The Corporate Worlds –Founder’s Point-
Executive Wessle kept his features neutral. He purposefully slowed his breathing and ensured every word he spoke was refined and without accent. An accent might upset one of the board members. Though he knew precious little about them, he did know that they hailed from the numerous and diverse Corporate Worlds, where ethnic, economic and religious rivalries existed in abundance. Wessle understood what it was to be jingoistic; he couldn’t help but cringe at a Tokyama twang or a New Coventry slur when he heard one.
Calmly he stood by the view monitor as it projected image after image of the latest acquisition he wished the board to fund. The board members sat back in huge, throne-like seats, clustered around a long table of polished wood. The room was more a dungeon than an executive office, with ceiling-mounted lights that tracked Wessle. He knew it was meant to help obscure the exceedingly private board members, but also to make him uncomfortable. The board never wanted its employees to relax—not for an instant.
“The world is, in a word: pristine,” Wessle said to his shadowed masters, “Its like has not been discovered for well over fifty years and-”
“How far away is it? It isn’t in the Upper Arm, I hope?” one of the members interrupted.
“Yes!” another echoed. “Tourists won’t risk going to the Upper Arm. Better the trees be brought down and the animals sold for meat. Perhaps we can sell it to one of the mineral companies?”
A few of the members gruffly consented with grunts. This would not do. Wessle wasn’t pitching another resource world to pillage. There were hundreds of far more accessible planets for that purpose. No, Paradisa wasn’t to be looted in so crude a manner.
“It is near, but not in the Upper Arm,” Wessle said smoothly. “The planet is within the Corporate Worlds and not claimed by any Corporation. It is virtually for the taking in a legal sense.” He walked across the room, passing the view screen and controlling the urge to wince as the ceiling lights followed his progress. “Gentlemen, Paradisa will offer tourists scenic landscapes, a wonderful near-tropical climate, suitable gravity and a relatively small landmass to ensure ease of planet-side transport. But more importantly, it offers this.” His tone of voice was keyed in to the presentation, and the monitor switched to display some of the world’s more gargantuan animal life.
When the board members ‘oohed,’ Executive Wessle used all his powers of self-control to hide the smile he wanted to share. “Game like this has not been hunted in a long time. And I propose we bill this resort as a place where those with the right kind of money can have the one-time thrill of causing the extinction of a species.”
“My God, it would be like clubbing the last baby seal!” one board member said.
A few in the chamber laughed lightly.
“No, better! More like having the honor of harpooning the last whale,” another of the shadow-drenched board added.
“Look at the size of those things! You’ve done well, Executive Wessle. A unique find. I take it you want the job of overseeing acquisition and building?”
Wessle felt the smile revealing itself. He had them!
“Wait,” a voice in the dark growled.
The sensation fled, and ice ran down Wessle’s spine instead. He couldn’t tell which board member was offering a possible objection, and his attempt to locate the voice was met by an increasing glare from the overhead lights.
“Executive Wessle, you said earlier the planet was ‘virtually’ for the taking in a legal sense,” the gruff voice said. “Explain yourself.”
It was hardly a matter with which to bother the board, but he had been asked, so Wessle nodded slowly and turned away from the eye-piercing light. “No corporation currently holds legal standing over Paradisa. However, before the government on Earth declared Paradisa officially a part of the Free Trade Charter, a small community settled on the world. They have squatters’ rights at best, and a quick trip to the Court of Earth will see them off.”
The board members leaned over their shared table and whispered to one another. Wessle waited, maintaining his nonchalant façade while his heart raced as if he were running a marathon. His extremities still managed to feel icy, to the point where he had to force himself not to shiver.
“Executive Wessle!” one of the privileged members of the Galactic Hotels, Spas and Resorts boomed. “The board is pleased. We think Paradisa could indeed be the next and greatest attraction for years to come. You have our permission to make all the necessary maneuvers to legally claim the world. The board will not tolerate any,” the shadowy member paused for emphasis, “issues at a later date. The legality of this must be assured, or you will find this acquisition your last. Though should you, of your own accord, have to use extreme measures, do so.”
“But such measures would never be acknowledged,” one member warned.
Another of the members chimed in, “You understand, Executive Wessle? The press is a concern.”
