Click to Enlarge

The Orion Property
Click one of the above links to purchase an eBook.

ISBN-10: 1-89484-121-2
ISBN-13: 
Genre: Science Fiction
eBook Length: 301 Pages
Published: December 2001



From inside the flap

Beyond priceless is friendship to the one whose price has been established, to the one too useful to be allowed the title person.



The Orion Property (Excerpt)


The Nublis Chronicles


Book Seven



The Orion Property



Prologue

Following the professor's stooped figure through the door, and after one last look around the laboratory, Claudius Veniston called over his shoulder, "Well, son. Are you coming?"


The young man re-tucked a sheet that was slipping, reviewed his sleeping charges and sighed happily. In a few short weeks, he would be welcoming his siblings into their new world, and in the meantime, the professor had promised him a celebration. "You're my crowning achievement," he'd said, "and tomorrow morning, you and I will make history."


The young man was consumed with curiosity, but the professor refused to elaborate. Even though he had ordered the cook to prepare a veritable feast in honor of the occasion, his father seemed unusually morose.


The young man wondered why.


His normally talkative father remained uncharacteristically silent throughout dinner, but the professor made up for it in spades. Almost bubbling, he even went so far as to tell a couple of racy stories from his distant youth, which surprised Orion, who had never thought of the professor as young.


Even Claudius raised an eyebrow.


When the servant came in to clear away the dessert plates, Orion rose from the table. The professor had told him to make it an early night and he sensed the two wanted to talk alone. Turning in the doorway, he saw Claudius reach across the table to refill the professor's glass. The professor said something and for the first time that evening, his father laughed. Heading up the stairs, Orion could hear the continuing rumble of voices from the dining room. As he was preparing for bed, the front door opened and closed. Tomorrow, he thought, drifting off to sleep, Tomorrow morning we're going to make history.


The year was 4186 and it was the last time he saw the professor alive.





Part One

The Sale

Chapter 1 - A Death in the Family


Felix de Morel slapped the program against his knee in frustration. "We just lost another one to old Claudius there. Do you see him, Lucien?"


In the spring of 4386, he and his son Lucien had come to Andromeda's famed spring auctions in search in search of new mares. The Count was a renowned breeder and trainer and his magnificent horses were consistent winners all over the Interplanetary Synod.


Lucien gave the neighboring box a sidelong glance. "I see old Claudius, but who's that with him? That's surely not Oliver, or Claude Four."


Felix swore under his breath. "Whoever he is, he's outbidding us. He's taking the only animals worth buying, and if he keeps it up, this trip's going to be a total wash. Anyway, I hate Andromeda. It's too expensive, the food's bad and the climate sucks."


Twenty-one-year-old Lucien had inherited his father's slender build, patrician features, dark wavy hair and deep-set blue eyes, but that was where the resemblance ended. As calm as his sire was volatile, he was used to Felix's outbursts and took this one in stride. "Well, he certainly looks enough like old Claudius to be his son."


"Come to think of it, he does. But he's not Oliver or Claude, that's for sure. If brains were dynamite, neither of those beauties could blow his nose, and they certainly don't know horseflesh. Neither does Claudius for that matter. So what gives?"


"You want me to go find out?"


"If you would. He could be a byeblow, I suppose. But from what I know of Claudius, he's never had so much as one mistress. Rumor has it his bride found him so hopeless in the sack she turned to one of the stable hands for relief. Supposedly, that's where his sons came from."


When he inherited the family mining fortune some forty years before, Claudius Veniston the Third became the richest man on Andromeda. On such a wealthy planet, this was no small feat. However, he'd been doing his level best to turn the vast Veniston fortune into a small one ever since and virtually nothing remained of his original inheritance. The old man's two sons were no better, and the remnants of the Veniston wealth were running through their hands like so much water. Or so Felix had heard.


