They went back to Sonja's place for the afternoon, as Rajata was still somehow reluctant to return to her own home. With them went a completely mundane business card, bearing the name Cynthia Wallace no rank or affiliation a mobile number and an anonymous e-mail address. Despite herself, Rajata obsessively played with the thing throughout the journey and, by the time they were sitting in Sonja's kitchen, she'd memorised both contacts and could have described the type face, the ink colour and the nature of the pasteboard in forensic detail. What she couldn't do was work out what on earth to do next.
For a start, she hadn't rejected the approach out of hand, which all her convictions and prejudices told her that she should have done. But, no: It was, she had to admit, just too intriguing, too unexpected ... and so she'd let them talk on, let them expand on their literally out of this world offer. And it appeared that they really were proposing to give her pretty much a free hand to structure an entire world, and pretty much from scratch. Actually, they'd been slightly vague about the details of the location, but she did know that the planet in question was a new colony, intended to be a centre for research and development rather than a military base per se, and that while the population was currently small, and the environment somewhat hostile, both these things were expected to change rather rapidly. Rajata couldn't imagine how you'd change the ecology of an entire planet let alone do so 'rapidly' but there was something sincere, something appealing about the women she'd talked to that made her want to take what they'd told her almost at face value. Of course, there had to be a catch one of them was from Naval Intelligence for chrissake and, equally of course, she'd seen nothing like hard evidence for anything that she'd been told. And yet ... it seemed such an unlikely lie, such a lot of trouble for anyone to go to just to ... well just to what? think about it like that and ... well, either it was all, fantastically, true or it was the silliest wind-up in human history. And possibly alien history, too. And whatever the pros and cons of the military mind-set, a sense of humour was not one of its more obvious characteristics.
She knew that all this was getting her nowhere, that she could continue with these circles for years without reaching any sort of conclusion. Yes, she'd liked Cynthia and Dianna and Rajata was not a person who warmed to officials, to soldiers but if they'd researched her as well as it seemed they had done the thought made her shudder then they'd surely have known not to send a macho martinet to make the proposal, so ....
Belatedly, she realised that Sonja was still sitting opposite her with a concerned expression on her face and she made a conscious effort to pull herself together, even tried a smile. For some reason the effort failed ... as soon as she clambered far enough out of her introspection to make eye-contact, even as she was trying to arrange her facial muscles appropriately, she ... crumpled. Suddenly she was sitting there racked with sobs, tears flooding down her cheeks and Sonja ... Sonja was round the table, gathering her up in warm and all encompassing arms, holding her in a close embrace, muttering soothing nothings ....
Which was, Rajata thought as something like sanity returned, a situation she could get used to. Which thought and the realisation that her nose was basically pressed into her friend's right breast made her giggle and that, disappointingly, caused Sonja to let her go, slightly, leaning back a little and looking down at her.
"You poor little sod," she said, quietly, "I think you need to talk about this stuff, you know ... Much as I love you and your bloody minded self-reliance, this time you really need to talk...."
Rajata was almost shocked by the way her heart leapt at Sonja's use of the word 'love', perhaps she'd been even more traumatised by events than she'd realised but simultaneously knew that her friend was absolutely right. So she reluctantly disengaged herself and, accepting a tissue to wipe her eyes and nose, tried to put her thoughts into some sort of order. Eventually, she more or less managed to do so ....
Once they had talked, they had a cup of tea. Rajata had to smile at the sheer bloody English-ness of it all, sitting in a largely pine kitchen, sipping Breakfast tea and eating biscuits ... when they'd just been earnestly discussing whether Rajata should accept an offer from a bunch of uniformed nutters to go half way across the galaxy and ... start a revolution. With the active consent of the powers that be, apparently which, she felt, would certainly be revolutionary ....
The thought made her laugh and Sonja patted her hand, tenderly. Sonja wasn't used to seeing Rajata breaking down like that hell, she wasn't used to seeing Rajata full stop, these days and she'd been more than slightly thrown by the experience. And by the things they'd learnt, the things they or Rajata, at least, had been offered ... and offered directly, more or less on a plate, not being picked up in some random trawl at a café or a conference or wherever the bloody confederacy had come to them.
