Aliens: Music of the Spears ALIENS: MUSIC OF THE SPEARS

An Excerpt


He couldn't believe she wouldn't turn on the lights.

For this occasion, Jarlath Keene had dressed in the best of his well-appointed wardrobe. He'd wanted to convey all the most important attributes--money, power, influence--and the brushed technosilk Paoletti suit he wore expressed all of that and more--as well it should for the fifty-five hundred credits it had cost him. In that respect, Keene's strategy had proved disappointingly ineffective; while the room he stepped into was completely without light, there was a feeling of expansiveness to it that Keene had never encountered in an apartment or condominium before, especially in the small and hard to find buildings in overcrowded Manhattan. He felt immediately and utterly dwarfed.

Illuminated only by the smoggy night sky shining through the penthouse's floor to ceiling windows, the lightlessness of the interior made no difference; there was an undercurrent of opulence in the place, of decadence, that could not be disguised. Keene was drenched in it with every sense but sight: the carpet beneath his fine Italian pseudoleather loafers was thick and springy, the air laden with expensive perfume. He wished he didn't have to grope his way across the room--it made him feel awkward and put him at a distinct bargaining disadvantage--but when he did, his fingertips sped across genuine silk and leather upholstery on the plush furniture. His desire to see made him check all the switches and lamps, but none of them worked. The frantic, faraway city lights did little to illuminate the condominium, but they would have to do. Obviously, the woman had the switches all wired to some master control to which only she had access. It seemed he would have no choice but to conduct his business in the shadows.

"Mr. Keene."

Her voice was soft and absolutely feminine, a whisper in the dark as delicate as a filmy scarf falling through the air. Keene caught himself before he whirled, turned instead with as much dignity as he could muster given the fact that he was standing in the dark and talking to a woman who seemed no more than a specter from across the room. He cleared his throat. "Yes, Miss--uh..."


"Mina, then. Thank you for agreeing to see me." Something about that sensuous voice made the perfectly tailored suit seem suddenly too small, too hot, despite the meticulously filtered and cooled air in the penthouse. "I know it was short notice--"

"My time is quite valuable, Mr. Keene. What do you require?"

Now she was only ten feet away from him, with her back to the row of huge windows. The silver-and-gold sprinkled expanse of Manhattan outside the glass faded to darkness behind her, outclassed by her inky silhouette. Only the woman's eyes were visible, glitter-black, indescribably mysterious. Her hair, unbound in defiance of Japanese tradition, fell to her hips in a straight line broken only by its own muted shine. Mina was a legend among the highest echelon men on earth--those with fortunes numbering in the billions--and a speculative fantasy to everyone else. Why had she agreed to see him?

"I... have a proposal," he managed. She said nothing but Keene imagined her raising an eyebrow in doubt--it would be finely shaped and the color of a midnight ocean over eyes like oil. "Of a business nature, of course. Regarding a... mutual acquaintance." Keene twisted his neck, the collar of his custom-made shirt suddenly uncomfortable. "I would compensate you more than generously for your efforts."

Mina didn't have to laugh for Keene to sense she was more than slightly amused at his clumsy verbiage. Like the scent of her perfume, his words hung in the air between them, though not nearly as pleasant as the fragrance of Charielle. "'Efforts?' What an interesting choice of words, Mr. Keene." She sank onto a chair in front of the window, her descent very much like the smooth, flowing dip of a snake dancer's rope... or maybe the cobra itself. Oddly, the condominium was completely silent, as though it had been thoroughly soundproofed. For some reason, Keene had expected soft background music, something romantic and hard to come by... a harp, perhaps.

"Maybe," Keene suggested silkily, "the... ah, gentleman with whom you are associated is not attending to your needs. There are more complexities than wealth that impact upon the liaison between a man and a woman, and I have sources who tell me that there is another gentleman of means who greatly desires your company." Not bad, he thought. The lines were rehearsed and delivered almost flawlessly; only the gentleman part tripped over his tongue--no surprise there considering his personal feelings regarding the man in question. "I am prepared to grant you a substantial bonus for your consideration."

