The Literary Assassin

Fiction, fashion, and hand-to-hand combat by Holly Messinger

This story was a kind of pre-writing exercise. I had an idea for a much bigger story, using all these people and this backdrop, and this short was a first date with the characters to see what they were like and how they'd interact with each other. This story got opened up like an accordian and expanded into chapters five through eleven of the novel, which was finished in November of 2003.

The Business Code

by Holly Messinger

all rights reserved

The trip from Earth to Natoshi took five days and was uneventful. At Bridgeport Station we stopped to pick up Jonah, fresh and smirking from signing a contract on Persephone. Of course he complained about the accommodations. Only the company's third-best starliner.

"Tacky, Al," he said, smoothing his long black hair, which was slightly ruffled from passing through the airlock. "You can't arrive on a fashion designer's doorstep in a tank like this. You need a private E-class."

"A show of Leviatech's strength was called for," I told him. "Mr. Zoja needs to be reassured of the company's business worth, not the stylishness of its officers. And please refrain from calling me Al while we're on Natoshi."

Jonah grinned and straightened the sleeves of his wool suit. "But only the wealthy can afford style, Al-i-son." Jonah was enjoying the expensive new wardrobes we had procured for this call: silk, wool, cotton and leather. Mr. Zoja's operation on Natoshi supplies the galaxy's customer base with ninety percent of the industry's silk supply, as well as a sizeable portion of the other textiles. Virtually all of Earth's viable farmland is utilized for food production, and few of the colonies are developed enough to produce luxury items. Zoja has both the farmland and the manpower, in the form of his labor villages. Leviatech hoped to supply the machinery, hence my traveling with my team to Natoshi.

Jonah Fallon is my class-brother as well as my executive lieutenant. This is the optimum arrangement, because when children have been raised together as siblings within the company, it strengthens team bonding and diminishes sexual tension within the team. We are the same age and same height, and people tell us we have similar mannerisms, although we look nothing alike. Jonah is brown-skinned, with black eyes, and so fine-featured he is almost beautiful. I have fair skin and red hair which I keep short. My height is helpful to my job, especially when I must negotiate with men.

"Have you even bothered to read the dossier I pulsed to you?" I asked, as we settled in my sitting room.

"I looked at it," he said carelessly, picking figs out of the fruit bowl between us. "I figured I was just going along for window dressing on this one."

"Window dressing?"

"Sure." He tossed a fig in the air and caught it in his mouth. "To make the old man's mouth water." He chewed, staring incredulously at my raised eyebrow. "Oh, come on, everybody knows Zoja's mirror-biased."

"My dossier doesn't report Zoja's sexual preference."

Jonah rolled his eyes. "Stocks, Al, read something besides your dossiers once in a while. Read the zines. Read a newscard."

"I have you to do it for me," I murmured, scrolling through my palmscreen. "Speaking of stocks, Venus Hydronautics rose seventy-three points today."

"I know," Jonah said. "I told a broker friend of mine about that merger I was doing on Persephone."

I looked at him sharply. "Before you closed it?"

He feigned an expression of shock. "Would I do a thing like that?"

* * *

My first impression of Natoshi was that it was purple. The shuttle's windows cleared once we'd breached the atmosphere, and the sky through which we fell was lavender. The ground below was brilliantly green, more green than I was used to seeing all at a stretch. It was interesting, but like many Terran natives, I am slightly agoraphobic, and I couldn't look at it for long.

Our shuttle whipped across the landscape: factories, villages, canals, and lines and lines of trees rolled away beneath us. I closed my eyes and ran through my mental script of how I would greet Stephen Zoja, the Silk Emperor, fashion designer and political pundit, social dictator and economic recluse, public figure and private man.

"Stocks, look at all those mulberry trees," Jonah said, craning his neck toward the window. "Do you suppose if you shake one, it will rain down worms on you?"

My marketing lieutenant, Sonata, shook her head. "Silk worms are too delicate to feed outside. Laborers pick the leaves and carry them to the worms on trays."

"Even the worms are waited on here," Jonah remarked.

Ripley, our contract specialist and also a class-sibling, whistled. "Look at that house. I think that's as big as our entire training campus."

I opened my eyes and quelled the flutter in my stomach at the sight of all that money and power. Zoja's corporation had grossed three-quarters as much as Leviatech's total earnings during the previous year. Of course, Zoja paid almost seventy percent of that in taxes, but that still left him with a sizable portion of personal disposable income. His total asset value was only guessed at, but he was the only human being who could claim legal ownership of an entire planet.

"Do you think we'll see anybody famous here?" Sonata said, her almond eyes bright with excitement.

