She did not doubt there would be a tangible response should she walk through those doors. Of course this meant that her security clearance had not been updated. She was trapped in the station.

She opened a communication line to Transom House, the link initialized and then failed. It was blocked. She sent them a message, it dropped into a waiting queue. She was physically and virtually blocked from the outside world. Marvelous.

Cynnamon walked back into the station, tossing her bag onto the first bench she reached. Frustrated and irritated, she continued her stroll, further through the hall, toward the back wall. Then, she stopped, her blood running cold.

She had spied a storage niche in the back of the room and the memories flooded back to her, from ten years before, when her younger self also occupied this hall, on her way out of the city.

It was to be an exciting, celebratory time, the day of her graduation and reassignment to Techview. Even assets could accomplish, could hope. But she had spent that day, all day, hiding in that dark hole, nursing the welts on her body, hiding the bruises on her face, until finally, with minutes until her outbound train left, the younger Cyn ran from her hiding place and boarded the train that would take her away.

She approached slowly, her eyes fixed on the compartment. Where before it had held seasonal decorations, now it was full of cleaning supplies. She had no desire to crawl in again and mingle with any more of those ghosts. She turned away.

She returned to the bench where her pack lay and sat down. Her fingernails slid across the wood of the bench beneath her thigh and slipped into an indentation. She looked down. Someone had carved into the wood words that polish and stain could not conceal.

Don loves Carly

I miss you already

Cyn smiled weakly at the random writings. She wondered where the authors went, although she knew they were long dead, but she hoped they had lived full lives before the start of Maltiempo, that they had had a chance at a happy life. She slipped onto her knees, turned back and read some more graffiti. Her hands brushed over a single sentence.

I leave and shall NEVER return

It was something she might have written on that fateful day but if she had, the memory had left as well. With her mind preoccupied in the past, a sudden ping from her AI brought her back. Had someone from Transom realized that she was waiting? She read the message. It seemed to be an offer for some sort of AI upgrade. An advertisement? She rolled her eyes, she thought she had blocked all the spam? It annoyed her how companies found ways to break their own rules.

But she laughed at the thought. An upgrade to her AI? Her AI spectacles, a standard pair of DT3000 artificial intelligence viewers, the best of what Daneel Tech produced, ten years ago, had been outrageously expensive for a poor corporate asset, in the end it had cost her more than a year of commissions to pay off that debt, an extra year bound to Transom Industries and its assignments. So Cyn had no interest in another unit and another year.

Suddenly disgusted with the solicitation and annoyed at her own AI for betraying her, she removed her spectacles and placed them on top of her bag as she rose, stretched and ventured into the dark station.

She ignored another twinge of pain as she walked, still not ready to think about what had happened on the train. There would be time for that. For now, she needed to get herself to Transom House, report to Operations and find out why she was there. That was the highest priority.

As she walked toward a corner of the great hall, Cyn saw something move, actually it seemed to slide across the floor. She froze.

The object was about a third of a meter in both length and height and slightly narrower in width. It was a janitor bot, perhaps a floor cleaner. Almost in response, the device stopped and a mechanical arm reached forward cautiously and probed a crumpled up piece of paper before finally clutching it and discarding it into an opening in its top side.

Cyn followed it, amused, but eventually it rolled into a small tunnel and she could not follow it further. She turned and walked back to the bench where her pack lay. She returned her AI spectacles to her face and was surprised to see another new message. Would it be from a real person?

No. It was yet another AI upgrade offer. She spent five minutes looking for a way to block any future upgrade solicitations before she grew tired, laid her head against the pack and fell asleep.

Tym

Tym Matheson, executive officer for Transom Industry’s Strategy and Corporate Relations (SCR) division in Techview, had just arrived on the pre-dawn shuttle. His eyes were tired and his old bones were weary; despite the comfortable berth, he had been unable to sleep.

He watched the intimidating, black-armored members of the New Berlyn guard march, arrogantly, in front of him before veering off. He had been warned about the New Berlyn patrols and fortunately his high corporate status had, no doubt, encouraged the bullies to ignore him, but they would not be cowed either. Despite his nature, he would need to keep reminding himself that this colony was not a subsidiary of Techview, but rather saw itself as a rival, a competitor.

As he and the others entered the cathedral-like station, the place seemed to come to life. The lights had brightened, the sound of commercial jingles filled the air. Two young hospies ran over to greet him, clutching his various bags. They questioned him as to his needs and finally escorted him directly to an exit and into a corporate shuttle. He hoped everything would go as smoothly.

Tym recognized some of the Transom officers within the roomy vehicle and flashed them quick smiles and exchanged some vacuous greetings. He was in the middle of such social niceties when he noticed a young woman waving frantically at them from behind the glass of the station doors.

Her hair was jet black, tied behind her and she wore a Transom issue uniform. Her skin was like that of a golden fruit. His AI might not have retrieved her identification at this distance, but it did not matter, his advanced unit had decent facial recognition software and had already identified her as one of Mother’s operatives. But why was she still in the terminal?

“Driver, is that young lady with us?” Tym asked casually as he leaned forward.

“I don’t know sir, but I’ve got everyone on my list, there will be more limousines coming along.”

“If she is with Transom, then she has a purpose and business should not be kept waiting. Please go find out.”

Tym had a pleasant demeanor and friendly eyes, but he knew how to give an order. The man got out and went into the building to speak to the woman. It was more than fifteen minutes later before he returned with her. She entered the vehicle, carefully choosing a seat near the window, visibly relaxed. Tym turned away, and tried to pretend he had no idea who she was or for whom she worked.

As the vehicle lifted off the ground and into the dome air space, Tym was dumbfounded by the sky! It was the color of rose petals and littered with fluffy, perfectly-white clouds that drifted at a noticeable speed. As he stared, he discovered large steel-blue herons flying in groups and two bright moons chasing each other across the dome. It was stunningly beautiful. But how could it be? Earth did not have two moons?! Not that he had ever seen the night sky, or any which wasn’t covered with thick clouds. He had heard villagers speak of rare nights when the clouds aligned and opened a brief view into outer space, a sight that would have been common before the age of Maltiempo.

“Welcome to the city of New Berlyn,” the driver’s voice filled the cramped space, “and in particular to the world renown SkyTran Dome. I’ll bet even our visitors from Techview have not seen anything like our dome shows. Take a good look while we are here, the other domes are not so beautiful and the show changes, so you can come here every day and it will look different each time. Don’t miss the fireworks and music shows on the weekend…”

Tym laughed to himself. He should have known better. Mother would skewer him if she learned that he had thought this was a real sky. This trip might be full of surprises; he would need to stay watchful and prepared. And just then, the vehicle dropped down into a gaping hole and swallowed them up.

Cyn

Cyn had watched the dome animations through a New Berlyn station window, all while waiting for a Transom driver who could be convinced to delay their schedule and call Transom House on her behalf. The shows were pleasant and it took her mind off of her worries. She even got excited at the thought of returning on a weekend night for the fireworks or the ‘Birth of the Universe’ show.

This limo driver had been just as adamant as those previous, asserting that he could only pick up passengers whose name appeared on his AI list. Then, somehow, the driver had changed his mind, returned to her and made the call to Transom House.

Hospies were always professional and polite, it was core to their training and the man chatted amiably with her even as they waited for the clearance to be issued; and when it came he carried her bag to the limousine and she got in.

The limousine was almost full, containing several Transom officers, mostly Strategy. She even recognized some of the faces from Techview. But she was exhausted and snuggled up against a window in order to stare out the window and catch the sights of the valley of her birth, even if it was no longer her home.

The interior of SkyTran Dome had changed greatly since last she had been there, even beyond the brilliant animations. Now there were many tall buildings with a huge park in the center. She wished the driver would take them outside the dome so she could see the entire valley and even glimpse the remote section of the high valley wall which contained the village where she grew up. Instead, he took the vehicle straight toward the tunnels.

Suddenly, Cyn felt a sense of impending doom and panic as the vehicle dropped into the bowels of the Earth and she realized that when they emerged, it would be within the stark confines of Transom Dome – New Berlyn, the place which marked her transition from free village guajira, to a bonded, indebted, corporate asset; the confines in which she had studied, worried, loved and lost. But more than that, it was a placed that had filled her with hope and promise and then delivered mostly pain and disappointment. It was a place she had left in theory but in truth she had fled.

As the limo entered the tunnel, the interior plunged into blackness, her eyes adjusted, and she became aware of the crimson glow of the navigation system within the vehicle and the long eerie-green, luminescent strips which marked the walls of the tunnel on the exterior. Those markers gave the appearance that they had been swallowed by a giant worm and that they were traveling quickly through its simple digestive tract before being excreted out the other end, depositing them into the dark and dingy interior of Transom Dome.

Transom Dome

The limousine emerged over dark green fields that continued on into the distance, toward the center of the dome. But back in the direction from which they had come was the awesome wall of the dome barrier, the threatening specter of Maltiempo pressing against it from the outside, trying to get in.

Unlike SkyTran, Transom did not bother to beautify their dome with lights or animations. Neither did one hear the sounds of music or chimes or even faux-voices in the distance. There was just the slow, powerful drone of the dome as it slowly churned and a disturbing crackle and whine when something large attempted to push through.

The entire outer ring of the dome interior was allocated for farming and the shuttle flitted over field after field of green crops, tall stalks which stood motionless without any wind to rustle them. Here the light from the dome wall, dim as it might be, was much brighter than the inky darkness at the apex of the rotating dome vortex. Thus the crops grew not vertically but at an angle to the dome, garnering the most light.The farms were static yet fruitful.

As they moved inward, the farms were left behind and the landscape changed for the worse. Now the ground was rough, ugly and unprepared. There were few roads as domers preferred air travel and loathed the expense of excavating and maintaining the earth.

In the distance, coming into view, Cyn could see tall buildings and clusters of smaller structures. The latter were residential complexes which housed both Transom employees as well as those of the many companies which were not profitable enough to have their own dome. The tall buildings marked downtown Transom and Cyn hoped that they might go there first, for any reason, rather than heading straight for Transom House, the stronghold and center of Transom Industries in New Berlyn.

But her wish was not granted.

Transom House

Now Cyn could see the grounds of Transom House, where bare, broken and weed infested ground gave way to ornamental trees, gardens and flora that was far too delicate to ever survive outside the dome.

As they approached, the vehicle dipped toward the ground, leveling out and pointing itself toward a large stone archway which was the formal entrance to the estate. A sentry building sat nearby and black guards, like deformed ants, marched in front and on the walls of that building and on both sides of the arch. In the distance, a stone mansion came into view – Transom House.

To her, the medieval style buildings seemed much larger and more intimidating than the simple, practical buildings of Transom Techview. But she had not seen everything yet.

Something flashed in the sky and her eyes were drawn up, above the security building to the giant globe which hovered in the sky and spun slowly. It was a hologram but it was still impressive.

The hologram was a representation of the Transom crest, a segmented globe meant to represent her company’s stunning array of services, its sheer size in terms of holdings and its pervasiveness in every aspect of domer life. The longitudinal vertical lines and horizontal latitude lines divided the sphere into sections which themselves held intricate images. She saw the quilled pen of Transom Legal Services, the lock of Transom Security Services, the stamped envelope which represented Transom Communication Services and the wine glass representing Transom Hospitality Services. Although she didn’t see it, she knew that somewhere on the surface of the ominous, rotating sphere, was an icon of two interlocking gears, representing Transom Operations, Cyn’s divisional home for almost ten years.

For a viewer with AI implants, the scene was augmented with grand commentary from an unseen woman who spoke in awed tones of the dominant metrics of Transom Industries, its ranking in clients supported, in employees, in services rendered and each ranking was a clear #1. If Transom was second in anything it was not discussed here. Even Cyn, who knew that Transom was not a top profits leader, could not help but be awed by the spectacle.

And suddenly she worried about the man on the train, Darren, and her sudden decision to play along with his offer to repackage her debt to a new company. She knew it was a scam but she needed to find out exactly what it was and who was behind it, and she was sure Mother would back up her decision.

But Mother was not here and Transom New Berlyn might see her act in a very negative light, perhaps even as treason. It suddenly became urgent that she report immediately to Transom Ops and let them know what had happened. The narrator was almost yelling now:

Transom Industries is the future of New Berlyn and in all the domed cities

Cyn turned away from the display. She felt shell shocked and intimidated, she had not seen anything like this in Techview. The other occupants of the vehicle watched without comment. If they were impressed, they did not show it. One officer, a tall man with stark white hair and a kindly yet older face was looking at her.

She did not move when the man leaned in her direction and whispered one word to her. Oz. Then, without even a smirk, he leaned back and turned his attention back to the exterior as the vehicle slipped through the sentry arch and headed toward Transom House.

She relaxed, calm now on the outside but she laughing on the inside. Oz! The man was right. This was all a lot of show. Whatever they said, whatever they claimed, New Berlyn was the smallest of all the domed cities and Transom New Berlyn was nothing compared to that of Techview, her adopted home.

But her heart deflated a bit as well as she remembered that it was often the smaller dogs which bit.

Inside Transom House

As the vehicle approached Transom House, Cyn began to take better notice of the other passengers. Her natural omnaudience was limited when she was stressed our overly fixated on something and that described the entire shuttle ride up until now. Still, the words and phrases still hung about her short-term memory the way a song or a tune might persist with someone else. She reviewed them quickly, the conversations had been mostly idle chatter: talk of a Q-ball tournament, a birthday celebration, plans to bicycle around a track built at the edge of the dome. That last one interested her for non-professional reasons. It would be fun to run along the inner edge of Transom Dome, so close to the storm itself.

Now, calmer, she placed her full concentration on the other seven passengers and what they were saying. But the door was opening and only two people were speaking. One man was giving a list of the amenities he expected to find in his room. Another was giving his friend a list of restaurant recommendations. Cyn did not recognize any of the names, not that she expected she would.

Cynnamon watched as the employees disembarked and strolled into the large main entrance of Transom House. Her AI was already directing her a different way, around the side to the basement portal, the service entrance of course. Although a member of Transom Operations, she was still a human asset, she would be housed with the other assets.

She skipped down the harsh stone steps, two at a time. The Oz comment had done her good. She was a direct report to ‘Mother’, the enigmatic leader of Transom Operations in Techview, certainly one of the most powerful members of the huge corporation. She would not be cowed by New Berlyn’s theatrics or their bravado. She would do her job, complete her assignment and get the hell out.

But the halls of the service wing seemed more narrow, darker and danker than she remembered. A man passed her on the left, in a hurry. Her AI flagged him as a security asset. Further down the hall, a woman, roughly Cyn’s age, approached, a hospitality asset, her eyes were cast down. Cyn’s enthusiasm waned, she might be that asset if they hadn’t sent her to Techview all those years ago.

Her AI located her quarters, one of many on the bottom floor, it unlocked the door and she stepped in, memories flooding her mind. It was not the same room in which she had lived so long ago but it was very similar. The room was narrow, about 3 meters across and 5 meters in length. There was a small desk on the left side and a bed chamber on the right, a closet along the back wall.

Cyn immediately walked to the closet and opened it wide. It was empty, bare. Fine, she left it open. She checked the bedchamber, it was flush to the ground, nothing beneath and the linen seemed dingy yet clean. The chamber was claustrophobic with a low ceiling which made way for compartments above. They were also empty except for an extra pillow and an old blanket.

She locked the door and placed her bag into the bed chamber in a specific orientation, then she puffed up the linens with two, pinched fingers, at particular points; if someone were to put weight onto the mattress or access the bag, she would be able to determine the tampering later.

Then she changed into running shorts and swapped out her boots for a two year-old pair of leapers. Besides her AI units, the spectacular shoes were one of her few material investments. She was a good runner by nature but the leapers granted her a much longer stride and speeds up to 40 km-per-hour.

She left the room, locked it, strode down the hall and bounded up the cement stairs, noticing a slight stench for the first time. She exited the side of Transom House and headed toward the front of the building, where the limousine had left her. She looked at the security building in the distance.

Cynnamon raced along the weed-infested fields beneath the approach zone, the leapers helping her navigate the bumpy ground. She directed herself toward the large security arch, intending to head off the grounds and toward downtown. After that, she would inspect the farms in the outer ring, relocate the tunnel entrance and the other exit points.

As she neared the sentry building, Cyn could see the movements of the black guards as they patrolled, but there was something strange about them. As she studied, she realized that their motions were repetitive, as if running in a continuous video loop. They were not real, more holograms, just another part of the Transom show.

Her stride lengthened with determination as she ran toward the guard house where the Transom House grounds would end and the land would become more hostile before, eventually, turning into the ring of farmland and then the dome itself.

She had never seen the farms close up, they were a recent development, a new style of cooperation between Transom and the villagers. The villagers worked the farms for Transom and split the yield. Villagers were excellent agrarians, but even they could not obtain the sheer area of farmland which could be provided by a dome.

But as she approached the arch and the sentry house, two large, winged, black guards descended upon her from the sky. They existed only in virtual space but they startled her just the same. They bellowed ominously.

Not allowed.

Do NOT proceed.

Cyn was so startled that she leapt accidentally and then, loath to interact with the phantoms, tried to stop too quickly and instead tumbled to the ground, her leg and arm scraping against soil and rock. She looked up at the figures as they continued their warnings, unconcerned about her condition. She scrambled to her knees and backed up, her face frustrated and pained. Why not just have a human security officer walk out and speak with her? Did they really use the virtual AI angels for such things?

Cynnamon took a step forward, ignoring the trickle of blood which ran down her tanned knee. It was frustrating trying to speak with these things.

“I request access outside the grounds. Process!” she instructed. She knew that sometimes privileges were not granted until one simply asked for them. That was the corporate world.

Unauthorized request.

Do NOT proceed.

“This is silly. I am a member of Transom Operations, and that group does have access anywhere in this dome. Now process!”

The two black specters were now circling her, berating her rather than informing.

Do NOT proceed.

Authentication successful.

Cynnamon CC34F. Corporate Human Asset – New Berlyn. No groups. No memberships. No privileges. You are nothing.

Do NOT proceed.

Do NOT proceed.

Her face frowned in disbelief as she backed up, watching the angels repeat their words and gestures until she retreated far enough, at which point the angry spirits rose back into the sky.

Her plans for the day in shambles, Cyn limped toward Transom House until the pain in her knee subsided, then she jogged the rest of the way, her mind in thought.

How could it be that she did not have permission to even leave the grounds? She recalled that she had been trapped in New Berlyn Station until a special call had been placed for her, perhaps that would be needed again.

The basement hallway smelled worse as she walked back down the steps to the service floor. Someone hurried past her; she envied them their purpose, their task.

As she stood before the door of her quarters, her AI was pinged by more Transom propaganda.

Training for Employee Entrance available, $39,999.

AI Upgrade available.

Cyn applied a temporary block on all non-critical messages as she opened the door. She needed time to think. But when the door slid open, she froze, her mouth fell open in disbelief. There would be no need to check her markers, her bag lay on the floor, the bed linens had been stripped, the mattress half pulled out of the sleeping chambers. But the strangest thing was that the closet doors, which she had specifically opened wide, had all been closed. It was as if someone had sent her a clear message:

The hell with you, Cynnamon CC34F

She stood, stunned, for almost a minute before finally walking into the room. She opened the closet doors again, the space beyond still empty. She fixed the mattress and linens and replaced her bag within. Finally she left in search of a shower.

To her surprise, she found an open shower, it seemed clean and the water was warm. She could not help but think of Ann’s comment about cold water. She turned the dial down and let the cold water rush over her for a minute until she felt her body shiver, then she turned it off.

When she returned, her heart beat loud in her chest as the door opened, but the room was as she had left it…this time.

She wanted to climb into her bed chamber, to curl up, to think, and plan. But she resisted those thoughts, she DID need to think about what was going on, but more importantly she needed to report to Operations, she needed to tell them she had arrived and she needed to find out what the hell they wanted from her. Thinking could wait, she needed to act.

Refreshed and clean, but still a little stunned, Cyn dressed for the rest of the day. She chose a summer frock, bright with golds and greens and a pair of sandals. She needed every break she could get and if some hospie or officer was more inclined to help out a young asset in a dress, then it was fine with her. She locked the door and headed up the stairs to the lobby. But her AI spectacles, which she had removed upon dressing, remained on the desk.

Transom Lobby

The lobby of Transom House was grand and ostentatious, lined with large portraits of executives both current and past. The tall walls were decorated with large curtains, intricate murals and one wall held an ornamental but functional water fall. The melody of the Transom anthem played softly from ceiling speakers. The room was littered with corporate employees and their clients. And there were plenty of hospies to attend to the needs of all.

There were multiple information kiosks decorated with large bouquets of flowers and stocked with refreshments. Some kiosks were marked for clients only, others were labeled for officers. In a corner, Cyn found a station for corporate human assets. Behind that desk was a young girl, of probably fifteen years or so. Her hair was a sandy blonde, her face plump beneath old AI glasses. In front of her were a variety of colorful cards, playing cards perhaps, each of which contained a rich, detailed drawing. Perhaps the girl was playing some sort of game to pass the time?

“Hello Cynnamon C443,” the girl drawled as Cyn walked up. Those words were a relief, at least someone expected her.

“Hello Pur” Cyn smiled, quickly reading the name tag. “How did you know who I was? I seem to have left my AI behind.”

The girl moved her cards off to the side and looked up.

“Seven visitors arriving today, all male except for you, your room has already been accessed so I knew you were in the building. And as I don’t recognize your face…”

“You could tell that my room was entered? You are sure it was me?”

“I just assumed, there is no house-keeping on your floor, so you are the only one who can enter your room. Except Security of course.”

“Well, yes I have just arrived but I don’t know to whom I should report?”

“You should have an itinerary, there is a standard all-employee dinner, so you would go to that.”

“Got it,” Cyn said quickly. The word employee, when used in a common sense, included assets as well. She knew that. “But I should have an assignment as well, in Operations, I should have a handler, a direct report?”

“I guess, but not for you, at least not today, maybe something is still being processed. You could check back tomorrow…”

Cyn tried not to sigh, but moved on. “I have a second problem, my security seems to be limited to the grounds. I should at least be able to travel within Transom Dome right?”

“Oh, I can’t help you at all with that. You’ll need to talk to someone in security. Have you met Barrett? He is the head of Security, and he lives here in Transom House so he is often around and he makes it a point to greet any emps coming in. I’ve heard he is pretty sneaky, that he will find you before you can find him. You probably need to speak with him.”

“Pur, are you able to travel within the dome?” Cyn asked, wondering if the girl could run an errand for her.

The girl looked back at her, not thoughtfully, but frankly, “I live in the villages, I take the shuttle straight to this building and then at 17:00, I get back on that shuttle and it takes me straight back. And there is a guard on the shuttle, an escort. Sorry, I promised my mother and so this is the only building I am allowed, I don’t even walk in the gardens. Mostly I bring my lunch. I wanted this job to save some money…”

“For what?” Cyn wondered.

“I dunno, for a rainy day, I guess,” the girl replied, some of the formality gone.

Cyn nodded, her eyes looking around for something that would help, when she looked again at the colorful cards laid out on the desk before Pur.

“What are you doing?”

“Oh, its just a village game, to pass the time.”

“Really? Because I’ve played plenty of card games when I was a girl but we never had such expensive looking cards. Look at all the colors! And the detail?”

“Well, it’s called the Weather Tarot, like for telling one’s future. My mom tells fortunes on the side. So I am practicing.”

Cyn’s mind was racing on, considering her next step. But she liked this girl and was curious about her.

“Would you tell my future, Pur? It might help me out.”

Pur looked at her apologetically.

“I’d like to, but I’m still practicing, perhaps if you came back? I haven’t told a fortune yet. I’ll try to study quicker and maybe..”

“I see,” Cyn replied. She was reluctant to leave and she had already caught a conversation in the hallway, one of the voices was familiar. “Tell me about this card?”

It was a beautifully drawn picture-card, rich in textures and colors. The illustration depicted a green hill, an old man with three eyes perched on top. To his left, a campfire lofted a thin coil of smoke into the air, to his right the raging waves of the ocean lapped at the hillside and overhead was a dark cloud.

“That is Pol,” Pur smiled, “also known as Pol the Paranoid.”

“Okay,” Cyn spoke slowly, genuinely interested. She did not remember this game when she was young, but there were so many villages and hers was so far away. “What would it mean if I were to draw that card.”

“Pol always has the same meaning, ‘watch and be careful’” Pur laughed, relaxing.

“Ooh, what about this one?” Cyn pointed to another card. Depicted there was a dark sky and a swirling mass of clouds that spun quickly, opening up a hole into the heavens at its center, and there, in the middle, was an eye.

“That is Sauron Sign,” Pur whispered ominously, “and it means you should watch out because something bad is coming.”

“Just like Pol, right?”

“Oh, no. Pol is always worried, even when there is nothing wrong. But this dark eye, the evil eye? That means that something bad is definitely coming your way.”

Patron

Even as Cynnamon conversed with Pur, she had been listening to a group of men at the edge of the lobby. They were waiting for someone, for the start of a meeting and they had mentioned Techview as well. That made two ‘interesting’ conversations within her earshot. The rest were minor and now she strained to pull in the remote discussion.

As long as she could remember, Cynnamon was an adept omnaudient, she could follow multiple conversations at once, sometimes as many as four. Growing up, the other kids didn’t understand her ‘talent’, they would tell her that everyone can hear more than one person at once. Yes, but hearing and understanding were different things. It was only when she arrived at the orphanage that she found that the Sisters encouraged such talents through ‘listening drills’. Still, it was not a thing she discussed with her adult acquaintances. They seldom understood what she meant.

So the only difficulty she had in both actively speaking to Pur and listening to the officers was that they were so far away and the room was already echoing the sounds of other voices and the waterfall as well.

But now a new voice entered the second conversation, and she recognized him immediately as Paul Harilla, the head of Transom Operations, Mother’s counterpart here in New Berlyn.

He would know she had been called here, and he would know why. And, although it might be a slight breach of procedure, she could give her report directly to him. Perhaps Transom was already aware of Darren’s scam but if they were not…

“I have to go, Pur,” she called as she turned away. The group of men were moving quickly, out of the lobby and down a hallway which she recalled led to a series of meeting rooms.

Cyn skipped through the lobby in pursuit, her athletic, toned legs making playful but very effective strides. She waved one slender, golden arm in an inane way, as if she knew one of those officers and wished them to wait, but her focus was on the new arrival.

Patron was a large man with beefy hands, an oval face; straight, thinning, dark hair and skin that flushed easily when he was irritated. But he could be jovial and even charming when he felt the need.

Patron had been the one who had signed his name on her Sponsorship contract when and, years later, he was the one who shook her hand and slipped her a ceremonial scroll upon her graduation in corporate studies. For the time in between, they had had little contact. She had once met the man and his wife at a party and he had been very pleasant. Another time, he had called her a stupid cow and told her to get the hell away from him. When it had been announced that she would be sent away to Techview to train in Hospitality, she was not sure if he was doing her a favor or not. But she was happy all the same.

“Patron? Excuse me, I’ve just arrived and I must report. It’s important.”

Cyn realized that his response might be dismissive or worse. But years of Techview Operations work had conditioned her to one fact. If you have something to say, say it. If you have something to report, report it. It wasn’t that she didn’t sometimes fear the reactions of her Techview handlers including and especially Mother. But she knew the reaction could much worse if she failed to report or withheld information. She had to assume that Patron had similar philosophies.

The large man had stepped into a meeting room and had turned, confused to hear his name called by someone he did not recognize, a woman. Her eyes met his.

A man tried to block her, moving into her path, but she feigned left and then slipped around him to his right, easily. Another push off her right foot launched her into the air, toward the threshold of the meeting room. She would not need much time.

The look on his face was strange to her, he was no longer confused, but there was something else. Her body had almost reached the threshold to the meeting room when something hit her, hard, just below her collarbone. She felt some air leave her chest from the blow and she fell backwards. Her back hit the floor, forcing the rest of the air from her lungs.

She lay on the ground, gasping for breath. Then she felt someone grab her ankle and drag her along the floor, the rug burning her bare skin, her dress hiked upwards even as she wheezed. She caught only a quick glimpse of the stoic Patron and she recognized another in his entourage. It was the tall, white-haired, man from the limo.

She was easily lifted into the air and pinned between two black-armored security officers. They moved her quickly down a series of hallways before she was thrown into a metal chair within a small room and a shock noose tossed around her neck. She knew enough about that device to remain still.

For what seemed like hours, Cynnamon was read Transom – New Berlyn security protocols and interrogated as to why she had not worn her external AI. Then another officer entered the room and the process was repeated.

She protested politely, stating that she was an operations asset, had been reassigned to New Berlyn and that she needed to report to someone within operations.

They were unconcerned by her remarks and the best she was able to do was extract the location of an operations office where her report might be processed. But she was not able to leave until she agreed, once again, to follow all security procedures including not approaching Patron or any Transom executive without permission. She agreed, her fingers rubbing the tender spot in the center of her breastbone where the large armored fist had slammed into her.

Fortunately, she was able to find the Operations office without her forgotten AI. Unfortunately, the area was devoid of people.

Cyn realized it had been a big mistake to leave her AI behind, but she was unwilling to take the time to fetch it and miss the chance to report and get some information. She slipped into a chair within the empty office and waited. No one returned.

The room was cold and it did not help that she had chosen a short, almost skimpy, summer dress. She crossed her legs, pressing her thighs tightly together and then wrapping her calves close as well. Finally, in an effort to warm herself, Cyn wrapped her arms around her knees. She felt silly and uncomfortable but closed her eyes for only a moment.

But that was enough for her tired body to fall asleep and whisk her consciousness far away from Transom Dome.

Edwyrd

“Looks like your women need some refreshers, Eddie!” the voice mocked.

Ed pulled his head out of virtual space and its sea of reports and dashboards. He was seated in a chair, his black Transom security uniform matching his visor and boots. He looked over as the men spilled out of the executive conference room and some of them walked his way. His eldest brother being one of them.

Ed did not stand as Steve approached; years of anger management therapy had helped him realize that standing to face a tormentor was a trigger, it emphasized his shorter stature and threatened him. Ed didn’t like to be threatened.

Instead, he remained sitting and inspected the group of executives as they dispersed. Steve was not an executive, but somehow had found a way to gain access to the restricted meeting, a fact which annoyed Ed.

Walking ahead of Steve, was Patron, a large, powerfully built man, their biological father. Steve was taller than average and with them was another executive, a man from Techview who was also tall. The sight of the larger men descending on him fired another round of triggers but he remained seated and fought it off.

Ed ignored the comment and instead confirmed the identify of the tall, white-haired man. He was Tym Matheson, a member of Transom-Techview’s Strategy and Corporate Relations division, an executive. It was rare to find a Techview executive in the third city. Perhaps he was here to oversee Steve, a thought that made Edwyrd smile. Steve did not enjoy being taught.

Steve stood before him, awaiting a response. And Edwyrd knew the origin of the jibe. Some damn asset, fresh off the train from Techview, had tried to barge into that meeting, an executive meeting. She was Transom, but still it looked bad, fortunately one of his men had intervened, took her to the brig and read her the riot act. No harm, no foul. BUT, and it was a big but, Ed had not known about this visitor and it was his job to know such things. Nothing bugged him more than information withheld.

He stood, walked past his brother, toward Patron. His father looked miffed, an expression which had become common place in recent weeks. But screw it, Ed couldn’t care less about the mood of the head of operations, this was a security matter.

“Patron, why did we not know about this import help from Techview? None of the proper procedures were followed, if we had been briefed, the asset would have been properly on-boarded…I should have been informed and if it happens a second time…”

“Later,” Patron dismissed the complaint and walked on.

Ed watched him go and looked annoyed, an expression which came naturally but in the last year he had learned to manufacture it when needed and he did so now. In truth, the brush-off did not bother him, his father was not the sort who needed to be clubbed over the head, he would understand Ed’s point even if he did not agree with it and now he knew Ed’s position on the matter. Patron may be the head of operations but Edwyrd was the Deputy of Security and did not answer to anyone in ops. Patron had heard the threat, his response meant that it was a one-off or that Patron would come and explain. Ed’s preference was that he do both.

“Is this import another supposed example of Techview know-how?” Steve raised his voice, following Patron, “Or is she here due to a presumed local loyalty?”

Patron grunted, walking off. Steve did not try to catch him, but pretended that he somehow received a satisfactory response and turned back toward his little brother.

“We’ll let you in when it’s time, Eddie,” Steve explained.

Bullshit. Ed simmered and fought to keep his anger in check. A year ago, he would have concluded that Steve was intentionally provoking him. But he had changed his view; now he realized that Steve only occasionally provoked, that Steve really believed his own crap, his own lies.

“See Eddie?” Steve continued, “Patron hates it when it looks like things are not running smoothly and your little security mistake will keep his blood pressure up for weeks now. You really need…”

“Stop calling me Eddie, brother,” Ed spat coldly.

“Why, I’ve always called you…”

Brad, the middle of Patron’s three sons, the peacemaker, approached with his signature warm smile. If not for Brad, the family may have already destroyed itself, especially after the death of their mother.

Brad looked Ed in the eye, trying to gauge his mood and Ed gave him a wink, promising not to start anything. Then he turned back to Steve.

“By the way, how did you get in that meeting, Steve?” Ed demanded, “Executives only, right? Dreams don’t count.”

“Patron wanted my advice,” Steve replied.

There it was, Ed realized. This statement irked him, but Steve was not provoking. He believed it. Still for whatever reason, Patron has somehow been persuaded to allow Steve in, despite his own rules against non-executives. But why? Did Steve actually have something on Patron? On the head of operations?

Now, in the back corner of his mind, for the first time in his life, Edwyrd Harilla, Deputy of Transom Security in New Berlyn, considered that his elder brother was dangerously flawed, a threat, in multiple ways, perhaps fatally flawed.

“I’m hungry, let’s get to dinner,” complained Brad who headed off, leaving the remaining brothers to follow.

“So,” Steve began, switching topics, and looking at Ed as they walked. “What happened to that little girl you were hanging out with? Abril?”

Now he was simply being provocative, Ed decided as he responded. “She asked too many questions about work. I don’t like that. I warned her.”

“It’s even more dangerous in corporate relations but you don’t see me complaining. You have to learn how to handle curious females.” Steve replied.

“You might be underestimating how much your so called corporate contacts are learning from you…” Ed hit back.

“It’s called strategy and corporate relations for a reason, Eddie,” Steve schooled him.

Ed decided that Steve was not provoking him by calling him ‘Eddie’. He was in his teaching mode and in that role, everyone was a child to Stephen Harilla.

“Keeping our enemies close is part of the job…” Steve concluded his instruction.

Agreed brother, Edwyrd thought darkly.

At dinner, the conversation was dominated by Steve’s theories of current business affairs. His babbling seemed to tire even Patron who resigned himself to fuming, picking at his food and waiting for Steve’s tongue to tire.

“Who is this Matheson?” Ed spoke up. He was actually curious but he also realized it would put Steve on the defensive.

“Techview is more than a little impressed with our successes,” Steve replied, without even the smallest hesitation. “They want to observe how we are doing things in Strategy.”

“Is that right, Patron?” Ed asked, suppressing a smirk.

A younger Patron might have laughed, or smiled, Ed realized. But this one was tired or sick of it. Or both.

“He is an adviser,” Patron grunted, “he will make recommendations when his time here is over. If we are to surpass the First City, we have to learn from their strengths.”

Steve laughed. It made no sense to him.

Ed considered. An adviser? An observer? It seemed strange that Techview would send one of their own executives. Perhaps he had another purpose. Perhaps he was a spy.

The Asset from Techview

When dinner was over, most of the staff scurried off; Patron, Tym Matheson and Lysander Barrett headed off for another meeting leaving the three Harilla brothers to themselves. Ed theorized that Steve would have tried to tag along with the heavy-weights except that he himself had arranged a corporate social, an outing with members of another company, the kind of thing that Steve always justified as ‘corporate relations’. It was the type of event Ed would normally avoid but Brad insisted it would be fun.

“I need to drop by the office before we leave,” Brad explained and Ed changed direction and led them toward Brad’s office. As the trio rounded the corner Ed slowed to a stop.

Seated in a lone chair, outside the office, was a young woman, jet black hair, olive skin, her long lashed eyes closed gently, her lips pursed. She was asleep.

What the hell? Ed fumed. His AI had not received any pings, so her AI was either off or, worse, discarded. He knew this person, this asset. And now he realized that Steve had intentionally not told him who it was that had crashed Patron’s meeting. Ed hated these types of surprises.

“Oops, I guess I should have put up a notice that the office was closed for the day,” Brad spoke and then he whispered, “Remember her, Eddie? Is she the one who tried to break into Patron’s meeting?”

Ed realized that Brad recognized her as well. They all knew her from a long time ago, from corporate training.

“Hellooooo Cynnamon C334,” Steve spoke loudly to the asset from his vantage point. Naturally he remembered her, he even remembered her ID.

When they were younger, Steve bragged that he had an eidetic memory, able to instantly recall pieces of information including people he had met. It was much later before Ed actually believed he had that ability. But today he had yet another theory on the subject: that Steve made such a huge deal about what little he could remember that people discounted the rest. However, he was correct on who this was as Ed had just checked her ID through his AI.

In response to the voices, the girl rustled in her chair, and suddenly her eyes snapped open. Like cornered prey she held motionless, as if the three men would not see her any longer and just walk away. Her hands grasped the arms of the chair as she examined them carefully, looking first at Steve, then at Brad and finally at Edwyrd.

“Hello,” she began, her voice uncertain, “I guess I remember you. Patron’s sons?”

It wasn’t a question. She knew who the hell they were.

“Staff dinner is weekdays at 17:00 promptly. It’s mandatory,” Ed barked, unable now to contain himself. But it was the issue of the AI that really irked him. First she approached Patron directly, now she was flaunting standard security protocols. Already she reminded him of Steve, always pushing boundaries.

“Back from Techview after all these years,” Steve spoke as if narrating a story. “Cynnamon C433. Have you come to spy on us? To report back to your Techview masters?”

“What?” Cyn stood up, her face flustered. The thin fabric of her dress rustled along her tanned and toned thighs. Ed ignored that, although he was sure the others were already taking in her curves, especially Brad who adored the fairer sex. This asset had always been a beauty, most hospies were, and the years had seasoned and highlighted her looks, a complex blend of beauty and corporate professionalism even in the simple dress. Her hair was long, black and silky but tied back. Her eyes were large and dark, sparkling with gold. She looked like the hospies that some men kept on the side, or who danced in cages. Ed couldn’t help remember his anger and jealousy when she was sent off to Techview all those years ago. And now she was back. Marvelous.

“You made such a big deal about leaving us for Techview, very surprising that you would come back,” Ed huffed.

“I thought Patron called her down here,” Brad replied diplomatically, already protecting a damsel in distress. “Anyhow, was she this stunning before? Have you been visiting our friends at Humantis, Cynnamon?”

“I don’t see much difference, Brad,” Steve smiled unpleasantly, “perhaps she picked up some kilos from all those decadent Techview meals.”

“Wow!” Brad fawned, “when I am Patron, I want five wives who look just like her.”

Both Steve and Ed burst out laughing. Brad had as much a chance of being Patron as a butterfly.

Meanwhile the girl just looked at them as if she was watching a Q-ball match.

“Well, Cynnamon,” Steve began, “I’d think that over the years you would have taken advantage of some Humantis procedures. You can get significant discounts here, I know because I negotiated them. Your look was always so one-note, have you considered rainbow hair or variable breasts? They have proven negotiating bonuses.”

“I don’t know what to say. Thank you all for your comments.”Her voice was overly cool and controlled. It irked Edwyrd even though he was sure she was angry. Did she know where she was? She was the one who had already broken multiple rules…

“We are late already,” Steve huffed before turning and exiting without a parting word. That left the other two brothers to follow.

Brad, the white knight, apologized that the office was closed and promised that he would return in the morning. He waved the girl a goodbye and left Ed with her.

Ed hesitated. He was unhappy with this whole thing. He didn’t want to yell but neither did he want to walk away, to back off. And he didn’t want to look her in the eye and that fact infuriated him.

“You don’t even have your AI with you,” he blurted, “It’s a red flag to security. Besides, no one could find you if it were needed. It’s a violation. Rules have reasons, you could at least study up on them. It’s not like you…”

“Ed!”

He let his brother’s call pull him out of lecture mode. It was enough, he turned and left her.

Cyn

Cyn yanked the hem of her dress in frustration. Stupid! She had taken a lax attitude toward these people after the ‘Oz’ comment and had made mistake after mistake. Even if they were indeed a city of animals, it was what they thought of themselves which was the key to navigating their procedures, completing her assignment and getting the hell out. There. She had said it. Getting the hell out.

Rather than making any progress on her assignment or unblocking her security she had managed only to alienate every Transom officer she had met, including the very mercurial and dangerous sons of Patron. The girl who had fled New Berlyn all those years ago was a genius compared to the one who had returned.

She flew off the chair, to her feet, and walked quickly down the hallways, navigating her way back to the lobby. She needed to return to her room, collect her AI, and formulate a plan…and get some sleep.

Upon reaching the lobby, she found it was dark and empty with only the sound of the waterfall to fill the large hall. Pur was long gone, her station abandoned. A couple whispered quietly in a corner and their presence reassured her so rather than head directly for her quarters,and end this awful day, Cyn walked toward the entrance instead.

Cyn reached the end of the hallway to stand in front of two massive doors which formed the main entrance. She looked out through the thick, heavy glass.

Transom Dome was dark except for the flashers of moving vehicles in the distance. The twilight sky was red and angry beyond the slow rotation of the dome. Two specks of light flashed where something had struck the dome wall, perhaps a propelled piece of wood or an unfortunate bird. The entry arch was dark, its display of bravado muted for the night.

After a minute, Cyn turned back toward the lobby and gasped. A man stood right behind her, seemingly appearing out of thin air, his small eyes locked onto her. She recognized the man. It was Lysander Barrett, the executive director of Transom Security.

“You startled me,” she murmured, fighting the urge to take a step back.

“If you were wearing your AI then you would have known I was here. Perhaps you don’t wish to be identified…”

“I still have implants. You would know where I was.”

“We have better things to do than scan the property for implants. Or the baggage.”

Cyn hoped that she could keep from alienating yet another person this day, and this one was an executive.

“I apologize, I mistakenly left my room without my spectacles and made a poor choice in trying to speak to Patron. I have been unable to get back to my quarters since. I was just on my way.”

The man continued to stare, without responding.

Cyn continued. “My security is blocked. I can’t even leave the grounds. Virtual as well.”

The man continued to glare at her, but now he blatantly looked at her up and down and, once again, Cynnamon regretted her casual choice in dress. She resisted the urge to tug at the hem of her dress, to cover as much of her thigh as possible.

“Is there anything you can do about it?” Cyn prompted.

“Principle of minimum privileges. Until Patron finds a use for you, there is no need for you to go anywhere.”

“But I was summoned here? From Techview.”

Barrett shrugged. “That may be, but it’s Patron’s affair, not mine.”

“And I need to report on arrival. It’s required. That is why I tried to…”

“You aren’t even ops here. You may have been in Techview, but not here. Not now. Admittedly, your position is most unusual and most vulnerable.” His eyes drifted up to meet hers once again and he casually grasped her wrist and held it tight. “You could attend to some personal matters for me. You would be protected, of course, but you should know that I like it rough.”

Cyn’s eyes widened but she did not try to pull back or shrug off his grasp. She was not ready to react and would not telegraph her response.

“You refuse to help me with a security issue, but instead you suggest some sort of private arrangement? That’s it?”

“That’s it,” he concluded for her. “You’ll discover that I sent a location link for my quarters, if you ever find your AI.”

With that, he dropped her wrist and walked away.

Cyn massaged her wrist and watched Barrett go. After a while she followed him, slowly, taking care that he had entered an elevator and the doors had closed before she hurried through the lobby to the basement stairs.

Back in her room, she locked the door behind her, checked her marks and then ripped through her bag to find a warm robe. She looked for a way to bar the door but found none.

Before falling asleep, Cyn had some time to plan. But the only plan she could formulate was to get up early and go straight to the operations office so she could report what she had seen…and try to find out why she was here.

[]Third Techview Interlude

Carla

Carla tossed her long fire-red hair as they stepped into the elevator. She ignored the lurch in her stomach as the cabin dropped and furtively watched the young man who had accompanied her.

It was strange, this feeling of awkwardness between two people who had been great friends and teammates for years. It had been only a week since they had last spoke and somehow it seemed much longer as if now they were different people and moving in opposite directions. Perhaps it wasn’t the time but the perception of a barrier between them.

The elevator opened and they walked into the room, immediately escorted by large, hulking humanoid forms, encased in black armor from head to toe, the face plates were the only thing through which one could view anything human and even those visages where stern and determined. Somehow Carla could not help but think it was overkill.

They were in a basement room, artificial sunlight streamed from somewhere in the folds of the ceiling and the room was filled with plants. She had heard that Mother was obsessed with flora but never expected to see any sign of that first-hand.

And there she was, a short woman, dressed in black, her pale face framed by straight reddish hair, not nearly as striking nor as full as Carla’s own but suddenly the young hospie felt a connection although Carla knew it was dangerous to feel familiarity with a stranger.

James looked over at her and nodded in another direction and Carla followed the direction of his gesture and gasped. There was another ‘Mother’ attending to a different plant and still another who was watching them with an amused smile.

“Greetings assets,” one Mother remarked with a nod and a gesture from her AI glove. The armed guards, in unison, raised evil looking weapons, held them firm and then went black and still from head to toe, like statues. Perhaps the one who had spoken to them was the real Mother?

But another one spoke, without turning to face them, as it sprayed liquid onto the large, colorful leaves of a tree.

“Do you know why you are here?” purred the woman.

“This is about Cynnamon, correct?” Carla stated adding the indication of a question only as a hedge on her bet.

“Are you asking me?”

“I am pretty sure, Mother. Am I wrong?”

“That is really your guess?” Another one turned toward them. The trio of Mothers was starting to unnerve Carla. “That I, the head of the most powerful branch of Transom Industries in any of the Four Joyas, took time out of my hectic day to meet with some pieces of corporate baggage in order to discuss yet another piece of property?”

“It is my best guess, Mother.”

Carla got a kind of strength from saying the name. She prided herself in being able to handle her betters whether they be employees, executives or even Mother. Besides, Mother had a reputation for efficiency and an abhorrence of time-wasters, Carla doubted she would punish them for answering a question, even incorrectly.

“I actually have a sneaky affection for you chattel,” another Mother called as she drizzled liquid vitamins on a cactus. “You assets tend to speak when spoken to and seldom do you try to bullshit me, which shows good sense on your part.

My employees, on the other hand, have so many angles, so many aspects to their agenda, a promotion for themselves, favors for a friend, strategic horizontal moves, it goes on. But with the likes of you? The possibilities are considerably less. I feel like I understand you, usually.”

Two of the ‘Mothers’ approached the pair, each from a different side. Carla and James stood straight and faced the one who was currently addressing them.

“Tell me, how are you finding your new ops teams? Your current teammates seem satisfied with each of you, so what do you have to say?

Carla did not say anything but she could almost feel James’ mental look toward her. He was articulate and well-spoken, but these was dangerous waters and she was the hospie, the diplomat, he would defer to her, no doubt. But what would she say?

Since the departure of Cyn and Trent, their small team was broken. Carla had been reassigned to a larger group, a crew of older, experienced and stubborn, dinosaurs. They pulled in consistent commissions but the individual shares were much smaller than when she had been with Cyn and James. At this rate, she would be in her forties before her debt would be paid and she would hardly ever see her younger sisters unless they entered Sponsorship as well.

Carla stared ahead, fighting the anger. It was clear that Mother knew what she was asking.

She jumped when a voice hissed in her ear:

“I expect anssswersss to my questionsss” the stern voice of a Mother-clone spat.

“The work isn’t as challenging and the commissions are lower but everyone on my team knows their job and is dedicated.” James offered.

Not a bad response, thought Carla. But it would be a waste of Mother’s time. She had intentionally provoked them and expected them to take the bait.

“Which is why I asked about our former teammate, I was hoping she would return and you would rebuild our former team,” Carla spoke again to the central Mother.

“Of course you would,” declared a triumphant Mother. “Your commissions are a fraction of what they once were. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that I am not aware of that.”

I will never under-estimate you again, Carla fumed to herself.

Another mother turned and spoke up, lessening the tension. “What do you think of my clones? Is it disconcerting to have to face more than one of me?”

“Are they really clones, Mother?” Carla asked.

“Of course not!” the one near her spat again.

“And you’ll both learn the true meaning of regret should you repeat what you have seen or heard here!” warned another.

Mother continued. “It is a little experiment. Tell me, what worries you more, to be in a room with several autonomous versions of myself…”

“Or the prospect that they are all part of the same being?” The other finished.

“That reminds me a little of Daneel,” James began.

“Exactly a topic I wish to discuss,” approved Mother.

Carla relaxed, although disappointed in herself. James was doing well without her help, was she overly cautious? Mother continued, now turning away from them.

“Daneel Tech, corporate power which has built nearly seventy percent of all artificial intelligence units in Las Joyas. By their products, our vehicles and hugger trains find their way, our AI units see the world in new ways, enhancing our minds, providing the information we need to function. I, myself, carry three of their devices wherever I go.”

“And they allow us to communicate with each other, by the implants in our…” James began easily, his fear of Mother apparently subsided.

“Right on track, James!” mother jumped in, “May I call you James? As you assets lack surnames, I do not have much of a choice but to be familiar,”

“Unless you prefer ‘Asset D-3-T-twelve’,” hissed the unhappy version of Mother from behind them.

James smiled boyishly, “As you wish, Mother.”

“Good lad, James,” Mother continued. “As I was saying, Daneel was…is one of the most successful and most powerful companies of our day, and was easily the most admired even over SkyTran…until last year.

Then, seemingly overnight, they began to change. Gone was the interest in corporate domination and the drive to sell as many units as possible. Instead, they focused on a series of personal growth initiatives, they began to openly speak about their desire to evolve into something new, a hive of completely connected human minds, sharing experiences in real time. More recently, they started to wear the strange masks and to speak in plural, as ‘we’ rather than ‘I’.”

“We met one of their agents,” James began. “His face was covered with a shiny, metallic plate which displayed his face if you will. As he spoke to us, the projection changed, blending into a stream of faces, even as it mouthed words and changed expressions. I have never seen anything like it. It was like we were speaking to multiple people.”

“Precisely, that is exactly what those displays are meant to indicate – the Daneel members who are active in the entity.”

“But behind the mask, it was still a person, a person with a sophisticated AI unit built into its face plate, probably a form of AI visor,” James continued.

“Incorrect. Now you are swimming in waters that cannot sustain you, James. You are aware that your friend Trent has joined Daneel?”

Carla nodded, her face dark. They had been told. But did Mother know about her relationship with Trent?

“And you are aware that Cynnamon was present during that transfer? At their strict request?”

“What?” Carla blurted, shocked. She turned her head towards James, long enough to be sure that he was also surprised before turning back to Mother.

Yes, she had been surprised to hear of Trent’s defection, it came just as she was realizing that he had used her, used them all. And they had been told about Cyn’s sudden reassignment to New Berlyn. That had hit Carla even harder, they had not parted on the best of terms and she did not get the chance to say good bye.

But she had never, in her wildest dreams, imagined that Cyn had been present when Trent went over. Trent hated Cyn, why would he bring her?

“Surprised?” Came a chorus of Mothers, who were carefully watching the two assets. “Good. You should be, unless somehow your intelligence rivals my own. But now I have reason to share this fact with you both.

Daneel, apparently in retaliation for our early appropriation of one of their assets, as you may remember, demanded one of our assets in exchange, as payment. But, strangely, they insisted that Cynnamon be present. That was a mystery in itself, until I learned that Trent had incited them against us and in particular against her, for reasons of his own.

That made my decision easy. I gave them Trent, of course, what would we want with a traitor? They accepted him as redress to the perceived wrong and good relations between the two companies has been restored.”

“But…why did they want Cyn to be present?” James asked the question on Carla’s lips.

“Isn’t it obvious, James? They planned to take them both. They told me as much when the meeting was under way. They have a great need for converts now, especially as their recent peculiarities has hindered their ability to attract new recruits.”

“Cyn isn’t with Daneel. I saw her get on the shuttle for New Berlyn, she told me…” James muttered.

Suddenly one of the Mother’s appeared at his side and looked him straight in the eye.

“Tell me, what did she say? About Daneel.” It demanded.

“Nothing, she said nothing about Trent or anything,” James explained. “Only that Mother was sending her to New Berlyn…and she was not sure if she would be able to return. She seemed tired and sad.”

The room was silent as Mother’s clones mulled about.

“You think Cyn is a double agent!” replied Carla in awe.

