Sunday, November 11, 2007

11. Sir Leslie Dines Out

“Lights at no more than one-half intensity,” Quarrington Crouch began, absentmindedly swirling the ice cubes in his glass of Shantaram. In the seat opposite, his neatly groomed functionary, Syles, took diligent notes; outside the shuttle windows, distant stars slid lazily by.

“Genuine silver flatware only,” Crouch continued. “Nothing silver-plated, nothing imitation silver, not even the usual platinum we bring out for real company. I don’t know how, but he can tell, and he’s particular. Now. Call Llewelyn in Accounts. The sum is five million. He likes it in rubies — tell Llewelyn, the largest we’ve got. That goes in a velvet bag, and I don’t need to tell you it must be real velvet. The bag should be left on the floor, next to the front left leg of his chair.”

Crouch paused to drain his glass, then rattled the ice cubes again. He sat with one leg crossed over the other, half-absorbed in the plush leather chair. His dangling foot, exquisitely shod, bobbled to some anxious, uneven rhythm.

“Who’s the attendant?” Crouch asked. Syles checked his notes.

“George, sir.”

“George. Good man.” Crouch nodded in satisfaction. “He’ll need a rain slicker, typhoon-grade at least. Black, and tailored to fit. Call Cosgrove in Products; he’ll set it up. And ask for our best umbrella.”

“For George, sir?”

“For me,” Crouch said, unsmiling. “Also, the mirrors. Remove them all. Not just in the dining room, but the entire approach from the shuttlebay. Anything polished enough to get a good reflection — that goes, too.”

Syles nodded smartly, writing that down. Some men are paid too well to ask questions. Syles was paid too well to even want to.

“And the menu, sir?” Syles asked.

Crouch described it.

“Live, sir?” Syles asked, swallowing hard.

“That’s the way he likes it,” Crouch nodded.

“And for you, sir?”

Crouch just looked at him for a long moment, his gaze steely beneath well-groomed gray eyebrows. “I won’t be hungry,” he said at last.

“Docking in one, sir,” the captain’s voice came over the intercom. Crouch nodded and set down his empty glass, uncrossed his legs. He did not ask Syles to read anything back to him. He didn’t need to.

A slight tremor ran through the ship, and Crouch heard the airlock seal and begin to cycle. He rose, smoothing out the lines of his suit, lifting his chin to make fine, fastidious tugs at his cravat.

“Will there be anything else, sir?” Syles asked.

“Just that,” Crouch said, not looking back, on his way to the airlock. “Four hours, Syles.”

“Very good, sir,” the functionary replied.

The captain was waiting at the airlock. He tipped his cap in the proscribed manner, and wordlessly opened the hatch. Crouch stepped through into the dim hangar, the lights slowly rising to accommodate the adjustment of his eyes.

A full orchestra played a fanfare. As Crouch stood high on the shuttleway, at the top of the steps, the assembled employees of the Research & Development division began their carefully choreographed performance of the Crouch Industries Loyalty Song.

The shuttle was unnecessary, really. Quarrington Crouch lived on this very same vast ship, in private quarters at the opposite end. He could have walked here, had he wished. He simply believed in making an entrance.

After a long and arduous lifetime of hard work, careful negotiation, scrupulous ethics, and an unwavering commitment to quality, Quaverly Crouch had seen the company he founded, Crouch Industries, become one of the galaxy’s mightiest and most prosperous conglomerates. And then his son Quarrington shot him out an airlock into hard vacuum, laughing, and proceeded to take credit for it all.

As the orchestra discreetly packed up its instruments, and the employees filed out in neat rows to resume their duties, Crouch descended the stairs to the hangar deck. Not a bad performance, but he’d seen better; the synchronized back handsprings from some of the midlevel techs during the bridge had been subpar at best. Dr. Grolescht, plump and bald and cherry-cheeked, waddled into step beside him.

“I think you will be very pleased by these latest innovations,” Grolescht rumbled, in his comical gravel pit of a voice. “Very pleased, yes.”

“I always am, Doctor,” Crouch said, permitting himself a thin and measured smile.

Dr. Grolescht was the finest inventive mind in fifteen systems, which was why he worked for Crouch. In relation to his brilliance — and proven profitability — the matter of those tests he’d run on captured soldiers during the Second Galactic Conflict was trivial. Academic, really.

They passed first into Pharmaceuticals, where Grolescht stopped before a glass observation window. Peering past him, Crouch saw a wasteland of demolished children’s furniture, broken toys, and crayon-scribbled walls. In the center of the room, a small banquet of frosted puffcakes, candied starfruits, and other sweets had been thoroughly ravaged — but destroyed, not eaten. A dozen children sat, hunched, or huddled around the room, rocking and twitching, some tugging at their own hair.

