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A Thing of Beauty

by Charles E. Gannon


“The children have become an unacceptably dangerous liability. Don’t you agree, Director Simovic?”

“Perhaps, Ms. Hoon. But how would you propose to resolve the problem?”

“Director, it is generally company policy to…liquidate assets whose valuations are subpar and declining.”

Elnessa Clare managed not to fumble the wet, sloppy clay she was adding to the frieze, despite being triply stunned by the calm exchange between her corporate patrons. The first of the three shocks was her immediate reaction to the topic: liquidate the children? My children? Well, they’re not mine—not anymore—but, just last year, they would have been mine, when I was still the transitional foster parent for company orphans. How could anyone—even these bloodless suits—talk about “liquidating the children?”

The second shock was that these two bloodless suits were discussing this while Elnessa was in the room and only twenty feet away, at that. But then again, why be surprised? Their company, the Indi Group, was simply an extension of the megacorporate giant, CoDevCo and evinced all its parent’s tendencies toward callousness and exploitation. It also possessed the same canny ability to generate profits, often by ruthlessly factoring human losses into their spreadsheets just like any other actuarial number

The third shock was that Elnessa could hear Simovic and Hoon at all, let alone make out the words. Because of the xenovirus which had hit her shortly after arriving on Kitts—officially, Epsilon Indi 2 K—Elnessa had suffered losses in mobility and sensory acuity. But every once in a while, she experienced an equally troublesome inversion of these handicaps: unprecedented (albeit transient) sensory amplification. Six months ago, she had had to endure a hyperactive set of tastebuds. All but the blandest of foods had made her retch. And now, over the past four days, her steady hearing loss had abruptly reversed, particularly in the higher ranges. Elnessa had acquired a new-found empathy for dogs), and could now pick out conversations from uncommonly far-off, whereas only a week ago, she had been trying to learn lip-reading.

She realized she had stopped working; had, in fact, frozen motionless. And Simovic and Hoon had fallen silent, were possibly watching her, wondering if she had—impossibly—heard them. Elnessa raised her hand haltingly, then paused again, hefting the clay. Then she shook her head, plopped it back, and began rolling it to work the water out. Meanwhile, she continued to listen carefully, hoping they had believed her depiction of “distracted aesthetic uncertainty.”

Simovic’s voice resumed a beat later. “So, Ms. Hoon, do you have any suggestions for the most profitable method of divesting ourselves of these young—er, high-risk commodities?”

“Director, at some point, the attempt to find a profitable method of divestiture can itself become a prime example of the law of diminishing returns. Sometimes a commodity becomes so valueless that the simplest and least costly method of liquidating it is best.”

Elnessa reminded herself to keep breathing. The good news was that Simovic and Hoon had believed her performance as “the Oblivious Artist,” contemplating the frieze before her. The bad news was that the discussion at hand had already moved from “should we get rid of the children?” to “how do we go about doing so?”

Simovic carried the inquiry further. “So we just abandon the asset in place?”

“Director, I would suggest junking the asset at a considerable distance from the main colony, and even the outlying settlements. I suggest using an infrequently visited part of the planet. No reason we should risk being seen and reported for disposing of unwanted material off-site.”

Elnessa was now acclimated enough to the horrific conversation that she could actually work and listen at the same time. She straightened, began layering in thin strips of micro-fiber pseudoclay that would hold and provide a reflective receptacle for the back-lit acrylic inserts with which she would finish the high-relief center panels of the mixed media frieze. With one eye on Simovic’s and Hoon’s reflections in the inert monitor of her combination laser-level and grid-plotter, Elnessa smoothed and sculpted the materials while straining her ears after every word.

Simovic chuckled: the sound was more patronizing than mirthful. “Ms. Hoon, sometimes the direct approach to seemingly low-value divestiture is not the best alternative—particularly if one has had the opportunity to plan in advance.”

Hoon’s shoulders squared defiantly. “What advanced planning are you referring to, sir?”

“Well, in fairness, it’s nothing that you could have been aware of. Suffice it to say that with the appearance of this—ah, unregistered vessel—in main orbit, the asset in question may not be wholly valueless.”

Hoon sounded skeptical. “And just why would a bunch of grey-world orphans be of interest to—to whoever it is that’s hovering just outside Kitts’ own orbital track?”

Elnessa watched Simovic lean far back in his absurdly over-sized chair and steeple his fingers. His smile had mutated from ‘smug’ through ‘shrewd’ and into ‘predatory.’ “Come now, Ms. Hoon; surely you can think of at least a dozen reasons why unrecorded corporate wards would be items of interest to any number of parties.”

Hoon’s defiant frown slowly evolved into a smile—at about the same pace that Elnessa felt her blood turn into ice. People, particularly kids, who were ”unrecorded”—who lacked birth certificates and national identicodes—were rare, and therefore inherently valuable, black market commodities. And there wasn’t a single use for such commodities that was anything less than hideously illegal and immoral.

“And why,” Hoon asked in what sounded like a purr, “are you so sure that our mysterious visitors will be interested in such a trade good?”

“That,” Simovic answered with a self-satisfied sigh, as expansive and deep as had he just finished a very filling meal, “will become obvious within the next twenty-four hours.”

Elnessa blinked and doubled the speed at which she was putting the finishing touches on the clay components surrounding the central space she had left open for what she had silently labeled The Brazen City. She had to complete the frieze soon, and in particular, she had to finish on time today, because she needed to make an early visit to her dead-drop site.

She had to make sure that her contact Reuben came to debrief her. As early as possible.

* * *

Sitting on the spongy, close-mowed kitturf that seemed half-lichen, half crabgrass, Elnessa surveyed the small patch of ground that served as the colony’s park, promenade, and grey market. She watched as Reuben led the newest batch of fresh-faced PDPs—Parentless Displaced Persons—to the sparsely-appointed playground at the other end of the public square. Although the orange-yellow disk of Epsilon Indi had almost dipped behind the horizon, the amber-white gas-giant Lee was in gibbous domination of the darkling sky. If one looked closely, the resulting double illumination created faint secondary shadows, with the stronger ones (generated by the system’s primary) rapidly losing ground to those created by the weak, but steadily reflected light of Kitt’s parent-world.

