|APAGear II Archives||Volume 1, Number 3||February, 1999|
Mekong City was beautiful at night; it was alive. Light and sound filled the evening air at the city's bustling core, and every skyscraper that knifed into the sky was ornamented with hundreds of glowing panes. Most also had huge, luminous corporate logos displayed for all to see; here in the capital, more than anywhere else in the Dominion, business was a way of life.
And a way of death.
From his lush, open-air penthouse garden, Tomaso Siang gazed grimly out over the electric cityscape. Its fabricated majesty was lost on him this evening, and in his hands he held the instrument of his own destiny. A 6mm pistol. The very same pistol Kerin, Tomaso's wife, had used when she'd killed herself four cycles earlier.
Hefting the compact handgun, Siang pulled back the slide and held it for a long second before letting it snap back into place, carrying a round with it. He swallowed hard, closing his eyes as his lifted the gun to his temple. It had all gone so very wrong, so very quickly. The events of the past two days -- the events that had now placed a pistol in the middle-aged man's shaking hand -- played out over and over again in his mind. Was it only yesterday that he'd been in Peace River? Only yesterday that he'd utterly failed in his duty to the firm? It felt a lifetime ago. And as Tomaso pulled the trigger, it may as well have been.
Siang always hated flying. He particularly hated the hoppers the company used to ferry its executives back and forth across Terra Nova's wild expanse. As the aircraft soared high across his homeland's lush countryside, he could only think of the meeting to come. His mission to Peace River had been a disaster, and he'd have no hope of explaining or apologizing. In a single, paralyzing moment of weakness, he'd forever ended his career as Krellen's Regional Director for the Badlands.
When the hopper slowed and cleared a landing approach for one of the tallest, most impressive buildings in all of Mekong City, Tomaso felt his stomach drop. Both the Taipan and the other regional directors would be waiting for him at the Green Lotus, the glass-walled restaurant located at the very top of the Krellen Building.
The next moments were a blur. The pilot wishing him luck after depositing him on the landing pad, a hushed discussion with a nervous executive assistant, and a hurried journey to the Green Lotus.
The octagonal restaurant was divided perfectly in two by an enormous, iridescent fish tank. Twenty meters long, two wide and three deep, the brightly illuminated tank was stocked with a bewildering variety of exotic fishes, insects, sponges and corals from the farthest reaches of the planet. Lighting in the rest of the restaurant was low, but at the moment banks of smart- windows facing the sunset were transparent, allowing Helios' warm red rays to bath the diners on the western side of the room. Lhomas Pong and the other directors of the Krellen Corporation were seated on the other side of the aquarium, their table lit only by elegant, low- burning candles.
Tomaso had arrived at supper-time, and so silently took his seat after bowing respectfully to each of the executive. Evening meals in the Dominion were a somber time of reflection and tranquility, though at the moment Siang felt neither reflective nor tranquil. After wordlessly ordering and beginning his meal, he began to deduce what had transpired before his arrival. The other directors refused his eyes -- all of them except Naetsuko Ikaro, who simply smiled slightly. What had transpired in Peace River was obviously no secret.
Once the meal was finished, Taipan Pong rang a small bell to denote the end of the repast and sat back from the round table. "Please join me in the Blossom," he said to the group, his voice deep and rich. "We have much to talk about."
Siang nodded his head once affirmatively, then bowed in respect as the Taipan left the table and led the way. A short ride in a railed, open-air elevator brought the group to a small, glass- domed room perched on top of the restaurant. Here, in the Lotus Blossom, after-dinner conversation could be conducted without offense to Mekongese tradition. And without worry for unwanted eavesdroppers.
Pong sat in his usual chair, at their usual table. A round of brandies ordered, he turned his steady gaze to Tomaso. "You have something to tell me about your trip to Peace River, Mr. Siang?"
Tomaso swallowed hard as a snifter of amber-colored alcohol was placed in front of him. He took a drink before responding. "I must regretfully inform you, honored Taipan, that the Paxton contract will not be renewed."
Pong didn't blink. "The thirty-million kronar contract to Paxton Arms... that Krellen has held for forty cycles?"
Ikaro swirled his brandy devilishly in his glass. "I warned you that Tomaso had lost his touch, Taipan."
An irritated glance from Pong silenced Siang's young critic. "What happened, Mr. Siang?" he continued. "Miss Dubeau-Slovenski informed me this morning that you missed your appointment with her. And that you therefore missed the tendering deadline."
Siang nodded and lowered his head slightly. "That is true, Taipan. I was unable to deliver our bid on time. I have dishonored myself, and the firm. Expect my resignation in the morning."
The Taipan nodded in return, at the moment not caring about the hows or whys of the failed deal. The details would come later. "An acceptable outcome," he intoned. "You will be missed, Mr. Siang."
Words never sounded more hollow to Siang. Thirty cycles of devotion, of dedication, of ambition... gone. "Thank you, Taipan."
The cab-ride home from the restaurant was torturous. For the thousandth time, Siang's mind drifted back to two nights prior in Peace River, where, in the lounge of the Hotel Riveria, he had seen a ghost. Or so it had seemed, at first. She'd had long, black hair that cascaded off of her shoulders like spilled silk. Her beautiful, low-backed evening gown revealed smooth, creamy skin and a frame that was delicate and decidedly feminine. But it was her profile that so arrested him, for though she was younger, this woman could have passed as a twin of the man's deceased wife.