The subject of their discussion was in his late twenties or early thirties with the typical Veniston ash blond hair, bronzed coloring and brilliant blue eyes. Watching Lucien rise to his feet out of the corner of his eye, the stranger leaned toward the visibly sweating Claudius.


"Would you like something to drink?"


Claudius grunted. "Come to think of it, I would." He fished in his rumpled pockets and extracted a bill.


As he took it, the young man's glance met Felix's for just a second.


Watching him out of the tail of his eye, Lucien yawned. "I'm going to stretch my legs. Do you want something from the bar?"


Felix watched the mysterious young man unfold from his seat.


Whoever he is, he has two things going for him the other Venistons don't: height and physique. And he certainly can judge horseflesh.


Lucien hovered, impatient.


"Get me a mineral water. You know which brand."


When Lucien reached the bar below the stands, the young man was already there. He extended his hand with a smile. "You're the Viscount de Morel, aren't you? Am I correct in assuming that's your father?"


Lucien grinned. "You have the advantage of me, sir, because I have no idea who you are. Judging by your looks, you're a Veniston, but you're certainly not one of Claudius's sons. Thanks to you, my father's beginning to consider this a wasted trip."


The young man shook his head. "Not necessarily. Oliver and Claude are my--er--cousins and they've asked me to fill in for them. My name's Orion Veniston."


Lucien frowned. "You haven't been to the auctions before?"


"No, sir. This is my first time."


"Well, you certainly have an eye for horseflesh. Which, with all due respect, is more than I can say for Claudius. This'll probably be the first time in history that a Veniston went home from one of these auctions with anything worthwhile."


Orion smiled wryly. "Whether Claudius will get to go home with any of those colts is a good question. In fact, that's why I was hoping you'd come down here."


"What do you mean?"


"I count myself fortunate that Claudius had the means to buy this drink. If your father wants to take any of those colts, I'd be eternally grateful to him."


Lucien's mouth dropped open. "Are you saying what I think you are?"


The young man nodded. "Since Claudius insists on bidding on everything in sight, I've been making sure he buys only those animals that will be easy to sell instead of the flashy junk he usually goes for. I'll be honest with you, Viscount. I've been deliberately steering him onto the colts your father wants. If the Count were to take them off his hands, Claudius would be spared the humiliation of having to turn his purchases back and being barred from the sales barns for the rest of his life. Coming to these auctions is one of the few pleasures he has left, and the way things have been going lately, this could very well be his last."


Lucien caught the expression in Orion's eyes. "You really care about him, don't you? Yes, I think Dad might be interested. Frankly, the thought of going home with nothing is making him pretty ticked. We have a breeding farm on Aretz, by the way."


It was Orion's turn to grin. "It's pretty hard to live anywhere in the Synod and not be aware of the de Morel operation. I would say that your place on Aretz is more than just a farm."


"Well, yeah. La Chasse is a pretty good size. The past five years have been good to us and the publicity about the Emperor of Seira's Aphrodite hasn't hurt."


"That's right. Aphrodite was one of yours. Well, it looks as if she's going to take the Interplanetary Stakes next week, in which case the InterStellar Crown and the Synod trophy will also probably be hers. When she came up for sale as a yearling, Claudius came home madder than a wet hen. He really wanted her but the Emperor outbid him. Didn't she go for some kind of record?"


Lucien smiled fondly at the memory. "Twenty million to be exact. Aphrodite was my first success. Dad had sold me her sire and dam so that I could set up my own breeding operation. But when Aphrodite went for that much, he wasn't best pleased."


"Why?"


The Viscount chortled. "He'd only charged me one credit apiece for her parents. Plus ten percent of the proceeds to cover the stud, grazing and stable fees."


"He still made two million off the deal. That's hardly to be sneezed at."


"I know. But I used the proceeds from Aphrodite to build my own place and go into competition with him. Dad's not used to people standing up to him, and he isn't over it yet."


"But you're here together. And you seem so friendly."