Or, at least, she reminded herself, to Rajata. Which was a problem, for Sonja, not least because the entire process had only too forcefully brought home to her the reality of the situation: Earth was going to be invaded, and probably overwhelmed, destroyed ... consumed ... and in only a few years time. And Sonja did not have the score to escape on her own or the willingness to debase herself in the meat-markets that characterised the average Extraction. As an academic, a sociologist and a feminist, she knew that the CAP process was gender-biased, knew that the odds had been stacked against her, that that was probably sufficient to explain her own inadequate score of 5.8. Except that she also knew that her inability to lead, to impose herself on others as well as her complete lack of aggression had undoubtedly contributed, too. In any case, though, she was on track to be an eye witness when the Swarm arrived on Earth, to watch as things almost certainly fell apart and then ... to die. It was not quite the life she might have chosen for herself, she thought, wryly, but ....
But, well, for the moment, there was Rajata to look after and, while their discussions had been circular, without coming close to a conclusion, things still needed to be done.
"What you need to do," she said, eventually, "is talk to your group about the situation. I mean, the offer was fairly clearly a collective one they talked about a team, remember? And however unlikely it may be that you've managed to get a bunch of anarchists organised to even that extent, they will undoubtedly have opinions, may or may not be willing to play along."
She paused for a moment, then went on in her practical tone of voice.
"Aside from anything else, if the end result of all this is that you do end up 'going to the stars', it seems a bit unlikely that all of them will have achieved sponsor level scores or, come to think of it, that the ever so nice and accommodating Confederacy people will let you overlook your status so you need to think about, well, concubines, for want of a better word ...."
The look of horror that passed over Rajata's face was so extreme that in other circumstances Sonja might have found it funny. This was a woman she'd known for fifteen years, a woman she knew was capable of instant and, when necessary, brutal decisions, a woman whose grasp of theory never caused her to lose sight of the reality on the ground ... and a woman who clearly hadn't thought about one of the most basic facts of her current situation: If she went, she was going to be taking slaves however much she might be working to ensure their rights and fair treatment and if she didn't, she'd be consigning a bunch of people who she could have helped escape to be ... well, swarm fodder. It wasn't nice, but there it was life, as Rajata herself always used to say, is not particularly fair.
She said as much, as bluntly as she knew how, knowing that Rajata needed to hear it, needed to factor it into whatever conclusions she finally arrived at. For the moment, though, she just looked shell shocked, more deeply uncomfortable than Sonja could ever have imagined her being.
"Gods," she managed, after a while, speaking so quietly that Sonja had to strain to hear her, "but that means ... that means I'd ... I'd have to choose, choose someone some people and ... and ... there would be sex, too, wouldn't there? I mean, that's kind of the point that's why their bloody Extractions are always so disgusting, so obscene ... sponsors are there to breed and concubines to provide the ... well, the biological necessities. Oh, no, no, not that, no, I couldn't do that ... I mean, no ... its horrible ...."
Decurion Wallace was on an EarthAt command cruiser in orbit, reviewing data on some potential recruits for one of the research institutes her colony was planning, when her mobile rang, the call patched through from earth and delayed slightly in the process. She was not at all surprised to find that the caller was Sonja Richardson, but was taken aback by the steely assertion in the woman's tone. Even as she was pursuing the introductory formalities, she called up her caller's CAP score, noted the submissiveness and lack of aggression that had crippled the overall result, and ... wondered.
The news was also surprising Ms Mehta, whose own CAP score suggested that she was pretty much indestructible, was struggling severely with her situation, having gone through a virtually catatonic reaction, apparently, when the reality of needing to select concubines and then to breed with them hit home to her. Cynthia raised an eyebrow at that news, reviewing Rajata's scores in turn as she'd thought, high levels of libido and sexual ... flexibility ... but bloody hell no experience whatsoever. The woman was a bloody virgin! She cursed the AIs and their scenario orientated, sub-conscious based testing procedures, wondering whether they were aware of just how deeply human beings could sublimate their desires ... in Rajata's case effectively converting herself from what looked like a walking sex bomb into a hardened, focused, political activist.
