Chapter 1: Cape Tsus

22nd August, 3517 AD

Deius Confederacy

Ikibru system, Planet Cirae

Cape Tsus, Obsidian Heights Resort

Curvaceous skyscrapers pierced the blood hued sky of Cirae, built on the fortunes of an intangible source of wealth and power, information. It was only his desperation to know that Felipe Cortez could relax as he arrived past the front desk to the VIP section of the Resort restaurant, awaitng his contacts, the sights of this city failing to soothe.

Solar panels glinted in the crimson starlight on the monolithic sea walls and towers, permanently oriented to the star to which the planet was tidally locked. Roadways and transit lines bridged the towers and carved their way through the nearby mountain range to the north, automated traffic and freight operating with utmost efficiency only outdone by the organizations controlling the source of wealth the city and the entire planet's local economy thrived on.

In the unseen hardware nexus of cyberspace and wormhole satellite networks, information with influence that defied its intangibility circulated like lifeblood through an organism, with the promise of secrecy or revelations of such information at times having influence to bend entire worlds to the whims of those that controlled it.

Such a place was so heavily monitored that it became common for many 'blackout' spots to emerge, catering to those who, even in this most connected of places, desired somewhere to exchange with less fear of being watched. All that meant was that when a promise of information wasn't kept, it aroused suspicion.

The luxurious Obsidian Heights resort, which lay perched right on the seafront, was home to such an exclusive club for those who were invited or could afford it, and it had seen its share of broken promises. None of them had ever been for pleasant or innocent reasons, and it always meant someone would pay for this, even if the deal breaker got away with it from time to time.

In some cases, however, a broken promise of meeting turned out to be due to unfortunate circumstances, sometimes even dangerous ones. He only hoped that the two who arrived now could ease his mind, the unknown more frightening that even a known danger, and he was quick to spot the emergence of the AI servitor at the elevator exit that came out first.

Cortez summoned his mannerisms, yet suspected that no matter what fa├žade he put on, the woman who came in the Unit's wake, and the unit itself, would see through it. It was because they were that good that he had called them after all.

Servitor Adaptive Intelligence 143, or SAI as his mistress's father had termed him years ago, swept his sensors across the restaurant tables the moment the doors of the elepod opened, and he sent a quick message to Erika.

His scans never ceased, omnidirectional sensors and the 6 optics at his humanoid platform's eye level swept about beneath his form's smooth, translucent head casing. The electromotors in his limbs engaged, following in the wake of the trio of human socialites and two grim faced Kronogri businesswomen he'd ridden up with before splitting off on his own, all of whom were likely here on pleasure rather than business.

Passing by the diners, all of them of sufficient wealth to acquire seats here, he ignored the sideways glances that he received, well aware that it was unusual for a robot not among the waiting staff to walk into a place that catered to needs exclusive to organics, especially one of such luxury. Fortunately, the outer plating on his customized platform, designed with marginal colour and texture shifting metamaterial layers, had the aesthetics to emulate an administrative unit's formal attire plating atop the servomotor and synth-muscle fibres joints that comprised his endoskeleton, ensuring he got nothing more than a second glance before reaching the VIP balcony. To the unaware, he seemed like a unit dedicated to personal service of one of the wealthy patrons that often dined where he headed, and his path was interrupted only by having to present the pass he and his mistress had been given in advance to the gateway scanner at the veranda entrance. One transmission of the digital code was enough to make the translucent orange layer turn white, indicating he could pass.

In his rear sensor fields, he detected his mistress coming out of the elepod hall, the quick sweep that he'd conducted before she came up in the next elepod satisfactory enough to prompt her up. Even if their client was trustworthy, asking them both here in person under such clandestine terms was reason enough to exercise caution.

Erika Graf had donned her preferred form-fitting dark grey suit and long black overcoat. A dark blue scarf, one of a handful of personal items almost always on her, lay draped around her neck beneath the coat. Her wavy, back length blonde hair lay in its usual down state, with her long fringe draped down to cover her left eye, adding to the disarming appearance SAI noted worked to effect by the sideways glances some other patrons gave her. She had left no hint as to their true purpose here, a fact that he didn't need the biosign monitoring nanites in her bloodstream to tell him by the ghost of a smirk that flickered across her lips as she joined him.

As the door's projected light wall cleared Erika on through, she flashed him a brief nod that he only briefly turned to acknowledge, his visual sensors noting it at the same time as they locked onto their client. Beside him, Erika's suppressed grimace was enough to judge, given his experience with her particular quirks, that she shared the feeling that whatever this was, it was definitely more serious than other times they'd associated with him in the past few years.

