Tiphani sat strapped in one of the Holy Saleschannel’s pews, trying to ignore the reverent stares of the parishioners. From the interior of their spherical ship came the rhythmic cursing of their pilot, as if he wanted to speed the calculations for the jump back to earth using the power of swear words alone.
No way you’re getting back on that thing, she thought. But if she stayed on the Saleschannel, she might have to convert.
I don’t know if I care, she thought.
“Excuse me, ma’am,” Alan Rodriguez said. His worried expression had deepened into an almost caricature-like frown.
“Another ship’s appeared outside the Holy Saleschannel, ma’am.”
“Must be Four Hands.”
“No. It appeared. Like you. Winfinity.”
“Go find Yin.”
“Honored Yin is already in the docking port.”
“Who is it?” Tiphani said. Feeling a chill. Knowing the answer.
“Honored Yin says it is the CEO,” Alan said.
Tiphani laughed. The sound was strangely muffled in the large, cloth-covered space. She sounded tiny and alone.
Alan licked his lips and darted his eyes back in the direction he’d come. “They’re going to be docking any minute, Chief Mirate.”
Oh yeah, Tiphani thought. I’m still a Chief, aren’t I? She made no move to get up.
She looked up at Alan. And for a moment, considered telling him that she’d converted, and wanted to help them on their mission. But what if they said no, they didn’t need her?
And it was a chance to get to see Highest Chambers. See what he really was. For real. Even if they demoted her back to indentured, she’d be able to say she knew the truth. That was worth it.
She unbuckled and stood up.
Alan gave her Velcro straps for her shoes and led her back to the docking port. Honored Yin looked Tiphani up and down, her expression an indiscriminate mix of fear and awe.
Our CEO traveled here, she thought. By shortrange Spindle.
Or he was out of the system. That was possible, too. Maybe he hadn’t done something as reckless as she thought.
The outer airlock slid open, allowing glimpses of shadowy shapes through the thick glass of the inner doors. Tiphani fought to keep from craning her neck. She’d see him soon enough.
The inner doors slid open.
Flanked by two gray-clad Win-Sec agents was a boy of maybe twelve. His white-blonde hair fell over a high forehead sprinkled with freckles. Bright blue eyes looked out over a small, well-formed nose. He wore a brilliant suit of the Winfinity corporate red, immaculately tailored, with a matching yellow scarf. He floated out into the docking room and caught himself expertly on the carpet with velcro’d soles, pushing himself erect with his hands behind his back.
Honored Yin folded to her knees.
Tiphani remained standing a moment longer, thinking, No this can’t be him it can’t possibly be he’s young, really young. Then she pulled herself down to the carpet as well.
“Don’t be stupid,” the boy said. “Get up.”
“I’m sorry, Highest Chambers,” Honored Yin said, standing. Tiphani did the same.
Up close, the boy’s eyes held the brightness of youth, but also something more. Something that made them heavy and slow in their orbits, like the weight of wisdom. Age. Great age. The longer Tiphani looked at those young-old eyes, the colder she felt, and the more she wanted to look away.
“Where’s the Shrill?” Highest Chambers said, looking around behind Tiphani and Yin. There was something very wrong with the way he moved. Not mechanical, not like a waldo, but with maybe a little too much fluidity. Not enough control. “Maybe we can wrap this shit up.”
Honored Yin made a little whimpering noise.
“It’s not here, Highest Chambers,” Tiphani said.
“Then go and retrieve it!”
“We’ve already been to the ship.”
“Where is it?” the CEO said, his brows furrowing. “I don’t have time for games!”
“We’re sorry,” Honored Yin said.
“What does that mean?”
“It means we didn’t make it here in time,” Tiphani said. “By the time we got here, another ship had spoofed the Holy Saleschannel and made off with the Shrill.”
The boy-CEO just looked at her, his mouth slightly open, an expression of honest confusion on his face. Then, in the space of an instant, his face went bright red and he yelled, “You’re telling me you lost the fucking Shrill? Again? I came out here to say hiya to the damn thing and it isn’t here? It’s gone? Is that what you’re saying?”
