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Authors: Brian Herbert

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Chapter Eight

The art of business is not a pretty one; it requires blood-red pigment.

—Francella Watanabe, private reflections

In her white-and-gold dress and star-shaped headdress, Noah’s sister gave the appearance of a lady of leisure. It was just one of the subterfuges the tall, redheaded woman employed to conceal the fact that she was responsible for the assault on CorpOne headquarters, and that she herself had received training in the most advanced styles of combat and tactical warfare.

“Faster!” Francella shouted to four company policemen who carried her injured, comatose father on a hover-bier. With her leading the way, they ran through a dimly-illuminated corridor, just one of the tunnels that formed a maze beneath the office-industrial complex of more than twenty buildings. Originally these subterranean passageways had been the streets of an ancient Nopan city, but the community had been abandoned long ago when the inhabitants fell victim to a mysterious malady.

Old Prince Saito, with his head bandaged, came to life suddenly on the bier. His eyes opened wide and he groaned loudly, then flopped one of his beefy arms over the side. “Noah?” he said, while lifting his head and looking toward Francella.

She wanted to scream her rage and pound on him, but instead pressed a small skin-colored pad against her own neck, right over a throbbing vein. Almost immediately she felt a custom drug take effect, deadening her emotions and dampening twinges of personal guilt she had been feeling, concerning the things she had to do.

Abruptly the nobleman’s eyes closed again, but he kept murmuring Noah’s abominable name. Finally he fell silent and his face went slack, though his chest heaved up and down as he clung stubbornly to life. She stared at a sapphire signet ring on his right hand and vowed that Noah would never possess it. She considered slipping it off the old man’s finger at the first opportunity, but hesitated. Soon she would have everything she wanted anyway.

In order to maintain appearances, Francella fell back beside her father and re-secured his arm inside the electronic strap that had been holding it. His eyelids fluttered, but didn’t open.

She spoke his name, but he did not respond. His breathing remained steady.

Prince Saito had been injured by a hail of alloy-jacketed projectiles fired into his office building by the phony Guardians, who were
conducci,
mercenaries she had hired secretly. Murdering her father had been the primary objective of the professional fighters, but they may not have succeeded. She hated sloppy workmanship.

“You’ll be fine,” she assured Prince Saito, though he seemed unable to hear her. “We’re taking care of you.”

“Noah?” he murmured, with his eyelids still closed.

“I’m
Francella
,” she said, arching her hairless brows in displeasure. “Noah tried to kill you.”

“He wouldn’t do that … wouldn’t do that … “ Prince Saito’s face became a twisted mask as he struggled to think, struggled for consciousness, and finally gave up the effort … but kept breathing.

She studied the heaving of his chest, and thought,
Die, damn you!

They ascended a corrugated alloy ramp to a platform and ran across to the opposite side, where they boarded a small maglev rail car. Francella took a seat at the rear of the vehicle, while the others placed the bier on the floor in the center of the aisle, and then took seats themselves. Armored doors closed and the car accelerated quickly, throwing Francella against her seat back.

Only half an hour earlier, fifty-eight heavily armed
conducci
had attacked the CorpOne complex. She had hired them through a series of middlemen in such a circuitous chain that no one knew who had originally paid for their services. As the Security Chief for the company, Francella Watanabe had ways of getting things done discreetly. She had, however, put out the word that any mistakes would be handled brutally … and the killers had not done their job cleanly, as she had demanded.

The CorpOne policemen in the rail car with her had known nothing of the plot and had interfered, going to the aid of the Prince and whisking him off to safety, with Francella in tow … trying to figure out what to do.

Her thoughts racing, she touched an electronic transmitter at her waist, setting off explosives in the tunnel behind them. The company security men chattered excitedly and stared out the rear window of the railway car at the flaming tunnel.

But Francella had other matters on her mind. Privately, she was considering how best to finish the job on her father, but she needed to do it carefully, so that no one suspected a thing. For years she had been monitoring the old man’s declining health, and had hastened it along by seeing to it that the “cellteck” life extension drugs and other medicines he took were of less effect than they should have been. With those products at full strength—many manufactured in CorpOne laboratories—he might have lived to a hundred and ten, another twenty-seven years.

