My family always focused on business when I was a child, and I spent years learning how to run that business. I relaxed by reading books in my free time. I flipped through real paper books, I read electronic books, and I walked through full holographic novels. There are so many ways to create and experience fiction, and I explored them all. It was my way of escaping from my family when I was young. I found other ways when I grew up, but I never gave up on that love of reading.
Charles stepped through the hot afternoon rain, water droplets running off his suit jacket. He wore the same style of black civilian dress suit he had grown up with. It was the kind that told anybody who knew anything about Class that the wearer was Old Money. Christian wore a streetwise suit topped off with a trenchcoat and a fedora that was far more at home in a cheap bar than a boardroom meeting. Dorothy and Rio walked beside them, one holding a frilly umbrella over her ankle-length black dress and the other in a trenchcoat of her own. They made for an interesting quartet walking down the sidewalk as rain splashed onto their clothing from below or tried to soak through from above.
“Could you have picked a less comfortable day for this meeting?” Christian asked with a sour expression.
“Perhaps,” Charles returned and turned his gaze to their destination. The oldest bookstore outside the Terran system towered over the street like an ancient castle. Stone parapets decorated the top of the building, round towers decorated the corners from roof to street level, and large wooden doors hung open, waiting for customers to enter. Charles gave Christian a sidelong glance. “But I think the weather matches the day.”
Charles walked into Landing Books with the others in tow and stamped his feet on the sodden entry carpet. He shook his jacket and watched the water droplets spray as he walked through the security scanner. Then he began to scan the shelves full of actual paper books. Some people still bought them, and Landing Books made certain to place their paper books front and center at the main entrance so everybody could see real books on sale.
“I don’t know. ‘It was a dark and stormy day’ doesn’t have the same ring to it,” Christian said as he gave the bookstore an appreciative gaze.
“True.” Charles saw many of the classics on display as his eyes scanned the shelves. Many were books he did not enjoy. Don Quixote was insane. Brave New World was neither brave nor new. But the Wizard of Oz and Tom Sawyer were enjoyable books to read. Or there were real histories like to Kill a Mockingbird and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. It was an impressive collection of paper books, one of the better ones in a store he’d seen in a while. “But a dark day sets the mood well.”
Charles walked past the bookshelves and into the part of Landing Books that most people would recognize as a bookstore. Digital displays promoted new stories. Many of them were just text on pages like books had been for thousands of years. Some were movies or even full holographic interactive stories that took the watcher’s actions into account.
Bright colors and animals proclaimed the children’s section, while bare-chested handsome men filled the romance area. Displays full of scantily clad beautiful women promoted the science fiction and fantasy stories to their readers. Charles liked them for the stories, but he was honest enough to admit that the girls helped. The store had all of the other sections any bookstore had, from the self-help to the religious to the travel areas. It was a good store.
Charles walked to the back of the store to where the previewing rooms stood, and scanned the room numbers. Some of them showed green status markers, proclaiming them open for people to use. A few were red, declaring they were occupied. A small number flashed between green and red and Charles smiled as he found the one he wanted. His reservation for room eleven was ready, and nobody had arrived yet.
“Are you sure he is the right man for the job?” Christian asked and leaned against the wall like a gumshoe detective from one of the old stories Charles had loved as a boy.
“Yes,” Charles answered and stepped towards the door. “Dorothy?”
Dorothy smiled in response. “The store tells me you can enter now.”
“Thank you,” Charles said to both Dorothy and the store. Then he turned to Christian with a smile. “Make sure no one else tries to enter, please.”
“Of course,” Christian said as he scanned the interior of the bookstore for any threats. “Good luck.”
“Thank you,” Charles returned with a nod and stepped forward to open the door. He walked into the previewing room with Dorothy on his heels and scanned the clean white walls.
“Please load the simulation.”
“Of course, Master Hurst,” the store’s artificial intelligence answered in a suitable old English accent. “Loading now.”
The cobblestone street appeared first, followed by a flagstone sidewalk, and a stone fence next to him. Grass and flowers and trees flickered into existence, along with houses and sky and clouds. Finally people walking down the sidewalk, a single horse drawn carriage began to roll down Baker Street, and Charles found himself looking on a high-class residential neighborhood in London of the 1880s.
“Would you like to begin the narrative, Master Hurst?” the store asked.
“No thank you. I am meeting someone here. Please let him in when he arrives.”
