I was going to make a contest where I would post a snippet when we reached X number of followers of Facebook or Twitter. It was decided, after a ten second discussion, that this idea was cheesy.
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I bring you a chunk of Silver Fish this morning. It’s a play on HP Billionaire Boss and His Humble Secretary. I was going to do full two chapters so you can see the millionaire boss , but Gordon told me it was too much. This has not been proofread and is subject to change, blah-blah-blah.
Question: Will we see Celino and Imelda?
Answer: They will make a cameo appearance.
In the course of space colonization, there arose a need for humans with enhanced abilities. Men and women who could survive harsh conditions, who were superb warriors, gifted hunters, and brilliant scientists.
Some enhancements were technological in nature: an array of implants with various functions. Their effect ended with the death of the person who carried them. Other improvements were biological and these enhanced capabilities persisted, lingering in the bloodline, changing and mutating into new abilities in the offspring of the original carrier. It was quickly realized that the advantage of these biological enhancements lay in their exclusivity. Thus, the biologically enhanced united and shut down all further biological modification.
Collectively known as kinsmen, these exceptional beings gave rise to several dozen families, which now form the financial elite of the colonized planets. The kinsmen strictly control their numbers and their loyalty to their families is absolute. Like the Sicilian mafia families and feuding Corsican clans of the old planet, the kinsmen exist in constant competition with each other. It is that competition that rules the economy, begins and ends wars, and drags human civilization to greater technological and scientific progress.
Kinsmen with the ability to telepathically attack the minds of others are called psychers.
Claire awoke early. Above her grey ceiling hung like a bleak shroud. She looked at it, trying to gather enough willpower to leave the bed.
A digital screen flared into life on the wall, presenting her with a digital clock. A female voice with a flat, computer-generation intonation announced, “Good morning. You have thirty minutes until scheduled departure to work, Retainer Shannon.”
She stared at the ceiling.
“Twenty nine minutes. You are now one minute behind schedule.”
“Twenty eight minutes. You are now two…”
“Dismissed,” Claire said.
The screen died. She sat up and pushed off the bed. Around her, the apartment offered a dreary monochromatic palette: grey walls, dark floor, paler ceiling. No splash of color interrupted the drabness.
She walked to the window. The shutter’s photocensor detected her presence, and the thick panels of grey plastic slid aside. She was on the fortieth floor. Around her buildings rose, half-a-kilometer tall rectangular boxes, separated by deep grim canyons of narrow streets. Above the city, the smog-smothered sky sifted chemical rain. The rainwater wet the sides of the uniform skyscrapers, bleaching long drip-trails in the concrete.
Her quarters were in the barracks of the Intelligence Building 214. The apartment where she grew up with her mother was located ten blocks east. Looking out of her window, she could tell no difference between her current rooms and that apartment. Even the bleach patterns seemed the same.
If she were to leave the city, which was practically impossible, she would find a barren rocky plain. The planet of Uley had only two relatively small land masses, neither of them inviting. The Eastern continent was colonized three hundred and twenty seven years ago by the Melko Corporation. Eighteen years later the Brodwyn Investment Group landed on the Western Continent. Melko voiced their claim to the entire planet and demanded that all Brodwyn colonization efforts cease immediately. Brodwyn declined to comply.
Both conglomerates began rapid exploitation of natural resources in an effort to achieve industrial and military superiority. Every industry on either continent was designed to serve the arms race. Forty years before she was born, the hostilities exploded into an open conflict: Melko against Brodwyn, Native against Invader.
She was a Brodwyn retainer, an Evil Invader, if the propaganda of the Melko group was to be believed. She could’ve just as well have been born a Greedy Native on the opposite side of the planet. It would have made absolutely no difference to her life.
Claire stared down, to the hazy street below. If she opened the window and jumped, she would fall for about ten seconds before splattering on the pavement.
If she jumped.
To end one’s own life was the most unnatural urge, but standing there by the window, she couldn’t really muster any anxiety about it. She simply didn’t care one way or another.
