Hardshellz by Morris Kenyon

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Hardshellz by Morris Kenyon 1Hardshellz by Morris Kenyon CHAPTER 1: I LAND ON BATAVIA VII. You know what makes something valuable? Scarcity – or the danger of getting it. But as there's always enough fools willing to lay their lives on the line, rarity matters far more than danger. Take an example – alright, why not take a drink as well as an example? Might as well while we wait for the Star-Liner to fly me away to Nova Veaga where the fun'll really start. Where was I? Okay, an example. Take this drink. It's a rare whisky called Laphroaig. A peated single malt whisky from the Scottish island of Islay. That's back on old Earth itself. They say it's the most richly flavoured whisky in the galaxy. Even now, it's only made in time honoured traditional ways on that one island in the whole universe. Hand crafted by artisans or something. Even on Earth it costs a lot but on this planet hundreds of light years away, the expense is astronomical. Go on, bartender, twist my arm, I'll have another. It's not every day I get to celebrate earning a big bonus. Where was I? I've probably had too much but I've earned it. Oh yes, rarity. Well, real Laphroaig is expensive because it's still rare. It's not mass-produced and here we are billions and billions of kilometres away still savouring it. Now some things were once expensive but are now much cheaper. Motor cars after Henry Ford sorted out mass production hundreds and hundreds of years ago. Remember him? Or diamond. That was once the most expensive mineral on Earth but after people sent robots to mine 55 Cancri e – you've heard of it, a super-massive world orbiting a pulsar or something only 41 light years from Earth itself – then the cost dropped like a stone. Even I've got a knife with a blade made of solid diamond. It's saved my life more than once, I 4Hardshellz by Morris Kenyon can tell you. Holds its edge well. Sorry, I can't show you as all weapons had to be checked in on arrival. But take my word for it, it's beautiful. Now, before 55 Cancri e was opened up, wars would have been fought over such a weapon. Now it's in the hands of an interplanetary recovery agent. That's me – Vic Vargo. Recoveries, rescues, rampages and all odd jobs nobody else would touch is my speciality. Go on. Pour me another, bartender. I'm a survivor, a winner, simple as that and while I wait I'm getting wasted. That's still allowed, isn't it? The Nu-Puritans aren't here, are they? Big money and I'm alive to spend it. For now. What do they say? Eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow we die? Well, I don't intend karking it any time soon. Not while I've got a tonne of money to burn through. Yes, pour me another – and make it large, why don't you. And why don't you say something? Yes, I was drunk. But after what I'd survived, I'd earned the right to enjoy a blow-out in the departures lounge of Batavia VII's starport before heading out for a well-earned break on the hedonistic world of Nova Veaga. A bit of R and R never hurt anybody. I looked up from the highly polished bar and into the highly polished face of the bartender. It was a servo-bot specially designed to wait on bars. It hovered there on its anti-gravity unit while two of its spider arms polished glasses until they sparkled, two more served other customers and another set my Laphroaig onto a coaster. Behind it, further appendages rearranged bottles with exactitude. It could hold several conversations at once but seemed to have adopted a watchful silence with me. Probably it was wondering if it should call a security-bot. Then, in its reflective surface, I saw the face of the man I had been working for over the last few months. Not a face I particularly wanted to see ever again, even if I live to see my half- millennium. For a start, his face looked like something from the Stone Age. Sava, as I was privileged to call him, had a heavy-jawed, slab-like face. Beneath close cropped hair, his deep-set brown eyes glared at the world as if peering out from a cave. His nose had been broken at some 5Hardshellz by Morris Kenyon point and badly reset. As always, his neural implant was broadcasting nothing so it was like he was from a primitive era or something. The guy was a true Russian from old Earth itself. From the Galactoweb, I knew he came from the city of Arkhangelsk in the far frozen north of that country. You'd have to be tough to survive that, even if you were the son of the Governor. Sava had worked hard, risen to very near