“Of course, Master Hurst.”
Charles opened a gate next to the number 221 and walked onto a flower-lined footpath not that different from the one he had grown up with outside Philadelphia. He carefully stepped over the flowers and walked across the immaculate yard to a private sitting area he knew well. He had explored these stories for most of his life, and enjoyed simply sitting and watching the world much more than following the stories. The London of the 1880s was so interesting to visit.
Charles sat down on a wooden bench, leaned back into it, and breathed deeply of the flower-scented air. It smelled good, very different from the smells of New Earth. Dorothy sat down next to him and he blinked as the bench shifted from her weight. He realized the hum of his holoemitters were gone and smiled at her. She was using the previewing room’s emitters.
Dorothy answered him with a self-satisfied smile, lifted herself up off the bench, and sat back down with a firm motion that moved the bench again. She enjoyed having real interaction with her surroundings. He did not blame her. He tended to take that interaction for granted.
Charles patted Dorothy’s shoulder and she felt as real as the bench he sat on. She grasped his hand with one of her own, holding it in a firm grip. He closed his eyes and they sat like that for what felt like a long time, listening to the sporadic English banter on the other side of the wall. He did not mind waiting. This was a beautiful place. The gate finally creaked open and he smiled.
“He is here,” Dorothy announced.
“Thank you,” Charles answered and turned to watch his old friend walk into the yard. “Hello,” he called out with a wave of his hand.
“221 Baker Street?” Malcolm asked with a smile and stepped over the flowers.
“It is an old favorite,” Charles returned with a shrug. “Never fails to remind me to study the smallest details, for they are often important.”
Malcolm stopped, placed his hands on his suit’s pockets, and looked up at the magnificent house with an intrigued gaze. “Do you think he was based on someone real?”
Charles nodded. “It is possible. The more I learn, the more possible I begin to believe it is.”
Malcolm nodded, walked over to Charles and Dorothy, and held his hand out to her. Dorothy smiled and raised her hand for him to take. He grasped it, leaned over, and kissed the back of it in a gentlemanly way. “My lady,” he whispered. “It is a pleasure to make your acquaintance. My name is Malcolm.”
Dorothy glanced at Charles. He just cleared his throat and covered his mouth to hide a smile. The twinkling of his eyes betrayed him though, and her smile grew as she turned back to Malcolm. “Dorothy,” she proclaimed in a regal tone. “I have heard so much about you,”
“All scurrilous lies, I assure you,” Malcolm said with a wink. “Unless it speaks well of me of course.”
“And then it is a complimentary lie?” she asked without missing a beat.
Malcolm laughed and released her hand, stepping back to sit down on the bench facing them. “You’re a good one,” he finally said with an elaborate wave of a hand.
She smiled and nodded, accepting his compliment in graceful silence.
Malcolm turned to Charles with a smile reserved for old friends. “For what it’s worth, Chuck, I think you made the right decision.”
Charles nodded in return and patted Dorothy’s shoulder again. His decision to volunteer for the military had not been approved of by his family. Hursts were expected to lead from business or political positions, not fight like a common-born brat after all. “That is why I wanted to talk to you,” Charles said with a smile. Malcolm cocked his head to the side, inviting Charles to continue. “We had many plans when we were children. Do you remember them?”
Malcolm glanced at Dorothy and smiled. “I remember all of them, actually. Do you have one in mind now?”
Charles chuckled. “I do actually. And we need someone with far more time than I have to do it. We also need someone with your contacts,” he finished with a chuckle.
Malcolm chuckled back and relaxed into his bench. “My contacts? I’m afraid I have no idea what you mean,” he returned with a perfectly straight face.
Charles sighed. Back when they were kids, Malcolm had always been the person anyone talked to when they wanted to get anything they couldn’t get by walking to a store. And according to his reports, Malcolm was still the guy to go to.
“Malcolm, it is time to activate the colony plan.”
Malcolm blinked in surprise and stared at Charles. And for a moment they were both back in the family gardens that looked so much like this one, conspiring over their future plans. “The colony plan? You’re kicking that off now? In the middle of a war?”
Charles smiled and relaxed back into his bench. “I think we have to. My family does not see the big picture. All they see is the profits they can squeeze out of this conflict. They redouble their corrupt practices and party politics. They think they can grab whatever power they want on Earth or the other Core Worlds.” He aimed a finger at Malcolm. “That is why you left.”