"If we do, we will comport ourselves with complete professionalism," I said. "We are here to establish business ties between Leviatech and Mr. Zoja, not to collect autographs."

Sonata compressed her lips and turned her face toward the window.

The shuttle came to a smooth landing, and the four of us, along with our luggage, were loaded into a sleek, state-of-the-art ground skimmer, by a very polished and gracious man who introduced himself as Sunte, and explained he would be at our disposal for the duration of our stay.

That sounded promising. Zoja was well-known for running off outside corporations and rudely turning down any offers of partnerships or trade agreements. The fact that he'd responded to Leviatech's solicitation was extraordinary; the fact that he'd invited--or perhaps a better word would be "ordered"--us to visit Natoshi could be inferred as quite a coup.

"Send your best and brightest," he'd said. "I like young people."

If I were imaginative I'd think he intended to fatten us up and eat us, or perhaps keep us as slaves. Although if Jonah's assessment of Zoja's appetites was correct, I should be reasonably safe.

But all joking aside, we were literally on Zoja's charity, as not even the Embassy for Management of Planetary Resources had jurisdiction here. How could his laborers bear it, knowing that despite their labor unions and their "independent" municipalities, they were essentially slaves? Well-paid slaves, perhaps, but dependent on the Silk Emperor's good graces. I'd always wondered if he held some kind of cult-like influence over them, but in all fairness I'd never heard any accusations against Zoja for abuse of power.

The house grew bigger as we approached it. Our skimmer banked to a frictionless halt and set down on the cobblestone drive with barely a shudder. This close to the house I could only make out a vast expanse of stone facing and stained glass, like some of Earth's oldest holy houses.

Sunte, our guide, led us through a tall majestic archway into a taller, more majestic foyer. It was the size of several gymnasiums and had no discernible purpose other than to inspire incoherence in Zoja's guests. The floors shone, the ceiling-high windows sparkled with multicolored glass inlay. A wide double staircase twined up both sides of the hall to our left, and as the eye followed it up, one could count four stories overlooking the foyer.

I took in all this at a glance, taking care not to crane my neck. From the corner of my eye I observed that Jonah had put on his blasť expression, but he was in danger of overdoing it.

"And here you are," said a voice which I knew immediately to be my quarry: Zoja, our host and soon-to-be newest member of the Leviatech family. Even his voice sounded rich, majestic, confident.

He was a stout, black-haired man of Asian genetics, dressed in a bronze silk suit. He approached us with a short, snapping stride, and as he drew near I saw that he was several centimeters shorter than I. His lordly bearing made him seem taller. "Ms. Breck," he said, extending his hand. "Stephen Zoja. Welcome to Natoshi."

"Thank you, Mr. Zoja," I said, with a touch of warmth in my voice. Only a touch. At this point I thought it best to follow his prescribed script of lesser nobility visiting the Caesar. He was clearly a man used to having his own way, and why shouldn't he? For the last twenty years he had ruled Natoshi unchallenged. "Your hospitality is much appreciated. These are my associates, Jonah Fallon, Sonata Ng, and Ripley Edgar."

"Pleasure," Zoja said, shaking hands. His sharp black eyes took in all of us, but he concealed his conclusions behind a hearty social smile. "You've come at a good time. We're between house parties at the moment, so you'll have the undivided attention of myself and my staff. Have you seen your rooms yet?"

Sunte bowed. "We were on our way upstairs, Sir."

"Ah. Well. I'll let you continue on, then, rest up a bit before dinner. You won't mind, will you, putting off business until in the morning? I hate negotiating on a full stomach."

There was little I could do but agree. "That would be pleasant," I said. "You have a beautiful home."

"It's too big," Zoja said bluntly. "I never see most of it. I have to hire people to stay in some of the rooms just so they get aired out. But I love to have people enjoy it. I like the noise. Sunte will take you on to your rooms, show you the small dining room, the pool house, some of the other amenities. I would be honored, of course, if you would join me for dinner?"

Although the invitation was issued to all of us, I noticed Zoja's eyes sliding past my left shoulder and lingering on Jonah for a moment. "Sir, it would be our pleasure," Jonah said in his most honeyed tone. He even dropped his voice into a lower register. He was going to be unbearable if Zoja proved him right.

"Splendid." Zoja rubbed his hands together, smirking, and I had the distinct impression that he was laughing at us. "Sunte will see that you get there. Ah. . . look here. Someone I want you to meet."

I had heard no footsteps on the marble floor, but we followed his line of sight to see a small brunette woman, clad all in black, approaching us from behind. Zoja held out his hand to her and she strode to his side as though she belonged there, scanning all four of us with eyes that were cool to the point of hostility.