Too long for her to wait. She wanted control of all family corporate operations as soon as possible, before anything could erode her position.

The alterations in her father’s pharmacopoeia had been slight but cumulative, so that over a period of years they undoubtedly subtracted time from his life. An actuary secretly in her employ (his services obtained through another circuitous series of middlemen) had prepared projections showing how much she had probably shortened the unnamed subject’s life. Based upon raw medical data that she had provided for the actuary, he had originally estimated a reduced life span of seventeen months, twenty-four days, and a few hours.

Unfortunately that had been modified by the interference of the Prince himself, who had unwittingly compensated for her tricks by improving his diet and instituting a moderate exercise program. In the process, the big man, unaware of her actions, had been bragging that he’d lost two kilos over the past few weeks. Undoubtedly the net effect on his health had been minimal, since he had always been sedentary and had such an enormous girth. She had been waiting for him to slip back into his old ways, but the crisis had interfered … the meeting between Noah and her father that she could not allow.

At Francella’s instigation another explosion sounded behind the maglev car in which she rode. The vehicle shuddered, but kept going. It entered a brightly-illuminated tunnel, and moments later a heavy alloy door slammed shut behind them, keeping them safe from pursuers or the fire and detonations that she had set off.

A rapprochement between Francella’s brother and father would have unraveled much of her carefully-crafted efforts over the past decade, allowing her hated brother to gain a toe-hold on CorpOne operations.

She and Noah, her fraternal twin, had never gotten along very well, and the problems started early. After the babies were born, they thrashed around on a table and gave each other bloody lips. Over the years there had been respites between them, cease-fires, but they were few and far between … and tense. The siblings had always loathed one another, and had exchanged few words in the last fifteen years.

Their mother Eunicia, the only woman Prince Saito ever married, had almost died in childbirth. She had lived for years afterward, but never fully recovered, and was always a frail woman, finally dying in a grid-plane crash at the age of fifty-one. Prince Saito had never been the same afterward.

In recent weeks the old man had been wavering about Noah, and had mentioned the possibility of revamping his business operations in order to satisfy his son. This could involve bringing her hated twin back into the corporation, with all of his costly, meddlesome ideas about environmental issues. Francella could not tolerate that.

Upon learning of the scheduled meeting between the men, she had gone into a crisis mode. Setting aside her attempts to erode the Prince’s health, she had moved forward quickly. Her military-style attack with phony Guardians was a risky course of action, but offered the potential of distinct benefits. It could eliminate the Prince much more quickly, while placing the blame for his “tragic death” on Noah.

It might still work, if the old man died of his head injury.

On the bier beside her, Prince Saito groaned again. Francella felt like stuffing something in his mouth to shut him up, but resisted the temptation. She would take the rational course, not letting her emotions get the better of her.

Chapter Nine

We Parviis are the most powerful of all galactic races.

And, with good reason, the most secretive.

—Woldn, Eye of the Swarm

A towering black cloud hung over Canopa’s central plain like an anvil, threatening to strike the land with a hammer-blow of rain. Summer was late getting underway this year, as the weather had been unseasonably stormy and cold, almost a month into the season. There had been some warm days, but not many.

As Tesh Kori stood on cobblestones near the center of a large courtyard, she wished her boyfriend did not have such a quick temper. Dr. Hurk Bichette stood with his hands on his hips, shouting at the maintenance man for his country estate. The prominent physician had a strong jaw and closely-set green eyes. A vein bulged and throbbed at his temple, a sign that he was losing control.

“You’re not paying enough attention to your duties,” Bichette thundered in his basso voice. “It seems that other things interest you more.” He shot a glance in Tesh’s direction and glared at her for an instant before looking away. This courtyard was between the doctor’s palatial home and the stables for his expensive tigerhorses. The buildings were constructed in the classical Canopan style, of smoky-white marble with inlaid ruby and emerald gemstones. A colorful kaleidoscope of imported tulips bloomed in flower beds around the perimeter of the courtyard, and in planter boxes on the balconies of the three-story main house.