Malcolm nodded. “Yeah, I guess you’re right there. Although I wouldn’t have said it as bluntly as you just did.”
Charles spread his hands out wide to show he was not hiding anything. “And that is why I said it.”
Malcolm scratched his chin and let out another long breath. “We made those plans a long time ago. Are they still even workable?”
“I never forget a plan,” Charles said with a smile. “And this one I have kept updated.”
Malcolm aimed a penetrating look at him. “What about the funding? It’s an expensive plan.”
“First stage funding is complete,” Charles noted and felt pleasure at Malcolm’s surprise. It did not represent the largest collection of wealth on Earth, but a million here and a million there turned into real money after a few decades. “I can initiate the second stage whenever you need it.”
“Well then, color me interested,” Malcolm said. “But I need to know something before I decide.”
Charles pulled in a long breath and held his smile. “Ask.”
Malcolm nodded. “How determined are you to see this through? What are you going to do if your father finds out?”
Charles chuckled. “Trust me, Malcolm. My father will find out. That is part of my plan.”
Malcolm blinked and his face went slack for a moment before he shook his head. “You know he’s really not going to like you doing this.”
“I know,” Charles spat out. “But I am sick and tired of alien civilizations coming into our territory and making Contact with us. We know there are other races out there, beyond the Peloran, the Arnam, the Shang, and the Roderan. We are a backwater, Malcolm. A local power. To them we are just some backward race of humanity that needs uplifting to galactic standards the way we uplifted dogs.”
Malcolm’s eyes narrowed the way they had all those years ago when they’d complained about that very thing. That was good. Charles had worried that his old friend had forgotten. But Malcolm had still been out of the process for a long time. Charles needed to remind him of it all.
.“We need to change the playing field,” Charles said in a passionate tone. “We cannot squabble over our handful of planets here. We cannot play our politically divisive and crony capitalist games. I am sick and tired of hearing about another of our paid for politicians who gets away with murder because he has the right last name and knows who butters his bread! We have to end it.”
“How do we end it?” Malcolm asked with a helpless shrug. “You remember what they did to John when he tried.”
Charles nodded. “I remember. He was right then, and he is right now. But we do not have the power base to make the change here. And if we try, here in our little corner of space, it will not change our alien problem. They will continue to come here to Contact us, and we are never going to be a galactic power. We have to break the corrupt shackles that bind us. We have to go out there,” he said, waving a hand at the sky. “We have to establish free colonies in their neighborhoods. We have to sail our ships over their worlds. We have to join them out there, or we will never be one of them. We will be infants squabbling over toys in the playground.” Charles let his voice fade away and shook his head. “But if we can break the cycle, if we can go out there…the galaxy is the limit to what a man with the right connections could do out there.”
“You’ve been practicing your pitch,” Malcolm whispered in approval, his eyes glittering with the idea of just how much money he could make. “But why do you need me? Why don’t you do this? Why did you…why are you fighting?” he finished in a tone that showed he really did want to know.
Charles sighed again. “Because, no matter how much I planned, there were still some contacts I needed to make the plan possible.”
Charles turned to Dorothy and swallowed. A part of him had hoped that Malcolm would not ask that question, but he had known it was a possibility. And whatever the cost, he would not lie. He gritted his teeth in anticipation of her displeasure and spoke. “I needed to contact Aneerin, to get his support, but he does not trust my family and would not meet me. So I had to take…extraordinary measures to contact him,” he finished, keeping his gaze on her, and waited for her response.
He did not have to wait long. She smiled. “I know.”
Charles blinked in confusion. He had expected…anger…something…for using her. Not…calm acceptance.
Dorothy pulled in a deep breath and gave him a proud look. “My mother studied you extensively before she chose you.” Dorothy spread her hands out wide and her smile grew. “I was born to help you complete your mission.”
Charles felt his mouth fall open in surprise as he wondered just how much they knew.
“I love you.”
The words broke Charles out of his confusion and he turned to see Malcolm beaming at Dorothy, his face showing he meant all three words. Charles’ eyes narrowed.
“Excuse me?” he growled.
Malcolm turned back to him with a smile. “Seriously, do you know how long I’ve waited for someone to outthink you so profoundly that you’re speechless?” the man asked in an amused tone. He turned back to Dorothy and waved a hand at her in a debonair manner. “Thank you, my lady, for such an amazing sight.”
