Mr. Bartholomew’s Glencairn glass was empty. He poured himself another drink, and one more for his employer. Then he savored a pleasant sip while he waited for his employer to sit in the other club chair, sip his drink, and then bring up in his own good time why he had lied to his brother. 

Julian took a swig of whiskey instead of a sip, which didn’t seem to affect him given his mood, and brooded for awhile before he spoke. “Can you believe Richard?” he finally said. “I mean, the sheer gall of him saying that.”

“You mean your brother inviting you to spend the holidays with him and your family at his place? Is that a bad thing?” Mr. Bartholomew asked. 

“Don’t let his smiles and holier-than-thou optimism fool you,” Julian said with scorn. “Ricky Starr could care less if I turn up for a family gathering—assuming that he actually invited my folks in the first place. Don’t be misled. Richard Starr is a supremely cunning, devious, and driven man.”

Mr. Bartholomew thought Julian’s description of his brother could easily apply to Julian himself, but he had no intention of saying so to his employer’s face. However, in his professional capacity as a highly paid and effective henchman, Mr. Bartholomew needed to understand his employer’s motivation as well as he understood the motives of his employer’s enemies. To that end, he said, “What was wrong with the invitation? It was perfectly innocent, wasn’t it?”

“There’s nothing innocent about anything my brother does,” Julian retorted. “Every move he makes is as carefully thought out as a grandmaster’s endgame. When we were kids, he was the same way. Always plotting something. Always playing the long game.”

Bartholomew topped off Julian’s drink to encourage him to say more, then asked, “What was the cunning intent behind the communique?”

“It wasn’t the content of the message that mattered,” Julian said, “it was that the message was sent as a communique. That message was broadcast to scores of Worlds. Richard knows that wherever I answer the communique, my location is encoded in the reply’s metadata. That’s why the content of the message is unimportant. Ricky just wants to know where I am.”

“And that’s why you had your secretary falsify the locale of the reply,” said Bartholomew, confirming that he at least understood Julian’s rationale, if not necessarily his paranoia. “You think your brother knows you’re looking for holy relics. So you don’t want him to know that you think it’s worth your while to personally come to the Hydra Complex to supervise the search.”

Julian was pleased that Mr. Bartholomew caught on so quickly. A genuine smile flickered across his face for the first time since he called his henchman into his office. “Richard wants what I want, to find a holy relic. But I’m convinced he believes as I do, that these relics are something more; something amazing; something—“

“—Worth killing for?” Mr. Bartholomew asked.

“You already know the answer to that,” Julian replied, his smile fading. Neither man needed to say more about the ill-fated priest and archaeologist, Fr. Francis, or his New Texas Ranger escorts. 

Julian took a sip of whiskey. It felt hot, but not harsh, going down his throat. “I think my dear brother Richard must have heard the same intriguing rumors that I have about ‘holy relics’ being found in the strangest, most out of the way places among the stars. I’ve sent scores of agents, explorers, and archaeologists into space, hidden amongst my employees in far-flung regional branches, looking for evidence of such relics. 

“But wouldn’t you know it, my agents reported that proxies for the Church of Man and Machine—monks, nuns, priests, even choirboys for all I know—were also suddenly in space, surreptitiously searching for religious antiquities. It became clear then: Richard and I were in a race to find the same holy artifacts.”

Julian took a long, deep, breath and stared unseeingly at the virtual snowstorm beyond his penthouse windows. Few people, other than kings, potentates, and cardinals understood the enormous burden Julian carried on his shoulders. A man in his position didn’t merely make business decisions that could create or obliterate fortunes. He also made mortal decisions that could spare or take lives. 

“When my agents reported that Fr. Francis had found something important enough to take back to Heavenly City, I had to act,” Julian said. “I regret the necessity of what happened, but there was no time to plan a clean theft, a graceful robbery. I had to outmaneuver my brother. And that meant ordering you to ambush the priest and any witnesses.”

“But the priest didn’t have a relic,” said Mr. Bartholomew. He realized it was something of risk to bring up this point with his employer, but it was the only point that mattered. “For the life of me, I’m not sure what happened. Our long-range surveillance before we attacked the priest’s camp definitely detected something inexplicable. But when we searched the wreckage and the bodies, we found nothing. Nothing. How is that possible?” 

Julian Starr laughed out loud. Mr. Bartholomew had made a joke, even if such a dour man didn’t realize it himself. “It was a religious artifact,” Julian said with a sarcastic half-smile. “If it disappeared, then maybe it was a miracle.”

Mr. Bartholomew stared back at his employer. He didn’t get it.

Julian tempered himself then drained his glass. “My agents tell me that proxies for the Church of Man and Machine are still rummaging around the Hydra Complex, but they don’t know where to look. I don’t know what they’re up to, but I don’t want to leave any stone unturned. 

“I’m leaving Hydra Alpha tomorrow and heading back to Earth. I’ll travel incognito on my private transport to Aquarius colony, and then take public transport from there to Earth. Hopefully the Church’s proxies will notice me and convince dear brother Richard that either I’ve found nothing, or that he should concentrate his search on Aquarius. In either case, he shouldn’t suspect that you’re in the Hydra Complex. You should have a free hand.”

“A free hand to do what, exactly?” said Mr. Bartholomew, emptying his own glass. “Your intent must be clear; your words are my contract.”

Julian arranged his thoughts for a moment, then said, “Wait until I’m known to be heading back to Earth and I’ve established my alibi, then take your men and go back to the site of the ambush. Search under every rock, bush, critter, and Walking Stick in the desert until you’ve either found a holy relic or know for a fact one doesn’t exist. Whatever you do, make certain that the agents of the Church of Man and Machine don’t get their hands on any artifacts that might exist.” 

“And if innocent bystanders get in the way?” asked Mr. Bartholomew. “Mind you, I’ll do whatever you want me to do—after all, you’re paying me—but you have to say what you want.”

Decisions, decisions, decisions. For a moment, Julian paused to appreciate that it always fell upon him to make the hard decisions. In that same moment, he wondered if his brother Richard also paused to consider the weight of the decisions he had to make. He must do so, Julian concluded, and then quite unexpectedly he prayed for the Cosmos to forgive both his and his brother’s souls.

“If anyone gets in your way,” Julian Starr said grimly, “do to them what you did to the priest and the Rangers.”

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