The target of Dr. Bichette’s rage, Anton Glavine, wore a short blue-and-white tunic buttoned down the front, with high, tight leggings, and black boots. Remaining calm all through the verbal onslaught, the blond, mustachioed maintenance man stood taller than the doctor, and stared down at him dispassionately, saying nothing in response.

Tesh tried to be understanding, but in recent weeks she had been growing increasingly irritated with her boyfriend’s possessive, even paranoid, attitude. Bichette seemed to fear that he might be losing her affections to this rough-and-tumble young upstart, who enjoyed tramping around in the woods and living off the land. Glavine—only twenty years old—had been working on the opulent estate, performing handyman tasks and yard work.

Concerned that the situation would escalate, Tesh stepped forward and said, “Hurk, he’s hardly spoken to me at all. I assure you, there’s nothing for you to worry … “

“You stay out of this,” he snapped. With one arm, he shoved her away, and she stumbled backward before regaining her footing.

The muscles in Glavine’s face tightened. He studied Tesh, as if to make certain she was all right.

Standing off to one side with her arms folded across her chest, Tesh had to admit to herself that she was physically attracted to Glavine. With a tan, ruddy complexion and hazel eyes, he carried himself with an air of maturity. Despite his youth, he was well-spoken and knowledgeable on a wide range of subjects. He had a tendency to exude an air of arrogance, though, and this seemed to grate on Dr. Bichette at times.

Human males have interesting means of combat
, Tesh thought.

She hoped this pair didn’t come to blows, but she had seen other Human men fight for her attentions, and even an unfortunate instance where one man had killed another. Among her own Parvii race this sort of verbal … and potentially physical … battling never occurred. But her true identity remained a complete secret here on the merchant prince planet of Canopa. With long black hair, emerald green eyes, and a full figure, Tesh looked like an attractive Human woman of around twenty-seven years.

But all of her people
looked
Human, with one significant exception. Parviis were exceedingly tiny, no taller than the little finger of a typical
humanus ordinaire
. In order to conceal their true identities when traveling to foreign planets such as this one, the diminutive humanoids used a personal magnification system that made each one of them look as large as the Humans of the merchant prince worlds. The ingenious apparatus, undetectable to scanners or the most sophisticated scientific instruments, even caused anyone touching Tesh’s “skin” to think it was real, and permitted her to experience sensory feelings. Her projected skin and hair, and the atomic structure of the clothing she wore, were in reality crackling molecular energy fields, technologically-created illusions that involved no magic whatsoever.

Emerging from her thoughts, she noticed she that the doctor was taking a deep breath and gazing off into the distance. After several moments he resumed talking, in a lower, more controlled tone. He seemed to be holding back a little, perhaps because he knew that he could not easily find another person who would maintain the structures on the large estate as well as Glavine. In the few months that the young man had worked on the property, he had already completed important repairs to the larger of two stable buildings.

Among other operations here, Dr. Bichette provided a tigerhorse stud service for nobles on the merchant prince planets. This had been his family business for centuries, begun by a great-great grandfather and continued to the present day as a highly successful enterprise. Bichette himself had extensive veterinary knowledge, in addition to the medical services he offered to important noblemen and their ladies. A renowned medical expert with a handful of powerful clients, he was Saito Watanabe’s personal physician. He also directed CorpOne’s Medical Research Division.

Presuming that the dispute between the men would dissipate, Tesh went inward again. She did this sometimes in order to revisit the fondest places of her memory and heart, and for deeper ruminations, to better understand her position in a cosmos of staggering dimensions. The voices of the men droned on, a fuzzy background noise in her mind.

Linked inextricably to the fate of her own people, Tesh could extricate herself somewhat from them during occasional inward journeys in search of her own personal identity, but these were no more than ephemeral trips of the mind, vagrant sparks of thought that were soon washed away in the streams of time. She was linked to every other Parvii, part of a collective organism that stretched into the most distant sectors of the galaxy, into light and into darkness.

The personal magnification system of each Parvii provided only superficial benefits, a defense mechanism for each segment of the much larger organism that allowed it to avoid detection in certain situations … and thus to survive.

