Read me the story
The Tranest Aureole loomed in the orbit of Ponik Retsa III like a third moon, nearly as big as the airless planet’s two artificial moons, but more streamlined. In a luxuriously-appointed dining room in the Executive Suite, the Executive Committee of Tranest Corporation was sharing breakfast.
The six women and men consuming swan-hawk omelets, sake-marinated pearl shrimp, and slices of iced jasmine melon represented more raw economic power than many entire colonies, or even clusters, in the Hub’s central axes. Everyone was on their best behavior. No one relaxed.
There was no one else in the dining room. Beverage service had been provided, when they first arrived, and an exquisite buffet had been arranged on the sideboard, but now they were alone. Not even bodyguards were permitted, although everyone present had been scanned with a thoroughness that most security services could only dream of achieving.
An active toxscan field over the sideboard showed a reassuringly pale-green nimbus. As the host was Nadis Orms, it was safe to assume that the toxscan covered all of the staggeringly vast array of assassination tools that could be applied in the context of a meal.
Conversation, while they ate, remained casual. Although the Orms family, and its several branches, controlled nearly seventy percent of Tranest, two of the board members present could not be considered family. Nadis had strict rules about discussing family business when non-family members were present. Light family gossip was exchanged, comments on the latest Hub Mercantile Council election, and the occasional discussion of a newly acquired art object or other collectible.
Ni-quan !Xe, senior representative of the !Xe subclan, was seated opposite Nadis. On his left, Stenevra Orms Chuko chatted with Dantas teVrenth-Wansi, who represented the Ermetyne Finance Conglom’s interest in Tranest. Tranest had two representative on Ermetyne’s board, too, as well as Executive Committee representation.
On Nadis’ left, Mengath Farfrazi Orms discussed Mercantile Court politics with Den Kaddets, whose family held the largest single share of Telnas TPEFab, the beacon manufacturers.
The pace of consumption slowed, and finally Nadis winkled the last pearl shrimp from its shell, popped it into her mouth, set the pick down beside her plate, and leaned back in her chair.
There was instant silence.
She gestured to Mengath “I think we could all use a little more coffee.”
He went to the sideboard and picked up the carafe, and moved from place to place like a waiter, topping up the gold-rimmed shell porcelain mugs at each place setting.
“Now. The Colonial School Small-Cluster conference will be opening in less than 600 hours, to discuss progress on the Devlin Survey. Would anyone like to comment?” Nadis glanced around the table, and nodded thanks to Mengath as he topped her coffee, setting down the carafe in front of her and resuming his seat.
Dantas teVrenth-Wansi smiled. “Plus or minus thirty-seven currently sub-Optimal planets potentially released for colonization. We have retainer deposits on escrow for sixteen, and are currently negotiating for another six. I understand Transcluster Finance has nine retainers on deposit.”
Ni-quan !Xe frowned. “That leaves six known potentials available, as well as an additional…” he glanced at a wristcom datafield, “fourteen that might come up as well if the survey is sufficiently, ah… generous.”
“Just so.” Nadis Orms reached for her coffee cup. The green stone in the ring on that hand—the only jewelry she wore—sparkled with red highlights. She picked up the cup, and smiled. “We have put a good deal of effort into ensuring a favorable report on the classification stratae from the Survey.”
She lifted the cup, but not to her lips. “Mengeth. I really think you’d enjoy this more than I would.”
There was a sudden heavy, sticky feeling to the air, and a breathless silence as everyone else looked at Mengeth, whose face had gone an unattractive, muddy shade.
She continued to hold out the cup to him, a slight smile on her face. But her eyes glittered like ice shards. “Mengeth.”
He shook his head, swallowed.
“Mengeth.” Her voice was velvet over steel. “You’d really prefer it to the alternative.”
He shook his head again.
“Dear me. My new toy,” she glanced at the ring, still glittering with red undertones, “isn’t equipped to provide a precise analysis, but may I assume that you indulged yourself? That we’re not looking at something discreet, and comparatively merciful, here? No apparent myocardial infarcts, or massive cerebral accidents? Something a little more… baroque, perhaps?”
Her eyes had returned to his, and he was unable to look away, even as he shook his head again. “Nadis, it wasn’t my…” he trailed off.
“Not your idea?” Her smile widened. “What a surprise. Well, let me reassure you, Mengeth. If you had co-conspirators, they’ll be treated to something infinitely worse than whatever you provided for me here.”
The silence gathered layers, poised itself on a knife edge, as she held the cup out to him. His eyes searched hers again, and the muddy color paled further. Slowly, he reached out, took the cup, and drank, gulping it down almost frantically.
Someone at the table drew a breath, as though about to speak, and she held up her hand. She sat back, watching with clinical detachment, as his eyes bulged, and he began making unattractive, breathless mewling noises.
His body spasmed in the chair, and rammed hard into the table. His arms twitched, his mouth opened, the tongue protruding swollen and grotesque.
Nadis sighed. “I’m not really a sadist, you know,” she murmured.
In a gesture too swift for the others to follow, she grasped the table pick she’d just laid beside her plate, and plunged it into the back of his neck where the spinal column meets the skull.
The body went limp, sliding with a messy thud against the table, then off the edge of the chair, which tipped momentarily and then righted itself even as what had been a senior Tranest executive landed in a heap on the floor.
She touched a panel on the table edge. “Cleanup crew, please.”
The silence grew spikes and danced a slow waltz around the room while a couple of imperturbable crew members removed the remains of Mengeth Farfrazi Orms, tidied away the place setting, refilled the coffee carafe, and set out fresh cups for everyone.
When the door slid shut behind them, Nadis poured herself a fresh cup of coffee. The ring sparkled a reassuring green.
“As I was saying, we’ve invested in assuring a positive survey result, but there may be some… unforeseen factors, arising at the Conference. I’d like to do a little contingency planning.”