“You have fifteen minutes until scheduled departure…”
Claire stripped and stepped into the shower. The lukewarm water washed over her. She pushed the knob all the way to HOT, but the water remained mildly warm. Heat, like all other resources, had to be conserved. They were at war.
They had been at war for the last sixty eight years. War everlasting.
She stepped out of the shower, toweled off her hair, and put on her undergarments and her grey Intelligence uniform with black captain stripes on the left shoulder.
“You have one minute until scheduled departure…”
She stepped into the hallway. The door hissed closed behind her. She took the elevator to the seventh floor, to the mess hall. It was half full, as always, and she scanned it with her mind out of habit. People moved aside for her, an automatic privilege of rank. Most had inert minds. A few with a predisposition to psycher activity had thoughts that luminesced slightly, and to the right, at the usual table, four soldiers of her unit glowed. She shut down the mind vision, picked up her tray with a dollop of nutrient paste on it, took her vitamin enriched water, and went to join them.
The psychers stood at attention at her approach.
They sat, as she took her usual spot. Nobody smiled. They were at war, after all, and the extreme expression of emotion was frowned on, just as bright color, loud noises, and leisure. Why are you smiling? Don’t you know we’re at war?
She didn’t examine their minds out of courtesy but she’d learned to read their faces, and she noted the small signs of relaxation: the softening of Nicholas’s lips, the way Masha held her spoon, picking at the paste, Dwight’s easy pose, Liz’s nails, sheathed in transparent coating… Manicured nails. Something new.
“Good morning, Captain,” Liz murmured. Slight, with thin blond hair cut short, she seemed washed out, her skin nearly transparent, her hair almost colorless.
Claire envied her. Of the five of them, Liz was the youngest, barely seventeen. She still had some impulse, some spark of life. She’d joined the unit last year and since then keeping her alive during the missions proved to be a full time job. It was the job the rest of them shared, but Claire shouldered the lion’s share of it.
Liz’s brain activity spiked, her thought tentatively brushing against Claire’s mind. Claire accepted the communication, opening the link between them.
“I was wondering if I could get a plant,” Liz said. “For my room. I was wondering if you knew where I could get one.”
“It will be confiscated,” Claire responded.
“Because a plant requires nutrients, light, and water. It will be tagged as inappropriate expenditure of resources.”
The younger woman recoiled.
“I’m sorry,” Claire told her aloud.
Liz ducked her head. “Thank you, captain.”
A vague feeling of alarm tugged on Claire. The other psychers sensed as well and the five of them turned toward the threat in unison.
Major Courtney Rome was making his way through the mess hall toward them. His psych-blocker implant was on, smudging his mind. Smudging but not obscuring completely. It worked well on most of her team, but no psych blocker could lock the psycher of her level out completely.
Her team’s minds dimmed around her, as her soldiers snapped their mental shields in place. Courtney couldn’t read their minds. They simply reacted to a perceived threat on instinct.
Courtney halted a few feet from them. She liked calling him by his first name in her mind. If he ever found it, he would take it as an insult, which it was. Trim and middle-aged, Courtney wore a flat expression. She looked past the blocker into his brain and saw anxiety churning. He came to deliver unpleasant news. He never brought any other kind.
She rose and the rest of her team stood up.
“Captain Shannon, join me for a private consultation.”
She followed him to one of the booths lining the wall. They sat. A transparent disruptor wall slid from the slit in the wall, sealing the booth from the rest of the dining hall with a sound-proof translucent barrier.
“Your latest psychological evaluation showed abnormalities.” Courtney said. “We are no longer confident that you are giving your all to the war effort.”
“Has my performance ever been lacking?” she asked.
“No. Your performance is always exemplary. That’s why we’re having this conversation.”
Claire saw it in his mind: Courtney believed she should be decommissioned, but she was too valuable. Kinsmen like her, with psychic power, came about one in every six million, and the decision to keep her breathing was made above his pay grade. She could crush his mind like a bug, psych blocker or no.