Elnessa smiled as several of the younger children lagged behind, mesmerized by the ghostly effect. Reuben cycled back to the end of the group, gently urged the stragglers to keep up, evidently throwing down the claim that he could reach the playground first. Cries of glee provided the soundtrack for the impromptu footrace to a dilapidated jungle-gym.

Nice kids, thought Elnessa. And they almost always were, despite the hell-holes that invariably spat them out. Usually, their parents or parent had died on a Grey World, still indebted to the company store or transit office, and—presto—the kids became the wards of the corporation. Which fed them as grudgingly and clothed them as generically as the parents it had killed—unintentionally, of course. But once wearing a megacorporate yoke that shackled them to the company store, a great many desperate employees discovered that they had to work in increasingly risky and brutal jobs to defray the debts that accumulated faster than the pay.

Elnessa scowled. The corporations were nothing if not ruthlessly efficient, even in the smallest of matters. Here it was, only two days past the collectively observed year-end holidays, and the physical-plant flunkies were already making the rounds, taking down the ornaments that ringed the periphery of the park. Elnessa watched the strings of white and red lights wink out, one after the other, just before they were recoiled into storage spools by the coveralled workers. ’Tis the season to be stingy, she thought. After all, what was the value in prolonging the modest, celebratory mood of the community when the company could burn a few less kilowatt hours? And all for the sake of something as intangible as joy? Bah, humbug.

She emerged from her bitter reverie, discovered that she was still watching the kids, unconsciously drinking in their innocence like an antitoxin. A moment later, Reuben drifted away from his charges, began approaching her obliquely.

She spared a quick glance at the younger man as he strolled across the spongy kitturf, then she looked back to watch the kids playing. One of them standing at the edge of the playground looked to be the oldest, but he certainly wasn’t the biggest. He was a little short for his age, thin, standing quite still, milk-chocolate skin, dark brown eyes, and very straight black hair.

“El,” Reuben said.

She looked up, almost surprised: he had not meandered toward her as he should have. “Hi, Reuben. Have a seat.”

“Okay. Jus’ for a second, though.” He flopped down on the ground. A slightly musky smell—the one given off by quickly compressed kitturf—rose up around them. “So what’s up, Mata Hari?”

Elnessa snorted, stared down at herself. “Oh yes, I’m one spry, sultry sex-pot; that’s me.”

Reuben—a good kid, but very new at coordinating the activities of Kitts’ illegal (hence, underground) union—seemed uncertain how to respond. “El . . . Elnessa, you’re really not . . . not so—”

“Christ, Reuben, I’m not fishing for a compliment, okay? Thanks to this damned xenovirus, my leg is almost shot, my muscle tone is going, and I stand zero percent chance of becoming a tantric mistress of the Kama Sutra. I know all that. And I know you didn’t mean to get yourself into this conversational mess, so let me help you escape it: I, your inside agent—‘Mata Handicapped’—heard some nasty chatter today between the big cheeses. Concerning your new PDPs.”

Reuben first looked relieved and thankful when Elnessa put aside the unfortunate reference to Mata Hari, but frowned as she concluded. “So tell me the news.”

Elnessa did.

Reuben blew out his cheeks, stared at the patchwork façade of the stacked modular uniroom workers’ quarters. “Damn,” he said. But he didn’t seem surprised.

Elnessa narrowed her eyes. “Give,” she said.

“Give what?”

“Come on, Reuben, you’re going to have to feign innocent ignorance a lot more convincingly than that if you don’t want the suits sniffing you out and introducing you to a sparring partner while you’re strapped into a chair.”

Reuben turned very white. “I’ll work on the act, okay?”

“Don’t do it to please me, Reuben. Do it to save yourself. Now, what have you heard?”

Reuben frowned. “Well, it’s not what we heard; it’s who was talking. And how much.”

“What do you mean?”

“Coded government traffic spiked big time today. Bigger than during inter-Bloc naval exercises.”

“What? You monitor military channels?”

Reuben looked sidelong at her. “You think the Megas are above calling in troops to keep us working?”

“Their private security forces, no. But not the Blocs’. That’s your old-school-union dinosaurs talking, Reuben. Nations and corporations have been at each others’ jugulars for almost twenty years now, with the nations supporting the unions ninety percent of the time.”

“Yeah, well, the industrial megacorporations haven’t become hostile toward the nations.” He leaned his index finger across his middle finger. “The Industrials and nations are like that. More than ever.”

Elnessa shrugged. “Sure. I can’t argue that. But when was the last time the Industrials made a move that even looked like a prelude to strike-breaking?”

“Well, in China—”

“Don’t get cute, Reuben. We’re not talking about Beijing’s ‘companies,’ here. They’re not genuine corporate entities anymore than their army is. They just get their orders from different people. Sometimes. But in the other Blocs—”

“Okay, okay, I get your point. But regardless of that, it’s still SOP for our membership on the other moons, like Tigua, to monitor all spaceside commo, even the coded stuff. Increased activity is positively correlated with impending operations, whatever those operations might happen to be.”

“Makes sense. So what’s the best guess about the cause of the chatter? War?”

“Maybe, but the command staffs of all the Blocs seem agitated.”

“Well, they would be if they were on the brink of war.”

“Yeah, but they’d be agitated at each other. Instead, the various Bloc naval commands were burning up the lascom beams communicating with each other. If anything, the different militaries seem to be cooperating more, not less.”

“So what’s your hypothesis?”

“Well, the only thing that would worry all the Blocs and push them together would be something from—well, from outside their respective command structures.”

Elnessa stared at him. “Meaning what?”

“Meaning—maybe—that unidentified ship Simovic was talking about is not part of anyone’s navy.”

“So whose do you think it is?”

“Look, El, we just don’t have any guesses about that. Maybe some military ship mutinied. Maybe the megacorporations have built their own warship, are throwing their weight around.”

“Then why does Simovic think he can sell orphans to—?”

“Okay, so maybe it’s a ship the megas have slipped into the hands of some of the local raiders you hear rumors about. They might have an interest in kids without records.”

