Megan The Student
My father is on the phone when I am shown into his office. Given all that he has had to deal with because of the attack, it is doubtful that he has had much sleep, if any at all, yet he appears fresh, full of decisive energy, purpose and focus. He looks up from his desk with the phone still to his ear and, while not missing a syllable of the instructions he is giving, I would guess, to the president of one of our client nations or to a director of The Company, he points to the conversation area with its plush chairs and expensive table where tea has been laid out. I smell Earl Grey. He must have been notified as soon as I left Elin. He’s recalling to my mind a crush I developed while watching another old TV show with Colin.
I sense he is testing to see if I can handle this crisis on little rest as is he. My emotions about my friends must remain hidden. I flick the ring with the bullet that is now on my thumb and focus only on pouring myself a cup of tea. Sorry, Colin, it's all business now.
My hand is steady, my thoughts only on the aromas and flavors of the tea. It’s excellent and now I have its warmth to focus on as well. I take a cookie from the assortment that has been laid out on the multi-tiered server. Or perhaps I should call it a biscuit as Father does when he entertains the Prime Minister.
“No, Gordon, it is anything but a disaster.” I was wrong. It’s someone Father has said is more valuable to him than the presidents of 20 countries. “It is a golden opportunity to apply more pressure on the Russians, not less. They were trying to drag out these negotiations into the diplomatic equivalent of a Russian winter where all their enemies freeze to death and welcome it to escape the boredom. We were getting nowhere, but then this. This impatience, this desperation, this weakness, Gordon, means opportunity. Think longer term then they. It’s our turn to step back and take a calm, reflective look at them across the table and let them wonder what we are thinking. In the meantime, we’ll increase the number of agents working in Russia to stir the pot even more. How are things looking around their oil fields in Western Siberia?
“No, no, no, Gordon, forget about Moscow and all that. It’s all the natural resources in that hard currency generating area that gives them their confidence. We keep driving down the price of crude, increase the unrest in the area and get the double benefit of making the Chinese nervous about the stability of their neighbor to the north.
“Gordon, stop worrying about that stuff. I paid for all that accounting crap you studied so you could speak quantoid and not be lost under their numbers speak. I didn't want you to start actually thinking like one. Let bean counters worry about that stuff and never let them get in the way of business or, worse, run things themselves because they think they can, Gordon. They think they should be running everything. It's like they think the cameras should be on the guy twiddling knobs on the score clock while we're on the field scoring all the points. Do not be intimidated by them and never, ever let one of them take control. They’ll squeeze out every bit of creative energy in our organization within a week and they'll brag about the sudden increase in profits from the cuts until the slide and then they'll start cutting everyone else until they're the last ones out the door before the power is shut off. Now go into the CFO’s office and assert yourself. Put her in her place. Wait, do this; when she says no with all that confidence she shows when she just knows she’s right and all her little quantoid buddies tell her so, warn her that she is making a mistake, then walk out and call me.
“I'll tell you what I'm going to do. I’m going to ask for her resignation, that’s what I am going to do. I can pick up another CFO on any street corner…. Sure, sure, she’s good. Look, I’ve gone through this with her before. She’ll kiss my butt to keep her job, then she’ll do whatever you want for a while. In the meantime, she’ll be looking for a way to get even. No worries. She’s much better at fudging the numbers where we need her to than she is at vengeance. I’ve got her boyfriend in my back pocket to keep an eye on her anyway, so don’t worry, just focus on the Russians. Oh, and the Baltic states, they're part of this equation too. Budget for the whole darn thing and she'll come up with the money or be looking for a job.
“Good. Yes excellent, Gordon, now you’re thinking. Run with it….Good, leak it to the free press and tell PR that we are going to play it down. Just another day, like any other, at Casa Knowles. The best the Russians have to throw at us is no big deal. Play up our strength with subtlety through our press but turn the free press to our advantage for once and be the thorn in the Russian bear’s hide that it has always been in ours. The big, bad, mighty Russians tried to kill my sweet little girl but we managed brilliantly and stopped them in their tracks. That ought to play very well for the bleeding hearts." He looks at me, smiles and rolls his eyes.
“Exactly, in the meantime, our news channels are to play it cool like we don't want to embarrass them.
Awesome, get back to me when you have all the details worked out. I’ll give you five minutes to pitch it to me and, if I think you’re ready, I’ll let you have an hour or two with the board to let them think they matter and give you some exposure for the next rung up the ladder.”
He hangs up and studies. I study him back over the rim of my teacup. He swings his chair from under his desk and strides toward me, studying me as he does so.
“How’s the tea?”
“Jean-Luc would give up Earl Grey, M, if he knew this guy liked it. He'd switch to instant coffee and risk losing his OBE.'
“No playing around, Harmony. I’ve got to be on my toes.”