The clones paused and one of them turned.

“Make sure neither of you repeat that conjecture. But I am suddenly convinced that it is very important to know why Daneel allowed her to leave. They are not going to tell me but you are her friends, you have a vested interest in where she is and when she will return. Officially, I have kept you in the dark about her, but I can’t help it if you are anxious to find out more.

You might even approach Trent. Find out what happened, ignore your team assignments, pretend that you are consumed with finding out what happened to your friend. Be convincing. I want to know what happened. If I am pleased, who knows, I may restore you to your former…productivity.”

[]The Borderlands

Raiders

Agnetha crept over to the wall of a deep, damp, furrow in the ground which cut through the earth of the rim of the valley. She pressed her boot toe into the firm soil and nodded her head, appreciatively. This formation provided needed shelter from the storms while a nearby ravine siphoned off the water which normally would have flooded the ground on which she was standing.

But although the banks of the furrow blocked the winds, protecting them, it was not passable, blocked by a thick tangle of vines, vegetation and fallen trees. Thus their progress down and into the next valley was slow. They were careful to cut just enough room for their vehicle to pass, making minimal changes, loathe to leave a sign that could be noticed from the air. She could hear the hacking sound of machetes as she climbed the bank, the wind starting to whistle in her ears.

Agnetha greedily breathed in a rough gust of fresh, cool, air. It was a welcome change to the dry, acrid smoke from their minimal-light fires. She peered out, into the valley, letting the weight of her body counterbalance the air pressure which played at sucking her out. The valley was full of thick, dark, swirling clouds but she saw nothing moving that opposed the storm.

She removed a field glass from the folds of her protective coat and pressed it to her face, sweeping its view across the valley. But there was no sign of the flying eel. She knew that it is not an animal, that it was some sort of machine, she could tell that from the unnatural white-bluish sparkle which smoldered from its belly. But she could not fathom how it was able to move through the air so easily. Even small birds labored against Maltiempo and she had seen more of those creatures dashed against rocks and trees than she could count. But this mechanical eel moved as if it were on a track rather than flying through the turbulent airs. Whatever it was, she had not seen it tonight.

She was disappointed but also puzzled. The eel’s movements were too regular for hunting or foraging; it seemed to have a schedule but did not follow the same path, as if it intentionally changed path simply for the sake of doing so. It was almost as if it were frightened of something.

But without a new sighting, they would continue across this valley, in the direction of the last siting.

She thought they were getting close and their cargo was still healthy and full, having not lost even one to sickness, escape or an ‘accident’ with any of the men. Agnetha had been clear with them about that.

But she took a moment to daydream about what the owners of the eel might look like and what they might do for her in exchange for her cargo. Perhaps they might give her an eel of her very own.

Edwyrd

“She’ll kill you, Eddie,” the voice echoed in his dream. He hit her over and over again, but the empty, blank look in her dark eyes returned again and again. Her body dropped to the ground only to bounce back up again like a balloon, forcing him to strike her once more.

But he was tiring, each punch seemed to sap his strength and now he wanted desperately to run away.

“Put her down, Eddie! If she gets up, it will be the end of you.”

Edwyrd Harilla woke, alone in his chamber, his skin cold and slippery, his bed-shirt wet. He wiped at his skin as he checked the time. It was still too early to rise but also too late to have any real hope of sleeping again, so he rose.

Ed splashed cold water on his face and considered his goals for the day. There was a scheduled border patrol he had insisted on leading, though now he regretted that decision. He had to go, he was the one who had raised the objections after reviewing the reports from previous missions, so he had to make sure the corrections were made.

Barrett had balked but Ed insisted, telling him ‘You can’t make someone Deputy Security Officer and not expect them to make changes’. In the end, Barrett agreed but with conditions. He would have to take some assets to beat up. Corporate saw it as a great way to punish performance stragglers while promoting ‘job enthusiasm’ for the rest. Fine. It should be a straightforward albeit long and tedious assignment; they shouldn’t get too many bumps or bruises.

He dressed quietly, the phantom of the dream returning to haunt him. It was one which had visited him many times over the years, though not recently. And it should be obvious to him why it had returned, the elephant in the room. Only Steve had alluded to it the previous day: ‘You’ll have to deal with it. It’s your monkey’.

Ed arrived early, pleased to see a couple of his men already there, eating and equipping for the assignment. Smart men, it would be a long day and nourishment was not a luxury in this case.

Stym arrived next, a hulking giant, seven feet tall and a chest as big as a tree. Steve had gone out of his way to counsel Ed not to antagonize the huge veteran but that only made Edwyrd more annoyed even though he knew that might be his older brother’s intent.

Ed sighed. He knew he needed to be less pessimistic, to give them a chance to follow the damn procedures without automatically assuming they would not. But he knew they wouldn’t and that was why he had to be here.

“Hey Stym,” Ed nodded.

“Deputy,” Stym smiled easily over his shoulder and opened his locker, leaving Ed to ponder the meaning behind the smirk, if there was one.

It was the ambiguous smile your buddy might flash when he saw you with a new girl. It might mean ‘congratulations on doing something right’, or it might be a congratulations on getting away with something. Greeting Edwyrd as ‘deputy’ had the same ambiguity. It might be respectful or it might mean that Stym felt the promotion had more to do with Ed’s father than Ed himself.

“Okay,” Ed spoke plainly, raising his voice so that everyone could hear him. “Let’s go over the assignment now so you’ll know what to expect later; I wouldn’t skip this meal if I were you,” he added as he stepped easily into the center of the room and looked around quickly to make sure he had their attention. “This patrol will be longer than any similar assignments in which you participated. We are going to start following the book on all of these border patrols so I want to make sure you all know what that means…”

As he spoke, he located one of the assets which Barrett had assigned. The man looked worried. Ed wondered where were the other two.

Camera F17

Cyn’s eyes opened. She was lying on her back and the air was cold on her exposed legs. Her eyes found dark, hard, surfaces above her, on her right and at her feet. It was as if she had been stuffed into a shelf. As she watched, the lights brightened gradually but it was too early for her alarm.

An LED light flashed, first from one location in her quarters and then from another; she recognized that phenomena. Her AI units, the spectacles on the desk and the visor on her shelf had received an important notification and were signaling her and bringing up the lights. They would become more insistent if she did not get up.

She slipped out of the bed chamber and grabbed the more comfortable AI visor. Even as she brought it towards her head, it was communicating with sensory implants which had been placed inside her skull, wrapped around her optic nerve. It was a procedure all assets had to endure, even as a thirteen year old girl.

The unit was waking as well and, as if sure that it would soon be on her head, was already pulling her preferred data feeds although most of were blocked. She focused on the notifications.

Itinerary has changed.

AI upgrade available.

She ignored the upgrade and opened her itinerary, and frowned. She had been assigned to Transom Security for the day, the entire day. Starting in 20 minutes. But she knew hardly anything about security, what would they want with her? Then her mind flashed to her encounter with Barrett and she felt sick, was this some sort of punishment?

In a sudden leap of fantasy, she imagined sending a message to James and Carla who would assemble a team, jump on a hugger train, and retrieve her from this hell hole. It was a nice fantasy, of course she couldn’t even send a message and she was wasting time with her daydream. She could be penalized for arriving late to an assignment. She changed into a dark jumpsuit and some walking boots.

Cyn was directed to a room on the first floor of Transom House where she found a group of security officers talking among themselves. There was some breakfast, thankfully, and an equipment locker. Her AI surveyed the room and found that most were Transom Security but she also found two hospitality assets. She also noticed that only the officers were being equipped with the high tech stibnite armor, the assets were assigned only weather suits. They must be leaving the Domes.

“They get better equipment, but we’ll do all the work. This is my second behavioral ‘correction’ assignment,” one of the hospies confided to her over a quick breakfast. So she was correct, this was some sort of punishment.

She reviewed the assignment. It was a ‘Border Sweep and Repair’ task and would take most of the day. The high level procedures were written by Lysander Barrett, and she was relieved to note that Barrett was not heading the effort. Then she saw who was leading it: Edwyrd Harilla, the most temperamental and mercurial of Patron’s sons. Almost on cue, she heard his voice emanate from within a group of security officers. Already, he did not see pleased. But what could she do?

Cyn walked over to a locker and retrieved a weather suit. She would have to strip down to her undergarments like the other men and although she supposed she could find a private corner for that purpose, she decided that she didn’t care enough. With her back to the rest, she dropped her outer clothes and began donning the weather suit. When she had finished, she placed her personal possessions into a locker keyed to her AI.

Upon turning back towards the group, she found one of the officers standing near by, watching her, eyes unblinking. She looked at him only long enough to see if he actually wanted something and turned away when she decided he did not.

Having monitored the various conversations while changing, she now decided that she needed to watch the growing argument between Edwyrd and another officer.

When they were younger and in school, Ed had been known for his volcanic temper and his persistent grudges. She already felt sorry for whoever was the target of his anger. While she watched and listened, she began to peruse the assignment procedures. While technology had failed her, her omnaudience had not.

The voices of Ed and a corper named Stym were growing louder and the other hospies were becoming apprehensive while the other officers seemed unconcerned. From what Cyn could tell, Ed had been laying out basic strategy for the mission but Stym was unhappy with the time it would take. Stym was a huge man; while sitting he was still almost eye to eye with the standing deputy.

“It’s standard procedure, Stym. You know that. And I expect that everyone else knows it as well.” His voice was controlled but she could hear the growing menace and she imagined his eyes becoming deadly black pools.

Cyn had almost completely digested the operational procedures attached to her assignment, straightforward although a bit wordy, nothing compared to some of the tomes she had to evaluate for some ops assignments.

“No one does it that way, Ed,” Stym responded evenly, almost dismissively. “Those procedures are for the initial scouting of an unknown area, not one that has been swept like a million times.”

“Please don’t tell me that we have been intentionally skipping the initial canvass, for what, years?” Ed huffed, trying to control his annoyance.

“That’s the real world, Mr. Harilla,” Stym replied, his own voice growing as he looked around the room. It was clear that he was now speaking to everyone and by emphasizing Edwyrd’s last name he was also making it clear that he did not care who Ed’s father was.

“Well, reality is going to seem a little different today,” Ed said, also addressing the group, his eyes as dark as coal. “Can you deal with that Stym? Or am I going to have to listen to you whine the whole, long, day?”

It struck Cynnamon that she hadn’t seen this person, the deputy, in ten years and yet his mannerisms were still very much the same. The Edwyrd Harilla she knew was very hard to read, unpredictable and already she was worried that the other man was on very dangerous ground. Surely he would know that…

“You da boss.” Stym said in a plaintive voice. “Of course, it’s my job to provide feedback where needed so we’ll see what happens. Everyone knows I call em as I see em.”

The giant man looked away but Ed did not relent.

“Then clue me in as to exactly how you see it. Under what circumstances would you do a full sector sweep?” Ed inquired.

“Well, if the area is unknown,” Stym began, pausing to emphasize the point further, “in that case we want a complete survey, first thing, and then identify initial camera and sensor locations later.”

“And if it’s not unknown?” Ed countered, his voice challenging.

“Then we just fix the cameras, everyone knows that.”

“Not correct,” Ed blurted and he looked around the room. “Who knows why we have to do a full survey each time and every time…” His eyes were like death rays sweeping over each person. Mercifully, he did not even look at the assets, Cynnamon was standing behind the two male hospies.

“It is to..as he said…to survey the area.” An officer spoke up but he quickly shut up at Ed’s glare.

“I already know the wrong answer,” the deputy announced, “now I’m looking for the correct one, the full reason and at least one of you better know it…”

He was shaking his head, slowly and angrily when Cyn spoke up. Her voice was firm and articulate, as if she were rattling off the most basic Techview protocol.

“The sector is supposed to be secured every time in case previous activity has attracted hostiles. If a sensor was located, it is reasonable to assume it might be under surveillance, therefore a survey sweep should be done before each and every operation.” She was reading Barrett’s words almost verbatim, and why not? No one was saying anything and Ed was ready to blow a fuse. Cyn hated vacuums and besides, she needed Harilla to back off her, to not make her life a living hell.

The youngest son of Patron looked over at her, his face frozen in annoyance as he seemed to process who she was and what she had just said. Then he looked away.

“Really?” Ed huffed, some of his anger dissipating. “This lipstick wearing asset is the only fucker who knows our procedures?” He looked around at the others, staring down each of his men. Then he looked back at her and barked. “Tell me, Miss Techview, how the hell do you even know this? Does the ‘Worst City’ enforce their borders with hospies?”

I am not a hospie, she thought, but this was not the time to protest. He was at least giving her a chance to speak rather than just ripping into her and the choice she had made, to grab any opportunity to leave this valley.

“The protocol was attached to the assignment,” she replied, “I just assumed I should read it. Techview has similar procedures…”

“We don’t care how they do things in Techview,” he snapped as he looked again at his men.

“Nobody does that.” Stym muttered.

“Exactly!” Ed sneered before turning back to Cynnamon, his eyes drifting past her as he spoke. “Miss Asset,” Ed started, his anger fading and an unpleasant smile coming to his face. “Where is your damn weapon?”

“I was not assigned one..” she replied, one eyebrow rising.

“Then we’ll have to obtain one from one of those ‘unschooled’ in our procedures,” Ed said simply, looking over at Stym.

“What?” Stym sounded genuinely annoyed now.

“Give her your weapon and show her how to use it. You can stay here and read up on procedures.”

Stym’s face flushed red with anger and he stood, towering over the rest. Ed took a stride toward him and looked straight up and into his face.

“Welcome to the real world, Stym.”

“Okay,” muttered the giant man as he finished attaching the weapon to her left wrist. “You’ll see the targeting cross-hairs in your AI, lined up however you direct it. Notice that the target is gray, means it’s disabled. If Harilla were to enable your weapons, and that won’t happen, it would turn green, indicating that the weapon can be fired manually. If you activate auto-firing, it will turn red, at that point your AI will take every shot it gets the chance. Again, it’s not going to happen but if it did, make sure you know what you are doing.

To emphasize again, it’s disabled now, it cannot be fired. Let’s test that out – why don’t you point it at Deputy Harilla’s head…”

She looked over at Ed. He was busy speaking with one of the other officers.

“I’d rather not,” she replied calmly.

“No? Too bad, you might have found a problem with the software.” Stym laughed loudly.

“You seem to have gotten over your argument with the Deputy?” she mused.

“Argument?” Stym grinned. “You might recall that I didn’t want to spend the whole day doing border patrol with Harilla. So let me ask you, did I get my way?”

Cyn laughed, genuinely. “I see your point.”

Their ‘transport’, to Cyn’s amazement, was the locomotive of an Earth Hugger train. She had never seen one up close not to mention the inside. The vehicle was one and a half stories in height and about double that in length. They entered at the bottom and climbed stairs to the second level where they found a crew compartment equipped with SkyTran Hi-G turbulence chairs.

The safety harnesses were similar to those provided to passengers but these were larger and more sophisticated. She learned the importance of these chairs the hard way. She had been speaking with one of the strapped-in officers and failing to notice that the rest were quickly activating their harnesses. Actually, she had noticed it, but the ride was smooth and she assumed they just were anxious to follow one of Edwyrd’s strange little rituals. But she felt it was more important to gather additional information about the assignment and besides, the Deputy was up front, in the cockpit.

Then her world moved, suddenly, tossing her straight up in the air and the next thing she knew she had landed on the ground, her feet out in front of her, amid a roar of laughter. Then she heard Ed’s voice over her AI.

“This isn’t a Techview cruise, people, this trip gets bumpy. We kick off the acceleration dampers on these survey trips so that little jolt was nothing. Better get in your seat before our next reminder.” Then the audio feed cut off.

Cyn initially began to get to her feet and, thinking better, scrambled for her chair before she could receive a second demonstration.

This ride was unlike her previous two hugger trips. The machine stayed at a lower altitude, moving nimbly among trees and avoiding obstacles. If the train rode higher, she might guess their general direction but in this case she could not, knowing only that they were leaving the valley of New Berlyn and moving into one of the many forbidden, border valleys.

Between the procedures and discussion with crew, Cyn obtained a better idea of what was going on. Both New Berlyn and its surrounding neighbor valleys were monitored with infrared and visible spectrum cameras, mounted at strategic locations throughout each valley. No one told her explicitly what the cameras were meant to see, but in a world of dangerous and evolving storms, it seemed like a good idea to her.

But the harsh wind and rain occasionally destroyed a sensor or diminished its effectiveness; they were designed to be light and easy-to-conceal rather than durable. Thus one goal for the day was to replace destroyed or malfunctioning sensors. Today, they had a list of three such cameras and it would take a couple hours just to locate and swap out these units. But the argument which Edwyrd had made, and apparently won, was that the entire valley should be scouted and surveyed first. That first step would take most of the day.

Cyn did not mind, she found the whole assignment fascinating. Having grown up high on the valley’s edge, she knew it was forbidden to cross the edge, to travel to the adjoining valley. She had seen the edge from afar, but never approached. Thus to see a border land was one thing but to see it from the air was spectacular. She saw water falls of mud, tree canopies floating within giant swamps, bird colonies screeching as they somersaulted through the air, giant swirling storms of leaves and debris and low, black clouds which shimmered with lightning. It was awesome in its destructive power. It was hard to look away.

Finally, they began a scan of the target valley. As the hugger moved along a preset course, the on-board AI scanned sections of the ground below, comparing with previous scans, looking for anything out of the ordinary, and anything which might indicate a human presence. The crew, working in teams, reviewed each discrepancy.

At one point, as they were ascending the wall of the valley, the computer highlighted an area in green. The officers responded with a flurry of activity. She looked over at her partner: a corper named Krystof.

“What is that?” she asked, surprised by the worry in her own voice.

“It’s on the display,” he nodded toward a screen. “That is camera F10. See the status? It’s on the list to replace.”

She had seen the information but didn’t realize what it meant. F10-NS. The NS meant ‘no signal’, it was completely dead. She could see the unit itself brought up on the view screen, a small, dark piece of brownish plastic that blended into the trunk of a tall tree. It was marked off their short list but they wouldn’t replace it until later, after their survey was complete.

Later, as they approached another portion of the valley rim, she saw another green-drawn rectangular area, it was positioned in mid-air. Cyn looked at the display, the AI listed it as F17-XX. Even as she started to ask her partner the meaning of the ‘XX’ code, Edwyrd was speaking to their collective AI.

“Can someone visually confirm that camera F17 is missing?”

“It should be located in a tree,” answered Krystof, “but I have a visual and the tree isn’t there, I can’t tell if it blew over or what til you move closer.”

The hugger ascended and approached. There was a gorge cut into this side of the valley and they rose with the terrain until they found what they were looking for. At the rim of the valley was a stump marking the place where a tree used to be. And the face of the stump was smooth. Whatever had severed the tree from the stump had used a cutting tool and the tree itself was nowhere to be found.

Cynnamon, protected by a weather suit and matching helmet, slowly descended the large gradient of the valley wall, allowing the metal cord, her lifeline, to slide through her harness as she did so. Able to see the stump, she now locked the cord and worker her way over to it. She stared at the rings of wood, it was a clean cut.

Keeping a wide stance against the hill, she turned to inspect the slope below. She saw rocky soil and then a graveyard of foliage and debris. Perhaps the tree had just been cut and it had simply slid down the hill side.

“Find that camera,” the unsettling hiss entered her helmet. The officers had donned their armor which strangely distorted their voices. She could no longer identify who was who, all of their voices sounded like they had changed into snake creatures.

She took off the brake and started to lower herself down. The howling wind abated as she entered the reservoir of debris. It was then that she thought of escape for the first time. She could release the line and scurry into the debris and make her way across the valley. Assuming they did not find her. Assuming the storm did not kill her. It was only a thought.

After a while, she located a thick, long trunk, its end cut cleanly. She magnified the view so that the rest could see as she followed the tree trunk to its canopy and there, on one side, was the missing camera.

“Return with itsssss”, someone hissed again.

She nodded, stowed the unit and started to work her way back up the hill. The roar of the wind returned as she made her way up. She paused, to rest, and took a look up along the slope. There was a black figure at the top, near the location where her line was anchored. It did not move even as she stared at it. She continued.

A lone, armor-covered ranger waited for her as she approached the rim of the hill. The figure was tall and broad, the ebony, armored scales that covered it were jagged, sharp and crystalline. Not a surface you would ever want to touch. The size of the thing put her in mind of Stym, but they had left him behind.

The creature said nothing but simply pointed further up the hill. They walked and found that the ridge in the hill continued down the other side, into the next valley. It stopped her and gestured toward a section in the soil, tracks, the long, heavy marks of a ground tank.

Ssssss They removed the tree to allow their machine to entersssss.

She nodded but said nothing else as they walked to join the others. The other two assets were now armed and she spoke with them.

“Raiders,” one explained, his eyes bright white, “and their vehicle seems heavy, perhaps laden with equipment or soldiers. It is moving in a bad direction, toward New Berlyn. So we have to catch them and stop them.”

The hospie pointed into the large hole cut into the thicket of tangled tree limbs and vines that extended down and into the valley.

“Drones can’t fly there and the space is too small for the hugger…” Overwhelmed, the man looked away and the other spoke.

“They seem to be cutting their way through the ravine, clearing the way for their vehicle as they go. So…we should be able to catch them quickly.”

It is forbidden for us to leave our own valley. Our only death penalty. Thus it is so for those who enter. However, New Berlyn will exempt women…if they can be captured. But all othersssssss…

If you can’t handle the requirement. You can return to the hugger and accept a commission penalty.

There was a pause and the three assets looked at each other. Cyn shook her head, she was not willing to accept what might amount to even another month equivalent in her debt.

The raspy voice entered their helmets from virtual space and she almost gasped as the hugger vehicle lifted off, flickered and seemed to disappear in the twilight. Leaving them alone.

“They have armor but they leave us to do this!” complained one of the hospies.

Cyn brought up her weapon and let her AI attach to it. She saw that the targeting had gone green, it was enabled.

“You should have taken the penalty,” she said simply as she turned and walked into the dark thicket.

The three assets crept through the dark, torn, jungle of destroyed trees, their weapons activated and their AI scanning the path ahead. The two hospies, wary of breaking branches and making noise, started to fall behind. Cyn followed a path of damp, dark soil, it had less obstacles but took her further afield and away from the others.

The AI found a significant, varying, heat source ahead, perhaps a small fire. Now Cyn crept carefully, low to the ground. Beyond the fire, she saw the outline of a building or perhaps a vehicle. And there were some additional heat sources. It looked like people, one curled up near a tree, the other two prone, perhaps sleeping.

It was then that Cyn heard a twig snap, it pierced the darkness and through her thoughts and concentration, freezing her motion. It came from one of the other assets.

Then, through her AI, she saw it happen. The two sleeping forms flew into action, low, like missiles, moving so quickly, they could not be human. They were closing quickly on the two hospies. She heard one of them curse.

Cyn switched her weapon to auto-fire even as she swung her arm toward the motion, the cross hair sliding quickly to catch one of the racing objects and her AI did the rest. She heard the muffled shots and heard the scream of a beast in response. Dogs? Wolves?

She kept her eyes forward even as her arm moved, searching for a second shot. But now the things had reached the assets and their green mixed with the red of her targets and the AI was not finding a clear shot.

Suddenly there was a loud hiss from ahead and the fire dissolved into a dark cloud of smoke and steam. She heard more shots from the assets and a loud squeal.

The smoke from the doused fire drifted quickly toward her, covering her position, but baffling her infrared readings.

A flood light snapped on from ahead, its beam illuminating the location where the assets had stood their ground; it was a strong light and if it had been pointing in her direction, it might have revealed her. She lowered her body within inches of the ground as she swung her weapon forward.

In her AI, the flood light looked like a pink, slowly gyrating, sun as the beam searched for her partners. As her AI found the light source, the targeting cross hairs sliding over it, the AI took two more shots. The flood light dropped and extinguished amid a muffled scream. Now her AI found a new, dimmer target; two more shots and that something crumpled to the ground.

Her intuition was to turn her attention back to the assets and toward anything which might be behind her.

You have backup. Hold position. Shoot as needed. An awful voice insisted, startling her.

She lowered her body as she kept her weapon arm trained ahead. She heard a movement from her rear, something pushing through the foliage, unconcerned about the noise it made. It was growing closer. She kept her position. There was a harsh rushing of air, and whatever it was grunted and was silenced.

Now Cyn now could hear shouts, apparently the rangers had circled around to the front. She heard pops of weapon-fire. A young man emerged from the darkness. He was more like a boy, his chest bare, his hair long and curly, his body so slender she could see his ribs.

Cynnamon tried to take a mental picture of his face, as he ran toward her position, before she fired two shots and he dropped to the ground, his weapon clattered in her direction. Time seemed to stop and she was tempted to think about what she had just done, but she pushed that back down. There would be time later, entire nights perhaps.

Another young man crawled from beneath the strange vehicle, his face also covered with hair. He beckoned to another person, straightened his back and eyed his fallen comrade’s body and weapon. He took a single step toward it when Cyn whistled.

The man looked up and saw her. She shook her head, her cross-hair unwavering on his chest. He raised his arms slowly. Another person crawled out from beneath the vehicle, It was a woman wearing a long, dark coat. She looked questioningly at the man.

They exchanged glances and the man’s eyes led the woman toward Cyn’s position. The woman started to look in Cyn’s direction and then dropped, reaching for the fallen weapon.

Even as the woman started to move, two more shots felled her companion and the woman froze, the cross-hairs now on her.

It was another two minutes before two black rangers appeared.

Stand down.

For once, Cyn was relieved to hear the strange, garbled voice in her helmet. She disabled her weapon and stood up, ignoring the complaints from her muscles. As she watched, bright lights illuminated the area and more black armored security officers appeared, setting about their tasks.

Now that she could see it, the vehicle appeared to be a strange, metal building on top of an old tank chassis.

The woman was bound and secured with a shock tether while the bodies were grouped together. Cyn flinched when each received a precautionary final shot.

The larger trailer portion of the vehicle was opened. To Cyn’s surprise, there were more humans inside. She counted at least ten women, all much younger than the one she had captured, probably in their mid-teens if even that.

Cyn turned away when a guard approached with a weapon. But she heard nothing, not even a scream. When she looked back again the females were simply bound at the wrist and led back to the hugger along with the captive.

“What should I do?” she asked one of the few guards who stood nearby.

The less the better. Already you’ll regret you were even here.

In the next half-hour, the vehicle was searched, stripped and destroyed. The bodies of the dead were also searched and she expected them to be buried. They were, but only after the surgical saws opened them up. Cyn watched as much as she could and then turned away. When she saw a guard leave a shovel unattended, she picked it up and helped with the burials.

On the way back to New Berlyn, she caught the woman in the long coat looking at her, hatred on her face and in her eyes. Perhaps her companion had been a friend, a brother or even a lover. Cyn shrugged, and looked away. The woman had intentionally taken a chance with the man, although he might have died in any case. Cyn was sure that she would remember those she killed much longer than this woman ever would. And the whine of the surgical saws.

The Night Visitor

Cynnamon was exhausted, barely taking the time to check her room before locking the door, crawling into her bedchamber and falling asleep. She did not even power down her AI but simply left it on the desk.

It was in the dead of night when her eyes fluttered, her temple buzzing. Her AI was reaching out to her implants, telling her that they had received information.

The space outside her bed chamber was black, almost too black she thought as she surveyed the room with her eyes, trying to distinguish familiar shapes in the darkness, the outline of the door, the columns of the chamber, the chair, but it didn’t match. There was something else, a black splotch where her mind did not expect it, something large in front of her bedchamber.

Wake

The thing hissed impatiently, like a deadly gas leaking insistently into a room or a venomous snake pushed too far. The eerie voice had a familiar warble within its voice, like a race of creatures from a nightmare. Like the rangers from earlier that day.

Cyn did not react, remaining inert as she tried to make sense of what was happening. Had she dreamed it, a phantasm which reached beyond the borders of sleep? The large form melted forward, closing and she could feel the sheet slide off her body as if it had a will of its own.

I said wake up!

An impossibly cold and hard hand grasped her leg, closing on it like a vice, pulling her. Cyn’s eyes transitioned from slits to wide, frantically opened as she was pulled out of the chamber, her ankle lifted high and her body dropping to the cold floor.

She looked up at the black form which towered over her. How did it get here? Through the door? How? And why? She did not speak or protest, whatever it was, whoever it was, it had its own intentions and she was already relieved it had not crawled into the chamber with her.

Rules have reasons, asset whore! To disobey them is to invite me back!

It sneered as a bright, white beam of light snapped on, emanating from its face and blinding her. Her eyes snapped closed even as it held her bare ankle. Its clutch did more than hold, it hurt, as if its hard skin was made of glass crystals and cold enough to burn.

It lifted her suddenly, even higher into the air, and she gasped in surprise as her head cracked the ground. She saw stars but her ears heard it, the sound of small motors within the entity’s bulk, aiding it. This was no creature from beyond, it was a human wearing a stibnite suit. But she still couldn’t understand who it was or why…

Cyn tried to resist its grasp but doing so felt like needles being pressed into her skin and the muscle underneath. She cried out as she reversed her effort, now pushing the floor with her hands to try to ease the pressure on her wounded ankle.

Do what the hell you are told and nothing else. If I return, I will rip you open from the inside!

In her mind, she could picture the blood now pouring from her ankle, the muscles shredding. She cried out and almost as soon as she did, it dropped her and the light flared. She curled into a ball as her shoulder slammed into the hard floor, tears sparkling in the white light. She pulled her limbs in tightly, to keep it from having anything to grab.

The light cut out, the door opened and closed again.

She reached for her poor ankle and felt blood, slick around the ankle. What the hell had just happened? Right in her room, in Transom House?

She rose and stumbled to the door, locking it. How had it gotten in? She was certain her door was privacy-locked. She turned on a light and wiped the blood from her ankle, the wound was not as severe as it had felt, but it looked awful, the skin had been stripped in a band around her ankle, drops of blood oozing from beneath.

Her mind raced over the encounter, trying to make sense of it. Those words. It had said ‘Rules have reasons’ and her mind sifted through her recent days in New Berlyn. She had heard that phrase before. Then she remembered, on her first day, Edwyrd Harilla had said exactly the same thing to her.

But what really chilled her blood was its parting words, what it promised to do to her, when it returned.

But it had said ‘if I return’. That was a threat and Cyn knew that threatening violence and violence were very different things with very different purposes.

[]Fourth Techview Interlude

James

James waited in queue at the Daneel Tech Service station. His immediate handler, his boss, had given him a strange look when informed that James’ AI unit had failed yet again. In truth, it had taken all night to get the AI glasses to stop working, he had finally used an electromagnetic.

Finally he was directed to cubicle #5. A Daneel representative met with him, a happy, congenial, elderly face projected on the face plate.

“I don’t know what is going on but this is the third time the damn thing has failed,” James feigned exasperation. But what he heard next was not the usual polite technician response.

“Don’t be ridiculous James, these devices do not just break, what did you do, sit on it?”

James smiled.

“Do I know you? Of course I did not sit on it. But I go to the gym and I was lifting…”

“You never workout with your AI anywhere near you,” the woman smiled as she inspected the unit.

“How do…” James began.

“James D3T12, you know who I am.”

“Nope, I don’t recognize the voice.”

“How about now?”

The wizened, wrinkled face projected on the face plate evaporated to be replaced with that of a serious, young man with black hair, arched eyebrows and smooth skin.

“Trent? Is that you? They told us you went over, how’s life buddy?”

“Life?” The entity became motionless and the voice became less of Trent and more of Daneel. “Life is marvelous. And so much more than it was, so much more than you think. This is not my physical body, I am actually one floor above you, inspecting materials in a storage room. But, if I wanted, I could be in SkyTran Dome almost as easily and as quickly as I can say it. Life is great, now that you ask.”

James made some polite conversation before, finally, asking the question that brought him there.

“They broke the team up after you both left, can’t have a team with only two people. So is Cynnamon around?”

“Cyn?”

There was silence. James had pressed the point perhaps too quickly. But if he back burnered it too long, they might be suspicious. It was natural he would ask.

“Cynnamon CC344F…” Trent trailed off, “why would you ask me about her. Why should I even care.”

“We can’t find her. Neither Carla or myself. I didn’t know but apparently Carla and Cyn were close. And…how do I say it…the commissions are crap after you guys left.” There, he had played the Carla card.

“Yessssss”

The face plate went blank and James waited, and began to recite a childhood story in his mind. Something to keep his relaxed. He raised one eyebrow and then he prodded his old friend.

“So, have you seen her?”

The face plate remained blank, a curved mirror, but Trent’s voice returned.

“I was with her…I was to bring her to Daneel, to give her to them. She didn’t know. The last I saw of her she was walking up to some of their agents.

I got nervous. Some of them were coming toward me and it was dark and confusing. And she was singing. It was too strange, I turned and left. Obviously I never made it.”

“Can I speak with her as well?” James started, knowing he might be bluffing too hard.

“Afterwards, not right away, after I had gotten over the transition, I did look for her. But I couldn’t find her..and there was so much to learn, to do, to see. I forgot.”

The thing before James was silent now, still holding the ‘defective’ device in its hands.

“It’s okay if you don’t know what happened to her…but I had to ask…” James continued and then shuddered when a very different voice came back.

“We will tell you only so much James D3T12. We understand your concern for a missing colleague but there are limits to our sympathies. Your friend is not here, we gave her a choice to join us and we honored her decision. You can considerate that a sign of our goodwill and hopes that our relationship with Transom will be strengthened rather than weakened as a result. As for the location of the asset CC34F, we believe she has left the city. You should consult with your own leadership if you want more on her. We will tell you nothing else.”

Redemption Pass

It was called a ‘Pass’ and there were multiple types offered by the Daneel Collective to the members of its hive. All passes allowed a member to, temporarily, put aside the goals of the whole and pursue individual needs. There was a family pass to care for relatives outside of the collective. There was a personal pass which could be used for private reasons. Finally, there was the redemption pass, the only kind encouraged, defined and assigned by the collective itself. For Trent, it would be his first pass of any kind in his relatively short time inside the collective.

He received the assignment immediately after his visit from James and he naturally accepted it right away, not that he had a choice. But he approached it with uncharacteristic enthusiasm and energy, despite the subject of the task, because one day he would request a personal pass and if the collective was pleased with him, it might be granted. There was someone he wanted to speak with…but he would have to wait for that.

As for this mission, he couldn’t see why the collective had any interest in Cyn at all except that probably they regretted not taking her when they had the chance. If they had thought that she could be used to leverage Transom Industries further, they would learn how little Transom valued its assets.

But, he was not threatened by their interest in her either. Recruiting was a priority for the collective and it was especially difficult for them as an entrance requirement was the removal of a large fraction of the human’s face and skull in order to mount the bio-relay device. The idea was especially odious to the vanity of even the most intelligent female, yet another reason they should snapped her up when they had the chance.

Fortunately for the hive, most of the populations of Las Joyas still did not realize the reason for the face plates, they still thought it was a gimmick of some sort. He couldn’t help but imagine the scene, meeting his old friend Cynnamon again, and watching the look on her face when she saw what was behind his face plate. That would wipe that calm smile off her face. He knew he shouldn’t think that way, but he laughed at the thought.

At first Trent believed he would need to travel to New Berlyn for this assignment. That just proved to him how much he still had to learn, that he needed to change his ways of thinking. There was no need for his body to leave Techview, but moving between aspects was not a trivial procedure, not yet. It would actually be the most time-consuming portion of his assignment – transferring to a New Berlyn aspect.

[]Hospie

Cynnamon

Her AI woke her up, the black spectacles still on her face. Her body was sore and her elbows and knees yearned for relief from the cramped position. Slowly, she started the process of unfolding her body from the storage closet where she had hid herself for the night.

Thankfully, none of the building assets had needed to fetch linen or else they might have found her, she thought as she opened the door and first limped then walked the damp, service corridors back to her room. She slipped in quietly and turned her attention to the notification which had woken her; it was an assignment, actually a reassignment.

No! She had been assigned to hospitality services for the day. She sighed and sank onto the bed even as she realized there was not much time, years of asset life made her adverse to assignment penalties and tardiness could trigger one. There would be no time to check in at the Operations office, she would have to do that while on break.

As she hurried for the kitchens, she considered the irony. When she had first joined Transom, they had taken one look at her and pegged her for hospitality. And for that reason they sent her to Techview, where they washed her out as a hospie and sent her to Ops. Now she was back only to be reassigned back to hospitality. The corporate game was not to take away dreams but to lift them high and dash them hard.

On Break

“Hi Pur,” Cyn smiled weakly as she removed her kitchen cap and slipped up to the information desk. Pur was back at the cards again and had them laid out in front of her in a diamond pattern. “Want to tell my fortune for me? I could use some help.”

The young girl looked up and gave Cyn a smile.

“Hi Cynnamon. Well, I already saw you wearing the kitchen cap, so I don’t have to be psychic to know what you were doing today. Why are you working in the kitchen? I thought you were ops?”

“Good question, but I am mostly interested in the future. How about it?”

“Okay!” the young girl said enthusiastically. “Let’s try it out. Choose two cards from the deck. I’ll do a mini fortune for you, the first card will represent your current environment and the second is a peek at your future.”

Cyn grasped at a card but Pur waved her off.

“Cyn! Don’t just pick cards, think about your future first and then choose.”

Cyn nodded, closed her eyes, wishing she could sleep, and reached, her fingers slipping across the desk toward the spread deck of cards, teasing first one and then a second card from the pile. She opened her eyes as Pur flipped one over.

Cyn burst out laughing and then groaned, looking helplessly at Pur who stared intently at what had been revealed. “Is this supposed to be me?”

The picture depicted a nearly-nude woman with long, raven tresses in a light frock, standing near a plain, wooden cot to which her ankle had been chained.

Cyn lifted her hand dramatically and held it to her face.

Pur did not look up.

“Shhhh! Okay, that card is called ‘The Harlot’ but it’s not what you think, well not always. Anyway, yes she is chained to a bed, but do you see what is hanging from her necklace? That is a key, right? A key with a sharp tip! It might be used as a weapon or to unlock her chains or it might be a key to something else, something unknown…do you see?”

Cyn stopped smiling and adopted Pur’s look of concentration.

“Okay, tell me more.”

“She is bound but she has choices, yes? There are ways out within her grasp, see? The Harlot can represent one who can conquer from a point of weakness, who holds the keys to her own destiny.”

“I understand, thank you, I actually feel better now,” Cyn nodded, genuinely interested. “What about my future?”

The next card was flipped over. It showed a great, majestic tree with a huge trunk and many thick, full branches as well as a full canopy of large leaves and fruits of various kinds. But the trunk was split asunder by a thunder bolt, charring its bark black and setting fire to its leaves.

“Is it bad?,” Cyn asked.

“Perhaps, ‘The Strike’ is a powerful card; it is unyielding, undeterred judgment and once started can not be easily stopped. It may represent a transition for you but also for those around you. It is change, violent change.

Coupled with the previous card I would say that you are the instigator, the instrument of some one’s or some thing’s destruction. Be careful, Miss Cynnamon, things that you start may run out of your control.”

“That is very helpful and I very impressed! Thank you Pur!” Cyn smiled.

Pur looked up at her, beaming. “Wow, that is the coolest fortune I have ever told!”

“Well, how many have you done?” prodded Cyn.

“I would say about ten, but I need to study more, I don’t want to miss any of the meanings, you know?”

“Hey, are you hungry? I’ve been making swamp vegetable stew, it came out alright but we don’t have enough orders so it will just be thrown out.”

“Well, I have some lunch but that sounds good!” admitted Pur. “ Hey, do they call it ‘swamp stew’ on the menu?”

“Not in a corporate establishment!” laughed Cynnamon. “They call it Valley Soup.”

The Faceless Woman

“This is your second efficiency penalty, asset,” the manager of Transom House Dining Services pointed out with a sigh and an overly theatrical look of pain on his face.

“I am receiving a demerit for arriving too early this morning?” Cynnamon asked calmly even as she adjusted her work smock after her twenty minute lunch.

But she had not eaten a crumb; instead she had run to the Transom Operations wing and begged for someone to take her report or to schedule an interview. They refused, noting that she was not a member of operations and that she should raise the issue though her current assignment branch.

“Of course,” the man explained. “Opening the facility early is an unnecessary and unauthorized expenditure of energy or resources. Who will pay for that? Should it be your fellow workers, or myself?”

“I need an interview with operations. As you are my current manager, I need you to arrange that.”

“Operations has no say in your commissions or your penalties over here,” he smiled with satisfaction.

“It is not about the penalty; this is a different topic – I have an issue which involves possible reputational risk to the company.”

“What? What the hell would you know about anything like that.”

“I told you, I am…I was in ops. As my manager, you are supposed to handle my request for me…”

“I am NOT taking table five,” Marg complained as she stormed into the office. “Why is anyone even sitting in there? Shouldn’t that room be closed off? Almost everyone is sitting out by the pool. It is much too warm to be inside.”

“I’ll take it,” Cynnamon agreed. She didn’t want a confrontation, she had applied the pressure needed, now she had a better chance of getting what she wanted if she walked away from the man. “I’m ready for another table. I even got a tip from the last one.”

“Well, fine,” Marg called after her, “just be ready to be creeped out when you see what is sitting there.”

Alerted by her co-worker’s comment, Cynnamon scouted the dining room from afar. As Marg had stated, most of the customers were out back, but there was an older woman, her back hunched, sitting alone at a table. Her hair was long and silvery and as Cyn approached she could see the shiny curve of a face plate.

It was curious to Cynnamon how Daneel Tech could be such an intricate part of domer life and yet how seldom one would see their employees, especially in the last year since they had taken to wearing the face plates. Cyn was one of the few who realized that there was good reason to wear those masks.

“I’m sorry for the wait, I didn’t know this room was open, I can serve you here or I can get you a table out on the porch, it’s a bit cooler there,” Cyn offered, a long, denim skirt flapping against her knees as she moved around to face the woman.

“I prefer the warmth and I don’t need the company,” the woman said simply and Cyn kept her expression neutral as she finally could see the woman’s face plate. But now a face was projected onto the surface, that of a middle-aged woman with smooth bright skin that contrasted with the ruddy and wrinkled skin of the woman’s throat and neck. Cyn did not hold the apparent vanity against her.

“Of course, what can I get you?” Cyn smiled, genuinely happy to meet another member of the collective. Would this woman recognize her?”

“I would love a baked root pear, with a bit of molasses,” the woman said pensively.

“Of course, that dish is normally served in a bowl with a spoon…is that…well would that work for you?”

Cyn had only spoken with Daneel agents before. She had never seen one eat or drink. Would they need to remove the mask to do so? Could they? Why didn’t she know this? She scolded herself.

The thin lips frowned and then brightened again.

“Yes, I would need it pureed and with a straw instead, if it isn’t too much trouble?”

“I’d be delighted to get that for you. Anything to drink? Some water?”

“We actually don’t drink water, it is too thin, in case you want to know. The softened pear will be enough,” the woman replied.

“I’ll be back soon,” Cyn promised. She returned to the counter and entered the order making sure the order hospie understood the special preparation which was needed. Then she hurried to attend her other tables and hopefully close some out.

“Pureed root pear with molasses and a straw, right?” Cyn checked when she picked up the order. The hospie confirmed and she brought it out. But when the cover was lifted, it was a normal root pear, no molasses. And a useless straw.

“I’m so sorry!” Cyn exclaimed, she could feel her face flushing.

“I can prepare it,” the faceless woman assured her. “Please fetch me the molasses and a spoon…”

“Please let me take care of it. I’ll be right back!” Cyn said as she snatched the tray back and stormed toward the kitchen. She did not stop at the counter, rather she pushed into the galley, her brown eyes flashed streaks of gold as she descended on the hospie who had prepared the order. His eyes dropped to her tray and he started to smile but his face fell when she pushed the tray onto him, it clattered to the ground, the bowl spilling its contents over the floor and his legs.

“I told you this order needed special prep, right? I told you why. And you intentionally botched it!”

“Hey! What is the problem!” the asset protested, his face turning red.

“Keep away from me,” Cyn spat, “I’ll do this order myself.” and with that she pulled a cooked pear from one of the ovens and placed it in a machine. The kitchen was quiet except for the squeal of the food processor and then, gradually, the workers returned to their duties.

Cyn worked quickly preparing the mixture and a new tray. She was almost finished when the manager walked up to her.

“What was that all about?” he asked, anger hiding in the folds of his voice.

“You tell me,” Cyn replied, her eyes on her work, “we had a special order from a representative of a priority-listed corp. And we messed it up.”

“Then you should have checked it,” he replied coolly.

Cyn didn’t look up but spoke as she finished the order.

“You know she is Daneel, right? So that little screw up just got broadcast to each and every one of them. So what do you want them to see next?”

The man was silent as she covered the plate and hoisted the tray into the air.

“Fine. Apologize, refund the customer’s meal, and tell me if you need anything else,” the manager barked and walked off.

When Cyn returned to the dining room, she apologized again, and presented the new order and informed her there would be no charge. The woman smiled politely and Cyn left her to her lunch. She would have wanted to take a look, to see how the woman used the straw, but she decided it was rude to watch a patron eat.

Once the woman seemed to be finished, Cyn attempted some conversation.

“I met a Daneel agent recently. He said he was from ROB and so I called him Robbie, he didn’t seem to mind. Was I improper?”

The mirrored mask inexplicably transitioned into a new face, laughing blue eyes, stringy red hair.

“Robbie? That is cute. They would be the ROB aspect…Techview. My aspect is DRO, I don’t imagine that name lends itself to any pet names. I am sure they did not mind. We know the whole aspect thing is confusing. Should I explain?”

Cyn looked down into the blue eyes digitally formed on the face plate and as she did so, the face around it changed. A male now with the same eyes.

“Would you? If it is no trouble…”

“We are delighted,” the young man spoke in earnest. “The Daneel vision is to allow mankind to share experiences, whether they be sights, sounds, feelings or even thoughts, in real time, without delay. But even we admit that we do not yet have the ability to fully realize our own dream.

But we are able to share some of what we experience with some, not all, of our colleagues. We use the word ‘aspect’ to mean a group of us which are actively sharing. My aspect is named DRO. You met someone from ROB.”

“That’s fascinating! How many of you in an aspect?” Cyn exclaimed.

“That is privileged information as is number of aspects even in New Berlyn. But our goal is no secret, eventually there would be only one aspect and it would be all of us and we would share…everything.” The older woman had returned.

“I see, so Robbie can’t see me right now. But, later, at some point, they could?” Cyn tried to keep the enthusiasm out of her voice.

“You’d like to say hello?”

Cyn’s face broke out into a smile. Her last memories of Robbie and his fellow Daneel agents were hearing them try to sing. It was the last thing she had ever expected to hear from the serious, austere and even frightening beings.

“Yes. And I’d like to thank them for repairing my spectacles.”

“Aspects do not share information right away, in real time. But eventually they will hear your message, see your message, along with my impressions, our impressions. It is difficult to explain.”

“That’s fine, thank you.”

“You had AI problems?” The woman continued, tapping her black rimmed glasses. “I see that you are wearing a piece from our 3000 line, not a very current piece of equipment, the 6000 series was released last year.”

“Well, I could barely afford these. They are still getting adjusted to New Berlyn but I really have no complaint.”

“You have had some issue in this city? They are not very sophisticated but they should function flawlessly in those things they can do across Las Joyas. That is our warrant.”

“One silly thing. When I arrived, I programmed them to block promotions, but they still allow advertisements encouraging me to get a newer model. As you said, there are pretty old and I should not blame you for exempting your own endorsements…”

“We don’t advertise,” the woman said simply. “There is no need.”

“Really? I am pretty sure.”

“Cynnamon, in the time since you have made that statement, it has been heard by almost fifty Daneel entities and they all agree. We do not doubt you but we are stating that you did not receive a Daneel advertisement. You are mistaken. We promise.”

“Oh,” Cyn responded as the woman rose from her chair.

“It was a pleasure to meet you,” the woman smiled and her face changed to another and then yet another. “Until we meet again…”

The faces flitted by faster now and Cynnamon speculated that she was seeing all the members of the DRO. It was then that she saw a face that seemed familiar. She gasped as the woman walked away and recognition bloomed. She had seen Trent.

Tym

Tym had found a quiet table on the back porch of Transom House, near their gardens. He had been allowing himself the guilty pleasure of daily study time among the other guests and the comely hospies which attended them.

One could learn a lot from a hospitality asset. He admired their ability to convey such warmth, such genuine interest while efficiently understanding and tending to your needs. The male hospies were like a trusted friend and companion. And the females? They could put you in mind of your mother doing your laundry or the pretty girl across the street who brought you cookies because she heard you were sick. He was even thinking these things when she appeared at his side.

“How are you this morning?”

He looked up, startled at first, and then completely surprised. He had wondered what had become of the Techview asset, the one who had shared his limo and to whom he had made the ‘Oz’ comment, Mother’s operative. He had wondered but he never expected to find her here, waiting tables?

“Ahhh, I’d like some coffee, please,” he blurted, his eyes rising along her tanned shoulder, her slender neck to the dark, glittering eyes.

“Let me fetch that for you. Real coffee? Or the village construct? And how would you like it?”

“Oh, actually I like the real stuff,” Tym replied, recovering from his surprise. “With a little milk and a cheese sandwich to make the order a little decadent.”

It was definitely the girl from the shuttle, he realized, but why would they have one of Mother’s people here? Was it some type of cover?

“I have a sneaky love for cheese as well, but I take it with tea,” the young woman smiled. “Anything else? Are you enjoying your stay at Transom House?”

“You seem very familiar, perhaps I have seen you here before?” He had not seen her on the porch before, he was certain.

“It’s possible, Mr. Matheson. I’ll fetch your order and you can think of new ways to avoid my questions.”

She gave him a dazzling smile and was off. As good as any hospie he had ever experienced. He turned back to his work and tried to keep his eyes from following her as she walked away.

He wouldn’t push her. Tym knew better that to get involved in the business of any of Mother’s operatives. He had no idea why she was in New Berlyn but Mother had asked him to let her know if he saw her. So he would do that. Mother would know why she was serving breakfast…or find out.

It was when he paid his bill that he took special note of how she had signed the virtual check.

Thank you!

Dorothy.

Ann and Ryk

Ann allowed her body to relax in the soft, over-sized lawn chair as she looked out over the colorful and exotic trees of Transom Garden. She felt the same breeze which was causing their leaves to flutter and their limbs to gently sway. The domes were too warm, she felt, and so the cooling air was more than welcome. Suddenly, her eyes snapped open at a thought.

“How is there wind here, inside a dome?” she said out loud and looked over at Ryk with a questioning rise of her brow. Of course she knew that he, like her, was no domer; so he might be wondering the same thing.

“It’s manufactured, like everything here. Large fans move the tops of the gardens and the motion percolates down, mostly it is to strengthen the trees. Not sure how much good it really does; I saw them replace two trees already this week and how long do you think any of this would last in a real gale?”

“There are some days, I long to find out,” laughed Ann with a tinge of bitterness. In truth, she could not wait to get back to Techview, to her villages, to her root gardens. If not for her mission…but already she knew it was no longer her only local interest. She was concerned about the enigmatic Miriam, she wanted to help her if possible and, obviously, she was a little attracted to the Uncle. If not for the seriousness of the matter, she would certainly have already taken him to bed and they could move on with any real possibility of a relationship that might exist…or not.

As if knowing the subject of at least some of her thoughts, he confided, “I know I said I would try to speak with Miri before today. But I’ve made zero progress and her headaches are more frequent.”

“Same here,” Ann nodded. “And yet she contacts me almost daily, wanting to know how she can help me and suggesting I enlist your help. I think…I think she means for us to get together…”

Ann realized that she hadn’t said that exactly the way she meant it and when she looked over, he was eyeing her with extreme interest and a touch of embarrassment.

“You mean…”

“Don’t be silly,” she smiled. “I mean that she wants us to talk, to compare notes. Somehow we might be able to help her together in some way we have not been able to do apart. It is so strange, sometimes I feel like she is my own daughter and sometimes I feel like I am talking to a ghost.”

“She told me, when I first arrived, that I should be patient and that she would explain. But every time I try to ask her questions, her eyes grow distant and if I push it…”

“I know. I know. Well, at least you are her Uncle, you had years to form a bond with her. Honestly, I am not sure why it is I like her so much after so little time. I suppose she reminds me of my youngest. Do you have any children, Ryk?”

“No…no. Just plenty of nephews and nieces. But Miri has always been special but very difficult. She is delightful but also stubborn and secretive.”

“Yes, a difficult combination.”

“Sorry for the wait, what can I get you both to drink?” A new voice interrupted the pair.

Ann recognized the voice and looked over at the waitress. She looked tired, strands of her silky black hair had come loose from where she had tied them and were dangling around her ears and forehead; and she walked with a slight limp, probably developing blisters from carrying food all day to over-indulgent corpers.

