A Thing of Beauty
by Dr. Charles E. Gannon
"The children have become an unacceptably dangerous liability. Don't you agree,
"Perhaps, Ms. Hoon. But how would you propose to resolve the problem?"
"Director, it is generally company policy to . . . liquidate assets whose valuations are
subpar and declining."
Elnessa Clare managed not to fumble the wet, sloppy clay she was adding to the frieze,
despite being triply stunned by the calm exchange between her corporate patrons. The first of the
three shocks was her immediate reaction to the topic: liquidate the children? My children? Well,
they're not mine--not anymore--but, just last year, they would have been mine, when I was still
the transitional foster parent for company orphans. How could anyone--even these bloodless
suits--talk about "liquidating the children?"
The second shock was that these two bloodless suits were discussing this while Elnessa
was in the room and only twenty feet away, at that. But then again, why be surprised? Their
company, the Indi Group, was simply an extension of the megacorporate giant, CoDevCo, and
evinced all its parent's tendencies toward callousness and exploitation. It also possessed the same
canny ability to generate profits, often by ruthlessly factoring human losses into their
spreadsheets just like any other actuarial number
The third shock was that Elnessa could hear Simovic and Hoon at all, let alone make out
the words. Because of the xenovirus which had hit her shortly after arriving on Kitts--officially,
Epsilon Indi 2 K--Elnessa had suffered losses in mobility and sensory acuity. But every once in a
while, she experienced an equally troublesome inversion of these handicaps: unprecedented
(albeit transient) sensory amplification. Six months ago, she had had to endure a hyperactive set
of tastebuds. All but the blandest of foods had made her retch. And now, over the past four days,
her steady hearing loss had abruptly reversed, particularly in the higher ranges. Elnessa had
acquired a new-found empathy for dogs, and could now pick out conversations from
uncommonly far-off, whereas only a week ago, she had been trying to learn lip-reading.
She realized she had stopped working; had, in fact, frozen motionless. And Simovic and
Hoon had fallen silent, were possibly watching her, wondering if she had--impossibly--heard
them. Elnessa raised her hand haltingly, then paused again, hefting the clay. Then she shook her
head, plopped it back, and began rolling it to work the water out. Meanwhile, she continued to
listen carefully, hoping they had believed her depiction of "distracted aesthetic uncertainty."
Simovic's voice resumed a beat later. "So, Ms. Hoon, do you have any suggestions for
the most profitable method of divesting ourselves of these young--er, high-risk commodities?"
"Director, at some point, the attempt to find a profitable method of divestiture can itself
become a prime example of the law of diminishing returns. Sometimes a commodity becomes so
valueless that the simplest and least costly method of liquidating it is best."
Elnessa reminded herself to keep breathing. The good news was that Simovic and Hoon
had believed her performance as "the Oblivious Artist," contemplating the frieze before her. The
bad news was that the discussion at hand had already moved from "should we get rid of the
children?" to "how do we go about doing so?"
Simovic carried the inquiry further. "So we just abandon the asset in place?"
"Director, I would suggest junking the asset at a considerable distance from the main
colony, and even the outlying settlements. I suggest using an infrequently visited part of the
planet. No reason we should risk being seen and reported for disposing of unwanted material off-site."
Elnessa was now acclimated enough to the horrific conversation that she could actually
work and listen at the same time. She straightened, began layering in thin strips of micro-fiber
pseudoclay that would hold and provide a reflective receptacle for the back-lit acrylic inserts with
which she would finish the high-relief center panels of the mixed media frieze. With one eye on
Simovic's and Hoon's reflections in the inert monitor of her combination laser-level and grid-plotter, Elnessa smoothed and sculpted the materials while straining her ears after every word.
Simovic chuckled: the sound was more patronizing than mirthful. "Ms. Hoon, sometimes
the direct approach to seemingly low-value divestiture is not the best alternative--particularly if
one has had the opportunity to plan in advance."
Hoon's shoulders squared defiantly. "What advanced planning are you referring to, sir?"
"Well, in fairness, it's nothing that you could have been aware of. Suffice it to say that
with the appearance of this--ah, unregistered vessel--in main orbit, the asset in question may
not be wholly valueless."
Hoon sounded skeptical. "And just why would a bunch of grey-world orphans be of
interest to--to whoever it is that's hovering just outside Kitts's own orbital track?"
Elnessa watched Simovic lean far back in his absurdly over-sized chair and steeple his
fingers. His smile had mutated from 'smug' through 'shrewd' and into 'predatory.' "Come now,
Ms. Hoon; surely you can think of at least a dozen reasons why unrecorded corporate wards
would be items of interest to any number of parties."
Hoon's defiant frown slowly evolved into a smile--at about the same pace that Elnessa
felt her blood turn into ice. People, particularly kids, who were "unrecorded"--who lacked birth
certificates and national identicodes--were rare, and therefore inherently valuable, black market
commodities. And there wasn't a single use for such commodities that was anything less than
hideously illegal and immoral.
"And why," Hoon asked in what sounded like a purr, "are you so sure that our mysterious
visitors will be interested in such a trade good?"
"That," Simovic answered with a self-satisfied sigh, as expansive and deep as had he just
finished a very filling meal, "will become obvious within the next twenty-four hours."
Elnessa blinked and doubled the speed at which she was putting the finishing touches on
the clay components surrounding the central space she had left open for what she had silently
labeled The Brazen City. She had to complete the frieze soon, and in particular, she had to finish
on time today, because she needed to make an early visit to her dead-drop site.
She had to make sure that her contact Reuben came to debrief her. As early as possible.