by D. K. Latta

Any different than a sellout?

     “I don’t like this,” said Charlie Mizoguchi, fidgeting as he stared at the methane filter clutched in his hands. He glanced at Harlan Krubber, but his features were already unreadable behind the plastic mask and dark goggles. “This is dangerous.”
    Harlan made a clucking noise. “We’re just two private citizens visiting the Elmirtan consulate. That’s all. What’s not to like?”
    “They’re creepy. No one knows anything about them, about their culture, what their homeworld looks like. I don’t trust them.”
    “Have they ever lied to you?” Harlan asked wryly.
    “Me? What? Personally? I’ve never even seen one close up before. But I read the editorials. People say they say things that can’t be corroborated. Like they tell us they have fusion reactors, but won’t show us the blueprints. They say they’ve visited other alien civilizations but we’ve never seen any sign of them.”

    “I don’t care about other civilizations. And keep your voice down. Right now, they’re the best friends you or I could hope for.”

    Before Charlie could respond, a deceptively human-looking android in a three-piece suit emerged from behind the embroidered drape. “Gentlemen,” it said, “dajha Dirils will see you now.” The android pushed aside the tapestry and motioned toward the gelatinous blue membrane that led deeper into the consulate. Harlan straightened his tie and then squeezed through the barrier, disappearing.

    Charlie glanced at the android regarding him politely. With clumsy fingers he secured the methane filter over his face. Then, squeezing his eyes shut, he plunged through. They emerged into a dark grey room lined with black support ribs; the floor was thick with a dense, swirling mist. Flickering red lights reflected off the moist walls and cast the whole place in ominous blood-red tones. It was hard to believe that they were still on good old planet Earth, that this was just the interior of the consulate. Directly before them stood a tall creature with sharp, pronounced shoulders that peaked above its head. Its drab-brown face was like a blooming flower, devoid of eyes or nose.

    Charlie carefully put Harlan between himself and the creature.
    Ignoring his companion’s action, Harlan said through the mask, “Where is dajha Dirils?” His voice echoed wetly in the room.

    “The dajha awaits you,” it hissed in a guttural rasp. “Follow me.”

    Turning its oddly-shaped body, the guide shuffled from the room and led them down a winding corridor, still dark grey, still heavy with mist, still tinted by crimson lights. Parting another curtain, they entered a room at the center of which was a sheen black table. At the far end sat an Elmirtan, another one standing just behind the seated figure’s right shoulder. Their guide took his place on the left. Introduced, the seated figure nodded slowly.

    “Be seated, Harlan Krubber.”

    Harlan did so, the chair making strange squishy noises. Charlie looked around, saw no other chair, and stood.

    “I thought this was going to be a business lunch,” Harlan said, half joking as he indicated the bare table.  The dajha made a hissing sound like wheat rustling and another Elmirtan entered carrying a tray in its clawed hands. It set it down before Harlan and lifted the lid. Wilted lettuce, black around the edges, stared back at him. “We were unsure of your nutritional requirements,” said the dajha.

    “Uh, aren’t you going to have anything?”
    “It is not our way to consume foodstuffs in the presence of strangers,” he rasped.

    “Right.” Harlan pushed away the tray and its distasteful contents. “It’s just a symbolic thing anyway. So let’s get down to business. This is Charlie Mizogouchi,  my, uh, legal advisor. I told you last time I might bring an associate.” He drew a computer wafer from his chest pocket and skidded it across the table. “There are most of our calculations.”

    The alien ignored it, hissed, “Before we proceed further we would appreciate a firmer grasp of your motives. Are you not already CEO of Guerison & Jinx?”

    Harlan pressed his lips, hesitating. Then he shrugged. “That can mean very little. One little dip on the Dow and the board is already drawing out the long knives.” The flower-shaped head canted slightly. “Just an expression. They want me out. I want to stay. A leveraged buy-out will give me roots like a tree. Now, if we may continue? Guerison & Jinx stocks are currently trading at nine—eighty one pesos, but their best showing was at one thousand forty-five.  Now, we want this quick and clean. As soon as we make our offer, everyone and their dog will have a counter bid. The goal is to knock the wind out of any competition by offering an even two thousand a share.”

    Charlie started. “That’s not what we discussed. We said one thousand sixty. The company might not be worth two. The debt load alone will—“

    “So we sell off a few bits and pieces after the fact. Actuate here and there for the sake of the body.”