the top but then he'd fallen out with the current Tsar's advisers at some point in his murky past and spent time in a labour camp. But anyone thinking he was some brutal bruiser would be mistaken as Saveliy Yemelyanovich Fedoseyev was now the sole controller of SYF Inc., an interplanetary military- industrial business conglomerate. However, he had been out for years now and back in the Tsar's good books. His powerful, caveman's body was clad in an expensive subfusc business suit of impeccable cut that made him appear that he had a nodding acquaintance with civilisation. It was dove grey and flecked with discreet flecks of silver thread. A perfectly knotted cravat with a ruby stick-pin glinting in it encircled his neck. It was hard to imagine those calloused hands tying that knot. I guessed he employed a valet to dress him. Despite the amount of alcohol he'd already taken on board, Sava, seemed stone-cold sober. What is it with Russians and alcohol? Do they drink vodka with their mother's milk? Don't answer that. "One last drink – to celebrate our mutual success, yes," Sava said. Even through my neural- translator, his voice was heavily accented. Now I'd got my bonus, I'd have to upgrade to one of the later models. The bar-bot set up fresh glasses and I watched as he expertly poured two fingers of golden Laphroaig into the crystal glasses. 6Hardshellz by Morris Kenyon Sava lifted his. "To success – and a safe journey home," he toasted. We clinked glasses in that age-old ritual and then Sava drained his in one swallow. I had more respect for the spirit and sipped mine. To success. That was a good toast and Sava had been successful once again. Very successful. A winner not a loser. Mind you, despite everything, I came out ahead, so who am I to complain? Some months earlier, I had first met Saveliy Yemelyanovich Fedoseyev. My job is erratic. Although I describe myself as an interplanetary recovery agent, I'm also open to other offers. The boss of the agency I'm contracted to asked me to book immediate passage to Batavia VII. If you've never been, that's a paradise world of endless islets, atolls and reefs sprinkled like sparkling sugar crystals over azure oceans. I was fortunate as it wasn't many parsecs away from where I was and a stellar-liner was on its way there. So I booked passage and after only two monkey-saddle hyper- jumps, a week later we were in Batavia VII's system. Monkey-saddle? It describes how the star-ship's drive warps the contours of space to fling the craft through illimitable billions of kilometres of vacuum. Like, in reality, how a monkey's saddle would need a raised part to accommodate the animal's tail. The star-craft 'slides' down that part before gaining sufficient momentum to 'leap' through space. That's the explanation the crew give us lubbers, anyway. In reality, it involves complex mathematics, astro-physics and 5D navigation. Also, – can you imagine the difficulties in riding a monkey with a saddle on its back? As always, we emerged from hyper-jump in the outer reaches of the system, far away from any world. As you know, it's for our safety as it would be a disaster if we came out within a planet or moon – instant death for us. Equally, it's bad for a world if a starship comes out of monkey-saddle hyper-jump too close. Something to do with hyper-jump waves disrupting the molecular structure of 7Hardshellz by Morris Kenyon any solid object. As a minimum, it causes earthquakes, tsunamis, typhoons and massive electrical storms. In the beginning, before hyper-jumps were fully understood, there was a series of terrible disasters. Krakatoa was a storm in a teacup by comparison. However, coming out in the vacuum of deep space means that these disruptive waves are nullified. So we had a sub-light speed tour of Batavia's system to enjoy before we reached beautiful Batavia VII. The sun, Batavia, is a F-type yellow-white main sequence star which is somewhat larger and hotter than Earth's sun. It has an extensive solar system, but nothing out of the ordinary. There's a string of hot, barren rocky worlds between the sun and Batavia VII itself. That's why it's numbered seven. These are sparsely populated by hermits, miners, prison colonies and adventurous explorers. Beyond Batavia VII there are two large gas giants both with numerous moons. As we passed by the larger – a pinkish, greenish sphere – one of its moons sailed across the surface looking like a black disc. An impressive sight which we watched from our viewscreens for several minutes before going onto other things. Now we