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Death in Ravansār

Discussion in 'FanFic' started by borisgreymenace, Jan 6, 2024.

  1. borisgreymenace

    borisgreymenace killer heckler

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    The fire tore through the panic room with a ravening that surprised even veteran investigators. Initial reports speculated use of military grade accelerants or even a plasma based incendiary device. Advanced forensics from Khadijah dismissed these theories as unwarranted conjecture and found no basis in physical evidence or chemical analysis to substantiate anything besides a conventional burn. But it was too late. The rumor that the Silk Lord Zev Behar had been killed by VoodooTech napalm on Zumorroda Island smoldered across Bourak in hushed tones from corner coffee houses to the season's most exclusive cocktail parties.

    An attack on a resident of Zumorroda is an attack on Qaid Fahesh himself. Within hours of the fire, a special commando team of his Dashat security company had apprehended an PanOceanian Atek working on Behar's medical staff. Overnight the name Bayani Ilao became infamous, caused a diplomatic row, and became a byword for cover up.

    The story was too neat. So pat that Ilao had patsy written all over him. One of the wealthiest Silk Lords, paranoid about security, in poor health, rumored to have connections with every power player from the Kum gangs of Gabqar and the dreaded Nomad Black Hand, was dead due to incomprehensible negligence by a nurse. No one bought it.


    Naila Arash sat across from the Nomad Commercial Delegation’s cultural attaché in Dar El Funduq. The room was cool and comfortable, despite the glare from the mid-day sun. A scrawl of circuitry patterned like a flowing arabesque lined the walls. The attaché was a cool number with gray-green eyes that could be soft and sharp when they needed to watch and needed to see. He was dressed in a crisp white blazer with swirling neofibers patterning his lapels like a kaleidoscope. Despite his relaxed affectation, it was obvious that the attaché was more comfortable in epaulets, barking orders and commanding the fates of brigades and battalions. She could hear his ease of command when he ordered his zondbot to bring a second portion of fasji and solh in corocoro sauce with a side salad of maerki greens.

    A dangerous meal for a dangerous man.

    “It’s been alleged that the late Behar Bey gave evidence that allowed the Muhafiz to break up a Silk smuggling ring run by the Rylsky Organization on Zulqibar station. They’re a powerful mafia of the Struktura on Tunguska. That’s strong motive for revenge against the Silk Lord, don’t you think, Colonel?”

    The remote was patterned after a small deer, antlers and all, with big doe eyes and articulated hooves for hands. It brought a second set of plates and placed them down in front of Naila with perfect subservience. Like all Nomad designed remotes, it had a sort of chibi quality to its proportions that were disarming–but she had no doubt those antlers were sharpened for more than just decoration.

    “Try the maerki salad first,” Colonel Antonin Zelenski dabbed the corner of his lip with a napkin, “A mild dose will induce a wonderful synesthesia. Have you ever tasted color, Ms. Arash? It’s quite delicate.”

    The Colonel had no problem being polite when cornered with a hard question. He had two combi rifles and a heavy pistol trained on her. The Securitate bodyguards wore thin smiles and heavy sunglasses, their fingers massaging the triggers of their weapons. Were it not for their steady breathing, they might as well have been statues. A distant Interventor ensured that her comlog was bricked and her cybernetic eye implants weren’t capable of recording the conversation. Off the record or deep background had been Zelenski’s terms. He wasn’t open to negotiating.

    Naila didn’t eat a single bite.

    “Would you like to make any comment, official or unofficial, about potential Tunguskan submondo involvement in Zev Behar’s death? You’re from Tunguska, aren’t you Colonel?”

    Zelenski speared a large bit of purple fasji with his knife and ate it off the tip of the blade with obvious relish. He took a long time to chew and swallow.

    “Blame the foreigner first, that’s how reporters start.” Naila’s cheeks flushed. She blinked twice reflexively, a signal for her geist, Nur, to begin recording with her eye implants only for an error message to flash in augmented reality. An old habit since she lost her first set of eyes at Ghezirah. Zelenski had commented on how good the cybernetics were when they met. Imperceptible but for the thin white scar that slanted from Naila's left eyebrow across the bridge of her nose to the right cheek. It seemed he had taken some time to look her up on the Arachnesphere as his guards forced her into a chair and searched her for weapons and recording devices. An obvious power play against the journalist who had invoked Madame Lu’s name recklessly. His opening move in their chess match.

    “It’s quite natural, I suppose,” Zelenski continued, “Many of our publications blame ALEPH first and only bother with the facts afterwards, however inconvenient to the narrative they may be. A hazard of the business. Bias. Suspicion. Paranoia.”

    “He was involved with Tunguska based Submondo,” Naila insisted, “And other Nomad interests. One of the last times the Behar Bey left Bourak was to do business at the previous Krug.”

    Zelenski waved his hand, as if the simple gesture might change truth and history. But Black Hand operatives like him were known to spin narrative whole cloth and craft public opinion with only the slightest of insinuations.

    “Zev Behar was no enemy of ours. No friend either.” He shrugged, “And while the legitimate business interests of the Rylsky control some shares in the Tunguska Holding Corporation, their activities off ship are beyond our purview and jurisdiction. That is–not our interest.”

    He stabbed the air lightly with his knife to send home the point.

    “If I were you,” he mused, “I would spend more time wondering how Mr. Behar’s supposed friends are coping with his demise. After all, it wasn’t Behar’s Silk the Rylsky were smuggling. It was Halim Sleiman who was profiting from Silk sold outside the consortium’s caps. Something to think about on your way home.”

    Thus ended their off the record interview. Colonel Zelenski’s bodyguards were not particularly gentle about showing Naila out.
     
  2. borisgreymenace

    borisgreymenace killer heckler

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    The usual suspects are sometimes anything but. Zev Behar was in the crosshairs of several interested parties—Tunguskan Submondo, PanOceanian Hexahedron, rival Silk Lords and Kum Gangs. Even his own family was suspect as his death would necessarily elevate a member in the ranks–his sister, his wife, or a particularly ambitious Odalisque that Behar had been fond of in his final weeks.

    Even the Ilao angle, as unlikely as it seemed, could not be ruled out. Any of Zev Behar’s employees, current or former, could make a play for the entire trading house. The machinations of power struggles in the Silk trade are often secret, but this much is known to even the most distant outsiders: it’s a cutthroat business where the ruthless prevail. Behar had helmed his house for decades, but with his death an uneasy alliance of Nasiat producers, Kum Riders, corsair captains, and the Silk Guild itself will have to agree on a successor. The stakes were high and the list of suspects long, and so far no one but Zev Bey himself had been eliminated.


    “What the hell are you doing raving about Madame Lu in the Commercial Mission, demanding audiences with the cultural attaché?” Samir Naguib, her editor, barked into her comlog. A hazy blue vision of him floated in augmented reality, overlaying itself on the extravagant patinas of the Beş Mil shopping arcade. Sam was middle aged, balding and thick, and chewed through Antarah cigarettes about as fast as he smoked them. He was the kind of journalist who called himself a newsman, seemed to be divorced more times than he’d been married, and, though from al-Medinat, had never once taken a Silk treatment to alter his genome, either for health or fashion.

    “It was a good lead, Sam,” Naila pushed back. Zev Behar’s fingers were in many pies. Off-book sales of Silk to the Nomads and their black market resurrection services were well known despite official denials. Not that the other Silk Lords were looking to stop a business which benefited most trading houses, nor even the Hachib who cashed in those favors for supporting votes in the Öberhaus. But the Submondo angle was the first one most respectable news outlets avoided, even after credibility in the official report was lost. A lead disregarded was like a truth denied.

    “What the hell is a lead worth if it gets you killed? You’re supposed to be reporting the headlines, not making them, Naila. And this isn’t even a fresh take.” From Khiva Kala to Kum-dag everyone was talking about the bullet wounds that had been omitted from the investigator’s report, as well as the witnesses who saw masked intruders at the Hotel Miramar, where Behar had been residing. Whispers that dried up as soon as Naila tried to get someone on the record.

    “There’s something here, Sam, I can feel it.”

    “There sure is. It’s a story about a dog barking up the wrong tree. Get someone on the record or I have to spike the story.”

    “Sam, wait–”

    “There’s no waiting. Ahl Fawara puts out news every day. If you’re just recycling some other hack’s unpublished speculation, that’s not news. It’s tabloid garbage. Get someone on the record or get back to your desk.”

    The call didn’t end with pleasantries. Naira tugged at her chārqad. She’d done front line tours in Uqbar after the Second Offensive and in Ghezirah at the start of the Third, both time embedded with Qapu Khalqi troops pushed to the brink. She had bore witness to the high casualty rates. Low morale. Tempers held taut over a knife’s edge. Special Operators on all sides who saw enemies in every bush and question, regarding both with the safeties off and their fingers on the trigger. She even knew what it was to take shrapnel to the face. But nothing shook her like an editor on the warpath over a deadline. Or the battle over whether a story would be told.

    In the haze of frustration over Sam’s tantrum, she almost missed them. She counted at least two, a man and a woman, tall as Parasols and about as subtle as a pack of Ezheda Tariki on the hunt. Square jawed and trim, they were dressed to play the part of “nondescript,” while bulging at the hip and the ribs. They’d had her reflection in their dark glasses for at least the last fifteen minutes, but maybe since she left the Commercial Mission. Even though they kept their distance they stuck out like misers among the glitterati and Silk wealthy, weighed down by heavy shopping bags and even heavier bank accounts. But not spending a single dinar Beş Mil was about as rare as an honest merchant in the souk, and Naila could only blame herself for not having spotted them sooner.

    There’s an art to being followed. It is patient and meandering. She couldn’t let on that she had seen them, so she had to stop at the odd store. Browse without making a purchase. Send a few messages on her comlog as if she were unhurried and unaware of their gaze. Each time she left a shop they seemed to get closer. The crowd, too, seemed to get thinner. Soon enough it would be just the three of them and that might be a problem.

    As the call for Asr began, Naira made her way over to a tram packed with tourists and faithful headed to the district’s opulent mosque. Like dutiful shadows, her pursuers entered the same car from different doors, studiously attempting to look coincidental. Naila didn’t look at them. Instead, she surfed the crowd by the door, letting the last few shoppers and upright merchants press by her to get their seats. As the bell sounded for doors closing, she caught the eyes of both her shadows and stepped off the tram, only to step back on as the doors began to close. In their rush to charge through the throng, they didn’t see her step back. Naila wore a thin smile as the tram rode by, their bewildered faces framed in the door glass like dogs fooled by a disappearing treat.
     
  3. borisgreymenace

    borisgreymenace killer heckler

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    PanOceania is, in many ways, the heart of human progress. More opulent and less utilitarian than the rival Yu Jing state, its wealth drips from the gleaming towers of San Pietro di Neoterra to the Continental Farming Zones of Khalsa. Plentitude and progress are the two pillars of the vaunted Hyperpower, and form the basis for its preeminence within the Human Sphere.

    But there is another side to humanity’s largest techno-democracy. Those who cannot sync with its ALEPH powered infrastructure, whether through physiology or ideology, are systematically excluded from the opportunity that underpins PanOceania’s economic and political dominance. Commonly called Ateks, these communities live at the fringes of PanOceanian society, in rustic communities called techno-favelas, where they are on the true periphery. Working as menials and farm hands, they’re barely tolerated within PanOceanian society. When Bayani Ilao was plucked from this enforced obscurity to work for a wealthy Silk magnate, not only for a standard pay rate but in a planet that is much less punishing to the cubeless and unnetworked, it must have felt like winning a lottery.

    And surely it was a jackpot job for the former orderly in a community health clinic run by Freedom International. Not only was he relocated, but there were plans to eventually bring his family along. Plans that were well in motion until the day his benefactor was killed in a fire. That would have been tragedy enough, were it not for his implication in the crime.


    Mayumi Ilao was a modest woman, wrapped in a malong and tudong of muted green and off white, the langkit woven in a crisscrossing okir of papanok and binitoon. A blue tinged holographic projection of her sat cross legged and quiet on the floor of an improvised quantronic cafe in one of Puerto La Guardia’s many techno-favelas, waiting for Naila to speak.

    “Aleng Mayumi,” she began, “I wanted to first say thank you for meeting with me. I am sorry for your husband’s imprisonment.”

    There was a pause as Naila’s words were translated by an aid worker from Freedom International. Without the use of a comlog, Ateks were stuck in a world bounded by the limits of their interior knowledge. Beyond a few spoken phrases in Spanish, Hindi, and Italian, Mayumi Ilao’s world either happened in Tagalog or it passed her by. To be excluded if not forgotten was the fate of all Ateks, despite the posturing of PanOceanian democratic ideals.

    “Have you spoken to my husband?"

    Naila bit her lower lip. She would like nothing more than an interview with Bayani Ilao but so far the government continued to block her requests for access. In the gulf of silence since his arrest, increasingly fantastic rumors swirled. The latest uncorroborated speculation on Maya was that Ilao was a Hexahedron sleeper agent, allegedly classified ‘Locust,” who had been dispatched from San Pietro di Neoterra to execute Behar for some as yet unrevealed double cross of PanOceanian intelligence. Naila thought about Zelenski and his Interventors and the ease with which media manipulation came to the Black Hand. Whether there was truth to the rumors or not was immaterial from the way they now distracted from the Rylsky angle.

    “I am sorry, Aleng Mayumi, I have not yet been able to meet with him.”

    After the interminable moments of listening to her own words repeated in a foreign language, the reply came quick and unfiltered.

    “He is innocent, you must tell them!”

    Naila caught her breath. There was a sort of ethical dilemma here. She was a reporter and reporters don’t have opinions. They give voice to the voiceless. Shine light in the dark. Pick and choose whose quotes ring the loudest but, at the end, they were only the vehicle for the story, not the driver.

    “I am trying to let everyone know what is happening here, Aleng Mayumi. Why don’t we begin by talking about how Bayani came to work for the Behar Bey.”

    This circumstance, too, was now a casualty of the rumor mill, with sources in the Ateks Out! lobby alleging Ilao was a radical dissident who had fled to Bourak while the mysterious Plato himself rejected any association between Ilao, Revolta, or any other radical Atek rights group.

    “How will this help my husband?”

    Naila held steady. “There are many stories being told right now, Aleng Mayumi, and none of them are from Bayani. Help us put an end to the rumors. Let the people hear the truth.”

    There was an uncomfortable moment on the other side of the transmission, murmurs off screen as the hologram looked to her side to consult family, neighbors, and the Freedom International worker. Her response was to be decided by committee.

    “Zev Bey sent a recruiter to one of the local clinics. Bayani had been working there as a nurse. The recruiter liked his work and offered him a job on the spot.”

    “But Zev Behar had an Lhost. An advanced one with some cybernetic implants. How would Bayani know how to provide care for a synthetic body model, coming from an Atek clinic in the techno-favela?”

    Mayumi Ilao started wringing her hands. Her eyes shot to the side of the camera. There were no murmurs this time. Just a woman alone with a tough question and a husband who was imprisoned in a foreign country light years away. Though the projection of her lacked the fidelity of an in person interview, Naila could see the anger and anguish wrought in the wrinkles on her forehead, the sleepless nights held in the bags beneath her eyes. The translator coughed once and repeated the question. When she answered, it came as a bare whisper.

    “There are people… Submondo, foreigners, non-Ateks, who use the clinic. When they're afraid to go to a hospital. Bayani would help them, without asking questions. He said that questions were dangerous and that no one should die on the street. Please–my husband is a good man. Let them know he’s a good man.”
     
  4. borisgreymenace

    borisgreymenace killer heckler

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    Like most Silk Lords, Zev Bey is more of a myth than a person. His public details are a carefully curated curriculum vitae rather than biography. The success of his cartel–its growth from relative obscurity, acquisition of rival houses, and the renown of its corsair fleet are public legend. Details of his personal life, the endearing minutiae of his favorite car, villa, cuisine, the meaningful people and relationships that shaped his life, all remain stubbornly obscured in an era where constant Mayacasting ensures we're intimately familiar at a glance not only with our social network but with the stranger sitting across from us on the morning tram to work. Some of Behar's enigma can be ascribed to the hazards of his wealth. The Silk trade is rife with assassins and bandits, as well as allies biding their time for betrayal. Any leaked detail, however innocuous, might suddenly become the vector of a terrible downfall. Yet much of the man's abstrusity can seemingly be explained by an intensely private and modest life. The house of Behar hosted no grand parties or galas. Their social calendar was driven entirely by Behar's wife Erifyli, and often with her alone in attendance. But social reticence was not the only defining element of the late Zev Bey.

    Unlike most Silk Lords, Zev Behar was not born to a Nasiat dynasty. The Behar clan had no ties to the business, and the rise of their house was not favored by any mentor or patron. Rather it was the diligence of a brother and sister pair whose path diverged from terraforming into agriculture and a series of unconventional alliances that thrust Zev Behar into political and economic prominence.


    "He was always a curious boy."

    It had taken Naila the better part of the week to arrange passage through Taba. Flying into Öngüt was the easy part, even if the thought of the fasji eel in every local dish turned her stomach with memories of her time at the Nomad Mission. Under the table negotiations at the horse tracks had taken longer, but finding the right fixer was key. The rains were late this year and in addition to raising the cost of local feed, the ephemeral lakes of the region were dangerously low. Fights were breaking out among the Murabids for control of the water. A stranger crossing that land without the right guide was more a threat than curiosity when the desert’s bosom cannot bear another soul.

    "Always up to something too."

    They ended up taking the long route to Lake Mundafen, crossing between the boundaries of the various tawsheten so as not to instigate misunderstanding. Her guide, Dayak, was the son of a chief and, though not in line for his tawshet's leadership, he knew the ins and outs of their politics and territories as intimately as he knew the grains of sand that made up each and every dune.

    "I knew that no kibbutzim could hold him."

    When the desert broke into the vineyards of Karmia it felt like a revelation. To Naila it seemed like the discovery of an oasis after an eternity of wandering. She felt the slaking of the soul that preceded the first sip of water as the sun lost its mastery of the day. But the settlements around Mundafen were more than a mere outpost or safe haven. It was as if the desert had wound itself around a hidden paradise.

    "Were you close to your cousin Zev growing up?" Naila asked. The woman across from her, dressed in a plain work frock and wide hat, nodded before blowing in her tea. Her eyes were a thin blue like a winter sky.

    "Of course. We were all close back then. Things were much more conservative than now. The children were raised together in a communal house. Zev was only a year younger, poor thing, so we spent all our time together like brother and sister. Growing up we were even closer than he was with Meital."

    “That must have been nice, being so close to family growing up.”

    Tzofiya Ben'Ruah seemed to recede into the ocean of memory like a tide going out.

    "Most people don't realize, we're the children of scientists and engineers, NASA refugees that helped launch Haqqislam into the stars. They see the farms and fisheries around us and assume that we always worked the soil, but not so. Many of us stayed in the cities like Dar el Funduq, helping to build the space elevators and opening biotechnology and aerospace firms. But Zev and Meital's parents were utopians. They wanted to transform the desert." She smiled wanly and let her eyes drift over terraced hills behind the gathering hall, "And they did, after a fashion."

    “What about his sister? They must have been close too. She hasn’t made any public statement since his passing.”

    Tzofiya’s smile grew a little bit tighter and thinner. “No, I wouldn’t say they were close growing up. After Zev died the first time, he came to depend on Meital and they were much closer as adults. But once he married Erifyli that split them up again, almost for good. She still visits here, on the high holy days, to recite Yizkor for her parents. Zev stopped coming the year after the wedding. Were it not for the business I don’t think they would have talked. Such a shame, what that shiksa wrought on the family.”

    Naila shifted to the front of her bench and bit her bottom lip. There was a lot of promise in Ms. Ben'Ruah's gossip. None of the muckrakers had made it out to the Jewish settlements around Lake Mundafen, so any portion of the interview might be breaking news. But Naila couldn't direct a movie, she had to hope Behar's cousin would disclose a detail to make or break the story of his death. "Was your relationship with your cousin also stained by his marriage to Erifyli Argyris?”

    Tzofiya Ben'Ruah shook her head sadly, a cloud crossing the far horizon of her eyes, "No, we grew apart after he moved to Gabqar. He offered jobs to many of the family when he started his Nasiat business, but I stayed. I guess I'm a utopian too."

    Naila let the words hang for a moment. To see if the vacuum of silence could draw something else out.

    “It’s not that she’s a foreigner or even that she isn’t a member of faith, mind you,” Tzofiyah took a sip of her tea and seemed to scour the vineyards for her next words, “It’s that all she cares about are Hanbal treatments and fancy jewelry. Everything that Zev and Meital earn, Erifyli spends, and then some, with no appreciation for what they built. And the way that she promoted her favorite Odalisque to head security–where was he when the fire started? No one’s asking that question.”

    In fact, many were asking that very question, and Naila was among the first who reported that Behar Bey’s personal security, led by Osman Solak, were at his personal villa in Khiva Khala and not protecting the Silk sheik or his wife on Zumorroda Island at the time of the fire. Rumors abounded that Erifyli had diverted Behar’s personal guard at her request. Naila now added a rumor of impropriety between Solak and the widow Behar to her list of facts to substantiate or debunk.

    “I don’t want to seem biased against her, you understand. I don’t know her very well. But what I do know–it doesn’t reflect well on her or her treatment of my cousins.”

    “I understand,” Nail nodded as a light breeze kicked up a wave of dust over the terraced gardens and onto every surface and structure surrounding the lake. It was a hot wind, not the kind that heralds the oncoming rains but the kind that presages a dry season to come. Ben’Ruah, used to such weather, had her hand over her tea before the yellow sand came to settle on the table. Naila was not as quick and her tea became a sodden pool of grit. “We don’t have to go into it. I was actually more interested in whether you could tell me about the first time your cousin died. It’s on his records but there’s no real story about it.”

    Tzofiya nodded with a grim determination.

    “We were living in Zikim at the time. That’s where we’re from, actually, I came to Karmia for my marriage,” she smiled before drifting back into the past. “It was another year of bad rains, except they came early. Zev’s parents were in charge of the lighthouse and Zev was working a shift, preparing the light to signal a change in the lake’s shoreline. That’s when the call came in that some Murabid kids were out at the lake.”

    Ben’Ruah turned and pointed out at the lake behind them. It seemed impossibly distant in the haze of the afternoon heat, but just below the horizon was something washed out and reflective, like a piece of the sky had broken off and fallen into the sand.

    “You can almost see the slope of the shore from here. Outsiders don’t realize, but when the rains come, the water flows both ways. Up from the little lake of the dry season, but also down from the raised shores of the wet season. In a bad storm you’re caught on both sides. Of course, kibutzniks and Murabid know this, but these were kids who didn’t get the weather report.”

    Naila cued her geist to start zooming in for the recording, get the tight close up and to adjust color levels for the dry season sun. As Ben’Ruah talked Nur rotated through filters of sepia and grayscale to capture the feeling of memory, before Naila relented in favor of the woman’s sky blue eyes and reverent tone, which carried the weight of past in every inflection and blink.

    “Zev took off after them in one of the community’s hovercraft. It can traverse the water in sand on a good day, but they’re not built for a change in water level. The way the story goes, it was already waist deep and dark by the time he found the kids. He gets them aboard and there aren’t enough life jackets to go around. But Zev is from Zikim and knows how to swim and is too young to believe in, let alone fear, mortality. The storm is getting worse but the lighthouse is lit and he knows the way home. But on the way to shore, the skirt tore on a rock that wasn’t quite submerged and suddenly everyone’s drowning in Mundafen. Except only Zev isn’t wearing a life jacket. The next day a fishing vessel responds to the distress beacon and scoops up five wet and hungry kids, but no Zev. They recovered his cube a week later.”

    “That must have been a shock,” Naila checked Nur’s Alethia suite for indications of microexpressions, anything in the story that might indicate a divergence from a perceived truth. It was hard to imagine a wealthy recluse like Behar, known primarily for international intrigue and ruthless competition, beset at the end of days by a spiraling obsession with preserving and extending his existence, as a selfless young man risking and losing his life for desert nomads. Yet here was his cousin, professing with utter conviction, the story of a man who gave his life without second thought so that others might live.

    “It was more shocking than usual, maybe a little more since he was my cousin. The fishing here is plentiful but dangerous. There’s always some crew who loses a mate, some tourist who gets lost when they’re drunk, or even a Murabid who is unlucky with their camp when the rains come. If anything, we were lucky, not only because Zev had gotten a cube, but because one of the boys he saved was the nephew of the chief of a powerful tawfet. Not only did they see to his resurrection and cover the cost of a Lhost, but they paid for his university enrollment in Maracanda. So that he could learn to tame this planet,” her voice trailed off into reverie, her eyes glazed as she looked at Karmia’s grape vines. “He learned to do that, I suppose. Just in the mountains.”

    “I think this is the first time I’ve heard of the circumstances of Zev Bey’s resurrection,” Naila tested, straining to keep the excitement out of her voice. “I can’t believe he didn’t let the world know that he’d saved the lives of those kids.”

    “I should think not. The Lhost he received–it was very generous, but far from top of the line. They did their best to tailor to him, cosmetically, but it was a painful transition. And they didn’t know much in those days about the adjustment therapies needed for resurrection. They thought the RDD was just a lingering side effect from his death, like a psychological ghost pain.”

    “Zev Behar had Resurrection Dysmorphic Disorder?” Naila gasped. Her own recovery had been painful. Not just the surgery but the sense of being less than whole. Even with new eyes, though, her body was her. Even during her teenage years when nothing seemed the right size or shape, she’d never felt like her body was anything besides the essence of her. Since the day he died the first time, Zev Behar would not have trusted his own reflection in the mirror.

    His cousin Tzofiya nodded, “A terrible case for most of his life. It got so bad he could barely stand to be seen in public. I used to think he was vain, but after the fire… maybe he was afraid of showing weakness.” She shook her head. “The people trading in Silk.”

    “Was he receiving treatment?”

    “Around the clock, that’s what the Atek nurse was for. There were special clinics, too.”

    Naila reset herself. Pulled back from the unsubstantiated detail that one of the most powerful purveyors of life altering therapies had been, for most of his adult life, suffering one of the most horrific side effects of the Human Sphere’s immortality engine. She adopted, instead, a patient ear and a wide eyed look of interest. This was, after all, Tzofiya Ben’Ruah’s story. Zev Behar’s story was lost to time. Even if he featured in his cousin’s retelling, it was already warped now by memory and emotion, framed through the lens of a heroic rescue, the departure from his community, and the marriage that threatened to fracture his family and his business.

    “That must have been hard on him, to be so close to the biomedicine that saved his life but also afflicted him.”

    Ben’Ruah kept looking at the vineyards. The wind kicked up again, angry with dust and the rains that hadn’t come. She didn’t bother to shield her tea this time.

    “Wine grapes are a funny crop. They don’t just require water. They require dryness too. A little torture of the grape to bring out the right flavors. And then, when the fruit is supple and ready for harvest, it is trampled and wrung from its skin, bled into barrels where it is feasted upon by yeast. The yield, of course, is often brilliant. Sometimes subtle, sometimes bold, but magical in the alchemy that renders a grape into wine. But we don’t care to remember just how much the grape must be broken before it can be transformed,” she looked at Naila with watery eyes. “What is suffering to us but another way to wring triumph from tribulation?”

