“Events, have overtaken us, Hotshot!” Blake shouted through Josh’s comm ring. “Everything’s being fast-tracked. The Board meeting’s been moved up to tomorrow morning. We have an informal meeting in an hour. Just sent you some things I need you to put together in a visual for this meeting — I need you to get your ass in gear. Be ready with the viz and get there early.”
Twenty minutes later, Josh Orsini found himself just outside of a very small conference room somewhere in the Georgetown SafeZone, whispering urgently to his boss.
“We have an analysis of the latest lab results recovered from the secret facility — creatures mutate into Alphas when hit by artillery that doesn’t kill them. And at any setting below maximum, the raygun will turn the thing into a
“Josh — we have a plan. No one can prove anything — and the only ones who could possibly have done so are dead. The entire research annex was wiped clean. And… mutations mean we get to keep the business going. This is for your future, Josh.” Nat patted his cheek and waved him in through the door. They got settled.
The room was crammed full — six people were sitting at the small, round table, and six or seven more were sitting on stools or standing against the walls. Apart from Blake, there were two other senior SolarScope officials — the Senior Vice President of Government Relations, Kelly Dela Fuente, and someone he didn’t recognize — sitting at the table in front of him. Josh sat with on a stool with his back against the wall by the door. All he had been told was that on the other side of the room sat government officials. There were a couple of highly-decorated military officers.
This was a big deal. And it wasn’t conventional. Josh wished Blake had briefed him more extensively before he came in. It had only just begun to dawn on Josh what his boss had implied just outside the door. Before he could mull over it any further, Blake, who was sitting directly in front of him, leaned backwards and beckoned Josh to lean in.
Blake whispered in his ear. “Just listen, and answer my questions to the point if I call on you. Real negotiations start now. That over there,” the Director nodded towards the other side of the room, “the lady in blue — she’s the President’s right hand woman on corporate and defense affairs. She’s the one we target. I like your fear angle. Get your figures spot on, and let’s keep it tight.”
Josh nodded, swallowing hard.
Blake added, “Enjoy the ride. Not everyone gets to see magic.”
The room was close and cramped. Just as an aide was about to seal the door, a straggler squeezed in behind a couple people standing at the back. The door slid shut and the seal was in place. Blake turned to Josh and said, “You’d better pay close attention to the introduction.”
“Before we begin,” the stern-looking woman Blake had pointed out said, “let me remind all of you that you that the discussion we are about to have is strictly — I mean strictly — confidential. You are here because you are trusted. No one is to mention anything with anyone outside of this room, except, of course, directly to our respective Chief Executives. Each and every one of you have been checked thoroughly, and the consequences of not heeding the confidentiality will be very grave indeed.”
Josh was taken aback. He wondered what they had on him. He had nothing to hide, but felt suddenly naked all the same. McDonald made eye contact, one by one, with every person in the room. Blake must have met with this woman a number of times — Josh could see her influence on Blake’s confidentiality speech. Everyone in the room nodded in turn.
“Very good. For the handful of you who probably don’t know me, I’m Morgana McDonald, Special Advisor to the President of the United States on Corporate and Defense Affairs. I know who you are. I hate wasting time, so please — keep your interventions to the point.” She didn’t mince words. In a more familiar tone, she turned across the table to the SolarScope SVP. “Kelly, would you like to begin?”
“Thanks, Morgana. We have fifty thousand units ready to ship at First Light tomorrow. The defects have been patched, and selected lab tests have been successful — these rayguns will destroy the creatures.”
“How certain are you of this? The latest official reports we got from testing facilities were that the creatures were developing immunity to everything up to and including Titan Tips. And now we’re hearing something about the rayguns?”
Kelly Dela Fuente turned to Blake. “Nat?”
“As long as the units are set to maximum emission strength, all colors of creature are toast. They work.”
Josh watched in horror and fascination. Technically, what Blake had said was correct. But the risk of the units being fired at a lower energy level… Well, Nat Blake seemed to be pleased about that fact. And what about the Board meeting the next day? They needed to get approval for the technology. What Josh was sitting in looked suspiciously like a bargaining session.
The gray-haired man to the left of McDonald spoke up. He didn’t mince words. “Reports strongly suggest that your raygun has created this monster that is running rampant in the region.”
Nat answered with ease. “That, unfortunately, was the product of prolonged exposure to lower-than-optimal levels of energy emissions. If the raygun is set to maximum, then we blow the fuckers to smithereens. We make no more monsters. Of course, the one at large needs to be disposed of, but I am fully confident that you will do that. We need a way forward, Guy, and the raygun is it.”
Orsini couldn’t believe what he was hearing. But he didn’t have a moment to reflect. Blake was saying, “My colleague, Josh Orsini, will walk you through the context. Josh, the visual?”
Josh took a nanosecond to consider his situation as he slid his portable system square across to the middle of the table. He was being asked to present something he threw together in ten minutes an hour before the meeting to a crowd of powerful strangers, knowing little context, in what was turning out to be a no-nonsense negotiation worth trillions of UDRs. He was as comfortable as a homeless man in a SafeZone — splattered all over concrete. Not to mention his conscience, which was screaming bloody murder. But he shoved his conscience aside and inhaled sharply, waving on the short hologram show. He stood up and spoke in an almost detached voice as images flashed in full colored glory atop the table.
Panic at the Center City functional SafeZone with gruesome scenes of Alphas biting into peoples’ brains — pregnant women, children. Soft screams filled the room, giving Josh’s voice a morbid soundtrack. Nat had sent him that clip that afternoon. The bloody showdown at Times Square. Josh shooting the raygun. A test subject exploding in a capsule. He silently thanked Laney for including in the material she had sent. He left a life-sized, menacing-looking Alpha standing just behind him as he concluded. It was so real that it had to stoop to fit in the room.
