Space 2315, Chapter 12

Bernard Hernandez sat in a chair around the square table that dominated the dining room of the mansion on the outskirts of the city of Parma, the capital of Altair III and the Allied Colonies for Freedom. The mansion itself sat above the Gulf of Turner, named for the captain of the colony ship which brought the first people to the planet. The mansion’s carefully manicured grounds extended all the way to the edge of the sheer cliffs that dropped a good ten meters to the rocky shore below. At the edges of the grounds was what was still called an Olympic sized swimming pool with tables and chairs for sunning set around it. All his guests were seated with him at table as his butler and other housekeepers busied themselves with waiting on them as unobtrusively as possible.

Hernandez cleared his throat at which all conversation around the table died. The servants had just cleared the dessert dishes away and a thankful gesture from him dismissed his butler who activated the room’s security systems on his way out. The man was also his chief bodyguard. Those security systems made sure that prying eyes and ears wouldn’t hear or see what was going on in the room. The jammers built into the walls and windows would scramble all but the most sophisticated of surveillance equipment. Some things just needed to be said where nobody would hear or see them.

Now that he had everyone’s attention he pressed a button on the keypad set into the table next to his place at table. A hologram of Earth and Mars appeared above the table and his guests leaned forward in anticipation. “Ladies and gentlemen,” he began, “now that we’ve dispensed with pleasure, we can get down to business. Surely, we can return to more pleasurable things after we’re done. I’m sure most of you already know why we’re all here.”

“Indeed,” one of his guests said, his voice as gravelly as the rocky heavy grav world he hailed from, “we’ve all been waiting for this chance.”

“Admiral Moore’s successful campaigns so far have given the Allied Colonies the momentum we needed. It’s given the Human Federation pause,” a woman by the name of Alice Winfield said. “This combined with what we planned should be enough to make the Human Federation brown their pants. I don’t want them to simply treat with us in good faith. We will have Earth by her throat and it’ll be the colonies dictating to them.”

Her voice was so silky that it sounded like it belonged in the bedroom rather than around a table with a bunch of conspirators. She was a busty woman with flowing black hair, deep aquamarine eyes and a perfect Western European complexion. The low-cut green silk Asian dress she wore probably cost at least a few hundred credits and did a good job of showing off the figure of the stunning beauty.

Not that the dress’s cost was anything to such as her. Most of the people seated at table right now were upper class leaders in business, politics, or in some cases, organized crime. Most of them wouldn’t ever be seated around the same table, much less be in the same house together except for the fact that all of them wanted to see the Human Federation humbled and true freedom come to the Allied Colonies. By any means necessary. To them the ends fully justified the means and the military option just wasn’t quick enough for them.

Hernandez and Winfield themselves were seated next to each other, with her at his right side. His corporation would surely profit if they saw the Human Federation take it on the chin. It was in his best interest to keep the war going with him being the owner of one of the largest ship building firms in ACF space. Even now the Altairian Shipyards were still expanding and since the Allied Navy needed ships as fast as they needed them, his firm was swimming in cash thus making him one of the galaxy’s twenty wealthiest men.

If his butler was his hired muscle, then Alice was the brains. She was his top advisor in most matters. It was rare to have beauty and brains mixed together like that, even if her looks were bought and paid for.

She held several business degrees but not only that; she had a keen eye for the details. Her planning skills were better than anything that Bernard ever saw. The more Bernard thought about it, the more he thought she was genetically engineered for her innate ability to manage large complex plans and huge sums of data. It had to come from some serious overdriving of her neural processing.

The others around the table may not be directly tied to the war effort but they all had their reasons for hating the Human Federation as much as they did. A quick glance across the table to one man seated almost directly across from him, dressed in an impeccably tailored suit, was Charles Anderson, who was none other than the ACF’s own assistant to the Assistant Secretary of Defense. How he managed to hide his connections to this group was beyond Hernandez, but he chose not to dwell on it too much. Winfield investigated Anderson’s background and if she was convinced of his intentions then he wasn’t about to argue. Whatever the other man’s reasons were, and there must be a few, he was willing to risk his political career enough to give the HF a black eye.

And give the HF a black eye the Sons of Freedom fully intended to do. “Yes, indeed,” Anderson said as he glanced at his datapad, “If I’m correct we should be getting word back on the initial outcome of Moore’s Operation Hammer. If it has gone anywhere nearly as she planned, then she should already be moving on the Newton System. If we’re going to do anything at all now is the time.” He set the datapad down and looked around the table, “So, just what is it that we’re planning on doing?”

“The Human Federation’s presidential inauguration is coming up in about six Earth weeks and of course there are those of us here that would love to attend the party,” Hernandez said levelly. A few eyebrows rose at his saying that but most around the table already had a vague idea what he had in mind. “We’re going to attend it and I guarantee that the fireworks we provide will be entertaining to say the least for the people of Earth. They should really like the show. To that end, Winfield and myself will be traveling to the Sol System, incognito of course and by separate ways, to start us up there. I’m sure we’ll find enough people here and dissidents there who will be willing to help us.”

“Alice will take the most direct route that she can possibly take through Sirius so she can start laying the groundwork. It’ll be easier for her because outside of here she’s almost… I hope she’ll pardon my saying so, an unknown to most people outside this circle. I don’t think any of you here need to be reminded just how good of a facilitator and… persuasive she is.” Heads all around shook back and forth at that. Her reputation did precede her.

“Myself, I’ll be stopping on Sirius itself for a few days while she goes onto Earth. Officially the two of us will be there on an extended vacation, so we’re covered here at home. I have a few contacts in the Corporate Republic that will be more than willing to help us get in and out without too many questions along with some material help. The forged travel documents that they can provide us will also speed things along, though we have to go to Sirius to get them.”

“And what do we do while you’re away on a pleasure planet?” one person asked.

“You’ll run support for us back here and help us to get what we need once Earth-side. There’s going to be a lot of moving parts to this… operation,” Alice answered for Hernandez. “We can’t do it all on our own even if we do already have some people in place there. The more people we have will make this easier to pull off. Now, I can’t tell you everything of course. The less you all know the less you can tell the authorities if it all goes into the crapper.”

Hernandez told them as much as he was willing to, which really wasn’t much. Then he lightly tapped his wine glass with a spoon to get their attention. When all eyes turned to him he said, “I know that this is a lot to take in all at once and I do apologize for how abrupt this is. The sooner we move the better. But for now, why don’t we all take some time to think about this? Tomorrow is another day after all. Might I suggest that we retire to the outside? The weather is quite nice around here this time of day.”

Everyone nodded their heads, some still in a state of mild shock at the revelations today. Alice was right when she had said that most of them weren’t going to expect what they planned. It was just another example of why he should trust her instincts when it came to such things. He rose from the table and made his way to his bedroom with Alice in tow. The two of them could feel the envious looks that some of the others there sent in their, or rather his, direction. Alice was a prime catch by any stretch of the imagination and one didn’t need to be an empath to sense the jealously.

Once there she shed the dress she wore with dignified haste. The black swimsuit she wore underneath with its bandeau top was extremely brief. Grabbing a beach towel and sunglasses from his closet she said, “We don’t want to keep the guests waiting.”

“Of course not,” he replied, once again wishing that he could have her in his bed.

Alice Winfield, or rather Eileen Maguire, looked around the pool yard. The people she was consorting with here were admittedly some of the wealthiest people in the Allied Colonies for Freedom. The fact that they all had a grudge against the Human Federation wasn’t surprising. Almost everyone in the ACF had something or other that they had against the Earth government. She felt their eyes upon her and knew exactly why. While she wasn’t the only scantily clad beautiful woman out there she certainly ranked somewhere in the top ten. She spied a few topless women walking among the partygoers who drew more attention than she did, but she wasn’t going to go topless for these people, no way.

What shocked the undercover ACF FBI agent, that’s what Eileen really was, was how far some of these people were willing to go to carry out their grudge against Earth. If she guessed right then Bernard was planning some sort of terrorist attack on Earth, centered on the presidential inauguration. She didn’t know exactly what he was planning, and she doubted that he’d tell her until they were on Earth and she couldn’t communicate with her FBI superiors.

She had to walk a tightrope while undercover in Hernandez’s circle. Sometimes undercover agents had to commit crimes in order to maintain their covers. She knew that. But she strongly suspected that whatever it was that Hernandez was planning it went beyond mere criminal activities. Way beyond it.

It wasn’t enough to go on to bring Hernandez in. She could only continue to collect more information on what he was doing. Her superiors were very clear on that. ACF law, much like the Human Federation’s, didn’t allow for arrest on suspicions alone. Conspiracy to commit acts of terrorism sounded like something that should be a punishable offense, but it wasn’t. Even if it were she didn’t have any physical evidence against the man and any court of law would be quick to point that out.

