The skyscraper entrance flaunted polished marble floors which shone in gentle arcs below a sparkling waterfall on the left wall. An image of the Earth rotated slowly before the glistening black tiles of the right wall. Front and center stood a massive hardwood reception desk. The ceiling soared three floors above, with two long balconies overlooking the scene, supported by complex lattices of carbon struts. Light flooded in from a single oval skylight fifty meters across, offering an optically perfect sliver of the blue sky.

         A graceful, confident woman marched into that opulence wearing a black business suit which matched her ponytailed jet black hair. She scanned the room briefly, her face set in stone. She knew the grandeur disguised an army of security devices which tracked her every move.

         A holograph of giant golden letters danced across a glossy wall of obsidian tiles, proclaiming the name of her employer.

         Núcleo Negro Sociedade Anónima.

         Black Core S.A., the largest Brazilian corporate entity in existence, an organization rivaling the economic power of whole governments.

         The room was a shameless display, unapologetic of the expense despite the millions of souls living at subsistence level just across the bay from the headquarters here at Salvador. Those masses were the unskilled, unemployed, and punished individuals whom Black Core held as pariah. Only international pressure and the desire to avoid outright rebellion forced the giant corporation to provide food and basic housing to the general populace beyond the armored enclosures of the company.

         The woman stepped towards the unmanned desk. Its services entreated the links buried in her skull, offering an array of information about the building and its offices. She accepted one, a Black Core personnel locator.

         The Earth before her suddenly realigned with her current location in Salvador, Brazil, directly facing her. It zoomed in rapidly on the surface of the planet, depicting first the bay area, then the skyscraper, and finally the very room she now stood in.

         A bright green label with an arrow snapped up to label her. It said:

         “Aldriena Niachi, Special Operative”.

         The tiny simulacrum of herself stared up at the globe in perfect parody of real life. The entire display had been routed through a link in her head and into her visual cortex. It was a simple illusion. Anyone without a link wouldn’t see anything except the black tile and marble.

         Aldriena smiled at the display. The accuracy of her doppelganger’s pose suggested she was on camera at this very moment. The athletic figure stood with squared shoulders and head raised. She wondered if any other humans were bored enough to be looking in on the feed. If so, she’d undoubtedly have captured their full interest. Any Asian walking openly in the Western world got plenty of attention. The current cold war between the Chinese Bloc that dominated all of eastern Asia and the triple alliance of Brazil, the United States, and the European Union made any Asian instantly suspect.

         But she was of Japanese origin, having fled to Brazil in her childhood during the Chinese occupation of Japan. Once there, she’d taken her Brazilian first name. Her looks had served the purposes of Black Core many times, despite her conspicuous appearance.

         Aldriena walked past a mirrored sphere sitting over the elevator waiting niche. A hostile intention trigger. She knew the HITs where part of most security hardpoints. The device would be scanning her even now, searching for the physiological cues caused by thoughts of violence.

         Her training as a Black Core operative allowed her to defeat most HIT checks, but this time, she didn’t attempt any deception. She was truly calm, without any of the stress that would be present in someone set on an imminent attack.

         Aldriena summoned the elevator with her link. The service responded with a visual indicator in her mind’s eye. She shuffled it to the side of her personal view and waited. She enjoyed the calm interior of the building with its empty walls. Anywhere else in the outside world, the walls would be full of personalized advertisements, routed through her link and thrown up onto the walls.

         Fifteen seconds later, a door opened and let her into the elevator. Inside, a pair of thin robotic arms lay folded against the wall beside an espresso machine. The machine added itself to a list of services being offered through her link. Aldriena could only remember a few times the list had gone empty. It always offered her communication options, map services, entertainment, and local controls. She refused the drink but told the elevator to warm up slightly, as she found the aggressive air conditioning too cold. Sometimes she thought the corporate leaders kept it so cold in the building as another display of their wealth and power, to show they could defy the hot tropical air outside.

         Aldriena breathed deeply. Time to behave, Ms. Niachi. Put away your attitude here, or you’ll get yourself into trouble.

         She arrived on the 70th floor and stepped out. The narrow corridors were empty. Floor sconces held rotating light bars that flooded the walls with illumination, decorating the black ceiling with gently moving patterns of light.  Aldriena walked along the narrow corridor towards the office of her superior.

         She arrived at a set of double doors. Her link verified her appointment, causing the doors to open for her.

         The office echoed the lavish accoutrements of the entrance below. She saw wooden bookcases and a desk, decorated with books, trophies, and  models of spacecraft. The walls were black and red, lit only by two dim lamps, leaving the room dark and snug.

         Gustavo Machado, the BC executive from whom she’d taken several assignments, sat forward at his desk and displayed a white-toothed smile. The man’s disposition reminded Aldriena of a wolf, not that she’d ever seen such a creature in real life. The Brazilian had dark hair and skin. His slender body suggested a fitness born of hours of soccer play each week, but unlike his peers, the trophies on his bookcase were for sailing competitions. Aldriena noted this oddity and filed it away.