"I see." Mina turned her face toward the window and now Keene could see her profile, barely: high forehead, small straight nose, the rounded line of lips above a classic chin. "And what of the man I leave behind, Mr. Keene? What of him?"

Now Keene was thankful the telltale lamps were off, glad that there was nothing but moonlight to show the foxlike grin that tried to play across his face. He fought and won the struggle to keep any hint of glibness out of his tone. "Life sometimes deals unfortunate hands, does it not? One must learn to deal with the twists and turns of fate. Many people believe their destiny is preordained from the moment of birth."

"And you--what do you believe?"

That voice, so sensual and sweet, like warmed dark chocolate flowing from a spoon. In itself it was dangerously distracting. "I-I believe a person controls their own life," he said. "Everyone's existence is unique, formed by the billions of experiences that happen to them and no one else."

"Really." Mina was silent for so long that Keene had begun to think she'd lost interest, the allure of the deal just hadn't done it for her. What would it take, he wondered? Drugs? More credits? He hadn't quite drained himself dry for tonight, but it wouldn't take much more to do it.

"All right," she said suddenly. "I'll do it. But absolutely no one must know of our conversation tonight. If our meeting tonight became public knowledge, there would be... severe repercussions for both of us."

"You can trust me comple--"

"And," she interrupted, "you will have the bonus you mentioned converted into straight currency. But you will hold this currency until I call for it after I make the appropriate arrangements. Do not deceive me, Mr. Keene, or you will see an entirely different outcome to your wishes. It will not be pleasant."

"I assure you--"

"You may leave now, Mr. Keene."

He opened his mouth to speak but a door opened somewhere behind him, sending his heart into a double set of jumping jacks within his chest. White light spilled into the room and stopped abruptly, as if it didn't dare go beyond the stretch of its own three-foot rectangle.

"My assistant will show you out. I will contact you when the time is right. Good night, Mr. Keene."

He wanted to protest, to demand the right to see her face to face. Hundreds of thousands of credits--his lifetime accumulation--were on the line here. Did he not have the right to look into her eyes and see exactly who she was?

In the end, Jarlath Keene walked out of Mina's apartment with his head held as high as he could, a proud duelist bested but not killed by the opponent. The feeling gave credence to his thirst for vengeance, and that was all the better. To him, Mina was the hairline crack in the foundation, the kind that worked its way at a level far deeper than the trappings of mere money and business. He would sleep well tonight knowing that his hand had initiated that tiniest of fractures.

With enough care and patience, a crack could become a chasm.


Manhattan, 2123

Jarlath Keene's office at Synsound Corporation was in "the Tower," which was the generally accepted term for the offices of the vice presidents. While Manhattan was its home--and thus most lavish--office, Synsound was a huge company with bases around the world. There were thirty-four other vice presidents in this building alone, and Keene felt a lot like one old goat in a herd of younger ones; that he was fifth or sixth from the top of the ladder, depending on whose head was on the hierarchy chopping block at any given time, rankled him constantly. As far as he was concerned, his title of Vice President of Music Development meant nothing more than the fancy brass nameplate on the wall outside his office door and the private secretary who sat at desk nearby. Every important decision that cost over two thousand credits still had to be submitted to someone else for approval.

Dusk had fallen early tonight, brought on by a denser than normal layer of smog that mixed with the low-lying, dirty looking clouds that spit a constant, gritty drizzle onto the miserable people stuck on the streets far below. Two more stories up and the floor to ceiling windows in Keene's office would have been blocked by the sickly mist that signaled the first of the clouds. As it happened, Keene could still see--lucky him--the MedTech building three miles away, the air encircling it cleared of vapor by the constant spikes of electricity that zapped through its private air space, generated by a MedTech patented device that sterilized the air around the building's intake vents before it ever reached the precious lungs of its employees. When MedTech had first put their little toy into operation six years ago, the electrical noise and static feedback generated sound spikes on every master syndisc in the recording studios at mid-level in the Synsound building during the first hour and damned near wiped Synsound out; only an emergency injunction had halted the Atmosterilyzer. The court battles had been hot, heavy and expensive, and the outcome a split: MedTech could continue using its Atmosterilyzer--after all, it was only looking out for the health of its employees and the cleanliness of its medical testing facilities--but it was required to pay damages to Synsound for the re-recordings that were necessary, and before it could put its device back in use, it had to develop and install a force field system that would limit the electrical spikes that were output to its own grounds. Now the two companies were bitter rivals, and that suited Keene just fine. He hated them both.