were reconnected, on the ship's Galactoweb, I studied details of the main world, Batavia VII itself. Most planets out in Orion's Arm are pretty grim – not so long ago, I'd rescued some tycoon's son called Âgustin from a gloomy, rain-lashed, tide-locked world called Hancox 1. It wasn't any place I'd be hurrying back to. Especially as it was infested with Krillaz – a genetically modified terror weapon splicing together the worst of many species to come up with a horror worse than your worst nightmare. They're hi-man-sized rats – to which has been added the viciousness of a weasel, the fearlessness of a wolverine, gorilla-like arms and the iron jaws of a hyena. And they come in massed swarms. Together with a group of managers on a team-bonding exercise, I'd rescued the foolish Âgustin and collected my reward. Despite our advanced weaponry, all the managers had fallen to the Krillaz 8Hardshellz by Morris Kenyon talons and jaws which shows how tough these monsters are. I shuddered at the memory. However, Batavia VII is nothing like that hell-hole. Like I said, it's one of those so-called paradise worlds. It has small polar ice-caps, leaving the rest of the world covered in warm, briny oceans, apart from scattered island archipelagos. The temperature over most of the world varies between twenty and thirty Celsius with zephyr-like breezes. There's so many beaches ranging from developed to unspoiled with plenty of fishing. The most popular game fish is the fast moving spike- harpon – a dangerous predator. But I wasn't here for sea-fishing. I had other fish to fry, as the saying goes. I was here for work and I didn't think I'd get much time to check out the delights of Batavia VII. I took my meals in my cabin and later that day, we were in orbit around Batavia VII. Looking through the viewscreens in the main assembly area, I was strangely affected. The oceans varied from deep blue, through shades of deep azures to turquoise green in shallow areas. The scattered islands glinted white in the sun and, logging onto the Galactoweb I watched clips of the beautiful people, both locals and tourists, enjoying themselves. The shuttle craft docked and we all trooped on board. It was only a short flight down to the spaceport. As the shuttle pulled away from the interplanetary spacecraft, a little boy asked his mother why the "big ship" couldn't land. If he'd taken the trouble to look out the porthole, it would have been blindingly obvious why. The spacecraft had been made from a rocky asteroid. Yes, an asteroid. Handles like a brick and can't operate in any kind of atmosphere but in its natural environment of deep space, that doesn't matter. A vast, rocky moonlet at least a kilometre long had been hollowed out and fitted with engines, a power plant and life support systems, cargo bays, passenger and crew living accommodation, a command bridge, a shielded computer room, thousands of kilometres of electronics. Everything a modern spacecraft needs. Portholes pierced its side making little pin 9Hardshellz by Morris Kenyon points of light illuminating an array of spikes radiating out from its craggy, lumpy surface. Some were sensors, radar and the like, others radio and x-ray transponders and receivers and still others were weaponry. Although a cargo/merchant craft and in no way a military vessel, it still needed to be able to defend itself against pirates who sometimes preyed on vulnerable ships coming out of hyper-jump. That said, the region around Batavia VII was a well-patrolled, safe area. It's more the frontiers of space or near worlds where law and order has broken down that you have to be careful. And there's a surprising number of them. Keeps me busy, I suppose. My mind occupied with watching the vast asteroid-craft recede behind us, we entered Batavia VII's atmosphere. The shuttle slowed, switched on its anti-gravity repellers and we coasted down through a beautifully lit, brilliant blue sky to the space-port. The port itself had been built on an artificial island as nowhere on this world was large enough to handle streamlined starships that were capable of negotiating atmospheric conditions and landing here. The shuttle touched down, we disembarked and went through customs and disinfection. They don't want any off-world bugs getting a toe-hold here and disrupting the natural ecosystem. Then I was free and clear. I stood there in the nu-coral arrivals hall. Everyone's neural implants was broadcasting like crazy so I filtered them out of my vision and took no notice like I ignored all the cleaning-bots, porter-bots