    Naila made sure to capture that exact frame and had her geist boost and scrub the audio content. She hoped to God the wind hadn’t blown out the mic and crackled over the words. She thanked Tzofiyah Ben’Ruah for her time and offered once more her condolences for the loss of her cousin. The woman nodded and smiled with the politeness expected when one grieves, even if the perfunctory words did nothing to comfort or reverse loss.

    As Naila left the main hall, she found Dayak outside, playing football with some youths despite the hot sun. A few adults, pausing their work to take in what little shade they could, watched the game with a smile. She fell in with them and quietly waited until a stoppage relieved her guide from midfield play-making. The game was free flowing and full of reversal, with Dayak feeding would be strikers on both sides as they made runs on improvised goals and then stealing the ball back for the occasional step over and keep away to draw the pressure from the goalies minding the invisible lines between the overturned buckets and trowels that staked out the ground. Each kick of the ball kicked up plumes of dust like hungry dervishes, only then for the clouds to be broken by the straining face of a kid eager and earnest to break through on goal, become the hero of the moment with a well placed ball just out of reach of the goalie’s hands. The thrill of victory, the crowding celebration, the gleeful shouts of “goooooooooool” when the moment hits. The hunger for that glory was writ on every face, with Dayak in the center, distributing that chance to every boot in turn.

    Naila let herself settle into the moment. First one then another goal, the adults each time offering encouragement for each shot, commendation for each goal, praise for each child who picked themselves up from a fall. As the afternoon dragged on, child and adult seemed to filter out one by one until only the eldest and youngest remained, each having no demand on their time other than to linger in its ebb and flow. When the game finally stopped, Dayak came off the pitch for a drink of water and promised that they would soon depart. Naila let her eyes drift up from Karmia to the Taba desert beyond. She could have sworn when her eyes first met the horizon that dark clouds were starting to gather. She blinked and they were gone. The desert was a thief like that. Stealing hope and threat in equal turn, only to deliver its opposite when least expected.
     
  5. borisgreymenace

    borisgreymenace killer heckler

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    Zev Behar did not waste his second lease on life. He excelled in terraforming studies, and his academic legacy assured a place for his sister Meital to follow. After university, his bright star could have landed him a position at any of the elite Garden Guilds in Iran Zhat Al Amat, but the mercurial Behar Bey staked his career in the troubled city of Semetei, far flung in Gabqar’s hinterland, fighting a poisonous fungal bloom that threatened the Nasiat crop of that region.

    What happened next is little more than salacious rumor. It is said that Behar saved the life of a Kum chieftain and then arranged peace between rival gangs in order to corner the market on Silk production in the area–while ensuring that convenient accidents happened to rival productions, forcing small holders to sell to his cartel at a discount.

    While there is a certain romance to a man saving not one, but two lives to forge his empire, it is almost certain that this rumor is apocrypha or a historical transliteration error. It is clear that Zev Bey maintained some connection to powerful Kum-dag biker gangs to protect and expand his Nasiat production, though within the first three years of forming his trading house, he seems to have supported an elimination of a former ally, the Gece Bıçakları gang in favor of a consortium of Kyrgiz Submondo that expanded the reach of his black market connections, before aligning himself with Kasym Beg’s alliance of Kum gangs. All these moves appear to be purely pragmatic, with motives no deeper than the profits made by changing partners.

    Buoyed by steady production and no clear rival, his trajectory towards Khiva Khala and beyond was assured, the only question was how high could he climb before his enemies would tear him down. The annals of the Silk trade are full of bright burning stars that never made it half as long. But whereas Behar’s business acumen was razor sharp and relentless, his political ambition was tempered and reserved. Among his rival Silk Lords, the Sheik of Semetei was more of a broker, settling disputes and, when necessary, throwing his weight behind Karim Bey in order to censure a peer that had gone beyond the flexible boundaries of the Silk trade’s rules. Even keeled, temperate, and reasonable, Zev Behar was the closest thing to a paragon that the Funduq Sultanate could wish for–exceptionally talented, tolerably corrupt, and above all directing his energy to protect and promote the nation’s most important export.

    That is until he met his wife.


    It had taken all Naila’s connections, conniving, and cunning to pull an invite. Her budget was stretched. Her editor furious. Her competition fierce. Dressed in flats and a knee length floral print dress with a light pink chārqad to match, Naila knew she was undergunned in price and at least two seasons of fashion behind behind the grand dames of Zumorroda as they enjoyed the kickoff luncheon of the Boylik Formula Windsurf Cup. But if the cost of the scoop of Erifyli Argyris-Behar’s return to social life was to feel the pauper among Bourak’s bevy of princesses, then Naila was obliged to pay that price for a glimpse of the season’s most sought after widow.

    “Right this way, Ms. Naaji,” the maitre’d inclined his head slightly after confirming the information on her comlog. He took her through the sunlit dining room, his heeled shoes clacking with military precision as he marched his guest across wall to wall marble flooring before stopping at a hand engraved door of imported baldurwood from Svalarheima. As she scanned the panels with her cybernetic eyes, Nur informed her that the carvings were styled in a motif of Valkyries escorting a gloried warrior into Valhalla. The faces of each turned out to be Faid Qahesh and his personal cadre of Odalisques, with some particularly bawdy embellishments. He donated the piece after some falling out with one of them, which was both a gift to the Muntaha Club and an insult, as it meant he would not be returning for one of their private events.

    “Thank you,” Naila said, pressing a few folded dinars into the maitre’d’s hand. He bowed more deeply this time, at least deep enough to inspect the number on the corner of the folded bills. When he straightened up again he appeared satisfied.

    “You’re most welcome, Ms. Naaji. Please, enjoy the event.”

    With that he threw open the doors and ushered her in. The ballroom of the Muntaha Club unfolded with a gilded opulence reserved for Scheherazade’s flights of fancy. Tiled frescos adorned to the walls recreating the scenes of Sinbad’s adventures intermixed with the historic triumphs of Hārūn al Rashid in a swirl of a heroic and fantastical medieval Baghdad. Whenever Naila’s augmented reality eyes lingered on a relief, it erupted into a scene of cinematic drama, whether it was a sack of some Byzantine suburb or the beguiling of a roc for its precious egg. In between these tableaus she scanned the room for her elusive prey. As she settled upon each woman in turn, Nur returned the pertinent public details of their social halo–name, fame, and above all, their net worth. Arrayed in a sea of colored silks and lace, the great ladies in waiting of Zumorroda fluttered and tittered in a rainbow of every color but the one she sought–the black dress of a woman in fashionable mourning.

    “May I interest you in champagne?” A waiter asked, dressed in a waistcoat with tails. Naila took a glass with a smile and waited for him to move on before she frowned over the rich and the wealthy that were of no interest to her.

    Since her trip to Karmia, Naila had tried to land a conversation with the late Behar’s wife, but to no avail. An army of lawyers stood between her and an interview and in no uncertain terms they had communicated that their client would not be making any public statements on the circumstance of her husband’s death or the investigation of his erstwhile nurse. With Ahl Fawara stonewalled through a series of overt and veiled threats on impressive letterhead, Naila had to engineer a coincidental meeting with the most sought out survivor of the Behar estate.

    Enter Aminah Naaji, a one time alter ego when Naila was starting out in journalism. Hoping to preserve her good name for something worthy of a Hildy Johnson award, she cut her teeth with a nom de plume that followed gossip and celebrity, cultivating a small but dedicated Maya cluster interested in entertainment and gossip news. As she landed more serious freelance gigs along the way to her first Paradiso assignment covering the war against the Combined Army, she had been happily forced to take a step back from the frivolity of those juvenile ventures. But she never relinquished the persona, instead refreshing it occasionally with the odd social fluff piece in case of a departure from Ahl Fawara on bad terms. Today it found another use. On Zumorroda, investigative journalists were not welcome. Mayacasters who featured the wealthy in their element, however, were fêted with champagne and hors d'oeuvres.

    Despite the elegance of the afternoon, it was clear that Zumorroda had not yet recovered from the mysterious death of Zev Behar. In addition to the mingling Odalisques, doing their best to charm guests with story and i-Kohl, there were the faces of a half dozen scowling men, skulking the room in department store suits. A contingent of Fahesh’s finest Dahshat officers meant to demonstrate that the security concerns of Erifyli Argyris-Behar remained top priority. Naila ducked behind some of the more flamboyant guests each time one approached. No doubt they would be kitted with some AR facial recognition software and she couldn’t chance her cover being blown just yet.

    “I don’t think we’ve met,” a tall man said to her as she slid in front of the lover’s pit of Sinbad’s fourth voyage. He was tall and boyish looking with curls of brown hair, but his almond eyes betrayed a flinty look of someone used to more than a life of pleasure. As Osman Solak studied her, Naila had to steady herself against the wall to keep the tailored pheromones from forcing a swoon.

    “I don’t think so. My name is Aminah.”

    “A beautiful name,” he smiled, “I am Osman. You’re new to the island?”

    Naila blushed, no doubt a combination of being ambushed by a potential source and his i-Kohl. “Yes, this is my first time. It’s quite expensive to get a pass to visit.”

    “Might be overpriced if you’re a Windsurfing Fan–Olabisi is a better race. The Boylik Cup was only created because the Qaid felt slighted by Olabisi’s fame. He’s capricious like that.”

    Naila smiled and folded her free arm to clasp her champagne arm at the elbow as she held the glass up to her face. The effervescence of the wine tickled her nose as it mixed with the scent of sweet flowers. “I came for the company, actually.”

    “Then you will be doubly disappointed,” Solak ran his hand through his curls, revealing a string of misquoted Tasawwuf philosophy from al-Insan al-Kamil intermixed with Rumi verses on his flexed bicep. Naila figured this tattoo was a subtle inscription of more weapons grade i-Kohl, meant to impress the casual observer with the reference and to knock an enemy off balance if the need arose. “No one here has been interesting in at least a decade.”

    “Is that why you came over to me?” Naila batted her eyes at him. It no longer mattered if it was due to vaporized psychotropics or her own awareness of the Odalisque’s tools. Behar’s head of security was chatting her up of his own accord. Blinking twice in rapid succession cued Nur to start recording.

    “You are the most beautiful woman in the room.” There was a glimmer in his eye that punctuated his satisfaction and wit.

    Naila squeezed her arm to keep from touching her scar. “I’m sure you say that to all the women you meet.”

    “Not all,” his smile grew wider. “But when I spied a fellow storyteller who has the figure to match her wit, I thought I should not waste her time and talent by being coy.”

    There was something rakish about Solak that couldn’t be attributed to mere pheromones. He was tall, handsome, chiseled, and interested in her. But Naila could tell at once, with both fascination and disappointment, that there was no guile to the man. He was someone’s arm candy. Always had been, always would be.

    “You’re also a storyteller? If you know this crowd well, you must have more than a few to tell.”

    He rested his hand on the wall behind her and leaned in, towering over her. His red vest opened and she could see the toned chest and abs that it barely contained, as well as the scrawl of more i-Kohl tattoos. In the moment she had to drink them in, she wondered which were for defense and which were for pleasure.

    “I have a couple, if you must know. In, fact, there’s a story about a secret room in this club–”

    “Osman?” It was a sound not quite like a shriek. Not loud enough for alarm. But at a pitch resembling that of a startled bird. From behind Solak an older woman emerged like a dark cloud. Despite a shrill voice that did her no favors, Erifyli Argyris was a stunning figure in mourning. Though already in her mid-fifties, the rejuvenating Hanbal treatments that Zev Bey’s widow received had almost perfectly preserved her beauty queen days in Sybaris, except around her small, hard eyes. She wore a plunging black cocktail dress that revealed the extent of her sorrow, barely reaching mid thigh. A hand sheathed in an elbow length black glove wrapped itself around the Odalisque’s waist, while the expression behind a thin black veil pinned to a small black fascinator did little to hide her obvious distaste. “Who is… this?”

    Erifyli’s eyes looked up and down Naila’s floral print dress and found it obviously wanting. Naila was not deterred. After surviving Combined Army mortar fire in Septentria, it was going to take more than a look to cow her. She reached out a hand in greeting and excitement. “You must be Erifyli Argyris, the model. I’m Aminah Naaji, I host a small Maya cluster on the wealthy and famous of Bourak.”

    There must have been something charming about the way Naila switched focus abruptly, as Erifyli slipped her hand off Solak and put it on her chest in an expression of being flattered. Osman seemed to deflate several sizes as the women’s focus shifted exclusively to each other.

    “Why, yes. Not many remember me for my career on Neoterra. Most here only know me for my husband. I go by Erifyli Behar these days.”

    “Oh, yes,” Naila said, withdrawing her unshaken hand, “I heard about your husband. I am so sorry for your loss. This must be a difficult time.”

    Erifyli put the back of her hand on her forehead and tilted it back. “Oh, child, you have no idea how much suffering it is to be a widow. All these women look at me now as if I’m some broken thing. Thank you for your kind words. It’s nice to be seen as something other than the extension of a man.”

    Though histrionic and more dramatis personae than grieving widow, there was more than a little heart in the performance. If Erifylis Argyris could stand to be herself there might even be something poignant in her loss. But Naila also read a woman who’s capacity for heartfelt belied deeper ambition. A desire to direct.

    “You have an opportunity to tell your own story, Ms. Behar.”

    Erifyli’s eyes slid to the corners as they regarded Naila for another appraisal. This time not of dress but of intent.

    “I’m not sure I follow, dear.”

    “With your husband gone, you are poised to inherit his fortune. Do you have any plans to take on the trading house?”

    The widow Behar retreated from her woe-betide-me posturing and adopted a flat, icy facade, a wan smile that might be read as polite or wrathful sealing her lips.

    “I’m afraid I can’t really comment on the business, you understand, of course…”

    “Of course, I just thought you might want to talk about how frightening it was to be in the flat when the fire broke out. What did you do?”

    Erifyli stole a nervous glance to Solak, who was no longer pouting but asserting himself in a professional capacity. He loomed above Naila again, not as playful and boyish, but pulling an impression of something between a junkyard dog and a barbed wire fence. As his big, tattooed arm began to sweep Argyris behind him, Naila could preternaturally sense the security guards stalking her like cauchemar cats.

    “I think you’re starting to bother the Lady Behar, Ms. Naaji,” his voice was like gravel in a tumbler.

    “I don’t mean any bother, I just want to give her a platform,” Naila felt firm arms wrap themselves around her biceps and squeeze hard. They were dragging her away. “They’re not your lawyers, Ms. Argyris. They work for the Behar Trading Company.”

    Naila had a little more to say and a lot to ask, but all her words were lost amidst the scandalized stares and the unceremonious ejection.
     
    Wizzy and LeedsVillain like this.
  6. borisgreymenace

    borisgreymenace killer heckler

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    Despite their clannish and hermetic nature, the business functions of a Silk trading house are not altogether different from a publicly traded finance company on Toroqua. There is a board of governors who oversee shareholder interest. Corporate officers who manage the day to day operations of the companies. Regulators who wish to ensure that the business operates within the constraints of industry standards and practices. Representatives of all three of parties converged on the Silk Consortium offices at the Helezon Tower in Dar el Funduq to decide the fate of leadership of Behar Silk Trading, LLC.

    Despite the obvious features of the analogy, one can find its limits almost immediately. A Silk trading house might resemble a Toroqua investment firm in terms of title and structure, but there are no public minutes of its meetings. Shareholder rights are not enforced by law but by force. The officers and board principals who show up may be wearing suits, but among their number one can count more Section Statera warrants than business school credentials. Standout among the Red Notices–Piracy, Narcotics Trafficking, Cube Duplication, Assassination, and Aggravated Assault on a Customs Official with an aggravating circumstance of drunkenness. That captain Göker Reis of the Preveza, flagship of the Behar corsair fleet, accounts for most of these charges is not surprising. That Sarolt Shah, the chief finance officer has more international charges than İstemi Beg of the Gök Onmüň Kum gang certainly raises some eyebrows.

    Most cloistered of all is the decisions of succession. To extend the comparison to PanOceanian institutions–if their corporate structure superficially resembles a financial company, executive transitions of Silk Lords are more in line with ascension in the NeoVatican. As Zev Bey's business partners assembled that day, market watchers waited outside the Helezon offices for the fumata blanca of a decision.

    No one knows how consensus was achieved. Secret ballot? Drinking contest? Honor duel between champions? All are possible. What is known is that Erifyli Argyris, Osman Solak, and Meital Behar entered the arena as possible successors before a committee made up by the aforementioned Reis, Shah, and İstemi Beg, a representative for Sultan Kerim Bey, and the CEO of Davlat Properties, a subsidiary of Boylik Corporation, acting on behalf of Qaid Fahesh as a representative for the other families in the Silk Consortium.

    After an hour and forty five minute session, Meital Behar walked out as the director of her brother’s legacy. For her part, Erifyli Argyris reportedly received a modest widow’s pension and free transport from one of Reis’ shuttles to the C4 circular. Osman Solak returned to the Çember Odalisque Academy as an instructor.

    In the absence of transparency, it’s easy to assume that a titanic power play took place behind the scenes. One can imagine the bribes and intrigue, the volatile confrontation between two women who have not spoken since a wedding some years prior as they argue over who was more entitled to the inheritance of a man dear to them in different ways. Did the Wisdom of Solomon prevail? Was there some dramatic revelation that doomed Argyris’s bid to succeed her husband? Or did her status as an outsider among the hermetic and paranoid titans of the Funduq Sultanate disqualify her immediately, and was her last stand merely an indictment of fait accompli?

    Another explanation is this: a sister who was intimately involved in the day to day operations of the company took over the role based on her experience, interest, and qualifications. A widow returned to her family and homeland where she had a more bankable and positive reputation in a less cut throat business. A bodyguard to a dead man never has good prospects for another job, but maybe he does have some wisdom to share with the next generation.

    We will never know.


    “Keeping out of trouble, Nails?”

    It had been a long time since Naila had been called that. Not since the jungle, when the Ghulams jokingly gave her that nickname for staring down a missile launcher armed Fusilier with the navigational lasers of her aerocam remote. The company sergeant was furious.. It was a one in fifty chance that she had recklessly taken, he screamed once the shooting stopped. Naila knew she would have died if she tried to duck.

    “It’s a misunderstanding. I had an invitation to be there.”

    Yüzbaşı Rasim Zaman wore a sardonic smile to match his tailored suit, standing head and shoulders above the Dahshat officers who were dragging Naila through the Muntaha Club door. He cut a fine figure in the late morning, his face cut at chiseled angles below slicked back hair. If the Dahshat guards had the look of extras in discount suits, their captain was clearly modeled to be an action movie lead.

    “I’ll take it from here, men. Do a perimeter sweep and double check the guest list to be sure, but I think this is the only excitement we’ll have today. I’m sure Ms… Naaji won’t object to seeing herself the rest of the way off the property.”

    “Captain, she was bothering the widow Behar. I demand that she be taken to your precinct immediately and detained!” Osman had followed from the reception, barking orders and curses at Fahesh’s personal military. They did not seem amused, least of all Ras.

    “Easy, Solak. Let the paid help handle your problem. Why don’t you get back to preening and flexing in front of the dowagers at the tea party.”

    Osman glared at Ras for a minute, veins popping on his biceps and neck, lending an ugly cartography to the i-Kohl ink calligraphy. It seemed for a moment that he might release the pheromones just to assert himself, but instead stomped back to the party, the rest of the Dahshat detail following closely behind.

    “You still have problem making friends, Nails.” Ras said when they were alone.

    “You got a promotion,” Naila said as she fixed her dress and scarf. The guards had managed to wrinkle both in their vice grips.

    “Nice to see you too,” Ras chuckled. Then shrugged. “Benefits of the private sector. More career opportunity in an actual paradise that isn’t trying to kill you every five seconds.”

    “Have you met the inhabitants?”

    “I don’t think much about the inmates,” Ras quipped, checking his comlog, “But you sure got them riled up. I’m off in a couple hours. Why don’t you meet me at a coffee house?”

    The encrypted invitation to connect came to her social cloud, Naila’s real social cloud, not her alter ego, Aminah Naaji.

    “Try the ful. They make the best in town.”

    The Almalaa Alkafiin was not the typical eatery of Zumorroda, but instead a working class affair that resembled those in most neighborhoods of Dar and Khadijah with faux wood furniture and dark lighting. Apparently opened by Boylik Corporation to ensure that the island’s various staff had places to eat and congregate away from the wealthy tourists, it was not without its luxuries. The ful was delicious. As was the Turkish coffee. It was a better place to pass the time than a Dahshat run detention cell.

    Ras came in about fifteen minutes before sundown, his tie loosened and shirtsleeves rolled. Though his dress had changed, his post-shift manner reminded Naila of when he would retrun from a long picket in the jungle. Weary, sure, but he was raw too. As if all the bravado had melted away in the heat leaving behind just a man who could see the world for what it was.

    “I didn’t know you were on the island,” she said after he sat down. Ras didn’t even bother to put an order in with his geist. He raised a hand at the barista who waved back and brought an espresso to the table.

    “I didn’t know you were on the island either, but I have an excuse.” Naila had cut off the entire unit since her return to Bourak. The recovery had been so painful that she’d started wearing a boshiyyah to cover herself. Couldn’t bear to look at herself in the mirror. Couldn't bear to be seen by those who’d known her before it happened. The doctors praised her faith, saying in a knowing way how a near death experience often brought people closer to God. That made her double ashamed. “Since when did you traffick in fake IDs?”

    “It’s not fake,” Naila blushed, “A pseudonym. My legal name is on the travel papers.”

    “I’ve had time to dive Aminah Naaji’s Maya cluster. I didn’t know you were such a gossip.” He winked at her and it made Naila blush even more. It was like him to do that, go serious and then drop it, as if they were talking about nothing. They were always talking about nothing. His smile gleamed.

    “It’s from before I met you, mostly. When I was just starting out as a reporter.”

    “It’s good stuff.”

    “Stop it.”

    “I mean it,” he put his hand on hers across the table, his brown eyes searching for hers as she tried to hide from the juvenalia of her early writing. She should be proud, she knew, that not even Zelenski’s Interventor had turned up this skeleton in her closet. Instead, she found herself looking back at Ras and missing the three day scruff he had after patrols in the jungle. “I’ve been following all your work. The Akinti crime ring exposé, for example–”

    “So what’s the deal with Argyris and Solak?” She pulled her hand out from under his and drank the last chalky dregs of her unsweetened coffee.

    Ras leaned back with a sigh, “All business, are we?”

    “Business is my pleasure. I heard that Solak wasn’t even on the island when the fire happened. Isn’t that suspicious?” Naila blinked twice.

    Ras waved his hand. “No recording. This is just old friends catching up.”

    Naila fretted but Ras’s eyes were insistent. She cut the feed. Satisfied that he was no longer being filmed, Ras continued.

    “Yeah, Solak was in Khiva Khala. Preparing to receive Madame Behar that evening.”

    “Doesn’t that strike you as suspicious?” Naila repeated in a shout whisper. She looked frantically across the coffee shop to see if anyone was listening, but as far as the early evening was concerned, two friends were making conversation.

    “Sure it does.” Ras sipped his espresso. The ease with which he sat across from her and enjoyed a fancy coffee in a tailored suit spoke well of his come up from his days with the Sword of Allah.

    “And..?”

    “And we looked into it. Truth be told, as far as Solak goes he’s not much for head of security. A decently talented bodyguard, well rated by Çember, but he’s got no head for coordinating a security detail. To hear him tell it, his main duties were of a more… intimate nature. And he was quite in demand by both husband and wife.”

    Ras was proud of his innuendo but Naila could see the diversion and skipped it.

    “If he wasn’t in charge of security for Zev Behar, who was?”

    Ras sighed, “We were the ones charged with managing Zev Bey’s security presence.”

    Naila drew a breath as she scrambled to understand the political calculus. Though most people knew Faid Qahesh for his Boylik corporate empire, he got his start in Silk, though he was a relatively minor player in the business compared to others like Shohab Bey or Zev Bey. Considering the rivalry between houses, it was almost unthinkable to trust another Silk Lord with something so essential. Yet for Dahshat to fail, even once, and so spectacularly, in defense of a rival would surely doom it in the War Market if it was a sabotage to help Fahesh.

    “Embarrassing for you, then.”

    Ras shrugged, “Wasn’t me personally, but not all officers have strong military training. Some are more like corporate concierges. Contracts with Silk Lords are a tight balance. They want personnel who can competently protect them, but who aren’t capable enough to spy on their operations. Or worse. Unfortunately, Zev Behar did not quite strike the right balance with his security team.”

    “Blame the customer. That’s one way to spin the contract. I’m surprised Fahesh doesn’t have you do marketing.”

    Ras chuckled and drank some more espresso. “Well, either way, the Behars have upgraded their package with us.”

    “So where was Erifyli during the fire?”

    “At a private airport on the other side of the island, waiting for a charter to take her to Khiva Khala. It was her weekend with their boy toy. She didn’t even know about the fire until we detained her.”

    “So you interrogated Erifyli Behar?” Naila’s eyes narrowed, looking for any tell Ras still had.

    “We interrogated both of them. They talk a lot but don’t have much to say about the fire. We were able to clear them both of their involvement though. We did a deep dive on their Maya activity, their psych profiles, their financial dealings, and even tried to trace any sort of accelerant or incendiary to them or persons in their social circle. They came out clean. Maybe not a flattering picture, but they came out clean. Not only that, they both confirmed that Behar wasn’t supposed to be on the island that night.”

    “Not supposed to be on the island?” Naila put her hands flat on the table and let the revelation wash over her.

    “Nope, last minute diversion of his personal city hopper. They couldn’t have planned for that, let alone organize their alibi. They don’t even have the capability to be opportunistic about it. If they wanted him bumped off, it was dumb luck that went their way.”

    Naila let her gaze drift to the glass door of the shop. Outside, down the street and past a towering resort, she could see a narrow cut of the private beach front. Beyond that, a fiery sun was setting into the Ibn Battuta Ocean, like a great blaze of speculation drowning in a fathomless substrate reality where things were far less exciting than they seem.

    “You have to let me publish this. It changes the story and puts a stop to some rumors. It helps your client more than anything else.”

    Ras stared into his empty cup. “Background is the best I can do for you. Deep background.”

    “Senior security sources on Zumorroda Island?”

    “Sources familiar with the investigation, and even that’s a little close for comfort.” He frowned. Whether it was at the empty cup or his exposure was uncertain. Naila bit her lip. Outside the cafe the ocean looked serene and placid. Below the surface, however, were sharks and worse predators, deep caves and chasms that could hide innumerable secrets. Bodies too. Ras looked up, rolled his eyes.

    “Go on, just ask me.”

    “So you’re saying that you believe Bayani Ilao started the fire?”

