Chapter 26

The single runway on the Orleans Inlet Installation was not attached to a skyport terminal, nor was it even close to any nearby buildings. It was merely a swath of gray pavement cut through the grassy surface of the island. The only indication of its purpose was a nearby observation tower. To the left of the runway, a network of squat buildings clustered on the ground. On the right side was thick forest, a sign of modern advancement for an artificial island like the Orleans Installation.

The jet carrying the Securemarket™ employees descended toward the runway with practiced ease, orienting itself to fit on the narrow space. It landed smoothly and roared to a gradual halt only about a hundred meters from the end of the pavement.

Once it had landed, a group of five people emerged from the nearest building. Leading the group was a middle-aged Corporate Knight in a finely-pressed suit, prominently wearing a weapon-belt that carried a bulletshield and a fine longsword, attached to which was a holstered heavy pistol. As all Corporate Knights did, he wore a rose, the color of which was bright crimson with streaks of white.

Behind the CK was an older man in a deep black business suit. His tie was a bright red and had the Securemarket™ logo on its knot. His white hair was thinning, but had a swept-back look to it, as though the man had just been in a stiff wind. The old man kept both hands in his pockets and walked with a slight hunch, but his strides were long and he kept pace with the knight without trouble. His craggy face was fixed in a hawkish expression, his sharp eyes sweeping up to examine the jet. On either side of the old man walked a man and a woman with eerily similar features, both quite fit and dressed in the military-style Securemarket™ Officer’s uniform. Each carried an assault rifle and kept their eyes roving, an alert honor guard.

Slightly to the left and near the rear of the small group was a handsome bespectacled man in his early thirties. He was wearing a white lab coat over a plain set of red clothing. He was outfitted as a standard corporate medic, right down to the bulky diagnostic shell holstered on the opposite hip as a sleek ionic taser.

The group walked toward the plane as its door opened and the store managers and shift supervisors began to disembark. By the time the small group of people had reached the edge of the landing strip, the high-level employees had lined up before them.

The Corporate Knight stopped in front of the line of employees, drew his sword and pistol, and held them in a Knight’s salute. The employees bowed. The Knight sheathed his weapons and shouted, “At ease!”

The employees fell into a loose at-ease stance. The Knight stepped to his side and turned to face the older man. The old man walked closer, swept his eyes over the gathered crowd, and addressed them in a surprisingly clear, loud voice.

“It’s good to see you here,” he said. “I look forward to meeting the new members of our community, and to seeing again those who feel brave enough to come here twice. I won’t keep you longer, though. Sir Erdrick?”

“Store managers, you may call your employees and sort them by shift,” the Corporate Knight said.

The store manager at the end of the line tapped an earpiece and spoke a few words into it. Shortly thereafter, his employees began filing out of the jet, taking places behind their shift supervisors. One by one, the managers called their employees out.

Eventually, Paru saw the last of the employees in the group before hers exit the jet. She tapped what appeared to be a stud earring and spoke in her clear, authoritative voice: “Neimuth and 15th.”

A few moments later, Paru’s employees emerged from the jet and began to take their places behind their respective shift supervisors, who had turned to face the jet. In front of Alan, Steve took her place first as the highest-ranking employee; she was shaking a little bit and her face was pale. Zap, who had followed very close behind Steve, was the next to line up. To’mas was next, followed by Matt, Loren and Click.

The rest of the employees lined up without much incident, though many appeared shaken by the experience of the plane trip.

The Knight folded his hands behind his back and surveyed the crowd for a few seconds before he spoke up.

“Welcome,” he said, “to Securemarket™ Employee Retreat number 67. For many of you, this retreat will be your first. Some of you have been here many times. Whatever the case, much will be expected of you here, and this retreat will not be easy by any means.

“You are not part of a Corporate Militia. In terms of military training and combat, this will not be as arduous as a soldier’s training retreat would be. More is expected of you, however, than merely the ability to defend your customers. You also must serve them, and in this regard your training will be more difficult than a soldier’s—you will be expected to show an ability not only to fight and to operate under duress, but also to be an effective customer service representative through it all.

“My name is Orin Erdrick,” the Knight said. “You will refer to me as Sir Erdrick. I am a senior CK of the Securemarket™ Corporation, and I will be your chief commanding officer for the duration of this retreat. If I give you an order, you will obey it promptly and cheerfully. I am not cruel or strict, but I do not appreciate back-talk or laziness. If you internalize this advisement, you and I will get along fine. Before I give you your assignments, I will turn your attention to the Securemarket™ CEO, Mr. Thorvald Volnocht.”

