by Shivver [Reviews - 2]

  • All Ages
  • None
  • General

Author's Notes:
Written for the 2019 Doctor Who Minor Characters Ficathon, at who_guestfest on Dreamwidth.

The moment the door whooshed open, Strackman Lux hopped out of the hoverlimo without waiting for the steps to extend from chassis. As he glanced up at the gray, blustery sky, he clutched his jacket tighter around himself and sniffed hard against the deep sigh of dread of the coming day that tried to escape his lips. He clapped a hand to his hat and dashed toward the sparkling glass doors of the Felman Lux Corporation airdock entrance. He wasn’t too concerned about losing the hat, as he could afford a thousand replacements without denting his pocket money, but a missing hat meant showing his hair. Millennia of research and trillions of funding still hadn’t managed to eliminate hair loss, or even mask it effectively; toupees and hair weaves were still obvious and ridiculous. Though he was twenty-six and already his receding hairline was making his forehead shine like his father’s, he couldn’t stomach wearing one of those.

Waiting patiently inside the foyer for his boss, Minsin Eplar thrust a datapad and dongle lock into his hands as the man strode past him. “The report on the data breach on Canlass. Eyes only. The investigation determined the vulnerability was not in our systems, and they’ve captured all but one of the hackers. The Canlassian government is requesting Lux Data Bubbles™ for each of them, to isolate their identities and prevent them from reintegrating with society.”

Strackman stopped and frowned at his aide. “They didn’t purchase the DeLux™ package, now did they?” he asked as he attached the dongle to the flashing green communicator on his lapel.

“No, they didn’t,” Minsin confirmed.

“Then I can’t help them.” He resumed his trek to his office, Minsin at his side. “Their contract included full data handling across the entire planet, including Perfect Privacy™, and they explicitly waived corrections and obfuscation services. They’ll just have to find another way to restrict their movements and their access to necessities and services.”

“All right,” Minsin nodded.

“You could suggest they look into the concept of prisons,” he added, waving the datapad in a flippant dismissal. “It’s so twenty-first century, but it seemed to work for them.”

“I’ll do that.”

The two men arrived at the anti-grav lift just as the door opened. The crowd of Lux Corporation employees parted for them and declined to fill the carriage behind them. Most were uncomfortable in the presence of members of the Family, and Strackman found that the resulting privacy was much to his liking. As soon as the door slid closed with an airy whoosh, Minsin murmured out of the corner of his mouth, his gaze glued to the gleaming panel in front of them.

“I’m going to refer them to Sales. Arleg Mitter will be able to wrangle a solution for them.”

Strackman was similarly fascinated by the professional polish of the door. “I’ll pretend I didn’t hear you say that.”

“I know.”

Minsin occupied the outer office of Strackman’s suite, three rooms of sterile white and steel walls with glass desks, holographic displays, and a distinct lack of any personalisation, identical to all of the new construction in the corporation. There was a lot of it, as the company and all of its subsidiaries and remote offices across the three galaxies conformed to the modern paradigm. Rebuilding was expensive but worth it. At least that was the word from the high executive offices.

He stopped in front of his own desk. “Strack, are you okay?”

Strackman removed his hat as he turned back from the door to his office. “Sure. Why do you ask?”

“You stopped responding to tmail on your ride in,” he explained, gesturing at the device on his boss’ collar. “A whole minute of silence. It’s not like you.”

Of course he would notice that. Minsin noticed everything. “Yeah, well, it’s going to be a long day. I just wanted a moment of peace. Thought mail gets pretty intrusive sometimes, you know?”

“Tell me about it.” Minsin tapped his own communicator, which blinked merrily to indicate the backup of tmail he’d accumulated on the walk up. “Let me know if I can help.”

“If you can figure out a way of getting married for me, I’d be much obliged.” He snorted a half-hearted laugh and disappeared into his office.

