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ALEX MARLOW acknowledged that he was one of the best bodyguards in the galaxy. “Best” was a relative term, but he and his team had managed to keep principals alive through battles, riots, poisonings with neural toxins and even nuclear attack. The company charged accordingly for their services, and they were paid concordantly. The company also covered the insurance, because no sane underwriter would take their odds.

In a matter of days, they’d be guarding someone again. They took short-term, high-risk assignments that would cause any other company to shriek. Ripple Creek would take the jobs, then present a contract rate that would cause most principals’ accountants to shriek, and the rest to faint. Ripple Creek did, however, keep people alive, which was cheaper than the alternative.

He and his team were on down time after their last contract. Jason Vaughn was outsystem at Grainne Colony, his home, with his wife and kids. Eleanora Sykora was in the Czech Constituency of Europe, not far from Bart Weil in Germany. Horace Mbuto was from West Africa, but had moved to Hawaii and had a nice patch of property on the side of an extinct volcano. That left Aramis Anderson, who was in Wales, though there were reasons no one would mention that.

Alex was in New York. The company wasn’t based in New York, but the fastest way for a face to face with the CEO had been for the two of them to meet there.

The café was right on Times Square, which had to cost a fortune in rent. It was an independent, not a chain. However, it had plenty of staff and machines to keep juice, pastries, soups and sandwiches moving to the steady influx of customers. It was 0730, and only a handful of people were present so far. The smell of pastries and bacon hit him. It was even real bacon.

CEO Don Meyer sat at a booth in the rear, facing the door. He had a fliptop comm out, and a doc case. Alex walked in, wove past four tables, and took a seat to Meyer’s right. His back was to the hallway, but he could watch window and door. It was a professional paranoia in the industry and the military.

“Greetings,” he offered.

“Hello,” Meyer agreed. The ersatz office he sat in was reasonably safe, since there was a planter to his left and his doc case was layered with armor. It also offered some concealment to his wrestlerlike frame. That classy-looking suit was laced with shear armor as well. He had half an omelet on a plate to his right. Half a very large omelet.

On the screen of his fliptop, was a news load about Bureau of State Minister Joy Herman Highland. Once Alex made eye contact with it, and back to Meyer, Meyer switched loads to the stock market, clearing that story, and her image, from the screen.

Christ. They actually had an assignment involving her? It seemed hard to believe.

“I’ve got an assignment for you, and you’ll need to leave shortly. How fast can Vaughn get back?”

“It’s probably better to have him meet us at the work location.”

“Noted. The client would like discretion and to make releases on their own schedule.”

Alex nodded. “This client didn’t like us much last time.” Actually, when they’d rescued a man that certain elements wanted and had declared as good as dead, it had caused a furor. Going back to work for that same government smelled of setup.

“No. However, different departments operate differently. Higher profile also gives a different outlook.”

“You certainly know how to challenge us.”

“Only the best.”

The exchange had taken less than a minute. A human server, young and cute if a little pale, arrived with a menu screen for him. He glanced over it.

“I’ll take the toasted ham and cheese pocket, please, with guava juice.”

She smiled and departed.

Meyer asked, “What’s Vaughn’s travel time to location?”

“Fourteen days, that I recall. He’s braced for departure, though he doesn’t get much time with his family.”

“Then he can meet you there. You’ll be DAIC.” District Agent in Charge. That meant there’d be other teams to coordinate with, under his guidance.

“I’ll get on it. Can you send a schedule?”

“Yes, and of course the client wants discretion,” Meyer repeated. The client wanted secrecy until she decided to say otherwise. Marlow understood that.

“Absolutely. I’ll arrange transport.”

Meyer moved to close things down. The meeting was done. “That only leaves the question of Anderson,” he said.

“Not a question. I’ll message him and he’ll be en route.”

“A debrief would be in order, just for formality’s sake.”

“Of course,” he agreed. Aramis was playing with fire, but it wasn’t their fire, and Alex rather suspected they were safer with it than without.