A knock and the sound of the oak-paneled door that led into his office being opened made him turn. "Yes?"

"Damon Eddington is here to see you," his secretary Marceena said stiffly. A stout woman in her early forties, she'd undergone a drastic change in her appearance last week. The previous reddish-brown pageboy hairstyle was gone, replaced by a style that was shaved and dyed black on the sides, then crowned with a mop of spring-tight orange curls. She might have had the skin on her face tightened and she'd definitely revamped her wardrobe; today's new outfit was a tailor-waisted, short-sleeved green suit that looked as if the clothes had shrunk a few sizes while she was wearing them. Completing the ensemble was a purple scarf tied around her pudgy neck and tucked into the collar of the jacket. The whole thing was atrocious.

Thinking back, Keene was sure she'd done it to look more attractive, perhaps thinking that he would finally afford her more than his work-related attention. Not a very pretty woman to begin with, Keene now thought that Marceena now looked like one of those antique squashed-face dolls that had recently become popular again and were now soaring in price. The idea that maybe that had been her goal all along nearly made him chuckle aloud. In any event, when he hadn't commented on her new look, Marceena's demeanor had gone from polite to cool, edging on frosty. What did she expect--that he would ask her for a date? Not likely; Keene was a fit and healthy fifty-two going on thirty. He tried to feel pity for her but couldn't; the truth was, he had more female companions than he knew what to do with already, and not one of them was over twenty-five. Did she really think she could compete? Her constant attempts were annoying.

With Marceena standing in his office door as the go-between for him and Damon Eddington, it seemed like the perfect time to give her a reintroduction as to who gave the directives around here.

"I'll be with him as soon as I can." He purposely turned his back on her and went back to gazing out the window.

"He's... quite upset," Marceena said, a note of uncertainty creeping into her voice.

Keene wanted to grin but didn't; the reflection might give him away. "I said, I'll be with him as soon as I can." He intentionally let a note of nastiness cut through his words.

Another moment of hesitation, then he heard the door close and let the smile flow over his mouth. Let her deal with Damon Eddington for a quarter hour, he thought. She wasn't a stupid woman and she'd know it was Keene's way of chastising her. Still smiling, Keene walked to his desk and began clearing it of the Duplidroids, Incorporated contract and acquisition proposal form--it wouldn't do to have Damon glance down and see that Synsound was paying a single mutadroid manufacturer more than a million credits to recreate a band called Jane's Addiction in time for the quarter-century mark in two years. With the evidence cleanly swept into the top drawer, he spent a few minutes tidying the contents of the other drawers in his desk, then finally sat back on his chair to wait. The minutes ticked by and Keene fought the urge to laugh aloud; he could well imagine what was going on in the secretarial suite outside his office.

"What's taking so long?" Damon Eddington demanded. He leaned on the secretary's desk, seeing her pull back nervously. "I thought the purpose of an appointment was to schedule time to talk to someone, and Keene said he would see me, damn it!"

"And so he will, Mr. Eddington." The woman's voice was honey smooth, utterly professional. "Please, just wait. I'm sure he'll be ready any minute."

"Fine." Damon spun and strode back to the fake leather couch, resisting the urge to kick at the fancy coffee table in front of it. The thing was metal and glass, and he could picture the surface shattering and magazines flying everywhere, another temper tantrum traceable to the not-so-legendary Damon Eddington. Instead of lashing out, he flounced onto the couch, watching the secretary for any sign that Keene was calling for him.