Well, she thought, giving her full attention to Sonja once more, it was the activist they wanted so how did they go about getting her?
In fact, Sonja appeared to have the matter in hand there was nothing lacking in her intelligence or planning sub-scores and had a viable plan. Yes, Cynthia agreed, probably getting Rajata into a meeting with her 'group', setting the need for her to make a decision in practical, and familiar, personal reality would probably help to resolve the situation. And, yes, she could also see that there was no way for Sonja to organise anything of the sort, given that one of the things that had attracted her colleagues' attention in the first place was the highly effective security measures that Rajata had built into her organisation's very DNA. But ... if Sonja couldn't do it, Naval Intelligence and a fair amount of alien technology very probably could. Finishing the call with appropriate thanks and reassurance, she immediately made another.
"Hi, Di ... its Cy ... I think I'd like a little chat, if you've got a moment or two ...."
Tiff Armstrong scrolled through her doctoral dissertation one final time, at least for the day, closed down the computer and began to collect her stuff from around the lab. She made a last check on the spectrometers, churning their way through the hundreds of samples she was running over night, and started to make her way out of the building. It was odd being out of the political loop, she thought, but she was sure as hell getting more academic work done. And, she thought, had time to go other places, too like the art exhibition that that really sweet bloke she'd met the night before had been so keen on ....
Johann van der Maar, exiting his own lab in another University altogether, paused briefly to look at his reflection in the plate glass door and wondered again about the sanity of the professorial class. As a post-doc, of course, his entire existence depended on pleasing the prof, but ... an art exhibition? How on earth was that relevant to exotic materials research?
Oh, well at least he had more time, these days ....
Jas Petri, hung over and still a little stoned, shook his bed partner awake. He didn't know his name last night it hadn't seemed to matter but he did know that he did want to continue seeing the guy. And he'd seemed really enthusiastic about this art thing, tonight, so he might as well make the effort, get both of them there. And it was a private view, apparently ... should be free wine and everything!
And, across the capital, a disparate group of individuals, linked by conviction and experience but isolated by necessity, all found themselves heading for a small studio in Pimlico ... it was an odd coincidence ....
There hadn't been much for Sonja to do but trust the Decurion. Luckily, she didn't have Rajata's instinctual distrust of Authority she had even been known to ask a policeman the time (and, yes, she did know the origins of the cliché) but she found herself pretty much pre-occupied with caring for her friend. Not that Rajata had fallen apart completely the terrifying period when she'd curled into a foetal ball and just cried hadn't lasted all that long, as it turned out, and Sonja had managed to get her to bed, where she'd plied her with tea, sympathy and chicken soup, vaguely remembering her mother having done something similar when she'd been ill as a child.
Now, though ... well ... Rajata was out of bed and functioning well enough for Sonja to go back to work, most days, anyway. Only she'd never known Raja so listless or lethargic ... or herself so angry and impatient. Not with Rajata, directly she knew too well what her friend was going through but a couple of her more tedious students had been startled to find themselves well and truly taken to task, while that afternoon's departmental meeting ... well, it would live on in legend. She grinned to herself, thinking that the pompous bastards had had it coming long enough and then had her reverie interrupted as her mobile chirped, indicating a text received.
And, as she read and contemplated the message it contained, Rajata herself came down the stairs, asking without much apparent interest whether she'd had a good day at work.
"Oh, I had a brilliant day," said Sonja with genuine enthusiasm, "and, to celebrate, I'm going to take you out for the evening. A friend of mine's just texted to remind me that she's opening her new show tonight she's really good, always has really interesting people around, does decent drinks, too ... And you and I, frankly need to get out of this place.
"So what do you reckon to a night out? It's a really nice gallery, too ...."
Now that arrangements had been made and the plan set in train, Decurion Cynthia Wallace found herself at something of a loose end. She could, she thought grimly, spend the time totting up the number of favours she'd pulled to get all this together, but it was probably a little less anxiety provoking to review the arrangements for the thousandth time. Not that there was much chance of changing anything at this stage, she knew, but ....