Elnessa nodded; that seemed reasonable—and gruesome—enough. But even so—

“El,” Reuben said after a moment, “have you changed your mind yet?”

“About what?”

“C’mon El, don’t make this harder than it is. Will you take a—a package inside corporate headquarters?”

Elnessa shrugged, looked away. She heard Reuben lay something down on the kitturf beside her.

“What is that?” she asked, not needing to look.

“You don’t need to know, El. Any more than you already do. That way you’re not implicated if you’re caught.”

She turned back to look at him, ignoring the plain brown paper package on the ground between them. “Hell, you’re not very good at this are you, Reuben? If anything in that package is selected for inspection when I go in, then I’ve got to have a plausible explanation ready, don’t I? So I’m going to need to know what each object is so I know how best to hide it, or how to explain it away if they take special notice of it. Right?”

Now it was Reuben’s turn to look away. “Yeah, I guess so. I just don’t want you to get—”

“Reuben, don’t you stare away when the topics get tough: that’s the most important time to stay eye-to-eye. Yes, I’ve been reluctant about doing anything more than listening and reporting. Which, admittedly, has worked out just the way you and your advisors back on Tigua thought. Since the suits have decided I’m nothing more than an unassuming, crippled artist-lady, I’m an operational non-entity to them, well beneath the notice of their security elements. So it’s been easy enough to be your ears inside the lion’s den. But now, with them talking about the kids that way—well, I’ll take the next step. I guess I have to. But I don’t know anything about—”

“El, we only want you to bring the materials inside. You can leave it anyplace you want. Just tell us where you’ve left it when you come out. We’ll take care of everything else.”

Elnessa felt relief at not having to do the real dirty work and in the same instant, felt like both a hypocrite and a coward. Damnit, if I’m in on this plan, then why shouldn’t I take risks equal to—?

“El, there’s something else.”

Reuben’s tone had changed, seemed to have become even younger, and more uncertain, somehow. She looked back up at him.

“Please, El: don’t stare at the kids. Not so much, or so long. It makes them—well, uncomfortable.”

El looked away, felt her chest tighten, forced that to stop—because if she didn’t, she feared she might cry. “I can’t help it, Reuben. They should have been mine.”

“I know. But the youngest is five and . . . well, you scare them.”

She wanted to ask: scare them? Why? But she knew: of course she scared them. Her face was framed by the strange and shocking streaks of silver-grey hair that the first set of transient ischemic attacks had left behind. Since then, she had started hobbling along unevenly with the aid of a cane. There was an ever-changing array of intermittent facial and body tics. And of course, there was her riveted attention upon them whenever they came into view, yearning after what she had lost, and now could never have again. She lowered her head. “I’ll stay away.”

Reuben almost whined his objection. “Look, you don’t have to stay away.”

“Yes. I do. If I’m there, I’ll slip into fixating on them. Never had kids of my own, you know.” It had been an utterly meaningless addition: of course Reuben knew that.

And the tone of his response indicated that he understood the statement for what it was: an unintentional plea for sympathy and understanding. “Yes, El—I know.” The silence that followed was not at all comfortable. “So, um. . . so maybe I should start explaining what’s in the package?”

“Might as well,” Elnessa said, looking up. And what she saw made her smile.

Reuben followed her steady gaze over his shoulder. The little boy with quiet eyes and shiny black hair was only two meters behind him. Waiting.

“Hi,” Reuben said with a quick smile.

“Hi,” the boy answered without looking at Reuben.

He started to rise: “Waiting for me? I’ll be there in a—”

“No, I’m waiting for her.”

Her?”

Elnessa felt a hot pulse of annoyance: You don’t need to sound surprised that someone might actually want to talk to me, Reuben.

Who asked the child, “Why her?”

Oh, you’re just flattering me no end, now, Mr. Empathy.

Elnessa could see the boy laboring—mightily—to keep his face blank. Why? To conceal his dismay, possibly disgust, at Reuben’s thoughtlessly rude inquiry? “I’d like to talk to her. If you don’t mind.”

“Well, she and I—”

Elnessa interrupted. “We can finish this later, Reuben. Come by about seven, okay?”

“Uh, yeah . . . seven o’clock. In private is better, anyway—for what we have to discuss, I mean.”

Elnessa nodded tightly, amazed that Reuben’s idiot, injudicious utterances had not already undone him and the rest of the unofficial union.

The boy with the big, watching eyes moved into the space Reuben vacated. “Hi,” he said again.

“Hi,” Elnessa replied. “What’s your name?”

“I’m Vas.”

“‘Vas?’”

He smiled a little. “It’s short for Srinivasan. But most people can’t say that too well. Anyhow, I like Vas better. What’s your name?”

“I’m El.”

He cocked his head. “Just ‘El?’”

“Well, my real name is ‘Elnessa,’ but people have a hard time remembering that, too. They keep calling me Elaine or Ellen or Elise . . . or Bob.”

Vas stared, then laughed. “You’re funny.”

“I’m glad you think so, Vas. And I’m very glad to meet you.”

“I’m glad to meet you, too. I’ve been wondering: what do you do? I mean, for a living?”

“Well, I started out as an artist, but that was back before I came to settle in the Indis.”

“‘But aren’t you still an artist? At least some of the time?”

Elnessa started. “Why do you ask?”

Vas looked down at her hands and pointed. “They’re stained a lot, almost every time I see you. Or they’re caked with dirt or clay, I can’t tell which. And you look at things very carefully, for a long time. Like you’re measuring them—or feeling them—with your eyes.”

Clever boy: he sees far more than he mentions. He could teach Reuben a thing or two. Elnessa smiled. “You look at things a long time, too. I’ve noticed.”

“Yeah, but that’s just because I’m really careful. I have to be.” Before Elnessa could ask him why he needed to be careful, Vas had pressed on: “What kind of artist are you?”

“I used to create all sorts of art. I still did some pieces on the side when I first arrived on Kitts. Old style paintings, 3-D compgens, I even dabbled a little in holos.”

“What happened?”

She shrugged and looked down at her body. “A xenovirus.”