Even if the man were to get any supplies on Sirius she’d have nothing on him. He was sending her ahead of him to Earth, thus cutting her out of the loop there. Even if he hadn’t done that the ACF didn’t have an extradition treaty with Sirius, or any power in Human Space for that matter. That and Sirius had a rather nasty tendency, at least from a law enforcement perspective, to grant Siriusian person status, even if temporarily, to all people in their space. That meant that no external law enforcement agencies could act within their territory. Sirius also had a habit of saying that crimes committed outside their territory weren’t the concern of Sirius; with the exceptions of crimes against humanity, piracy, smuggling, slaving, and of course, terrorism.

So, in reality, until the man reached Earth and carried out whatever he was going to do, or she managed to find enough physical evidence to present, her hands were tied.

The sprawling city of Sirius One loomed in the window of the shuttle as it made its final turn to land at the spaceport located at the heart of the city. Everywhere the eye could see there were towers reaching up to the heavens in much the same way that the ones in New York City did. In those towers were hotels, casinos, corporate brothels, offices of galactic corporations, and the other trappings of wealth and the power that came with it. Almost everything in sight screamed money at the viewer and here, in this star nation, the wealthy ran the show and a truly free market economy ran wild.

The system wasn’t without its flaws though. While the liberal capitalist state prospered with the second largest GDP in all of human space (despite being a star nation of only four star systems) which created vast fortunes for those lucky enough to make it here, the system did create a soul-crushing level of poverty not seen elsewhere. Those not fortunate enough to make it in the freewheeling corporate environment were often relegated to ghettos that were carefully tucked away from where the eye could see them, generally away from the capital city. If one were to ask the Board of Directors they would carelessly say that a system needed to be built on something, usually while admiring the expensive jewelry that they wore.

That kind of attitude would make one think that a simmering revolt was about to blow up in their faces. Those same rulers were always careful to say such things behind closed doors and were willing to placate the mob by making promises of better standards of living for everyone. The fact that they tried to keep their promises, to a small extent of course, generally kept the mob in line and away from the knives and pitchforks; that and a suitably well-armed police force. That wasn’t to say that the corporate republic was a police state by any means. It was a free society with some of the highest levels of personal civil liberties seen in Human Space.

While they did enjoy the fruits of a very liberal society where that was concerned one need only look at their political system to see where the corruption, inequality, and lack of freedom was. The Corporate Republic of Sirius maintained that it was officially a democratic state, that the people had a say in their political system. That was true, so long as one was willing to look past the fact that the Siriusian Board of Directors, the upper house of their bicameral legislature, was a completely appointed and unelected body. It held the power of the purse and most other governmental functions. The Board was composed mostly of the leaders of the largest and wealthiest corporations who were founded on Sirius or based their corporate headquarters there (which a lot of Human Federation corporations were in the process of doing). The Board consisted of about fifty members, none of whom answered to the people.

Their lower house, known as the House of Commons, for lack of a better term, was democratically elected but it most often rubberstamped everything the upper house wanted. Their Commons were the ones who valiantly protected the peoples’ civil liberties and most often got its way in that regard, mostly because the Board of Directors allowed it to do so to placate the masses. And defend their personal civil liberties they did. It kept the civilian oversight over their military because the founders of Sirius agreed early on that no corporation, however wealthy or powerful, should ever have power over their military. It was generally considered to be a Bad Idea since if one corporation had majority control of the armed forces it was conceivable that they’d use it to strong-arm the competition out of business by threat of arms. Because of that they were more than willing to let the Commons deal with military affairs and it had the bonus of giving the people the impression that they had some control.

The Chief Planetary Officer wasn’t elected by the people, but rather was appointed and approved by majority vote within the Board of Directors. Usually he or she was the leader of the wealthiest corporation, but often it was a charismatic businessman or woman who managed to form a coalition of corporations to agree with them. Sometimes the appointing and voting for the position could be downright cutthroat, and it did make for good entertainment on the Human Federation’s C-SPAN HD channel. The current leader of Sirius wasn’t even a part of the Sirius Corp., but rather was Gregory Upton, the CEO of the Mendus Drive Yards which just so happened to be in ACF hands. There was talk that he was going to be removed from office because of that through a vote of no confidence, but those were only rumors.

The planet Sirius was founded in the early 2200s after scout ships reported back to Earth of a beautiful world with vast oceans and a very favorable climate along with a very wealthy asteroid belt. The Sirius Corporation jumped at the news and bought the rights to the star system before the Human Federation government could lay claim to it. If anyone was going to have that system, it was Sirius Corp. It was the perfect planet to set up fabulous resorts on as well as become a haven for any corporation that wanted to escape the Human Federation’s “unfavorable business climate.” Sirius promised any business that relocated there that they’d have a free hand as the new Siriusian government was in strong favor of a laissez faire system in which the government would keep its hands off almost completely except for setting a mandatory minimum wage and job safety laws.

Getting rights over the system was a relatively simple matter compared to what came later when the newly formed star nation began negotiating for a treaty with the HF. The Corporate Republic demanded full sovereignty, with its own government and its own armed forces, something that the HF wasn’t too keen on letting them have. The HF wanted to maintain forces in the system and keep Sirius as a protectorate or commonwealth state. Sirius would have none of that.

The other bone of contention were the strident demands that Sirius be allowed to establish their own colonies, with their own jump gate network and to levy fees to any ship passing through their gates. The Human Federation wanted to keep the newly formed republic to a single star system with the system’s gate tied into their network and forced to pay fees to use it. It was almost as if the HF was willing to grant autonomy to Sirius but no self-determination.

Sirius remained steadfast in their demands and threatened to break off diplomatic relations with the Human Federation. They even went as far as saying that the Siriusian Space Navy would bar any Human Federation ship from entering their territory by force of arms if necessary. How Sirius planned to do that when their entire fleet consisted of no more than three battlecruisers, two heavy cruisers, five light cruisers and a dozen destroyers that the Human Federation Space Force had been about to decommission was beyond even the most astute military planners. How they planned to stay afloat economically without the HF was another baffling question. A modern battlecruiser squadron would’ve been enough to sweep the entire Siriusian Space Navy aside without breaking a sweat and by then the Human Federation had a good number of super juggernauts. The HF tried to label the Siriusian ships as pirates, but the HF Space Force would hear nothing of it.

The star nations figuratively stared each other in the face, daring the other to make a move. After a few tense months the Human Federation, surprisingly, was the one to back down and agree to Sirius’s terms. Full autonomy was granted, and Sirius deployed their own jump gates and charged any Human Federation ship with transit fees. Their armed forces were given legitimacy and charged with protection over their star system and any other systems that Sirius laid claim to.

Hernandez didn’t like dealing with certain types of people. The people he was going to meet here didn’t quite qualify as those types, but they certainly came close. His contacts on Sirius agreed to meet with him in the seaside city of Lacoma, one of the smaller coastal cities on the planet. The port there was a blur of activity as ships, both space and sea, plied back and forth between their destinations. The beaches away from the port, especially on the island about ten kilometers out at sea and claimed by the city, were some of the most beautiful on the planet.

The meeting place was along one of those beaches in what appeared from the outside to be a dive bar but was in fact a luxuriously furnished place inside. On the outside it looked like plain nondescript brick building. There were no windows in any of the walls. If anyone didn’t know what was really going in there, they would’ve thought that the place was just one of the many other warehouses that were in that part of town.

Hernandez approached the main door. He was told to knock twice and say some passphrase. He reached into his pocket and pulled out a crumpled-up piece of paper which had “the blue parrot is red” printed on it. That made no sense to him. The more he thought about this place, the more he thought this was one of those exclusive clubs that if you weren’t invited you either didn’t know about this place or you couldn’t get in. He shrugged his shoulders and knocked on the door twice, just as he was told to do so. A small slit on the door opened and someone behind the door said, “What’s the passphrase?”

Hernandez shrugged his shoulders again and said it. The slot on the door slid closed and what sounded like two locks were opened. The door squeaked open and a burly man was standing in front of Hernandez. Now, Hernandez was nearly 1.8 meters tall which was tall by a lot of people’s standards, but this man had to be a whole half a meter taller than he was. He looked like he had to duck down to go through the door. His arms were like tree trunks. He looked like he could take Hernandez and break him in half like a toothpick with little effort.

The big man stepped aside and let Hernandez in. Inside the place there were many tables, booths with curtains for privacy, a well-stocked bar with beers, wines and liquors from all over Human Space. The barkeeps themselves were beautiful women in tight barmaid dresses that were designed to please the viewer. Roaming around the bar itself were other scantily clad women of all races and colors whose purpose was to please the patrons.

In the Republic of Korea during the late 20th and early 21st centuries those same women were called “juicy girls.” Back then they weren’t prostitutes (or at least some of them weren’t) but they certainly came close to being whores. Their job wasn’t to have sex with patrons, but rather to entertain the bar’s guests and make money for the bar. One could hire them to sit and talk with you (and do a lot more than talk) if one were willing to drop the money to do so.

