Operation Starfold 14

The sleek private transport sliced through the air above Epsilon City, heading for the outskirts. Flying over the tony suburbs, it streaked even further away until it raced over private land for a few minutes.

At last it circled an isolated compound in the foothills out in the countryside before landing vertically on a pad out front.

Terrestrial teleportation remained rare for citizens in the League, so the rich typically relied on private transports. As the door softly hissed open, Niles walked out and frowned at the front entrance to Grande Vista, the Sergio family’s mansion.

The giant oak double doors parted as he stepped up onto a white columned front porch running the entire front length of the four story house. An android butler and maid appeared in the doorway, as well as two young female indents wearing surprised expressions on their faces.

“Welcome home, Master Niles,” the butler said, cheerfully. It looked like the prototypical British butler of old, complete with a long-tailed tuxedo and short white hair.

Niles nodded his acknowledgment and shouldered past the reception party.

He said, “I’m here to see Dad.”

“Absolutely, sir!” the butler said, rushing after him. The indents and the maid droid followed.

“Will you be staying for supper, sir? Will be you with us overnight?”

“Probably not, thanks.”

By this time, they reached the mansion’s palatial staircase, an elegant red-carpeted marble-stepped affair that split in two and curled upward to the fourth floor in twin spirals.

The mansion had elevators, too, for servants as well as guests, but Niles opted for the stairs.

He stopped on the first step and looked up at a stained glass domed skylight high above featuring a chubby cupid with wings and a bow and arrow.

He looked back at the butler, who had stopped with the maid and the indents. Everyone stared up at him on the steps.

“He’s still in the same room, right?”

“Yes, sir. Would you like me to accompany you? Or any of the other servants?”

“No, I’m fine. If I need anything, I’ll ask.”

“Very well, sir!”

The butler gave a perfect bow, and the maid curtseyed. Seeing this display of respect, the human indents tried to copy the android maid’s maneuver . . . and executed it rather poorly.

They blushed at Niles in embarrassment, but he ignored them. Right now he did not really care whether the indents knew proper protocols or not.

He bounded up the steps two at a time, making his way to the second floor.

He walked down a hallway reserved for guestrooms. At the end, a door stood open and he slowed, walking in quietly.

On a hospital bed, an old man lay unconscious. A holo above the bed displayed his heartbeat and other vital signs.

Here another android stood watch, this one a doc bot. He turned and nodded at Niles when the young man entered the room.

Niles approached the bed and looked down at the ventilation mask covering his father’s face. A machine pumped air into the old man’s nose. An IV dripped nutrients into his bloodstream.

Niles looked at the doc bot and said, “Any changes since the last time I was here?”

“No, sir.”

“All his vitals are the same?”

“Yes, sir.”

“And . . . his brain scans?”

“Still active, sir.”

Niles bent down closer to the old man’s face.

Softly, he said, “Hi, Dad. It’s me, Niles. Sorry I haven’t been to see you in a while. I was . . . indisposed.”

He looked up at the holo above the bed showing medical data. Nothing changed. He looked at the brainwave scan, and his brows furrowed.

“Shouldn’t he be registering a change or something, when I speak? I thought there would be a spike or something.”

The doc bot looked at the readout and said, “Perhaps. Or perhaps not. There is still much we do not know about the brain.”

Niles cut his eyes over to the android and his frown grew more severe.

“Really? Because we finished a documentary last year on all the new medical advances recently, and I know for a fact that we’ve learned quite a bit about the brain.”

The bot looked at him and when Niles locked eyes with it, he remembered he was not speaking with another human. Just a machine. It could not come up with a suitable response, as it was not programmed to engage in much conversation beyond answering immediate medical questions.

It could not ponder ethics, or pontificate regarding advances in current medical research, like a human doctor might.

Niles heard a noise behind them and turned to look. An older woman walked into the room. Niles knew she was in her 60s, but she had spent thousands of credits to make her face appear to be 30. Her eyes still looked older, despite the wrinkle-free cheeks. Her face freaked him out, but he wisely stifled his negative reaction.