“You mean a disease that was already here?”

“Well, sort of. Not really a disease. It’s just that . . . well, most of the life on this planet—er, ‘moon’—just ignores life from Earth because it’s too dissimilar. Even though the life here is built from the same basic stuff—”

Vas nodded. “Carbon. Water.”

“—yes.” Damn, he’s sharp. “But sometimes, the local microbes go after our cells, anyway. Or sometimes, the weaker unicellar organisms from Kitts decide to use our bodies as hiding places from the stronger ones that eat them. It’s bad enough when those hiding microorganisms build up in our system, but sometimes, while doing so, they block or consume the few parts of us that they can use. And that’s not good for us.”

Vas nodded solemnly. “Your xenovirus blocks parts of your nervous system, doesn’t it?”

He is very, very sharp indeed. “How did you know that?”

Vas shrugged. “Because you don’t act sick so much as—well, just not able to control yourself as well as other people. And if the microbes were really, uh, consuming, your nerves, I just kind of guessed that you wouldn’t still . . . well, still be alive.”

And how right all your guesses are, my bright little Srinivasan. Despite the concise recitation of her medical woes, Elnessa only felt joy when she was looking into the warm brown eyes of this child. “You know, Vas, I’ll bet you could be a doctor someday.”

He shrugged, looked away, then back at her. “Will we get it too?” Seeing her momentary incomprehension, Vas added, “The disease, I mean.”

She had been slow to understand his question because she assumed that everyone—even kids—were informed upon arrival that, thanks to the new preplanetfall vaccinations and six-month boosters, there hadn’t been any infections since the first wave of settlers. “No,” she said with a firm shake of her head. “You’re safe. It only got the first colonists who settled here. And only some of us.”

“Why did it only get some of you? And how did they cure it?”

Elnessa took care to compose herself before she answered. “Well, you see, Vas, when the Indi Group got permission to settle Kitts, they started with a really diverse group of people. At first, it just seemed that they were taking whoever was willing to come here, probably because they couldn’t be picky. But it turned out that the mix of colonists was actually carefully selected, and was made up of an equal number of persons from every major human genotype. When we asked why they had done that, the company explained that they wanted to create a truly ‘blended’ colony. We still thought they were just trying to make up a nice-sounding story to cover up the fact that they were willing to sign on anyone who was willing to travel here. Of course, they were building a carefully mixed community but not because they were trying to create social diversity.” She watched to see if Vas had understood all the terms she had used. His brows remained unfurrowed, signifying easy and complete comprehension.

Elnessa went on. “In fact, Vas, we were guinea pigs, and they had to have a reasonable sample size of every strain and subspecies of us guinea pigs.”

Now a frown bent Vas’ brow. “I don’t understand.”

Elnessa had her mouth open to explain and then halted: he’s only a kid, El, even if he is a very, very smart one. Kids worry, have nightmares, particularly if you say something that makes them realize that the world is less safe than they think it is. I really don’t have the right—

“Look,” Vas said very matter-of-factly, his eyes still calm but also resolute, “I grew up on Hard Nut, in the Lacaille 8760 system. Life is—hard—there. I lost my Mom, then my Dad, and my Tito Thabo, all in the last few years. So whatever your bosses did, you can tell me. I can take it.”

Elnessa blinked, then sighed and folded her hands. “Vas, the Indi Group wanted to discover if any given genotype of homo sapiens had a particular advantage or disadvantage in this environment. Not that there’s any evidence for such a theory. But that’s the way they think. Racial ‘groups’ do have unique diseases; ethnic groups can carry ‘predominant genetic patterns’ for certain developmental abnormalities. So they decided it would be best to test people from each genetic hiring pool to see if any of them had special advantages or challenges in Kitts’ biosphere.”

“And was there any difference between the groups?”

“No. And when other megacorporations have run the same tests in other biospheres, they never find any differences there, either. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t biological dangers. Here on Kitts, as elsewhere, it turned out that the local xenobugs were all equal-opportunity pathogens.”

“‘Equal opportunity?’”

“Yes. That’s just a silly way of saying that the xenobugs didn’t care about our race, or color, or sex. And I was one of the twenty-four colonists that the xenovirus decided to infest. After the xenobiot surveys declared the biosphere ‘safe,’ that is.”

“So how did the surveys miss detecting these, uh, . . . these xenobugs?”

“Vas, to be fair, the real question should be, ‘how could the surveys be expected to find the bugs? Computer modeling, lab-testing on human-equivalents: those tools are crude and imperfect. And biosensors? A sensor only knows to look for something that has been identified for it already. The sad truth, Vas, is that you don’t really get a good, reliable assessment of what will happen to a human body in a new biosphere until a couple of hundred of those bodies have lived there for a while.”

She tapped her chest. “So we were the canaries in this coal mine. And those of us who became sick were immediately sequestered for study, which is how they learned which genetic markers put humans at highest risk, and then, which vaccines or prophylaxes offered the best protection. And after that, I guess you could say my real work here was done.”

“But you still work.”

“Oh, they give me make-work because it was part of my agreement. I can have a job for as long as I like, and they’ll provide for me; that’s what they promised. But if I leave my employment here, I can’t afford the shift-ticket to another system. And they’ll also stop giving me the experimental xenoviral suppression cocktails, which are what have probably kept me alive this long. Since each new concoction eventually loses its efficacy, they’ve been willing to keep me around as a guinea pig, because I’m still a useful ‘research platform.’ But once they feel they’ve taken that research as far as they need to—”

“I thought you said they made a commitment to provide for you as long as you were their employee. Doesn’t that include medical care?”

“Yes, but routine medical care does not mean that they have to keep a dead-end research program active just to give me the chance to live another year, and then another, and then another. If they stop, then they’ll be responsible for providing for my minimum needs. Until I no longer need anything at all.”

As she ended her description, Vas was looking up at Elnessa with the same quiet, attentive expression that had been on his face the first time she saw him. But now there was the hint of some emotional battle going on behind it. It almost looked as if he might cry—

—but then Vas leaned toward El and caught her in a firm, unyielding hug. El looked down at his crown of shiny hair, and then put her arms gently, carefully, around him.

