Hey, welcome back!
If you live on the East Coast, how was the snow?
Hopefully you weren’t too terribly buried!
It’s Wednesday, so we’re back into The Road to the Stars. Last week you were introduced to the problem the United Earth government is facing: collapse of the world-wide agricultural sector and mass starvation in 20 years. And you also learned that the Artemis Accords are to blame for this: they strip the metals needed for advanced technology from the UE countries and ship it into space.
Now it seems that only HLC – the Heavy Lift Corporation, one of the many companies that Cass & Ken control – has a chance of helping the UE.
Make sure you read all the way to the end!
And for those keeping score: C2, B1, V2
‘Nuff said. Onward!
“Heavy Lift Corporation, office of the president,” said the receptionist.
“Aiyana Cassidy, please,” said a voice.
“I’m sorry, Ms. Cassidy is unavailable. I can give you an appointment to talk to her,” she checked the boss’s calendar. “Next Tuesday at three-fifteen.”
“Please check your caller ID,” said the voice. “I’ll wait.”
The receptionist pulled up the record. “It’s blank,” she said.
“Correct,” confirmed the voice.
“It can’t be blank,” she argued.
“Obviously, it can be,” said the voice, patiently.
“And what is that supposed to prove?”
“That whoever is calling Ms. Cassidy has the ability to block a system which is supposed to be unblockable.” Before the receptionist could protest, the voice continued. “That means whoever is calling either has the power to command the network, or has the hacking chops to spoof it. Either way, I think Ms. Cassidy will want to talk to them, don’t you?”
“Hold,” said the receptionist, and used her implant to cut the voice off. A quick thought, and –
“Boss, I’ve got something weird going on here,” she said.
“What sort of weird, Kara?” returned Aiyana’s cool contralto.
“I have a call on your personal line, but they’ve done something and blocked the ID.”
“That’s – okay, it’s happening, so it’s not impossible.” There was the briefest of pauses. “Put them through.”
“Ms. Cassidy will speak with you,” said Kara, making the transfer and then disconnecting.
“Aiyana Cassidy. Who is this?”
Aiyana Cassidy, owner and president of the Heavy Lift Corporation (HLC), and known to her friends as Cass, was more amused than annoyed. A tall redhead, Cass had been running HLC for the past seven years since she and her wife had inherited control of the company. Several companies, actually. More than several. Actually, when she bothered to think about it, the total worth of their holdings was about that of, oh, most of the countries in the area of the former United States.
Neither she nor Kendra Cassidy, her wife, had grown up wealthy. Their inheritance was an accidental, and wholly unexpected, byproduct of Cass’s side work when she was a lowly researcher at HLC. Through a series of improbable events the two women had found themselves fleeing an assassination attempt, crossing the continent multiple times, losing, finding, and then being betrayed by their husband, and finally ending up as two of the most influential people on the planet.
Days like this, she longed for the simplicity of her optics lab.
“Ms. Cassidy, thank you for taking time out of your day. This is Mya Hartman, head of the Distribution Directorate at the UE.”
“Madame Director, it’s an honor to hear from you, but this is just a bit, ah, unusual, isn’t it?”
“Rather,” chuckled Hartman. “My technical services people had quite a time managing their little trick.”
“I should think,” said Cass wryly. “I don’t imagine you commed just to show off your technical abilities, though.”
“No,” said Hartman. “Would you be available for a meeting?”
“With whom, and why?” said Cass, antennae twitching.
“Myself, and other members of my staff,” answered Hartman cryptically. “And I’d rather not discuss this over the comms.”
“Curiouser and curiouser,” muttered Cass. She pinged her implant and checked.
“The soonest I can get to you in Geneva is next week, even by jumpship,” she said regretfully. While revamping HLC took a fair portion of her time, she was still heavily involved in the project which had nearly led to her death: teleportation. The system was fully developed and ready for mass installation, but hadn’t yet been widely approved. Stations that had a teleport were few and far between, which put them out of the running for a hop from Houston to Geneva. That left the normal means of transportation, and though she could afford the fastest ships, there was also the matter of existing commitments.
“Oh, no, Ms. Cassidy. I wouldn’t dream of asking you to come here,” protested Hartman. “We are happy to come to you. This isn’t a formal meeting, after all. Let’s just call it a discussion of potentials. Strictly speculative.”
Cass’s eyebrow raised at that. She knew who Mya Hartman was, of course, and the single most influential bureaucrat in the global government didn’t simply offer to drop by without a compelling reason.
“That’s very generous,” stalled Cass. “Today is probably out, but I have some time tomorrow evening. I’ll have to check with my wife, though.” Even as she was speaking another part of her mind was messaging Kendra. Implants were still developing and weren’t generally available, but Cass’s connections had kept her abreast of the newest innovations. Always a quick adopter, she and Kendra made sure that their inner circle was equipped and updated.
Babe, we’ve got incoming.
What’s up? came the instant reply, though Kendra was at their home near Los Alamos, and Cass was at the HLC headquarters in Houston.