Strackman tossed his hat onto the bar, next to the tray with the crystal and the bottles of whiskey he’d been told every powerful lawyer should have out for clients. He couldn’t stand the stuff himself, but he could make a convincing play at sharing a drink when he needed to. He dropped the datapad with the Canlassian report on the desk and turned to the wall safe. His isometric ID, delivered with a swipe of his hand over the faceplate, disengaged the lock. He removed the lonely device within and clipped it to his communicator, then nudged the safe closed with his elbow. With a flick of his mind, he started the datapad’s playback, allotting a small portion of his attention to reviewing the findings as he started his tea and arranged the work for the day.

That was the secret of the Lux Corporation’s success, the compartmentalisation of thought. In the pursuit ever more efficient data management, the company had struggled against the limitations of artificial intelligence, the inability of computers, after three millennia of development, to truly think like a human, to jump to emotional conclusions, not proceed methodically to logical ones. However, in their attempts to connect human minds with computer minds, to guide the AI into thinking like them, the researchers discovered the inverse: a way to multithread the human brain, so it could work on multiple problems in parallel.

The Family knew what it had discovered and guarded the secret jealously. They interfaced the technology with the ubiquitous tmail communicators, and select few of the immediate relations were allowed to use them; fewer still could wear them outside of company grounds. Strackman owed his career to the technology. He certainly couldn’t process all of the accounts and contracts he was responsible for if he only had one mind to work with. Computers were notoriously bad lawyers, good for applying the word of the law but incapable of nuance, of finding the loopholes or, at least, of spinning the wording to create loopholes. Strackman himself wasn’t the best lawyer, not by a long shot, but the company’s technology made up for what he lacked in quality by tremendous quantity.

Thus, by the time he settled into his chair with a steaming cuppa, he’d begun fashioning the official corporation response to the situation on Canlass, reviewing the final draft of the proposed teleprotection contract with Odimeritz Nanopharms, and critiquing the latest org chart and process diagram at the research lab on Siros Prime, displayed around him in glowing 3-D. Three tasks at a time was a fine velocity, and as the human brain could only safely manage four threads at once, this left some capacity for enjoying his tea.

This was the normal daily routine for Strackman, every working day for three years now, since he’d graduated from the best university his father could buy, which was any in existence, to be honest. The triple curriculum of business administration, accounting, and law had been tailored for the heir of the Felman Lux Corporation, and he’d squeaked through just well enough to spend the rest of his life protecting the interests of the company and the Family. Such stimulating work.

The threading device - it was so top-secret, the Family had never given it an official name - made handling interruptions a breeze. When a tmail from Minsin dinged in his mind, announcing a request for a holocon with a technician on D’napora, Strackman had paused the contract review and saved his progress, then looked up the woman’s personnel history before the subspace transmission had connected.

“Ms. Telrup,” he stated in as even a tone as he could manage. He’d been taught to keep interactions with employees as neutral as possible, to avoid any expressions that might be construed as favour or promises, but he’d never been good at putting his learning into practice. He tended to be excitable, which lapsed too easily into whinging. He hoped to keep this conversation well in control.

“Mr. Lux, sir. A good day to you.” The holographic display revealed a strong woman in a mechanic’s jumpsuit, her curly mane of hair tied back out of her way. She jumped right in. “I appreciate you taking time out of your busy day for me.”

“Well, I have to say -“ he began, but she continued talking over him.

“The annual budget just came down and it’s cut funding to our sector by nearly sixty percent. We’ve been asked to let go a third of the department while increasing the pace of the research by twenty percent. It’s just not possible.” She leant into the camera and pleaded, “Something has to be done. We need help.”

“I’m sorry, Ms. Telrup, but there’s nothing I can do.” For once, it was the truth, and he shook his head with what he hoped was a compassionate but noncommittal expression.

She frowned, biting her lip as if she’d expected her simple plea to garner immediate assistance from him. “But there must be something. They told me you were the one who could help.”

“I don’t see why. I manage Digital Jurisprudence, which is located here on Soard.” He tapped the desk surface with his finger even though he knew the holoscanner didn’t capture that far out. “I don’t have any divisions on D’napora or any other planet in the Gos system.”

The woman glanced around, checking for any intrusions, anyone who might overhear, before leaning forward and murmuring, “But you have an interest here. Some of us, we work on Project Eclipse and -“

“What?” he hissed in a thunderous whisper. “Talk like that will get you fired, you know. Without references or credit. Where’d you hear about that? I’ve nothing to do with such things.”

