Foreshadows: The Ghosts of Zero
a prequel to

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//Briefing X-MS-Restrict-09981//

Mission Background: Approval 663/Mark Steelweather

Stated Objective: Eliminate Disloyal Internal Steelweather Industries Elements

Identity of Target(s): Undisclosed

Mission Methods: Unspecified/Unrestricted, Agent Discretion, Full Corporate Support

Mission Status: Open/Ongoing

Resolution: TBD

Assigned Agent: VL

Status of Assigned Agent: Operational

“And that,” Mark Steelweather decreed firmly, “is how the records will stay. I want your full report, off-record and candid. Now.”

The woman across his desk had been hand-picked by Mark, like everyone in his employ that he met face to face. Appropriately, she was beautiful—naturally so—even with her face twisted into a sneer. As it was right now.

“Off-record?” she said. “You’re recording this, thrice over. As you record everything.”

Steelweather Industries’ most handsome—and most ruthless—executive shrugged. “Five simultaneous recordings, actually. My words confirm for the legaltechs that what passes between us will be classified as off-record. Meaning it gets shared with no external, be it a government or someone seeking to acquire us.”

“That seems rather . . . bold,” the woman observed calmly, putting her sneer away.

“Bold, Agent Landon? You should be aware that the approved term here at Steelweather for extralegal activity or creative interpretations of legal codes is ‘civilized,’” Mark Steelweather purred, moving a little closer. He was standing—they both were, as they always did—but that didn’t cure his subconscious of long habits. Once an intimidator, always . . . .

Vesmae Landon gave him a ghost of a smile. “As someone said once, ‘civilization’ just means you hold a trial first.”

Mark’s answering smile was fainter and colder than hers. He took one long, easy step towards the nearest wall and it sighed open at his approach, to reveal a dark recess full of rubberfingers clasping a large and gleaming forest of bottles. “You prefer gin, I believe.”

“Affirmative,” his most trusted agent replied gently, remembering the last time she’d sipped gin.

His navel didn’t hold much, but there had been . . . other compensations. Yes, he was his father's son.

She knew better than to move any nearer the desk. If he’d dared to turn even side-on to her, there would be a scrambler field somewhere between them.

Whisper-quiet, invisible . . . deadly.

The very properties she was so often paid so well for.

He set the gin—neat, a generous flagon-full—on his desk, and stepped back.

“For me?” Vesmae asked calmly. When he nodded, she asked, “Am I permitted to take it?”

“I am not,” Mark Steelweather informed her, flashing the woman-conquering smile famous from so many telecasts and Polity padpromos, “in the habit of wasting talent. Special, loyal, discreet talent in particular. It is quite safe, and so are you.” He spread his left hand and studied its fingers as if noticing something new and particularly handsome among them. So much like his father. “So long as you share your report before, say, nightfall.”

Vesmae Landon inclined her head, glided smoothly to the desk, and took up her drink. They both ignored the faint, telltale crackle that meant she was wearing an active personal field—strictly illegal for anyone not on active law-enforcement duty—that was now clawing at his powered-down scrambler field.

She sipped, and made a face.

“Truthtell with gin? The taint is . . .”

She shook her head dismissively, set the flagon back down, and stepped back.

Her employer merely shrugged.

“You don’t trust anyone, do you?” she murmured, eyes on his.

“Of course not,” he replied. “I’m hardly going to start being foolish now, after all these years. So was it Branzel? Or Tharlfast?”

“Neither. Both are too anxious to please anyone they see as powerful and on the rise, but that’s mere weakness and poor judgment. The problem was Wilmarton.”


“Was. He met with an unfortunate accident involving his usual nightcap of vintage whiskey and his home’s main recharging feed. So careless, these aging old warriors.”

“I intend to live long enough to become one of them,” Steelweather replied. “Who was working with him?”

“Standish. Marwhite. And Dunfalconer.”

“I am less than surprised. And?”

“And there was a tragic collision in the heliport lot this morning. No survivors, I’m afraid.”

“Any loose ends?”

“Six out-of-Interbank-jurisdiction expense accounts you may want to take control over. Balances too small for big work, but large enough to be handy.”

“Only six?”

“Only six,” came the firm reply. “I am thorough—and take nothing I lack approval for.”

“That’s why you’re still alive and why you’ll continue to rise, Vesmae. So we can consider this mission closed, yes?”


“Which leaves you ready for the next one. Tell me, what do you know about MNDs?”

“I am a datahandler for the company,” she reminded him softly. “Mechatech Division. It’s not just a cover.”

“Humor me, Agent Landon. And speak distinctly, for the benefit of those five recordings.”

She refrained from sighing, and instead plunged straight into a flat reply. “MNDs—mobile nanotech disruptors—are active technology currently yielding operational results neither as small nor as precisely-controlled as we desire them to be. Commonly known in our labs as ‘roach mechs,’ they are usually crafted in insect or arachnid forms and are . . . crude but improving swiftly. Three other corps—B-One included—have advanced MND programs, though none as good as ours.”

Steelweather nodded. “Succinctly put. And within the limits of what you’re cleared to know.”

“Until now,” she murmured.

“Until now,” Mark Steelweather agreed. “Have you ever heard the term ‘nail’ or ‘nails’ in connection with MNDs?”

Vesmae Landon maintained an unreadable face, like a statue’s. “Once. Two years ago. Wilmarton said a particular MND prototype would be the first nail in a lot of coffins.”

The man on the other side of the desk relaxed. He tried not to show it, but Vesmae Landon was a good agent. She saw all he tried to hide.

And she knew—because she was still alive—that she was still successfully hiding from Mark Steelweather just how much she hated and feared him.

This man had started the Second Multinationals War. Had killed millions and ruined half a world. What was left of that world could only take so much more Mark Steelweather.

And she was his most trusted slave.

Behind her professional mask, Vesmae wondered how much longer they both had to live.

//Briefing X-MS-Restrict-09981 | Addendum//

Identity of Target(s): Flash Steelweather

Mission Status: Agent (VL) Accepts

Primary Destination: SWZ-A/NT-D5C

Resolution: TBD

"Truthtell" illustration by Adrian Dexter

Ed Greenwood        Nick Parton

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