Claire leaned back, putting one leg over another. “When we’re done here,” she said, not sure what possessed her to continue speaking, “you will return to your office where you will read reports and push pseudopaper. It’s your job. I will go to my job, where I’ll have to murder people.”
Courtney studied her. “They are the enemy.”
“These people I kill, they have children, loved ones, parents. Each of them exists within a network of human emotion. They love, they are loved, they worry. When I sear their minds, all of that ends. They have no choice about engaging in a fight with me, just as I have no choice in being here. For doing this, I am praised and rewarded.”
“There is something wrong with a system that glorifies a person for the killing of other human beings.”
“They will kill you if you don’t kill them first. They won’t hesitate.”
She sighed. “What are we fighting for, Major?”
“We’re fighting for the control of the planet. The winner will get to keep Uley, of course.”
“Have you looked outside, Major? I mean really looked? Keeping Uley isn’t a victory; it’s a punishment.”
Courtney leaned on the table. “I’ve been doing this a long time, Captain. You are not the first to crack, you won’t be the last. Not everyone has the resolve to keep up the fight. But you can be sure that when your time comes, you won’t be simply decommissioned. If I were you, I’d keep it together as long as possible, because I am always watching and when you stumble, I will be there.”
She had gone too far to care about a threat. “I was taken from my mother when I was fourteen years old,” she told him. “She was sick when I left. I wasn’t allowed to look after her. The Building Association had to take care of her.”
“That’s what the Building Associations are for,” Courtney said. “They’re there to shoulder the responsibility for the residents of the building, so people like us can fight. Everyone must do their part.”
“My mother died when I was twenty two. In those eight years I was permitted to see her three times. There is a child sitting at the psycher table now, Major. She was taken away from the family when she was twelve. It’s getting worse. When will it end?”
“When Melko surrenders.” He slid a datacard across the table. “Your mission for today, Captain. Penetrate the secure block of Melko bionet, burn the data, and get out with your minds intact. Brodwyn Corporation expended too many resources on your training to lose you.”
Claire Shannon dashed through the woods. Tall trees thrust to the distant skies on both sides of her. Their dark branches scratched at each other. Behind her, the team sprinted, single-file. Lean, furry, they surged through the woods on all fours, their clawed paws digging into the forest floor as they ran. She saw them as beasts with glowing eyes. No doubt they saw themselves as something else.
Many years ago the need for faster data processing forced larger corporations and governments to implement biological computer systems, seamlessly integrated with the inorganic computers. It was discovered that only psychers could connect directly to the bionet and that connection overwhelmed their minds. The human brain couldn’t cope with the catastrophic influx of information, and it deluded itself by turning code and neurosignals into a dream, interpreting the streaming data as a familiar environment, knitted from the individual psycher’s memories and imagination. Every psycher perceived the bionet differently. For Nicholas it was hell with molten lava and fire-belching dragons; for Liz it was a mountain pass strewn with snow, where avalanches and snow creatures waited on every turn. Claire saw a forest.
A hint of movement made her spin in mid-step. A large red-eyed bird with wicked dinosaur jaws instead of a beak raised its wings, preparing to dive at her from a tree branch.
The bird swooped down, talons out, teeth-studded jaws opened wide. Claire turned her head, throwing her body right. The jaws missed her by a fraction of an inch.
Her silvery fangs closed on the bird’s long neck and crushed, the neurosignals conjuring the taste of blood in her mouth. They dropped to the ground, the bird flailing under her.
The rest of the team dashed past them.
Claire planted a clawed paw on the bird’s head and ripped, tearing the neck in two.
The bird stopped moving.
Threat neutralized. An enemy psycher was dead.
Claire sprinted after the line of beasts, caught up, and sped by them, resuming her place at the head of the pack. She always took the point. She was the strongest psycher and it was her duty as an officer to protect the rest of her team.