“But sir -“

“But nothing!” he raged. “This is a secure line, yes? Then you’ll forget you made this call, won’t you, if you know what’s good for you?”

The woman deflated and scratched her fingers through her curls. “Yes, sir.”

“Good day, Ms. Telrup.” Strackman cut the transmission, then sat back in his chair and sighed. Was control of a business meeting too much to hope for? He wasn’t even convinced he’d managed to put on a competent face. With a tired hand, he thumbed a button on the inside of his armrest. “Minsin, get in here.” He could have done that with a thought, but there was something about a physical intercom that was just so satisfying.

In twenty seconds, the door opened and his aide slipped in. “What do you need?” Minsin closed the door gently behind himself and stepped up to the desk.

“They’ve cut some of the budgets in cryptotripital R&D again. By a lot.”

Minsin nodded. “I expected as much. The security and data laundering tech hasn’t turned out to be as useful or lucrative as your cousin said it would be. Her division has come in far overbudget for the fifth year in a row now, by millions of credits each year.”

Strackman stared idly at one of the org chart displays in front of him. “Yes. Well. She knew it was a risk, but that’s Ohzier for you. She gets an idea in her head and off she runs. And she’s his darling, so she gets her way. It’ll be a talking point at the next board meeting. I can see it now.” He puffed himself up and stroked his chin as he pronounced in a deep, fake baritone, “‘Live and learn, eh? Live and learn. We’ve proven it’s not a profitable technology, and it was barely a drop in the bucket compared to the profits of the rest of the company. Can’t all be winners, ho ho!’ As Minsin smirked, Strackman rolled eyes, then sobered. “However, that isn’t my concern.”

Minsin knew the drill. “Eclipse.”

“Yes, it’s going to take a hit.”

“How much?”

“There’s three of them on that team. Yes, yes,” he groaned before Minsin could protest and waved a dismissive hand to shut him up, “I know we shouldn’t have that many in one place, but they have the necessary skills and and they’ve got control of the most powerful nonacore positron computer in the galaxy. I had to get some of its time.”

“How many of them do you think you’ll lose?”

“It doesn’t matter.” Strackman slumped, feeling jjust as defeated and helpless as the woman he’d hung up on moments ago. “We can’t afford to lose even a single person. The project’s on the brink as it is.”

Minsin bit his lip and glanced down at his gleaming leather shoes. Strackman shook an angry finger at him. “I know perfectly well what you’re thinking, and no, it’s not an option. I am keeping this project alive.”

“Which is why I didn’t say anything,” he countered. “I know you’re well aware of the risk you’re taking.” He crossed his arms. “So what can we do?”

Strackman tapped idly on the arm of his chair as he muttered, “Nothing official without Ohz’s knowledge, and we can’t trust her. She’ll run straight to him if she finds out I’m involved.” His eyes twitched up to meet his aide’s steady gaze. “Keep an eye on them. We’ll grab them if they get let go, and I’ll pay them out of my pocket if I have to. We just need to make sure that all traces of the project are wiped from that machine.”

Minsin nodded and scratched at his ear, a habit of his when he was making notes on his neural link. “The Eclipse partition should have one of your data bombs on it. I’ll set up the surveillance directly and set it to go off the moment they’re let go.”

“Good man.”

With a nod, Minsin retreated, leaving Strackman alone with his thoughts, or at least some of his thoughts, as two of his tasks were still running and the contract review thought-thread sat on hold, waiting to be reactivated. He couldn’t afford to let himself get distracted, though he also couldn’t simply let Eclipse fade into oblivion, no matter who might object. The longer it ran, the more of his own personal resources were draining into it, and there wasn’t an end in sight. He had a nagging feeling that the project would outlive him, and possibly outlast his children, if he ever had any.

That thought reminded him of his obligations for the evening, and as he usually did in such situations, he hid himself in his work. He returned to his desk and restarted the suspended thought-thread, and reviewed the ones that had been running in the far corners of his mind. Thus was his morning spent, just like on every other working day of his life. Lunch came and went, during which time he put all of his work away and let his mind relax, thinking only one thing at a time. The device didn’t make him any more clever or insightful; it just let him be normal four times at once.