and suchlike. Then I saw the driver who had come to pick me up. Lavrentiy Semyonovich Norin his name was and he looked less like a chauffeur or cabbie than anyone I'd ever seen. I saw that he was only broadcasting the very basics about himself – nothing about his past – so that strengthened my belief that the man was some sort of military Special Forces. Not Star Marines, not Praetorian Guard, not Special Air-Space Services, not Trident Force. Nothing wimpy or effeminate like those ultra-tough, elite formations. No, he looked like he could eat them for 10Hardshellz by Morris Kenyon breakfast and then ask for seconds. Had to be Russian with a name like that – and from his pallid skin that the sun would never be kind to, I guessed he was a genuine, one hundred per cent Russian from old Mother Russia on Earth itself. Unless he came from one of their Gulag Colonies. Lavrentiy Semyonovich Norin looked my way and I instantly blanked my thoughts. If he was originally from Russian Special Forces then he was probably equipped to detect thoughts that weren't even being broadcast. Fixing a smile on my face, I made my way through the tourists looking around themselves. "Hi – I'm Vic Vargo," I said extending my hand and giving my friendliest grin. Norin looked at me with utter contempt. Now, I've been in some tough spots – and not just that hell-hole of Hancox 1 – and fought my way out. Remember to ask me about DarkWorld one day. Or don't. That was weird. I've killed many times and almost been killed more times than I like to remember. I've been scared and terrified as well. I think – unsurprisingly I've paid to have my most traumatic memories erased. Yet, compared with Lavrentiy Semyonovich Norin I felt as dangerous as a three year old toddler. It wasn't his build as he wasn't some over-developed man-mountain. Nor was he draped with weaponry – not that he'd be allowed in the space-port if he was. He wore a plain, though well-cut, charcoal business suit teamed with a sober cravat. However, glancing at the suit out of the corner of my eye I noticed the subtle but tell-tale sheen of lightweight Kevlar threads running through it. No, it was in his cold, grey eyes and the way he balanced his body on the balls of his feet ready to react immediately to any threat. This hi-man was one tough dude and he didn't need to advertise the fact. All the same, I figured that under his suit, there was more than one Special Forces holo- tattoo. 11Hardshellz by Morris Kenyon Still without speaking, Norin – as I shall call him from now on as Russian names are too long, led me out of the terminal buildings to an area reserved for VIPs' hover-cars. His attitude was starting to irritate me a little as I'd been hired by his boss to take on a mission. Wondering how to get through to Norin, I said one word. "Cheka?" That took him by surprise and a flicker of reassessment came into those chill eyes before his lids lowered and the look of contempt returned. I was right – at some point in his career, Norin had worked for the Russian secret police. Many of their elite forces have, as brutal repression is part of daily life in the Tsar's dominions. Told me all I needed to know – Norin was definitely a man to beware of. He'd take a life with as little compunction as I would have squashing a poisonous bug. And that made his boss, Saveliy Yemelyanovich Fedoseyev, equally a man to be careful of dealing with. Because you don't become an oligarch unless you're by far and away the toughest guy on the block. 12Hardshellz by Morris Kenyon CHAPTER 2. SAVELIY YEMELYANOVICH FEDOSEYEV My senses on high alert, I slipped into the passenger seat of Norin's hover-car. It had that new- car aroma of leather, carpet and warm plastic. Not the stench of old blood, vomit and dead bodies that I half expected. To be honest, I thought an oligarch's henchman would have something incredible but it was merely a luxury Hercedez sedan. That said it lifted slower than I expected so I figured it was well armoured under its vanilla exterior. Norin took it up to cruising height and speed and then let the auto-pilot do the rest as the hover-car weaved its way through dense traffic in between the high-rise condos. You want a brief description of this paradise world? Not that it's important but here goes. If you want to really experience it, then look it up on the Galactoweb or, even better, save up your Hydrans and go experience it for yourself. The Hercedez glided over the glittering pink and white nu-coral high-rises that made up the port of Verrassa. Land is at