Zack looked over his shoulder when Carmen entered, letting his gaze leave the Pyrhian and two Humans as they recovered. Carmen saw Zack in open view and exasperatedly pointed toward the maintenance panel.
“I appreciate the thought,” said Zack, “but I wanted to get a good look at who you were dealing with out there. Plus I don’t do well in cramped spaces. Nice work on the rock man out there.”
“It wouldn’t have been that easy if he’d known I could do it,” said Carmen. “Fast movement, application of strength, and the right attitude can do a lot for shaking off my rock control. Some Pyrhians help out for training rookies in the minor leagues, but self defense isn’t usually on the books. Did you hear me talking to the last guy standing out there? He says they’re not with the DMA.”
“Yeah, and I don’t like it,” said Zack, turning back to look out the window. “I’m not sure why someone would go to this trouble to talk to me if the DMA wasn’t involved.”
“You think their boss is lying?”
“I think their boss is some sort of problem,” said Zack. “Maybe not a bigger one than the bounty on my head, but possibly a more immediate one. Also, just because they’re not with the DMA now doesn’t mean that they won’t be interested in getting that bounty later.”
“My vote’s for going out there and going with them in the elevator,” said Carmen. “We go back and say that we’ll go with them. Take the elevator up to whatever floor they’re taking us to, keep our eyes open for any way out, and as soon as we see one we rush ’em, speed past and find our way back to the streets of Helix.”
“It’s risky,” said Zack. “It puts us in the middle of a lot of people who’ll have guns ready for blazing.”
“In the middle of a crowd, the confusion’ll keep us safe if they’re not expecting it,” said Carmen. “Do you think they’ll risk shooting each other?”
“Depends how much they like each other, and how mean their boss is,” said Zack. “Don’t underestimate how dirty people can get when they play this kind of game. If what they wanna talk about is important enough, the right sadist with a gun might take down everyone else to make sure that we don’t get away. And even if they’re easy-going, friendly armed goons, once we get away from them they’ll be able to shoot us without worrying about it as soon as we’re not in the middle of them anymore. Plus your plan assumes that there’ll be a lot of guards. There might only be three or four.”
“Which we could take!” said Carmen. “And don’t worry about the getaway giving them a better shot at us, that’s why we wait for our opening.”
“Assuming a good opening exists,” said Zack. “Your plan takes all the kinds of risks that extraction jobs aren’t supposed to take.”
“Right, what was I thinking?” said Carmen. “I should’ve totally taken the risk-free option for getting you out of here. I might’ve missed something here, though, so catch me up to speed. What perfectly safe plan did you have in mind? Go ahead, lay it on me.”
Zack waved at the two humans and the rock man as he stepped out of Carmen’s car. The two humans nodded curtly; the Pyrhian remained still as a statue, keeping an eye on Carmen as she came into view.
“It’s not every day people like me so much that they activate a city’s supposedly defunct tractor beams just to keep me from leaving. Carmen tells me that your boss is looking for me. Who’s your boss?”
“Someone who likes secrets,” said the rock man, finally taking his gaze off of Carmen. “Someone who likes privacy. If he wants you to know who he is, he’ll tell you when you see him.”
“Well, let’s not keep him waiting,” said Zack. He stepped through them and into the elevator. Carmen and the other two humans followed.
“Not joining us?” Carmen asked the Pyrhian.
“We didn’t know you were petrakinetic,” he said. “Our boss must not’ve known who Mister Gamma was travelling with when the car activated. If it’s all the same, my friends would feel safer if there wasn’t a chance that you could bludgeon them to death with me in the enclosed space. I’ll catch the next one.”
The doors slid shut and the elevator began rising, Carmen adjusting to the shift in inertia more easily than the other three. She also felt the elevator moving at an unusual angle, probably due to Helix’s strange architecture. Zack’s head snapped to the ceiling.
“You feel that too, huh?” asked Carmen.
“I smell it,” said Zack.
“What’s wrong with the air in here,” Zack said to one of the guards. The guard smiled.
“Gas,” he said. “Completely harmless, don’t worry.”
Zack coughed and put his arm over his face. He pulled one of his Purcellian Striker Pistols out of its holster and lowered it at one of the guards.
“Turn it off!” he said.