As usual, Strackman devoted the time after lunch to various meetings across his department: managing the groups and projects of hundreds of employees, presenting and selling products - no, solutions - to prospective clients, designing the next Lux data, security, and legal offering, suitable for managing the network, privacy, and identity needs for the populations of large corporations and small planetoids. Though he attended these meetings virtually, seldom requiring him to step foot outside of his office, interacting with others took more attention than solitary tasks, and so he reduced his thought load down to the Odimeritz deal.

On most days, his appointment schedule took him well into the evening, and so he was quite surprised that the sun still shone in through the tall windows, though hanging low above the shining steel and glass capital city of the planet, when the door opened and Minsin stepped in, waving to get his attention.

He placed the current meeting on a quick hold and fixed his aide with a hard stare. “What is it?” he snapped, though he already knew what Minsin would say. He’d been trying to stretch out the work hours and forestall this moment all day.

“It’s time. He’ll be here in less than a half an hour.”

He rolled his eyes. “Yeah. Get out.” As Minsin slipped back out and shut the door, Strackman terminated the call, certain the other participants could survive the last fifteen minutes without him. He allowed himself one frustrated sigh before tearing the device from his collar and tossing it on the desk.

Stomping off into his private room, he emerged fifteen minutes later in his sleekest tux, adjusting his lapels in self-consciousness. If he must dress up, he favoured the classic style, plain black cloth and clean lines with a bit of neat white peeking from the pocket, and none of the modern embellishments that most others, including his otherwise practical aide, would choose, such as “galaxy-cut” shirts and ribbons of light down the sleeves and trousers. He really only cared that the sharp shoulders distracted from the slight paunch he was already developing, and he prodded at his belly to try to convince it to stay in for the evening.

The intercom on the desk beeped, a covert warning from Minsin seconds before the door burst open, but it gave Strackman enough time to school his morbid anticipation into something almost cheerful.

“Hi, Dad,” he called out to the tall, portly man framed in the doorway.

Edman Lux loved to wear his wealth on his sleeve, the finest in Argraysian microoptic fibers suffusing his tux with crimson iridescence. Teraline diamonds studded the back of the nanocomputer power gauntlet he wore on his left hand, from which he ruled the Felman Lux Corporation with a literal titanium fist. He strode into the room like he owned the place, which he did, and eyed the office and his son with a sceptical smirk, appraising every detail for perfection, something he rarely found. As his nose twitched in disappointment, Strackman bit back a grin at his father’s stringy combover, almost plastered to his shiny pate to prevent it from falling into his eyes.

“For once, you’re actually dressed and ready,” he sniffed. “I’m sure it’s all because of that aide of yours. A human digital assistant, that one. I’m glad I finally made you hire him, since you can’t be bothered to keep your neural calendar.” Turning on his heel, he walked out without another word, certain that his son would follow.

As soon as his father’s back was turned, Strackman rolled his eyes as he stepped into his wake. Edman hadn’t made him do anything. He and Minsin had been mates at uni and once he’d established himself at the Corporation, he’d hired him as his aide. Minsin possessed everything that that Strackman lacked - drive, business smarts, and especially the freedom to act according to his own conscience and better judgment. Strackman knew he’d absolutely needed him, but it was just like his father to take credit for the decision.

“I saw the response to the Canlassian request go out this morning,” his father was saying as he caught up. “I have to say, I was impressed. I didn’t think you had it in you to deny assistance to them.” He nodded sagely at Strackman. “You’ll see. When their contract comes up next year, they’ll re-up with the highest-tier package and opt for all the frills. They won’t let this happen again, and we’ll net a tidy profit.” With a laugh, he clapped his son on the shoulder. “Good work. We’ll make you an asset to the company yet.”

“Thank you, sir,” Strackman replied. He knew he needn't have, as his father rarely required anyone else to speak to keep a conversation going. He shot a nervous smile at an employee who had flattened himself against the wall to allow the owner of the company to pass unimpeded.

