Author : Benjamin Fischer
“You have a very pretty family,” said the offworlder.
Pulliam McDermott was a very powerful man, so it took him a moment to register that he’d actually been threatened. High over Lake Michigan in his Zepellin-borne corporate offices, the stranger he’d kept waiting for the last hour held in her hands a portrait of Maria and the kids from three years ago in Traverse City.
“Excuse me?” asked Pulliam, his wiry, tanned hand yanking the photo out away from the stranger.
“Oh, I was just thinking how your wife has such beautiful red hair,” the albino woman said.
“I’m sure you didn’t come here on account of that,” said Pulliam. “In fact,I’d be mortified if you had.”
“Of course not,” smiled the stranger, going from the Chairman’s bare and meticulous aluminum desk to the panorama of the cold, foaming waves a mile below.
“You were inquiring about the status of our agreement,” Pulliam said, setting down the portrait in the precise location it had always occupied.
“I assure you,” he said, “that on our end we have been absolutely satisfied.”
The stranger was silent, her sharp pink eyes picking out the gray wakes of the patrol cutters.
“If there has been anything lacking in our services,” said Pulliam, and his gut tightened, “even your most recent communiqués have not given me that impression.”
The albino chuckled.
“No, no, you are quite right,” she said. “Your recruiting of skilled talent has been more than satisfactory. Of all the Americans that we’ve worked with, you are by far the most reliable.”
“Then I fail to see the purpose of your visit.”
Or, more crudely: What do you want?
“You’ve amassed quite the sphere of influence in our service,” the offworlder said, and then focussing keenly on a distant ship, “Is that a junk?”
Pulliam stepped to the great floor-to ceiling window that lined his cabin.
“No, that’s a waystation ship,” he said. “We keep the recruits under lock and key on those until we can arrange a shuttle flight up.”
“Ah. But that reminds me of something,” said the albino. “Do you know how the Chinese emperors rewarded their successful nobles?”
Pulliam’s pulse rose.
“Ah, but your mind races with suspicions.”
Pulliam went back to his desk.
“Chinese culture doesn’t interest me,” he said.
“You should take a more global view,” said the stranger.
“I like the scenery here.”
The albino pointed a slim finger at the distant prison ship.
“I’m sure they do too,” she said.
Pulliam gritted his teeth.
“But I digress,” the albino continued. “In the Forbidden City of ancient China, the emperor surrounded himself with the families of his greatest nobles. There, they lived in idle pleasure, their continual safety assured.”
“I’ve moved many bodies for you,” Pulliam said. “But I won’t move mine.”
“This world is such a violent place,” said the offworlder. “And yet change for the better is so seldom welcomed.”
Pulliam squared himself to the stranger.
“What if I refuse?”
The albino tapped her fingers on the glass.
“Don’t think of it as a threat,” she said. “It’s more of an invitation–one you can discuss with your family.”