Slipping my black leather jacket on, to cover the throwing stars stored in the small of my back, I turned around and walked out of my room and went left to the great hall. Father had called a family meeting. He liked to get us all together every once in a while, made him feel all warm and fuzzy inside.
Sliding back the bolts, I pushed open the solid steel doors. They were rigged to seal shut should there be another nuclear explosion. All fifty-six rooms, the whole house, were programmed and kitted out to be individual panic rooms, should the worst happen. As I slipped into the hall I saw that I was the last and that each of my seven siblings were already present.
“Ah, Jewel. Good, now we’re all here.”
My Father sat at the head of the table, his hands clasped before him. Sitting like that, with the cuffs of his pristine white shirt pulled back from his wrists, you could see the metal sealant that attached his left metal hand to his still real arm. He had lost his hand in an accident in the factory before I was born, sliced off by a white hot blade. He insisted on personally building the replacement. His new hand was three times more efficient, he could handle extremely hot objects without damage and it was implanted with a tracking device, should he even go missing. One of my first childhood memories was of my father taking me into the climate-control room so that he could push me on the swings, and noticing that when he pushed me only one hand was warm.
I sat down at my place at the table and nodded at my father.
“Let’s start with an update, shall we?” he began. “Business is as good as ever. With the new Pyro-Cannon prototypes Ethan perfected last month, Braxton was able to successfully negotiate a repeat contract with the PsyHawk district. Every PsyHawk in the entire fifteenth district will be carrying a Xarex weapon by the end of the week.” He paused to gaze proudly at my two oldest brothers.
Ethan was getting closer every day to biting at my father’s heels. He was inventing more and more powerful weapons, and Braxton was poised to assume control of the company. With the two of them Father hoped to make Xarex Industries the dominant weapons dealer in the whole lower hemisphere.
We clapped and Ethan and Braxton nodded seriously.
“Although today we are here on quite a different matter.” He paused again and for the first time I noticed my sister, Perenne, beaming proudly.
“Thank you, Father.” Perenne leant forward and paused for a moment before saying, “I’m pregnant.”
The hall erupted in noise immediately. Perenne had married the leading steel provider’s eldest son, Samuel Stellick, last year. It had been a very proud day for my Father. Since then he had brokered a deal on first refusal on all the refined steel that was produced. In return Stellick Steel’s security systems had been upgraded to the Xarex Mangum Plus.
We all clustered around my sister, she was glowing already. The congratulations lasted about ten minutes until we were dismissed. I was just about to leave when my Father called me.
“Jewel. Come here please.”
I went to him and kneeled before him, laying my head in his lap, like I had done as a child. He stroked my hair with his warm hand.
“Jewel, I’m sure I don’t have to remind you how important it is for everyone in this family to do their part. A family is like a machine, it can only run smoothly if all the pieces are fitted correctly. If one charge or one circuit is loose in a Pyro-Cannon the whole thing will explode. Do you understand me?”
I stared up at him and nodded.
“Good girl. Now I have something for you.” He pulled from his pocket a small golden sphere. “This is my newest invention, its called a Palantir Orb.” He pushed a button and the two golden rings that encompassed the sphere began to rotate around it. They spun faster for a couple of seconds before reaching their optimum speed and created an image that seemed to come from the middle of the ball. Inside the ball was a perfect 3-dimensial image of my mother.
“You look so like her.”
I stared with wonderment at the long black hair and dark eyes.
“Thank you Daddy,” I whispered.
I went for a walk later that day. The sky was grey. It was always grey. The storm clouds and poisons held at bay by the buzzing Amphibios Force Field created a charcoal ceiling for our world. My Father had made me a holographic screen for my window when I was little. With it I could see sunshine when I woke up, and hear birds, but I had shut it down years ago.
Walking in the still air, kicking up dust, I somehow ended up walking past the Amphibios Head Office. Amphibios was the company responsible for restraining the effects of the nuclear explosion, it had a base in each District. No one would be able to survive without their force fields.
I was thinking about what my Father had said. He needed me to find my place. He loved me the most for looking so like our Mother, but that didn’t detract from the need for me to find my place in the machine.
“Can’t be a wrong charge,” I murmured.
