“What’s she-” Kat looked at Xander, worry in her eyes as the older man frowned, his eyes looking past her as he processed the data from the Steel and Blood server.
“Hold on,” he raised a hand, silencing her. Kat stood in silence, shifting her gaze to the woman on the smartglass as she tried to ignore the residual pain from her back and side.
The woman stabbed a meatball from her plate. Smiling primly at the two of them, she put the fork in her mouth, chewing her lunch thoughtfully. Outside the mainframe, the occasional explosion interrupted near constant rattle of gunfire.
“There’s nothing here,” Xander’s eyes focused as he stopped using his cranial connection. “There’s so much information. Terabytes detailing the plot on Haupt. I have videos of Gregory Daniels and Anna Donnst in here meeting with Steel and Blood leaders.”
“Fuck,” he turned to Kat, concern in his eyes. “There are even contracts spelling out the rate of pay for ‘waste disposal’ as well as invoices for requests made by Anna and Daniels. Your name is in here as a target at least twice, but I can’t even find a mention of Belle.”
“Would you believe it’s because I’m innocent?” The woman in the smartglass raised a single eyebrow, leaning back in her chair. “I assure you, any review of the data will show that Anna went rogue, conspiring with Greg to do all manner of terrible things. Possibly out of some sort of loyalty to me, but still.”
“I don’t think anyone would believe that,” Kat shook her head, ice water trickling down her spine.
“Well I suppose that's why I had to pay a small fortune to keep my daughter’s class rank above yours,” Belle shrugged. “Did you know that the poor girl actually thought the two of your standardized tests were close? Her raw grades barely even rated an accelerated curriculum. Without me the girl was factory bound.”
“I don’t understand,” Xander interjected, shaking his head. “There’s nothing. No metadata, nothing hidden in a header, no half deleted files. Nothing whatsoever involving you. Hell even these payments come from an account in Anna’s name.”
“You wound me,” Belle slipped another meatball in her, leaving the two of them waiting as she chewed on the seasoned meat. “I let all of my children succeed or fail on their own merits. I trust in their discretion, and in Anna’s case that appears to have been a mistake.”
“I know Anna,” Kat shook her head. “She couldn’t organize a scheme like this on her own. I literally told her multiple times to stop telling me all of her evil plans. She didn’t.”
“She takes after her father,” a hint of something dangerous flashed through Belle’s eyes. “Pretty but disappointing.”
“I think we’re straying away from the bigger picture here,” Xander shot Kat a look, silencing her. “I doubt an executive of your caliber would bother to contact us in such a dramatic faction just to play coy. What do you want?”
“Excellent question!” Belle responded, a bright grin on her face. “I’ve always thought that there are two fundamental questions that drive people, ‘who are you,’ and ‘what do you want?’ The first is introspective, the questioner asks you to define who you are and what your values are. It explores the core of your being as well as your relationship with others.”
“I subscribe to the second question,” she leaned back in her chair, the two men shivering slightly behind her. “Who I am is secondary to my ambition and goals. In fact, if anything my identity is a sum of those aspirations. I see what I want, and unless someone can stop me, I take it. A simple but powerful truth.”
“I don’t particularly care about revenge or sentimentality,” Belle waved a hand airily. “Those are character flaws, impediments to me getting what I want. Instead, I keep my options open and always plan ahead.”
“For example,” the woman continued, steepling her hands together, “the present situation. It has cost me a daughter, but I have plenty of consorts and access to the best synthetic wombs that GroCorp can produce. I can have more daughters.”
“That said,” Belle flashed a quick, predatory smile. “Honestly? This is a bit better of a result for me. Gregory Daniels and Anna have both been implicated, and given Christopher Haupt’s seniority, they will be lucky if their punishment is anything less than a rather short and unpleasant lifetime’s worth of work in a hard labor camp. That means that not only do I have a shot at Daniels’ job, but there is another opening above him. In a month’s time I will be promoted out of Ike Holdings, a wholly owned subsidiary of GroCorp, and into GroCorp itself.”
“Honestly?” Belle winked as she skewered another meatball, “I couldn’t have planned the entire thing better myself.”
“But why us?” Xander reached back, unplugging his cord from the mainframe. “What does any of this have to do with my infiltration team and the ChromeDogs?”
“Simple,” the woman’s throat bobbed as she swallowed her food. “Any aspiring executive needs to have connections to a mercenary group. I might have had to nudge you in the right direction with those data leaks, but your organization is much more competent than I expected. I could use a hybrid information broker and ‘problem solver.’ There are a great many people I want tabs kept on, and a shorter list of people whose minds I would prefer changed.”
“What do you mean leaks?” Xander asked, his brow furrowing. “Every piece of information we gathered on this file came from informants that I’ve trusted for years. You had no hand in it.”
“Maybe you need to be more careful with who you trust then?” Belle arched a single brow. “I solve that problem by not trusting anyone personally. It’s worked out quite well for me so far.”
“Now back to my offer,” She continued evenly. “If blackmail and extortion won’t change my opponents minds, splattering it across a boardroom wall will do the trick just as well. It’s a different kind of ‘change,’ but it makes its point nicely. Consider today a job interview. One you’ve passed with flying colors.”
Xander stood up, pacing back and forth tightly. Occasionally stopping to briefly run a hand through his hair. Finally, he stopped, glaring at Belle’s bemused and relaxed expression.
“I don’t like being played Donnst,” He growled. “We lost good people today. This is more than just some sort of game or abstraction that the rich can play from their towers.”
Kat found herself nodding along as Xander made his point. Even now busts of gunfire were erupting from outside. Periodically, she heard some shouting or an explosion.