Wessle let his smile flow. He gave a curt nod to the board members. “Absolutely.” A shuttle to Earth, a quick hearing, and a judge would find in favor of a star-spanning corporation over a handful of lunatics. There would be no time for the press to interfere and no need for anything unsavory. Everything was going according to plan.
The Upper Arm –Space-
The Traveling Tyrant liked to dine alone. While Mordid enjoyed company around a table, it had been many years since he could trust anyone, his crew and clients especially, not to poison him. It was the price of command. He sighed and ran a sensor attached to his thumb over his piping-hot soup. A little ‘buzz’ assured him the food was safe for consumption, or at least that any poison it did contain was an as-of-yet-undetectable variety, at which point all Mordid could say would be, ‘well done’ to such a clever assassin.
He took his first taste, and upon not choking to death, spooned in several other portions of soup. It was delicious, and if he had any idea who the cook was, he’d thank him. Alas, PR took care of his dining habits, and Eryn knew her business, which was him.
The table at which he sat was circular and slate gray, blending quite well with his self-designed iron-hued uniform. His peaked hat hung on the corner of his chair, and a pack of Earth-made cigarettes rested next to a cup of also-not-poisoned wine and a loaded pistol. Mordid was flanked on either side by massive windows revealing the black expanse of space with its endless twinkling stars, the streaks of colorful nebulae, and a distant sun offering a pale, pulsing white light to mingle with the room’s artificial illumination. A few monitors hung from the vaulted ceiling, displaying newsfeeds from nearby systems as well as covert views of the goings-on of his fleet. On more than one occasion, he had unraveled a plot simply by noting senior staff congregating in a broom closet on deck C.
The heavy security door at the far side of the dining chamber opened with a groan, and out of instinct, Mordid casually placed a hand atop the pistol while trading his spoon of soup for the glass of wine.
A gaunt figure, whose thin frame was obscured by a long leather coat the same color as Mordid’s uniform, shuffled into the room. The light of the dining chamber bounced off his balding head, and his eyes narrowed as if even dim light were enough to pain him.
“Diplomat Mauss,” Mordid greeted, still keeping his hand atop the pistol. Mauss was perhaps the only reasonably trustworthy soul in his employ, and it still didn’t hurt to display a healthy dose of paranoia. Mordid sipped his wine, rolling its rich flavor in his mouth before swallowing. “You always reek of desperation.”
The man took his time hobbling on ancient legs to his employer’s side. He reached into his coat and threw down a stack of files. Other men might have gone to the effort of making holographic images of potential clients with professional-sounding voice-overs, perhaps read by a woman with an upper-class British accent. Not Mauss. File folders, grainy photos, and his scrawling handwritten notes had to suffice.
Mordid traded his pistol and wine for the day’s prospects. He flipped open the first folder, and the picture of the woman inside elicited a smile. She was gorgeous.
“No, she’s not your type,” Mauss croaked, apparently sensing his master’s thoughts.
Mordid furrowed his brow and shot a glare Mauss’s way. “Why show me the folder then?”
“Because,” Mauss replied in a slow and measured manner, “to do otherwise would be to hide things from you. That woman would surely renege on any deal. Keep looking.”
Mordid snorted and clamped his jaw shut. He opened folder after folder and rolled his eyes as Mauss evaluated their suitability. ‘No’ was changed out for the occasional ‘Maybe.’ To Mordid, none of the prospective clients was entirely appealing, other than the first on the account of her natural, if not financial, assets.
“Ah,” Mauss said as Mordid plucked up another manila file.
“An executive to a powerful company,” Mauss said.
Mordid read the file and grunted. He tilted his head at his Chief Diplomat and Financial Advisor and waved the folder dismissively. “Galactic Hotels?”
“The executive has access to their vast resources,” Mauss replied. “And if our intelligence is correct, that access is linked to a single acquisition. We’d have to help him with one planet. Not a system, not a war, nothing complex. Easy.” Mauss leaned over and plucked the folder from Mordid’s fingers, flipping to another part of the file. “Look,” he gestured with one skeletal hand and set the folder back on the table.
Mordid did as instructed, and his wavering interest began to refocus. He read and muttered, “He lost a court case against some religious fanatics.” Mordid grinned. “He can’t take the world for his company until they are gone.”