Then after breakfast he’d have a day to sight see and act nonchalant, before flying out to round up his motley band of bruisers.

Jason Vaughn swung the gun smoothly after the birds, fired, fired again. The first round hit, the second missed.

“Nice looking front sight, isn’t it?” his coach chuckled. Scott Vir was possibly the best action shooter alive. The second of the two targets faded from looking like a bird back to a small drone and settled from the sky into the weeds.

Jason grinned back. “Yes, I’m a rifleman first.” His wife giggled, too.

He was spending a bit of money to learn sport shooting for birds and other fast targets, rabbits and bounders and such. The classic over and under shotgun was dissimilar from the combat shotguns he used for work, or carbines or pistols. One didn’t aim. One watched the target, aligned the body and the gun, and slathered pellets in its path. Two to three seconds was a long, relaxed time, far more than one usually got in combat. At the same time, there were definitely aspects of this he could take to the job. They’d apply even better when he used the optics functions of his “shooting glasses.” They were turned off for now, but once activated they added to the spectra he could use, and offered some highlight and tracking functions.

Likewise, no one was shooting back at him, the day was warm with a sultry cloy of humidity, and shooting stuff was fun. Having Marisa along made it even better.

Each lesson was a div, a tenth of a local day. He liked Grainne’s longer cycle, and the primal rawness. There were fewer than one percent of the people here than on Earth. It was more free, and more comfortable. In that context, he couldn’t explain why he kept taking jobs in restrictive systems.

Two more birds erupted from the brush, rose and angled left. Marisa pivoted, pointed and shot. Even with damping weights, the recoil caused her slim frame to stagger a half step.

“Holy hell, I got them!” she exclaimed.

“Nicely done,” he said. There was something exciting about a woman shooting, and he couldn’t let it affect him on the job. Here, though . . .

In twenty segs he’d have her home. Now, if he could get the daughter to go see friends for a div or so, it would be a perfect day.

“And that’s it,” Vir said. “Twenty-five frames. What do you think of your movements?”

Jason switched his attention back to business and debriefed himself, with Vir’s feedback.

Just as they were wrapping up, a triple beep told him he had a priority message, which he threw on his glasses to read while walking back to the car. Ah, work. The Earth pay rates went a long way toward basics here, and allowed him quite a few imported luxuries. So it was a mixed blessing, because he’d bring back another huge deposit, but he’d be leaving a few days earlier than he’d expected.

Well, it was a warm day, and he could afford to fly and set it on auto.

*  *  *  *

Aramis Anderson had a life most men his age would kill for, and he knew it. That didn’t make it easier to juggle.

In the recent past, he’d been contracted to protect Caron Prescot, heiress and now, tragically, the richest person in the universe, who personally owned a controlling interest in an entire star system of mineral wealth and the intellectual property on all modern space mining gear.

It was impossible for her to have a normal life. As a rebellious young principal, denied any real social interaction, she’d drunkenly propositioned him while he was on duty alone. Against every fiber of his hormones he’d refused, and been the ultimate professional. He’d helped her sprawl into bed, folded her clothes, and sat on the couch until his relief showed up.

Any typical relationship she might have would be tainted by distrust. She had trillions of dollars of personal wealth, substantial industrial knowledge worth stealing, and of course, there were major bragging rights to bagging her. She knew for certain she could trust him, that he wasn’t after the money, and not an industrial spy. He was also a very effective bodyguard, even if not contracted to her, and she found him “decently attractive.” By turning her down when she was stressed and drunk, he’d won gentleman points. All he had to do now was keep it than.

There were unspoken but ironclad rules to their relationship. Eventually, he thought yhose rules might cause it to fail. For now, they added tension.

First, he could never, ever tell even his closest friends, “I’m banging the trillionaire.” It would be disastrous for his career to be identified, because the public perception would be that he’d used his contracted position to go after her. The company wouldn’t risk it, nor would any future employers. Career ending mistake. If he said such a thing publicly, Caron would believe she was just a prize to him, as she was to everyone else. Relationship ending mistake.