On Sirius it was different. With the increased civil and economic liberties, as well as a government that was more than willing to look the other way if the right palms were greased, the rules were different. Just like their 21st century cousins these girls could be hired at ten or twenty credits (HF or Siriusian) a piece for a drink and some highly entertaining conversations and eye candy. But for those with money and the will to part with it the bar’s juicy girls could really ensure that one with the proper vices had a good time; on Sirius almost all of the juicy girls were prostitutes. Hernandez was told to find a private booth and to avail himself of one of the bar’s girls, if only to not draw attention from those in the bar who were doing the same. He politely dismissed two or three of the juicy girls who came to him until a very beautiful Korean woman in her mid-twenties came by. He waved her to him.

She had black hair halfway down her back, wore a tight low-cut light blue halter top that might as well be a sports bra, a matching microskirt, and five-inch heels. He wondered how the hell she managed to walk in those things. The only thing that made that outfit close to being legal was the fact that she wore nude colored nylons and nothing else, not even panties.

What made her attractive to Hernandez was the fact that she didn’t wear a lot of makeup as he’d seen with some Asian women. Her brown almond shaped eyes were almost hypnotic, and her bust appeared to be bigger than most Korean females.

He glanced at his chrono and saw that the people he was supposed to meet were going to be here in ten minutes, that’s if they didn’t decide to be late. Smiling at her he laid a twenty Siriusian Dollar banknote on the table in front of her. Her smile, although most likely fake, could’ve lit up a room as another woman (most likely one of the other workers or one who worked for the barkeep) collected it.

Within moments a drink was laid in front of the woman. She sipped it delicately and put an arm around him in companionship. “What brings you here?” she asked in a soft, sing-song voice that he wouldn’t have minded hearing in the bedroom.

“I’m meeting with people,” he replied nonchalantly.

“What kind of people?” she purred.

“People who can get things done,” he again replied nonchalantly.

She finished the last of her drink and he set another twenty-dollar banknote down. Modern banknotes bore little resemblance, except for their shape and size, to the old paper banknotes of pre-space Earth. The modern banknote was a plastic medium with an electronic chip imbedded into the plastic, much like CACs were designed. The chips were hardcoded by whatever central bank issued them to the amount they were worth. The chips couldn’t be altered to try and change the face value of the bill itself. Trying to do so would instantly fry the circuitry of the chip, rendering the banknote completely useless. Sirius tended to use banknotes for their currency whereas the Allied Colonies and Human Federation used gold or silver coins up to twenty credits.

The first glass and the banknote both disappeared within seconds. The juicy girl raised an eyebrow at him and how willing he was parting with his money. She didn’t ask anything about it but did say, “Then you must be meeting the Muagi clan.”

Hernandez gave a start as he looked at her. She smiled at him before kissing him on the cheek, “They’re very powerful people. Influential. Their second oldest son owns this bar. They have their hands in all kinds of… deals around here. Nothing really goes on without them knowing about it.” By then her drink showed up and she sipped it.

“They’re that…,” he searched for the right word but only two came to mind, “well known?”

“Yes,” she nodded as she swung a slender leg over his and straddled his waist. She leaned forward and kissed him on the lips. Hernandez relaxed back against the booth’s seating and kissed the woman back. He wasn’t all that surprised when she slipped her tongue into his mouth and started grinding her hips against his. She backed off for one second, “My name is Seong.”

“Bernard,” he answered. Since she never offered her family name he wasn’t about to give his either.

Seong went back to kissing him and pressing her body against his before another woman came along and tapped the table. Hernandez grinned at the other one and produced yet another twenty. Seong backed off for a second before saying, “I see that you’re… influential as well. Most people who aren’t don’t have that kind of cash.”

“Some have said that about me.”

“I can tell,” she breathed softly before picking back up where she left off. This time she surprised even him when she reached down and ran her fingers along the front of his pants. “You know…, if you want to, a word said, and I can be all yours all night long.”

Hernandez smiled up at her, really liking the way she thought. When he voiced that she smiled even more. Some people, the less charitable ones at least, would say that Bernard was a lust-crazed man who chased skirt wherever and whenever he could. Those that did really didn’t know him at all. Sure, he had a reputation for chasing skirt, but not just any. Some people liked fine wine or good art. He, liked good sex. The fact that Seong was wearing what had to be the most intoxicating perfume he ever smelled made him want to have his way with her all that much more.

“I think I might just do that,” he said. “But allow me to ask an improper question Seong, how old are you?”

“That is an improper question to ask a woman! How dare you!” she answered playfully.

“I’m just curious.”

“Twenty-two Earth-years old,” she answered. “Is that okay?”

For an answer he kissed her. Twenty-two years old? I haven’t been with a woman that young in a long time! This should be fun.

She smiled again and answered, “Okay, when those people come to meet you I’ll go say the word. However,” she paused for a second or two, “three hundred.”

Hernandez shrugged his shoulders mentally. He paid more in the past for less than what he’d probably be getting with this woman. He was about to reach for his wallet again when she playfully smacked his hand, “Not now silly. You pay later, after your meeting.”

Hernandez chuckled at her, “I guess I can see that.”

Another voice, this one also with a pronounced Japanese accent, spoke from just beyond the privacy curtain, “Mister Hernandez, I see that you’ve made yourself comfortable. Good. Good.” Whoever it was opened the privacy curtain and pointed right at him.

The man who stood in front of him was of Japanese descent and had to be maybe forty years old. When Bernard looked at him he could’ve sworn that he’d seen the man before. He was flanked by at least two other men who had to be bodyguards, both Japanese as well, and there was no doubt that there were others in the bar as well. This feels like one of those bad 21st century films about the Yakuza, Bernard thought. The man sat down across from Bernard at the table, looked at Seong and shooed her away. “Run along Seong-chan, this man and I have business to discuss.”

“Hai, Muagi-sama.” Bernard looked to Seong and mouthed the words “come back to me later,” she nodded her head and smiled. He knew she understood. She looked to the man across the table and nodded before walking away.

Bernard reached over to close the privacy curtain and looked at the man sitting across from him. “Alright, you better have a good reason to interrupt the fun I was having. What’s this about?”

“I’m Masaru Muagi,” Bernard nodded his head. “I was instructed to meet you here, check you out, and by that, make sure you have nothing that could do, shall we say, unpleasant things to my family.”

“Alright, my contact didn’t say anything like this would happen.”

“Bernard, you have to understand that a family as wealthy and powerful as mine is didn’t get that way without making a… few enemies along the way. A lot of people want my family dead and would stop at nothing to make sure that happens. Even though we’re well protected we still need to take precautions, you understand.”

“I see,” Bernard replied. “Well, what’s your take on me?”

“Seong made sure that you weren’t carrying any weapons.”

“So, you’re telling me that I was basically frisked under the guise of being sexually aroused?”

“In a word, yes.” He replied nonchalantly. “But I do have to admit that any of the girls could’ve done that just as well, but Seong did take a liking to you and you to her I see. You passed on a Filipino, a German, a Russian, and an Italian girl. I have no idea why you passed on the Filipino or the Russian one but it’s really none of my business what your tastes are like.”

“I have, shall we say, given her permission to make your stay on this planet as enjoyable as you want it to be. That’s not to say that any of the girls here couldn’t do the same, with the proper amount of money of course, even without my permission. And because of the business that we’re going to be doing here, I’ll make the rate for your little romp with Seong half the normal going rate, which was three hundred I think she quoted to you. Even for half I’ll let you have her all night long for as long as you’re here; the rate applies per day of course.

“Believe me; you will have a good time with her, she’ll make sure of that,” Masaru said with a knowing smile. “Other customers have said that she’s one of the top five around here. Although, to be fair, the most popular one is her,” he pointed a finger at a passing woman, “Eva, a Spaniard, is really a lot of fun.” Bernard raised an eyebrow as he looked at Eva. She was a stellar beauty, no two ways about it. What a woman!

“Come now, I’ll take you to Yuudai Muagi; my father and the leader of our clan.” The two men got up and walked away from the table toward the back wall. Masaru took a quick glance around the bar before sliding a false panel and inputting a code on a keypad there. A door that one wouldn’t notice unless one really knew what to look for slid open. The four men stepped through it and as soon as they were through it shut behind them. A long corridor lay before them and Masaru took off walking at a leisurely pace.

“Is Seong a…,” Bernard trailed off.

“A trained assassin? A killer? The sort that will slit your throat as easily as she breathes?” Masaru said with a grin as he looked over his shoulder.

Bernard nodded his head and the Japanese man laughed, “No, no. She’s none of those things. She’s only a working-class girl. Some unkind people would call her a prostitute but around here we prefer the word courtesan. It sounds so much more, refined you see.”

His grin got bigger, “All of the girls here are like that. They are highly skilled at what they do, which is providing entertainment of all sorts to our exclusive customer base, be they man or woman. But to answer your next question, they are all trained to do just that sort of search you spoke of before and to take care of themselves if they must. Now, I’m a married man so I don’t partake in the girls around here but that doesn’t stop me from offering them.”