"Only because my mother keeps reminding Dad to stay on good terms with me, if he ever wants to see his grandchildren again."


"You're married with children? Aren't you a bit...?"


"Young? I suppose so. But I've never regretted it. Now, back to the subject at hand. What Dad doesn't take, I will. Claudius didn't run up the prices all that much and his bids were about what we'd expected to pay anyway."


Orion turned to go. "I'd best get back up there before Claudius runs completely amok and buys something no one in their right mind would want. Thanks, Lucien. I really appreciate it."


"You're welcome. Let's meet for a drink after the sale's over. Then we can all go on someplace for dinner." Lucien noted the other's hesitation. "As my guests, of course."


His relief apparent, Orion nodded. "Let me clear it with Claudius and get back to you."


Lucien accepted a couple of mineral waters from the bartender. "I'll have to check with Dad too. Nice to have met you."


Orion started for the stairs with a whiskey in his hand. "Likewise. I'll see you up there then."


Interesting, thought Lucien, but I still don't know who he is. Maybe we'll find out more over dinner.


Just as he reached Felix, a commotion erupted in the Veniston box. Claudius sat slumped in his seat with Orion bending over him. The young man gestured urgently to one of the officials.


The Count frowned. "What's going on?"


Lucien set down his drink. "I'll go find out. Stay here, Dad, and I'll be right back."


His arrival coincided with the arena's emergency medical team. Claudius lay on the carpeted floor with Orion desperately trying to resuscitate him. The medics took over and the young man stepped aside. Finally, one of them looked up and shook his head. "We'll get him over the clinic, but it doesn't look good. Are you a relative, sir?"


Orion looked dazed. "In a manner of speaking. He has two sons. If you have a communicator handy, I'll see if I can reach one of them."


Putting an arm around his shoulders, Lucien steered him to a seat. "I have mine right here. If you'll give me the number, I'll make the call. But first, I'd better let Dad know what's going on." He pressed the button for Felix's private code and spoke briefly into the communicator on his wrist, listened for a moment, then nodded.


"Dad's coming right over. And don't worry about the colts. We'll straighten it out with the auctioneers. And if I know Dad, he'll get them to drop the prices back to his last bid."


"Oh, yes. Thank you."


Lucien punched in the number, and a well-known pleasure palace answered. "Is Oliver Veniston on the premises? This is an emergency."


A brisk male voice came on the line. "This is Oliver Veniston. What's going on?" Lucien told him and heard a gasp on the other end. "I'll come right away. Where are they taking him?"


"To the Central Clinic. Do you want to talk to Orion?"


"That won't be necessary. I'll find my brother and we'll meet him there."


Just as the medics were placing Claudius on the stretcher, Felix arrived. He raised an inquiring eyebrow at Lucien, who shook his head. Orion sat with his head buried in his hands.


The Count took in the situation, and beckoned to a hovering official. "Notify the auction office that I'll take all of Mr. Veniston's colts at my final bid offer. They can contact me later at my hotel for the bank numbers." Then he placed a hand on Orion's shoulder. "Lucien told me about your situation and I've just taken care of it. Since you're not in any condition to drive, we'll take you over to the clinic. In the meantime, let me get you something from one of the medics."


After gesturing to a medic, who took a small vial from his pack, Felix said, "Give me your hand."


Lucien got a glass of water from the box's private bathroom. "Here. Wash them down with this."


Orion obediently swallowed the tablets. Then he laughed. "Well, at least Claudius went out doing what he liked best."


"And what was that?" asked the Count.


"Spending money he didn't have. That was the one thing Claudius was really good at. Since his sons are the same way, the creditors and tax people are about to have a field day. You might want to stick around for the auction because it should be interesting. The buzzards are already assembling even as we speak."


Felix was puzzled. "Where do you fit into all of this? You certainly don't seem to be cast in the typical Veniston mold."


