Anna Donnst sat at the defendant’s table, eyes burning. Around her drones buzzed in the air, filming her and her co-defendants as the arbiter droned on about the severity of the charges against her.
They’d given her a dress, a nod to her station, but the cold metal of the shackles on her wrists spoke to the barbarity of the whole situation. To her right, Gregory Daniels sat in a tailored suit, staring defiance at the arbiter, an imposing sight that was almost completely undermined by Arnold to her left.
The boy was blubbering into his hands, shaking as he mumbled about the unfairness of the situation. As much as watching her former rival humiliate and debase himself would ordinarily amuse Anna, her predicament stole most of her joy at his suffering.
“Not just a cold blooded MURDER,” the arbiter was working himself into a lather, putting on a show for the entertainment channels following their trial, “but the murder of an Executive! One that worked for your employer’s parent company. You stand accused of much more than a crime against a man, you have transgressed against your very employer.”
The man stopped speaking, leaning back slightly with an overly dramatic frown on his face. All around the room, voices began quietly whispering as the arbiter played the room like a finely tuned synthtar.
“As to the charges levied against you in the Estate of Chirstopher Haupt, former Employee of GroCorp v. Gregory Daniels, Anna Donnst, and Arnold Jacques, employees of Ike Holdings, a Wholly Owned Subsidiary of Grocorp how do you plead?” The Arbiter leered at them.
Anna leaned back, crossing her arms. The entire thing was a farce. Somehow Katherine Debs had managed to break into the compound of the mercenary group she’d been using to take out her mother’s trash. Evidently the little rat had gotten enough evidence to turn it over to the Haupts.
“Not guilty of course!” Gregory lunged to his feet, the chains attached to his manacles rattling as he dragged them upward. “This is all a frame job by my enemies. I’ve done nothing!”
She struggled to avoid rolling her eyes. The man had come to her mother, belly full of fire railing about how unjust it was that the two of them were trapped at Ike Holdings forever. Apparently an executive from GroCorp had just flubbed a joint research venture with NeoSyne, a megacorp based out of Southern California, and blamed the failures on Gregory and Ike Holdings.
A smile crept across her face as Gregory made a fool of himself, ranting like a lunatic in front of the hovering cameras. Her mother had let her watch as she casually brought up the prospect of eliminating the executive.
At first Gregory had been horrified. He really was the worst kind of executive, quick to complain and rant, but shrinking away from any solution offered to him. A couple glasses of wine later, and the skinny man had convinced himself that the entire thing was his idea.
Anna’s mother had excused herself with a knowing smile, leaving the idiot to her. Even now, in the middle of penal arbitration she couldn’t help but swell with pride. Her mother worked in people the way other artists did music or paint. Absolute artistry. And Belle trusted her.
Of all the people in her mother’s employ, she left sensitive dealings to her. Anna dealt with the mercenaries because Belle trusted her. She had access to the slush fund and a knowing blind eye because she had proven herself.
Anna winced, looking at Arnold’s sobbing form. Well, maybe she did make mistakes sometimes.
Her mother had never respected the boy, calling him a pathetic user. Arnold had been the one spot where she had disobeyed her mother, and in retrospect it pursuing her infatuation with him had been an error.
The manacles around her wrists jingled slightly. A costly one.
“You have made your point Mr. Daniels,” the arbiter’s bored voice brought her back to the present. “Be aware that the costs of this action will be assessed against you if you are found to be guilty.”
“Miss Donnst,” the drones hummed over to her as the arbiter turned away from the sputtering former executive. “How is it that you plead?”
“Not guilty,” Anna straightened her back, sneering slightly.
Regardless of their evidence, it would never stick. Her mother would have foreseen this setback and prepared. Every time a rival had cornered her, Belle managed to flip things on their head.
It was almost a matter of course. From her childhood to present, every time Anna or one of her siblings found themselves in a sticky situation, their mother would swoop in and ‘solve’ the problem with a couple veiled threats and a stern glare.
Anna wasn’t sure if her mother had blackmailed the judge or sabotaged the evidence, but it was only a matter of time before her plan revealed itself.