    Ras grunted and shifted uncomfortably in his chair. “Off the record? It seems as crazy to me as it does to the rest of the world. But I think PanOceania involvement is likely. Don’t think anyone is going to let that get public though.”

    Naila pushed. He had told her to. “What do you mean PanOceanian involvement?”

    This time it was Rasim’s turn to look around the cafe to see who was listening. When he looked back at Naila, he mouthed a word at her. She wasn’t much of a lip reader, but based on how long it took him to wrap his lips around the shape of it, it could only be the One Big Shape that dominated the glass spires of San Pietro di Neoterra. She gasped.

    “I didn’t say anything,” Ras was firm, holding a finger up.

    “But Ilao, he’s an Atek, you’re saying that–”

    “All I’m saying is that we found the guy in the room with his boss dead and a ton of industrial accelerants. We don’t know who started the fire, but it’s clear as day who didn’t fucking stop it, hit the panic button, or try to get his boss out of the way. He might not have held the match but he saw who did and let them get away with it. And you can fucking quote me on that.”
     
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  7. borisgreymenace

    borisgreymenace killer heckler

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    Zumorroda Island has long been synonymous with wealth and intrigue. Dubbed Jazirat al’Iithim in popular media, the name Zumorroda has become synechdoche for Boylik, Fahesh, and even the excesses of Silk itself, a stinging indictment of not only the role that this floating casino plays in the popular imagination, but of how far afield the artificial island has come from its humble roots as an environmental preserve. But rather than Ihya gone wild with neon lights, games of chance, and the occasional allegation of Submondo activity, Zumorroda is best understood as a carefully curated veneer for its powerful owner–ultimately meant to enhance Qaid Fahesh’s stature and misdirect our perceptions of him.

    At its heart, the revels and luxuries developed by Qiziqarli Entertertainment, a subsidiary of Fahesh’s Boylik empire, is a managed experience. A cap on guests, ostensibly due to environmental impact regulations, creates a sense of exclusivity among the relatively few visitors per year. Arriving on island through its one and only airport, which caters primarily to private aircraft and luxury airlines, passengers are greeted by scantily clad dancers performing a Raks Baladi that swerves more sensual than authentic. From there, autocabs armed with slots and AR poker convey guests to beachside resort hotels, where subterranean rooms that look out on endangered reefs go for as much of a premium as penthouse suites that stretch into the clouds. Even the most modest accommodations available are comparably priced to several months rent in most of Bourak’s working and middle class neighborhoods, and that’s before the various casino games. With a robust sportsbook and state of the art Aristeia! hexadrome, Zumorroda is purpose designed to increase guests’ bills by large multiples through virtual, augmented, and bloodsport wagers. Rounded out by one of the largest collections of rare vintage bottles and a battalion of celebrity chefs, guests can celebrate their wins or drown their losses with some of the best cuisine in the Human Sphere. And, as if an afterthought, departing visitors are treated to a tour of the atoll reconstruction work funded by Fahesh himself and supplemented by their tourist dollars, so that every dollar spent can be understood as having played some role in saving the local ecosystem.

    Behind this green-washed bacchanalia is a different kind of ecosystem. Policing and public safety are provided by Dahshat Company mercenaries–another Boylik subsidiary. Public security forces, on the other hand, are not welcome and require personal approval from Fahesh to land. This arrangement doesn’t just suit the enigmatic owner of Boylik Groundforming and its various corporate spawn. It suits a certain type of guest who always seems to have a guaranteed spot regardless of visitor caps–War Market brokers, Submondo capos, and titans of industry who have trouble finding high end accommodations that look the other way on criminal records and extradition requests. Zumorroda hosts a small but stable long term population of the wealthy and infamous, all of whom remain outside the purview of regular law enforcement so long as they remain on the right side of Fahesh and his interests. What they must do to maintain that good will and how that cost is borne by the rest of the Sphere is not factored into any hotel folio. Arms deals over high tea, new Silk derived narcotics tested in after hours Aristeai! fights, proxy wars engineered to gain market share or test out new weapons, all of it within arms reach of one of the most protected ecologies in Bourak.

    At a cursory glance, the glitz of Zumorroda is just bright enough to obscure the activity Fahesh would prefer we not see. But the brightest light creates some of the darkest shadows. It is true that Qaid Fahesh is a business tycoon–terraformer, Silk Lord, property investor, biotechnology pioneer. And if you look past that, you might also see a man who built his legitimate fortune upon the scaffold of a criminal empire in Oqtosh, regularly rubs shoulders with the worst scoundrels of the Human Sphere, and whose main sources of income include weapons for hire carried by men and women cynical enough to pull the trigger for cause no more sacred than a paycheck. It is not enough to say that Fahesh and Zumorroda are contradictions, for their different sides are not contrary. Rather, it is a public smile in service of sinister motives, romanticized by a Sphere that has more affection for characters instead of consequences.


    As the morning light washed gold and warm across her bed, an urgent call buzzed in Naila’s comlog. It was like starting the day with a slice of cake and a glass of vinegar, or getting into a warm bath that someone pissed in.

    “Morning, Sam,” she looked at the clock in her augmented reality dial–six thirty a.m. on the dot. The hotel AR suggested a few areas where his projection might ghost in, but Naila declined for a virtual avatar projected into her eyes instead.

    “You’re deadline to file was last night,” he was gruff and grousing and it wouldn’t get better with a cup of coffee.

    “I was working a source until late last night,” which was true and not true. She looked at the empty spot in the bed next to her, where the covers had been pulled up to the pillow.

    “Anything come of it?” Sam was uninterested in entendre.

    “Sources close to the investigation shed light on why they cleared the widow and Osman Solak, the Odalisque. I was also told that Behar was not supposed to be in Zumurroda that night, he’d come in unexpected on a chartered flight.”

    Sam mulled over this information like a sommelier choosing between boxed wines. It was obviously unpleasant but he was willing to choose the least worst.

    “Who’s the source?”

    Naila bit her lip. “They only gave me the information on background.”

    “You really should run that by editorial before making that decision. I’m an instant message away, you son of a dog. It’s not like you’re in a warzone any more!”

    “There was no time to clear it–”

    Sam held his hand up, “It’s not important now. Sources close to the investigation, who?”

    Naila looked at the empty bed beside her again. “An officer in Dahshat–”

    “How do you know them?”

    “Previous assignment, Paradiso.”

    The light clicked on in Sam’s eyes, which grew wide enough to cancel out his scowl. But he swore loud enough that Nur had to adjust the volume in her earpiece.

    “Lieutenant Zaman? Don’t you think that’s a little more than ‘a source,’ Naila? You had a relationship that if disclosed would color any reader’s understanding of the facts! We can’t just ask the public to accept that on background!”

    “He came by it honestly,” Naila said defensively, “This is not an ethical issue–”

    “I’m not questioning your ethics, Naila. I’m questioning your objectivity. And any ethical boundary you might or might not cross using this source is for Ahl Fawara to decide, not you. This isn’t the jungle and this isn’t the Hachib’s feel good propaganda about defeating the Combined Army. This is a fucking matter of national interest. A man died and another is accused of murder and I need my lead reporter to be real fucking sure she’s not a useful idiot for Qaid Fahesh’s public relations spin because she’s caught in a honeypot!”

    The words stung worse than the rising sun in her eyes. She blinked several times to wash the hurt out and steady her breathing before responding.

    “It’s not a honeypot, Sam. We can verify the facts, if not quote the source.”

    “I’m almost happier not quoting the source. I ought to spike this story. You had me with the cousin’s interview, there’s something there. A profile of a man’s improbable rise to power, but this murder angle–you have nothing that contradicts the official facts and now you’re putting your old boyfriends down as ‘sources close to the investigation.’”

    She waited for him to stop cursing again before she spoke. “You have a source in the Commercial Aviation Bureau.”

    The statement caught Sam off guard and his eyes narrowed into slits. “What of it?”

    “They can verify the flight manifests for the evening of Zev Behar’s death. Pull the records and show the private charters incoming to Zumorroda island. I can work the airport administrator’s office. Any mismatch of official details confirms a cover up. Or maybe the details prove the story. At least it will back up Rasim’s detail about Behar’s unanticipated arrival on the island.”

    Sam’s eyes stayed narrow as he chewed his unlit cigarette around the nub. Naila could see the scales swinging back and forth in his head. He was a betting man. It just took a little wager to hook him. She had to figure out the ante.

    “If it all checks out, I’ll write the puff piece.”

    Sam growled something that wasn’t clear.

    “I said if it all checks out, I’ll write the puff piece.”

    “Alright, Arash. I’ll shake some trees with the civil air folks, but you better have something good for me by end of day today. Something on record.”

    Sam hung up before she could promise she would.

    Midmorning had done nothing to improve her mood besides putting the sun someplace higher and hotter than it had been when Naila woke. Zumorroda’s passenger airport was a small luxury airstrip more accustomed to private flights and first class charters than the large commercial routes flown into Dar and Khadijah. Despite the high end eateries and paid performers that met passengers as they landed, it was far out on the island and surrounded by a small industrial park with several acres of cargo hangers meant to ensure that no luxury lay beyond the reach of the well heeled travelers who visited the island.

    And just as the surroundings contradicted the polished veneer of the airport, so did the administrative offices behind the terminals, which resembled a half million or more other such offices on the planet, lit by flickering fluorescent lights that buzzed like flies, tiled with linoleum in desperate need of a wash, and staffed by sleepy people whose hospitality ended at the limits of their job description.

    Armed with a list of flights from Sam, however, Naila was determined. She had made her way into this inner sanctum with nothing but a pleasant smile and the thin story of a lost bag. The man across from her was middle aged, maybe a generation older than her, thin to the point of gaunt, wrinkled everywhere except around his smile lines, and brushed with graying hair that did not obscure the growing bald patch at the front of his head. Despite the dour demeanor, he was all too happy to be the center of Naila’s attention.

    “I’m sorry miss, but I don’t think I understand. You lost your bags over a week ago and are now just coming to file the claim?”

    Thin really was a generous way to describe this premise. Flimsy might even be a stretch. So Naila smiled harder, batted her eyelashes faster, and tried to make the whole thing seem more clear while being as unspecific as possible.

    “I’ve been staying with a friend, so generous, who has helped me with my lost bags. But the airline office in Khadijah said the bags were shipped back and would be coming out on the next flight, but when I checked in with customer service, they told me that the bags had been here in the lost and found the whole time.”

    She flicked a message from her AR dial to his. At first glance the meta data would appear to be from Nawal Air’s supposed customer service representative “Aminah Naaji” to passenger Naila Arash, confirming her story with a real manifest and ticket reference key, though it wouldn’t hold up to any actual scrutiny, especially if he tried to validate the contact with the company’s personnel roster. The man across from her scowled at what came up in his augmented reality projection.

    “Hmm… I don’t understand. We have no lost bags. Since we implemented ALEPH LAIs to track all baggage, these sorts of things don’t happen. I should check with the head office.”

    Naila tugged her chārqad. She looked again at his public halo, which had the requisite sanitized social cloud of a customer service rep meant to deal with angry complaints. God willing, she’d bet anything that the man would prefer to have this job taken over by some sort of lesser artificial intelligence, but for the inevitable loss of pay. Other than that, she had nothing to go on but a name.

    “Please, Hasan Agha, I have had the run around from the airline for a week now. If there are truly no bags, can you please just check for me? It will be easy to see if there’s an empty room.”

    Ansar Hasan, Intermediate Grade Customer Service representative, did not look moved by a simple honorific. So Naila busted out the big guns, widening her eyes and puffing out her lower lip. He broke after the first sharp inhale.

    “Ok, miss, I can check no problem. Just give me a moment to confirm the flight details.”

    “Oh, thank you sir,” she effused, unmelting her anguish into a bigger, brighter smile than before, “Thank you so much. You’re the only one to truly help me.”

    “Of course, Miss,” he was professional, but his salt and pepper mustaches danced above a self impressed smile as he used his comlog credentials to log into the terminal and reference the flight details. ALEPH might manage the baggage payloads, but like everything else in Zumorroda, there was something low rent and archaic just behind the dazzle. “It is as I said, they made no records of unclaimed bags. But I can check the back if you give me a moment.”

    “Of course, thank you so much Hasan Agha,” she repeated. As he disappeared into a Staff Only door behind his desk, Naila popped out a makeup compact and flipped the top for the mirror. As she pretended to adjust her mascara, she reached out just far enough to catch the reflection of the terminal display that Hasan had left open. She blinked twice before scanning the list with a tilt of the hand mirror.

    It didn’t take long to find it, PV97-3, RAV - ZMR, 3-12-70, ARV 0314, DMK 0325, PSG 1. Private Charter 97-3 from Ravansar to Zumorroda, December 3, arrived just after three in the morning with a single passenger disembarking a few moments later. She didn’t even need to double check Sam’s report to know that it wasn’t listed on the Civil Aviation Bureau’s control report for the night.

    She didn’t wait for Hasan Agha to return. Naila’s geist sent a copy of the discrepancy off to Sam as she walked out into a midday heat, having picked up another breadcrumb on the trail.
     
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  8. borisgreymenace

    borisgreymenace killer heckler

    Joined:
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    Since the end of the Silk Revolts, few events are as momentous or fraught as the death of a Silk Lord. From the outside, the Beys and Begums of the national export appear to be fractious and internecine, yet they nevertheless provide a united front when one of their number is threatened by an external party. Never was this more clear than the outpouring of collective grief for the death of Zev Bey, with cannon salutes and lowered flags and extended periods of mourning performed by the great houses from their bastions in Gabqar, Funduq, and the multitudinous caravanserai.

    Yet just a sap parasite must hatch for a Nassiat plant harvest to render Silk, so too are the intricacies and symbiosis between Silk Lords and Sultanate impossible to parse in a simplistic framework. While platitudes over Zev Behar’s influence flow easily from the polished mouthpieces in Khiva Khala, scathing whispers reach the many ears of Kerim Bey of how his former ally worked to thwart his reform efforts. Those who hold up Behar as a paragon of responsible monopoly are jostling in the background to fill the vacuum left in his wake. Even with the business moving into the capable hands of his sister Meital, it is far from certain that the Behar Silk house will maintain its current influence, let alone survive the power politics of this political jockeying.

    But beyond the small and rarefied circles of Silk politics, there are others who are caught in the eddies and whorls of Zev Bey’s tumultuous wake. The Sultan himself must contend with being one ally less in a sea of grandiose promises and hidden agendas. Without Behar’s voice of quiet compromise, opposing parties along several rifts–commercial, political, and even ideological–are hardening their positions and accelerating their timelines. Silk’s footsoldiers in Kum gangs and corsair fleets must necessarily reimagine their alignment with the Consortium itself. As one influential member bows out, there is room for the ambitious to not only take his place but to reinvent the system itself.

    If there is one place where this death in particular might resonate more acutely than the Silk strongholds in the continent, it is Nawal Island. Whereas the Sultan and the Silk Lords strive for dominance over one another, they are but two sides of the same coin. A Sphere spanning economic interest that can not only topple governments but throw the entire status quo of the G5 powers into chaos. Without promise of resurrection, the meat grinder of Paradiso and the steady rout of human forces no longer holds promise for any tomorrow, let alone a better one. Religious and Party figures no longer hold sway over the afterlife fate of their constituencies, eroding their temporal power. Even the O-12 and the omnipresent ALEPH itself, otherwise held above the fray of day to day human politics, are suddenly more ominous when Bureau Lakshmi’s artificial scarcity is no longer a reward for compliance with their supranational powers.

    In short, the knife’s edge that the Hachib walks to ensure primacy over regional and commercial interests has suddenly become sharper and more narrow. No one is more invested in a predictable, and controllable, fallout than the Hachib and the various Tariqas serving the presidency. Khadijah’s influence is being subtly, and not so subtly, exerted to ensure that no realignment of power does anything to reduce even the appearance of control.


    It wasn’t a long walk from the airport office to the main road. Once there Naila could catch a cab that wouldn’t be filmed by airport surveillance. Despite the heat of the day, there was a cool breeze off the ocean that bent the palms with a light kiss of its breath, the hint of salt in its wings as it floated over the afternoon. But it was a lonely walk, past hangars and low slung warehouses and cargo yards, more corrugated and utilitarian than Davlat Properties or Qiziqarli Entertainment’s usual boisterous aesthetic. At least it should have been lonely, but for the two familiar shadows that dogged Naila in the midday heat.

    She saw them early this time, getting out of an autocab just a few meters from the airport gate. An audacious move, but like her they were beyond the view of Zumorroda Airport security and unlike in Beş Mil they weren’t at all concerned about blending in. They walked with purpose, gaining on her with each footstep. As Naila sped up, so did they. When she slowed, they did not. She pulled up a pedometer on her AR dial and estimated the time to arrive at that well traveled public road in the distance. Nur was blunt. She wouldn’t beat them in a footrace.

    With the path forward denied, Naila decided to throw a fistful of luck sideways and see what stuck. She walked up to one of the unmanned cargo gates, kicked off her heels, and jumped the gate arm before breaking into an open run, trying her luck among shipping containers branded Xperides and YJITC and Koson Logistics.

    The man and woman following her ran too. They ran faster. She was barely into the cargo yard before they rounded the corner, gaining on her, their long loping legs clearing the gate like Olympic hurdlers in a practice heat. Naila knew in an instant it wasn’t a matter of escaping from them. It was now a matter of keeping the chase going long enough for help to arrive.

    “Drop a pin and send a distress call to Ras,” she gasped to her geist. A soft ping in her earbud, barely audible over the pounding of her heart, affirmed her direction.

    “Target has called for inbound.” She couldn’t quite get the language but Nur’s auto translate function was all too happy to stream their conversation in her ear.

    “Copied!” barked the reply, somewhere off to her left.

    Naila struggled to put one foot in front of the other, her bare feet slapping painfully on the poured concrete, broiled in the tropical sun. As much as her soles hurt, it was the heaviness in her legs that slowed her as she charted a course between towering stacks of multicolored cargo containers. Even without her heels, she had come to make an impression, not to run a race, and right then she was doing neither. Just losing ground. The steps dogging her like unfriendly echoes must have been the result of some kind of metachemistry or Silk augmentations. Naila wasn’t built to beat them. She could only outmaneuver them by calculated randomness. A turn at each junction, twisting away from her pursuers, hoping that they might overshoot their mark. But their shouts kept rumbling closer to her with each breath, like an encroaching storm.

    And just because she could read the clouds didn’t mean she could predict the weather. As Naila tried to slot her way through the gap between corrugated containers, she ran smack into her male pursuer like a thunderclap. As his hands clasped around her biceps and arrested her in place, Naila was struck by the sterile smell of him, like a hospital ward, antiseptic and generic. There was, too, a certain blandness of his face, pale and indeterminate, like a background extra equally at home on Neoterra, Tunguska, or Khadijah. In the fraction of a breath they shared together she knew that he would disappear easily, as if evaporating, the only condensate evidence of his ever having been would be the residue of a pair of discarded heels and, if lucky, her corpse.

    Her brief enrapture in his foreboding anonymity was broken by the keening of an Artefaktech Efreet screaming through the sky, its retro boosters breaking over the two of them like a squall as the tilt rotors wrenched down and held the transport in place. They both could only look up in awe as one of the side doors slid open and a nylon rope was hurled out for rapid rappelling.

    “I’ve called for extraction, TacCom says to hold until the exit craft arrives,” The woman shouted over the screeching engines. The man nodded and suddenly Naila found herself dragged further into the cargo labyrinth that now threatened to be her own undoing. She tried to pull back, lock her knees, and drag her heels however painfully into the concrete, anything to slow them. But the man’s grip was vise-like and certain, and with an almost mechanical fluidity he swung her into a fireman’s carry and plunged deeper into the maze of goods.

    Whereas Naila’s path had been meandering and improvised, her captors were quick and efficient. The woman snapped off shots with a compact machine gun in short bursts. A spitfire of Yujingyu make according to Nur, leveled to keep the heads down of the pursuing Dahshat response team. The man hauling her flung a hand in front of them, fingers outstretched, manipulating some encrypted hacking dial. With a few quick motions of his fingers, the sealed doors of a cargo hanger flung open, admitting them before slamming shut behind them.

    “There’s too many. I saw a trench engineer attached to the response team. Power armor too. The door won’t hold. We need something else,” the woman clipped as she took up position behind a forklift.

    “Working on it,” the man replied, reaching into his vest and grabbing a tactical hacker’s visor to pull on his face.

    Hearing them talk so matter of factly about being surrounded by Ras's team seemed to wake Naila from her stupor. She began kicking her feet and trying to writhe free, or at least distract the man long enough for the Najjarun unit to get a detonation charge on the door.

    The disturbance was enough for the man to set her down and bury a fist in her solar plexus. The breath poured out of her lungs like an untied balloon being released and her legs gave out, dropping Naila to her knees. The man grabbed her by the back of her collar and dragged her behind a crate. She gagged and her body shook as she tried to gulp fresh air.

    "Wait here," he commanded, and then looking at her, "You'll breathe normally again in a moment."

    "Repeater out!" The woman shouted.

    Naila twisted her head and blinked twice to start recording to her comlog. Anything she could manage, an image or video recording, transmitted, might be picked up by the breaching team to get a sense of location. Even the audio data might help Ras, make sure his team could insert themselves without taking casualties as they triangulated the position of the opposition.

    "None of that," the man said, shutting down her comlog with a swipe of his hand. Her whole world suddenly went dead. The light of the warehouse adjusted to a dusty half light, illuminated no longer by her low light eye enhancements but by a few track lights around the perimeter. Augmented reality logos and manifests winked out of existence, as well as the meager profile data her geist was starting to compile about her new contacts. So went her real time translation tool along with any connection to the outside world. Bourak was something of a Maya-lite experience, even compared to Paradiso, as ALEPH’s quantronic penetration was kept at arm’s length. Only now, however, in her most vulnerable moment, did Naila understand how much it protected her from reality. She was alone, held captive by armed bandits, and about to be a bystander to an firefight with little more than a box between her and the crossfire of high caliber rounds.

    "De bryter mot!" The woman’s hard syllables cut the air, like clipped curses against a capricious fate.

    “Nästan klar,” he replied, this time using both hands as if he were conducting an invisible symphony. Even through the filter of her augmented reality and its curated patinas, Naila could not have seen through his combat encryption to understand what, exactly, the man was doing. But in the hot, dusty half light of the warehouse it seemed particularly ridiculous to watch him wage one side of his hidden, virtual war.

    “Huvudet ner!” the woman shouted. On cue the man dropped to his knees, as if finishing the final move of his solo. The world shook with a sudden fury that Naila felt more in her chest than her ears, rattling her and her bruised diaphragm as if she were a ragdoll strapped to a rocket ship. Her vision went dark then suddenly washed out as afternoon daylight stabbed into the smokey darkness, the smell of burnt almonds choking her, and a maddening ringing dampening the shouts of combat teams.

    “Contact,” someone cried, whether it was the woman or not she couldn’t tell. The only thing she could understand in those moments was the impossibly fast motion of something low and squat rushing in from the shadows next to the man. She followed it, the outline of a thing like a giant insect on digitigrade legs, as it raced towards the front of the building. An industrial remote, some civilian pattern of a Kameel combat REM meant for hauling. Craning her neck as far as she dared over the crate the man had laid her against, she saw the robot was one of a pair charging towards a hole punched through the bay doors of the warehouse. Her unaugmented sight adjusted slowly to the oddity of the scene, the two remotes like beetles, crawling quickly towards a gap in the door that the explosion had warped into flowering petals of smoldering metal. It was as if she were watching some crude mockery of Bourak’s terraforming, the gentle hand of the gardener forsaken for automata and corrugated alloys and lifeless aggregate slabs.

    The bizarre tableau was suddenly spoiled with the reality of iconic Yu Jing patterned Niao Zui power armored trooper stepping through the breach. Painted up in the garish red of Fahesh’s security company, the trooper fired from the hip with a MULTI rifle in a wide pattern at the woman and the oncoming remotes. One of the armor piercing rounds connected with the control module of the Kameel and shattered its components like broken crockery. The other managed to side step the round and continue its hyper crawl towards the door. Meanwhile, undeterred by the StateEmpire’s uparmored military surplus, the woman fired back with a controlled burst of her own, clustering her shots ineffectively on the reinforced torso of the Zuyong Invincible.

    As the soldier trained their rifle on her, a sort of stuttering palsy seemed to overcome the trooper, the servos of the armor whirring and seizing at irregular intervals in a jagged and halting motion like a marionette with half its strings cut. It was then that the significance of the woman calling the repeater out dawned on Naila. She could see, behind the beaked visor of the trooper’s helmet, panic begin to set in as the woman stood up with her spitfire and clustered another shot on the soldier's torso, this time her bullets punching through the reinforced plating in a fine red mist as she fell back to another position and the armored trooper crumpled to the ground.

    "Erkin is down, I’m point," someone beyond the threshold shouted.

    In her half hidden view, Naila saw a Ghulam soldier peer through to take a shot with her rifle, only for the remaining Kameel to descend on her wildly, flailing some industrial grade lift arms like electrified pincers. The soldier stumbled back, swinging the stock of her rifle desperately before slipping from view. Naila heard several concerned shouts and the discharge of some Askari rifles. The female captor fired back from her spitfire for good measure.

    “We need a hacker up here!”

    “Fiendens hacker inkommande!”

    “Smoke out!” another cried. Naila heard the trademark thunk followed by the distinctive tinny clatter and fizzle of a canister of chemical gas. The room filled with the smell of rotten eggs and her eyes began to water. She pulled her head back now and her body began to wrack with a cough, this time the hands of her would be saviors stealing her breath.

    “Det är för många, vi behöver en utgång,” the woman hissed pointedly as she slid by, heading towards another position in the cargo stacks.

    “Jag jobbar på det också,” the frustration in his voice needing no translation. With one hand in front of him, he continued his fury of fingers, each stab of his index finger seeming to correspond to a call from behind the door.

    “Comms are down, I repeat, comms are down!”

    “Enemy has a lock, keep your head down.”

    “Where’s the damn EVO?”

    It seemed to Naila that her hope of rescue was slipping quickly through her fingers. She couldn’t hear Ras’ voice above the din of confused soldiery. Even with their superior numbers, the Dahshat team was stymied by a hacker, a support weapon, and a couple of remotes. Her captors were no mere thugs. They were a well coordinated insertion team that could fend off Qaid Fahesh’s finest on his home ground. She had no idea when their exfiltration support was coming but once it did there was little chance they left without her in tow. It was time to make her own luck.

    The haze of the smoke was almost enough to obscure the sight of the hacker. The woman had dropped from sight, seemingly lacking any multispectral equipment to pick up enemy heat signatures. Naila braced and flexed her arms against the side of the crate. Her ribs stung. But she had enough breath to tuck and roll to the other side. With luck, she could go belly down and crawl towards the breach, hoping like hell that keeping a low profile would prevent any Dahshat friendly fire from ending her story a couple of chapters too soon.

    “Don’t move,” the man said in unaccented Farsi. He wasn’t even looking at her, but his assault pistol was trained on her, braced against his hacking arm. At point blank range like this, even with the smoke, there was no way he could miss.

