Is love fate, a choice, or just a chemical reaction?
|Tram swallowed and shook Mr. Thronburg's hand. "Welcome to Cupid, Inc. Please, have a seat at the table. We're so gratified to meet you, Mr. Tram Fong."
He hadn't really believed he'd be allowed an import license from Sanctuary. All anyone knew of the planet was what its state-run media chose to share, tales of a virtual Eden. The single-system colony was supposed to be as fabulously wealthy as it was secretive. For Tram to be here, in front of one of its state-run corporation's vice presidents, would have been a windfall for any businessman. For an undercover journalist, it was a godsend. But Mr. Fong had not come entirely under false pretenses: the Minister of Health had authorized him to negotiate millions of credits worth of pharmaceuticals.
Mr. Fong smiled and placed himself in one of the faux-leather seats. Rare ivies with lavender blooms caressed the light fixtures, and naked marble guardians, male and female, were on each side of the entrance. The floors and columns were polished marble, and the walls were covered with shimmering digital landscapes. The decor was impressive, and Fong wasn't easily impressed. "I'm glad to be here. Your electronics are respected, but your bio-medical technology is legendary. We will save many lives today back at home. For I am sure we will come to an agreement."
Kenneth Thronburg, vice president of sales within the largest corporation within the sector, offered a knowing smile. "We will, of course! One profitable for both of us. But first, can I offer you something, perhaps a drink?"
"Of course," Tram returned, not wanting to be rude. "Your cider is one of my favorites."
Mr. Thronburg nodded, and a young woman entered, bearing a tray with three drinks. Tram reached for one, eyeing the pair over his glass. Kenneth's face was familiar: he'd studied what little was available of Cupid, and the VP had figured prominently in what was available. Brilliant, shrewd, charismatic, ruthless: Thronburg was known among businessfolk and diplomats alike as a master manipulator. The young lady was another matter: a beauty with chestnut hair, dark intelligent eyes, and a businesswoman's red skirt and cream blouse.
Tram took a sip of his cider: a subtle blend of sweetness and sour that bit his throat and warmed his belly. But when he raised his eyes again, he found the young lady poring into his own over her own drink. She licked her lips at the taste, and Tram felt something stirring in his chest. He had never been a believer in love at first sight, but something about her slightly parted lips, her widened pupils, and her confident grin touched something within him and stopped his heart.
Her voice was resonant and musical, more lovely than her face if that was possible. "Do you like it, Mr. Fong? It's our most closely guarded recipe."
Tram was unable to keep a tremor from his voice. "It's exquisite. Mrs... ?"
Her smile was anything but coy. "Miss Chang. But you can me Lisa."
A small part of Tram's mind was screaming that something was wrong, that he had never been the kind to give his heart away in a moment, that the thoughts moving within him were by themselves a betrayal of Maria, his girlfriend of two years. Was it her face, her voice? Was it something in the drink? Tram suddenly feared he should leave. He took another sip.
Mr. Thronburg swished the liquid within his own glass but did not drink. "Are you ready to discuss our arrangement?"
Tram nodded, suddenly intent on Thronburg. "I would like nothing more."
That wasn't quite true, of course, Tram thought as he felt himself match Lisa's smoldering glare. But it would do.
Tram Fong had paid his dues in his father's small business before finding his vocation as a staff writer for Matters of Import. He was no stranger to the art of negotiation. It was like a fencing match, the process of learning what could be learned of one's adversary without giving up one's own commitments: a feint here, a jab there, followed by a lunge or a quick evasion. But the initial stages were slower-paced niceties, almost pleasant. This time was different. He spoke well, he thought, but he could not be sure. He could not even remember what was said. He could remember a pixie face, smoldering eyes, a tight blouse, and Kenneth's expression brimming with mirth, and patience. He let Miss Chang carry most of the conversation: he had been content to wait. But she: she struck at the heart of him.
When Tram retired to his apartment, Lisa Chang's name, her eyes, and her perfume haunted his thoughts. The decadence of his dormitory, decorated to rival even the conference room where he had first met her, failed to draw his attention. He lay in silence staring at the ceiling in confusion and silent emotional agony, wondering what had gone wrong with him, when the door opened to reveal Miss Chang's silhouette. Tram's breath caught, but she said nothing. She only closed the door and let her dress fall to the floor. Tram sat up. "Lisa," he said.