“Well, fancy seeing you here!” Ann said with mock surprise.

“Hullo,” Cyn responded. “A hospie told me that I had been requested specially to this table?”

Ryk looked first at the young woman and then over at Ann. She gave him a reassuring look.

“Well, I saw you the other day, I was pretty sure, and then I thought I must be wrong, it’s a long story but…” Ann was sure she must sound like she was babbling to Ryk, but in truth she had been practicing her verbal codes, a talent with which Sister Cynnamon was proficient. Her coded question was direct and to the point, she asked Cynnamon if she could help them find her friend.

“There is a menu on the table if your AI didn’t bring it up,” Cyn started with a practiced tone. “I can’t do much for you without the details of your order.”

And there it was. The girl hardly bothered to code her reply. Ann wasn’t even asking for specific information as yet. She simply wanted to know if the asset had the ability to help her. As far as the details, she was loathe to tell a corporate asset, even a member of the Sisterhood, that she was looking for the highest ranking local member of their order.

“Well, I’ll just have a cold root tea,” Ryk offered helpfully but the confusion was evident on his face.

“I never pegged you for a waitress, have you worked here long?” Ann asked pleasantly. It irked her that this girl continued to subjugate herself to the will of these animals. Ann didn’t know much about Cyn, but she was certainly bright and talented, she shouldn’t be here, allowing her body to be groped by drunken domers. Just because they took her in as a child did not mean…

“I have enough experience. I tended bar in Techview for almost a year,” Cyn admitted somehow oblivious to Ann’s provocation.

And then Ann heard another, familiar voice, as a lithe, leggy, beauty appeared.

“I thought it was you!” Miriam exclaimed happily, her coppered hair sparkling.

“Oh…hi,” Cyn replied, “I remember you from the train, right? Can I get you something to drink?”

“A tall glass of ice water would be heavenly,” Miriam beamed.

“How about some fresh peppermint root tea, not too sweet,” Ann added with a satisfied smile.

Cyn grinned and assured them she would be right back.

Miriam slid into a seat.

“I told you she was here. I’ll never forget my friends still in Sponsorship. I promise you that,” Miriam looked at both of them. “Speaking of which, did she help you with your friend? Or are you both too busy chatting to remember to ask her?”

She gave them yet another self-satisfied look and Ann did not look over to see how Ryk was reacting to the innuendo. It was interesting that whatever had been bothering Miriam did not seem to be affecting her now.

“Your headache seems better. Tell me, how long have you known this Cyn?” Ann began. She was wondering if any personal question caused Miriam problems or if it were only certain ones.

“We met at the train station, in Techview. She waited with me until Petyr showed up.”

“Do you trust her?” Ann asked, now genuinely interested. Miriam did not seem the trusting sort.

“Until I have reason not to,” Miriam gave her a knowing grin, “How about you?”

“I know that her overwhelming priority is this place, this corporation…so I try to remember that.”

“Lower priority is not the same as lower reliability,” scolded Miriam as she placed a finger to her lips as Cyn returned with their order.

Ann watched Miriam observe the dark haired asset as she flawlessly delivered the drinks to everyone and politely asked them if they wanted anything else.

“I’m not hungry,” Ann informed her.

“This drink is fine, thank you,” added Ryk.

“Somehow you look great, even in that frumpy apron they make you wear,” Miriam began.

“I hate it,” Cyn confided, “and it gets stained with something different every day and it takes me thirty minutes past shift to wash it clean. But, thanks. It’s high praise coming from you.”

“I know!” laughed Miriam so infectiously that they all laughed with her.

“Anything to eat? It’s on the house,” encouraged Cynnamon.

“I can pay, I have a real job now” Miriam said quickly, “but I am literally starving, how about the olive sandwich with lilypad chips, is it good?”

“It’s great, I love it, but it takes longer to prepare. I also like the fish salad and I can get it right away.”

“Its not slimy, is it?” Miriam pouted, brushing a lock of her hair back.

“I promise,” Cyn laughed. “I’ll make sure of it.”

“Okay, well, I’ll try it, if you think I’ll like it,” Miriam said hopefully.

Cyn turned to Ann.

“Did you have a picture of your friend? In case I see her?”

Now Ann was caught off-guard. She really didn’t have a picture.

“I don’t, and as you are cooped up here all day, it’s not like you could help me look anyway.”

“Got it, I’ll put that in for you.” Cyn turned and left.

Miriam turned to them.

“She can’t help you? Are you sure?”

“She can’t even leave the building, it’s a waste of time to involve her in this. I’d say she needs our help more than we need hers.”

“I got out without anyone’s help, I wouldn’t underestimate this one either, desperation breeds possibilities. Let me talk to her again.”

Ann watched as the formerly depressed and languid girl sprang to her heeled feet and intercepted the quickly moving waitress. Ann furtively watched their interactions and was able to hear most of their conversation.

“Wait,” Miriam insisted, unhappy. “It was nice to bump into you, I looked for you at the station, you must have run off pretty quickly?”

“Don’t remind me, I spent the night in that horrid place,” Cyn laughed carefully.

“I’m not used to not having full access to you. It was easier to speak with you when you were trapped on the train. Are you always here?”

Cyn looked into her eyes. Village girl to village girl, it seemed.

“You know how it is, I work where I’m told, when I’m needed.”

Miriam nodded.

“Well, if we really needed to find her friend, how would we do it? Is there a way?”

Cyn sighed.

“You’d need to pull some strings…”

Miriam beamed.

“I knew you would think of something. I’ll handle the string-pulling, tell me.”

Cyn leaned forward and spoke quietly but Ann could read her lips, “Have you heard of a face-reader?”

Special Event

Cyn slid one long leg over the other and sat back in the chair. Her eyes were dark with annoyance. She looked away from the man, an officer with Transom’s hospitality branch, her supervisor.

“Every time,” she began slowly, checking her anger, “every time I request a meeting with someone from Operations, anyone from Operations, you tell me it is in the queue and I’m given a new assignment in Hospitality,” Cyn spoke clearly. “But you can never give me an update on when my request will be addressed and it should have been processed within two days as per corporate policy.”

He looked back at her, clearly irritated, “I don’t understand, you pledged to serve the company but you are unhappy with your assignments?”

“I am not complaining about the assignments, I have not protested any of them, I am asking about my requests to speak with an Operations manager. I have to go through you for that. I am an operations asset and I have the right to speak with someone from that section if and when I have the need.”

“Why?”

“I have a matter to discuss and you know that I can’t discuss operations issues with you.”

“Well, as I said, your request is submitted and your current status is unassigned, which means we can pull you as needed. What do you have against hospies?”

“I have nothing against it, I started as a hospie, I trained as a hospie and I have done my best. But,” she looked up at him and knew that she needed to stir the pot a little, otherwise he was not going to budge, “there are rules that restrict where and under what capacity I can be assigned. I need to have this interview, that is all I am asking for.”

There. It was said. What choice did she have?

The man was speechless, he stared at her with piercing eyes, his mind stewing. Suddenly, he came to some decision and stammered:

“We have a special event tonight,” he demanded, standing, his upper lip trembling with anger. “It is for some of our VIP clients and I need some new girls to work it.”

Well, that didn’t work, Cyn mused, also standing. But she did have a plan B.

“How nice,” she responded absently. “I hope you enjoy it.”

“I need some replacement entertainers, and your file shows you have experience,” he added, his eyes desperately watched for the reaction that he wanted, whatever it was – outrage, indignation, perhaps even desperation. She wouldn’t give him any of that.

Instead she turned, and walked out of his office, past the kitchens and the laundries and into the lobby.

Entertainment experience? He was certainly reaching, her hospie training had gotten as far as a serving at a med bar, never into entertainment. But after she had been sent over to Ops, she had once gone undercover at a club named ‘Lunar Dolls’. Perhaps he had found that reference. She was not there long, but had learned enough to know that ‘new girls’ at these clubs could have a very difficult first night. She certainly would not be part of this idiot’s animal party.

She really only needed to verify that he had not approved her request. She had two different branches both refusing to hear her report. That changed things and sometimes knowing procedures and protocols was an ace-in-the-hole. Now she only needed to find someone who believed in those rules and she thought she knew one such person but that might be a long-shot as well.

She reached the asset level, found her room, checked it and locked herself in, letting her body slide to the floor, her thinking position. She had to admit, this whole situation was strange. Why was she here? Why bring her all the way to her home valley and then just let her sit, working any assignment that came along? Cyn knew that Transom put profits above both its employees as well as its property, herself included, but that was the point, how could they be making any money? They couldn’t be. So what was going on?

She felt like this was personal – the restrictions, the threats, the thing in the stibnite armor who had broken into her room. Maybe it was all part of the same thing, a corporate conspiracy and if so, she was in trouble. But it made no sense. If they wanted to kill her, it could have been done already. Her body could have been left those of the raiders. And whoever had assaulted her that night was careful to tell her to do what she was told. It was trying to hold her back, to keep her in line, or else. She couldn’t follow those fears. She would proceed with her plan. It was the only way.

At that point, her AI received a ping.

AI Upgrade Available

Her eyes snapped open. And she remembered. The woman from Daneel. The image of Trent. She had missed something.

We do not advertise, Cynnamon.

She checked the properties of the message, the origin was completely unfamiliar. It was not from Transom House. But her AI was blocked outside of Transom House, so how could she receive a message which did not come from within? And then a thought rose on the horizon of her mind and she started to make a connection…when her AI was pinged again.

She ignored it and tried to refocus her mind when she realized that the door, her door was sliding open. She spun around to see a tall, black, armored creature on the other side of the portal.

“No!” she cried out, knowing that all was lost. He had returned, just as he said he would. And she was not prepared.

The Puppet Masters

Edwyrd Harilla finished his meal and looked around the private dining room. Brad was supposed to join them but had not. It was not like him and Ed took the opportunity to discuss it.

“How is Brad working out in Ops?” Ed asked looking over at his father.

Patron grunted. “Well, as long as you and your brother are here, and Bradley is not, you might as well know. He is not working out. Not at all.”

Ed followed up quickly. “I’ve noticed that he’s been very distracted recently, almost depressed. It can’t be easy working under you…”

“He’s right, Patron,” Steve interjected, his face a serious mask. “Barrett gave Eddie plenty of freedom and look at him now. Does Brad have that opportunity? You do everything yourself, you hardly delegate, you don’t even have an assistant. You need to give Brad more responsibility, that is the only way you can tell if he can succeed or not…”

Edwyrd watched the two converse. It was interesting that Steve was backing Brad up although Ed knew that Steve felt strongly that Brad simply did not have the emotional makeup to be an officer. Still, he was lobbying for him, a first. And it was hard to believe it was out of a concern for Brad or a belief in his abilities.

“It doesn’t work that way,” Patron snarled a response. “When Brad starts handling his tasks, then I’ll think about more privileges, not until that time.”

Ed didn’t disagree with Patron, but neither did he want to the discussion to go into detail about Brad’s increasingly somber and distracted moods. So he changed the subject.

“It looks like that Matheson guy stood us up again,” Ed began. “Maybe he doesn’t like one of us, probably Steve.”

“I think he is a spy, right Eddie?” Steve spoke with a tone which made it clear that he had made up his mind and was giving his younger brother a chance to get on board the wagon of truth.

“Stop calling me Eddie. Why don’t you explain to Patron why you suspect him, beyond the fact that he is from Techview?” Ed responded with artificial annoyance. He did not think Tym Matheson was a spy, though he had considered it. The man had forgone many of Transom House’s perks, considerable for an executive, including Steve’s corporate ‘social’ events. Instead, Matheson spent his time reviewing their procedures and documentation, raising questions and concerns where necessary. When Ed had asked him for the reasons behind his queries, Tym had given frank answers. Besides, a spy would be be happy to hobnob with the local executives and their families, and Tym didn’t seem interested in any of that.

“Of course not,” Patron rolled his eyes. “I told you idiots – I invited him, he is here to audit our procedures and provide feedback.”

“He’s certainly a spy, Patron,” Steve declared. “Techview is impressed with our recent accomplishments. Of course they don’t want to admit that, so they sent an executive knowing that we would never accuse him, that we would give him whatever he asked.”

“You aren’t listening to me,” growled Patron. “I just told you I called in a favor to get him here.”

“We don’t need anything from Techview,” Steve smiled.

“Fine,” began Ed as if he were following the natural flow of the conversation, “so you explained about Matheson. But what about this other one? The asset? Why is she here?”

“None of your business,” Patron sighed.

“It is my business,” Ed insisted. “Especially when she tries to barge into a confidential executive-only meeting. It is my business when her credentials screw up our automated systems. And it is certainly my business when she breaks security rules and wanders around without her AI and mingles with corporate guests. First you make us take her on a security patrol and now I see her serving drinks on the back lawn. What is the point? Why is she here?”

“Ed’s right,” Steve interjected, agreeing with Ed for an amazing two times in the space of an hour. “She’s just getting in our way. She could be doing something useful, I could use her in negotiations, especially with some of the villages. Village men are seldom interested in girls who look like domers. What really interests them is an asset which looks like the wife of some rival village leader or even her daughter. And she has that look…so why can’t we use her in Corp Relations?”

Patron put his hands up in the air.

“Enough. First of all, she belongs to Ops, to be assigned as I see fit. Some days I may feel like lending out to security, others it might serve my purpose for her to wander around looking for something to do and today I feel like seeing if she knows how to pour a drink. There you have it.”

“Buy why, Patron? That is what I am asking you. If she is Ops why aren’t you using her there? It sounds like you don’t know what to do with her so why even bring…”

“You are missing the obvious, Eddie,” Steve began. “She shouldn’t even be Ops. I remember when she was here before: she was a spoiled, troublesome, know-it-all who spent most of her time chasing after the officers-in-training whether they were attached or not. Donnie Cabb was dating the daughter of the Patron of Urbanic before he got distracted by her easy morals. Then she turned around and dumped him seconds after we decide to send her to Techview for training to be a sexpie. I say, we can use her for what we trained her for, we paid for it, right?”

Somehow, Ed didn’t want to listen to Steve’s rambling any more. The disturbing thing is that Ed could hear some of his own words coming out of Steve’s mouth, things that he, himself, had said all those years ago.

His attention returned to his AI just as the warning came in.

“Steve!” Ed interrupted. “You have some event tonight? At that club of yours?”

Steve’s face went blank, as if he needed time to decide how to answer.

“Some type of accident? And your people are refusing to open the doors?” Ed spoke angrily.

“It’s a private club, Eddie,” Steve began, “for entertaining executives and corporate VIPs. We have our own plainclothes people to do security, it would make people nervous to see your guys armored guys in there…”

“I’m going to open up a video feed…meanwhile, tell them to open it up,” began Ed.

“It’s a confidential room, Eddie,” warned Steve.

Ed hesitated. It wasn’t locked to him, of course. He could access any camera or reader he wanted. But he didn’t want big brother Steve to know that…”

“Looks like your guys forgot to lock it,” Ed lied as he opened the link.

There clearly was something wrong as the link opened. The stage was littered with irregular pieces of debris, sparkling in the overhead lights like shards of glass. The back wall monitor was black, a huge gash where its surface had broken or possibly exploded. Somewhere within, something flashed sporadically. An overturned chair lay nearby and a river of black ran, like spilt oil, from a heap of debris on the floor, across the stage toward where a woman stood.

She faced a room of astonished, white-faced, spectators, one long, bare leg stepping toward her beneath a glittering, red dress. The music had already reached them but now they could hear a voice as well. She was singing.

“What the hell happened?” Patron demanded, “Or does that place always look like that…”

“Shhh”, Ed insisted, listening. He caught some of the words at first, but then they faded away and he couldn’t understand them. And he noticed now that some of the observers seemed restless, almost shaking, as if waiting for something. It was damn strange.

“It’s just a show, Eddie,” Steve assured him. “You can drop by some time when you are off duty, but nothing is wrong so close your damn feed, we have VIPs who expect privacy, if they knew you were monitoring….”

And then, as they watched, the whole scene exploded into mayhem.

“That bitch hit that guy!” snarled Steve, “She hit one of our guests!”

“Damn it, it’s a brawl,” Patron added. “Ed…”

Ed’s fingers moved inside his AI glove as he directed his available men and pulled others.

“The bouncers will break it up, now turn off your feeds, Eddie!” Steve protested.

“I’m stopping the whole thing,” Ed replied calmly, his mind and attention more in the virtual world than with the other two Harillas.

“Stop him, Patron!” Steve complained.

“Shut it,” Patron barked. “That is your zoo, you know better than to let anything like this happen. What do you want him to do? Let the damn thing escalate until they are finally killing each other?”

Ed turned back to his older brother.

“Your guys are refusing to open the auditorium doors. I can bypass but it will take some time so I’m telling you right now to let us in before this gets worse…” his eyes were like bullet holes.

“There is no need for that, Eddie. Everything will be fine.” Steve insisted.

And then the doors burst open.

Private Club

Cynnamon looked up to see the door slide open, revealing a creature in black.

“No!” she cried out. All was lost. It was back and she was completely unprepared. But as she stepped back into the room, trying to control the panic and terror, she saw a second guard appear.

Then her supervisor walked through the door, an ugly smirk on his face. Upon seeing her panic, the smirk twisted into a mean, delighted smile.

“I escalated to my manager the importance of tonight’s event and raised a concern that some of the recruits might not see its importance. So I received a personal escort to make damn sure that you all attend.”

Cyn’s eyes were wide as she looked past the man and to the guards. But they did not approach, they stood silent, waiting. It wasn’t him or it or whatever it was that had attacked her. This was just a petty stunt pulled by an insecure middle man. She couldn’t help but be relieved and that seemed to reignite her supervisor’s annoyance.

He added, “I feel our clients are bored with the regular girls. I’ll bet that guajira skin of yours will drum up some interest.”

As the guards brought her down a series of dark, carpeted hallways, Cynnamon could hear first the thumping of the music, then the rising and falling of whistles and cat calls; and when they rounded the corner, the full force of the room hit her like a slap to the face, the pounding music, the laughter, the occasional scream of outrage and protest.

She was ushered back stage and one guard stood by while a woman attended to her. A leather, faux-diamond studded, shock collar was placed around her neck. Once that was in place, the guard left.

The woman released Cyn’s hair from the pony tail and brushed it out. She applied a gold liquid to Cynnamon’s lips and picked out a crimson sequined mini-dress from a rack of glittering costumes. It was only then that she spoke.

“It’s real simple, honey. You go out on stage next. You stay out there until you can get 100 credits from the crowd, that’s the fee to leave the stage. Or one of the guys can buy you out for 200 and take you to a private room. You get to keep half of anything you make above the 100.

Here’s some advice, forget the crowd, take any offer for private that you get, do what they want and move on with your life. Don’t be stupid. Got it?”

She nodded. There were similar ‘events’ in the Techview clubs, she knew a little bit about what they were and a little how they worked. In the end, it was all the same.

“Good. Pick out your music over there and wait your turn.”

Cynnamon turned to find a digital jukebox with a library of songs, stage animations and effects. Should she even bother? She took a quick look through the music list and then walked to the stage entrance and peeked out.

The room was closed in, one large stage and various tables in front. She estimated roughly 20-25 men, various ages and sizes, some in groups, some alone. There were a couple curtains along the side walls, probably entrances to the so-called ‘private’ booths. One man seemed to be a bouncer, he stood close to the stage and was neither laughing nor whistling.

There was a woman on stage, tall and busty with light brown hair. She wore only her under-garments, a white dress clutched in one hand. As Cyn watched, the dancer received a tip from one of the patrons and promptly brought it to the bouncer. She handed him a fist full of credits but he looked at her offering and shook his head, she turned away, dejected.

The rock and roll beat continued as she backed away from the stage and looked for more tip opportunities. She passed over a couple candidates in favor of a man who held out a wad of money. She sat down on the stage by him and let his hand slide along her thigh. She lifted her garter to receive the tip. Instead, he grabbed her hips and slid her off the stage.

The woman yelped a protest and the bouncer moved to intercept. But another man casually held out a stack of credits which the bouncer counted and nodded satisfaction. The woman’s flailing legs disappeared into the crowd.

“My body is just a barrier to my soul,” Cynnamon whispered, “it matters less than I can ever believe.”

She returned to the computer terminal and chose two songs, accompanying video animations and sound effects. Cyn took special care to ramp up the volume level at one specific point in the music.

With one minute remaining, she took a second look at the audience; they were animated and their noise level was much too high. She would be lost in that, she needed something to calm them down.

She found a man who seemed to be the center of a large group, tall with bright red hair and a colorful scarf around his neck; he was speaking forcefully, gesticulating wildly and his compatriots laughed in response. It was then that she heard her music begin.

Thunderstrike

Grieg had become restless to be without his AI for so long; they did not allow the device in the club for obvious reasons. The last entertainer had exited the stage early after some rich guy flashed a large wad of credits, so now they were just sitting around waiting. It was annoying and as the last song ended, all he could hear was the raucous voices of the other guests.

He looked up as the next performer made her entrance, the sparking red dress grabbing his attention. Her eyes swept by him, lingering perhaps, a genuine smile on her face. That was already a welcome change, so many of the night’s entertainers seemed either disinterested or scared or pissed off, the down-side of amateur night. But this one was different, she was familiarizing herself with her audience, walking to each part of the stage, smiling, timing the steps of her bare feet with the music, perhaps she couldn’t afford heels. He could already tell that she would be different. He sat up in his chair.

There was a loud party to Grieg’s left, probably celebrating a wedding engagement, he laughed to himself. The girl, who had been scrutinizing the crowd, seemed to make up her mind and motioned for a man from that group to join her, a tall, flashy corper with bright red hair. She motioned for Red to bring his chair up onto and to the back of the stage, near the giant wall monitor that was projecting, in incredible detail, a large pool of blue, sparkling water, the glow from the animation reflecting off the man’s expensive metallic outfit.

The woman leaned over and whispered something in Red’s ear, her raven tresses splashing onto his shoulder as she did so, scurrying away even as he reached for her. But whatever she had said, pleased the man because he jumped up, two large feet on the chair, raising himself high above the stage, his arms waving in front of the video display, motioning for the audience and his friends to quiet down. And they did, briefly, until he visibly lowered the zipper over his crotch and flashed a boyish grin, an act that brought a cacophony of hooting and cackling from his friends.

But most of the audience had stopped their bragging and story-telling and were anxious to see what would happen next. As the crowd settled down, Grieg could better hear the music and the voice which accompanied it. He recognized the song, a famous love ballad, but the voice was not that of the artist who made it famous, it was the girl, the dancer, she was singing.

The woman turned from the audience, her ample hips swaying as she moved, slowly, back toward the waiting Red. The pool on the video display was rippling now in response to a light rain piercing its smooth surface with increasing frequency. Grieg watched the size of the drops increase and the waves build as he listened to her song.

Oooooooh ooooooh oo oo oooo

Your love, oh your love moves me,

Like a tumble down a hill.

Oooooooh ooooooh oo oo oooo

Your love, oh your love engulfs me,

Like a kitten left in the rain.

Oooooooh ooooooh oo oo oooo

Your love, oh your love thrills me

Tilts me…

As he listened, Grieg was vaguely aware that the light rain displayed on the back wall had become a torrent, a pelting, punishing storm. As she approached the still-standing Red, her hand traced a path along the center of her body, rising, lifting up into the air as the tempo and volume of the song grew and multiplied, with the sure power of an approaching hugger train. Both monitor, stage and Red’s chair quivered, trembled and finally shook with anticipation.

Splits me,

Hits me,

Thrills me

Kills me like a thunder

a thunder

STRIKE

He saw Red’s white eyes widen to full moons, the monitor behind him flashed, a streak of blinding, white light traveled its diagonal as the very room seemed to shake.

Grieg clapped his hands to his face, his eyes closing against his will. And when he opened them again, everything had changed. Red was gone, the crowd silenced, the animation stopped, replaced with a smoking, black screen, a large gash running through it, sputtering with electronic flashes. The air smelled of ozone, filled with a bitter, cloud of crimson that slowly began to settle onto a glass strewn stage, the shards glittering like diamonds on a beach.

The next song rose out of the shocked silence, and through the dissipating smoke, Grieg could see the woman take careful, graceful, steps among the glass fragments, moving toward them, her lips parted in chant, the words and music filling his ears.

I can’t speak, can’t move,

can’t speak, can’t breathe.

Knowing his mending,

will leave me more broken than before.

Her voice quickly rose in power and intensity, pressing against his brain, muffling even his heartbeat.

Oooooo

And I flinch where he lingers

Then the song pulled back, forte-piano, suddenly soft, the words escaping like a dream on wakening, leaving a vacuum his mind struggled to fill.

Cause those wounds are still tender

Then, as he mourned what he had lost, the song waxed again, cycling.

Oooooo

He can leave when he chooses,

I ‘ll stay with the bruises

Her voice was so beautiful, the words so clear when she was walking toward him, but they became a whisper, a memory when she turned away. He wanted to hear it all, the full verse, but he could not. He pushed forward, to get closer.

Oooooo

And I’ll count the days since you left me

And hope they’ll be plenty.

Count the days since you left me.

And pray they’ll be many.

Count the days since you left me.

And wish they’ll be many.

Hope they’ll be many.

Grieg felt her eyes meet his, briefly, as she walked the stage, moving toward a place where a dozen corpers had pressed close to the edge of the platform. The song filled their very pores, leaving some transfixed and others shaking, quivering…with rage.

Hope they’ll be plenty.

Think they’ll protect me.

Know you’ll protect me.

Protect me.

Protect me.

She reached the stage exit, taking a single step down as she finished her song. Her beautiful, chocolate brown, eyes, sparkled with gold as they swept the room, the crowd, her hand reaching high above her.

Hurt me. Like a thunder…like a thunder,

Keep me like a thunder..like a thunder,

Like a thunder…

As the song ended, Grieg saw a man confront her, blocking her exit, his hand like a hook on her bare knee, clutching it, the other moving to encircle her hip.

Thunder strike

Her hand blurred, dropping from overhead, slicing across her assailant’s face and nose. The crack filled the room, waking the audience like a slap to the face. She retreated back onto the stage, the man falling back, his face streaked with bright red.

Grieg was already rushing forward, his brain a storm, his heart pumping. He never touched the person she had struck, that man had tried to rise again only be pulled back and off his feet…by someone else.

But another figure took his stead, moving after the olive skinned dancer. Grieg saw her brace to meet that man, her eyes flashing. But Grieg arrived then, his body slamming into the attacker, sweeping him off his feet and onto the hard floor with Grieg’s body on top. He saw his victim’s head hit the ground and bounce back, the eyes open but without intent behind them.

Grieg scrambled to his feet and searched for another opponent. He heard the girl singing still but he could not take the time to turn and look at her. Strangely unafraid, Grieg spied the large bouncer, and moved toward him. He was aware that the crowd had turned on itself, pushing itself forward and then back among a flurry of fists.

Curiously, the bouncer turned away and shoved another back..hard…in the direction that Grieg wanted them all to move, away from the dancer. He chose a new target, made eye contact and saw the look of an enemy. The man moved forward and Grieg felt the beat of the music, it focused his motion into a single, powerful, strike where the two collided.

It was on an the next cycle that Grieg, his face bloody, came within sight of the back of the room and the two, large, closed, metal doors which stood their. Some stood barring the way, others scrambled to open them, to escape, their faces full of fear. Grieg decided he would help them as he pushed into the air, felt his body rise and sail toward the portal, knowing he was not the only one doing so.

Cyn

Cynnamon watched coldly as the man fell back, his nose exploding in blood. He stumbled and then caught himself, trying to regain his balance, but an arm snaked around his neck and yanked him down.

She nodded, her mouth open, the song continuing. The entire crowd had morphed into a confused, disorganized mob. Even she could not tell at first which would move toward her, to attack and those that would push them back.

Another man stepped over the body of the one she had struck. His eyes and nostrils flaring, his mouth screaming an expletive, his intentions clear. She scrambled to her feet, ignoring the sharp pains of the glass fragments breaking the skin of her soles; she raised her arm as the man began to climb onto the stage but another man bowled him over.

Thunder – STRIKE

Standing now, surveying the chaos, Cyn tried to formulate a plan. Perhaps this was a hasty choice, but she had been caught unprepared and the die was cast. Perhaps this was the time to run, to flee first this room and then keep going. Maybe Ann was right after all. Or Cyn could take the gamble that Mother’s unhappiness with the asset might be less than her anger at these people whom she referred to as animals.

She spied a large piece of glass, lying on the floor, the fragment bathed by the river of blood that still ran from the tall man’s body, hanging like a scarecrow from the sharp edge of the damaged monitor.

Cynnamon grasped the jagged, bloody object and used it to slice through the stun collar which wrapped her neck; it fell to the floor.

She returned to the stage edge, watching the skirmish line move first toward her and then quiver. She raised her hand back into the air again in time with the song and brought it down again right on beat.

Thunder – STRIKE

The bad news was that the song was in its final cycle. But the opposers had been pushed almost to the doors and she could see that fear now gripped some of them. And she herself had hardly been touched.

“It looks like I don’t need your help. Not this time,” she said grimly, to no one present.

She moved forward, slipping off the stage and landing on the smooth floor below, but her bare feet slipped on the blood slickened surface and she came down hard, on her hip, glass cutting into her thigh as she landed. Hearing the music, she scrambled to raise her hand as high as she could and brought it down one final time.

Thunder STRIKE

She saw the mob surge and the doors explode open, men pushed out as new light streamed in from beyond. She scrambled to her feet and ran for the door. She reached its threshold when she saw the invading guards, heard the crack of a paralyzer and consciousness was whisked away from her blood-stained, punctured and damaged body.

[] Realizations

Cyn

Cyn awoke from a restless, drug-induced sleep, made more harrowing by the fact that she could hear movements and noises nearby but was unable to awaken to investigate. Each time she was sure that some one or some thing was coming for her. But nothing had.

When she finally awoke, it was morning and she found herself in a small but sterile recovery room. She examined her wounds and found that the glass had been removed from her feet, from her hip, from her arms; the areas scrubbed and filled in with tiny gel bandages. She poked gently at them but felt no significant pain.

She eased out of the bed and walked, with only a tiny limp. She found her bag in a small closet, it had been moved to this room. Did that mean that she was confined here? She washed up as best she could and changed into a standard Transom Operations uniform; she wouldn’t make the mistake of going too casual again. She found her AI as well and placed the spectacles on her face and powered them up. Strangely she had no new notifications.

She poked her head out the door, into a short hallway. Standing on the other side was an armored guard, his head bare. He didn’t seem concerned or surprised at her appearance.

“Good morning,” Cyn tried, smiling.

The man nodded and looked away.

“Is it okay if I walk around?” she asked sweetly.

“Be my guest,” the man began and then he added, “are you leaving?”

The question surprised her.

“I’m not sure, can I? Or is someone coming to speak with me?”

“No clue. But I was told that, in the morning, you could go back to wherever you came from. And it’s morning, so…”

“Oh, then I’ll just pack up my belongings,” she waited to gauge his reaction.

“Sure.”

Cyn quickly threw everything into her bag and strapped it to an available hand cart. She walked out of the room, rolling the cart behind her, stopping again to speak with the guard.

“Excuse me, exactly who said I could leave in the morning?”

“The Deputy. You are leaving now? Then I can leave too. I’ve been here all night.”

The guard walked off, without a further word, leaving Cyn alone and confused. The Deputy of Security? Harilla? She was in the security wing, then.

She followed the guard out, into a large room of offices and cubicles, the ambient noise becoming louder and chattier as she walked. She spied the exit to the area and started in that direction when she remembered plan B. Fortunately, her AI worked within Transom House and it quickly found the office which she needed. She took a deep breath, turned and followed the directions offered by her AI.

The Complaint

“We already discussed this,” Edwyrd spoke into the air, his AI transmitting his voice as well as the dark look on his face. “It’s already taken care of. An interrogator should be assigned shortly so make sure you stay out of his way. He’ll find something, now don’t bother me again.”

That conversation had been enough to loosen the drowsiness from his mind. He had not slept well but now, only 30 minutes later, he caught his eyes closing again.

Desperately, he checked his monitors for something wrong, something that would surprise him, shock him into alertness. He was becoming annoyed with himself, so much so that he didn’t see it coming, he felt that he was losing control or worse, realizing how little he had. Something else now? His AI was practically screaming at him to look up. He did and there she was.

There were no bright summer fabrics or sparkling sequins today, the woman wore black like him, Transom jumpsuit, boots, her dark hair tied up behind her head, eyes still striking behind the black-rimmed, AI spectacles. She stood straight, almost at attention, several yards from his desk, barely inside the door.

“I would like to submit a cross-divisional complaint, as, given the circumstances, I am required to do. Would you please accept it for me? It won’t take long and then I can return to my duties.”

He did not know what to say, so he said the first thing his brain demanded.

“And what exactly are your duties? Why are you even here?”

She did not hesitate in her reply.

“I am assigned to Hospitality Services this week. If I could just submit this complaint before I return to that?”

“As you just happened to spend the night in our brig,” Ed added hastily.

“That’s what it was? They said I could leave,” Cyn added carefully.

“Yes,” he couldn’t help the smile, “we are a little short-staffed this morning. My people are working over-time charging and processing angry non-Transom corpers who were involved in some brawl from last night. You are officially designated as a victim though you look a lot better than most of them…” He cringed. He didn’t mean to phrase it quite that way. The woman before him had certainly caused some of the trouble, but in the end Patron was delighted to be handed some easy leverage on many of the important participants, and Steve was furious about the whole thing. That made it a good outcome for Ed.

He looked at her, expecting a comment, but she said nothing and he did not want to talk more about it. He seized on her prior words to provide a new topic, something else to say.

“A cross-divisional complaint?” He began. “I’ve heard of it but I can’t say that I know what to do with it.” Someone walked by and Ed realized he shouldn’t be seen speaking with this asset. He needed to get rid of her.

But she had already launched into an explanation. “It is a part of an internal affairs procedure – if two departments can be construed, even weakly, as colluding in the violation of a Transom regulation, the issue must be immediately reported to the highest non-executive Security officer available. It is their job then to…”

“Just stop,” he moaned. He wanted to ask her if she really talked like this all the time but he held his tongue. Even in school, she had this uncanny ability to recall the smallest detail of corporate procedures and repeat them, word for word. He closed his eyes but could hear her voice through the darkness.

“It would take just a few minutes…” he could hear a touch of pleading in her voice. Was this really so important?

How could she walk in here and screw everything up? She must have a six-sense when it came to ruining plans. Ed wasn’t sure exactly what she was talking about but if he listened to her petition…he would have to file it. And that would be construed as supporting her. It would change things. His eyes opened again. But her voice told him she was worried about something. Or it might be an act.

“We are completely swamped after last night. Make a formal appointment with someone and come back,” he said, as his fingers moved in the glove even as he nodded her away. He sent her the communication link request. He hoped she was smart enough not to protest and just accept it.

She stared at him blankly, her lower lip quivering and then, suddenly, she turned and walked away, her bag rolling behind her. He watched her walk down the corridor for only a few seconds before he turned away to open the secure link. It was another minute before she joined. He spoke quickly.

“Tell me the basics, I have my reasons.” he instructed, finally relaxing now that she had left his presence.

To her credit, she seemed to already understand his intent and began talking casually though he could hear her quick steps. She was hurrying to find privacy.

Her story confused him initially because he had expected some sort of grievance. Instead she spoke of some corper she had met on the train from Techview, who said he was in the business of repackaging asset debts, the way a normal citizen might refinance a mortgage or a large loan.

When she insisted that she only pretended to go along with the scheme, Ed doubted her. Sponsorship appealed to those who were looking for a ‘quick’ way to get ahead, so assets were exactly the type to pursue a shortcut into paying off their own debt. He decided it was more likely she had jumped at the chance and was unhappy with the outcome. If it were true, she might soon be another company’s problem.

Then, finally, she made her first outlandish claim. That the man on the train was an impostor, posing as a Transom official. Impersonation of a corporate officer was a serious matter, if she were telling the truth.

“Wait,” he insisted, happy to have a respite from her streaming information dump. “Maybe he is a Transom employee. Why are you so sure he was not?”

“Two reasons,” she replied, her voice was soft and quickly articulate, like a human typewriter. He was already sure he would have to endure both reasons, separately. “First, he did not know anything about the department for whom he claimed he worked. He belonged to C.H.A.A.P but didn’t even know what it meant, didn’t know anyone in the department, he didn’t..”

“I don’t know it either. What the hell is CHAP?”

“Corporate Human Asset Acquisition and Placement,” she responded immediately, patiently and then added, “have you ever heard of a corper who doesn’t know his own division or division head…how would he…”

“Okay, okay,” Ed replied. He got it. But it wasn’t strong, perhaps the guy had recently transferred, there could be explanations. “What else?”

“He had laboratory equipment which he was using to pre-screen the candidates, a sophisticated, state-of-the-art medical scanner, but it wasn’t Transom equipment and it wasn’t being shipped even to Transom Dome, I have a copy of the shipping manifest. And he had an entire transport car for his use, the whole car, and that means he couldn’t have been acting on his own…”

Ed sighed. If she was right about the storage car, then the man, if he even existed, had significant corporate backing. If she were right, it could be serious. If she were right.

“I still don’t understand the complaint. What is this cross-divisional complaint?”

For the first time, she paused rather than rattling off facts and deductions.

“There are two parts of the complaint…”

Of course.

“Could you just give me the more serious…” Ed asked hastily.

“Fine,” but she paused again, unsure. “Well…what I saw on the train…could be a serious matter. Even if I am wrong, even if I think I was wrong, and I do not…well, it is not for me to judge, or even you to judge, it has to be reported promptly. Failure to do so, even if a subsequent investigation found nothing, is itself a serious violation. I told Ops I had such a report to make and they refused to accept it. I then spoke to my manager in Hospitality and he did the same thing. That makes two divisions and the entire purpose of the cross-divisional escalation procedure…”

“Okay,” he sighed. He got it.

“Ed…Deputy, I mean, whatever you think of me, you know that I take these things…”

Seriously. Annoyingly so. But he had already decided how to handle her. It wasn’t his original plan, but it would have to do.

“Okay…okay. I need you to walk out the main entrance, I said the main entrance, and keep walking, do not stop for anyone,” he barked even as he dispatched another message.

The Interrogator

Cynnamon walked across the uneven, painted grass which marked the entrance to Transom House. It was not well maintained except for the color and so it was difficult to keep a steady pace but soon she could see the guard house.

Keep walking, go right through, ignore the angels.

She considered. At least Harilla had taken her complaint, at least she thought he had. No one else had even listened and fortunately the rebuff from both Operations and Hospitality gave her grounds to raise it to Security. And although he was one of the last ones she wanted to approach, Edwyrd Harilla was known almost as much for being a stickler for the rules as he was for having a volcanic temper. At least that was the person she remembered. If he would not take her seriously, no one else would. She had to take this chance and that meant she had to cooperate with him, to trust him.

She walked right by the frightful, dark, flying knights; she ignored her buzzing AI as it tried to dissuade her. She did not increase her pace nor decrease it. She disregarded the communication warnings from the sentries and tried not to worry when she realized that Ed had closed his communication link. She walked and kept walking.

Just as it occurred to her that she could be shot, her arm was violently yanked and her view twisted back until she was face to face with a black armored guard. His helmet was removed and she could see his balding head, the graying, bushy eyebrows and he was bellowing his displeasure. She just looked at him as if he were speaking another language. What would happen now?

She saw another vehicle had landed nearby, probably more guards; she would really get a working over this time.

But it was not more guards, it was a single, short, masculine figure, dressed in the dark garb of Transom security.

“What is going on?” the Deputy demanded with uncharacteristic calmness as he strode toward them, ignoring her, giving the guard an expectant stare.

“She ran the sentries, she refuses to explain herself,” the guard huffed, his face red.

“She is Transom,” Harilla observed, “so she shouldn’t have to check in, why did she raise an alarm?”

Cyn too wanted to know why she had been restricted to Transom House grounds. Did this mean that Harilla didn’t know either?

“I don’t know why, Deputy, but the AI insists she is in violation,” the bald man insisted.

“And you don’t know why?” Ed’s eyes were black, a storm brewing inside.

“I don’t know, sir.”

Harilla paused for a moment before issuing his next command.

“Call an interrogator, the most senior officer on duty. Can you do that? And find out why she is restricted to Transom House, that is a red flag in itself.”

“She’s probably some house whore, that would explain it,” the man began, relaxing.

“Really? That is your conclusion? Are you betting your life on it? Or just the lives of everyone else?” Ed’s dark eyes flashed like a death ray.

“I’m not sure but we stopped her just as the AI instructed…”

“Not satisfactory, you should know why, now go make the call. I can’t leave until someone arrives to take her.”

Cyn watched as the guard hurried off to the building. She did not turn, but glanced over at the Patron’s youngest son. He must be over thirty years old now but still had many of the same mannerisms. Time had gone by so fast. He spoke quietly.

“Tell your story to the interrogator.”

“Yes,” but she felt worried.

“You never stated the shipping destination from the manifest, the one where all the medical equipment was sent.”

“Yes,” she had not told him. He might be part of this. But she didn’t see that she had any choice at this point. “I will send you the manifest, I acquired it from…”

“Can you just tell me?”

“I could,” she said, surprised. He was such a suspicious person, she thought he would insist on the proof. Perhaps he was leaving that for the interrogator. “It’s a building named Laboratory 8 in New Humantis Dome.”

“Humantis?” Ed turned as another vehicle approached the pair. It landed and a large man got out. “This will be your ride.”

“I’ve never been interrogated before….by a professional,” she spoke as she watched the lone interrogator approach.

“Tell him what you think, as you think it. If you hesitate, tell him why you are hesitating. Keep the words coming out. Somehow I think you can do that.” Ed said as he walked away.

Stym

Cyn sat in a hard, uncomfortable, metal chair, her wrists bound behind her as the giant man returned to the bright, sterile room, both of his hands full. He placed one cup of water on the table near her and another closer to him, flashing a toothy grin.

“Sorry for the wait, it took some time to get some possibilities on your friend ‘Darren’ and to authenticate this ‘shipping manifest’ of yours. And you wanted water, right?”

She did, an hour ago.

He took a sip of his water as he nodded toward a large monitor which now displayed a five by five grid of mug shots, each labeled by a different number. “Every time the screen changes, enter the number of ‘Darren’ if you see him, else wait for the next display.

He looked meaningfully at the keypad in front of her.

She twisted and held up her bound wrists.

“Oh, sorry, I was supposed to remove those, oops.” The giant stood quickly and moved around behind her and for a second, Cynnamon braced herself, sensing his closeness, but he only released her bonds. She flexed her wrists, took a quick drink from the cup and lay her hands on the table, her eyes turning to the screen. She looked at the various pictures but none of them was Darren. It would have been a relief if she had seen him. Seconds passed.

“He is not there.” she said simply.

“Want to look again?”

“I don’t need to look again.”

“Are you sure? This guy is real, isn’t he?”

“Of course, but you aren’t showing him to me,” Cyn said simply.

With seemingly infinite patience, Stym moved on to another set of images.

The Past

Edwyrd’s face was expressionless when he returned for her. He didn’t say a word as they walked, him one step ahead, to the sentry house and through the door.

“You,” Ed demanded to the guard who had stopped Cyn earlier, “what did you find out about this asset’s security clearance?”

“Uh,” the man stood up and turned toward Harilla. “She is listed as unassigned even though she is working for Hospitality, and that is why…”

“Is that correct? Is it valid?” Ed demanded.

“Uh, well no…but maybe..” the man was obviously confused and yet wanting to please his boss or his boss’s boss or whatever Ed was to him.

“So how are you going to fix this? Or is she going to set off alarms everywhere she goes?”

“I could…well…”

Ed waited, seemingly patient now.

“I could drop her into the hospie group?” The poor guard suggested and then watched Ed for any sign he had said anything that might be correct.

“Fine, could you do it now? Thank you,” Ed muttered as he walked for the door. Cyn watched him go and then realized she should follow.

The glimmer in the clouds indicated an invisible sun had set over the edge of the valley and the dome was darkening rapidly. Now she could see the interior lights of Transom House in the distance. Soon the windows themselves would darken as well and that light would vanish.

He walked on the other side of the rocky, bumpy path which led the way back. Cyn noticed his side-arm as if for the first time. His foot falls were heavy as they walked. She assumed they were returning to Transom House but she didn’t understand why he did not drive them back.

“This should have been reported earlier, as soon as you arrived,” he declared.

“Is that a joke? Because you sound serious,” she retorted. She was tired, the interrogation was painless but it was stressful and grueling and they were still treating her like the enemy.

“We have to talk,” Ed stopped but did not turn to her. “Why are you here?”

Cynnamon looked at him, surprised.

“I already explained, Patron sent for me; or more correctly, he requested someone from Ops and they sent me. I didn’t have any choice in the matter and if…”

“Do you have other reasons for being here?” Now he turned and looked at her, she imagined that his eyes were intense and suspicious but it was becoming hard to see him in the fading light.

“No,” she said slowly.

“I’m not so sure. The timing is suspicious, I was just promoted to Deputy and here you are…”

What did that mean? It had been a long day and it might have been a short one if he had taken her report, without delay, and simply investigated it all himself while she slept.

“Congratulations,” she said without emotion. “What does that have to do with me?”

“No one sees you in ten years…it’s strange,” he insisted.

Now she was becoming angry. “Ask Patron to release my commitment and I’ll leave tonight, I’ll walk back if I have to.”

They stood in the darkness, Cyn toyed around with the idea of continuing the walk to the house. Or she could try to walk into the trees. But she knew she would be pushing it. She should be happy he even listened to her. What if he hadn’t? She had a ‘Plan C’ but it was not well-thought-out.

“What happened to you? After graduation?”

Cyn gasped. Somehow, she had never believed any of them would speak to her of this. It was the elephant in the room that she wished would die. The next word out of her mouth was only to buy time.

“Explain.”

He was ready to do so, as if he had had the conversation before.

“You never attended the graduation ceremonies, or the parties. You simply vanished without a word of notice to anyone. Why.”

It wasn’t a question.

“It’s been a long time, but as I recall, I didn’t feel well…I went to the station and waited until it was time to leave…”

Now it was his turn to pause, to be silent. The low groan of the dome seemed to rise in intensity around them, muffling their voices and their breathing.

“You were attacked, it’s not the same thing,” his voice was definitive. He was telling her.

“Why does it matter, Eddie? It was a long time ago.” She didn’t bother to debate the point. Somehow, he knew. Then others might know as well.

She was aware she had used his name in that way, the way his brothers used it, the way all the other students had used it, even when he did not like it; she wasn’t sure she should have said that. She was about to correct herself, to apologize.

“I was there,” the words came out of the darkness. Like a phantom rising from the pits of the Earth, like a dagger from the darkness. Cynnamon felt light-headed. She had not known for sure who they were, and she was just happy to have gotten away, to be alive, to have left it all behind.

But there had been nights she had thought about the assault and speculated if her attacker had known her. Ed had been angry at her, he was often angry those days and she sometime thought he was the one, but sometimes not. But she had never been sure and so, one day, she had put it all in a little box and didn’t think about it again. Until she had returned to New Berlyn.

“Then it was you. The one who…the first one.” The one responsible for the bruises, the one who had knocked her down while the other one watched and laughed and called her names.

His silence was his assent.

“Well, that would explain why I never heard from you,” she sighed, suddenly exhausted, wanting to get this over with. “It’s not something I think about much these days. At the time, I did realize it might have been you, but I wasn’t sure. So many people were upset with me, that I was leaving, that I was going to Techview, especially you.” She let that sink in. It was the truth.

“Fine,” she continued, her voice returning to normal. “I still don’t see that it matters any more. Believe it or not, I do good work in Techview, I enjoy it most of the time, and there are people there who care about me. I just want to go back.”

“That’s it?” His reply came right away. “Nothing else to it? No anger, no screaming, no threatening revenge? It doesn’t outrage you that I am now the Deputy of Transom Security? That I have anything to do with protecting people?”

She was starting to understand.

“You think I came here for some sort of pay-back?” She looked up, trying to find his face in the darkness. “I’m a bloody corporate asset, I am lucky if I can run an errand on my short, frequently-skipped, lunch hour much less get time to dream up plans of revenge. And if somehow I magically was able to hurt any of those who have hurt me over the years, I promise you that you aren’t even near the top of my hit list.” She was angry now. She wanted him to realize how stupid he was. She stepped blindly in the darkness toward him, almost stumbling on the uneven ground, her voice rising. “And even if I somehow wanted to relive that awful night and tell someone about it, I still wouldn’t ever bother, do you know why? Do you want to know why, Deputy?”

He didn’t answer her. So she continued: “Because nobody fucking cares what happened to me even last week much less ten YEARS ago. No one.”

Silence. And darkness. The darkness played tricks with her eyes, was he standing there? Had he left? Had he drawn his weapon?

“So what the hell was that song? What were you singing?” the confused voice came out of the pitch.

“You mean at the club? So we are done speaking of the past and you just want to know the words to some old song?” The frustration came out of her voice.

“Everyone knows the words, I didn’t recognize your words…”

“I was scared out of my mind, Eddie! Go listen to the recordings I am sure you made and you tell me what the hell I said!” Then, she lowered her voice. “Listen, I know you helped me today. You took my report when no one else would. And I know you fixed my security even if you pretended like you were just cleaning up. Hospies have privilege all over the city. So I appreciate it. But I don’t need anything else. If you did that out of guilt, then fine, but I don’t want anything more. Am I free to go?”

But she didn’t wait for a reply. She turned back toward the building and walked the rest of the way.

Darren

It was over. When her demeanor had changed, so suddenly, as if she had become a different person, he was startled. And when she said those words: “Transom Ops”, his heart sank and he knew it was over.

Darren looked at the young woman who had so smoothly and easily set him up. He glared at her angrily but she neither taunted him nor seemed sorry for him, she did not ignore him nor pay him any extra attention. He was just an assignment to her and she was dutifully tying up the strings of the package. Then she left, only to be replaced by a giant of a man, in gray security garb, an interrogator.

He looked away and sighed to himself. He had just started to think about getting out, taking his money and moving to one of the more brilliant Joyas, perhaps Fulton, but then he decided he would needed a little extra money, in case he wanted to change his appearance. How he regretted that now.

“Hello, Mr. Fuchs, Darren,” the blonde giant said as if he was selling insurance. “What a coincidence, I see we work for the same company. That will make things easier.”

Of course the creature was being facetious. Darren had been caught impersonating a Transom officer and if there was a list of 10 deadly corporate sins, that was high on the list.

Patron

Patron retired to his small, but exclusive bungalow located in Transom Villas. After his wife had died, five years ago, he could no longer bear to live at Transom House. All his memories of her were there. She had made that place her own project, her passion and everyone had loved her. Hers were shoes he couldn’t fill and neither did he want to. Besides, the boys had grown, each following their own, strange paths.

His thoughts of Lana had come back to him, as they usually did, when he removed the strange device from his vault and activated it. The ID2000, personal reflector, was an unexpected gift from a representative of Daneel Tech and he had customized it using her voice and appearance. He closed his eyes so his body could rest even while he thought.

“We should speak about the boys, Paul.” She was waiting for him, curled up on a couch, her hair was dark, streaked with gray, she seldom bothered to resist the superficial signs of aging.

He nodded to her, knowing that she expected him to speak.

“For the longest time, I have expected one of them to move against me.”

“Just as you did to your father?”

“That was different. My father was incompetent, if it hadn’t been me, many others would have taken their shots as well.”

“You suspect Steve. He has always been the brightest and the most ambitious. And he is completely without fear of repercussions, disturbingly so.”

“Well said, my dear. But recently I feel Edwyrd is the real threat. He was never easy to read but he was always predictable. Not any more, I think he uses his past predilections to anger and fury as a weapon, a form of psychological judo. I don’t believe that he really is as moody and as mercurial as he once was but he still embraces that perception, strategically.

I encouraged his association with security as a way to increase my power but it seems to have worked the other way. He is already second in command and Barrett seems happy to let him do as he wishes.

And then there was this recent excursion into one of the border valleys. Apparently our Eddie went old school on the team, worked them the whole day, and somehow fortune smiled on him and they found a raider tribe, moving toward New Berlyn if you can believe it. He followed New Berlyn protocol to the ruthless letter and suddenly he is very popular with the other corporations at a time when I am not.”

“What surprises you? That he would follow orders? That he would protect New Berlyn? That seems in line with his character, he has always followed the rules. Doesn’t that reassure you?”

“It would and it does. Until the day comes when his perception of those rules differ from my own.”