Spinning the golden orb in my hands I walked past the imposing building. Three tall cylinders, pale green in colour, with the force field power generators on the roofs of each. No one really knew what they did inside, the company was owned solely by the Amphibios family and they were notoriously reclusive. Even the elements are treacherous. You can only trust Family. It was their dictum.
I heard a click.
“Don’t scream, you’ll only make it worse for yourself.”
Turning slightly to my left I saw a raggedly dressed man, aiming an old Glock 9mm at me. The thing was an antique. It still used bullets, for Christ’s sake.
“Now hand over that nice shiny ball I saw you had, and anything else you got on you. Nice and easy and you won’t get hurt.”
He clearly had no idea who I was.
I turned to face him, rotating my left wrist so that the palm of my hand faced him. Flexing my fingers, I activated the magnet implanted in the heel of my hand. The gun flew into my grasp and I simultaneously drew my own and aimed carefully. No one used Daddy’s inventions like I did.
I fired one shot, the heat energy explosive contained in a hollow-point casing hit an old metal oil can, to the man’s right. It shattered instantly in the blast, shrapnel flying everywhere.
“Catch my meaning?” I said.
He looked at the weapon in my hand, now aimed at his head, and ran. I watched him go.
I bent over to holster my gun and the orb fell out of my pocket.
“Shit,” I muttered, and then watched in horror as it rolled into the drain behind me. “SHIT!”
Kneeling down, I looked into the murky waters of the sewer. I groaned in frustration, the ball was nowhere to be seen. I beat my fist against the ground and fought back the tears that were threatening to fall.
“How can someone who can scare off a mugger, be so easily defeated by a drain?” said a voice behind me.
I turned and looked up at a sewer worker. He was dressed in green protective overalls and had his helmet and breathing apparatus in his hands.
“I dropped something,” I said rubbing my eyes with the back of my hand.
“Was it important to you?” the man asked.
“Yes,” I whispered.
“You’re Jewel Xarex, aren’t you? “ I nodded. “We had Military Defence classes together, at Kemberton Academy. You would always argue with Mr Clarke, got thrown out a couple of times as well, as I remember. ”
I stared up at this strange man talking about school while I was crouched over a drain.
“The idiot didn’t know what he was talking about,” I managed finally. “His stratagems were ancient and based on inferior security systems.”
“I can get it for you, if you like?” He peered into the drain. “Your ball. I can retrieve it for you.”
“Could you?” I stood hurriedly.
“I could, yes. But what’s in it for me?”
“What do you want?” My stomach tightened at the thought of being indebted to this man.
“I want you to let me share the food from your table, the drink from your cup and to sleep with you always, in your bed.”
“Marriage?” I blurted out in surprise. He had just quoted the lines from the hand-fasting ritual.
The man smiled. “Yes.”
I thought for a minute, there was no way this sewer worker could make a daughter of Xarex Industries marry him. It didn’t matter what I said, even if I agreed, Father would forbid it.
“Alright.” I stared at the man’s face for the first time. He was utterly filthy, but he had a nice smile.
“It’s a deal then.”
With that he reattached his breathing apparatus and put on his helmet. He slid down the drain and was quickly immersed in the murky waters.
I held my breath as I waited. I let it out explosively as his head came back out of the water. He pulled himself up out of the drain and lifted the lid of his helmet.
“Here you go.” He handed me the golden orb and I bit my lip in excitement until I saw that one of the two golden rings was missing.
“Oh,” I said alarmed.
“Don’t worry, it’s safe,” he said waving the ring at me. “I’m just going to hang on to this to make sure you keep your promise. There is usually an exchanging of rings during these sorts of negotiations anyway.”
I stared with horror and shock into the green eyes of the sewer worker.
“Now run along and tell Daddy. I will be along in a little while, after I clean myself up.”
I felt myself move away from him in silence.
Father is going to kill me, I thought.
Back at the house I finally found Father in his offices, after searching for some time. It was a large room decorated to look like a nineteenth century office. There was a large oak desk, almost eight feet in length, and the walls were filled floor to ceiling with bookshelves. The shelves were filled with all the classic works of the nineteenth, twentieth and twenty-first centuries. He said that being surrounded by genius helped produce genius.