“We have sensors in the doors when you come in to detect weapons, but sometimes you just need the human touch,” he chuckled at his own pun, “in order to find what sensors might miss. The girls can find just about anything. And before you even ask, this place is a bar and a brothel; a very high class one at that. Brothels are legal in all Siriusian space, just like they are in certain places in the Human Federation. Our government isn’t afraid of the ills of society; hell, it panders to them as long as it gets its fair share.”

They came to a stop next to a rather plain looking door. Masaru knocked on the door once, twice, three times. “It is I father,” he said in Japanese. “I have brought the gentleman that wanted to see you.” The door opened silently, and Masaru ushered Bernard inside, leaving the two bodyguards outside. The room inside was a tastefully decorated office with real wood panels on the walls, a rich velvet carpet and several comfortable chairs centered around a battleship of a desk.

On that desk were stacks of datacards, datapads, no less than three bonsai trees, and a very state-of-the-art computer console and several vid screens. At regular intervals around the office itself there were pieces of ancient samurai armor and weapons on display, all of which had to have cost a couple thousand credits to own. Behind the desk on the wall was, of all things, a large Japanese flag with its white background and red sun. A small, older Japanese man sat behind it in a high backed black leather chair with a cup of what could’ve been coffee or tea in his hand.

Flanking the man on either side were two stunningly beautiful Japanese women with creamy white complexions. Only a few of the girls back in the bar were more beautiful than these two. Both had hair down to their waists tied in a long ponytail, one jet black and the other a dark, rich brown. Each of them had eyes that were gorgeous pearls of blue. They looked over the two men who entered with quick looks that screamed “professional!”

The one on the right with black hair wore a traditional Japanese miko, or shrine maiden, ensemble complete with red sash around her waist and a long white fabric bow in her hair, and sandals on her feet.

The one on the left with brown hair was dressed in a very tight, impractical looking sleeveless blue robe with white trim that barely covered her breasts. A wide white sash wrapped around her waist, holding the garment closed. The robe came down between her trim, athletic legs to just about mid-thigh. The sides of the robe were cut out completely, leaving the straps of her panties visible. She wore blue cloth arm bracers on her wrists that came down the back of her hands and short heels on her feet.

Both carried a wakizashi on their left hips. On their right hips they carried twin pistols. They both looked like they knew how to use their weapons to great effect. They exuded a very deadly grace from their body language and their eyes never left Bernard; tracking his every movement as he approached Masaru’s desk. The woman who looked like a kunoichi, or female ninja, also carried what appeared to be small throwing daggers located at various points on her robe and waist. There was no way to know what other weapons the one dressed as a miko might be concealing beneath her robes. Yes, this is like one of those bad Yakuza movies, Bernard thought idly. At least they aren’t wearing those Asian-style schoolgirl outfits, this is bad enough!

The old Japanese man spun around his chair and stood to come around the desk. At the same time the woman dressed as a shrine maiden stepped forward with him, standing just to the left and slightly behind him. She dropped a hand to her wakizashi, ready to sweep it out of its sheath on a moment’s notice. Bernard felt himself gulp as he looked at her face. Her expression was tight lipped, and her eyes bored into his. That one was deadly, hell, both women were and there was no doubt in his mind that the twin beauties could easily take anyone apart, with or without weapons.

If the older Japanese man took any notice of the bodyguard, he didn’t let on. He was probably so used to her presence that it’d probably become a fact of life for him. He held his hand out, “Mister Hernandez, so good of you to come. I’m Muagi, Yuudai, the head of the Muagi house. I understand that you have business to discuss with me. Something about getting supplies and people in and out of the Human Federation without anyone noticing.”

Bernard took the older man’s hand and shook it, hoping that it was the right gesture. It appeared to be as neither the bodyguard or Yuudai made any indication that it wasn’t. “Yes, as we discussed through one of your people that’s indeed why I’m here.”

“Ah,” Yuudai gestured to some of the chairs in front of his desk, “Where are my manners? Please, sit. I find that discussions go so much better when people are comfortable. I could have tea brought if you’d like, or would you prefer coffee? Warm sake perhaps?”

“Water please, Mister Muagi.” Bernard saw out of the corner of his eye the bodyguard’s expression tighten ever so slightly at his use of the word “mister.” He got the idea that most people who addressed the man didn’t use that term, but instead the Japanese honorific system. That was all well and good no doubt, but Bernard wasn’t Japanese, or even Asian, and he doubted he could use the proper honorific.

Yuudai returned to his chair and the bodyguard followed, taking up her original position to the left of the chair. “Kotomi-kun?” he asked.

“Hai Muagi-dono?” the same bodyguard asked.

“Please fetch Mister Hernandez his water and whatever my son would like as well.”

“Hai,” Kotomi answered with a bow to the old man. She stepped around the desk to speak to Masaru then left the office. The other bodyguard’s body language tensed up as the one dressed like a ninja was left as the sole guard in the room. Her hand dropped to the pistol grip of a gun on her hip and stayed there. Bernard was sure she wouldn’t relax until Kotomi came back, and then not even fully relax until Bernard was gone.

The seconds ticked by as Yuudai sipped his coffee or tea silently while waiting on his guard’s return. Bernard felt himself getting impatient. Why wouldn’t the older man want to start negotiations right now? Sure, they were waiting on the drinks to be brought but surely, they could start without those? He looked to Masaru and found the man waiting, not patiently but not impatiently either. He was probably very used to how his father worked. Seeing no help there he let his eyes wander around the large office, settling on one of the pieces of armor behind Yuudai.

The old Japanese man, to his own credit, knew exactly how Bernard felt. He could feel the nervous energy the other man had, the want to begin. But if there was anything that the man needed to learn it was patience. Yuudai himself hadn’t gotten to where he was in the legitimate business world and the cutthroat criminal underworld of the Corporate Republic of Sirius by being hasty, by not planning every step. Those that didn’t plan, that didn’t step carefully, that didn’t practice patience simply didn’t make it on Sirius. Yes, there was a time and place for haste, but you didn’t allow that haste to influence you into making a poor decision.

If this Bernard Hernandez was in fact planning what Yuudai thought he was, a large-scale terrorist attack on Earth the man would need to know patience and planning. For that man’s part, if he rushed things, it was bound to get him, and his entire crew arrested or dead.

While Yuudai Muagi didn’t exactly condone terrorism, he was a businessman after all with a sense of honor; a mob boss such as himself couldn’t be squeamish about dirty work and a few dozen bodies on the deck. He couldn’t count the number of people dead at his clan’s feet over the years, but those killed had been specific targets. Yuudai didn’t indiscriminately kill or order people killed just for the hell of it. It was one thing to kill dozens or hundreds of people, it was an entirely different thing to target just one or two people and have them bumped off to send a message. Sometimes all you needed was that one death to get people to back off. Those in the criminal world, especially the world of organized crime, on Sirius understood this perfectly.

He wasn’t going to shed any tears if the Human Federation ended up taking one on the chin. Like most big-time criminals Yuudai wasn’t overly encumbered by any patriotic sense of duty. He could really care less about the Human Federation or even about Sirius for that matter. The only thing he really cared about was getting paid on time. What this Hernandez wanted to do with what he was asking for was his business. Yuudai didn’t care nor did he want to know what the other man was planning. The less he knew the better off he would be, though he could make a few well-educated guesses.

In this case maybe the mass slaughter of hundreds or thousands of people was the way to go. Didn’t this Hernandez character realize that if he did what Yuudai thought he was going to do it would bring the full wrath of both the Human Federation and the Allied Colonies for Freedom down on his head? There was fighting for one’s cause, as the ACF was doing with its armed forces. Then there was the wonton killing for no reason other than to produce fear. Clearly the man sitting before him wasn’t a student of history, as it was shown time and again that after major terrorist actions took place the retaliation was incredible. One need only look at the terrorist attacks of the early 21st century to see what resulted from such events. Hell, even his ancient homeland’s surprise attack on Pearl Harbor invoked swift action. And look how well that had ended for the Empire of Japan!

Yuudai looked at Bernard from across the table. He studied him for some time while he drank his tea. He knew who Bernard was, everyone knew who he was. He was one of the top ten wealthiest men in all ACF controlled space. Yuudai knew that getting him into Human Federation controlled space wasn’t going to be easy. It was going to take all his influence in the Siriusian government to put together the ironclad travel papers that Bernard and his associates were going to need to get into Human Federation space.

“Bernard,” Yuudai said as Bernard looked up. “What you ask for isn’t going to be cheap. For all intents and purposes, you are a marked man as far as the Human Federation government is concerned. Not only am I going to have to have forged documents produced for you but many of the computer systems the HF operates will have to be hacked as well. This isn’t going to be at all cheap.” Bernard looked to Yuudai. He knew that Bernard would pay and be willing to pay a lot so why not take advantage of him? It wasn’t the first time that he swindled someone out of a lot of money and it certainly wouldn’t be the last either.

“I see,” Bernard questioned. He knew that he was getting taken for a ride, but he also knew that there weren’t that many people on Sirius that would be able to fulfill such a request and because of that he knew he was going to have to pay top dollar for it too. “How much are you asking for?”