"I'm not." Orion glanced over at the medics. They had placed Claudius on a stretcher and were wheeling him out the door. "If you mean that about driving me to the clinic, I'll take you up on it. Whatever's in those pills is making me dizzy, and I doubt I'd be safe behind the wheel. Oliver can have Claudius's transport picked up later."


When they arrived at the tall granite building that housed the city hospital, Orion staggered slightly. Lucien put out a steadying arm. "Here. Let's get you inside."


"I'll join you just as soon as I've found a place to park this thing," called Felix. Lucien waved and helped Orion through the automatic doors.


Claudius's sons awaited them by the emergency desk. In their mid-twenties, one was fairly willowy with the typical Veniston ash blond hair and blue eyes. The other was short and plump with brown eyes and sallow skin.


The willowy one extended a languid hand. "The doctor's in the process of pronouncing Father dead. I'm Oliver Veniston and this is my older brother Claude. Thanks for retrieving Orion. He's probably our most valuable asset."


"Right now he's our only asset," snapped Claude. "Ah, here comes the doctor now. You keep an eye on Orion while I go do the necessary."


What's going on here? wondered Lucien. Claudius's sons were anything but overcome by grief and their treatment of Orion was strange to say the least. "I'm Lucien de Morel. My father will be in just as soon as he's found a place to park."


Oliver laughed. "Good luck on that. The nearest available parking is at least a half mile from here."


Knowing his father, Lucien doubted Felix would have gone that far and he was right. As usual, the Count had found a public official with his hand out for a bribe. After receiving the requisite sticker, he'd breezed into a nearby ramp reserved for doctors and hospital brass. As he came through the automatic doors, he looked inquiringly at his son. Lucien shrugged and the Count extended his hand to Oliver. "I'm Felix de Morel. We were at the auction when your father collapsed. How's he doing?"


Oliver shook the Count's hand warmly. "I'm Oliver Veniston and I'm afraid the prognosis isn't good. I was just thanking your son for retrieving Orion. Is there anything we need to do over at the auction arena?"


"You mean, did your father buy anything?"


Oliver's pale blue eyes were anxious. "Yes."


"The auction office has accepted my bid on all the colts your father bought, so all you need do now is pick up your transport. In view of the arena's outrageous parking fees, I'd advise you to do that as soon as possible." Felix handed Oliver one of his cards. "Lucien and I will be here for a couple more days and the name of our hotel is on the back. If you decide to hold an auction, please be sure to let me know." Turning to Orion, the Count took one of his hands in both of his. "I'm pleased to have met you, Orion, and please accept my condolences. Lucien and I will be going now. Take care of yourself."


After shaking Orion's hand, Lucien hurried after his father.


"Well." Oliver's voice was dry. "You've certainly managed to make an impression. Which, considering your history, you damned well should."


Fresh from his conference with the doctor, Claude joined them by the desk. "The funeral director's on his way over and he's willing to extend us credit. If he hadn't, we'd probably have been forced to donate dear old Dad to science."


Orion gave a sharp exclamation and Oliver raised an eyebrow. "Oh don't tell me. You actually cared about the old fart. You know, for the longest time, I didn't even think you had feelings."


Orion's eyes were cold and he said nothing


"Oh, leave him be," chided Claude. "By all accounts he did okay at the auction. And it's thanks to him we're not stuck with a bunch of father's losers."


Oliver snorted. "Oh, I doubt he had anything to do with that."


"As a matter of fact, I did," said Orion quietly. "In fact, I'd already persuaded the Count and his son to take all the colts before your father collapsed."


"Haw," sneered Oliver. "Now that's a likely story."


It was Orion's turn to raise an eyebrow. "Ask them yourself. Your father had just enough money on him for one drink and I was going to have to talk our way out of the parking lot. Lucien de Morel had just agreed to take the colts and he'd invited us to dinner as his guests."


"Well, well," murmured Claude, "It would seem you owe our cousin an apology, Oliver. Now, if we could just get him to talk to the tax people like that...."