“…As long as the units are set to maximum, we can beat these things.” The Alpha behind him exploded and dissolved. He stood alone and closed with a quiet, intense voice.
“We haven’t got much choice, ladies and gentlemen. The people need this raygun. The world needs this raygun. Now.” He stopped speaking. All eyes were on him — the room had gone silent. His speech and powerful holograms had seemed to touch something raw in every person in the room. He looked around, heart pumping with adrenaline. When his eyes alighted on a familiar figure near the door, he did a double take.
“Thank you, Josh,” Nat Blake said proudly, nudging Josh back onto the stool. He sat down in a daze. Someone slid his system square into his hand, but Josh hardly noticed. Riley Pritchard’s neutral expression was seared into his memory.
“How much?” came the quiet query from Morgana McDonald. Riley glanced imperceptibly at the Chief, who was sitting stone-faced next to McDonald. She had a feeling about what was going on in his head. They were up against something massive. She turned her attention back to the conversation, pushing aside the image of Josh’s powerful oration. She quickly recalibrated her thoughts; she would deal with that later. Right now, she was working.
The Chief had called Riley earlier that afternoon for an emergency, exceptional period of active duty — light recon within the protection of her home SafeZone — on the condition that she take a full night’s rest. She had gladly agreed. Pritchard was to observe and analyze the discussion so they could strategize how best to approach Operation Bushido’s trickiest aspect — getting the military to change their tactics against the creatures in a hugely unintuitive way. At the rate this negotiation was going, Riley knew that the Chief had some heavy lifting coming his way.
“Nine-hundred fifty billion Universal Drawing Rights upon delivery of the first fifty thousand units,” the stocky man sitting between Dela Fuente and Blake said. It was Gomer Nassau, Chairman Forrester’s Chief Advisor, the Chief had told her during their last-minute briefing that afternoon. Orsini had been a wildcard — Nat’s trusted aide. The Chief had expected Orsini to listen, not contribute.
Nassau seemed to be playing the let’s-get-down-to-business role. Trusted Dela Fuente to start off. Hard-nosed Nathaniel Blake III next, to address technical issues without getting too detailed. Then Josh Orsini to win over their hearts. Followed up quickly by the Chairman’s representative to close the deal. The SS team had prepared well.
Riley’s thoughts went back to Josh. She should have known that the Joshua Orsini on the participant list was her Josh from SolarScope. She berated herself for letting her mind wander while she was working and forced herself to refocus.
The deal was out of this world. They were talking 3.2 trillion UDRs and over the next six months, with assisted leads to the governments of the European Union, New Russia and Asia.
“We understand that this project has been your prime focus — cost- and resource-wise — for a significant amount of time, and we’re grateful for that.” McDonald said to Nassau. “But Gomer — you know we’ve spent a lot over the past few years between reconstruction and welfare. We’re struggling. And we’re coming up against this debt ceiling very quickly.”
“I know, Morgana. Can we get back to you at First Light? We’ll have the team work on it tonight.”
“And then there’s the matter of the SolarScope Board. They need to approve this unanimously tomorrow morning.”
“Yes, there’s that. Well, you can bet that Dalton and Mercedes are behind us all the way,” Nassau reassured her. “Vijay is, too. Ivan is on the fence. He might be swayed. So might Harriet. It’s Amr and Toshi we’ll need to do some hard work on. Nat, are you guys on it?”
“The team is cranking options out as we speak,” Blake replied.
“Well, then — I guess this is it,” Morgana said. “Many thanks for assembling on such short notice.” She looked around the people sitting at the table. “I hope we can gather in a more leisurely setting next week.” Morgana McDonald stood up and addressed the room. “Please recall that you are bound by confidentiality not to speak about these matters to anyone who was not privy to this discussion. Thank you for your time, ladies and gentlemen. We look forward to receiving a more favorable offer tomorrow before the Board meeting.”
Riley was to debrief with the Chief at First Light. For now, she had a lot of information to process. She had a lot of time — she didn’t expect Joshua Orsini to speak to her cameo. She quietly slipped out of the room as soon as the seal was broken.
Josh looked over to have a word with Riley, but she had disappeared. As he shuffled out the door, Nat Blake took his arm and turned him around. He found himself in front of Morgana McDonald, Kelly Dela Fuente and Gomer Nassau.
“This the guy I was telling you about,” Nat Blake said as he presented Josh to the three. “Josh Orsini.”
They exchanged pleasantries and shook hands. “Gomer, I’ll see you at the bar in ten?” Gomer waved and nodded as he walked off, smiling.
After the last of the people in the room moved beyond earshot, Blake gave Josh a heavy slap on the back and kept his hand there as they walked slowly down the hall.
“Welcome to the beautiful world of Contracts, Hotshot. Isn’t this a fucking thrill? I knew I could count on you. Earning Morgana McDonald’s respect was your golden ticket — you got her, and every last bastard in that room sucking your cock. You go have some fun, get some rest — do whatever it is you have to do to be on top of your game tomorrow. The guys in New York will work until dawn on the additional preps. You’ll get the briefing at First Light. This is what life will be like, Josh. See you bright and early for the Board show.” Nathaniel Blake patted him on the back and sauntered off to talk to one of the military men.
Josh walked away briskly towards the exit. As soon as he stepped into the street, he began to run, welcoming the slap of the cool dusk air in his face. He ran as fast as his feet would carry him.