Norman Hermes had never been called an extraordinary man. He had never been called a particularly interesting man, if he was being honest (and he did hate being dishonest). There was just nothing about him that screamed irregularity.
Norman’s wardrobe consisted entirely of crisply-ironed 100% neowool slate gray two-piece suits, complete with black tie and white button-up shirt underneath. His black loafers were kept to a professional polish and he kept multiple spares in the event a pair became too scuffed to make presentable. He was clean-shaven, something he took great care to maintain, and he clipped, combed, and gelled his hair every morning to perfection. His thick-rimmed glasses needed to be settled on his nose in a very precise manner, and he frequently adjusted them to preserve that precision.
Norman was one of the few people in the galaxy to wear a spacewatch, and an analog spacewatch at that. His coworkers had often mocked him for insisting on carrying a spacewatch when a spacephone could tell time just as accurately, but Norman believed it was irresponsible to check one’s spacephone while at work. Norman believed many things taken for granted were irresponsible, and he strived to live his life with the utmost responsibility.
That had become very difficult ever since the day he met Farley Cinderfall.
“Come on, come on, it’s been an hour and fourteen minutes, where are you?” Norman tapped his spacewatch nervously and glanced between it and the increasingly-impatient group of aliens who had long since finished their cups of syncaff. HJ-4761 was trying to keep the group entertained, but that mostly consisted of flirting with them and after an hour the charm was wearing off for most (though one looked about ready to follow the android to a private room, which really wouldn’t help the situation as much as it would further complicate things).
At fifteen seconds before the fifteen minute mark, Norman politely excused himself from the room and stepped away. At one hour fifteen minutes exactly, Norman called his boss and was relieved when she answered on only the second ring.
“Where are you? The client has been waiting for over an hour, Farley. This is way past the point of reasonable lateness.” Actually, in Norman’s eyes there was no such thing as reasonable lateness, but trying to make that point to Farley was like trying to file taxes with a box of crayons: a waste of his time and everyone else’s. “You know how important this job is for our finances.”
“Chill, Normie.” She knew he hated that nickname, and that was likely the point, so he very specifically did not react to it. “Got pulled away. Gonna be gone for a while, actually, courtesy of being in the depths of Phlegethaern.”
“You’re where!?” Norman had to struggle to keep his voice down. “Farley, why are you in Hell?” He rubbed his temples and quickly corrected, “By which I mean, why are you in Hell right now?”
Farley, who had absolutely been about to deliver a pithy retort, harrumphed and said, “Sucked through a rift by a Slzakian mage punching above his weight class. Vurin cut a deal with Mephistroph and ambushed me outside Club Abraxas, sent me to Hell to try and get me killed or worse. Now I’m going to go shoot Mephy in the dick for ruining my morning, and also maybe blow up a few buildings on the way.”
I hate my job. I really, really hate my job. Norman stared at the ceiling in abject misery before composing himself and responding, “Okay, we can get the Ashskimmer to you in only a few jumps. I’ll let the client know the deal is–”
“No.” Farley’s tone was serious now. “It’s too dangerous for you guys. I can find my own way home, focus on the job. You have my full authority to negotiate terms.”
“Farley, the deal can’t go through without you. You’re the main reason they reached out to us and we really, really can’t pull this off without a technomancer.” Norman kept his voice low, but the strain was creeping in.
“Then hire a different technomancer. Check my contacts log on the ship and find the entry for a girl by the name of Ghost. She’s a rock-solid technomancer, one of the best I’ve ever met, and she’s running top-of-the-line cybernetics. Offer her the lion’s share of the haul if need be; I’m more interested in impressing this client than coming away richer.”
“We need that money,” Norman protested. “We have enough to keep us going through the end of the month but after that we’re running on fumes here. We’ve spent too long in port.”
Farley swore and Norman heard what sounded like the Hellcannon going off, but when she spoke again her voice was even and unhurried. “Don’t worry about the money; I’m bringing home a haul that’ll make this job look like peanuts.”
Norman put his face in his hand. “How did you turn an assassination attempt into a payday?”
“Creativity!” she chirped.
Norman sighed. “That’s the best answer I’m going to get out of you, isn’t it?”
“Yep. Now go play nice with the suits. Boring business meetings should be right up your alley. Farley out.” The chimera hung up, leaving Norman to deal with the consequences. As happens so direly often, he mused pessimistically.
Before Farley, Norman had been an office worker. He had been a government office worker, with a cushy job crunching numbers and filing paperwork. Then a rival for a promotion had framed him for misfiling a tax form and he was sentenced to the customary punishment: the death penalty. Branded a criminal by the Galactic Imperial Revenue Service (GIRS), Norman’s execution had been a sure thing until Farley stepped in.
Lucky for him, Farley was enough of a threat that the bickering Great Houses of the shattered Galactic Imperium mostly forbade their lackeys from antagonizing her. So long as he was part of Farley’s crew, that protection extended to Norman. Unluckily for him, being part of Farley’s crew meant putting up with Farley’s shit.
Norman put away his spacephone, smoothed his suit, and forced a smile on his face as he walked back inside the conference room. “Good news, everyone! Farley has given the go-ahead, so we can proceed to negotiations.”
A Klaxxivole in a ruffled suit raised three of her eyebrows and looked at Norman askance. “Your Captain will not be here? She holds us up for an hour and then she is not here?” The Klaxxivole’s distinctive furry antennae twitched with annoyance.