    There was another thunk followed this time by rumble of thunder and a spray of blasted concrete that rained on both of them in brutal chunks. Despite the gun trained on her, Naila couldn’t help but pull her hands over her head and throw her body down.

    “Signal’s clear, send in the Rui Shi!”

    “Skit.”

    From her prone vantage, Naila could not see but clearly heard the skittering of mechanical legs walking over the now pocked and cratered ground of the warehouse. The man, who so far hadn’t been shaken by dropship, demolition charge, power armor, or grenades, seemed a little desperate when he threw out his hand in front of him, straining it forward as if the very force of the gesture could more rapidly propel whatever viral code he was hurling at the remote. Up till then, she realized, she had regarded him as some sort of wizard, a magi of the quantronic arts who could open doors with the flick of a wrist like Ali Baba or summon forth remotes from the ether to do his bidding with a hacker’s ʿIlm Taskhirāt. It seemed tragically mortal to her when the Rui Shi’s gunfire split his skull, blowing through his palm and cracking the hacking visor. With a quick electric arc and a sound too close to rotten fruit, he slumped backwards dead.

    “Man nere! Jag upprepar, man ner. Faller tillbaka!”

    As the woman’s voice faded from the ringing din of combat, Naila could feel the tremor of the combat remote advancing on their position. Her spirits rose only to falter as she considered in those split seconds that whatever remote operator was piloting the combat platform was not Ras. They had a loyalty to Faid Qahesh above all. It could be that they were there to rescue her, sure. It could also be that she was just another inconvenient witness that had to be silenced, like so many forgotten ghosts in Oqtosh. She had no idea what would happen when the winged arms of the remote broke over the cover of her crate, the dual linked spitfires tracking for targets.

    “Contact!” Naila heard, and closed her eyes.

    “We got a civvie! Bring in the L-T!”

    “Site secured, sweep the perimeter!”

    Ras couldn’t have had a better entrance if he planned it. The latent breeze from the ocean seemed to sweep in again through the blasted doors, carrying the smoke and stench of gunfire out of view. Zaman was stepping through the cloud just then, so that the smoke seemed to pour off his pristine combat armor like a jinn willing itself into materiality. The sunlight favored him, cutting across his cheeks and brow with a glinting polish, leaving just enough brooding shadow for him to smolder. Naila noticed, in spite of herself, that he had let his five o’clock shadow come in.

    He reached down with his hand. “Are you ok?”

    Naila winced as she was pulled up, her entire torso a throbbing bruise from the last fifteen minutes. She grit her teeth. “Just like Paradiso.”

    Ras smiled, then frowned, his brow creased with concern. “Not quite, of course. These PanOceanians aren’t wearing uniforms.”

    Naila blinked twice and her comlog reset, free of whatever spell the dead hacker had cast on her. Her geist, already used to conflict zones and the hard forensic details that can sell the chaos and grandeur of a pitched battle, began highlighting the gear of her would-be abductor on the ground.

    “It’s a Yungang Xing type 2.6 assault pistol,” she heard herself saying, “And the device looks like a custom Bodysoft rig. None of it is PanOceanian make.”

    Ras shook it off with a nod. “Just some basic spycraft and OpSec. Enough foreign gear to diffuse suspicion. But mark me, this asshole’s not from Shentang but Sarakino Island. He’s got dead Aussie written all over him.”

    Naila looked at the dead man. There was nothing written on him. Maybe she'd have known if the morning had gone down differently. She weighed possibility and preference and blushed before turning away.
     
    #8 borisgreymenace, Jan 11, 2024
    Last edited: Jan 21, 2024
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  9. borisgreymenace

    borisgreymenace killer heckler

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    One cannot begin a discussion on justice without reviewing its predicates. Of all the major cultures in the Human Sphere, perhaps none are more interested in the moral origin of law than Haqqislam. In PanOceania, law derives from the lobbies and the will of the people as mediated by snap polls on Maya. In Yu Jing, the Party assumes by proxy this will and the Emperor metes out the punishment. On Concilium, law is treaty and international convention, as filtered through the lens of debate and consensus in the Öberhaus. While for Ariadna and the Nomad motherships it is a pragmatism honed by different, yet similar, unforgiving frontiers. Only in Haqqislam does justice stem from God, discerned through human reason and divine revelation.

    Despite the divine origins of God’s justice, it remains elusive for our mortal institutions. Even when drawing from the great historical madhhabs of Earth, the neo-Mutazalite philosophy remains as aloof, perhaps even more so, to the temporal concerns of law as its medieval predecessor. Yet rather than simply cede the moral authority of justice to the secular state, it has instead allowed for a flourishing moral-ethical debate among the many schools of Tasawwuf, drawing mainly from Twelver and Maliki traditions when considering the state’s capacity as judge. Quran and trustworthy hadith have as much room in our criminal justice system as ‘aql and istislah. A strength derived from diversity and moderation, reason and tradition.

    And yet. Though we are well versed in the various ontologies of justice, one need only glance about to see where our practice falls short. The Kum gangs of Gabqar, the nepotism and corruption of Funduq, the radical bio-experimentation of al Medinat–there is a long and yawning gap between us and our aspirations. And as our forebears so often questioned, how can it be both true that God is great and everything stems from his will and that evil coexists in the world? Do the words of Abd al-Jabbar still resonate when he separates the divine ‘Adl from the human qabih and zulm through our capacity to turn away from the face of God?

    Put a different way, is there not here a certain theodicy of the State when it comes to the gap between judgment and justice? A polidicy which presumes purity in the state’s intent as inviolate of the failed execution by its various functionaries in law enforcement and the judiciary. Can a democracy, however tolerant, moral, and philosophically informed survive such a distinction? Do we have bad actors or is the system functioning exactly as intended?

    Among the many mutual guarantees of the Constitution of Madina is a clause which assures that no one may give shelter or protection to a murderer and that such a transgression shall not be forgiven by corporeal law, because the very act is cursed by God himself. Generations later, Wasil ibn Ata would wonder what the status of a believer who committed such a grave act, recognizing the liminal space of fasiq between mu’mineen and kuffar. There is a thruline here that even within the people of the code, there is an outside space that no intention can heal.

    For some, Bayani Ilao is fasiq, a believer that we must accept as one of us, but whose transgressions exceed that which is reparable under the law. But from another angle, it may well be that in the proceedings surrounding the murder of Zev Behar, we are all fasiq, for we have put the expedience of a conviction ahead of the catharsis of truth. From the beginning, Muʿtazili was a word of the enemy. We called ourselves Ahl al-Tawḥīd wa l-ʿAdl, the people of God and Justice. As this case unravels, one can only wonder why the slur has stuck and from what it is that we withdraw ourselves.


    The flight to Khadijah was the best and worst of her life. Sparing no expense, Quiziqarli had upgraded her, at their behest, to premier class accommodations. For a few hours, Naila occupied an air cabin of size larger than her apartment with food and drink that was well beyond even the culinary excess of Colonel Zelenski. She was told, several times, that the only thing Qaid Fahesh could not abide was an unhappy guest, and that every arm of his Boylik empire was now committed to ensuring that Naila received enough luxury to make up for a near miss of a kidnapping that happened in his home.

    It was the worst because the short flight couldn’t end soon enough. She wasn’t sure what strings Sam had pulled, but Naila was on an express flight to sit down with Bayani Ilao. A prison exclusive interview was now sitting in her lap and she couldn’t wait to get there.

    A frenetic and furious dive of the Mayasphere reconstructed a timeline she mostly knew. After Ilao had been arrested, the PanOceanian consulate had brokered representation for him with Hasana El-Mofty, a well known human rights lawyer. However, after she had arranged for his transfer to proper accommodations at the Fatih Cezaevi, his defense passed to a Khadijah fixer called Sohrab Khoroushi. She’d written about him before. Though a high-price bulldog litigator, Khoroushi’s experience with murder cases was thin and his usual fare tended towards the celebrity and the salacious. Khoroushi's high profile wins against the state in some organized crime cases that had been regarded as a slam dunk for the prosecution were key for Ilao. Homicide might not be the lawyer's bread and butter, but grabbing headlines and winning the PR battles outside of the courtroom were well within his wheelhouse. And it seemed like Naila was the opening move in an upcoming media blitz.

    Touchdown in Khadijah was tedious and slow. The plane circled while the tower sorted out a crowded tarmac and then had to wait for a gate to open up. Naila thought ruefully about how ALEPH could track bags but still had not taken over air traffic control. The flight attendant came by several times with complimentary wines, teas, and juices, most of foreign or small batch origin. Naila waved them away under the shadow of a superstition that accepting them was akin to Persephone eating pomegranate seeds in Hell. Instead, she kept her face glued to the window, the hunger in her eyes greater than that in her belly.

    From thirty two thousand feet below, the president's island sprawled in a meticulous kilim with the Hachib's palace at the center like a rounded Nazarlık, from which radiated literal circles of power. First for the national agencies, then the regional governments and the Majlis, where Fatih Cezaevi held Bayani Ilao, and beyond that the headquarters of countless national and international businesses, think tanks, nonprofit organizations and the housing of their various officials, each laid out in proximity to the center as physical reflection of the power and influence they wielded. The vulgar display of authority and importance was softened, somewhat, by the interspersed gardens and mutual architectural respect of the Mošarraf that wove the skyline in a pattern of soothing dominance. From the parade routes that split the city like a compass rose at cardinal points, there were visible leylines, prowled by Akrep TAGs and Runihura soldiers until their terminus at the forts and bunkers reinforced against orbital bombardment and quantronic infiltration. From there the fringe ends of farmlands and bygone hamlets dribbled out to the coastlines of the Alhazen and Al-Adrisi seas. Naila's eyes drilled into this phantogram that refused to give up the pattern behind the arabesque, tapping her foot incessantly until she could find the one loose thread in these Ghiordes that would unravel the secrets piled in the guls of government and intrigue.

    Her busat Sulaiman of green livery and neomaterial weft eventually glided into its gate and discharged Naila like a pacer coming off the block in the Qasr Meydan. Her comlog was jammed with notifications. Urgent demands from Sam. Vaguely romantic overtures from Ras. A note of sincere apology from the personal quantronic header of Qaid Fahesh. A survey from Khadijah Air measuring the satisfaction of her experience. She muted them all and had Nur silence any notification that wasn't from Khoroushi. Naila could not stomach distractions now.

    An autocab took her out to the second ring road. A humble turn off took Naila on to tree lined avenues with sculpted buildings reflecting regional styles in a way that echoed ancient earth architecture refracted through a lens of hopeful modernity and natural forms from Bourak's landscapes. It was the height of the Mošarraf style, manicured and audacious, but somehow managing to tie the eclectic influences of Haqqislam into a cohesive whole.

    Fatih Cezaevi exemplified the style. The jail had a facade that echoed Ottoman Istanbul with an AR patina that emphasized the reformist nature of the National Prison Authority in scrolling scripture from chapters five, forty, and forty two interweaving the testimonials of former convicts. The building itself was primarily offices for ministers and bureaucrats. There was also a small detention wing built in the humanist style, ensuring access to daylight, nature, and contemplative space without compromising security. And there was no mistake that security was high. Despite the presence of civil authorities, security was managed by the military police section of the Sword of Allah, with veteran Ghulam soldiers providing all onsite security personnel and backed by a tactical squad of heavy armored Janissaries.

    Though the guns were hidden they weren't secret. When Naila stepped out of her autocab, she couldn't shake the feeling that they were trained on her. Nails, Ras and his squad had called her on Paradiso. Because she was tough, sure. But also because those who constantly kept their head up risked having it hammered down when they wouldn't get in line. She tugged at her chārqad. Time to figure out which side of the bars she was meant for.

    Khoroushi was waiting for her just inside the prison security queue, in an office manned by a pair of scowling Ghulam MPs armed with stun batons. Ilao’s new lawyer was a lean man of indeterminate age, of middling height and a weathered face whose crags and wrinkles had been smoothed by Hanbal treatments and Theriac resorts. He stood as he saw Naila emerge from the prison’s security scans, running his hands through his quiffed hair and buttoning his tailored suit jacket before walking forward and extending a hand.

    “Ms. Arash, a pleasure to meet you. I remember your front line correspondence series from Ghezirah. Your reporting made Paradiso feel so tragically real. You’re a brave woman.”

    “Anyone can be brave when surrounded by a company of Ghulam soldiers.” She paused for a beat, “I was impressed by your defense of the Akinti network’s purported fence. Getting so many state’s witnesses disqualified or to recant their testimony was an unconventional success. I hope you didn’t mind my writeup.”

    “No such thing as bad press in my business.”

    An unctuous smile unfurled on Khoroushi’s face as his eyes slid to the guards surrounding them. He ran his hands through his pompadour again and indicated their path to the elevator that would take them up to the secured interview room. The path took them down a long corridor, with the interior side facing a courtyard as lush and verdant as any of the Gardener Guilds’ public works. The exterior had several reinforced doors protecting the first floor offices of the prison officials. The sound of birdsong clashed with the whirring servos of a patrolling Rafik remote that tracked their movement with the bead of a Askari branded Red Fury rifle. At the end of the hallway was an elevator lift, barred by two additional Ghulam guardsmen. They checked their comlogs to confirm the visitor passes and conducted a second physical search. Only then were they permitted to enter the lift.

    When the doors finally closed and shut out the Ghulam soldiers, Naila turned to Khoroushi, “Why did you take this case? You don’t usually handle murders and Bayani won’t pay well.”

    The smile was still on his face as he answered her. “Not everything is about money.”

    “You’re not saying you’re in this to prove his innocence, are you? It’s not your style. That is much more suited to Ms. El-Mofty. Like this case.”

    “Hasana did a wonderful job getting Bayani transferred from Jabal ar-Ruṣāṣ. The state was quite punitive to confine him with hardened gangsters, smugglers,and terrorists in the Nakhshab Massif. But she lacks the resources and connections to fight this case at a high level. I assure you that Bayani’s case is in competent, committed hands with me.”

    He paused for a second to adjust his green and black checkered tie, a high quality silk from Yu Jing’s Chung Kuo region on Earth, “And if you don’t trust my motivations let me remind you that I make my money off name recognition. Every high profile case I take is funded by dozens of lower profile clients with deep pockets. This is great marketing, make no mistake.”

    Naila bit her lip. She was through the door and about to land an exclusive interview. That had to be enough. At least for now.

    At the top of the lift was another hallway, again looking out over the courtyard below. Except now instead of offices lining the streets there were single occupancy, padded, windowless prison cells. To make up for the lack of light were extra large barred windows on the cell doors. The Bourak sun filter through in slatted beams and caught the motes of dust between the long, plunging shadows of the bars. Being higher up meant the sound of birdsong was obscured by the hum of fluorescent lights and the occasional caterwaul of the traffic snarls on the second ring road.

    A second pair of Ghulam guards awaited them at the elevator exit and performed a third and final physical search before marching Naila and Khoroushi to the interview room. As they passed by each and every cell, she caught a look of chiaroscuro faces staring out. Here and there she recognized a face from Ahl Fawara’s crime section–a Kum gangster, a corsair operating outside their letter of marque, a guild member whose excess had run afoul the nation’s financial regulations. But for the most part the prisoners looking back at her were anonymous faces, some foreign, most Bourakian, but all of them fading into a gallery of the miserable and hopeless, each awaiting their turn before the scales of justice, forced to confront just how wanting they were.

    The interview room itself was a quiet cubicle with a simple metal table bolted to the floor and three plastic chairs arranged specifically for the meeting. Satisfied that everyone and everything remained in place, the guards relinquished Naila and Ilao’’s attorney into the room and locked the door behind them. Once secured, a door at the other end of the room opened, and a second pair of guards escorted a shackled Bayani Ilao into the room.

    In pictures and recordings Bayani Ilao appeared to be a man suffused with youthfulness and joy. Despite being in his mid-forties, he had a round face that could easily belong to someone twenty years younger. Only a few smile lines and early crows feet would betray a man that had spent decades wearing a grin and given over to easy laughter. He did not cut the picture of a man who worked a trauma clinic in a Aconteccan techno-favela. Nor the staid employee of an unfathomably wealthy recluse. Instead he seemed so effervescently human, the type of person you always expect to meet at a family cookout or on vacation.

    Confinement had smoothed much of joy from his face. His nasolabial folds gave way to deep worry creases in the furrows of his brow. He sat with hunched and rounded shoulders, his head down to avoid eye contact, as the guards looped his shackles to a bolt in the table and locked them in place. Though stern and severe in their charge, there was nothing cruel to the Ghulams’ demeanor. If anything, a sort of sympathy pervaded them as they tugged on his restraints to ensure they were fastened. But Ilao seemed to shrink ever smaller in their presence, and did not grow in stature as they retreated behind the second door and locked it in place.

    “Mang Bayani, I bring word from your wife. She sends you her love and asked me to tell you that the children miss you and pray for you daily.”

    Ilao’s eyes bulged and darted to the side where his lawyer sat back in his silk suit and plastic chair, ever smiling where his client had grown demure.

    “Thank you. Please tell her I am doing well and there is no need to worry,” he mumbled, his eyes still downcast.

    “I’m glad to hear you’re holding up well despite your recent difficulties.”

    He looked up at Naila for the first time and held her gaze in his soft brown eyes, a look better suited for a clinic’s intake desk than the meeting cubicle at a maximum security prison. His eyes then fell to the floor again with a grunt, as if he felt again the impact of his confinement.

    Naila blinked twice. Her geist spooled up with its suite of recording tools and real time facial reaction reader. She cleared her throat.

    “Mr. Ilao, why don’t you tell me in your own words what happened the night of Zev Behar’s death?”

    There was a short pause. Bayani pushed back in his chair a little, the scraping of plastic on linoleum lost to the clanging metal links of his chains and fetters. He too cleared his throat, licked his lips, and looked up at her with his eyes locked on hers. The compassion had fled from them, leaving two flat, dull, disks of brown that stared right through Naila, all the way into the back of her skull.

    “I had been taking care of Behar Bey for eight months. He liked me and had promoted me to his evening care. His sickness was getting very bad, but he was strong and resolute in the face of his handicap. I like–liked working for him. But the nights made it hard to even call my family. I was hoping that he could help them emigrate from Acontecimento.”

    Naila caught her breath. “Wait, you’re saying–”

    “After he went to bed at ten o’clock, I left his apartment to change out of my scrubs. Usually, I would go to a small dormitory where I could spend the night shift watching Mayacasts. Go-Go Marlene is my favorite. The night nurse needs to be close at hand in case Behar Bey needed me. He sometimes woke up in the middle of the night.”

    Naila shifted in her seat but didn’t interrupt. Nur warned her about image stabilization. A sinking feeling opened in her gut and she wanted to fall into it, start this day again, never have this day to begin with.

    “Instead of going to my room, I went to the bathroom and changed and washed my face. Then, I made a short call to my wife as normal, but from the bathroom instead of the dormitory. I used a custom AR filter to make the background appear as normal. Then, I filled a waste basket with paper towels and toilet paper. I exited the bathroom and placed it in the center of the apartment’s living room, and splashed the paper goods with perfume, alcohol, and some cleaning solvents to ensure that it would light. I then used a match from the Miramar Hotel bar to light the fire and threw the rest of the book in so that there would be no evidence of where it came from.

    “The fire spread too fast and I wasn’t able to get Zev Bey out of the apartment in time to save him. It was a terrible mistake. I only did this reckless thing so that he would praise me for saving his life and use his influence to help my family emigrate from our poor living conditions in PanOceania. I am very sorry for the pain my actions caused and wish to share my full regret for the situation.”

    Like a remote powering down, his face fell again, rounding his shoulders even lower and stooping his back forward. Naila tugged on her chārqad. After a short pause she spoke.

    “Mang Bayani, this sounds very close to the official narrative of events that the investigators have related. Are you sure this is how you recall the events of that night?”

    “I believe my client has said all he wishes to say on the matter,” Khoroushi broke in with his unwavering smile. “We respectfully request an end to the interview now.”

    Naila stared at the lawyer, her mouth agape.

    “Respectfully,” he repeated, his eyes never losing that oil slick quality of his grin. Naila blinked twice.

    “Mr. Khoroushi, your client–”

    “Has made his decision,” he looked at Bayani with a beam in his face, “With a full understanding of the consequences. This is the difference between tending goats on the Mir Ali penal colony in the Hurriyah Archipelago and breaking rocks off-planet at Hirāsídan. His family will be able to visit him. He will be rehabilitated instead of cast away. The authorities may even let him settle on Bourak if he exemplifies himself as a model prisoner.”

    It was Naila’s turn to push her chair back from the table, to get away from the awful man who had taken up Bayani Ilao’s so-called defense and opened the gates to the laziest sort of concession. She felt the blood rising in her cheeks, her ears ringing.

    “Ms. El-Mofty–”

    “Doesn’t have the pull,” Khoroushi repeated. “She couldn’t promise Bayani his freedom. This would be an expensive trial, more than the Ilaos could bear. Its outcome was far from assured. The state has experts. It has evidence. The victim’s family has tremendous wealth. Bayani Ilao is a man who has his word alone to rely on. This is safe. This is what’s best for my client.”

    Sohrab Khoroushi leaned back in his plastic chair, tiling the front legs up from the floor. His hands were folded, resting on his belly. His smile never wavered. His eyes were fixed on Naila’s like a swaying cobra. She dared look over at Bayani who was drooping now, almost into a puddle on the floor. She thought about hope. She thought about risk. She bit her lip.
     
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  10. borisgreymenace

    borisgreymenace killer heckler

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    There is a story about life, medicine, and progress. It starts, fundamentally, with entropy. The natural state of the universe is to degrade from order to disorder and life as we know it is a mirror of this disintegration. Cells lose fidelity over the course of mitosis. Telomeres shorten. Senescence sets in. The Hayflick limit becomes an insurmountable wall. The Gompertz–Makeham law bows even the mightiest of us to an unwavering mortal constant. Ashes to ashes. Dust to dust.

    Then comes the frontier bismaristans and the march of revered names. Qasim Azmi. Khalaf al-Attebâ. Qayyim Zaman. Hafizah Shammas. Annie Xanthopoulos. The march of history drawn inexorably towards Silk 2.3 and the triumph of humanity over mortality. We are redeemed from an age of ignorance and death. Henceforth entropy would be consigned to the trivial and the cosmic, but our species would be in the rarified place outside its grasp, having wrenched open the hands of fate just enough for us to squeeze through to the side of mastery.

    Yet no matter how grand the arc of triumph it casts a shadow. In fact, the greater the achievement, the longer this shadow extends, obscuring nuance, luck, and most of all, its shortcomings. Of those who die and are lucky enough to come back, not all of them come back right.

    Resurrection dysmorphic disorder is not so much a disease as a grouping of similar symptoms. At their core is a rejection of the new Lhost body. Despite the lossless nature of Cube recording of one's sheut, the mind cannot be preserved without an adequate body, of which even the most sophisticated Life Hosts are mere simulacra. It would seem that Qayyim Zaman's oft quoted line about the uniqueness of personality "as encrypted data on custom storage programmed by monkeys pounding on keyboards" is something of a curse here. The violent rearrangement of a subject's neuromatrix is impossible to predict or even parse. Each integration is a gambit, akin to organ transplants of yore, except the organ in question now is an entire body. Even when successful, awakening in a new Lhost is trauma. One doesn't adjust to a new clone body, one adjusts to a brand new existence. All the sensations a newborn has, but forgets, are seared into the first new memories of a new body, with the added burden of an adult's memories up to the point of death.

    Is it any wonder that a sheut can reject its new body under this burden? Especially in the days of Annie Xanthopolous, before almost all our current therapies existed. We remember the success but have lost count of the failures before and after that seminal moment. Also lost are the qualified successes. In a time before transpersonal psychotherapy, DNA seeded clones, and the omnipresent geist, any resurrection that did not result in an instant failure was–and should be–marveled at. It's a testament to an uncommon force of will exercised by both patient and practitioner.

    One can only imagine what that might have looked like in an unassuming lighthouse steward who threw themselves into the water so that no one else had to drown. Is that kind of snap determination and bravery required to build a Silk empire from scratch? Or does a cut throat business like immortality lose its mystique when one has already died and come through the other side intact?

    Being diverse and often idiopathic in nature makes developing a cure for RDD extremely difficult. Most work now is done on the front end of Resurrection. Better Cube technology. Cloned Lhosts to prevent instinctual dysmorphia. Therapy and virtual hosting to ease the sheut's transition between bodies and ensure that even while waiting in a Cube Bank the dead are never too far out of step with the march of time. But for those like Zev Behar, early adopters of Cubes and among the first resurrections, it took decades of round the clock nurse care, mirror therapy, and frequent DNA tailored Silk treatments to maintain a delicate equilibrium that never even resembled a recovery, just a fragile waking that was never quite free from death's previous embrace.


    Ras was waiting for her outside. He was casually dressed in tight pants and a linen shirt and a pair of loafers that came to a point, the sort of leisure wear that dripped wealth in its simplicity. He was leaning against a parked Marruá Matador, a bright smile nestled within the scruff of his unshaved beard. He was happy to see her. He wanted Naila to know that.

    “What are you doing here?” she asked. The sun pushed past the noon mark, sending the light slanted and harsh, painting thick shadows in the corners it didn’t touch.

    “Just going from saving your life to meeting you on your first day out of prison. You want me to go?”

    “It’s not that,” she said, biting her lip. The hot air was thick with evaporated sea spray and her hair was starting to puff out. “Long day. Tough day.”

    “You’ve had a few of those recently.”

    She tugged on her chārqad, and swiped away the ever growing pile of message notifications from Sam.

    “You wanna go for a ride?” Ras asked. He was working to keep that smile on his face. She liked that.

    “Where to?”

    “Does it matter?”

    As he walked around the front of the luxury sports car, panels slid back on both sides to allow them to get in. Ras ducked into the frame and the seat rose up to hug him, auto-adjusting so that his fit in the driver’s seat was perfect. Naila waited a moment before getting in and sitting down beside him, her seat molding to the shape of her. The panels closed silently and the air inside changed. Climate controlled, sure, but it was more like a shell had closed around them and shut out the rest of the world.

    Ras didn’t say anything as he eased the accelerator and took them towards the highway onramp. They coasted on a silent engine until they hit the ring road and then the Matador purred to life, whipping around slower cars in a yellow and red blur. The LAI of the car flashed alerts on the heads up display but Ras ignored them, guiding the car by feel and relying on slower traffic to yield to power. There was something kinetic and charged in their silence.

    The sun sank lower and they drifted out to the final ring road, outside the walls and bunkers that fortified Khadijah against the outside world. But the walls worked both ways, obscuring the towers and the gardens and the ornate and chaste design of two flirting architects. Ras lowered the roof and the air whipped through them, strong with the smell of salt and sand and crops at midseason, and at their speed Naila could no longer remain covered. Her chārqad was pulled back. Strands of thick black hair teased at her cybernetic eyes. Sometimes she brushed them away. Sometimes she let herself be swept by them.

