Family Ties

I wasn’t sure what was more surprising, that the Praetor himself would call upon a lowly private investigator like myself, or that he would call me the day after I saw his assassination on the evening newsfeeds.  It had been the top story for the past 20 hours, I must have seen clips of that fox’s blood boiling from his ears and staining his black and white fur a dozen times since then.  They said that his microbots had been hacked by his own doctor, instead of maintaining his brain and body against the ravages of age, they disintegrated his neural tissue.  Even the best medical science of the Federation could not repair that much brain damage.  Fortunately for my state of mind, he explained how he managed this feat of self-necromancy a second after I answered.

“I am the personality simulation of Praetor Senyan Terraformer de Argentum a Denal, carrying out my last will and testament.”  That figured, of course someone as rich and powerful as a Praetor would be capable of commissioning a personal sim, and now that I thought about it, most of the ones I’d seen before were former Praetors or other notable members of the Argentum genus.  “In the event of my death by the intent of another being, I set aside a sum of 100 kiloPCs to hire the most qualified private investigator available to determine the identity of whomever was ultimately responsible for my death.”

“Well, that’s interesting,” I replied, “but what makes you think I’m the most qualified for the job?”

The simulation perked as I’d clearly triggered some sort of response path.  “You are the private investigator known as ‘Rikel Eryn’ are you not?  Primary phenotype: Feline.  Birthplace: Ceti outcast colony #283, date: approximately 4/18/1727 Most notable profession: Detective experienced roughly 126 years?”

Pretty much accurate, I admit.  It was rather difficult to synchronize the calendars of the various outlier worlds with those of the core worlds linked by the wormhole nexus, but that was close enough for my purposes.  I had started my career as a professional finder of evidence for criminal cases before I had become an immortal Federation citizen, back on that primitive little mudball the Federation had dubbed “Ceti colony #283” but most of its inhabitants called “dirt”, having been there long enough to forget that there were other inhabited planets in the universe.  Still, there was the occasional contact with offworld traders that the government tried to keep secret.  I’d come across a group of these offworlders on one of my cases, and had no choice but to leave with them or be “disappeared” by the Emperor’s agents.

It was rather uncommon for anyone, mortal or immortal, to hold down the same career for more than fifty years by the capital’s reckoning.  Those born to the Federation grew up accepting the idea that they’d get bored doing the same thing for decades on end and couldn’t imagine keeping it up for centuries, but on my former home planet people were expected to stick with the same career for life.  To be honest, we’d only just recently moved past the species-based caste system espoused by the original colonists.

I confirmed the digital ghost’s assessment, not bothering to explain why I’d been in this job so long, and asked why it wanted my help.  “After all,” I explained, “you have the full resources of the civil forces and the Federal Guard to investigate the cause of your demise.”

“The civil forces and the Federal Guard are presently under the control of my kin.”  The simulation answered.  “And I believe one of them was responsible.”

For a brief time I thought I’d left such things behind when I ditched my old planet.  Here where there’s so little need for struggle and strife, and cameras are everywhere so you can’t get away with anything, I thought this world would be free of murder.  But of course, that wasn’t quite the case.  I mean, sure, there’s a much lower violent crime rate, but there’s still some things that people find to be worth killing over.  And, just like back home, it was often the ones with the most to gain who were most likely to think they could get away with murder.  

Unfortunately for me, the Praetorian succession wasn’t a straight line like most major titles on my home.  Technically, it was elected, but everyone knew that only the high families of the genus Argentum had the Federation-wide influence to win.  Even if I narrowed down the possible suspects to Senyan’s immediate family I ended up with more than 50 offspring by a dozen different mates and 19 siblings to investigate.  Even with AI search agents it was a long list to work through.

While my software ran through the list of potential masterminds, I decided to approach the case from the other end.  The civil authorities had determined that the parahuman who metaphorically “pulled the trigger” was the Praetor’s personal physician, Keltin de Natalie a Jonah.  Unfortunately for my investigation he had already been tried and executed, rather rapidly I might suppose.  Prevailing theory was that he was involved in some new cult or something, that being the default media bogeyman ever since the Memetic Quarantine Act that got my ancestors and so many other “deviants” dumped on some frontier world with no real technology.  Conveniently, the Act also placed a media block on any details of the perpetrators of suspected ideological terrorism, on the grounds that the information might carry a meme virus, as it was I was lucky to find his name so quickly.