The room was basically a white cube, timber floored, with a variety of carefully replicated (but obscure) paintings and sculptures arranged around the place and a table of glasses, chilled white wine and canapes in one corner. As far as Cynthia could tell not being an aficionado of art it looked fairly convincing. In any case the illusion wouldn't have to last long, it being a peculiarity of this 'gallery' that the doors allowed only inwards movement. And once inside, her guests would be greeted by the team that Dianna Langton had scraped together from more favours various of her Navy friends.
Principle among them, at the moment, Staff Sergeant Elmer "Echo" Baker, looking none too pleased at pulling this duty, and his cohorts Corporal Don Casaletta and PFC Margarita Suarez, the latter doing a pretty good job at impersonating the 'artist', while the others just looked like well, they looked like being out of uniform was more of a challenge than any number of battles, or even fatigues. She gestured them over, smiling to herself at their discomfiture, and motioned towards the waiting drinks.
"That," she said, decisively, "is not the rats piss the replicators produce, so I suggest you fortify yourselves before the fun starts. Commander Wallace and her friendly AI will be monitoring the situation from afar and we have more than enough stingers in place around the room and I presume on our various persons to cover most eventualities, so ... let's at least try to look like art lovers, eh, Staff?"
Sergeant Baker, a thirty year man even before his Extraction and subsequent 'rejuvenation', looked even more uncomfortable at the idea of drinking on operational duty but he took a glass and sipped at it carefully. It was a damn' fool set up, he thought to himself, but, hey ... this really wasn't bad wine ....
Jas was a bit disconcerted when his escort absented himself en route to the bloody gallery, promising to rejoin him later, but he carried on regardless. He was even more disconcerted when he discovered that he was virtually the first to arrive and ... well, yet more perturbed when the next guest to show up was the lovely Johann. Such a nice looking man, he thought, wrestling with the impulse to ignore the Group Rules and confer, and what a shame he's so resolutely straight, he thought, as the nice Doctor comprehensively blanked him.
Well, fuck you, too, he was muttering silently to himself when he saw a slightly startled expression pass across Johann's face and, looking round, saw that the latest arrivals were Pasquale and Steve, also members of the group, if 'minor' players and known art lovers, so maybe not that surprising to see at an exhibition, but ... all Rajata's innumerable warnings and his own knowledge of simple stats Jas might now be a professional wastrel but he had once been a promising mathematician suggested that something was up. Quite possibly more than one thing that woman in the ridiculous taffeta gown looked really rather nervous, he noted, almost despite himself might be wrong. Very, very wrong, in fact ... given that Doctor-to-be Tiffany had just come in, too ... and promptly been abandoned by her date a bulky sort of bloke, who had promptly backed into a corner where he was conferring quietly with the rugged looking guy standing by the drinks table ....
Shit, Jasi-boy, he was thinking to himself, wishing that his hangover would miraculously disappear, when Doctor-in-reality Johann did this macho-man shit, leaping suddenly to one side, rolling awhile across the floor and then making a break for the exit. Jas was almost wishing that he'd been quite so quick when the big bastard sort of bounced off the door which now sported a peculiar looking grey sheen and landed flat on his back on the tiles.
Which raised the stakes, somewhat, Jas felt, wondering where that hangover had gone quite so suddenly, whether he could ever be surprised again ....
Until the door opened once more and into the room came a woman Jas didn't know, followed closely ... by Rajata herself ....
Decurion Wallace, aware of her own limitations in physical conflict situations, had kept herself well out of the way while the group arrived, silently hoping that the rough, tough military types didn't do anything over the top. But, no even SSG Baker had reacted to Dr van der Maar's attempted heroics by simply hauling him to his feet and, keeping himself behind the man and therefore hard to kick or hit dusted him down and led him gently but oh, so firmly to a chair.
After which, he suggested suggested with the authority of decades as a senior NCO that everyone else might like to take a seat, too. And, like lambs to the slaughter which they probably thought they were, at that point the entire group did indeed sit down, mostly cross legged on the floor, except for Rajata, who remained by the door, grinning oddly, and Sonja, looking steely and basically holding her friend upright.