“Thirty thousand credits for the identification papers and the hacking alone,” Yuudai spoke as he leaned forward onto his desk. “We’ll discuss the prices on anything else you might want.”

“I see,” Bernard replied. Truth be told, Bernard figured he would have to pay upwards of forty thousand so really the amount that Yuudai told him was a rather generous amount. “It’s a deal.”

“Just as soon as the money is in my account I’ll have my associates start the work to get your travel papers in order.”

“Give me the time to make a call and the money will be yours.” Yuudai nodded his head as Bernard stood up from his chair and walked out of the room leaving Yuudai at his desk sipping his tea. A few moments later Bernard stepped back into the room and sat down in the chair that he had previously occupied in front of Yuudai’s desk.

“Do you have the money transferred?” Yuudai asked.

“Yes,” Bernard answered. “But only half. It will be in your account by tomorrow morning.”

“Half?” Yuudai asked. “I don’t recall agreeing to that.”

“It’s a precaution. That’s all. Call it a security deposit,” Bernard replied. “After I have the travel papers in hand and after I have sufficiently scrutinized them you will have the rest of your money.”

“I see,” Yuudai eyed Bernard carefully. “You’re a wise business man. I see that your business and negotiation skills are just as good as your reputation says.” Yuudai stood up and offered his hand for Bernard to shake. “Then it’s a deal. I will have to say that putting these papers together for you and your people is not going to be easy, it’s going to take some time.”

“How much time?” Bernard asked.

“About a week,” Yuudai answered.

Bernard frowned. He had wanted to get the plan moving sooner than that but if he wanted everything to go according to plan, he figured that rushing the one man who was going to be responsible for him not getting arrested as he crossed into Human Federation controlled space was a good idea not to do.

“Alright,” Bernard answered. “In the meantime, do you have any suggestions on a place to stay in this town? A hotel perhaps?”

Yuudai shook his head. “No need,” Bernard looked to him. “Don’t worry; all accommodations have been taken care of for you. Please, take advantage of our hospitality. The room for you to stay in will be on me. Any and all food and drink will be on me as well. The staff will be at your every beck and call. And perhaps you would fancy a couple of nights with one of the many fine beautiful women out there?” He asked that without hesitation despite the two gorgeous bodyguards next to him. Bernard quickly glanced at the two of them, but it was obvious they pretended not to notice what their boss said.

“I have already arranged for such accommodations with your son,” Bernard replied.

“I see,” Yuudai replied. “Who have you chosen to spend your time with? I want to make sure that your time here will be as pleasurable as possible.”

“Her name is Seong.” Bernard said as Yuudai smiled.

“Very excellent choice Bernard, I see that you have excellent taste in women. Seong is indeed one of my finest courtesans. She will definitely make sure that your time here is as memorable as it will be pleasurable.” Yuudai paused. “For the time being, please,” he motioned for his son, “please take Bernard to the private dining hall and make sure that he has all that he wants. Food and drink are on the house. If you want to get to the hotel in question, just leave out the front door. Go down the street to your right three blocks then take another right. You’ll be headed away from the beach. The hotel you’ll need will be directly in front of you. It’s owned by my clan. They’ll be expecting you.” Yuudai smiled at Hernandez, “Of course Seong will already be there, as will your bags from the hotel you’re staying at now.”

“Thank you, sir,” Hernandez responded.

Bernard left the juicy bar only ten minutes after finalizing the details with Yuudai. He was now taking his time to walk to the hotel in question. The view along here with the beach and the ocean was really one of the better ones he’d ever seen. The planet’s oceanfront property was some of the best in all of Human Space. This stretch of beach was more beautiful than even Waikiki on Earth and that was far from easy.

The sands were some of the purest white he’d ever seen, the ocean water was a clear blue-green that dazzled in sunlight brighter than that of Earth’s primary, palm trees imported from Earth and native tropical plants waved in the wind, and the cloudless sky was a pure blue. The women walking along the boardwalk were gorgeous too. There were women of all shapes, sizes and colors there. Most were topless, wearing only bikini bottoms or shorts; the ones wearing tops, or the ultra-rare one-piece swimsuit, were the uncommon ones. Bernard was taking his time to admire one of Sirius’s most pleasant of natural resources. Thinking about it the man wouldn’t have minded moving to this planet after the war was won. He could quickly learn to like it here and to be fair the relaxed business climate would make it easier for him to expand his company.

As beautiful as the women were here he remembered that there was one waiting for him at the hotel; one that he could touch as well as look at. He turned the last corner and came face to face with an impressive looking hotel tower that was at least forty stories tall. Unlike towers on Earth and some of the older colonies, Sirius didn’t yet have to build huge towers that went into the clouds themselves. The Siriusian Board of Directors was against doing anything of the sort, wanting to preserve the near idyllic look of the planet and its cities. The large cities of Sirius, such as Sirius One, sprawled out instead because they had the land to do so with. Most towers didn’t rise above a hundred stories on the planet, despite their having the same artificial gravity technology which permitted Earth and other planets to build towers that were three or four hundred stories tall.

The hotel tower that he beheld gleamed white in the sunlight and from the look of the exterior could easily be a five-star hotel. The grounds around the hotel itself were well maintained, with grasses, shrubs, and trees from many Human worlds stretching out from the perimeter wall around the hotel to almost right up against it. The sliding glass main doors of the tower were lined with brass and fountains were arrayed on the landing in front of the doors. Hernandez whistled softly to himself as he walked up the stairs toward the doors. If the Muagi clan could afford to run a swanky looking place like this, they really did command more money than he suspected.

The lobby had red marble flooring and white pillars running along the length of it, leading directly to an open airy space with several armchairs, sofas, and tables. To the right of the open space was the front desk as well as another desk that advertised local tours of the city and information to travelers. Signs were posted on the tourism desk that showed one venue or another but most of them all said that people needed to spend time on one beach or another.

To the left of the open area were what appeared to be two restaurants, one touting itself as the best steakhouse in Lacoma and the other stating that it provided contemporary cuisine from a dozen human worlds. There was a set of stairs heading down and beside it was a holographic sign saying that two other restaurants, a bakery and deli, and a bar existed below. One restaurant was a Korean/Japanese place while the other showed a wide variety of Tex-Mex dishes.

Hernandez strode up to the front desk and a woman behind the counter asked him, “Can I help you sir?” Her voice carried a soft Egyptian accent he wasn’t expecting to hear. Bernard half expected all Yuudai’s people to be Japanese or Asian at the very least.

“Um, yes,” he began as he fished a datacard out of his pocket and slid it across the counter. “I believe that I have a room waiting for me.”

The woman smiled as she slid the card into a reader and waited as it processed the information. Within seconds the computer displayed the data and she extracted the card. “Yes sir, I have you down for a room 3020. I see that it’s been paid in full by Muagi-sama. You must know him well for him to pay for you.”

“You can say that,” Bernard answered.

The woman slid a hotel CAC across the counter to him. “You’ll need this to gain access to the lift and your room Mister Hernandez. Inside you’ll find a computer console in the wall that can show you all of our hotel’s amenities as well as how to contact services. Please do enjoy your stay,” she said with a bow.

“Thank you,” he said with a bow of his own head, “I suspect I will.”

Whistling a low tune, he walked toward the bank of lifts near the front desk and called for one. To be honest he felt his heart pounding just a little at the thought of what would happen there. The high-speed lift reached the floor and he found himself walking down the long hallway to get to his assigned room. Yuudai Muagi hadn’t gotten him a room next to a lift for a reason; one which he suspected was because he wanted to protect the identity of his special guests. Not having a room next to a lift made good security sense. It gave one a chance to be aware of what was going on in the hallway from the room’s doorway camera and have enough time to react to it. Not that Bernard expected any Human Federation agents to be lurking around in the hotel. You could never be too careful though.

He slid the CAC through the reader on the door and heard the door’s lock click. Entering the room, he found the lights already on, a modestly furnished hotel suite with one king sized bed, and a kitchenette. In front of a sliding glass door to a balcony sat a coffee table, two armchairs, and a sofa that could roll out to be a bed. A large HD screen dominated the wall above the dresser in front of the main bed and the light brown carpeting looked luxuriously soft. The sound of running water was coming from the shower and when he knocked on the bathroom door he heard Seong ask, “Who is it?”

“It’s me,” he answered.

“Oh, just give me a few minutes to finish up in here Bernard-san.”

“Hmmm…,” Bernard hummed to himself with a grin, “Take your time…,” he thought back to what Masaru had told him before he’d left the bar. “She’ll really appreciate it if you put ‘chan’ at the end of her name. I don’t know why she likes the Japanese honorific after her name but Seong thinks it’s so cute when guys and gals do. As you and I both know, a woman in a better mood makes for a better bedmate. Call her that all night and I almost guarantee that she’ll do whatever you like with her for as long as you want to, which I suspect will be for quite a long time. And just between you, me, and the wall,” he had completely ignored his bodyguards, “she likes to play games and isn’t afraid of handcuffs,” he had said with a wide grin and a chuckle. Without missing a breath, he finished with, “Seong-chan.”