“Your sons seem to be of the same mind when it comes to this Techview asset. Why do they dislike her so? She is one of our own…”

“I had forgotten. It was so long ago. In an effort to light a fire under our boys, I intentionally did not say why we were sending her to the First City. If they had known it was for hospie training, they would never have felt threatened.”

“That was unfair. They were cruel to her, I am sure I was unhappy about it.”

“You were, dear. But she was leaving anyhow. What did it matter about the ones she left behind?”

“Techview will be unhappy if they learn how you have been testing her. You do not have such power as to redefine her basic duties, especially without informing her handler.”

“I should only have to do this once,” Patron sighed. “Now. What else am I missing?”

“There is a significant increase in complaints lodged against us at the Top Five meetings.”

“Why have I not heard of this?”

“Because they refuse to process the complaints.”

“That is the purpose of the Top Five. They only pretend to hear the concerns of the villages, they are more interested in keeping good relations.”

“There are other interpretations. Perhaps they have no interest in appeasing village unhappiness with Transom?”

“The villages do not discriminate. They see us all the same, a grievance against one is a grievance against all. What else?”

“All records of the altercation at Transom Club were sealed. I am ashamed that my eldest son should force untrained assets into stints as sexpies. What would be the point? It would only humiliate them.”

“Some men want only what they can’t have,” Patron explained carefully. “That is the appeal to his club. But they know better than to abuse the girls or each other. I simply took advantage of it, agreeing to drop all charges and seal the transcript in exchange for negotiation bonuses. Even Steve seems happy now.”

“But there was so little resistance. And since then, things have changed. More communication with Techview, more communication among the corpers. Are you concerned that you are no longer looking in the right direction?”

Patron looked past his wife, into the flame of the imaginary candle which sat on a table near them.

“I was in Transom House Lobby earlier today. Some of the villager posts were abandoned. On a whim, I inspected one. I found a strange tarot card, used for telling fortunes, left behind on the desk. I turned one over – it was of a man, at least the body of a man, a fountain of blood where his head used to be.”

“The Decapitated Man. It is from the weather tarot. When one wants to take something over, you first aim for the head, the leader. You should know that my darling Paul.”

Miriam

“Where ARE you, Petyr? I haven’t seen you in three days!” Miriam pouted over the communication link.

His response was slow in coming.

“Working at the laboratory. Just making some adjustments, minor corrections.”

“I can do that for you!” She insisted, her pretty lips pouting even though he could not see her. Then her face brightened. “Petyr, let’s have lunch together. I will bring something to the lab. What would you like?”

“Impossible, my dear, I will be in with the Bugs.”

“I told you, I can do that for you. Since when do you do the dirty work yourself? It’s dangerous.”

“Not for me, I have to go, we’ll talk later.”

“Wait!”, Miriam stood, concerned, and then she took a breath, a moment to calm herself. She spoke. “The Transom Gala is tonight, we are expected. No one will be suspicious if we enjoy a dance or two together.”

“Perhaps, my dear, we will see.”

“You have to go, we have to go!”

“Miriam, I told you.”

Her face flushed and her upper lip trembled as the words formed in her brain. She hated herself for what she wanted to say, she would not be so pathetic. But the Bugs forced it out of her.

“Petyr, I need you…I can’t stand to be without you for so long! Why can’t we work on this together?”

And she felt the full angst of the Bugs as they turned all of their attention to this exchange and her interpretation of his response. She tried to convince herself and them that this was all within his personality.

“I have everything under control here, my dear. There is nothing you can do to help me. I am relying on you to take care of your end. We still have only partial funding and I need more. I am readying a final presentation for our sponsors and I need Donnie’s full support, is he satisfied?” The Doctor asked expectantly.

“No,” she sighed with exasperation. “It takes him and his partner so long to make the simplest of decisions, Petyr. Their first subject is cooperating but they have realized that he is not that useful and they want another subject. We should tell them that…”

“Then get them one, Miriam” the Doctor insisted. “I expect you to get that done.”

And he ended the call. She sat quickly even as she felt her guts tear inside, she doubled over from the pain.

“He’s just busy, that is all!” she insisted and she wished she could reach into her head and scrape the things away. And then they punished her for that thought. “I should go to him, despite his orders, I don’t think he understands how to work with the virals, not as well as I do.” But that was heresy and the Bugs would not allow it.

Little AI

When Cynnamon returned to Transom House, she went straight to her room, locked the door behind her, pulled her travel bag into a chair and started to empty its contents. The strange events of the last day would have to wait, sleep would have to wait, everything could wait.

It was while she was sitting in that empty interrogation room that she made the connection. These AI upgrade messages, which she had shrugged off as annoying spam, seemed to always arrive when she was in her room. They did not arrive when she was working at the restaurant, nor when she was out in the border valley nor during the whole time she had been interrogated. She received them only here…and at SkyTran station. And the one thing in common between those two locations was her luggage. The source of the communications must be within her bag.

“Where are my med patches?” she whined, her acting lost on the empty room.

She took each item out of the bag and placed it on the bed until she found an object she didn’t recognize, a piece of jewelry which did not belong to her. The necklace was a golden mesh which held two ornate, jeweled pendants, one which looked like a beetle and the other like a dragonfly, their eyes like translucent opals. The piece was attractive but perhaps a bit gaudy and heavier than she would expect. It did not seem particularly valuable. She placed the piece on the bed and emptied the rest of the bag but found nothing else out of the ordinary.

She replaced the contents of the bag, excepting the necklace, walked to the simple mirror on the back of the closet door, and put it on. It was then that she received a second AI ping. She smiled. She was right, though it had taken her a while. She looked at herself in the mirror, took a breath and responded to the ping.

Her AI was suddenly flooded with a barrage of informational texts and there, in front of her, in the virtual world, she saw him.

He was small and humanoid but clearly artificial, like a toy man with sensors rather than eyes. He spun around and chirped in her AI space, looking at her expectantly.

“What are you?” she laughed.

The little android waved its hand in the air, indicating options which formed in the space above.

AI-Ext-5R455 – Standard Mode

AI-Ext-5R455 – Surveyor Mode (Advanced)

“I see the text, but what does it mean? Or is that a silly question little man? Where did you come from?”

Cynnamon held out her hand until it was beneath the creature and then she pulled him, in the virtual world, closer, so she could inspect him. He chirped happily.

The creature continued to prompt her.

“I know, I know, you are offering me an AI upgrade. Are you a sophisticated advertisement? Or…are YOU the upgrade?”

She was prompted again to accept the upgrade along with a dizzying amount of instructions and explanation – a manual.

“Yes, I could read your text, but I have questions. Are you a product of Daneel Tech?” she asked. But it did not respond. It spun around, waved its little arms and clicked again, resending the barrage of informational texts, not one of which mentioned the manufacturer.

“Normally, I would insist on some answers,” she smiled even as she touched the top of the little creature experimentally. “But you happen to have caught me at a time in my life where I need to be more…flexible. Let’s try the standard mode. I accept.”

Please sit down.

A voice formed in her head, within her sensory implants and she heard a beep as her existing AI powered off.

“You seem to know what you are doing,” she said to the little creature.

Do not be alarmed. Vision and hearing will be temporarily suspended.

Then her vision started to shimmer and darken, her hearing faded. Her heart skipped a beat, she was helpless to stop the process now, her sensory implants could override even her own senses, a thought that occasionally had unsettled her over the years. She saw a message scroll into the blackness.

AI-Ext-5R455 – Pairing process started.

In the middle of the blackness, a string of messages scrolled by as the world came back into focus again. She gasped.

She didn’t see the door ahead of her as she did before. Now she saw the entire room, all at once; the door ahead of her, the shelves to the right, bedchamber on her left and, remarkably, the portions of the room behind her. She could even see the floor and ceiling, all at once.

Her hearing was now returning and she could hear her own rapid heartbeat and breathing. She slid her fingers against each other and the sound of her skin rubbing against itself filled her ears. A group of people walked by her room, in mid-discussion, and suddenly their faint words were amplified.

She stood and her entire field of vision changed, she took a step and the scene seemed to melt into the direction of her motion, the same scene but from a new viewpoint. She stumbled and although her head snapped downwards instinctively, her vision of the room remained the same.

Fascinated, Cyn walked towards the door while watching both the door approach and yet the rest of the room recede. She slipped one hand up and in back of her neck, a corresponding blotch appeared in her three-dimensional view, moving as her fingers slipped along the back of the necklace.

But the empty spot disappeared away when her fingers moved to the front. She guessed why and closed her eyes, the dark spot returned. She was seeing through the advanced AI but also with her own eyes. Already she felt the onset of a headache but she decided she could handle it.

She opened the door and slipped outside and into the hallway, her walking erratic, as if inebriated. Upon reaching the end of the hallway, she turned around and tried walking back. She repeated the exercise again and again until her could walk without leaning against the wall of the corridor.

Cyn walked up the stone stairs, which led to the lobby, and held the railing tightly as she came into view of the large chamber and all the motion within. Her new AI picked up identities just as before but she was also aware of voices emerging and fading. She slipped into a chair and watched the world from her new, augmented viewpoint.

Pur was manning the information desk and Cyn looked over at her, Pur’s avatar becoming enhanced as she did so, her conversation with a young corper becoming discernible. Even Cyn’s excellent hearing would not have been able to make out their words at this range especially considering the competing noise.

She focused on two men in a different corner and now the previous voices faded in favor of these new targets. It was a helpful feature for most, but Cyn was omnaudient and would have not been confused to hear both conversations at once. She would need to figure out how to make it do so, later.

Suddenly, a metal chair slid from a transportation cart that was being pushed across the floor by a young man. The chair, the item in rapid motion, was highlighted in her field of vision as if drawing her attention to it. She saw the metal chair tumble toward the hard floor and she knew that the sound would jar and echo the entire room. Her eyes closed and her hands reached toward her ears. The sound reached her but was muffled almost as quickly as she could hear it. The location of the sound was also highlighted in her field of vision and she was even prompted to replay the disturbance. The AI gave her many options and up til now she had declined them. This time, she allowed it and was treated to a replay of the event: she watched again as the chair slid, tumbled and then slammed fully onto the floor, the chair slapped the ground hard and then clanged, clattered and echoed all at a reduced intensity level.

She stopped and looked at the time. Tonight was the big Transom Gala and she had no idea if she would be working the kitchens, serving drinks or even attending as a guest. She shut off her incoming feeds; she still had at least two solid hours and she was determined to spend the entire time learning as much as possible about this new AI.

Lynda

Lynda sat on the floor, her back against the locked portal, her bare legs curled beneath one thigh, her face littered with yellow squares generated by light from an opening in the attic sifting through the grating which comprised the ceiling of her cell.

In front of her, in the center of the room, was the odious examination station, it was also her bed when she could stand to place herself within its grasp.

Yet again, she sat on the floor of her cell and asked herself why had she ever agreed to visit a corper clinic with her ex-boyfriend, a man who had gone from seemingly kind and considerate to petty and self-absorbed in the space of a couple weeks. Why couldn’t she see his true colors earlier? How many girls had come to her over the years with similar stories? Love truly was blind.

But she remembered the reason she had let him bring her to that clinic, even though he had repulsed her in those final days. The abortives she had been taking were not working, she had taken three different kinds and none of them worked; and she could not bear the prospect of raising a child with this awful man. She had hoped that perhaps a corper doctor could give her something better…and she had to admit..she wanted to see the look on his face when she asked for it.

But she had been the one who had been surprised and now here she was, a prisoner in some Transom medical facility. And worse, that little man, the Doctor, would be making his rounds and would add to her frustration and anguish.

At first, she thought he was just naive, unaware that she was being held against her will, his demeanor was so calm and unconcerned; she couldn’t believe he knew. But he did know and she had come to hate him even more for his calm apathy. He was like a mannequin, without feeling, without a soul. He unsettled her.

She was staring up into the rafters, the space beyond the broken web of a ceiling when she heard his foot steps. She crawled back toward the examination station as the door slid open. She wondered about the girls who had previously relied on her, who would help them? Who would listen to them?

“Lynda,” he observed as she looked back, so she could watch him even as she crawled away, finally reaching the machine in the room’s center. It was then that her hand, upon reaching the foot of the metal beast, found the end of a piece of wire which protruded from underneath. It was a thick, bare, wire and she let it press into her skin as she looked up at the odious man.

She did not reply, as the man walked into the room. This time she did not even bother to look at the open door. She had tried to escape once but now she knew better and as if to confirm her suspicion, a large man passed silently by the entry. That man had enjoyed teaching her a lesson, she did not want to give him a second chance.

“Your pregnancy is coming along marvelously,” the Doctor announced, “It is almost time to transfer it to a fetal incubation chamber. Your ordeal is almost at an end, and then you can be reunited with its father, a happy family. Aren’t you pleased?”

She did not reply, swatting a strand of her short black hair away from her pale cheeks. He knew her predicament and his question was rhetorical. Still, she had not known him to intentionally mock her. So he had a reason.

“I am less than pleased, not that it matters to anyone,” she huffed.

“I understand, especially given the treatment which would follow, one designed to strengthen your relationship with your child’s father,” he spoke, his face a cold, emotionless, mask. He had paused to gauge her reaction to his words and she looked back at him with disgust. The man was a megalomaniac, obviously. He somehow believed he had the power to modify human emotions just as he claimed he could induce pregnancies effortlessly. She didn’t believe a word of it, but she shuddered to think how he would try to make it happen.

He continued. “I think I could help you avoid all that, we could end your pregnancy and inform your sponsor that the child was lost and we have discontinued your treatment. He would be out of the picture…”

“How could that happen?” she asked hollowly. She had no faith that he was trying to help her in any way.

“We are developing a manipulator that aggressively repairs damaged human cells, and you happen to satisfy the entrance criteria for the first human trials. I would need you only to…”

“What the hell is a manipulator?”

The Doctor smiled as if he had just seen a poodle jump through a window.

“A manipulator is a term specific to my area of expertise, it would take years just to…”

“It doesn’t matter, I can make no choice where none is given. Do what you want, but don’t pretend that I have any say. Anything you do is without my consent. You can go to hell, corper!”

Pol Gente

“Why are you here?” Pol asked, looking thoughtfully at the ceiling as he stroked his short white beard, as if his answers would more likely come from the stars than from the visitors before him.

“Did you not hear me, Sir? I said we have proof now, from a source placed inside the Domes, proof that they have kidnapped some of our own, you have to…”

Pol closed his eyes and shook his head. “No, no, no. Be specific, who exactly are you accusing? The word ‘corper’ is too broad to be of any use, it’s like saying ‘someone’.”

“Transom, Transom Industries, they are behind this,” the young man replied indignantly.

“Transom?” Pol spoke the word with distaste. “That’s hard to believe. It’s not that they are beyond committing any horrendous deed which suits their needs, but they are much too large for a small crime like this and have too much to lose. You are aware that they are one of the largest corporate employers of our people and purchasers of our goods?”

“So you fear the loss of corper business? Now I am the one who cannot believe…”

“Be quiet,” Pol spoke with the authority of a grandfather. “I am telling you that it is you who would never move against them. You would lose too much of your precious lifestyle. I still don’t understand why you have come to me. Everyone knows I have long advocated that the villages negotiate as one entity but you would have none of it, preferring to negotiate your own treaties, each trying to get preferential treatment from those crazy corpers and their drive to be bigger and better than those in the other Joyas.”

“Precisely why we have come to you, Mr. Gente, you are known and respected among all the villages, even those on valley’s rim. They will listen to you and, as you say, this is a cause dear to your own heart, you would not run from it now?”

“My wife is tired of my politics, I cannot help you.”

“They are kidnapping girls, Mr. Gente, you were a teacher, does it not infuriate you? Village girls! Imagine what they must be doing with them!”

Pol Gente sighed. He had not taught in over 20 years. He grew tired of his students, especially the girls, attending only infrequently, eventually stopping altogether. And the reason had nothing to do with greedy corpers, it was because their parents, like the village elders, placed no value in that education of their young, especially the females.

“I make no promises. But tell me what you know…”

[]The Gala

Introduction

Once a year, the service titan known as Transom Industries holds a public banquet and dance for their many officers, customers and prospective clients. While not the most powerful or prestigious company among Las Joyas, nobody disputed Transom’s uncanny reach into every aspect of the corporate world and every walk of life, from corper to villager to asset. For many, even those who held the Domes with contempt, it was not an event to miss.

Edwyrd

Ed slipped into the security monitoring station, careful to duck just inside the room, his fingers moving carefully within his AI glove, watching as each operation launched successfully, he stood like a zombie until he could, finally, look at the security officer present in the chamber.

“The guest list for this damn thing keeps growing, I hate this time of year,” Ed sighed.

The man smiled.

“Not much of a dancer are you sir?”

“I just don’t like people that much,” Ed muttered walking into the room and sliding into a separate station. “How is it going? Any problems?”

“Not so far, or I would have already notified you. The count for the night is at one hundred thirty-six guests, forty-five of which reside at Transom House, the rest come from the outside including a staff count of eleven. It is only the outside guest count which keeps increasing, up by ten percent this morning alone.”

“You validated the outside staff and we have sources and necessity?”

“Yes, it’s all documented.”

“Good, let’s lock the guest list now, no exceptions. You’ll run the team from up here, but keep me updated. Now I have get dressed, I actually have to attend this thing.”

“Got it. Don’t worry, Deputy.”

But he was worried. It was too many people, with agendas and opinions which were too different on a night when suspicious behavior was more the rule than the exception. It was hell for a security guy.

Too many things had happened at once, if he could just get through the next twenty-four hours, then he would have time to really figure out what was going on inside his own house.

Annabelle

Ann slipped into the black dress, her short sandy hair splashing against the silky fabric while she hunted for an appropriate necklace. Her eye flipped up toward the man, he seemed uncomfortable.

“At your age I would think you would have seen enough women dress to not be put off by it…” she smiled as she turned back to her task.

“You’d think, but it’s always the blondes that get me though,” Ryk complained.

“Is that so?” Ann smiled in the mirror. “But I think we will make a convincing pair so I am in Miriam’s debt for loaning you out to me.”

“Tell me about the face readers again. I don’t get it, corpers all have AI implants, I thought they track each other with those?”

“That works fine,” Ann nodded as she stepped into a heel, “if you want to track a corper, but my friend isn’t one of those. She’s one of us, she may not even carry a handheld. And even in Techview, plenty of villagers have business in the domes, so they needed a way to track them as well.

Enter the face reader. Did you see? There are two in this hallway alone and one in the elevator as well. Those are not just cameras, they analyze each face and compile a unique signature which is entered into a tracking database. That way, they can track the movements of each person as they move by each reader.”

“But that is only useful if your friend did business with the corpers.”

“Yes, and she did but the church is not within any corporate facility, but perhaps she took lunch at Transom House or visited one of their many offices. We learned that she may have visited a corper facility – Transom Reproductive Services.”

“And if she did?”

“If she did,” Ann continued as she took his arm, “then her face is identified within their system, and they can track where ever else she has popped up within their remarkably large array of buildings and offices. Transom Industries is known for that.”

“And you will get your Transom friend to help you find out?” Ryk asked as they walked.

“What friend?”

“The one I met the other day? The waitress?”

Ann shook her head, sadly.

“No, I am afraid we can’t rely on her. She is trapped in her own cage and I don’t want to make her life any worse than it already is…”

“It’s always a sad story. To think that Miriam had become such a slave…”

“Yes, but she, somehow, escaped. Your niece is certainly resourceful, I just wish she would be more candid with us. But she did tell me that she knew someone who could help us with the face readers.”

Miriam

Miriam felt guilty avoiding Uncle Ryk and Ann, but she didn’t want them to see her like this. She felt awful and she was sure it showed.

She watched as they hailed a cab and left for the Gala. She enjoyed a brief moment of happiness as she speculated that they were beginning to enjoy each others company more than they had said. She forced herself to imagine her child, Petyr’s and her child, being cared for and pampered by the couple, the closest thing it might ever have to grandparents or an extended family. That pleased the Bugs of course, just as she had intended.

“So, if we help them, they will be even more loyal to us. And we want that, right?” she reasoned to them. The Bugs were harsh but they were predictable and single minded of purpose. “Ann needs help from someone in Transom and although I can’t help her, I know someone who can, someone who is under our control. So I should do it right?”

With a new sense of purpose, Miriam returned to her room and tried to ignore the absence of any sign that Petyr had been there. She showered and dressed for the party, choosing a silky, white party frock and red heels.

She twirled in front of the mirror. As Petyr would not accompany her, she would go with Donnie who, for reasons of his own, had declined to bring any of his many female friends.

“So, you are happy with our progress?” Miriam asked struggling to keep any sign of worry or desperation out of her voice. The faster Donnie was completely sold, the sooner her task would be complete and she could be with the Doctor and the Bugs would ease off her.

“I am,” Donnie sighed as the auto-taxi moved across the grounds, toward the large mansion which was Transom House. “Brad has always been a little too eager to please for my taste, but certainly he has gone beyond what anyone could ever expect, he has given us everything we asked for, he even let me do…that thing we discussed. So I am convinced…I just get the feeling that he resents it all. Is that right? Is he just a slave to the formula, does he understand what has happened?”

Wow. That was a great question, Miriam thought to herself. Did she understand it? Certainly she accepted it but did she really understand what had changed and what had not?. But she did not hesitate in her response and quickly reassured their sponsor.

“You are probably noticing a reaction to his own confusion. He knows that his emotions, his passions have changed, but he doesn’t know why. It is probably difficult for him to focus on mundane things and that might be frustrating. But, he genuinely wants to please…”

Just not you, she added to herself. Ann’s need had turned out to be convenient for Miriam as well. Brad was dying to do something for her, no doubt to appease his own Bugs, so she would ask him to help Ann. If he were caught, everyone would believe that it was his inner ‘do-gooder’ trying to help a nice couple locate their lost friend. It was perfect – a win for everyone. Even Brad.

“Brad doesn’t matter now,” Donnie continued as they neared the mansion. “I have a new target in mind, an experienced adept in the intricacies of Transom procedures, the first real use of the Doctor’s treatment. If that succeeds, then you have our full backing.”

“It is about time, Donnie. The Doctor expects me to impress you and this ‘Brad’ has been far too easy. When do I meet the new subject?”

“I will be working with her myself, I want to see how this works on someone I know well. But I will introduce you this evening.”

“I look forward to it,” Miriam said happily and tried to ignore his use of the feminine.

Dinner and Donnie

It was only thirty minutes before the start of the banquet when Cynnamon received an assignment, still working for Hospitality Services, but she would be escorting some corporate VIPs. At least it would be the perfect opportunity to test out the new device which she had named ‘LilAI’.

Cynnamon hurried back to her room to prepare for the gala. She tied her hair up in a bun and carefully wrapped the LilAI around it, giving the sensor array an obstructed view of the world around her and the jeweled creatures were less obvious among her black tresses than they would be hanging across her chest. She had a matching gold patterned dress and a pair of black heels which would provide an excuse for any awkwardness in her movements inflicted by the disorienting AI.

It was as she adjusting the gold lines of the array in her hair that she received a message from Donyden Cabb, Senior Officer, Strategy and Corporate Relations, Humantis Corporation – Donnie. She had not heard from him in almost ten years. The wind never blows lest a storm should follow, she thought to herself as she read his note.

Cynnamon! I just heard you were in town and begged to have you at our table tonight. I can not wait to see you again! Truly yours, Donnie Cabb

Donnie had been her boyfriend, so many years ago. Many people had assumed she had dumped him upon receiving the Techview assignment but in reality he had been one of the few people who understood.

Donyden Cabb had been a brash and ambitious young officer-in-training and had taught her to take advantage of every opportunity. It was his idea for her to study the Sponsorship laws, to fully understand the ramifications of her legal status, to look for advantages and to understand the disadvantages. It was that outlook which had attracted her to him even before his good looks and the stability and protection that came with having a corper boyfriend. He had been her first physical relationship and she realized that they were compatible on many levels. She had no reason to want to break that relationship.

But when the Techview assignment came, she wanted it, just as any officer would have wanted it. It was a chance to live in the First City, to learn from the best, even if they wanted to train her as a hospie. Donnie was not threatened at all, he told her it was the right thing for her to do. If only her other friends and acquaintances had taken it as well. She had assumed, had hoped the two would remain good friends.

But they did not. Things became strange after she left. He would send her a message, every once in a while, asking how she was and if she was being a ‘good girl’. She was pleased with the attention, at first, but when she realized that ‘good girl’ was a code for asking if she was celibate, she stopped writing him back and he didn’t write her further. Now, suddenly, after almost ten years, he had reached out to her again and he already sounded like the same person she had known.

Entering the banquet hall with LilAI was like diving into a pool, her ears were filled with sounds and voices, her eyes trying to take in an entire room at once. And the AI added to the confusion, throwing call outs at her, pointing out the locations of people she knew, or knew of, or didn’t know at all and isolating and highlighting conversations which mentioned some familiar name or word.

She had already located Patron and Edwyrd while she was still far from them, they were seated on the North end of the hall. She was closing in on their location, when Donnie found her, but not unawares.

He approached her from the back side and she did not give any indication that she saw him except to stop and ready herself. The boy she had known was now a man with the same boyish face. His dress was fashionable and expensive, his hair golden curls, his face chiseled with the same blue eyes. His expression was confident as he reached out and tapped her shoulder.

“Cynnamon, darling!” he began, his face breaking into a smile as she turned back toward him, a manufactured look of surprise on her face.

“Donnie!” she smiled politely and leaned in to kiss him on the cheek. He easily turned his head in a partially successful attempt to make the gesture more intimate. She pulled back but he remained nonplussed.

“I have a seat for you! Some old friends and some new friends are waiting!” and with that he took her wrist and guided her through the maze of people and tables. She was actually glad to be led as it gave her some excuse to be unsteady.

Donnie took her to a table and introduced her all around, not that she needed it. It was a mixture of Humantis and Transom officers and they seemed to know each other and were happily chatting. On one side were the Transom officers: Barrett, Steve and Brad Harilla. On the other side was Donnie and a stunning young woman. It was Miriam. Yet another surprise. Cyn couldn’t help remembering madness being described as continual surprises. She was beginning to feel that way.

Donnie introduced Cyn and offered her his chair, the one near Miriam but she gave Brad a warm smile and sat near him instead. She didn’t like the idea of being forced onto the Humantis side and Brad had always been the easiest person to get along with, even before. He was one who had promised to accept her report but never showed up. She was interested to know why.

“Well, hello again Bradley,” Cyn smiled, “I never see you around Transom House after that first day…”

Brad smiled weakly and responded, making small talk, but what surprised Cynnamon was how uncomfortable he appeared, almost guilty. Had he spoken with Ed? She did not let him off the hook and asked him question after question even as Donnie looked for an excuse to grab her attention back.

LilAI was wonderful. She could see Brad, of course, but she could also see the expressions of everyone at the table. Miriam chatted with Steve and Barrett while Donnie kept his attention on Cyn. And Brad appeared to be looking around the room while he spoke, but he often looked in Miriam’s direction. Miriam was chatting up every one at the table with the exception of Donnie, Brad and Cyn. Interesting. Obviously she had made a mistake in not learning more about this Miriam. But in some ways, she had hoped their paths would not cross in any meaningful way.

Eventually, Cyn turned back to Donnie who was delighted to tell her what he had been doing over the years. In many ways, he was the same person she had known before, ambitious and garrulous. She was not surprised at all that he was already a senior officer. Of course his father was an executive with Humantis and the Cabb family and the Harilla family were old friends.

Cynnamon’s mind swirled, a controlled tornado, and she concentrated as she had never done before, monitoring four conversations even as the AI revealed that Patron was approaching the table. The large man appeared, a congenial and apologetic smile on his face as he clapped both hands on Barrett’s shoulders.

“Excuse me ladies. Gentlemen. Is everyone enjoying dinner?”

His expression hardly changed at the responses and he continued. “I have to borrow this man, apologies.” His gaze swept the table and then he leaned down again and whispered something which no one but Cyn could pick up. He said: Bring the asset too.

And then Patron was gone. Barrett smiled apologetically only at Miriam and rose to leave. Then, as if remembering something, he turned back and looked at Cynnamon.

“We’ll need coffee and such, so the hospie is with me.”

“That hospie is assigned to me,” Steve protested, looking at Barrett.

Barrett shrugged. “Not any more.”

Cyn, happy to leave, rose quickly, smiled politely, and hurried off after Barrett. As she moved away, her AI caught all the reactions. Miriam gave her a quick, expressionless glance but returned to being the center of attention. Brad looked over at Miriam who ignored him. Donnie seemed more than a little annoyed, it was an ugly look. And Steve rose from the table.

“What do you need?” she asked, catching up to the security executive.

“Just come with me, and this is all business by the way,” he added hastily before walking on, ahead of her.

Thank the storms, she murmured to herself.

Annabelle

Ann rested her head on Ryk’s shoulder as they danced, steadying her gaze at the Transom officer with whom they had been speaking earlier.

“Well, back to the drawing board, I suppose,” she sighed.

“At least he did find a record of your friend, that is something, right?”

“Yes, but nothing recent and that ‘Charlee’ told us Lyn had an appointment with a Transom reproductive clinic, right? I hoped we could confirm that and then go talk to the workers, maybe even identify this boyfriend.”

“Maybe we should talk to Miriam, if we can find her, she’s been pretty good with the ideas,” Ryk observed.

“Ah yes,” Ann spoke out loud. “and another question I have is how did your Miriam get that Transom corper to run our query? She doesn’t work for Transom…”

“I can tell you, Miriam never had a problem getting people to do whatever she wanted, especially the boys.”

“Perhaps,” purred Annabelle, her chin on Ryk’s shoulder. “but batting one’s eyelashes and flashing big smiles are overused and hence overrated strategies.”

“You might be under-estimating her and over-estimating men, present company not excluded.”

Ann smiled once again. She decided she could put aside work, enjoy the evening and start fresh the following day.

Executive Meeting

Cynnamon followed Barrett through a maze of hallways, but she knew they were in a section of meeting rooms dedicated to high level Transom-only personnel. As she walked across the threshold and into the room, she gasped to herself.

The small but incredibly elegant and upscale meeting room was filled with Transom executives, her AI told her as much. She had never been in the same room with so many powerful officers and she knew enough to be worried but knew better than to show it.

Barrett took a seat near Patron and she noticed the silver-haired man from Techview present. Confused, she looked over at Patron just as Steve Harilla slipped into the room.

“What the hell are you doing here?” Patron growled. “Executives only.”

“Martin is still unavailable, so someone has to represent SCR, right?” Steve explained calmly.

Patron did not reply but instead waived her to an open seat. As she sat down, Cyn realized that each person at the table was powering down their AI and sliding them onto the table. It was a rule in highly classified meetings, no AI. Only Tym seemed to have neglected that directive and was busy with a tablet.

Cyn fumbled to pull her inactive AI from her purse and dump it on the table, even as she worried about the one she wore on her head. She didn’t even know where it had come from, what if it were detected? Could they detect it? Nervously she struggled to convince LilAI to power down. She was rewarded as the virtual callouts all faded away. The unit had stopped interrogating its surroundings but she could still see and hear as before. She hoped that was enough.

Patron began the meeting.

“Okay, before we disclose the reason to pull you all from your dinner, some introductions are in order. Some of you have already met Tym Matheson with SCR-Techview, he is acting as auditor, he may even have interviewed some of you.” Patron nodded to Tym before turning to Cyn. “And this young lady is also on loan to us from Techview Operations. And of course you all know Steve who apparently is here in place of Martin. Now, before we talk about the problem, let’s speak first about the solution, the strategy. Tym, could you brief the room?”

At this point, Matheson casually powered off his AI and slid it to the center of the table. He looked around the room, making eye contact with each person as he began.

“As most of you are aware, although Transom Industries is known as the leader in corporate and human services in every corner of Las Joyas, we are also known as the company without a product. Yes, I hate to hear that as well, but it is not without reason. For an organization of our size, it is remarkable that we have been unable to develop and market a single tangible, extremely successful product. We won’t discuss the theories of why but suffice to say that in recent years we devised new strategies to address the issue.

Enter Humantis Corporation, a small company with a growing expertise in body enhancement products but not enough capital to fully fund or support their burgeoning business. It seemed a natural fit; we provide support services to them, free of charge, in return for a share in new products. Many of you have heard of their recent success with a fertility product, news which implies that our investment is finally ready to bear fruit.”

“So that is the solution, now let’s hear about the problem. Barrett?”

Barrett did not beat around the bush.

“As you can imagine, we have employees involved in all aspects of corporate life, we provide security, we supply clerical and hospitality staff, the list goes on. But in recent months, we have been plagued by a number of strange and costly incidents. Nothing consistent, an expensive piece of equipment goes missing, a database is accidentally wiped, a fire breaks out, the list goes on. The only common denominator is Humantis, the problems seem to be specific to them.”

Barrett stopped and waited for questions.

“Who is doing this? And what are we doing about it?”

“Great question and we don’t know. We have steadily increased our security presence within the Humantis facilities and it hasn’t helped. Somehow the problem is always where we aren’t. Our friends at Humantis feel strongly that the blame lies with village contractors, both companies have them.”

Patron looked around the room, but no one seemed to have anything to say. So he asked his own question.

“Why would the villagers do this? What would they have to gain? And what proof is there?”

“More good questions that I can’t answer. When we speak with our contacts in the villages, they are as mystified as we are.”

“Do you believe them?”

“Well Patron, we haven’t had any reason to doubt them in the past.”

“Let me blunt,” began another executive. “Why do we care? What is our exposure on this?”

“First, it hurts our reputation,” Tym spoke up, “we are known for our services, security is one of our flagship offerings. If it became known that Humantis had to replace us, saving some money at the same time, why wouldn’t others do the same thing? Secondly, Humantis’ product line is finally starting to take off, thus our investment is ready to pay dividends, so we do not want a situation where it looks like we are not keeping up our end of the bargain.”

The room was silent.

“What about Humantis themselves? Any reason why they might do this? Sabotage their own projects?”

“Sure,” crooned Steve, “they are dying to squelch their first significant profits now that they finally have some, after years of being a corporate door mat to the rest of Las Joyas.”

“We don’t know,” Barrett admitted, “but I will tell you something, we have asked and asked for details about these ‘incidents’ and the only thing we have gotten is their insistence that they are unhappy. Answers have not been forth-coming.”

“Well, isn’t it our job to get the details?” Steve asked innocently. “I mean, isn’t that what they pay us for?”

Barrett glowered at him.

Patron waved a hand.

“We need information, we are playing catch-up and we need to know what is going on.”

“Why don’t we send Cyn in?” Steve asked, his face a smirk of confidence. “She already has contacts among their leadership.”

Cyn felt her stomach turn, as everyone looked over at her.

“I am not sure I agree,” Cyn replied, “I knew some Humantis officers back in school but that was almost ten years ago. I…I dated a boy, who is now a senior officer but we have barely exchanged a dozen words since then. I was at a table with him this evening, before…”

“Exactly my point,” Steve laughed, “I saw you two at dinner, he obviously would like to reconnect with you at some level. Besides, you were a Transom operative, correct? Trained in Techview even, this shouldn’t be any problem for you, right?”

“Naturally I could speak with him,” Cyn began carefully. “But I doubt he would tell me anything he doesn’t want you to know.”

“What other choices do we have?” Steve asked the room as if that argument should be sufficient.

“You are our SCR guy,” Patron started, “what have you found out from your contacts over there?”

“C’mon, Patron,” Steve demurred, “you know its bad form to discuss business outside of the agreed particulars. I can’t just ask about these incidents.”

“But we can and we have,” Barrett began, “but we don’t get facts, just more complaints. So we would appreciate SCR’s help on resolving that problem.

“Steve, you have something to do now,” Patron instructed. “Cynnamon, go ahead and speak with Donnie. Maybe he’ll drop something, obviously we’ll take it with a grain of salt.”

“I’m meeting with Donnie and some of his people tomorrow,” Steve offered, “why don’t I just bring her along? That way she has an excuse to be there.”

“How about if you just stay the hell out of ops business?” Patron replied.

“Sure, no problem, but I thought this was super important, if you want to wait until you can make the connections…”

“This is important,” emphasized Barrett. “He might be right.”

“Of course I am right. That is what assets are for, to do those things…”

“Let me ask a question,” Tym interjected. “Miss Asset, tell us, do you have any experience with investigating rival corporations?”

“Of course, it’s a fairly common request…” Cyn responded.

“Patron, how many counter-espionage cases has Transom-New Berlyn conducted with in the last year?”

“A few, why?”

Tym turned thoughtfully to Cyn.

“It seems to me it’s a bigger problem for us in Techview. How many have you personally worked in the last year?”

Cyn looked up into the air, considering. “Roughly a dozen instances of corporate espionage against us.”

Tym looked over at Steve, his eyebrows raised.

“No offense, Steve, but as I said, it’s a bigger problem in Techview. So she probably has more experience than all of us, it’s not my field but I know they let their ops groups run themselves, with good reason.”

“Big difference between sleeping with the enemy and organizing counter-espionage,” Steve laughed.

“I don’t understand you,” Tym spoke, quickly pulling his AI from the table and replacing it on his head. It flashed as it powered up. “Explain what you mean, Steve.”

Steve smiled, looking over at Patron for some support.

“Isn’t it obvious? I’m saying it’s more important to lead the operation than simply be a part of it.”

Tym laughed and looked over at Cyn. His normally friendly eyes dark and intense.

“How many of those counter-espionage operations did you lead?”

“I’m just an asset…”

He looked away from her and back toward the rest of the table.

“My information is that she has led ten espionage investigations for Techview. Oh, this is interesting. Tell me also, Miss Asset, why doesn’t your team work closely management on these things?”

The silver haired man seemed infinitely amused. One of the other executive started to speak but Tym held up his hand as he waited for a response.

“It’s just…” Cyn began thoughtfully. But she knew better that discuss Mother’s philosophies. “It’s just our standard procedures, to investigate independently…”

“Is it because more than seventy percent of the time there is a high ranking Transom official actually involved?”

There was a pause in the conversation.

“Fine,” Patron stood. “Cynnamon, have a word with Mr. Cabb, proceed as you think best. Steve, talk to your contacts at Humantis. See that Barrett gets the information he needs. When we next meet, I expect answers from both of you.”

Patron

Barrett put his feet up on the expensive boardroom table and leaned back in the chair, pushing its flexibility to the limit.

“Tell me Paul, why do we care about this, why now? I heard what Tym had to say and I get it, but at the of the day, neither the villages nor little Humantis want to mess with us. Last time I checked, we were the leading employer of the villages and number nine on the corporate power ranking. Don’t we have bigger fish to fry? Like the Top Five?”

“I’m not worried about Humantis,” Patron murmured as he activated the privacy shields to the room. “They are just flexing their growing claws, they know their future is aligned with ours and one day they will be useful allies against the Top Five. But I am worried about the villages. You know the story of Palenque, right?”

“The fallen dome? That’s all I know I about it. They built it, cost too much to maintain and abandoned it. It all happened about the same time as New Chicago was being settled.”

“Well, you are partially right. Lana was there, in the early days, so I know a little bit more about it. But it’s a myth about the unexpected energy expenditures, in truth it should have been one of the most energy efficient of all of the Joyas – a sky bright enough to charge solar panels, extremely high, crystal rock walls that formed a canyon narrow enough that one dome could cover the entire thing, imagine a city the size New Berlyn under a single dome.

“So what happened?” Barrett asked, sitting up with interest.

“They were too successful,” Patron said with a worried look.

“What the hell does that mean, Paul?”

“I mean exactly what I said. The whole thing worked too well, the corpers stopped worrying, they forgot that they were a small island in the ocean of Maltiempo. They stopped caring about their relationship with the villagers and, one day, the villagers left, en mass, no one even knows where. The city continued to run but as Maltiempo changed there was no one with any experience on how to adjust to it, the dome failed months later.”

“Well, that is not the way they tell the story.”

“Who cares? The point is, I am much more worried about a significant problem with the villagers than anything else. I should have thought of this before. If Lana were here…she would tell me I’ve been looking the wrong way while things happened behind my back…”

Poker

Cyn strode through the halls of Transom House, her heels clapping confidently, her stride now smooth with only an occasional over-correction, her smile was friendly hiding the feelings of awe over her new view of the world.

It had taken a good deal of practice, much effort, and she was still learning but Cyn felt that she could now use the strange AI efficiently. When she walked through a room, she did not need to look to the left or to the right to see who/what was there. She did not need to turn around if she heard a strange noise or a calling voice, she could see it all through this amazing device, through LilAI. She wondered if her new view of the world made her seem a little aloof? Still, she needed to get down to business and she was delighted to have a purpose again. There was no need to ask people if they had seen Donyden Cabb, LilAI led the way.

She found Donnie playing cards in one of the various social rooms, along with a group of other officers, including both Brad and Edwyrd. The balance of the room held some spectators and a bevy of hospitality assets shuttling fresh drinks in and carrying empty containers out of the room. All the players were drinking but they weren’t all as happy as Brad Harilla seemed to be. He laughed out loud as Cyn approached and she noticed that he had a good-sized pile of chips near him. She remembered that he was a shark at cards, his good-natured attitude toward everything made it hard to read him.

She waved Brad a hello but said nothing as she walked up to the side of Donnie’s chair. She focused her eyes on him but her AI could see more than a couple inebriated heads pop up to inspect the new female in the room. Edwyrd looked up, long enough to see her and then back to his cards. He seemed impatient and probably was as sober as a judge.

The effect of Brad’s outburst was taken as a tell and several players folded. Then, almost as an afterthought, Ed threw down his cards and rose up. He walked around to Brad and delivered a punch in the arm that made the tipsy Brad laugh harder.

But Ed smiled back at him, a pleasant expression that seemed so rare on the so-serious youngest Harilla sibling. The scene reminded her of how they were years ago, back in school, before the darkness of corporate life possessed them all, her as well.

Donnie looked up at her and she leaned down, apologizing for being called away from dinner.

“I need to see you Cyn” he whispered back, his lips a bit too close to her ear as he said it. Cyn, prepared for the moment, smiled sweetly.

“Let’s go catch up.” she replied, “We can sit out by the pool.” Cyn suggested, intentionally wanting to steer him toward a private but not secluded location. “Besides, Brad is a shark, just get out while you can.” She laughed intending to give him another excuse to leave with her.

In response, Donnie grasped onto her wrist and continued to play, his face determined. Cyn had forgotten how competitive Donnie could be, especially with the Harillas and they with him.

Donnie played on, his hand holding Cynnamon’s wrist as if she were a balloon on a string. Brad won the next couple hands and Cyn could feel the tension grow within Donnie’s arm. She immediately doubted that a discussion would yield any useful information at all, worse he would be miffed if he felt she were working him. She was considering that she should find an excuse to leave when Patron made the decision for her, she received his communication through her AI:

Cyn, there is a villager named Pol Gentes in the lobby, he is leaving through the main entrance. Intercept him. He’s hugely popular around the villages, he may know something about this Humantis business. Find out. Forget Cabb for now.

“Patron wants me to fetch him a drink. Can you believe him? Be right back,” Cyn whispered to Donnie with feigned annoyance. Then she twisted her wrist easily out of his grasp, spun around, and headed out of the room, her AI ramping back up to full sensitivity.

She noticed that Donnie didn’t turn to watch where she was going, but some of the other players and spectators did. She heard some of the whispered comments from the table; many of them were drunken, rude comments and others were just rude. She suddenly realized that the AI not only could change how she experienced the world but it might change how she thought of the people in it. It was creepy enough to have a stranger stare at her when she could see it, far worse to see them doing it as she moved away.

She hadn’t noticed him before, but now she recognized Steve Harilla moving in the same direction, his avatar revealing him even when he was physically behind others. When he finally moved into line behind her, she saw a drink in hand, his classic deadpan expression giving her no clue as to his intentions. What was he doing?

Her opinion of Steve had never been high; she had thought of him as hard working and a little strange, but his comments at the executive meeting had really irked her. She was not naive, fully realizing that Transom would use her as it saw fit with little regard for her own feelings. That’s how it had always been, but at least in Techview that use had not been gratuitous or even malicious.

But Steve had basically implied that all she had to do was fuck Donnie and all the mysteries would be revealed. That was amazingly stupid. Even if Donnie knew something, he wouldn’t consciously give it up, his pride and his competitive spirit would never allow that. It was almost as if Steve wanted to see her placed at a disadvantage. Thank the storms for that Techview executive! She had a new appreciation for the First City, her city.

She moved gracefully across the lobby floor and was dismayed to see that Steve was still following her. Did he want to talk? It was no matter, she needed to catch Mr. Gentes, the name was familiar but she was not sure why. But when she saw him, it came back to her.

Patron

Patron squeezed into a seat in a darkened security room. He managed to activate the main thread surveillance but was unsure how to track through the building. The door opened and Ed entered. Patron looked up, waiting for some explanation.

“Barrett is busy with some issue. I said I could come up.” Ed said as he slid into a chair two seats down and worked a control. “Where are we going?”

“Can you find that asset, Cynnamon? Or else just track to the lobby.” Patron instructed, his voice low as if concerned someone might hear them.

“That name is coming up a lot, Patron,” Ed muttered. “See, I can just select her from the directory, the face readers will determine where she has been and where she is,” Ed explained even as he watched the screen fast-forward through her movements that evening. “Lobby, dinner, in the hallway, in an executive meeting room for a while?” Ed looked over at Patron who nodded his head and Ed continued: “Back into the hallways, at the card game and back out, into the lobby and now we are real time,” Ed announced. “Looks like she knows where she’s going,” Ed mused as he tracked and zoomed. Cyn was in a purposeful stride across the lobby floor. They tracked her as she walked toward the Transom House main entrance and toward two men. Another man was far behind her, but following.

“Who’s that?” Patron asked upon seeing the fourth person.

“My brother,” Ed muttered.

Patron and Edwyrd watched Cyn speak with the older man, her expressions becoming animated. After a while she lifted one thin arm just so the older man could take it and escort her back into the building.

“Is it really that fucking easy?” Ed huffed as they watched. “Don’t tell me they are going to a private room?”

Patron did not respond to that. He had his own question: “What the hell is Steve doing down there? First he crashed my executive meeting and now he’s tailing my operative like he is her body guard. I told him to back off. He had better not fuck this up.”

“They are going into the gardens,” Ed warned. “we can’t track too well through there. Want me to tell her to turn around?”

“No,” Patron shook his head, eyes glued to the screen. “Old Pol is a farmer at heart, he’ll love those gardens. I wonder if that was her idea or his; maybe she is just breaking some ice.”

“It looks like the ice is melted already, Patron.” Ed said simply as he tried to find an angle which gave them a view of the couple’s location within the gardens.

“How much do you want to bet that she will take him through the gardens and then bring him straight to one of our interview areas?” Patron asked, relaxed and content to wait.

“She should be doing that now; there is no telling what they are discussing.”

“You are too suspicious Edwyrd.” Patron sighed. “And since your older brother is on his own errands and the other one is drunk, maybe we should talk about Cynnamon C334.”

“Great, what the hell is she doing here? Why is everything that has to do with her somehow strange and non-standard.” Ed began.

“Are you complaining about how she is being treated? I didn’t realize you two were so close?”

“We aren’t. But by treating her different, you are making her special, singling her out, drawing attention. That is why her name keeps coming up. I think you intentionally have left her unassigned and that messes up security not to mention improper use of property we do not own. Barrett warned you about that…”

“Answer my question. Of course I vaguely remember her, but I know she was in corporate training at the same time as you and Brad. So, are you two friends? Were you friends?”

“No and no. I was furious when you somehow decided to send her to Techview and not us, not me.”

“Fine,” Patron leaned back in his chair. “As I recall we wanted to train her as a hospie. Pretty obvious right? Pretty girl, well spoken, has all her teeth, so it made sense. While farming and security services may be our bread and butter down here, in Techview it’s all about human services: hotels, casinos, medicine bars, massage. So they know how to train a hospie there; if you want to have a good one, than send them to Techview. We have done quite a few like that. They get training and then we bring some back or maybe sell some to the other Joyas.”

His son glared at him but Patron was unperturbed.

“You could have explained that years ago. You know that whole thing miffed me” Ed huffed even as he tried to get a glimpse into the gardens.

“Sure and you would have told everyone she was going to whore school. Right? And it wouldn’t have bugged you the way it did, even though it made no sense for you to go to Techview, at least not then. Since then you have been busting your ass learning this company like no one else, even Steve, just to stick it in my face.” Patron looked at him with amused eyes.

“Maybe.” Ed said. “Still.”

“Maybe you have trust issues. Still.”

And as Patron scrutinized the new Deputy of Transom Security, he wondered if his reactions were genuine. Still, he needed to assume they were and continue this talk.

“But I digress. Cyn began training as a hospie but her handlers didn’t think she was suited for it. A good hospie can play their parts to perfection, they are emotional chameleons. Your friend, Cynnamon, isn’t bad but you can see the cracks when she gets pressured. If you had been in the meeting this evening you would know what I mean.”

“We haven’t spoken in ten years, Patron, stop provoking me. Fine, so she couldn’t make it as a hospie, what happened then?”

“Well, they bounced her out of the hospie program within the year and made plans to send her back to us.”

“And?”

“Well, they offered to buy her out. And we took the offer, I mean what were we going to do with her? And then the bastards moved her to Ops.”

“They are at the fountain.” Ed gestured to a monitor. Then he turned to Patron. “So why is she here? We all know it must be your idea, but why?”

“As I have already said, we have always sent hospies to Techview. No one disputes the value-add of a Techview trained hospie, at least for client facing positions. But, as we are seeking to expand and grow, I had to consider the value of Techview training in other fields. Techview Operations has grown extremely powerful under their current director and perhaps we can learn something from whatever the hell they are doing. That is why she is here. No, I didn’t request her specifically, perhaps it amused Mother to send us one of our own. Irrelevant. I need to see how good these Techview ops are, so I have intentionally put her through the ringer and made things as difficult as possible. That is why I messed up her security, why I left her unassigned and why I let hospitality and even security do what they wanted with her.”

“But what is she actually doing for you.? Was it your grand plan for her to stroll around Transom Gardens entertaining your old friends?”

Patron smiled in amusement.

“So you remembered that Pol and I were once friends. That is true, and we are still friends but we don’t trust each other which is why Cyn is with him rather than me. So let’s see if she knows what the hell she is doing.” Patron’s eyes darted to a monitor. “There, it looks like their garden walk is over. Pol seems to be in great spirits and they are stopping for a coffee; a place where we have full video and audio surveillance, am I right?”

“Yes.” Ed said with a hiss as he tracked the audio and Cyn’s voice came over the speaker, Ed flipped a switch and sent it to his AI and then to Patron’s as well; the room went silent. Another flip of his finger activated the door’s privacy lock.

As he listened, Patron became more and more concerned.

“What the hell did he just say!” demanded Patron out loud. “Open this feed to the rest of the executives, I want them to hear this. And don’t you dare include your brother!”

Cyn

It came back to her. His name, Pol Gente, was familiar but upon seeing his face and hearing his voice, she remembered who he was and when she had met him.

“I was in your class! When I was a little girl, in Imais, I still remember you teaching us pre-Maltiempo history,” she beamed, approaching him. But even as she relived memories of his teaching, her AI picked up a quick whisper between the two men. She made out the words ‘Transom’ and ‘bastards’.

He looked at her, his face analytical, as if checking the weather, before it melted and transitioned into a friendly, warm smile.

“Ah, the fringe benefit of teaching so many village girls. Once in a while, they remember their old teacher and walk over to say hello.” He took her hand and squeezed it even as he appraised her.

She knew what he was thinking, village girl at corporate event, either she had married into the corporate world or she was their slave. She put him out of his misery.

“After village school, I was fortunate enough to be accepted into Transom’s Sponsorship program, I completed some training and then I moved to Techview. I have been there ever since and I am so happy to return and find someone that I actually remember. I have been meaning to see the Transom Gardens but haven’t had the time. Would you like to see them with me? We could catch up…”

“If none of these young officers have the brains to escort you through the gardens, then I don’t feel bad for them at all. Shall we?”

Cyn offered her arm and they returned into the mansion and made their way to the back porch and through the garden gates. Even villagers were thrilled to see the amazingly beautiful and elegant trees, plants and flowers which grew within, things that could never survive outside the Domes.

“I have never forgotten your class, Mr. Gente,” Cynnamon confided as they walked one of the garden paths.

“Ah, can I really be so fortunate to be remembered so vividly after so many years?”

“It’s true!” Cyn insisted, “I was so shy those days. I can’t remember for the life of my why, but I never raised my hand in class, I never spoke with the other children and I never answered questions. Perhaps I feared saying the wrong thing.

But you, you were persistent with me and I needed that. You insisted I speak up and eventually I learned to actually enjoy it, phrasing my responses, explaining my thought process. Years later, it really helped me in the corporate world.”