The major news sites had been given enough information to know that Senyan’s doctor was believed to have done the deed, but nothing about the doctor’s identity.  I’d found a news article that was over fifty years old about the Praetor’s new physician.  Keltin was of musteline ancestry, some weasel blend, Centauri-born and bred, and his name was on the public citizen’s record as having died about a week after the Praetor.  I also couldn’t find any record of Senyan changing doctors in the last half-century so it was most likely him.  What confirmed it was the lack of information on any official site that would have told me something about him.  Nothing on the Wikipedia Stellarica, nothing on the university that the news page said he studied at, nothing from the “notable personages” of the Natalie or Jonah genera.  At least, until I did some digging into the past.  You see, the thing about a decentralized network like the Federation mesh, it’s really hard to destroy any information in its totality.  A few queries on secure networks and I had archived copies of every page that had information on Keltin de Natalie a Jonah, I even found some cracker who had his transaction records up to the month before he killed.

Technically, it was an anonymous wallet, but it was accessed through his BCI which pretty much meant it was his.  And there’s a little thing about cryptocurrencies like the Federation’s Production Credit that many people seem strangely ignorant of, they remember who has owned them.  Every FedPC file that changes virtual hands has something called a “blockchain” which carries the ID number of every wallet it has passed through.  There’s no database with the ID of every cryptocurrency wallet in use in the Federation core worlds or anything like that, but a lot of people put their wallet ID on their personal sites in public view so people can send them money.  The largest transaction on the record was a deposit two weeks ago from a source that I couldn’t quite idenfity, but followed a day later by an almost as large withdrawal to a wallet that I quickly tied to a discount cybersurgeon in one of the outlying small towns by the name of Lucas Kelner.

Kelner had moderate online reviews on the mesh, but comparing his lifestyle to what he would have made off the jobs the reviews mentioned something did not add up.  I figured he had to be taking some work on the “greyer” side of things to afford that interstellar vacation he took photos of on social media.  I decided to pay “Dr. Kelner” a visit and took a maglev train out to the town.

His office was near the edge of the city limits, I noticed a distinct lack of sousveillance sensors in the area, the only ones around seemed to be tied to Kelner’s building and thus under his control.  It was a cheap pre-fab, the kind that lasted barely more than a few decades and would need to be replaced fairly soon, but was enough to exert ownership over a plot of land.  I went in through the front door and spoke to the owner.

His digital receptionist kept me waiting for almost a half hour before letting me see him.  Lucas Kelner was a cervine male who had replaced his antlers with a pair of fractal arms, branching off into increasingly small armatures tipped with a variety of tools and jacks for surgical instruments.  “Good afternoon, sir”, he said as I was let into his office room and took a seat.  “How may we improve you today?”

“Actually,” I replied, “I was wondering if you could tell me anything about one of your recent clients.”

I noticed a small nervous twitch as my question registered with him.  “There are customer reviews of my work on several sites.”

“I’m wondering about one who didn’t post any reviews.”  I continued, calmly.  “One Keltin de Natalie a Jonah.”

Kelner looked very nervous at this point.  “Some of my clients appreciate their privacy.  They pay additional credits to keep the details between the two of us and I am not inclined to betray their trust.”  Something wasn’t quite right, his ear was flicking back and forth and I couldn’t tell why.

“Listen,” I warned him, “this is very important and if you don’t share the information I’m looking for there could be very dire consequences.  And not just for you.”  He shuddered as I spoke to him.

Then suddenly, he coughed loudly, making me jump for a second.  As he drew his hand back from his mouth I thought I saw something red glisten across his palm.  “It looks like there’ll be consequences if I tell too.”  Without warning he jumped at me, barely missing as I leapt out of the way just in time to avoid the bared scalpels on his bionic antlers.

Despite appearances, Kelner wasn’t the only augmented parahuman in the room.  Since emigrating to the Federation I had not only installed the standard BCI and longevity microbots, but I’d also had my peripheral nerves myelinated to an almost extreme degree and attached an autonomic override module to my spine.  If my BCI picked up a threat it would send the appropriate signals to my override and my body would react before my conscious mind, or even my biological reflexes with their boosted neurons, could register it.  There’s been a few embarrassing situations in the past but the mods have saved my not-quite-immortal life often enough to make up for them.

I stood there in the office ducking and weaving automatically to avoid having any of the cyborg cervine’s surgical instruments hit me, or get any of his bodily fluids on me.  A much more difficult task now that blood was streaming out of his nose and ears.  At one point one of his graspers grabbed something off the back of his head and threw it at me, the override made me catch it and throw it aside before it could do anything.  I jumped past Kelner to land on top of his desk as he started to collapse, the microbots in his system finally disintegrating his neurons to the point where he could no longer stand.