Felipe Cortez all but advertised himself as he sat clad one of his usual synth-leather clad form silhouetted against the low red disc of Cirae's sun behind him as the fumes from his platinum gilded pipe wafted towards its light in the constant winds. The untouched glass of liquor and half-eaten synth-Haviisk steak, along with the tense muscles beneath his olive hued skin, were the blatant signs of a man waiting in impatience and anxiety obvious even to those with minimal training or programming to recognize them.

The man stood to greet them in a mannerism regarded as polite on Cirae, relief blatant in his Hispanic accent that blurted from his grin, and faint perspiration odors mingling with his expensive cologne, along with the microscopic pipe weed traces in greater quantities than his dental health would suggest was the usual for him, confirmed that the man's stress had recently returned with a vengeance.

"Greetings Ms. Graf."

"Mr. Cortez, you're lucky we were free." Erika's curt reply, tinted with her faint Germanic accent, was unsurprising to SAI, and no doubt Felipe had expected his facade to fail as well by how little his smile faltered. Even rudimentary behavioral analysis would've indicated that the man was masking his anxiety, likely for his own dignity in this establishment, but as all of them were aware of this, Felipe continued to keep his cool. While not a flawless act by most metrics, SAI acknowledged it sufficed to keep as low a profile in this restaurant as possible.

"I didn't want to discuss over a link, risky."

"We're both here in person, or full coding in SAI's case." Erika's calming tone reassured the man of this whilst SAI pulled out the chair for her, to which she gave her usual nod of appreciation before he moved it in for her. While Felipe took his own seat again, SAI detailed his current platform's setup as he stood rigid behind his mistress, his processes indicating a chance elaborating on the usual measures taken might calm the man's suppressed anxiety, his synthesized voice emulating as level and calm a tone as it could muster.

"Be assured that appropriate precautions have been made."

Felipe was relieved by this, the detectable biosigns from him showing signs of calming at last. While SAI remained motionless, he tracked the man's every move, omnidirectional sensors also recording the patrons around the restaurant balcony, who had fortunately begun to give them less wary looks, no doubt dismissing them as an acceptable, unusual trio. Meanwhile his mistress leant forwards, exercising her patience as Felipe seemed to trail off, staring towards the low red sun on the sea's horizon as he turned to the topic that had summoned them here. He recorded every word in this conversation, attentive as an AI of his caliber could be as he listened to the man with his mistress, Mr. Cortez's voice waning from admiring to serious near the end as his gaze left the sunset to focus back on them both.

"Should've been meeting someone else few days ago."

"Yes, Mirminsk's Zarhae." At Erika's insistence, Felipe raised a hand in agreement, nodding towards the display on the end of the table as he brought out a series of display microdevices from his leather-clad pockets, containing useful data if SAI's deductive runtimes were accurate.

"Would you like anything?"

"After explanations." Were he an organic, SAI was certain he might have been amused by the swiftness with which Erika shot down Mr. Cortez's offer with a mixture of modesty and sternness. Felipe's demeanor and internal biosigns showed nothing but amusement at this, though if he had been disappointed it would likely be short lived, as SAI knew that if there was one thing Erika wouldn't turn down, it was a fine dining experience of any sort.

Fortunately, it would only be if they had time to spare, which wouldn't take long to figure out, as Felipe was quick to engage some local datalinks from the microdevices he laid out on the table before them. They synced to both SAI's own and his mistress's optic displays, which in her case layered over her eyesight in a projected display layer, even below her obscured left eye, revealing relevant information as he explained the details to them.

"I'm high on Mirminsk's clientele, traded with her guild before. She promised information that might interest me." In SAI's vision, a 2D image of Mirminsk came up that was visible only to them all at the table, revealing a well-dressed Yaleirn female, her neck and wrists sporting visible cybernetic implants commonplace in those who were information broker agents. Suffice to say they were notorious for being tapped into data networks as much as possible while still being perceived as normal in behavior and appearance, though SAI could reason as to why they were still viewed as something of an enigmatic profession among their organic kin. While Felipe continued his explanation, hushed as could be, Erika leant in to hear better, SAI's initial analysis found nothing in the correspondences between Mirminsk and Mr. Cortez, recent or in the past, to explain her recent absence by her own likely actions alone.