When nothing happened after another ten minutes, Damon dug his flask out of one of the pockets of his vest and took a small swig of sweet, blackberry brandy, let it roll over his tongue and momentarily take his mind off how insulted he felt. This was a game to Keene, he was sure, but for what purpose? Synsound--with Jarlath Keene at the reins--already led him around by the proverbial nose; as far as Damon was concerned, forcing him to sit out here like a fool showed that, among other things, Keene was possessed of a deep and despicable streak of meanness. The secretary--he couldn't remember her name--had probably been told to stall him for as long as she could. For all Damon knew, she might have been told to keep him out here until he gave up and went away. His lip curled; not likely.

Damon took another swig of brandy and screwed the top back on the plastic flask, then tucked it back into his pocket and forced himself to relax against the softness of the couch. As always, his mind was full of music, a dark composition of his own making that had been in the process of a slow and painful birth since the reviews of his last small concert had been printed on the newsdiscs. After a few more minutes, he dug inside another pocket and pulled out his portable recorder; if Keene was going to waste Damon's entire day by making him wait outside his office door, then Damon would try to use the time as best he could. After all, the secretary was a built-in audience.

He hummed a few notes, then a few bars, letting them swirl like discordant shadows in the air as he warmed up his vocal cords. Already the woman was frowning at him but he paid her no attention; what did her opinion matter when the rest of the world seemed to hate his creativity more? In the scheme of Damon's life, Keene's secretary was nothing.

"Hm-mm-Mm-mM-mm--" Stretching his voice and losing himself in the sounds and tones, the pitch of his voice rising and falling until it flowered in full song, not words, but a sort of drawn-out vibration that was as true as he could make it to the original source, the dying wails of Jelly junkies in detox centers. Now the secretary's face was scrunched up in revulsion, her head sinking low on her shoulders like a turtle trying to escape an attacker. As Damon's voice, a decent baritone in itself, grated the next experimental lyric into the microphone embedded in the recorder, he saw her snatch up the telephone receiver on her desk and punch repeatedly at a button on the intercom. He smiled to himself; he didn't have to stop singing to know what she was saying. When she got up and came over to where he sat on the couch, her back was rigid and here were beads of perspiration high on her forehead, just under the line of burnt orange curls. Damon was pleased that his music had affected her; it didn't matter that she didn't like it. He'd take whatever results he could get.

"Mr. Keene will see you now," she snapped as Damon paused and looked at her questioningly. "You know the way."

That made Damon grin outright. The way? Oh, yes--he sure did. Keene's way, Synsound's way... the way of trash as far as Damon was concerned. But it was useless to argue, especially with this nothing little woman, so he nodded and stood, putting away his recorder and ignoring her audible sigh of relief. She didn't bother leading him to Keene's door, and Damon didn't expect her to.

Keene's office was expansive and as tastefully furnished as the man himself was dressed. Damon didn't follow fashion much, but the Ricci Matté suit Keene wore was impossible to disregard, and no doubt the matching shoes were just as expensive. His glistening, steel-gray hair was impeccably styled, his exquisite hand-painted tie an insult to Damon's own well cared-for but only moderately expensive Danforth padded vest. The man was obviously bathing in credits--Synsound was clearly making more money than it knew what to do with. Why then, did they fight for every credit on his contracts and make it so hard for Damon to draw a simple advance?

Keene sat behind an immense maroon Plexiglass desk cleared of almost everything, but there were too many gold and platinum soundiscs framed on the walls to maintain an illusion of a man with a multitude of leisure time on his hands. Row after row hung in expensive teak frames, with one wall was almost covered. And Keene himself: smug, sleek, and ever-patient, he had the look of a man who had resigned himself to the tedious chore of dealing with another annoyance in his life and had dubbed himself a martyr for his tolerance. Even his voice was carefully modulated, without the slightest hint of inflection. "What is it now, Damon?"

The old Damon Eddington, the man he'd been before being suffocated by Synsound for so many years, would have turned and walked out... after telling Keene to sit on it and spin. No--the old Damon Eddington would have walked out of the waiting room three-quarters of an hour ago.