    It was almost full dark by the time Ras pulled up on the accelerator, the sun a burning ember on the other side of the city, leaving the sky flushed with the last stains of the day. They were both breathing as if they’d run a race. He turned the car into the city, taking it down the east promenade towards his hotel. The sky was running purple now, the stars swelling in rank.

    “I can’t,” she said.

    “I’ll take you home,” Ras was still wearing his glasses and his smile.

    “No,” Naila said, tugging at her chārqad, tying it up again as the roof came up. “The lawyer. Khoroushi. I don’t get it.”

    “He was trying to get the best deal for his client.” They had talked about it, somewhere between loops.

    “I know, but,” she bit her lip. Maybe they had been circling around it all day. “It’s a good answer. Just not the right answer. I know it.”

    Ras took off his sunglasses and let the Matador drive them, rubbing the last traces of sun from his eyes. When he looked back at her she saw a pair of burning embers, two coals of darkness that seemed to smolder brighter than the moon on the Septentria night.

    “What do you want to do about it?”

    “He has an office, not far from here.”

    “Don’t you need an appointment?” Rasim’s mouth had gone flat and started to slant as she tilted the night her way.

    “Not with you at my side. I’m sure he’ll make time for us if you’re with me.” That got him smiling again. The hint of being necessary.

    Sohrab Khoroushi had an office at the Burj Al Taathir, just off the third ring road, in view of the Al Medinat Majlis complex. The two buildings sat in reflection of each other, another sympathetic pair erected by the Mošarraf, complete with hanging gardens that looked like they were waiting for a bridge to complete them. Naila wondered what it would take to close that gulf, and whether the lawyers, lobbyists, and businesses in the Al Taathir should be able to so easily cross the road.

    Dahshat held the building’s security contract, of course, and Ras was able to swipe them in. The front desk guard didn’t ask any questions but nodded solemnly at the ranking officer and the woman he followed. Khoroushi had the penthouse office and Ras took them up, his eyes locked on the reflection of them in the polished bronze of the lift doors.

    “You never said why you went dark after Paradiso.” He wasn’t looking at her. His eyes were fixed on the picture of them together. In a scene that could have been as easily domestic as a late night burglary.

    Naila touched her scar. No champagne glasses to save her this time. What could she say? Sam had sent her to a rehab facility for war wounded and after seven weeks and a few years after that, what could she say? She worked hard to not bite her lip. “I needed a break. Things change.”

    His eyes slid over to her, never quite breaking with that vision of them. “Some things change, Nails. Some things don't.”

    The elevator dinged at their floor before she could say anything else.

    The office was dark and only the hall lights winked on for them when they got off the elevator. Even in that dim light the quality of Khoroushi’s office was clear. Cool chrome glistened in refraction. The glass doors patterned like frosted ice left ajar. They moved with tentative steps over an off white marbled floor with silver veins. Khoroushi’s den seemed chiseled in opposition to the Bourak heat, not so much as a refuge but a monument to the steely cold of an expensive litigator who wins every case despite the pressure.

    There’s not much difference between snow and sand when it comes to how blood spatters across it. They found Khoroushi in his office chair. He was sitting upright, his hands on the armrests like a king in his throne, dull eyes still catching light to give the illusion of watching. But the way the blood dripped down from a severed artery in his neck, ruining the blue silk of a matching tie and shirt, made it clear that his rule over this penthouse kingdom had come to a swift and brutal end. Naila blinked twice as her eyes scanned the room, catching dark flecks of blood spray in a pattern that Nur predicted indicated a single cut, left to right.

    “It must have been after we met, he’s changed his suit–”

    “Turn that off!” Ras hissed, his hand moving towards his waist, where a sidearm should have been.

    “But we have to call the police. This could mean that Bayani’s confession is overturned–”

    “We don’t want to be here,” Ras said. “We were never here. Otherwise, the police will want to know why we used Dahshat security credentials to enter the office. How come we were his only visitors after hours.”

    The words spun in Naila’s head, “But we couldn’t have done this. We were out driving all day. We’d be on traffic cameras. They could pinpoint our comlogs based on Maya nodes we connected to–”

    Ras grabbed her by the arm. It wasn’t rough or painful but it was stern and strong. His eyes, usually soft like melting chocolate when he looked at her, were hard now. Wide with the darkness, of course, but also frantic.

    “You don’t know the kind of people who do these things. They aren’t on any logs or cameras. They’ve erased any physical or quantronic trail that could track them. It’ll look like we’re his only visitors. That you were angry when you found out he got Ilao to confess. It’ll be thin, but with your motive and my access and skills, they can make the charges stick. Just like they did to Ilao.”

    “But–”

    “Do you trust me?” Ras asked. The words seem to take the edge off him, but not the urgency.

    “Of course.”

    “You remember in Ghezirah, when I took you to the shuttles?” His voice fell to a whisper, his soft breath tickling her ear. He took her face in his hands, his touch tracing along her scar. She melted into him. Into memory. “You were in the field hospital waiting for an airlift to Hibat Allah. We’d just gotten the evacuation order and some Druze Bayram commandeered one of the last elevators up. When I came to get you, you told me that you’d prefer to wait so someone more seriously injured could get a passenger berth. You remember what I told you?”

    The Septentria jungle was hot. She’d just lost her eyes. Despite the advanced medical tech there was little that could be done to keep the bugs out. Or the sound of artillery fire. Naila had been stuck in a sort of forever darkness, the difference between day and night being the screams from injury and the screams from night terrors. Ras was whispering to her then, just as he did now. She remembered shaking her head just before he hauled her over his shoulder in a fireman’s carry.

    “Don’t hunt the lion after you’ve been saved from its jaws.”

    Ras nodded. He was close enough to her that she could feel the brush of whiskers on her skin. “Just like then, Nails. Let’s not hunt the lion. We need to get out of here.”

    He was breathing heavily again, as if he’d run up twenty flights of stairs. She didn’t believe herself. Unjust silence is the fool’s tribute to Satan. But she let him carry her away from there and the dead lawyer and the chance to get evidence before the police could bury the truth even deeper.
     
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  11. borisgreymenace

    borisgreymenace killer heckler

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    Truth is often lost when a story reaches a certain level of sensation and interest. The sheer volume of information, commentary, and speculation make it impossible to track. Parsing fact from the noise becomes difficult. And even humble facts can be twisted into a sort of untruth, as anyone who has tracked the activities of Nomad Black Hand can attest. Fact is a malleable substance in the right hands.

    In the case of Zev Behar, the truth is that his nurse Bayani Ilao, a PanOceanian Atek, has confessed to starting a fire that ultimately killed the Silk Lord. A timeline has been established and verified through confession. The means of the fire, its spread through Behar’s penthouse suite, have been corroborated by forensic analysis.

    There are some details overlooked in the official line. One is Zev Behar’s late-night flight into Zumorroda, where he was not planned to be in residence for the evening. The other is the fact that his wife and bodyguard were well away from the eventual scene of his murder, creating an opportunity where Zev Behar was the most isolated from his closest companions while outside his regular routine. Details that have been dismissed by investigators as extraneous to the theory of the case. Coincidental but not contradictory, as it were.

    The difference between conspiracy and coincidence is often a matter of faith. Zumorroda is host to international Submondo mafias, some of whom had been exposed as Silk smugglers due to Behar’s collaboration with the Muhafiz. It is also the fiefdom of a Silk Lord rival, who has the entire security apparatus of the local area on his payroll. And, if one wants to hew more closely to the official rhetoric, it remains eminently possible that Bayani Ilao could be a plant of a foreign power, tasked to remove the head of a trading house for a more pliable successor to emerge, or to at least sow chaos among a rival’s critical domestic industry. Outside the halls of power these rumors swirl, even more intensely since the announcement of Ilao’s confession. Though vehemently dismissed by officials, they rely on the same sequence of fact, timeline, and even protagonist. But for the extra elements required and not yet verified, they could be plausible conclusions to the case. Plausible enough for rabid advocates to recruit additional followers to their Maya clusters by the hundreds and thousands. Daily.

    Another question one might ask—what if all of these theories are wrong? What if the official line and its half-baked parallels bely a worse set of facts that underpin this case? That is paranoid rambling. Easily dismissed by all parties. For even the most militant conspiracist has limits to credulity, bounded by the tentpole of their personal tinfoil hat. But what does it mean to be paranoid in an age where aliens travel through wormholes to conquer our frontiers and secretive Praxis Labs and terrorist organizations like Equinox blur the boundaries of humanity? When our own medical advances make it possible to replace ourselves with body doubles and cube doppelgangers, plausible enough where it can become the most popular sensadrama in the Sphere? Paranoia means beyond the mind. Madness, sure, but also a way to articulate imagination where those in power would prefer our minds not wander.


    Early morning sun peeked through the balcony windows of the Burj Delmon luxury hotel. Ras sat upright in bed, and with a wave of his hand the black out curtains retreated before the glowing eastern sky.

    “Do you need the bathroom before I shower?” he asked.

    Naila shook her head. Ras got up and walked into the bathroom. Naila waited in bed until she heard the water turn on followed by the subtle shift in sound as it began to fall on skin instead of tile. She got up and wrapped herself in one of the hotel’s complimentary silk robes, biting her lip and running her hands through her hair, settling on a rough ponytail before stepping out onto the sunlit balcony.

    The fortieth floor of the Burj Delmon was not a penthouse (she might never enter a penthouse again), but it was high enough to give a sprawling view of Khadijah and the surrounding farms stretching out to the beaches and the Al-Adrisi beyond. Naila could almost see the break in the waves behind the pile of comlog notifications crowding the augmented reality view in her cybernetic eyes as she connected to Maya again. It took everything in her power not to search for news of Sohrab Khouroshi. Even under the guise of researching her story, she did not create a quantronic trail. It might be days before they found him. A few more before they came asking for her.

    And for all her struggle to avoid looking for something she wanted to know, it took even more will power to face someone she'd rather avoid.

    “Where the hell have you been?” Sam barked when she called him. He picked up on the first chime, as if he’d been waiting all night. The hazy blue avatar of him, sitting at his desk in suspenders and shirt sleeves rolled up to the elbow and chewing a cigarette, charged into her sparse patina like an angry chthonic god rising out of the distant sea.

    Naila was still biting her lip. “I’ve–”

    “I’ve been trying to reach you for over twenty four hours. What the fuck is going on? Last time we talked you promised me corroboration of an unlisted flight. Now I’m getting a call from you in Khadijah. No bullshit, Arash, what the fuck are you up to?”

    “Sam, I’m in trouble,” she whispered, “I need you to listen.”

    Even with the transmission delay and the imperfect digitization of his disembodied torso as it leaned over his desk in Dar el Funduq, she could sense a perceptible change in him. A tension, a raised hackle, the profile of a dog who has stopped barking and instead stares growling into the darkness.

    “Go ahead.”

    Naila turned back and looked into the room, the serious ghost of Sam following her as she checked to see if Ras was still in the shower.

    “I went to the airport and got that flight number for you. It should have hit your desk yesterday. On the way back, a pair of, I don’t know what, special operators? They cornered me. I don’t know what would have happened if Ras and his Dahshat security hadn't showed up and… took care of them. While they were checking me to make sure I wasn’t hurt, I got an invitation from Ilao’s lawyer forwarded from you for an exclusive prison interview, so I flew out here to meet him and… Ilao confessed. He fucking confessed. I can’t believe it. And Ras was waiting for me out of jail and we just drove around. I just–there’s something here, Sam. Zev Behar returns to the Miramar unexpectedly and Ilao, who’s confession rests on the premise that he treated Zev Bey that night--all night--kills him by setting a trashcan on fire. There’s something really dirty here, and now Ilao confessed for to herd some goats at a low security prison colony and maybe some other guarantee… It doesn’t sit right.” Just like Khoroushi slumped in his chair.

    “We went back to see the lawyer last night and he’s dead. Blood all over his office. Ras hustled us out of there and called his team to erase the logs of us having gone in, but Sohrab Khoroushi is dead and Bayani Ilao is pleading guilty nobody’s story about why Zev Behar was killed makes sense and the whole thing is about to be swept under the carpet. If it hasn’t been already.”

    She was breathing fast as she finished, she realized, almost out of breath. She gripped the railing of the balcony white knuckle tight and leaned a little over the edge as if she might vomit. A sudden thought entered her brain and she almost tripped as she pulled herself back from the edge and flicked her eyes back to the door.

    “Ok, Naila, I have some questions.” Sam’s voice was steady, still gravely but no longer growling, more like the thrum of an old motor. “Let’s start with where are you now?”

    “I’m in the Burj Delmon. It’s a really nice hotel–”

    “Is he with you?”

    “Ras? Yes,” her eyes flicked back again. Still in the shower.

    “Can you get out of there?”

    Naila reached up to tug at her headscarf but realized it was still in the room. She settled for clutching the lapels of the robe tight across her chest. “Why, Sam? Do you think I can’t trust him? He saved my life in Zumorroda. In Ghezirah. Maybe yesterday too. Do you think I can trust him?”

    “It’s not that I don’t trust him, Naila,” Sam’s voice was even. Deadly. “I just don’t trust who he works for. People who ask questions about Qahesh disappear. Your story has a lot of conveniences. You see that, right?”

    She nodded. But she also felt the way his strong arms wrapped around her and always seemed to pull her out of the line of fire.

    “I think I can trust him, Sam. He saved my life. At least twice.”

    “You have to be sure, Naila. More than sure. This planet is full of deserts and mountains and it’s easy to get lost or be made to be lost.”

    She looked out to the horizon. There was the city, of course. Neon, even in the morning, even in the muted Haqqislam way of subtle and modest patinas that left room to celebrate Bourak’s architecture, design, and verdant triumph in the face of a hot and burning sun. Beyond that was a patchwork grid of Bygones and their farm plots. Growth where a generation before it had been barren. Fertile and fecund and feasting instead of doomed. All the way out to the glittering sea that captured the morning sunlight, not as a mirage but as a mirror of a bright future in the making. A whole planet of refugees from a riven Earth, chasing a dream and building it into something for generations to come. It wasn’t pure, but it was worth protecting, and in turn, it had protected her. She had to surrender to faith in order to be nurtured by it, just as the first pioneers and Sālik had done when they sifted the stars from the Dome of the Rock in the hopes of following the Prophet.

    “I’m sure.”

    "There's something else. I never had contact with Ilao's lawyer. I didn't forward that interview request. And I don't know who did. Someone is working behind the scenes and they're targeting you specifically it seems. We ought to leave it alone, Naila. Even Ahl Fawara has its limits. I can't ask you to risk yourself like this any more."

    Her stomach dropped. She squeezed the railing again, but this time it was like she wanted to break it in half.

    "I can't Sam. There is no letting go."

    Sam let out a huge sigh. She hadn’t realized how tight he’d been holding his breath, or how tightly she held hers. She didn’t think it was relief that made him let go.

    “The flight, Sam,” she felt a certain stiffness enter her. Not quite resolve, maybe, but the fear soaked thing we lean on that looks like it. “Did you get the manifest for that flight? Its origin.”

    He was quiet for a time, which was new. No objections. No lectures. Just his own kind of stiffness, so still she thought she might have lost the connection.

    “Our limits are meant to protect us, not them, Sam,” she said softly. “If we walk away from it, it’s not about safe or unsafe or truth and fact and record. It’s about the kind of world we want to live in. Right and wrong. A matter of actual Truth.”

    He remained stiff and chewed on his cigarette for a moment longer. “PV97-3, originating in Ravansār, from the private aerodrome of Rahatan Linab Aldhahabii, a Theriac Resort specialized in treating Resurrection Dysmorphic Disorder–”

    Naila heard the door to the bathroom click open.

    “Gotta go, Sam. I’ll call you from Ravansār,” she brushed the image of him away along with a loose strand of hair that had fallen across her face as the wind from sea swept in.

    The glass door opened for Naila as she turned and walked back into the room, the hem of her robe fluttering lightly. Ras was sitting on the edge of the bed, his face clean shaven, pulling on his pants.

    "I was thinking we might take a weekend in Olabisi," he said, looking at her but not looking at her, “To forget about everything.”

    That was one way the morning could go.

    “Is everything ok?” He asked when she didn’t answer.

    "It will be," she smiled, held it as she moved next to him on the bed, "As soon as we get to Ravansār."
     
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  12. borisgreymenace

    borisgreymenace killer heckler

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    The march of progress has worn a predictable path. Mythology and faith flow into folk practice which in turn is aggrandized as pseudoscience and alchemy until science and engineering sort empirical fact from fiction and pave the way for a marketable product that even regulators will endorse. Even within the humanistic frame of Haqqislam society, the residue of late stage capitalism has left its mark. Khaniqah became bismaristans, where Ba’al Hadad and Qiyāma materialized into Silk, cubes, and Qayyim Zaman’s miracle science and the promise that the Day of Resurrection heralds not the end but a new beginning in the Search for Knowledge.

    Rather than usher in a strict utopia or society of undeath, this next age gave birth to a new host of Gorgons in the form of artificial Lhost scarcity, chimeric biotech advances and tailored pharmaceuticals, and M-Corps that require an armada and privateers and Muhafiz and worse to protect the national economic interest. These developments do not strictly negate the actual good of gene therapy, extended life, and elimination of disease–sometimes even death–but rather illustrates the other half of the coin of the Haqqislamite realm, often besmirched but nevertheless a vital currency in our fraught and fractured age of iota-scarcity and interstellar power politics. We pay a price to live this well and to wield the influence we do within the Human Sphere. And in this ecosystem Theriac resorts are the upscale retail establishments where the science of life is transmogrified into the gold of cosmetic anti-aging and exclusive bio-therapies, the Macrobian spring from which humanity’s elite drink each day to extend their mortal grasp upon this world.

    The resorts themselves are more than just businesses, they are a culture unto themselves. Ravansār boasts a population of not only the longest lived Haqqislamites but the healthiest and happiest too. A city where healthspan is a deeply ingrained concept that centers gyms over coffee houses, gene tailored diets over kebab and falafel, where Antarah records its lowest annual sales. Marquee brands like Hamardi are quick to point out that for every luxury recovery package sold or pay per view Maya course released there are orphan diseases that have been cured and countless victims and veterans of the Paradiso front who have received comprehensive health rehabilitation for free.

    The detractors of bioengineered cosmetic enhancements, often confined to obscure corners of the Arachnesphere, rail against the elevation of a new kind of gods among men, no longer merely rich but now immortal, at the head of the line across Resurrection Lotteries, preserved consciousnesses downloaded into tailored Lhosts that are better, faster, and more durable than even the gene therapied bodies of natural born humans. They project a rapidly bifurcating life among the Human Sphere wherein the bulk of a mortal humanity will languish under the sclerotic rule of a new class that will suppress even their own offspring in order to extend their dominance for ages and eras. Easily dismissed as cranks and the perennial prognosticators of doom, it is also true that the rolls of patients are more likely to include Silk Lords, politicians, athletes, and Mayastars than donated care, no matter how well publicized the charity. In some sense, “countless recipients” doesn’t just project an innumerable many--it opposes accountability.


    Such is the inequity of our time, never quite so neat and dreary as the most recent Tortuga Island screed but so often filled with monetized miracles and disproportionate access. Ravansār and its Theriac resorts encapsulate this contradiction, if it even is contradictory, of a collective progress captured by the few, the wealthy, the powerful and doled out to the populace at a drip pace that secures and ensures the status quo. In a time when death is thus vanquished and failing biology can be regrown or replaced, it seems almost natural that the only way a person might meet their end is through murder.

    Ras ditched the Matador for a Henschel 1200, insisting that a strictly luxury make would sell their deception. He’d also doubled down on his casual chic, favoring some offworld brands they grabbed at the Khadijah airport on their way out. His signature piece was a nanofibre shirt with a tessellating pattern that shifted color according to custom settings in his comlog. He filled out the rest of his ensemble with boot cut pants and calf high boots, tight enough to fit a concealed sidearm and little else, as well as an ascot. It might not be PanOceanian high style, certainly not something that Erifyli Argyris would wear on her arm, but it certainly was what Ras thought PanOceanian high style would look like. Each color change hued a little too close to Colonel Zelenski for Naila’s taste.

    In spite of herself, Naila let him pick out an outfit for her too. He let her hold on to a nice chārqad, but he’d insisted on a flowing blouse with an open back, hip riding denim pants that were pre-stressed, a large belt bedazzled with comlog-linked light up stones, and three inch red heels that felt like stilts. When he was done, the Tariqa for the local nail salon stared back at Naila from the mirror. She didn’t feel like couture so much as a personalized Maya ad for a fourteen year old girl, something that might run on Aminah Naaji’s Maya cluster next to a rumor post about Diva Davinia’s skincare regime.

    “We look like new money,” he shrugged when Naila protested. And she stewed for the entire flight. He might have been right.

    Rahatan Linab Aldhahabii, stylized Ralial on the augmented reality patina that boasted endorsements from several elite entertainers and athletes, was a small resort located far out on the south end of the Ravansār, where the residential foothills met the coast. It was a low building with a smooth white qudad facade that, without the glitz of its augmented reality advertisements and private aerodrome, might have been an outlying residence of Tage Kasra. Despite the resemblance to Eranshahr architectural motifs, the property itself was decidedly pastiche, mixing the Sasanid aesthetic with large painted Egyptian style statues standing guard over the frosted glass paneled doors. On the right was a man with the head of a black jackal. On the left a woman with the head of a white jackal. In the center curling virtual text promising to marry ancient devotions to contemporary science in a philosophy of care that centered the soul. The words dissolved around Naila and Ras into a digitized vapor as they walked through the door.

    The reception area of Ralial wasn’t quite palatial. Hanging plants, mixed cultivars of native Bourak and transplanted Earth species, interrupted the warm light reflection of gold malileh worked as sun bursts glittered. Advertisements for treatments and their celebrity testimonials floated down from the ceiling in augmented reality like wisdom whispered from angels. The smooth blue tiling boasted quantronic bas-reliefs of ancient gods from across the Mashriq, along with the occasional hadith and excerpts of Khadivar’s writings on the Tebb al-Nabi. Recalling the Ishtar Gate, this processional glory led up to a woman in a slim fitting skirt suit, more business concierge than healthcare worker, her bright eyes and sharp face framed by an inverted bob.

    “Welcome, Ms. Naaji, Mr. Hasan, to Ralial. What brings you to our home?” The woman’s social halo named her as Sothia Nahid and ringed her with smiling pictures of Fatimah Rizk, Noor Zoubi, and Chef Zummo, happy customers beaming as they stood next to Nahid, interspersed with verified credentials from Medina University.

    Ras cleared his throat to speak as his legend, Levent Hasan, a prosperous corporate executive. “We’ve just come from Zumorroda. Some of our neighbors recommended Ralial as a place to relax, and rejuvenate.”

    The woman’s eyes seemed to grow as she alighted upon Ras and his technicolor polo shirt. “Have you come for our Anushirvan treatments? Or perhaps some… cosmetic adjustment?”

    Naila felt her scar burn. Then her cheeks. She bit her lower lip with the top of her teeth, hard enough to hurt. She and Ras exchanged looks. He opened his mouth to speak but Naila put her hand on his arms.

    “Actually, our friends didn’t have a recommended treatment. Maybe you could tell us more about the services that Ralial provides?”

    “Of course,” Nahid’s high cheekbones were sharp enough to cut the air when she smiled. A smile which Naila couldn’t help but notice dimmed just a little when speaking to her instead of Ras. “We offer a variety of popular treatments and therapies, including Hanbal, gene therapies, and our signature Anushirvan practice. It combines sensory deprivation meditation, guided recital of the Suras, and an infusion of our custom Serum to lengthen telomeres and improve cell replication. Our clients swear by its effects to not only strengthen the body but in how it soothes the soul.”

    Anushirvan did not sound like anything that might treat RDD nor did Ralial seem like the kind of place that Zev Behar might frequent. Too baroque. Too ostentatious. Too exposed and frivolous to reconcile with Naila’s vision of him. But the records were clear. The last place the Silk Lord visited before his death was this very clinic. And among the many big name endorsements, he loomed in his absence. Maybe it was his signature low profile. Maybe it was a scrub since his recent and infamous death.

    “That sounds very interesting,” Naila said, blinking twice to activate her recorder. “Would you mind giving us a tour of the facilities and telling us more about the benefits of your treatments?”

    Nahid agreed, of course. With a smile for both of them, which again Naila could have sworn was bigger for Ras than her. The woman turned and invited them to follow her into the inner sanctum of Ralial’s treatment facility. Nahid’s hips swayed ahead of them, her four inch heels clicking on the blue tiled floor with a confidence that Naila struggled to master arm in arm with Ras.

    The interior style of Ralial gave way from green and gold and old gods to sleek and modern sensibilities, foregoing the warm lighting for a bright daylight and clean, white wall paneling. Even the augmented reality seemed to shift from the outsized endorsements and quasi-mythic health claims to virtual signage and soft muzak. Only the occasional dog headed figure remained, stylized into swooping lines that conveyed the essence of their branded guardians, always smiling golden fanged smiles. Nahid took them first to a waiting room of several upholstered ottomans arranged around a fountain misting scented rosewater. Several holo panels hanging from the wall detailed their treatment offerings, which the woman was all too eager to explain in detail.

    “How long have you worked here?” Naila interrupted somewhere between the sales pitch and Ras’s polite responses. A reporter’s instincts. Most people needed just the gentlest prodding to say too much about themselves.

    Nahid seemed caught off guard. “I started here after university. Holistic treatments like Anushirvan appeal to my academic curiosity.”

    “Was that your area of study?”

    “I like to think of it as wonder more than study. Study sounds so boring, cooped up, drowning in scientific papers and articles and theory. This is a whole body practice dedicated to well-being. There was no other choice than to be enraptured at the temple of our good health.” Sothia Nahid did not seem as keen to share anything about herself, turning it back to the product pitch. “Most treatments either begin or end in our meditation room. Would you like to see that next?”

    Naila did her best to wear a grimace as a smile. Sothia Nahid brought them further into Ralial's sanctum. Past the administrative offices and washrooms and personalized recovery lounges. There was a hush in the building as they walked, save for the faint simsimiyya music pumped through hidden speakers.

    The meditation room itself rivaled five star accommodations at some of the best Theriac resorts, with a single floor to ceiling wrap around window. The room overlooked a series of rocky outcroppings that fortified the place from the private white sand beach and ocean vista below. The smell of sea spray, artificial but accurate, filled the room and erased the barrier between interior and exterior. As the waves broke on the beach the room’s acoustics filled with the crash and the meditation gong reverberated amidst the sound of gull’s cries.

    Ras stood at the window as if transfixed, and Naila couldn’t help but be a little awed herself. Nahid’s smile seemed to grow as if she felt her hook catch in their gullets.

    “It truly is wonderful, isn’t it?”

    “Stunning,” Ras agreed.

    Naila bit her lip.

    “Do you have a washroom I can use?”

    Sothia Nahid’s smile faltered almost imperceptibly, but she recovered so quickly it was as if she was reading from a script. “It’s just back the way we came.”