* * *

Elnessa resisted the urge to close her eyes as Wehns Shoniber, the big Micronesian leader of Simovic’s personal security detail, started rummaging about in her road kit: a carpenter’s tool box converted into an artist’s traveling studio.

“Hey, El,” Wehns wondered, still staring down into the battered red box, “what’s this?”

“Battery,” Elnessa said, trying very hard to keep her response from becoming a sharp, anxious chirp.

“El, you know I can’t let you take that in.”

“Well, then how am I going to power the lights in the high-relief panels?” she replied. “I got Mr. Simovic’s permission before I started the project that some of it could be illuminated.”

“Well, I’m sure you did, El, but he didn’t authorize an independent power source. I’m sure of that. Security protocols, you know.”

El shrugged as if only mildly disturbed, thought: oh, I know, Wehns, I know. In fact, this was exactly what I was afraid would happen. As I told Reuben last night.

Wehns continued riffling through the rest of her gear, inspecting each of the picks, carvers, and files. He stared uncomprehending at an impress set for creating intaglio patterns and asked, as he did every day, “Anything toxic, explosive, flammable, dangerous?”

“Not unless you’re allergic to clay or acrylics.”

Wehns smiled, scratched one of the clay bricks with a fingernail. “Sorry. Gotta ask.”

“Why? Can’t the big, bad megacorporation afford a couple of chemical sniffers?”

“No, not yet. But it’s just a matter of time, now that the big wigs are here to stay.”

“Big wigs?”

“Sure,” Wehns nodded. Then in a lower voice, so his assistants couldn’t hear. “You know: Simovic and Hoon. He’s got an insane amount of autonomy—which came over with him when he promoted up out of the Colonial Development Combine into his post here.”

“And Hoon?”

Wehns’ face went blank. “She’s as cutthroat as they come. Jumped from field rep to junior director in only six years.”

“Don’t like her much?”

“Don’t much care. She doesn’t notice me; I’m just muscle. And frankly, that’s the way I like it. Don’t want to be noticed. Just want to do my job.”

Elnessa looked down at Wehns’ broad back as he neared the completion of his daily search through her kit. Amiable Wehns Shoniber was proof that you couldn’t hate all the people who worked for a megacorporation. It was not the homogeneous conclave of demons and sociopaths that the worst anti-corporate radicals tried to claim. In reality, any given mega only had a smattering of those truly misanthropic monsters, but most of them were in charge, leading a vast organization of average folks who only wanted to work, get ahead, and not worry too much in the process. She sighed: for evil to triumph, all that’s needed is for good men to stand by and do nothing. Or for people to be too lazy to care.

“Hey, what’s this?” Wehns had produced something that looked like the guts of a remote-control handset.

“IR receiver, so you can operate the frieze’s lights by remote control, from anywhere in the room.”

“Aw, El,” Wehns muttered, shaking his head in regret, “I’m sorry, but that one’s off-limits, too.”

“What? Why?”

“Because some nut-job might try to use it as a remote receiver for—something else. Or as a timer, because they all have internal time-chips.”

Elnessa quirked an eyebrow. “A remote receiver or timer for what?”

Wehns looked abashed. “You know. Something—dangerous.”

“You mean, like a piece of art?” Elnessa didn’t think she’d be able to shame Wehns into looking the other way on this violation, but it was worth a try.

If Wehns blushed, she couldn’t tell. His tropic-dark skin hid all such emotional responses. But his voice sounded regretful, apologetic. “El, look, you’re okay—everyone knows that—”

Yeah, sure. Because I’m a nice little cripple lady . . .

“—but rules are rules. I’m sorry, I’m going to have to hold these for you. You can get them back when you leave today.” With a nod that punctuated the end of both his search and their discussion, Wehns carried the offending items away to his secure lock-box. As he withdrew, he caught the eye of his senior assistant and tilted his head toward Simovic’s office. The assistant turned, and with a smile that as was much a part of his equipment as his outdated taser, motioned that Elnessa was free to go into Simovic’s sanctum sanctorum.

With a sigh, she followed his gesture and dragged her battered red box into the expansive Bauhaus-meets-Rococo-gauche opulence in which Simovic held court, limping as she went. With the power-supply and timer/actuator gone, Reuben’s plan for sending a loud—and destructive—after-hours message to their megacorporate masters was pretty much busted before it had begun. She began hobbling toward the raised walkway that ran the length of the mostly finished frieze. Behind her, the door detail resumed their argument about whether today—New Year’s Day, 2120—commenced the last year of the ‘Teens’ decade, or the first of the Twenties.

“Ms. Clare.” It was Simovic. Whom she had no desire to talk with. Or to look at. Or to share a common species with. And besides, she was supposed to be half deaf, now. So, without giving any sign that she had heard, Elnessa continued to make her slow, painful progress toward the work-ramp.

Simovic’s voice was louder—so much louder, that she would have had to have been stone deaf to miss it. “Ms. Clare!”

Elnessa turned with what she hoped was a look of surprise and ingratiating eagerness: “Yes, Mr. Simovic?”

“Your project: how is it coming?”

“Should be finished tomorrow, Mr. Simovic. Although I hardly think of it as ‘my project.’”

“Oh? Why not?”

“Well, sir, it’s you who commissioned it.”

“Yes, but the concept—and the handiwork—is yours, Ms. Clare. I trust you’ll explain its content to both of us,”—he gestured diffidently toward Ms. Hoon—“when you are finished?”

“Of course, Mr. Simovic. Although it’s neither abstract, nor highly stylized. I think you’ll see right away that—”

“Yes, yes: that’s wonderful, Ms. Clare, wonderful. Just make sure that it radiates the humanitarian side of the Indi Group, would you?”

Oh, yes, I’ll be sure to represent the way it exploits workers, and gives us just enough pay to struggle on from one day to the next. I’ll depict how, after the xenovirus incapacitated me, you made me your corporate nanny, and then, when I couldn’t do that any longer, you met your minimum employment requirement by commissioning this frieze. Dirt pay for me, but a tax dodge for you, and a great PR op to demonstrate how the Indi Group encourages the remaining abilities of even its most severely handicapped employees. But Elnessa’s only reply was, “I’ll explain the frieze to you when I’ve completed it, Mr. Simovic.”

