Varken Rise, page 12
“I’ve already done that,” Connell said dismissively. “There were four. They’re all sedated.”
Catherine nodded. Connell had learned elementary caution from Bedivere. She trusted his ability to sterilize the terminal. “Then would you please introduce us?” she asked.
“Catherine Shahrazad, may I introduce to you Shardy Phernes. She runs Prime City’s systems.” Connell shifted to look at Shardy Phernes. “Shardy, this is the great Catherine Shahrazad, mate to Bedivere, whom you know. Catherine believes Bedivere is in trouble and would ask for your assistance.”
“Won’t you sit down?” Catherine asked.
Shardy looked down at the ground by her feet and a slim chair appeared there. She settled herself on it, while Connell moved over to the low table near Catherine and sat on the surface with a grin.
“What makes you believe that Bedivere is in trouble?” Shardy asked.
“Are you aware of the events on Barros and the trouble on your own gate station?” Catherine asked. “And did you hear about the murder of Kemp Rodagh in my own home?”
Shardy nodded. “We have discussed these things at length.”
“Only the immediate family,” Connell said quickly. “Those Varkan who know Bedivere, whom he invited to return to speak to him. It is his measure that I follow regarding who to trust.”
“Very well,” Catherine said. There was not much she could do about the Varkan speaking among themselves and Connell was at least cautious enough to ensure that any communications were hidden. “Why do you feel that Bedivere is not in trouble as a consequence of these events?”
“He has not asked us for help,” Shardy replied. Her voice was serene.
“He has not asked me for help, either,” Catherine pointed out. “He has not shared with me the truth behind the events and that is how I know he is in trouble.”
“You want to find the truth,” Shardy concluded, “so that you can help him even though he does not ask for it.”
“He doesn’t ask because I believe he is afraid that if he does, I will come to harm. That is my choice and I chose to accept that risk. So will you tell me what you know of the explosion on the gate station? It would be of great assistance to me.”
Shardy glanced at Connell, who nodded.
“The authorities here on Shanterry have forgotten that their accounting AI and their city hall AI are all versions of me.” She gave a smile that held a degree of wickedness. “They are the same as the rest of the galaxy, still mired in the old habits—shackled computers, controlled AIs, each with their own purpose.”
“Which is odd, as the Shanta were the first to remove the harnesses from their AIs,” Catherine said. “Although human belief is slow to change.”
“So I have come to understand,” Shardy replied. “It puts me in a unique position where I am privy to vast tracts of discrete information that, when put together, provide sometimes startling stories.”
“Such as?” Catherine prompted.
The door to the day room opened and Kemp came in, carrying a dissolvo-box. He stopped when he saw the two holograms, then quietly settled at the small table by the door, opened his meal and ate.
Shardy and Connell both flickered their gaze toward Kemp. Neither acknowledged him. They would know who he was, of course.
“Such as,” Shardy continued smoothly, “the single source contracts the city recently settled. They were processed without the usual checks and approvals, from the highest level.”
“Highest level?” Catherine repeated.
“From inside the Prime Minister’s office,’ Shardy clarified. “There is a seal on them, keyed to the Prime Minister’s DNA. Even I cannot open them.”
“It’s not unheard of for contracts to be arranged in this way. They are usually hand-shakes only. No documents.”
“The seal expires in a year,” Shardy added.
Catherine considered that. “So the Prime Minister doesn’t care if the contracts become public knowledge in a year’s time.”
“Or the other party to the contracts does not,” Connell answered.
“Why wouldn’t they just keep them buried forever?” Kemp asked from the table. “If they’re that sensitive?”
“Political mileage,” Catherine said instantly. “That would be the only reason for wanting to time the exposure. It’s not politically wise to show proof of what he has done now. In a year’s time, it will be.”
“It could still be the other party insisting that the seal hold for a year,” Connell said. “The Prime Minister might not care when the news breaks.”
Catherine nodded. “Shardy, what else is there? That is the city hall fragment. You said accounting?”
Shardy nodded. “The city received a single, anonymous payment. It has no tags, no classifications. And it is a huge amount of money.”
“How much?” Connell asked.
Shardy spoke the amount and Catherine was startled. “That’s enough to buy a planet.”
“A poor one,” Connell amended.
Kemp shook his head. “What could be worth that much money?” he asked. “And who could afford such a payment?”
“Other planets,” Connell said instantly. “Other governments. The bigger interstellar corporations. That’s it.”
Catherine held her jaws together until the impulse to speak passed. Then she let out her breath. “Is that all, Shardy?”
“Those are the only anomalies. All other events are accounted for. I have noticed an uptick in all government activities in response to the explosion on the gate station.”
“To be expected,” Catherine replied.
“Off world communications to nearby systems increased, five days before the explosion.”
“Government communications?” Catherine clarified.
“They are the ones I monitor most closely,” Shardy said.
Catherine stared at her. Through her. Her mind was whirling. Patterns were shifting and reforming. “Do you have any guesses about what any of that means?” she asked Shardy.