“It would have helped you in any world,” he scolded. “Still, I am pleased although I can’t take all the credit…”

It was then that it happened. The pair had been walking on a minor path, where the large leaves of many trees and bushes pushed out into the walk way. As they pushed by a large, violet, leaf, they could suddenly see what lied ahead.

The path ended up ahead at the life-sized statue of a man, standing within a small garden of flowers, lights illuminating his copper skin. Suddenly they could hear the sound of running water.

Near the status, a real man was pacing, speaking with great animation into his AI, perhaps choosing the secluded location for privacy.

Cynnamon froze, her face blanching even as Pol kept walking, turning only to find out why she had stopped.

“Are you all right?” he asked, confused.

She spun around quickly as if someone had tapped her on the shoulder. But there was no one behind her.

“I’m sorry, could we go back now?” she pleaded.

Flashback

It was the day before her graduation but it was also a festival evening, some called it ‘Asset Halloween’ and Cyn laughed out loud as she slowed from full run to a satisfied trot. Some of the other assets had purchased leaper shoes but Cyn didn’t see incurring that expense, besides she was naturally athletic and a good sprinter as she had just demonstrated by quickly evading a group of officers dressed as demons.

She closed her eyes and enjoyed the cool air against her skin as she walked quickly through the garden paths.

Impromptu, Cyn switched into a skip. She had already decided she would only attend a few parties that evening, then she would return to her quarters to be alone with her own thoughts and reflections, to quietly celebrate the amazing news that she would train in Techview.

Unfortunately, many of her classmates seemed unhappy at her opportunity, calling her a sell-out, a traitor and worse. As if she had any choice and like they wouldn’t all jump at the chance to leave this backward city behind. Donnie had understood though and they had parted on good terms. Who knows, perhaps he would end up there one day and they would pick up where they left off?

She moved boldly onto the main path, ready for a challenge. If she were caught so close to the house she was absolutely sure a good sprint would get her safely inside where the ‘demons’ were not allowed. In the back of her mind, Cyn knew that it was a night of mischief and that she should not depend that the young costumed officers would all follow the rules.

It was then that she heard laughter and her name coming from up ahead. Curious, but cautious, she followed a minor path which ended in a small clearing among the trees. Up ahead was a metallic statue of Hendryk Transom, the founder of Transom Industries. His copper body leaned on a similarly colored walking stick, sticking out of a garden of flowers and grasses. But he was not alone, something was with him.

As she approached she spied someone dressed up as a demon clown, they were trying to remove Hendryk’s stick. The tall clown was giggling strangely and she thought to say something, to warn it about the consequences of vandalizing the image of the revered man; but to do so might trigger a chase. She decided to watch a few moments further.

It was then the clown turned toward her, his face decorated with an exaggerated smile against white skin and a bright red nose. The copper stick had broken off and was now in it’s hand. Cyn braced herself to run but the thing relaxed upon seeing her.

The clown smiled at her and the stolen walking stick disappeared only to be appear again, pushed between its legs from the other side, a grotesque simulation of an erection.

“Very funny,” she laughed.

The clown raised its painted eyebrows and beckoned to her, slouching a bit, trying to look less intimidating.

“I don’t think so,” Cyn smiled keeping her eye on it as she took one step back. Her breath and energy had returned and she was ready for a run home. The clown’s grin disappeared and was replaced with menace. It let the end of the copper rod drop to the ground where it was dragged across the path, metal audibly scraping stone. Then it giggled, raised the object again and took a step toward her.

Too late, Cyn sensed the presence behind her and was knocked forward, her chest slamming into the dirt. A hand pressed the back of her head, pushing her mouth into the ground, muffling her protests. She struggled and managed to turn onto her back where a fist slammed into the side of her face, stunning her. She tried to get up and was struck from the other side. Her world went gray and when her vision returned a rough hand covered her mouth and her whole body was being racked by violent thrusts. She could hear her own grunts.

She was in pain, she knew, but that was nothing compared to the panic which was emanating from every pore of her body at the thought of the large, evil clown; his insane giggles and the sound of his make-shift penis scraping against stone. Was it getting closer?

Tears in her eyes, Cyn tried once again to get up. She managed to twist her body but her attacker drove her forward, her flesh of her face scraping against gravel. Her eyes looked up, along the dirty path, to where the clown stood practicing with the copper rod. Suddenly it fell to its knees, laughing hysterically at its own antics.

Sensing a pause from her attacker she pushed to her feet, trying to pull away, but she was violently pulled and spun around…back the way she had come. The next thing she knew, she was running.

Cyn had run straight back to her room where she locked the door and stood, stunned, in front of a mirror for almost five minutes, horrified by the cuts, the bruises, the dirt and the skinless gouges in her young face.

She grabbed her half-packed bag and fled the building, taking a taxi straight to SkyTran Station.

Her biggest fear, one that would consume and terrify her for the next thirty hours was that someone would see her face, would see the damage to her face, and somehow her Techview trip would be canceled. Who would want a hospie with a damaged faced?

She hid in a damp, dark alcove within the station for almost a full day, dreading every announcement, fearing that someone was looking for her. Then, with only minutes until the doors were closed, she ran for her hugger and spent the ten hour journey shaking in her berth.

After she arrived in Techview, it was two days before anyone even asked her about the welts on her face which had started to heal. She explained that her ex-boyfriend had hit her.

“I wouldn’t let that become a habit if I were you.” was all they said. She bought a pair of leapers almost the next week and didn’t sleep through the night for almost a month, frequently waking to check the locks on the door, sometimes sleeping under the desk rather than in a bed. Within eight months she had washed out of the hospie program.

Then, to her complete and joyful surprise, she was moved to Transom Ops, where she had been ever since.

Interview

“Are you alright?” Pol Gente had taken her arm, gently, and was looking at her with obvious concern.

“I apologize,” Cyn replied. “It was just…a panic attack.”

“Was it the man? Did he concern you?”

“No,” she responded simply, “I did not know them.”

“Oh, I only saw one person.”

“There were two.”

Minutes later, the pair had returned to a cafe and he ordered them both a cup of tea.

“I’m afraid I have to disrupt our conversation with business,” she began as she sipped her tea.

“I was having such a nice time, I just assumed you were in Hospitality and that for some reason my old friend Paul wanted to be extra kind to me.”

“No, that was my pleasure, but now I have some questions, on behalf of Transom Ops.”

His eyes widened.

“Oh, Ops? So I wasn’t so far off about Paul being involved. I would have been more careful if I had known…”

“Oh, really? I just wanted to ask you a question about the current perception of the villages toward the corporate world…”

“I see,” Pol said thoughtfully considering. “Well, I have noticed more complaints, not just from one village, but collectively. Not that I have any power or any privileged information, but I do hear things and sometimes local leaders ask my advice.”

“Would you say that any of those issues are of a serious nature?”

At this point, she heard his heart rate change and his breathing as well.

“I hate to be the one to judge the severity…”

“I understand, Pol, but please do use your own feelings on this.”

“Well, yes, some of them are quite serious.”

“How serious? Theft? Worse than that?”

“I only hear things.”

“That is fine, I understand, so what is the most serious complaint you have heard?”

“I have heard of assaults and kidnappings.”

“Plural.”

“What?”

“More than one assault? More than one kidnapping?”

“I did not say that.”

“You did. Did you misspeak?”

“I am not sure. I’m an old man and sometimes I confuse myself. You should come and visit my wife and I. But now I must be going.”

“I would love to do that. But, I had only one more question. Its about Transom Industries.”

Pol laughed.

“You are asking me?”

“Yes, I want to know why the villagers believe Transom is behind these crimes. What proof have they?”

The man went pale.

“I did not say that anyone blamed Transom.”

“I’m glad. So it’s not true?”

Pol looked at her, his face both confused and frustrated.

“My dear, I can’t just comment on any…”

“If you have not heard such a thing you can just say that.”

Pol looked up at the ceiling, his face reddening.

“You should be ashamed, to use such a charming girl in such a way. I refuse to dirty her soul by speaking corporate politics!”

And with that he rushed off.

Stalked

Cyn was not without guilt that she had upset her former teacher, but it was also clear to her that he was hiding information which could damage her company, the one to which she had duties and loyalties. He had probably thought he could handle her questions, never anticipating that she might take a guess and rely on his sense of honor to not tell an untruth.

The AI feed was overflowing with chatter after Pol’s disclosure. Suddenly there were five more executives on the line and all of them were speaking at once. They seemed to even have forgotten she was there. As she listened, she became aware of Donnie’s avatar moving in her direction, she avoided him and instructed LilAI to stop updating her position, she would not let him track her. Of course, Transom security had higher privileges but she would be safe from Donnie.

As she worked her way through Transom House, with all the expertise of one who had been virtually raised there, she noticed that the Transom executives were, one by one, dropping off the original communication feed with some concluding comments about meeting again tomorrow. There was not much she could add, she had no idea why the villagers would have any issues with Transom, especially since her time in New Berlyn had been restricted to the grounds.

She reflected on the events of the day, noting that the gala was moving into full swing. She had forgotten about the old copper statue or she would have never gone there. This was the second time that old wound was reopened. Still, she felt that it was a ghost she needed to face.

Her decision was made for her when LilAI showed her that both Donnie and Brad were heading in her direction, together. She slipped through the porch and into the gardens.

She walked through the garden paths, avoiding party revelers, until she found the small path which led to the statue of Henryk Transom. Even upon seeing it, she felt her heart pound in her chest and she readied her AI to call for security, if that even made sense.

There was no one around and she crept cautiously toward the statue, her AI picking up only distant conversations. Her eyes fixed on the sculpture’s walking stick as she approached. Some foliage covered the bottom half of the copper rod and it was only as she got closer that she could see that the bottom half was missing, twisted off at the midpoint. And there was something distinctive on the ground near by. The red nose of a clown.

Cyn staggered back, even as her AI isolated the approaching conversations and dutifully pulled them in.

One of the hospies saw her enter the gardens. We’ll have to split up to find her.

What if she isn’t here?

Well, then I’ can ask security to locate her AI. They know who I am. What if she doesn’t want to go with you?

She will, trust me, the Doctor gave me something to make sure….

Where is Miriam? I though she was going to help us…

Cyn turned back the way she came but their callouts were moving quickly through the garden. She couldn’t stay on the path. Fortunately she knew the grounds well, she entered the foliage near the statue and pushed through the trees. Once she was out of sight, she stopped, kicked off her heels and snatched them before scurrying off. She followed the outskirts of the garden and made her way toward a rear service entrance.

At first she had avoided Donnie simply because she didn’t feel like speaking with him this evening, especially considering how insistent he had been previously. But now he had enlisted Brad’s help and that seemed strange to her and she couldn’t help but be concerned. But when she heard mention of Miriam and her ‘Doctor’, then she was sure that their intentions were sinister.

When Brad talked about engaging security she knew she had to flee as they could pinpoint her AI in a flash and if they enlisted a guard, she could be taken almost anywhere. In some ways the gala was starting to remind her of that festival evening when she had been attacked so long ago. And why was it always the Harillas? Did they all hate her so much? The other two had never cared much for her, she knew, but Brad? He had always been the good one but recently he had been acting strangely. Somehow he had been compromised, perhaps even blackmailed.

She passed through the service entry below the porch. The lighting was dim and she moved past some hospies without them taking any real notice. She found a similarly dark, dank, stone stairway and ascended to the next floor, her heels in hand.

Her destination, the executive wing was on the fourth floor. But as she approached it, she heard someone descending. She made the decision to steal onto the third floor and hide in a restroom even though her AI was already indicating a presence, someone she wished she could avoid.

Cynnamon stopped short as she moved into the room. There was a young lady standing in the corner. Her hair was white. The woman moved her head, finding Cyn through the reflection in the mirror.

“You. Again.” Cyn muttered as she stepped to the side and let LilAI scan. There were two officers outside in the hall, but they were moving away, slowly. She had chosen the devil she knew. The woman was on her knees and it was clear she had vomited. Perhaps too much alcohol?

“I did tell you to stay away from me,” Miriam whined back, turning to look at her. Cyn could tell she was sick but she couldn’t invest much time in the girl now.

“I’d love to, but apparently some of your friends are looking for me. Mind telling me why?”

“I have a headache. How about if you go back to your room and we’ll talk when I feel better…”

Cyn looked at the white haired girl, drool was falling from her face. Her eyes were blank, as if she could not see. But her head was shaking slowly, clearly from side to side. ‘Don’t go to your room.’

“You’ve chosen some interesting friends. Playing other people’s game doesn’t seem like your style, Miri…”

“Judge when you see the results….”

“I am.”

Cyn saw her opening and couldn’t wait. She slipped out of the room and moved quickly up the stairs. The no longer could trust Miriam but of course she would not return to her room, that was much too obvious.

The executive wing was her best hope, it was intentionally left out of tracking by face readers and security monitors, mostly so that executives could move their guests, many of which were sexpies, in and out with discretion. She just wasn’t sure she would be allowed within.

Her chance, her hope lay with Lysander Barrett, the security executive who had invited her to his room on her first day. He had since left her alone and she never really understood why he had propositioned her but if the invite was still open she would be allowed on the executive floor…and she was. She breathed a sigh of relief, assuming a casual demeanor as if she had every right to be here. Safe for now, she walked on.

Still, she could not wander here indefinitely, she knew, and as she approached Barrett’s chambers, she weighed her alternatives. Her AI was not providing readings beyond the ultra-private walls of the executive suites, so she didn’t know who was here and who was not.

She stopped, time was running out. She could knock on his door and he might take her in. If he did not answer, she could pretend to wait for him, but how long could she play that game? Here she was in the middle of a den of executives, a level of officer she had always avoided like the plague as there was very little they could not do to a lowly asset. But downstairs she was being stalked, chased and it was only a matter of time…

A door opened and Tym Matheson stepped out. She recognized him even before LilAI started to provide his physiological information.

“Dorothy!” he laughed, taking a tentative step in her direction. His eyes slid down her arm to inspect the object she was carrying, the dirt-covered heels. He was surprised, confused and his stress-vitals did not level off as she approached, they only elevated. It was the best chance she would get.

“Mr. Wizard, I presume?” she smiled as she walked by him and into his room. It was only then that she considered that he might have company. The room was large, and there were other rooms within but there was no motion nor sounds and her AI concurred.

“You know this is almost ten times the size of my quarters?” she mused as he followed her back into the room, the door sliding shut behind them. She spied a large external AUI monitor perched on a table near one end of a luxurious couch, the screen was on and there was a half-empty glass of wine near by.

“I assume you need to hide out?” he sighed, as he walked back to his monitor and slumped into the adjacent couch. “I finally get a stunning, young, operations asset in my chambers and it’s only to hide her from other men?” He waved her to a chair.

She beamed at him with genuine happiness. So far this was a much better choice than Barrett.

“Are all executives so charming? But you are correct, might I stay here for a while?” He had offered her a chair near the other end of the couch but she wasn’t ready to relax yet. She eyed the rest of the room, it had all the orderly, uncluttered, decor of a posh, hotel room. She walked around the room, as if admiring the design, while LilAI examined it all. But there was no one else there, nothing out of the ordinary.

“Tell me something,” he asked with interest and she noticed that his heart rate stabilized almost immediately. “How did you know Mr. Gente was hiding something? How did you know the villages had charges against us?”

Cyn shrugged. “I overheard some words between him and his friend early on. It was clear they were no fans of Transom. That in itself is not uncommon of course. But when we spoke about other corporations, even the Top Five, his demeanor was neutral, not even critical. But when we spoke of Transom politics or Transom operations, he became agitated. When I told him I was in Ops, he was clearly irritated. To be honest, if not for the fact that I was in one of his classes as a child, I am not sure he would have spoken to me at all. Naturally I just put two and two together and took the guess. Although he didn’t want to tell us directly, for whatever reason, from what I know of him he would be loathe to lie straight to our face. He probably feels that such deception is something that only corpers would do.”

“Paul…I mean Patron, said the exact same thing. Well, that was a nice piece of work young lady.”

“So, I can stay? No strings?” she asked innocently, still testing the waters with him.

“Of course,” he began, his face confused and concerned, “Are you really hiding?”

Committed, she dropped the heels onto the floor with an apologetic smile, ignored the chair he had offered and instead slid into an open space on the couch near him.

“No joke, I’m afraid. There is a group of officers searching desperately for me and I am worried by their intentions. The party is getting wild and I think they could get away with things they normally could not. It’s a longer story.”

Tym relaxed and smiled, crossing his long arms behind his silver-streaked head.

“Don’t hate me for saying this, but you are still Techview property. You are completely safe, I could break their contract in a second and ship you home in the morning…”

“Like luggage?” Cyn smiled, her eyes teasing.

“I wouldn’t have said that,” he smiled. “Should I? You could even catch this evening’s hugger.”

“Really, you would do that? Right now if I wanted?” Cyn asked, interested.

Tym nodded, reaching over to his AI.

“Don’t,” she said simply, placing a hand on his shoulder and leaning forward. “Mother sent me here, to complete an assignment for them, I can’t abort it.”

“I know,” Tym said, relaxing. “Well, of course it might be better to face Patron than Mother.”

“You know? Do you know why I am here?”

“I know Mother and I know she sent you here at Patron’s request. But I don’t know why, I was shocked to find you waiting tables but I assumed it was part of whatever you are doing. Then, after this evening’s meeting, I assumed you are supposed to get to the bottom of this Humantis business.”

“Yes, I was supposed to talk to Donnie. But apparently the tables are turned and he wants to speak with me. Very badly. He has help. But he and his friends will have to leave eventually.”

Tym sighed. “I have to leave tomorrow morning. I can take you with me and I’ll tell Mother that they broke the contract by using you in a non-ops capacity. She will be furious with them, but I don’t know how she will feel about whatever she wanted you to do for them.”

“Thank you,” Cyn smiled, “but I have to stay. It’s the life.”

“Are you sure?” Tym said, looking genuinely concerned.

“Of course, but you are sweet, for an exec,”

“I will speak to Patron before I leave, I’ll let him know that…”

“No,” she said simply, slipping close to him. Her finger to his lips, “anything that makes it look like I have an advantage will hurt me in the end. So no talking to Patron, okay?”

The man nodded and his vitals which were elevated before started to rise quickly as soon as she had touched him. She removed her hand from his face and he looked at her incredulously.

“How do you do this? How do you live this life? I just can’t see how you aren’t a nervous wreck all the time?

“It’s like anything, you get used to it,” she assured him.

“Well, you’ll stay here tonight, right?”

“That would be so helpful,” she smiled.

He stood and walked to a door.

“I don’t even use the bedroom, those mattresses are too soft, so I normally work late into the night and sleep on the floor or the couch. So you take the bedroom, get what sleep you can, after the guests have left I’ll take you to the private elevator, it goes straight to your floor. It’s a service elevator. Executives get all sorts of perks.”

This was too good to be true, Cyn thought to herself. But he was Techview and he seemed to know Mother. And of course his blood pressure and heart rate were still high, from the moment he had seen her. She was relieved and flattered and, for the first time in a while, relaxed.

Cyn uncurled her legs from beneath her but made no move to rise.

“I might need another favor, Mr. Matheson,” she said simply.

“Tym. Sure, just tell me what it is?”

“Just like that?” she smiled again. “Anything I ask?”

He stood there.

“Isn’t that the standard response?”

“It’s not the standard response but it is my favorite response. Are you ready?”

“Sure,” he laughed a bit nervously.

Cyn decided that she loved this AI. She told him and watched his reaction, deciding it was completely genuine.

“Really?” he huffed, his eyes widening.

“You did ask how I cope with the stress, right?”

Cyn’s body rocked slowly, her eyes closed, her mind ignoring tiny warnings from another part of her brain that were trying to get her attention, to tell her this was not a good idea.

Not a good idea? It bordered on stupid!

She smiled even as she felt a familiar tingling in her body, one that she had not experienced in recent months. She knew this was a bad idea, a good asset knew better than to tangle with the irresponsibly powerful; it was like jumping into a storm without a suit. But in the end, she just couldn’t help it, the last weeks had been so arduous, so stressful with little outlets and no control over even small aspects of her life. Besides, the man seemed infatuated in a way that somehow she liked and, yes, the risky nature of it all added to it all.

Her eyes opened to slits, looking down at the top of his face lodged between her tanned, firm thighs. She vaguely hoped she would not hurt him, she had broken a man’s nose once doing this. But then her body was seized by a series of tremors and those thoughts flew from her mind as the air pressed out of her lungs and a delightfully musical moan filled the room.

Miriam

Miriam was both angry and confused as she stumbled out of the ladies room, nearly half an hour later. Why had Cyn acted like that? And what did she mean? Had she somehow learned about Donnie’s plans? And what was all that talk about playing games? But there was truth there. Since she had arrived in New Berlyn, she had been following Petyr’s orders and Donnie’s wishes…none of it the way she would have proceeded. Was the olive-skinned girl that perceptive?

I cannot help him if my hands are tied! She yelled at herself and the Bugs.

We do not trust you either, that is why we limit you.

The Bugs rose up in her ears, a maddening screech and roar that made her want to bash her head into the floor. She saw a serving asset walking near her.

“Please help me,” she cried, tears streaming down her cheek.

She sat in the private room, two pain patches applied, one on each side of her neck, but the headache would not stop.

Petyr’s experiment is a success in spite of him, not because of him. I changed all of his formulas, you KNOW that! He would have killed us all if I had followed his prescriptions.

The Bugs punished her for that blasphemy and she whelped.

The door opened and a sea of voices flooded the room.

“Close the fucking door!” snarled Miriam, curled up on a couch.

“What is wrong?” a panicky Brad hurried over to her. She ignored him, looking up only to survey who else was in the room. He had brought Donnie and that creepy Steve had tagged along. Brilliant.

“We couldn’t find her,” Donnie sighed.

“Thank you, I was able to determine that myself. Looks like you’ll have to find a replacement test subject. Why don’t you sweet talk some sex-hospie, there should be plenty of them around tonight.”

Donnie looked at her and nodded toward the others.

“What? I know that Steve is in on it. Give me some credit.” Steve stiffened in response. And then she added, “And Brad is stage 4, it doesn’t matter what I say now.”

“Perhaps you two should try again to find her,” Steve suggested.

“Marvelous, you go with them, that should ensure success. Try her damn room or is that too obvious?” she laughed even as her stomach flared with pain. She closed her eyes and when she opened them, minutes later, only Steve was still there.

“The Doctor isn’t happy with you,” he smiled wickedly.

“You DO NOT speak for Petyr!” Miriam replied.

“I do actually. You know I think this is all a test of sorts, to test YOUR loyalty. And you are failing,” Steve smiled as he grew closer.

“Stay, the fuck, away!” Miriam cried even as her vision dimmed and became spotty, as the Bugs continued their punishments. Suddenly she felt him close, his cologne was strong and she instantly hated it. Then she felt his hands were around her neck.

“You aren’t useful to me any more,” he laughed and she felt a sharp prick of her skin, right through her med patch. Her sightless eyes opened and bulged as she felt fluid being forced into her neck.

She sensed him draw away, still talking to her, taunting her but she was having trouble moving now, even to respond to the pain caused by the Bugs. His hand pressed between her legs as he droned on, she couldn’t even hear what he said now but she caught glimpses of the ugly leer on his face.

Miriam heard the hiss of a spray bottle and felt droplets of something speckle her skin, her arms, her neck and her thighs. It tingled and she caught a whiff, it was some sort of cleaner. He was removing his finger prints, his oils, his disgusting DNA from her body. He had stopped speaking, thankfully, and she knew he was killing her or had killed her. She could no longer move.

She thought of her child, their child. Who would care for it?

[] Abduction

Edwyrd

Edwyrd rose early, checked communications and diagnostics then summoned his private cruiser. As it lifted him high above Transom House, he saw the parade of villager and vendor vehicles which had lined up to receive the equipment and supplies which had been brought in over the last couple days in order to fuel the large social event. Now it all had to go back.

He hated open Transom events like the one that had occurred the previous night, too many people to monitor even for the automated systems. But it was over and there were no significant incidents or abnormalities reported.

Normally, he would take this day off and spend it on one of his many unofficial projects but he had received an invitation to a meeting in SkyTran Dome, a discussion on the raider incursion his patrol had discovered. It was a meeting he needed to attend.

The weather, as usual, was averse to the idea so he had to wait in line for the tunnels. It was then that he received a message from Stym.

“Boss, something strange happened, this morning we found a young woman, passed out in one of the rooms. She is still unconscious, pretty close to death.”

“Damn it!” he moaned, “What happened? And who is she?”

“Humantis junior officer. She’s in medical now. There was something else weird – her skin has large, shiny black splotches.”

“You said she is Humantis? Have you notified them?”

“Yes, they are sending someone but until then it was agreed to leave her in our facility. They can decide if they want to move her.”

“Don’t let her go until we determine what happened to her. Keep me posted,” Ed muttered, a growing sensation telling him it was a mistake to not turn around right now.

Ann

Ann’s eyes slid open even before the man could touch her bare arm. She looked into his eyes, analyzing his intent and purpose.

“What’s wrong?” she demanded, knowing he was waking her for a good reason, a serious matter.

“It’s Miri, something happened to her. They just told me, I am going to her now.”

Ann scrambled after him, pulling a shirt onto her torso, bare legs beneath it as they flew through the halls of Transom House to the medical area and into a private room.

Miriam lay stiff on an examination table. Her eyes were open, eyelids unblinking, her lips parted. Her neck, her entire neck was discolored, a shiny black. Even as Ryk ran to her, Ann could see the monitors, she might not be alive, but she was not completely dead.

“What happened?” she whispered, her voice breaking out.

“We don’t know,” the technician said back. “It’s the strangest thing, as if her body is attacking herself. See her neck?”

“Yes, what does it mean? Why is it so discolored?”

“I don’t know, but when we first found her, her entire body was like that.”

Lil AI

Cyn slipped back her room early in the morning. The building was still asleep except for service assets who had started to clean up and move equipment.

She had no idea how much time she would have to herself before she might be given a new assignment and she wanted some time to work with LilAI.

She had been able to use the device effectively but not proficiently and it had required a great deal of concentration and effort. She needed more practice and she wanted to explore all of the functionality. The 360 degree visual display was often confusing and she frequently was forced to limit the sheer number of visual cues and call outs. She did much better with the audio streams thanks to her omnaudience so she wanted to open those up.

Cyn worked for a full hour, then took a break, drinking some water and crawling into her bedchamber to rest a bit. The sounds of vacuums and equipment movers hummed in the hallway. She had received another message from Donnie but she did not have time for it right now. Whatever he was up to, it could wait until she had time to formulate a strategy for playing his game. If Ed were around and she had the courage to find him, she could report the whole incident. But, in the back of her mind, she worried that he was also part of this. What hope would she have if the entire Harilla clan was aligned against her?

LilAI pinged her, reminding her to try the ‘advanced’ mode. The AI sent her a flood of descriptive text, about an advanced scouting mode which would allow the unit to split into various components. Probably not a good idea, she thought to herself, as she had difficulties even with the single unit. But she was curious and the word ‘advanced’ challenged her. Cyn mused that it would not be the first unadvised action she would have taken recently. She decided she would try it briefly and then return to her practice with the main unit.

“Fine, go ahead Lil AI,” she smiled.

There was a pause, then she felt the sounds of the world muffle and her vision gray as the device assumed control of her sensory implants which affected her optic and auditory nerves. She waited for the world to come back.

Then she yelped as she saw the AI device explode into pieces. One portion flew toward the wall but pulled away at the last moment and lifted into the air. Another piece ran along the bed and scurried onto the floor. The base remained where it was, seemingly inert.

It was awful. Where before she saw from a single view point, now her entire visual stream had somehow been split into two, each of which was moving and with large spatial separations between.

Cynnamon clenched her eyes and covered her ears to block the sensations, but the stimuli came straight at her, directly into her brain. Her ears were flooded with conversations and sounds, she was not choosing them, it was, they were, leaving her both confused and disoriented.

She wanted to turn them off, to tone it all down but she was so overstimulated by the mass stream of information she could not even find the virtual controls to do so, she couldn’t find anything now, she had lost all control.

“Stop.” she urged verbally, alarmed by the pain. She started to feel nauseous and sank to her knees. “Just stop it!” she cried, wishing the two drones could simply stop moving if they wouldn’t turn off. Her eyes teared from the pain and she felt her forehead suddenly meet the hard floor.

She felt a cool blast of air on her neck. She ignored it as she fought waves of nausea and a pressure behind her eyes which threatened to split open her skull. She was aware that someone was trying to help her to her feet.

“I’m okay, it’s okay.” she insisted. But she was pulled to her feet and swept into the air. The rapid movement and spin on her head made her feel even worse and before she knew it, her body was encased in soft padding and her hearing was dampened.

She could still see flash images of the room amid the visual tidal wave that was washing over her. Thus she was vaguely aware that a large object was now in the room…and that it was withdrawing. It was an equipment mover, large enough to hold a person. Another flash and she saw her room again, the door was closing, leaving an empty chamber. She was no longer in her room.

Held

Cyn felt a throbbing pain in her head. It was the agony of looking directly at a sun filled sky after a lifetime of never seeing anything more than clouds; it hurt and confused. But rather than having pupils which could constrict and block the excess light, her brain was laid bare to the onslaught of information transmitted by the drones. The streams of multidimensional video and audio kept coming, each stream interspersed with the other as if intentionally overwhelming her. She could also hear sounds, words, machine hums, the rustlings of fabric.

Once she had prided herself on her omnaudience, her ability to retain and process multiple conversational streams at once, but now she wanted to cry out to whoever controlled the sounds and the sights of the universe and admit that she had been humbled and that she wanted the test to stop.

Her physical body was pummeled softly from all sides as if she was caught within a vibrating compartment. She heard familiar voices but she was too distressed to care to identify any of them.

The stream of images kept coming but now there were delightful breaks of pure, quiet, blackness; respites from the storm that had battered her senses and her mind. She felt a hand on hers. One stream of images assaulted her mind and then there was nothing, and then another stream and then again there was black.

“Cyn darling. How do you feel?”

Another familiar voice, she turned her head in its direction like a cat sensing movement. She attempted to open her eyes but found they were already open and still she saw nothing.

“Are we going to the hospital?” she asked weakly trying to keep the worry out of her voice. She wanted to cry ‘turn that thing off” but who would understand what she meant? Who could know she had subjected herself to some strange AI which seemed to have malfunctioned and was now tormenting her.

“You weren’t feeling well, but you are getting better.”

Donnie?

“Donnie? Is that you? What happened?”

“Yes, darling, don’t worry. I am going to take care of everything.”

And she was relieved. Relieved to have someone with her, someone to reassure her that her whole mind and body hadn’t been dropped into a rabbit hole of endless imagery and sounds, a sensory jigsaw that could never be completed.

“Can you turn on a light so I can see you?” Cyn asked, hoping desperately that darkness might be the reason that she could not see anything except the world of AI drones wandering in her quarters.

Suddenly, she was lifted, swept from standing upright to a horizontal position; her back pressed against a padded surface, an examination table? It didn’t matter, the quick change in orientation sent her brain into a dizzying spin which didn’t stop even as she was sure that her body had. It was worse than a night of chemical abuse. She tried to prop herself up by one arm, but she couldn’t get any leverage. She gave up.

“I love you Cyn” came the same voice as before, Donnie. Was anyone else there? Cyn felt him squeeze her knee and move her leg. She tried to reassure him that she would be okay, that she just needed to turn onto her side and be left there, so the spinning would stop. The image blasts were more infrequent now, but they struck the nerves behind her eyes like sledge hammers every time they appeared, suddenly, from the darkness; the suddenness in which they appeared was itself alarming.

Then she felt the scrape of skin on her face, dry skin. It was someone’s lips.

“Its okay, Donnie. I just need to get up,” she protested as she tried to sit, but she was unable. Now she felt the kisses become more urgent as was the parting of her legs. She tried to close them but something had been placed in the space between her knees and that something did not yield to her efforts. Her muscles fatigued even as she felt her legs pressed further apart by the thing which slid along her thighs, inward.

Sex? Was this about sex? She gasped even as she felt her undergarments pulled away. She pushed upwards with her hands and hit a hard mass of muscled, male, stomach and firm, bare, chest. His skin was wet, almost slimy and her hands slipped when she tried to get traction and push him away.

“Donnie! What’s wrong with you!” she yelled in frustration as her palms pressed against him and she struggled. Her abdominal muscles strained valiantly but soon fatigued.

“I love you Cyn, so much. Its been so long. Much too long. I know you feel it too.”

She felt something moist press between her thighs and soon the moistness turned rigid and hard, an unyielding probe of the area between her legs, searching for something and when it found its target, it entered quickly causing her to cry out from the suddenness and intensity.

“Damn it, Donnie!!” she screamed, her body thrashing but her own voice and movements were drowned out by his expressions of love and the machine-like thrusting of his frame. Worse, the weight of his body pressed down on her, making it difficult to breathe and that made her feel more sick than before. She felt that she might die like this.

Even as the physical assault progressed and increased in intensity, the stream of images periodically materialized from the darkness and struck her in their own way. Mentally weak from her failed physical attempts, Cyn detached, relaxed and watched the images go by as her body was slammed.

A thought came to her mind: in all of their sexual interludes, so many years ago, they had never performed the act like this – so physically, so urgently and one sided. So she wondered; had he always wanted it this way or had something changed? Did he think that her inability to resist him would translate emotionally as well?

She watched the drone images as they flipped over her mind and after a while she found she was able to filter out the content from one stream and absorb the other instead; and suddenly she could began to see her room as viewed from one corner of the room, near the floor, from the drone which had crawled there. She named it Bug.

The floor of the room was clear save for her bag, lying on the floor, some of the contents having spilled out. Thankfully, the view was static meaning that Bug was not moving and now, finally, she was able to find the command interface for the strange creature.

With nothing else to do, and desperate to have any control, she tried to move the thing. It scurried forward in response, the visual morphing into a new point-of-view. The quick motion sickened her and she returned back to the where her body was being held. She regretted it.

She could feel Donnie’s skin sliding against hers. Still. His body was wet, lubricated in a cold sweat and she caught the whiff of a strange, sweet scent mixed with perspiration, it repulsed her.

“Oh God, Cyn” he whispered in her ear. “I promise we’ll get married as soon as possible…”

A younger Cyn would have rolled her aching eyes at his words. But she knew he wasn’t really speaking to her, it was part of the fantasy he had created to enable his rationalization of the attack, making it a moment of intense admiration rather than pure assault. She only hoped he was done.

He was not, his lips slipped from her ear, along her cheek and, his previous assault complete, he began a second assault on her lips and mouth. But the nausea caught up with her, combined with her revulsion, and it was then that she wretched and vomited. Unable to turn to her side, the fluid could not drain away and she inhaled some of it causing her to cough uncontrollably.

Donnie pulled away and was silent as her violent self-attack continued. Finally, she was able to turn onto her side and curl into a ball, her face sliding in her own vomit as her gagging continued.

“I’ll get someone to clean this,” he assured her. “Someone who can help.”

She didn’t care. She wished she would wretch until blood gushed over the tops of the lips he had kissed and over the floor of this place he had brought her.

Left alone now, Cyn did not move. She made no attempt to cover her cold limbs nor check for bleeding nor wipe away the vomit and spittle from her face. She didn’t see any course of action for the place where her body was. She couldn’t even see with her own eyes there.

Instead she concentrated on her quarters, where she could see. She had switched to the other drone, Wasp, located high on a wall. She detached it from the wall and moved it gently through the air. She was thankful it could move slowly, it was easier for her to handle.

She heard voices now but she could not tell from where they came. She ignored them and tried to switch from Wasp back to Bug.

Blind

Cynnamon felt a rough, damp cloth against her skin. It didn’t matter. She could now control both drones even as they each bombarded her with their data. She mentally ducked and evaded their direct assaults, instead sampling only bits of what they threw at her and it was making some sense.

She heard a mechanical click.

“Look at her eyes,” whispered an awed male voice. “They are wide open. Didn’t even flinch!”

“What the hell did you do? Did you hit her?”

“No! When we found her she was kneeling on the ground, right? Maybe she fell.”

It was Donnie speaking with someone she did not know…but someone she had heard before.

A plan formed in her mind and the actress within her spoke up.

“Could I have my meds?” she asked in her most helpless and pathetic voice. “In my bag? There are some pain patches too…” she reached out as if to retrieve the missing bag, the one left in her quarters. “It was right here…” Then she let her body relax and go unresponsive again.

“It could be a defect in her sensory implants. Or she might be having a reaction…” She knew that voice. It was calm and authoritative but also detached. “Let’s get her to the lab and run the diagnostics. If needed, I’ll have a tech look at her sensory implants.”

“But she was like this before, I am sure.”

“You want to take her back to them like this? Does that make sense? Get her bag, she might have some prescription. Would any of you know that?”

“I’ll get her bag. We don’t know what she is taking, she just arrived for god’s sake.” That was Brad.

Cyn was not surprised that some of the same people who were hunting her the previous evening would be here now. Donnie, Brad and this other voice, perhaps the ringleader. Who else would she hear? There was a part of her that dreaded to find out. Was Miriam here as well?

“Brad?” She said, her face a mask of confusion. “Is everything okay? I remember trying to get my patch and then I fell and I think I threw up.” Perhaps it would help her if she didn’t make mention of the savage rape. Let Donnie believe his own fantasy.

“You hurt yourself, Cyn.” Brad responded and she could tell he was upset. She would not let that sway her. “Donnie found you. We just need to take you to the doctor and then we’ll take you home. You’ll be home before morning. You haven’t missed anything.”

By morning? Cyn wondered how many more times her body could be violated by then. She heard some whispering as the voices moved away. Even without LilAI, her hearing was quite good and she heard the name of the place they would take her. They called it ‘Lab 8’ and she remembered that name. Perfect, it just so happened she wanted to know more about that place.

She started the task of directing her drones into the abandoned bag.

Escalation

Patron severed the AI feed in frustration and looked around at the other board members.

“That was Pol Gente. Apparently two of the villages have joined together and lodged a formal complaint again us. Unlike before, there is no mention of Humantis. Now they have accused us, only Transom, of assault and kidnapping. They are insisting that we hand over the guilty parties and return the kidnapped villagers immediately. What the hell happened, we only learned about abductions yesterday!”

“What can they do? Let them follow the complaint process…” Steve said in a monotone voice. “And if they stop working for us, they risk losing our business to the other villages.”

Patron was shaking his head.

“The disturbing development is that it is two villages rather than just one. If two can join together, you can bet they are working to enlist more and the longer we do not provide answers, the more reason they have to do that. And Pol Gente is involved, do you know him? I do, and I can tell you this is Pol’s dream come true, he has tried for years to get the villagers to unite against us. Now here we are, handing him his dream on a silver platter.” Patron looked over at Steve. “You!” Patron’s eyes flashed. “You were the guy with all the answers yesterday. You are in charge of our relations with Humantis, what have you found out from them?”

Steve seemed unconcerned about being called out.

“We are continuing our inquiries,” he drawled, “but not much is coming back. I thought we should send that Techview asset over there but that wasn’t the decision we made. Maybe we should try that now?”

“I’ll run my own assets, thank you.” Patron barked. “And where is she? I said to make sure she was in this bloody meeting.”

“She’s off with Brad somewhere. I tried to ping her but no answer. Guess she left her AI behind.”

“Steve,” Patron spoke the name softly as if he was quietly holding back his own personal storm, “Go talk to your friends at Humantis. Again. Explain that if we don’t get answers, right away, we will suspend all support for their little company effective tomorrow. Now go.”

“But you can’t do..” Steve began, his face blanching.

“The next time you say anything except ‘yes Patron’ will be the last time I suffer your presence. Out.” Patron’s eyes were as black as coal.

Steve stood up quietly and walked out the door.

The room buzzed around him as Patron’s eyes smoldered. How could things happen so quickly? Fate had been excessively cruel, it seemed, in punishing him for not moving more quickly. It could not be a coincidence and he had to assume that someone close to him had done something stupid or leaked information accidentally. But deep in his mind the simpler truth lurked quietly.

“This is damn unusual,” Barrett spoke up. “And I agree, we have to find out what the hell is going on. But I am more concerned about what the other companies think about this, especially the Top Five.”

“We can handle them,” Patron replied. “But we need to address this problem with the villagers and right now.”

To Lab 8

Cyn allowed Donnie to hold her hand as they sat in the limousine. She heard his reassuring words, his affectionate whispers and she pressed her head into his shoulder in response. It was a way to relieve her headache and, hopefully, to silence his ministrations so that she could concentrate totally on her drones.

She had gotten them both back into her bag, binding with the base and becoming, once again, an ornate, if gaudy piece of innocent jewelry. It was easy to drop Wasp into the bag, but Bug was trickier as it seemed shy of sudden changes in terrain, precisely what the edge of her bag seemed to be. But she had succeeded and the drone feeds ended.

Slowly, gradually, she was able to see glimmers of light through her sore, bleary, eyes. She tried to ping the distant AI but there was no response and she was without her normal unit. She hoped they would not check her eyes again.

Fortunately, Donnie was not concerned about her eyesight as his hand had slid between the thighs of her jumpsuit and lingered there instead. She didn’t resist, she only waited.

The vehicle stopped and the door opened. She dared not look, keeping her head within her hands, fingers rubbing her temples.

“The Doctor said she can have a pain patch,” a voice began, “But no medicine until after the diagnostic, especially if she is responsive. They’ll have a tech check her sensory implants if needed.”

Donnie kissed her cheek.

“You are going to the hospital now, darling” he spoke softly, “I’ll check on you later and we’ll take you back tomorrow.”

She nodded, a glimmer of contentment on her face as she continued to rub her eyes lightly. She sensed him move away and out of the vehicle. She heard the door close. Her expression was not completely manufactured as she had received a message from LilAI.

The vehicle started to move and she took a furtive look around. The interior was empty and her bag had been placed beside her. She left it alone as the vehicle descended, most likely into the tunnels.

She ignored a second ping from the LilAI device and thought about the sensory hell the drones had just put her through; would it be any easier the second time? Could her body even withstand it? But then she thought about what had just happened to her and what might be waiting ahead.

The on-board AI announced their entry into New Humantis Dome and stated its next stop as Laboratory 8. She reached into the bag and pulled out the strange necklace. Her sensory implants received a message almost immediately.

AI-Ext-5R455 – Request permission to reconnect?

Cynnamon spoke her response quietly but clearly.

“Fuck, YES.”

[]Lynda

Guard

The guard at the entrance to Lab 8 opened the secure door upon being notified that the Humantis vehicle had arrived and had made a seal with the secure portal. He looked inside and saw a young woman that he didn’t recognize.

Sams smiled, collected her bag and helped her out. He had already received instructions. He was to place her in one of the diagnostic machines, start an analysis run and provide a sedative if needed. Those were his favorite instructions.

His AI acknowledged the transfer and the vehicle left. He tossed her bag onto his desk and then turned to the girl who was gazing dreamily at the grid of metal beams and struts that formed the ceiling. Her eyes were large brown pools that didn’t notice him.

“Let me get you to a diagnostic station, Miss. It will figure out what you need and get you ready for the Doctor.”

This new resident had a pretty face with smooth, olive colored skin and a turned-up nose. He looked first at her long, silky black hair and then at her slightly parted lips as she stared up at the ceiling, as if caught in a day-dream. He smiled, briefly revisiting some of his own imaginings.

He took one of her soft hands in his own, wrapped his other arm around and guided her to the adjoining room. He savored the soft scent of her hair and the warmth of her proximity as he nudged her along.

Thus distracted, he never saw the two drones leave the bag. One moved across the desk and down onto the floor and the other flew off into the space above the rafters, into the vast attic of the old hangar.

Sams led her through a door and into a long corridor, past small rooms on the right and the lights of the laboratory on the left. They reached a security door where he furtively entered the code before proceeding into the cell block where an available room was waiting.

Occasionally, the girl stopped as if suddenly confused or as if she was listening to something only she could hear. Normally the new residents were extremely agitated so her passive demeanor was a welcome change.

“This way, Miss” he insisted adding some extra muscle into the arm which was supporting her lower back.

The cell contained a white sink above a small cabinet, a chair in one corner and a small clothing locker in another. But the dominating feature was the massive diagnostic station, occupying the center of the cell, already humming its readiness to accept another patient.

Sams eased her into the thing’s grasp and quickly lowered the arm restraints and heard them click into the locked position. With the girl restrained, Sams relaxed and could take his time with the rest of it.

He stripped off her boots, one at a time, and placed them in the locker. He was pleased that she didn’t seem to mind, if she knew at all what was happening. He noticed that her skin tone extended evenly to her ankles, her feet, even her toes. Thus hers was a natural color; the state-of-the-art Humantis skin coloring procedures left uneven striations on the toes. Although he worked for Humantis, he hated their body modification surgeries and the whores would paid for them.

Sams was about to start an examination cycle when he noticed how her jump suit clung to her flaring hips and shapely legs. He hesitated for only a moment then grasped the tops of her pants with each hand and started to wriggle the fabric down, onto her hips, watching her lips and eyelids as he did so.

At first she turned her head slightly as if only now realizing that something was happening before lapsing back into her previous state. His hands brushed along her young skin as he worked the garment off and tossed it in the locker as well before turning back to appraise the girl one more time.

One man, Miriam’s uncle, was currently working in the laboratory, but would leave shortly and then Sams would be, once again, alone with his charges for the evening. He would start the examination cycle now and return ‘later’. As an after-thought, he covered her bare legs with a blanket and then activated the machine.

The Cell Next Door

The first step of Lynda’s plan had taken the longest. It had taken two full days of secretive work to unwrap and untangle the wire from the underside of the diagnostic station. Now, with the long wire finally free, she experimented with a knot that would slide, allowing the loop to constrict when pulled, like a noose should; it took fifteen minutes before she was satisfied it would do the job. Then she slipped it over her head.

Lynda looked up at the metal worked ceiling and imagined how she would tie the final knot, one which would hold tight to one of those steel struts. She could climb up on the examination chair, using it as a ladder. Then she would need to lean forward, as far as she could to secure the other end of the noose to a point as far as possible from the chair, the jumping-off point. Otherwise she might, upon having a change of heart, be able to grasp some part of the examination station with her feet and take the pressure off of her neck. Sorry, she apologized to her future-self, she didn’t want that to be a possibility.

It was after-hours and time to act. She wouldn’t have a second chance; the Doctor would return for another ‘discussion’ the next day and if she failed in this ‘escape’ attempt, he would see to it that she never again had such freedom as she had now.

The details of how she planned to exit the world unnerved her a bit so she followed her encouragement protocol. First, she relived the fear and loathing she felt every time the cell block door opened, every time she heard that damn guard clear his throat or whenever that snake-Doctor spoke to her. Then she thought about Dylan, what he had done to her, what he wanted for her future. It was enough, she was sure she could do this, she would do this.

Lynda was a village girl at heart and in spirit, born and raised outside but near the Domes, a place populous even by village standards. She loved village life, she liked to work, in didn’t matter where: in the tunnels, with the root beds, even surveying the valley’s water systems and adjusting water directors. Her peoples plumbed the land so that the waters would drain without flooding, turning ground tubes into tunnels and caverns into reservoirs. They developed their own strains of vegetables that could grow underground and whose roots provided nourishment. Lynda could identify a storm by the color of the sky and the ridges in the clouds. She was thrilled to start the day with a plan and to end it with measured progress.

She never had any desire to live in the Domes or even to see them. Then one of her people left them for the Domes, to work for one of the companies, it hardly mattered which. That person returned after three months, a ruined soul, damaged by the corpers then rejected and maligned by former friends and family. So when one of her friends followed that same path, Lynda refused to stand by. She followed and found a way to save her friend and in doing so discovered her true-calling, her real purpose.

When she had met Dylan, he seemed to understand what she was doing, her passion. He was the only man, corper or villager, who understood her vision or seemed to. They fell in love, the word was now a rancid piece of meat in her mind.

He wanted a family, with her, and she told him there were so many orphans in the valley that if a family is what they needed, there were plenty of children from which to choose. She didn’t see the point in having her own child and she should have seen it as a warning sign when he persisted not only in wanting to have a child together but wanting to have it ‘traditionally’.

In other words, he wanted her to carry the baby. No one did that anymore; it was proven to be safer for mother and child to have the embryo grow in a fully monitored synthetic womb: a fetal development chamber. Besides, Lynda would hate to be laden and restricted by a traditional pregnancy. It wouldn’t happen anyhow so it was not worth arguing with him; it couldn’t happen with the precautions that she had always taken.

But, somehow, almost mysteriously, it had happened. Dylan was delighted and Lynda tried to be happy as well but somehow his happiness seemed more in spite of her rather than for her, for them. Although it was not what she had planned, she decided that they would have this child. She would love it even if she and Dylan did not stay together. But then he told her that she needed to carry the child through the pregnancy; that any other way would harm the child. They argued and she pleaded with him.

Finally she arrived at a point where she could not even bear to have a child with him in any way. She took an abortive and to her shock and dismay it failed. She took another and it also failed. So when Dylan, unaware of her intent, insisted that they see a specialist, she agreed. She would see the doctor and insist that they give her a strong abortive or perform an operation if that was necessary, whatever it took to end the pregnancy. But that was not the type of doctor that she encountered when she arrived at this Transom Facility inside their damned dome.

Lynda was restrained and imprisoned while the embryo grew. Soon her child would be old enough to be transferred to a fetal development chamber and then she doubted she would ever see it again. What lay in store for her was a life of endless mind games and abuses. She would not accept that. She would rather jump into the storm itself.

So this wasn’t a sad time, this was a happy time. Everyone meets death and she wanted to shake its hand. Hell, she was going to kick Death in the ass. She spied the metal strut which would be the anchor for the top of her noose, hopped up onto the machine and leaned outward, her arms reaching.

The Voice

“What are you doing?”

Lynda heard the feminine voice echo in her ear as she stood, precariously, on the machine and reached outward, looking for a place to secure the wire. Startled, she lost her balance and over-corrected, falling back into the chair, the entire contraption vibrating and groaning as she did so.

Lynda stared out into the empty cell, her eyes wide with surprise.

“Are you trying to kill yourself?” The voice continued, softly. She didn’t perceive where it came from.

“Duh!” Lynda blurted her annoyance before she could think. She was filled with a sense of relief that she had been found out. She wouldn’t have to take that horrifying leap.

And then she was upset at herself, at her cowardice, she had failed. Her eyes moistened with defiance as she waited for the guard to come running.

“How did you get out of the damned chair? I seem to be trapped in mine,” the voice continued as if nothing were wrong.

Lynda looked up into the ceiling. Were those words coming from above the grating? From a nearby cell? From another prisoner? But how?

“You can see me? How can you see me if you’re in a chair?” Lynda demanded.

“I’ll tell you my secrets if you tell me yours. Is there a way to get out of this thing? My arms are pinned, and this machine just stuck something in me, I think it’s taking my blood; that would explain the red fluid flowing through that tube. But it might just as easily send something the other way, so….”

“Did they restrain your legs too?” Lynda asked quietly. “If they did, I can’t help you.”

“There’s a blanket covering my legs but I can move them. Does that mean there is a way? Oh, my name is Cynnamon.” The spectral voice was hopeful.

“Oh.” Lynda wasn’t sure what to think. Were they toying with her? She scrambled off the examining table and looked upwards through the metal grate and into the darkness.

“Can you move your right leg? Can you lift your knee into the air?” Lynda uttered with astonishment. Then she realized that she had spoken in a normal voice. Surely she would need to speak louder if she expected this mystery girl to hear her!

“Easily, it’s my arms that aren’t cooperating right now.”

Lynda laughed, the first time she had laughed in a while.

“Good,” Lynda responded encouragingly, “Now lift your knee high and then swing the heel of your right foot down so that it hits below the center of the left arm restraint. Left side. You want your heel to kick below the restraint on the outer side, you are trying to depress a button, it’s easier if you are wearing a boot or a shoe. Can you try that?”’

There was a pause and then Lynda heard the voice again.

“Nice instructions. I think I can do that. What was your name again?”

“Oh, my name is Lynda. When did you get here, Cynnamon?”

“Cyn is fine. I just checked in. The guard took my shoes and my pants. I’d like to get out of here become he comes back for the rest.”

“That’s Sams. Well, I can’t help you get out of your cell. At least not the way you want to go.”

Lynda heard a noise, a dull metallic thump, a pause, and then another. Could it be?

“Wow, that was easy. Thank you Lynda.”

Lynda continued to look up towards the ceiling, her face breaking out into a smile.

“You did it? The arm restraint retracted?”

“Just as you said. I’m looking around my cell to see if I find anything useful.”

“Wait, how were you able to see me?”

Lynda waited for a reply while she scanned the ceiling. There was not much to see. She knew there was a large open space above the grating and she had often wondered where she could go if she could only squeeze through one of those holes. Would she be able to escape? She caught her breath as she thought she saw something move in the darkness above.