    “The lay-offs would be astronomical. Besides, where are we going to come up with two thousand a share?”

    Harlan smiled thinly at the dajha. Charlie gawked. “How much are they in for?” He glanced across the table. “How much are you in for, fellah?” The Elmirtan regarded him silently.

    “All of it,” he rasped at last.

    Charlie gawked again. Harlan said, “No consortium, no trying to keep all the rats on the ship. Just the one financer.”

    “Do you, uh, people know what kind of money we’re talking about?” Charlie said.

    “The proper conversion of currency can be arranged,” said the alien. “The Elmirtan assembly has committed whatever resources of the homeworld will be necessary to complete the transaction.”

    “What we need from you,” Harlan said, turning to his companion, “is to cover our respective asses. There’d be a stink to high heaven if anyone knew where we were getting the money from, so we need some fronts. Dummy corporation after dummy corporation, a cyber trail that no matrix hound can sniff his way through.”

    Charlie slumped against the wall.

    “Goddamit!”  Harlan yelled. He swiped his fist through the smoke funnel of the hologram display and into the face of the news anchor. “Off,” he snapped. The broadcast signal vanished. Ellen Krubber poked her head in. “Everything all right, dear?”

    “Yes, yes, fine,” he answered quickly. Once she had left again, he said, “Where the hell does some frigging EC consortium get off  offering two and ten? They must have known our bid.”

    “Cybermice are everywhere,” Charlie said resignedly, seated with a half-empty glass by his host’s bar. “But we can beat the offer, can’t we? We’re screwed if we can’t. I mean can the Elmirtan…?”

    “I don’t know, I just don’t know.” He ran his fingers through his hair. “We’ve got to be careful. We may have next to unlimited resources, but we don’t want to SEEM like it.  How covered are we? If someone hacked into our bid?”

    “Intercepting our proposal and tracing the money isn’t the same thing. I put so many spins on the trail that a whirling dervish couldn’t follow it back to the Elmirtan.  Uh, what are you doing?”

    Jacket tossed over his chair, Harlan busily typed with two fingers at his transmit panel. A hologram of a clean-cut young man appeared in the mist to his left. “Elmirtan consulate, can I help you?”

    “Get me the dajha, you bucket of bolts. Tell him it’s Harlan Krubber.”

    “Thank you,” the android said, unperturbed. The image trembled, then vanished, only to be replaced by two half naked dancers twisting in zero Gs.

    “I hate being put on hold.” His fingers drumming on the console, Harlan smoothed his hair back with his other hand. He spared a glance at Charlie, who was clutching his glass like a security blanket.

    “Harlan Krubber?” rasped the dajha, looking for all the world as though he was standing in the living room.

    “Yeah. We’ve got a problem. There’s another bid. A good one.”

    “You said ours could not be beat.”

    “Yeah, well, I was wrong. We may need more money. I said MAY. We don’t want to jump the gun. They’re offering a lot, but they might not be able to keep it together. If they can, though, we’re in trouble. If we offer too much, too soon, the board, the regulators, might get suspicious.”

    The dajha asked the name of the competitor.

    “Some cobbled together consortium.”

    “We would appreciate your transmitting to us the specifics.”

    Harlan pursed his lips, not really listening. “Hmm? Oh, sure. Whatever.”  As Dirils vanished, he thought for a moment, then sat down and slowly typed out the relevant names. Charlie burst in.

    “Why are they really helping us? I mean, what do they get out of all this?”

    “They get what they get, that’s all.”

    “Meaning what? They won’t control the company. I mean, there’s no way you’d let them do that, right? You wouldn’t let those, those THINGS get such a big, powerful foot in Earth’s door, right?”

    “Of course not. You worded the agreements yourself. They can’t force us to do anything we don’t want to do. All I’ve promised them—gentlemen’s agreement style—is some of the subsidiaries, when we sell off parts of the company.”

    Charlie looked down at his glass and wondered how it had gotten empty so fast. “What subsidiaries?”

    “Does it matter? That mine on Mimas that’s been getting just about nothing. The processing factory on Calisto.”

    “But why? The Elmirtan are into computers and androids and cybernetics. What do they want with factories and the like?”

    “Who cares, it’s just off-world stuff.”