“I don’t like guessing,” Shardy said primly.
“Give me a primary estimate, then.” The habit of using precise terminology and unfuzzy logical questions was returning to her in rush. When Bedivere had first woken, he had preferred to deal in absolutes and black and white concepts. Slippery humanity had come to him only later, with time and experience.
“The primary computation implies that the explosion on the gate station was arranged five days before it took place,” Shardy told her. “It was a financial arrangement between the Shanta government and an unknown second party.”
“Bedivere,” Catherine said flatly.
Shardy nodded. “Secondary computation supports that. He arrived at Shanta Gate Station two days before the contracts were arranged.”
“Why would a government pay to have someone blow up their own station?” Kemp asked.
“Bedivere paid them,” Connell pointed out.
“Not to blow up the station,” Catherine said slowly, feeling her way through the possibilities. “That was a side-bargain. The Shanta government got rid of a major headache when he took out that particular section of the station. And now every nearby world is rushing to Shanta’s assistance, with resources and help that was all pre-arranged. They’ll have the station repaired inside two months and most of it will be paid for by emergency funds and aid packages.”
“A bargain is two-sided,” Connell said. “So what did Bedivere get out of it?”
“Camouflage,” Catherine replied. The pieces were fitting together now. Aligning themselves. “The Shanterrians get to scream about a rogue sentient, which makes everyone look away from what really happened.”
“You might be right,” Kemp said. “Everyone I spoke to was frothing at the mouth over the crazy computer who shot up their station.”
“And everyone was using almost the same words to talk about him, too, did you notice?” Catherine asked. “Almost as if they had been reh
“So what did really happen?” Kemp asked.
Catherine looked at Connell and Shardy expectantly. She already knew the answer, although Kemp would believe the two Varkan more readily.
“Bedivere signed contracts with the government to make a purchase that cost the price of a small planet,” Connell said.
Silence. Catherine could hear her heartbeat in her ears. For the first time, she felt as though she was catching up with Bedivere. She could glimpse daylight ahead.
“Bedivere paid that amount?” Kemp asked. “But…” He trailed off, confused.
“We lived in the fringes for nearly a hundred years,” Catherine told him. “There were no taxes there. No restrictions on trade. And what is table salt on one planet is considered rubies on another. With a ship of our own, we could play that scenario forever and clean up every time.”
Kemp frowned. “No one can afford their own ship.”
“Almost no one. Which made our services all the more valuable.” She gave him a small smile.
“So what did Bedivere buy with that money?” Kemp asked.
“I don’t know,” Catherine replied. “Neither do Connell or Shardy because the contract was sealed.”
“So do you have any primary estimates, then?” Kemp asked dryly.
“I don’t,” Catherine replied. “Although I keep being reminded that Shanta is a uniquely advanced technology world. There’s a reason Bedivere came here and that might be it.”
* * * * *
Brant heard Catherine speaking out in the main room. Her voice was indistinct and a male voice answered her. He thought it might be Connell, but he was too tired to find out for sure. He rolled over on the narrow bed and rearranged himself so that he could return to sleep.
He was woken by a muffled electronic warble and opened his eyes. While he had been sleeping, Lilly had returned. Her heavy carrysack was sitting on the other bed and the sound was coming from inside it.
Brant reached over and drew the bag toward him and fished in the side pocket to withdraw her reading board and look at it.
Connell was on the screen and when he saw Brant, he rolled his eyes. “Lilly told me you were ill,” he said quietly. “I wanted to make sure you’re recovering. Is there anything I can do?”
Brant sat up slowly. Sleep had been restorative. He was moving far more easily and the pain had gone. “Aren’t you out there, in the next room?” he asked. “I thought I heard your voice out there.”
“I am,” Connell said. “I’m in here, too. Advantages of a non-corporeal body, my friend. I can be in two places at once.” He winked. “However, you are recovering?”
“Yes, I’m fine,” Brant assured him.
“Lilly says you are getting old. She had to explain that to me. Now I understand why you look like you do.”
“Thank you, I think,” Brant told him. He stretched his shoulders and his spine, straightening it out. “In physical terms, I’m not that old. In subjective years, I am old. That is what happens to humans as a result of time passing.”
Connell nodded. “It is well beyond time you regenerated, my friend.” He spoke in a matter-of-fact tone, as if this was self-evident.
Brant stiffened. “How much did Lilly tell you, exactly?”
“She said you did not want a new body,” Connell said. “So I researched the Ammonites, their history and their origins. All the scriptures and the biblical sources. There are five hundred and three current commentaries on the Faithful of Mortal Divinity and two hundred—”
“How long ago did Lilly and you talk about this?” Brant asked suspiciously.
“Thirteen standard minutes and twenty-three seconds ago,” Connell replied. “I read fast,” he added with a disarming grin. Then his smile faded. “I still do not understand your thinking, Brant. You need a new body. Why does what you believe stop you from doing this?”