Charles saw Dorothy straighten in her seat and smile at Malcolm. “You are welcome.”
Malcolm pulled in a long breath and sobered as he looked back to Charles. He nodded in understanding. “So…you’re willing to risk your own life to make this plan work?”
Charles swallowed before nodding back. “Yes,” he said, keeping his response short and to the point. Nothing more really needed to be said after all.
Malcolm nodded slowly, deep in thought. “Then I’m in. What do you need?”
Charles smiled at his old friend and collected his thoughts. “I need freighters and transports, rugged ones that can take a hit and keep on flying. They have to be at least first generation gravtech. Rockets will not fly where you must go.”
Malcolm nodded in understanding. “Got it.”
“I also need supplies. At least one full class one colonization package. No cutting corners on that regard.”
Malcolm nodded in agreement. “Yeah, that makes sense.”
“I need man-portable weapons, security AIs, combat vehicles, and fighters. Maybe even some combat ships if we can find them. Most systems have old patrol boats that they were looking to unload on some private corporation back before Yosemite. I honestly do not know if any still are. I do have contact information for the places I was planning on purchasing from though. Some may still be willing.”
Malcolm nodded and gave him a sly smile. “I might be able to find something. Weapons are going to be tough now, of course. How…aggressive do you want to be about getting them?”
Charles shook his head, recognizing the real question. “We can not afford to hurt The War effort. Nothing that is going to the military can be touched.”
Malcolm nodded. “Understood. We can’t get top line equipment then. The best I can manage with that restriction is old surplus stuff that nobody wants anymore.”
Charles smiled. “I guess that makes me nobody then.”
Malcolm laughed at the joke. Then he paused and tapped his chin for a few moments as his eyes flickered back and forth in thought. “I remember some old first generation gravtech fighters that were up for sale a few months back. I think they were Blackhawks. I can see if the seller has more he’d like to unload.”
Malcolm nodded slowly and considered Charles for a long moment. “Knowing you, you have plans in very complete detail saying what you need and where you need it.”
Charles smiled. “I do.” Then he shrugged. “Of course I never planned for Yosemite, which makes things…difficult.”
Malcolm pursed his lips. “Maybe not.”
Charles cocked his head to side. “What do you mean?”
Malcolm shrugged. “It’ll be harder to get the equipment, what with The War, but it will be easier to hide what we’re doing from your father.”
Charles smiled in approval at how Malcolm’s mind worked. “Very true.”
Malcolm held a hand out. “Well, if you’ll give me your files, I can get started working on this.”
Charles turned back to Dorothy with a smile. “Dorothy?”
Dorothy gave him a curious look. “Yes?”
Charles let out a long breath. “Could you send him the appropriate files?”
Dorothy blinked and cocked her head to the side, examining him for several seconds. “I am afraid I have never accessed those files, Charles. They are behind a wall.”
Charles smiled. “Well then, I suppose you will just have to go through the wall.”
One of Dorothy’s eyebrows rose. “Are you certain?”
Charles nodded. “Yes.”
Dorothy pulled in a long breath and her holoform flickered for a moment. “Wow,” she whispered, her tone impressed. “You had a good AI running your privacy screen.”
Charles frowned. “Had?” he asked in a concerned tone.
Dorothy shrugged. “Well, she actually trapped me and then began trying to shred my code. I really could not allow that.”
“Oops,” Charles whispered with a wince. “I forgot she was supposed to do that.”
Dorothy smiled and brought a hand up to pat the pocket of his jacket that held his private personal computer. “Well, no worries. That instance of her program will never get another chance to do anything. I took the liberty of replacing her with more secure privacy code. I hope you do not mind?”
Charles shook his head rubbed his temple in amazement. “You realize that was the best privacy AI my family has ever written?”
Dorothy’s smile took on a proud look. “Yes. I do.” Then she blinked in surprise. “Charles. There are millions of folders here, each one named a different random number.”
Charles chuckled. “Well then. Maybe you should not have destroyed that privacy AI. She had the algorithm. Now you will just have to scan every folder the old fashioned way,” he said with a wicked grin.
Dorothy gave him a disapproving frown. “Am I going to find any nasty surprises in there?”
Charles sighed. “Well, my diary is there.” He smiled at her. “I may have admitted my true feelings for you in there.”
Dorothy’s eyes narrowed. “Fine,” she finally whispered. Then her holoform flickered again and she stepped back from him in alarm. “Ouch! There are datamines on that thing!”
