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[2008: MAY-JUN] A Free Lunch


Estantia
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A Free Lunch

At the formal dinner for the 162nd annual conference of the Adam Liberens Alliance (ALA) Miss Alicia Clementine was trying not to yawn.

It was one of the few times where the buyers and managers were forced to make small talk to their sponsors, their future sponsors, the bosses, their family, their boss and goodness knew who else. She smiled, thanked them for their compliments and internally loathed the complete fabrication of pleasantries over the stinking undercurrents.

That was business for you though, saying one thing, thinking another and watching someone else entirely. Just look at this dinner, just an informal chat with old friends. It was by no means an opportunity to scout out the potential of rivals, complete lucrative deals that had been arranged the previous year, to plan even more lucrative deals for the next year oh-and-by-the-way everyone knows how very generous the Plal organisation were to host it this year don’t they...?

Alicia didn’t entirely like the Plal organisation, to be completely fair she didn’t like any of them much, including her won, but the people in some of them made it all bearable. Their group of four may have all come from different companies but their friendship had formed an unofficial alliance between them to make sure none fell. The arrangement benefited everyone, and so it wasn’t surprising when they all ended up in a corner to chat.

“Girls, you’ll want to steer clear of the group from Andromeda Inc this year,” Nessa warned them, “Especially you Julie, they’ve been eyeing you all evening.”

“I can handle myself and you know it,” Julie, aka Juliet of a million middle names replied with dignity, “besides, as a woman of noble birth I need to be thinking constantly of my chastity.” She flicked her brown hair and posed for a moment before the entire group burst into giggles.

“See the guys from Eastern Galaxy?” Alicia asked, “I’ve got a bad feeling about the ‘brothers’ that are talking with them.”

“I’ll check it out,” Nessa said with a frown, beautiful black eyes and bronze skin marking her as Indian so strongly that people rarely realised she was an empathic half-Betazoid. “We all know your instinct’s better than my gifts half the time.”

“I’m not that good,” Alicia protested, spreading her palms in defence, “just because I picked up on the signs that Plal were heading up in the stockmarket...”

“...and that as a result all of our companies made twice their normal profits for the quarter,” the fourth member of their group added, strict black hair covering her pointed ears, though no-one would miss the fact T’Plak was Vulcan. “Not forgetting the time when you continually pressured me to get out of that deal with the people from Argelian II despite the logical sense.”

“Please T’Plak, it was obvious they weren’t attached to a respectable company,”

Alicia said with a roll of her eyes, “What about in general? It feels horrible this year.”

“I have noticed that there seems to be an overwhelming sway towards generosity, but that their words are still formal.”

“I’m with you there, it stinks of sugar so much that I can’t feel what’s going on underneath, that worries me,” Nessa added with a worried bite of her lip before Juliet tapped her cheek with the fan she habitually carried, causing the lip-biting to vanish.

“I’d guess people want to build up favours,” Juliet stated, curling a dark strand of hair round her finger, “That means no-one knows what’s going to happen and are being extra-careful to make as many people like them as possible. Even Kaeli are talking to the Manoe.”

“Something big’s coming then,” Alicia said thoughtfully, “Something big that no-one knows who’s going to come out on top of.” Alicia thought for a few more moments as the others watched, almost like a crew waiting for orders from their Captain.

“Nessa? Go flirt.”

“My pleasure, those brothers do look rather good don’t they?” Nessa waved and bid goodbye with a laugh before she drifted off and let one of the darkly handsome men lead her to the table.

“Julie, I know you don’t like using your civilised upbringing but...”

The woman’s fan snapped shut, “The top notch? Easy as.” Juliet bid them goodbye and sailed towards the top of the table with the Plal family, every inch the cultured lady.

“T’Plak, see which way the accountants are looking?”

“I take that post every other year, why would it change?” The blonde human grinned widely at this, deciding to tease her Vulcan friend.

“We can’t help it if you’re the only one who understands them...”

“It’s really not that hard. Where will you be?”

Alicia thought for a moment, “I think I’ll sit with the risk-takers, I want to see who might go bust.”

There was a nod before T’Plak turned, striding towards a group she was quietly welcomed into, the slight smiles and nods acknowledging her as one of their own.

Alicia grinned wolfishly before she walked forwards and was absorbed into the crowd.

-----

As soon as the door chime for her quarters woke her Alicia was wide awake, a quick glance around the darkened room telling her it was 02:03 and none of her things had been moved.

Another chime led her to stand, wrapping a kimono-like dressing gown round her before turning the light on and moving to the door. “Who’s there?”

“Julie said if you don’t let me in she won’t give you any chocolate digestives when you next visit her.”

Alicia burst out laughing and opened the door, recognising a uniquely Juliet-style threat when she heard one. She was, however, extremely surprised when she saw who was outside her door.

For one thing she had to look down at the man, that was a rarity. The second thing was that he bore an uncanny resemblance to a monkey. The third was that, although he looked relaxed, his eyes were darting up and down the corridor as sharply as her own at the party.

This person, in Juliet’s words, would probably be ‘completely disreputable’, the kind of person her friend would only touch with a bargepole, let alone tell to go and visit her friend at 2am. However those sharp eyes seemed to say he was as clever as Alicia, and part of her wanted to trust him.