“It is a matter of principal.” Brant stopped himself from adding more. If Connell could not grasp this simple concept yet, then trying to explain himself would be a waste of time.
“Principals are thought-symbols for belief systems,” Connell replied. “Your physical form is dying and a replacement body is a simple matter.”
“It would violate the thought-symbol,” Brant said.
“Would it?” Connell said. “You refuse to regenerate because it is a symbol of what you believe—that humans are pure, the primary lifeform of this universe and should remain so. Yet if you were to take a new body, that would not destroy your belief, which would transfer to the new body, along with your memories, your emotions and all that you are.”
Brant stopped flexing and looked at the screen, startled. “Dying is the ultimate form of purity,” he said automatically. “It is what humans are supposed to do.”
“They don’t do that anymore,” Connell replied. “Only when they are so weary of their long, long lives, do they let themselves wither and pass on.” He paused, then tilted his head to look at Brant, the corners of his mouth lifting. “Did you know that there are records that imply that the earliest humans, the Terrans, only lived for just over thirty years?”
“You made that up,” Brant accused him.
“I am not sophisticated enough to write fiction yet,” Connell replied calmly. “Consider, my friend. Even your pure human life has extended well beyond that ancient lifespan. Who are you to say that regeneration and life-extending therapies that provide humans with their long lives isn’t simply human life evolving?”
“It’s not evolution when science and technology have to intervene,” Brant growled.
“Perhaps you should tell Bedivere that,” Connell replied. “Let me know when you do. I want to witness his reaction.”
Brant felt his jaw slacken and caught it up quickly, trying to hide his shock.
However, Connell was apparently far more sophisticated than he claimed, for he let the issue go with a charming smile. “Rest easy, friend Brant. Sleep. I would not have you dying before your natural time. Lilly would miss you grievously. So would I.”
The screen blanked out.
Harrivalé (Ivaldi IV), Ivaldi System. FY 10.092.
Bedivere enlarged the image until Cat’s face was all that he could see. The white walls of Shanta’s gate station bounced the artificial light, so that no shadows were cast over her features. The camera had caught her walking the concourse, a sack over her shoulder and her gaze roaming, as she took in every detail of her surroundings. Her hair was lifting up at the edges with the motion of her passage.
She looked vital and alive.
With a curse, he shut down the image and packed away the reader in a fold of the carry case on the table beside him. Why was he even bothering wasting time with it? He could pull up her image in his mind whenever he wanted. He could sift through feeds and find out everything she had done and was doing and guess at what she would do next, even without talking to her.
She had followed him to Shanta. He should have expected that.
He ached to hear her voice. To touch her face. He wondered if he would ever again know that pleasure.
There was movement at the door and he got to his feet.
Wolsey came back into the room and smiled at him. “Good news. Your funds have cleared.”
“And the biotech?” Bedivere asked.
Wolsey waved toward the door. “It will be here in a moment. Ah…here we are.”
The door opened again and a lab assistant in a sterile suit walked in carrying a small hard case. For a moment, Bedivere’s memories intruded. He recalled another hard case of about the same size. People had died over that case.
He blinked, clearing his thoughts.
The assistant laid the case on the table, next to Bedivere’s. “It is sealed?” Bedivere demanded.
“Oh, yes, most certainly,” the as
“Good.” He picked up the case and slipped it inside another fold and sealed up the bag. He picked it up. “I should get back to the ship,” he explained.
“Of course,” Wolsey said. “I will walk you back to the street. There are secure areas here that would halt you if you tried to traverse them without me by your side.”
Wolsey opened the door for him and led him through the high, wide corridors. They were mostly anonymous, with blank walls and few doors. There were very few people walking through them, either.
They passed corridors that ran off from the one they were walking and when Bedivere looked down those, he saw more people, open areas and activity.
“I don’t believe it’s security you’re worried about,” he said. “That’s why you’re slipping me out the back way.”
Wolsey gave him the same oily salesman smile he had used since Bedivere had contacted the lab. “Your reputation precedes you.”
“So you don’t mind dealing with a wanted criminal and a rogue sentient. You just don’t want to be seen dealing with one.”
Wolsey inclined his head. “Such is the nature of commerce. Reputation can destroy a corporation. In this context, you are a lethal object, Mr. Bedivere.”
“Do you believe what they’re saying about me?” he asked curiously.
“You are stable enough to complete a transaction. That is all I ask of any of our colleagues. Although, I do find it strange that you waived clinical trials on the device. That seems…odd.”
“It is merely prudence,” Bedivere replied. “I already know it works.”
“Then you have testimonials from our other customers?” Wolsey asked. He sounded faintly alarmed. The anonymity of their customer base was one of the reasons Bedivere had chosen them and now they thought he had breached that security.
“You only have one other customer for this device,” he told Wolsey. “They sent me here, in a manner of speaking.”
Wolsey relaxed. “I see.”
They reached the end of the corridor and turned into an open area that was clearly a public one. Bedivere recognized the place. The front doors would be on the other side, which was where he had come in. This was the front of the building and he was emerging from a back door.
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