When out with her, he wore a suit and shades like her current security detail. He was just part of the entourage as far as anyone with a camera was concerned. The same rule applied when he was outside on her mansion grounds. No one must identify him.

To that end, he appreciated his own company’s professionalism. The current security detail knew who he was, of course, as did Caron’s own staff, and neither would ever comment.

Nor could he ask for money. That wasn’t really a problem. His income was quite impressive for what he did. She treated him to numerous meals and events and occasional gifts. He was grateful once per treat, and appreciative on the rare occasions she asked if he was happy. He didn’t make a big deal out of it, and that kept things safe in that arena.

He understood he was with her at her sufferance. She ran, and owned, the largest corporation in history. When she was busy, he stayed out of the way. He was part of her life, she not part of his. His job was to provide her release, whether she wanted to bitch and scream, drink and have her back rubbed, go out for dinner, or have screaming, orgiastic sex.

Most men might think they’d kill for such a deal, but it was work. Challenging and rewarding work, but very much work, beyond that of a normal relationship. He was part friend, part assistant and part gigolo. If he tired of that, he could leave. For now, he thought he could handle it.

The only part he really had trouble with was the stress relief. Sex he was fine with, and quite a few variations. However, sometimes she wanted someone to consensually abuse. That wasn’t particularly his thing, but if it involved her, he wasn’t unwilling. He could handle quite a bit without suffering.

Sometimes, though, she wanted to be the one abused. Nothing life threatening, but she liked being forced, choked, bruised. He’d had to do some reading on that subject to wrap his brain around it. A person with a lot of responsibilities might like to create a fantasy of being utterly controlled, to de-stress. The ironic counterpoint was that she dictated how it was to happen, so she was still very much in control. It was merely fantasy, but it kept her sane. He just had a hell of a hard time choking or causing pain even when he knew she wanted, craved, needed it. It was worse that she was a devastating actress who really got into the role, and he had to constantly remind himself she had safewords if he went too far, except she insisted he was just starting to get to where she really got the release she needed. Then, of course, his comrades on contract as her current security detail knew most of the details and monitored that, for her safety. He knew intellectually they’d never share that information in public, but he was now in the position he’d had her in last year, of being repressed by the presence of bodyguards.

The rules. They’d actually had to discuss the intimate details with the Agent In Charge. She had to tell them ahead of time she would be engaging in that kind of activity, so they’d know it wasn’t a threat. They got more details than he did, and other safewords or unsafewords, because it just might turn out to be an assassination attempt. Then there were the cameras. It was like being a fucking porn star.

With all that, it was still worth it. She was a hell of a woman in every way, and he still felt sorry for her, because her wealth, looks and brilliance were a prison she could never escape from. He just hoped they could remain friends regardless of what turns life took.

Which bemused him that he was actually becoming a gentleman, not just faking it.

Well, sort of. He wasn’t Caron’s full time, and he made a point not to lurk too much. He had his own place, his own bills, and sometimes dates. Like Ayisha. And if he intended to go out with her this weekend, he should be thinking about her, and that. Then he needed to get in some exercise to keep his fitness up.

When his phone chirped, he wasn’t too surprised to see Alex on screen, but even more than usual it caused him to tense up. It was hard not to feel guilty when one was in fact guilty.

Alex asked at once, “Are you being discreet?”

That caused a flush. Had something come out?

“As discreet as I can be.”

“Then are you available for assignment?”

Damn. Work called. Still, disappointing as it was, he did enjoy his job, and that’s what paid the bills. Being a kept man could only be a hobby.

“I am. Do I have transport?”

“You do now. Monday at oh six hundred.”

He glanced at the itinerary that flashed on one side of the screen. He’d meet most of them in orbit. Where was Jason? Oh, right. And Cady was along again. Just like old times.

“I’ll be there,” he said.