“Excellent!” Simovic actually clapped his hands once in histrionic gratification and pleasure, nodded his thanks, and then drew closer to Hoon. For a moment their voices were too low to hear, but then, evidently reassured by Elnessa’s near-deafness, they resumed the discussion her entrance had interrupted.

“So you see,” Simovic said in the voice of a smug tutor, “our visitors—I should say, our new clients—have good reason to be interested in our commodity.”

“And our cooperation, along with it.”

“Well, this goes without saying, Ms. Hoon. But the children will be out of our hands and out of our files, as soon as they take possession.”

“Exactly when and where will that occur?”

“We are uncertain, Ms. Hoon. But we do know this: the commodity must be delivered to the client in pristine condition. The client’s, ah, research program would be ruined by any damage to the goods.”

Research? On the children? On Vas?

“‘Research’?” Hoon echoed. “With respect, sir, all these euphemisms are getting a bit ridiculous.”

“How do you mean?”

“I mean that our new customers certainly aren’t scientists, sir. Corporate wards without identicodes are not going to be interred in laboratories. They’re bound for raider ships, brothels, snuff producers, maybe a few rich pederasts, but not—”

El thought she was about to lose her breakfast, and then something calming yet more chilling insinuated itself into Simovic’s even-toned interruption: “Oh, no, Ms. Hoon. You really don’t understand, after all. These wards are going to a lab, which is why their utter lack of a traceable background makes them so optimal for this particular trade. Because it is imperative for both us and our clients that they receive humans who, insofar as the nations know, never existed.”

Hoon was quiet for a moment. “Director Simovic, I find your change of label somewhat . . . confusing. Why are you referring to our commodity as ‘humans,’ now, instead of ‘children?’”

“Because that is our client’s primary interest in our commodity. It is not so much because they are children—although it has been intimated that this is the ideal age group for their researches—but because they are healthy, paperless specimens of homo sapiens.”

In the pause that ensued, Elnessa lifted a long, slightly convex, copper sheet from the floor, and, with a couple of touches of an exothermic chemical welder, affixed it to the naked wall of the room.

Hoon’s voice sounded raspy, as if her throat had suddenly become dry. “Sir . . . I don’t understand. The client wants them just because they’re humans?”

Lifting a thin layer of protective gauze from the copper sheet, Elnessa unveiled what would soon occupy the top third of the friezes’s center: a cityscape cluttered by the various architectures of antiquity. She also reminded herself to breathe, despite what she was hearing.

“Oh, I think you are starting to understand after all, Ms. Hoon. Rest assured; this exchange is not being conducted without adequate planning. Indeed, we had contingency directives sent out to us from Earth more than half a year ago, shortly after the Parthenon Dialogues became public knowledge.”

Elnessa removed six sizable blocks of clay from her studio box, and compared them to the virtual assembly plan on her grid-plotter. She then unsheathed her matte knife, and carefully shaved an inch from the rear of the five smaller blocks.

Hoon had paused again, but not for as long. “Are you telling me that the contingency plans governing this, this—exchange—were crafted in response to the Parthenon Dialogues?”

Simovic considered his protégé over steepled fingers. “Let us rather say that the revelations of the Parthenon Dialogues prompted some of CoDevCo’s more speculative thinkers to provide us with guidelines to handle a situation such as this one.”

Even in the grid-plotter’s illuminated screen, Elnessa could make out the profound scowl of doubt on Hoon’s face. “But the evidence presented at Parthenon only proved past events: that—ages and ages ago—this area of space had been visited by aliens—”

“’Exosapients,’” Simovic corrected.

“’Exosapients,’” Hoon parroted peevishly, “But there was no evidence of a more recent presence.”

Simovic smiled, smug and satisfied. “Yes, that’s the story that was released to the public.”

Elnessa forced herself to keep working. That made it easier not to imagine little Vas spread-eagled on an operating table, surrounded by hideous extraterrestrial vivisectionists. She mentally slapped herself, and mounted the five modified clay blocks on studs protruding from the copper plate. She stood back, admiring the effect: the blocks now seemed to be the stony slabs of an ancient fortress wall that curved out from the faintly raised copper cityscape directly over it—a metropolis which, by virtue of the oblique perspective, now seemed to be sheltered behind the wall.

Hoon had recovered enough to continue. “And so the full truth of the Parthenon Dialogues was—?”

“—Was not shared in detail outside the meeting itself. However, let us say that while the evidence certainly established that exosapients did exist 20,000 years ago on Delta Pavonis Three, it did not go on to assert that there were none left in existence.”

“So you suspect that actual contact has been made in the recent—?”

“No, there’s been no contact that we know of or suspect.” Simovic smiled. “Not until now, that is.”

“So you really think that the unidentified ship up there is, is—?”

“Ms. Hoon, the persons we are currently negotiating with are not human, of that you may rest assured. The communication challenges have been proof positive of that.”

Elnessa felt as though she might swallow her tongue, but instead, she picked up the last, and the largest, of the six clay blocks she had brought with her. She carefully carved the top to resemble a peak-roofed gallery at the pinnacle of a watchtower. Then she bored a small tube up through the center of the block, making sure that it was wide enough to fit the wires for its small beacon light.

Hoon hadn’t stopped. “So how did these, er, exosapients know to contact us and that we’d have these particular ‘items’ that they needed?”

“An excellent question, but those kinds of details are not even shared with regional managers, Ms. Hoon. However, I conjecture that there must have been some prior contact between our chief executives and some representatives of theirs.”

“And you suspect this because—?”

“Because they arrived knowing and inquiring about the commodity we have in our possession. And because they knew our communications protocols, our location here instead of on Tigua, and a reasonable amount of our language. Although that latter knowledge has been decidedly imperfect.”