“You’ve also been making some great strides in revamping the process for xenocontracts,” Edman continued as they approached the lift. The people already there waiting all simultaneously remembered things they’d forgotten in their offices and scattered. “Your sister used one of the loopholes you found in the tax laws on Kyrapitas to save us fifty million credits in digital tariffs this year.”

They stepped onto the lift and Edman turned to face forward, his eyes on the floor display as the doors closed. “Now, I have been hearing rumours about Project Eclipse again. They always seems to start coming out of the woodwork right around the end of the fiscal year.” He eyed his son sidelong. “You wouldn’t happen to have heard anything about it, have you?”

“Not a byte,” Strackman hastened to assure him.

Edman thumbed a button on his gauntlet, then turned and leant in with a threatening stare. “Are you quite sure?”

As he always did, Strackman quailed under the scrutiny and managed a feeble,“Yes, sir.”

“Good,” Edman spat, “because I will not have this company waste a single microcredit on such nonsense.”

The word “nonsense” sparked a tiny flicker of rebellion in Strackman’s breast and he shot back, “I don’t see why. The company has assets to spare. We could budget a million a year toward it and it wouldn’t have the slightest impact on our profits.”

Edman set his jaw, obviously biting back his initial scathing response. “Strackman,” he began in level, slow drawl suitable for teaching a slow child, “one day, you will be in my shoes, running this company, providing services to a thousand planets and employing a million people. If you are going to succeed in leading all those people into the future, you need to learn right now to see the big picture, the whole galaxy, not just your tiny little office or a number on the last line of a budget sheet.” The lift doors opened and, as before, Edman strode out without waiting for his son.

“It has nothing to do with profitability,” he continued. “Eclipse is a dead end. It’s a complete waste of resources. Even if it succeeds, it produces no benefits for anyone. We’re better off throwing that ten million a year down the toilet. That way, at least the sewer rats could eat the paper.”

Strackman trailed behind him, biting his lip in pique. He and his father rarely saw eye-to-eye, but this was their main disagreement. Project Eclipse had captured his imagination the moment he’d heard of it, back when he was a lad first learning just what his family did, and perhaps this was his main failing, but he’d refused to let go of his dream just because he’d grown up.

“I know you don’t agree with me,” Edman added, “but you’re a good boy and you’re keeping your nose clean. One day you’ll understand, and then you’ll thank me for keeping your company out of it.”

The evening sky was clear of clouds, the orange on the horizon fading to a deep lavender overhead, but the puddles dotting the airdock’s concrete bore evidence to the weather that had dominated the day while Strackman had worked inside. Crowding the entire landing zone, his father’s hoverlimo was far more luxurious than his own, with seating for eight people and a self-service snack and drink bar. Strackman settled into his favorite plush leather chair, the one just behind the forward jets from which he could watch the turbines spin, then tensed as his father continued talking.

“I know I don’t need to remind you that we’re expecting good things from you tonight. There’s not likely to be another such gathering of dignitaries for a decade. Three galaxies’ worth! Think of the alliances we could form!”

“Dad -“

“Yes, yes, I know.” Edman flicked a dismissive hand at his son. “You do not need to set your sights high. Well, certainly, if you could wrangle a merger with Pearl Subspace, that would be a coup, now wouldn’t it? Pearl’s eldest daughter is quite a talented lawyer. You’ll get along just fine. But anything advantageous would do. What about that asteroid mining outfit in the Chel system? What’s it called?”


“Ah, right, yes.” He flicked his hand at his son. "You two got along quite well when you met, at that retreat on Pillos. Inseparable, if I remember. Your mother and I searched everywhere for you, and found you in their suite. You refused to come back without him.”

“I was seven.”

“A good, solid friendship, then. He’d make you a good partner. Which reminds me.” Edman continued talking as he tapped a few buttons on his gauntlet. “I’ve reserved a room for you, if you need to ‘entertain’.” He glanced up at his son, waggling his eyebrows. “I’ve tagged the key on your ident.” He hit the last button with a flourish, then eyed his son and sighed. “What’s wrong now?”

“I still think it’s all a bit archaic. Marrying off your children for alliances, like we’re royalty.”