“And if they do not go quickly, then the executive will probably lose more than just a bit of green, lush real-estate,” Mauss whispered.
“Wessle,” Mordid read the name on the folder. “This man sounds-”
“Desperate,” Mauss said, baring a rictus smile.
“That is ‘my type,’” Mordid confessed.
“I thought you might find this individual more attractive than the others. He lacks breasts, and this is sad.” Mauss retrieved the discarded folders and tucked them into his coat. “Even so, Wessle has clumsily asked for mercenaries to meet him on Earth. Shall I attend?”
Mordid leaned back in his seat and fumbled for his pack of cigarettes to congratulate himself. He pulled out a single white stick. Mauss’s claws snapped out, offering a tiny flame-brand, which normally served as a tool for prodding unruly or slow employees, but doubled nicely as a lighter.
Mordid took in the scent of tobacco, felt the burn in his lungs as he inhaled and relished the unpleasant tickle as he exhaled a plume of white smoke through his nose. He turned his eyes on Mauss. “You handle things on the contract end; I’ll see what is so delightful about this ‘Paradisa.’” Mordid puffed on the cigarette and peered at the handwritten notes about his potential contract.
Earth –New Delhi-
Wessle pulled a cigarette from the pack and fumbled for his lighter. It took several rolls of his thumb to get the spark to light the end of the stick. He drew in a deep breath and coughed. He rarely smoked, except when he was on Earth, where tobacco was exclusively grown, and only in times of great joy or stress. Today was one of the latter occasions.
He stared out the window of his rented office over the sprawling cityscape of New Delhi. Monstrous skyscrapers thrust like spears into the cloudless blue sky. The buildings’ reflective windows glittered magnificently, and white suspended rail-lines wrapped around the towers in a roller-coaster fashion; long, silvery passenger cars shuttled about at lightning speeds. Holographic images, muted by the sun’s rays, formed betwixt the mammoth structures, advertising Earth’s purchasable delights to the city’s inhabitants and countless visitors. Dwarfing the various skyscrapers was a trio of gleaming white circular towers, capped by broad copper-plated minarets. It was Earth’s Court, and from the trio of Deco-Indian towers, judgments in all affairs in Earth and Corporate Space were pronounced. It was supposed to be a place where the mighty ruled and the meek were crushed beneath the gavel of progress. Instead of smoking for victory, Wessle had to contemplate throwing a rolling chair at the window and taking a leap.
He didn’t ponder that option too terribly long. He loved himself far too much to take a high-rise dive. Besides, he had a way to salvage the situation.
A soft chime alerted Wessle, and he gave a verbal command to open up a channel between himself and his secretary. He took another drag on the cigarette. “They all here?” he asked in a brusque manner. He had been given the go-ahead by the Board of Directors to spend their money, wisely, and take extra-legal efforts to acquire Paradisa, with the caveat that if there were any failure, he’d be entirely to blame. If it came to that, he strongly doubted he would live long enough to shoulder Galactic Hotels’ legal burdens.
A soft, feminine voice answered from speakers hidden in the wall. “Four have answered your summons. Shall I send them in one at a time or all together?”
Four? He had never contracted mercenaries before and had to rely on the company’s elusive suggestions. Was four a healthy amount to show up? He imagined it would be enough for his cost-saving purposes.
“Together,” Wessle said, followed by, “Off.” The channel was broken, and he had his privacy once more.
Wessle sat in the chair that, just a moment ago, he had considered using to precipitate his suicide. He flipped open an ashtray on the desk and disposed of his cigarette. He swept back his hair and rubbed his cheeks, cursing as he felt a bit of stubble. Since losing his case, he had not been up to his usual standards of impeccable hygiene. He hadn’t slept either, and his diet had consisted of rare Earth-made alcohol, snacks, and more alcohol.
The office was small, since he had only planned to rent it for a few weeks for the trial, but it had been a month since the ruling came down. He had provided no other chairs, because he wanted the mercenaries to stand, to feel as uncomfortable as possible and to understand that he was their employer, not their victim.
The lone door to the office opened, and four men shuffled in. They wore strange military attire: two looked like soldiers in ceremonial dress, one was little better than a barbarian-warrior with a jacket pulled over his broad frame, and the last was a bent-backed man in a long gray coat of leather. The four looked about with furtive glances and, seeing no chairs, separated from one another to stand in the room.
