The Bad Brother

The largest, first settled, and most developed of the 96 minor planets swarming around the Hydra Complex was named Hydra Alpha. Alpha was the colony’s official port of entry; the center of commerce, society, and education; and most importantly, the battleground for the rich and powerful to struggle for control of the Complex’s treasures, both exotic and mundane.

In Alpha’s biggest city; in the city’s grandest mega-structure; in the hallways of the mega-structure’s sole tenant, the regional offices of the Worlds-spanning Starr Corporation; in the regional headquarters’ most majestic penthouse; stood the company’s chief executive officer, Mr. Julian Aditya Starr. At the moment, Mr. Starr appeared to be staring at the city below through his floor-to-ceiling, corner-to-corner penthouse windows. But in fact, his thoughts were not on business, but on matters more akin to an obsession.

Mr. Starr usually worked from his headquarters on Earth and ran his far-flung empire from a distance. But he would on occasion travel to his company’s regional headquarters on distant Worlds to supervise sensitive matters of commerce, power, intrigue, or as in this case, personal interest. In that regard, over the last six years a special project of personal interest had drawn Mr. Starr more and more frequently to the Hydra Complex. 

Julian spoke into the empty air to get the attention of the bodiless robot that served as his private assistant. “Secretary, ask Mr. Bartholomew to step into my office.”

A total eclipse of the sun is not like a sunset: With a sunset, the bright colors of trees, buildings, and people gradually shift toward blackish-red, purplish-blue, and all-consuming gray. With an eclipse, on the other hand, colors change to ashen gray and shadowy black abruptly. When Mr. Bartholomew entered Julian’s office, it was like an eclipse. 

Bartholomew was a big man, a larger-than-life man; a man with broad, square shoulders; taut, sculpted muscles; lightning-quick reflexes; and wary, ice-blue eyes embedded in a square, intelligent face. Mr. Bartholomew pretended to be like ordinary men, and tried not to draw attention by camouflaging himself in expensively tailored, jet-black, suits, tunic shirts, and tactical boots. Mr. Bartholomew seldom, if ever, smiled; and if you saw him, you would have no expectation he ever would. 

You must understand that Julian Starr was a resolute and relentless man who let nothing dissuade him from his goals. But at times, for reasons of prudence, legality, or deniability, Mr. Starr needed someone to act on his behalf. Someone with the utmost experience and skill who could—and most importantly, would—do whatever Mr. Starr required, quickly, efficiently, and well. Mr. Bartholomew was that some­one.

Mr. Starr gestured toward a small seating arrangement consisting of a pair of leather club chairs, a mahogany side table, a bottle of outrageously expensive bourbon whiskey, and two clean Glencairn whiskey glasses. In short order, Mr. Bartholomew was reclining comfortably in one of the club chairs with a teardrop-shaped glass of tawny, oak cask-aged spirits in his hand. Despite the smooth liquid glow going down his throat, Mr. Bartholomew noticed that the seating arrangement had recently been moved out of Mr. Starr’s line of sight when he sat at his desk. “I wonder why that is?” he thought.

Mr. Starr said to Mr. Bartholomew, “I want you to listen in when I reply to a communique from my brother.”

“Your brother? The Cardinal of the Church of Man and Machine?” said Mr. Bartholomew with some surprise. Bartholomew knew that his employer and his employer’s brother were not on the best of terms. Thinking strategically, which he did reflexively, he could see no reason for such a message. “The communique was addressed to you personally?”

 “Yes,” Julian replied, as he stepped toward his desk. “The message comes in the form of an innocent invitation,” he said with unexpected graveness. Then in a voice as flinty as the man himself, he said, “But don’t be deceived. The Trojans offered gifts too.” 

“You mean, it’s a mystery?” A razor-thin fissure, which did not quite rise to the level of a smile, cracked Mr. Bartholomew’s lips like a hairline seam of white quartz cutting through black granite. “I enjoy a good mystery.”

“I thought you might,” said Mr. Starr without mirth. Then he sat behind his desk and said into the air, “Secretary, change the wallpaper behind me to ‘Aquarius Video #1.’ ”

In an instant, the penthouse window’s panoramic view of the sprawling city below was replaced by the image of aquamarine waters beneath the surface of Aquarius, a water-world colony thousands of light years from the Hydra Complex. Obviously, the windows of Julian’s office were actually display-walls that could change the view to anything he desired. 