Norman winced. “Our deepest apologies, truly. An emergency came up and she is still in the middle of dealing with it, but she was very regretful that she could not be here in person. To avoid wasting any more of your time, she has given me full authority to negotiate in her name.”
Two Mertheans crossed their arms (four each for a total of eight) and said in unison, “Our terms were specific. This is a great insult to the Syndicate.” Mertheans were all pair-bonded, and were actually clusters of symbiotic colonies inside vat-grown host bodies.
“I assure you, no insult was meant. Her delay is the result of an attack by a member of the Starseeker Cartel, a man by the name of Vurin Thsaethlys.”
All of the Syndicate members in the room, from the lieutenants to the enforcers, reacted at that. The Syndicate had a long-standing rivalry with the Cartel, and even if not all of them knew Vurin by name they all carried that blood grudge against the Cartel’s bosses.
Norman adjusted his glasses. “Rest assured, he will not keep her for long, but it was deemed necessary that the meeting proceed without her. I hope the Syndicate can forgive this unintentional slight.”
It was amazing, the things you could get used to. Norman Hermes was standing in a room with a pack of murderers and crime lords and he wasn’t even sweating. HJ could probably butcher half the room in moments, but that still be enough time for someone to shoot Norman in the woefully-inadequate protection of his neowool suit. His life was in mortal peril, and yet his heart rate was barely elevated.
It was not a pleasant realization, each time he had it.
The leader of the Syndicate delegation, the Klaxxivole–Panalapa, he recalled–took a swig from a flask at her waist that definitely didn’t contain syncaff, put it back, and said, “Alright, if it means someone out there is sticking it to those Cartel fucks, I guess we can talk business.”
Norman smiled (was a false smile really dishonesty, or just courtesy?) and spread his hands. “Excellent, I’m so glad to hear that. How can the crew of the Ashskimmer help the Syndicate?”
Panalapa chewed her purple lip with crooked fangs. “Well, let’s say it’s not so much the Syndicate you’ll be helping as one of the Syndicate’s primary interests. You familiar with Tlaxi-Omoron Machineworks?”
“Of course,” Norman said easily, delighted at not having to lie this time. “Who isn’t? They’re the galaxy’s foremost distributor of starships, small arms, spacephones, why practically everything made of metal. If it’s mechanical or electrical, TOM has your back.” It never hurt to shoot a company’s own tagline back at one of their representatives.
Tlaxi-Omoron Machineworks, or TOM as it was known colloquially, was an S-rated stellarcorp that had started as a front for the Seventh Syndicate, a crime family operating out of the Tla-Xerxes system. To the surprise of the Syndicate, their legitimate business ventures became more profitable than the criminal side, and after buying out Omoron Enterprises they quickly became one of the top stellarcorps in the galaxy. The public story was that the Syndicate had retired its criminal operations, but those operations persisted and were a large part of TOM’s ability to stay three steps ahead of their competitors.
Panalapa didn’t look flattered by the remark–it was common knowledge–but Norman thought he could see her antennae curl a little in satisfaction. “TOM has a problem, and its name is Visage Cybernetics.”
That name Norman was less familiar with. He frowned. “Aren’t they that tech company that just made A-rating last year?”
“They were,” Panalapa said coldly, “but the ICC bumped them up to AA last review, and they’d be AAA by now if not for the Commerce Council’s policy against two grade increases in a single stellar quarter. That’s how quickly they’ve jumped from being nobodies to an industrial threat.”
Norman was shocked and let it show. “That’s practically unheard of. Not even Star Platinum moved that fast, and they set records that other stellarcorps have only dreamed of breaking. How did they do it?”
“That’s what Tlaxi-Omoron wanted to know, so the Syndicate investigated.” Panalapa snarled. “The numbers we gathered were insane. In two months, quality doubled and production tripled, but inbound materials decreased. Third-party analysis placed the material-to-product efficiency of their top models at 99.8%.”
HJ-4761 looked up from his flirting with an enforcer, surprise evident on his absurdly-handsome face. “That’s impossible for modern cybernetics. The best factories running the best processes can only manage 96.342%, and that’s with monthly part replacements.”
Panalapa snorted. “Yeah, the eggheads said something similar. Told the analysts to check their math. We even burned three deep-cover agents to get a manifest, but it only confirmed what we were told: somehow, Visage’s top starforge is doing the impossible.”
Norman adjusted his glasses again and put the pieces together. “That’s why you wanted a technomancer: you don’t just want us to put a stop to it, you want us to find out how they’re doing it.”
Panalapa leaned in and bared her fangs. “I want you to get inside that starforge, steal the schematic for whatever tech is letting them pull this off, and then blow the whole place up. This is war, kid. Visage has been muscling in our turf, stealing our best customers, and making a mockery of our organization. There must be a reckoning.”
A reckoning. Why does everyone Farley associates with have to be so dramatic? “Understood. We’re fully prepared to deliver that reckoning… depending on how much you’re offering. This is a hefty job, and it’ll take a significant investment to pull off.”
Norman couldn’t stop his eyes from widening. Even split, even with the hired technomancer taking a bigger cut, that was enough to keep the crew going for months and months. This was big.
Panalapa’s eyes twinkled. “I take it that’s a yes.”
Norman coughed and straightened his tie to hide his embarrassment. “I see the Syndicate lives up to its reputation. Yes, we would be happy to take that offer.”
“Then we have a deal.”