Edman scowled at Strackman, pounding the cushioned armrest for emphasis. “Family is paramount, Strackman. Remember that. Anything I do, the first thing I think is, is it for the benefit and protection of the family? And I only do it if the answer is yes.” He leant across the gap and prodded his son’s arm with a thick finger. “Tonight, you’re going to find a partner, to produce an heir to extend our line and inherit the company someday. And that partner, you’re going to make sure that he or she is going to be an asset to our name. That’s how it works.”

“That’s not how -“

Edman snapped an angry hand in front of his son’s face, finger pointing directly between his eyes. “I don’t want to hear it. That was then, and this is now. I expect that tomorrow morning, I will have your engagement to announce to the press directly after breakfast.”

“Yes, sir.”

. _ . _ . _ . _ .

Strackman climbed into his limo and collapsed in the seat which carried him to and from the Corporation every day. The deep voice of Tim, the driver, growled from the speaker.

“Home, sir?”

“No,” he breathed. “You know where to go.”

“Yes, sir.”

He barely felt the vehicle rise into the air and glide off. The gala had been everything he’d expected: hundreds of sparkling, glowing people pretending to enjoy each other’s company whilst jockeying for political position. Everyone had known that the heir to the Lux fortune was in the market, and so Strackman hadn’t found a moment to himself, beset by what seemed to be every single unmarried human from the three galaxies - as well as a few married ones and not a few non-humans. All in all, it had been quite the humiliating spectacle, as he was well aware that he would not have attracted any of that attention if he were not quite so rich. However, in the course of five hours, he’d managed to make some tolerable acquaintances and secure the engagement his father wanted. The fallout from that... Well, that was tomorrow’s problem.

He stared up at the ceiling of the limo, breathing deeply to gather his energy and his courage. It had been quite an eventful day, but the worst was yet to come.

. _ . _ . _ . _ .

The nurse at the reception desk sprung to her feet the moment Strackman stepped off the lift. “I’m sorry, Mr. Lux. Visiting hours are over,” she warned in a well-rehearsed, rote manner, as if she’d said those words to him a hundred times, and she had.

“You’re not going to try to stop me tonight, are you?” he asked.

“No,” she sighed. “Just… please be gentle. She’s very tired.”

“Of course she is.” Strackman strode past her and down the hallway, along a route he knew very well. He paused at a door that stood slightly ajar, knocked softly and slipped in.

The woman in the bed laid deep under the thin blanket, like she hadn’t moved in hours. Her eyes creaked open and her face, pale and gaunt, lit up at the sight of her visitor. “Strack.” Her voice was the barest of whispers.

“Yes, it’s me.”

“You look very handsome.”

He shrugged at his formal clothing. “The gala for the sector summit. I wish you could have seen it, Diane. You would have loved the ice sculptures. Oh!” He dug in a pocket and pulled out a small, wrapped object. “I brought you a mint. Your favourite.”

“Please.” She watched him unwrap the sweet, then opened her mouth to let him place it on her tongue. She winced at the sudden intense flavour, then pouched it in her cheek to make it last as long as could. “It’s wonderful. The doctor’d have a fit if he knew, but it won’t matter much longer.”

Strackman pushed the bedcover aside and took her frail, cold hand in his.

“Tomorrow, Strack.”

He closed his eyes, unwilling to accept her statement.

“I know. But I can’t, not anymore. I can barely breathe. I’d like it to end, and I want to go whilst I’m still me.”

“I know.” He smiled. “But you can’t blame me for not wanting you to go.”

“No. I’m sorry.”

“Me too.” Strackman sighed. What use was all the money in the universe if it couldn’t fix this?

“Is it done, then?” she asked, startling him out of his thoughts.

He knew what she was asking, and he couldn’t look her in the eyes as he answered. The word betrayal flashed through his mind. He’d betrayed her. “Oh. Yes. Yes, it’s done. My father’s getting what he wants, like he always does.”

“Tell me about her.”

“No.” He’d no interest in talking about the woman, and even if he did, there was little to tell. She was simply an opportunity. He wasn’t even sure he remembered what she looked like. “She’s not important. She never will be.”