“Right. You and me girl.”
He pours himself a cup of tea, takes a sip and gramiaces. “Seoyun.”
There is a computer beep to let him know he is understood, and a moment later one of his assistants enters. “Yes, sir?”
“Daechu-cha, please.” She hurries out.
“What if he’s right, M, and the tea of the daechu does preserve life? We may never get rid of him.”
“You smile,” he says, “may I ask why?”
“I suspect your avoidance of excessive caffeine is the wiser course. As always.”
“There are certain green teas that have health benefits too. They can be quite tasty.”
“Yes, I know. I have followed your advice and begun trying them as well as tea from jujube.”
I hurry the cup to my lips hide my smile. There are several digital dispensers in the assistant’s area where water is kept at the various temperatures that may be best for a particular tea or coffee so Seoyun is quickly back with a teapot couched in a cozy with The Company logo on it. Seoyun bows and is about to take her leave.
My father’s eyes do not stray from mine. “The red folder on the credenza, if you please, Seoyun.”
A scurry to retrieve the folder, another bow, and she is gone.
“You made me wait.”
“Here it comes, M, the mine field. Careful where you put your tippy-toes.”
“I knew you would approve of my logic for doing so.”
“Did you now?”
“Of course. You have taught me that, if I am to inspire people to follow me, to die for me, they must believe I will do the same for them. That I will put myself on the line for them. If they had all died, I could have been here sooner. As it is, I did what I needed to for the long term by building my reputation before the replacements for my team members can be selected. I expect you will want the rumor to circulate, after this meeting, that you never questioned me on it but commended me instead for my sterling qualities of loyalty and leadership.”
“Oh, well played, M. Well played. He probably knows what your doing but he loves it anyway. You'll be negotiating with Presidents, Queens and Kings yourself soon.”
He opened the folder and began to scan the contents. “I suspect you know something of the attack, but I have a much more complete assessment from our investigative teams here.”
I steel myself to listen intently no matter if I've heard it before or not. Or how much it hurts. He looks at the top of the page and then at his watch. "Barbara," and the computer chimes. A moment and the door opens to the outer office and another woman of African decent opens the door. While the first had been dressed in casual clothing, Barbara is in a business suit.
"This report is four hours old," he says.
"I'll see to it immediately, sir." The door closes with barely a sound.
“Well," he says, "for now we'll go with what we have. At the time of this report 36 hours and now 40 hours ago, an attack was made on the corporate headquarters of The Company on which grounds is also the estate of the Knowles family." He snaps the folder shut. "Blah, blah, blah. I'll give it to you from memory. It was the Russians for sure, but there's nothing on any of their dead that we can use to prove that. There were snippets of conversation heard, in the heat of battle where someone slipped up, in Russian. Everything else we heard from them was in coded English and all their equipment was CanAmerican standard military issue that had gone missing somewhere in the supply chain. Our people are trying to track that down now.
"Tattoos etc. were all from other special force units. None from Spetsnaz. Some tats would have us believe the wearer was from our own Global Protection Force. Like we don’t have the most effective and efficient DNA database and testing equipment in the world.
“There was 127 of them. Twenty-three were specifically tasked with your assassination. The last three thought they had killed Colin just outside your door, but he came to long enough to kill one of them just outside your bathroom. That was one carrying a munition that would have shaped a charge of white plasma through the concrete of your bunker and fried you in to a crisp in a millisecond. Wouldn’t have done much to improve the mansion or surrounding grounds either but the main takeaway from this is that the weapon was specifically designed to turn the inside of an impregnable, and supposedly secret, concrete mini-fortress into a furnace as hot or hotter than the sun.
"Impressive, when you think about it. Well planned, excellent intelligence and the bluntest of blunt instruments to make sure you were dead. They have obviously been planning this for years, learning from every one of their previous attempts on my life. Fortunately, our people never take anything for granted, never become complacent, or over confident. People like Elin, Angela and Torch are the best in the world. Their planning and endless drills made the difference How are they, by the way?”
“Like he cares, right, M?”
“Excellent it seems, thank you for asking. They are going to pull through just fine. It is now part of the record that you were concerned enough to ask and that I was grateful enough to offer my humble thanks.”
It's obvious that being flippant at that moment was going too far for him. He scowls so I can't help but get the message. “Good.” He snaps the folder shut and puts it on the coffee table.
“Now, let’s talk about you. Tell me why I shouldn’t have you taken out of the program.”
“You know the drill, M, you've been through it enough. He just wants you to mess up, lose confidence or something. Give him what he wants; a cold, calculating business machine in the guise of a daughter.”
I buy a little time as I put my cup on the coffee table for a refill. By having my chin down, I can cover up the lump I’m swallowing, as I pour another cup of Earl Grey and gather my thoughts. Sure, I've gone through it before. Doesn't mean I don't feel my heart twist itself into a knot. And it's the perfect time for the test. Given all that has happened in the last, almost two days now, it's the perfect time for me to break down.
