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Defeat was always a bitter cup from which to have to swallow, but Kahina Sarava determined from the first that it should not define her.
True, she now had to endure exile in the grand house she liked the least of all she owned. It was a sprawling, over-ornate residence built in the heart of great natural beauty and originally intended as a place where she could entertain and impress the powers of Central. It suited her political enemies to have her there, isolated and cut off from any place of influence. But, it was not entirely without benefit. Freed from the endless need to joust for political advantage, she had considerably more time for some of the other things that mattered. Such as pursuing her lifetime’s work: Future Data.
So she stood, back straight, defying her age as the fussily dressed man climbed from his vehicle and walked the short distance to where she waited in front of the main door to her house. The security people who flanked her on either side, guards set to both protect and contain her, stiffened visibly as her visitor approached.
“Garn, what a delight to see you.” She had been expecting him. Though when the brief message informing her of a visitor had come through earlier that day, his name had not been mentioned. “I think this must be the first time we’ve had a get together since you arrested me. What would bring you all the way from Central to visit me in person? I am sure you could gloat quite adequately over link.”
He was a big man in many uses of the word, and it amused her to make him feel uncomfortable. There was little enough by way of human entertainment for her here and no small responsibility for her incarceration rested on his shoulders.
“Right,” he said, and she could see he was sweating despite the temperature being pleasantly cool. “Maybe we could go in and talk somewhere a little more private.”
“I can offer you anything here, except privacy.” She made an elegant gesture with her hands, unfolding them to indicate the attentive security detail. “I am not permitted that even when I sleep. My link connections are watched and my conversations monitored.”
Garn Jecks seemed unperturbed, but then his mind was not very flexible. If he had arrived with a fixed idea of some objective he wished to achieve, that would be both the full extent and narrow focus of his thinking. Laser like — if a laser were some solid substance and not fluid photons. Such inability to embrace the broadest view whilst still keeping the details in sight irritated Kahina. Her own mind suffered no such limitations, and she tolerated it poorly in others.
“I will make the necessary arrangements,” he told her. Matching actions to words, he turned to issue brief orders to the security detail, then added more by link to the invisible watchers who controlled the remote monitoring of her residence. They all moved quickly to obey, but then he was their supreme commander, the man in charge of the Coalition Security Force.
A short time later, Kahina found herself sitting in her favourite room, ambianced to remind her of her mother’s study with shelves of books and curios, heavy looping curtains at the windows and the antique wooden desk. She had chosen not to occupy the desk, Jecks wasn’t someone who would be in the slightest bit intimidated by her doing so. Instead, she sat in one of the comfortable, deep-cushioned chairs set either side of a beautifully carved and inlaid table. Jecks sat opposite her having just dismissed the last of his entourage. He was visibly discomfited. Kahina played the perfect hostess.
“Can I offer you any refreshments? It’s not the shortest of hops here from Central.”
“Right. It’s not. But thank you, no. I’m a bit pressed for time.”
She couldn’t resist another dig.
“I am fully accessible by link, you know.”
Jecks didn’t trouble to answer that. His preoccupation was blinding him and Kahina wondered if the poor man was even aware how much that showed.
“There has been a — a development.”
He almost squirmed.
“I have just received some information which has brought into question our previous conclusions regarding the Future Data project.”
Kahina considered feigning surprise.
Jecks looked as if he had swallowed something that settled ill in his stomach. For a moment, he glared at her.
“So you already knew.”
She didn’t trouble to reply, instead allowing her expression to reflect the untroubled confidence she was feeling. Jecks muttered something under his breath then started pulling up a remote screen of what appeared to be some security surveillance. Not the best quality and from a static camera, but when he zoomed the image and froze it, the result was perfectly clear.
“Oh dear,” Kahina said gently. “How very embarrassing for you. I wonder what you plan to do about that?”
Jecks pulled at his neckline as if it were too close about his throat.