“Oh!” she exclaimed from inside the bathroom, “I’ll be right out!”

Her words of, “I’ll be right out,” really translated to about ten minutes. Which was fine by him if she was taking the time to get ready. By then Bernard had had enough time to lie on the bed, remove his shoes, and get comfortable. The flights from Altair to Sirius hadn’t been the most restful that he’d ever experienced; luxury spaceliner or not. Bernard didn’t like to travel in space or be in space, which was odd for someone who owned and operated one of the largest ship building firms in the ACF. He spent a good amount of time in space, but that didn’t mean he had to like it.

Any thoughts of how tired he was went sailing straight out the door to the balcony when Seong stepped out of the bathroom. She had a shy sort of smile on her face which seemed very much out of place considering what she did at the bar she worked at.

She had her hair done up in twin ponytails that hung down over both shoulders and she was wearing a light touch of makeup, but only enough to enhance what she already had. Her outfit was a simple white short-sleeve button-down shirt that only dropped to just below her breasts–which Bernard could now say were in fact bigger than most Japanese females–and left her midriff and back bare. She had a sky-blue ribbon around her neck and wore a short black miniskirt that barely covered her butt. On her feet were white socks that came halfway up her shins, with no leggings, and black dress shoes. To complete the outfit, she wore glasses with very thin metal frames that only went around the top of the lenses. Honestly Bernard didn’t know if she needed them or they were just for show. Either way, they looked good on her. In her hand was a small bag full of unknown things and one of the things he hoped was handcuffs. He could do a lot with her with those.

“Do you like?” she said as she twirled around on one foot before coming closer to the bed.

Bernard sat up and his first thought was, Damn, me thinking that at least Yuudai’s bodyguards weren’t dressed as schoolgirls really came back to bite me! Not that I’m complaining now! He instantly felt his heart rate increase as he looked at her and a part of him really wanted Alice to wear something similar. Alice’s breasts were bigger than this one’s and in the tiny shirt they’d look amazing before he got it off her. That wasn’t to say that this woman’s body didn’t look stunning. Knowing that he was stalling because he was too busy just looking at her he answered, “Oh, yes I do Seong-chan.”

She squealed with delight at hearing his approval which was probably one of the cutest things that she could’ve done. She gently touched his face as she whispered softly, “I’m yours all night long and maybe for the next couple nights I can help keep your bed warm too.”

Yes, Bernard could really learn to like it on Sirius! “That sounds very good Seong-chan,” he whispered back as he laid a hand on her thigh and raised it to beneath her skirt to lightly cup her ass. He was surprised to find that she wore panties, but a part of him knew that for the full otaku effect she’d been going for with this outfit that was to be expected.

“Oh,” she giggled with a smile! “There’s no need to rush Bernard-san, we do have all night.”

Bernard returned to Yuudai’s office a few days later. The same two bodyguards were there, and they were as on guard as they were the first time he entered the office. Yuudai smiled at him and waved for him to take a seat. “I trust that you had a pleasant time on Sirius so far Mister Hernandez.”

“Indeed, I did Mister Muagi,” he answered with a grin. “Seong… is quite a woman.”

“So, I’ve heard,” the old Japanese man said. “Now, onto business. I do have everything arranged. Some of it was a tall order you see and getting some of it past Human Federation customs is going to be tricky, but my people can handle it. There shouldn’t be any problems on our end. Some of it will have to be picked up on Earth though, seeing as how there are some things that we can’t get through customs.”

“Meaning sir?”

“I’ll be honest with you Mister Hernandez,” Yuudai said as he tipped his chair back comfortably. “Some of this stuff, this A-232 and VX; you can’t get those past customs no matter how hard you try. It’ll show up on scanners no matter what. I thought it best to be honest with you that way.”

“Thank you, sir,” Bernard said with a little bow from his chair. “I appreciate your honesty. Where will I be able to meet your people? I’m assuming they are your people.”

“Some of them are, yes, and some are contacts we have with resistance groups that didn’t get the memo that World War Three ended. My Human Federation connections aren’t what I’d like them to be, you understand. I have far more leeway here in the Corporate Republic than I do in Earth-controlled space.” He let his chair come back upright as he pulled a datacard from his computer terminal. He slid it across the desk to Bernard. “On here are the locations that you can meet them. Some of these places aren’t the best places on Earth, if you catch my meaning. Places like former North Korea and parts of the Middle East are still watched quite heavily by the Human Federation, even after three centuries. The HF government probably doesn’t want to admit that it watches its citizens in those locales more closely than others, but it’s true.”

“Yes, so I’ve heard. Thank you, sir.” He was about to get up but then a thought struck him. He settled back into his chair and asked, “Sir, if I may, can I ask you another favor?”

“Sure, anything.”

He really didn’t know why he was going to ask what he was about to. Maybe it was a case of whimsy. Maybe he fell for Seong after all. “I’d like to buy out Seong’s contract with you. To make her a free woman.”

“She had that effect on you, did she?” Yuudai asked. “I understand that she can be quite charming. But why should I do this? Why do you ask?”

“I don’t know,” Bernard answered with a shake of his head and a shrug. “Maybe I’m just sentimental, that’s all. But I want to see her as a free woman, to be away from this.”

“You know that we provide her a living, a place to stay, food, protection, and medical care, a portion of what one pays for her, and are even paying for her education? She lives quite comfortably, which is far from what she could have otherwise.”

“Yes, I’m aware of that sir. She told me. She told me that she has only three more months until she has her bachelor’s degree. I find it kind of odd that you’re doing so much for one of your whores,” the two bodyguards stiffened, but if it was at his bluntness or for saying something they knew happened but refused to acknowledge he didn’t know. “Most people don’t go that far or extend that kind of help to mere prostitutes.”

Yuudai sat very still for a few seconds before replying, “Mister Hernandez, let it not be known that I’m not a… generous man. In return for the services my girls offer in the bar, the hotel, and the strip clubs, I do provide for their living, as I’ve already said. The contracts they have are only for a set time. I don’t keep them in my service indefinitely. Some would say that that’s an incentive for them to stay on working for me, but I let them choose if they wish to leave after their time is up. If they want to stay they can just as if they want to leave they can. They know all this before they sign. But as for Seong, you realize that her contract is good for another Earth-year, right?” the older man asked.

“I know sir, but I’m still willing to buy it out. Right now. I can provide compensation to you and she walks free and clear. I’ll even front the money for her to finish her degree and to have something to live on for a bit after leaving your… good graces. I also want you to keep on providing for her until she says she doesn’t need it anymore.”

“That’s quite a bit of money Mister Hernandez, I hope you know this?” Yuudai asked very levelly.

“I know,” Hernandez replied with the air of someone who had money to throw around, and he did.

Yuudai smiled thinly at him before he reached for his computer terminal. He tapped keys on the touch screen monitor then extracted another datacard from the terminal. This one he slid into a datapad which he passed to Bernard. “On there are the terms of her contract and how much it would take to buy it out.”

Bernard took the datapad and scrolled through the contract. He took the time to read it line by line, making sure there wasn’t anything there that could trip him up. Finally, he settled the pad back on the desk and nodded, “Okay sir, I accept your terms.” It was cheaper than he thought it would be. A lot of money to be sure, but still less than he expected.

Yuudai indicated the thumbprint scanner built into the lower right side of the datapad. Bernard slid his own datacard into another port on the pad and called up his digital signature. He affixed it to the contract then offered his thumbprint to finalize it. Then he did the same with his bank account, transferring the funds to Yuudai. It was a hefty amount, yes, but nothing more than he could handle at this point. Taking his datacard back he slid the pad back across the desk.

Yuudai skimmed everything there, inspected the thumbprint and digital signature then stood up. He reached across the desk with his hand. “And now in the grand tradition here on Sirius, to finalize everything we’ve discussed these past few days, we shake hands.”

Hernandez heard of different customs regarding finalizing deals. This one seemed to come straight out of the old American Southwest, particularly from Texas where a handshake was once regarded as a legal binding contract. Here, in this case, the old man’s two bodyguards would do as witnesses to this. It would do. He reached forward and grasped Yuudai’s hand.

“She’ll be a free woman by the day’s end Mister Hernandez. Now if that is all, I wish you a safe and pleasant flight to Earth.”

Bernard made one last stop to the bar area before heading to the spaceport at Sirius One. He easily spotted Seong, and how could he not? He spent something like five days and nights with the woman, getting to know every millimeter of her body. He waved her over and memories of the lust-filled days and nights came back to him as she walked over.

She began to sit on his lap, something which he didn’t mind one bit, but he patted the chair next to his. She sat down and before she could say anything he began, “Seong, by the day’s end you can walk away from all this. Everything here, you can leave it all behind.”

“What?” she asked, more than a little confused by what he said.