Strange eyes, I thought, but I didn't get a clear enough look to determine why. She was a full head shorter than I, and slim, but carried herself with a confidence that approached belligerence.

"This is Quinn Taylor," Zoja said, and she shook hands mechanically with each of us. "She'll be sitting in on our meetings tomorrow. You're joining us for dinner tonight, angel?"

Amusement and something less benevolent curled her mouth. "Wouldn't miss it," she said, her eyes sliding to mine. I pretended not to notice. I couldn't know at this point why she objected to our presence, but an obstacle perceived is an obstacle to be removed.

* * *

Sunte showed us to our rooms, and as soon as he left us, they were all promptly in my room, wringing their hands and asking questions.

"What should we wear?" Sonata wailed.

"How long are we going to be here?" Ripley demanded, his ruddy complexion flushed with annoyance. "He'd better not put us off indefinitely, I'm supposed to be on Elysian Fields next week--"

"Do you realize who that was?" Jonah said.

We all looked at him.

"Zoja?" Sonata offered.

Jonah gave her a withering look. "Quinn Taylor."

We continued to stare at him. The name sounded vaguely familiar to me, but I was sure she hadn't been mentioned in my dossier.

Then Sonata's mouth dropped open. "That Quinn Taylor? I thought she was dead!"

"Who is she?" I asked, frowning. "Some celebrity?"

"Remember when that Rim Patrol unit defected from the Embassy a few years ago?" Sonata said. "What was the captain's name?"

"Ladron," Jonah supplied. "They stole an F-class cruiser and started pirating military ships."

The story sounded familiar. Although I had been going through Executive Contracts training at the time and not devoting much of my attention to interplanetary news. "What does that have to do with the Taylor woman?"

"Quinn Taylor was the name of the woman they brought in to testify against him, but she ended up helping him to escape," Jonah said.

"She was allegedly a contract killer," Sonata added.

Jonah nodded. "The two of them shot up Bridgeport station and almost destroyed Earth's orbitdock before the army finally caught up with them. Ladron went to prison and Taylor claimed political asylum on Natoshi. She said the government was trying to kill her."

"That can't be the same woman," Ripley said. "How would she know Zoja?"

"She worked for him," Sonata said. "I remember now, he accused the military of murdering her in prison, but it turned out she faked her death to escape."

"Surely that's a fabrication," I said, folding my arms. "I think you two have been watching too many newzines."

Jonah grunted with exasperation. "It's common knowledge, Al!"

"Then why wasn't it in my dossier? If she was working for him, and she was a contract killer, why wouldn't they warn us? The company wouldn't send us someplace dangerous without warning us."

Jonah gazed at me for a moment, his eyelids heavy with what looked like condescension. He resumed his usual indolent expression before I could be sure. "Well, what are we going to wear to dinner? I didn't think to pack a bulletproof vest."

"Business evening wear," I said. "Err on the side of business, if you're unsure. Sonata, your red silk suit should be perfect. I think some color is called for."

I was both right and wrong. The company was colorful, to be sure, but Zoja was gloriously clad in a gold-pointed matador jacket, while the Taylor woman was resplendent in indigo velvet, so dark a blue it was nearly black. She looked like a princess. Or a favored concubine.

They and we were the only company. Sonata seemed disappointed that there were no celebrity guests, and I was disappointed that none of Zoja's business partners would be joining us.

"They're off," he said dismissively, when I mentioned it. "That's why I wanted to wait until the morning to talk business. All my board of directors had already gone to their homes for the evening, and I didn't want to call them back. I prefer to have dinner en famille, myself."

I supposed that included Ms. Taylor. She sat across from me, at Zoja's right, smiling like a cat. "So what's it like, Ms. Breck," she asked, "working for the largest corporation in the Embassy?"

"Rather like working for the richest man in the Embassy, I imagine," I replied lightly.

"Oh, I doubt that." She glanced sideways at Zoja, an amused glance between the two of them, and her odd eyes flashed golden in the candlelight. "Besides, I don't work for Zoja."

"You don't?" Jonah said. "Forgive me, I thought you were sitting in on our meeting tomorrow."

"She will be," Zoja said. "As an observer. Quinn is my goddaughter."

"Ah," Jonah said. "Family business, then."

Quinn smiled at him. "You could make the same claim about Leviatech, couldn't you? Weren't all of you fostered by the company and raised together?"

"Three of us were," I said. "Sonata was part of a different training class, but she transferred to my team when we were sixteen."

"Then you're the leader of this team?" Quinn asked.

She made it sound like an accusation. "I'm the executive director of this team, because I have the personality and the necessary leadership skills. Jonah is the executive lieutenant, in charge of networking; Sonata handles marketing and Ripley is an expert in contract law."

