The Ultimate Heist
Belisarius is a Homo quantus, engineered with impossible insight. But his gift is also a curse – an uncontrollable, even suicidal drive to know, to understand. Genetically flawed, he leaves his people to find a different life, and ends up becoming the galaxy's greatest con man and thief.
But the jobs are getting too easy and his extraordinary brain is chafing at the neglect. When a client offers him untold wealth to move a squadron of secret warships across an enemy wormhole, Belisarius jumps at it.
Now he must embrace his true nature to pull off the job, alongside a crew of extraordinary men and women. If he succeeds, he could trigger an interstellar war... or the next step in human evolution.
"A boldly ambitious debut."– SFX Magazine
"A caper worthy of Jean-Pierre Melville."– The B&N SciFi and Fantasy Blog
"A delightfully engaging heist story."– Caroline Mersey, Science Fiction Book Club
The gallery AI projected a picture into his ocular implants. His art gallery appeared as a cylindrical schematic of glazed brick with a winding staircase spearing the hollow in the middle. Late night patrons moved up and down the staircase, whispering, pausing in pools of light at the landings to examine paintings, sculptures and even silent films set into alcoves. The image zoomed onto a figure just inside the lobby on the top floor.
Her skin was darker than his by many shades, and an uncomfortable-looking knot held her black hair tight. She didn't seem to know what to do with her body. Her hands rested awkwardly behind her. She stood with feet apart, poised, suggesting a readiness to move. She wore an off-the-rack tunic and loose pants, neither daringly nor conservatively cut.
"Sub-Saharan Union?" he asked.
"I don't know," the gallery AI said. "Checking her financial links. Would you like a genetic analysis?"
"Armed?" Belisarius asked. He resumed his stroll.
"No. She has some quiescent augments, though," the AI responded. "I can't tell what they are."
Belisarius magnified the image, considering the woman's expression. "How much is she worth?"
He reached a squat brick building of sintered regolith growing into the ice-enclosed tunnels of Bob Town, a suburban lobe of the Puppet Free City. Within that building, plunging deep into the ice, was his art gallery.
"No credit limit I can find," the gallery reported, "but she has one link to an account held by the Consulate of the Sub-Saharan Union."
The Sub-Saharan Union was a small client nation with two worlds and some industrial habitats on the other side of the Freyja wormhole. Their patron nation gave them second-hand weapons and warships. In return, the Union undertook military expeditions or stood garrison duty. Not wealthy. They'd never been his clients or his marks, and they didn't have a reputation as the kind of muscle he might worry about.
He opened the door and stepped into the lobby at the top of the helical stairs. Belisarius sold legal and illegal Puppet art and was curating the first exposition permitted by the Theocracy. Smell, lighting and sound influenced the aesthetic of Puppet religious experience, and for the exposition, Belisarius had laced the lobby with the faint citrus odor of Puppet sweat. From the gloom below, a whip snap echoed. The woman seemed aware of all this, but untouched by her environment.
She stood taller than Belisarius by a good ten centimeters and had intense eyes. Her waiting stance shifted, shoulders back, hands at her side, but nothing close to the body language of resting. She was an unfired bow.
"Monsieur Arjona?" she asked.
"I'm Belisarius," he said in français 8.1.
"I'm Ayen," she said. "Can we speak somewhere more private?" An odd accent laced her French.
"I built an apartment into the gallery," he said, leading her down a hallway.
Brick made of cooked asteroidal dust surfaced the ice of the walls, giving the illusion of warmth. His apartment was opulent by the standards of Oler, with several bedrooms, a wide dining area and a sunken living room. The walls and ceilings were white and devoid of decorations. The dining room was spotless, and the living room barely furnished. All low stimulus.
The gallery AI had soft colored lights glowing in sconces and the heaters running. A bottle of rice soju stood on the table between two small glasses. Belisarius stepped down into the living room, slumped onto the couch, and motioned for Ayen to select a seat. She sat.
"How private is this conversation?" she asked in a low voice.
"The apartment is secure. The Puppets aren't very nosy outside the Forbidden City anyway," he said. Her face remained taut. "Did you want to secure this conversation by your own means?"
Her eyes narrowed, and she produced a small device. It looked newly made, but its design was antique, maybe thirty years old.
"Multispectrum white noise generator?" Belisarius asked.
She nodded. He regarded the device with some doubt. Last decade's surveillance systems could probably have cracked the little generator, but she must have known that. She switched it on and the carrier signal from his house AI became faint in his ear, transmitting small alarms that its surveillance of the room was deeply compromised. Interesting. More questions congealed in his brain.
"I need a con man," she said.
Belisarius poured two shots of soju.
"You're five years too late," he said. "I'm on a spiritual journey."
"The right people say that you get impossible things done."
She leaned for her glass with wiry, contained power. She sniffed warily, then drank it down.
He memorized her pronunciation as she spoke. Like her white noise generator, her dialect was antique, an early variant of français 8, but where had it come from? His augments carried all the accents, dialects and versions of French, but her accent didn't match any of them.
"That's as flattering as it is inaccurate," he said. "I don't know who does cons anymore. They're all in prison, I suppose."
"People call you the magician."
"Not to my face."
"My employer needs a magician."
She stared at him with unnerving intensity. His brain began constructing patterns, theories, abstractions of the identities of Ayen and her unknown employer. Why couldn't he place her accent? Who was she working for? What did she think he was?
"What kind of magic does she need?" Belisarius asked.
"She needs something moved through the Puppet wormhole. Distal side to here."
"Puppet freighters ship through the Axis all the time," he said. "They don't care what you move, as long as you pay."
"We can't afford their price."
"If you can't afford them, you certainly can't afford me."
Her stare hardened, the bowstring drawn tight. "We aren't short of money," she said, "but they don't want money."
"The Puppets do like to be paid in weapons."
"They want half," she said.
"Half of what?"
"Half of a dozen warships."