Instead he said, “Hello, Emma.”

“Niles! I’m so glad you’re home.”

The look on her face clearly indicated she lied. Niles ignored that, too.

“How’s he been doing?”

“Oh, same as always,” Emma said, her eyes shifting down to the bed. “I’m afraid you’ll not be taking over the company any time soon.”

Just like that, she stuck a verbal dagger to his heart.

“That’s not why I came.”

“Indeed? Well it would seem obvious. I am your stepmother, and the law states so long as Seth lives, I am in charge of everything. His will does not go into effect until he dies, as you well know. And I know how you long for that happen, Niles.

“But as you also know, I hold his medical power of attorney, and while he lives I remain in charge of the company.”

“I do not long to see my father die, Emma.”

He would never call her Mother. His real mom died in a spaceship accident years ago, while he was in college. That his father remarried a younger and attractive replacement wife had been the source of many arguments with his old man. He regretted all those fights, now.

He had grown estranged from his father, although the old man let him run some things at the company. So, he partied and acted like a playboy, only occasionally working on some documentary or other for Sergio Productions. He chased girls, and drank too much, and otherwise ignored his old man and his stepmother.

Then, about a year and a half ago, his father had a stroke. Seth’s will left control of the company to Niles, but his living will stipulated that life support only be turned off when his brain functions ceased. And his wife had medical power of attorney to make such decisions.

The stroke incapacitated him. He was alive, but barely.

Privately, the doctors at Epsilon General Hospital told Niles that his father would expire without life support. Brain scans showed activity, though. Emma was very quick to point that out to everyone, and Niles knew she had lined up several high-powered lawyers to gear up for a legal fight.

His own lawyers told him the will was rock solid. The company would go to Niles after his father died, and there was little to nothing Emma could do about it.

But the living will was also solid, they said. So long as brain scans showed activity, she remained in charge of Seth’s life support. And, by extension, the company.

Emma took Seth home from the hospital and set up a guestroom for him, buying a medical bed and a doc bot to tend to his needs. The brain scans showed consistent activity for almost 18 months now. And, during all that time, his stepmother ran Sergio Productions with an iron fist.

Niles took a deep breath. He said, “I guess you know I was captured by pirates for a while.”

“Yes, I heard. Terrible.”

Her tone of voice did not sound very sympathetic. Niles did not bring up the fact that Emma refused to pay his ransom, essentially leaving him stranded on Lute for a long time.

“Well, I’m back now. I’m going to make a movie about it, based on the story that ran in the Beacon recently.”

“I won’t fund it.”

Emma’s tone was flat. Dismissive.

But, he expected her to make a statement like that.

Niles said, “You don’t have to. I’m funding it myself. I’ll be using the documentary division for production.”

The documentary division was one of the few parts of the company he had direct control over.

She glared at him, and he could see sparks of vile in her eyes.

She said, “To do it right, and to have the Sergio Productions name on it, you would need a considerable sum. I told you, I won’t be funding it and I won’t allow a piss-poor effort to leave our company doors.”

In fact, Sergio thought, she would probably take steps after leaving this room to defund whatever the documentary division had left in their fiscal year’s budget.

He nodded and said, “I have the money. I’ll be funding it, and paying for our usual standards of quality.”

This surprised her, and it showed on her face.

He said, “But know this, Emma . . .”

He locked eyes with her and drew up to his full height.

“I’ll also be taking a larger share of the profits, since I’m financing it personally.”

Her face fell, and her eyes grew red with suppressed rage.

She knew he was right. If he really could finance the production . . .

She had no idea where he would come up with the money. Emma kept an eagle eye on Sergio Productions’ finances, and she knew the paltry amount allocated to the documentary division’s budget. It was not near enough to do a quality holo.

Had he gotten ahold of money she did not know about?

She could not ask. She could only stare at him angrily as he looked at his father one last time.

Niles turned and walked out of the room without saying another word.

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