Alicia always had trusted her instincts.

"I’m passing a message on from Nessa,” he said, hopping up onto the bed, “She says you were spot on as usual, those two brothers are Plax and Suvis Alcatet, owners of a small firm Plal assimilated a few months back apparently.”

“How was I ‘spot on’ then? And what does Juliet have to do with this?” She was rewarded with a wide grin from the man, “You’re good, not many people see when I don’t answer the question...”

“Thanks, but I’d rather you tell me what’s going on, I’ve had enough compliments today.” Alicia folded her arms and tapped her foot impatiently, “Not to mention why you were so eager to get inside and out of sight.”

“Again, sharp.” the man commented idly, “you may want to make some tea to keep you awake. Once I’ve explained we’ll need to get going in a hurry.”

That set off internal alarm bells, instinct telling her there was more to this than any conversation at dinner as she replicated two mugs of tea and handed one to him. “Explain,” she said firmly as she sat down on the bed next to him, “Who are you and why are you here?”

It was unfortunate security took that moment to open the door.

The weapons in their hands paused at the sight of the two sharing a cup of tea, silently questioning whether they had the right information or if they’d made a rather large mistake.

“Is there a problem sirs?” Alicia asked, raising a delicate eyebrow. (She made a mental note to thank T'Plak for teaching her that)

“Erm... We believe this man is an intruder ma’am, if you’ll just step aside...” He didn’t sound entirely convinced. The other gestured for her to move, but she simply took an unconcerned sip and looked to her visitor.

“Albert, would you think that a respectable businesswoman like myself would willingly let a completely unknown man into her room at this hour and make them both some tea without changing out of her dressing gown?”

“Not at all,” the monkey-like man replied immediately, accepting his position as ‘Albert’ instantly, “that would call her validity into question and.... and...” he paused to think, the image of a student remembering a lesson, “make them susceptible to any threats that may be directed at them or the company?”

Alicia smiled like a proud teacher, “Very good, you’re picking this up quite quickly.”

“Thank you miss,” the man said with a smile as Alicia turned back to the security men, eyes narrowed and tone sharp.

“Albert is my intern who I sent to verify a deal, not that it’s any of your business,” she hissed, watching them shift uncomfortably, “I’m sure this has just been a misunderstanding and I thank you for your concern over my safety but I am currently in my dressing gown and so would appreciate it if those people who I do not know would leave!”

“Yes ma’am, terribly sorry ma’am...” came the mumbled apology as they backed out the doorway and shut it politely, leaving the two to their tea for a moment before Alicia grinned at the man next to her.

“You owe me bigtime.”

“Not after what I have to tell you,” the man replied, “we’ll be even.”

“So I was right, this IS important,” Alicia muttered under her breath, “Explain yourself, name and purpose.”

“Name’s Cheeky. I was tracking the Alcatet’s for my own job,” the man said, resting his tea on his lap, “They’re trouble, they get commissions and from what I can tell they’ve hooked a wire into every guest bedroom in this complex.”

“What???”

“Relax,” he said calmly, “would I be telling you this if the one here was active?”

Alicia paused, that made a lot of sense. “But you don’t know who I am, why would you do that?”

“Because I checked the guest list and saw my sister was on it.”

There was a silence as Alicia thought it through. His sister? But for that to connect to her it needed to be one of her friends, but there was only one pure Terran in them and, quite frankly, she could not be related to this monkey...

“Unfortunately they’re monitoring all messages in and out so I had to come here myself to give Julie the warning.”

Alicia blinked and stared, trying to equate the fact that this... Cheeky... was Juliet’s brother and therefore of noble birth. She wasn’t entirely succeeding.

The man seemed to be trying not to laugh at her expression before continuing in a much more serious tone. “She told me to get the mikes off you three, tell you to cut your losses and get out of here.”

“I can say my intern brought me an urgent business message and get out of here, but you’d better have a good reason...”

“Why do you think I took the risk to personally come here and warn Julie?” he said quietly but fiercely, “I got into their files and found they’re in Plal’s pay, tomorrow morning they’re drugging the breakfast to knock you all out and take you hostage.”

The gravity of the situation hit her like a sledgehammer. He’d certainly been right when he said they’d be even. But there was no time for that now, they needed to move.

“The others?”

“Told, they’re all either going or gone,” the monkey-like Terran replied, accepting the other empty cup and taking them back to the replicator as Alicia vanished into the bathroom with some clothes. Once she’d changed she started to pack her bag as Cheeky watched curiously.

“Why did you defend me when you had no idea who I was?”

Alicia paused, a skirt half-folded, “I trust my instincts and you said you had a message, I was just being a good host until I got that message.” it almost sounded like she was excusing her own actions.

“Seems like there are genuinely hospitable people in business after all.”

“Seems like there are hackers with a conscience too.”

“Touché,” Cheeky said with a grin, “Anyone would think Juliet uses you as a substitute for me...”

“She did say when I visited that it was good to have some humour around the place again,” Alicia admitted as they slipped out the doors and headed for the shuttle bay, “besides, free biscuits ask for a lot less than a free lunch.”

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