“This is the chewable vitamins, here?” Crouch asked.

“Watch,” Grolescht said. Beyond the window, a door in one wall slid open. The children’s heads snapped up in unison, their eyes hungry.

A white-coated Crouch employee, wearing Crouch Industries Level 5 Riot Armor underneath, edged slowly into the room, carrying a plastic tray dotted with little white paper cups. Through a fixed and frightened smile, he started to say something to the children, inaudible on this side of the glass.

The next moment, he had vanished beneath a writhing, clawing mass of tiny limbs, all reaching for the tray and the little paper cups.

At last, the employee managed to crawl back through the door, sobbing, one of his arms dangling limply at his shoulder. Crouch watched the children bite and scratch at one another, scrabbling for the little colorful tablets that had scattered from the tray, stuffing them greedily into their mouths.

“I think,” Crouch said at last, “we may want to reduce their addictiveness in the next run. Slightly.”

“My thoughts exactly,” Grolescht nodded, polishing his big square glasses on the hem of his white coat.

They proceeded onward, to Playthings, where Grolescht demonstrated the latest revision to the popular Crouch Cuddly Cub personal automaton.

“As you can see from the charts,” Grolescht beamed, “we have reduced the likelihood of homicidal behavior to acceptable levels. The boys from branding suggest ‘Cuddly Cub Deluxe’ for the new model. We may perhaps give him a new hat, too.”

“Excellent, Doctor,” Crouch nodded, envisioning an ever-rising graph of revenue for the upcoming holiday quarter.

The review continued, through Housewares, Transport, Cosmetics, Bioweapons, Energy, and Bed & Bath. At each proposed product, Crouch would nod his approval or issuing a curt shake of his head. No to the flesh-eating nanovirus (insufficiently novel, and difficult to market). Yes to the line of scented candles (aromatherapy was in this year). Yes to the neuron disruptor rifle (the amusing way targets tended to waggle was a surefire word-of-mouth magnet). No to the Crouch Industries Aspira line of family spacecraft (until their distressing tendency to burn up on re-entry had been corrected).

Each of those small gestures triggered shockwaves through the whole of Crouch Industries. Before the day was through, 20,000 new employees would be hired, 30,000 others would be made redundant, 4.2 billion laurels (3.78 billion in FLAW coin, at the current exchange rate) would shift in a monetary tidal wave to and from the Crouch accounts, and at least one suddenly unemployed middle manager would end his life with a Crouch Personal Vaporizer for which, ironically, he had approved the packaging design.

At last, Grolescht led Crouch through a series of ever thicker, ever larger doors, submitting retina prints, hand scans, and DNA samples at each, until the two men stood alone in a darkened room of indeterminate size. It was the most densely shielded, best-guarded room in the whole of the Crouch Industries flagship, and for good reason.

“And finally we come to the BHB, sir,” Grolescht said. He gestured to a simple, nearly featureless metal cylinder on a lighted pedestal at the center of the room. It was encased in fist-thick Crouch Industries Dynaglass, upon which a tastefully printed sign had been affixed: DO NOT JOSTLE, PROD, OR BREATHE UPON.

“That’s the prototype?” Crouch asked, his eyes narrowing. Just looking at the thing made his ears ring with the jingling of phantom coins.

“One of two, yes,” Grolescht said, removing a remote control device from his pocket. He thumbed a button, and with a slight jitter of compression patterns, the two men were now standing in empty space, amid a vast field of frozen, floating garbage. The stars twinkled digitally. Crouch watched a nearby crumpled plastic box as it drifted past; it was a Crouch Industries Nutri-Os container, still bearing the promotional blurbs for the ill-fated launch of Cuddly Cub Mark I.

“One of our deep space dumping facilities,” Grolescht explained, though Crouch had recognized it at once. “Let me just zoom in here.” He worked the handheld controls with his thumb, and millions of light-years distant, a holographic camera probe moved in response, weaving through discarded chunks of old spacecraft and empty toothpaste tubes to the center of the garbage mass. There, perfectly motionless, floated another BHB.

“Now, we’ll switch to our other probe, out at the minimum safe distance,” Grolescht said, flicking another switch. Their surroundings jittered again, and the mass of garbage all around them became a small, swirling mass in the distance, multicolored dots dancing against the gray surface of the moon behind them.

“This is, of course, a radically scaled-down version,” Grolescht continued. “Just a test. With your permission?” Grolescht turned his soft, watery, pitiless eyes toward his boss. Crouch nodded. Grolescht pressed another button.

All sorts of interesting things happened next.