The present Damon Eddington walked in with his head bowed as if deep in thought with his hands crammed into the loose-fitting blue jeans that were his everyday uniform, watching his feet work their way across the perfect carpet as though the sight were the most important thing in the world. He sat on the chair in front of Keene's desk without comment, and when he finally looked up, his dark eyes were soft, his vision focused on something faraway that only he could see.

"I want... an alien."

The doubletake Damon expected never came; Keene didn't even blink. The executive's hands remained folded calmly on the desk's highly polished surface, the reflection below his fingers making him look like some double-handed android built to play a newly invented hellrock instrument. "You want an alien," Keene repeated. Damon squelched the impulse to remind Keene that this wasn't a psychiatric bull session where the doctor repeated everything the patient said to make sure he had understood it clearly. "Let's see," Keene continued. "You're not into weapons, so that's out. You're not into medicine or drugs, either. That puts those out of the picture. So exactly what do you need an alien for, Damon?"

Damon spread his hands, unconsciously willing Keene to understand, to show the slightest trace of empathy. "For the sound." The last word carried on the filtered air of the office like a drawn-out whisper, a sibilant floating in the air that teased both of them. Finally, a reluctant crack in Keene's disposition as the older man unwillingly bonded with Damon's dreams for an instant, hearing as the eccentric artist did the alien singing from its steel throat and screaming with a tongue of acidic flame.

Damon's words faded away as he and Keene stared at each other.

Bitter memories flashdanced in Damon's head as he waited for Keene's decree, and he remembered the first time an alien's screams had ever found its way into his ears. It had been on a vidscreen in a store window, a NewsVid item from Channel 86 about an infestation in the Long Island Incarceration Colony, sensationalist crap designed solely to grab the passers-by and glue them to a vidscreen. And it had worked on Damon, though not for the reasons the media planners might have anticipated. The footage had showed a clot of aliens bunched in a subbasement of the LIIC's main prison, on the defensive against an army troop wearing suits constructed of the same material labs used to store acid and bearing flame throwers loaded with long-burning jellied napalm. To Damon the creatures' screams had translated to one thing, unadulterated or diluted: hate.

And Damon hated so very, very much...

How many reviewers had slammed his work as "tiresome," or "obscure," or worst of all, "boring?" The reviewers detested him, the public ignored him, Synsound humored him. All the while he struggled on, trying desperately to reach a public that seemed to want only hellrock or bloodrock, or--God help them--android singers and performers so mutated that they had four arms, multiple heads, and mouths coming out of their mouths in twisted parody of aliens. The closest John Q. Public came to exposure to the gentler sounds of the past was, again, in recreated androids; before dwindling into ambiguity, Elvis Presley's duplicate had piqued enough interest to gain a hall named after it, and Caruso's fabricated double sang for the upper class every night at the NewMet Opera House. A steady trickle of credits from the older generation supported Synsound projects like "Buddy Holly sings Garth Brooks III" and thousands of other re-recordings of centuries-dead artists--androids of Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Kurt Cobain, Charlie Parker, Clifford Brown, Richie Valens, Dwayne Allman, John Lennon, Patsy Cline and others regularly belted out new hits.

And Synsound, owner of practically every piece of music and musician in the world--including Damon--sat above it all with people at its helm like Jarlath Keene, a man with virtually no imagination, no vision. As far as Damon was concerned, the stages of Presley Hall were the Manhattan home of hell on earth, filled with appalling re-engineered mutadroids that were half android, half mutated instrument, surrounded by the dregs of humanity who flocked to listen to the groups. Few people appreciated Damon's careful, live recordings of serious music, the darker blends from wonderful, classic composers like Beethoven, Paganini, Mozart, Vivaldi, Bach, so much beautiful music recorded on rare twentieth century instruments--violins, harps, dulcimers--all expensive and a struggle to come by. Synsound again, indulging him, using him as a pawn to show the world how it sponsored and supported what remained of the "arts" while it survived--prospered-- on the ridiculous, discordant trash for which the people of this century constantly clamored. He hated Synsound almost as much as he detested the concert-goers who appreciated only torture and terror, responded only to the grotesque, frightening androids cavorting and screaming on the stage. If what they wanted was hate, and pain, and the repulsive, Damon decide he would give them exactly that.

