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Jon Moore

I rounded the corner into the main space and pulled up so suddenly that I almost dropped my tray.

Each of the ten pedestals comprised a meter-tall, meter-wide soft golden metal base and an almost perfectly transparent tube that stretched another two meters above the metal. Inside each tube was a child, some standing, others sitting on small, clear chairs. Soft light from the top of the base illuminated the children from below. Each wore a different outfit, but all of them featured short sleeves and short pants or skirts in whites and bright primary colors. None of the kids moved much, though several were swaying as if dancing to slow songs only they could hear. Though their eyes were open, they were clearly drugged. Around the top of the each pedestal, above the heads of the children, played images of that child running, laughing, walking, living.

Against the wall directly behind each pedestal, as far into the shadows under the boxes as possible, stood a guard.

Ten security staff inside, almost certainly more outside: more than we had expected.

I had also not planned on the kids being drugged already. I was ready for what we would have to do to them, but I hadn’t thought enough about the state the children would be in when we found them. That was stupid and exactly the sort of mistake I was likely to make when I rushed.

Lobo had been right; this was a bad plan. I was in it now, though, and there was no way I was leaving without those kids.

A server put her hand on my shoulder and whispered, “First time?”

I nodded.

“It’ll get easier,” she said. “It’s not right, but the pay is phenomenal. Somebody’s gonna work it, so it might as well be us. Right?” She stared at me as if searching.

The last thing I needed now was for another person to wonder if I was going to cause trouble. “Absolutely,” I said. “I need the money.”

She patted me on the back. “Let’s get to it.”

She took her tray of wine to a pair of men on my left, so I walked toward a trio standing in front of the nearest pedestal on my right. “May I offer you some wine?” I said.

None acknowledged my question, but two pulled glasses from the tray. All three wore masks over their eyes and foreheads. One was a black leather piece, either antique or made to look so, with an enormous nose and silver specks scattered all over it. The other two were modern half-face, powered, activefabric covers that shimmered in constantly changing abstract patterns of soft, pastel lights. The men with these masks stood ramrod straight courtesy of the exoskeletons visible in the patterns the struts made against their pants and jackets. The other leaned on a cane, a nice touch in keeping with his mask.

“Is there anything else?” the man with the cane said.

I’d stayed too long. I was caught off guard by the masks; I’d never considered that the faces of the men might not be visible.

“No, sir,” I said.

I approached a pair of men a couple of meters away, these two lost in contemplation of the young copper-skinned boy in the pedestal in front of them.

I glanced at the kid.


One of the men licked his lips and put his hand on the tube surrounding Tasson.

I wanted to break every finger in his hand.

Instead, I said, “May I offer you some wine, gentlemen?”

Each took a glass without ever making eye contact with me.

I forced myself to move on.

I gave the last of the glasses on my tray to the men in another group, so I returned to the kitchen for more wine. When the guests could see us, all the servers walked smoothly and carefully, their pace measured and careful. As soon as a server hit the private hallway, however, he or she picked up speed and hustled to and from the kitchen. I followed their lead. My tray directed me, and I moved as quickly as I could without bumping into any of the other servers.

When I emerged into the open space, a server was already helping the first group on my right, so I angled left. Rather than head for the set of guests in front of me, I took my tray to the guard standing behind the nearest pedestal.

I’d thought the guards were standing in shadows, but as I drew closer I realized they weren’t; they were literally blending into the walls. This one’s loose jacket, tight shirt, and loose pants were all activefiber that was doing its best to blend with the red behind them. The garments lacked only that meandering gold thread of the wallpaper to pull off the camouflage perfectly.

“Wine, sir?” I said.

His gaze flicked to me and immediately back to the pedestal. “Your first time.” It wasn’t a question. His hands were empty and hung loose by his side. I couldn’t spot any weapons, but that meant only that his tailoring was good. I also didn’t see any filters in his nose, but then again, he was a little shorter than I was, so my view of his nostrils was limited.

“Yes, sir,” I said.

“If you don’t want it to be your only time, you won’t approach any of us again. We’re working, same as you.” He nodded toward the guests. “You serve them.”

I bowed slightly and said, “Sorry, sir.”