My hand doesn’t shake as I pour out and replace the teapot on the table, and my breathing is controlled in a way he won’t notice. Relaxed, at least outwardly, I lean back and look him square in the eye while I take a sip, sure that he has no idea how much I’ve learned to despise him. I’ve come a long way since I was the little drunken nine-year-old hiding in the hedge, dazzled by his presence and power.
But these next few minutes are where it all starts to come together. If, I play my cards right.
“Well, sir,” he likes that more than being called Father when it's about business, “I like to assess my value regularly, as do you, so I feel myself ready to answer you and, please, correct me where I am wrong.
"Oh, don't worry. He will."
“The quantoids are always wrong and a lot of things do boil down to numbers. ROI, return on investment. When you decided to remove me from the program four years ago when I was a whiny fourteen-year-old, it was a wise business decision. I was, perhaps, then at only forty percent of my potential value and not worth further investment if I was going to be such a baby. The only reason I managed to stay was because I realized, then, that I was just another investment, to be judged by no other standard than the same one you use for every other one of your investments. I failed to live up to expectations and would have been removed but for my guts and a suspicion I have that someone on my team fudged the numbers.”
He laughed. “Yes. A suspicion I myself have had since then. No one has ever managed to get close to that record. Continue.”
“My value has only increased since then.”
“Oh, has it indeed?”
“Yes, at least doubled. I estimate my worth to you is above eighty percent of my potential. I believe, as a matter of fact I am sure, that my value greatly exceeds that of any other candidate you may be grooming from the bumper crop of your widely broadcast seed.”
“You've never brought that up before.”
“I don’t see why I shouldn't. It is the wise thing to do, the most logical, to ensure someone with your DNA takes over someday. And no lab babies either. The women would have been carefully screened and you would have wanted to look them in the eye when you bred them to make sure they were every bit as intelligent and ambitious as you. Perfectly logical. The dynasty of the Emperor Knowles is all but guaranteed.”
“I detest that term.”
“Oh please. Spare me the PR spiel meant to make our methods more palatable to the masses.”
His laugh is louder. He's obviously getting into it. He likes being challenged.
“Still, you are watched closely, and I am not the only one who senses you may be too close to your team. A world class ruler needs to be willing to sacrifice any and everything.”
I shrug. “Perhaps I am a better actor than even you yourself.”
“Yes. One hopes so, for the sake of our dynasty." He sighs and pushes up from his chair. “Your estimation of your value might be a tad high but you've made your point, and, there it is. That helps me make up my mind about something else. You helped us with the India negotiations two years ago and, even though they still drag their feet, we are further along than we would be had you not suggested we use the mothers of Kashmir against New Delhi. Your reward then was your own private jet, a Dreamliner, correct?”
“I thought so. Well, you been an excellent student of my methods of business warfare and I think you deserve another reward. I’ve been building myself a little boat and have decided it doesn’t suit me as well as I would like. I think I will make for myself acceptable quarters on several of our super carriers. The boat, I guess I'm supposed to call it a ship, is close to 600 feet and would be no slouch in a fight. It's your's if you want or I can order you a bigger jet, maybe even a jumbo. Whichever you choose, consider the gesture as an effort to strengthen my hold on you and harness your ambitious nature to my evil intentions to take over the world.” He smiled at his little joke. “Take your time to decide. There is no hurry.”
“The ship. I’ll call it ‘Precocious’.”
“An apt name, but my I ask why the ship and not the jet?”
“The jet I have now is more than adequate for myself and the thirty six people of my security team.”
“Your protection allocation is only for eight people. Given that you usually are close enough to me that you also have my protective team nearby for protection, I fail to see the reason for the increase.”
“The reasons are obvious,” I say as I stood. “I am going to be spending more and more time apart from you as my responsibilities increase and Angela has been requesting the increase for some time. You said it yourself, she's one of the best in the world and the nearness of the attackers success proves she was right to make the request."
He shrugs and nods. “Logical. All right then.”
He turns and walks behind his desk but remains standing, eyebrows raised. “Anything else?”
“Yes. The new people are to be personally selected and trained by Angela, Cynthia, and Elin.”
He sits and pics up the phone. “Fine.”
I close the door behind me and walk with a bright smile past outer office administrative and security staff and into the hall where I find the employee rest room. Once sure, it's empty, I enter one of the stalls, lock the door, and kneel before the porcelain goddess just as my stomach clenched and twisted itself onto my spine. Back in The Sanctuary that came close to living up to the name I had given it, The Tomb, I had nothing to offer but tears but, now, I fear that Jean Luc Picard’s favorite brew is coming to an ignominious end this day.