The manner of death was too similar to the Praetor’s to be a coincidence.  If it were the same his hacked microbots would break down his brain into an unrecognizable mush within the hour and the rest of his tissues would follow over the course of the next day.  Senyan’s body had only been presentable enough for a funeral due to the quick application of an electromagnetic pulse strong enough to fry all the electronics in his body, one bodyguard who’d tried to save him without putting on gloves first had to have an arm amputated and all her cyberware replaced.  Seeing how de Natalie was dead I was certain now that something wasn’t quite what it seemed.

I tried to remember exactly when Kelner had started showing signs of hostile microbot infection.  Then, not trusting my suggestible meat brain I called up the last few minutes of my Lifelog.  Like many people over a hundred years old I knew full well the limitations of flesh memory and had taken the easy route of setting my BCI up to record all input from my senses to an external memory drive at the base of my skull.  Most nights before going to bed I reviewed my Lifelog and backed up important events to a personal cloud server that I could access from the mesh as needed.  But sometimes I witnessed something sensitive which I would not want to be accessible from the mesh at all so I physically removed the memory cylinder and stashed it in a Faraday safe.

As I was reviewing my memories of the fight I got to the point where Kelner threw that thing at me.  I paused the memory to get a better look at the object, and to my surprise I found that it was a memory cylinder, of a similar type to the ones I used in fact.  Quickly I followed the arc my hardware remembered to where the cylinder had landed under a bookshelf and recovered it.  The ports were a bit dusty but it was intact and free of microbot-contaminated fluids, I counted myself lucky that he wasn’t one of those types who thought sanitary access panels were unsightly, if he’d used a wireless BCI like many people these days I doubt I’d have been able to safely dig his external memory out of his skull before the microbots destroyed it.

The cylinders I used could hold a month’s worth of memory, if Kelner hadn’t changed or overwritten this one in the two weeks since he’d operated on de Natalie I could have just found my first bit of hard evidence.

I left Kelner’s disintegrating body in his office, with any luck the civil authorities wouldn’t notice until after I’d solved this case.  Now I had a lead to follow.  Normally, external memory can only be used by the person who made it, biological brains are too different for the same code to be interpreted by anyone else, but there are some programmers who can make a rough translation and review a fuzzy version of someone’s else’s memories.  Naturally, I know one who was willing to help, and who preferred to remain anonymous to protect her identity as this was slightly on the illegal side of things.

I gave her the cylinder and she slipped into a work simulation to translate the memories.  While I waited for her to finish I started making inquiries to sousveillance streams on the streets and aisles surrounding the Families’ arcology looking for signs of Dr. de Natalie.  There were enough free streams to get a general idea of where he had gone in the past month, and the fees to get the details were inconsequential compared to the potential pay for this job.  I found that he had gone to a variety of different nightclubs and bars roughly every once or twice a week in the weeks before his death, never the same place twice and with no discernable connection between the establishments.  I started looking into the other patrons of those establishments, no one other person had attended all of the same places as him but my recognition software did notice a few mustelids who appeared more than twice, all of whom had the same gait, and one of which was a brightly striped pine marten with three tails.

While it wasn’t uncommon to have extra tails added they were associated with one particular subculture of note, Kitsune, those who used nanotech to alter their appearance at will and used the number of tails in their “base form” as a measure of how far they’d progressed in the mental discipline used to control their technological powers.  Fortunately my contacts had indicated that they didn’t learn how to alter the way they walked until the fifth tail, it was likely that all of the recurring weasels were the same shapeshifter.

Unfortunately, while they had used the same body more than once they had also used a different name each time, and the Kitsune order kept the true identities of their members a secret for their protection.  I would have to hope that my interpreter found a hint of their true name in the memories she reviewed.

She was working on those memories for a full day before she got back to me.  When she reported her findings her expression was grave, quite clearly rather shaken by what she had seen.  “Lucas Kelner implanted a remotely triggered explosive into the cerebral cortex of Dr. Keltin de Natalie a Jonah.  Crude, but it would effectively annihilate his brain and external memory beyond any hope of recovery.  And it used a quantum-entangled remote so it wouldn’t be traceable in any way.  When he was done de Natalie injected Kelner with a syringe of the hacked microbots that killed him later.”

It didn’t make much sense for somebody to willingly implant a remote self-destruct in their own body, there were easier ways to commit suicide.  I figured whoever had given de Natalie the money for the procedure had arranged it to prevent him backing out or snitching later, and that he’d placed similar leverage against Kelner.  There was definitely more to this than it first seemed.  “Did either of them mention who had paid for this invasive surgery, by any chance?”