Oliver slapped the top of the desk with his hand. "Are you out of your ever-loving mind? We don't want Orion within a mile of the tax people. They don't know one damn thing about him and I sure as hell plan to keep it that way."


Claude looked embarrassed. "Oh, right. You do understand, don't you, cousin?"


Orion's disgust was obvious. "Of course I do. Unfortunately."


"Well, whatever," said Claude. "I don't want you out of my sight from now on. And no more talking to the de Morels or anyone else outside of Oliver and me."


"Well, don't you think you'd better get Claudius's transport while you can still afford it to redeem it? The Count was right, you know. The fees are astronomical, and Claudius, being Claudius, naturally left it in the blue ribbon lot. I had a spiel all ready for the attendant and I can still use it if you want. That's if you trust me to talk to anyone besides you...." He bit off what else he'd been about to say.


Claude knew when he was defeated. "Come on then. Oliver? Sign whatever papers they give you and go on home. We'll meet you there as soon as we've liberated Claudius's wheels."

Felix steered the transport into the city traffic. "Well, what did you make of those two?"


Lucien frowned. "Personally, I couldn't stand them. Orion's worth the pair of them put together."


"But he's still a mystery. They called him cousin, but Claudius Veniston III was an only child. The way the two sons treated him was odd. Odder yet is the fact that he took it. Then there were those remarks about his being an asset. Now that was really strange."


"That wasn't all. One of them said Orion was their only asset and the other said he was valuable. In fact, they talked about him as if he were a thing rather than a person."


"Could it be possible...? Oh surely not. Then again, maybe. Claudius II was an avid collector of rare and exotic fauna. He even tried to grab the sacred fish from the Archon's temple on Nublis--paid some pirate to steal them when that planet was invaded about seventy years ago. But their Emperor Julian knew the invasion was coming and he'd already moved them. The way I heard it, Claudius II not only never got the fish, but he lost his money as well."


"Dad. Would you mind telling me what in the hell you're talking about and what any of this could possibly have to do with Orion Veniston? Julian told me about those fish the year before he died, but I never knew anyone tried to steal them."


"According to my grandmother, Claudius II even took a crack at our unicorn once," mused Felix. "Or at least one of his agents did. That was in your great-grandfather Balthasar's day. Not only did Claudius fail to get the unicorn, but the would-be thief didn't live to tell the tale."


By now, Lucien was totally frustrated. "Alright, Dad. I'll concede that one of the Veniston ancestors was a rare animal collector, but I still don't see what that has to do with Orion."


"It may have everything to do with him, but I won't know for sure 'til I've had a chance to do some checking. While the name Orion rings a bell, I can't quite place it. He's such a perfect physical specimen. Mmm. And the Venistons themselves are anything but."


"Are you saying Orion could be a cyborg? Or perhaps a humanoid? But that wouldn't necessarily make him valuable. Besides, you just said Claudius II lived over seventy years ago. Orion's not that old."


"Isn't he? And how would you know? Did he tell you, or did you assume that from looking at him?"


After they reached the hotel, they watched a robot valet drive their transport away. "How much do those things cost anyway?" wondered Lucien.


"Depending on their complexity, plenty."


"What's plenty? Thousands or millions?"


"Nowadays? Millions. Even the fairly simple ones run in the hundreds of thousands, which is why so few people can afford them any more. Human labor's much cheaper."


"If Orion Veniston were a cyborg or something, he would be valuable then. Is that what you're saying?"


"Especially if he was from a class of which very few were made. And if he were something like that, he would be a very complex model indeed. I mean just look at him. If he's a biotechnical robot, he's hardly an ordinary factory product."


Lucien was shocked. "Is that how you think of him? As a product? He struck me as being much more than that."


"That may be. But if Orion's what I think he is, the law will classify him as such. And then he'll be up for sale to the highest bidder."