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Chapter 13: Dinner of the Reckoning

The place mats were set with flatware forged from alloyed rhodium under a ceiling covered with two million crystals. The tindle fruit nutrient water came in a goblet lined with edible gold. The first three rounds of the 32-course meal were cooked in an ultrasound to achieve an exact texture and served with an aromatic garnish of burnt truefoy to sweeten the flavor. The gastro-sensory meal, I’m told, was designed to offer a precise emotional journey, starting with agitation, spinning us through reflection, and ultimately delivering us to a state of enlightenment. I’m not sure which stage we’re at right now, but sitting here, each side waiting for the other to speak first, I’d call this round boredom.

This particular restaurant was selected to host the event because it sits an equal distance between the Tearcatcher and the Rivegan estates, and because, on the 103rd floor, security poses less of a problem. I stare at the drone gilding past the window, the memory of the last one I encountered still poisoning my temporal lobe. This drone was programmed to watch over us, not obliterate every base pair in our genomes, but still, the sight of it makes me uneasy.

“That eighth gen with the blue eyes, he’s been staring this way since he arrived,” Desiree whispers.

“Is that right?” I coolly respond. Seeing Greymore, it’s hard to keep my neurotransmitters on ice, but this is no reunion. A secret meeting was brokered to keep our two families from an all-out war, and I was selected for the delegation. If I so much as look in Greymore’s direction, the whole room could see right through me, and I’ll be back where I started – naked in front of the crowd. Fate keeps sticking us together in the darkest of rooms, ones that end up burned to ashes or steeped in blood. Each time we’re separated, it feels like I’m being pulled in two. But a cell can only divide so many times before the damage is irreversible.

“He’s quite fetching, too bad he’s a Rivegan,” Desiree says, uncrossing and crossing her perfect legs. I wonder if Greymore finds her pleasing. Why wouldn’t he? Her hair has the just the right elasticity to it and she’s stayed within 99.73% of the body template created for her generation, making her shape the optimal target for those particular nerve impulses that interpret the human body for our brains. Her pheromones are probably overpowering Greymore’s hypothalamus, contaminating all his senses. He’s probably tasting her in every bite of his food and imagining touching that cashmere skin of hers.

“Tessa, did you hear a word I said?” Desiree asks.

“What?” I mutter, scanning the room and picking out the quickest route back to any conversation involving Desiree. “Oh, sorry, I was just trying to figure out what shade of lip tint that girl is wearing,”

“Echo speak, it looks like someone poured drug store makeup over her face and she forgot to say ‘when,’ but subject her older brother I speak. You think he’s staring at me or Darien?”

“Oh, at you, with certainty,” I reply, pulling the imaginary fork from her throat. “You look stunning tonight.”

She beams, twirling her fingers through her hair. “I really do, don’t I?”

On the other side of Desiree, a fork scrapes across a plate, refocusing the attention in the room back to Darien, where it rightfully belongs. “Greymore, your sister tells me you’re quite a skilled painter,” she says, wearing a mask of innocence that appears frighteningly genuine. “Would you like to paint me sometime?”

My gaze finally rises to meet Greymore’s. He’s the one person in the room who can see people for who they truly are, and he knows what Darien did to me the last time we attended a social event together. With a few well-chosen words, Greymore could cut her down, humiliating Darien in front of all our peers, but would he do that for me? Just the thought of it makes me smile.

“In the nude, I mean,” Darien adds, trying to make the answer easier for him.

“It would be a pleasure,” Greymore says, smiling half-heartedly.

It would be a pleasure? My fists tighten. I gag, spitting a mouthful of course number three into my napkin.

“You’ll have to excuse my sister, she has a big heart, and the stomach to match,” Darien says. “Remember, Tessa, brain cells come and go, but fat cells are forever.”

Darien’s words can’t pierce me anymore, not after I’ve been stuck so many times. It’s Greymore that troubles me. I’m unable to read him. This must be the face of Greymore the negotiator. Is he angry with me? Does he blame me for Summer’s death? Deep breaths, Tessa, this isn’t about you and Greymore. Our two family are on the brink of war. He’s just trying to keep things agreeable, probably.

“I’m pleased we can all dine here together in the spirit of a peaceful resolution,” announces Dreama, the 13-year old CEO of Rivegan manor, her piercing gaze ticking across the table from one Tearcatcher face to the next. Greymore told me she puts too much emphasis on her accented syllables when she speaks, because as a child, the other G-10s convinced her she spoke with a lisp, which, of course, she did not. “Anger wells among the first drafts. Their people are sick, and they demand answers, particularly this Detective Fallkirk.”