“Yes,” she replied, visibily trying to maintain her calm.  “De Natalie said that ‘Ryllidin Everstead’ would appreciate it if he kept this to himself.”  She actually looked scared now.  “I looked them up on the Darkmesh, they’re a Kitsune who’s been linked to some unpleasant things.  What kind of person hires you for this kind of job?”

“The ghost of Senyan Terraformer de Argentum a Denal.”  I said, half sarcastically.

“Don’t be ridiculous.”  She snapped.  “He couldn’t have had a simulation made, he was a Telepath.”

I paused, curious.  “You mind explaining what you mean by that?”

“To make a simulation of a person, you need to do two things.”  She informed me.  “First, you need to have a BCI recording a Lifelog, and second, you need to get a high-def brain scan to make a computer model capable of interpreting that Lifelog.”  Even I did not need to be told that having a machine read a Telepath’s brain would break their connection to their bonded twin, reducing them from a vital component of interstellar communications to a mundane member of Federation society.

I had not known this about Senyan, but now I had a hunch on who killed him, and I was willing to stake my life on it.

The bar was crowded and noisy, dozens of parahumans and uplifts getting intoxicated on a hundred different substances and chatting each other up.  I had staked out a booth in the corner and placed a white noise generator under the table, obscuring whatever I would say to the casual observer.  Halfway into my first drink Ryllidin Everstead arrived.  They were in one of the more nondescript forms I had seen on the streams, an androgynous common brown weasel in a black dress suit.  They sat down and we chatted about meaningless things while our hearing adjusted to the noise generator, then once I could understand what they were babbling about the Z-G fights we got down to business.

“So,” I interjected, “I hear you’re the one to go to when you need a ‘job’ done right?”

“I find the right people.”  Ryllidin corrected me.  “I act as an intermediary between clients who wish to remain anonymous and the people they don’t want associated with them.  You give me the details, and I find the workers who can get it done.  They don’t know who you are just as much as you don’t know who they are.”

“Plausible deniability,” I said, “nice.”  Now, I offered a hypothetical.  “So, you mean to say that if, for instance, a member of one of the Families wanted his twin brother dead you would be the only one who knew who was ultimately behind it and everyone who was involved in the assassination attempt?”

Everstead didn’t even flinch.  “Hypothetically, yes.  That would be the case.  But you don’t need something that drastic now do you?”  My senses picked up some slight movement under the table, but my override didn’t think it a threat yet.

I pushed further.  “But what if someone found the ‘workers’ as you call them and were to find you?  I mean, nowadays even with the shapeshifting they can find out who you are with little effort.”

“Oh, I have methods of making sure they can’t talk.”  Whatever they were moving became fast enough that my override registered a threat and reacted.  I lunged across the table just as an abnormally long finger whipped out a dataport connector of some kind.  They were pinned to the seat beneath me as the connector clattered on the table.  I struggled to pin them down as they writhed beneath me, joints dislocating to wriggle out, I lost my grip for just a moment but that was enough for Everstead to get free.  Their suddenly prehensile tail snatched the thing off the table but a random corsac fox in the crowd abruptly grew three-inch claws on his left hand and sank them into the fleeing weasel’s torso.

I winced as the crook I’d been trying to catch suffered serious internal organ damage but didn’t make a sound.  The clawed fox motioned for me to follow him as he led the Kitsune weasel out the back door, all while the crowd acted like nothing was happening.

As soon as we were out of sight of the bar’s patrons the fox’s fur changed in color from a mixture of yellow and grey to black underfur with white guardhairs, the characteristic coat of the founder that zir Federation-ruling descendants all shared.  Then as I watched amazed his, no her body mass shifted away from the shoulders and abdomen to round out her breasts and hips, and her one tail split in eight.  Everyone knew the highest rank of the Kitsune order was nine tails, and that there was only one confirmed nine tail in known space though rumor had it there were more outside the stargate network.  This being was in line to head the entire shapeshifting organization, and she was a Silver, in retrospect I should have been much more afraid.

“What do you want?”  I asked, wary.

The Silver vixen dangled the limp weasel to the side while she turned to face me.  “You can call me Sharlin Fairhold de Argentum.  Does that sound familiar?”

I had to think for a minute before I recalled that name.  “You were one of Praetor Senyan’s mates, weren’t you?”

“Yes.”  She replied simply.  “While we didn’t quite get along that well he was still the sire of a dozen of my progeny and I’m obligated to get to the bottom of his murder.  Now,” she said gesturing a lengthening claw at me, “I believe you were saying something about my ex-mate’s twin wanting him dead?”

