One Night at Kedasi (3)
3. An ‘Agreement’
Zip recognized several faces along the oblong table. Most notably, a Cheri with singed fur and a penchant for glaring at her and Tom. Others were noted mercenaries, a few she had shipped with, and a few she had ripped off. Had it not been for the very clear placement of enforcers at intervals throughout the room, the meeting would have become a blood bath. Instinctively, Zip felt her hand drop to her hip and gripped the edge of the empty holster. Several of the others reacted in a similar fashion to her movement and looked similarly dismayed.
Tension buzzed in the dim room like carrion flies. The head of the table was unoccupied, but a large screen at one end paid endless tribute to The Manchester Family, ‘titans of industry’. Above, a vaulted ceiling spiraled into inky blackness punctuated by fake stars meant to look like deep space. It was a halfway decent attempt, but clearly crafted by someone who had never seen a vacuum outside of a television screen. A lack of color gave the galaxies a muted, monochromatic tone that was far from their true beauty.
The sound of heavy boots on polished tile brought Zip to attention. Her spine stiffened and she sat up a little straighter. It had been five years since she left the military, but it seemed that the military still hadn’t left her.
The man walking in wore a wide-brimmed hat that belonged on a dusty ranch that no longer existed. Its edges were more torn and frayed than the last time Zip had seen him. Where ordinarily there would have been concealed rounds and explosives, there was only torn stitching. At least security did their jobs. Anger flushed hot up Zip’s neck. “No fucking way.”
“Afternoon, Zip. Fancy seeing you here.” His voice was calm, soothing almost, polite, but overlaying practiced violence.
Zip’s blood boiled. “Seems they take all kinds for this job, Jack.” She was on the verge of standing up to leave when their host came through the far door.
“Apologies for my lateness!” His voice was the elegant equivalent of a dying balloon letting out its last gasp of air.
Zip recognized him from the bar. The dark boardroom suited him more than the dank confines of Marvin’s.
The man moved to the front of the room, making sure to give Jack a wide berth. “My name is Roman, and I’m here to make a proposal that’s going to change your fortunes forever.”
Cynical mutters rumbled around the room.
Roman, unfazed, took his seat at the head of the table and stopped the slideshow of Manchester triumph. In its place, pictures of every person sitting around the table popped up with a laundry list of illegal acts next to it. Zip grinned at the length of the list next to her name, despite the implication. It felt good to know that someone was taking notice of her work. Tom’s was simply a photocopy of his UCP ambassador badge with one line: ‘Visa set to expire.’
“My visa is going to expire?”
“If these people want it to, it will,” replied Zip.”
“Apologies for the bluntness of my approach, but I believe this puts us on better footing.” Roman looked up at the photographs with a mix of bemusement and pity.
“What the fuck is this?” grumbled the Cheri. “That says I was arrested for starting a bar fight.” He turned his big, bulging eyes to Zip and Tom. “I didn’t figure you for snitches.” He stood, flexing, and bristling in a show of dominance. “I’m going to deep fry that shrimp.”
Zip drummed her fingers on the table, watching as two enforcers made their way out of the shadows and quickly put a rifle point to the back of the Cheri’s neck. “I’d have thought you learned a lesson the last time you tried to pick a fight with my friend. A single click from a shrimp’s claws can produce a sonic boom. What do you think a giant shrimp can do?”
“That’s mantis shrimp, Z—” started Tom, but Roman cleared his throat, interrupting him.
“Let’s take the temperature down, shall we? None of these charges are filed yet, and if you can put aside old rivalries and unsettled scores, they might never be. That’s the beauty of this arrangement. You get to walk away rich… If you do what you’re told.” Roman beamed as if his plan were particularly clever and not a simple violation of human rights.
Zip pressed her fingers into the palm of her hand, willing them to not throttle the man. “Like I said earlier, Tom, nothing on Prota is free.” Whatever it was they were about to be ‘contracted’ into wasn’t worth it.
“Quite so,” answered Roman.
“So, why not just skip your preamble and get to the task at hand? The longer we sit here, the better chance one of us snaps and kills the others, maybe you in the process.” To the outsider, Jack would have seemed calm, collected even, but Zip knew the posture well; if there had been guns at Jack’s side, Roman would have been dead three times over.
Roman folded his hands. “You sure you don’t want time to review your charges, Jack?”
Jack waved a hand. “I’m sure you’ve got something on there that would put me away for a good long while. So, I figure we just get to it and cut the shit.” He grinned, showing a shiny diamond in his front teeth. It glittered, even in the pale light.
Roman smiled back, plastic, and understanding that money could buy death faster than a bullet. “Of course. The rest of you, if you want time to review your ‘applications’ in private, I’ll be happy to walk them through you afterward. Before we get started, you all have a non-disclosure agreement on the table in front of you.”
