"Allow me to congratulate you, Lord Sennary. From mercenary
to marshal in less than six months."
"Thank you, Chancellor. I admit, I myself am somewhat surprised by my sudden good fortune."
"You're certain that it's deserved? There's no-one manipulating your circumstances for their own ends?"
Although the comsphere image was small, Sennary could easily tell the extent of Ansle's sneer. "As it happens, I'm not convinced that other people couldn't do a better job, no. But I don't think I was chosen by Justan for any ignoble reason, and I certainly don't think you're up to arranging it."
"His majesty indeed knows best. I'm sorry my question was rather undiplomatic, but I did have to be," hesitation, "be sure. Now, do you have the parcel?"
Sennary held the comsphere to it. "Opening time?"
"Yes. Inside, you'll find a wooden box. That's right, take it out. Now unless those caravanners are completely incompetent, it should contain an unbroken sheet of what looks like smoked glass."
Sennary removed the lid. "Yes, it's packed with sawdust, but there's a pane of glass here."
"Remove the glass, empty out the sawdust. Good, now, glued inside the box is a wooden ring. Stand the box so the panel with the ring is on the bottom."
Sennary put down the comsphere while he moved the box; Ansle turned away, avoided looking at the distorted image. "Done. There are grooves on the open edge here where the lid was. The glass slides into them, right?"
"Yes, but first stand the comsphere on the ring. Then place the glass."
Sennary shrugged, obeyed. The sphere was dark inside the box, but he could still see Ansle. However, when the glass slid in front, the image vanished. Instead, all that remained in the com-2 was a greyish mist; he heard nothing from it but a sound like Winter wind. He lifted the pane. As the bottom edge passed in front of the ball, that part of the picture which it no longer covered returned to normal. Some kind of encryption device, then.
"I see it works, Sennary. Now, drop the glass again, and I'll reciprocate at this end."
Sennary did as he was told, watched the foggy sphere until an image appeared, starting at the top.
Ansle smiled. "At last, we can talk without Porett's eavesdropping!"
"This glass, it illusions everything that passes through? And yours illusions it back?" He nodded. "Smart magic."
"Not really, just a case of ensuring it was random enough to make accidental decryption impossibly unlikely. So, to business. What do you know of Conley?"
"No more than I've told you. I've no idea where she is."
"I do: the Messenger has her. Giqus was not at Ganeizna, yet his presence there would have been the Messenger's preference - even if only to contribute to the demoralisation of our army. Giqus must therefore have been attending to other, more pressing business. I believe that someone found her, that Giqus saw and recognised her, and that he is at present having her shipped to Elbienau."
"He could be dead by now, then; he's an old man, he can't travel well."
Ansle scoffed. "He's hasn't died, believe me, I'd know. He's alive, he remains the Messenger's premier advisor, and he's taking Conley to the capital. I therefore expect the Messenger to be either dead or discredited within the month."
"If Giqus hasn't simply killed Ro. Roween, I mean."
Ansle twitched. Sennary couldn't make out details too well in the darkened box, but he seemed to have spiked a nerve. "That is a possibility, in which case my plan will ultimately fail. It is of no great importance, I have others."
He sighed, unimpressed. "I thought you and Porett were supposed to be allies in this? Why these makeshift boxes? What does it matter if he hears? And how does he do it anyway?"
"It matters because I am unilaterally ending our pact: I gain nothing by the alliance's continuance, whereas he gains all. Besides, I could hardly allow him to hear me tell you to kill him."
A pause, then a laugh. "You want me to kill Porett? He just gave me the best sword that was ever made, loaded me down with cratefuls of zip, and is anxiously keen to help however he can! Why do you want me to kill him?"
"That's my business. Just do it."
Sennary was shaking his head. "You'll have to do better than that, Ansle: my new circumstances mean I don't have to stoop to assassination any more. Not that I ever offed civilians anyway."
"No, you've risen now, haven't you? You have power. But how much would your new command be worth if there were no supplies? No food, no money to pay your soldiers, no weapons, no clothes, armour? I, too, have new responsibilities, and I can make your job very difficult. There's always the good general Nolley waiting to replace you."
"If you think that trick will work, you're mistaken. Justan would crucify you if he found out, it'd be just the excuse he needed. Try again."
Ansle rubbed the misting glass with his sleeve, he was sitting too close, clouding it with his breath as well as his magic. "As you wish. Ask yourself this, then: if Porett resorted to killing a queen to gain control of East/Trad, what is he prepared to do to destroy Magicorp? You think he'll let Conley live once he has her magic-smashing spell? Not a hope!"
Now it was Sennary who twitched. "You have a point there, Ansle. But why should I care what happens to Conley?"
"Ah, but you do, don't you?" Ansle smiled.