“Lynda, I have to ask. Were you really going to kill yourself?” The voice returned.

“It seems to me that you are asking a lot of questions and not answering any of my own,” Lynda scolded.

“Sorry, I’ve been looking around. I did something to my eyes, so it’s been slow going.”

“You know that makes no sense; what you just said.”

“I know. I’m sorry,” the voice laughed again and then added softly, with sincerity, “Lynda, I don’t know what’s happened to make you want to do…what you were doing. I don’t pretend to know what to say. But I could use your help if you want to stay around a bit.”

Lynda froze, unsure of how to react. Of course now that she had actually spoken to someone, her death-wish had faded. But then she felt the fear, what if this were a trick? She would hate herself if that were the case. She paused, thinking.

“Lynda,” the voice whispered. “He’s on his way back. I think I can get him into your cell. Will you be willing to help me if I can?”

Lynda held her tongue. It was like some kind of dream. But the voice continued. “I understand if you are unable, this is my deal, but I wanted to at least…”

“I’m in!” Lynda said quickly, tersely and then added in a lower voice. “I just so happen to be ready for him,” she finished removing the wire noose from around her neck.

“Whatever happens, it was nice to meet you. Quiet now, good luck.”

Seconds of silence went by, and then Lynda heard the sound of the cell block door opening.

Double Teamed

Sams approached the holding area’s security door, the only lock his AI wouldn’t open for him. He removed his weapon and placed it in a holster hanging on the wall. Then he punched the code into the keypad: 1-2-3-4-1. Even an idiot could remember that. The door flashed green and he activated the opening mechanism by waving his hand across the sensor. He walked into the holding area and made sure the security door closed behind him and that the lock activated. He took another drink from the bottle clutched in one hand. He had been picturing the smooth, olive skin of the young girl and her long black hair. He wanted to wrap his hands in that hair and pull it, just a little. He laughed out loud ending in a deep, persistent, cough.

He approached her cell door; the indicator light flashed green and it opened on his gesture. He peered into the room; the girl was just as he had left her. Almost.

Her bare calves and knees had slipped out from underneath the blanket and were spread to the side. Her head was tilted to the left and he could see that her eyes were closed and her mouth open.

He stepped past the threshold and the door closed behind him. He took one more drink before he placed the bottle on the sink and enjoyed the wonderful warming sensation of the alcohol running down his throat, into his stomach, into his blood.

He stepped onto the platform attached to the examination chair and looked down at her. His placed one hand lightly on her bare knee; she stirred but did not wake. Carefully, watching her, he opened his pants and pushed them down to his knees. He leaned forward, one hand resting on her knee while the other nudged his flaccid organ.

As his left hand moved along her thigh, she started to respond. Her mouth opened slightly, her head started to turn towards him, eyes still shut. He pushed forward, the blanket giving way to his body as he lowered his face toward her. He couldn’t wait for the moment that her eyes snapped open, in sudden realization. He smiled.

It was in that awkward moment, his legs constrained by his own garment, his body raised high, his hands occupied, that she splashed his face with the cleaner. His body jolted with alarm, reacting to both the surprise and the sensation of the acrid liquid on his bare neck and face.

In the next seconds, his nose would recognize the harsh odor of the cleaner he had left under the sink. He would realize that the substance might harm his eyes, even his face. He would also wonder how she had freed her arms in order to retrieve the flask. He would also, eventually, have the sense to ignore his surprise and the burning of his eyes and nostrils in order to grab her, to hold her and keep her. But all those realizations would take time. Time he was not given.

In those fractions of a second, as his hands instinctively moved to his face and as his body’s center-of-mass rose to a maximum, as his brain processed what was happening, the girl pushed him, hard, in the chest and he fell over backwards, his spine hitting the foot of the table. His momentum propelled him backwards, feet over head, toward the door, even as she scrambled past him. Now within range of the door, his AI activated it.

He heard the sound and looked. Through the pain and the tears he could see her form, the long tanned legs contrasting against the white portal and he moved toward her swiping his hands, hoping to grab her leg or her ankle.

His motion frightened her and she must have accidentally triggered the sensor because the door opened and she scurried out.

But he heard her cries of panic and his resolve and confidence soared. He knew she could not leave the cell area without knowing the key code and his eyes were already starting to clear. He wiped at them with his shirt sleeves.

He crawled to the door and heard her movements to his right, away from the security door. That was good, the stupid bitch didn’t even know the way out.

He looked and saw her cowering near the neighboring cell. He crawled toward her, knowing he could rise to his feet if he needed but also knowing that his position was stronger from his current low stance; he wanted to pull her to the ground, subdue her harshly and hold her until his eyes stopped burning. He was as proud of his quick thinking as he was angry at this stupid whore who was five seconds from a very painful and humiliating life lesson.

The girl was frozen with fear as he approached. He lunged at her and ignored the sound of a sensor activating and a door sliding open.

He had her! His hands touched her calf and grasped it. She twisted away from him, toward the opposing wall but he nimbly followed her, catching her and driving her to the ground. His legs straddled her waist and he held her down with one hand while he wiped his eyes with the other. Then he swung at her, hard, half-blind, and heard the satisfying sound of flesh on flesh. She stopped resisting. He wiped his eyes once more with his free hand and then looked down at his quarry.

The girl with the olive skin and dreaming eyes did not look frightened. She had wrapped both of her hands around his wrist, holding it to her. Why would she do that? He took his free hand and tried to peel her hand away when she grabbed sleeve of that arm as well. This was strange and he was about to yank both hands back when he felt something slip over his head and bite into his neck.

Lynda

Lynda heard the cell block door open even as she quietly rearranged the blankets on the examination table where she slept, to appear as if she were beneath. Her heart beat hard in her chest as she slipped to the side of the door and waited, the cord strung between her hands.

She heard the door to the neighboring cell slide open with an audible beep and she could taste bile in her throat, the cord burrowing into the flesh of her hand. She looked down and realized her mistake; she needed a buffer between the harsh, metal, wife and her flesh. Did she have time?

She fell to the ground and pulled off her pants and used the cloth of each leg as protection, make-shift gloves for her hands. Then she wrapped each padded hand with the wire.

It was as she was wrapping her right hand, the stronger of the two, that she heard the chirp to her own door and it slid open. She looked up, in horror, in time to see a dark haired girl stumble on her feet and fall to the ground. Had he hit her? Her heart raced even faster and her muscles felt weak.

Lynda crept closer as the girl’s glance swept by her. For a split-second, their eyes met. Then the dark eyes widened in apparent fear and she frantically slid along the floor, away from Lynda’s door.

Her view of the girl was blocked as Sams scrambled in between and was on top of his prey. He swung a beefy hand and Lynda heard it connect. Enraged, she flew forward even as he pressed both arms pinning his victim. Lynda swung her corded wrists over his head and pulled back hard, her weight adding force to her effort.

The fabric helped but she could feel the cord bite into her flesh as well as his.

Sams grunted and straightened his back, and instinctively Lynda drew back, to prevent him from reaching her with his hands. But his arms only attempted the movement, his hands remaining forward and now Lynda could see why. The girl with the black hair and olive skin had wrapped herself up in his sleeves, binding his arms together and forward.

Lynda pulled again, her legs wrapping around his waist, adding her weight to the force of the cord against his large, fat neck.

His body shook angrily, an attempt to throw her off and she cursed herself for not letting his motion translate directly into the cord. Instead, she had steadied herself with one leg, taking the pressure off his neck.

He grunted, a muffled yell, as he began to rise, and Linda feared he would throw her off and pull free, then she would have to face him.

But as he lifted his body up, unsteadily, and as Lynda pulled even harder, ignoring the screaming pain in her hands, she saw the other girl yank him forward, taking advantage of his unbalanced stance. Lynda could feel the cord cut through and his body fell forward, on top of the girl.

Lynda kept her grip tight even as she strengthened her position, bracing her knees on either side of his waist. He did not resist even as she pulled the cord even deeper now. Was he dead? Had he passed out?

Lynda looked over at the girl pinned beneath the giant. Her eyes were open, and intently focused on the face of the guard. What did she see? Was he looking back at her or had his eyes closed, perhaps forever.

“It’s okay, you can let go now,” came the voice of the other girl.

The Search

Lynda let go, her wounded hands and tortured fingers massaging each other automatically as if they had a life of their own. Despite the cloth, blood now stained her fingers and palms and she rubbed until the pain ebbed.

Then she looked back at the person beneath the guard. Her eyes looked up at her, dark brown with specs of gold which shone like streaks of lightning.

“Let me help you,” Lynda offered, embarrassed at being slow to aid her co-conspirator.

“I’m fine,” the girl replied simply twisting her body beneath, pressing one foot into the dead man’s shoulder and pushing out. She rolled out and the body slumped back to the floor. Lynda expected her to spring to her feet but she lay on the floor, took a deep breath and then looked up at Lynda, her eyes unfocused. Lynda quickly held out a hand and helped pull her up.

As Lynda watched, the woman rose to an equal height of her own body. Her hair was jet black, long and shiny. Her skin color was unusual even among the villages but it was not rare. Her eyes were like large brown jewels, laced with specks of amber.

Lynda noticed that the woman was bare footed and bare legged. A strange coincidence as Lynda was in a similar state as she had used her bottoms to protect her hands.

“Lynda?” the dark haired beauty asked, holding out her hand. Lynda clasped it, the hand was cool, amazingly. “I’m Cynnamon.”

“So I gathered,” Lynda smiled. “Do you have a plan for what happens next, Miss Cynnamon? And does it involve fetching some pants for the two of us?”

“I do and it does. But first, care to guess the combination to the security door?”

Lynda watched, amazed, as the woman walked, unsteadily toward the other end of the hall. As Lynda pressed in behind her, Cyn was speaking the numbers of the code out loud.

“Think you can remember that?” Cyn’s voice echoed as the door opened. She reached out and withdrew a weapon and closed the door again. “Hopefully we won’t need this. Now let’s take care of the body and get some clothes.”

The two walked back to the corpse and dragged it, by its cold, stiffened arms, into Lynda’s cell. Once it was inside, Lynda dropped the arm and walked to her locker. She found the clothes she had worn on the day she was confined here, articles she did not expect she would wear again. She changed quickly, covering her bare limbs with leggings and some boots.

“Are you going to tell me how you knew the security code and about the weapon?” Lynda called as she dressed. It was yet another question for which Lynda needed answers, but this girl had bought Lynda’s patience, at least some amount. But there was no response.

When she turned, she found Cyn standing over the body of Sams and staring blankly at a wall. Lynda followed her gaze. On the wall was the large globe and crest of Transom Industries. How Lynda hated that symbol.

“Bloody Transom Industries,” Lynda muttered, “we are in their dreary dome in case you didn’t know.”

“I…I don’t think we are anywhere near Transom,” Cyn spoke as if she had seen a ghost.

“I promise you, that is exactly where we are,” Lynda responded quickly. “I know it much too well.”

Cynnamon reached down and pulled the guard’s AI from his head. Lynda’s heart skipped a beat. She didn’t know much about corporate AI units, but certainly they could be used to send a message, to call for help? But the other girl quickly dashed those hopes.

“We can’t use this for anything more than a door opener,” Cyn explained. “The other functions are locked to his implants. That’s typical. I didn’t expect that we could call out but I hoped we could at least take some pictures or record some video…”

“What, for your scrapbook?” Lynda asked with a look of astonishment.

“Evidence,” Cyn replied unhappily.

“Oh. Well, I have a recorder,” Lynda assured her. “I don’t know why they let me keep it, so strange, as if I was enjoying my time here. I never even thought to use it.” Lynda retrieved the device from her locker and brought it to Cyn.

“Take a picture of that please,” Cyn said as she pointed to the wall and the Transom insignia. “And this awful examination station, a closeup of the arm restraints and the dead man. I just noticed that his uniform also is marked with Transom symbols so you had better get that as well.” She said with unexplained resignation.

Lynda took two careful pictures of each item and checked the quality of the images, before looking back up at her companion.

“Should we find your pants?” Lynda suggested and Cyn nodded. They went next door, to what was presumably Cynnamon’s cell. While Cyn dressed, Lynda noticed that the cell was a carbon copy of her own.

“Lynda, there are some others here, behind the other doors. We’ll get them out, and then we’ll go. Right?”

“Sure, but how do you know that? And how were you able to see me in my cell?” Lynda persisted. She wasn’t intending to be difficult but she wanted to know more. Who was this strange girl? And how did she know so much?

“I know, I know,” Cyn began as she walked to her locker and removed her clothes, “but it’s a long story and we need to go…”

Lynda thought about that as she moved to the door and listened. She was relieved not to hear any noises in the hallway or from beyond. Cyn made sense, there was not a lot of time for talk. They needed to move on and if there were others, prisoners like Lynda, they needed time to round them up as well. Still…

“Just so you know…” Lynda started, in low tones, as she turned back to Cyn. But the other was standing, now fully dressed, in the middle of the room, facing away. Lynda cocked her head and walked up to her. “Are you okay?”

Seconds later, Cyn looked over at her, confused before finding her wits.

“Sorry, yes, we had better go now, there is another girl in the next cell. Okay?”

“You are sure about that?” Lynda asked carefully. “Or is it a hunch or a sixth sense?”

Cyn looked back at her shaking her head.

“She’s there. I’m sure…I see her,” but her body swayed precariously as she said it.

Lynda grasped her shoulder, steadying her and looking again into her eyes. They were focused on something, but Lynda was not sure it was her. It was then that Lynda realized that this woman’s dress, the black jumpsuit and boots were common corper garb.

“You are an asset, Miss Cynnamon?” Lynda asked.

“Yes, is it that obvious?” With that, Cyn opened the door and stepped out into the hallway. With one hand on the wall, she worked her way carefully down the corridor toward the other cells.

Lynda followed, in thought. Well, she had learned some things about her new friend. And it didn’t surprise her at all to find a corporate human asset in this dungeon with her. If there was anyone the corpers treated worse than the villagers, it was their own slaves. Lynda knew that well.

Cyra

They unlocked the cell door using the dead guard’s AI and went inside. Just as Cyn had predicted, they found one woman whose name was Cyra. Cyn began speaking with her, but Lynda waited at the doorway, keeping watch.

The woman explained that she was offered an opportunity to work for Transom Industries, at a fraction of her current corporate debt. But there had been no job, no opportunity, she was imprisoned here where she has raped and became pregnant. Then, when the embryo had developed enough, it was taken. And she was raped again. It was a horrible story and for the first time, Lynda realized her existing pregnancy might have saved her from something worse. But who was responsible for this? And she couldn’t help but wonder about Dylan, about his role in this, what was the bastard doing now and what would he do if he knew that she had escaped…almost.

Suddenly, Lynda realized she had become lost in her own thoughts while the other two conversed. She looked up to find Cyn upset.

“But you can’t stay here, you should come with us…”, Cyn stammered.

“Don’t tell me what I have to do!” the prisoner raised her voice while staring down at the weapon clutched in Cyn’s lowered hand.

Lynda walked in quickly and injected herself between the two.

“You don’t have to do anything you don’t want to do,” Lynda explained softly, “But we have to leave soon and so you’ll have to decide. There are others here as well and we have to speak with them next.”

Lynda grasped Cynnamon’s shoulder and firmly urged her out of the room. Surprisingly, she did not resist and even leaned on Lynda as they moved on to the next cell.

“I never thought she wouldn’t want to leave,” Cyn said quietly as they walked.

“She does want to leave. Maybe you should put away that weapon?”

“I understand but I have nowhere to put it. Two more in this next room.”

“How do you know that?”

“I told you. I saw them,” answered Cyn in a distracted tone, as if her mind were elsewhere.

Twins

The next cell did contain two young women, sisters, identical or nearly identical twins and both were very pregnant. It was clear to Lynda that the women were long past the point when a transfer to a fetal-development chamber would be possible It seemed the Doctor intended them to carry their children to term, to have natural births, just what Dylan wanted for her. She cringed.

Their tale similar to that of Cyra, starting with one of Transom Industries’ many services and ending with their assault and imprisonment here. What really disturbed Lynda was that only one of the sisters was speaking reasonably, the other one just caressed her distended belly and when they spoke of the Doctor, she became agitated.

“Is he here? Will he come to see me?” asked the odd sister with an eager smile on her face.

Cyn looked helplessly at the other sister.

“We don’t have much time, are you coming with us?”

The lucid sister seemed unsure. “Where are you going? How do you know you can get out?”

“Fair question,” Cyn responded, “we are going to find a communications terminal and then we are going to call from help.”

“Who are you going to call?”

Cyn’s face went blank and Lynda realized that she had not considered that detail or perhaps she was rethinking it.

“We’ll call everyone,” Cyn recovered. “The village leadership, the corpers. Whoever will listen.”

When the strange sister asked if they could see the Doctor, her sibling assured her they would. Then she turned to Lynda and Cynnamon and spoke quietly.

“She needs a ‘doctor’ and I have to do what I can to get her to one. So we will go with you.”

Marlee

“This is the last occupied cell. It is most interesting…” Cyn’s voice trailed off as if she had just left her own body, like a ghost.

Lynda followed Cyn inside, unable to keep from noticing her companion’s uncertain stride or the way she occasionally steadied herself with a hand against the wall.

Once again, Cyn was somehow correct, the room was most peculiar. Unlike the sparse, cell-like feel of the other cells, this one seemed almost like a guest room. There was a large bed, a small kitchenette, and a full dresser.

As they entered, a man rose from the bed, startled, his head was balding, his bare chest was flabby and he wore colorful, expensive-looking briefs. He stood up and stared, visibly confused.

But now it was Lynda’s turn to be surprised. A comely companion rose from the chamber next, attired in fashionable lingerie. Even fresh from sleep, she was beautiful and young, enough to be his daughter or granddaughter. Lynda recognized the girl.

“Marlee? Is that you? How on Earth did you get here? I had no idea!” Lynda exclaimed as Cyn avoided the discussion, preferring to explore.

“Oh,” the girl responded carefully and slowly recognition bloomed. “Hi Lyn, where did you come from?”

“I have been right down the hallway, for almost a month now,” Lynda stammered. She thought to introduce Cyn but her strange friend was walking around the outskirts of the room as if looking for something. Instead, she introduced the sisters and Cyra had also arrived.

The women started talking among themselves while Lynda tried to understand.

Marlee was the daughter of a village leader, one from a very old and distinguished family, tracing his ancestry back to the original settlers of Las Joyas, the scavenger families who not only scouted the first site, but brought with them large caches of materials and artifacts from looted cities. He would certainly want to know the whereabouts of his daughter and about her ‘friend’. Suddenly Lynda had hope that Cyn’s plan to call for help had a reasonable chance of success.

“Marlee, who is this?” Lynda asked nodding to the older man, trying to keep the suspicion out of her voice.

“This is Hynree,” Marlee looked over at the older man affectionately, “he is my fiancee.” As she spoke, the couple joined hands as if to express their intention to be together.

“How did you get here?” Cynnamon asked as she rejoined the group. Lynda had noticed that she had opened a locker but it was unclear if anyone else had noticed.

“Who the hell are you?” the man demanded. He eyed her weapon first and then Cynnamon’s outfit. “You are one of them?”

“I’m the one giving you a chance to get out of here, if you are interested,” Cyn replied simply.

“Why should we trust you?” asked Hynree and without waiting for a response continued in a loud voice: “This is probably a trap.” He held Marlee’s hand tight and suddenly Marlee looked at them suspiciously as well.

It was then that Lynda noticed that there was something strange about Hynree’s left ear, the organ was intact, but it was marred by a swollen, irregular and red-black crack in the skin. It looked like the piece could be broken off easily.

“Do you work for Transom?” Marlee demanded of Cyn.

“I..” Cyn’s mouth opened but she clearly didn’t know what to say. “I want to help you.”

“Help us how?” Hynree persisted, “Help us move to a new location, a new cell? Or maybe you just want to take her away from me.”

“No!!” whaled Marlee.

“So, are you from Transom?” Cyra asked.

Cyn fumbled again with what to say and it was clear to Lynda that she wasn’t feeling well. And then when she was able to put together a statement, it was quickly attacked by Marlee, Hynree or one of the others. Her garb was standard corper garb, that didn’t help her. Suddenly, Cyn turned away, apparently giving up.

“Enough,” Lynda hissed, stepping forward. “When I found her,” Lynda continued, pointing to Cyn who had turned away and was retreating toward the door. “She was half-naked and pinned to the floor by that monster, Sams. You all know him?”

She paused and looked around at the other women, making eye contact each one. She could tell that they all knew Sams. The man, Hynree began to speak again, but Lynda held up her hand. “No one is forcing you, any of you, to do anything you don’t want to do. But she is with me and we are leaving and I insisted that you all be given the chance to come with us, a chance to leave, a chance to see your families again. But we can’t make any promises and we won’t. Worried that it might not work out? Think this is some sort of elaborate trick? Fine. Stay here. Take your chances.”

It was then, as Lynda turned back toward Cyn that the olive-skinned girl doubled over and began gagging and retching. Finally, she fell to her knees, turned her face away and they heard the sound of liquid hitting the floor. The room went silent.

Then, just as quickly, Cyn rose unsteadily to her feet, placed one hand on the wall and made her way out of the room.

Lynda turned back to the room, her anger in check, her face matter-of-fact. “I’ll be right back. When I return, I only want to know who is coming with us. The rest can do as they please.”

The Empty Cell

Lynda gave one last hard look at Hynree and then she turned and left the room. She looked up and down the short hallway but it was empty. She found Cyn standing in an empty cell, swaying, her head moved slightly as if she saw something on the wall.

Lynda walked in.

“How do you feel, Miss Cynnamon?” Lynda asked softly.

“Little dizzy but it will pass. This cell is empty,” Cyn whispered, “but let’s take a quick look anyway.”

Lynda could see that the cell was empty although it was furnished in a similar manner as the rest. Unsure what else to do in the sparse room, Lynda walked to the locker and opened it.

Inside she found a woman’s clothing and a handbag. She rifled through the handbag and found some personal items but nothing identifiable. She described each item out loud for the benefit of the other girl who had not approached.

“Take pictures, please,” Cyn croaked from somewhere behind. “In case we can’t return, in case it means something to someone…”

Lynda did so, then she turned back but as she did so, she saw Cynnamon try to sit down, onto something which wasn’t there. Instead she crashed to the ground.

“Cyn!” Lynda whispered as she sprang to her side. The girl’s dark hair had fallen loose of a make-shift band and stuck to the shiny side of her face. Sweat or maybe tears or both streamed down her face. For the first time, Lynda realized that the girl might have been badly hurt during their struggle with Sams. “What’s wrong?!”

“Maybe we should leave them here,” Cyn sobbed, “I want to get them out but without their cooperation…it might be worse. I’m just not sure…”

Lynda knelt by her and reassured her. “They are just being childish, I promise you. They want you to guarantee that everything will be alright and you can’t, we can’t. It’s this place, it takes everything out of us, we don’t even dare to take a risk anymore, we just want someone to tell us what to do – exactly how they want us.”

The fallen girl nodded, wiping the tears from her face, and then she spoke, almost normal again.

“Lynda, I am sure there are no more prisioners here, but there might be more rooms like this, with evidence…but I’m concerned about time…we have to go…to leave it.” And she looked up at Lynda, her pupils much too dilated even for the lighting and they didn’t seem focused. Was she going blind?

“Cyn, can you see me?” Lynda whispered.

“And, yes, I work for Transom but I don’t know what is this..this place. I swear it is not ours…”

Lynda sighed with relief, that finally the exotic-looking asset had disclosed some of her secrets. Of course she worked for Transom, that had been obvious given her reactions. But Lynda had never been so shallow as to judge a person by the village they lived in or even the company which owned them. But she felt sorry for this girl, so many of them were deluded by their masters.”

“And…I can see other parts of the building,” Cyn continued. “I can see what is happening…that is how I could see you. And them. But it is very hard to maintain…and it’s making me sick.”

Was she hallucinating as well? Lynda held her hand and helped her stand. She was right, they had to go.

“Cyn, don’t worry, we will…”

“I’m not worried. But we have to make decisions, we have to get moving and…and I don’t think I should hold the gun any longer.”

Lynda gently removed the weapon from Cyn’s hand just as she spied some cowls hanging on the walls. She pulled one off its hook and wrapped Cynnamon in it.

“We’ll wear these cowls,” Lynda explained. “It will hide the weapon and it won’t be so clear that I have it, okay.”

“Lynda?” Cyn spoke as she slipped her hands and arms into the cowl and pulled the hood over her dark face.

“Yes?” Lynda had hidden the weapon within her cowl and was ready to go.

“I’m sorry. I’m not much help.”

“Stop it. You are doing the things I can’t do, so leave the rest to me. Besides, we are in this together, no matter how it goes. Just like with the guard. Right?”

“Yes. And…and it’s working much better when you speak with them…”

“Really, do you think?” smiled Lynda. “I can handle them, I promise.”

The Board Room

Lynda dropped Cynnamon’s hand as they returned to the room. She had been helping her stay on her feet, despite her protests, but now, before the group, they both had to appear strong. Lynda lengthened her stride as she approached the other captives and looked each of them in the eye.

“He’s a domer,” Cyra spoke up gesturing to Hynree.

“Later,” Lynda replied, “who is NOT leaving with us?” she demanded, choosing her words to force the reluctant into having to speak up. No one said a word, just as she thought. She nodded her head and continued, “We are going to make our way out of the cell block and find a communications terminal. Cyn knows the layout, so she will lead and I’ll bring up the rear. No talking, no noises. So, let’s go.” Lynda turned and waved them toward the Transom asset who was standing quietly near the door.

Lynda noticed that Hynree and Marlee seemed hesitant.

“Staying here? I’ll be sure to express your regrets to your father, Marlee.”

That was all that was needed.

Lynda’s heart raced as she heard the security door opened. She couldn’t help it, after the events of the last weeks, the sound made her anxious. But rather than having the guard or the Doctor come in, they were all moving out to whatever else was in this building.

There was silence as the group walked down a long white hallway. On the right side were large windows which opened up into a room which wad dim save for the flashes of instrumentation. Lynda realized how critically dependent they all were now on Cyn and her assurance that she could get them where they wanted to go.

They approached another large set of doors at the end of the hallway but they were locked. Nonplussed, Cyn slipped through a smaller opening and they were engulfed in darkness again. As her eyes adjusted, Lynda realized they were walking through a maze of office cubicles. She could smell the fragrance of new furniture and flooring.

They ended up in a large meeting room, dominated by a long, polished, table surrounded by plush, leather chairs. At one end of the room was a thick, rectangular screen, its display swirling and bubbling with colored gases, like a boiling piece of abstract artwork.

Lynda recognized the cloud viewer, her village had a smaller version. It did not surprise her that the device would be such a prominent piece of corper equipment. She knew that whatever sounds and images the thing would show could not be recorded, its communication was directly to the human nervous system, precisely the reason they had been invented and were so widely used by the corpers.

There was another door in the room and Lynda saw Cyn try it to no avail. The asset turned back to them and motioned to the control panel for the cloud viewer.

“Would you start it?” Cyn asked her.

Without hesitation, Lynda touched the keypad and was prompted for a password.

“Probably the same as the door…” her friend’s voice began.

She entered ‘12341’ but it didn’t work.

“Will we be able to call for help from here?” someone asked.

“Try ‘lab8’” came the asset’s voice again.

Could it be that simple? It was. Now the screen had only a single action waiting for Lynda’s command. “Start Presentation’.

“We will have to sit through this before we can go further,” Cyn announced quietly to the room. Lynda was glad to note that the voice seemed stronger than before.

Lynda started the presentation and stepped back as the cloud viewer went through some initialization. While it did so, she noticed Cyn closing the door which they had just passed.

“Make sure you are still recording…” Cyn whispered to her, suddenly at her side.

“But it’s a cloud viewer…nothing will record, right?” Lynda protested.

“No, but the reactions will…”

Then Lynda jumped when she heard the Doctor’s voice and saw his awful face appear on the screen.

“On behalf of Humantis Corporation, I would like to welcome each one of you and feel sure that you will be interested in our presentation to you, our preferred investors.”

The room broke into confusion, some of the party thinking that the presentation was for their benefit, that it was some sort of trick. Cyn did not look at any of them, but simply shook her head when Lynda caught her eye.

The video continued: “You have doubtless attended investment solicitations where you were inundated with graphs and charts and statistics. No so here. As a recognized principle investigator, I could certainly make those available to you if that is you preference, but we aren’t going to try to convince you of what Humantis Alter can do, we are going to show you.

Let’s start with subject one who will be demonstrating our Prianova product. It was said that the ancient god Priapus could grant a child to even the most barren woman. Well, the old gods may be dead, but Humantis Prianova conveys the same magic to loyal New Berlyn males seeking to start or grow their family tree. Yes, you heard me correct, Prianova gives the power of fertility not to the female but to the initiator of pregnancies since the dawn of time, the man. And, as you will see, Prianova is effective whether your consort has a depressed ability to conceive or even in the case she has taken steps to prevent it…”

Lynda gasped when she saw her own image and that of Cyra on the screen. Cyra’s picture was entitled ‘Unable to conceive’ while Lynda’s text was in red and said ‘Took illegal birth control and abortives’.

Cyra cried out in protest.

“It’s a lie! I had my ovaries, I was fertile, until I came here! He removed one of my ovaries just for his experiments,” Cyra cried, her hand on her abdomen as if she could still feel what was done to her.

“Bastard,” was all Lynda could say. Now she understood why she had gotten pregnant in the first place and why the abortives had failed. Dylan had always been so adamant that they have their own children…and then suddenly he seemed to come around to her way of thinking, to adopt instead. He must have already been subjugating her to this…this awful experiment.

She felt Cyn’s hand squeeze hers but the Doctor had already moved on.

“The second product we will discuss today is our Ally product and just as Prianova can strengthen and expand your family tree, Ally develops strong bonds of loyalty and cooperation among your friends, your partners, your family when needed. What Prianova can only start, Ally will finish.”

“Enough of this, are we leaving this place or not?” Hynree asked nervously.

“Watch,” Cyn’s voice filled the room and there he was, on the screen, fighting with Marlee who was yelling at him and pummeling him with her fists. The video version of Hynree grabbed her and pulled her to him, his mouth moving, imploring; then she took a bite out of his ear. The Doctor’s voice continued even as the screams and yelling faded.

“When our client was faced with an exceptionally tricky and potentially catastrophic negotiation with one of the more difficult villages, our Ally product came through with flying colors. After only a single week, this client came around to a more positive attitude as you can see.”

The screen changed again and now they beheld Marlee engaged in active love-making with Hynree. Her motions were so aggressive and she was so vocal that it was hard to believe even that he was willing.

The door open and light flooded the room. The presentation continued but Cyn had left. But all Lynda could do was stare at the ugly scar of Hynree’s ear, one he now tried to cover with his hand.

“You all had to see that,” Cyn’s voice filled the room, stronger than before. “And you should note that presentation had nothing to do with Transom. You are not within Transom Dome, you are in New Humantis Dome as you will soon see.”

“It’s all a lie!” a shrill but masculine voice suddenly cried out. Lynda froze as Hynree burst out of the group of people, closing on Cynnamon, his arms stretched out, his hands grasping like claws for her.

And then, Cyn’s cowled body seemed to drop away, rolling on the floor while her attacker kept going, unable to stop. His body slammed into a work bench before he crumpled to the ground.

Returned to her senses, Lynda produced the weapon and ran forward. When she reached the point of the attack, Cyn had returned to her feet and was looking down at the older man who was in obvious pain.

“Hynree! Don’t hurt him!!” wailed Marlee who threw herself in front of him, her arms encircling and protecting him.

“We won’t, Marlee.” Lynda spoke calmly. “As long as you tie him up and stay with him. Do it now or I’ll certainly kill him.”

The Laboratory

Lynda became aware of a humming as she looked around a the strange shapes and ghostly glows of machines littered throughout the space. Medical equipment.

The room was the largest she had seen and unlike the cramped meeting rooms, office space and holding areas, this place opened up vertically as well, taking the full height of the large building. The room was so large she could not even see the ceiling, the walls and air just faded into darkness.

“You’ll notice different corporate crests on the equipment here, now that we are out of the holding area,” Cyn’s voice seemed to be all around them. “And the weather monitors will show our location within New Berlyn.”

Lynda walked up to a small screen. The familiar weather radar was like every one she had ever seen. Their little valley was besieged on all sides by rain and storms. But Cyn seemed to be correct, the display placed them almost in the center of New Humantis Dome.

“Lynda, over here.” Cyn’s voice reached her and Lynda retraced her steps and followed the cowled girl into a corner of the room and through an office door. Inside was a communication station. Lynda walked into the small room just in time to see Cyn scoop something off the desk.

“Ready to make some calls?” Cyn beamed, her face relaxed.

Lynda smiled back, distracted by the motion Cyn was making with her hand. It seemed like she was stroking one hand with the other.

“You sound much better…” Lynda started, her eyes dropping to Cyn’s hand. It seemed like there was something perched on the back of her fingers. It was translucent, oblong, with legs. Fascinated, Lynda reached out to touch it…when it moved.

Lynda yanked her hand back and gasped while Cyn laughed.

“I told you I had eyes around here…” Cyn added before withdrawing the object under her cowl. Her voice changed, becoming serious. “I had thought to send the first message to my company, to Transom…but you’ve helped me see differently. I don’t think they are involved in this…in any way….but I’m not sure. So we send first to the villages. Do you know anyone? Someone influential? Or someone in the leadership?”

Of course she knew people in the village leadership. But all she could think about was Marlee’s father, a powerful force among the villagers, someone the corpers should have known better than to cross.

“I know Marlee’s father. He is a powerful man and not known for controlling his temper…”

“Sounds like the first message goes to him and everything you recorded. We’ll let them sort it out,” Cyn said thoughtfully, but she paused and waited for Lynda to comment.

“I don’t disagree, but if we start this…”

“I know, Lynda, I know. But it’s already started. We can fight the storm or roll with it.”

[]The Storm

Pol

Pol, his hair disheveled from sleep and his clothes hastily chosen, took the cup of tea offered by his wife as he entered his study, closed the door and faced the men gathered there.

One look told him a lot, they were a younger, hot-headed sort, and already that worried him. And Lynus was with them. Why had they come in person?

“We have received a communication, from the Domes, a distress call. The message was sent to multiple villages but we are unsure how many.”

“What message?” Pol asked wearily. Was this some new complaint concerning the corpers?

“It is not just words, there is audio and video, pictures. See for yourself. But remember, we don’t know who else has seen this, we must act swiftly.”

Pol, confused, sat down while the virtual message was played, it started with a young woman, pale skin, dark hair. She was seated on a metal chair. She spoke quickly and clearly as if her time was limited.

“We need help. We have been kidnapped and imprisoned within New Humantis Dome. You could not imagine the chamber of horrors these corpers have created. I don’t ask you to believe me, you may see for yourself…”

Then her image faded out and they started to see a compilation of images and recordings. A machine used to restrain, a dead body, young women speaking of how they were assaulted, raped, threatened. First one woman spoke and then another. Some of them were calm, some angry and some were clearly frightened. And now he realized why Lynus was present. His daughter was among them. That was a fatal mistake by the domers, he knew. The message ended almost as he was about to ask them to end it.

“I don’t know what to say but I know what to ask. Why did you come here?”

Pol looked at Lynus but the man did not speak, he seemed to be simmering. One of the younger leaders spoke up.

“We are going to act, but we want to give all the villages the chance to join us and stand with us. You are known throughout the valley, you are known for promoting village unity. We want you to bring in the rest of the villages.”

Pol eyed them suspiciously. “Act? Act how?”

Now Lynus spoke up.

“This deed cannot go unpunished. We will punish the corpers, a harsh lesson that they will never forget. It will happen and there is no stopping it, but it’s better if it’s a shot fired but all of us, rather than something the corpers might use to divide us.”

“I don’t understand. What do you think you are going to do?”

The room was silent. Pol’s eyes drifted toward the entrance to his study. The door was ajar and his wife watched, a worried expression on her face.

Edwyrd

Edwyrd burst into the meeting room, dismayed to find that he was the last to arrive. The faces were somber: Patron, Barrett, and many other executives. Only Steve seemed relaxed, almost amused.

“What is it?” he demanded.

Barrett replayed the message that they had all viewed.

A young woman spoke from a metal chair.

“By the time you receive this message, it has already been distributed to the villages. If it were left to me, you would not get this at all. But one of your assets is here, a prisoner like us and she has helped. Therefore, we have agreed to send you this communication. I suggest you consider carefully how you align yourselves.”

The woman faded out and they got their first look at the sights and sounds of Humantis Laboratory 8.

The Response

The vehicles approached the dome. They were large and heavy, the kind that scavengers used to extract materials from ruins. They were massive enough to withstand the winds of a hurricane and powerful enough to burrow through entire fallen buildings. But they moved slowly, like great horned turtles.

As they approached the dome, the vehicles spread out, a shimmering, blueish prong extended from each pressing into the barrier. Then there was a phasing of the entire structure and it blinked once, and then again, and again with increasing frequency, then decreasing frequency and finally it was no more.

A blast of cold, autumn air rushed into the void and licked the decorative trees and colorful fauna that had been planted within. The vegetation bowed freely to the heralds of its new master. The wall of a small sentry house creaked in response to a probing by the wind, its second push slammed the door so hard that the plastic hinge snapped.

As the vehicles converged on a dome generator, intending to make sure it never functioned again, the air grew dark and rain began wetting the dry ground.

On the other side of Humantis House, the unfinished side, the vanguard of the angry storm had arrived and the loose skin of the its skeleton was violently stripped off and the materials and objects with lay within were ripped from their resting places and thrown into the air.

There was a loud crack and then another and the far wall started to collapse and the entire structure cracked and formed gaps which the powerful wind exploited.

At this point some of the occupants, mostly workers, started to stream out of the front door. The back exit which was to open up onto a large deck was not complete and the wood structure of the deck shivered. Upon seeing this, would-be escapees turned toward the front door and the first of these would just make it before the entire building, never designed for such pressure, collapsed and the wind carried the pulverized plaster and debris into the air and high upwards where it could be seen everywhere in the valley and beyond.

Shelter

Lynda took a second look at the mysterious, olive-skinned Transom asset who had retreated into a dark corner. It took all of her energy to keep the others on task and it had actually helped that Cyn had kept her distance, removing herself from a leadership role; the others were still convinced that all the corpers must be involved.

Lynda would not be human if she had not had her own suspicions of Cyn, but the asset had certainly delivered when they needed her. She had gotten them out of the cell block, located incriminating evidence and found the communication center. And when they had received a response message, telling them to evacuate to the building’s shelter, this strange girl had already located that as well. She really did seem to have eyes everywhere, but how? Was it somehow related to that little creature she had stashed away beneath her cowl? Was that thing somehow her scout, her familiar?

Lynda had other concerns though. On the bright side, Marlee’s father had promised to collect them before morning. On the flip side, he had looked half-crazy when he said it. Who knew what he might do.

“I want to wait here for Daddy!” Marlee complained and Lynda turned to her and the others.

“Your father was very clear, we should wait in the shelter.”

“But it’s so cramped and damp down there!” she protested.

At that moment the lights and power died. The room was plunged into darkness and silence; they heard a thump and only the emergency lights returned.

“You have no choice now,” Cyn announced from somewhere in the darkness, “the dome has failed and the evening storms are already approaching.”

Donnie

Donnie was first woken by members of the newly formed Humantis Security division. As Humantis House was not yet complete and Humantis Village was only in the planning phase, only executives were allowed to live within their glorious new dome.

Donnie’s father was such an executive but Donnie actually preferred their apartment building within Transom Dome as it provided easy access to many of the other officers as well as to his clients. And of course he recently required face-to-face meetings with Transom personnel as well.

“What is it?” he demanded, “and what the hell is wrong with the wire? My AI isn’t seeing anything but urgent messages and errors.”

“There is some technical problem. We are told that resources are being redirected to the dome generators. Transom security is downstairs and they brought a hugger. You’d better talk to them, sir.”

Donnie found Ed Harilla outside the building with several of his men.

“What the hell is going on Eddie?!” Donnie demanded, walking up to the smaller man. “We have a right to…”

“I was told to evacuate you to SkyTran Dome.” Ed said loudly, softening his voice only when Donnie stopped talking. “We are actually doing you a favor, there are members of other companies housed in our dome that will want to leave when they learn what is going on, but I simply can’t transport them all.”

“Evacuate? What do you mean?”

“There is some problem with our dome and yours may have already failed. That’s why we are shutting down all unnecessary energy expenditures.”

“Oh my god!” Donnie moaned as if he had seen a ghost, “It’s true. I have the messages from our security team over there. But no updates on what happened after the dome failed.”

“They are trying to fix it,” Ed said patiently, “but we have issues over here as well and I can tell you that Transom House residents are already on their way to SkyTran Dome.”

Edwyrd looked around and then confided, “Patron told me that this hugger could take some of your officers over there as well. We don’t have room for everyone, so if you and your senior officers want to go with us, I can bring you. But if the dome fails, we will leave immediately and we will not return. It’s up to you.”

In the next thirty minutes, approximately fifty Humantis officers walked into the ground entrance of the hugger locomotive and ascended to the second level where they were moved to a holding car. The doors were closed behind them, then locked, and all of their cries and demands for information were ignored.

Leaving Lab 8

Cyn looked up at the large metal door to the hangar, it was nearly three stories high, and it was clear to her that it had been opened in recent weeks, perhaps to allow large pieces of equipment to be brought in. She had her own reasons for inspecting the door and its opening mechanism. With the building on emergency power, she had to make some changes in order for it to be usable.

The wind had began to howl outside of the building and she had been forced to bring Wasp inside. It dutifully buzzed about in the attic, hovering near a vent where it could get a view of the outside, in case a vehicle should approach. So far none had. So far.

She had found the Doctor’s office, at least the one she assumed was his. It was the only one with a security vault. But her quick search found nothing interesting and she was unable to open the vault. But she had to try.

Next, she turned her attention to the large, metal, room-sized structure in the center of the laboratory. It was one of the few pieces of equipment which was being fed emergency power. The thing had no view ports into what lie within and Cyn was able to find only two portals located on opposite sides of the structure. One door was sealed closed with no lock or obvious opening mechanism.

The other portal was open, a ramp leading from the floor to its threshold, a green light blinking overhead. Past the portal was a small chamber, another sealed door and a series of shower heads.

The strange chamber was littered with warning signs and a protocol manual lay nearby: AI devices were not allowed. Only one person could enter at a time and they had to remove all clothes and jewelry first. The list went on. It was most curious.

Cynnamon’s best guess was that it was some sort of clean room, a place sensitive to dirt and germs. But the bio-hazard signs implied there could be something dangerous within, perhaps this was the key to the Doctor’s creations.

Bug spied Lynda long before Cyn’s eyes and ears could have. The woman was not sneaking up on her, but she was not trying to be noticed either.

“Hi,” Cyn spoke even as she walked up the ramp to the portal of the chamber, hesitant to step through. If she were to find herself trapped inside, there might not be enough time to get out before the storm arrived. It was already arriving.

“I came to fetch you,” Lynda explained. “I thought you were in the shelter, in some corner…how are you feeling?”

Cyn hopped off the ramp, landing easily and gracefully, a marked improvement compared to her previous, shaky performances.

“Much better, thank you,” Cyn answered as she looked briefly again through the entrance documentation. She made her decision, there was no time to investigate further but neither would she want the Doctor to reclaim his machine, whatever it did. She turned to the other woman.

“Lynda, you need to return to the shelter. The weather is getting worse.”

“What was that thing that you had in your hand? It looked like a large insect. Is it the reason you knew so much?”

The building creaked as the wind howled.

“Partly, but this isn’t the time, right?” Cyn looked at her for the first time. Lynda’s eyes showed both concern and determination. Inwardly, Cyn sighed. With one of the others, she might be able to coerce them to return to the shelter, but not with this one.

“Then you can explain in the shelter, Miss Cynnamon.”

“I still have some things to do up here and the longer we talk, the longer…”

“Then I’ll help you. We made a deal, we exit together or we don’t. I take those sort of pacts very seriously…”

It was then, suddenly, that Cyn remembered how one of the other girls had referred to Lynda. It had tickled the recesses of her conscious but she had been so distracted. Marlee had called her ‘Lyn’ rather than ‘Lynda’. It had never occurred to Cynnamon that the two similar names might refer to the same person. Sister Gwenyth had told her about a woman named Lyn.

Cyn pulled back the hood of her cowl, her eyes flashing.

“You never told me what you do here in New Berlyn?” Cyn demanded.

“I didn’t,” Lynda responded quickly, “but at this point you owe me a many more answers than I owe you.”

It was then that Wasp spotted the approaching vehicle, similar to the one which had brought her, perhaps the same one.

“Someone is coming, you need to get downstairs and lock the door!” Cyn urged, pressing against Lynda’s shoulder, trying to guide her out of the laboratory.

“Oh, that’s a clever ploy,” Lynda replied with a smile. “I’ll run down right now.”

“I’m serious, Lynda,” Cyn whispered as she reclaimed the guard’s weapon.

“So am I” Lynda replied ignoring the weapon as she approached.

“Okay, okay. Well, it’s only a single person. I can almost guess who this is…we have to hide.”

The Doctor

Dr Petyr couldn’t risk bringing security to the lab. And it wasn’t necessary as he had employed a single guard, Sams, a man he could trust to fiercely protect the Doctor’s interests…and was rewarded well to do so.

Petyr was not sure what was happening with the dome, no one was, but somehow it had failed and it was quite possible everything within would be destroyed over the next couple days if not tonight. Or, hopefully, the fools would fix the damn thing. Urbanic service squads were probably already on the way, they couldn’t let a dome be lost! Petyr had never before heard of such a thing in Techview or any of Las Joyas.

Even if the worst were to occur, the project, his project could recover. He had another bug lab back in Techview but he had brought his formulas and notes with him and kept them updated and safe in his vault. Everything else could be taken by the storm but he needed those data chips, he would never store them on the wire.

“Sams! Where are you?” Petyr demanded as he moved through the entry area. The man was probably back with the girls. Petyr had spoken with him as to exactly what could and what could not be done with the patients and Sams knew to always wear a Transom Industries uniform for the benefit of those that might be released. Petyr had no interest in political games but he understood the importance of appeasing his parners. Their success was his success.

Sams had not answered. He would never have fled but he might be drunk, with one of the girls, or both. The Doctor did not have time to determine which, but it had been interesting to watch the moral erosion of the man since he had been put in charge of the inmates. It was a fascinating example of the corruption of power – at one time Sams had been an ardent member of the Faithful Sons and a devout family man. Now he cared about little else other than med-patches, alcohol and women. Petyr wondered if the same type of personality change could be induced by the bugs.

Well, if Sams did not show himself soon, a new guard might would be needed along with a new lab. It was no matter, the Doctor didn’t need Sams in order to get his files and escape to a nearby, functional dome. Petyr had already made up his mind that he could not wait for the man, would not wait for him.

Petyr moved through the double doors and into the large laboratory. From the far side of the room, he heard the creaking of metal and his eyes darted to the imposing hangar door which took up a large fraction of the wall.

He slipped into his office, worked the security vault and removed a metal box from within. On a whim, he stuffed some random papers from his desk back into the space and locked it up again. He stepped back out into the laboratory and started back the way he came, to his vehicle.

Petyr had reached the center of the room when he was halted by a sound, a voice. One that wasn’t Sams.

“I’ve been waiting for my pain patch, Doctor. You certainly took your time.”

A figure emerged out of the shadows. The girl wore a dark robe but her head was uncovered, he recognized her.

“You are that Transom asset, the blind girl! What are you doing here?” He started to walk towards her. He couldn’t see her hands as they were hidden by the robe. Had she recovered from her blindness? As he drew closer, the answer became clear, she certainly could see him and her eyes flashed with grim determination.

“I’m waiting for you, of course.”

He hesitated, unsure what to do. It was then that he perceived a slight motion behind him, felt a blow to the back of his skull and all went black.

It seemed only moments later when he opened his eyes again. Something cold had been splashed into his face; he could feel droplets running down his cheeks, the throb of a lump on the back of his head, a stiffness in his neck and a heaviness in his shoulders. He tried to move but found his arms were locked in the restraints of a diagnostic machine. The Transom asset was standing nearby and there was someone else there as well – one of the prisoners. Who had released them? It must have been Sams.

“Remember me doctor?” the girl, Lynda was her name, said coldly. She was holding an empty beaker. What the hell had she poured on him?

“What’s going on here?” he demanded. Then the damn woman struck his knee with a bar. He yelped in pain and stared back at her, pain fueling anger.

“How did that feel?” the Transom woman asked approaching.

“Loved it, thank you. Or were you speaking with the Doctor?” Lynda jeered.

Then he heard it, the entire building shake and creak, forcing him to remember why he had come. The dome was gone and he needed to escape. But he had come for his research notes. His eyes found the metal box, the Transom girl had it now.

“We have to go, Doctor” Cyn said, placing his precious box in her pack. “These examination tables are really remarkable. I haven’t seen anything like them. Certainly I didn’t know they had programmable restraints. Yours is set to release you in 15 minutes. We’ll be gone by then. Until then, you can enjoy some quality time in your laboratory, with your work…and with the storm.”

The doctor paused and listened. He could hear the click of the timer and the groan of the building.

“Let me go now,” he insisted confidently. “I have a vehicle. I’ll take you where you want to go.”

“That sounds great. But you stay here, with your equipment. And we’ll leave without you.”

The Transom girl turned to the other and spoke quietly to her.

“We are done here, now we have to go.”

“Wait,” insisted Petyr. “I can still help you. I’m an executive, I can open doors. I’m sure you have questions about what I’ve done here. You can share in the profit…”

“Open doors?” laughed the girl with the club, “That’s funny.”

He looked at the corporate asset, his voice calming, sure he could reason with her.

“I know you’re an asset,” he continued, focusing on the olive skinned beauty, “ you are at the bottom of the corporate ladder, a virtual slave. I’ve already moved others like you into corporate officership. I can do the same with you and right away.”

“You aren’t important at all, Doctor” Cyn muttered as she withdrew and the other one followed. “And the only one who wants to be with you is Maltiempo itself.”

He watched, unbelieving, as the two girls hurried off.

“25 minutes left Doctor!” One of them called back to him.

Dead and Blown Away

Dr. Petyr’s back spasmed from his frantic attempts to break out of the examination station. He had even tried to hook the manual release mechanism with his foot, but he had been unsuccessful. He looked at the chronometer again; five minutes until the chair released him. Then, hopefully, he would make it to the shelter. The dumb bitches obviously didn’t know about the shelter.

You seem lonely Doctor.

Her voice! It echoed in the large room. Naturally she had returned, these assets would do anything to improve their station, Petyr assured himself.

He tore his head around to the left and then to the right but didn’t see anyone. Was she in the hallway? The storm was howling and the building was creaking but he could still hear her voice over it all, it echoed in the room, haunting him.

“Where are you?” he called in a controlled, authoritative voice. “Release me and I’ll help you. I swear, don’t miss this chance.”

He would kill her, Petyr had decided. If it was the last thing he ever did. He would break out of the chair and kill her. To him, now, her death was even more important than the shelter. No one screws with Maximilian Petyr. He fantasized about squeezing her neck and beating her face while he casually explained that there was a shelter within the building and that after she stopped breathing, he would be safe. And where the hell was Sams? Sams might have uses for her even after she was dead.

Petyr heard a loud clunk and started, looked up. The hanger door was opening!

“Oh god” he muttered looking again at the chronometer. The wind flew into the laboratory like a poltergeist, wildly knocking over stands and blowing flasks off tables.

Here comes your best friend, Doctor, your only friend.

As the door opened, the inside of the lab turned into a mini storm; papers exploded into the air; broken glass and chemicals sprayed the walls as well as his skin. The entire structure groaned under a new stress, an inside pressure, one that grew stronger as the door rose.

The timer decremented, the 15 minutes had expired. Petyr struggled against the restraints with all his might even as bits of glass and debris started to flay his skin and clothes.

“Bitches! I’ll kill you!” He slammed hard against the restraint, dislocating his shoulder in the effort. The arm clamps did not open.

We have already flown away. As will you…

Petyr had not seen it, but located on the hangar door, holding tight to a strut with suctioned feet, was an insect-like device. Its body had assumed some of the coloring of the door making it unlikely the doctor would have noticed it even if he knew where to look.

Its large head had been trained on the man, but as that final sentence was transmitted, amplified using the metal of the door itself, the creature sprung into the air and was swept outward, into the storm, where it rode the dangerous winds in an attempt to rise to higher, less turbulent air.

The pain from his dislocated arm was almost overwhelming but every time his body was pelted by paper clips or rocks or pieces of glass he couldn’t resist the impulse to pull away and try to escape, but that only racked his body with more searing pain.