"And you're trained into these roles from the time you're children."

I compressed my lips slightly. She was asking questions to which she already had the answers, but her tone of voice was obviously intended to put us on the defensive. I've encountered this attitude before, of course. Individuals who haven't grown up inside a parent corporation tend to see it as cold and mechanical, as if we were clones or drones bred to fit inside predestinated slots.

"Actually, we choose the roles we'll fill as adults," Jonah cut in smoothly. "The children in the training schools are carefully tested for interests and aptitude, and directed toward activities that they will enjoy and succeed at."

"And our mentors assign us to groups whose personalities complement ours," Sonata added. "I asked for reassignment when I was a teenager because I had a personality conflict with my old team. I've been much happier since joining Breck's team."

"Sounds logical," Quinn Taylor said. "Have all of you been genetically altered?"

Ripley made a strange gurgling sound and had to set down his glass of wine, muttering an apology. Jonah gave me an outraged look across the table, but I settled him with a steady gaze.

"We all have been enhanced," I said calmly. "Post-natally, of course, in annual increments between the ages of six and fifteen. It's not uncommon on Earth, regardless of whether one is raised in a corporate family or not."

"Do you remember it?" Taylor asked softly.

I did: as she asked it, I did. Darkness and fire under the skin. Confusion and sickness from the radiation: my skin coming off in sheets.

"Of course," I said, and laughed. "I'm sure you've heard some horrible stories about the torture they put one through, but it's really a very simple procedure. It causes a bit of discomfort, of course, but so does having one's tonsils out. And the benefits are well worth it. Because Leviatech invested the time and technology in me, I have the best possible tools to maximize my potential, as well as the company's."

Taylor nodded. "And they own you for, what, another ten years or so?"

"Our contracts are binding until we're thirty-five," Jonah said. He rolled out his lazy chuckle. "I daresay I'll be ready to see the end of this lot by then."

I smiled at him, partially out of fondness and partially in approval; he had added the right note of levity.

Taylor chuckled, too, and patted the back of Zoja's hand. "Maybe you should start fostering potential employees, too, Stephen."

He smiled at her, but there was something cold in his eyes. "It would save time negotiating with all those labor unions," he said. "Bunch of bloody independent thinkers."

I saw Jonah's head go back and shot him a Look. His nostrils flared, but he controlled himself.

Until we had retired upstairs, and were back in my suite.

"Who does she think she is?" Sonata hissed.

"That was just rude," Ripley added. "I can't believe he let her--"

I snapped my fingers at him and gestured for silence. He buttoned his lips with an effort, understanding when I pointed at the ceiling. It was likely we were being monitored, but all of us knew a dozen ways to foil surveillance equipment, learned at a young age in the company dormitories. I led them into my bathroom, which was as large as my entire allotted quarters back home, and turned on the shower. Jonah closed the door and flipped on the exhaust fan. We stood close together in the middle of the room, our backs to the mirror.

"Obviously he feels as she does," I said, speaking low no sensors could catch my words. "The question is, are they simply ignorant and prejudiced, or do they have some agenda?"

"What agenda?" Jonah demanded in a whisper. "They invited us here. Even if they hate Leviatech, they can hardly murder us to make a point."

Sonata gasped. "There was that team that the League for Human Purity people kidnapped and killed on Ariston last year."

"I think I remember reading that Zoja was a supporter of the LPHP," Ripley said.

"Please stop," I said, disgusted. "I don't know what game they're playing, but they're certainly not going to murder us." I pursed my lips. "I think they're curious about us."

"Why?" Jonah said.

"I don't know. But I get a feel from their body language . . . Taylor's hostile because she's afraid of us."

They looked at me, perplexed, but I knew nothing more to tell them.

"Go to bed," I said with a sigh. "Rest for the meeting in the morning. We'll do a strict cold-call presentation, nothing hard-sell, and play it by ear. I hope Zoja's board of directors is more professional than he is."

* * *

The meeting in the morning went very smoothly.

We were shown to a large, beautiful conference room, complete with an overhead display screen and holo-tacto projectors, all of which were smoothly compatible with our presentation software. Twelve members of Zoja's advisory board were in attendance, as well as Zoja himself, and Ms. Taylor, in a luscious raspberry suit. She sat in a comfortable chair at the back of the room and watched everything with well-behaved interest.

I pitched Leviatech's proposal to enter into a first-option supply contract with Natoshi Textiles, under which Leviatech would become the exclusive provider of machinery, parts, installation, tools and maintenance to Zoja's production plants. Jonah compared our prices and services to Zoja's current supplier. Ripley described how Leviatech was able to provide such efficiency and quality. Sonata spoke movingly of how the demand for fine textiles was likely to increase in the next decade, due to the colonies' growing and becoming more cosmopolitan.