Honored Yin whimpered.
“I’m afraid it is, Highest,” Tiphani said.
“You fucking incompetents!” he stamped his foot and went flying off the carpet. The two Win-Sec agents caught him and placed him back onto it.
The CEO closed his eyes and clenched his fists, breathing through his mouth in great gusts. When he opened his eyes again, they were glassy with optilink data.
“Okay. Okay. I see. Not all your fault. Here too late. I get it. The Holy Saleschannel should have plucked the Shrill before you got here. Incompetence on their part.”
“Incompetence?” Alan said, standing straighter.
Highest Chambers scratched over to him and poked a finger into his chest. He looked almost eye-to-eye with the short, sturdy man. “Yes, incompetence. Ain’t no other way to describe it. Tart it up all you want, you and your saints and microwaves, but that’s what it is.”
“I . . . that’s an insult!”
“Yes it is. Shouldn’t be surprised, I guess. The best go to the corporates, the rest go to the consumeristians. You tried to play our game, and got burnt.”
Alan went red, but said nothing.
“You tried to play us. Now, you get nothing. No fleet. Not even a single Spindle ship. In fact, it might be interesting to leave you here and see how you do with the Disney ship, once it finishes repairs. Which shouldn’t be too long now.”
“Highest Chambers, I’m sorry.”
The boy turned away. “Oh, so now I’m highest again. How convenient. Don’t worry, lapdog, we’ll make sure you’re out of here.”
“Thank you, Highest Chambers.”
The CEO went to stand in front of Tiphani. “Who got them?”
“They billed themselves as a Four Hands splinter,” Tiphani said. “At least that’s what they told the consumeristians.”
“Which means they could be anyone.”
“They’re vectored on Mars,” Alan said.
“You know that?”
“Last known heading.”
“What kind of ship?”
“Fast courier,” Tiphani said.
Highest Chambers made a rude noise. “So they could be going anywhere.”
“I have Research correlating what we know with possible traffic matches,” Tiphani said.
The CEO laughed. “Research is a baby, covered in kerosene, playing with matches. What’s the project number? I’ll forward it on to the artie bank with my tag.”
Tiphani called up the project and rattled off the number to the CEO, who nodded.
“I’m sure we’ll find them,” Honored Yin said.
“I’m not,” Highest Chambers said.
“Just don’t make us go on the . . . Spindle again,” Honored Yin said.
“Please,” Highest Chambers said. “I don’t want to see a repeat of your performance before the shortrange Spindle.” He glanced over at Tiphani. “Nor do I want to see you taunting her as you did.”
“Do we have to . . . Spindle again?” Honored Yin said.
“Let’s find out where they’re going first. The arties are already guessing.”
Alan looked suddenly alert. He held up a hand. “Sorry to interrupt, ma’am, but another ship has just decelerated into position nearby.”
“Who is it?”
“It’s a Four Hands ship. Hailing.” A pause. “Han Fleming, requesting permission to dock.”
Highest Chamber’s face broke into a wide, boyish grin that had absolutely no innocence or joy in it. “Good old Han,” he said. “Where can we talk to him?”
“On the bridge, Highest Chambers.”
“Let’s go say hello,” the CEO said.
Han Fleming was momentarily upset when he saw the strange gold ship clinging to the flickering bulk of the Holy Saleschannel. Its unfamiliar ovoid shape was almost completely smooth, except for the protrusion of small maneuvering thrusters. With no bulky main drive, it had to be a Spindle ship, but he’d never seen one so small. In virtualspace, its control software was smooth and hard and black, rebounding every query he threw at it.
But I was supposed to be first!
He clamped down hard on a brief flare of anger.
Anger damps rational thought, he told himself. Suppress anger to see clear.
With a prize so large, there will be other players. The only guaranteed loser will be the one who doesn’t roll the dice.
“Dock already occupied,” the courier pilot said.
“Hail them anyway.”