The bird’s dimming eyes lingered in her memory. She had terminated a human mind. She would have to kill others before the mission ended. She would do it today to keep Liz and the rest alive, but eventually the Intelligence would send her on a single mission, and she wasn’t sure what the outcome of it would be.
Anxiety pulled at her mind. Something was wrong.
Claire scanned her environment. The woods before them were clear. Deserted. Where were the enemy psychers? She had just killed one; usually that meant a concentrated assault. The branches should be teeming with them.
She twisted to glance back. Only one beast followed her – Nicholas, his coat a pale grey. He took another step and exploded into a hundred tiny dark ribbons, melting into nothing.
The shock punched her.
Claire shot out of the bionet and out of her chair, her vision still a blur. A blink and she saw the room: gun-grey walls, a long console, five chairs by it, one empty – hers, and four others supporting prone bodies, her teammates, her soldiers, each with a gaping hole in the back of the head. In the split second she saw it all: the jagged edges of the head wounds, the red blood dripping on the floor from Liz’s blond hair, and Major Courtney Rome, a smoking gun in his fingers, his pale grey Intelligence uniform splattered with crimson spray and brain matter. Courtney’s face was slack. His mouth drooped down. His eyes stared at her, hollow.
She grasped his mind in a steel fist, ripping through the feeble protection of the psych blocker like it was tissue paper. He cried out and dropped the gun. She forced his brain to haul him upright, every muscle painfully rigid, his body barely balanced on his toes.
They were dead. This morning all of them had eaten a spare breakfast in the commissary. They shared coffee. Liz hid her new nails. Now they were dead. She had protected them for so long and he’d put a gun to their heads and murdered them one by one.
“Why?” she snarled.
“The war is over,” Courtney whispered. “We lost.”
“We lost,” he repeated, his voice a hoarse squeak. “Melko is occupying our continent. The surrender security protocol was initiated. I have to terminate you. You know too much.”
She seared his mind. Death was instantaneous. He didn’t have the time to scream.
As his lifeless body dropped to floor, Claire turned and pushed the dimmer switch on the console. The room turned dark. Her fingers flew over the keypad.
The opaque window in the wall before her faded, revealing the interior of the Intelligence compound below. People dashed back and forth across the floor.
She pushed a key, letting the audio feed filter into the room. Gunfire punched the silence. Massive shredders whined, crunching electronics and slicing pseudopaper into atomic dust. Chaos reigned.
The war was over.
Her heart hammered in her chest. Her pulse pounded through her head, too loud in her ears. Claire stared at the four corpses in their chairs. She wanted to hug Liz and cry.
She couldn’t give in to panic and shock. She had to think.
She was a Type A Psycher. An imminent threat. If Melko Corporation found her, she would be killed immediately. When you lost a war, you didn’t get to keep your guns. She was infinitely more dangerous than a loaded gun.
Claire shut off the audio feed and dimmed the windows. She checked the door. Courtney had engaged the electronic lock. Not enough. A heavy life support unit sat in the corner, for the times when psychers suffered an attack but held on to life. She put her shoulder into it, pushed it across the doorway, barring the door from the inside, and walked past four heads dripping blood back to her seat.
She had to log into the bionet for the last time to erase herself from Brodwyn data systems.
“Step onto the platform,” a Melko soldier ordered.
Claire obeyed, stepping onto the raised circle in the middle of the room. Six high-caliber gun turrets swiveled on their mounts, locking onto her. To the right and left, two Melko soldiers took aim at her head. Across the room an older woman behind a crescent metal console studied the digital screen.
Three weeks ago she had escaped the Intelligence building and returned to the her mother’s apartment. It was vacant, like many others, and during her last foray into the Brodwyn bionet, Claire had assigned it to herself. She had resurrected her mother’s data and took on her identity. Only her neighbors could have betrayed her. This morning she was arrested with the rest of the residents of the building and marched down to this depot. Nobody spoke out against her.
The older woman peered at her.
“Do you have any implants, modification, or kinsmen abilities to declare?”