Throughout this, I was pleased to note that all of the directors and even Zoja seemed interested: I saw several raised eyebrows when Jonah flashed the cost comparison charts on the screen. But as I resumed my position at the head of the table, all I could see was Taylor, sitting behind Zoja's left shoulder, her chin propped in her hand and a smirk on her face.

I completed my pitch calmly, and thanked everyone for their time.

There was a polite murmur of response. At his end of the table, Zoja rose, beaming, and made a little bow. "Ms. Breck, you are truly a compliment to your company. You have certainly maximized your own potential and Leviatech's. This is a very generous offer you've set before me, and I'd like to thank all of you for accepting my poor hospitality and conducting yourselves with such professionalism. You may tell your superiors that I will not be doing business with Leviatech, now or in the foreseeable future."

He punctuated this unbelievable speech with a nod of his head. As if it was a signal, all the advisors pushed back their chairs and stood: chatting, chuckling, commenting, doing all the things executives do after a meeting, while my team sat numb and horrified and I gripped the edge of the table so hard my knuckles cracked.

"Mr. Zoja!" My voice rang out over the group conversation, echoing off the polished mahogany tabletop. Zoja stopped in the act of turning away, his hand on Taylor's shoulder as if he were consoling her. As if she was the one who needed consoling! They both turned toward me, politely inquisitive. I swallowed. This was not protocol, what I was doing, but nothing about this visit had been regular. "Mr. Zoja, will you at least provide me with a reason I can report to my superiors? They will probably demand one, given the expenditures I requisitioned for this trip."

My face and the back of my neck felt hot and prickly. I was glad the lights were dim; I hadn't made this big a fool of myself since I was twelve and thought to question a tutor's negotiation theories in front of the class.

Zoja pursed his lips and looked at Taylor. She looked at me. "They know the reason," she said, and continued toward the door.

Zoja touched the tabletop with two fingers, and looked at each of us, ending with me. "Ms. Breck, I apologize for your embarrassment, but I assure you we are not responsible for it. I guarantee your superiors will not question you very closely about your conduct here. Please feel free to spend another night. Sunte will take your orders for dinner. I imagine you'll be eating without me tonight."

* * *

Dinner was glum and venomous, more so because we couldn't give full vent to our spleen while in Zoja's house. We had excellent braised duck that none of us could choke down. We all drank too much wine and went to bed angry.

I woke the next morning with a headache and a bad taste in my mouth, although I couldn't attribute either entirely to the wine. I took a shower and dressed and packed, then went out on the balcony of my suite and stood looking over the beautiful manicured garden, breathing the smell of mulberry and hating the entire scene. Especially the purple sky. Who ever heard of a planet with a lavender atmosphere? It was probably full of radiation and all the children who grew up on this planet would be blind or deformed somehow.

It was early and the others weren't awake yet, but I didn't care for company in any case. I put on some walking shoes and left my room, descending to the ground floor and locating the door which Sunte had indicated led to the garden.

Some Terran natives find the outdoors repellent. Apart from my agoraphobia, I rather enjoy the breeze and sunlight. And the sheer volume and variety of plant life in the garden was fascinating. I have been to arboretums and terrariums and gardens, but they always have an enclosed feel, even the World Gardens in Africa, which is enclosed in a dome so enormous it has its own weather. The skin and inner ears always know when one is under a roof.

I followed one path after another, pausing to inhale or admire. Oddly enough, the flowers most beautiful to the eye were not usually the most perfumed. Feeling guilty for hurting the tree--but minutely vindicated by defacing Zoja's garden--I broke off a small twig of a blooming tree with thin, curly branches. It smelled wonderful, and I thought perhaps I could look up the species when I returned home and possibly acquire a small specimen for my own quarters.

"Wha dat?" a voice asked.

I turned. I had to look down. A very small person stood on the path a few meters from me, with curly black pigtails and her finger in her mouth. Her eyes were so blue I could see them even at the distance.

"I think she means, 'What are you doing tearing up the tree?'" another voice translated.

I turned all the way around. Quinn Taylor stood half-concealed in a vine-bedecked trellis archway, both her arms over her head, lazily hanging on one of the cross-supports. She wore gauzy white pajamas and her dark hair was caught in a loose ponytail. I wondered sourly if the ability to sneak up on people was requisite training for a contract killer. "So sorry," I said. "I admired it, and I didn't want to leave Natoshi completely empty-handed."