         “Aldriena! I’m so glad to see you,” he said. “You’re a vision of beauty.”

         “I received instructions to meet you here,” Aldriena said, sidestepping his pleasantries.

         “Yes. We have need of your talents, as always. Another deep space trip for you. I think you’ll be pleased with the importance of this assignment.”

         “You could have briefed me remotely and sent me straight there,” Aldriena said. It was all the rebelliousness she dared display.

         “I wanted to enjoy the pleasure of your company incarnate,” he said, giving her his canine smile.

         “I’m flattered,” Aldriena replied dryly.

         “I’ve long admired you. This was my chance to see you face to face. Virtual meetings are so...instinctually unsatisfying.”

         “I see. Well, here I am. What task does Black Core have for me?”

         “Tsk tsk...I suppose I should have known...a woman with a record like yours is all business all the time. You do know, don’t you my dear, that there’s more to life than work? Even here at Black Core?”

         “So I’m here for no other reason than to satisfy your...curiosity?” Aldriena asked mildly.

         Gustavo shrugged. “We’re sending you into deep space again. To the stations in the direction of L5.”

         “Very well. You implied this assignment is very important? There’s nothing sensitive that requires our face-to-face meeting?”

         “There is. The situation on these stations is of extreme interest to us. This assignment is not a punishment, Aldriena. Vineaux Genomix has made a breakthrough we need to learn more about.”

         “What kind of breakthrough?”

         “You’ll find out for us,” he said. “We know it’s big. Vineaux Genomix has increased their allocations of resources to the station by an order of magnitude. So have other companies that own stations in that direction. They must be cooperating on something. VG. Bentra. Gauss. Reiss-Marck. All the major Euro Union players with deep space facilities.”

         Aldriena suppressed her skepticism. Was this how Gustavo operated? Tell his female operatives some crazy story about a super-mission, sleep with them, and then send them off to nowhere to get them out of his hair?

         “A ruse, perhaps,” she said. She deliberately didn’t say on their part. She stared at Gustavo.

         “I’ve verified and re-verified it,” Gustavo said. “What concerns me is they haven’t been trying to hide it. That means they’re sure enough about their lead that running with it is more important than hiding it. We must know what’s happened there.”

         “And what about the UNSF?”

         Gustavo flicked his hand aside in a dismissive gesture. “The world government artilheiros? They won’t hear about it anytime soon. They’re slow, incompetent...and they have their hands full here on Earth. Why else would all the companies be hiding out in space? They know the space force is under funded and bound here at Earth.”

         “When do I leave?”

         “We have tonight. You leave tomorrow,” Gustavo said. “Where will I find you when it’s time for our dinner?”

         “I can’t afford the luxury of socializing,” Aldriena said. “I must prepare now if I’m to leave so soon.”

         Gustavo stared at her for a long moment. Aldriena knew she flirted with disaster to deflect men like Gustavo so directly. Any other female operative would at least flirt a little.

         I don’t care. I’ll never play the mistress to any of these executives.

         “Very well then, Aldriena. You’re a cold woman, but an efficient one. So go and find out what’s going on. If you fail, I’ll not be in a forgiving mood for the woman who won’t enjoy a fine dinner with me.”

         Who won’t enjoy your bed with you, she thought.

         “I haven’t failed yet,” she said, rising to her feet.

         Gustavo only nodded. He’d already shifted his attention to some business on his link. Aldriena knew that meant it was time to leave.

         Aldriena returned to the elevator, but instead of heading down, she gave the machine a command to take her up almost to the top. She arrived on the observation level of the giant headquarters building, directly below the roof that served as a landing surface.

         Lost in thought, she wandered towards the west side of the deck. A long corridor ran along giant windows overlooking the bay many stories below.

         From above, the building’s status as a fortress couldn’t be denied. Several perimeters Aldriena hadn’t noticed from the ground were clearly visible from this angle. Fenced embankments, concrete walls and security checkpoints extended for kilometers beyond the Black Core compound.

         Movement caught her eye. Another VTOL craft lifted off from one of the eight landing pads far below. The gray X-shaped flying machine powered away from the headquarters and headed off over the water. Aldriena knew it was most likely loaded with supplies for the masses living at subsistence across the bay.

         From the overview here at the top, each window offered a magnification service which could zoom in on a view the other side of the bay to the west. She activated it with her link to see if anything had changed.

         She saw kilometers of shacks and ultralight company housing. Thousands of people milled about, searching for the latest food drops. She wondered if any of them were her relatives from Japan, refugees of the ‘bloodless’ occupation. Only her father’s high position in the previous government had allowed her to receive the training that kept her employed by the corporation.

         Aldriena knew the people she watched had water and some food, but no medical care, no real housing, and no real hope for anything better. She wondered which of these three deficiencies killed the most people.

        Aldriena didn't want to find out. She wouldn't fail Black Core.