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Gifts of Gold

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At fifteen minutes past eight, Dorra Hare slipped into the ground car she had hired for the night, neatly tucking in her new gown around her legs as the door slid shut with a hydraulic hiss.

"Well, hello, little lady!" the driver said. He had a six ring System emblem hanging from his rear-view mirror. Dorra's brother had had one just like it hanging on his bedroom wall. It had been a gift from their father.

She pushed the memory aside. She couldn't let herself get distracted.

"And where can I take you tonight?" the driver asked.

There are some places in the colony that no cabby would ever take someone willingly. Being seen around those places could be very bad for a neutral cabby's reputation. Or his health.

Dorra smiled at the driver through the mirror and lied. "To Koulkia Theater," she said. It was close enough to where she was really going that even in a gown she could walk the rest of the way. It wasn't for nothing that she'd made sure she was wearing shoes she could run in tonight.

Pulling into the evening traffic, he ground car made its way toward the Hub - the center, and most affluent, sector of the colony. Above them, the anti-grav vehicles flashed by in the sky lanes. The driver made small talk along the way, asking why a pretty little thing like herself was all dressed up with no date on her arm. Dorra smiled and gave vague answers, mostly letting the driver carry the conversation.

He had a lot of opinions, he did. (His name was Marios, by the way, pleasure to meet you.) 'Specially about how there were no decent young men nowadays who could take a pretty girl to the theater. The whole colony was on a downward spiral, if you asked him. People had no values anymore. Everything was money, and under the counter deals, and Aureate.

Always the Aureate.

With something like surprise, Dorra looked down at her hands. She was gripping her own right wrist so tightly that she could almost feel the bones move. Dorra let go, then made a conscious effort to relax her hands, her shoulders, her spine.

Breathe, she thought to herself, only half listening to the cabby's monologue. Obdulia said the mark wouldn't show. You'll be fine. You can't go back now.

Just breathe.

The ground car idled up to the corner of the old, grand Koulkia Theater in the downtown Hub. Dorra made sure to give the driver a generous tip, then waved him off with a smile. She waited until his car was out of sight before she went around the corner and started to walk toward her real destination - the Spire.

The Spire the largest skyscraper in the colony, one of the largest in the six-colony System. It looked more like art than architecture, reflecting the bright night time lights of the Hub in its mirrored surface.

From two blocks away, Dorra could see the stream of well dressed movers and shakers exiting their anti-grav fliers and entering the Spire. Tonight's party was the highlight of the season. No one with any kind of status would want to miss it.

Even if that party was being held by Laro Komedes - the colony's most powerful and most ruthless mob boss.

As she got closer, she started to see the security check points the guests were subtly being made to walk through. She thought she recognized a judge and her very young date being pulled aside to a discrete scanner. They weren't taking chances tonight.

It didn't matter. She'd been registered with the Komedes outfit since she'd come of age, and she wasn't carrying any weapons. None that the scanners could pick up, anyway.

Dorra pushed back her shoulders, settling into a dancer's posture by habit, and smiled. She made sure not to grab her right wrist as she approached security. There was a tense moment - could they detect the modification? Would she be caught before she even got in the building? - and then the doormen were nodding her through.

She was in.

***

eight years ago

Dorra Hare didn't want to be a criminal.

Dorra's parents had been Aureate handlers, working on the dead planet in which the six colonies - the System - orbited. The Hares had always been clever people, and Dorra's parents had been among the first to develop a system to control the sometimes volatile substance known as Aureate. In their day, they had been respected not only for their growing expertise on Aureate, but also their willingness to handle it, even if it was indirectly.

The discovery of a natural deposit of Aureate had made the whole System ecstatic. Because Aureate, the gold semi-liquid prized all over the galaxy, was the only known natural substance to enhance telepathic sensors, offering up the greatest technological leap in centuries.

Everyone had thought the discovery would bring the System out of the corrupt gutter it was in, and make it rich and happy and prosperous. Sure, handling Aureate could be dangerous, and the material had a reputation for being very unstable at times, but think of the profit!

At least, that's what they thought until Laro Komedes bought up the Aureate monopoly.

After that, everyone in the Aureate industry effectively worked for Komedes. Their jobs - their lives - belonged to him. And Komedes? He just wanted more. More Aureate mined, more distilled, more purified. More, more, more. Worse, he wasn't just an unfeeling CEO, sitting up in a corner office. Komedes had one of the largest and longest established crime syndicates in the colonies. With growing dismay, the people of the colonies saw that instead of making the System less corrupt, the discovery of Aureate had made it worse. When a worker balked at going past the safety regulations...they were 'persuaded' to put aside their qualms.

So the accident, when it came, wasn't a surprise to anyone. It never became clear what exactly set it off, other than 'someone did something stupid to the unrefined Aureate.' The result, however, was obvious and devastating: one fourth of the active Aureate workers were killed instantly by brain aneurysm. Though she retained injuries, Dorra's mother, Ari Hare, was one of the very few in the core who survived. Dorra's father did not.