On cue, the shiny black surface of the table lit up as white legal documents appeared on its surface. Zip looked at the writing, saw its length, and realized it was pointless to read the whole thing. The time for having a choice in matters had passed. At the bottom of the agreement in big bright letters read: To acknowledge this statement, simply state ‘I agree’. Zip turned to Tom who was scanning through the document and twitching all the while.
Eventually, he stopped and looked at her. “Do we have a choice?”
“No, we don’t.” Zip turned back to the document in front of her. “I agree.” A white flash lit up the table, capturing a picture of her face and making the document binding. The table returned to its blank, black surface.
“I agree.” Tom winced, the flash likely searing his sensitive eyes.
Rapid flashes around the table signaled unanimous assent. Mercenaries were quick thinkers. Sometimes those thoughts weren’t the smartest, but they did come quick.
Roman clapped his hands together. “Wonderful. I think you’ll find that despite your initial reluctance, this is a career making opportunity for all of you.”
The table lit up once more, now showing a tactical map of an asteroid. Lines of metal crisscrossed the surface and clusters of buildings hung together at odd intervals. Zip didn’t need long to assess what she was looking at. “This is a damned theme park.”
“Not just any theme park,” replied Roman. “This is the Manchester family’s greatest achievement; an entire asteroid dedicated to amusement, relaxation, and adventure.” They were the first genuine words the man had said all day. Whatever else, Roman was a true sycophant of the ultra-wealthy.
Zip scrolled through pages upon pages of thrill ride specifications, hotel theming, and just about everything else that was unhelpful for anyone who wasn’t planning a vacation. “I’m guessing mercenaries aren’t your target audience for this attraction, so what happened to the place?” She had a sinking feeling she wasn’t going to like the answer, but better to have it out in the open so she could look the ugly details in the face.
A mutter of agreement rose up from around the table. Even the Cheri that wanted Zip and Tom dead nodded.
Roman bristled, but only a little. “Fine, the short version.” He tapped at his handheld and the map zoomed in to an ornate tower just outside the park’s main attractions. It was suspended above a wide chasm, surrounded on all sides by metal supports and walkways. “This was meant to be the jewel of the park, literally and figuratively. The Opus was our accommodation for only the most premium customers. The spire on the bottom is where our guests would have stayed.” The map zoomed in, showing a spiraling patchwork of metal and glass. “The most precious metals are at the core of the asteroid, so the lower guests stayed, the more majestic their view would have been. I’m told anywhere in The Opus was breathtaking in the asteroid’s night cycle.”
Looking at the structure, Zip thought it looked like an accident waiting to happen. The views would have been astounding, but at the cost of low railings, glass that likely wasn’t impact resistant, and other cut corners. All it would take was one wealthy couple with a penchant for child neglect and then there would be lawsuits. “Why not just strip mine the whole asteroid if there was so much of value?”
“Mining was deemed too dangerous. The asteroid is porous toward the middle and extracting the gems could have caused the whole project to collapse. The Manchester family values its workers.”
Zip knew The Manchester Family valued profit above all else. If a few workers died, it didn’t matter, so long as the bottom line was upheld. “Alright, so solve a problem by building a theme park.” Logic that only those with ludicrous wealth could follow.
“That’s putting it simply, but—"
Tom piped up. “Earlier you said literally when referring to The Opus as a crown jewel. Were you using it in the correct fashion, or merely as a colloquialism.”
Roman tapped at his handheld, a little too hard this time. “A gemstone, ten feet in diameter served as the hotel’s centerpiece. Its unique properties allow it to reflect spectrums of light rarely seen to the human eye.” An artist rendering of a dining room set beneath glittering beams of light filled the screen.
Zip had to admit, it did look pretty.
Jack leaned over the table. “You still haven’t told us why we need to go to this amusement planet in the first place.”
“Asteroid,” corrected Roman. “Legally, we can’t call it a planet. And I’m getting there.” The images shifted, this time showing a medieval thoroughfare. “The Manchesters wanted cutting edge attractions, which meant terraforming significant portions of the asteroid’s surface to match specific themes.”
It always comes back to the terraforming. Plenty of planets looked good from the outside, but it was what was under the crust that mattered. “Let me guess, hollow asteroid, digging too deep, you found a bug nest?”
Roman grimaced. “No, nothing so dangerous as that. Whatever created the gems left behind pockets of gas just beneath the surface. Of course, we had already created an atmosphere, and now the gas is trapped there.”
Zip sat back in her chair. “That’s it? Gas?” It was possible, but any space jockey with a proper filtration mask could handle a gas leak.
“Yes, that’s it. Just a deadly neurotoxin that has rendered all work on the theme park moot and completely shut down a multi-trillion credit project.” Roman’s dismay was plain on his face. Whatever else, he did seem to feel genuine affection for money.
“And the gem is a recoup on your investment?”
“That’s a crass way of putting it—”
Zip sighed and looked at Tom. It was impossible to tell what the shrimp was feeling. Time for an executive decision. “Alright, where do we sign?”
That made Roman smile. “Not so fast, first we need to pick teams.”