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Chapter 1

Alex Marlow had just been tasked to guard the richest woman in the universe. He wondered why he wasn't twitchy.

Of course, his team hadn't been told that yet. Nor had he started the mission. Both of those would raise the stress level.

He and four of them were awaiting the sixth member, who was uncharacteristically late.

"Where the hell is Elke?" Aramis snapped in frustration.

"She's probably mining her apartment for practice, or defusing her comm, or having an intimate experience with her shotgun," Jason Vaughn offered. "Regardless, you're not going to make her appear faster." He smiled wryly.

Aramis was a bit more than half Jason's age, and it showed. He twitched, all youth and energy. Jason sat in a couch, comfortable and calm.

For calm, however, Jason had nothing on Bart Weil, the big German, who leaned against the wall and barely gave evidence of being alive. His eyes took in everything, though.

That left Horace "Shaman" Mbuto, the team's surgeon, as the odd one out. He was older even than Alex, ancient by the standards of executive protection, and making use of the time to inventory a surgical kit.

They seemed a bit motley, but in the executive protection business, they were the best, and had been a team for a year now. He couldn't imagine breaking them up. The mixed skill sets meshed perfectly, and the personality clashes were minor and only added flavor. They were Ripple Creek Security's star bodyguards, and paid accordingly.

Luckily, money was not a problem for their new principal.

His musing was interrupted when he saw familiar movement out in the turnaround.

"Here she comes," he said.


Eleonora Sykora, called Elke, hated running late. Admittedly she'd enjoyed the reason for it, but still.

They entered the Ripple Creek site on her password, and the gate flashed a warning that guest vehicles could go no further than the turnaround ahead.

She turned to Alaric and said, "If you want to kiss me goodbye, do it now. Last chance."

The car was on automatic. Alaric bent over and kissed her deeply, his hands roaming inside her jacket and all over her body. If he only knew how much trust she showed by letting him do that.

"Okay, stop now," she insisted, before he got too excited again.

"Why like this? What's wrong with kissing you goodbye when I drop you off?"

"Because they might think I'm a girl," she said with a smile. She measured the car's deceleration and reached for the handle.

He still looked puzzled when she jumped out. Without a word she grabbed her personal bag, closed the door and strode toward the building where she was to meet her former and again teammates.

She hoped the new job was worthwhile. Men could be fun, but explosives were so much better. Finding reasons to use them socially was the tough part.


Jason felt better when he saw Elke. He worried about her when she was late. They'd been friends a long time, and saved each others' butts more times than he could count. Probably everyone knew her persona was largely an act, but he knew the real Elke. She really was a performance artist who worked with explosives, but under that, she was very human. She just didn't let it peek out often.

She slipped in the door and closed it behind her. The window darkened with polarizing as Alex pushed the control, and she drew a heavy drape across. Jason activated the dampening gear on the table next to him, and a few other security measures happened. It wasn't as secure as some military areas, but it should be plenty for what they needed, he hoped. Alex seemed a bit twitchy, though he probably thought he looked dead calm.

Alex stayed sitting, but said, "I assume you all realize we have a mission."

Bart said, "I was hoping we would be told of a pay raise and free beer."

"You know better," Alex replied. "We have a medium duration project, on and off Earth, in civilian environments. That means limited weapons and explosives."

Elke said, "I will send you the usual protests on this theory."

Alex smiled back, "And I will file them in the usual way."

Banter aside, Jason understood the concern. High profile civilian missions could be worse than those in war zones. Everyone knew you were unarmed, and your response was basically to say, "Stop, or I'll call the police!" That, or throw yourself in front of incoming fire. It came down to tactics, evasion, diversion in lieu of any confrontation of any kind. That was always the goal, of course, but for putative peacetime missions it was a legal and real imperative.

Aramis said, "I notice we haven't been told who we're guarding."

Elke said, "I assume we haven't been told for a reason." She gave a hint of smile.

Alex smiled back. "You assume correctly. The OPSEC is necessary. However, you can be told now." He touched a command, which put the full screen up.