Claire’s mind was hidden behind four layers of solid mental shields, enclosed in a hard outer shell, accreted over the period of the last four weeks as a result of constant mental strain. Her surface thoughts coated this shell, as if it were a mirror. Her defenses would withstand a concentrated probe from an adept. To the outside world, her mind appeared very much alive, but completely inert psychically. Precisely the way she liked it.
“Place your hands on the rail in front of you.”
Claire locked her fingers on the metal rail.
Pale green light slid over her. Two dozen scanners recorded her temperature, pulse, and chemical emissions, assessed the composition of her sweat and oil on her fingertips, and probed her body for combat implants.
A cold male voice announced with robotic precision.
“Implant scan, class A through E, negative. Biological modification negative.”
“Initiating psycher pressure probe,” the woman said.
Beneath her mental core, fear washed over Claire. Psycher Pressure Probe, PPP, meant pain to a psychic mind. She had to bear it. Her pulse couldn’t speed up. She couldn’t wince.
It began as a soft buzz in the back of her skull. The buzz built, ratcheting up to deafening intensity, louder, louder, LOUDER. Pain pierced her mind, as if a drill had carved through the bone, grinding, widening the hole with each rotation, turning her neurons into mess of human meat. The world dissolved in agony.
She was gone, drowning in pain. Her reason melted. Her mind dissolved.
She gave herself away.
It was over.
The pain vanished, suddenly, as if sliced by a knife.
“PPP negative,” the male voice announced.
“Very good,” the woman said.
She passed. Somehow she had passed.
The soldiers lowered their weapons.
The woman faced Claire. “You are being deported.”
“We don’t want your kind on our planet.” The woman grimaced. “You cost us billions and forced us into a three hundred year war. If things were fair, we’d line the lot of you up and put you out of your misery, except that the Interplanetary Right to Life Act gets in the way.”
That’s right, flashed in Claire’s mind. She was a civilian and under the protection of the Right to Life Act. Breaking it meant instant trade embargo. For a planet like Uley that imported most of its food an embargo would mean death by starvation. The Melko retainers couldn’t kill her or any of the Brodwyn civilians. They couldn’t load them into spaceships and kick them off planet without a definite destination either.
“The Melko Group made arrangements with other planets to deport you,” the woman said. “In your case, you’re going to Rada to some kind of flower province. It’s one of the merchant planets. Many kinsmen families all competing for their territories. They are cut-throat on Rada and they’re only taking the duds like you, no kinsmen allowed. I don’t expect you’ll last there long, which is just as well. Exit through that door.”
“PPP Negative,” AI announced.
Claire held onto the rail of the platform. She was swimming up a deep well filled with blinding pain. Negative. Negative. She had passed through the screening again.
Please, please let it be for the last time.
“You may leave the platform,” Rada’s Immigration officer invited.
She kept swimming. Almost there. Finally she surfaced and her vision returned in a rush. Claire stepped off the platform. The Immigration officer took her measure. He was lean, dark-haired, and older, his skin either naturally olive or tanned by the sun.
“Come on,” he said.
She followed him to a small office and sat in the cream-colored chair he indicated. The officer took his place behind a light glass table. A narrow crystal vase sat on the edge of his table. Inside it flowers bloomed, whirl upon whirl of bright petals, some blood red, some yellow, some deep purple near the root of the petal and white at its end. So vivid, almost painful.
“Dahlias,” the Immigration officer said.
“The flowers. They are called dahlias. You are assigned to the city of New Delphi.” Behind him the digital screen displayed city perched at the top of a tall plateau, its sides sheer cliff of red rock. Elegant skyscrapers of pale white stone, buildings of glass and steel, wider houses with balconies… There was no rhyme or reason to it. Trees grew here and there, bright spots of green. Claire stared.
“New Delphi is the commercial center of the south,” the officer said, “But the city itself is located in the Province of Dahlia, hence the flowers. There are other provinces as well. Most of them have no large urban centers. It’s mostly gardens, orchards, family estates. When you hear people speak ‘of the provinces,’ they are being nostalgic about a less hectic way of life.”