“Your contract, I bought it out.”

Her eyes went wide as she asked, “You…?”

“You’re a free woman now, free to choose what you want to do.”

Her jaw dropped open and she sat there like that for a second or two before regaining her composure, “How did you…?”

“I made an offer to Yuudai Muagi and he accepted. Your contract with the Muagi clan is now effectively over.”

She shook her head, unable to believe, even think, about what was being said. “How will I…?”

Bernard waved her to silence and made sure she had his attention first, “I’ll deposit enough to your personal account that you can finish your college classes and have something to live off. Don’t ask me why I did this; I’m not even sure why. You’ll live well enough for a year or two. I also made sure the Muagi clan continues looking after you; I know how dangerous this planet can be to its, forgive me for saying this, lower classes.

“But now that you’re a free woman,” he continued, “I was hoping that you’d come with me, or at least come back to Altair and start fresh. I can make sure that you’d want for nothing.”

Seong bit her lower lip, shaking her head again. She looked at the table then back up at him, “I… I thank you for what you’ve done for me, but I can’t. I can’t come back with you. For better or worse Sirius is my home; it’s where I was born. No matter what’s happened, I can’t leave it. Thank you for the offer, but I think that I need to find my own way from now on.

“You must understand that I’ve been doing what other people wanted me to do for years. I mean look at me.” She indicated the tight, sky blue strapless dress that barely covered the important parts, “I am… well, was… I guess, a prostitute. I worked here, at the strip club and had sex with men and women; far less than some of the other girls here but still more than I’d care to admit. It’s the ultimate in doing what others want. Some of them, like you, were far more enjoyable than others. But after all that, I need to strike out on my own. Be my own woman. It’s what I was planning to do after my contract was over anyways. You’ve just let me start sooner. I know with whatever job I take I’ll still do what others want, but at least my life will mean more then.”

Bernard looked in her eyes, eyes which pleaded with him not to be angry at her for rejecting his generous offer. With a sigh Bernard nodded saying, “If that’s your choice, then it’s yours to make.”

He leaned forward and gave her a kiss on the cheek, “Good luck to you.”

“Thank you.” She watched him get up from the chair and turn to leave. Before he could take a step, her hand grasped his shirtsleeve. “If you ever come back here and want to see how I’m doing, my name is Seong Park.”

“Thank you and good luck Seong-chan.”

Bernard Hernandez sat in silence on the bed, his body barely moving except for the shallow breaths he was taking, his lips moving in silent prayer as the Siriusian yacht exited the jump gate at the outer edges of the Sol System. If there was anything the man hated about space travel it was either the jump gates or hyperspace. He couldn’t really stand either one. Although, he was honest enough with himself that the jump gates proved to be the fastest way around the known galaxy and that the only way he was going to get to where he needed to go was via space travel. The man knew only a little about the physics that governed both forms of travel and to say the least what he knew scared him a little.

Most laypeople didn’t understand how the jump gates worked and even those who did know had to admit that their knowledge was partial at best. It was one of those things that humanity invented and built without really knowing how it worked. That’s what terrified some astrophysicists. With the official arrival of the Zaltaens some scientists were claiming that the aliens had slipped hints to mankind over the years in order to make the jump gates. If that was the case, then the aliens helped mankind more than they were letting on.

The other thing that people were downright scared of when it came to jump gates was how much energy was required to establish a stable wormhole capable of instantaneously moving fleets through them. The things were powered by huge fusion reactors and capacitors and the energy contained within the system was immense. Theories abounded that if a jump gate were to explode the level of destruction would be of biblical proportions. That’s why most gates were built on the far side of a star system, as far away from any inhabited world as possible.

He reached down to where his oversized carry-on bag was and patted the old-fashioned hardcopy Siriusian passport in an outer pocket where he could reach it. Although he scanned the documents with the space yacht’s crew when he came aboard sometimes the Human Federation Jump Gate Control Service (now there was a mouthful) sent their inspectors aboard random ships for checks. The HFJGCS took their jobs very seriously, especially in the Sol System.

Mostly they were looking for criminals, smugglers, slavers, the occasional pirate, and the other dregs of society that professional bounty hunters went after.

In his bag and the two other bags that he checked were some gifts for some other people on Earth. It was awhile since he’d been on Earth, not since before what was quickly becoming known as the Great Coup. Getting back to Earth when you weren’t a Human Federation citizen, such as one from Midas or Sirius, was always a pain in the ass. It was as if the HF went out of its way to alienate those from other star nations and from what he heard they weren’t much better to HF citizens from their colonial worlds either.

He was hoping that the friends he was supposed to meet up with on Earth would be happy to see him and the gifts he was bringing them. It was all innocent enough things in the bags, certainly nothing to arouse suspicion from the Siriusian customs inspectors. And if his things could pass their inspectors (who collectively had the galactic reputation for being the hardest, most tight assed group of customs inspectors) he could pass anything.

Earth right about now wouldn’t even be visible if he pulled it up on his suite’s HD screen even with maximum magnification. How long had it been? Three years? Yes, that seemed about right. He hadn’t been back to Earth in three years. The little side trip he made to Sirius for six days was most… stimulating for the senses as could be but still, Earth was the center of it all. It was the center of humanity. The Human Federation would surely defend the planet and the star system itself to the last man and he wouldn’t blame them for doing so.

He looked at the date/time display on the wall of the suite. Perfect. He was on time for his meeting with his friends. The presidential inauguration was in another five weeks and it was something that he was hoping to see in person. Watching it on the HD was one thing, attending was another.

Seong Park walked away from the juicy girl bar with her head held high and a bag of her personal belongings in hand. She could still feel the watchful eye of the Muagi clan on her and that safety was reassuring, especially since she was still wearing the same dress that Hernandez saw her wearing earlier.

The criminal groups were ruthless to say the least, but they all had a gentleman’s agreement with each other to keep their hands off each other’s assets and those under their protection. They also kept petty small crime to an all-time low, much more than the local police could do. In fact, the local police barely came into this part of town as they weren’t needed or wanted. The mafia groups policed their own turf and in turn had something like a non-aggression pact with the local government and police. If the government kept their hands off the mafia the mafia would do the same for the government.

The mafia groups didn’t run around robbing or killing anyone in the streets; they were too civilized for such base behavior. If one of their numbers did that they were quickly pulled aside and given a stern lesson in why the mafia didn’t do such things. If said member didn’t listen the first time they usually didn’t live to get a second lesson.

That wasn’t to say that the average law-abiding Siriusian had anything to fear though. Some criminals just didn’t get the hint, or a rival gang tried to butt in where they weren’t welcome. Usually the result of that was swift, deadly and often grisly. Seong remembered one time where she walked home one night and found a guy hanging by a rope from a lampstand, and that was after whoever did him in got done with him.

Seong felt perfectly safe walking to the nearest subway station to take her home. Her place was a tiny studio apartment only a few stops from the red-light district in one of the nicer parts of town. Any more than that and the cost of living would’ve been beyond her means, even with the Muagi clan’s pay. Sirius’s standard of living was steeper than it was on most well-developed worlds after all.

Even in the subway station she could still feel the Muagi clan’s ever watchful eye on her. Their reach stretched all the way back to Earth. With that kind of reach what were just a few blocks away in the same town? She didn’t know who the watchers were or even how to identify them and that was just as well. All she knew was that someone was watching over her, making sure nothing untoward happened to her. On the walls of the station were HD screens with adverts for dozens of businesses and services, including one or two strip clubs that she worked… used to work at. It was going to be difficult adjusting to the fact that she didn’t work in such places anymore.

No longer would she be an object for the amusement of men and women. No longer would she have to take her clothes off or have sex with people she didn’t know! She was truly free; free to do what she wanted with her body after four Earth-years. That might’ve been her most liberating thought after so long!

The subway car arrived and whisked her away from the red-light district. Adverts on HD screens were in the car as well, almost as if she were in a temple to the almighty god Capitalism. She stood near the door, her left hand above her head holding onto the metal rail.

She felt the eyes of the others on the train with her, trying to imagine what she looked like under her dress. It probably wasn’t hard for them; it clung tightly to her body, barely covered her hips and its low cut showed off the top of her breasts and plenty of cleavage. For the first time since she was eighteen Earth-years old she felt a blush rising to her cheeks as she remembered that she was naked under the dress. By the way some of the guys on the train averted their eyes when she looked at them, as well as the quiet muttering of some women, they knew she was too!

She wasn’t a whore anymore, so she’d stop dressing like one. She’d have to partially redo her wardrobe, to replace most of her short dresses and skirts for something more modest. She was lucky that Hernandez gave her enough for that too.

She got off at her station and rode the escalator up to the street. She was suddenly very conscious of the fact that she was naked under the dress, more so than on the train, since someone could easily see up the tiny skirt from below. Maybe she should’ve taken the lift instead. She looked back and the only people behind her were two teenage girls. They paid her no mind as they looked at the one girl’s datapad, laughing at something on it.