Over the course of the next half hour, I brought wine to groups all around the main floor. I counted twenty people on this level, plus at least another six who were occasionally visible in three of the boxes one floor up. I couldn’t spot anyone higher. That didn’t necessarily mean no one was there, but these men seemed to want good views of the kids, so I felt reasonably safe assuming all the bidders were on one of these two levels.

While picking up more wine in the kitchen, I tuned again into the machine frequency. Now that I knew how they sounded, finding the security cameras was much easier.

“I am getting some amazing footage!” one said. “Even with the soft lighting here, my images could not be better.”

Lobo had succeeded. Excellent.

“Your images?” another said. “The only reason they look good to you is that the only part of you older than your processors are your lenses. Now, if you were as state-of-the-art as I am, then you would see what great video really is!”

I tuned out and ran my tray out to the floor.

As I approached the first group on my right, a meter-high stage emerged from the wall at the far end of the space. Steps opened on its left side. The man with the cane walked up them and to the center front of the stage.

“My friends and guests,” he said. His voice came from all around us and rose until it was louder than the hum of the conversations. “Welcome.” He leaned on the cane, smiling and patient, until everyone else stopped talking.

A server across from me backed to the nearest wall, so I did the same. I noticed all the others had also faded out of view, available should someone want them but no longer between the men and the stage.

“I hope you have all enjoyed the refreshments and,” he paused and his smile broadened, “are suitably relaxed. We aim to coax great sums from your wallets.”

The crowd chuckled.

His smile vanished. “Let us be serious for a moment.” He swiveled his head slowly as he spoke, his eyes moving past the servers as if we were invisible but pausing momentarily on each of the guests. “Each of you—each of us—is a man of age and substance. We share not only those traits but also an appreciation, a taste—” he paused again and lifted his left hand as if it held a diamond, “—a refined taste, that most are incapable of understanding.”

The guests murmured in agreement.

“We understand,” the host continued, “more than any others possibly could, how precious youth is, how much love the young require, how much they can benefit from the right love, the right instruction, and the right opportunities—from the right men. We love all our children,” his hand swept slowly from left to right, taking in all the pedestals, “and tonight we gather to bid for the chance to love these ten beautiful boys and girls.” He coughed.

A server rushed up the steps and offered him a tray with a single glass of water on it.

He took the glass, sipped from it, and returned it to the tray. He never even glanced at the server.

“Each of you,” he said, “has now had the chance to see up close how very lovely these children are. Each of them comes from a situation far inferior to what you can provide them. Each needs the love and guidance that only you—we—can give them.”

Another murmur of assent swept through the small group.

“We gather here tonight, far from our home worlds, because the people in those worlds are incapable of understanding us and our special love for children. They do not appreciate its depth.” His voice grew louder as he continued. “They do not appreciate how much we love all children. They may elect us or pay us or make us wealthy, but they do not, in the end, fully appreciate us.” He looked once again at all the guests. “They do not appreciate us, because they do not understand us.” He shook his head and, in a softer voice, said, “Nor, I suspect, are they capable of doing so.”

He motioned to his left.

A man walked from the wall next to the stage and stopped in front of him.

“Only a few of us,” the man with the cane said, “are new tonight. I trust that all of us understand how tonight’s proceedings will unfold. My assistant here,” he pointed to the man standing on the ground before him, “will conduct the bidding. We have chosen the four most common youth charities from those that each of you nominated, and we will donate a quarter of the profits from tonight to each of them.” He smiled broadly again. “So, bid generously, as I certainly plan to do, for you will be helping not only the child you will take home to love, but also a far larger group of children!”

He bowed ever so slightly.

The guests applauded him loudly as he walked slowly across the stage and down the steps.

The man in front of the stage approached the nearest pedestal on his left.

The guests on the ground floor followed him and gathered tightly around him. The half dozen in the boxes leaned over the edges so they could follow the action.

“We begin,” the auctioneer said, “with this lovely boy, age eight.” He stared at the child within the transparent tube and patted the tube as if reassuring a reluctant son.

The boy inside sat dully.

“He is,” the auctioneer said, “as you can see, as perfect and beautiful an unspoiled flower as, well,” he waved at the other pedestals, “as the other children with us tonight.”

He dropped his hand and faced the crowd.

“Who would like to start us?”

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