Good guys. CorpEx wasn’t to be completely trusted, but the Four Hands bribe had been large and generous. He could count on them. At least for now.
And Pluto was powering back up. Not operational yet, but soon he’d have another card to play.
If he had hours.
“Reply waiting,” the courier said.
“Put it on screen.”
The big nav display up front flickered and cleared. Han’s stomach did a fast twist-and-lurch when he recognized Yin and Mirate standing alongside a thickset man wearing the uniform of the consumeristian Minister of Conversion and a young boy wearing a loud red suit.
How did they get here? he thought. There were no faster couriers. He’d traveled damped, at almost 6G. There was no way they could be here.
Nevertheless, they are. Accept it.
But that would mean . . . that would mean Winfinity had a working shortrange Spindle. That would explain them, that would explain the strange gold ship, that would explain everything.
They’d probably already made a deal, he thought.
Bluff. A few hours and the Pluto would be back on-line.
But if they had shortrange Spindles, what else did they have?
Han’s stomach twisted into interesting new patterns as fear clamped its chill teeth into his gut.
“How’s it hanging, Han?” the boy in the red suit said. “I can’t believe Disney sent its Acting. Four Hands must be absolutely desperate to get this longevity thing.”
“Who . . .” Han said, but the words stopped in his throat. He knew that voice, that cadence.
“Chambers?” he said.
The boy smiled. “None other.”
“I don’t believe it.”
“You seem a little surprised to see us.” Smiling. Smirking. The same way he always had, back when he was old. That same fucking smirk.
Han wanted to reach through the screen and wipe the smug look off the kid’s face.
“Han, you look like a kid who got clothes for Christmas.” Clearly enjoying it. Clearly.
“We . . . you . . . I don’t believe it.”
“We have as much right to the Shrill’s secrets as you do!”
“You come in, kill our Original Sam, threaten war. Yes, you have the right to extort secrets from us, when we’ve been monumentally stupid about our network security. But I think you’ll find it a bit tighter now.”
Bluff. “Oh, really.”
“Come on,” Chambers said, crooking a finger. “Do something. I dare you.”
Han felt his hands curl into fists. If he could only get them on that scrawny neck! It was just like the time, back two hundred years ago, when they were opening the stellar frontier. Back when Chambers worked for him. Flying fast ahead of the Winfinity ships. Always a step ahead. Locking up worlds with their own proprietary networks. Claiming it was in Winfinity’s best interest. Somehow always spinning it to the board. Enough that Han looked like the timid child, frightened to grab what lay there unguarded. When Han was ousted, Chambers had even had the gall to offer him a job as a Director. Only a grade down, he said. As if he would ever take it.
“Where is the Shrill?” Han said.
“You haven’t done anything. Come on, Han, waltz through our network. I dare you.”
Han reached through his tiny datachannel and queried his artie partners, but they shook their heads sadly. Other than a minor connection to the remains of Black2, they had nothing. Pluto’s connection to the Winfinity net was better, but still not deep enough to use. It would take weeks for it to burrow to the levels they once controlled. The approaching fleet was still too far off, too disconnected from the Sol datawebs.
The doors were closed. The only thing he could do was see if enough of Black2 could communicate with the Shrill. That would give them a start, if nothing else.
But Black2’s tags were laggy and faraway. Han had the vector traced, and it pointed at a trajectory that suggested Mars. A quick scope of the Pluto’s records showed another ship, accelerating away from the disabled Westinghouse consumer craft.
But that meant the Shrill wasn’t there!
Someone else had the Shrill.
Winfinity was bluffing.
“Where’s the Shrill?” Han said. Smiling, this time.
“That doesn’t matter,” Chambers said, frowning.
“You don’t have it.”
“Of course we do.”
“Show it to me.”
A frown from Chambers, nothing more.
“That’s what I thought,” Han said.
“Cut transmission,” Han said to the courier. The other man nodded and the screen went blank.
“Transferring new course,” Han said. “Boost us out of here.”
Han settled back into his gelbed as the drive lit up. Chemicals dragged him down into suspension as the Gs pushed him deep into the mattress.