The press conference he'd called was only a stage for him to announce to the country and every place the NewsVid would carry the story how much he hated--John Q. Public, Synsound, everything. His tirade against Synsound and its customers had gone on for as long as he dared before he feared the media would turn away in boredom. "For you all, for Synsound," he'd railed into their microphones, "I will write the ultimate composition... a Symphony of Hate!" Afterwards, his employer smiled its corporate face and nodded, pleased at the attention its pet artiste had generated and shrugging off Damon's anger with a humorous attitude. He was an artist after all; they were supposed to be temperamental, angry, excitable. It was those very feelings that made them creative.

Damon's work on his masterpiece had carried him everywhere. No place was too dark or dangerous: he visited madhouses, prison wards, even execution chambers where he watched killers leave this world shrieking in rage. A favorite haunt was the downtown government detox center where the screams of Jelly junkies bruised the eardrums and forced the workers to wear hearing protection.

But it was the news item that made Damon search the sound library for VidDiscs from the Homeworld war of ten years ago. The poor quality and low fidelity of the military recording devices didn't matter; the screams of the aliens as they fought and were destroyed blasted through Damon's senses like electricity, burning his mind, stealing his breath. No one and nothing else in the world sounded like an alien, nothing. And nowhere else did the creatures' shrieks of malevolence belong more than in Damon Eddington's Symphony of Hate.

And here Damon sat, once again at the mercy of Synsound's whim.

"Why don't you use the sound from the VidDiscs? It's the obvious answer." Keene sat back and studied Damon Eddington. While he was tall and medium-built instead of skinny and starving, Damon still unwittingly fit Synsound's policy of how one of their stable of unorthodox musicians should look. His receding hair was as black as crude oil and pulled back from his high forehead into a thin ponytail. Dark eyebrows arched sharply over darker eyes and his long face ended in a double-cut goatee that grew to a good two inches beyond the end of his chin. Keene already knew what the musician's answer would be and he kept his expression carefully bland while he waited for Damon's words.

"Because it's crap," Damon said in disgust. "Don't you realize what the army battalions were using? We're talking about the government here--they had hand-held recorders, for God's sake. Obsolete magnetic tape and microphones with plastic screens over them to keep the battleground dirt out of the electronics, plus every recording is undercut with tank and weapons fire, explosions that muddy up everything. I can't re-record that rubbish--I need clear, crisp sound. Presence, Jarlath. I want it to sound like the alien itself is standing in front of the mic and roaring at it."

Keene rubbed his cheek and tried to look thoughtful. Damon was such an easy toy, up and down, like those ancient yo-yos twentieth century children had played with. "Then we'll synthesize it for you." As he'd expected, Damon looked horrified.

Up and down.

"You've got to be joking!" Damon balled his fist and held it up. "You know I hate synthesis. It's got to be live. I won't put any of that electronic mishmash into my music!" He looked at his fist and relaxed his fingers, as if just discovering his own hand. Keene could see the composer visibly trying to calm down. "Listen, Jarlath. This is my masterpiece, the epitome of everything I've ever done. I want to do it all myself, even down to recording the alien screams. And for that I need one of those creatures alive, a real alien."

"I... see." Keene let Damon dangle for a moment, then gave him a narrow-eyed stare. "What you're telling me, Damon, is that you want Synsound to spend vast amounts of money to illegally procure an alien for you so that you can use that same creature to create a musical work which will show the world how much you hate us."

Damon wasn't fazed. "Exactly. But you'll do it anyway, won't you?" He folded his arms and leaned back. "You have to admit that I'm a constant source of advertising even if you and your company don't appreciate my hard work."