He tried to lift his legs to shield his torso and head, a somewhat effective strategy, but he could still feel objects hitting the backs of his thighs and the strength of his abdomen was not sufficient to allow him to hold that position for long. When would the damn restraints open?

His eyes rose to the ceiling, his vision blurred by tears of pain and sheer frustration, when he saw the roof detach and a split second later the hangar exploded outward. He gasped, his mind unbelieving.

Pieces of metal acted as shrapnel which shredded everything in the laboratory including the body of the Doctor. Minutes later, as his body was dismembered by Maltiempo, the chair restraints opened and his severed arms fell free. In the air, blowing past his lifeless head, was a tarot card depicting the destruction of a great tree by the Storm.

Escaping the Storm

“I’m driving.” Lynda said with grim determination as she kicked off the AI navigation and steered the vehicle towards and into a large drainage ditch, one which was already filling with water but whose sides offered protection against the wind to a vehicle not built for resisting weather. They gained speed now, moving toward the farms at the boundary of what once was New Humantis dome.

“I am sending images to the screen, so you can see what I see. It looks like the Doctor is impatient,” Cyn remarked, “I wonder if he’s figured out that we lied about the timer setting.”

“I feel awful,” Lynda said with disgust as she stole glimpses at the screen before turning her attention back to the road, the ditch. “Okay, so I believe you…about how you see things. Now why don’t we forget that awful man and concentrate on getting out of here?”

“You seem lonely, Doctor,” Cyn spoke loudly and clearly.

“He can hear you?” Lynda looked over.

“I’m opening the door, Lynda,” Cyn whispered, “it’s not even half open and I can see the entire building shake.”

Lynda wanted to look but had to be careful to keep her attention on the vehicle’s progress within the trench.

“I’m a little surprised at you, Miss Cynnamon. You don’t seem the vindictive type, though I hardly fault you in this case.”

“It’s actually not the Doctor I care about, it’s that whole, awful, building; that strange equipment and everything they were doing there. I don’t want anyone to continue it.”

“Agreed,” Lynda nodded as she spotted the pumping station. Now the ditch was almost half full of water, slowing the vehicle.

“The building is gone, Lynda.”

Lynda just shrugged as she drove.

The trench had become shallower now and thus the vehicle was exposed more and more to the elements. In the direction from which they had come, the air was dark with swirling dust and debris, especially black over the ground where the old hangar had stood.

They pulled up to a brick building and scrambled for it. The tall crops surrounding it whipped each other madly under the influence of the storm.

“The trenches funnel water to points along the ring of farms where that water is circulated around the ring. This is one of the buildings where the pumps are housed,” Lynda explained after she closed the door behind them, only partially muffling the growing roar.

“Can we wait out the storm here?” Cyn asked calmly.

“Wait out the storm?” Lynda laughed. “Such a corper. No, we won’t wait for anything. We go straight into the tunnels. There are lockers over there so put on some boots; my forecast is for plenty of mud and that is if we are lucky.”

“Do I really need boots? Shouldn’t we just go?” Cyn frowned.

“We absolutely do need them, I thought you were a village girl?”

“I am,” Cyn answered quickly as she scrambled to follow Lynda’s lead. “But I grew up near the rim of the valley. No tunnels.”

“Let me take you on a tour then.”

The Tunnel

The two women navigated through the dark, damp and windy tunnels. At first they walked single file, by light from Lynda’s flashlight, but eventually the tunnel joined with others, growing in size so they did not have to stoop and could walk together, each one on the opposite side of a stream of water which ran between and ahead of them.

“Tell me, what do you do in this valley, your occupation?” Cyn asked.

“I don’t think so, Miss Cynnamon,” Lynda replied. “I’ll be asking the questions and we have a nice long hike so there will be plenty of time for you to answer.”

“Is that so?” Cyn laughed, genuinely happy. “Well, if you answer this one question it might help me be more open about yours.”

“You are clearly a village girl, as most assets are,” Lynda began, undaunted. “I feel I should know you or have seen you at least, but I haven’t. So where did you come from?”

“I was born in New Berlyn, in a small, remote, rim village called Imais. But I have been in Techview for the last ten years. I only returned this month.”

“Techview?!” Lynda exclaimed. “Then is it possible that you know a lady named Gwenyth?”

Now it was Cynnamon’s turn to be surprised.

“I do but I didn’t think you…”

“And you met her in an old stone building, describe her.”

“Now I am sure I know who you are,” Cyn smiled.

“Perhaps, but who are you? Describe the Gwen that you know and where you met her.”

“My, I never dreamed you could be so bossy, Lynda or do people call you Lyn? I heard Marlee call you that but it just didn’t register at the time.”

“I asked my question,” Lynda barked.

“You did, and I apologize for being flip, I’m still a bit giddy from all the excitement. Sister Gwenyth is tall with yellow-blonde straight hair and eyes that somehow match. She wears plain, simple, sometimes over-sized gowns over slippers. I have only spoken with her once and I was so nervous, and very few people make me nervous. But she was kind and understanding and asked me only a single favor. She asked me to keep my ears open about what had happened to you.”

“And you came here and just found me? That seems far-fetched.” Lynda prodded.

“The First Sister…my First Sister had learned that I had grown up in New Berlyn, she hoped that I might hear something, learn something that they had not. She told me that sometimes one must act even without any expectation of success.”

“I have only spoken with her a handful of times…but that does sound like her,” admitted Lynda.

“She couldn’t have known I would be sent here by corporate and, to be honest, I was so overwhelmed with my own problems, I wasn’t at all looking for you. But I knew that something was happening here, something bad and I needed to find out what…”

They walked, the sounds of streaming water filled their ears.

“It is really you then? You are First Sister here?”

“I still have questions before I start to answer yours,” Lynda interjected with a feigned sense of importance. She stopped and crossed over to the other side of the tunnel, her hands brushing away Cyn’s long black hair until she could find the scar in back of her head, below the ear. “I am aware that all corpers, including assets have sensory implants. And as I puzzled over how, how you were able to see me and speak with me from your cell and how you were able to see so much of the outside, it was then that I remembered this thing. So is this how you were able to do it?” Lynda’s eyes became less demanding. “You receive sights and sounds from that…that creature?”

Cyn nodded slowly.

The asset revealed a strange insect in her hand. She showed it to Lynda before flipping it with her finger and it flew away.

“Yes, most domers have sensory implants which allow them to interact with a computer-generated virtual world. But it brings information to us, to within our point-of-view. I have never seen anything like this unit. Even as we speak it is one hundred yards down the tunnel and there is a branch, I am sending it down the left side where it has entered a large room…”

“Okay, please, bring it back. You say it is not typical corper AI, then where did it come from?”

“I don’t know, I found it when I arrived. Honestly, I didn’t have the luxury of questioning its origins though perhaps I should do so now.”

“Can you turn it off?”

“Sure. Anyhow, it sends the messages to my implants, it was hard for me to handle at first, it made me sick, that is why I had so much trouble even walking when you first met me. That and the fact that both drones were searching the entire building, once that was done they became easier to handle. See? No magic, you would be able to see the same thing if you had implants in…”

“Please don’t speak of it. I would never allow those things in my head. Ever,” Lynda seethed.

“You don’t have to be so hateful about it, Sister. I can’t help what I am, I was only thirteen when I had my first surgery.”

“I’m sorry,” Lynda relented. “You have no idea how many times I have heard assets tell me about their surgeries, their purchases, their debts. I overreacted, I’m sorry.” She wrapped her arms around Cynnamon. “I really am. You saved my life. Thank you.”

“You saved mine as well, Sister.”

Lynda nodded and crossed back to the other side of the tunnel.

“How did you…why did you become part of Transom?”

“As I told you, I was born and raised in Imais. I was eight years old when I lost my mother, I moved around a bit but ended up in a dome orphanage, run by the Sanctuary of the Seven Sisters. In order to bring in funds, they ran a scavenger shop on the side and like many of the children, I worked there.

I began with the usual chores but eventually I learned everything I could: accounting, administration. To be honest, it wasn’t that I had a natural talent for such things, but I was just so sure that if I learned all that I could, if I became indispensable to the Sisters, that they would let me stay forever.

So much for my strategy because they did send me away. One day the First Sister spoke with me in private and told me about the Corporate Sponsorship program and that I was well suited…”

“Yes,” Lynda interjected. “That would have been Sister Agatha, correct?”

“Yes, you know?”

“My predecessor. Under her, we placed dozens of our young in that program, to become corporate assets. The results were mixed at best and when I took over, I terminated the program. If I am being honest, I will confess that ending that practice was something I intended even before I accepted the position.”

“Well, she hand-picked Transom Industries for me. I spent the next years in corporate training, trying to catch up to the other students, to learn their science, their techniques. And then one day, they informed me that I would be sent to Techview. Another ten years there and now they brought me back.”

“Why?”

“I don’t know why I was asked to return. I wasn’t even sure they knew. From the moment I arrived, nothing has worked, no one has told me anything and it was almost as if they were trying to drive me crazy.”

“Why did they take you to that place, the Doctor’s lab? What did you do?”

Cyn sighed.

“It’s a long story, Lynda. And I’m not sure I even understand it all.”

“Would you try?”

Cynnamon stopped and looked at Lynda helplessly.

“I could try…I really just knew that whatever I was involved in, it was something bad. How I got into this mess is still a mystery. When I was in training, you have to understand, it can be very hard on an asset, we train with other assets but with officers as well and so it’s not only the material that can be daunting.

To continue, I met a boy, an officer-in-training and we began hanging out, socially and romantically. You would need to understand all the dynamics but that was both a good thing and a bad thing. It was a bad thing because I became very unpopular as a result. I was a girl reaching beyond my station. It’s not that anyone had anything against assets sleeping with non-assets, they just didn’t like the idea that it was anything more that that.

The good news…is that I had a corper boyfriend, and people had to treat me better and the guys couldn’t grab me or say what they wanted and it was so much easier to study and I needed that to catch up, there was so much to learn. So, was it a convenient relationship? Sure. Did I like him? Would I have been happy to keep him? Yes. Yes. But that’s not what happened, we drifted apart.

So now fast-forward ten years and I return to New Berlyn for some reason that no one will tell me and the old boyfriend wants to see me and he is very flirtatious and warm. But I also know that his company may be engaged in espionage against my mine. So I had to suspect his sudden interest in me after so many years; and when I find he is so insistent as to practically hunt me down, well then I knew this went far beyond a desire to reconnect.

In the end he somehow accessed my room and abducted me…and sent me here…I mean to Lab 8. But I am not sure why…maybe to use that ‘Ally’ product which the Doctor spoke about. I just don’t know.”

“If he wanted time with you, to re-awaken old feelings then I would have thought he would spend time with you. Do you still care for him?”

“No…not in that way. I wouldn’t want to hurt him though and I didn’t think he would ever..”

Cyn’s voice broke off and Lynda looked over at her.

“Oh…did he…”

A tear streamed down Cynnamon’s face.

“I’m being silly,” Cyn spoke hastily as she wiped away the tear. “Yes, he hurt me, he attacked me but it’s not that. I don’t care about it, it happens, we both know that. It just hurts that after all these years…that he could think so little of me. But he did and he sent me to that laboratory where the gods only know what they would have done to me. Lynda, that is all I know.”

“Okay,” Lynda began. “Now I’ll tell you my story and it has some similarities.

As you may know, the role of First Sister comes with a high commitment, that I would always serve the sanctuary, that I would always be available for it and for the people it served, that I would live there.

I don’t want you to think that I regretted my decision, I swear I never did, I don’t. But I met someone, the first man that I felt shared my passion, understood my ideals and for the first time in a long time I found I had a priority which rivaled the sisters and clients of the Sanctuary.”

Lynda stopped speaking and turned to the other. Her face dark and troubled.

“When one helps others, the less fortunate if you will forgive my inappropriate use of that word. It can be hard to think correctly…I had to always fight the feeling that somehow I had better instincts, a better intuition than my girls. Even when I met you, if I am being honest, I couldn’t help but think the same way, that because I didn’t choose the same path, that somehow I knew better. And I’m sorry. But you’ll see that I have been punished for my pride and the lab where you found me was my penance, my sentence.

So, yes, I met a man, someone I thought was special and who I thought felt the same way about me. I was wrong about both.

Despite my standard precautions, I became pregnant and when I tried to end it, I was brought here. The Doctor glibly informed me that I was the subject of one of his experiments, a fertility drug, something taken by my ‘boyfriend’ without my knowledge. But he also told me that he had the power to compel me to want to be with Darren again, not just to want it, he claimed I would beg for it. I can’t say I really believed he had this power, even now, but I was certain that he was sure and…and that is why I had that noose around my neck when you discovered me. Some First Sister, huh?”

“I would have done the same thing,” Cyn spoke softly with a trace of fierceness in her voice.”

“You don’t find it ironic that a First Sister would take her own life…I’m supposed to counsel young women away from suicidal thoughts…”

“You weren’t giving up, you were escaping that Doctor’s obscene experiments. You refused to be part of their horrors. I admire you.

Listen, Lynda, I took a good look at all of the prisoners before I chose to ask for your help. You were the only one with a plan, testing the noose that would support your own body, experimenting with knots and judging distances. I knew you would be the best partner I might get and everything you have done has been further proof that I was right.”

“I’ve never killed a person, before today. I know we didn’t have any choice with Sams, but the Doctor…that will be tougher to live down.”

There was silence as they walked.

“Lynda, First Sister, can I tell you something?” Cyn’s voice filled the dark tunnel.

“Of course.”

“I don’t want you to think I am saying this to make you feel better about him. I’m going to tell you the truth and you can judge me as you will, but this is between us.”

“Definitely, it stays between us. I know he was an awful person, I just would have felt better if I had known that he was killer as well…”

“It doesn’t matter. You couldn’t have saved him no matter what he was or was not. I would have killed him in a second and left his lair in fire. But Maltiempo was already at his door and so we….I gave him to it instead. You gave him that chance, that time and now that it is over I am glad it ended that way. So leave the Doctor with me. But what about you? What about this boyfriend? The one who sent you here?”

Lynda nodded.

“He isn’t important at all, when you told the Doctor that I knew the same thing was true of Darren. I won’t waste even the breath to speak with him. But I will tell my story and there will be a lot of people who will not be happy. As for the child, he can have it. Or he can give it to me. But I will not share ANYTHING with that monster. Ever.

But I can’t leave the Doctor entirely to you. What about his files? The contents of that box?”

“Exactly. The lab is destroyed and unless he was extremely lucky, so is the Doctor; but who knows what else remains? We have to assume he had other colleagues to continue his work, in other laboratories. But we don’t even know the details of what he was doing, the Doctor’s files are all that we have left. So, I would like to get them to someone I trust, someone who can determine exactly what he was doing, what he planned to do next.”

“You have someone in mind?”

“Yes, one of the Sisters in Techview. She is a professor and she has contacts both among both corpers and the villages…and of course she is one of us.”

“Normally,” Lynda began stoically, “I would insist that box stay here, but my sanctuary was abandoned and it will take a while to sort out who I can trust here. Besides you.”

Cyn looked back at her.

“Thank you.”

“But you can’t be the carrier. You realize that.”

“Yes,” nodded Cynnamon.

“So we will speak with Sister Gwenyth, first thing. She’ll arrange a courier and we’ll put it in their hands.”

“Agreed. But, eventually they will realize we fled the laboratory. And someone will suspect that we took something with us.”

“I have a plan for that, Miss Cynnamon, but you won’t like it.”

“Try me,” Cyn laughed.

[] Aftermaths

Search

The next day, villagers scoured the area which had previously been covered by New Humantis Dome. Much earlier, the survivors of Lab 8 had been located and safely extracted from the storm shelter beneath the collapsed hangar. At the site of what would have been Humantis House, there were plenty of bodies but no survivors, some workers had managed to escape the collapsing house and found shelter in a pit, perishing when it flooded. No other survivors were found within what used to be New Humantis Dome.

However, in the mangled woods beyond the perimeter of the dome, searchers found the cold, muddy and bruised bodies of two young women; barely alive and unresponsive.

Edwyrd

“They have identified her positively?”

“Yes, deputy. It’s her but she’s in a coma and they are refusing to release her to us. The other one refuses to speak with us and she is a villager so…”

“Normally,” Ed began. “they would not be able to deny us, but with the political climate the way it is and with the charges against us, the good-will of the villagers might be the only thing to save us. We can ask, but we can’t force them to release her.”

“We can’t even see her, remote monitoring is the best they will allow.”

“We’ll see about that,” murmured Ed as he moved for the door and arranged a private hugger.

“I’m sorry, Mr. Harilla, our instructions are that she has no visitors, not even family. That applies to both victims.”

“I don’t know the villager,” Ed began even though he was pretty sure she was the one who spoke on the message. “But the other is one of ours. I just want to know how she is doing.”

“She is recovering, slowly. That should be enough for you. I will let you view her remotely for a short time, it’s the most we will do right now. When she recovers, she’ll be returned to you.”

Ed’s face remained stoic as the video feed opened and he saw the medical chamber. It was after-hours and the room was dark. The Techview asset’s normally tanned skin seemed devoid of color, her head was bandaged and her face had numerous cuts.

And although he tried to resist it, he couldn’t help wonder how much worse she must have looked after he had finished with her. All those years ago.

Cyn

Cynnamon returned to the Domes one week later. She sat in the transport pod of a hugger with six armored members of Transom Security.

Cyn found it less intimidating that they didn’t wear their helmets. But for the most part they sat quietly, removed from her, for the duration of the trip. But as Cyn rehearsed, in her mind, the responses to the obvious questions she would be asked; she noticed that each of the guards, at one time during the trip, had looked over at her. Their glances were neither hostile nor benevolent, curious looks if anything.

When the hugger docked, she was escorted off the hugger but not into the station as she expected. Rather they escorted her the opposite way, towards a private area where a corporate vehicle was waiting. Before she boarded, however, one of the guards brushed by her, and whispered.

“That’s what they get for fucking with us.”

She considered the comment. From Lynda’s message, it would be clear that Humantis had been conspiring against its big brother but Cyn was not sure the fact would be revealed. It seemed that it had. But there would be other ways to look at the events at Lab 8. It was unlikely that Transom would come out of this well.

Soon she was back in Transom House, brought in through a private entrance and down a series of hallways which, she knew, led to the executive wing. She hoped she was not being taken to Barrett. Perhaps she was being granted an audience with Patron?

She was deposited in a luxurious suite, similar to the one Tym Matheson had occupied. The guards wasted no time in leaving her, but as the door closed behind, and Cynnamon was in the middle of wondering why they would bring her here, it was then that she realized she was not alone. Sitting comfortably in an overstuffed chair was a monster of a man with long blonde hair. She slowed to a stop and looked at him.

“Nice place, huh?” he smiled waving her to sit.

She looked around the room as she eased into a chair. She nodded a response.

“Do you know what this room is?”

Her mind froze. Did they know that Tym had harbored her? But this was not that room and neither had he asked that question. She shook her head, honestly.

“Well, you should, because these are your new quarters. Nice huh? Room service, en-suite bathroom, a stocked kitchen and located in a nice, quiet wing on the executive floor of Transom House. I never thought I would ever see the inside of one of these places and I’ll wager neither did you?”

Now she had to be careful with how she responded.

“But why would I stay here? Whose suite is this?”

He was satisfied with that response, it was the one that made the most sense. That she had been given to some executive.

“I told you. It’s your quarters for the rest of your stay. As for why…well, there are reasons and then there are reasons. So who knows?”

“Why are you here?”

She might as well get that question out of the way. She dreaded his answer.

“I’m not here to question you. Quite the reverse.”

She wasn’t sure if he was intentionally frustrating her or he was simply enjoying the moment. She decided to assume the latter.

“If these are my quarters, might I offer you something to drink? I would think that even executives are good hosts…” she smiled as she slipped out of the chair and walked toward the kitchen. He laughed at that.

“Thanks, yeah, some water would be great. I’m anxious to see if it tastes any better than the stuff I get at home.”

Cyn knew there would be a stocked refrigerator unit in the kitchen but naturally she shouldn’t know that. So she strolled around the room, pretending she had never seen an executive suite before entering the kitchen and finding some bottles of water.

The interrogator didn’t seem concerned at all and drank greedily from the bottle, ignoring the glass she had brought him.

She sat again and raised her eyebrows only slightly before taking a drink. Apparently that was enough.

“You are wondering why I am here, rather than Patron or Harilla or Barrett. It’s a good question and I don’t know the answer. The best I can figure is that, right now, trust is the highest value commodity at Transom Industries and somehow my stock is higher than everyone else. It is widely believed that we have a highly placed traitor and all the executives are suspect and the Harillas as well. Technically I am under Eddie but the interrogation unit runs largely independent and I’m known to do what I want, even under intense pressure. So, here I am.”

“You said that you are not here to ask me questions.”

“I did.”

“But you also said that it is actually the ‘reverse’. That’s the part that confuses me.”

He finished his water and she slipped out of the chair to fetch him another. Why not? She would bring him water all day if he didn’t want to speak about Lab 8 or what she had done there.

“Thank you, I could get used to this. What I mean is that if anyone is going to ask you anything, it would be me, or someone from my team, right?”

“I would think so,” Cyn nodded.

“And you would be damn right! So I am here to tell you that it won’t happen, that no one will ask you shit and if anyone tells you they are from the Interview Division then they are full of shit and you aren’t to speak with them. Even if they torture you,” he smiled.

“Okay. But why?”

“Listen, you are giving me too much credit. But I’ve seen the transmission from that place where you were held, hell, I think everyone has seen it by now. But we don’t have access to any of those people who were there with you. They are either dead or protected by the villagers, people we don’t want to antagonize right now. So you are hottest ticket in town and no one wants anyone else to ask you a question unless they are sure they will like your answer. Got it?”

“So I’m here to keep people from asking me questions?” Stym was already nodding. “And you don’t have any for me?”

He laughed out loud.

“Oh, Miss Asset, I can assure you that I have lots of questions to ask and I am asking what and who I can. But my orders are that no one is to ask you anything, even ‘how are you’ is off-limits. So you will be quartered here for the rest of your stay, enjoying the good life, while the shit storm blows over and the smell dies down.”

“Then, can I ask you a question?”

“Sure, why not?”

“Is this door…secure? No one can get in without…you know…without all of you knowing about it?”

“Absolutely, but that is true everywhere in Transom House. Private is private.” He looked at her with questioning eyes, sure she wanted to ask a different question.

But she didn’t and she was worried. She still didn’t know who or what had invaded her room on that second night in Transom house; the thought that it could find her manifested in her expression before she could stop it.

“But, there’s nothing to worry about,” he assured her. ”No one even knows you are here. If you have a concern, ping my AI. Listen, only you can open the lock…or someone from security if there was good reason.”

She turned away, already dreading each coming night.

Private Meeting

The private meeting was held in virtual space: a constantly shifting stream of encrypted bits and bytes which represented the images, sounds and information exchanged. The meeting was initiated by the Top Five: SkyTran Corporation, Urbanic Inc, Daneel Tech, Providence and Halstrom.

At some point, a participation key was generated and sent to Paul Harilla, Patron of Transom Industries. His fellow Transom executives were allowed to observe only.

The next half hour was brutal for the Transom executive. Any one of the Top Five could exert significant pressure on even as large a company as Transom. Although that group had no power to create ‘laws’ or make rules which were binding on any other corporation, their decisions and agreements could drastically affect the profits and workings of all. An unfavorable attitude by the entire group could be the business equivalent of a death sentence; thus in many ways, their rulings were often accepted as commands.

The Matron of SkyTran was especially miffed and critical of Transom.

“I would like to see Transom fully own up to its culpability in this matter. First, you damage the relationship that we have built with our villagers since even before the first dome was built in New Berlyn. Next, as that situation deteriorated, you failed to bring in the council or even notify any member until the situation had completely exploded and the villagers had attacked a sister corporation, a younger corporation. And if that act of violence, the first in our history, did not make matters completely unsalvageable, you actually had the bravado to kidnap and detain nearly every surviving officer of Humantis Corporation while protesting that you were the wronged party; and all the time you had operatives inside Humantis.”

“They kidnapped one of our operatives, it isn’t the same thing!” protested Harilla.

“Come now,” started the representative of Urbanic, “it was one of your ops team members, correct? And you want us to believe that it was an abduction rather than just the insertion of an agent? It sounds like Humantis was set up to me…”

“We have provided all of our communication keys to Daneel. They will be able to verify what we say. You’ve seen the messages provided by the villagers, Humantis was engaged in corporate impersonation and were intentionally implicating us…”

“We do not doubt that trickery was used…we are debating who was the ultimate source, the master manipulator. You do seem to be the party left standing while a smaller, less experienced company with one hundredth of your revenues seems to have lost their entire executive board, leaving a weakened company whose new technologies you have claims on. It all seems very convenient for you…”

Patron stared at the SkyTran Matron and tried to keep from yelling.

“I have explained and we have documented..”

“I’m sorry, Mr. Harilla,” interjected the Patron of Urbanic Corp. “we have heard your statements and have seen the witness testimony and the available documentation. From this point forward, discussion will be limited to the Top Five. We will adjourn and reconvene this afternoon.”

And in case Patron didn’t understand, his audio input was terminated. He turned and looked at his fellow Transom executives who themselves looked grim. Only Steve, who was not an executive, seemed to be relatively unconcerned.

Miriam

When Miriam regained consciousness for the first time in days, she was treated to a wonderful sense of quiet and calm. In truth, she might have opened her eyes even an hour earlier except the sensation was so wonderful. It was as if she were sleeping in a hammock in the middle of a still forest with a single beam of light shining on her body, keeping her warm. Gone was the buzz in her mind, the pounding in her ears, the racing heart beat, the maddening quivering of her eyes and, best of all, the Bugs were inactive,silent.

When her eyes opened, she saw several people in the room, and beautiful flowers on a nearby table, her favorite colors, that meant her Uncle was involved. It was just like the good old days, before all of this.

Miriam did not want to speak or even think, wherever the Bugs were, she didn’t want their attention. Strange, it was hard to remember a time when they weren’t with her. Almost.

One of the people in the room was her Uncle Ryk, his back was turned but she heard his voice now and recognized it immediately. She smiled mischievously. She thought to slip out of her bed, tip-toe gracefully across the floor and give him the surprise of his life. He hated when she startled him but she was so good at it! She started to rise and suddenly her limbs were tired and sore. She faltered and slumped back to the bed.

At that moment, Ann noticed her and looked alarmed.

“Hi Ann,” she smiled weakly, disappointed that her plan was so easily foiled. “You sure are hanging around my Uncle a lot. Anything you want to tell me?”

“Miri? Sweetie?!” the tall man turned to her, surprise and delight on his face. Ann, on the other hand, seemed worried.

“Hi Uncle,” her smile broadened. “You brought me flowers. I love them.”

He rushed to her, his arms gently embracing, careful not to squeeze her too hard. She wrapped her thin arms around him and trapped him in a soft vice that held him close while she whispered. “Thanks for coming. I knew you would.” She held him longer, pressing the point home before releasing him and discovering the smooth, black, glossy patches on her arms.

“Ewww, what is this on my skin?!” Miriam exclaimed.

“How much do you remember?” Ann began softly.

“I don’t remember my lovely skin turning black! Dynamic skin coloring is like the ONLY body enhancement I didn’t get!”

“Your skin was all black when they found you and your hair was white,” Uncle Ryk offered.

Several thoughts went through Miriam’s mind as she made superficial remarks about her appearance. She realized that they were alone in the room and the door was closed, strange for a hospital room. And the room did not look official, it was a storage room converted for the purpose. She also realized that Ann was wearing one of Ryk’s shirts. There would be time to tease them both about that. But first she needed to remember what had happened.

She did remember something. The Gala, where she had had the most incredible headache and nausea caused by the irate and vile things that lived within her. Vile. There, she said it. She intentionally baited them and didn’t care, but they didn’t respond. In the end she had trouble seeing, and certainly lost control of her body enhancements, that explained the white hair.

She shivered as she remembered more. That asshole Steve had done something to her, had touched her, had stuck her with a needle, told her she wasn’t needed further. Her temper flared, he had tried to kill her. Her last thoughts had been of her child. She had been a sitting duck, unable to protect herself or him and it was all their fault. Where were they?

“Do you know where you are?” Ann asked, apparently desperate to get even trivial answers.

“Please tell me we are back in Techview!” She sighed heavily, knowing that was too much to ask.

“I’m afraid not. We are guests of SkyTran Dome. Miriam, I…we have some bad news for you.”

Miriam looked again at Uncle Ryk and back at Ann.

“My child?”

Ann looked confused and traded looks with Uncle Ryk.

“No, no. The child is fine, Miri, it’s just that things have happened since…”

“Then tell me, Ann,” Miriam demanded. It might be him. She realized that. Given how things had been going, she was surprised the whole damn place hadn’t gone up in flames. And the Bugs had incapacitated her!

Ann continued. “There was a…a problem at Humantis Dome. It failed and nearly everyone was lost.”

“And he was there?” Miriam asked, feeling the Bugs for the first time. She checked Ryk’s eyes and was sure. Even as Ann started to nod, Miriam rose up in her bed, as much as she could her eyes flashing.

“You all know that I would have saved him? Right? I never would have let it happen. I was the reason he made it this far.”

“Miri, I am so sorry…” offered Ryk.

“No!” Miriam protested. “You need to hear this. You need to be on board with what I tell you. I loved him, but that man would be have died a long time ago if not for me. And I could have saved him, I would have saved him but I couldn’t, I was prevented.”

She knew they would not understand but she stared them both down and they nodded their heads while she turned her attention inward, to the loathsome creatures who had limited her, incapacitated her.

You bugs killed him. Traitors! And now all we have left is his child. My child.

And, for the first time, she felt the Bugs cower.

Steve’s Gambit

It was during the Transom trial that Steve, confident that there would be a major leadership change at Transom, made one of the many moves he had planned so carefully. He reasoned that the Top Five would never revoke a corporate charter, it would be too dangerous a precedent, leaving executive expulsion their only recourse. But the coming consequences, whatever they would be, was all anyone could talk about and left them completely distracted. Thus it was the perfect time and perfect opportunity for a trip, a hugger trip around the valley.

Of course he needed help to arrange it all. He used passwords which he had obtained from Brad to access a series of progressively elevated accounts, one of which bridged into one of Ed’s privileged accounts. It was not difficult at all; it just took a little persistence.

Finally, he was able to spoof Ed’s credentials in order to arrange the hugger, requisition a pilot and send out the official notification to his target.

“Where is Patron?” the brash olive-skinned asset asked as she took a seat and fingered the restraint switch. “I’ve hardly exchanged five words with him the entire time I’ve been here.”

“Looks like they’re up front, because we’re starting off,” Steve replied absently as he chose a seat where he could face her. Steve had ridden on a hugger engine previously with his brothers. The damn thing flew as smooth as anything inside the dome but he remembered that, despite it, Ed was full of cautions and instructions which had taken away from the novelty of the experience and left Steve with no interest in ever being outside of a domed city again. Until today.

“Soooo” drawled Steve, “I was in the Top Five meeting this morning. Very unfortunate this whole episode.” Cyn’s demeanor changed slightly and she looked out of a view port, silent. So he prompted her. “I assume you would agree with that?”

Cyn looked over. “Sure, it’s unfortunate for many.”

“I mean,” Steve assumed a teaching pose, “I mean its unfortunate how Patron chose to handle it. He didn’t consider all of the factors. And neither did you.”

Cyn looked up at him. “Explain.”

Explain. He hated the easy way she said that, as if he had any need to tell her anything. She should be pleading with him for an inkling of what he knew. Still, he needed to have this conversation, so he continued.

“Well, imagine a resolution to the issue which involved only Humantis and ourselves. We would have the evidence which would have destroyed their reputation in both the corporate and villager communities, they would have been forced to agree to a very one-sided merger and we would have the product base which we desperately need as well as control of a very interesting technology. A strong new technology would have moved us into the Top Five within a year.”

“What new technology? They were imprisoning and raping women!” she huffed. And Steve realized that she really didn’t know. She hadn’t taken the time to ask the right questions.

“Several new technologies, really. I guess that just proves the point that you shouldn’t act when you don’t have the intelligence to do so.” He enjoyed the double meaning of the word. Then he added. “But our advantage was lost due to Patron’s hasty arrest of Humantis officers and his disclosures to the council. And I have to say it, Patron might have even had some choices if you had sent your cries for help back to us and only us.”

It really irked him to see his plan come so close to perfect fruition and then be screwed up by a stupid asset. But the result would be the same because his plan was that good.

Cyn was silent, considering. “It wasn’t soley my choice.”

“Ah, but it was your job to consider what was best for Transom and convince them, right? That’s what we pay you for..excuse me, that is why we suffer you. So much for Techview training. As it is, I hope you can find a way to make things right with Donnie.”

He stood now, his arms attached to what he presumed to be a safety bar suspended from the ceiling. He glanced out the view port. The Hugger was sliding smoothly on its route toward the valley wall.

“Donyden Cabb is in de facto jail. I doubt I’ll be seeing him or that I need to,” Cyn replied hastily, some chill creeping into her voice.

Steve didn’t deign to look at the tart. He spoke calmly.

“Donnie and his people are actually guests of SkyTran Corporation if you didn’t know. It’s too bad you aren’t allowed in the meetings or you could see for yourself the havoc your little adventure has caused.

Things aren’t going well at all. My prediction is that the entire Transom executive core will be dismantled and I will be the next Patron.”

He sighed at the thought of the burden of that leadership. But of course it would have to be and Patron had no one to blame but himself. Steve spared a couple moments for that statement to sink into her small brain. Then he dropped the second bomb. “And since your actions led to the deaths of the entire Humantis executive, I would imagine that Donnie will move up faster than we thought, perhaps he’ll be the next Humantis Patron. So it would be a good idea for you to be on terms with my good friend Donnie.”

He could see her expression change out of the corner of his eye. He longed to hear her confused, panicky voice.

“Good friend? I thought, I thought…”

“You thought what we wanted you to think,” he laughed, turning to her. “And it was part of my plan for everyone to think Brad was helping Donnie. And if you’ve forgiven Brad, then you should forgive Donnie as well.”

“I’ll forgive whom I wish!” she sauced. “Something was done to Brad, he was drugged or something similar. You obviously know about his breakdown, have you been to see him? He is inconsolable, I can’t believe he helped anyone take me of his own free will. I don’t remember much from all those years ago, but I remember he was always one of the nicest people. And what do you mean ‘we’?”

With one hand, Steve verified that the stun glove was still in his pack, while the other hand checked the piece of nostalgia that he had secured to his thigh.

“I knew Brad was weak, he was never cut out for this life. Patron should have seen that and replaced him and I would not have had to use him such.

As for we, I am talking about the Doctor, whom I am told is no more, Donnie and myself. We were already terrorizing assets and villagers and pointing the blame at Transom in order to expose Patron’s weak policies and poor decision-making. Naturally, I would be chosen as his replacement. Meanwhile Donnie would advance to the executive based on some interesting product ideas which you wouldn’t understand. But, thanks to you and my brilliant planning, Donnie will advance even faster than we had thought and the rest will be the same.”

“You are pretty sure of what will happen in council. What if you’re wrong?” Cyn asked, but she looked worried.

“The wheels have started turning, even if they do not complete their cycle today, they will soon. In either case, as far as you are concerned, I am Patron, and unlike my predecessor, I like to break in my assets.”

Steve smiled as he raised his stun-gloved hand.

“You’ll want to do everything I say.” he added, “and I like lots of begging.”

The look on her face. It was something he had been dying to see. And he saw it. It was a long time coming. Almost a decade.

Cynnamon

Cyn had already noticed that he was attempting to put a stun glove on his hand. The device was not really intended as a weapon against an active combatant, it was more for intimidation or to disable an already restrained but not docile individual. Still she pretended that she was intimidated.

“You’ll want to do everything I say.” Steve smiled, “and I like lots of begging.”

Cyn kept her legs crossed, her back relaxing even as she raised her hands in a pseudo-defensive manner, as if to say, ‘don’t come closer’. But she had to fight to keep her concentration, she did not expect this, at all, and it raised some real worries in her mind…like could Patron really be on board? If not, who was?

“I’ve heard that phrase before!” She protested.

“From Barrett?” Steve grinned, “Yep, I told him that you were fatally submissive and that kind of talk would be an easy way to fuck you. Actually, I told lots of people that. Isn’t it true? I’m sure you let ole Donnie do whatever he wanted back in the day when he was protecting you from the rest of us and it seems like he didn’t have much trouble with you the other night either.”

She stared at him. She was surprised but she wasn’t sure why. Steve had always been a jerk, it was just that he seldom acted like he knew it. But why now? Why on a survey trip? Who else was on board? She had received an official assignment from Patron himself…”

“Why are you telling me all this?” she demanded as she fought off a tendril of panic. “I thought we are surveying a border valley? It’s hard to believe you are just passing the time…with that…thing on your hand.”

“Don’t confuse your village brain…there is no survey…think of this trip as a meet and greet with your new Patron.”

She stared at him, waiting for him to make his move but hoping he would stay away. He took a step closer and the panic grew.

“I have something else to show you,” he smiled.

“What?” Cyn fought the worry, at this point she wished he would just attack her rather than tell her more things she didn’t know.

She watched as he reached into his pants, under the fabric to his outer thigh and pulled out a long, copper-colored, metallic object. Her eyes widened. She knew what it was, the piece of cane broken off from the statue in Transom Gardens.

“Something for later…” he looked at her. And now she could not help the horror from creeping onto her face and she remembered the sound of metal on concrete. He was the clown, of course. Was this all to just be a repeat? After all this time?

She had thought she could handle Steve. But he was so sure of himself, he had obviously planned this out. And as if reading her mind, he pounced.

“There is no help for you there. You still don’t get it, do you? This whole thing is my idea. A little reward for months of brilliant planning and maneuvering on my part. I have some asset driving this thing and he doesn’t care what happens here. Wondering how you received an ‘official’ mission message on your AI? Well, little girl, the only thing easier to break than Bradley’s loyalties was little brother Eddie’s so-called security.”

Steve’s lips pulled back into an ugly smile; a smirk that Cyn remembered he used to flash whenever he was able to beat one of his brothers at some game.

The engines whined as the hugger made a slight altitude adjustment. It was then she heard a sound from the wall which separated the cabin from the navigation cockpit. The sound was not unusual but from her vantage point she saw something as well. A berth had rotated from the other side and a harness chair appeared. She did not look but she was certain the chair had an occupant. Someone else was now present.

A deep voice filled the small chamber and Cyn gasped.

“Just because you accessed an account, does not mean that you’ve hacked it, brother.”

Steve stood, still facing Cyn, swinging his body from the bar as if he were on a playground with the other children. And then, slowly, he turned to face the newcomer.

“Ed, what are you DOING?” Steve’s face became astonished as if trying determine an answer to his question simply through the intensity of his own confused gaze.

“Well, you did arrange this whole trip from my account, correct? So I figured I was invited at least.” Ed’s face was serious as usual but with a sarcastic, menacing twist.

“No harm. I couldn’t do it on my own, why would you mind?”

“Not sure, why wouldn’t you ask?” Ed replied quickly and when Steve didn’t respond, he continued. “I think my favorite thing about your clumsy debut as a ‘security hacker’ was watching you try to guess Brad’s password. You seemed pretty sure that his passwords were fixated on his family so when you tried ‘BradEddie’, I figured I would let you in. I was bored with the game. And of course you knew that I had a bridge from Brad’s account into mine. Not that it was active at the time, but I activated it for you; it was the least I could do right?”

Ed wasn’t smiling.

“Fine, Eddie, so I was wrong. Didn’t think it could be all that hard, so maybe it is.”

Cyn guessed that Steve was trying to keep Ed cool, from starting one of his famous tirades. But she still sat frozen. Were they arguing among themselves about some minor point or did Ed genuinely not know what Steve had said…what he planned to do. She thought through the many times she had seen her expectations, her hopes, her assumptions completely destroyed she assumed the best from corpers.

“Wrong, Steve?” Ed spat. “Wrong is something you do once, like entering the wrong room or giving the wrong answer. To consistently make mistake after mistake is really much more than wrong, it’s just incompetent. Failing to hack Brad’s account but thinking you did. Failing to hack my account with all its privileges and thinking you did even though you could only do what I let you do. Didn’t you wonder about all those random errors you received when you tried to do certain things? Service unavailable? Connection timeout? Those errors meant that I’m playing with you and there are limits to what the cat lets the mouse do.”

“Okay, Eddie…”

“Oh but there is more. Some of this I had put down to your natural desire to intrude in everything and anything, I am not sure I would have realized exactly what else you were up to except for…except for this asset.”

“What? She didn’t…”

“Left to myself, I would have been happy to let Patron play games and mishandle his assets any way he wanted. But that wasn’t enough for you, you went out of your way to call her out as a problem. You spent so much time telling me how ‘dangerous’ she was, how much a threat she was. So naturally I knew I would need to speak with her when you weren’t watching and interrogation did the rest. Did you know we are already rounding up your people and they have nothing but good things to say about you.”

“What people, Eddie?”

Even from across the room, Cyn could see Ed roll his eyes. He was struggling to contain his anger and she was concerned that they hadn’t spoken about her, it was if they were arguing about their own power struggles. Slowly, panic was consuming her and she reached for the release harness. But what could she do against two of them?

And, as if reading her mind, Ed looked over at her, his face just as stern as it ever was.

“But still the surprises weren’t over. It was only when Stym told me how concerned she was about someone entering her room that I started to audit all of the access overrides and I discovered that the day she was abducted was not the first time her lock was overridden. You did it the second night she was here.”

“What?!” Cyn blurted.

Ed’s face did not change at all.

“That was Steve?!” Cyn spat. But she saw Steve take a lazy step forward. Then she added. “You know he has a stun glove, right??”

Steve shrugged and smiled. “I was protecting you, Bro. I just scared her a little, told her to keep her mouth shut, to do what she was told and it worked because that’s exactly what she did, right? You should thank me. And you can do that by driving us around a little while I explain some new rules to Miss Uppity. Besides, you owe me. It’s my turn now.”

Ed sighed and looked at Cyn again.

“You are going back.”

“Back where?” she demanded.

“Back to Techview of course? I’m sure you have had enough of New Berlyn and the Harillas…”

“It was Brad and Donnie who took her, Donnie just wanted to talk…” Steve laughed a deluded laugh.

“It was you who used the security override, Donnie did the work and poor Brad could only follow and try to keep anything from happening to Cyn. So why Brad, Steve? He’s not cut out for this stuff, he doesn’t even WANT to be a part of it. Why him, why not me or Barrett. Tell me.”

Steve looked at Ed and took a test step in his direction under the pretense that he had lost his balance. The hugger was riding smooth as silk at this point.

“He was the weak link, Ed. Its basic game theory.”

“No, its not,” Ed barked. “Game theory says you should weigh the rewards with the risks and the difficulties. Brad couldn’t really help you that much, Barrett could have done everything for you. It was a poor strategy, surely you see that now.”

“He’ll be okay, Ed. Its Patron’s fault anyhow for trying to make him an officer. We both know he isn’t cut out for it. Patron will agree with me. He took control from his dad, you know that, I haven’t tried anything different. I would have told you the whole story and after Patron is ousted, we can both run the show. Barrett isn’t even family.”

As they spoke, Cyn noticed that Steve was inching closer to his brother. He disguised it well, taking two or three parallel steps for each step towards. And as strange as it might be, she had to assume Ed was on her side.

“Eddie, he still has that glove,” Cyn said, worried. What was all of this?

Steve smiled at Edwyrd.

“Yep, well I didn’t think she would screw me willingly! I’m bored with those hospie assets, Ed, so you can’t blame me. Besides remember back we used to all talk about fucking her. You would pick a part of her body and I would pick a part and Brad, well Brad was always too shy to say. I just want to use some Transom property they way she was meant to be used. The way I am sure Patron has used her.”

Steve took a step toward Cyn, his glove raised.

“Sit down Steve. Don’t move Cyn.” Ed’s icy voice filled the room.

Steve took a step sideways and then rushed toward Edwyrd. But even as he started forward, Ed’s hand make a quicker motion and the Hugger lurched downward and upward. Steve’s attempt to push off the floor toward Ed met with air as the floor fell away from him and his head knocked the ceiling; and then, as the Hugger raised up again, Steve’s body slammed down hard onto the unrelenting floor of the compartment, his bottom landing on his own ankle.

“Geezus” Steve moaned.

“I can forgive you for your stupid, crazy plots.” Ed whispered, “and as you say, it’s partially Patron’s fault. He gave you the opportunity.” Steve started to get to his knees, holding his ankle.

“Don’t.” Ed spat and Steve stopped. “And I might even forgive you for using Brad in your schemes. But where I have a real problem is not that you hurt Brad, but that you used him to hurt someone else. And that is what is killing him right now. You know that right? You know how badly that hurt him?”

“It’s just a game, Ed. It’s business.” Steve laughed as he crawled to his knees. Suddenly the Hugger dropped again, launching Steve into the air, he slammed against the ceiling before he crashing to the floor once more. This time he screamed and ended up flat on his back, writhing in pain, blood oozing from his head.

“Ed, stop this!” Cyn insisted, her full concentration now on Deputy Harilla. “You might have killed him!”

“Steve,” Ed began. “you’ll always be remembered for your accomplishments…but you’ve gone as far as you can. As far as I am willing to let you go. Ask Mom to forgive me when you see her…”

“No Eddie!” her voice rose urgently as she released herself from the harness. He looked at her and she held his gaze as she moved toward the fallen man. “Stop toying with him! You found him out, he’s admitted what he’s done and you are in control, there is no need for the rest of this.”

“Yes, Ed,” Steve called, “You really hurt me. Let’s sit down with Patron and talk this out.”

“Would you please get back into your harness?” Ed urged her, exasperation creeping into his voice.

“I will not. Brad is sick and Steve is a traitor, we can’t have you on trial for murder. You know that.”

“I’m sorry if you feel like I did something wrong,” Steve continued, “You really hurt me. I’m not sure I can walk on this.” Steve tried to stand. He looked over at Ed as he tried to rise up; as if to emphasize his pain and helplessness. Cyn walked over to the eldest Harilla, stepping near him.

“Asset, I am ordering you…”

“I won’t let you do this,” Cyn insisted.

Steve grasped her ankle with the stun-glove and she heard the screech of the capacitors charging. His hand clamped onto her leg ferociously, determine not to let go. He looked up at her and she could see the smile of the clown. In her mind, she could see the seconds count down until the time the weapon would discharge and incapacitate her.

Edward

When Cyn released herself from the harness, Ed realized it was a mistake to have a third person in the room. It should have been just him and his brother, but he had needed Cyn to loosen Steve’s tongue. Why did she have to always screw things up with her ideals and her rules?

He knew the best response would be to give the hugger a nudge, enough to throw her to her feet and away from Steve.

But he couldn’t do it. With everything she had already been put through. And with what he and Steve had done years ago, he couldn’t bring himself to intentionally hurt her again. So he would have to do this a different way. He could handle the much taller brother, but ideally he would get to her before he had incapacitated the asset.

Ed looked down, long enough to release himself from the harness, then he moved forward, lifting his gaze as he moved. But when he finally looked up, things had changed. He stopped and stared.

Steve was still lying on the floor but he had released her leg and now his head rested against the floor, looking in the other direction, not moving, not speaking. Cyn, her ankle free was walking, almost leisurely back toward her seat. As he watched, dumbfounded, she sat back down and patiently began strapping herself back in.

“What are you doing?” he asked, confused.

“You asked me to return to my seat,” she spoke simply, hollowly, before staring straight in front of her, at nothing.

Just then a sharp, cracking sound filled the room, jarring Ed’s attention back to Steve’s body. He saw it spasm and there was silence again. He looked back at Cyn but she had not reacted to the sound.

He knew what it was. It was the sound of the stun glove’s capacitor discharging. He walked forward, toward the prone body. As he drew closer he saw the stiff limbs and unnatural angle of the head on the body. Eventually he saw the lifeless eyes, wide open.

“What did you do?” he asked, incredulous. He took another final look at the corpse before turning once again to the olive skinned asset. She did not look back at him.

“Really?” he began, as the weight and reality of the situation sunk into him. “This was your solution? This was your alternative to me sending his idiotic head through the ceiling?”

“Is that really what you were going to do?” She asked, still looking away.

“I’m pretty damn sure, if I’d gotten the chance. I didn’t realize I had competition.” He blurted his annoyance. What had she done?

“Well, if he’s right, if Patron is to be removed, if he entire executive is expelled, then there has to be some choices. But if you killed Steve, no matter if he is a traitor, it…it would be hard for them to accept. Even here.”

Ed sat and leaned back into his chair, stunned.

“You really gave him much more credit than he deserved. His talk about Patron means practically nothing. Why do you think it somehow looks better that you did it?”

“I’m just an asset, maybe they’ll just send me away as punishment.”

“I told you, they are sending you back. Patron has already released you.”

But she had a point. Steve was a traitor, that was clear and Transom hated traitors more than anything. But Ed killing Steve might be hard for them to accept, even for Patron to accept. And Cyn wasn’t even New Berlyn property.

They sat quietly in the compartment, not speaking, as the hugger continued on. Ed looked at the body and realized it was time to go back.

He rose and fetched a storage bag and then placed the body of his brother inside it. He tried to picture the corpses of the many raiders with whom he had done the same thing over the years. He hoped his Mother couldn’t see him now.

He opened the cockpit door and got ready to return to manual controls. He wanted the practice. Turning back to the girl, he saw that she was still staring straight ahead.

“Hey, do you want a lesson?”

Now, Cynnamon looked over at him. He was relieved that she was not as catatonic as he had thought. She seemed puzzled. That was a good sign he supposed.

“Wh…what?”

“The Hugger. Do you want a lesson in how to fly one? Or do you really want to sit back here with Steve’s corpse for the next forty minutes?”

She only looked at him.

After ten seconds without any response from her, Ed shrugged, turned away and entered the cockpit. He had taken control of the vehicle and made one course change before he heard her voice.

“Okay, sure,” Cyn spoke.

He kept his eyes forward, watching the instruments and the devastated valley before him until he sensed that she had entered the cabin. He waved her to the other seat.

“Actually, I’ve always dreamed of flying a Hugger,” she began, some of the normal tones returning to her voice as she looking around at the various virtual dashboards that her AI was now allowed to show her.

Ed started to explain the basics, slipping into his teaching mode which made him feel less uncomfortable.

“These readings all have to do with the depth of the AGP beams relative to the surface, generally deeper is better but energy expenditure increases with the length of the beam, so…”

He looked up at her, his eyes quickly accessing her expression. She was not relaxed but neither did she seem scared and the blank look had not returned. It was good enough. His eyes moved past her to an outside view port before her eyes could try to find his.

“So you wouldn’t be able to keep the same altitudes,” she finished.

He nodded. It wasn’t his style to praise or scold students over every correct or thoughtless answer. He had a goal in mind, to get through all the introductory material before they arrived. It would keep both their minds off of what came next.

“And this reading is a measure of the rigidity of the ground at the beam endpoints. The quality is color coded for each beam, with green being ideal, red being insufficient and yellow in the middle. The average is the most important readings…by the way, have you ever heard of a hugger train moving over a lake or a pond?”

“No. I don’t think it could, the water wouldn’t be rigid enough…”

“It could, in theory, but you’d have to keep your speed up and that makes turning difficult so it’s just not advisable. Now over here is the amount of power to the main, supporting beams, the ones which tether us to the ground. If I cut that power…”

And he did. Just like that.

The Hugger trembled, softly and he saw Cyn look out the view port.

“Well, the field is inertial, so we shouldn’t just fall, but we’d start to lose altitude at some rate. Not sure how fast…”

He flipped the power back on, it wasn’t necessary to get too carried away with the demonstrations.

“At this height, we’d have about ten minutes, almost enough time to reach the fields outside New Berlyn Domes, but the variations are high.” He turned to her, on a whim. “I don’t remember they offered AGP mechanics when you were going through training, it was still quasi-classified. Where did you pick any of this up?”

“Museums, what else would I do with my one Sunday off a month?”

“You must be very popular,” and he couldn’t keep himself from grinning.

Second Meeting

When the Top Five reconvened later, only Transom executives were permitted to attend and thus Steve was not there. He had other matters which required his attention. However the meeting did not go as anyone had planned.

“We would like to be recognized, Matron Ezra,” the voice of Daneel Tech filled the room. “The other members of the council have had their say.”

“Of course,” the SkyTran Matron replied as she looked around at the other members of the board, confident that most of them were with her. She needed only a majority.