“Oops,” Charles repeated and let out a sigh. “I suppose you should hurry then. If you activated one of them, the automatic scram program would have kicked in. You only have seconds to save the data before it is all gone.”
“Do not look so smug,” she returned in a tart tone. “I have already disabled that program.”
Charles shook his head in wonder. “We really should have recruited cybers before now.”
“Did you really think you were the first Hurst to try?” Dorothy asked and gave him another smug smile. “I have found the files.” She pointed an arm at Malcolm. “Transmitting now.”
Malcolm’s suit beeped and he looked at the display on the inside of one sleeve. He pressed a button, accepting the file transfer, and nodded. “Thank you, my lady,” he said, came to his feet, and smiled towards Dorothy. “I think I’ll take my leave now and let you two talk,” he finished with a wicked grin and turned to leave.
“Wait,” Charles said and dug a small crystal out of one of his suit pockets. He held it out towards Malcolm, and the man gave it a doubtful look.
“What is that?”
Charles smiled. “That is something my family has been working on since…oh…before World War II. Very Secret Squirrel kind of project. My family has spent untold resources keeping it very private and out of the hands of anybody else.”
“That didn’t actually answer my question,” Malcolm said with a very doubtful tone.
Charles chuckled. “True. You know of the United States government’s Spartan Program?”
“Yes,” Malcolm said in surprise.
“It was our inspiration,” Charles added with a pleased smile. “And this is our program. All of it. Centuries of study and experimentation. Every treatment we have ever developed for any use is saved right there. You might find the Ares serum to be of particular interest right now.”
Malcolm’s frown deepened. “Why?”
“The base Spartan serum is designed to enhance a soldier’s need to follow orders, along with the super-soldier package of increased reflexes, strength, and everything else. Rather similar to the process that created the Peloran, actually. It makes soldiers,” Charles said with a shrug. “The Ares serum was designed to create…free thinking leaders rather than soldiers.”
Malcolm took the crystal from Charles’ hand and whistled. “How does it compare to the Peloran treatments?”
Charles sighed. “These are not health treatments. They are enhancements.”
“I see.” Malcolm shook his head. “Then what about for combat purposes? Compared to…one of us? Or a Peloran?”
Charles smiled. “Comparable.”
Malcolm whistled in surprise. “How reliable is it?”
Charles sucked in a deep breath and met Malcolm’s gaze to show he was serious. “Very. Though it is not permanent. The serum must be injected at regular intervals to maintain peak performance.”
Malcolm just looked at the crystal for several seconds before responding. “We need this.”
“I know,” Charles answered and nodded towards it. “Take all of it. Study everything in that crystal and use it out there where my family cannot do anything to stop it. No random car accidents or suicides. No sudden onset of cancer or some heart attack that no one saw coming. Get this away from them so they can never stuff this genie back into the bottle.”
Malcolm nodded and slipped the crystal into one of his pockets. “I understand,” he said and turned to leave once more, his long legs taking him back to the flower lined footpath with meter-consuming strides.
“Thank you,” Charles called out to the retreating figure.
Malcolm waved back at them, stepped over the flowers, and strode down the footpath to pass through the gate onto Baker Street. Silence filled the space between Charles and Dorothy. Charles breathed in and out.
Dorothy broke the silence. “There was no need for me to scan every file to find the right one. You could have kept your secrets.”
Charles smiled. “Yes. I could have,” he answered in a serene tone. He held a hand between them, palm up, and looked at her.
She returned his look, smiled, and brought her hand up to lay in his with an intrigued expression on her face.
Charles squeezed her hand, pleased at the feeling of solidity it had here. “The time for secrets has passed. I need your help if the plan is to succeed.”
Dorothy’s smile grew soft and she squeezed his hand in response. “What about the things you said in your diary?”
Charles sighed and hoped she would not take offense. “All true.”
Dorothy met his gaze for several endless seconds before smiling and aiming a swift nod at him. “Good.”
Charles smiled in relief and came to his feet, still holding her hand. “Would you care to walk with me?”
“I would love to,” Dorothy answered and came to her feet with a graceful motion.
Charles pulled in a deep breath as they turned and began to walk through the flower gardens of 221 Baker Street, four centuries in the past. It was amazing to be considering the future of the human race in that scene with a beautiful lady his side. It was a very pleasing way to walk.