Benjamin Pryde looked out the window of the skycar as it flew over the bay towards the southern part of New Portland, the rich part of town. Below him surfers shot through five foot waves to the applause of people in the stands and tourists walked up and down the long boardwalk, buying anything that caught their eye in the stores on either side of it.
Ben smiled as the beach faded away behind them and looked forward again as Elsie flew the car off the skyway and past a skybuoy designating the exit ramp. The car slipped down to ground level and he felt the gravity plating kick in, holding the car mere centimeters above the pavement as Elsie drove down the road. A few minutes of driving past considerably more expensive homes and she turned off into a subdivision of homes that nearly equaled Pryde Steading’s grandeur. Ben let out a low whistle as she turned into the driveway at the end of the street and came to a stop in front of the gate.
The comm. panel in the dash lit up in an obvious request for information and Ben smiled at the video pickup below it as he thumbed it on. “I’m Benjamin Pryde,” he spoke clearly, wanting to make as good an impression as possible. “I came here to speak with Jack.” The comm. panel flashed once and then the gate opened slowly.
“You’d think they were expecting us,” Elsie whispered and Ben nodded back.
“It was rather quick,” Ben muttered and looked around at the beautiful sculptures dotting the well-trimmed green lawn as Elsie drove forward towards the front door. “I wonder what they’ll be like?” he added as the car moved under the canopy and came to a stop. Vanessa unfolded herself out of the back seat as Ben stepped out to meet a mountain of a man at well over two meters in height. The man walked out the double doors with a long easy gate that, with his size, suggested Aesiran blood flowed through his veins.
“Welcome to our humble abode,” the young man rumbled with an Aesiran-like voice low enough that Ben could feel his bones vibrating. “Most people call me Grinder,” he finished as he thrust his massive hand forward to shake Ben’s and smiled. “Jack’s had a lot to say about you,” he added, leaving Ben to flex his hand carefully to make sure all the bones still bent correctly, and then turned to smile at Elsie, offering her his hand. She put her hand in it daintily and he leaned over to kiss it gentlemanly. “And a lot more to say about you,” he added with a wink, causing Elsie to smile impishly.
“I don’t know you though,” he rumbled on, turning to look at Vanessa and she stepped forward to grip his hand firmly.
“Vanessa,” she declared just as firmly as her grip before letting go of his hand and he gave her an impressed smile before putting his hand behind his back. Ben barely saw the edge of his hand as Grinder surreptitiously flexed it to make sure everything still worked and suppressed a smile of his own. Good job Vanessa.
“Pleased to meet you all,” Grinder rumbled again before turning to shoulder the two massive doors open. “If you’ll follow me,” he finished in a tone that left no room for debate and walked in, simply expecting to be followed.
“Wow,” Ben whispered as he walked into the entryway to see Norse-themed paintings that looked like they’d come from Terra itself. Or Asgard.
“Pardon the decorations here,” Grinder rumbled out again and Ben’s eyes caught the motion of an ancient vase vibrating on its pedestal. “We entertain other rich…people…so have to make this place look good for them,” he noted in distaste as he walked up to a smaller door. “We don’t live in this area of the house. Too…ostentatious as my sister would say,” he finished and shouldered the door open before squeezing through.
Ben followed him through with nearly thirty centimeters of clearance on either side and swallowed slowly, finally realizing just how massive Grinder was. Martial arts training or not, he did not want to try anything with this guy. “Oh, I understand,” he responded as he followed Grinder down the wide hallway filled from side to side by Grinder’s shoulders. “Nobody lives in Pryde Steading either. At least not in the areas where all the state functions happen. Too…ostentatious,” he finished with a shrug, echoing Grinder’s words.
“I’d heard that,” Grinder rumbled back and opened the door at the end of the hallway before squeezing through into a large room. Ben followed him through the spacious door and looked around, taking in the features of the room.
Simple white paint covered by pictures and paintings, along with three old curio cabinets and a full-sized grandfather clock, decorated the walls. The clockworks quietly swung back and forth in time to the ominous creaking coming from one of two oak rocking chairs and Ben nodded towards an older version of Grinder rocking back and forth. The grey streaks coloring the hair and beard of the older man contrasted with Grinder’s clean-shaven face. Grinder walked over to the chair beside his father’s and sat down carefully, causing it to creak in protest, then motioned for Ben, Elsie, and Vanessa to sit down across the oak coffee table from a loveseat that held Jack and the lithe-figured Andrea with their arms around each others’ shoulders.
Andrea’s sunglasses sat on the oak coffee table in front of the love seat, and she looked at the visitors with the pure black orbs that branded her an Arnam. Green hair spilled down to her waist, barely revealing long pointed ears and gills on either side of her neck as she nodded slowly. Jack wore his normal rumpled-looking faded black suit and he casually propped his feet on the coffee table as he leaned back comfortably. He looked completely and utterly calm, at peace with the world and without a care to think about. Just like usual.