Mya Hartman wants a meeting with me tomorrow night!
Bring her to dinner, get her on our turf, maybe we’ll sic the girls on them, answered Kendra.
Ooh, good idea.
All my ideas are good, was Kendra’s smug response before closing the connection.
“Of course, I understand,” Hartman was saying. “I realize this is short notice, but it is an urgent matter.”
“Tomorrow will be fine,” interrupted Cass. “At eighteen. That’s late for you, I know, but you say this is urgent. I don’t want to keep you waiting.”
Cass could hear the grimace in Hartman’s voice. “Eighteen is fine. My staff will make the travel arrangements.”
“I’ll have someone meet you at the Los Alamos tube station once you know when you’re arriving. Unless there’s anything else?”
“No, not now. Until tomorrow.” Cass closed the circuit before Hartman could reply. She knew that she was being deliberately rude, but she’d had enough international intrigues, thank you very much, and didn’t appreciate being dragged into another one.
Shaking her head, she spoke. “Kara, clear my schedule for tomorrow.”
“Clear it. All of it.” Cass thought, then said, “And get hold of Director Montana at OutLook.”
“Right away, Boss.”
Cass had already moved to her next task.
Candice, she messaged.
Yes? answered Candice Sanzari, the head of her personal security. Sanzari had been one of a baker’s dozen who had rallied to her and Kendra’s side all those years ago. Since then, she had practically welded herself to Cass’s side, dedicating herself to keeping Cass and Ken safe. From the initial four agents who had stayed on after the crisis, Sanzari had taken charge of enhancing and expanding the team. Now, she commanded three dozen personal protective services professionals, drawn from across the best military and agency traditions. Then, they were sent to OutLook for further intensive training under their Operations expert, Mikki Stone, a former Navy SEAL Master Chief. Any that passed that regimen were deemed acceptable.
We’re going to have guests tomorrow. Heavy hitters. We’re going to need escorts from the tube station, plus, oh, hell, I don’t know. This is your specialty, not mine.
Cass could almost hear the grin in Sanzari’s response. Damn right it is. Who is it?
UE Director Mya Hartman and staff. I don’t know exact numbers yet.
Sanzari’s whistle wasn’t audible, but Cass still heard it. I’m going to want backup on this.
Whatever you need to do. Cass would have continued, but Kara interrupted with, “I have Director Montana.”
Gotta go. You want anyone from OutLook? Going to talk to Cris.
Anyone she can spare.
“Hi Cris, how’s business?”
“You never start with that question, Cass,” answered Christina Montana, their hand-picked Director of OutLook. Prior to meeting Cass, she had been an agent, like Kendra, at the company. Where Kendra had been a courier and assassin, Montana (or Cris to a select few) had specialized in “hurting people and breaking things,” as she used to say. Her skills, and loyalty, had been tested and proven during Cass’s quests to rescue a friend, reunite with Kendra, and then finally topple the forces seeking her death. As a result, she had been placed atop the pyramid at OutLook, a position she had never expected but had excelled at. “What’s going on?”
“The UE Director of Distribution is coming by for dinner tomorrow night,” said Cass without any further preamble. “I need your help.”
“You got it,” replied Montana. “What do you need?”
“Sanzari asked for whoever you could spare to back up her usual teams.”
“No problem. I’ll check the rosters and have a list to her in a half hour. She can pick anyone she wants.”
“I’d also like to borrow Mac’s services,” continued Cass.
“Do some digging?”
“You know it. There’s no reason that I can think of she’d be interested in us. That just means I’m missing it.”
“You want Mac on-site, or can she do it remotely?”
“Remote works for me. If there’s anything sensitive, though, she might want to deliver it in person rather than over the net.”
“I’ll tell her. Anything else?”
Cass thought. “Who do you have in the UE? Anyone well-positioned?”
She could hear Montana searching. “Nothing right now, sorry. We don’t generally have HumInt resources just hanging around here and there, you know. Only on assignment.”
Cass shrugged and said, “It was a thought. No, that’s it, then.”
“Right, I’ll have that list to Candice shortly.”
“Oh!” exclaimed Cass. “I nearly forgot. Is Mikki busy tomorrow?”
“Just the usual training, why?”
“Can she come babysit? Lisa and Little Mikki always behave better when their Aunt Mikki visits.” Cass and Kendra’s daughters were three and four, respectively, and as frighteningly intelligent as their parentage would suggest.
Montana laughed. “I’m sure she’d be happy to. I’ll let her know.”
“Thanks. How are things going?” asked Cass.
“The usual,” answered Montana. “Keeping busy. Kinda miss field work, but not really.”
“Yes, well, your talents were underutilized.” They talked for a couple moments longer before Cass said, “Okay, I’ve got to go. Lots of planning to do.”
Kara, her aide, was in the office seconds after the connection was broken. “I’ve cleared everything for tomorrow.”
Cass checked her implant for the changes. “That’ll work. Nicely done! Now, how loaded is Friday –”
And now your bonus!
Audio of Chapter Two!