When interesting things finally stopped happening, Grolescht shut down the projection, returning them to the blank room with the other BHB.

“Well?” Grolescht asked. “Do we go into production?”

Crouch smiled. “Absolutely.” The vast engines of Crouch Industries began to mobilize. “But not quite yet.” The vast engines of Crouch Industries thought better of it, and went back to reading a magazine.

Crouch reached into the inner pocket of his jacket and consulted his chronometer. Four bells half, Imperium time. His guest would be here soon.

“Fine work, Doctor,” Crouch nodded, satisfied. “Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to dress for dinner.”

As five bells tolled through the whole of the Crouch Industries flagship, Quarrington Crouch made one last adjustment to his crisp black dinner cravat, pushed down the gaps between the fingers of his formal white gloves, and stepped into the dining room.

George was waiting, squeaky and faintly shining in his impeccably tailored slicker. He pulled out Crouch’s chair at the head of the long, candlelit dinner table, and held up a long, plump umbrella.

“Will you be need this now, sir?” George asked, as Crouch took his seat. Crouch checked the walls — good, no mirrors — and the ceiling, pleased to see the elaborate diamond chandelabras giving off only the faintest, most flattering light.

“Not yet, George,” Crouch said, unfolding his napkin and placing it in his lap. He poured himself a glass of wine from a bottle that had cost roughly as much as a small planet. “When I say so.”

In the stillness of the dining room, he waited.

The intercom crackled. “Mr. Crouch, sir?” The voice had a note of panic in it.

“Yes, Captain?”

“Surveillance just picked up a craft, sir, running dark, headed for us.”

“That’s my guest, Captain. Hold course and keep communications closed.”

“But sir, it’s a—”

“I know what it looks like, Captain,” Crouch sighed. Clearly, he wasn’t the only one who believed in making an entrance. “You have your orders.”

“Yes, sir.” The channel closed, and the room was silent, save for the occasional creak when George shifted his weight.

Crouch kept his eyes on the door at the opposite room, the one that led to the corridor that, in turn, led to the visitors’ airlock. The very one he’d pushed his father out of, funnily enough. Crouch swirled his wine up the walls of his glass and savored the nostalgia.

He heard the distant cycling of the airlock hiss, then the clack of the hatch as it swung open. Heavy boots trod upon carpeted floors, growing closer. Crouch took a deep breath and held it, like his therapist had advised, then let it out slowly, counting to three.

The door at the far side of the room opened.
“Quarry!” Sir Leslie Murther boomed, sweeping into the room on knee-high leather boots. His voice held prickly thistles, and windswept heath, and jagged cairns of rock. “It’s been an age and then!”

“Sir Leslie,” Crouch smiled graciously, raising his wine glass in salute. “So glad you could make it. Wine?”

“The finest vintage, knowing you,” Sir Leslie burred. He laughed, sending undulations through his lustrous, shoulder-length black hair and thick, curling black beard. The frills of white lace at his cuffs and the neck of his shirt exploded like nebulae against the deep, severe black of his silk jacket, vest, and breeches. He unslung a polished cutlass, scabbard studded in jewels, and hung it daintily on the high back of his chair, at the opposite end of the table from Crouch, before taking a seat.

Crouch waited as Sir Leslie, eyes remaining fixed on his host, slowly reached down to the left front leg of his chair. Something jingled through what sounded like velvet. Sir Leslie sat up straight again, making something vanish from his left hand into his vest pocket, and swept a tangling thread of hair from his eyes with one toss of his head.

“I trust everything’s in order?” Crouch asked.

“I wouldn’t think to count it,” Sir Leslie smiled, closedmouthed, “on account of our long acquaintance.”

“George, pour Sir Leslie a glass,” Crouch nodded, and George squeaked steadily but uncertainly over with the bottle. Sir Leslie waited, the empty class outstretched in one perfectly manicured hand, until George had filled it nearly to the top.

“Hmm,” Sir Leslie mused, nostrils flaring as he inhaled the wine’s delicate bouquet. “Aromas of clementine rose and pepperfruit.” He sipped, delicately. “Yes, pepperfruit, and… jasmine, with wonderfully earthy legs. And… why, Quarry, you old dog! I do believe just a wee dram of blood at the finish. O negative, by the tang of it.”

“A perfect palate, as ever, Sir Leslie,” Crouch smiled, and drank one measured mouthful.

Sir Leslie took a hearty swig of the wine, and dabbed discreetly at his lips with a delicate lace handkerchief. Fine white scars of no more than a hair’s width, dozens of them, crisscrossed his lips in every direction.

“What shall we toast to, then?” Sir Leslie asked, candlelight dancing in the black pits of his eyes.