“She should be,” Diane insisted in a loud hiss. “Don’t let me get in the way of your life, Strack. Remember me, but you have to move on.”

He shook his head. “How are you always so wise, and so brave?”

“I’m not,” she explained. “I’m going to die, and when you’re going to die, you can say anything you want.”

Strackman laughed, and she grinned back at him. “All right. Like what?” he challenged.

“Don’t give up on what you care about.” He startled back, pulling his hand from hers, and she pressed on. How did she always know what he was thinking? “I know you’re tired, Strack. I know you hate what you’re doing, what your father is making you do. But don’t give up. One day, he’ll be gone. You just have to hold on until then.”

“I can’t,” he protested, pinching at the bridge of his nose. “I’m running myself ragged. I hate what I do. I’m terrible at it. Minsin’s the only thing keeping my department together. I spend every day with my brain fragmented by a hacked device with a fifth partition so I can spend some amount of thought on Eclipse. I’m getting married to a woman I met only a few hours ago. And I’m losing you.” He buried his face in his hands. “I’m so tired. How do I hold on?”

“Focus on what’s important.”

The advice sounded so easy, and honestly, there was only one answer to that. “Eclipse.”

“And why?” Her exhaustion was making it difficult to speak.

Strackman smiled. He could see the old man in his memory, more clearly than he could his own father from earlier in the day. He knew it had been only logical for Felman, who’d newly relinquished the company to his son, to spend his retirement taking care of his grandchildren, but to Strackman, he’d finally gained a real father. He never knew the ambitious businessman who'd built a galaxy-spanning corporation; he only remembered the kindly man who'd picked him up from school and read him bedtime stories. “I owe it to Gramps. We have to find out what happened that day, and we have to get my aunt out of there. My dad, he doesn’t think there’s any benefit to going back to the Library, but to Gramps, it was the only thing in the universe.”

“That.” It was the only word she could manage. She rested for a half a minute before she finished her thought. “Rely on your people. Don’t go alone.”

That was the answer, of course. There were a lot of people still devoted to the project, who understood why they were doing it, and yet, he treated them poorly. It was too easy to dismiss people like Ms. Telrup as just more faceless “resources”, easily replaceable. He’d ordered Minsin to save her and her colleagues for the sake of the project, but if he cared for them, they’d repay it in loyalty and lighten his burden. And that went for the rest of his department, not just Project Eclipse. With the right touch, they could all be Minsins.

“I don’t deserve you, Diane.”

“No, you don’t.” She took a deep, stuttering breath and closed her eyes. “Go home. Work tomorrow.”

“I’m not going. Not this night, of all nights. You shouldn’t be alone. The company will survive without me for a day.” He glanced at the door. “What about Lukis?” he asked. He always hesitated to mention her estranged husband, but the man really should be here.

“Been a week.”

Since her eyes were still closed, Strackman allowed himself an angry sneer, though he kept his speaking tone neutral and concerned. “Then you haven’t seen -?”

“He can’t be arsed. He hates her.”

Swallowing his anger, he reached over to stroke her cheek, one of the few things she could still feel. “Don’t worry about her, Diane. I’ll take care of her.”


He patted her in a silent plea to save her strength. “Don’t worry your pretty head. It’s already set up. I can’t do anything whilst she’s a minor, but the moment she turns seventeen, she’ll be offered a work/study program, company flat and everything. She’ll be my personal assistant, so I can keep an eye on her.”

Diane’s eyes shimmered with tears. “But you don’t like her.”

Strackman nodded though she couldn’t see him. Diane’s daughter was quite mentally challenged, and not in an endearing way. He’d tried many times to get to know her, but each time found that there was nothing in her to know. “Maybe not, but she’s all I have of you.”

Diane gulped and coughed. “Thank you. I- I- I worry-”

“Shush, I’ve got it. Don’t worry one bit,” he soothed as he gazed down at her. His father, Mr. Edman Lux, owner and managing director of the Felman Lux Corporation, was wrong. Family wasn’t paramount. There was so much more to the world than blood relation, and for Strackman, all that was good and important in the universe was right here in this small, dark room. “Go to sleep, Diane. You’re exhausted. I’ll be here when you wake up.”