    Naila returned her best approximation of a smile and turned away. She struggled to wedge her hands in her pocket as she hurried back towards the reception area, fishing in her jeans until she was able to hook a small chip with her index finger. The bathrooms were a small cutout next to the administration offices but she walked past them to the heavy white door with “STAFF ONLY” stenciled in both augmented reality and real space, turned the handle, and walked in.

    The administration office was little more than a cooled server room, with stacks of quantronic servers racked in even rows along the wall. The only occupied area was a long table with a couple of chairs next to two filing cabinets, manned by a staffer in a skintight bodysuit with a large hacking visor cabled into one of the servers. He looked more like an EVO hacker patrolling a MilSec datasphere than a health clinic admin, and the way he barked at her only reinforced his threat profile.

    “Ma’am, you’re not allowed in here. This is a restricted area. Exit immediately.”

    Naila leaned in, one hand tugging on her chārqad, the other sliding up the interior door frame until the adhesive on the chip found purchase. Ras had called in a favor with a Wardriver buddy to run quantronic overwatch for them, the same one who had scrubbed their presence from the Burj Al Taathir, and with a repeater this close to the heart of Ralial’s datasphere, it should be trivial for their Maya jockey friend to break into the secured records. Trivial but for the Ralial’s own hacking force.

    “I’m sorry,” Naila said, almost breathless, “I’m looking for the bathroom. I got a little lost.”

    “They’re behind you. Down the hall less than five meters. Get out. Now.”

    Naila didn’t stay long enough to see how Ralial’s hacker could escalate her little security breach. She bowed out apologetically and marched into the women’s room. Once there, she put her hands on the marble countertop and leaned over the sink, dry heaving slightly as she tried to catch her breath.

    Once her pulse slowed to a normal rate, she allowed herself to look up at the reflection in the mirror. It didn’t smile back. The thin white scar crisscrossing her face seemed angry today. Sam once asked her, after she stopped wearing a boshiyyah and niqab and began using her chārqads instead, why she didn’t get it healed too, especially when it bothered her so much. Might as well ask why Zev Behar never got a new Lhost. Like new wasn’t the same as what a person used to be.

    After a few deep breaths her face was no longer flushed. It appeared calm, if a little cold. Her scar was just a scar. Something Sothia would offer to fix if Naila gave her the time to warm up to the question. A notification in her passive AR dial told her that the Wardriver had secured s data tunnel into Ralial’s servers.

    Naila switched her dial controls to track eye movement. One of the advantages of replacement eyes was that her comlog could use their interface in the same way that someone without cybernetic enhancements would have to use their hands to interface with the AR dial of their private halo. Anyone watching her would notice her eyes moving erratically, but most wouldn’t pay close enough attention. She practiced the eye movement in the mirror, looking down to bring up a virtual key input and focusing on characters one at a time to spell out ‘Patient Records.’

    A few seconds later a list came back. She maneuvered her eyes to the search function and sent Nur after anything related to Zev Behar.

    Back at the meditation room, she found Ras and Nahid in quiet conversation. They didn’t see her at first. But she saw them. It seemed like they were standing closer together than when she left. Ras said some little thing and Sothia Nahid laughed more than the comment was worth. Naila remembered the woman from the mirror, tried to hold a face like her and to betray nothing else. After Nahid finished her hyperbolic hysterics, she noticed Naila.

    “Ah, Ms. Naaji. I hope you found everything ok?”

    “I was just where you said it would be.”

    “Very good. I was just talking to Mr. Hasan about some personalized relaxation options that I think would really suit you. Your partner and I both agree that a massage followed by stem cell regeneration might be a great introduction for our services.”

    “Do you treat resurrection dysmorphic disorder?” Naila blurted, then stilled herself, “I’m asking because I have a cousin, a veteran of the Al-Hadiye theater. He was selected in the lottery, but he’s having trouble adjusting to the new Lhost.”

    Ras frowned at her, whatever that meant. Nahid was taken back for a moment, but rather than let her full lipped smile return she adopted a mask of sincere concern and put a soft hand on Naila's arm.

    “Alhamdulillah for your cousin’s safe return. I am sorry for his loss and grateful for his sacrifice. Of course, it’s not something we advertise as much as our retail therapies. RDD is a very personalized disorder, for which we have developed extensive therapeutic experience. We have had some great success with our treatments but we’d have to tailor the recovery plan to your cousin. I hope you understand.”

    Naila cast her eyes to the floor. She took the pause to look at the patient record for Zev Behar that floated in her private augmented reality. A series of biweekly personalized treatments and gene tailored Silk Serums stared back, along with monthly Anushirvan rejuvenations. Combined with the odd Hanbal treatment, it looked like Zev Bey had spent more of his fortune at Ralial in the last three months than Naila had earned in the last ten years. She’d never felt so close to him and so far away at the same time.

    She looked down further for a key input and sent the message ‘Layout’ to the Wardriver.

    “I understand, of course,” Naila said, looking up after a longish pause, seeing a deeper frown and more concern being thrown her way. “You came so highly recommended we figured you must have some program, but wanted to see the facility for ourselves. You mentioned the Anushirvan treatment. Is that something that we could arrange as walk-ins?”

    Sothia Nahid’s eyes grew and her warm smile returned. Any attention she had been paying to Ras seemed to recede with the waves on the beach behind them. Ras, on the other hand, darkened like a storm cloud, his eyes narrowing at Naila. She couldn’t blame him. Zev Behar paid a ransom for his Anushirvan appointments, including the one he had on the night he died. It cost Zev Bey more than even a Captain of the Dahshat Company could afford. Maybe Qaid Fahesh would allow him to expense it.

    “Unfortunately, that too is a highly customized treatment, but there is an intake procedure we could add on top of the stem cell regeneration. There’s a deposit, of course, but once we have that we could schedule you for something as soon as this week.”

    The building’s layout flashed in Naila’s peripheral vision. She let her eyes drift there slowly, as if she were trying to think. The first floor was little more than they had already seen, with a sauna and Olympic size wave pool down the other end of the hallway. However, it was the floor below them where Ralial’s building truly opened up. Massage rooms, Hanbal infusion centers, personal treatment suites, and emergency medical services, as well as massive storage, were buried beneath them in a labyrinthine sprawl. All centered around a large room labeled ‘Serdab and Refrigeration.’

    “Do we start with the massage?” Naila asked.

    “If that’s what you would like.”

    “I think it would be nice to relax for a while.”
     
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  13. borisgreymenace

    borisgreymenace killer heckler

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    The comes a point in every investigation where the open possibilities of what could have happened are narrowed into what likely happened. Police and forensic experts run their analyses, aided by sophisticated lesser artificial intelligences, and compute likely timelines as well as factors of environment and circumstance–how the wind was blowing, what sort of ammunition was used, firing angle, whether the knife was serrated or straight edged, honed monofilament or nanite coated. Witness testimony is only used to supplement these forensic truths, adding color and shade to who was there, the suspect’s motive, the victim’s behavior prior to the crime. Investigating magistrates act as curators of this data, weighing Istislah and Maslaha and Istihsan against the so-called “facts of the case.” By the time the prosecution crosses their desks, the outcomes are assured, as no self-respecting state prosecutor would ever bring a case in which their LAIs have not predicted a win outcome of at least ninety percent certainty.

    The weakness of this judicial method is similar to the weaknesses of the law of parsimony, which is that while the simplest explanation is often best, best is not always the same as true. Another way: the hypothesis with the fewest assumptions is not the same as having tested and proved out that hypothesis. A prosecutor’s likelihood of success is not the same thing as the likelihood of accurate justice. And a murder cannot be replicated in lab like conditions over and over again until a perpetrator emerges.

    That does not stop us from trying. The last stage of an investigation, even one with a confession, is the recreation of the act itself. Zumorroda, often famed for its extravagant parties and jet-set nightlife, will play host next month to a different sort of gathering. Senior investigators from Khadijah, new representation for Bayani Ilao, a diplomatic observer from Neoterra, the impartial judicial examiner, and the prisoner himself will descend once again on the infamous panic room on the top floor of the Hotel Miramar in which the body of Zev Behar, mighty Silk Lord, power broker, and mere mortal, was discovered dead from burn wounds. They will walk through the timeline recounted in Ilao’s confession, with investigators assenting to details confirmed by their analyses and correcting inconsistencies in the accused’s recollection. The judge will record the entire reenactment via several purpose built remotes that will be recording not only the testimony and reconstruction itself but also analyzing the physical reactions of the attendees, trying to capture the physiology of deception and remorse. All of which will factor into the magistrate’s discretion when assigning a sentence.

    But just as recounting and remembering an event alters memory–reinforcing bias, adding new details, constructing narrative and sense where it would not otherwise exist–so too does reenactment of an event bias a certain outcome. The party of investigators and accused will not recreate the night as it happened. They cannot. Zev Behar is dead. The possibility for escape and rescue are foreclosed. The outcome has been determined in a way that, as it happened moment to moment, was not assured. We already stand at the conclusion of the event and stare backwards towards a horizon beyond which we cannot see the antecedents. Instead we will impose a structure of narrative and sense on tracks in the sand, supposing what type a creature might have made them, how big, how fast, and use that to conclude why it was walking. This limitation is not unique to criminal investigation, it is the burden of linear time. It is the face of prosecutorial retrocausality, legal “spooky action at a distance” where the future we live is reconstructing a past to fit its perceived conclusions.

    This is the limit of justice. The way things happened are not as important as the way events are understood. We are constantly translating fact into our context and smoothing out rough edges and inconsistencies to fit the pieces of the puzzle we want solved. Bayani Ilao’s confession assures that he will be convicted. Next month is a matter of aligning the facts of the case with that outcome, whether the magistrate frames that as a truth seeking exercise or not.

    But just as memory can be altered by remembering and justice altered by reenactment, one must submit to the fact that story suffers from the same weakness. A report lists facts. A reporter turns them into narrative. We all suffer from the same disease, a quantum indeterminacy of present that builds a retroactive continuity to suit our beliefs.


    Naila waited in the massage room. It was a private cubicle, wood paneled and stained in warm hues, with a massage bed and changing stall. A velour robe hung from a hook on the door to the stall. Stereos continued to pump a softly strummed simsimiyya punctuated every so often by a meditation gong. A few potted plants, young parasols by the look of them, underneath a gray dog-headed figure rounded out the room, giving the whole thing a sense of warmth, relaxation, and life.

    Naila tugged at her chārqad. She hadn’t noticed the massage room through the augmented reality overlay of the map of Ralial’s lower level. In the precious few moments by herself, she brooded over the data in her comlog’s AR dial. “Serdab and Refrigeration” loomed large before her, the trail of each of her frantic search queries returning to the esoterically named room.

    Refrigeration was straight forward. It was a remarkably oversized room for cooling, but the desert is hot and cold storage for various Serums and custom Silk enhancements and even fresh Lhosts made sense in a place like Ralial. A Serdab, according to her comlog’s geist, was a narrow cut out in a tomb that led to a statue of the deceased. That did not make as much sense. Even with Ralial’s grab-bag of ancient cultural references, it was an oddly sacred name for Lhost storage.

    She tried to shake the obsession by searching the client list and cross referencing against flights and known sightings in Zumorroda, Khiva Khala, and Dar al Funduq. Then again by looking for tidbits of Sothia Nahid’s past, all of which were consistent with her credentials and contained a continuity that stretched back to her birth. No possible lead waved more conspicuously than the giant red flag of “Serdab and Refrigeration.”

    It waved so large that she nearly screamed when the door opened. The masseuse who walked in was not the picture of a relaxation expert. A dour woman, tall and muscular and with a thin purple stripe painted down her chin, almost constricted by the ill-fitted beige tunic of Ralial’s care staff, looked Naila up and down with obvious disapproval.

    “You’re not undressed.”

    Naila blushed, tugged her chārqad again, and bit her lip. Though her social halo was set to private, she wiped her augmented reality murder board away with a single nervous hand. Everything, that is, but for a map overlay charting a course from this room to Serdab and Refrigeration. The woman pointed to the robe hanging behind her.

    “We cannot begin the relaxation unless you’re undressed.”

    There were a thousand things she might say. A mistaken room. A clutch purse left upstairs. A sudden business call that demanded immediate attention. But if a thin excuse has worked once, it can be stretched to work again.

    “I have to go to the washroom,” Naila blurted as she rushed out of the room. For a moment it looked as if the masseuse would not get out of the way. As if she was squaring up to block Naila’s escape. Only at the last moment did she relent with a preternatural grace and turned her body to the side.

    “Hey–”

    “Sorry, I’ll be right back,” Naila lied, pulling the door shut behind her. Unlike her masterful diversion before, Naila didn’t have the plausible deniability of an actual bathroom to walk towards. Once in the hallway she kicked off her red heels and took off towards the first corner, ducked out of line of sight, and held her breath.

    She heard the door open. The stern footsteps of the masseuse walking out into the hallway. It didn’t occur to Naila to look and see which way the staff kitchen might be. Or where the supervisor’s offices were. Or if this was a high traffic hallway that led out to several massage cubicles, customers coming and going, waddling behind Sothia Nahid as she led them down the cattle chute that was Ralial, braying Anurshivan every so often to keep the doe-eyed herd in line. A mounted jackal head seemed to laugh at her with bared fangs as she foundered in her worry.

    “Where did she go?” a voice asked itself with no little frustration, snapping Naila’s attention away from every possible way she could be discovered to the one very probable way she would. The footsteps grew closer. The masseuse was definitely walking towards her. She split her shoes between hands, heels out, and raised one as if to bring it down on the woman’s head. It was impossibly insane. Impossible because the masseuse looked as if she could fold Naila as easily as a chair and insane because there was no reason to brain a person for just looking for her. She could just say she was lost. She could just say she was having second thoughts. But her heart was pounding so fast that it had both leapt into her throat and plummeted into her stomach and Naila couldn’t see any way off the runaway train of her destiny.

    Then the woman stopped. Said “fuck this” and turned around and went back into the massage room and closed the door behind her. Naila remained in position, combat heels at the ready to bludgeon, not quite believing that a paid therapist at an upscale resort didn’t have a guard dog’s tenacity to hunt her down.

    After a beat Naila allowed her eyes to slide towards the semi-transparent overlay in her eyes. Directional arrows urged her onwards, to Serdab and Refrigeration, with a sort of fabled promise to what might lie there. Heels still clutched in white knuckled fists, she began to stalk towards the room that dominated her imagination. Certain but also not quite sure what she would find there.

    There was nothing special about the doors. They were reinforced metal, of course, with tiny glass portholes that looked into a blue and white tiled room. They might have looked ominous, if it wasn’t for the fact that they were merely oversized versions of a restaurant’s walk-in freezer doors. Naila put her hand to the handle and twisted. The door did not give.

    “A little help?” she asked. “Aftah ya simsm.”

    <<Sésame, ouvre-toi>> winked into her heads up display in a flash of green text. She blinked twice and tried the door again and this time it gave way.

    She felt the cold first, a wet cold of a freezer door coughing open. A tingling crept up her arms through the thin blouse before racing down her spine to the small of her back where the low rise jeans didn’t quite meet her shirt. The hiss of the broken seal gave way to a gentle thrum of cold air being pumped into the room, accented by the occasional beep or whirr of some monitoring device’s readout or automatic readjustment. Then she crossed the threshold, and the whole of Ralial seemed to scream to life with the sound of an alarm being tripped.

    Naila’s world was bathed red. The AR patina which had helpfully labeled each workstation, storage crate, and cooling unit suddenly splintered into the fragmented coda of cryptographic encryption as Ralial’s information security kicked into full gear. No doubt the surly tech in the administration office above was wondering how the hell Naila got lost again on the way to the bathroom.

    “Aghliq ya simsim!” she shouted as she pulled the door closed after her. Naila spun around, suddenly both aware of the huffed clouds of her jagged breath and inured to the frigid cold that surrounded her. Her focus narrowed as the clock in her head ticked down an invisible timer until security barged into Serdab and Refrigeration.

    “Are you there?” she said aloud. There was no response in her augmented reality patina. She might as well have been sending up a prayer to God, whose stance on breaking and entering in pursuit of knowledge was not entirely favorable to Naila’s endeavor.

    She was alone.

    In the bright chill of that reality, Naila marched forward. The far wall hosted a row of secured tech-coffins. The industrial sized capsules could be used for any sort of legitimate purpose. She dialed up Nur to decode the labels, which would take decades with a comlog’s processor, but it could get lucky. They could host rare and delicate serums that required unique storage conditions. They could also host remote presence gear for tactical armored gear pilots. She looked for obvious countermeasures, like drop panels in the ceiling for automated turrets or combat remotes in charging bays. They could even host cloned Lhosts pending cube insertion.

    It came down to a matter of which end to start with, right or left. Naila chose right because while any sort of corrupt organization might have motive to hurt a client only an aimless psychopath would use reverse alpha to sort their trophies. The glass on the tech-coffin had fogged over. Probably from when she opened the door. Even beneath the distortion she could see the outline of a body in the pale blue backlighting. She pulled up part of her sleeve and wiped the pane.

    Naila tugged on her chārqad. The augmented reality label was still fractal gibberish eluding her geist’s computational skill. But the face looking back at her was unmistakable. Zev Behar lay encased in cold storage. His arms were crossed over his chest. His lips were tinged blue. His gray-blue eyes bulged beneath a confused furrow of ash gray brows. A long narrow slit, like an angry red smile, was cut neatly into his neck. He looked small and frail and scared. She let her hand rest on the window of his tech coffin. Even with centimeters between them, he was forever out of reach. A ghost in her story. A man robbed not only of his life, but of peace in death. Since the moment Tzofiya Ben’Ruah had revealed that her cousin Behar had suffered from RDD, Naila felt that she’d shared a bit of his path with him. To find its end here…

    “Nails!”

    Naila whipped around, her heart in her throat. She stumbled back into the tech-coffin and a series of beeps and buzzers squealed their objection. Ras had entered in after her, pistol drawn, hunched forward, the light up fabric of his shirt turned down to a muted gray that seemed to soak in the emergency lights. He looked like resort security.

    "I found him. Behar's body, it's here."

    "I'm sorry, Nails," his voice managed to be quiet despite the blaring alarms. The red light stained everything, creating a twisted chiaroscuro that cradled Ras in shadow, leaving only the sharpest edges of him exposed to the crimson.

    Naila's stomach dropped. Her hands found their way up to below her chin where they tried to wring from her chārqad not just a few words from her, but a whole different reality.

    "What are you sorry for?"

    "It wasn't supposed to happen this way," his voice wavered just a little as he closed in on her.

    When Naila was a kit reporter, freelancing for Bibliotek, she'd been sent to Maracanda to report on an attempted robbery of Silk shipments by a rogue Kum gang. Despite being new to the crime beat, she had scored an exclusive with a conductor from the maglev as he convalesced in hospital. Whether it was the fact that she was young or that she came bearing sweet dates or both, he opened up to her–off the record–despite having refused several larger publications. He spared no detail, from the burning Halqa transport rolled onto the tracks to the severed coupling of the crew car which put the Qapu Khalqi garrison precious minutes behind the payload. When the explosions ripped through the secure car, he was lucky enough to have several reinforced crates between him and the shrapnel. The bikers who raided the train held him at gunpoint instead of stepping over his body.

    This man had been a Monstrucker for decades. Before that, he’d served in the NeoColonial Wars across three theaters and seen more action that Naila could record in a lifetime on the Paradiso frontline. A true veteran. When she asked him to describe the woman who held him hostage, he said he couldn’t. All he saw was a PK-7 Invasor, a PanOceanian hand cannon favored by mercenaries and the Nomad Military Force. The barrel had been painted with pink flames coming from the open mouth of a green skull and each chamber of the cylinder had a playing card suit stenciled on the side. He remembered distinctly that it was the suit of Clubs that indexed as she pulled the hammer back.

    He could not recall her eyes or the cut of her hair or the color of the bandanna tied across her face. The only thing he ever saw in the seventeen minutes of that ill-fated banditry was the barrel of a gun that could take his head clean off with a single shot.

    Naila never understood that tunnel vision until the moment Ras drew his pistol on her. The Sabot! weapons ID upgrade on Nur told her it was Askari Kedar. No stencils to speak of but the hydrostatic ammunition was just as capable of making her burst like a rotten melon on impact. As if by reflex, her eyes began to charge.

    “Why–?” she bit her lip. He didn’t deserve the satisfaction.

    “We could’ve just gotten massages and left–”

    Clean shaven, armed, working for Qahesh. Naila blinked her eyes rapidly and tried to hold her breath. The charge was growing in her heads up display. He really did not deserve the satisfaction.

    Then she saw the knife blade at his neck, tracked it to the beige sleeved arm of an ill-fitting tunic. The masseuse was there, looming over his shoulder with her other arm braced along Ras’ back.

    “Take it easy,” she whispered, somehow louder than all the alarms in the world. Ras looked to the corner of his eye. He tensed, braced himself too.

    “You’ll never be able to pull it off,” the masseuse continued, softly, almost gently. Letting the knife be hard for her.

    Ras’s eyes flicked between her and Naila before he pulled the trigger. There was a bright flash from Naila’s cybernetic eyes that blotted out the world. The shot exploded in her ears, dwarfing the sound of her own beating heart as it whistled past her head and into Zev Behar’s tech coffin. As the light from her eyes faded, everything went from slow to fast. The masseuse’s blade flashed and a spray of blood, somehow black in the redness of the room, gushed from Ras as he tumbled to the floor, involuntarily clutching his throat as if to stem the tide.

    The masseuse did not wait for him to still. She wiped the blade on her tunic before putting it back in a boot sheath and taking up Ras’s Kedar.

    “We have to move quickly, Ms. Arash. You have no idea what you’ve unleashed.”

    Naila was dead still. Nails. Ever since Paradiso he’d always called her by her nickname. Up to the moment he meant to shoot her. Ras’ bullet should have hit her. It was only off by millimeters because the searing memory of a PanOceanian missile was faster than his trigger finger. From the heat of the jungle nights to lavish penthouse rooms to this tomb cold clandestine morgue, that name had bound them together and pulled them apart. No one else would ever call her that.

    Zev Behar took the bullet for her. She dared to look back at the splintered glass of his tech coffin. There was no blood splatter. The body was too old, too cold for that. But if there was any illusion of peace in the repose of Zev Bey, even with his throat slit, it was ruined now. All that remained was an irrecoverable mess.

    The woman looked up at Naila with cold eyes. “This is not the time to get weepy. You’ve disrupted a joint operation of the Muhafiz and ETTVAK. Our cover is blown and we need to get moving.”

    ETTVAK, some sort of bastard acronym for Ettela'at va Amniyat-e Keshvar, a security agency that was a front for the secretive Hassassin Bahram organization. A clandestine society of killers that was only sanctioned by the government because it was better to have some illusion of authority than to try to opppose them. In any other circumstance, uncovering the role of the notorious Hassassin Bahram would have floored Naila and made her mouth water with the promise of a scoop.

    But Ras was dead and Naila was alive and she didn’t know if it would have been better the other way around. The woman looked down at Ras where blood pooled under the exposed side of his face, twisted in a rictus, eyes still open, looking at Naila.

    "I'm sorry. But he made his choice." Her voice was softer, but still firm. A beat, reading Naila's face. "I'm sure Fahesh will reward him for his loyalty with a new Lhost. Not that you'll want to meet again."

    The woman frowned. “We have to go. This whole thing is pear shaped and this isn’t even the worst of it.”

    Naila kept biting her lip. Waited for Nur to show her something different than what she saw with her own cybernetic eyes. Maybe it was a cruel hack. A sensadrama gone wrong. Anything. The woman got up, walked over to her, and put a hand on Naila’s shoulder.

    “Naila, my name is Yara. I’m trying to help you, but you have to move or we’re both going to die.”

    Naila looked at the woman again. She still had the look of a surly masseuse in an ill fitting tunic, a little more blood spattered and better armed than before. But Yara’s face wasn’t hard out of cruel indifference. It was stone cold professionalism of a special operator. The piercing eyes and measured voice weren't anger. They were battle ready. Naila had seen it dozens of times on Paradiso. Only too late realized she was seeing it again. She blushed.

    “Ok,” she said, a little more croak in her voice than she expected. “Let’s go.”
     
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  14. borisgreymenace

    borisgreymenace killer heckler

    Joined:
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    The danger in any true crime story is losing sight of the victim in pursuit of the resolution. Salacious details, seductive narratives, and the shady characters who remain to tell their side of the story, whether to embellish their role or obscure it, all crowd out the rather grim fate of the ostensible protagonist.

    Zev Behar was born in Zikim kibbutz on Taba to parents charged with maintaining the safety of his lakeside community. Following in their footsteps, he was minding Zikim’s lighthouse during a storm and in a moment of extraordinary bravery gave his life rescuing stranded travelers from rising floodwaters.

    The choice to put other lives ahead of his own defined his character. The resurrection and educational rewards that came from this selfless act defined his career. The consequences of death and rebirth defined his struggle.

    Behind the mystique of the Silk Lord is a more earnest story. A hardworking man began his career learning how to tame a harsh planet to support his people–not only the kibbutz he was from or the kibbutzim and neighboring nomads whom he protected, but all the people of Bourak, dhimmi and Muslim alike. From there, he found his true calling in sharing his miracle with others, again, not just those of Bourak but with all humans, regardless of creed or nationality. Just as an obstetrician might give birth to a thousand babies over generations through her hands, Zev Behar enabled the resurrection of tens, if not hundreds, of thousands through his network of Nasaiat producers. From the moment he risked himself in Zikim’s lighthouse to the moment of his true death, he was a dedicated follower of Mechayeh HaKol or al-Muhyi al-Kull, not in an arrogant or self-aggrandizing way, but in a modest and discreet way that belied his wealth and power.

    There were contradictions. There were compromises. There were shortfalls. Many take issue with how much wealth and power one man, one cartel, one industry can amass. How that power is wielded to influence the politics of the Sphere. The Resurrections or treatments that don’t happen because of a tightly regulated Silk supply. This criticism can’t be dismissed, but one man can’t stand in for the iniquity of our system. We must shoulder the responsibility for that change, not heap at the feet of the dead.

    Neither his contributions nor his sins have featured in the public discussion of Zev Bey. At his funeral service, Zev Behar was eulogized for his business acumen and industry triumphs. They are important but they are not the man. The man was one who gave life to others. Who made dirty deals to secure his power. Who died senselessly not for his sins but due to the nefarious machinations of others. He suffered as others do not–living with resurrection dysmorphic disorder means enduring more hard days than easy ones. His triumph was singular. Yet he did not leave behind complaints, or boasts, or monuments.

    It would be better if the heart of this story was a commemorative retrospective. If we were standing at the end of a life in reflection and celebration. If we could feature the voice of the man himself sharing with us the few moments that he felt defined by. But the cruelty here is that Zev Behar will never have the chance to utter those words. He will not hear that he was celebrated. He will never account for the moments where he fell short. And, thankfully for us, he will not hear how much more time we will spend breathlessly speculating about who ended him.