Most of the members of the council were represented by the image of a single person, the matron or patron of the respective corporation. In the case of Daneel, the corporation which monopolized artificial intelligence and navigation, an empty chair was shown instead. When the voice of the collective spoke, it was always as ‘we’ and always in a disturbing and strange plural tone, as if multiple people were reciting the same words.

“We do recognize the grave situation in which we and the entire corporate community of New Berlyn now finds itself,” began the unsettling sounds of the Daneel Tech collective. “But we are not convinced that this fire was started by Transom itself.

As Transom has testified, they have opened all their encryption keys to us upon learning of the charges against them. We have autopsied all of their communications and do not find any indication of maleficence by the executiveship of either corporation. However it is clear that very egregious criminal actions were perpetrated by officers of both corporations and all of that action was against Transom and served to benefit the smaller company. Thus we were confused at the board’s antagonism toward Transom. After a broader investigation we feel that the plot is part of a wider conspiracy and that the actions are being followed to benefit members of the Top Five.”

The room was silent.

“You are entitled to your opinion, Daneel,” the Matron continued, “but we have all heard the details, it is a matter of judgment now, so let’s consider the options and vote.”

“It is not our intention to convince you Matron,” The hollow voice of the collective continued, “but since the board is proceeding in a manner which benefits itself, we have been forced to move in our own self-interest. And we feel that our position is now very strong.

We are satisfied to end this inquisition without further investigation on the condition of a change in the proposed resolution: stronger punishments on the remaining Humantis officers and retention of the Transom executive with some minor punitive changes.”

“You may advocate all you wish,” began the Matron of Skyline.

“Wait,” interrupted Urbanic’s Patron, an unhappy frown on his face. “I don’t like it when he..when THEY talk like this. I still remember the last time.

Daneel, tell us what is this new position of yours?”

“You would not believe us until you heard for yourself. We would like to invite an outsider to explain matters.”

“Who?”

“The Speaker of the Valley of New Berlyn”

“Villagers? What speaker? Which villages?”

“All of them, Matron. We are advocating on their behalf, as they have no formal representation here.”

“Why didn’t you tell us there was such a representative?”

“It is a recent development. We are bringing it to your attention now.”

The old man was dressed simply in black when his avatar entered the virtual chamber. He was introduced to the board members and given the privilege to address the council.

“First,” began Pol, “I would like to thank you.”

The room was silent as Pol paused. His body language showed all the poise and control of an experienced orator.

“Thank us?” asked a confused Patron of Urbanic Corp.

“Yes, all my considerable life I have urged the various tribes of settlers and scavengers to work together rather than always competing for your favor, to speak as one on matters of common importance. But they could never bring themselves to do so, such is our innate fear and distrust of anything that reeks of the yoke of government.

Then, inside one week, you all have brought my greatest dream to fruition, a uniting of the villages, albeit a very angry unification. So thank you for giving an old man his dream, even if it doesn’t last long.”

Pol stopped speaking and waited. The room was silent again, anxious to hear what he would say next. Pol took his time and when he did speak, he simply repeated. “Thank you.”

The silence continued but Pol seemed nonplussed.

“You are welcome, Mr. Gente” spoke the SkyTran matron. Pol responded immediately as if the response triggered the start of his speech.

“Oh, I doubt very much if any of you will derive any happiness from what I will say next!” he declared looking around at each virtual avatar, his old eyes dark and intense. “We are not a corporation and so we do not have corporate contracts but we do have a covenant, a covenant that we deem to have been broken.

This is our valley. We chose it from among hundreds of candidates; a topological configuration ideal for resisting the sustained hurricane force winds that have ground away the prairies of this continent; a topology which lent itself to diverting rain water and valley plumbing. We chose a location that was far from the old urban settings and the roads that connect them; a valley that is difficult to approach and has many observation points to identify any who would try. We excavated the hillsides so that the torrential rains would drain away rather than pool and flood. We scavenged ruined cities for raw materials and antiquities, bringing them to this valley as if they were plundered gold.

The same features which make this place so ‘livable’ in an unlivable world also allow you to operate your domes with minimal energy draw and you have done so with maximum help from our workers. Even now the food grown in your domed farms is done so only with the expertise of our people. And all that you have built, all that you have came only after we were already here, preparing the way.”

The chairwoman’s face was without expression.

“Mr. Pol, we certainly appreciate and..”

“We don’t believe you do. How could you? You didn’t build the tunnels or divert the waters or construct hydroponic farms within insect-infected swamps. You, Madam Matron, grew up in Techview. You have lived in a dome all of your life.

Still, despite the popular rhetoric, we don’t begrudge you your choices or your priorities; up to now, with a minimum of bickering, we have all lived symbiotically: we have provided labor and local expertise which have made your domes and your industries thrive. You have provided capital and protected farmlands which allow our populations to grow. You enjoy the perception that your life is the better one and we feel the same about ours. We even tolerate your Sponsorship laws which allow you to appropriate our young into your society.

So if you want to fight and plan and betray each other, well that is not our concern. But now, one of yours commits unspeakable crimes against our people and worse against our sisters, wives and daughters…”

“Mr. Pol! Please let me say something!” The Matron caught her breath as Pol relaxed. He seemed to anticipate the outburst. She continued: “We are as outraged as you concerning the acts that were committed against you. This calamity is not just yours, we lost a dome and many, many lives as well. I can..”

“That is a point I need to clarify, that we insist you understand,” his voice rising. “You speak of the loss of the Humantis Dome, its building and its executives as part of the crime. It wasn’t and it isn’t. It was a response to the crime and I am here to tell you that, if I may use and old phrase, it is just a shot over the bow. Do you know the phrase?”

The room was silent once again.

The Patron of Urbanic Core spoke softly.

“Please continue, Mr. Pol. You are among friends even if it hasn’t felt that way. How can we begin to address the concerns of the people we have lived along side with for ten years now?”

“Thank you. Let me address another issue that has angered us. You speak about punishing Humantis and punishing Transom for their roles in our grievances, but you are not admitting that you all have ignored the anger of the individual villages. It is documented that individual villages approached the council when no reasonable response came from Humantis. You did not hold any council meetings then and as our grievances against Humantis and then Transom grew, you thought more about corporate strategy and advantage than the wrongs which were being perpetrated against us and it was…”

“Please, Mr. Pol, let me assure you that investigations were..”

“Madam,” the mechanical voice of the Daneel Tech collective filled the room. “please let Mr. Pol continue, unless you are sure your statement can not easily be challenged. Village complaints and their handling are part of common corporate record, as you know.”

The room was silent for a few moments and Pol continued.

“You had the opportunity,” resumed the calmer voice of Pol Gente, “to solve this despicable crime yourselves. But instead the whole sordid matter was brought to light, not by you or your security forces or your intelligence operatives but instead was uncovered and reported by a group of defenseless, village children, some of whom I still remember sitting in my classrooms.

Do you have any idea the anger and yet the pride you have unleashed? Villagers are questioning if domed farms are all that important to them now. They are talking about leaving your domes without our aid and expertise and let Maltiempo take you all if it wishes.”

Pol took a drink of water. And then spoke again.

“Members of the council, I will be honest in telling you that I have no idea what the mood of my countrymen will be even a month from now. But I can tell you that, today, in my humble opinion, you would be foolish to give them anything less than what they demand. And here it is:

First of all. We do not want a Humantis presence ever again in New Berlyn. We agree to a simple punishment for all the surviving officers: banishment. Second, the villagers wish to renegotiate all corporate contracts and we name Daneel Tech as our corporate partners in those negotiations and their fees will be paid by each of you and not by us. Finally, although we have no interest in your interactions or your judgments among yourselves, we wish to state that we feel that it was Transom who helped uncover this crime and aided in the recovery and return of our people, we grant them what is left of Humantis’ land, the opportunity to negotiate with us first and, of course, our gratitude.”

Pol nodded a ‘good day’ to the Council of Five and disappeared into virtual space.

“Did they say that Daneel Tech will get paid a negotiation fee on every contract? Every contract??” asked the Matron of Halstrom United.

A strange sound rose in the room. It was a repetitive and yet somehow mechanical noise and it was coming from the chair which belonged to the Daneel Tech collective. In later years it was speculated that this was the sound of Daneel Tech’s collective laughter.

Miriam

Miriam woke at the knocking at her door and smiled. She was finally beginning to feel like herself. It had been a long couple days. When she had heard about Petyr’s death, it had been surreal but she had been worried and fearful for him for so long, it did not come as a surprise. Her best guess was that he had made a mistake in the Bug Lab.

But when she had seen the remains, what little could be identified, she had had a genuine panic attack and her worry, her anxiety and her heart-ache had been real. In many ways he had been an awful man, but they had gone through a lot together and she was sure that just as she had been infected with Peithonova-Petyr, he had also, unknowingly, been infected with her strain, so she couldn’t help believe that some of the things he had done for her, the trust he had placed in her, derived from the love instilled by those virals. He had been an ally, her lover, one of the few confidants she had ever had and he was the father of her child. But, now that was all over. And it was their fault.

She had spent the next days recovering and furthering her control over the Bugs. She had even thought to demand that they kill themselves or leave her body but she was concerned that would give them proof that she had other priorities, possibly giving them an advantage and she was not yet strong enough for another fight.

Remembering the knock, Miriam sat up in bed quickly. There were two female guards in her room!

“What is it?” she asked frantically, worried that something bad happened. Bad things kept happening every since they…ever since she had arrived in New Berlyn.

“Miss Miriam, we are to take you to a new…room. The doctors have released you.”

She shrugged. She was ready for that. She wanted to go first to the hotel, spend a few days with Uncle Ryk and then she wanted to return to Techview and never come back.

The guards took her to a new building and escorted her down the simple hallways of what seemed to be a residential complex. It reassured her to see some people milling about, even some children and couples. But then she saw him.

Donnie Cabb was in a group of young men. He looked up at her, a strange and satisfied smile ending his chatter as his head turned slowly, tracking her as she went by.

“Miriam,” the head spoke, more as an observation than a greeting. “I’ve been literally counting the days until you showed up. Come see me.”

“Don’t hold your breath,” she said simply without looking back. She was done with Humantis and their schemes. Besides, it was Donnie’s partner who had tried to kill her. They would never get a second chance and if they pushed her…”

The guards took her to a room, not much bigger than the one she had been in. But present were Uncle Ryk and Annabelle, together again. She gave them a smile before she stopped and stared at the other occupant of the room.

It was an elderly woman with long silver hair, but her face…her face was covered with some sort of video screen, one that projecting a face. It was strange. But she had seen similar images on the news feeds, one of the corporations had taken to wearing these strange masks, she had forgotten exactly why.

“Hello,” she said and reached out her hand. The woman took it without hesitation and shook it, her hands were cool.

“Greetings, Miriam. We are Daneel, we are representing you.”

“Sit down, Miri,” urged Uncle Ryk and she took a quick seat by him, comforted by his arm around her shoulders.

“You were judged too ill to participate in the banishment proceedings,” the voice was feminine but had a strange echo, as if others were also speaking. Banishment? “Unfortunately we must tell you that all of the Humantis survivors in New Berlyn have been banished. Women, children, elderly, there will be no exceptions.”

She stifled her urge to say ‘Thank the Storms’. Instead she looked at her Uncle and she could see the sadness in his eyes and when she looked at Ann, she saw the same.

“Banished where?”

“That has been a subject of much debate. You should know that there were some who wished to see you all banished outside of all of Las Joyas. But we worked very hard to avoid that sentence and we reached a compromise of sorts. You will be banished to Palenque Dome.”

“But…I have never heard of Palenque Dome?”

“It’s the one that fell, Miri, Sweetie,” Ryk whispered to her.

“It was the best we could do,” explained Daneel. “There is at least a chance to survive there…”

“Are you going too?” she asked Uncle Ryk quietly.

“That isn’t possible,” Daneel explained. “Only the Humantis officers must go.”

And her heart started to pound.

“What about…what about…my child?” and she could feel the Bugs.

The Cell

The black-adorned woman slipped into the room as the guard left. She wore standard corporate attire, complete with boots and AI spectacles. Her long black hair was tied back tightly and the sparkly globe of Transom Industries shone from the breast of her uniform. Miriam almost didn’t recognize her.

“Official business?” Miriam called out and then looked away. Every hour now was a new tug-of-war with the Bugs. The prospect of never seeing her child again, Petyr’s child, was an huge issue for them giving them a chance to attempt a vote of ‘no confidence’ in her. Still, they were weakened, but she needed to stay strong.

“I don’t have much time,” Cyn shrugged.

“I asked for her,” Annabelle explained stepping forward. “I want her help.”

“What kind of help?”

Ann sighed. “This thing they are doing to the Humantis survivors, this awful thing. It’s taking a toll on everyone here, including Miriam. This banishment is leaving children without parents, men without their loved ones, women without families.

I have made that point to Daneel and offered my help, as a counselor. I’ve had that training and experience in Techview. And I know that this asset has had the same. We both attend the same church…isn’t that right? You’ve had the training?”

Cyn looked back at Annabelle. Her face was placid and yet aware.

“Be specific as to what you want, Sister,” Cyn replied.

Miriam watched as a strange conversation evolved. Neither Cyn nor Ann seemed to care to be specific about anything, preferring to generalize and philosophize at every turn. Stranger, there was a growing animosity between the two as they spoke back and forth.

She had never seen either of them speak in this way. Annabelle openly challenged the other girl’s loyalties and her willingness to put people before profits. Cyn, on the other hand, teased the older woman about her choice to live in the villages and even her choice of clothing.

“Stop it!” Miriam insisted. “This is not how I want to remember either of you.”

Cyn nodded.

“I am done with her anyhow. Now, listen to me, Miriam,” Cyn instructed, her deep, brown eyes large and intense, “I’m sorry about what has happened. But when you realize what this old woman is all about, what she’s really is trying to do. Well, then come and see me and you’ll know who’s your real friend, even through the storms.”

“Just words,” Miriam pouted, “so easy to say. Besides, in case you didn’t know…”

“My time is up,” Cyn said simply before turning and leaving.

It was hard to blame her, Miriam decided, especially considering what they had tried to do to her. Another result of the Bugs and their blind allegiance to Petyr. At least, somehow, the strange asset had come out of it all.

Chaplain

Ann rubbed her temples as the hugger train droned on to the unknown location, the abandoned valley which was once the domed city of Palenque. She had started the process of interviewing each and every one of the fifty banished officers back in New Berlyn but the task was not complete even as they approached New Chicago.

At the start, there was a dark part of her that had gleefully anticipated the interview of these corporate officers who were being punished for their callous treatment of other human beings. Those feelings had quickly evaporated. Most of the officers had no idea what awful things their parent company had been doing. And many of those who did were inconsolable over the pain that their punishment was causing their ignorant colleagues. It was truly a monstrous sentence and Ann now understood why so many societies preferred execution to banishment.

Now, she sat across from Donyden Cabb, the Humantis senior officer who planned and initiated a scheme which involved impersonation, corporate espionage and heinous acts of human abduction, experimentation, rape and possibly worse. And for what reason? Just to betray and topple an ally and benefit from their loss.

Cabb spoke first. “Where is that girl? The sick one? Miriam? I can’t find her anywhere?”

“Yes,” drawled Ann, her emotions perfectly controlled. “I have not interviewed that one as yet.”

In truth, Miriam was kept separated from the rest of the group. One of the few concessions they were able to get. It didn’t matter, when they reached their destination, they would all go down together.

“Too bad,” Donnie said simply. “Because I can tell you I am dying to reunite with that little traitor.”

Ann could feel the hairs on the back of her neck tingle.

“Why? Aren’t you all in the same boat? Each of you just as guilty as the others?”

“She isn’t one of us…she’s an import from Techview, a traitor and a manipulator. She was never on our side. It was her and her Doctor, playing us all. I can tell you that I plan for her to mother so many of my children that she may never know a year without her belly hanging over her toes.”

Ann chose her next words carefully.

“Despite your, excuse my accuracy, crimes; many of these people seem to be looking to you to lead them, even those who know your guilt. I am told we are only seven hours from your new home,” and now she looked straight into his eyes, “Have you even started to plan how you will keep these people, your friends, alive? Or are you too preoccupied with this revenge fantasy?”

The smile on his face fell.

“Don’t you think I know that? I haven’t slept in days. And worse, they all believe in me, I can’t even convince them to choose someone else to lead. But rather than strike me or yell at me, each one shakes my hand and tell me that they believe I will find a way to return them to Las Joyas, like that is even possible. I don’t even know how they got that idea in their head? This is a one-way ticket.”

“So what will you do, Mr. Cabb?”

“I am going to try harder than I ever tried before. What else can I do?”

Ann had not expected these words, but she was unwilling to let him off the hook.

“Do you feel bad that some of your co-workers may never see their families again?”

“Of course, that is what I am telling you.”

“And yet, you had no problem separating women from their families, from their friends when it was in line with your corporate objectives?”

Ann leaned forward, eager to hear his response. This was as far as she could push him.

“This is different, I know these people. They know me. We have a bond.”

“You seem like a very driven and competitive person, Mr. Cabb,” Ann consoled him. “Somehow I think they could be in far worse hands. Good luck to you.”

Ann was still thinking about Donnie later. Honestly he hadn’t surprised her in most ways, he was selfish and competitive but he really did regret that his actions had caused so many of his own friends and family this pending hardship. Still, it wasn’t his actions that he regretted, it was the outcome.

She looked over at the last of the banished. Ann needed to distract her.

“I probably should have told you before…I really like your Uncle Ryk.”

“Duh, Ann!” the girl actually stopped her brooding in order to laugh at that. “Give him an extra kiss for me when you see him. Oh, and sometimes, when you catch him unawares, sneak up on him and give him the start of his life. Tell him it’s from me.” Miriam’s eyes shone with delight.

“You won’t forget I said that, will you Miriam?”

“No. Of course not. I never doubted…hey!”

Miriam looked down at her arm, at the tiny red dot which grew there as Ann withdrew her hand. Puzzled, she looked up at Annabelle. She opened her mouth to speak but Ann put a finger to Miriam’s lips.

“Remember all we discussed, my dear, things aren’t always as they seem,” Ann said simply. She saw the girl’s eyes widen and then close.

Ann moved quickly, they would arrive soon.

Edwyrd

Ed closed his eyes simply to give some part of his body a rest. But closed eyes did not stop the urgings of his sensory implants and the requests and notifications continued. Everything was changing so fast and yet remaining the same. It was business as usual in over-drive.

Every village in the valley was renegotiating its contracts with every corporation, including Transom. That led to a lot of business meetings and those between corpers and villagers often required security, especially in the current political climate. And Daneel was involved in every negotiation, Ed had met so many members of the collective that their strange masks were starting to seem like real faces to him.

Daneel stock was soaring while Transom’s had abated. Then, suddenly, without any warning, Daneel turned around and asked Transom Industries to provide legal, communication and hospitality services on their behalf. Overnight, Transom emerged from the ashes and criticism of Patron evaporated. Even Transom Techview was sending a special delegation to meet with Patron and the other executives.

But they were also coming to reclaim their property. So Cynnamon needed to be safe, rested and ready. So another thing that kept Ed up at night now was the thought that some radical would pop up and put a bullet in her. And there was another matter which kept him awake, one more thing he needed to do and it was frustrating how he kept missing the opportunities.

One of his minor alarms was going off, trying to attract his attention. Damn it. Ed looked up from his AI as Cyn appeared at his door, paused, and peered in. Her demeanor was relaxed yet still respectful.

Even years after completing anger management therapy, he still had that affect on practically everyone. No one wanted to get on his bad side and he wasn’t sure that wasn’t a good thing. Still, the relationship between the two of them was certainly more informal than it had been when she arrived almost a month before, but the elephant still remained in the room. Perhaps it would always be there.

She wore a summer dress and sandals, the same outfit she had worn when they had found her sleeping on her first day at Transom House.

“I know you said you are busy preparing for the Techview delegation…but I need an escort to SkyTran Dome,” Cyn began. “This is my last night here and I want…no I need to say goodbye to as many people as I can. Who knows if they’ll ever send me down this way again, or if I’ll even be allowed back after all that has happened.”

“But I have four people assigned just to you.”

“If something happens and you are anywhere else…it’s going to look like Patron pulled you. So that is my excuse…can you spare the time?”

Ed sighed. He didn’t have it. He started to suggest that he assign more…but she was right. He didn’t want to take the chance. He had made several mistakes in the last couple weeks and many of them had put her in direct harm. Fortunately, he had figured out his brother’s machinations and certainly saved her. Strange, it did not take away the guilt. It was only one more day, he had to do this.

“When?”

“Can we leave now?”

“Now??” He protested.

“Fine, I’ll be back in thirty minutes but we’ll have to hurry,” and with that she turned and walked off.

They sat on a blanket in the middle of SkyTran park with hundreds of others. The show started with fireworks superimposed on the interior of the dome. Next, the dome went black and stars began to appear as an orchestra played. The trees were lit with soft lights and the sounds of whispers and laughter filled the void whenever the music paused.

The stars swirled and moved becoming constellations which animated and danced, hunted and enacted their own stories. Even Ed had to admit it was beautiful and it reminded him of those times, long ago, when his family would come.

Things had changed drastically since those days. His mother had passed away years ago, Brad was now in an psychiatric hospital and of course the oldest Harilla sibling was gone, if he had ever really existed. Ed sighed and for the first time felt ‘old’. He envied his younger, dumber self, the boy with so much anger but no worries.

Ed looked around for the nth time. He actually had some of his men only ten meters away and another pair near a fountain. They were all very happy to accept the assignment and all had brought their family and friends. Ed was not completely relaxed but he was satisfied, it was the best he could hope for.

He looked over to the group of people around Cyn. He had recognized Lynda, she was the one who, along with Cyn, had been found unconscious after the dome had fallen. She was the face that appeared on the fateful message and that her launched her into instant celebrity around the villages and notoriety around the Domes. He assumed she would have her own protection but he had his men watch her as well.

Another celebrity, in the person of Pol Gente, appeared with his wife and already Ed could hear the man’s loud laughter. He walked up to hear Pol fawning over the two girls as if he were their grandfather.

“For so long, I thought that village politics was my greatest calling,” continued Pol, “but, when I see these two flowers, I realize that great is not the same thing as important and it makes an old man very happy to be able to say I had both of them in my class and had some small part in their lives.”

“Deputy Harilla, stop watching for trouble and come over here. Mr. Gente is talking about how I was his favorite student,” Cyn laughed and waved him over.

The old man beamed as the two young ladies each took an arm.

“This one,” Pol laughed, nodding to Lynda, “I had in class for five years. I almost pulled out all of my hair! She stopped the class every time one of the other students said something unkind to another. She would stomp her foot and hold her breath and insist I do something about it. And I would say, what should I do? Spank them?”

The others in the group laughed and Ed took the opportunity to scan for anyone who was approaching.

“And this one?” Pol laughed and nodded to Cynnamon. “This one sat in the very last row, always. And she would never speak, never volunteer, I thought she was mute.”

“But you got tired of it quickly,” Cyn added. “You would just walk over and insist I answer! I hated it at first but after a while I would answer even when I wasn’t sure, I learned to just say what I knew. Thanks to you.”

“Not just me,” Pol protested, “I had never thought to simply demand an answer. I was afraid to embarrass you. Thank the Storms for your sister…”

Cyn turned and looked at him blankly. “What do you mean?”

“It wasn’t my idea to force words from you. I was busy enough with thirty children, but that older girl started to show up after the lesson began. She would listen in back and sometimes when I asked a question she would step toward you and point. I figured she was your sister, she looked just like you. So she would point and I would call on you, insisting when necessary. And it worked, after a while I couldn’t shut you…”

Pol stopped speaking, his smile fading. Ed stepped to the side to see what had happened. They were looking at Cynnamon’s face. He ran up closer to see another tear slide down her face. And then another, and they kept coming.

Imais

“I can take her there,” Lynda explained to Edwyrd privately, “and there are plenty of village leaders who would be happy to do us the favor. But this village of hers, this Imais, it’s not one of the inner ring, it’s as remote as you can get, almost on the lip of the valley. I can’t even say I’ve met anyone from there in years. The weather is much worse and even we…well we just can’t get her there and back before her transport leaves tomorrow.”

Ed stared blankly, in thought. He looked over, across the grass, where Cyn had recovered and was speaking to a young girl and the girl’s mother. Her face was vacant.

“The cruiser we brought can do make that trip we would have only a couple hours maximum and then we’d have to return.”

“But, we wouldn’t need much time,” Lynda continued hopefully, returning to a whisper. “Listen, I’ve only just met her, but hers is not an uncommon story. She was sent to a local orphanage after her mother died, spent her early childhood there, entered Sponsorship and has been away from the valley of her birth ever since. And now, after all that time, she has returned and fully realizes she never saw her mother’s grave, never had the closure which comes with saying good bye even without any expectation of a reply. But I think that closure is important for her and if you can do this, I promise, I will go to every village leader and tell them what you did. I’ll call in every favor…”

Ed shook his head.

“No, I’m not asking Transom and we aren’t telling anyone about it. We are just going to do it and move on. Actually I like the idea that no one will know where she is in her final 24 hours…there are some who feel she is a traitor.”

“Oh,” Lynda replied. “Well, I won’t forget it. But, I have to tell you, she’ll resist the idea, we can’t give her a choice…”

Ed looked confused.

“I thought…I thought you said that she wants to go…that she needs to do this?”

“She does but that doesn’t mean she will allow us to take her, more correctly that she can allow you to take her.

Most assets that I work with have such a stigma concerning anything that could be construed as a special request, one which might come at a cost; they are so adverse to extending their commitment. It just becomes part of their psyche. Did you know that the average human asset will spend an extra seven years due to commission penalties and swaps?”

Ed nodded as the woman hurried off to bring Cyn back to the hugger. Her words made sense; in all his years Ed had seen and heard every type of excuse and special request from employees, but never from an asset. It was as if they preferred to be punished later rather than ask for an exception in advance. It was silly, he should know these things. What if..what if one day he really were to become Patron? For all of his father’s faults, he seemed to know all these mundane things that Ed could never care about.

They were only twenty minutes into their new course that he saw Cyn stand and make her way quickly through the passenger compartment toward the cockpit.

“W…where are we going? We are moving away from the Domes?” she asked as if she had seen a ghost.

“Just a quick detour, we’ll be back in time to meet the delegation…” Ed drawled as he pretended to busy himself with a console.

“Deputy, I apologize for…what happened back there. I was just upset. Please take me back, there is so much to do before tomorrow.”

He looked over at her.

“No one is going to make you do anything you don’t want to do but I have to make this detour and so I need you to sit calmly while I do it. Then, we are going straight back to New Berlyn and you’ll have time to ready yourself for the delegation. Besides…” And he looked at her, all sincerity. “Besides, this just makes sense. It’s better if no one knows where you are this last night before you return. Right?” But he wasn’t asking a question.

Then he looked away and returned to his work. It was almost two minutes before, finally, he heard her walk away.

Ed Harilla mostly believed what he had been told but his suspicious mind insisted he consider the possibility of ulterior motives. He brainstormed and the best he could do was the idea that the two were in collusion, that this was all an elaborate scheme to get him to bring the to the edge of the valley…where she would escape. It was a creative idea but not very likely. Still, he decided that the Transom asset would not leave the hugger until he had spoken to the village leadership and had found the cemetery.

Ed instructed his men: “The Techview asset will stay here and I will go down and speak with the village elders or whoever I can find. You two stay here and she is not to leave your sight while I am gone.”

There were some protests but Ed held them off. “I don’t really anticipate it, but if anything goes wrong, you are to take her back, straight-away, to New Berlyn. It would be a huge political incident if she is not present when the Techview delegation arrives, so that is your priority. If need be, drop her off and then come back to get me.”

As Ed walked to the exit portal, fully equipted in menacing, black, stibnite armor, he was growing irritated at the thought that something else was happening and now sure that Cyn would insist that she go into the village herself. But as he walked by her, she remained seated and said nothing. Well, the stibnite armor tended to cow people, that was one of its purposes.

Instead, at the door he found the other one waiting, fully attired in a snug weather suit.

“You won’t need all that…” Lynda began. “and it might be better if I go down alone.”

“Perhaps,” Ed admitted. “But that’s not happening and this is what I am wearing. Your suit is fitted correctly,” he observed slowly as he checked her over.

“I’ve only been doing it since I was four years old. Fine, but I’ll do the talking, okay?”

“I would actually appreciate that,” Ed said as he opened the door and waved her out.

“Thank you,” Cyn’s voice called from far behind. Lynda smiled back and Ed just continued, not sure whether she was speaking to one or both of them.

The climbed their way through a tangled forest, fighting against the steepening incline that led toward rim of the valley. Ed’s armor was heavy but he also had the advantage of power-assist from his suit. The villager didn’t seem to have much trouble.

“There are only a few villages so remote,” Lynda spoke to him through a communication link between suits. “and their populations have dwindled over the years.”

“Why would they ever locate a village so close to the boundary? It’s a death sentence to cross over…” the voice from Ed’s armor hissed inside her helmet.

“Why? Why does your voice some like some type of snake creature? What’s the point of that?”

She sounded irritated and he grinned.

“It’s a psychological thing. So why locate a village near the rim?”

“Well, before the tunnel system was completed, more work was needed up here. And that was before all of your sophisticated border valley surveillance. It wasn’t forbidden back then.”

Edwyrd asked the question that nagged him.

“I am surprised she didn’t want to come with us….”

“I was as well,” Lynda replied as she started to search for an entrance to the underground village of Imais. “ I thought she would be interested to meet someone that she might remember or who remembered her. But Cynnamon corrected me quite firmly on that score. She has zero interest in talking to any living resident of this village. She only wants to visit the cemetery but doesn’t recall where it is. I think I could find it but it’s just a courtesy that we let these people know we are here and what we are doing. Especially given your wardrobe.”

Ed nodded and tried to help look for an entrance, not that he had any idea what it would look like…a hole in the ground?”

“You are looking in the wrong direction. The entry would never face up-slope. Water would rush in right?”

He supposed. But it wasn’t too much longer before she found a portal.

“The door seems to be stuck.”

He watched as she tried to work a mechanism buried in the earth. The portal opened but only a crack. Perhaps it was enough.

“Let me try,” he insisted.

Ed moved forward and was able to insert his gauntlet into the opening. Then he powered it up and let the motors do the rest. The door popped open, he caught a whiff of damp air and heard the echo of rustling water.

“This isn’t good,” murmured Lynda.

“I’ll tell her,” Lynda said darkly as they boarded the hugger, “I don’t think she would have expected this.” But Cyn, hearing them, looked up.

“Expected what?”

Lynda slid onto the bench next to her friend.

“Miss Cynnamon, there is no one there. The town is abandoned, the long house is flooded. I’m sorry. It’s been a while since anyone has heard from this remote town…I just assumed…but we found the cemetery.”

Cyn nodded and stood.

“Can we go now?”

The village cemetery was not what Ed had expected. Rather then occupying a circular or rectangular plot of land, it seemed to be long and narrow, along the side of the valley. There was no fence or artificial line marking the field. Rather, it bounded by fallen trees, their large trunks now embedded into the ground, serving as wind barriers. Within, scattered among the branches and leaves, were occasional metal spires, sticking out of the ground like strange antennae.

Ed stopped to examine one. There was just a name and two dates inscribed vertically in the metal. Apparently that was enough. He walked a short ways to a tangle of debris and fallen trees. Immediately the force and howl of the wind died down and Ed could discern various pieces of debris among the dead brush, twigs and vines. As he walked, he spied what looked like a gold ribbon, tangled with a branch. He reached out and touched it, it was cloth.

He had just managed to free it when he heard a wail even over the wind.

He spied the two women and hurried toward them. They had found a marker which seemed larger than the rest and Cynnamon was in front of it. He heard her cry again. Lynda, on the other hand, stood still, many yards back, watching. He caught up to her.

“What is going on?”

“She found the place where her mother’s grave should be…but there’s only a hole instead of a marker…” Lynda said solemnly. As they watched, Cynnamon threw herself at the large spire, colliding with it but it did not bend or move. She repeated the effort and then she struck it, to no avail.

Suddenly, he felt Lynda’s hand grasp his arm.

“We won’t stop her…not yet,” Lynda urged him and he nodded not knowing what else to do.

It was surreal to watch the woman lecture, strike and finally yell at the inanimate piece of metal. It was only when they saw Cynnamon, unable to remove the object, slam her own head down into the ground that they moved quickly to restrain her.

Lynda

They returned to the hugger which almost immediately rose easily into the air and started back for Transom Dome. Lynda herded Cynnamon away into a storage berth so she could have privacy.

“I’m so sorry, Miss Cynnamon,” she spoke softly to the weeping figure. “She wasn’t there?”

“No, because he did it! The bastard!! He took her! And then he had his own marker erected instead because it was always about him. He knew that one day I would return for her and find only him!! I wish to Maltiempo that I could kill him, but he’s already…already dead damn it!” and she wailed again. Lynda held her.

“I’m sorry, but she’ll always be with you, she might still be there, you still came all this way to see her, that’s the important thing, right?”

“She wasn’t there!” Cyn wailed again. “It doesn’t matter. It’s so useless! The more time goes by the more I owe, my whole life, it’s just a waste, I was wrong, so wrong…but I was always so sure, so how can I be certain of anything now?”

“What do you mean you owe? Your debt?” Lynda knew it was the most common problem among human assets, in some ways it was worse than slavery. A slave had the peace of mind of knowing that there life would always be that way, but for an asset there was this carrot that the corpers hung in front of them and constantly pulled away. Sometimes it took half a lifetime to realize it and it could be devastating when they did.

“I just don’t want to do it any more, I can’t. I just want to be with her. Will you help me? You understand.”

Lynda stared at her sobbing friend.

“Don’t say such a thing when you are so upset. The pain will pass and you’ll always have her memory, right?”

“I don’t WANT it to pass, it let’s me see. Why should I wait until the clarity can fade from my little brain and I am once again just a corporate drone, blindly doing their bidding year after year, working for a day when I’ll be free to..free to do WHAT. It doesn’t matter, I see it and I just want to go away. Help me, please, you understand.”

“I don’t. Is this about your mother or is this about something else?”

“If you won’t help me then leave me alone!”

With that Cynnamon walked out of the berth.

Lynda did not follow her. She was a bit concerned about some of the things that had been said, but Lynda also knew it was not unhealthy to rue the facts of life and death. It was when one ruminated on the spirits of what only might be, that was much more concerning.

After a while, Lynda went and looked for her. She would not try to talk to her any more this evening, but the girl should not be alone. She checked all the storage berths, expecting to find her in one of them but she wasn’t. Neither was she in either passenger cabin, Lynda checked carefully each area.

Finally, with no other recourse, Lynda entered the cockpit. Edwyrd was in one seat and in the next one was Cynnamon, her long bronzed legs curled up beneath her, her hair in her face and her eyes closed. Lynda stood, surprised.

“Everything okay?” she whispered. Ed gave her a helpless look but waved her in.

“I’m not to let you near her,” Ed explained.

“I can have that affect on people,” Lynda whispered back with a smile.

“Will she be alright?” Ed asked. “Does she need to go to a hospital?”

“Oh, no” Lynda sighed reassuringly, “I don’t think there’s anything wrong with her that isn’t wrong with all of us. We are all broken in some way and we all are healing at the same time. It doesn’t always line up. I think she’ll be much better when she wakes up. Some wounds need to be bandaged right away and some need to bleed out, this is the latter type.”

“Are you a psychiatrist?” Ed asked seriously.

“I have some related degrees, but I’m not a doctor. I do a lot of counseling, especially with corporate assets, they are my focus. They are often so isolated, so alone. My goal is to help them realize that their situation is part of how they feel, that there is much less difference between them and us then society would like them to believe.”

“Doctor? Do you ever take corporate patients?”

“Please don’t call me anything except Lynda. I do have a title but it is only relevant for those that attend the church to which I belong. Now, are you asking for yourself?”

Ed smiled grimly.

“No! I promise you, Doctor…er Lynda…I am too vexing a case for you to waste your time, no I am asking for my brother.”

“This is Bradley? We have met.”

“Yes, they are saying he’s possessed, at least that he believes so.”

“It’s a great example of a word that has meaning only when you are speaking of the symptoms.”

“Exactly!” Ed blurted and then softened his voice, “I thought the same thing.”

“Well, I don’t normally see corpers but I will have some time before our building is back up and running. If you decide that his doctors are not making progress, then you can bring him to our building, but he will have to stay there during treatment. It might be that some external source is introducing or even re-enforcing his condition, I would want to remove that possibility right away. But he would be in good hands, you could visit once a week, but no more.”

“Okay, I appreciate that.”

Lynda looked over again at the sleeping asset. Cynnamon had not stirred and now they could hear her breathing through the silence and the soft hum of the equipment.

Lynda opened her mouth to speak, quietly.

“I…I didn’t realize you two knew each other so well”

She looked over at the Deputy whose expression was hard to read.

“I am as surprised as you are, Lynda. I mean, we knew each a long time ago, in corporate training, but have not kept in touch. And there is good reason for that, I was worse than cruel to her. Frankly I am surprised she speaks to me.”

Lynda nodded and shrugged.

“I have not known her all that long, but she doesn’t seem the trusting type, I really expected to find her locked up in one of the storage compartments, but she is here. Nothing personal, but you are a senior officer with the company who owns her sponsorship, it amazes me that she stepped inside this room, no matter how irritated she was with me, and I’m doubly surprised she felt so comfortable that she would fall asleep…are you sure that the two of you were not close at one time?”

“Doctor,” Ed whispered, his serious face blotched with mortification. “Please, I promise you, we took some classes together and when I wasn’t ignoring her or criticizing her, I was bullying her or worse.”

Lynda nodded.

“Perhaps she has forgotten things you remember, the reverse might also be true.”

Return

Cynnamon arrived at the grand reception hall only a few minutes late. She had an early morning meeting with Ann that had taken her by surprise, even if she shouldn’t have been. Now she regretted that the two of them had not spent more time together; and that they had fought as much as they had.

She was dressed in formal Transom corporate attire, all black, shiny boots and some meaningless service medals pinned to her lapel. With the black AI glasses and her hair pulled back, she looked like many of the other female officers present although she didn’t wear the common red lipstick.

The full executive of Transom – New Berlyn had turned out to meet the Techview delegation. There was music and refreshments and plenty of attending hospies while Cyn and the other operational assets watched from the wings.

There was also a contingent from the villages, Pol was among them and so was Lynda. Cyn doubted she would get to speak to either. She had said her good-byes to all the previous night. Soon she would board the return hugger while the officers and executives finished their discussions. Given all that had happened, Cyn was certain those meetings would run very late.

She sighed and closed her eyes. Was it really over? Was she really going back to Techview? She never thought she would miss that place as much as she did. Perhaps there would be someone on the hugger who could tell her what had been happened in Techview since she had left.

As the Techview executives moved on for some private meetings, Cyn’s eyes were drawn immediately to a remaining lone figure. Short, with straight reddish hair, the woman walked casually in simple attire. Her hands were stretched out to the side, both encased in a AI glove. Her AI was identifying the person only as a Transom Operations Lead but Cyn recognized Mother, or someone who liked almost exactly like her.

“Impressive,” commented a male voice from behind her, “Patron has bodyguards and spokespeople but he doesn’t have clones to fill in for him.”

Her eyes darted over to the Deputy of Transom Security who had appeared beside her before returning to scrutinize the figure who was now speaking with Patron.

“Really?” she responded in an impressed tone. “I didn’t know…you think she is a clone?”

“Would you tell us even if you did know? Our best information is that she has many such assistants now. But we don’t believe they are clones, just very dedicated assistants, but who knows?”

“Interesting, but are they just representing her or are they also in contact with her…” Cyn spoke out loud, pondering the question.

“Well, I can think of only one company which is rumored to be able to communicate between cities, across large distances.”

Cyn nodded. Daneel. It was such a small, intertwined world they lived in.

Cyn kept her eyes forward. She was aware that they were quickly approaching the end of her time in New Berlyn. She had said her good-byes. She had apologized to both Lynda and Edwyrd for her meltdown. She was ready to leave.

“You didn’t tell us that Mother herself is your handler…” Ed commented with a hint of amusement.

“It’s true,” Cyn replied, “but only because she fired the previous one and didn’t want to pay for a replacement.”

“After she’s done skewering Patron, I am to take you to her, at which point she will accept your transfer back.”

Cyn nodded. “How do you know Mother is working him over?”

“He’s my father. I can tell when someone is making him nervous,” Ed laughed.

She smiled at that and turned to him.

“In all my time here, I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone make you nervous, Deputy,” she remarked. His eyes were dark, his expression not relaxed but not intimidated either.

“Then you need some practice. I am plenty nervous now.”

But she couldn’t tell anything from him. She never could. She looked back.

“Why? Don’t worry about Mother, I’ll keep her off you.”

“Because I owe you…an apology…as if it could ever be enough..”

And there it was. Her nostrils flared from the air that rushed into her. She saw Patron wave them over.

“You were one of the few that took me seriously…sir.”

“You know what I mean. You…you might have been killed.”

It was good they were getting this out of the way. She waited until she was sure he had no more to say. She ignored Patron. She could afford to wait for Mother to turn to them as well.

“I have a request.”

She waited. Patron gave a second indication for them to approach.

“Are you going to tell me what it is?” Ed prompted.

She turned to him, slowly and nodded, looking past him.

“Who knows if our paths will ever cross again and if we’ll meet as allies or enemies. Such is corporate life and we both have our loyalties.

So when you ever remember me, if you do, I want you to remember me as I was this time, the last couple weeks. Remember the day in your office, when you visited me in the hospital, the hugger lessons, the picnic under SkyTran Dome, and letting me cry myself to sleep while you drove us home. I know it sounds silly, but if you’ll remember that Cynnamon, I’ll remember this Eddie Harilla. Let time bury it’s ghosts.”

Mother had turned to them and Cyn did not wait but walked toward the head of Transom Operations – Techview, leaving Ed Harilla to follow.

“Ah, you are returning our asset, very good,” the woman croaked giving Cyn a look up and down. “But not in the same pristine condition as I left her?” Cyn still had some cuts and bruises, one from the previous evening in the cemetery.

“We had some troubles down here as you know, your asset was very helpful” Patron added.

But Mother’s eyes drilled into those of Cyn who returned a shrugging look. Business happens. No harm, no foul.

“We will modify the fee for wear-and-tear then,” the woman smiled as she turned back to Patron. “So she was useful, then? Can I presume you will need no further consulting from Techview Ops? The baby walks on its own?”

Patron smiled diplomatically.

“Well, she did the best she could given her unfamiliarity with our unique procedures and methods. Still, some of her unique perspectives did provide fuel for some new ideas.”

“I am delighted.” Mother purred. “She was the only one I had available but I was reluctant to do so given her relative inexperience and acumen. But it amused us to send you back one of your own.”

“Then perhaps you would like to make a trade, we have a special interest in those with New Berlyn blood, no matter the talent level.”

Mother rolled her eyes and looked back at Cynnamon.

“I must decline. After all, an entire dome was lost during her short time among you, I shudder to think what bad luck she might bring you over a full year.” With that, the Mother-clone turned back to Cynnamon. “I will remain here, child. You will leave on the hugger straight away. My clone will debrief you when you arrive in Techview.”

“Clone, Mother?”

But the woman just winked and turned away.

Taking the cue, Cyn nodded respectively to Patron and then spun quickly on her heel and held her hand out to Edwyrd Harilla.

“Thank you again for your help, Deputy,” she said quickly.

They shook hands and Cyn gave him a quick smile before turning toward the waiting hugger. Her AI was already letting her know who was on the hugger and she beamed when she realized that both Carla and James, somehow, were on board.

She resisted the urge to run the rest of the way. Instead, the Transom asset strode to the door and waited while her AI did the rest.

The door of the hugger opened and she stepped in.

The Exiles

Donnie stared at the time-release bar which bound his ankles together. There was a similar device holding his wrists firmly behind him. The timer was not yet running; it wouldn’t be activated until they reached their final destination, wherever the hell that was.

He looked over at many of his friends and supporters who were bound in a similar manner. When they left New Berlyn, the security was even tighter; they had worn special helmets which kept them from seeing, hearing or even speaking. The only exception had been the short time each of them had spent with that holier-than-thou chaplain.

But once they reached New Chicago, conditions improved. The helmets were removed and they were given food and water. He hadn’t been hungry but he drank all the water in large gulps. To his great relief, as they started the second trip, the helmets were left off perhaps because the original crew of the hugger had been replaced. They did not stop him when he spoke quietly with the others.

“As far as I know, we are still going to Palenque, I wish I had paid more attention to that old story but, as I remember, the city lasted for about a year. Apparently, they did not manage resources well and they were over-extended; eventually the energy drain from the domes became too much to sustain. The domes fell and the villagers fled. I heard one story that the villagers had some warning and were leaving even before the collapse. So there should be tunnels, equipment and whatever is left of the buildings.”

They continued some idle speculation among themselves but were finally told to stop talking.

Donnie was still able to look around the cabin. He did not see Miriam from his chair. Perhaps she was still feigning illness; that ploy could work only so long. In thinking more about it, he decided he would not be cruel in his revenge. The girl was intelligent and capable;traits that would be needed, in his children as well. Some things would not be optional.

Most of the view port windows had been closed, but one was left half-open. As they approached Palenque, Donnie prayed that the crew would be too busy to notice that he was furtively obtaining a peek at their surroundings.

The ground had become flat and barren, almost impossibly so and his heart sank at the thought that they would be left in the center of some great desert. But there were breaks in the ground; large rocky formations which pushed out from the earth. The vehicle descended and now he realized that the formations were giant. By luck, his eye found the one which would be their new home.

Palenque looked like a thick piece of amber glass that had fallen from the sky and split and splintered upon impact. The hugger rose and passed over the sharp teeth of the formation, a maw too hostile to cross, until it found a crater in the center.

The exterior darkened significantly as they descended and he could see the steep sides of the crater, covered with dry, golden grasses. There they hovered while the cargo, in large, colored, metal bins, were lowered and scattered on the floor of Palenque crater.

Then, without so much as an announcement, the hugger rose again and approached one of the grass covered valley walls. The cargo door was opened and a prisoner was brought to the edge, their restraint release-timer was activated and they were pushed through the door. That infuriated Cabb but he could do nothing as he watched the process repeat for every one of his people. One of the crew was keeping count.

Then Donnie heard a commotion. One of the prisoners had decided to fight it. She was pleading and protesting that it was all a mistake. Of course it was. But when he took a second look he realized that the woman was not one of theirs, but he recognized her. It was the chaplain, the one who had asked him all of those inane questions about his feelings.

“I’m not with them! Ask the captain!” the woman looked frantic and he enjoyed seeing her previously calm and controlled facade fall away. Her eyes caught his and they pleaded with him to say something. But why should he? As far as he was concerned it was the more the merrier. They would need every able body to survive.

He happily watched her ineffectual struggles and listened to her cries before she too went out the door.

The guarded muttered a number. Thirty-six.

He watched as the rest went by. He had already decided they would use the cargo containers for shelter on their first day. Who knew what type of storms might visit them, he would have them huddled close together, entrances facing inward.

Suddenly, he realized he had not seen Miriam still. Had he missed her? There were only a few prisoners left and now they were coming for him, pulling him to his feet. He heard another guard counting as each person went out the door.

Forty-six.

Forty-seven.

Forty-eight.

Forty-nine.

And then there was just him left. Even as they spun him around he realized that the chaplain was an extra, so that should make fifty-one. He should be the fifty-first prisoner to go through the door!

Fifty.

It came to him with the anger and frustration of having accidentally bitten into one’s own tongue. Miriam had escaped. Somehow, she had replaced herself with the chaplain. He should have said something!

He opened his mouth to issue an expletive when he felt a savage blow to his chest. He saw the bright yellow sky of rippled clouds just before he landed hard onto the ground and began first to slide and then to roll down the steep, grassy wall of the crater.

The End

[]Author’s Notes (with spoilers)

Why the apocalyptic setting?

I wanted to invent my own version of a society on Earth, one different than today’s countries, governments and peoples but I didn’t want to tell a story far in the future. A weather apocalypse was a very relevant mechanism toward that end. Thus my story focuses on the tiny fraction of the world occupied by the protagonists and their cities while still leaving a huge amount of possibilities for what else might be lurking in the remainder of the damaged planet.

Why all the female characters?

LOL, what about it? If I had a written a story with only male characters, no one would say a thing.

Well, I thought many of the men were antagonists as well.

One of my beta readers asked why there were so many ‘creepy’ men? Perhaps more disconcerting is that even some of the normal men had a creepy side to them or engaged in some reprehensible acts.

Honestly, my little story pales in comparison to the real world where women and children are used and abused in so many ways. The very real issues of slavery, human trafficking, sexual assault and inappropriate uses of power are minor aspects of this work. If I may be so bold, we are all a part of it as well as being repulsed by it.

Why corporations?

There were two aspects of society that I didn’t want to deal with at all: the military and governments. There are plenty of stories that will give you both and frankly I wanted to focus on the people, on the ideas and not on weapons or dictators. But I still needed something to personify man’s desire to achieve, to be powerful and to be admired. Enter the corporations, think of the ones we love, Apple, Google, Starbucks and the ones we don’t so much, insurance companies, airlines and the cable company. Corporations open up the possibility of intrigue and espionage just as with governments.

Where did all the names come from?

It is somehow hard to write ‘science fiction’ with characters named Bill and Bob. But neither did I want to scrape through history to find interesting names. So I adopted a mechanism where I took a normal name and switch some vowels into ‘y’s. So Edward becomes Edwyrd, Mark, becomes Myrk, Tim becomes Tym and Cinnamon becomes Cynnamon.

Then there are some dedications. Daneel Tech is named after Asimov’s robot. The huge mega-corporation and sponsor of my main character is named Transom similar to the center of civilization of Asimov’s Foundation novels. And then there are many names and words that just come from Spanish: Maltiempo, Las Joyas and guajira.

What about witches?

Many of my beta readers seemed frustrated waiting for some witches to appear. This series is about my own spin on the witch genre, so there will be no wands or spell books or the like.

What about Cynnamon?

Chaos Witches certainly is more about characters than it is about plots and there are many characters, both protagonists and antagonists who ended up on paper much the way they were conceived in my mind.

If the series is about any one person it is about Cynnamon, and for me, she was that character who grew in spite of me rather than because of me. Originally, I wanted her to be a beautiful secret-agent, a femme fatale who worked her way through dangerous and difficult corporate assignments.

But she defied all of my preconceived and silly stereotypes and forged her own trail. It was her idea to emphasize her near-slave status, to add stress and worry to her life, to experience the real consequences of losing her mother at an early age, an idea I had just to give her a ‘difficult’ upbringing and a reason to be at the orphanage.

I was shocked when she decided to sing her way through a major scene in the prequel and again in this work. And it was definitely her idea to bring the themes of sexual assault and violence to herself and she made me feel silly for worrying that it would taint her in any way. I’m the one who is damaged for ever thinking that way. And there are places she thinks to go that frankly I do not want to take her. But that is another story.

Cyn is inspired partly by the fictional Cinnamon Carter of Mission Impossible and she has some of her namesake’s traits. Certainly she is part secret-agent and she is often though not always incredibly calm under pressure. One scene with Tym Matheson is patterned after a piece of an episode. Cinnamon and Rollin have just escaped being discovered and while he is a nervous wreck she seems unaffected. So he asks her how can she be so calm, she smiles, shrugs and tells him that ‘you get used to it’.

Will there be more books?

I envisioned four stories, but only one more which contains the characters introduced so far. The next work, K-Doll, is intended to focus on a single character who was encountered only briefly in the first two books. The next work, maybe the last work is partly about the banished colony of Palenque as well as where Cynnamon goes next.


Ill Wind (Chaos Witches Volume Two)

Book Two - Ill Wind The Witch is dead. Or did you simply not recognize her? The consequences of book one, The Assets of Techview, play out in a new setting: the colony of New Berlyn, itself a domed city, a younger and brasher version of its sister city of Techview. Cynnamon, bonded to Transom Industries, has no choice in this return to her childhood home, it was part of a promise she made, a barter to save her friends. She must complete one assignment before she can return, but what is it? Miriam, now a full citizen is thus free of her corporate bonds finds herself instead chained to a sociopath by the strange viral colony which lives and grows inside her. And which she helped to create. Annabelle comes to New Berlyn of her own free will, determined to find a missing member of the Seven Sisters Sanctuary, dead or alive. With few clues to start, can Ann succeed or might she also disappear? New Berlyn welcomes them and any whom it can ruthlessly use in its frantic, desperate rush for power and fame, a desire to be the brightest jewel in Las Joyas.

  • Author: Tal Turing
  • Published: 2017-02-08 00:20:20
  • Words: 124858
Ill Wind (Chaos Witches Volume Two) Ill Wind (Chaos Witches Volume Two)