“You know Jack,” Grinder rumbled as he waved a hand towards him, and then pointed at Andrea. “And you should know who Andrea is,” he added and then tapped the man Ben assumed to be his father with his other hand. “This is my father, Andor. And these are Ben, Elsie, and Vanessa,” he finished as he pointed in turn at the visitors. Ben smiled, watching the men scanning the simple black boots, pants, and shirt of Elsie and Vanessa’s similar white outfit. Or perhaps scanning more than just that. Then they glanced towards Ben and his crisp black suit that screamed a job with one of the Corporations as Andrea still stared at Vanessa in an interested manner. Of course. Arnam were natural empaths so she could probably tell that she was an AI. Elsie on the other hand radiated emotions, just like a human did, because of her organic brain. Ben let out a breath, pulling himself off that line of thought, and turned to look at Jack.
“Jack, can we speak alone?” Ben asked and Jack shook his head.
“Not this time, Ben,” he returned casually.
“Are you sure?”
“Ben,” Jack noted like he didn’t have a care in the world. “If I didn’t trust them, we wouldn’t be meeting here. They know what I do for you. They can hear what you have to say.” Grinder and his father nodded slowly and Ben got the impression the two men were interviewing him. Andrea smiled and nestled closer into the crook of Jack’s arm, making her feelings on the matter fully understood. Add a woman to the interviewing committee.
“This isn’t like other jobs,” Ben muttered. “It’s a bit more…involved. And the fewer people who know about it the better,” he finished with a nod towards the interviewing committee.
“Then why’d you bring those two?” Andrea asked pointedly and Ben sighed.
“Because us three will be involved,” Ben whispered and the Arnam’s eyes narrowed suspiciously.
“And what kind of ‘involvement’ are you suggesting you’ll have with Jack?” she responded with a glare aimed at Elsie and Vanessa.
“Strictly platonic I’m certain,” Jack noted casually as he patted her shoulder. “So what’s this about?” he added, trying to pull the conversation away from that particular topic and she glared at him.
“Jack, I’m not authorized to tell this many people,” Ben whispered slowly.
“I’m betting you weren’t authorized to tell anyone,” Jack responded and leaned back into the loveseat casually. Ben scowled and let his empathic senses pull in everything he could. Grinder and Andor were annoyed, Andrea was suspicious, and Jack was…well…Jack. Nothing ever seemed to bother him. Ever. Vanessa he couldn’t feel but Elsie felt…annoyed. At Andrea. “If you need my help, then they know too,” Jack noted, pulling Ben’s attention back to him. “You can tell them or I can,” he continued with a smile and Ben’s scowl grew deeper. “Makes no difference to me, but it might to you.” There was no dissuading him from this and it didn’t take an empath to realize that.
He nodded unhappily and opened up his crisp suit to pull a holocube out of an inside pocket. He placed it on the coffee table and tapped it, powering it up to show a main directory listing. His hands flashed through the field grabbing and moving icons until it flashed and eight logos easily recognized as the seven current Corporations and Vilian Corporation appeared. “Twelve years ago, Vilian Corporation collapsed after a very nasty internal fight,” Ben said as he noted the interest of their minds. They weren’t surprised, something to be expected as the fall of a Corporation was not something that happened quietly. Jack’s thoughts spiked differently than the others at the mention of the name, but Ben couldn’t nail down why. He finally gave a mental shrug and continued. “We believe that survivors of that Corporation are working within one or more of the other Corporations though,” he added and felt their interest pick up.
“How much and what makes you think that?” Jack asked, looking as uninterested as always but Ben felt that odd sense again.
“Enough to control some divisions and sub-companies,” Ben returned, referring to the numerous small companies the Corporations owned, controlled, or simply influenced. “Inter Planetary Intelligence believes some of these divisions or companies are working with the Shang.”
“No proof,” Jack noted as he lazily shifted one of his feet around. This time though Ben felt something click inside Jack. What did he know?
“Not enough for Inter Planetary Security to want to go in swinging. I’ve been asked to use my contacts to figure out what’s going on.”
“I don’t do charity work,” Jack muttered but Ben felt the decision had already been made. Whatever it was. He put his hand into the holocube and manipulated it until a number with seven zeros behind it appeared in the air. If the decision favored him, Jack would need an excuse. If not, maybe it would change his mind. Probably not, but there was always hope. “But I suppose I can make an exception in this case,” Jack added as unflappably as ever. “Thanks for the donation.”
“Our pleasure,” Ben returned with a smile on his face, belying his concern about Jack’s reactions. Why would he have decided to do this even before being offered the money? That wasn’t like him.
“Now just wait one minute,” the Grinder rumbled as he leaned forward in the rocker, causing it to creak in protest. “What makes you think you can get away with meddling with the Corporations? What experience do you have?”