After an initial investigation into the accident and the survivors, the Komedes paper pushers came up with a surprising discovery. It was not proximity to the blast location that determined whether someone survived the Aureate Accident, or at least not completely. The diffusion of unrefined Aureate into the air seemed to have less effect on certain people, pointing to a possible genetic resistance, or compatibility, to Aureate.

All the survivors were tested. All of their children, siblings, cousins - they were all tested for Aureate compatibility. And every one who showed even the slightest affinity toward Aureate was taken into the Komedes empire and trained up as an Aureate handler.

Including Dorra.

This is an honor, Laro Komedes had said when the crying children were brought to him in the basement of the Spire. It is a gift.

***

The Spire's lobby was dazzling. Everything was crystal and gold, with blue accents and a lush cobalt carpet under the guests' feet. The chandeliers glittered overhead as perfectly pointed and coiffed people mingled outside of the main room.

Dorra remembered the first time she had seen the inside of the Spire. It hadn't been set up for a party then, but even in its bare bones it was still breathtaking. She hadn't wanted to be awed, hadn't wanted to think there was anything beautiful connected to the Komedes empire she was unwillingly a part of. But it didn't take long for the glamour of the Spire to fade.

She spied an old grandfather clock in the corner. Just past 8:40pm. More than enough time to get into position and wait for her signal.

She slipped through the crowd, he slight dancer's build making it easy to move between laughing and posturing people. She didn't rush. Now was not the time to draw attention to herself.

As she entered the ballroom, Dorra grabbed a flute of champagne off of a passing tray. She found a half hidden spot near a potted plant to collect her bearings.

The room was nearly packed with people. Gowns and suits of every color flashed before her, while sharply dressed waiters in white glided through the throng.

There were regularly spaced chandeliers in this room, too, though the center of the ceiling was left clear. Instead, there was a large brass ring surrounding a hole in the ceiling, covered in what looked like drapes.

That's it, thought Dorra, her breath catching a little. That's where it's coming down.

"Some more champagne, ma'am?" a voice murmured.

"No, thank -" Dorra said, cutting off as she turned around and got a good look at who was talking to her.

The waiter was as sharply dressed as any of the others, though his liberally gelled back hair may have been a bit too long. Dark eyes, dark complexion, easy smile - there was nothing out of the ordinary about him at all.

Nothing, save that Dorra had spent the last two months wanting to choke him with his own roast beef sandwich.

"...no, thank you, I'm fine for now." A waiter? Seriously?, she thought, but didn't say out loud. She thought she saw his lip twitch. "But perhaps you have something to eat, like cheese?"

"We do, ma'am. I'll get that for you right away," he said, then held her eyes for a moment. "It won't be long."

It won't be long. Well, at least now she knew where her signal was coming from.

***

three months ago

Dorra still isn't sure how she ended up on Obdulia Aldona's radar. She thinks it may have been that incident when she pulled her brother out of the Aureate testing lab before it blew, blatantly ignoring the commands of the Komedes brutes trying to hold her back. Dorra didn't look like someone who went in for big heroics, which was true - she much preferred caution and avoidance of trouble when possible. But she had lost one family member to the Komedes Aureate industry. She wasn't going to lose another, no matter what her natural inclinations might have been. After that incident, Dorra had let loose some unconscious words she normally would have kept locked up. She'd gotten punished for it. She ended up giving a humble, subdued apology to the supervisors, and then went home to hug her brother tight. And that, she had thought, was the end of that.

But Obdulia Aldona, she had come to find out, had spies everywhere. Not long after that incident, Dorra had been contacted by one of her people and escorted to a meeting with the great dame herself.

Obdulia didn't run a crime syndicate like Komedes, but the organization she had built was far from orthodox. Some of the colony people loved them. Others called them agitators and trouble makers. Not many thought they had the clout to really change anything in the System.

But when Dorra met Obdulia for the first time, she started to wonder. A stately woman in her middle years, Obdulia didn't seem like the leader of a petty gang. She looked like a woman with her eyes on the far horizon, and the drive and discipline to get there.

At that meeting, Dorra was given an offer. The Aldona group had the resources, Obdulia said, to smuggle certain people out of the System, all the way out to the Linked Planets. Like a family, perhaps, who have been under the heavy thumb of Laro Komedes for far too long.

Dorra had felt her mouth twist. Is this a gift? she had asked.

Obdulia's eyes met hers directly. There is a price.

The price was sabotage. Hearing that almost made Dorra feel better. Unlike her experiences with Komedes, Obdulia's bargain sounded honest. Criminal, but honest.

The Aldona had been investing in research, as well as stealing what research the Komedes had been doing, on the people with Aureate compatibility. They had found, she said, a serum which seemed to enhance natural Aureate compatibility to an astonishing degree. This serum would allow someone to use the telepathic properties of Aureate directly, without a technological interface which was how things were currently done.

It was a dangerous experiment. Even if the serum took to the user, it would take weeks, maybe even months of practice before direct telepathic control over the Aureate would be possible.

What's the point? This would just help that bastard Komedes make more money in the long run.