"This is our principal," he said, and gave them time to wrap their brains around it. The silence lasted about a minute.

Aramis said, "She's . . . "

Jason offered, "Stunning."

"Actress? Model?" Bart asked. "She's not one I recognize."

"Caron Elain Prescot," Alex said.

"The Prescot ExtraSolar Ores Group?" Elke asked.

"Yes. Daughter of the owner."

"He's worth how much?" Shaman asked.

Jason, now caught up, said, "There's no way to count. He's primary shareholder of the company, and they own an entire fucking star system full of readily exploitable minerals. More money than most governments can get to play with, and no need to worry about appeasing a populace. He treats his employees well, I understand."

"Yes," Alex said. "The employees are not likely to be a problem, other than the occasional awestruck miner who doesn't know who she is and wants a date."

"Do I recall," Shaman said, leaning back in his seat with a furrowed brow, "that several other major shareholders are unhappy with the state of affairs?"

"Former shareholders," Alex said. "It's been thirty years since Prescot Mining bought an option on mineral extraction rights for the system. The initial plan was terraforming. That proved infeasible, so the original title holders sold it off. However, Prescot was able to argue successfully that they retained rights based on capital outlay, not bundled with the rest. Several other nations and groups all bought in and out on rights to the system, in a decades-long financial poker game. Several times exploratory parties and habitats were started, and abandoned. Eventually, they all defaulted or cancelled and abandoned."

"Which puts the system up for grabs again," Jason said. "Except that Prescot's claim was never abandoned."

"Right. They basically inherited the jump point and had mineral rights to the system. They landed a habitat and laid the balance of claim, and started shipping minerals back, at a loss. Even some of the stockholders pulled out, and their consortium investors and backers dropped them."

"I remember watching that on the stock scroll," Jason said with a grin. He'd always respected accomplishment. "The volume increased as they plowed capital into development of new tech. Once they reached break even, they had this asymptotic growth curve for about a month, then it got taken off the charts completely because it buried everything else."

"From millions to billions?" Elke asked.

"From millions in a billion Mark operation to trillions, quadrillions, no one knows how much," Alex said. "The Prescot family holdings went from a significant minority to majority shareholders, they basically bought their family company back, and then acquired an entire system of assets."

"And it's our job to protect his daughter against jealous rivals," Bart said. "He can afford us, and they are hiring us because they think it's worth it."

Aramis said, "So a private citizen is spending enough money to buy a small house every week to have us watch his daughter? Why does that sound like we'll be earning it?"

"Yes," Alex agreed with a nod. "It's not just us. We get the daughter. Jace Cady's team gets facilities again—she's got the estate, basically. Our pilots are going to take over any ship with a family member on it, and unannounced. The boss will assign them from a pool at the last moment, so no one can make a concrete plan. This family earns in seconds what we earn in weeks."

"That doesn't sound like fun for them," Elke said.

"Yeah, imprisoned by your wealth," Aramis said, still staring at the screen. "She can't possibly have a social life."

"I think I would rather be back in a war zone," Bart said.

Shaman said, "Yes, there are definite issues we will have to deal with. This is going to be very rough."

"I can handle it," Aramis said confidently. "Despite the vomitously obscene wealth, I plan to be as cold and professional as possible. I won't comment on her at all."

Jason said, "Aramis, she's a high risk principal. You'll have to escort her up close, stay with her even in the shower, check her clothes when she dresses, check her skin for darts or poison patches."

Aramis paused and stared.

"Man, you're bullshitting me!"

"Well, yeah, but you started it."

Even Aramis howled with laughter at that.

Alex was glad to see it. A lot of the early personal clashes had dissipated over the last year serving together.

"Still," he said, "she is a beautiful young college woman, and that makes her a lot different from either a celebrity with fans or a politician with enemies. I don't know that any of us have handled a specific mission like this. Bart?"

Bart shook his head. "Celebrities, yes. Occasional executives personally. No one at this level, and not family members subject to kidnapping or death."