“Ah, Jewel, come here my darling and take a look at this.” He motioned me forward and held up the plans for what I saw was the Xarex Magnum 2.0. “What do you think?”
Momentarily distracted, I delved into the plans with gusto.
“You’ve re-routed the emergency panic trigger.”
“Yes, a gifted hacker managed to by-pass it in one of the western districts. I’ve added two more fail-safes and a spiral codex.”
I pursed my lips. “Yes but in doing so you have left the panic-door locking system vulnerable. See the break point here?” I pointed to it. Taking the plans from him and laying them out on the desk I began scribbling in pencil. “Instead of rerouting through the doors, you can pass the codex through this circuit and by-pass the doors altogether. Put a blocker here and you eliminate the break.” I showed him my work.
He grinned. “You always were the best at spotting faults in security systems. Do you remember when you got thrown out of Mr Clarke’s class for arguing with him?”
At that moment there was a beep on the desk and the holographic image of Father’s assistant appeared. “Patrick Amphibios is here to see you, sir.”
“Amphibios?” Father said. “As in Amphibios force fields?”
“Send him in.” My Father looked at me with raised eyebrows. “What could a member of the Amphibios family want with me?”
I was as shocked as he was. Amphibios didn’t do business with anyone, it was the one account my Father had never managed to get. He had never even managed to get a meeting.
I was even more shocked when my sewer worker walked in, now clean and wearing a suit. His brown hair combed neatly out of his clear green eyes. My Father stood to shake his hand. “Mr Amphibios, very nice to meet you.”
“The pleasure is all mine Mr Xarex,” he replied, then smiled at me. “Oh good, Jewel is already here. That makes things easier.”
I stared open mouthed.
“I have come to finalise the business transaction that I started this morning with Jewel,” he continued.
“Business Transaction?” my Father asked looking at me. I couldn’t think of anything to say, my mouth opening and closing uselessly.
“I see Jewel hasn’t had a chance to tell you yet.” Patrick Amphibios made a gesture to sit and my Father waved for him to do so. “My fault I’m afraid, at Amphibios we don’t like to hang around when making deals. Jewel has agreed to come work for us, as a consultant from Xarex Industries, to overhaul our entire security system.”
“The entire security system?” My Father swallowed.
“Yes. All three hundred and forty-six bases and the interconnecting systems.”
My Father looked at me, and after I didn’t say anything he looked back at Patrick.
“I first noticed your daughter’s talent at Kemberton Academy,” Patrick smiled. “And I have been tracking her progress ever since. I believe she was responsible for designing the Trojan Dual-Checking process that added the plus to the Xarex Magnum Plus. Was she not?”
“Yes she was.” My Father beamed at me. “And the tri-compartment function. But I thought Amphibios didn’t work with anyone outside of the family?”
“Yes. That’s why Jewel has agreed to marry me.” He held up the gold ring. “She gave me this as her promise.”
My Father stared at the ring and then at me.
“Is this true?” he asked me.
“Well… Yes,” I said.
He blinked for a moment and exhaled loudly. “Well, if Jewel has already agreed…then who am I to stand in the way? You have my blessing.”
“Excellent.” Patrick stood up. “Now, we won’t get into the details now, but I will have my legal team draw up the contracts and tell my mother about the wedding. Would you care to join us for dinner this evening?”
“We would love to.” My Father answered standing to shake his hand.
“Good. This evening then.”
Patrick nodded to us both before leaving the office. My Father slumped back into his chair his hand on his head, shaking in disbelief.
“Three hundred and forty-six new systems. Three hundred and forty-six new systems!” He stared in wonderment at me. “Even Braxton never managed that in one deal. When I told you to find your place, I never expected…”
“Uh, Father… I’ll be right back.”
With that I ran out of the office and down the corridor, catching up with Patrick at the final door. When I reached him I found I had nothing to say.
“I promise I will make you happy,” he said quietly. “You never noticed me in those classes, did you?”
I shook my head. “You are risking a lot by doing this. How do you know I won’t crash your entire company?”
“The same way you knew the lowly sewer worker wouldn’t steal from you.”
I looked at the face of the man I was going to marry, the sewer worker who had retrieved my golden ball. Then he kissed me, and then everything changed.