The Decurion stepped into the centre of the room, aware of the Navy guys automatically moving to cover her, and introduced herself.
"My name is Cynthia Wallace," she said, as calmly as she could manage, "and as you will all have realised by now, I think, I'm from the Confederacy ... and this is, I'm afraid, what in police jargon is known as a Mousetrap."
She paused, letting that sink in, as the Dr Johann person spat loudly on the floor and gave her his considered opinion on 'confederacy bastards'. She waved SSG Baker back before he could actively demonstrate his displeasure.
"Which is to say," she went on, projecting sweet reasonableness, "that we have reasons to want to talk to you. Or, at least, we have reasons for wanting Rajata to be able to talk to you. And that's all. Listen to what she has to say, discuss it amongst yourselves, make a decision ... or not. We won't be coercing you, or press ganging you or anything else. At the end of the evening, you want to go home, you go home. Or, if you decide you don't want to go home ... well, we'll deal with that, too.
"In the meantime, though, I think you might like to hear from Rajata herself."
It was a reasonable cue, she thought, but it didn't quite have the effect intended. When she looked, significantly, towards Rajata, it was to find a woman whose smile was now positively glassy and who would probably have crumpled into a heap if she hadn't been being held upright quite so carefully.
And then Sonja caught her eye and, very gently letting Rajata down, began to speak. Not loudly, certainly not aggressively, but with a steely assurance that contradicted everything Cynthia thought she knew about her.
"I," said Sonja, "am not from the Confederacy. I'm just an ordinary earth-bound human like the rest of you. But, I also happen to be a very old friend of Rajata's and I know that what Raja needs, now, is to talk to you lot. Largely because I'm her friend, I set all this up, albeit with a lot of help from the other people you don't know around here...."
She paused, looked around the room and, looking each of them firmly in the eye, waited for a response. She got one, eventually.
"So, if, as you claim, you're a friend of Rajata's", said Tiff, not bothering to disguise the disdain in her voice, "what are you doing associating with these fuckers, eh? Why have you lured us all trapped us all here?"
Cynthia was about to intervene, sensing the reaction of her colleagues, seeing the anger that flashed across Sonja's face. She didn't get the chance, being pre-empted by a voice she could only describe as sepulchral, so quiet that it would have been inaudible in any other context.
"Because," said Rajata, hauling herself upright with obvious effort, "these people may not be fuckers, may actually have interesting ideas, have made me - us an offer which I think we might want to discuss. I know its ...."
She was interrupted by Johann leaping to his feet, yelling something incoherent and lunging towards her only to fall, boneless, to the floor a moment later, while CPL Casaletta theatrically blew imaginary smoke off the end of his stinger.
"Which is the way it can go!" shouted Cynthia, aware that things had reached a crux. "Or, we you can talk. Fuck's sake, it's not that much to ask!"
They talked. They argued, they debated, they shouted and, in other circumstances, they would probably have come to blows. It went on for hours, Cynthia felt, startled to find that the whole thing had taken about 90 minutes, start to finish.
By which time, Johann, hit with the absolute minimum, stinger-wise, was compus mentis, again if probably aching like hell and some sort of conclusion seemed to be possible. Remarkably, Rajata appeared to gain strength throughout the process, gradually recovering herself and her natural authority until, as things reached what appeared to be their end, she was pacing the room, inflecting the debate with her humour, her intuition her ... self.
By which time, Cynthia and Sonja had established a bridgehead by the drinks table, where they had begun to set about the wine. And, as things drew to a close and violence ceased to be likely, Cynthia got the orbiting AI to formally stand down her co-opted support team, allowing the four of them to pile into the supplies, too.
It was SSG Baker, sitting on his haunches, one hand cradling a glass and the other, Cynthia noted, never far from his stinger, who asked the obvious question.
"OK, so these intellectual fuckwits finally appear to have decided not to be Swarm fodder. So, who gets to remind them about the concubine/sponsor side of things? You know, do the Extraction?"
Despite it all, Sonja laughed, knowing within herself the answer to that one ....