He closed the screen but kept the hush field on. He brought another other screen up.

To Caron’s inquisitive look he said, “Work calls. Scheduling trouble, too.”

“So you can’t make it next week,” she said. She sounded understanding, but a bit disappointed and frustrated.


“Well, what about the weekend? I can clear a couple of things.”

Clearing a couple of things would probably cost her several million dollars, and she could easily make that decision. He always kept that in mind. It was even more complicated this time.

“I don’t know. I’ll have to try.”

“Is there a problem?”

“No, I’ll have to adjust my schedule. I knew something was coming, but I figured on having that extra week. I actually had something planned this weekend.”


“Uh, no. A girl, actually.” He wasn’t sure if he should discuss it, but he tried to be scrupulously honest with her.

“Oh. There’s plenty of room. Bring her along and we’ll find a place for her.”

“Oookay,” he agreed. He thought Caron liked keeping a low profile. She was apparently willing to trust his judgment. Still, no reason she shouldn’t, after . . .

“See you then,” she said, with a devastating twitch of her eyebrows.


Yeah, that was great. So, his regular woman, who he had to pretend didn’t exist, told him to bring along the quick fling that had picked him up.

His plan had been Ayisha one night and Caron the next, though he wasn’t going to say so. Now, it looked as if he’d be playing the gentleman at least one of those nights, if not both, right before shipping out. There was more than enough room at Caron’s “estate” to give them all their own wing, never mind a room. He just couldn’t see how he could be with one and not slight the other.

His only hope was for Ayisha to say no. He screened her.

“Well, hi!” she said. She was a little flaky, but honest and intelligent and fun. Right now she had fiberoptic highlights in her hair and a top that was shaded to match her skin. She was obviously clothed but looked nude.

“You look great,” he said, and he meant it, though he said it largely to be polite.

“Thanks. What’s up?” “My job moved up to Monday early, so this weekend is going to involve some packing, too.”

“Okay. Can I help?”

“Probably not. It’ll all be battle gear.”

“Oh, dear,” she said, with wide eyes.

“It’s fine. We carry it all as a precaution, and there’s no particular risk. It’s just not stuff anyone can really help with.”

“Ah, right. Secret.”

“Not really,” he said. “Just complicated and specialized.”

“We’re still doing something, though, right?” Her smile promised something. He ardently hoped he’d find out.

“Something, yes, but I’ve got an invite to England. You’re invited as well, if you like.”

“I’d love to!” she said. “Do I need to bring anything?”

“I’d say one nice conservative outfit and something for Sunday. We’ll be back late, I think. Oh, and a suit for travel.”

“Can you afford this?”

“A friend of mine is covering it. A woman I know,” he admitted.

“Ah,” she said, with a glimmer of comprehension. “Well, it sounds interesting. I’ll be there.”

Luckily, they weren’t serious enough for her to get jealous. Instead she was interested.

Unluckily, Aramis would have to juggle two scorching women and play an entire hand of gentleman cards. That couldn’t be a good start to a high-stress mission.

Alex picked a lodge owned by the TanCorp conglomerate for staging. They were a very professional group, valued discretion, and Ripple Creek had no contracts with them; they had their own, quite respectable security, and their own star system—Grainne, actually. He sent out notices through anonymizers. There really wasn’t any secrecy, but enough vagueness slowed down the intel gathering necessary to confirm anything. That, and when possible, messages sent openly were ironically safer. There were so many messages, and so few reasons to search them.

He let the car drive him down a sunny North American 95, off into the Appalachians, and into the site. He ignored the highway in favor of compiling packing lists and schedules, and studying their principal. He had a rough briefing package, but whoever put it together had different objectives. It contained a modest amount of personal information, but not enough data to determine threats or even objectives those threats might aim for, other than “politician.”

He took a break and enjoyed the scenery in the mountains—hills, really, after sixty million years of erosion. Besides, he couldn’t work well with the vehicle swaying over the switchbacks and around hilly curves.