"She insisted the additional offered data was to be dispersed on short notice. She was coming here with hard copies, but when the ship got to the orbital port, she and simply wasn't aboard." SAI noted the man's gesture to the sky away from the sunlit horizon and towards the darker side, where high above there was the faint, moving speck of light that was one of the planet's orbital spaceports, a few smaller specks showing the starliners and freighters of the sizes that stopped by its docking superstructures. While it wasn't actually the dock Mirminsk's ship had moored at, SAI didn't correct the man as he continued. After all, pedantic correction wouldn't be productive at the moment, especially at mention of who else Felipe had contacted prior to their own arrival.

"I contacted her chief, Maithegn Hejrex, but the moment she stepped aboard the ship, there's no record of her."

"There's still eyewitness accounts. SAI?" Erika's inquisitive glance towards SAI was enough to remind him of archive data of previous cases such as this, while trawling local datanets of the spaceport and the starship company records he'd compiled during the conversation from public channels. Her point on eyewitnesses was astute, as was the one about the databases, no matter how extensive a wipe was, there was always some trace at the hardware source, even if getting to such places physically or digitally could prove difficult.

"She boarded over Earth, why she was there, I don't know." SAI had to cut off Felipe's point as he finished his compilation, noting their likely course of action that would be sufficient to gain the leads they needed to start this investigation.

"The next voyage of the ship is in 6 sol days, ISL Rahala, headed to Sol in its inter-homeworld route. Crew roster unchanged."

"If there is anything more that I..."

"All information traded through Mirminsk." He wasted no time in requesting this from Mr. Cortez, and in an instant, SAI's sensors detected the surge of stress biosigns, and it only took his careful and minimal response to get Erika suspicious also, her brows furrowing as the man gave a short excuse.

"That'll take time."

"Why?" Felipe shifted in visible discomfort at his request, confirming this topic was seldom detailed to others. SAI was aware that he lacked the tact his mistress could exercise, and by her recommendation, he kept quiet if what he could muster was insufficient. At the moment however, tact was a mannerism that would be disregarded to get potentially crucial information. By the way that Erika shot Felipe the narrow-eyed stare she often sported on jobs, his inquiry was appropriate in its directness. "You worry it is sensitive information."

"I like to gain any insight before investing, what's actually going on versus public releases." Mr. Cortez took another puff on his pipe as he explained, changing between sheepish and defensive towards the end of his remark. It took only a few moments of thought for his mistress to lean forwards, stating the implied dangers he was playing with here by the nature of his involvement.

"Untoward agents may come for you, being a client of hers." Erika curled a small end of her blue scarf around her finger, playing with it as she leant back with her arms folded, her brows rising at the sight of the man turning pale before her as she elaborated further, not once giving away the satisfaction her body's biosigns exuded by SAI readings. The discomfort on Mr. Cortez's part was necessary for the man to be safe, and by any metric SAI could see, there was no logical reason to withhold this information. "Doing nothing whilst you might be a loose end is not a smart move."

"There is the bluntness I've come to expect." Felipe Cortez's voice shook for a moment as his admission prompted Erika gave a ghost of a smirk. Sai knew it was for good reason, as their behavior tendencies archived between them both over years made this statement accurate. To some inconvenience however, SAI couldn't debate the man's explanation of himself not being able to present all the information right now. "You'll have it. You need help securing tickets?"

"Appreciated, but we can manage." It was now that SAI saw what took Felipe a while longer to notice, as Erika's demeanor morphed to the more outwardly pleasant one that she had a knack for flitting in and out of. The man gave a relieved laugh as his rich voice finally rose in volume to what would be considered normal levels, a tolerable change given that SAI saw that this exchange no longer had to be clandestine.

"Now, with that out of the way, would you stay? I pay membership enough to deserve indulging you on my expense."

"Your husband won't mind? Presumptions might be made, you know how contextless rumours can be." The coy tone his mistress struck in this jab amused Mr. Cortez, and as SAI was all too aware ever since entering here, there was a truth to her remarks, as the intentionally disarming appearance she took in public settings had its own drawbacks in attracting different sorts of attention, though not Mr. Cortez it seemed by the way he laughed off her suggestion.

"I'd be a fool to cheat on a catch like Robert, or risk my kids' wrath." While the man had a good laugh at Erika's comment, SAI noted the slight drop in his tone as he became more serious for a moment. "I haven't told him about Mirminsk's vanishing, or this meeting. I don't want to worry him yet."