“Agreed, just give him the name of the dealer to whom our genes were leaked and the matter can be put to rest,” Atherton says, ushering in the next round of food with the nod of his head. An army of waiters swap in course number four, an edible paper made from Anjou-grown quinoa and printed with ink made of root vegetables. When the meal is over, a representative from each of our families will watch carefully as the staff irradiates the room and every utensil in it until there’s no trace of DNA remaining in the restaurant.

“The Rivegans didn’t take your genes,” Dreama insists, taking a long slow draw form her cup to emphasize her resolve. The sound pulses funneling through the room were designed to promote understanding and harmony. Maybe they should crank up the intensity a little.

“We have evidence, a memory scan from a scavenger named Alexander Pharaoh. Your brother, Greymore, stole a vial of our blood and leaked it on the black market to devalue the price of our genes, raising the value of your own by comparison.”

“I’ve seen this memory scan, and I’ve seen one from Greymore himself. He committed no crime against your house. He came to the aid of one of your sisters and then destroyed her blood sample. You should cast your praise at him, not your bombs.”

“So tell us,” Atherton says, fixing a target on Greymore with his eyes. “The Tearcatcher whom you so graciously rescued, is she seated here at this table?”

Why does Greymore appear so nervous? The electricity behind his eyes has gone, dimming the blue of his irises and draining the blood from his face. Why does he hesitate to answer? Revealing our relationship destroys us both, and we still wouldn’t know how the genes were leaked. Greymore shifts in his seat, studying the faces on the other side of the table, before finally shaking his head.

Atherton picks at the quinoa paper with his fork. “Then would you at least provide us with a description?”

“She had two arms and two legs. Skin upon her bones, hair atop her head. She was quite lovely, actually. Her eyes like a prison from which there is no escape.”

“Thank you, that’s most helpful.” Atherton nods at the maître d’, cuing the next course of the meal. “Perhaps you’re willing to look at some images from our family profiles?”

“Why?” Greymore asks, unable to conceal the micro-tremors in his voice and eyes. “She committed no crime.”

“I’ll be the one to judge whether a crime has been committed.”

“And you’ll be the jury, and the executioner as well, I’m sure,” Greymore says, mopping the sweat from his brow with the sleeve of his hand-stitched suit.

“Enough, this line of inquiry gets us nowhere,” Dreama interrupts, blinking for the first time since she sat down. She has an extra fold at the corner of her eyes I just now noticed. An alteration to the HTRT32 gene. It must be where she hides the doubt, because I see none on the rest of her face. “If you’re so eager to know the identity of this mystery woman, why not examine all your family biosensors on the night in question?”

Atherton slides his gaze to Conrad, who dabs his mouth with a napkin, before saying, “There was a security breach. All the data from our biosensors was lost.”

“That appears to be a conflict within your own house,” Dreama says. “We’ve convened here to discuss the one that affects us both. My sister, Summer Rivegan, one of my own generation, was murdered in the city yesterday. It was my impression we were here to discuss reparations, lest further blood be shed.”

“The streets will turn red with blood, ours, yours, the first drafts, until we find out where the leak came from,” Atherton says.

“Then you should search within your own walls, because that’s where it begins and ends. You know this already, I’m certain of it, but still you steer us all to war, because war serves your brand.”

“My brand?”

“Yes, you’ve antagonized the Rivegans ever since you took control, in the media, and in every line of business in which our families compete. It only stands to reason you would seize any opportunity to advance a strategy which can only end in violence. You rose to power on promises of destroying my family, now you intend to deliver.”

Every gaze in the room swivels, landing on Greymore, who leans over the table smothering his ears with his hands. “Does no one else hear that?” he asks, glancing around the room.

“Hear what?” Dreama replies.

“Excuse my disruption,” Greymore says, rising from his chair and shuffling out of the room through the server’s entrance.

“How very odd,” Desiree whispers to me. “I should go do a status check on him.” She follows Greymore to the door, expertly working her gluteal muscles around the fabric of her sequined gown, drawing the attention of every XY on the other side of the table as she leaves. It’s not their fault really. The pathways that control desire in the male brain are deeply rooted in a subcortical reward system programmed to objectify the human form according to a specific set of genetic instructions. Desiree is like candy to their orbitofrontal cortex. It’s no mystery why she was selected as an ambassador.

The negotiation continues without Greymore at the table. Accusations are met with denials. Financial concessions are offered, but none that satisfy either party. After a few more minutes, I tune it all out, until it’s white noise.

