“… a press conference on the eve of the bill’s signing saw President Jones laud Congress’s ‘ongoing efforts to preserve freedom of enterprise and empower businesses to continue strengthening the American economy’; he was joined in his statement by several of the senators responsible for the bill…”
Qahtani wasn’t paying attention to the newscaster’s voice, per se, but it was difficult to ignore even in the bathroom and over the running water. Whenever she was here, Nahid liked to crank the volume of Qahtani’s television to roughly the decibel level of a heavy metal band playing a live show on board a mid-launch space shuttle, claiming that the folly of her adolescence—“Too many loud concerts and not enough ear protection”—had left her hearing none too sharp. Personally, Qahtani was not convinced that Nahid wasn’t simply doing it so that she could poke fun at her lover’s dour reaction and remark that she looked like she’d “been weaned on a pickle” for her own amusement.
She didn’t catch much in the way of amusement, however, when she heard Nahid jeer, “Oh, cut the bullshit! Empower businesses, my ass!” Qahtani grabbed a towel and dragged it across her face gracelessly until it was dry, and stepped out of the bathroom to find Nahid sitting up in bed with the covers bunched up around her, glaring at the television as if it’d dealt her an unforgivable insult.
“I’m flattered that you think my television screen is a direct line of communication to the president,” Qahtani drawled, glancing around at the various articles of clothing strewn about the floor like the remnants of some terrible massacre and stooping down to collect whatever was within reach of her gangly arms. Nahid snorted, and shook her head ruefully.
“It’s bald-faced chicanery, that’s all it is. They expect me to swallow this crap about helping out businesses while I’m struggling to make ends meet back at the shop? Bullshit. When they talk about businesses, what they really mean is the borderline crime syndicates that hang out up on the fiftieth story of the city and line the senators’ pockets so they keep giving them breaks. You meet with businesspeople during those meetings of yours, Christina, but you’re a technician, you don’t know what it’s like. They’re fucking strangling us.”
Qahtani, preoccupied with yanking on a pair of trousers one onerously long leg at a time, didn’t answer; instead, Nahid fixated on the television screen again as the newscaster’s face vanished and was replaced by a view of one of the bill’s sponsors, shaking hands with Jones as the latter surrendered the podium to him. “Ah, and here comes the honourable gentleman from Massachusetts,” she spat venomously. “He’s taken more cash from Zetatech than I’ll make in a lifetime of running my shop, and is an inspiring example to invertebrates around the world. If he had the faintest shred of dignity left, he’d step up to that microphone and tell the whole country just how corporations like Zetatech are screwing over small businesses and common people.”
“Well, you know—“ came Qahtani’s muffled response; she was midway through pulling on an old shirt, and was apparently having some difficulty navigating her head to the appropriate hole. “—if he doesn’t toe the line, he’s going to end up out of a job, or worse. It’s easy to sit in bed and criticise when you’re not the one running for office.” She finally managed to tug the shirt over her head, glanced at Nahid, and added, “Ah. I discern from the look you are now giving me that the correct response was ‘Yes, Nahid, very true, Nahid’.”
“Too late for that, sunshine,” Nahid retorted, but then she sighed and leaned forward, hugging the covers to her chest. “You’re right, of course,” she conceded glumly. “I give these jackasses shit for selling out, but what am I doing about it? I’m not running for office. I’m not trying to change the system. I’m sitting in my girlfriend’s apartment and bitching at her TV screen.” And then, turning to look at Qahtani, she smiled sweetly, and added, “While she dresses for a month-long business trip, no less. I’m sorry. You don’t want to hear this crap now.”
“No, it’s fine,” Qahtani said quietly, returning Nahid’s gaze with something indiscernible. “I like that you care so much.”
Nahid shook her head, extricating herself from the covers and hopping out of bed. “It’s not a proper way to send you off for a month,” she declared firmly. “Let me at least take you out to breakfast before you go.”
“I need to pick up some things before I meet up with my cohorts,” Qahtani demurred, nodding vaguely towards the backpack she’d packed earlier and set waiting by the bedroom door. And then, with a flash of that rare dalliance which surfaced only often enough to complement that strange and reserved charisma of hers, she said, “I think you gave me an entirely proper send-off last night, anyway.”
Nahid didn't appear altogether convinced, but she let the matter go. Instead, she cocked her head with a smile, and said, "You'll call me every now and then at least, won't you?" It was a strange request-- she'd never said anything like that to Qahtani before, had never expected her to call during her 'business trips'. She wasn't sure what to make of it.
Wordlessly, she nodded, and Nahid beamed.
There was nothing altogether remarkable about the designated meeting spot—an old trading warehouse by the looks of it, presumably rented or purchased by Rashall after its previous owners had gone out of business. Qahtani had taken a seat outside a quaint little café—or, well, something that passed for the Dregs’ Frankenstein notion of what a quaint little café might be—across the street from the building; she’d head in soon, sure, but she wasn’t about to go trotting in blind.
Input command, she instructed her suit, and like a bear shaking itself awake after a period of hibernation, it emerged from dormancy; she was used to its intensity, dangerously more powerful than any legal skin-suit, was accustomed to what might have felt to a neophyte like the pit of one’s stomach dropping in dread upon the activation of the suit. Function: analyse. Object… She inputted the coordinates of the designated meeting building, and in an instant, the skin-suit, eager to put its illicit potency to use, fed her the information, and she set to silently burrowing her way into the building’s systems.
Rashall’s safeguards were fairly rudimentary—That, or they’re so sophisticated as to evade even me. I doubt it. She espied no potential threats in the building’s security systems, though when curiosity and perhaps a hint of cheek prompted a prodding incursion into the internal surveillance programmes, she encountered unexpectedly stiff resistance. Just as well: she backed off, satisfied with what she’d found, and instructed the skin-suit to go dormant again.
She stood up, stretching languidly like a cat after a meal, and made for the meeting spot.
Qahtani strolled through the lobby of the building at a leisurely pace; but for the lift which Qahtani, whose business was confined to the first floor, had no use for, there was only a single doorway leading out from the lobby. And behind that doorway, of course, she found Donovan Rashall.
She was not in the habit of noticing people, not unless she had a particularly worthwhile reason to notice them and even then only if she could summon the effort. In this case, she could; after all, this was a prospective employer (among the various other things Donovan Rashall was). Thus, she offered something that resembled a salute which halfway through lost interest in being a salute. In return, he offered a smile that lost interest in false sincerity.
"Qahtani," he said as a greeting and extended a hand toward the chairs at her end of the table, "can't say I recall how long it has been but I was certainly pleased to see your name among the applicants. I trust that you and, Nahid is it? I trust you two are well."
Qahtani had been in this business much too long to miss an obvious power play-- albeit a mild one: she knew, and Rashall knew, that anybody who knew her by her legal name rather than the various illicit identities and aliases she had at her disposal could find out about Nahid with minimal digging. She was, after all, only the most recent in a lengthy and not always asynchronous succession of affairs, none of which Qahtani had made any real effort to conceal.
It opened up a sterling opportunity to match and beat his move with something she herself knew, courtesy of her own incursions into Rashall's background. The notion never occurred to Qahtani, though; she merely made to take a seat at the table, answering languidly as she did so, "So we are. She yells at my television a lot. It's taken some getting used to."
"That's good to hear, though, I assume you saw my asking for what it was, I assure you a threat was not part of it," he responded, being more transparent than she expected, "it's not often I'm forced to admit defeat to singular person but I'd like to be clear that there's nothing but admiration on my end for someone able to best the considerable resources I had thrown against you."