He'd watched the woman for nearly an hour, enthralled by the uncanny resemblance. Her body language, the slight wrinkle in her nose when she smiled, even her laugh seemed to mirror Kerin's. Kerin had been so beautiful. She'd been a model in her younger years, and had eventually become a terrifically successful avant-garde fashion designer. The industry that had given her so much, however, in the end ruined her. After a series of failed and much- ridiculed line openings, Kerin had fallen into a deep depression that had culminated in her suicide.
So it was that Siang watched this woman, this magnificent apparition, with such joyous intensity. When her table-mates departed, leaving the woman alone, Tomaso mustered his courage and invited her to join him at his table. When she accepted and engaged him in conversation, the illusion was nearly complete. Certainly, this was not his wife reincarnated, but the likeness mesmerized him nearly to the point of buffoonery. The wine flowed freely, and before he knew it, they were alone in his hotel room, kissing passionately while they fumbled about in the dark.
Siang's next memory was a less pleasant one; waking up on the floor, hardly able to move. Dragging himself to the beside table, he used the room's phone to call for help. The hotel staff responded quickly and professionally, and the doctor at the emergency room had told him that whatever he'd been drugged with, the danger was now past. And so was his meeting with Milani, and the Paxton Arms contract deadline.
Had he reported his story to the police, had he called Paxton's CEO Gerald Simosa to explain what had happened, perhaps he could have worked something out. Perhaps. But the shame he felt over soiling his wife's memory the way he had kept him from doing so. Someone, probably the Mercantilists, had known exactly how to get to Tomaso Siang. And he'd let them. Ikaro was right. He had lost his edge, and it had cost him dearly. One path to redemption remained.
Seeing that the line was secure, Naetsuko Ikaro touched a switch on his tie clip. A starburst of tiny emitters on the floor and ceiling glowed to life, and in a few seconds a full-sized hologram of a woman appeared. Ahna Lizbeth was beautiful, as ever. Tall and statuesque, her presence, even in this virtual forum, commanded attention.
"Good evening, Naetsuko," the woman began, her digital voice exquisitely clear.
"Hello, Ahna. I trust everything turned out in the Paxton deal?"
"Yes. There was no competition, really, without Krellen at the table."
Ikaro smiled broadly. "Excellent. Things seem to be going according to plan here as well. Please thank your operatives for me. We are, as I think you Mercantilists say, square."
Her expression a little cold, Lizbeth raised an eyebrow. "Agreed, though I fail to see how such internal scheming can possibly be beneficial for your company."
"Tomaso Siang has been a detriment to Krellen for several cycles now; the only reason he hasn't yet been removed is due to his friendship with Taipan Pong. Siang's dismissal was inevitable -- I, with your help, simply provided a little incentive for the Taipan."
"You've ruined him, and in the process lost a multi-million kronar account."
Ikaro was still smiling. "I'm aware of that."
Lizbeth's red lips curled slightly in amusement. "I suppose next cycle I can expect to see you in Peace River."
Ikaro offered a shrug and a polished response. "It is not implausible that I will take over the Badlands accounts."
Lizbeth's image bowed slightly. "See you then, Naetsuko. En garde."
Ikaro returned the bow, then switched off the holoceiver. Despite this brief alliance, they would be enemies when they next met, he and Ahna Lizbeth. It had been a profitable relationship. Ikaro's knowledge of Siang's weakness and Lizbeth's contacts with the Peace River underworld had allowed them to manipulate the old man with ease. Only one thing remained to be done before he could wipe his hands of the matter.
Sitting down at his desk, the ambitious businessman made a phone call. "It's Ikaro," he said simply into the receiver. "He's on his way."
Click? Tomaso lowered the pistol and looked at it numbly.
Siang turned to see that his son had come out onto the rooftop through a sliding glass patio door. "Jet?" he asked in confusion. He hadn't seen his son in nearly three cycles. Jet had quit a prosperous job as a broker -- a job his father had secured for him -- to go back to school and study archaeology. Of all things, Tomaso had thought at the time, archaeology. His son, he was sure, would become a common academic pauper, reduced to begging those who were once his peers for grants and other handouts to conduct his worthless Stoneheads research. Pathetic. Tomaso had never been able to forgive him the shame he'd caused the family, and the two hadn't spoken since the younger man's forty-seventh birthday. Somehow, none of that mattered at the moment, and Tomaso felt tears burn his cheeks.
Jet took the old man into his arms. "I flew in a few hours ago, father. Ikaro called me at Olduvai this morning to tell me what happened. As for the gun, I replaced the bullets in that pistol long ago. Right after mother died." He looked out over the city. "This place is consumed with avarice, father. It took your wife, my mother. I will not let it take you as well. Come with me. None of this will matter."
Now crying openly, Tomaso dropped the pistol and returned his son's embrace. "Forgive me," he whispered, "I am weak, and old."
"No, you are only tired. Tired of being alone, tired of living an empty life. Let the past be, father. Come to the future. There is a place for you in Olduvai with my wife and children. In our temple, in our home, and in our hearts."
Jet has grown wise, Tomaso thought. Jet had always been wise, of course; this was simply the first time the old man had actually listened to his son. Straightening his suit, he stepped back from his boy and surprised himself. "Your offer honors me, my son. I would be proud to take a place at your table."
Jet bowed slightly. "At the head of the table, father."
Tomaso paused for a moment. "No," he said finally. "That place belongs to you." A smile touched his lips for the first time in days. "Or your daughter, if she is anything like I remember her."
Jet laughed, and was soon joined by his father. When they stopped, Tomaso's new life began.
|APAGear II Archives||Volume 1, Number 3||February, 1999|
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