Upon arrival at the site, he flipped to manual, slowed and stopped for security. After they scanned and approved his car at the real iron gate, he followed the map around more twists, fountains and flower beds, to the log-built cottage on a small pond. It wasn’t cheap, but it was reasonable secure, and it would be approved on the invoice.

As requested, there was no staff. He climbed out with his bag, punched in the reservation code, and stepped inside. Nice. It was clean and plain, easy to sweep for bugs, and had just enough furniture to be comfortable. There were three sleeping rooms, a porch, and a loft overlooking the common room. It also had a fully stocked bar in the kitchen nook. He left his bag on the coffee table and mixed up a Clubbed Seal—Arctic Club whisky and club soda on the rocks, a mound of fluffy coconut and a bloody red splash of grenadine.

It was only a couple of hours before another car pulled up, and Bart Weil and Elke Sykora jumped out. She was above average height for a woman, but Bart was near two meters, and towered over her. They each had a personal bag, and a rolling softside trunk with the non-restricted battle gear they’d take. Alex’s gear was due to arrive as cargo the next day. Horace “Shaman” Mbuto would arrive late tonight, Aramis would show up for departure, and Jason would meet them on site. It wasn’t how he preferred to do things, but staggering them out was less obvious. Even using this site made it seem less like an off world mission, if anyone was watching.

Bart nodded and put his gear in a room. Elke took the loft, where she had a good, clear field of view, and fire. That was like her. She was always surgically precise and her gear spotlessly clean.

Bart came back through then, to the kitchen, grabbed a liter bottle of hefeweizen, and with a look for assent, sat on the couch and sprawled.

“It is good to stretch,” he said.

“I imagine. I get uncomfortable. You must be crunched.”

“It’s worse in armor. Can we talk before the others arrive?”

Elke came through with a glass of juice, though he suspected she’d doctored it with liquor.

“We can. If we’re not secure here we’re in trouble anyway. And I’ll still ask Elke to do a scan.”

“It’s secure,” she said, holding up a box he knew generated interference for most bugs. She wasn’t as expert as Jason, but she was more than proficient. They had enough layers.

He said, “We’re protecting a high-ranking UN bureau official out of system.”

Bart asked, “Are there specific threats?”

“Some. We’ll be able to cover those during transport. We’re traveling together.”

Elke asked, “What restrictions do we have on weapons and gear, and rules of engagement?”

He understood she was asking if she could have explosives. “Unknown yet, but I do know the usual security contingent are armed.”

“Then why us?” Bart asked.

“The threat level is perceived as higher than typical.”

“So the free market is better at protecting the government than it is at protecting itself.”

“Fundamentally, yes.”

“Very amusing.”

“We’re going to Mtali for the Environmental Summit and some other meetings,” he said.

Bart raised his eyebrows. Yes, if they were up to date on newsloads, that pretty well gave away who the principal was.

“Perhaps I will like this person,” Elke said. “I respect ruthlessness.”

“We’ll have to see. The public presence is not very nice, but people are almost never how the media present them, and of course, we don’t know how much is done as a public image.”

Bart said, “Alex, you are hedging your bet.”

He sighed. “Yeah, I expect we’re not going to be on great terms. We’ll see.”

Elke said, “I don’t need to like the principal. I just need to be able to do my job. This seems less of a problem than last time.”

“We won’t have time to run physical practice, but I do have sim programs we can play through. Bart, I’ll want you to take lead on this.”

“Is Aramis joining us?”

“A bit late, yes. There are political reasons.”

“Ah. Those.” The big man nodded understanding without expressing emotion.

“Yes, those. He’s discreet, she’s a friend of the company, and there’s a certain level of public visibility. I didn’t want him to rush. In fact, the six of us are more identifiable now, so we’ll likely stagger our transit and arrival in future as well.”

“A few more of these beers and I will stagger now,” Bart joked.

“Practice first, then stagger.”

“Of course.”

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