    “Places that are away from Earth, you mean,” Charlie mumbled quietly. Harlan grunted noncommittally, returned to his two-fingered typing. “Harlan, what if they start laying people off? People we lured out there with free homes and transportation? People who can’t come back without the jobs to pay for the flight?”  Harlan kept typing. “The Earth government doesn’t care about off-world workers. So who’ll look after the people stranded out there if not the company? And what are the Elmirtan going to do with a few thousand blue dollars anyway? Harlan? Harlan?”

    “Charlie,” he said quietly, “who cares?” Charlie started. “Have another drink.” Harlan pressed the transmit button.

    “Jean-Pierre Arcand…fell from his 40th floor apartment through reinforced plastic. Gerda Knolund…killed in a single-car accident on a straight road. Sir John Collins…they’ve only found pieces.”

    “What’s your point?”

    Charlie looked up from where he had slumped on the floor of Harlan’s living room immediately upon entering. “It’s on the news. There’s no more competition because there’s almost no one left in the consortium.”

    “You’re exaggerating, although I did hear how their system crashed, dumping all their data back into cyberspace.”

    “And this doesn’t bother you?” Charlie asked numbly.

    Harlan shrugged and straightened his cuffs. “Tragic accidents, but I won’t deny it’s good luck for us.”

    “Accidents?” He rose awkwardly to his feet. “Luck? Are you insane? We’ve…we’ve done something unbelievably monstrous.” He stumbled back and bumped into the wall. “We’re in league with…with…I’m out, Harlan. I want nothing more to do with this.” He ran from the room.

    “Don’t trip on your way out, Charlie,” Harlan called. Scowling, he tucked his hands into his pockets and stared at nothing for a long time. With great reluctance, he went to the transmit panel. “Get me the dajha.”


     Ellen Krubber raised a wine glass. “To the new owner of Guerison & Jinx.”

    Harlan smiled and touched his glass to hers. “If only Charlie had lived to see it,” she said quietly.

    He looked away. “Heart attacks can happen at any time, darling. Though I can’t help blaming myself. I’m sure I was pushing him too hard.”

    They agreed it was probably not his fault. She glanced at the watch on her wrist and her eyes widened. Quickly draining her glass, she let him know their reservations were for 7:30.

    “They’ll hold our table. You’re forgetting, you’re now married to one of the most powerful men on the planet. We can be as late as we want.”

    She grinned. “Maybe they’ll wait, but my stomach won’t.” She grabbed her shawl. “I’ll start up the hoverpod.  But I don’t know why you changed to that brown tie. I told you the red looks so much better with that jacket.”

    He watched her start from the room. “What?”

    She turned. “The red tie. I told you you should wear the red tie.”

    “No you didn’t.”

    “You asked me and I told you.” Frowning just a little, she added, “I don’t know why you ask my opinion if you aren’t going to listen.”

    Fingering his glass silently, he watched her go. Then he finished his drink and set it down on the bar. He turned and almost jumped into himself. “Good God,” he gasped.

    “The dajha,” said the man in a perfect imitation of him, “wishes me to convey the Elmirtan assembly’s gratitude for your assistance.”

    He looked about the room, empty save for himself and this reflection. “What is this, some kind of joke? Who sent you? You said what? Dirils?” He demanded an answer, trying to catch his mental breath. “You tell the dajha that he’ll get the off-world interests in due course, but—“

    “No doubt. But such acquisitions will only satiate us temporarily. We have long-term needs. Greater ambitions.”

    “You’re one of their androids,” Harlan said suddenly. He reached out and poked. “Pretty good likeness.”

    “I should hope so. Your every move was recorded during your visits to our consulate, every pore was mapped. Never before had we had an opportunity to study a living, functioning human so closely. At least not one of your potential importance. And now, I am here to replace you.” Harlan gasped. “We helped you acquire Guerison & Jinx so that we could acquire it. Controlling it will allow us an unprecedented ability to manipulate secretly your planet. Hostile takeovers and massive layoffs will plunge your economies, and eventually when we step in and offer to deal with your unemployed, your elites will eagerly agree…they always do. Cattle, Harlan Krubber. Cattle for the homeworld.”

    And then, suddenly, he knew why they never ate in front of strangers. And why humans had never encountered other alien civilizations. He tried to bolt but one hand grabbed his arm and steel fingers closed about his throat, forcing him to his knees.

    “You’ll never get away with it,” he gasped, eyes bulging as he scraped uselessly at the machine. Then he saw the red tie.

    He realized they already had.