“I can’t,” said the guard, backing up and raising his hands. “It’s out of our control.”
“An old security feature,” said the other. “We’ll all be knocked out by the time we get to the right floor. We’ll be taken to sleep it off, and you’ll go straight to your meeting with the boss, Mister Gamma. Couldn’t risk you getting lost on the way.”
Carmen punched the second guard, knocking him into the far wall. The first guard pulled out his pistol and aimed it at her. Zack noticed the unsteady, wavering way that the guard aimed the weapon and took a chance and grabbed his gun arm, holding it up toward the ceiling before the man could fire. This did nothing to stop the blast.
The beam of energy collided with the ceiling, rebounding off the reflective metal even as it caused the ceiling to rupture. The concussive force of the blast knocked the elevator’s passengers onto the floor with an accompanying flash of light. Zack looked up and saw the angled shaft above the elevator through the narrow hole. A small pump perched on the top of the elevator, just barely visible through the damage; the pump had a cannister connected to it, with a label in a language that Zack couldn’t identify.
Zack saw a crack in the cannister at a point where the twisted roof of the elevator had collided with it. A rapid jet of gas was shooting from the cannister into the elevator, much faster and noisier than the pump had been administering it. Zack’s vision darkened quickly as he slowly tried to raise his pistol toward the cannister. Just before he could pull the trigger, everything went black.
Much earlier, on another world…
Azar handed the electrowrit to Maul, the alien who had joined two humans in attempting to mug him just two weeks earlier. Maul looked at the number written on the sheet and Azar could see the gratitude behind Maul’s tough facade. The sheet could be electronically transferred, stored at nearly any bank, or cashed in for the amount written upon it, and the electronic cells woven into its paper could be easily tracked if it somehow went missing between Azar’s hand and Maul’s financial institution of choice. Even better, the destruction of such a paper before it benefited the bearer could be easily tracked, meaning that the only thing between Maul and the money was however long it took him to get to the bank.
“You’re sure about me taking off early today?” asked Maul.
“Absolutely,” said Azar. “Stay too late, and you won’t be able to cash that until tomorrow. You’ve earned a weekend with that money. I can manage an extra hour.”
Maul smiled appreciatively, a look which Azar was still trying to process. Maul’s multitude of teeth and the mane-like tufts of fur made him look like a snarling lion when he was happy. The toothy grin left with him, though, and Azar felt good about his weekend.
The other two had left earlier that morning after Azar revealed that they wouldn’t be needed for the full day. In truth, Azar didn’t need them at all; the tasks he was having them perform were mundane. He had promised them work, however, and he was good to his word. A small fee to an investigation firm had been enough to covertly track down everywhere that the three had been employed before, information that Azar used to ensure that what he paid them went beyond fair; he wanted their salary to be bigger than anything they’d ever received. Each of them had big plans, or at least things that they’d like to be able to do some day; Azar made each of them promise to pursue those dreams with his funds.
He still hadn’t determined what to do about his residence. In the two weeks since he’d become wealthier than he’d truly believed possible, he had done little. The interest coming from the coin in the savings account would be more than enough to live on from here, even living every day as extravagantly as he could. Still, he’d heard many tales of those who had been blessed with money only to have it vanish in under a year through mismanagement and he was determined to keep a handle on those issues. He was thinking about a new location, however; he’d always known that he lived in a rougher part of the city, but he was only just beginning to notice how many dangerous people seemed to walk about it.
There was a knock at his door. He hadn’t had unexpected company for years. He looked through the peephole on the door and saw a smiling human wearing a suit. He undid most of the door’s security features, and opened it slowly.
“Hello? Can I help you?”
“Hello!” said the man. “My name is Carlton Mayfair, and I’m here to represent BristleCorp. May I come in?”
Azar froze. He recognized BristleCorp’s name. He’d worked for many different companies over the decades, but it was always through his early agreements with BristleCorp. He could see the pine tree logo on the man’s briefcase now, the bristlecone pine from which the company took its name. Azar swallowed and waved the man in.
Carlton entered and quickly looked over the apartment.
“Very nice place,” he said. “I imagine you’ve been looking for something a little bigger now that you’ve received your payout?”
“I’ve… considered it,” Azar said. There was the faintest tone of condescension behind the man’s words. Why wouldn’t someone want to live in a place like this? It was a fine apartment. “I may stay here. It’s a good neighborhood.”