Han wondered what the powerful suspension drugs were doing to his rejuvenated body. Would he end up as desperate as Chambers, trying a whole-body transplant when the old body refused to rejuve anymore?
And decided he didn’t care.
“Blow that fucking ship out of the sky!” Highest Chambers said, watching as the display switched to show the courier’s drive lighting off.
“We, um, have no long-range weapons left,” Alan Rodriguez said.
“Fuck! Fuck! Fuck! Of course! How could it be any other way? Han fucking slips off again.”
“I’m sorry, Highest Chambers.”
“Sorry doesn’t make amends,” Chambers said, pacing the bridge. He took several deep breaths, visibly calming himself. “But it might be for the best. A Four Hands fleet is coming. And I might not want to explain that I’d just blasted their chairman into space.”
“Chairman?” Tiphani said. “He said he was a General Manager–“
“Pretty Tiphani. If you were me, would you waltz into a Disney meeting saying you were Highest?”
Tiphani shook her head.
“Of course not.” Highest Chambers offered a thin smile. “Call it the hand of the Holy Franchise.”
Alan sighed and rolled his eyes heavenward. “Holy Franchise,” he said softly.
“Excuse me again, Highest Chambers,” Tiphani said. “But he seemed to know we didn’t have the Shrill.”
“And he was fucking surprised by it, too.”
“Yes. But, I mean, maybe he took off because he knew where it’s been taken.”
A lopsided grin spread on the CEO’s face. It was an ancient expression, making the boy’s face terrible and old. “Ironic, that. The arties just finished their investigation. While we were talking. They know who has the Shrill. And where they’re going. Ain’t no mystery, now.”
“Who?” Tiphani asked.
The grin twisted into even more terrible shapes. “Your fling. Jimson. And that fucking contractor. Dian Winning. The Martian.”
“But . . . how . . .”
Highest Chambers turned Honored Yin and Alan and the two Win-Sec agents and held out his hands, unsteadily, as if playing to an audience. “An excellent question,” he said. “And the irony is that it took the arties so long to do the analysis just because it was so stupid, so obvious, so impossible to comprehend the ultimate incompetence that they never bothered to integrate the possibility until they’d exhausted everything else. Up to and including the benighted Independents and contact with an unknown alien race, probably. Can you guess what it is?”
Tiphani felt ill. “What, Highest Chambers?”
“Because you fucking gave your access codes to the little fucker!” Highest Chambers screamed. “Chief codes to a Manager. A grasping little asshole, too. The magnitude of your stupidity is unbelievable.”
Tiphani saw her future with Winfinity shatter into a thousand shards. They would demote her down to Indentured, leave her on the Holy Saleschannel. That was it, that was the end. She looked at the CEO, open-mouthed, not knowing what to say.
“But everyone will see the mercy of Winfinity,” Highest Chambers said. “Even to someone as monumentally stupid as pretty Tiphani. Because what she did gave us tags on exactly where they’re going. And if we leave Jimson’s channel open, we can feed him whatever data we want to. Win-Sec will be waiting for them when they land, to give them a proper welcome.”
Tiphani blew out a big sigh of relief.
Highest Chambers turned to gesture to Tiphani, as if showing off a fist-sized diamond on a stand. “Say hello, everyone, to the luckiest motherfucker in the Web of Worlds.”
“What now?” Tiphani said. Almost a whisper.
Highest Chambers fixed his young-old eyes on hers. “I’m tempted to send you onto Mars via shortrange Spindle and have you oversee the capture.”
Tiphani held her breath.
“But I’m thinking you only get luck of your magnitude once. No. You go there, and somehow it’ll become a shit sandwich.”
“We meet Win-Sec there. They’ll have the Shrill. You can say hello to Jimson. And if we finish the negotiations without much delay, and if I get what I want, and if the scientists can get it working in time for me to fix this oh-so-beautiful-but-still-dying body, you may still have a career.”
October 3rd, 2009 / 544 Comments »