No, one of the young men standing by Obdulia had said. Her nephew, she had said. Paz.

It won't.

***

one month ago

It took three months for Dorra to build her skills with the Aureate. There were secret meetings, outside of the Komedes sight, where Dorra would take another dose of the serum and force herself to try to control the Aureate.

Normally, there were a number of sensors and electrical converters needed to make such a thing possible. The serum, which Paz had called Zoya, made all of that unnecessary.

It was exhausting. It was painful. But after 7 weeks of work and constant sessions with Paz, when it became clear that Dorra could pull off the job, the Aldona kept their word.

They got her family safely out of the System. Her mother and brother would never be forced to work under Komedes again. Dorra had never in her life felt so much relief. She may fail, she may be caught, she may even die, but they were out. That was all that mattered to her, she had told Paz. Not, she said, that it would be nice to take Komedes and his empire down, too.

All that was left was Dorra's part of the bargain.

***

A few minutes to nine, the lights in the ballroom started to dim. Dorra looked around, wide eyed, wondering how she'd be able to get a signal from Paz if she couldn't even see him.

But then there wasn't anymore time to wonder. Laro Komedes himself came up on the impromptu stage in the center of the ballroom.

He gave a speech. Dorra tuned him out - she'd heard it all before. How the six colonies were growing thanks to the Aureate industry (they weren't), how life was better than it was ten years ago (it wasn't), and how it could keep going that way if his guests would lend a helping hand in any way that they could (and damn them, they would).

Dorra kept her eyes on the ceiling.

And then it started. She felt a tinkling under the skin of her right wrist.

Obdulia had known of this little party long in advance. Even better, she had learned what the centerpiece of it all was going to be. Komedes had had his workers make a globe of pure Aureate. The globe would represent more than a fortune - it would be the large collection of pure Aureate in the galaxy, all in one place. And this rare, nearly invaluable substance was going to be used as an ornament, to show off Komedes' wealth and power, to shock and humble his dear guests.

Obdulia and Paz had other ideas.

Dorra made sure she was close enough to the hole to see what was going on. She hoped Paz was watching her back. If somehow the guards pieced together what she was doing, it was all over.

The tingling feeling in her wrist, where the serum entered her bloodstream, started to spread all through her arm. And then she saw - she felt - the globe descend.

The room seemed to gasp simultaneously. Most of the people backed away from the center of the floor, forcing Dorra to move back as well to keep her cover. She was concentrating intensely. The globe was a far, far larger piece of Aureate than anything she had practiced with. She focused with everything she had, her head pounding, her arm nearly vibrating. She felt as if she held the whole globe of Aureate in her mind.

Someone brushed her shoulder. "Now," Paz whispered.

Dorra reached out and twisted.

Laro Komedes' grandstanding speech broke off as the people started screaming. The globe of pure gold Aureate was darkening, melting. Before their eyes and frightened exclamations, the priceless Aureate seemed to turn to sludge.

Dorra started to sway, but Paz caught her. "It's shock," she distantly heard him say to someone nearby.

After a second, she shook off the fatigue and looked around. It was chaos. The sound in the room was almost unbearable. Most people were trying to run from the doors as the sludge kept dripping on the floor - when did the glass globe break? - but others just stood horrified, staring as what was once pure now turned into valueless gunk.

Komedes was yelling louder than anyone. "NO! NO!" His people tried and failed to hold him back. And then the fool picked some of the corrupted Aureate up in his bare hands.

Dorra didn't want to see what happened next, but she couldn't look away. He wasn't supposed to do that, she thought as Paz steered her out of the room. Komedes had already started shaking from direct contact with the Aureate. And then, That's how my father died. That's how my mother and brother would have died.

There's always a price.

***

But, she later found out, Laro Komedes didn't die.

The disaster at the Spire worked even better than Obdulia had hoped. Her people had planned multiple strikes against the Komedes operations that night - Dorra was just the distraction. But the loss of face that night was near irreparable. And Komedes' own injuries took a long time to heal, leaving him with the tell tale gold skin of Aureate poisoning that would never leave him. A sign of his greed, the people of the System said. He wanted too much. His empire shattered almost overnight.

What came up in the void was a power struggle of epic proportions, Dorra had heard. She didn't stay long enough to see it first hand.

***

It was Paz who escorted her out to the Linked Planets to reunite with her family. It surprised her, since she had been pretty sure all he was concerned with was her role in his aunt's plan and how fast she could learn to corrupt excessive amounts of Aureate. Paz cleared his throat and made a few vague comments about research contacts. She grinned and let it go.

The first time she felt wind - real wind, not from a weather simulator - was when her anti-grav car landed in front of her family's house on their new planet. A planet. That could support life. She stepped out of the car and felt the warmth of the gold sun on her skin. It almost made her start crying. When she saw her brother run out the door to give her a flying hug with her mother following, using her cane and moving slowly down the steps with a wide grin, she did cry.

She hugged her brother tight and laughed through tears, while Paz stood behind her with his hands in his pockets, her mother looking at him curiously.

This is a gift, she thought.