a premium on Batavia VII so up is the only way to go. Beyond the ranks of high-rises, the endless seas stretched in an aquamarine expanse under equally azure skies marred only by contrails from shuttles or aeroplanes heading to or from the space-port. Looking down I saw many pleasure craft out on the water, their wakes glittering white behind them as they turned and spun. Pristine snowy-white beaches fringed the land edged with imported Earth palms together with purple fronders from New Freya and hair-ferns from wherever they come from. People strolled along, swam or merely paddled, enjoying the feel of the warm water. And above it all the yellow-white sun cast its warming rays. It was a place custom made – there had been some terraforming – for pleasure and relaxation. But I was here to work. 13Hardshellz by Morris Kenyon The Hercedez glided down towards a marina which was filled with the kind of yachts most people only see in Sunday supplements. It levitated to the ground next to a black SUV the size of a tank. Okay, a small tank but it still looked like it could hold its own on the battlefield. Still without speaking a word, Norin opened the doors and stepped out onto the quayside. Now I was outside in the fresh air away from that new-car smell, I was even more impressed with this world. A gentle breeze blew in from the ocean, bringing a briny, ozone smell with it that made you want to jump into the nearest boat and sail away over the horizon. The yellow-white sun cast its strong light down and I adjusted my pupils to the tiniest pinpricks to cope with the light reflected from sparkling waves out beyond the marina. Between the marina and a small town built of pastel nu-coral low-rises, all garlanded with exotic tropical blooms was a row of expensive looking restaurants and bars. The architect had gone for an nu-Italianate theme and it worked. There the beautiful people sat, chatting or making deals. It was a place to see and be seen. Unfortunately, I didn't have time to do much seeing or being seen as Norin pointed towards a nearby super-yacht. Crossing a short walkway, I stepped on board the sun- deck. And then I was in a different world again. Everything was super-lux. Was that really Eurycerus hide on the seats? That distinctive brown stripe couldn't be anything else. Fine grained goldwood was laid on the floor – and I bet it was solid, not a veneer. On a marble tray stood a silver bucket filled with ice holding a genuine champagne bottle with a white cloth draped around its neck. Then, a woman stepped out from the shade of the lounge. At least, I hoped it was a woman because anyone that perfect just had to be an artificial gynoid android custom built for a rich man's pleasure. That clunking sound? That was my jaw hitting the deck until I hauled it back and closed my mouth before I started drooling. 14Hardshellz by Morris Kenyon She was every red-blooded male's fantasy. Long blonde hair cascading down her back and over her shoulders, hazel eyes set over a snub nose and full, red lips. A perfect hourglass figure with legs that seemingly went on for metres. She crossed over to the champagne bucket showing an all-over honey tan with no white lines anywhere. And all that was between her and my thoughts was a microscopic white bikini. "Glad you could come, Mr. Vargo. I'm Julianna. Did you have a good trip?" Even her voice was soft and musical that made you think of other things besides softness and music. She held out her hand and I shook it. It felt like a surge of electricity flowed between us. "Err, yes, thanks," I said at last. She smiled. "Did Mr. Norin look after you?" "Oh, yes. Mr. Chatterbox – couldn't get him to stop talking. Quite the tour guide," I said. Norin didn't say a word but slightly narrowed his eyes while Julianna uncorked the champagne with a gentle pop and expertly poured four glasses. Covertly I watched her movements, looking for that unnatural fluidity and grace that gynoids show. Although I'd seen reviews that the latest models were even more hi-man-like than before. I downloaded a couple of articles from the Galactoweb and rapidly scanned them before giving up. Either way, woman or gynoid, it didn't much matter. Then the owner of the fourth glass came out from the lounge. Saveliy Yemelyanovich Fedoseyev himself. Compared with the incredibly stunning Julianna, he looked like a pedestal for a beautiful statue to be placed on. But you could see where the power lay. Julianna cast down her eyes as she handed him the champagne flute and then stepped back to the rail. Sava