"So I want everyone to review their training, text, video and interactive. They're inadequate, but at least will help keep us in the right mindset."

Everyone nodded.


The Prescot industries were almost too large to manage. There was a Board of Directors, and various officers and departments, all of whom managed their share. However, as CEO of the Group, Bryan Prescot had to track all of it to some degree. Details were almost impossible. It was just too large.

He did, however, make daily overviews, and occasionally zero in, on things that specifically interested him, or were of immediate concern.

The list was long, though. Tourism and casinos were easy; they were contracted out. The contractors paid up front, and a percentage of gross over minimum. His brother handled all that. Scientific research was officially a loss. The research agency ate up a lot of money to look at rocks, space, whatever it wanted. Those were charged against company profits. Of course, as always, the average was for the research to lead to new sources of revenue and improvements in operational efficiency. They were good PR as well.

Charities. The only real concern was giving away too much and causing destabilization. It was a serious worry. Prescot could easily make entire classes of people dependent, and Bryan did not want that.

Bio sciences produced the organics, hydroponics, vat grown meats, O2 producing bacteria, other bacteria that excreted assorted chemicals and enzymes, or cracked rocks. They were even trying to tailor one for that environment.

Materials science, physics, space transport, all interesting stuff.

His first love, though, was the mines. They were where the family started, and what they did. Digging rock, crushing it, extracting ore. The technology so far meant the human race would effectively never run out of resources, and made transmutation research a poor investment for the near future. Every mine on Earth, and even the asteroid mining concerns, were shutting down. They simply could not compete with a company that imported refined raw metal 500 million tons at a time, with the power to produce it supplied on site, effectively for free.

There he'd done what he felt was right, and hired as many of his former competitors as he could, and paid for their employees to be retrained. He was making large areas of Canada, Germany, Russia, China, Africa and South America into parks, but the people who'd depended on the former mines would have starved. They liked him well enough now, and their families were not suffering, which was the important part. The goddammed eco twits, however, still hated him despite the free parks he'd built. They'd never be happy.

They were on here, too, in Legal. Hundreds of petty, pointless lawsuits to stop his "corporate greed" and "facism" as they misspelt it, and "elitist concentration of power and wealth." They cost the company, at most, a few hundred thousand a month out of billions. They had to be watched, though, because a lucky strike with a commiserating judge could cost a lot more to fix.


Caron smiled to Ewan and Garrick as she left the elevator. They were fixtures here, had been guarding the family since before she was born. They were like uncles to her, as much as Uncle Uncle was. Ewan gripped the door handle and opened it for her. They still used manual doors here. Tradition.

"Diolch, Ewan," she said and smiled.

Her father was at his desk, and she held the smile until Ewan closed the door. It was traditional in look, but modern in its soundproofing. Once private she was less composed.

"Tad, I got the briefing on the Ripple Creek bodyguards," she said.

"Good, I got mine, too," he said.

"I don't like it. It's going to affect my studies," she said. She breathed a dramatic sigh to emphasize it. Was it too much? If he caught it . . .

He swiveled in his chair. "Come here," he said, and opened his arms.

She did enjoy his closeness, and his empathy meant she'd given just enough.

"I love you, Merch," he said, gripping her tightly.

"I love you, Tad," she agreed. "That means you're not going to change, doesn't it?"

He leaned back. "Caron, we need them. I wouldn't spend the money if I didn't think we did. I'm almost sorry we've done so well, for the hatred we've gotten."

"Only almost?" she replied, feeling anger and jealousy. "Unload some of it. Let other companies buy in."

"Caron, you know that's impossible. The economic repercussions would be huge. We also can't exploit Govannon forever. We have to drag the resources out now, and keep control of the technology, which is where the real future is. Times change and so must we."

"Yes, I know we're not drift miners carting out coal anymore. I know we're beyond the Industrial Revolution and don't have children in the mines anymore. I'm being selfish by insisting on a normal personal life—"

"And melodramatic," he said.