Seong walked quickly to her apartment, let herself in and sighed as dropped her bag by the bed in the living room and laid back on it. Datapads from the college were stacked neatly on the desk opposite the bed. She didn’t have anything due, so the night was hers. The night was hers to do whatever! Even with that in mind the only thing she could think of right then was sleep. Classes started early the next day and at least this time she wouldn’t be going to them tired as hell, slinging coffee and taking stims to get through the day.

Rising to her feet she stripped off the dress on her way to the shower. She left it over the back of an armchair on her way in. The warm water over her soft skin felt wonderful as she stood under the flow. Finishing she toweled off and went to bed naked.

Sirius was a very warm planet and even with air conditioning it was warm in her flat, and to be fair, she liked being naked. She found it liberating, especially when she wasn’t naked because someone paid her for it! Her previous embarrassment on the train and coming back here stemmed from how underdressed she was on the street. She never felt any embarrassment when she lay on the beach or swam in the ocean naked; most modern women did the same on Earth and Sirius. But that was at the beach, not on a busy street in town!

Sunlight dancing across her body woke her the next day. She threw off the thin sheet and went to brush her hair out, but not before making the bed again. She was neat if anything else. Dressing in a knee length skirt and blouse she grabbed her datapads and was out the door. A noise in the sky made her look up on the way to the subway station. It was a shuttle rising toward orbit and as her eyes came back down she spied an advert saying, “The Corporate Space Navy needs you!” She looked up at the shuttle, then the advert, then the shuttle again. She had a smile on her face as she started down the escalator. She wanted her life to have meaning; maybe that was where she’d find it. In space.

The ride down from orbit via the space elevator to the Panama Spaceport went as flawlessly as could be for a spacefaring civilization. Bernard had looked out over the water of the bay surrounding the Porta Panama Military Spaceport about sixteen kilometers away. The walled-in base bristled with anti-aircraft weaponry, laser cannons and missile launchers. It was designed to withstand a siege by air and sea and the wet navy’s ships provided additional protection for the base. Bernard walked off the shuttle onto the concourse, glad to have solid ground under him once again, his carry-on bag floating behind him on a hover unit and toward the baggage claim area. Collecting his bags and mounting them on hover units he went for the nearest customs area and exit from the spaceport.

The female customs agent who checked his passport was rather cute, but he chose not to notice while she did her work. She scanned the hardcopy passport, “How long will you be on Earth Mister Fredrick?”

“About five or six weeks,” he replied without hesitation. “I have a series of business conferences to attend with the Sirius Corporation’s Sol Branch.”

She turned back to her terminal and tapped the information in before stamping the entry visa into his passport and handing it back, “Well Mister Fredrick, it seems that everything’s in order here.” She looked at his three oversized bags and asked, “Those were checked, were they not?”

“By Siriusian customs inspectors before I got aboard the space yacht, yes,” he answered easily. Reaching into his pocket he retrieved a datacard and handed it to her, “A complete manifest of what’s in the bags along with statements from Siriusian customs verifying that the bags were checked. If you wish I’d be happy to have security double-check them if you wish.”

The woman fed the card into her terminal and her eyes flashed across the display. It showed that he was carrying perfumes and other exotic organic and inorganic compounds. However, they were all cleared by Sirius’s customs agency as safe for transport into and out of the Human Federation. She wasn’t a chemist by training but everything on the list seemed to be legitimate and in line with what Alfred Fredrick had said his trip was about.

Shaking her head, she pulled the datacard and handed it back to him with a smile, “No, I don’t think that’ll be necessary Mister Fredrick. Please just step through the scanner in front of you. It’s a new policy sir, nothing to be alarmed about. It started a few weeks ago when a tourist came through to Earth and brought some disease or something with him, kind of a juiced-up version of the common cold really. Many people were hospitalized but it wasn’t anything nanomachines couldn’t handle.”

Bernard looked at her sideways for a second or two but then deciding that she was speaking the truth he stepped into what he assumed was a bioscanner. The machine hummed quietly as it scanned him and his bags. After five seconds a green light came on and the transparent aluminum screen slid open to let him out. He nodded his thanks to the customs inspector with a smile and headed out to find the nearest train station.

Alice Winfield tapped her foot against the carpeted floor in impatience as she waited on Hernandez to reach the hotel. He’d screened her ahead of time, saying that he was coming up to Mexico City from the Panama Spaceport. The man should’ve been here an hour ago. What was taking him so long? Did he stop on the way to gawk at something or buy tacos? Not that she would’ve blamed him if he had bought tacos. The street vendors around the city had the best ones despite what a lot of the restaurants said. There was something to be said about a soft taco with carne asada steak out of the back of a food truck.

She took a breath before allowing herself to fall backward onto the sinfully soft bed in the room. Looking out the window from there she could see almost the entire city stretched out below. Towers, hundreds of stories tall, pierced the clear blue sky in almost every direction. Mixed in were green spaces, parks, walkways, and the ever-present air car traffic. Mexico City might not be the most populous city on Earth anymore, but it still ranked in the top ten. It was certainly bigger than any city on the colony worlds.

The door chime sounded, and she looked at the display next to the bed. Hernandez was outside. It was about time! Getting up she walked to the door and opened it. The man smiled at her as he indicated the three bags hovering behind him, and of all things, a bag of tacos in one hand. “Sorry I’m late,” he said.

Winfield’s hand came up like a whip and his head snapped to the side from the open-palmed slap.

Stunned he asked the busty raven-haired woman, “What was that for?”

She spun on the heel of her foot to allow him to come into the room, “The slap was for making me wait, you inconsiderate man. Now, what’s going on? What’s the word?”

He heard the change in tone in her voice and took a moment to clear his throat, “Well, I’ve brought only a part of what we’re going to need for the big party. This is going to be a touch difficult, considering just how large of an event we’re planning. We’re spread out all over the place, but I’ve some more friends coming to help with the party. This is going to be big, the event of the century. How are things on your end here?”

The code they were using was getting a little old but there was no telling if the spooks in the Human Federation intelligence community penetrated their organization. It was also highly possible that the HF’s spooks bugged hotel rooms and other public places or snooped in on private communications, however much they swore up one side and down the other that they didn’t. It was possible that the HF knew nothing at all, but the two didn’t want to risk giving them any free leads.

The woman picked up a datapad and was tapping keys on it. “The more people we have in place the bigger it’ll be, of course. Getting everyone in place for the main event won’t be hard but making sure they have everything they’ll need is another.” At Hernandez’s suddenly curious expression she said, “Don’t worry. I’ve made a few contacts with people who can get us all kinds of party favors. Some are in Cuba, some are in the Middle East, and some are in former North Korea, so we’ll have to a bit of traveling. It’s amazing what a few thousand credits will do to people. Getting into former North Korea is going to be interesting to say the least, as the HF hasn’t really let up on that part of the world even as much as they have with the Middle East. I guess there are still too many people there who revere the Kim family even after all this time.”

“So?” Hernandez asked, “Have you decided on which plan we’re going to go with? I mean, we’ll have the resources to do either one. If we’re going to make this party come off in a big way I want to be able to do things right.”

“Well,” Winfield answered, “Blowout Party has the highest chance of success so far and will deliver the results we want. Some of my contacts in Cuba are crooked people who are willing to part with some stuff, provided we manage to produce enough incentive. A few others are your run-of-the-mill crooks. I despise working with them but what choice do we have? If everything there goes right, we’ll be able to have Blowout ready and in place within two weeks.

“Firecracker,” she rolled her eyes at the codename being used, “Has a bigger chance for failure but at the same time gives us a highly selective group of… partygoers to work with. The items list there is smaller, so it’ll take less time to get it ready and in place. Call it a week. But, as I said, it carries with it a higher chance of failure on our end.”

“What are the odds of us being able to combine the two?”

The lovely brunette’s face split into a wide smile that made her look lovelier. “I like the way you think,” she said. “I don’t see why we can’t do both, other than some extra planning and time required to make sure it goes right. Call it two and a half weeks, tops. I can have it set up and will do some of the talking.”

“That’s fine by me,” he replied as he stepped toward her. “In the meantime, I do hate resorting to having you do the talking. I mean, don’t get me wrong, you’re a very skilled negotiator. But it does give me the idea that we’re using you, mostly because of your looks.”

She tugged at the sash holding her robe closed and shrugged her shoulders to let the robe to fall from her body, leaving her naked. “If I minded using my looks to distract some people from what we want or influencing them then I would’ve never agreed to it. But you must admit, it’s served our purposes a few times.”

“Indeed, it has, but sometimes it feels like we’re using you.”

“You’re not. I want the ACF to be free as much as you do. If we must distract or influence people by some means, then we have to.” She reached down and put the robe back on. “Your room is next door.”

“What?”

She chuckled, “We’re coconspirators, not lovers. I thank you for the tacos but get going.”

Hernandez sighed, “How I wish you were my lover.”

“Oh, I know. But we’re not and that’s all there is to it.”

Continue to Chapter 13…