Ah, such smugness from a man who was too arrogant to realize he was nothing more than a child under Synsound's disciplinary lash. Keene leaned back himself and waved a hand. "Spend vast amounts, Damon? Hardly. As a reminder, we have an advertising department with budgets and corporate mandates, remember? Forgive me for pointing out that they can handle publicity far more pleasantly than you can. In the end, I'm afraid you're a low priority item. I'm limited as to how much I can spend to indulge your inventive aspirations, no matter how far-reaching you... believe they will be. The methods in which we can obtain for our little pet--you--his own little pet are severely curtailed by budget factors." He was rewarded by the insulted scowl that spread across the musician's face. "Funding an expedition to Homeworld is certainly out of the question," Keene continued, ignoring Damon's offended expression. "Bribing the military is always possible, but again, far too expensive--too many hands in the financial pie would have to be filled. Still," he said slowly as the image of a taller building surrounded by the bright beauty of jagged electrical flashes a few miles away filled his mind, "there may be a way." He smiled for the first time since Damon had come into his office. "I'll see what I can do."

Knowing the meeting was over, Damon stood and spread his hands. "It just won't work otherwise. I need it, Jarlath. The Symphony, it will be a big hit. You'll see."

"Good-bye, Damon." Keene folded his hands on the desktop again, a clear signal that his patience was at the breaking point. For a second he thought Damon would protest--would he actually beg this time? But no, while the musician looked like he wanted to, eventually he turned his back and walked out, his angry footsteps making muffled thunks against the carpeting.

As soon as the office door closed behind Damon, Keene swung to the VidPhone on his desk. He gave it about thirty seconds--enough time for Damon to walk through his secretary's area and turn into the hallway leading to the elevators--then buzzed Marceena.


She sounded as worried as she looked on the monitor, as though he might send her after Damon with instructions to bring him back. Keene liked to hear the note of anxiety in her voice; it kept her respectful. "Get me Yoriku," he said simply. He didn't wait for a reply before snapping off the connection.

Twelve minutes. Keene tapped his fingers on the desk and counted each movement of the LED clock display, one by one, as they flashed by. Amazing. How could he forget the time he failed to answer a summons from Yoriku's assistant for a half hour? Keene had been in the midst of a delicate contract negotiation with one of the country's hottest new stars and felt it was unwise to give the woman and her agent time alone to pick through the contract undisturbed. Everything he'd done back then had been for the good of Synsound, every waking hour was spent contemplating ways to better the company and his position in it, and increase those corporate profits to the parent. How bewildered he'd been to subsequently find himself with instructions to proceed to a tiny city called Black Lake in the Canadian Province of Saskatchewan. Once there, he was ordered to personally supervise the relocation of a Canadian lyric writer to Manhattan--Keene, a so-called high level vice president, was being used by Yoriku as a damned travel escort!

Finally the private in-coming light on the VidPhone flashed. "What is it, Keene?" Yoriku's face filled the screen, wavering with static. Despite MedTech's force field, the phones had done that intermittently since the Atmosterilyzer was put into use, something in which Keene took secret, perverse pleasure.

"It's about Damon Eddington, sir."

On the screen, a corner of Yoriku's mouth turned up slightly. "He is an amusing man." The emotion disappeared as quickly as it had come, and Yoriku's broad face smoothed out again.

Keene made himself smile in return. "Yes, sir. He is funny, very funny. In fact, after our conversation you may think he's even funnier. It seems that Eddington has come up with an... unusual idea concerning the project he's working on. You remember that, I'm sure--his 'Symphony of Hate?' He visited me a short while ago with a request. It's quite original--I don't believe anyone else has ever asked for this." And Keene recounted everything about his conversation with Damon, embellishing where he felt it was necessary to ensure he maintained Yoriku's attention.

At the end of Keene's narrative, Yoriku shook his head. His voice grated through the VidPhone speaker, like old rust being wire-scrubbed off a steel beam. He had been in the United States for decades, but his voice still carried a heavy Japanese accent. "It is impossible to get Eddington this alien for what I am willing to spend on him."

Keene let himself grin widely. He was quite pleased with the scheme he had come up with practically as Damon had been speaking. Not many people would have been so quick on their mental feet. "Not necessarily, sir. I believe I have a solution. It will be risky, but...." Yoriku started to shake his head again and Keene risked interrupting him, trusting that his next words would instantly smother any annoyance his poor manners raised. "Of course, it would involve... ah... MedTech."