“It’s not what you…”
“Oh, but I rather think it is.” The first taste of victory after such a bitter defeat and three years of exile was so sweet. She leaned forward, unable to suppress her delight and not caring that it showed. “I rather think you need me again.”
Jecks physically recoiled from her.
“Kahina, I — “
“Var Sarava,” she corrected him. He looked as though she had slapped him hard across the face and Kahina smiled. “You are of course quite right. I knew already. Or should I be more accurate and say that Future Data informed me of there being a high probability that those two would resurface in this timeframe.”
“Then you know why I came.” Jecks sounded defeated now, resigned to some inevitable and inescapable fate. Which, Kahina supposed, was not too far from the truth of things.
“Of course I don’t know,” she snapped. “I’m not a mind reader. Future Data may inform me what is likely to occur, but it’s not yet capable of attributing motive to the behaviours it predicts. Why did you come?”
“It wasn’t my first choice, but Ilke Dray suggested…” Jecks stopped himself and took a breath instead. Wise man. Kahina could feel the pressure of her fingers closing into tight claws.
“How is dear Ilke these days?” Then she lifted a forbidding hand, forcing the fingers to uncurl, as Jecks opened his mouth to tell her. “No. I really don’t want to know. I’m sure she will be going about her busy little life in her busy little way. And of course you don’t need to tell me why you are here, that much is obvious. What I want to know is what do you have to offer me in exchange for my assistance at this time?”
Jecks wore the look of a man being asked to sell his mother.
“Var Sarava, you can’t seriously intend to turn the security of the Coalition into an auction?”
“Why not? I have what you need, and you can procure it nowhere else. That would seem to me the basis of a price negotiation. I am sure you have authorisation to offer me something or you wouldn’t have come.”
“I can’t reverse the decision of the courts. I can’t turn back the clock and restore your good name. I can’t undo what has happened.” He sounded quite upset about it too.
Kahina got to her feet as gracefully as her age allowed and crossed the room to the antique desk. She loved the smooth feel of the polished wood as she slid her hand beneath it to release a secret catch. It was a wonderfully archaic hiding place. She slipped the data stick into her hand and turned back to Jecks, holding it up for him to see.
“This is everything you need to know to deal with them — if you are willing to pay the price I ask.”
“I’m not authorised to offer you anything.” He sounded in pain.
“Then it’s good that I’m not asking you for any ‘thing’. I have only one demand to make.”
“The head of Ilke Dray?” Jecks suggested, his voice slightly strangled. And, for a moment, Kahina had to wonder if he was being serious. Perhaps he was.
“I have no idea what I might do with such a completely vacuous item,” she told him. “No. I couldn’t care less about Ilke. And the price I’m going to ask isn’t unduly expensive. I merely need to know you will pay it when the time comes.”
“What is it?”
“I want Durban Chola.”
She wasn’t sure if it was relief or appalled amusement that motivated his response. “Chola? What the…? I mean, why?”
“I really rather think that’s my business, don’t you?”
Jecks looked as though he was being forced to swallow a large, irregularly shaped solid object.
“Right. Yes. Of course. I think we can do that.”
It was that easy.
Crossing back to the chairs, she settled herself comfortably again before holding out the data stick to Jecks. He took it as if it were a sacred relic, then busied himself with his links for a few moments as he prepared it to read. She could tell when he had done so. His expression shifted. Hardened.
“This contains nothing. Just two names.”
“That is more than enough for now, I assure you. If you were intelligent enough it would be all you needed, but I am quite aware you will be returning to ask me for further guidance.” It was why she felt so confident that he would pay her price in the end.
Jecks was frowning as if trying to read some deeper meaning into what he had been given.
“One is someone I know quite well and I can see the sense in it, they’ve worked on this before — but who in the name of all sanity is Halkom Dugsdall?”
Kahina, her objective achieved, sat back serenely and smiled.
Mistrust and Treason by E.M. Swift-Hook is free to download today 13 December 2022.
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