“Let’s get this out of the way first,” Wessle said as he eyed each man in turn. “Any contract between you and me is unofficial. The slightest slip in confidentiality, and I will make sure your outfit never works again in the Corporate Worlds. You’ll be stuck in the Upper Arm, and from what I hear, the prospects there are limited.”
The men stared at him in silence.
“Well then,” Wessle said and cleared his throat. He crossed his arms and eased back in his seat. “This is an interview process. Start talking.” He had used the tactic countless times before. Nothing pleased Wessle quite so much as watching prospective employees forced to do verbal battle with one another and win him over at the same time. He expected deep cuts in the infamously exorbitant amounts Upper Arm scum charged.
One of the two men in ceremonial attire, sporting a long, drooping mustache, spoke first. “I represent some of the most well-equipped mercenaries in the Upper Arm. Our list of achievements speaks for itself. If you’re a professional, and by your demeanor I know that you are,” he stroked his mustache, “then you’ll go with New Hesse. Besides, we’ll match any price.”
The largest of the men, who would look more at home in a prison than an executive’s office, snorted. “You want the job done right, you go with us. The Black Star gets it done right, fast and hard.” He crossed his muscle-bound arms. “These fools treat it like a game. We treat the business like it is. A war. You pay for what you get.”
He was very forceful in his delivery, Wessle had to admit as he found himself shrinking back into his seat. “Perhaps,” he said quietly. His eyes turned to the other figure in fine ceremonial garb.
The man looked regal, with a mane of golden hair and a uniform adorned with braids, medals and awards that made him look as if he’d stepped right out of Earth Fleet. By far, Wessle decided, he was the most professional looking of the bunch.
“Mr. Wessle,” the man said in a voice smooth as ice and cultured as fine wine compared to the savage who spoke before him, “I am from the UA Solutions. We are the best in the Upper Arm, and have aided countless clients there, in the Corporate Worlds and even staged an operation in Earth Space.” He looked over at the others. “None of these men can claim their outfit has committed so bold an act.” He returned his gaze to Wessle. “If UA can perform under the very nose of Earth, then we can handle your issue of a tiny world far too close to the Upper Arm for its own good.”
Impressive! Wessle held his smile in check as if he sat before the board members. The man from UA Solutions was a definite possibility. As an afterthought, he glanced at the remaining representative. The old man had his arms tucked into his coat and his head cast low. Was he mumbling to himself?
“And you?” Wessle asked curiously.
The balding man in gray peered up at him. “What? Oh, I’m sorry; I wasn’t paying attention. What was it you wanted?”
Wessle suppressed a laugh. “I was having everyone in the room explain to me why I should pick his ruthless, discreet band of mercenaries over the others.”
The man’s eyes glimmered. “Oh.” He pursed his lips. “I see. Yes, well …” He trailed off.
Wessle stared at the strange fellow a few moments, but getting nothing further than ‘yes, well,’ he turned his attention to the shining figure who spoke on behalf of UA Solutions. “I believe-”
A thunderous crack deafened Wessle. He winced at the ear-splitting whine it left in his ear. Three more sharp cracks resounded, and before his ever-widening eyes, the mercenaries dropped, each sporting a small red hole in his forehead.
The old man in gray looked over the competition lying on the floor. He casually lowered his pistol and discharged another round into the Black Star man who, despite the hole in his head, appeared to be trying to get up. The second shot put him down for good.
“What the hell are you doing?” Wessle screamed. He stood up, but when the old man’s eyes set upon him, he quickly sat back down and sank so low into his chair that the desk reached his chin. They were all dead! In his office! The ringing only gradually gave way to the voice of his alarmed secretary.
“Mr. Wessle? Mr. Wessle? Is there something wrong? Should I send for security?”
Wessle blinked. Yes, there was something wrong! Security was exactly what he needed.
“Tell her everything is fine, if you please.” The old man grinned, baring yellowed teeth. “Because it is.” He crossed his arms, but the pistol’s still-smoking muzzle was only a flick away from being pointed right at Wessle.
“I-” Wessle began, looking furtively to the door, hoping that the building’s security forces would burst through at any moment.
