Pandita frowned a bit, obviously perplexed by how much less charming and well-spoken Tom was now, but she beckoned with a finger for her assistant to snap a photo of his face. As she moved on to other trainees, Wyatt turned on Tom. “You talked! You’re not supposed to talk.”
“Wyatt, if neither of us had talked, she would’ve thought that there was something very wrong with us.”
“Yes!” She gave an eager nod. “But you know what she wouldn’t have been? Offended.”
Confused, Tom began to hover by a distant window, trying to be inconspicuous, imitating the way Wyatt hovered by an opposite window, also trying to be inconspicuous.
Then Vik appeared at his shoulder. “Why are you skulking here? You look like you’re plotting something.”
“I’m not plotting or skulking. I’m taking Wyatt’s advice and lying low.”
Vik’s eyes shot wide with horror. He grabbed Tom’s shoulders. “By God, Doctor, what are you doing?”
Tom’s brow furrowed. “I told you—”
“You are taking advice about how to deal with people from Wyatt Enslow.”
“But I just—”
“Let me rephrase: you are taking advice about how to deal with people from Wyatt Enslow.” Then Vik waited, letting that sink in this time.
It hit Tom. “Oh no, what am I doing? It’s like I want to sabotage myself.”
Vik nodded. “Never fear, Gormless Cretin. Now I am here.”
“That doesn’t sound promising, man.”
Vik cuffed the back of his head. “You need to learn the fine art of schmoozing. Just repeat after me: ‘I agree.’”
Tom pressed his lips together. Vik cleared his throat.
“I agree,” Tom grumbled.
“Right you are,” Vik said, then waited for Tom to say it.
“Right you are.”
“You stagger me with your knowledge.”
“Come on,” Tom said. When Vik raised his eyebrows, he said, “Fine, you stagger me with your knowledge.”
“Okay, now let’s give some context for these statements. Hmm. I say, ‘Vikram Ashwan is ten times the gamer Tom Raines is.’ You say . . .” Vik raised his eyebrows.
“Vikram Ashwan is ten times the gamer Tom Raines is . . . in his own sad, delusional mind.”
“Young Thomas, that is not what you are supposed to say. Listen to your Doctor: Vikram Ashwan is a hundred times the gamer Tom Raines is.”
“A hundred now?” Tom exclaimed. Then Vik lightly whapped the back of his head, so he gave a sarcastic smile. “Right you are, Doctor.”
Vik made him practice a few more times. Tom agreed that Vik was smarter than him, which was easy enough because Vik was. He agreed that Vik was far better looking, which Tom suspected was true, but he’d never have said it. Then he agreed that Vik could beat him in a sword duel, which Tom believed to be a blatant falsehood, but he agreed anyway, and even added that Vik staggered him with his knowledge of swordsmanship. In that way, he passed Vik’s test, and Vik deemed him ready to apply his newfound sucking-up skill in real life.
Vik led him toward a pretty female executive sipping champagne by the window. Tom’s neural processor said her name was Alana Lawrence. Vik was sure Tom would find it easier sucking up to a gorgeous woman, and Tom thought that was a fantastic idea.
“Now,” Vik warned him, “you know how if spies get caught in foreign countries, governments always disavow knowledge of them so they don’t face any diplomatic consequences for their actions?”
“Yeah,” Tom said, guessing it. “So if I mess up . . .”
“We only met today and I disavow all prior knowledge of your actions. I didn’t even notice you were here. In fact, I don’t know who you are. Who are you? I don’t know, Tom. I don’t know.”
“Gotcha.” He had this.
Vik gave him a thumbs-up, then he sidled up to the executive. He cleared his throat to draw her attention, then boomed, “Fine factories you have there, madam.”
Tom did a double take. Vik was speaking in a slightly strange, jocular tone, like someone pretending to be an old English baron.
She turned languidly and surveyed Vik over her champagne glass. “Why, thank you. I take it you know my name already. And yours is?”
“Vikram Ashwan. A pleasure to make your acquaintance.” He shook her hand, still speaking in that strange, lofty way. All he needed was a monocle.
Alana turned her expectant gaze on Tom.
“Thomas Raines.” He offered a hand.
“Oh.” Her limp hand shook his. “I’ve heard some very interesting things about you.”
Vik caught his eye and gave a subtle nod, reminding him of the phrases he’d learned.
Tom turned to her and said, “You stagger me with your knowledge.”
Alana’s forehead wrinkled. Vik rapped on the window to draw her attention away from Tom, and they got to talking about the massive factories stretching to the horizon below them and the way Epicenter was one of the few companies that still used human labor in factories. Tom chimed in occasionally with “I agree” and “Right you are.”
And then Alana said something to Vik that grabbed his attention, with a sudden, electric-sharp focus.
“. . . so cost-effective because we rely entirely on convict labor.”
“Convicts, eh?” Vik said. “Ah, putting ruffians to fine use.”
“Yes, we actually get paid by various governments to keep them. You see, you hire labor, and they have expectations, they agitate. You use convicts, and you can pretty much dictate the terms of their work to them, not to mention the local workers revise their salary expectations quite a bit. If we need a work order completed in thirty-six hours, convicts will complete it in thirty-six hours with no whining. They know better than to complain.” And sudddenly, her smile no longer looked so pretty to Tom.
He began thinking of Neil, Neil getting dragged off, clapped in prison. “But,” he said, “what happens when their sentences are up?”
Alana tittered, enjoying her rapt audience. “Let’s just say, once we’ve trained them for their jobs, we try to get a good return on that investment. There are always reasons to extend a prison sentence. It’s most cost-effective to maintain at least a ninety-percent occupancy rate, so we have to be creative.” She sipped her champagne.
Tom felt the blood buzzing up in his head, and he wasn’t even aware of Vik trying to catch his eye, frantically shaking his head. “So they’re your slaves.”
She lowered her glass. “Slaves? They’re criminals. Society doesn’t need people like them. We’re doing the world a favor, keeping them here.”
Tom gazed at the executive, champagne in her hand, a massive slave labor camp below her, and his thoughts were back on his dad, rage scorching him. Neil had brawled with those cops in the train station and gotten himself a month in jail. Epicenter could’ve rented him. He could’ve been flown over here and gotten his sentence extended and extended, and Tom never would’ve seen him again.
“You know what I think would be doing the world a favor?” Tom said to her, anger beating under his skin. “If you threw a big party in here, invited over everyone else who thinks there’s something okay with what you’re doing, and just blew yourselves up together. That is my idea of doing the world a favor.”
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