The image of the city turned, presenting her with seven long platforms carved into the side of the cliff, one above the other.
“These are the Terraces. This is where you’ll find most “provincial” style restaurants and shops. They are pricier than places in the city but you pay extra for authentic taste. Your apartment is right here.”
The image slid down, zoomed, and she saw a ten story building of pale yellow stone. Balconies lined its sides.
“The neighbors from your building are also being placed in this general area. You aren’t housed together, because we want you to be assimilated into our culture as soon as possible. But you will see familiar faces. Your apartment is yours for the next three months. That’s how long your probation period is. After three months, you must assume the mortgage payments.”
The image zoomed out before she could catch any more details.
“The city is divided into territories between kinsmen families,” the officer continued. “A lot of kinsmen keep private security forces, and a lot of these private soldiers have combat implants. The dominant kinsmen families have vast commercial interests and they often clash, sometimes violently, in an attempt to expand their influence. Duels and assassination attempts are not uncommon. If you see something like that in progress, try to step to the side, out of their way.”
“Your people kill each other in the streets?” Unthinkable. How could this be allowed?
“Sometimes. Most kinsmen are so enhanced, the fights rarely last for longer than thirty seconds. Don’t worry. They almost never injure bystanders. It would be very rude.”
“Rude?” This whole planet was insane.
“Of course. With all of the targeting implants and inborn abilities, they are so fast, you would have to actively work to get in their way. Our crime rate is low compared to equivalent cities from other planets, and aside from kinsmen settling their affairs, New Delphi’s security force has very little tolerance for foolishness. Assaults are rare, crimes like theft and burglary are more frequent. When a criminal commits an illegal act in a New Delphi, chances are he’s committing it in a territory of some kinsmen family, who will deal with the matter accordingly. Which isn’t to say you should go alone into dangerous areas of the city at night or leave your door unlocked.”
The officer looked at the screen in front of him. “Your first priority is finding a job. You will receive job recommendations from this office. You must follow these recommendations. Failure to comply will result in deportation to Uley.”
“So they aren’t really recommendations, are they?” Claire asked.
“No. They are not. If you fail to obtain a job after five recommendations, you will be downgraded to Class B and recommendations will no longer be provided to you. If you fail to obtain employment within your three month probation period, you will be deported. If you engage in any criminal activity during your probation period, you will be…”
“…Deported?” Deportation would mean death. Melko Corporation would kill her if she returned. They made it abundantly clear before she boarded the spacecraft.
“We understand each other.” The officer nodded again. “Your first job interview is in one hour. When you walk out of this building, you will see a row of aerials. Your aerial is number 57/78. The course is already programmed into it. It will take you to your job interview and then to your apartment. Should you obtain employment, the aerial will return for you in the morning. If you like it, you may choose to assume payments for it at the end of your probation. Here are the particulars.” The Immigration Officer slid a data card across the table.
Claire slid it into the tablet she had been issued. The tablet’s screen blinked and pale words emerged from the background: Guardian, Inc: Extrasensory Security Protocols and Biocybernetic Safety.
Her hands went cold. “I’m not a psycher,” she managed.
“We know. You show no psychic activity at all.” The Immigration officer nodded for emphasis. “The Elkana Kinsmen Family has all the psychers they could want. What they need is support staff with quiet brains, so they can work without interference. They have an Admin Specialist opening and you will apply for it.” He peered at her. “Unless there is a problem?”
Passing PPP was one thing. PPP was simply a painful pulse generated by a computer. Walking into the building filled with psychers, whose job it was to find and eradicate psychically active intruders… Declining the recommendation would instantly arouse suspicion. “No problem,” Claire said.
“Yes.” Unless one counted certain death as a problem. “I just didn’t want to fail before I started.”
“Don’t worry,” the officer said. “You will make an excellent drone.”