Yoriku's image froze for a moment. His voice, not particularly pleasant to begin with, dropped lower as his thin eyes narrowed all the way to slits.

So Keene told him his plan, in all its exquisite, deceitful detail: setting times and listing the equipment required, what other things and who would be needed to see it through fine-tuning the details as he went. "So that's it," Keene finished a short while later. "What do you think, sir? Are we in a position to... humiliate MedTech?"

The answer was obvious as Yoriku's mouth spread in a smile that reminded Keene of the dangerous, toothy grin of a hyena. Keene had heard the rumors but hadn't dared call attention to himself by acknowledging the stories or asking anyone else in the company if they were true. Now Yoriku's black expression confirmed them all: one of the most powerful men in the world, yet he had lost the thing most precious to him... his exquisite, legendary lover. It had taken so long to happen that Keene had begun to believe that the woman had lied to him, but, finally, the whispered stories said that Mina now graced the bed of a younger, high-powered executive at MedTech.

"We are indeed in such a position, Keene." Yoriku unexpectedly pushed his face close to his vidscreen; on Keene's end, it looked as if the man had snatched up the phone and pressed his nose against it. Keene could see the pores in the man's skin; it was totally disgusting. "And I want them to know it was Synsound. Not right away, but eventually. Is that clear?"

"They will, sir." Keene tried to make his voice as soothing as possible. "When Eddington's Symphony of Hate is released, there will be no mistaking the origin of the sound." Yoriku backed away from the screen, looking pleased. As the Japanese man leaned back and rested his hands on the arms of a chair that was no doubt real leather, Keene was again reminded of the hyena, this time with a full belly. "I will need assistance," Keene hinted slyly. "Someone to--"

"You may send for Ahiro. I will instruct him to be at your disposal in all respects."

"Excel--" But Yoriku had already disconnected, leaving Keene to glare at the static on the vidscreen and grit his teeth for a moment before he buzzed Marceena again. Up and down, he thought. We all play the game. Problem was, he hated being the one spinning on the end of Yoriku's yo-yo.

"Yes, Mr. Keene?"

"Find Ahiro and send him up." He didn't give her a chance to question the order, taking his cue from the way Yoriku had cut off their own conversation. He didn't want to listen to her whine anyway. Perhaps she'd been with him too long, with Synsound too long. All she did was complain about having to do things she didn't like or thought were beneath her job duties. Did she think he should hire an assistant to work for her as well? Not likely.

More waiting, but at least when he got here, Ahiro would be much more respectful than Keene's secretary was. Keene didn't like working with the man and would have preferred to find someone else, but he had to admit that he'd never encountered anyone like Ahiro, who damned near treated Keene's words as God's own. Well... not really; the top command, of course, was Yoriku. There was a connection between Yoriku and Ahiro about which Keene remained utterly clueless, and all his careful inquiries had dead-ended. The inquiries themselves had been dangerous, and he'd been meticulous in his efforts to make them appear nothing more than a healthy curiosity about the man who headed--well, owned the company for which Keene worked. Useless effort, wasted time. The slender Japanese man with the grave expression slipped around the corporate headquarters with barely a word to anyone and free access to anywhere in the building, and whatever the tie between Yoriku and Ahiro was, it would not be shared with Keene or anyone of his ilk.

Keene stood and cracked his knuckles thoughtfully as he stepped to the window and stared out. Secrets, secrets--everywhere around him. They made him nervous, curious, crazy with wanting to know them all. He'd have to work harder on this thing between Yoriku and Ahiro later on... perhaps next summer, after his first round of questions had been forgotten and a new staff was settled in place inside Yoriku's private offices. Turnover was a constant in a company this size, especially after the raises and disappointments each spring. There were those inside who could not be bought, true--the ones like Yoriku's personal executive assistant and file manager, who had been with him for something like fifteen years. Unlike Marceena, however, that woman had an assistant--several, in fact. When Keene had built his savings back up to speed, he would go to work on those two, as he had on Mina.

Keene didn't know how, but the next time he glanced away from the window--a mere three minutes later--the mysterious Japanese man with the ragged scar across his right eye was standing in front of the desk.

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