Damn him.

He continued, "You've never had a normal personal life in a lot of ways, and I'm sorry. On the other hand, you've always had friends to play with, even if they're retainers rather than peers. I try never to treat our staff as anything less than friends and compatriots, and I know you do, too."

"They're not exactly poor, and they are part of the extended family, in a way," she said. "But I can't just go out and make friends."

"The irony is that if we were merely millionaires you could ignore the money and go out. With what happened since you took your tests, it's now impossible."

"I know, and I want to be a normal college girl. I'm half tempted to just drop it entirely and get tutors."

"I considered that," he said. "But I think the socialization is important, even as limited as it is. The environment isn't ideal, but you'll be more separated with tutors. You can't develop in a vacuum." He frowned and looked sad.

"Govannon is a vacuum, outside the dome," she said.

He grinned. "No, it's a toxic atmosphere at high pressure. Caron," he said more seriously, "I wish we didn't have to spend money on things like public affairs and security. I'd rather give more of it back to our workers and stockholders and keep some for ourselves. I don't like having to plan every outing around business and potential threats. But if we walk away, lots of people lose their jobs, lots of people relying on our stock for income and pension suffer, and we won't be any less hated by all those who didn't have the courage to hang on. We've had all these discussions before."

"I know, Tad, and I'm sorry. I'm just frustrated. I can't even . . . I can't even have a real boyfriend." She blushed. "Everyone is either trying for position, or knows they can't and are just a diversion, or doesn't get told who I am and then resents it, or . . . hell, you know all this." She tossed a dismissive wave.

He looked a bit uncomfortable. He knew she wasn't a virgin, and had had a sex life for some time, but he never liked mention of it. She wasn't comfortable discussing it either, but it did bother her, and she'd always been able to talk to him.

"If I could sneak you off somewhere for a year, I would. I am sorry." He reached for another hug.

She gripped him back this time.

"So am I," she said.


As she left, he sighed himself. She was a grown woman, and she was still his little girl. Now that little girl needed a security force.

Ewan and Garrick came in with Joe. Joe had gotten past the younger brother stage, eventually. They managed to interact as friends, after a fashion. Bryan lamented they were both too busy to actually socialize much.

That was as much his fault, of course. He checked the time. He had a vidconference in ten minutes and then a face to face with the County Council, just because it kept them thinking of him as a local businessman. He could skip it, but . . . and of course, his own security detail was arriving, too.

"We have to be quick," he said, "but what's the final take? Ewan?"

Ewan seemed slightly put upon, and well he might.

"They're trained for much more serious events than we are. Of course, I hope that's completely unnecessary. However, they have a reputation."

Joe wasn't as agitated as he'd been throughout the contracting process, but still wasn't comfortable.

He said, "There's the price, of course. I know we can afford it, but it's not cheap and I feel it's both unnecessary, and a copout. We're basically telling any threats we can be scared into that kind of expense. There's perception that being able to afford that kind of expense is immoral. Then, they do have a reputation for shooting things up and arrogantly disregarding any rules they don't like."

When he paused, Garrick cut in.

"They ignore rules that would hinder their ability to protect their principal. Yes, it sometimes looks bad in the press, but we know firsthand what the press is like. They are just about the best, and the only outfit that can offer the schedule and flexibility we need. I feel no moral failure in admitting I'm a Welsh hillman who's loyal to his lord, but cannot offer that level of expertise. I will, of course, manage oversight, but unless there are specifics, I'd prefer to just let them run things, and I'll be liaison to them."

Bryan pretty well knew all this, but he liked having everyone face to face. It made sure everyone took it seriously and understood it was personal, not just a business calculation.

Along which lines, he had to deal with the two next items on his schedule. He'd been glancing at his screen. A nervous habit.

"Well, we'll welcome them and work with them when they arrive. I'm sure they're neither as bad nor as good as stories have it. Drinks this evening if we have time."

"Can't make it," Joe said. "But have one for me."

"Of course."

They rose and left.


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