Elnessa ran the wiring leads up through the tube in the watchtower: the slim copper alligator clips poked their noses out the top of the hole. Deciding to finish the sculpting and wiring later, she mounted the watchtower on its own copper stud, thereby completing the wall around the Brazen City. Then she ran the other end of the leads to a junction box mounted on the bottom of the copper plate, just beneath and behind the lower edge of the frieze. She then covered the wires—and the lower half of the copper plate—with strips of clay that she started sculpting into a semblance of furrowed farmland. Beneath those, she left just enough room for the band of blue-white acrylic that lay ready at hand: a stylized river, frozen in mid-tumult.

Hoon still hadn’t stopped. “So what we’re doing now is—”

“—Is working out the particulars of the exchange, while we wait for Tigua to send us word on the outcome of the official first contact.”

“Which we expect to be—unsuccessful.”

Simovic shrugged. “It is most unlikely that bloc-controlled Tigua will concede to our clients’ military superiority—”

You mean, will refuse to surrender without a fight—

“—whereas we have already assured them of our complete and immediate cooperation.”

You mean, traitorous collaboration offered up to them on a silver platter.

Hoon was smiling now. “How very convenient. For us.”

“Yes, rather a nice reward for patiently enduring the pomposity of the nation-states, don’t you think? Always nattering on about social contracts, and consent of the governed, and the greatest good for the greatest number. I can hardly believe they don’t laugh themselves to death as they spout all that antediluvian rubbish.”

Hoon’s contempt for these same concepts was obviously so great that it exceeded polite articulation: she merely expelled a derisive snort. Then she added, “Well, good riddance to Bloc sanctions and anti-trust restrictions.”

Elnessa delicately swept her wire brush up, up, up, all along the first furrowed row of clay she had set before the city walls, imparting to it an impression of young wheat or corn, just as it sprang from the ground toward the sun. And as she did so, she listened to the unfolding plans for the cool, calculated, and above all, profitable betrayal of her species.

* * *

Once again responding to the gum wrapper Elnessa had inserted into the dead-drop crevice, Reuben approached her hurriedly. He had his mouth open to ask something—

Elnessa preempted him. “Have you heard?”

“You mean, about the aliens?”

“Exosapients,” Elnessa corrected him.

“Whatever. Yeah, I heard. It’s got to be the worst-kept secret there’s ever been. No one seems to be able to shut up about it, even in the military. The word has been leaking out of navy comshacks, out of the commercial transmission offices, everywhere.”

“And you know they’re planning on coming here, evidently?”

Reuben frowned. “Well, amidst all the rest of the panic talk, I’ve heard that rumor, too. But the evidence for it seems pretty vague, pretty much hearsay.”

“Well, it’s not. These exosapients are apparently Indi Group’s newest preferred customers. And they want the kids. For research.”

She thought Reuben would goggle. But like her, his capacity for shock was almost exhausted. All Reuben did was shrug: “Figures. Which makes our mission all the more imperative.” His expression became eager, more focused. “So, how did it go when you went in today? Is everything there, ready and waiting?”

Elnessa shook her head. “I got the payload in, but nothing else.”

Reuben’s jaw dropped open. “What do you mean?”

“I mean that they wouldn’t let me take anything electronic into the office: no independent power supply, and no remote activators of any kind. Like I told you. But even so, I think I’ve found a way to—”

But Reuben was shaking his head. “No, El. It’s finished. Our guy on the inside is strip-searched every day: they’ve got all the usual means of access covered. Without power and a way to trigger the device, it’s no good.”

“I understand your problem. But actually, there’s a pretty simple alternative: you can—”

Reuben stood abruptly. “No, El: I don’t want to know. The less I know, the less I can tell if they eventually root up some pieces of this plot and then try to discover who was involved. I’ve got—we’ve got—to forget about this. Right now. As if it never happened.”

Elnessa looked up at him. “I’m not sure I can forget it, Reuben. Particularly not with what’s at stake, now.”

Reuben looked at her. “Don’t make trouble, El. And don’t make me warn you about coming near the kids again. Vas told me.”

“Told you what?”

“That you made him dinner last night, let him stay until it was way too late—”

“Feeling guilty you didn’t even notice he was missing, ‘Daddy’?’” The moment she said it, Elnessa was sorry: no one knew better than she how hard it was to keep track of almost a dozen kids between the ages of five and thirteen. “Look, Reuben; I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have—”

“El, just—just leave it alone. Leave it all alone. And I mean both the mission and Vas. And that’s an order.” His utterance of the word ‘order’ was, laughably, a half-whining appeal, rather than a command.

“Sure,” El answered. “Whatever.”

Reuben turned and walked stiffly into the deepening gloom. About ten meters away, he reached down into a cluster of bushes and gently extracted its hidden occupant—Vas—before resuming his steady march away from Elnessa. Vas looked back, eyes troubled. He waved and was gone.

Elnessa waved, sighed, wiped her eyes, and went home in the dark.

* * *

It was only midmorning of January 2, 2120, when Elnessa stepped back to examine the frieze, in all its finished glory. All that remained now was to put in the prism-projecting Cheops eye, just over the watchtower light, and complete the light fixture itself. Behind her, Simovic and Hoon continued their plotting, as though they had been at it ever since she had left yesterday. And who knew? Maybe they had.

Hoon continued with her seemingly inexhaustible list of questions. “Our personnel—the ones who will gather the children, and the ones who will convey them to the rendezvous point—do any of them, well . . . know what’s really going on?”

Simovic shook his head. “No. They have the necessary timetable, coordinates, and orders, but no knowledge of who our clients are or why we are engaging in this trade.”

“Which is scheduled for when?”

Simovic looked at the digital timecode embedded in the ticker bar of his media-monitoring flatscreen. “Two hours.”

“Short notice,” Hoon commented.

“True. But it’s really quite logical. Even if our new customers trusted us—which they have no reason to do at this point—they have no way of knowing if our communications are secure. Maybe Bloc naval forces have hacked our cipher, know when and where to expect our clients, and will set up an ambush. No, our clients’ prudence is a good sign. It means they are not rash, and, after all, we will need these new partners to be very discreet indeed.”

Elnessa looked over toward the two of them. “Mr. Simovic,” she called.

“Yes, Ms. Clare?”