The Parviis were a powerful race. Secretly, they held dominion over another galactic race, the Aopoddae, that fleet of podship spacecraft that carried travelers and goods across the entire galaxy. One tiny Parvii could, in fact, pilot a much larger sentient pod through deep space. It had been this way for countless millennia, since the early moments following the Moment of Creation. And Tesh was herself a pilot. She had learned her skill from an early age, in the time-honored method by which all children of her race were trained.

However, since there were many more Parviis than podships, she had a great deal of time off-duty … as much as a decade without interruption. During the current interlude she had been getting to know Human men better, while on previous breaks she had dated the men of other star systems. By galactic standards she was quite old, much more than she appeared to be. It was like this with all of her kinsmen, but each Parvii was not eternal. On average they lived for twenty or twenty-five standard centuries, and sometimes for as long as thirty.

Parviis were a traveling breed, galactic gypsies without a homeworld. They lived all over the cosmos, and communicated with one another across vast distances through a mysterious, arcane medium that was known by many appellations, the most common of which was Timeweb.

Timeweb.

Even after the seven-plus centuries of her life, the thought of the gossamer connective tissue between star systems never failed to amaze and confound her. The web meant so many things beyond its physical reality.

A shout startled Tesh to awareness. It was the deep voice of Dr. Bichette, and she saw him shove Glavine in the chest. The younger man, much stronger than his feisty, smaller aggressor, hardly moved backward at all. Enraged, Bichette took a wild punch, which Glavine eluded with athletic ease, and then grabbed both arms of his boss to restrain him.

“Let go of me!” Bichette demanded, as he struggled unsuccessfully against the stronger man. “If you value your job, take your filthy hands off me!”

Instead, Glavine spun him around and forced him toward a wrought-alloy bench on one side of the patio. “Our relationship is no longer employer and employee,” Glavine said in a flat tone. He glanced at Tesh, and then looked away as he shoved the doctor onto the bench. “Sit there until you’re ready to talk reasonably.”

“Nothing happened between you two?” Bichette looked first at her, then back at him.

In response, both of them shook their heads. But Tesh knew it was a lie; there
had
been sparks between her and the young maintenance man, a mutual attraction that they had not acted upon. Not yet. Parvii women, like their Human counterparts, knew such things intuitively.

With a sudden, startling clang, a heavy metal door slammed open on the perimeter of the courtyard, and a heavyset man in a purple uniform burst through. Wearing a frilly white shirt with lace at the collar and sleeves, he was a
messagèro,
one of the bonded couriers who worked for the Merchant Prince Alliance. Breathing heavily and perspiring, although his run had not been far from the circular parking area outside, he bowed as he reached Bichette.

“Doctor Sir,” he gasped, “Most urgent news. A car awaits you.”

Narrowing his eyes, Bichette accepted a pyruz from him, a rolled sheet of white ishay bark on which matters of life and death were written. The doctor touched an identity plate on the seal, causing the pyruz to unfurl and become rigid. He read it, then rose to his feet.

“We must continue this later,” Bichette said to Glavine. “I am certain we can resolve it.” Without another word, he handed the pyruz to Tesh and strode out of the courtyard, behind the sweating
messagèro
.

Tesh read the communication.

“Prince Saito has been gravely injured,” she said to Anton Glavine. But as their gazes met, she knew they were thinking of something else, with each of them wondering where their relationship would go from there.

They stood near each other, and drew closer, with almost imperceptible movements. Out at the front entrance, the maglev car hummed. Then, with a high-pitched whine, the vehicle left.

Anton took Tesh in his arms and drew her to him. She had been waiting for this moment, expecting it. However, she had learned that one of the interesting things about physical relationships was that neither the timing nor the exact circumstances were ever known in advance. Of course, Tesh reminded herself, it was that way with the rest of life as well. But she had never anticipated anything quite as much as this particular first kiss, had never wondered about anything so much.

As Anton held her tightly, the Parvii woman had the pleasurable sensation of floating away, on a journey to a far-off place.

BOOK: The Timeweb Chronicles: Timeweb Trilogy Omnibus
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