I thought carefully before explaining my running hypothesis.  “Praetor Senyan’s simulation hired me to solve the case of his murder, but he was a telepath which would normally preclude creating a simulation.  After realizing that I did some digging and found a short-lived rumor that he had installed a BCI around thirty years ago, just a couple years after he was elected.”  Considering what to say next took some time but when I found my voice again I added something that I had only speculated so far.  “I don’t know what it’s like to share your mind with the most powerful being in the galaxy but I can’t imagine he took it well when his brother suddenly became the most known entity to everyone in the Federation while he remained out of the public eye.”

“Resulting in a falling-out so drastic that he would intentionally sever a bond he’s had since before he was born?”  Sharlin suggested.  Her grip on Everstead tightened and the blood flowing from her wounds intensified.  “I was a telepath too, you know.  The eugenics board wanted to produce more FTL communications nodes by having them breed with one another.  When I was chosen to mate with Senyan I could feel my sister’s envy, but we worked it out and went back to being closer than any two individuals have any business being after I got pregnant with octuplets.”  She let her face show some glimmer of emotion before resuming her prior stoicism.  “Then she died in a skimmer accident, I felt a flash of pain and then, nothing.  She was just gone, it felt like I’d lost everything, but every part of my body was still there.  In an attempt to cope I joined the Kitsune order and submerged myself in the training, I didn’t get to eight tails in just 300 years solely from connections you know.”

I guessed that the Kitsune’s specialized implants were also incompatible with telepathy, they would at the very least need a BCI to control the rest.  “Isn’t that thing,” I gestured towards the barely conscious body in her hand, “another one of your order?”

She briefly looked back, “we exist to sow chaos, to keep civilization from growing stagnant and decaying from idleness.  Now, I have no problem with causing a hiccup in monopole production or introducing an anthrophagic symbiont to a regressed planet, but assassinating the Praetor and replacing him with a fratricidal maniac is too much.  Someone that unstable in charge could spell the end for the parahuman species.”  Sharlin sighed, “now, I know that you’re a bit suspicious of the House of Silver, but the general population’s reverence for our dynasty is one of the pillars of the Federation.  If we lose it the only interstellar civilization in the known universe faces collapse.”

I wasn’t too sure about that, my own “regressed planet” had survived its’ share of mad rulers.  But we were somewhat short of world-ending technology like the average Federation starship.  “So, what do you plan to do with them?”  I asked.

Sharlin thrust the extended claw she’d pointed at me with into Ryllidin Everstead’s brainpan through the jaw.  They died instantly.  “I’ll dispose of this one, and we’ll take care of Yaznar when he gets here for the election.”  By which she meant Yaznar Terraformer de Argentum a Denal, Senyan’s underappreciated twin who had been assigned to the communications department of some ungated system that had been in the Federation for just a century or so.  “As for Dr. de Natalie,” out of nowhere she produced the dataport jack that Everstead had taken out, “I presume this is the qubit toggle for the bomb in his head, which as you should know is currently cryonically preserved after separation from his body in accordance with standard capital punishment procedures.  In a hundred and fifty years his case will be up for review and he might get a chance at a new body if judged to have been falsely accused, or under duress.”  She palmed the toggle again.  “It would probably be best if this wasn’t publicly known until then.  How much did my ex’s ghost offer you?”

I shrugged.  “100 K.”

“I’ll match it if you keep this all to yourself for at least 149 years.”  Seeing how she’d just casually killed someone permanently I thought it best to take her offer without further complaint.

So yeah, that was back in 1711 Post Exodus, it’s now 1860.  I kept my word, earned two hundred thousand Production Credits (before deducting the not inconsiderable costs of the whole thing), and stayed alive.  Yaznar arrived at Alpha Centauri a month and a half later, coming off of a 25-year voyage with what some noted as convenient timing, and died a day later.  The official story was that he committed suicide with an explosive bullet, but I have my own suspicions.

Less than a century later there was a popular rebellion on my homeworld.  Though the rebels made no secret of the off-world technology they used they stopped just short of a full coup, the surviving Daimyos agreed to sign a charter instating laws more palatable to the Federation.  It took only a generation for the world, now called “Hikar”, to be admitted.  I believe a stargate is well on its way to the system.  Before long the descendants of those I left behind all those centuries ago will get the same core worlds experience I’ve had for the majority of my life now, for better or for worse.

Otherwise, little has changed.  Explored space expands about one lightyear for every three years that pass on the capital.  New planets are colonized, whether voluntary or involuntarily.  And the House of Silver holds the Federation together in the face of internal strife and the monstrosities that destroyed the original planet “Dirt”, or “Earth” as they called it in the old tongue.

I suppose, that’s the best we can hope for.


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