lifted his glass. "To success tomorrow," he toasted in his heavy accent. We all clinked glasses and drank. The champagne was excellent with a sweet, yet nutty taste. Turning to me, Sava spoke. Seemed like he didn't waste much time on small talk. "You 15Hardshellz by Morris Kenyon understand your instructions? You are to bid on my behalf. You can spend up to twenty-five million Hydrans..." "Which should be more than enough," I interrupted. Sava looked at me. I decided not to butt in again. "If that limit is reached, then call me and I will authorise an extra twenty-five." His accent was strong but I never make a mistake over money. Twenty-five or fifty million for a piece of art How the rich live. I had been hired to go to an auction tomorrow on Sava's behalf and buy a sea-shell. Not just any shell, of course, but a really rare, valuable one. Anybody else would be content to collect some shells off the beach to take home as a holiday souvenir but that wouldn't satisfy an oligarch with money to incinerate. There's a scarce, mollusc-like animal on Batavia VII – well it's not a mollusc because its petal- form shell opens in seven ways unlike an Earthly mollusc's two, but it houses a slimy, filter-feeding blob of jelly so I guess it's a case of parallel evolution – whose shell is eagerly sought after by collectors. The Kississ lives only in the shallow tropical seas of this world. It can grow to an immense size – the largest shell ever recorded was almost three metres in diameter – and under the right conditions also displays beautiful colours that are like nothing else in the galaxy. Divers hunt for them. Now you can save time by not bothering to look it up on the Galactoweb. So that was the thing I would be bidding for. Saveliy Yemelyanovich Fedoseyev didn't want to attend himself, as that would flush out other oligarchs determined to outbid him just for the fun of it. And for that simple service, he was paying me one hundred thousand Hydrans. Chump change to him but big money for me. And then another two hundred thousand to escort his acquisition to his estate on the Russian-speaking world of Khabarovsk. There he would admire the shell until he got bored and then donate it to the Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg, Earth, itself. 16Hardshellz by Morris Kenyon Ultimately, that's what it comes down to in the end for these multi-gazillionaires. Tax write- offs. They'll do anything for a tax write-off. They love to make money but they hate giving it to the government even more. So he'd rather give away a valuable item than pay a single Hydran in tax. Odd that. Not that I would know. I have to pay my tax like everyone else – although I'm luckier than most as my finances are based on Goldsmith's World. As far as I can see, the place was only colonised by accountants, bankers, fund managers and lawyers all eager to provide a low-tax base for interplanetary nomads like me. Anyway, Sava, as he asked me to call him, insisted I stay on his yacht overnight before heading over to the auction tomorrow. I didn't think that was a good idea as any spies out there – and oligarchs attract watchers like rare birds bring out twitchers – would immediately know I was working for Sava. I was about to say that but one look into his dark eyes made me keep my mouth shut. At the end of the day, it was his money I was spending, not mine. And what was millions to a man who thought in billions? So I sat there in one of the loungers with a second bottle of champagne chilling by my side. Water lapped against the side of the yacht, reflections rippling off the awning. There's harder ways of earning a living, I thought. Dinner that evening was something special. Probably nothing if you were a fellow industrialist but to a man like me it was one of the best meals I've ever eaten. We started off with some sort of pickled fish, then moved onto a meat platter with salad, crepes and caviare. Again, probably of local origin. More fish, wrapped in puff pastry, with pink flesh that tasted totally unlike salmon. Then a massive side of aetiocetus – some sort of whale-like animal, apparently – served with real, not synthi, potatoes and vegetables. A doughy cannoli comprised the dessert and finally real coffee with mints. And every course was washed down with fine wines and high-strength grain vodka, all 17Hardshellz by Morris Kenyon imported at great expense from their home worlds. I'd have to take a system-cleanse tablet later to purge my body of all the alcohol. The only thing missing was good conversation. Sava himself