Under the shallower, green oceans of Aquarius, cities were built by inflating translucent, hemispherical domes with air, that billowed like parachutes beneath the sea. Then floating parks, walkways, marinas, and towers built on pylons were constructed in the resulting lagoon.

Towers in the distance rose up from the water like 600-year old bald cypresses. Pedestrians walked in the plazas below and across the skybridges between towers. And pantropically modified merpeople swam in the aquamarine, tropical ocean outside the lagoon’s dome.

Mr. Bartholomew recognized this view. It was from his employer’s office suite in Aquarius’ most prestigious financial district. The illusion was perfect, he thought. Dappled sunlight from the surface flickered on the penthouse floor, and even the subtle polarization of light reflecting off water seemed correct. All of which made Mr. Bartholomew wonder, Who is Mr. Starr trying to fool?

Julian Starr sat at his desk, glanced behind him, then repositioned himself to reveal more of the merpeople swimming past his shoulder. Finally, he said, “Secretary, play the communique, but mark Mr. Bartholomew as ‘cloaked.’ ” In response, a concealed playback device projected a life-sized, three-dimensional avatar of His Eminence, Cardinal Richard Starr, in front of Julian Starr’s desk. The cleric was not dressed in his usual ecclesiastical robes and mitre, but instead wore a modest black zucchetto on his head; an informal, cream-colored, collarless shirt; an open, matching tunic shirt; and plain black trousers. The two brothers shared similar features. They both had the same gaunt, aquiline facial features, spiky gray hair tipped with silver, and stunningly alert steel-gray eyes. The most distinguishing characteristic about Richard Starr was the small scar that cut through his right eyebrow. 

Mr. Bartholomew noted the cleric’s telltale scar with more than passing interest. He recognized the mark’s one-of-a-kind shape as having been made by a particular type of melee weapon used only in hand-to-hand combat. Mr. Bartholomew was intrigued that the man who was ostensibly a paragon of peace, must have had a past steeped in war.

The avatar that appeared in front of Julian’s desk looked around the office. The avatar didn’t notice Mr. Bartholomew existed since he was cloaked, but when the apparition recog­nized the face of the person it was addressed to, it said in a big, warm voice, “Adi! Little brother! How wonderful it is to see you again. Is it too early to wish you Season’s Greetings?”

Julian pasted an adequately convincing smile on his face and replied, “Hello, Ricky. Good to see you again too. It’s been much too long.”

Communique avatars were used for the exact same reason Sr. Nem­esis used an avatar for confession. The enormous distance between colonies and the limited speed of light prevented two people from conversing in real time. One way to solve the problem was to have one person, the receiver, interact with an avatar that looked, sounded, and behaved exactly like the other person, the sender. At the end of the message, the gist of the conversation was sent back to update the sender. 

Richard Starr’s avatar looked around Julian Starr’s office and said, “Nice digs, Adi. I always knew you would be the biggest success. Where did my communique catch up with you anyway?” 

“Thanks, Ricky. I work hard for what I’ve got,” Julian said. “As for where I am, your communique reached me at a stopover in Aquarius colony on my way back to Earth. This is the part of interstellar trips that I hate the most. Why is it I can travel instantly across the galaxy through a pair of star-gates, but have to crawl through normal space at slower-than-light speed between star-gates?” 

Mr. Bartholomew listened with bemused surprise at his employer’s story. Julian Starr wasn’t laying over during a long trip between star-gates. He was right here, on Hydra Alpha. He was blithely—and quite convincingly, thought Mr. Bartholomew—telling his older brother a bald-faced lie. Suddenly, Bartholomew felt as if he was in the presence of a kindred, corrupt, spirit. He could care less about one brother’s duplicity towards the other—he wasn’t a philosopher or ethicist. But since his employer’s lie probably had something to do with why Julian wanted him here, he paid as much attention to the brothers’ conversation as he would to casing a heist or planning an assassination. 

Julian had made a subtle dig by saying he had earned his fortune, as if Cardinal Starr had not earned his power. Once again, Mr. Bartholomew asked himself, How does Julian Starr really feel about his brother?

