In the course of space colonization, there arose a need for humans with enhanced abilities. Men and women who could survive harsh conditions, who were superb warriors, gifted hunters, and brilliant scientists.
Some enhancements were technological in nature: an array of implants with various functions. Their effect ended with the death of the person who carried them. Other improvements were biological and these enhanced capabilities persisted, lingering in the bloodline, changing and mutating into new abilities in the offspring of the original carrier. It was quickly realized that the advantage of these biological enhancements lay in their exclusivity. Thus, the biologically enhanced united and shut down all further biological modification.
Collectively known as kinsmen, these exceptional beings gave rise to several dozen families, which now form the financial elite of the colonized planets. The kinsmen strictly control their numbers and their loyalty to their families is absolute. Like the Sicilian mafia families and feuding Corsican clans of the old planet, the kinsmen exist in tense competition with each other. It is that competition that rules the economy, begins and ends wars, and drags human civilization to greater technological and scientific progress.
“Place your hands on the panel in front of you.” The bodyguard, in a sleek grey uniform of Canopus Inc., nodded at the plasti-steel console that sprouted from the luxurious rug like a mushroom on a thin metal stalk.
Meli smiled. Four high-caliber gun turrets swiveled on their mounts on the ceiling, tracking her every movement as she rested her fingers on the panel, a thin bracelet sliding down on her right wrist. She had already passed through a number of metal detectors and submitted to a search and a chemical sniffer. Only one final test remained.
Light slid along her fingertips as a complex array of scanners feverishly assessed her temperature, heat, and chemical emissions, sampled the composition of her sweat and oil on her fingertips, and probed her body for foreign influences. A long moment stretched. A calm female voice with the crisp unaccented pronunciation of the computer announced, “Implant scan, class A through C, negative. Biological modification negative.”
The guard relaxed slightly. The tense line of his shoulders eased. A person like her had no chance against a bodyguard equipped with a combat implant that sharpened his reflexes and increased his strength.
“You may step down,” he permitted. “Follow me.”
She walked behind him to the large wooden door polished to an amber gleam. Maruvian pine, unthinkable luxury. The guard tapped a code on his wrist. The door slid aside, revealing a second, steel partition. The steel wall split in half and parted. Meli strode into a spacious office. The door whispered shut behind her.
Three people waited in the office: an older man behind a desk cut from a single block of malachite, and two bodyguards, a woman and a man, both lean and sharp, positioned at the walls on opposite sides of her.
She smiled at them as well.
The man behind the desk leaned forward slightly. Agostino Canopus, thirty-eight, a kinsman, fourth son of Vierra Canopus, Arbitrator Second Class. Of average height, he sat with the easy authority of a man completely confident in his position. His hair, a dark copper, was cut and styled with artful precision. His skin was perfect. His eyes, two dark chunks of green, fastened on her. In a split second she was evaluated, measured and approved.
“Sit down.” Agostino indicated a plain stool bolted to the floor with a casual sweep of his hand.
“You came here to become a retainer of Canopus family,” he said. “Why?”
In the financial world, where most disputes were decided by arbitration, the arbitrators wielded unprecedented influence.
Agostino nodded. The answer seemed to satisfy him. “Your test scores are exceptional.”
She accepted the compliment with a nod. “So is my reaction time.”
His eyebrows came together. “What…”
She whipped off the chair. Obeying her mental command, a long ribbon of transparent green whipped from the narrow bracelet on her wrist. The ene-ribbon slashed the female bodyguard, whipped across the door, and kissed the male bodyguard across the chest. Before Agostino’s lips shaped the next word, Meli sat back onto the chair. Behind her two bodies slid apart, cleaved in two. The air smelled of fried electronics. She had disabled the control panel on the door.
Agostino surveyed the door. “You’re a melder.”
Melders like her were an extremely rare commodity. The mutation that permitted her to operate an energy ribbon came along once in every fifteen million, and most possessing it never discovered their abilities. In the world of combat implants and biochemical modifications, melders were the extraordinary natural-born freaks.
Agostino leaned back, one leg over the other, pleating his long fingers on his knee. “What’s this about?”
“The Galdes family sends its regards.”
Ten days ago he had presided over the arbitration between Galdes and Morgans. He’d ruled in favor of Morgans, finding no wrongdoing in the hostile takeover of Galdes’s Valemia Inc.