spent much of the meal on his implanted phone. He'd turned off his translator and spoke in rapid-fire Russian. I guessed he was making a commercial deal – either acquiring another business or selling one of his subsidiaries. At first, I thought he was having a major argument but towards the end of the meal, he was laughing. Norin the bodyguard was his usual fun-loving, free-and-easy self. He sat there alternatively glowering at me or else scoping out the surroundings, alert for any changes, checking out any possible threats like snipers. I guessed he had telescopic enhancements implanted into his lenses. Couldn't blame him as more than one oligarch's life had been cut short by a sharpshooter's bullet. So that left me and Julianna. She'd changed out of that teensy bikini and wore a short yet elegant scarlet dress that clung to every delicious curve. She sat opposite me giving me plenty of opportunity to check her out. And by the end of the meal, I was still none the wiser as to whether she was hi-man or an artificial gynoid. And I didn't care. Her conversation was fluid, witty and yet knowledgeable. And she wasn't just looking up subjects from the Galactoweb. We talked about Dart-Racing and the prospects for the forthcoming Dathykolpian race and Bezel's chances of victory, the ongoing campaign against the Bellarmine rebels, Fedoseyev's latest business ventures (which made Norin scowl even more), and, of course, the best beaches to be seen on here and the latest trends in fashion. It had been a long time since I'd enjoyed a conversation so much. I was sorry when Sava finally stood, said "good-night" and escorted her down to their luxury suite. Norin followed exactly one minute later. That night I lay in my stateroom listening to waves lapping against the sides. I couldn't sleep but lay awake tormenting myself with thoughts and images of Julianna. I wondered what she was 18Hardshellz by Morris Kenyon doing with Sava now. I couldn't get thoughts of that caveman lying with such a beautiful woman out of my mind even as I rolled over and tried to concentrate on tomorrow's auction. Sunlight poured into my stateroom though the floor to ceiling glass wall. It looked like I had dropped off after all. I sat up, held my head in my hands and groaned. I'd forgotten to take that cleansing tablet and now I had the mother of all hangovers. It felt like meteors were crashing about in my skull. With my hand out, supporting myself against the wall, I made my way over to the shower and took a double length, freezing cold shower. Then I pressed the insta-dry button so I felt marginally better after that. Checking my wardrobe, I saw a well cut navy-blue business suit hanging up. Putting it on, I saw it fit perfectly. Sava must have got my details from the office. Now I looked the part to attend the auction later. Up on the sun deck, I helped myself to breakfast. There was no sign of Sava or Julianna but Norin was standing by the gangway. He gave me a nod, merely the briefest dip of his head. I guess he'd been polishing up on his customer service skills overnight. After I'd finished eating, he flew me in the Hercedez over the sun-warming city towards the sales rooms. As is usually the case, the auction was being held in a luxury hotel. Landing in front of the hotel – the Bourée de Lieux – a valet whisked the Hercedez away as we entered the hotel. There was no problem finding the sales room and not just because it was well signposted. Crowds of people stood outside, networking like fury, and the air was thick with their broadcasts. I recognised a couple of the galaxy's movers and shakers but mostly, like Sava himself, they'd sent representatives to act on their behalf. There wasn't anyone I knew so I made my way into the auction room and took a seat near the 19Hardshellz by Morris Kenyon front where I could be easily seen by the auctioneer. Norin sat next to me, crossed his arms, and sat there like a statue. If he wasn't careful, someone would slip a tag around his neck and auction him off. If they did, I wouldn't bother bidding for him. Checking the time, I noticed the auction was about to start. More people entered the room and filled the empty seats and then lined up against the walls. Servo-bots flitted around serving drinks and refreshments, the lights reflecting off their highly polished chrome bodies. A man took his place next to me. I sat bolt upright when I checked his broadcast. I knew him. Knew him well. The last time I'd seen Luis Çrámerr, he was dying with his throat slit by a Krilla – one of those vicious