That didn’t take into account her other allies. Her mother wouldn’t approve, disdaining all of the aliens in the tower, but there were groups that weren’t so bigoted. Even if Belle herself didn’t intervene, Anna had friends in high places just waiting to step in.
Arthur and Gregory were almost certainly done, but in a couple weeks she would be back in the arcology, plotting her revenge on Katherine.
“Very well,” the arbiter responded to her, “be aware that you will bear the costs of this action as well if you are found guilty. Now, as for Mr. Jacques-”
“I didn’t do anything,” Arnold shot to his feet, the metal of his shackles rattling as he jerked to a stop after reaching the end of the chain.
“Anna got my Dad a transfer and made me talk to some terrifying samurai,” Anna rolled her eyes as he rambled. A pretty face, but an absolute idiot. After everything she’d done for Arnold he didn’t even show the barest hints of loyalty. “I didn’t even know what the charges were until you read them off to us!”
“Bailiff,” the arbiter inclined his head at a beefy woman in a security uniform that stepped forward, stun baton crackling. Arnold whimpered, cowering as he sat back down.
Anna smirked slightly. When her mother revealed her hand and freed Anna from this sham, Arnold was on his own. Even the fun of keeping him around as a trophy was beginning to grow old. The boy was too much of a beaten puppy to be any fun.
“I’ll enter that as a plea of not guilty,” the arbiter continued, ignoring Arnold’s blubbering. “Now, I’ve sent a copy of the evidence against you to the smartglass panels built into your table. Please review it and let me know if you have any objections.”
She glanced down at the smartglass as page after page of detailed financial transactions popped into existence. Even knowing which shell companies she’d routed the slush fund payments through, it took her almost thirty seconds to track down the invoice for her first task associated with Daniels, an extortion job on the maid that cleaned Christopher Haupt’s office.
“I will take a fifteen minute recess for you to review the documents,” the arbiter stood up. “I will expect your rebuttals if any when I return.”
Anna’s eyes grew wide as she began flipping through the material. Gigabytes of financial evidence, transaction logs, and journal entries scrolled past on the smartglass. Butterflies filled her stomach. There was so much there. How had that girl managed to retrieve all of this?
Surveillance photos showed her standing next to Gregory in the Blood and Steel headquarters. Follow up pictures showed her approving the transfer orders for military equipment on her mother’s behalf.
By the time she got to the transcription of her conversation with the mercenary group’s vice leader, the blood had drained from Anna’s face. Everything was there. From the discussion infiltrating Haupt’s penthouse apartment to the details of how the commando team would defeat the helicopter’s security.
“State your objections,” Anna looked up from the smartglass to the arbiter. “If you have none, you can present your closing arguments.”
“This is a frame job!” Daniels threw his hands up in the air, manacles clanking. “I have no idea if any of this evidence is real or not, but you’ve given me less than a half hour to review it. This entire trial is a farce.”
“Mr. Daniels,” the arbiter’s tone was frosty as he squinted at the slim former executive. “May I remind you that all three of you signed an expedited arbitration contract and the periods for reviewing the evidence were clearly laid out on page thirty seven, paragraph forty one, sub paragraph d.”
“Look at you,” Gregory Daniels growled, yanking at the chains holding his hands to the floor. “The ringleader of this entire circus. Of course I signed that agreement. You would have held me in ‘protective confinement’ for months without my signature. I wasn’t even given a lawyer.”
“Insulting the official that holds your life in his hand,” the arbiter nodded, his face impassive. “A bold move. Let us see if it pays off. Bailiff?”
The woman appeared, as if from nowhere. Electricity crackled as she jammed her stun baton in between Gregory’s ribs. He spasmed once and collapsed face down on the table, frothing slightly from the mouth.
Distantly, Anna could smell pee. She wasn’t sure if it was from Gregory’s bladder releasing itself due to the shock or Arnold’s general lack of spine. Either way, both of the men were pathetic in their own right.