“It was a fair arbitration,” Agostino said.
“You’ve falsified the evidence.” She kept her voice calm and pleasant. “You’ve altered the earnings estimates for the third and fourth quarters and assisted in hiding of Morgans assets prior to takeover, creating an appearance of weakness. Your actions irreparably damage prestige of Galdes family and cut their income by one twelfth. You drove Arani Galdes, former CEO of Valemia, to commit suicide.”
He didn’t miss a beat. “Nobody can blame me for her death.”
“I can,” she told him.
“Ah.” He inclined his head in a shallow bow. “So it’s personal. Your retina scans do not trace back to Galdes. You aren’t a kinsman. Why take a suicide so close to heart? Was she your lover?”
His eyebrows crept up. “You’re an excise.”
He turned the word into an expletive, saying it the way one might mutter “cursed” or “leper”. Even after twelve years it still stung a little. For a kinsman, family meant everything. Nothing could be worse than being disowned and cut off.
“Of course.” Agostino snapped his fingers. “Your family cast you out, so you can commit atrocities on their behalf, and none of your actions can be traced back to them. You still have fond feelings for your cousin. My apologies. I didn’t seek her death.”
His gestures grew animated. She could almost feel the wheels turning in his head. He thought he saw a crack in her armor. Meli sighed.
“Your sacrifice is admirable. But I could offer you so much more. Your parents, your siblings, they threw you aside. What kind of family does that? Don’t you want revenge?”
“It was my choice.”
He stared at her, stunned. “You chose…? Why?”
She reached into her business suit and produced a thin sheet of plasti-paper. On it a young dark-haired woman laughed, wearing a crown of flowers. Meli slid the plastic across the table to him.
“My cousin Arani. I wanted you to see her before you died.”
“You’re my last kill,” she told him. “After you, I will retire.”
His face snapped into a hard mask. “There are six guards outside that door, not including automatic defenses. Even if you kill me, you’ll never get out alive.”
She gave him a bright smile as the ene-ribbon whipped from her wrist. She was still smiling when the top half of his skull slid to the floor.
No matter the hour, no matter the circumstance, Angel always looked perfect. Debonair in his tailored rust jerkin, with crispness to his lines and inborn poise so many spent years training to mimic, he seemed the very essence of a kinsman. His hair was a soft brown streaked with copper, his face was amiable and handsome, and his eyes were dark, just like hers. When he smiled from the display, it was as if the sun had risen. Fortunately, Meli had long ago become immune to his charm. After all, she had seen him in diapers.
“No more jobs,” she told him. “I’ve retired.” Two months had passed since Agostino Canopus died on the marble floor of his office. She liked her quiet and the sense of liberation retirement brought. No more jobs. No more death.
On the screen her brother leaned forward. “This is a personal request, Meli. From Father.”
Meli closed her eyes. Angel had interrupted her morning exercise and since his call wasn’t an emergency, she saw no reason not to continue. Around her the small house lay quiet, serene in the light of the early morning. A delicate lemony scent of brugmansia floated through the open screen door. She was aware of minute noises: water gurgling in the pipes, two bees buzzing in the small garden on her right, a faint whistling of the draft generated by the climate control system…
“Please, do him this favor.”
“I’m done, Angel,” she murmured. “We’ve spoken of this. The family has no right to ask me.”
“Father knows that. Believe me, he wouldn’t request this of you unless the need was dire.”
She said nothing. Angel, while diplomatic, suffered from an eloquent man’s malady—faced with silence, he felt compelled to fill it, even when it was in his best interests to keep his mouth shut.
Moments dripped by. Angel cleared his throat.
“Raban, Incorporated has dropped the price of the condenser units to below fifteen thousand standard dollars. It’s a calculated move to edge out the competition. The condenser production is still the main source of our revenue. We can’t underbid them. We can’t even match them. The profit margin is too narrow for us to survive. They can take a loss, but we don’t have the reserves to ride it out. We’re a small family. We’ll go bankrupt. And you know what happens to families that go bankrupt.”
Without funds, a family couldn’t pay its soldiers. The competition in New Delphi was too cut-throat for the family without soldiers to survive for long. The city housed twenty-one kinsman families of note, metropolis divided between them like slices of a pie, in both economic and geographic sense. The Galdes’ slice was rather small, but their soldiers were renowned for their expertise and loyalty. Their martial prowess was what had kept the family afloat this long.