genetically modified rat-man terror weapons I was telling you about earlier. He'd died bravely and I'd torn out his memory chip to be fitted into his clone body. The man turned to me and held out his hand. "Hi – great to touch base with you, Vargo," Çrámerr said. "You bidding or just spotting?" We shook and exchanged data. I saw he was still working for Economou interplanetary Logistics, Inc. – a big, multi-world transport company. He'd been promoted and his salary, well he wasn't an oligarch like Sava but to you and me, his salary was eye-wateringly large. Çrámerr was tall, in his forties and handsome in a cool, Nordic way with perfectly even teeth and ruler-straight nose. He'd obviously been here on Batavia VII for some time as he'd been working on his tan. His dark hair was neatly trimmed in a currently fashionable style. "Bidding," I admitted. By my side, Norin glowered at my admission. "Anything take your fancy?" Çrámerr asked. Julianna, I nearly blurted. 20Hardshellz by Morris Kenyon CHAPTER 3. BIDDING AT AUCTION. Shaking my head at what I'd nearly revealed, I wondered whether I should tell him what I was really after, but decided it would do no harm. Çrámerr was rich but nowhere near Sava's league. "Lot fifteen," I said. Çrámerr checked the catalogue and whistled. "You're dealing with the big boys now, Vargo." "You?" I asked. "Here to ideate and burn off some superfluity of excess fat. Lot 34 is the best of breed in its field and would look good shelved in my moon-pod." I'd forgotten the original Çrámerr had often spoken in business-speak gibberish and that trait had been passed onto his clone. Did him no harm though – Çrámerr actually owned a moon somewhere out there in the galaxy. Soon after, the chatter and data sharing died down as the auctioneer and her assistants entered and stepped behind the podium on the dais. She had short, purple-coloured hair and wore a smart bottle-green business suit that showcased her figure. When she had everyone's attention, she outlined the rules. Nothing unusual. Briskly, not wanting to waste time, she started the auction. All the items were fine art in a variety of mediums. The first lot was a metre high pair of ancient Chiennoise vases in a traditional red glaze. I know that from downloading the catalogue. The bidding was quick until only two competitors were left. Finally, the vases were knocked down for well over the guide price. The second lot was a Davvid Mersey sculpture made, like my knife blade, from a single diamond mined from 55 Cancri e. Unlike my blade, which was strictly functional although I liked 21Hardshellz by Morris Kenyon the way it caught the light, this was an exquisite statue of two lovers embracing. The only downside was that the lovers had hideous octopoid heads, outstretched wings and appeared to be eating each other's faces. Literally. It was at once an image of great beauty and hideousness at the same time. Although I could appreciate the craftsmanship in it, I wondered who would buy it. I wouldn't have it in my home. Again, the bidding sharply escalated until it was between a museum and a private collector. Who won? Who do you think? How can a publicly funded museum outbid some plutocrat with money burning a hole in his pocket? The third and fourth lots went quickly. At this rate, Sava's twenty million would go nowhere. I thought about getting refreshments but decided against it. I didn't want to risk missing lot fifteen. However, a man on the other side of Çrámerr who had been outbid on lot four sighed and got up. Obviously, that was the only piece that took his fancy. I got a surprise when Julianna slid into his seat. She flicked back her hair and smiled at me – a smile that would make any man go weak at the knees. She wore a sleeveless pale green dress that was modest yet managed to make her look oh, so sexy at the same time. "Hey, fancy parking yourself in my ball-park and touching base?" Çrámerr asked her. His broadcasts changed to show him shaking hands with Economou's President following his recent promotion and the hectare sized office he now inhabited. Images of his family vanished from view. "Did you bring your wife with you or is she out the way on your moon-base?" I said. Çrámerr narrowed his eyes at me. "Thought I'd see how you were getting on, Vic," she breathed. "Haven't got to fifteen yet," I replied, "but thanks for coming." Hi-man or gynoid who cares? When a beautiful woman shows an interest in you, us men sit up and take notice. Doesn't matter 22

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