The old man said, “You don’t want to be a man found with mercenaries in your office, alive or dead. Especially not dead. It will raise questions.” He stared at Wessle. “And you don’t want questions.”
He was right. If he were found openly working with mercenaries a few weeks after losing a court case, it would bring about a level of suspicion that would prevent him from actually using them. If he were found with dead men, there was no telling what the voracious media of Earth would make of it, but he damn well knew what the board members would think.
“She’s probably nervous by now,” the old man said.
Wessle eased back up in his seat. “Dharma, it’s OK.”
The woman’s voice quaked. “Are you sure, Mr. Wessle? I heard a noise. I didn’t mean to override and interrupt, but-”
“I’m sure, Dharma. Please stay at your desk. Off.” The channel shut with an audible crackle. Wessle stared at the man who had just casually murdered his competitors. “I think maybe you should go.”
The man tucked his pistol back into his coat. “Hmmph. Go? Not just yet. You haven’t heard my offer.”
Wessle shook his head. He eyed the man’s coat. “No, no, that’s quite all right. I think I’ll find someone else.”
“No you won’t. I’ve done you a favor.” The man walked closer. “My name is Mauss, and I work for the Traveling Tyrant. I won’t talk about our past deeds. I think actions speak louder than words. We really want to work with you.” Mauss’s yellowed smiled returned. “Paradisa—a jungle world near the Upper Rim and currently the domain of a small band of religious settlers. You need them removed viciously, quickly and without any questions or direct evidence that you, and thus your employers, were behind it.” Mauss reached into his coat. “I think I’ve shown you what we are capable of.”
Swallowing deeply and glancing time and again at the corpses, Wessle said, “You’ve shown me you’re unhinged.”
Mauss’s brow furrowed into a mass of wrinkles. “You think? I just removed all competition from play. Do you think these gentlemen’s respective outfits will be foolish enough to ever want to do business with you?” He chuckled. “The next time you meet anyone from these fine organizations, you’ll be dodging bullets and beams.”
Wessle ran his hands through his hair and shook his head. “You’re extorting me.”
“No, I’m making the best offer.” Mauss pulled from his coat a manila folder. He tossed it atop Wessle’s desk. “Read that. For a very decent fee, the Traveling Tyrant will remove the settlers and make every indication that it was just the sort of random attack that everyone has come to expect from the Upper Arm.”
“You use paper folders?” Wessle peered at the file.
Wessle looked the contract over. Mercenaries, guns and dead bodies were things entirely out of his field of expertise. It was only out of desperation that he used his less-than-savory contacts to find representatives from the Upper Arm’s unofficial military forces. But contracts! Wessle knew business contracts, and he felt his nerves settle as his eyes ran over what was familiar to him. The language was written with as much skill and legal jargon as the best/worst bureaucrats from Earth could produce and as many underlying threats as he would expect from the vindictive functionaries of the Corporate Worlds. The only true difference was that the Traveling Tyrant enforced his bargain with lethality. Should Wessle in any way, accidental or not, fail to uphold payment for services rendered, he would pay for it in blood, as would his friends, family, associates and even household pets.
“Pets?” Wessle lifted a brow.
“If you have any, yes,” Mauss replied matter-of-factly.
The deal was, all things considered, fair. The Traveling Tyrant was not cheap, but Wessle expected no less from the Upper Arm, and it wasn’t his money anyway. But it was his life. He looked at the scrawl of contractual wording and took a deep breath. “You have a deal, Mauss.”
“You must sign in blood,” Mauss intoned.
Mauss grinned. “No. But if anyone asks you, say that you did. The Traveling Tyrant has a reputation to uphold and would not want to be seen as soft.” He looked at the corpses. “I shall take care of these. I recommend you and your staff vacate this office, and we will meet again. The Traveling Tyrant’s fleet will be stationed above Paradisa, awaiting your arrival. We’ll move when you are safely aboard our command ship.”
Wessle wanted the business done as swiftly as possible. “Why not take care of my problem sooner? I really don’t have to be there. In fact, I would rather-”
“No.” Mauss dipped his head respectfully, but his voice took on a distinctly sinister tone. “You must be there so that, should payment be an issue, we don’t have to dart about space in search of your skin. We’ll have it right then and there for removal.”
“Ah,” Wessle said and had a sudden urge for a cigarette.