“To opportunity,” Crouch said, raising his glass high.

“To opportunity,” Sir Leslie agreed, and took another quaff. “And what might this opportunity be?”

“I’m reliably informed,” Crouch said, “that our friends in the FLAW are missing a spacecraft. Experimental. Incalculably valuable.”

Sir Leslie’s eyelids lowered to half mast, taking the thick, black caterpillars of his eyebrows down with them. “I sense my time being wasted already, Quarry,” he said, the rolling r’s in his speech shifting toward the territory of a growl.

“Impatient as always, Sir Leslie,” Crouch said, and sipped his wine again. “I’m also reliably informed that this same missing craft made a successful raid on the Imperial Palace last evenside.”

Sir Leslie let loose a round, barking laugh. “Now you’re telling me fairy-stories,” he said, and finished his wine. He motioned to George for more, and Crouch nodded assent. “There’s no one getting past that grid of satellites.”

“I know,” Crouch nodded. “They’re my manufacture. The Imperium is keeping this all hush, understandably. But I am assured that the craft did breach Imperial atmosphere, did reach the palace, and did escape — with the family’s youngest child.”

At the mention of “child,” Sir Leslie froze, his glass midway to his lips. He lowered the wineglass slowly, and turned to meet Crouch’s unwavering gaze.

“Oh yes,” Crouch said, settling back in the chair. He had a captive audience now, and he knew it. “Or didn’t you know? A boy of about ten. Ten’s a good age, I understand; still some baby fat, but plenty of lean muscle, too.”

“Succulent,” Sir Leslie all but whispered, a strange gleam in his eye.

“And an Imperial child,” Crouch continued, matter-of-factly, “fed only the finest foods from birth, in the very pink of health…”

Sir Leslie seemed lost in thought. In the candlelight, something gleamed at the corner of his mouth — a growing dribble of salivation. After several seconds, he shook his great, lustrous head as if to clear it, and hastily dabbed at his mouth with a handkerchief.

“Been a while for you, has it?” Crouch asked dryly.

“Near a year,” Sir Leslie agreed, hastily drinking more wine. “And a gray and tasteless stretch it’s been. What’s your proposition, then, Quarry?”

“If the FLAW were to believe that the Imperium had stolen their little prize,” Crouch said, leaning forward, “and if the Imperium were to hold the FLAW responsible for, say, the spilling of Imperial blood…”

“The right man could make out kingly from such circumstances,” Sir Leslie nodded, one great burly hand stroking at his beard thoughtfully.

“Indeed he could,” Crouch said. “From those circumstances, and logical consequences of them…”

“And the boy?” Sir Leslie asked.

“I leave that to you,” Crouch smiled, spreading his hands graciously. “And your personal chefs.”

“I’ve been thinking a nice fricasse,” Sir Leslie mused, dreamily. “With perhaps a stew from the leavings. A good stew, yes. Keeps well in cold storage.”

On his mental to-do list, Crouch took great satisfaction in checking off yet another box. “Shall we discuss the particulars later, over brandy and cigars?” he said. “I’d hate to keep your appetite waiting long.”

Sir Leslie chuckled again, low and hungry. “A gracious host and true you are, Quarry. I’m famished to eat the stars.”

“I must apologize,” Crouch said, discreetly signaling to George, who squeaked over to the hidden elevator in the wall. “Given short notice, I was unable to procure your favorite dish. The selection available was … subpar, decidedly. And I wouldn’t insult you with a clone.”

“Aye,” Sir Leslie conceded. “Natural and organic only. A man must watch his diet.”

“You’ve never looked better, Sir Leslie,” Crouch said. “I hope you’ll find this an acceptable substitute.” George wheeled a large metal cart, its roughly cubical contents draped in a sheet, off the elevator. With a slight effort, George manuevered the cart down the length of the table to rest next to Sir Leslie’s place. With a flourish, George whisked the sheet off.

Three young lambs, tottering on tender legs, began to bleat in terror from within their steel cage.

“Oh, this will do,” Sir Leslie said with relish. “This will just do indeed.” And for the first time, he smiled with his mouth open. His pointed teeth, every one a diamond, gleamed sharp as razors in the candlelight.

A high, trilling whine reached Crouch’s ears across the distance of the table; that would be the built-in vibration, he knew. For easier cutting.

Sir Leslie tucked his napkin into the collar of his shirt, and reached for the door to the cage. The lambs bleated louder and louder.

Crouch looked up to see George at his side, the attendant’s face drawn and bloodless, his eyes locked on the opposite end of the table.

“Open the umbrella, George,” Crouch said, quietly but urgently. He pushed his chair back from the table an inch or so. “Open the umbrella now.”

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