Vanessa smiled beguilingly at Grinder and cocked her head to the side. “I assure you that I am programmed in all manners of undercover operations,” she crooned, causing Grinder to blush at the pointed allusion and he cleared his throat.
“I know what you meant,” Ben interjected with a wave of his hand. “I need Jack’s help because I think he has contacts we can use to get on the inside. But there’s another I’ll be talking to who should have information that can help as well. And Vanessa really is good for this kind of job. So is Elsie. As for me…I’m a Pryde. I flew off the Odin during Twelfth Pryde Rock so I’ve been around the block a few times. I can handle myself." The young mountain grumbled for a few moments before nodding firmly, causing the chair to creak again.
“Then I will go with you,” he rumbled out, only to look over at Jack as he shook his head.
“No,” Jack muttered in his normal casual voice. “Protect Andrea.”
“I’m going with you,” she said firmly, shaking her head and Jack turned to look at her, shaking his head. “I am,” she added, the gills on either side of her neck flaring to show her determination. He reached over with his right hand and smoothed them back down gently.
“You’ll stay here. I don’t want you involved in this.”
“Well now you know how I feel,” she responded and Jack noted her adopted brother and father nodded their massive heads in agreement.
“I know what I’m doing,” Jack responded. “I do this for a living.”
“Not with Corporations!” Andrea shouted with an edge of fear in her voice. “You told me you never messed with Corporations because they were too dangerous!”
Jack nodded slowly and then unfolded himself easily to stand up. He turned to look down at her, one hand stuffed in a pocket of his rumpled suit. “I don’t mess with them now. I did before. Now I will again.”
“Why?” she asked, her voice quaking.
“Because I have to,” he muttered as he turned and began ambling away.
“Have these last few months meant anything to you?” she snarled at him. He stopped, one foot in midair and visibly hunched inward.
“This isn’t about us,” he finally whispered. “I died once. Almost died at least. Should have died. I have business to finish with the man…with a man. I’ve waited too long as is. And now…I should have done this a long time ago,” he finished and her gills flared open again in anger.
“Damn you!” she yelled at him. “Let us help you!”
“No,” Jack muttered, and for once Ben felt his mind slip outside its normally casual feeling. He was worried. “Ben was right not to wish you to know. If you helped, you would be targeted. I won’t have that.”
“Then leave if that’s what you want!” Andrea screamed at him. “But don’t expect a grand welcome if you live through this!”
“I won’t,” he whispered with a nod and started walking again. Then she whipped her head around to look at Ben, Elsie, and Vanessa.
“Get out of my house!” she snarled at them angrily and they stood up calmly, bowing to her and her family.
“For what its worth, I’m sorry,” Ben noted softly.
“Frig you,” she snarled angrily and he nodded in acknowledgement before turning to leave. Grinder levered himself out of the rocker and it sighed in relief as he moved to escort them out through the hallway and the entryway.
The doors to the outside shut behind them and he glared down at the AIs, Ben, and Jack from his towering height. “For her sake, you’d better come back,” he rumbled. “If you don’t, I’ll hunt you down and make sure you’re dead,” he finished, glaring down at Jack.
“Anders, do you trust me?” Jack asked simple and the large man scowled at him.
“I shouldn’t,” he rumbled back slowly.
“Why do you?”
“I don’t know,” Grinder rumbled angrily.
“Stay out of this,” Jack whispered. “I won’t return until this matter is closed.”
“And if it isn’t closed?” Grinder returned with what had to be an even lower rumble than normal. If that was possible. Jack simply shrugged at the question and Grinder scowled at him deeply for a long second before opening the door and going back into the house. The door slammed shut and shuddered as Jack let his shoulders droop.
“Let’s go,” he finally muttered and began walking towards the landing pad where his hyperboat was parked but Ben brought his hand up in front of him.
“This vendetta. What is it?”
“I was shot. Life as I knew it ended,” Jack noted simply.
“You want that life back then?” Ben asked and Jack shook his head quickly.
“I have the life I want,” Jack responded with a mental sense that suggested there were loose ends that need to be tied. Ben frowned, wishing he knew more about Jack’s past, but even Inter Planetary Intelligence had never been able to find anything out there. He was a blank slate that was looking decidedly less blank as the minutes went by.
“I don’t need you compromising the mission on a vendetta,” Ben whispered firmly.
“But you do need my contacts,” Jack answered. “I won’t compromise the mission,” he added and Ben frowned at him. He was right about needing the contacts, though Ben wasn’t sure he was right about the mission. Of course, his less than blank slate suggested his contacts were better than expected. Which could make him more valuable.
“Very well,” Ben whispered and waved Jack towards the skycar. “Come with us please. They’ll take care of your hyperboat I think.” Jack sighed and nodded before turning loosely and ambling back towards Ben.