Sennary didn't say anything, not immediately. Then, slowly folding his arms, "Why do you want him dead? Don't tell me it's to save Conley, because I won't believe you."
"That hurts," spat, so sharply that Sennary almost believed it, except for the indecent speed with which the chancellor regained his composure. "There are other reasons, though, yes. In my official capacity, I've been looking into Porett's affairs. Porett Technologies is much larger and more powerful than I think even he realises. I want it."
"Simple as that, Ansle? Why not try for Magicorp as well?"
Ansle didn't attempt to hide his irritation. "Magicorp is run by a board of directors; they pay regular dividends and publish the details. With inter-directoral rivalries necessitating constant performance checks, they have teams of lawyers buzzing around, looking at everything they do from every possible angle. Porett owns around seventy percent of Porett Technologies' stock, and he's therefore in absolute control. Because of that, he can react quicker at the tactical level than can Magicorp, as his word has automatic authority. However, there are far fewer checks and balances on what goes on within his organisation, and it has a much shallower command structure than Magicorp; Porett himself is the only driving force. If he dies, all of Porett Technologies collapses unless he's quickly replaced by someone suitably qualified. Magicorp is a completely different animal."
Sennary grinned. "Well you obviously know a lot more about management than I do, Ansle, but it occurs to me that East/Trad's set-up is unlike the rest of Porett Technologies', and that if Porett died then East/Trad's management could easily be brought in to assume control of the whole company. Porett probably thinks so, too: that's why he appointed people he trusted to East/Trad's board, and didn't touch the company's overall organisational framework."
"You're right," Ansle was glaring at him, "I do know more about it than you. Just kill Porett; I can deal with the residue of his estate."
"Flimsy, Ansle, as always. Look, I don't know how you intend to turn his company into Ansle Technologies, and I don't know how my murdering him will enable you to accomplish more than a small part of your goal. It's none of it my concern. However, I will certainly kill Porett if he makes any attempt to reach Conley or Roween, either through an agent or by himself. Satisfied?"
"If it's as far as you'll go, yes, I'll have to be. Oh, but there's something else: there are two of him; you'll have to kill them both."
Sennary tipped his head to the right, frowned. "That, Ansle, isn't funny."
"No, there really are two Poretts, it's true! His grade 3 comsphere contains his essence in some duplicate form. He can meld himself into it, share his memories and experience. The man we know as Porett has two existences: one inside, one outside the crystal. Did you talk to Vyval Reeve?"
"He's dead. Porett killed him."
"I know that - he was dead the moment I asked you to contact him - but did you actually speak before he died? Oh never mind, listen: the original com-3 project was special. It was supposed to be an enhanced com-2, different levels of call priority, that sort of thing. Porett had some of the designers write extra segments, though, for another purpose altogether more sinister. The com-3 was intended to steal minds. Anyone using it could, on a fifty-gesture signal, have their personality, knowledge, thoughts, copied into the sphere, unbeknown to them. Later, the com-3 would develop a `fault' and be returned to Porett Technologies for correction, whereupon the soul within it could be removed and interrogated, or used for some other demonic purpose."
Sennary looked serious. "How do you know all this?"
"I knew something was strange about the com-3, and I'd put a lot of it together from empirical evidence. I found out exactly who had died in the famous lab explosion, and from that reconstructed the nature of the project that they had probably been working on, knowing their research areas. Although at first Vyval wouldn't confirm anything to me, Porett approached him unexpectedly, tried to re-employ him on some crazy new project. Vyval panicked, figured Porett would arrange a second accident, told me what he knew. It seems that perversely, as is common in mismagic, the com-3 they were working on wasn't damaged in the blast. It can't snaffle unwilling minds, but it can accept ones deliberately projected into it."
"Well Vyval was justified in panicking, anyway. Porett may be a laid-back, over-aged student cutter on the outside, but he's diamond-hard steel within. You think the lab blow-out was deliberate?"
"No. Members of the communications team, who were kept uninformed of the secret segments, put in some fancy extras themselves. They thought they had plenty of colour play, but in reality were perilously close to losing it. One red too many, up they went."
"I see. This is taking some believing, Ansle..."
"Well it doesn't matter how sceptical you are, just make sure that when Porett dies his com-3 is smashed to pieces."
"Very well. If I kill him, the comsphere goes too."
Ansle breathed out, long. He looked as if he felt like he'd maybe won something here. "Sennary, I have to go now, I'm meeting my new deputy. Take the glass out of the box - I have the only matching decoder. Don't let anyone else see it, if you can avoid doing so. Porett will know of its existence, as his mind in the comsphere can listen in on other comspheres, intercept the messages. Our conversations, however, will be nonsense to him. He'll suspect my commitment is failing, but won't know it."
"I understand. Oh, before you go, who's the new deputy?"
"Professor Nicvia, from N/Clinics. An old friend."
21st January 1999: isif42.htm