All the Stars Within Our Grasp (Chapter 4)

The rise of the old powers and the descent of the Exterran Stretch into petty lawlessness meant fat times for investigators, bounty hunters, and anyone else willing to sell body and soul to the skeletal Exterran corporations. An early entrant into the latest gold rush, Jennifer Shen had acquired enough credits to afford a few extravagances, including an office in the nicest building in the ugliest region of Sagittarius Prime. It wasn't merely low cost that drew manhunters to rough neighborhoods. The corporate clients actually preferred these pockets of violence, which offered them plausible deniability - no one monitored them that closely, and no one in the fully illuminated business world would imagine that a respectable businessperson would dare travel to such a hellhole. The aesthetics weren't bad, either, giving the clients a chance to feel like real hardasses, if only for an hour.

In theory, the Liston Building was a fully self-managing structure managed by a Class IV synthetic intelligence, but the machine always had a few gremlins in the works and was broken as often as not. Jennifer wasn't the least bit surprised to see the owner - a squirmy frog-like Druker who referred to himself only as "The Head" - frantically bashing at the uplink panel with whatever tool happened to rest in his amphibian fist.

"Afternoon, Jen-Shen," warbled the Head. "Lucrative afternoon, wuzzit?"

"Lucrative enough to pay the bills," said Jennifer. "You think maybe it's time to call in a professional to figure out why the computer keeps choking?"

"Hehh, they're fickle beasts. S'all I need to know. Just need to whip 'em to make him obey, always works out." The Head rubbed his rubbery neck. "You're in a mood, Jen-Shen. They make you run for it again?"

"Don't they always?" said Jennifer. "You're not much of a hacker, but I guess you can still read me."

"Ain't a tough one," said the Head. "But hey, looks like the girl's doing okay. Got yourself a fresh new client waiting upstairs, y'know. Weird boy. Taiyang, by the looks of him."

"An imperial contract?" Jennifer fell silent, rolling the new development around in her head. "You're not just screwing with my head, are you?"

The Head let out a croaky laugh. "Hehh, now I ain't the cruel kind, missy. Y'should know that."

"I see," said Jennifer. "Well, in that case, I'd better not keep him waiting."

The arrival of an agent from one of the old powers was nothing that Jennifer had ever anticipated. It was the growth of the empires that had made her profession viable in the first place - the shift of government power from the ever-weakening Exterran Federation to these culturally homogeneous behemoths had left a power void in the heart of the great human sprawl. Left to their own devices by a Federation that no longer did anything but keep its own capitol intact and set up toothless meetings with the new powers as the private entities of the Stretch - those few large businesses that survived the sunset of the golden age of corporate power - turned to independent concerns to attend to their security and policing.

So who was this "weird boy" waiting at her office? He certainly wasn't from the empire proper - they had means aplenty to deal with their own problems. Perhaps he'd come from one of the private entities that existed within the imperial domain. There were a privileged few companies, those willing to give up their own autonomy in exchange for a taste of the old supremacy, that the empires gleefully absorbed into their domains. These businesses - the stately and ossified oligarchs of the Tetrarchy, the sacrilized moneymen of Paz Castilia, the impenetrable state-dominated enterprises of Taiyang, the anarchic free-for-all managed by Alshams Asha - were generally well cared for by their imperial masters, but still found cause to recruit outside agents to conduct less savory affairs. These contracts were worth a bundle to the manhunter willing to risk a public execution.

The young man waiting at the door was unquestionably from the Taiyang - he hadn't bothered to shed his ornate robes with their dragon-and-sun motif for more casual, less conspicuous Stretch attire. His hair (surely at least waist length, Jennifer thought) was pulled back into a knot and secured by a pin bearing the image of the imperial dragon. As well-presented as he was, Jennifer couldn't help but notice the carefully concealed bruises that suggested that he'd been on the painful end of a beating.

The young man fell to his knees and bowed as Jennifer approached, wincing as he did. "Shen Xiaojie, I greet you as a fellow descendant of the terrestrial dragon!" Looking up, he pointed at Jennifer's head. "You have shorn your noble locks! Ah - but this must be to pass without notice among the mingled peoples of the great body of Exterra!"

Jennifer self-consciously brushed at the edges of her short-cropped hair. "...Thanks. Can I assume that you are here to set up a contract?"

"Indeed. Oh, in my eagerness I have failed to introduce myself!" The young man rose from his knees and straightened his back. "Yang Yizhen, fourth ring bureaucrat of the great Taiyang Empire."

"A bureaucrat?" said Jennifer, incredulous. "Then you're actually from the empire?"

"Indeed," said Yang Yizhen. "I have been dispatched by the Celestial Empress to bestow upon you a quest. It is a long and treacherous mission, but your rewards upon completion would be extensive, and you would be forever memorialized in the 7,000-year history of our glorious empire, a hero fit for the ranks of the Heavenly halls."

Jennifer nodded silently, momentarily struck mute as she clawed her way through his words. "So...maybe we can step into my office and discuss the details?"

"Joyfully, miss," answered the weird boy.