She chewed silently on her lip. Anna could do without her mother’s flair for the dramatic. The situation was plenty tense for her taste, and Anna could do with Belle swooping in to save the day any time now.
“Hearing only an objection as to the authenticity of the records,” the arbiter tapped something on a keyboard before him. A video feed appeared on a massive wall sized smartglass display behind him. “We shall review the prosecution’s final exhibit, surveillance footage of the parties.”
The breath left Anna’s lungs. Images and crystal clear audio of the dinner party where she worked out logistics with Gregory Daniels played on the projector. It even caught the slight cock of her head as she persuaded him to use a vehicle bomb that they could blame on ‘mechanical failure’ rather than a ‘mugging gone wrong’ outside of an opera house.
She even recognized the angle. Katherine didn’t acquire this footage. It was one of her mother’s security cameras. Unless the street urchin and her group of ne’er do wells had managed to invade the upper levels of the arcology and break into the Donnst Estate, there was only one place the recording could have come from.
The bottom of Anna’s stomach dropped out entirely. There would be no rescue. No last minute save. Both her allies from the tower and Belle had abandoned her.
The plans within plans would move on without her. She was to be discarded.
Anna’s mind went blank. She barely heard the arbiter analyze the evidence for the drone cameras. It didn’t matter. The moment her mother handed the security footage to the arbitration board, everything was over.
She was exposed. Weak and ally-less in front of a machine that demanded blood. She knew her role, having watched her mother sacrifice employees to retain plausible deniability before.
“As punishment for the crime of murder and disloyalty to your employer,” Anna shook herself slightly, still numb but doing her best to pay attention to the arbiter as he announced her fate. “You shall each be stripped of all assets and assessed a fine of five hundred thousand credits. That fine shall be paid off via hard labor in the ice wastes of Houghton at the rate of three credits per day.”
Four hundred years. Anna stared blankly at the arbiter. Without gene therapy to keep her young and fit, she wouldn’t live past fifty in a work camp.
“May God have mercy-” the arbiter raised his gavel, playing up the moment for the drones.
“Excuse me!” A voice interrupted the self-satisfied official. “I would like to purchase their punitive contracts.”
A thrill ran down Anna’s spine as hope returned to her. Maybe her allies from The Tower of Somnus were coming back for her. Who else could afford one and a half million credits to save her from the ice wastes?
“Oh,” the arbiter raised a single eyebrow, his face torn as the theater of his moment was destroyed only to be replaced by an even more dramatic development. Either way, the cut he’d receive from the video streams of the trial would go up. “And may I ask you to identify yourself and provide proof of funds? We’re hardly talking about a sum that can be covered by a personal account transfer here.”
Anna looked back at her benefactor. A young man with blonde hair and green eyes and a custom fitted suit, every inch a powerful corporate scion. Flanking him were two samurai, decked out in form fitting armor and a number of empty holsters.
She didn’t recognize the man. He wasn’t one of her mother’s acquaintances, but everything about him oozed money and influence. They must want Anna back in the tower so that she could-
“Jasper Haupt,” his eyes flashed as he looked down at the three of them from the viewing box with contempt. “They killed my father and I would like to return the favor.”
“Interesting,” the arbiter was smiling now. “You do realize that although your family will receive the proceeds of the buyout, my agency will take a ten percent transaction fee. Of course, we could knock a point or two off of that if you provided us with exclusive streaming rights for the execution.”
He didn’t even look at the arbiter. Anna shivered as his emerald eyes bore into her.
“No need,” Jasper shook his head, short cropped hair rustling. “I won't haggle like a fishwife over my father’s death. I want to do it now. You can stream me if you want, but I will pay the full ten percent. It’s a matter of pride.”
The man curtly swiped his hand through the air.
“You have your credits,” Jasper continued staring down the three defendants. “I would hope that the sum provided covers the rental of a handgun and the use of three bullets?”
The arbiter checked the smartglass below him, face breaking into a harlequin smile.
“So it does Mister Haupt,” he waved to the bailiff, “Bailiff Burnette, if you could provide Mister Haupt with your side arm and inform the janitors they will be needed, I would be most appreciative.”