art by Jonathan Westbrook
by Derek Ivan Webster
The connoisseurs milled and mingled from one end of the long, thin room to the other. There were seven different tasting stations set just far enough apart to allow conversation between tables. A nostalgic, almost retrospective feel had been chosen for the night's theme: soft Plutonian cotton covered the walls and examples of the local system's ancient and primitive arts were strategically positioned to take attention from the servers as they poured. Here a rudimentary portrait with smears of actual pigment long dried atop a canvas square; there an open leather binding, its fan of pages each stained with line after line of tiny archaic symbol; even a maze of brass tubing, bent into the most intricate and seemingly unnecessary swirl of what had once been considered a sort of music maker.
The crowd, of course, many of whom found themselves in the backwoods of the Old Earth system for the first time, adored these authentic details. Anything to remind them of their superiority, whether over their past or present peers, was to be considered in the most suitable taste.
Baneford followed his own small clique from one station to the next. At random he'd fallen in with a Hawking Monk and a star broker from somewhere beyond the Pale. They had given their names, at least once before, but Baneford had never had a head for such details. They seemed decent enough. The monk perhaps a little sullen and the broker certainly too interested in the age and history of the regional Sol, but they made for fine, fleeting, and therefore safe company at such an event.
"Ah, a real Chaledean Red," the broker said, letting his nose dip through the opening of the small glass globe he held in one hand, "you can smell the giant's blood in this one. I'd say this batch came from its L phase, at the earliest."
The monk only nodded sagely. He gave the warm glow of his own glass a discerning look before taking a sudden, bird-like sip. His eyes closed, his lips parted and he let out a contented, steaming breath.
Baneford glanced down, reluctantly, at the globe of liquid light he held. There was no avoiding this. He took a dutiful draught, despite having no taste for the stuff. Less wet than slippery, it had the memory of a long dead heat. It took him back to that first moment, as a child, he had run outside without the visor of his helmet pulled down. The whiff of scorched skin thrust into a freeze-unit. It was the taste of dormant pain.
He did his best to hold back the slight grimace the stuff made of his mouth. It would be bad form to insult anyone here, least of all himself, by exposing his limited palate. He was, after all, assumed wealthy enough to have received the invitation. Everyone knew that, given enough money to throw away, any self-respecting humanoid would be glad to sip nectar from the heart of a star.
"So, what do you think?" the broker slurred his query through a smile. He'd been making a steady round of the seven stations and his skin was already full flushed orange from the residual burn of the potent drinks.
"A Chaledean Red. What more can you say?" Baneford returned diplomatically.
The broker slapped him on the back in jovial agreement, but the monk had taken closer notice of him now. He would have to watch himself around the quiet man. Followers of the Hawking way were notoriously dogmatic in their approach to life. They were pleasant enough as long as you agreed with them, but the moment you wandered outside their orthodoxy an enemy was made.
The three men were halfway to the next station when the announcement came. Baneford missed the broadcast. "I always unplug myself from the tele-path whenever I go sun drinking," he'd told the hosts upon his arrival, pleading the staggering headache such a combination would mean for his sensitive nerves. They had shrugged and let him pass; it wasn't unheard of, a purist who didn't like to drink and scrye.
With the servers suddenly working to close up their tables, it didn't take an internal scrye-line to suggest something was afoot. One following another, the guests each turned to face the single, black door at the far end of the room. Soon the main event would commence. The dark room would be opened at last. And its contents? What was kept on the other side of the door made a palate cleanser out of the galaxy's finest sun drip.
A rush of rarified anticipation ran through the crowd. There was little so curious, Baneford thought, as the sight of the galactic elite rubbing their hands together and licking their lips in anticipation. It almost made them seem normal, filled with the same desires and fears as the rest of the masses. Almost.
The ebullient moment passed swiftly, and a low muttering could be heard. Baneford took note of the particular look of disappointment on the broker's face.
"What is it?" Baneford asked carefully. "What's happened?"
"They just announced we'll not be following the traditional order of patronage for the final tasting."
Ah, Baneford nodded, how could these people ever respect a line that didn't allow them to pay their way to the front? His companion's deep-set scowl told him that the star broker must have given a particularly large sum of money to the Institute of Means this year.
Upon receiving the invite Baneford had, of course, made a donation of the stated minimum. There was only one reason for him to attend this event and he had seen no call to strain his endorsers' hard fought finances any more than was necessary.
He felt a touch on his shoulder. He turned around and was only half-surprised to find the monk staring at him.
"No taste for sol blood and he refuses the tele-path." The Monk offered some of his first words of the evening. "Be careful or one might suspect a technophobe."
Baneford flinched at the accusation. It wasn't the first time the word, quite a dangerous one, had been thrown in his direction.
"What did you call me?" he whispered into the monk's forcefully neutral expression. Whatever information the crowd was absorbing over their scrye-line, they took no interest in the quiet confrontation between these two men.
"Your name," the Monk said with the outward calm of a dead planet. His eyes were alive, however, with something akin to a solar flare.
Baneford held onto that stare. It was all he could do. Was this really how it was all going to end? After so much preparation, so much expense. A Hawking Monk was to prove his doom.
"What is your name?" the monk repeated, slowly.
"Baneford Trappelton, the third," he said with every shred of nobility and authority he could manufacture.
The monk smiled thinly. "Well Baneford, it would seem you have been the first invited into the dark room."
The broker's heavy hand slapped his back and jarred him loose of the moment.
"What're you doing just standing there," yelled the broker. "Get to it so the rest of us can have our turn."