Taylor cocked her head. "Why, Ms. Breck, was that sarcasm? I didn't think you had it in you."

I controlled myself. I am not in the habit of being uncivil to people no matter how much they may warrant it, but it had been a long time since I'd met anyone who seemed so determined to provoke me. "Excuse me," I said, stepping back to depart. "I'm obviously interrupting your morning activities."

"This is the first assignment you've failed to close, isn't it?" she said, stopping me in mid-turn.

I stared at her. She wasn't guessing. "How do you know that?"

"You're not the only one with resources," she said.

I am ashamed to say I gaped at her. "Should I infer, then, that you invited my team here for the express purpose of turning us down and breaking my record?"

"No." She smiled suddenly, a far less malicious expression than the one I had grown used to seeing from her. "If you really want to know, we invited you here because I wanted to meet you. All of you, I should say. We wanted to see what Flenning's turning out these days."

"Flenning?" Now I was genuinely confused. "Dr. Linus Flenning?"

"Oh, you know him?"

"I've not met him," I admitted. "He's an independent contractor for the company. He oversees the Excellence Enhancement program." I suddenly remembered her questions at dinner on the night we arrived. "So you wanted to see what kind of genetic enhancements Leviatech is doing on its employees?"

She grinned. "That's it."

"Why?" The only reason I could think of was so Zoja could compete, but they had seemed so hostile to the concept.

"Mama," the little girl whispered, tugging on Taylor's pant leg.

"What?" Taylor whispered, dropping to her haunches. The transformation in her face as she looked at the child was extraordinary. For a moment she was glowing, loving and kind. She listened for a moment, then picked up the little girl, swinging her onto one hip with practiced ease. "Come here," she murmured, kissing the child's cheek. "Can you meet this lady for me?" Taylor approached me and turned so the little girl could see me without craning her neck. "This is Ms. Breck. Can you shake her hand? Ms. Breck, this is my Simone."

I was taken aback. Simone was more collected than I was. She regarded me with round blue eyes, removed her finger from her mouth and held it out to me. In spite of my disconcertion, I had to smile. I took her little slimy hand and shook it once, gently. "Pleased to meet you, Simone."

"Meechoo," she said, and hid her face against her mother's neck.

Taylor patted her back and smiled like a lazy cat. "Simone can already beat Stephen and me at chess. She'll be three in another two months."

"She's been enhanced?" I asked, surprised. She was extremely young.

"No. She's a construct. Your Dr. Flenning built both of us. He implanted her in me because I was the only woman alive whose immune system wouldn't reject the fetus."

There was faint challenge in her eyes, and this time she was standing close enough, in bright enough light, that I could see what made her eyes seem strange. Her pupils were slitted, like a cat's. Having grown up in Leviatech's training facility, I am fairly inured to the idea of genetic, plastic and cybernetic alterations of the human body, but this was one of the more extreme examples I'd seen.

"You're a chimera?" I asked, and she nodded. "And she's second generation?"

"My genetic offspring," she said. "The only one of her kind, to date. Although Stephen and I have heard that Flenning's soliciting funds to try again."

I gazed at the child with new appreciation and a little awe. I wanted to touch her again, but I sensed Taylor wouldn't allow it. I shook my head. "I have to say, Ms. Taylor, given this information I don't understand your attitude toward Leviatech at all. You've seen first hand how genomorphic enhancement can improve the quality of life--"

She cut me off with a laugh. "Ms. Breck, please don't preach to me about how genetic manipulation will save humanity. Flenning adopted me into a government genomorph project when I was three years old, for the express purpose of creating a perfect predator." She cocked her head. "Rather the way your parents indentured you to Leviatech."

"It's hardly the same thing," I said indignantly.

"Isn't it? What's your identification number? Mine's seventeen. I was subject Q, the seventeenth letter of the alphabet. Think Quinn's an unusual name? The others didn't live long enough to get named."

I looked into her predator's eyes again. She gazed steadily back at me with unnatural calm, a little smile bending the corner of her mouth, gently swaying back and forth. Simone lay limp and quiet on her mother's shoulder, blissfully stroking one tiny finger around the swirls of Taylor's ear.

I swallowed. "Ms. Taylor, I can't pretend to know what you've suffered. But I can assure you that Leviatech's enhancement practices are designed to improve us. The enhancements didn't make me into something different, they made me better able to maximize my--"

"Potential. Right," Taylor said, with a wave of her hand. "The truth is, you don't know what they did to you. And even if they did maximize your potential for the company, how do you know it was the best thing for you? You don't even know what you're capable of, because you've only been allowed to choose from the options they gave you."

"It would appear you don't have many options, either," I said, goaded past diplomacy. "You can't even leave this planet without someone coming to arrest you."