“Could you please have your security people pull the fuse for the power conduits all along this wall?”

“Why?”

“Well, I need to finish wiring the lights.”

“Can’t you leave the power on while you do it?”

“Only if I want to take the risk of electrocuting myself.”

Elnessa noted Simovic’s hesitation. It didn’t arise from any sense of suspicion—that was manifestly clear—but rather from the inconvenience of her request. Her safety was almost beneath his concern, especially at this particular moment. However, he ultimately signaled his annoyed acquiescence to the guard at the rear of the room, who left to comply with the request.

A moment later, the lights glaring down upon the frieze, along with the rest of the devices which drew their power from outlets along that wall, shut down.

Elnessa nodded her thanks, and limped over to the watchtower, the Cheops eye in hand. She emplaced the round, vaguely Pharaohic piece of multi-hued crystal just above the pointed roof of the watchtower.

Then, picking up the bulb that was to be the watchtower’s lamp, she set it down on the section of the clay ‘wall’ next to the tower, and inspected the two small alligator clips grinning toothily up at her from just beneath the rim of the passage she had bored lengthwise in the tower. She stuck her finger in between the leads, widening the hole slightly, and then buried the two clips side by side into the dense matter surrounding them.

She went to check the switch that provided the manual control for all the lights in the frieze. It was, as she had left it, in the “off” position.

She turned to face Simovic. “It is finished,” she announced.

“Hmmmm…what?”

“I said, ‘it is finished.’ Can you please have the power restored to this wall?”

Simovic and Hoon looked up: he surprised, she bored and impatient. He nodded for the guard to go restore the power, and then stood straighter, scanning the length of the frieze. Elnessa detected surprise and gratification: despite the fact that she had spent the last two months crafting it literally under his nose, he had never truly examined it until now. Simovic cleared his throat. “That is really . . . ”

“ . . . really quite good,” Hoon finished, with an approving nod-and-pout, and a tone of voice that sounded like a grudging concession. Then she was turning back to her documents and data-feeds.

“But you have not seen it all,” Elnessa said.

Hoon looked back up, Simovic smiled faintly. “No?” he asked.

“No. Several elements light up, and can be set to show different times of the day. The sun light is here, and small spotlights are embedded here and here to make the city roofs gleam during the day mode. These other lights—inside the blue acrylic—make the water seem to ripple and churn.”

“And at night?”

Elnessa turned on the switch. “The city’s watchtower burns a faint, but steady amber, guiding lost travellers to shelter on dark nights and in dark times. And all the while, the great prismatic eye of Cheops judges the worthiness of those within the city, and without.”

Simovic seemed to suppress a flinch at the mention of judgment. Elnessa wondered if perhaps he had enough vestigial soul left in him to feel a faint pulse of guilt. Hoon simply frowned, as though slightly suspicious that they had funded the creation of radical art. She asked, “And just what do you call this piece of art? And why doesn’t the tower’s light work?”

Elnessa smiled. “I call this frieze Jericho Falls Outward. Or, if you prefer a less metaphorical title, you can call it, I Will Not Let You Assholes Kill My Children.”

Simovic did flinch now. Hoon’s head snapped back as if she had been struck—and then her eyes went wide with comprehension. She turned toward one of the guards, mouth open to scream a command—just as Elnessa finished her silent count to ten.

* * *

As Elnessa reached “ten,” the current from the wall had spent that many seconds both illuminating the lights of the frieze, and coursing through the alligator clips that were buried in the side of the hole Elnessa had bored through the length of the watchtower. However, the electricity directed into that substance was neither wasted nor idle.

Concealed inside the block of clay, down where the leads were embedded, was a core comprised of an identically-colored, but somewhat denser, malleable material. With every passing second, the complex nanytes which pervaded that substance had begun changing their chemical composition, and aligning to follow with (and thereby offer less resistance to) the electric current. However, unlike the aligning of atoms in an electromagnet, when the nanytes of this complex compound were all finally aligned, they began to work like a battery—which rapidly soared toward overload.

* * *

As Elnessa Clare realized that her ten-count had come and gone, she thought about continuing on to “eleven,” and felt a pulse of worry shoot through her. According to Reuben, the substance that had been embedded at the core of each of the clay blocks—Selftex—could only absorb ten seconds of standard outlet current from the watchtower’s diverted leads. But then Elnessa realized that this one extra second was a gift, time with which she could recall Vas’ steady, warm brown eyes—

* * *

The Selftex—a recent, self-actuating evolution of the plastic explosive Semtex—had been developed to do away with the need for blasting caps or other explosive initiators. Hooked up to a low electric current, it gave miners and construction workers a long, precise interval in which to evacuate a blast site. However, when the current was as powerful as that running through a standard electrical outlet—

* * *

From almost two kilometers away, Vas not only heard, but felt, the blast. A few nearby windows shattered, people stared around wildly, a few—probably the ones who had heard the rumors of approaching exosapients—looked skyward.

But Vas straightened and looked toward the roiling mass of thick black smoke rising up over the Indi Group’s corporate headquarters like a fist of angry defiance. And, through his tears, he smiled. That was the work of El, his El. He had heard Reuben’s injudicious radio talk, had seen some incoming messages foolishly left unpurged from the house computer, and so knew that El had been helping to resist the Indi Group—and as of yesterday, was the only one still actively doing so.

Vas looked over toward the headquarters again, wondered about the frieze Elnessa had spoken of working on for so long, yearned to have seen it. He knew that, since she had crafted it, the frieze had been, without doubt, a thing of beauty—every bit as much as she herself had been. Then he stared up at the crest of the ugly black plume that marked its destruction, and reflected: this was her gift to him, to all the children.

And therefore, it, too, was a thing of beauty.



Copyright © 2014 Charles E. Gannon


Charles E. Gannon is a Distinguished Professor of English at St. Bonaventure University. He is a member of SIGMA, the "SF think-tank" which has advised various intelligence and defense agencies since the start of the millennium. His novel Fire with Fire was a Nebula Award finalist and winner of the Compton Crook Award. A proud father of five, he lives in Annapolis, Maryland with his wife.