The old man stepped forward. “Hello, everyone,” he said. “I am glad to see all of you here. It takes a unique person to be a Securemarket™ employee; it takes dedication and attention and effort. All of you were chosen by my store managers, and store managers were chosen in a joint effort by my top knights and myself. I believe that every one of you is capable of bearing the Securemarket™ logo and making me proud by doing so. I look forward to Sir Erdrick’s reports of your excellent performances.”

His brief speech finished, he turned away and Sir Erdrick stepped up again.

“All right, here’s where we go now,” he said. “Your schedule, room assignments and a map of the facility were uploaded to your company-issued workshell while you were on the plane. Each of you will be staying in a room with one other employee, probably from your store but likely not from your shift. Your shell will unlock your door. You have three hours to get settled in your room, get to the mess hall and have lunch. At 14:30 you are to meet your store manager in the room assignment specified on your schedule. That is all; please follow your store manager into the facility, and you are then released.”

The store managers led their employees inside one by one.

Steve trudged down the dormitory hallway, dragging the rolling luggage she’d checked behind her. Like all of the other employees wandering toward their rooms, she had her workshell in her free hand and was following its instructions to get to her room. After walking for a while, she stopped and looked up at a door and the number printed on its face. She pressed a button on the side of her shell and the doorknob made a click noise. Steve holstered her shell, turned the doorknob and shouldered her way into the room.

The dorm room was of a modest size and sparsely furnished; it had two bunked beds, a pair of desks with a large-screen desktop shell on each one, and a compact refrigerator. A fairly large window with a polaroid control panel was at the back of the room.

There was already a girl in the room. She appeared to be in her late teens, had shoulder-length black hair and violet eyes, and was sitting on the lower of the two beds. She was wearing a white collared blouse with a sleeveless sweater over it and a knee-length skirt. She smiled when she saw Steve come in.

“Hi!” she said. “I’m Violet Crenshaw.”

“Good to meet you,” Steve said, pushing the handle of her luggage down. “I’m Stephen Anderson. Everybody calls me Steve.”

“Okay, good,” Violet responded, sounding amused. “I was sorta wondering if they’d put me with a boy.”

“Yeah, I don’t blame you,” Steve said. “My parents are funny people.”

“Well, feel free to settle in. Do you mind if I take the bottom bunk?”

“Go ahead,” Steve said.

“You don’t look so hot,” Violet said.

“That was my first flight,” Steve said, throwing herself into one of the room’s office chairs.

“Mine too,” Violet said, nodding. “So it’s our first retreat for both of us, then.”

“Yeah,” Steve said. “Hey, this chair is really comfy.”

“Really?” Violet said, then stood up, moved to the other chair and sat in it. “Hey, you’re right.”

Steve sighed and leaned back in the chair.

“What store and shift are you?” Violet asked.

“15th and Neimuth, afternoon shift.”

“I’m 11th street early-morning shift,” Violet said.

Steve turned her head to look at Violet. “Do you know Pazi Elwynn?” she asked.

“You heard about her from the news, huh?” Violet said. “Not really. I’ve met her once or twice, but she works afternoon shift, like you.”

“Mmm,” Steve said. “What else do you do, that early morning shift works for you?”

“I’m an apprentice bartender,” Violet said with a smile. “At the Gogobera.”

Steve paused, then looked over at Violet. “Whoa, seriously?” she asked.

“Mmm-hmm,” Violet replied, nodding proudly. “It was one hell of a competition to get the apprenticeship, but I’ve got it. I work through the night and then grab some food and go to my morning shift. I sleep through your shift.”

“Wow,” Steve said. “Impressive.”

“What else do you do, Steve?”

“I’m apprenticed to Messianic the Gunsmith.”

“Ooh, cool,” Violet said. “I thought your piece looked pretty.”

“Thanks. It’s named Polaris, and it’s one of Master’s favorite pieces in recent memory. Sometime I’ll tell you how I got it; it’s a good story.”

“I’d like that,” Violet said. “But in the meantime, we have an important issue to address.”

“We do?”

“Yes,” Violet said with a smile. “First: if my charm bracelet is around the doorknob, it means that I am fucking a boy in here. You can feel free to come in, but only if you’re quiet. Or if you participate.”

Steve stared.