"I can't even live peacefully on this planet without a bunch of bureaucrats dropping in every six months, trying to sell me something so they can get a look at my daughter." She seemed amused that she had angered me. "But I can read what I like, and say what I think, without having to worry about my boss putting bugs in my room to make sure I stay loyal to the company."

Accustomed as I was to having my quarters and correspondence monitored by the company, I didn't like having the fact waved in my face, as if my tolerating it made me somehow deficient. "We did not come here to spy on you or your daughter," I said coldly. "I knew nothing of your existence before we arrived here. Furthermore, what use would Leviatech have for either of you?"

She shook her head in disgust--rather the way Jonah sometimes did. "Try to think, for a minute, outside the lines that the company's drawn on your brain. Each one of you costs Leviatech two million dollars and nine years to alter post-natally. Think how much more cost-effective it would be if you could recruit kids straight from the womb, instead of waiting until they were four or five. If Flenning had a second-generation construct to show them, don't you think they'd spring for his continued research? If you could knock a few years off your contract by gestating a new drone for them, wouldn't you take it?"

I recoiled. "Leviatech does not deal in slavery!"

My voice was sharp. Simone turned to look at me, her smooth baby cheek pressed against her mother's. On any other civilized planet, that little girl would have been removed from such poisonous care and placed with a family who could raise her with a normal outlook on life.

Taylor saw me looking at the child and pressed her lips to Simone's face, closing her eyes for a moment. When she opened them again, her face was calm, her smile bitter. "I'm sorry you had to come all the way out here and feel you'd been made a fool of," she said. "Zoja has refused for years to do business with Leviatech and several other megacorps because of their personnel practices. Leviatech knows it and didn't use to waste time soliciting business with Natoshi. But since Simone was born, they've approached us eight times. Finally I told Stephen to go ahead and invite some of you out here, so I could see what Flenning was breeding." Her mouth twisted mockingly. "And now I see he's got a ways to go before I have anything to worry about."

* * *

The trip home took six days, because we had to rendezvous with another starliner at Rushi Ono, so Ripley could be on his way to Elysian Fields. We spent little time discussing the failure on Natoshi. I recorded a report of the trip's events into the ship's database and pulsed it to the senior directors on Earth, then tried to immerse myself in a new set of dossiers.

I wanted badly to discuss with Jonah what Taylor had told me, but I couldn't because of the security monitors on the ship. I have known of cases where conversations have been recorded and then corrupted to indict the speaker, and there were too many slanderous ideas in Taylor's accusations for me to repeat them with any degree of safety. I despised her more for having trapped me into this silence while blithely reminding me that I was trapped.

The day after we returned home, we each had a debriefing meeting to attend. Usually I enjoy these, because I usually have success to report. I looked toward this one with some trepidation. The events on Natoshi had been completely outside my control, but the bottom line didn't allow for explanations. I decided I would take responsibility, if necessary, but there was no need to apologize.

"Breck, good to see you, junior," Senior Director Ojibwa greeted me warmly, taking my hand between both of his. Senior Ojibwa has always taken a fatherly interest in me, and I've learned a great deal from his example. "I was so sorry to learn of your disappointment on Natoshi, but what else can we expect from a capital elitist? I'd like you to meet a great asset to our company. Breck, this is Dr. Linus Flenning. I believe you'll recognize the name?"

Shock may have been the only thing that kept me from disgracing myself. I turned mechanically to the small, arrogant-looking man beside Senior Ojibwa, and said what a great honor it was to meet him.

Dr. Flenning shook my hand and looked at me over the antique spectacles he wore-- for effect, I surmised. "And how did you enjoy your Natoshi stay, Ms. Breck?"

"I didn't," I said.

Flenning smiled, but it was not a pleasant expression. "Bright young woman, isn't she?" he said to Senior Ojibwa.

We took our seats, along with a dozen other senior executives and directors, and the debriefing began. The familiar sequence of review questions allowed me to answer with one side of my brain, while the other side performed elaborate contortions of logic and counter-logic. Dr. Flenning was a scientist, not a businessman. Being an outside contractor, he wasn't even a part of the administrative hierarchy. What possible interest could he have in this meeting besides the one Taylor had outlined?

"What's was Zoja's overall attitude toward the company?" Ojibwa asked.

I described the conversation over dinner, bringing up Taylor's name in the process. I avoided looking at Dr. Flenning as I did, but from the corner of my eye I saw him sit forward in his chair. I told them about the meeting, and Zoja's speech afterwards.