“That said,” Xander sighed, a look of defeat on his face. “I understand the reality of my organization’s situation. Let’s meet up face to face and talk this out. I’m sure we can come to some sort of mutually agreeable arrangement.”
“What?” Kat wheeled on him. “Xa-Exe No! She’s the one behind all of this. Elise is dead because of her. I watched her head explode. You can’t do this!”
“Katherine,” Belle interjected sternly. “I may not believe in revenge, but I am not my daughter. When I make an enemy I do one of two things. I either turn them into my ally or I destroy them utterly. I do not leave loose ends wiggling in the dark so that they can plot against me and bring me down while I am distracted.”
“Now tell me girl,” Kat squirmed under the woman’s stern gaze. “Are you a loose end, or do you want to be my friend?”
Her mouth dried up. Despite the distance between them, Kat could feel the woman looming over her, the strength of her personality crushing down on her. Adrenaline ran through her body as every fight or flight reflex triggered at once.
Kat blinked. She was more afraid of Bell Donnst than she had been charging into gunfire to sabotage the UAD. Her casual power and malevolence caused the woman to just ooze danger.
A hand rested itself on her shoulder. Xander looked at her, shaking his head. Unspoken were the words ‘it’s not worth it.’
As much as it galled Kat, he was right. Without the threat of inter-corporation arbitration to hold the woman at bay, there was nothing they could do. Even if each ChromeDog samurai could outfight any three corporate security officers, the numbers wouldn’t favor them, even if their organization wasn’t stuck licking its wounds after the big assault on Steel and Blood.
“Friend,” Kat grumbled, not able to force herself to meet the other woman’s gaze.
“Great!” Belle responded, the tension dissolving in a second. “As for meeting you in person? I’m not a fool Xander. I know the nature of your Psi abilities. I would prefer to be in control of my own mind when we come to an agreement. No, I am very content with communicating via smartglass.”
“It was worth a try,” Xander smiled ruefully.
“If you say so,” Belle’s voice patronized him.
“Katherine Debs,” Kat steeled her spine under the full weight of Belle’s gaze. “I must say that reviewing your actions over the last couple of weeks has been a pleasure. You’re a bit sentimental for my taste, but I must say that I will watch your career with great interest.”
“Thank you?” Kat glanced at Xander only for him to shrug, just as lost as her.
“I don’t want there to be any hard feelings between us,” Belle continued, nodding at her. “I understand that Anna has wronged you, but you can be assured that Anna will be punished. That is out of both of our hands now.”
“She was a foolish girl and squandered everything that I’ve ever given her,” the older woman sighed, leaning back in her chair. “Even when she was in the middle of her ill-fated plot against Haupt, she wasted resources making an enemy out of your organization. Worse, she sought to enter into an open ended deal with outside forces.”
“Do you mean-” Kat began, her mind flitting to her final conversation with Anna in The Tower of Somnus.
“Yes,” Belle responded distastefully. “They’ve made their offer to those of us they think to be receptive. A taste of power in exchange for a lifetime of slavery. Hardly an attractive exchange to anyone with a modicum of experience.”
“Alas,” she continued, “Anna was an idiot and is paying the price for her idiocy.
“That said,” Belle leaned forward, the camera for the smartglass zooming in on her face. “I am inclined to think that you won’t make her mistakes.”
“I could use a woman of your skill Katherine,” Belle’s eyes burned. “Obviously I would contract you through your… crew, but I would only benefit from your station inside the company increasing. How would you like to have Anna’s slot in the corporate college?”
Kat’s breath caught in her throat. Once, this had been everything she wanted. A stable and productive future, one where she could help pull her family from eternal debt to the company. Knowledge, a safe job. Everything she had wanted as a young girl.
Still, despite that-
“Why?” Kat asked, cocking her head slightly. “I don’t see you doing anything without calculating the advantage to yourself. You’re wealthy, but why would you spend a hundred thousand credits on a stranger.”
“The deposit is nonrefundable,” Belle’s eyes flashed with displeasure, probably the first genuine emotion that Kat had seen on her porcelain doll face.
“I tried arguing with the college,” the older woman snapped grumpily, “but apparently this isn’t the first time the scion of a wealthy family has disgraced themselves or gotten themselves killed just before a term started.”
“When did you-” Kat frowned.
“Oh please,” Belle rolled her eyes. “It’s been obvious that you had Anna outmaneuvered from the moment you hit the waste disposal plant. If the girl wasn’t as dense as a brick she would have spent that time trying to find her own fall person. Instead she let her emotions get the better of her and fixated on you.”
“There’s no way I will trust you,” Kat crossed her arms. “Anna was your daughter, but you’re discarding her like a dirty wrapper.”
“And you shouldn’t!” The older woman replied cheerfully. “You can count on me to act in my own best interest. The instant it benefits me, I will destroy you suddenly and completely. Unlike others, I don’t hide who I am. Right now, having an operative in management circles is beneficial to me. Just make sure your existence stays valuable to me and we won’t have a problem.”
“Remember,” she continued. “I am not in the habit of leaving loose ends in my wake. Don’t let yourself become one.”
Xander put his hand on her shoulder as she opened her mouth to ask another question. He shook his head, a barely perceptible motion. There wasn’t any way for Kat to survive an enemy as important or powerful as Belle, especially if she were to be promoted to GroCorp.
“I don’t feel comfortable with this,” Kat glanced from Xander to the image of Belle Donnst projected on the wall.
“Oh honey,” Belle smiled, displaying a set of perfect ivory teeth with all the warmth of a shark eyeing up prey. “I would be disappointed in you if you did.”