"Best keep it that way for now." Erika gave a pleased smile at Felipe's admission, whilst the man then gestured to the table's menu display function for her to use, ready to send the order request to the kitchens a floor below. However, whilst Felipe sat back to finally eat more of his synth-Haviisk steak, the platter's heating unit drawing power wirelessly from the table to reheat the dish, SAI paused in the starliner ticket network browsing he'd been conducting as her question drew his attention.

"SAI, I wouldn't want you to sit here bored stiff, so-."

"I shall secure tickets whilst you indulge. Ignore me in the meantime."

"At least sit." Erika's one exposed eye met his optics as she made this polite enough request. Truth be told, SAI saw no practical reason for him to be here with her, as what work he would be doing whilst she dined and indulged with an old client like Mr. Cortez could be done anywhere. However, she had asked, and there wasn't much to be gained from leaving either.

The small part of his programming that was devoted to functions beyond his designated roles, unspecified processing power he could allocate to any subject of his choosing, dictated his choice in the end. He had interacted with many organics in his decades of being online, and while he was curious, as any AI was, there was security in the familiar when it came to his mistress.

He sat in the seat, silent as he made sure a set of tickets registered under the name Erika Graf were ordered, along with a starship docking port for their personal shuttle. In the meantime, he observed his mistress making small talk with Mr. Cortez, nothing specific or relevant besides social catch-up, noting the relaxed biosigns that the man displayed as a marked change from their initial meeting, whilst Erika's had barely changed since they arrived here.

It would be a half hour more before they left Mr. Cortez behind, who would no doubt make his own way out at his leisure. He was a familiar face around the Obsidian Heights VIP club, whilst Ms. Graf and her AI accomplice were not, reason enough to not linger longer than tolerable.

Cape Tsus, aerospace port hotel complex

Their hotel was only 3 kilometers away, near the aerospace port where their personal shuttle was parked, recently updated to be there until the starship's arrival time in the spaceport in a few days. It was evening by the digital clocks, not that the tidally locked star would visually give that away, and the automatic blinders had darkened the viewing ports in their room to simulate a nighttime view of outside so as not to confuse off-worlders' body clocks.

At the desk provided with the room, holodisplays revealed all the data, or rather what little of it, they had to go on so far, namely Mirminsk's last known locations and her agency. With Mr. Cortez's data due by the time they boarded the starship, they then had to find the data remnants which the sensor wipe hadn't erased. With the work they did prior to SAI's mistress getting ready to retire for the night, it wasn't like they were idle anyway.

"Whatever data Mirminsk had, she had enhanced motive to pass it on."

"We'll find the trail, good a start as any." Having taken off her black overcoat and personal scarf, leaving only her grey suit to work in, Erika had relaxed in their privacy, as he noted that she was no longer holding the upright poise she held in public. He himself saw no reason to change his platform's appearance until they next headed out, and as he could tell from her laid back state that Erika didn't, in her own words spoken on many occasions, 'give a damn' what he looked like on his outer frame, her interest only surging as he raised the point he'd had since conducting deeper research into the organization Mirminsk worked for.

"As well as investigating her disappearence, inquiry should be launched to Mirminsk's agency."

"If they're willing to help." Erika gave a sigh as she seemed to recall memories that SAI had strong suspicions were of cases where they'd been double crossed or refused help, to their inconvenience. He withheld any reassurance, knowing not to offer possible falsehoods as comfort to her, and from her to him in fact, a lesson observed and learned early in their near 2 decades together. She seemed to pull herself out of this doubt however, as she ran a hand through her blonde locks whilst musing as much to herself as to him when she met his optical sensors with her own gaze from where she sat at the desk before him. "Whatever you've already gathered from online will do for now."

"Mirminsk's ship departed the Sol system on the 8th."

"Yes, the trail's getting colder each day, more reason to not waste time once we find it." His point didn't improve Erika's optimism, though given how little they had to go by he knew he wouldn't be feeling as good himself if he had more of an emotional affinity than his programming permitted. Her point was accurate however, bitter as it might have been in its statement, and SAI would have to be as patient as Erika would no doubt steel herself to be until the day came to board the starship they were now booked on.

What they would find as they followed Mirminsk's trail remained to be seen, as SAI wasn't one to make assumptions. In his processes just prior to settling his platform down for a recharge however, as Erika was quick to agree with before she went for her pre-retirement bath in their suite's washroom, the fact that Mirminsk vanished on the same trip that she was also promising some more unusual data for potential sale was too great a coincidence to ignore.

Finding the data she had, or finding Mirminsk, would provide the answers they needed to solve what had occurred, and whether the danger extended to anyone beyond her own freedom.