There’s something oddly familiar about the meeting, like I’ve tasted every course of this meal and listened to every line of conversation before. It feels like I’m watching the dinner unfold from outside my body. There’s a dull ache in my forehead, as if my skull is tightening around my brain. Splashes of crimson dot my plate. I wipe my nose, and when I pull the napkin away, it’s stained with blood. I glance over at Darien and Atherton; blood drips from their noses, too. Across the table, the Rivegans appear unaffected.

I don’t know whether I should stand or sit. The only thing I can feel is my hands on… whatever it is they’re clutching. A high-pitched tone squeals in my ear. Dreama is still talking, as if nothing apart from the ordinary were happening, but her voice grows slower and softer, until I hear nothing at all.

Desiree walks out of the server’s entrance, teetering from side to side, then dropping to the floor. Her legs shake furiously. I rush over to Desiree, but the electrical storm at the back of my brain throws off my balance, directing me in a circle, until I’m back at the table, where I started. I try to tell her something reassuring, but the sound fails to escape my mouth. A second later, her legs have gone still, and a ghastly three-pound cocktail of myelin and blood spills from her ear.

In the seat closest to her, Westfall smacks his hands against his temples and appears to scream, but still I hear nothing. He crashes to the floor, dragging the tablecloth with him. A web of veins colors his face and neck blue. The blood vessels in his eyes break. Skull fragments and nerve fibers explode from his ear, spotting my plate with scraps of grey matter. In the same corner, Poythress, the driver, falls to his knees, the spongy membranes that swaddle his brain running down the side of his neck.

Conrad removes the particle accelerator gun from his holster. Like a reflex, the Rivegan bodyguards do the same, herding Dreama and the rest of her delegation, unharmed, to the exit. Conrad aims the barrel of his gun at Desiree, firing into the circles on the wall just behind her. Static barks in my ear. The sound comes squealing back, and the pressure in my skull loosens. I finally grasp what’s happening: the building’s been hacked, turning the restaurant’s acoustic system into a sonic weapon meant to flood our brains with neural activity of deadly synchronicity.

I touch Desiree’s neck, but feel no pulse. Conrad grabs my arm and drags me out of the restaurant, his other hand planted on Atherton’s shoulder, guiding him to the elevators. Conrad thrusts his gun at all four corners of the elevator, making sure the car is empty before pushing us inside. Two hulking bodyguards wedge their way in beside us, and the door slides shut. A pair of incendiary flashes light up the elevator, accompanied a couple of loud pops. The two bodyguards crumple to the floor, leaving red stains over the door in the spaces their hearts occupied.

I cast over my shoulder and see nothing but two slits carved like narrow eyes in the back of the elevator, but Conrad must see something more. He swings both hands out, wrestling with the air. A current of lightning shoots through the gap between his hands, until the silhouette of an assailant gripping a pistol bleeds into the foreground. Conrad tugs at the neck of the shadow, ripping a chameleon suit made of chromatophore fibers from the tiny body. The assailant tears off his hood, revealing his wide-set eyes and broad neck. It’s Phoenix.

The door pings open, flinging Conrad and Phoenix out of into the lobby. I stay in the elevator, waiting for the screams of the first drafts to quiet. Atherton shrinks into the corner, covering his face. All his posturing is only skin-deep. Strip away the palace walls, and he’s just a scared little boy cowering in the dark.

I peek out into the lobby and see Phoenix marching at us. I jab the elevator button and watch the doors close, but Phoenix peels them open again. Looks like he finally got that tattoo. L – I – F – E inked on his hand, one letter per finger on four of his left-hand digits. In the other hand, he holds a plasma knife, D – E – A – T – H marked on the fingers curled around the handle. “You’re in my way,” he says.

“Listen to me, you kill the Tearcatcher CEO and you hang a curse on both our families that won’t be undone. We can still negotiate a peace.”

“Summer was the negotiator, and now she wears a skeleton’s face. This is how I negotiate,” Phoenix says, waving the hot pinch in front of my neck. “Step aside, or I settle the debt with both of you.”

I take two steps back, shielding Atherton in the corner.

“Your heart is so very steadfast,” Phoenix says. “I wonder how it will appear when I pull it through your rib cage and hold it in front of those peculiar eyes of yours.”

Conrad’s arm hooks around Phoenix’s neck, pulling him back into the lobby. Phoenix slides his fingers up between his neck and Conrad’s elbow, throwing the man of nearly twice his own mass clean over his shoulder as he steps backwards. Conrad sweeps his legs out from beneath him, grabbing the pinch and jamming the blade into the side of Phoenix’s face.

Phoenix staggers to his feet and bursts through the doors, onto the street, leaving a tributary of blood across the lobby floor.

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