Senior Ojibwa nodded. "We expected as much. Zoja's support of the League for Preservation of Human Purity is well-publicized. We hadn't really hoped he would change his mind, but any lead is a lead to be followed. What were your impressions of Ms. Taylor?"

Dr. Flenning was drumming his fingers on the table, strong lines of emotion etched around his mouth. He lifted an impatient eyebrow. His imperious air aggravated me.

"She's a very bitter person," I said. "She blames Dr. Flenning for her exile and criminal status."

"Ah. That story again." Senior Ojibwa exchanged a sympathetic smile with the doctor. "You know, of course, Breck, that Quinn Taylor served two years in prison for homicide, and is suspected of several other mysterious deaths?"

"Yes." I had looked her up in the ship's database on the trip home. She was named in several news articles, none of them flattering. What had struck me, however, were the inconsistencies in the facts. Sometimes she was called a contract killer, sometimes she was merely an accomplice after the fact. In one article she was a witness to the prosecution, fully reformed and repentant, in another she was a cold-hearted enemy of the state. "She seems given to hyperbole and self-serving truths."

"Did she say anything about her life on Natoshi?" Dr. Flenning asked. "Her family life, or her social activities?"

I tilted my head slightly, affecting a thoughtful expression, as though thinking back. I knew what he wanted to know: the question was, did they already know I had spoken to Taylor in the garden? They couldn't, unless another of my team had told them. And I didn't believe that any of them would have witnessed that encounter and not questioned me about it. If any of the seniors had asked me that question, I wouldn't have hesitated, but I owed no loyalty to Dr. Flenning. Genius though he might be, I already disliked him for his condescension and his tight, suspicious body language. Dr. Flenning was hiding something, and sneering at me because I didn't know what it was.

"She wasn't forthcoming with information about herself," I said. "Most of her conversation involved condemnation of parent corporations."

Dr. Flenning frowned. Senior Ojibwa gave him a conciliatory smile. There were more questions, but no one asked me whether I had seen any small black-haired children on Natoshi, and I didn't tell them.

Nearly a month passed before I even told Jonah. We were on our way to another assignment, laid over on Bridgeport Station, waiting for another starliner to dock so we could continue. We dined in a pleasant little bistro on the first-class deck, surrounded by the buzzing conversations of strangers, which in some ways is the most private situation available in our lives.

Over soup and salad, I told him about meeting Quinn Taylor in the garden, and the conversation we'd had, and her bias against Leviatech in general and Flenning in particular. And then I told him about Simone. I had debated over whether to do it: I trust Jonah more than anyone else I know, but the fact was I had withheld information from the seniors, and his knowing doubled the chances of their finding out, deliberately or otherwise.

"What was astonishing was her superior attitude toward us," I told Jonah. "I've met people who were jealous of us, or thought we were abominations, but I've never met somebody who looked down on us."

Jonah wiped the corners of his mouth thoughtfully. "Well, it's rare that we would meet anyone in a position to look down on us. Gene enhancement is still the advantage of the wealthy. If she's telling the truth, she may actually be a more advanced form of life than we are." He grinned and tossed his thick black hair. "Well, more advanced than you perhaps, m'dear."

I rolled my eyes and ignored him. "Regardless, I don't know how she can take a superior moral stance when she was a professional killer. She said we were restrained by our choices, but surely she could have found an alternate occupation, if she'd really cared to."

Jonah cocked an eyebrow at me. "Can you imagine doing anything besides working for the company?"

"Why would I want to?"

He gave me a strange look: amused, but somehow patronizing.

"What?" I said.

He shook his head, smiling. "Honestly, Al, your bitchiness is only offset by your charming naivete."

"I object to both those terms!"

Jonah laughed. "You just don't like to admit when you're wrong."

"What am I wrong about?"

He used the tip of his steak knife to count the points on his fingers. "Leviatech owns us. We don't have a thing to call our own, including our thoughts and words, until we turn thirty-five and our contacts are released. We're offered a narrow buffet of choices from the time we're ten years old, and forced to choose one, towards which we are relentlessly steered for the rest of our adolescence. The company controls every aspect of our physical, emotional, and social development to the point that even after we're released from contract, we can't even imagine any other way to live." He grinned. "Although I have to say, the fact that you'd lie to the seniors in a debriefing gives me hope for you."

"I don't mean to make a habit of it," I muttered. "But can you honestly say you'd rather live like other people? Never knowing where or whether you'll be employed next year, or fumbling around with various educational and occupational ventures, hoping you'll be fortunate enough to find something you're competent at, never mind content with?"

Jonah shrugged. "It's only a different set of sacrifices."

I could think of nothing to say to that. We finished our luncheon in silence, and soon we were on another starliner, on our way to another contract signing.

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