Most investigators in the Stretch had some degree of personal flair - important when trying to distinguish one's self from thousands of competitors - and this was best reflected in their offices. Merely having an office at all was a mark of distinction for a manhunter, and the manner in which they decorated those offices sent an even more focused. Most went in for stereotyped decor to reflect their chosen persona - walls of exotic weapons for tough investigators, dimly-cast minimalist designs for discreet investigators, and throwback detective decor for wily investigators. Jennifer opted for the latter, styling her professional space based on descriptions she gleaned from ancient pulp novels. There was the imposing desk, the wingback chairs, the large safe (more or less obsolete for a thousand years), mostly empty antique filing cabinets, all created on the cheap by fabricators and crowned by wall-mounted holographic frames flickering images of past successes.

Yang Yizhen stared at the decor with a trace of confusion. "Do you truly feel comfortable in these surroundings?"

"Quite." Jennifer eased into her own chair, triggering the desk's holographic display with the flick of a finger. "It's taken me years to get it just right."

"I apologize for my presumption," said Yang Yizhen. "It is just a strange workplace for an heir to the ancient kingdom."

"You're a little mixed up. I was born in the Stretch, as were my parents and their parents. None of us had anything to do with your Celestial Empire." Jennifer leaned across the desk. "Now, why don't you explain the contract?"

"Of course." Yang Yizhen eyed the free chairs, as though unsure if it was proper to sit. "I have been given the task to find a thief who infiltrated the Taiyang physical research society and stole a very large sum of money as well as the product of said society."

"Go on." Jennifer's eyes lit up at the thought of the contract. She'd heard rumors of the payouts for imperial contracts - ten or twenty million in some cases, enough for a frugal manhunter to enjoy an early retirement. The risk could yet be worth it.

"This thief, a foreign scholar by the name of Izmik, disappeared into the winds of fate along with his pilfered goods. I know not of his intentions with the research project - if he intends to deliver it to a hostile empire that they may use it against us, or if he seeks some sense of power by mastering the project's potential for his own nefarious purposes. In any case, it is dangerous to leave this device in his hands, for any layman who endeavored to activate the device..." Yang Yizhen swallowed hard. "The contract is, first and foremost, for the recovery of the project, with the capture of the thief as a secondary mission."

Jennifer slid deep into her chair, hands folded before her. "Can't your authorities just track it? If I were running this project, I'd have every manner of tracker on anything it produced."

Yang Yizhen seemed to shrink in the face of those words. "Under normal circumstances, this would be true, but the parameters of this project required that it be untraceable. Had we placed the ever-watchful eyes of the Taiyang upon the project, then our rivals might have peered through those eyes just the same."

A tense curiosity passed through Jennifer's mind as she took in the Taiyang bureaucrat's vague words. "And what is the nature of this project, exactly?"

"I am sorry, but this is not for you to know."

"I don't need schematics, but if you want me to find this thing, I need to know what it is I'm looking for."

"Not at all, miss. You will find Mr. Izmik and I shall handle the transportation of the project."

"Uh-huh." Jennifer rose from her chair and stepped around to the other side of the desk. "But in general terms, what are we dealing with? It's physics so...a weapon? A power source? An engine? Is it dangerous to transport? Will I be at risk when we find it?"

"I am sorry, but this is-"

"Is there any chance that this project is illegal?"

Yang Yizhen's mask of composure cracked. "I speak of the Celestial Taiyang Empire, not a clandestine order!"

"And that means nothing if your empire has been tinkering with technologies that the Exterran Federation and the Intercultural League have banned. You won't tell me what it is, you apparently weren't tracking it at all, I'm quite certain I haven't heard any news of a theft in Taiyang which must mean that they're hushing this up..." Jennifer sized up Yang Yizhen. "...and they send a random bureaucrat to make the deal? None of this is aboveboard."

"I'll not hear such an unjust attack on our great empire!" Yang Yizhen emotions flowed freely as he harangued the investigator, the words spilling out with righteous thunder. "I have offered you a quest, a chance to grow beyond your humble stature and join the ranks of legend, and you accuse my Empress of misdeeds? Still your blasphemous tongue at once!"

"I'm not doing it."

Immediately the color drained from Yang Yizhen's face as the fire and bluster fled from him. "...But you must! I cannot complete this quest on my own!"

"That's tough." Jennifer returned to her seat, kicking her feet onto the desk. "If you can't be straight with me, then I'm not working for you."

Yang Yizhen was in a panic, his breath coming out in rattly gasps, his limbs trembling. Jennifer fully expected him to pass out right on the simulated hardwood floors of her office. Instead, he fell to his knees, hands clasped and raised skyward, and screamed in his weak voice: "A BILLION CREDITS TO TAKE THIS QUEST!"

Jennifer's feet fell from the desk of their own accord. "...Did you say 'billion'?"

"The fortunes of Taiyang and my very life are yours," squeaked Yang Yizhen, he energy nearly spent. "Will you not at least hear me out?"

Jennifer slowly stood up, staring down at the pale bureaucrat begging for his life. She pondered his offer for a moment, then another, before finally separating the silence:

"You'll take me to see Izmik's apartment?"

Supplemental post available on Find the Fabulist.