“I’m sure it is,” said Carlton. “And speaking of your payout, that’s what I came here to discuss. I’m happy that everything’s worked out for you so well. I’m sorry to report that BristleCorp is requesting some of those funds back.”
“Why?” asked Azar. “I did everything right, didn’t I? I was promised that amount, and I was paid what I was due.”
“Yes, you were,” said the man. “The issue is that your work came through a rather unexpected sequence of coincidences, and the offer was made with certain assumptions in mind. It was never expected that someone would be able to put in over forty years of this sort of work. That’s part of why the hazard pay values were so high.”
“That, plus the work was dangerous,” said Azar. “More than a few of my friends lost limbs… or lives… working for you. Mining radioactive nebulae, welding those ships in a hard vacuum… we did it all for you. And we did it under the program the program that BristleCorp set up. And to my knowledge, that program never changed, even after the original research project concluded.”
“No, it didn’t change,” said Carlton. “But it should have. It was forgotten. The promise of a Virellium Coin at conclusion was ludicrous, and was carefully weighed against actuarial tables. And the investment opportunities were there to benefit those who had to leave the program early from taking injuries on the job, they weren’t intended for those who completed the entire program.”
“Now, look, the payout of three coins of Virellium Force Energy was promised from the start to anyone in the program. I double checked every five years that the plans were still in effect, and I was told every time that it still applied to me.”
“Yes, it did,” said Carlton. “But to be blunt… you were supposed to be dead. The hazard pay was high, but the danger was higher. No actuarial tables anticipated anyone making it beyond the first twenty years, and by the end your work was for a project that was no longer the company’s focus.”
“If you didn’t want to pay it, you shouldn’t have made the offer,” said Azar.
“My employers didn’t make that offer,” said Carlton. “Earlier leadership of BristleCorp and other corporations in the BristleCorp family made the offer. The company’s direction has changed in that time, and it will put us in financial difficulty if you retain ownership of the entirety of those funds.”
“You’ll get by,” said Azar.
“Yes, but at great cost,” said Carlton. “Many will lose benefits. Certain branches of the company may stop existing. Now, I’m not here to ask you to return all the money we’ve given you. What I’m here to ask is for a portion. You would retain twenty-one hundredths of one of those coins, more than enough to live comfortably for the rest of your life.”
“Are you sure about that?” asked Azar. “If your actuarial tables are wrong again, I might wind up in the poor house.”
“That’s not… with propper planning, you can still be one of the richest people on this planet and never have to worry about money again.”
“Look, Mister Mayfair, I gave your corporation decades of my life. The agreement was that by risking my life on zero-G rigs, terraforming operations, and experimental engineering platforms, I would become wealthy if I survived. And survive I did. The regular payment, the overtime, the degree compensation for the classes I took to understand some of the work we did, the hazard pay… the extra hazard pay… and finally the interest accrued. All three Virellium coins are mine.”
“That’s a matter for debate,” said Carlton, his smile fading. “The argument could be made that the program ceased to exist twenty years ago when the work was first shipped out to a subsidiary.”
“I worked for them, too,” said Azar. “And I was told then that the work would still count. And at each other subsidiary. I checked with BristleCorp, and with the subsidiaries. And I made sure to get it in writing, along with the names of the people I spoke to.”
“The vast majority of those people have retired or left their position by now,” said Mister Mayfair. “A number of them have died. This antiquated offer is not applicable.”
“You should have decided that decades ago before I signed on for the program,” said Azar. “It’s my money. It was signed off on and finalized when you gave it to me. I’m no longer an employee of yours, and I’ve been paid. As such… we have nothing more to discuss.”
“I’m sorry you see it that way,” said Carlton Mayfair. “I’ll likely see you again soon. Have a good day, sir.”
Mister Mayfair left, and Azar closed the door. He knew it couldn’t have been this easy. He knew that they wouldn’t want to pay him. But he’d heard how Mister Mayfair spoke… they weren’t demanding the money yet, they were requesting it. BristleCorp wanted the money, but didn’t automatically think that they could get it. BristleCorp would have lawyers, but they weren’t sure enough of their success to open with the lawsuit. They would probably have the best lawyers that money could buy.
But so would Azar.