    It is often said that a person dies twice. The first time when they cease to live and the second when they cease to be remembered. Zev Behar is lucky to have lived twice. He may not die a third death in our age of Maya and quantronic ubiquity, where record and recorded memory endure long beyond the mortal years of several generations. Maybe we will lose this war with the Evolved Intelligence. Maybe ALEPH will turn on us as the Nomads predict and erase our history. Maybe we will last till the very heat death of the universe.

    That third death may or may not come. It may be soon or many aeons off. But with these words here, we commit to extending the memory of Zev Behar, Zev Bey, for all its glory, tribulation, and sin.


    Yara took point as they hurried to the edge of Serdab and Refrigeration, with Ras’s pistol in hand. Braced at the doorway, she checked the porthole into the hallway, ducked to the other side, and checked the opposite direction before waving Naila close.

    “They’ve cut power to the lights. Do you remember the layout of this place?”

    Naila nodded, “I have a map on my comlog. I can–”

    The woman raised her off hand to her lips, signaling for quiet. “In case we get separated. Go up to the meditation room and out towards the beach.”

    Naila nodded again before a flash of inspiration took her. “The lights! Ras and I, we had this hacker friend piggyback on my comlog. He was able to access their network, maybe he–”

    “He’s dead too,” she said in a way that reminded Naila that the hacker was Ras’ friend, not hers. “Once you entered this room there was a spike in data transmission over the network. More than enough to trigger the alarms. Something big was in this datasphere and it let itself out over an encrypted transmission. There aren’t enough firewalls in the Human Sphere to protect a hacker from that kind of feedback shock. It also severed the local Ralial network from Maya. Your eyes might be recording but they’re no longer streaming. If we’re lucky. If we’re unlucky, whatever was running this place is looking through them too.”

    Naila swallowed hard. The woman’s expression did not change. Naila had to hope that Yara meant what she said about helping her.

    “Last thing before we go. Stay close to me. Do not fall behind. Do not look back. Just keep your head low and your feet moving forward. And if we get separated–”

    “Go to the meditation room and out towards the beach,” Naila finished. She held her shoes in her hands, heels out. They weren’t anything like a pistol and knife, but with the right throw they could make all the difference.

    The woman nodded and kicked the door open and they were through.

    Ralial’s hallways were dark, no longer the strobing red of their cold storage room. A few low lumen red pin lights conveyed the sense of emergency in case the screaming alarm did not. The smiling jackal heads no longer held any mirth. Shadow seemed to drip from their canine maws, with the odd glint of crimson light catching a menacing golden fang. But darkness was only part of the sinister atmosphere. The masters of this brutal masquerade of a Theriac Resort had gone subtle with the light but not so much with the sound. The pulsing screech had increased its decibels to mind numbing levels. With her augmented eyes, Naila didn’t have to worry about the darkness, even the pin lights were enough for her visual apertures to adjust to a grayscale sight with high clarity and fidelity. Clear enough to see Sothia Nahid stalking close to them.

    There was something different about the concierge of Ralial since they had last met. She was still in the tailored suit and tight blouse and pencil skirt of the blue and gold reception room. But now, it seemed as if Nahid’s incessant hawking of Anurshivan treatments had unzipped a seam from the bottom of her pointed chin to the bridge of her nose. As she loomed close to them her face unraveled in a vertical smile, her perfect skin peeling back across her high cheekbones to reveal a set of fanged incisors and a two pairs of frighteningly offset barbed cuspids that snapped and chittered like venomous chelicera. Milky white, pupiless eyes fixated on Naila and Yara as Sothia Nahid pulled a knife blade from within her body and leapt at them with inhuman screeching.

    As soon as Naila saw it, her eyes flashed like a dozen camera bulbs set to strobe. Sothia Nahid seemed faster than the light itself, however. Indifferent to the pulses. Naila threw her left shoe and then her right, in a condemnation that was both metaphorical and instinctual. Yara was also ready for the attack, snapping off two shots from the heavy pistol. Nahid seemed to undulate in midair to dodge heels and then the first pistol shot. But the second caught her–it–on the shoulder with enough force to disrupt her trajectory, spinning her and her wicked blade wide of Naila. Sothia Nahid landed in a crouch position, propped up by both feet and her free hand, holding her knife blade out like a swaying cobra ready for another strike.

    Naila stared down the metamorphized woman with an intensity that rivaled a sunflare. In between the wail of the alarm, she heard a hiss and gritted her teeth, expecting to feel a blade run across her neck. Like it had for Zev Behar. Like it had for Ras. Yara used her offhand arm to swim between them, sweeping Naila behind her while firing more shots at Nahid as she backed them both away from whatever monstrosity had been touring clients around this place. The thing that looked like Sothia Nahid was able to dodge the shots with inhuman grace, scuttling along the floor and skittering forward, inured to any pain from being hit in the shoulder, her eyes dulled to darkness and light.

    Naila screamed, not that anyone could hear over the alarms or gunshots. Naila screamed a whole week’s worth of defiance and anguish. Taunted death. Wished for it. Wished it upon the contorting form that dogged them with a darting blade and serpentine grace. Her eyes pulsed with loss and grief and emotional daggers, sharper than any weapon Sothia Nahid could produce from folds of skin in her torso.

    And then Nahid turned her head and balked in her weaving pursuit, as if something had stuck in her eye. There was a wobble to her undulating grace now, an uncertain reverberation. Her next sidestep took her wide of them, towards the edge of the corridor. The next after that braced her against the slight cover of a door frame. Yara kept firing until another shot finally caught Nahid in the torso and she scurried from view into a massage suite.

    “Did you get her? Did you get her?” Naila screamed into Yara’s ear.

    “We’d have to be twice blessed to be rid of her, Allah willing,” Yara’s voice was calm but loud as she continued to hustle Naila towards the stairs, sparing a look and readied pistol over her shoulder.

    They were not long in waiting for the next series of horrors to unfurl in this maddened, darkened place. From the hallway emerged two black carapaced combat remotes, locomoting with arachnid frenzy, their menacing chassis arched up like wasps ready to sting, complete with wingback panels. Nur’s Sabot! upgrade helpfully identified them as Q- and M-type combat remotes according to their International Standard Coding, terrifyingly far from the all too close jungles of Septentria where Naila had last encountered them.

    “Run,” Yara said.

    Naila ran. Her eyes were low on charge and her guts started to twist as each moment disintegrated into something worse. An explosion of rifle fire shook the hallways as a hail of bullets chased them to the stairs. It was punctuated by a sickening electromagnetic pulse of ionized gas slamming into the walls and floors around them. The impacts exploded into superheated matter that slagged the inside of Ralial’s basement. They were lucky to be out of range of the remotes, their firing solutions unable to lock on to moving targets in the dark just outside of their optimal ranges. Naila hoped that they were just out of range.

    They came upon the stairs fast. Maybe not fast enough. The stitch in Naila's side was growing, the tightness of her jeans that both held her back and threatened to fall down, the articulated clacking of combat drones loped closer. Yara was starting to bound ahead, two steps at a time. Even with her heels off Naila couldn’t keep up.

    “Come on!” the Muhafiz trained masseuse cried.

    Naila fell. Hard or not hard, too much adrenaline to tell. But she started scrabbling on all fours up the stairs like a mountain climber scaling a cliff face. A swoop of her hair fell across her face as her chārqad unraveled. She was falling apart.

    At the first landing rough hands grabbed her and pulled her around a corner as the stairs turned up to the first floor. Yara was standing with two Alamut tribesman, dressed in combat gear. They seemed to emerge from the darkness as if born from shadow itself. Yara's face was stony. Calm. No more exerted than when she demanded Naila undress. Naila was heaving. Trying to suck in more oxygen than Bourak had in its entire atmosphere.

    “Combat remotes,” she said to the militia.

    They nodded grimly. One hoisted a rifle to his shoulder and aimed down the stairs while another unslung a panzerfaust from her belt and began expanding its telescopic barrel.

    Yara turned to Naila. “Let’s go.”

    Before she had a chance to catch her breath, Naila was taking the next flight of stairs. The sound of gunfire ratcheted up, drowning out the alarms in a dread syncopathy, like a thousand drums with no rhythm yet each beat synced to a march of death. Then a sudden thwoom sucked the air out of the building and shook the very foundations of Ralial, loosening ceiling tiles and plaster in an upheaval that floored Naila again. Yara reached down and pulled her up, the Muhafiz agent willing them both up the stairs. Naila looked back. She shouldn’t have. It didn’t matter. All she could see, even with her artificial eyes, was an impenetrable cloud of dust and smoke wafting over the plasma melted stair tiles.

    Their pace didn’t slack when they reached the top. If anything, Yara pulled her along even faster, Naila’s feet banging hard against the cold, cool tile, a sort of inverted pain to the Zumorroda cargoyard. When they got to the Meditation room, it seemed like an oasis amid the chaos, its beach smells and picture windows a stark contrast the the reddened low light of the Theriac Resort’s lockdown.

    Yara didn’t stop running. She held the Kedar pistol out in front of her and pulled the trigger a half dozen times, indifferent to the recoil. The bullets slammed into the reinforced glass and blasted it into a tinkle of shattered diamonds, letting the actual breeze, sea spray, and swelling waves enter into the room along with the midday heat and stink of rotten seaweed. Yara and Naila skidded to a halt and in one move Yara lifted her up in a fireman’s carry to take the barefoot reporter across the broken glass, stopping only to kick out a few jagged shards before stepping over the threshold into the hot Bourak sun.

    She carried Naila for a few steps more before letting her down onto the hot sand. Naila wobbled before getting her bearings. Outside the darkness and terror of Ralial seemed distant, its blaring alarms barely a dull moan as the beach wind whipped up in gull song and ebbing waves.

    “Ras has a car–”

    “No time for that,” Yara’s was clipped, efficient. She pointed to Ralial’s aeropad. Just beyond it, across the horizon, an unmarked Roc Dropship screamed across the horizon. The sound of its VTOL jets drowned out any hope of question or explanation as they trudged towards it, fighting the wind it generated while fleeing the smoke and gunfire of Rahatan Linab Aldhahabii.

    They arrived at the base of the aeropad as the dropship landed. The side door opened and a team of five soldiers poured out. Naila immediately recognized the first two as Ghulam, though they hid their faces in balaclavas and wore no unit insignia on their armor or in their spare augmented reality halos. Besides them came two more heavily armored troops in visored helmets, one toting a rifle with underslung grenade launcher and the other in tactical hacking gear and a multispectral visor for hunting camouflaged troops. Taking up the rear was a trooper in the sleek Istehkam Heavy Industries Siyah light power armor, holding an oversized Askari AS Fateh spitfire. An Asawira heavy infantry soldier stepped straight from the holos of the Maya articles about the Shah’s personal guard. Despite the compact nature of its armor, the Asawira towered above its compatriots.

    This first wave disembarked in tight pattern around the Roc, with one of the uparmored infantry men tossing a rifle with custom sights towards Yara, who snatched it out of the air as easily as a pro athlete might catch a ball.

    “Team Jibreel on me. Team Mika’il will escort the high value target to extraction. The rest will form up a defensive perimeter to ensure that nothing slips through our net,” Yara directed the soldiers into position without pause. As if they hadn’t just escaped a blade wielding snake woman and combat remotes manufactured by the Combined Army. From within the hold of the dropship, another cohort of soldiers and remotes prepared to begin their containment of the Ralial chaos. The reporter in Naila ached to capture this moment. She had seen it a few times before, in Ghezirah, and she knew well the swell of confidence that she and her viewers felt knowing that the dedicated men and women of the Sword of Allah were about to strike the enemy.

    Naila’s awe was cut short by a high pitched whistle. The sky itself caught its breath. Her eyes flicked to the side door of the drop ship, where the soldiers and Murafeq combat remotes stood at the threshold, then to the cockpit where the pilot raised both hands, then to the nose where a trail of smoke seemed to corkscrew into the front of the Roc like a thin cloud twisted into a crazy straw.

    The force of the explosion flattened all of them, even the Asawira. The Roc erupted into a fireball, streaming greasy black smoke as the fuselage went up in a second explosion, the heat of the blast buckling what was left of the elevated vertiport. But for the odd piece of debris, a warped aileron, a piece of the tailplane half buried in the beach sand, one could be forgiven for guessing that they were staring at a small meteor and not the remains of an offbooks strike team.

    “Jibreel, I have point, move out!” Yara was first up, her soot stained face seemingly indifferent to grievous loss. The Asawira and hacker fell in behind her as they darted forward towards the hidden firing position where the missile had come from.

    The remaining Ghulams and their leader, the helmeted man in a reinforced flack jacket, fell in around Naila and helped her up. She felt at once the force of all her falls, the cuts, scrapes, and bruises, the tear on her blouse, the singed hems of the chārqad.

    “Ma’am, I’m going to sync your comlog with our network. Stay close to us and keep your head down. We’ll get you out of here.” Despite the modulation of his helmet’s speaker, there was something comforting in his voice. He looked up towards the two Ghulam, and pointed out two positions, “On me, Yahmi pattern. Mika’il-three on point.”

    “Acknowledged,” a woman Ghulam said, heading out to a position on the beach and dropping behind a dolerite outcropping for cover. Her partner fell in behind her, taking an intermediate position. The leader of Mika’il team turned back to Naila and looked down at her bare feet.

    “I’m sorry ma’am. We had some gear on the transport but–”

    “It’s fine,” Naila's voice flattened, “I’ve done this before.”

    There was another whistle in the air, followed by an explosion and a staccato burst of gunfire. Her escort stopped apologizing and grabbed Naila by the arm to hustle her down the beach.

    “Mika’il-one to team, rendezvous is point zayn. Move out."

    The acknowledgements crackled over Naila's comlog as her feet kicked through the hot sand, not so fine as it was littered with broken shells and sharp rocks. Team Mika'il moved in tight formation, flitting from rocky outcrop to outcrop in crouched runs, zigzagging towards the water. Behind them, Ralial faded like a distant storm, the crackles and crash of gunfire and ordinance receding with each step towards the crashing waves.

    “Mika’il-two to Mika’il-one, there’s static over the network, do we have comms inbound?”

    The soldier escorting Naila went stiff before pulling her roughly onto the side of a dune.

    “Mika’il-three confirming, there’s feedback in the headset.”

    “Mika’il-one to team, reset your firewalls, how copy?”

    Naila’s blood froze. The sudden pick up in transmission interference followed by a reset order meant one thing–a tactical hacker was cracking their network. She looked back at Ralial, which wavered and blurred like an impressionist rendering in the haze of the burning Roc. She thought of the surly sysadmin, the sudden missile, and realized that she was staring back at a not so distant tempest. What they were trying to leave behind was about to return in force.

    “Mika’il-three copy, Mika’il-one. Network reset complete–still buzzing.”

    “Mika’il-one to team, we have shayatin in the AO. Masah pattern on my mark, Mika’il-two on point. Mark.”

    “Mika’il-two copy,” the response came in and Naila was hoisted up and damn near dragged over the dune. The rest of the tactical team had gone wide with the male Ghulam as the tip of the spear and his female comrade taking the left hand flank along a short diabase sill that cut the beach in half and obscured the private beachfront from view of Ravansār. Naila and her escort skirted the right hand perimeter along rolling sand dunes and beach scrub. The soldier’s hand was clamped firmly on her arm as she scanned the scene with her eyes, Nur adjusting the brightness levels in real time, her neck swiveling on a slow pan to get the shot that would close her article: a team of tactical operators removing her from Zev Behar’s violent grave site. Maybe the last shot she would ever get.

    A fast boat crested the glittering waves on the horizon, stark white as it cut the waters towards their position.

    “Mika’il-two to Mika’il-one, have visual on extraction en route to point zayn, over.”

    “Mika’il-one, copy–”

    “Mika’il-three, I have contact–repeat, contact!” the female Ghulam cut over the line. There was a clash of shotgun blasts as Naila whipped her head to see where the woman had been standing, only to see her sprawled out and motionless on the red stained beach. She hardly felt the soldier place himself between her and the field of view, only dimly catching him yell “frag out” as a grenade thumped from his underslung rifle launcher and landed in a plume of sand and blasted dolerite.

    “Mika’il-actual to al-Ghaib, Mika’il-three is down. We have shayatin in the landing zone, request support, over!”

    The escort didn’t wait for a reply over his tactical communications. He broke into a run across the beach, the remaining Ghulam also breaking into a double time stride as they ran towards the waves. Though her feet ached and her legs churned through the loose sand needing twice as much power for half as much speed, Naila lost all sense of her limits as the weight of fear seemed to crowd out everything else.

    Then she heard a crack that seemed to split the sky. Something whizzed overhead of them before whipping back in a hooked arc. Looking over she saw the Ghulam’s back explode in a spray of crimson and blasted kevlar as the double action round ripped through his chest hard enough to lift him off his feet and toss him back into the loose sand like a ragdoll.

    “We have to take cover!” Naila shouted.

    “No point,” her escort’s voice was calm, but urgent. “That sniper doesn’t need to see us to hit us.”

    Naila headed for the boat. The next shot came like thunder, the noise only breaking when the bullet was too close to them. Her escort flung his hand out in vertical swipe, the universal signal of a comlog being reset. The round split the air between them, missing him by a hair, before hooking back and blasting the sand in front of them into a cloud of dust and grit. Choking, coughing, sputtering, anything to stay standing, the firm hand of her escort dragged her through the cloud of near death.

    Naila did not stop. Eventually the loose sand beneath her feet gave way to the squelch of wet sand, the tide rolling in to rinse her feet. She felt her heart lift despite the sting of sea water in her cuts. While the sand was hard to run through, the water was worse. Her heart raced through a slow motion scene of them waded through the tide.

    The boat was close now. Just a few meters out. A mechanical anchor held it in place as it rocked with the oncoming waves. As they drew closer a ladder began to form on the boat’s siding to welcome them aboard.

    Another sniper shot cut the air. Naila could feel the heat of it on her cheek. Her scar burned as if it had reopened. Too close to her now. Too close to her past. The double action round slipped into the water with an understated bloop, as if someone had dropped a coin into the sea from a middling height. The second stage of the impact, however, sprayed with a fury of sea and sand and shell like a naval mine. Naila and her escort were separated by the force of the blast. She lost her footing and slipped sideways into the churning water. Her limbs flailed. Every time she opened her mouth, more water than air fell inside.

    His hand found her and pulled her towards the hull of the boat, the weightlessness of the water eliminating the resistance of Naila’s slower pace. She fumbled along the side for the rungs of the ladder until she got a grip, pulling herself up one trembling arm at a time. Her escort was not delicate or reserved. As soon as she was up high enough he lodged himself under her bottom and thrust her up and over the side of the gunwales.

    She fell on the deck with a gasp, and pushed herself upright. Her escort’s hands hoisted himself up easily over the sea slick rungs of the ladder. Naila ran to him anyway, reaching a hand for him. The next shot hit the boat with a dull thud. The second stage fragmented in a mist of red.

    Naila grabbed the soldier by the shoulders of his flak vest and wedged her foot where the decking met the gunwale. His body had gone slack. His hands released the ladder. With a scream, Naila braced herself against the boat and pulled, her shoulders straining under the effort as if her arms were being torn from their sockets. She grunted. Then screamed again. And with a final heave pulled him on to the deck where they both fell hard.

    When she looked up at the side, she could see where her bloodied feet and the sea water and the leaking gunshot wound had mixed together into a light pink tide that washed over the deck as the boat pulled hard to port and angled the bow out to sea. Her first thought was sharks. Sharks were drawn to blood. Then it was to shelter. Anything that could prevent that next shot from coming in.

    Naila wasn’t as gentle or quick as she wanted when she dragged the soldier down two steps into the cabin. He groaned audibly when she propped him up to a sitting position against one of the two cushioned benches inside. Her head whipped side to side as she looked for something, anything to stop the bleeding.

    Her chārqad was gone. Her clothes were soaked, stained, and torn. She checked the various pouches on the man’s armor. Extra magazines. Grenades. No bandages. The boat was picking up speed. A crew.

    “Hello?” she called, her voice as gritty as the sea and sand she’d swallowed.

    No answer.

    “Can anyone help me?”

    The boat moved on to the horizon, the engine drowning out any hope of a reply.
     
    Brokenwolf likes this.
  15. borisgreymenace

    borisgreymenace killer heckler

    Joined:
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    Most stories begin at the end. There is a variation on the theme of course, nonlinear artifice intended to reframe or repackage the delivery of high drama, or to layer on a second a story over top of an established narrative. The murder mystery stands out here–we begin with a death. To tell how it is solved, we must work backwards to origin, then forwards to resolution. In other words, there is a craft to storytelling and the nature of the story tends to dictate an arc that will satisfy the reader. A writer must honor that form, even if to eventually explode it, because of the sacred understanding between author and audience.

    But a journalist is not only a writer. We submit ourselves to two masters, the second being Truth. There is a distinction here implied by the capitalization that I will make explicit. There is a truth which is a series of facts and a Truth which is a spiritual revelation of Things As They Are, or, less poetically, an insight into the reality of systems. For a journalist, this is art.

    When craft and art are aligned, truth and Truth work together to sharpen our understanding of the world. More than informing–it arms us against inaccuracy, injustice, and worst of all indifference. But most often the journalist finds truth and Truth can be misaligned. For example, let’s say the subject of a story would tell a lie to implicate themselves in a crime they did not commit to mitigate some harm–it could be to reduce a punishment they believe is inevitable, or to curry some benefit for their dependants, or out of some misguided sense of guilt for another’s action. As a recorder of this story, how do you proceed? Do you trust their agency and give accurate voice to their words and allow them to face the consequences they have chosen for themselves? Or do you step on this autonomy and twist the narrative to portray your own Truth, shading their admission with suspicion and contradiction, cheapening the value of their assertion in order to reveal Things As They Are, (or perhaps things as you
    think they are)? And what, as storyteller, is owed to the audience? The truth of the story or the Truth of the story? Readers want both facts without spin and to know whether or not the great institutions of the world represent themselves honestly and these are not always the same thing. Do you disclose to the reader your allegiance? To whom do you ultimately owe your loyalty?

    The art makes a demand of us. What do I stand for? Why am I here, writing these words, risking my life, revealing what is not necessarily meant to be shared. What role am I playing? Crusading Truth teller? Fact repeater? Opinionist? Voyeur? How neatly or uncomfortably do these roles overlap?

    This is the truth of this story. Bayani Ilao has admitted, without obvious duress or coercion, to the negligent murder of Zev Behar through a fire set by his own misguided desire for heroism. And the Truth to this story is that several other people benefit from Zev Behar’s untimely death and the forensic evidence, never tested in adversarial court, does not indicate a fire started by Ilao or any single source. The arc of the story, as dictated by craft, bends towards a narrative that may well betray Truth–Occam’s razor not merely cutting off loose ends but cutting short the weave of a tapestry before we can truly analyze the picture. And who am I to commandeer Bayani Ilao’s story to paint the picture I see? To put my words before his?

    It is here that I must cede some important ground to stake out a new territory. I cannot be a journalist, because I cannot serve both truth and Truth when a greater injustice arises from that tension. A honest woman cannot entertain two masters. Or remain neutral on a moving train. To serve truth is safe, predictable, and defensible. To serve Truth is uncertain, dangerous, and maybe noble. I have made my choice, and this is my epigraph.

    –Unfiled story in the drafts partition of the Mayanet user Aminah Naaji, alias of Naila Arash, missing reporter for
    Ahl Fawara Magazine. Retrieved by Hexahedron Private Information Exfiltration Group two weeks after she was declared missing by her editor, Samir Naguib.

    Naila stared at the face of the man who had saved her life. He was a kid. Maybe mid twenties. Acne scarred. Big brown eyes that glazed over like the bloom on old chocolate. The only time he moved was when a wave big enough to rock the boat jostled them from the leash of their moorings.

    There was no crew. She had found a medikit in the empty cockpit, right next to the self-driving helm. Whatever LAI had been uploaded into the ship’s controls had a very exact location in mind. Within twenty minutes it dropped anchor again, well away from the shore but also from any chance of help. The comms equipment was locked down and encrypted. No public Maya nodes were accessible. Nur was still trying to break into the boat’s system to get an SOS out. It didn’t have any better chance than when Naila had asked her geist to crack Ralial’s datasphere.

    With the medikit in hand, she had rushed back to the soldier who saved her. He was slumped where she left him, looking worse off by the second as his blood mixed with sea water into a brackish scarlet puddle. Naila knelt next to him. She could hear him wheezing beneath his helmet. Her hands moved with a delicate touch she slid her fingers between his gorget and chin vent to unclasp the fastener and pull the helmet off. Maybe it helped him breathe easier.

    He was young and pale and there were flecks of blood in the spittle on his lower lip.

    “I’m going to help you,” Naila used her recording voice. It was a little lower, a little slower, more enunciated than her normal speech. The type of voice she thought would be nice to listen to as it reported on a crumbling Septentria front. “I’m going to inject you with some Serum. It will clot your wounds until we can get you to a doctor.”

    She didn’t know that they could get to a doctor. She opened the medikit and pulled out the jet injector and loaded an ampoule of Serum, a flexible type of Silk derivative for emergency medical treatment, into the cartridge loader. It slipped in seamlessly and the jet injector’s onboard systems sealed the connection and prepped for a single dose release. She had watched the Ghulam doctors in Ghezirah do it a dozen times. The only difference between them and her was a decade of training and a suite of geists and lesser AIs to ensure that not even one second of an Akbar Doctor’s training would be forgotten.

    She rolled up the kid’s sleeve and pressed it against his forearm. An indicator on the medikit synced up with her comlog and let her know when she found a vein strong enough to release the medicine.

    “Hey, uh, what’s your name?”

    The kid looked at her, his eyes starting to film over slightly, hovering at the point where someone says they’re cold and they can’t feel their limbs. Naila had seen that too, when the doctors couldn’t get there soon enough. Sometimes even in spite of when they did.

    “One that responds,” he rasped.

    “Ok, kid. I just wanted to say thanks for getting me out of there. And that I’m going to hit you with a dose of medicine. It’s gonna hurt, but you’ll feel better after that.”

    The air fell out of his lungs like a flat tire, so loud and so fast that she thought he’d died then and there. Blood filled his lungs and he breathed like there was a Luzige on his chest. She stopped talking and pulled the trigger on the medikit. A readout on her augmented reality interface let her know that a hundred percent of the medicine had dispensed into his body. The kid’s arm stiffened then relaxed for a moment, before his whole body seemed to seize up. He shuddered once or twice and then went soft, slumped even lower against the bench.

    The blood stopped leaking from his back, but the readout from the medikit wasn’t good. Though the Serum strength was a hundred percent, the kid’s body wasn’t accepting the Silk based reagents for rapid repair. The clotting agents and rapid fabrication of new blood cells weren’t enough to stem the circulatory shock. He didn’t die right away. It took too long and seemed painful. He didn’t say anything about it. He didn’t have to.