Lisa laughed, her voice like soft chimes, as she unbuttoned his shirt. Tram reached for her, and she for him. Like the day's conversation, the night passed in a blur, a collage of moments too precious and intense to be organized into memories a sober mind could decode. But while she had come without a word, she left with a promise, "I'll see you in the morning, Mr. Fong."
The negotiations lasted from Monday to Friday, and each day ended with Lisa coming to meet him, and each night was spent in new pleasures. The second night she welcomed him to the Opera, with tickets courtesy of Mr. Thronburg. On the third, Tram and Lisa strolled through Sanctuary's foremost museum of Natural Art, holding hands and gasping or laughing at the masterwork of visual artists. On the fourth night, the couple sampled fine seafood and aged steak to the accompaniment of violins, and they talked of philosophy and beauty. On the fifth day, Mr. Fong woke up in a cold sweat: being wined and dined was supposed to be a part of the game, but Lisa and the beauty of Sanctuary had touched something in him he didn't yet understand. He was supposed to leave for home this evening: today would be Mr. Thronburg's final pitch. No, he had to be honest: it would be Lisa Chang's final pitch, and he feared he no longer had the willpower to deny her anything.
Mr. Fong was a professional, he reminded himself as he pulled on his suit. Making memories was a part of what drew him to journalism. This trip to Sanctuary would be full of memory, full of nostalgia, but there would be other trips, other memories. He was no adolescent, to be led by around by the nose - or any other part of his anatomy! Downtown Sanctuary outshone its reputation, yes, and he would write about that. But he would also bring home a shipment of lifesaving drugs at a reasonable price, and that was what he was here for. Not Miss Chang, he lied to himself.
"Good Morning, Mr. Fong," Lisa greeted him with a smile.
Tram nodded. "It's good to see you again. Shall we discuss a price?"
Lisa looked over her shoulder to Mr. Thronburg, and for the first time the man's grin was hard, almost predatory.
"You'll bring 5000 units to your government, at the price of five million credits. A bargain, if I might say so. To start."
Tram cocked his head. "To start?"
"Would you like some more cider, Mr. Fong?"
Tram smiled. "Not today. I almost think it went to my head."
Mr. Thronburg met Lisa's eyes. "Yes, I think you could say that."
Lisa laughed in response, but her voice was thin and she turned her head down. She sounded nervous. "That goes for both of us. I never expected it to work so well, not really."
The vice president placed his hand on her shoulder. "You did well, my dear, but I think you should put more trust in our guest."
Tram's eyes widened, and his heart began to race. "What did you do to me? What did you put in that cider?"
Lisa took a deep breath. "We're offering you a very good deal on medicine today, Mr. Fong. Between the cancer preventatives, the heart treatments, and the anti-aging serum, it's practically a steal. That's why you're going to recommend your government expand its investments. We have a few ideas about what you can bring back next. Our long-term relationship is about to become very lucrative. Oh, and you can make sure in your column to say nice things about us and our government. For example, there have been nasty rumors about Sanctuary using mind-control chemicals to pacify its people. I suspect you'll be able to help put those to rest."
Mr. Fong's heart raced faster, and he wrung his hands involuntarily. He raised his voice in defiance, ending in almost a shout. "Why in the galaxy would I do that? Do you think you can keep me here if I disagree? Or do you think I will just do anything Miss Chang asks? As if your cider could make me fall in love with her!"
Mr. Thronburg shook his head, almost in sadness. "No, you won't simply do anything you're asked. As I said, we don't engage in anything as crude as mind control: we persuade. But, with the help of a few chemicals, I very well did persuade you to fall in love with Miss Chang. And she, who has long been a fan of your writing, volunteered to drink from the same cup as you have. Do you think love is any less real for you or for her just because you came to it quickly, or just because you had some chemical encouragement?
"I tell you this because you need to know I'm offering you the truth: knowing exactly what I've done doesn't mean it won't work. You're right, of course, that you do have a choice. I cannot keep you here, and I cannot make you do anything you don't want to. But here is the choice you're going to make: you're going to leave here and do as I ask. Because if you do, only if you do, you can come back. And Miss Chang would love to see you when you do. Isn't that right, my dear?"
Lisa met Tram's eyes and held them with her own. "Oh, by God, yes."
And Tram knew, despite the sinking feeling of guilt at how it would hurt Maria, despite the frustration, anger, and humiliation of being used, that Lisa was right.