“But look at you, you’re not doing too badly yourself,” Julian said. “I read recently that the Church of Man and Machine is the fastest growing religion among the colony Worlds. That’s because of you, Richard Aarav Starr. Your leadership is making the Church a success.”

Richard gave his younger brother a look of forbearance, then said, “You can’t believe everything your read in the newsfeeds, Adi—”

Julian immediately responded, “Don’t try acting modest by giving me your patented long-suffering stare. You used to use that one on me when we were kids. I know you chose religion not to find success, but because you felt a genuine spiritual ‘calling’. You see? You didn’t think I was listening when you used to argue religion with Papa. 

“We’ve both found success in our chosen lives. Me in business. You in religion,” said Julian. “But you aren’t calling just to debate whether artificial intelligences have a soul, are you? And what did you mean by ‘Season’s Greetings’?”

“Alright, I know I’m being a bit premature,” Richard apologized. “I know how busy you must be running a vast business empire, but I wanted to get on your calendar early and invite you to celebrate the holidays with me in Heavenly City this year.”

“Thanks, Ricky, but you’re right. I am very busy…”

“Come on, Adi. Don’t make the same excuse you made last year, and the year before that. Besides, Cosmos willing, Mama, Papa, and Sis and her husband will be here. It would be a blessing if you came too. You can’t be a no-show again.”

“You always were better at maintaining family contacts with birthdays and holidays and such,” Julian said. “In any case, you make a very tempting offer, Ricky, but I can’t make any promises. The responsibilities of running a business are so unpredictable. But I promise to check my availability the closer we get to the holidays and let you know.”

“Oh, of course, of course,” Richard said politely. 

It occurred to Mr. Bartholomew that running a Worlds-spanning religious empire was certainly on a par with running a Worlds-spanning business empire. And that if Mr. Starr was sincere, he would have specified a date when “let you know” would occur. But Bartholomew said nothing. After all, he was a professional thug for hire, and no one had hired him to scold his employer.

Julian sensed that the tone of the conversation had chilled, and said optimistically, “Things could still work out, Ricky. It’s just that it’s too early for me to tell. Don’t lose faith—sorry, I didn’t mean to be blasphemous.” 

“No offense taken, Julian,” said Richard.

Mr. Bartholomew noticed Richard Starr wasn’t using his affectionate nickname for his brother any more. 

Unexpectedly, Julian said, “Secretary, pause communique.” Instantly, Richard Starr’s avatar froze in place. “Secretary, edit out me telling you to pause and rewind the communique five seconds. When I resume the communique, wait two seconds and then play a notification alert sound. Secretary, resume communique.”

“…No offense taken, Julian,” Richard Starr said again. But then he was interrupted by the blare of a notification alert coming from Julian’s desk.

Julian said, “Sorry, Ricky. It appears that one of those unpredictable business respon­sibilities I was talking about just occurred. I have to go now. Give my love to Mama, Papa, Sis and her husband. Goodbye, Ricky.”

“Goodbye, Adi—“

Julian Starr used a bodiless robot instead of a human assistant because he felt a robot was the only kind of helper he could trust. “Secretary, close the communi­que. Edit the reply metadata to say it was sent from Aquarius colony. Ensure there are no references to the Hydra Complex. Tell me when you’re done. Do it.”

Mr. Bartholomew was impressed. The software and hardware necessary to hack a communique was not cheap, simple, or for that matter, legal. But then again his employer had money to burn, and he did not tolerate half measures.

A moment later, the bodiless robot beeped to get Julian’s attention, then said, “Your communique has been edited and is ready to be sent back to the sender.” Julian quickly screened the reply, gave his approval, and then had Secretary send the reply.

“Will there be anything else?” Secretary said.

“Yes,” Julian said. “Terminate playing ‘Aquarius Video #1.’ All that water is making me seasick. Then activate counter-surveillance protocols and enforce do-not-disturb mode until further notice. Do it.”

Almost immediately, a dull silence fell over Julian’s office and the views from the penthouse windows became obscured as if the penthouse floor was suddenly engulfed by a blizzard. Not even Secretary could hear what its master was saying until Julian pressed a control on his desk to reactivate the bodiless robot. Mr. Starr and Mr. Bartholomew were free to speak in total privacy.

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