    Naila had spared a look to the shoreline to see the thick black smoke rising from Rahatan Linab Aldhahabii. There were no more explosions and no more hunter-seeker sniper rounds fired at them. The smoke faded into the heat haze of the late afternoon sky. She couldn’t really discern a single detail from that view. The only thing she could really see was the blank, unseeing stare of that dead kid.

    After a while she got up the courage to walk back over to him and close his eyes.

    Water lapped gently at the side of the boat. Around them luxury dhows drifted towards the horizons, cruising into an afternoon blemished only by a slight dark haze that, from most perspectives, would go unnoticed. For those that did see, precious few would understand.

    Naila stood up stiffly and headed back to the helm, walking the balls of her feet to avoid the worst cuts and trying not to bend at the knees where running on the sand had wrecked her tendons. She found a liter of water next to where the medikit had been stored. She drank half of it on the spot in large gulps. Walked back to the bench across from the dead kid. Drank the rest in small, rationed sips. There was no hiding from the sun now. Its harsh rays slanted through the windows and stung her. Without her chārqad, her hair puffed out as the salt water lifted it into a frizzed mop. Where the sun did not touch, heavy wet cloths chaffed against her skin.

    There was nowhere to look but the dead kid or an indifferent expanse of deep blue water.

    She thought about calling for help but none of the other ships got close enough. She thought about shipwreck stories with mirrors catching sunlight and signal fires. She thought about the way Nahid’s skin peeled back after looking like a normal person who didn’t have hidden fangs in her cheeks. Sometime around sundown, when the water was empty and she was sure they would both rot, the boat’s motor’s hummed to life. Naila checked Nur but the geist still hadn’t cracked the helm control’s encryption. The ship seemed to come to life of its own accord and started steering her towards Ravansār’s public docks.

    Naila grabbed the rifle first, tried to clear the breech of grit and sea water and check if the multi-modes could toggle between the shotgun fire and controlled burst of its rifle ammo. A biometric lock on the rifle prevented her from disengaging the safety so she went for the pistol next. Standard Askari AS Boulad which was also locked by the kid’s flatlined vitals. That just left the knife. No amount of quantronic security could keep her from trying to use it.

    The boat was picking up speed now, the prow lifting off the water and slapping down as it crested over the waves. Naila went to the foredeck and held the rail as she watched Ravansār grow closer. Darkness had fallen now and the city was winking to life. Gym lights. Neon signs for smoothie bars. Candles on the tables at outdoor cafes. All the things that keep on going when the world ought to stop. A chill fell on the air, cool enough to soothe the desert but cold against the damp tatters that clung to her.

    She thought about hiding or devising some trap. Naila couldn’t use a knife outside of a cutting board. Surprise would be her only advantage. But seeing eyeball to eyeball the persons responsible for this, whatever it was, remained too elusive a prize to risk to trying to up her chance of survival from nil to next to nil. Her eyes were still recording everything she saw to her comlog and that would sync with her personal datasphere. Her last moments could be the first moments of some bastard’s downfall. She gripped the knife handle tight.

    Nur connected to Maya just as the dock came into view. Naila did a full scan on all news related to Ralial and the explosions at the beach. Within minutes of the first explosion at the Theriac Resort it was being spun as an aviation accident at the aeropad. Investigators from the Transportation Safety Authority were en route. Casualties were supposed to be light.

    More than a dozen messages from Sam synced to her comlog as the boat pulled into a private marina. There was a sports utility vehicle waiting on the dock. Its headlights flashed on, catching Naila in a glow so bright that that she had to throw her arm up before her eyes adjusted to the glare.

    Two silhouettes stood next to the vehicle as the lights were cut. She didn’t recognize the first, a young man who walked towards the boat at a clipped military pace and began tying the remote deployed mooring lines down to the berth. The second was Yara, dressed in a military uniform stripped of rank and insignia, a purple hijab wrapped around her face like a cowl, an angry cut slanting across her forehead.

    Naila forgot about Sam’s messages. The man held out a hand to help her down from the boat to the dock. She ignored him and jumped down on her own, walking out to Yara, the knife still in her hand.

    Yara threw the bag at her. Not so hard that she couldn’t catch it. “A change of clothes. The windows are blacked out if you want to use the back of the car.”

    They’d packed Naila a pair of tan cargo pants, a sports bra, and a sweat wicking long sleeve shirt, also tan. There was a roll of gauze to wrap her feet before putting on a pair of heavy boots. Last, at the bottom of the bag, was a sand colored chārqad. She wrapped it gently around her head, tying down her wild hair, remembering the moment when they unwrapped her bandages at the Ghezirah Terminus.

    She had been booked for a shuttle to Boushra Caravanserai and from there a berth on the C7 Circular back to Bourak. As the bandages unwound, she felt beads sweat, matted hair, the coolness of recycled air on her bare skin that soothed and pricked and chilled her. She felt a certain lightness as her head was unbound, as if she could take up her own space again. Yet there was also a darkness. Her eyes were opened, painfully despite the emergency reconstruction that removed the shrapnel and layered a second skin grown from her own stem cells over the cuts on her face. She blinked rapidly, tears streamed from the inner and outer ducts. The Akbar Doctor clicked a penlight on and then off after a time. She didn’t see anything. After a moment he cleared his throat and began a monologue on the advanced technologies for ocular replacements.

    Her journey home began in darkness. A fumbling between things that were once familiar and now foreign as their dimensions intruded into her path at sharp angles and unforgiving blocks. Nur compensated with some audio cues as she got too close to bulkheads and furniture, the networked dimensions of ship space creating a sort of echo-location via Maya connections. But Naila was slow and uncertain. Didn’t always catch the instruction before swinging a leg or turning a shoulder. The myth of blindness was that it sharpened other senses. That might be true. But there was a long tail to that compensation that left her adrift in uncertain waters for longer than she liked.

    That’s how Naila felt as Yara turned the car out of Ravansār and onto the Nizari Route south towards Alamut. The man left with the boat, speeding off into the dark waters of the Al-Idrisi Sea, letting the low hum of the engine speak for him. The two women took the inland desert route, cleaving through dunes that crested as high as any wave under the sway of a capricious moon. Each a barren horizon in their own right.

    There was a silence between them, broken only by the gentle pulse of a pop station transmitting out of Norouz. Turn by turn, through twist and kink, the light of Ravansār faded, revealing the canopy of stars above them. Glimmers of light that separated them from an infinite and unknowable vastness. On the other side of that veil, across time and space, a mix of prophecy and science in the Dome of the Rock ushered a hopeful people to a desert planet upon which they crafted a home. Nailah, they called the probe that guided them. To attain. Having succeeded, they might look back now, peer into a history before humans on Earth contemplated an elsewhere life. The light crossing the void with an echo of the dead and the forgotten.

    Eventually the endless sand was broken by rock outcroppings and the boulder fragments of mountains in the distance. Mountains that loomed as a pure black against the night. The radio station crackled with distortion and eventually faded out, leaving only silence between them.

    Yara took a turn off that might as well have led to a dump site. This far out in the desert, beyond Maya Nodes and calls for help, Naila could have laughed at herself for wearing a seatbelt. She had gone to a secondary location. She hadn’t even bothered to ask where or why.

    The road crested over a lip and straightened out onto a plateau where desert scrub and cultivated shade trees threw shadows along the roadside like hungry div. The road ended in a set of small buildings clustered around a pool of water and some long warehouses marked by the local government as mustawdae stockpiles for lost travelers. An outpost at the very edge of Haqqislamite civilization, one of the few frontier spaces not raided by the Daylami tribesmen. Only one building had lights on. Yara pulled up beside it, the headlights of the car flashing across a sign for a coffeehouse.

    “There’s a Hafez verse,” Yara said at last, “When you’re alone in the dark, don’t forget the light within your being. Think about that before you try and use that knife."

    Naila nodded and let herself out of the car and into the coffeehouse.

    Despite the modest, boxy outside the interior was rendered in a neo-Tulip Style, with horseshoe arches covered in lattice work and painted wood panels on the wall depicting the discovery and settlement of Bourak, broken up now and again with an ornate grille separating the front room and back of house. By far the dominant feature was an ornate muqarnas carved into an apse at the far end of the main room under which was a single hemispherical table in front of an upholstered loveseat.

    On the loveseat sat an old man, his sun-worn face as pocked and creviced as the sandblown rock that Naila had spent half the night driving through. He wore simple cream colored jellabiya and green and blue woven taqiyah. When he smiled, his neat white beard parted like wisps of smoke. He gestured for Naila to sit across from him in an empty chiavari chair. With a hand on the hilt of the knife thrust into her belt to keep it from trembling, she strode purposefully over to the table and took a seat.

    He was not the only person in the room. There were others, with their faces wrapped in keffiyah and litham or even the visored helmets like the kid on the boat. They did not invite Naila into the room any more than Zelenski’s Securitate bodyguard had welcomed her into the attaché’s private dining room. They were a threat that did not even need Combi Rifles to communicate their penchant for swift violence.

    Naila sat and stared at the man who was still smiling. One of the masked guards came by with two demitasse cups and a brass dallah filled with hot coffee. They returned again with a single glass and a carafe of filtered water for Naila and a bowl of figs and dates for the table. The man, still smiling, poured a cup of coffee for Naila first before serving himself. The aroma of cardamom and clove filled the air between them.

    “Drink,” he said, his voice like a bass drum, “You have had a long day.”

    Naila stared hard at him. She wanted to refuse just as she had refused the fasji and maerki greens of a similar hospitality, but the weight of her bones, the parch of her throat, the rumble of her stomach denied her a stoic victory. She took the water first and drank it without stopping. The warm spice of the bitter coffee offset by the sweet figs came next.

    “Who are you?” came last, though it was the first thing she wanted to know.

    “A friend,” the man said simply, with an apologetic shrug.

    “My friends go by names and aren’t in the business of abducting me to remote desert outposts.”

    “Friends like Aminah Naaji, the little lie that allows you to move invisibly among the unwary? Or friends like Rasim Zaman, who would sooner kill you than tell you the truth?” The man’s voice was hard, then softened. “Maybe you need different friends. We already have much in common.”

    There were also friends like Sam, who only ever asked her not to risk too much of herself. Of whom it was now much too late to listen to. And then Zelenski’s words echoed in her head. With friends like these…

    “I’ve heard this line before. We’re the same except for the body count and falsely imprisoned.”

    The man smirked at her. “We are a kind people, but we are not always nice. Preserving the Search for Knowledge comes with costs that can not always be fairly borne. Bayani Ilao will be looked after. You are dogged in your pursuit for truth. I wonder how well you bear the consequences of those who suffer as a result.”

    "In my experience people are more often hurt by what they don't know than an uncomfortable truth. Zev Behar, for instance, died because of it."

    The man pursed his lips, letting the smile slip for a moment. He raised a hand and gestured at his masked coterie before showing his teeth again.

    "I see that you will not simply take any answer. Only the answer will satisfy you. A character strength. And flaw, perhaps.

    Another masked figure came by and swept away the coffee service with a lithe grace. A dancer’s grace. Naila had no doubt that this man could kill as easily as he could carry a tray of dates pits and empty creamer cups. Perhaps killing was the easier chore. A second one of the old man’s silent killers came by, carrying a checkerboard and playing pieces.

    “You’re familiar with the game?” The man asked as he picked up two pieces, one black, one white, and brought them behind his back to shuffle between hands.

    “I think so,” Naila queued up a helper program for Nur to coach her through moves. The old man held out two hands as closed fists. A choice. Naila indicated his right hand. Let the left handed methods remain their standard. He opened his hand to reveal a black pawn.

    “This game is perhaps different from the others you have played,” the man let the smile fade from his face into a deadpan seriousness. “For each move you make, I will answer one question until the game is decided. There is one other variation.”

    Suddenly the room went dark. Dark like Septentria. Dark like HIbat Allah. Dark like Boushra. Naila’s eyes were open, she could feel and hear everything, but only blankness remained. Nur and the AR dial of her comlog winked out of existence.

    “You understand, of course, that we can share our truth but not make any formal admission on the record. Not even in the background, as you journalists call it. Strictly off the record. Of course, if this makes you uncomfortable, we can leave you here. In an hour your sight and network will be restored. We will be gone and so will your answers but you will be unharmed. Of that you have my solemn promise.”

    “Let’s play,” Naila said, biting off a curse with all the willpower she could muster.

    “Truly, you live up to your name. You’ll have to call your moves to me, lest you upset the board–”

    “Let’s play,” Naila repeated. “I think you have the first move.”

    “Very well. Pawn to E4,” the man pronounced as he moved his first piece forward.

    “Pawn to C5,” Naila almost shouted, “Who or what was killed on Zumorroda the night that Zev Behar died?”

    The man cleared his throat. “You play an aggressive game. It was a Shasvastii infiltrating agent. Sometimes called a Speculo. Its advanced biology allows it to morph into a near perfect clone of a target with a mere sample of DNA in fractions of an hour. Most famously Speculo Killers are used for targeted assassination, but Speculo Agents are more terrifyingly leveraged as agents of discord and disruption.”

    “And Nahid..?”

    The old man did not answer. Maybe he held a hand up to stop her. Maybe he just leveled a stern look. The only response after a moment was the scraping of a wooden chess piece moving across the board.

    “Knight to F3.”

    Naila bit her lip. The game was not to win. The game was to survive as long as possible. To know as much as possible. Without eyes to see.

    “Pawn to D6. Nahid is one of those Speculo?”

    “Yes,” the man said, a smile in his voice. “Pawn to D4.”

    A mistake. A one word answer that told her what she knew without explaining anything behind it. “Knight to D7, how long have you known about Ralial?”

    The old man drew a breath. “We have watched them for months. Sometimes it is better to let the enemy develop their moves and expend their valuable resources before seeking to block them. That is until some externalities force your hand. Bishop to G5.”

    Her knight was threatened now. She had trouble keeping sense of the board in her head. Soon, she’d be overwhelmed by a man who could see not just the moves she made but the table as it might develop. The moves she would make later. It was time to commit. “Pawn capture D4. Who attacked me at the Zumorroda Airport? Ras said they were PanOceanian. Hexahedron.”

    “Maybe he thought so," the man said gently. "They call themselves ‘sniffers’ and ‘wolves,’ pack hunters from O-12 bureaus who were tracking the same incident we were. They either wanted to rescue or eliminate you. Concilium is fickle that way. Not all of their agents define threat containment similarly. Knight captures D4.”

    “Queen A5,” time to move on the offensive. “Shāh Māt. Why did Ras try to kill me?”

    She could hear the frown in his voice too, weighing down the careful syllables that emerged between scratching his beard.

    “A... misunderstanding between allies. Qaid Fahesh is trustworthy to a point, but the sanctity of Zumorroda is close to his heart. It’s more than business, you see. Any hint of danger, of infiltration, would shake his island castle to its very foundation. Captain Zaman was sent to distract you from your course, a goal with which we were all aligned. When you would not deviate, well… better that you fell into our hands than his. Knight to D2.”

    Naila didn’t like the answer. She didn’t like any of them. Shasvastii infiltration, O-12 investigations, coordination between the Hassassins of Alamut, the decadent and corrupt Slik magnate Fahesh, and the various diwan of the Hachib’s office to ensure that the truth remained buried under a falsely imprisoned Atek. She liked even less that she understood why.

    “Queen takes bishop, G5.” Her voice was heavy with the weight of the day and the thrill of a countermove, however small, to tilt the balance back to her. “Why keep this secret? You protect the Search for Knowledge and yet you have left us all ignorant. Ignorant of who was killed and why, ignorant of an attempted infiltration by the Combined Army. How does this keep us safe?”

    “You misunderstand the goals of our enemies. In a sense, they wish to be discovered. Humanity is already divided against itself. The NeoColonial Wars ended on paper but the fighting has never stopped. What more valuable propaganda for the Evolved Intelligence than for us to ascribe the politics of our enemies to impersonators, to wonder if our own leaders might not have been replaced. The Combined Army fights and holds territory with weapons, it’s true. But they conquer with fear. Paranoia. Hopelessness. Knight to F3.”

    She liked that answer even less. “Queen to A5. Shāh Māt. Why Zev Behar? If he was so important, you could have protected him. Or resurrected him from his cube once you infiltrated Ralial. If he was so expendable, why not down his plane in the ocean where no one would have to take the fall?”

    “You underestimate the agency of our adversaries and credit us with more omnipotence than we have.” She could hear a slight smacking sound as he pursed his lips. “Perhaps a better question would be who better than him? There are plenty worse casualties for us to suffer. There is continuity in his trading house, he had been unwell for some time, his condition degrading. He had lived two lives, more lives than most others can dream of, and he lived that arc to its fullest. Could we have been more discreet? Surely. Queen to D2”

    “That’s it?” Naila asked, “You feel comfortable letting him die because he was old and sick and rich and it could have been worse?”

    “Queen to D2.”

    “Don’t you care about who has to die to maintain your machinations? How can you sit there, choosing death and suffering for innocents while proclaiming the righteousness of your mission as if this is just a game! Murder, false accusations, miscarriages of justice to protect your secrets–who holds you accountable?”

    “We lost many good men and women that night. And today too. Too many,” his voice was soft and earnest. Queen to D2”

    “Queen captures queen D2.” Naila nearly shouted. There was no biting of lips or pulling at her chārqad. Not any more. “And Khoroushi, what’s he? Another piece of collateral damage to protect us from ourselves?”

    “Knight captures queen D2,” the man held quiet for a moment. Long enough that Naila almost moved again before he answered. But she sat, hands at her side, not only for his justifications but also because she had lost the thread of the game. With their queens removed from the board she no longer knew what lines of attack she could push, let alone the questions and answers that would bring her any solace.

    “Sohrab Khoroushi was a dangerous man,” the old man said after a while. “What you saw was his venality, portrayed by one of our agents. And you know his reputation as a Submondo fixer from your own reporting. But he has done worse, setting up financial shell companies and shadow transactions to support the Equinox terrorist group. His time was at hand. We merely shifted him into place so that Hasana El-Mofty could continue her noble work unimpeded and that our action could serve two purposes, obscuring the reason for his execution from either side by drawing him into this unfortunate business.”

    “Either side, then? Am I to be equated with terrorists for wanting to know why Zev Behar died and why our government was lying to us about it?” She paused a beat, “Pawn to A5.

    “An unfortunate choice of words. I meant no disrespect through the comparison. If we truly thought you were an equivalent to Equinox, we would not be having this tête-à-tête.” Naila thought about the squad of faceless killers that loomed behind her, how swiftly and easily they could dispatch her. She was blind. She was helpless. Was there ever such thing as a private conversation with them around? Or was that the point, taking her sight so she could feel how close these assassins had always been.

    “Then why am I here?”

    She could hear the man smile when he spoke. “Queen side castle.”

    “Pawn to G6,” Naila replied. “Why am I here?”

    “Don’t waste your questions on answers you already know,” the man said, his voice still dripping with that inscrutable smile.

    “Is Nahid dead?”

    “Only time will tell,” he said with a sigh. “We are careful people. Not optimistic. Resources will have to be developed and deployed to make sure her threat is truly eradicated. And that something else, something worse, doesn’t take her place. Bishop to B5.”

    The game got worse from there. Naila was sure she was winning and then she lost her queen side knight and bishop in rapid succession only to take the other white bishop in return. She tried to break a trap with knights and a rook in a bad trade that cost her rook for the old man’s knight. A couple moves later she was in check and lost her other rook and knight. The way the old man said “Shāh Māt” back to her was almost gentle. She was lost in a pattern she could no longer control, marching a single pawn forward on the E squares while she tried to get her bearings.

    Her opponent was gracious with his answers as he toyed with her. He named the officials responsible for the cover up, the government bureaus deeply infiltrated by ETTVAK agents as well as the agencies friendly enough to falsify a record out of professional courtesy. He even thanked her for showing them where their InfoSec had been weak so that they could place agents in the Civil Air Authority. All the while he moved his pieces forward, not to deliver a killing blow but to erect the bounds of a trap from which there was no escape. It was a game, sure, and a message too.

    Then it came time to spring his trap. The old man’s pieces circled her king like a cinch around Naila’s neck. When she wasn’t retreating the king to lose another piece, the pawn lumbered forward. Eventually it hit the board edge and the man had to remind her that she could get another piece back in return. She asked for a queen. The old man then had to tell her he was in check.

    Naila blinked a couple times. Not to trigger Nur or her recording software, but to wet her eyes and buy time. She forgot to blink sometimes. She didn’t know her next move.

    So she took his remaining knight. Then shifted back into Shāh Māt and took a rook across diagonal squares. Then they fell into removing each other’s pawns. Not so much out of strategy but frustration, each trying to avoid the move that would leave them open to the killing blow. Sometimes she forgot to ask questions, focusing on the next two or three moves instead. There were no more questions to ask, really. Just the one the old man said she had to answer herself. And another about what came next.

    “Queen captures Rook, E3,” she said quietly, trying to catch her breath. Naila’s hands were trembling even though she didn’t have to move the piece. She squeezed her knees to keep them from bouncing. “How can you defeat Nahid and her kind? We’re fighting a losing war on Paradiso. I’ve seen it. And you’re telling me that we’re fighting battles on Bourak too. And losing some of them. It can’t be just here. Bourak’s not a priority target. Not like Concilium, Yutang or Neoterra, or Earth. So we’re losing ground at the cost of people we know, like Zev Behar and Bayani Ilao. And a lot more people we don’t, like that boy on the boat, those O-12 agents on Zumorroda, and Ras. How do you think you’re going to win that war?”

    Naila heard the sound of a piece falling over. The man cleared his throat before speaking.

    “I think our time together has come at an end for now. You ask the unanswerable, of course. What I will say will not satisfy you,” he conceded, “War is not won by killing more people. It is not won by killing better or harder. It is won by killing the most valuable targets. Breaking the enemy’s resolve by eliminating strategically valuable assets through tactics that let them know you can strike where you want, when you want, with impunity. We are in the middle of a contest with the Combined Army to see who has the will to succeed. I believe we will win. They fight for something they want. We fight for what we need–freedom, survival. Their technology outpaces us but the graveyard of empires is seeded with the hubris of those who thought technology mattered more than tenacity. I don’t yet know how we’ll win, but I know why we’ll prevail.”

    The old man was right. Naila wasn’t satisfied with the answer, nor the abrupt end to their game. “I didn’t fancy you an optimist”

    “The fatalists are dead, the pessimists surrendered, and the cynics only make money on wars that don’t end. We optimists are all that’s left.”

    We. She didn’t like that either. “How many Bayani Ilaos are you willing to pay for your inevitable victory?”

    He tapped the board. Pawns didn’t come with cubes. Maybe that was one advantage the future held over a fifteen hundred year old game. Then again, she’d bet her own life that the kid on the boat didn’t have a cube either.

    “It’s possible that one day you’ll help us answer that question,” the old man said. “I’ve enjoyed our game–no, debate. Contest. Regardless of what it’s called, I am blessed to have met you. The reports don’t do you justice. Your articles get close, but the unedited Naila Arash is something to contend with, not limited by mere words.”

    She heard him slide along the pillows, his joints creaking as he stood. The old man’s brethren were as silent as a shadow but it seems that even the ghosts of Alamut couldn’t escape the grip of time any more than the Silken immortals.

    “We’re leaving. In just under an hour, your comlog should reboot successfully. You’ll be connected to Maya and your sight shall be restored. I apologize for the inconvenience, but we don’t wish to be followed and you could use the rest.”

    Naila’s hands weren’t trembling any more. They were bunching up into fists. But she kept them on her lap. She didn’t want to look ridiculous.

    “I’m sure neither your curiosity nor your desire for justice are satisfied. When your comlog reconnects, you will find a location marked not too far from here. There will be just enough time to walk there by sunrise. If you make it before the sun crests over the top Tien Shan mountains, another geomarker will direct you to our next meeting. A person traveling by foot across the desert should make it by nightfall. If you choose to do so, there will be no turning back. The desert is unforgiving. There is no Maya connection. No friendly guide. No hope of rescue. To make our next meeting, it will require absolute faith in your ability to cross the sands.”

    She could hear him smile again as he spoke, “Before you commit yourself, remember that there are those who care for you. That have always supported you and will continue to do so. There is another path, one that leads to a Hildy Johnson award I am sure. You already have so much, Naila. Even now you have the truth of Zev Behar’s killers, both of the public murder and the hidden one. There are other truths out there to discover and share. And there are others, like you, who must be protected to ensure the Search for Knowledge continues. It’s not an easy choice. Don’t cheat yourself by pretending it is.”

    He left after that. They shut the door after him. For the next hour Naila was alone with her thoughts.

    //

    The morning sky was a purple stretched to thin blue as if the heavens no longer fit the earth. A thin layer of orange separated it from the shadowed mountains in the distance.

    Nur downloaded the forecast as she arrived at the coordinates. Clear and sunny. A high of 39 Celsius. The regular alerts to drink plenty of water, wear sunscreen, and avoid direct exposure to the afternoon sun. Naila was already covered in sweat. The day was only getting warmer. She pulled out a bottle of water and drained it.

    The Hassassins left a small pack next to her at the table. Inside there were a couple of protein bars and some bottled water. Maybe enough to make it for a day. Her feet ached. She hadn’t slept. There was a stack of messages from Sam, each more desperate than the last, no bravado, no berating, just sincere concern. He’d tracked down some footage of Ralial and he wasn’t convinced about a helicopter accident. Samir Naguib was a good reporter. An OK boss. A decent friend. Perhaps the last one Naila would have.

    The first rays of the sun peeked over the horizon and stabbed down at her. Naila’s eyes flared and then adjusted to the sun, narrowing their aperture so that she maintained perfect vision despite the glare. She realized then that since she’d come home, she’d never had to wear sunglasses. Never had to squint or shield her eyes or fumble in the night. She lost a lot on Paradiso. But that wasn’t the whole story.

    Maybe no one gets the whole story. The world was full of cosmic punchlines like that. Maybe trying to know everything was failing to understand anything. She bit her lip. Maybe for the last time.

    Naila had kept the kid’s knife. Between that and the pack and her new clothes, there was nothing else on her person. She retied her chārqad, tight over her mouth, leaving only a slit for her eyes. This time, though, she wasn’t hiding anything. Nur dropped a ping in her heads up display. Her augmented reality rangefinder placed it 25 miles distant, at the base of a mountain that looked the same as the rest. Nothing obviously holy, but Naila would never trust anything obvious.

    She finished her water and put the empty bottle back in her pack. There was no use leaving a trail. She took a step and then another, the morning wind kicked up and wiped them from the sand. That was another cosmic joke. Even her questions would be lost to time, just whispers on a wind that would swallow the memory of her. But before the sun set on Naila Arash, she would have her answers.
     
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  16. Brokenwolf

    Brokenwolf Well-Known Member

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    Thank you for this wonderful story! I loved this interpretation of The Search For Knowledge. Haqqislam has always been my favorite faction and I love your contribution to its fiction.
     
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  17. borisgreymenace

    borisgreymenace killer heckler

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    thanks for taking the time to read it! glad i was able to write a story about your favorite faction without compromising it's portrayal. it was really fun to dip my toes into this part of the human sphere and to play in some of the less covered spaces of the setting
     
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