Episode 703: Dar Al Tabr, Part Three
Rina: Bozhe moi …
Joshua: I think that went well.
El Sahir takes Nika with him to the stable where the horses are saddled and waiting. They ride out to the cliff overlooking the compound and the mine. He reins in his mount and they talk.
El Sahir: Ahh, I find the Blue Sun people boorish. They always assume everyone out here is uneducated. Or had to have some sort of emotional issues to send them out. I lived in the Core for years. But … there are other things and when I retired I thought that this would be the place.
Nika: Retired from the Army?
El Sahir: What? The Army? No.
Nika: The Navy, rather?
El Sahir: Oh no. I'm not a fighter.
Nika: So where did you retire from?
El Sahir: I was in the Guild. The Companions Guild.
That's a pleasant surprise.
El Sahir: I was given an offer that was hard to resist by Al Tabr.
Nika: And so here you are.
El Sahir: (easily) Here I am.
Nika: Do you miss your old life?
El Sahir: I miss some aspects of it. Meeting new people all the time. Which is less common here.
Nika: I can imagine.
El Sahir: But I think that my sensibilities have served Tabr well and his people well, so … As best I can, I do what I can to protect them all.
Nika: I imagine he values your counsel quite highly. One of my best friends is a Companion.
El Sahir: Yes. (a beat) I did a little research. Your ship was once known as Equinox, is that right?
We've rechristened her Exeter, giving her back her illustrious name from her war career.
El Sahir: And …you were responsible for bringing down Ah Toy.
El Sahir: That tells me a great deal about you. Yes … She was ….
Nika: Evil Incarnate.
El Sahir: (quietly) Indeed. And you have no issues with a man who has a harem of a hundred and sixty five wives? Or is it okay because it's the culture?
Nika: He doesn't mistreat his wives?
El Sahir: What do you think? I would not say anything ill of my liege.
Nika looks thoughtful for a moment.
Nika: I do not approve of slavery.
El Sahir: And yet?
Nika: But I understand that certain cultures in the Verse still embrace it and I am but one person. Which means I can't obliterate it.
El Sahir: So you don't see the hypocrisy of fighting for independence and trying to win the favor of—
Nika: Oh, I see a great deal of hypocrisy in it.
El Sahir: But not enough to steer you in a different direction.
Nika: Not enough to steer me to the Alliance. I've seen a great many things in the past few years that makes it such that I cannot support them.
El Sahir: So the lives of a hundred and sixty five girls is not of consequence?
Nika: (evenly) I didn't say that either. Are you trying to feel me out as to whether or not I would go and break them out by force?
El Sahir: I haven't thought that but is that something you're thinking of?
El Sahir: Why not? Since you brought it up.
Nika: Quite frankly? Because they haven't asked.
El Sahir: So if they were to ask, you would … do what? Kill Al Tabr? And his men? Me? If I faced you and—not that I would fight.
El Sahir: So you wouldn’t do it.
Nika: I can't give you absolutes. I don't know what I would do until I'm faced with it.
El Sahir: I present to you, it.
El Sahir turns his horse around and points to the compound. Nika says nothing and by silent accord they return to the compound. It's late afternoon when they get back and Nika goes to Joshua's door and knocks.
Nika: (softly) Joshua, are you busy?
Joshua: (opening door) No.
Nika: I need you.
Joshua: Yes, Ma'am.
And he exits the suite and closes the door. She takes him out to the garden so they can walk and talk. Joshua can tell something's got her upset—the tall blonde is roiling inside.
Joshua: Captain, you are radiating.
Nika: (carefully) I cannot decide if I have just been asked to break out his entire zenana or not.
Joshua: By who? By El Sahir?
Joshua: And the reason? He's willing to free them for …?
Nika: I don't honestly know that he is.
Joshua: What's the reason he presented to you?
Nika: He presented to me that it was it is a hypocrisy for us to fight for independence when faced with a hundred and sixty women who are being held in slavery. And why is that okay with me? And why would I not do anything to fix the problem?
Joshua: (sighs) Oohh, it's one of those.
Joshua: So … the small and the now hypocrisy versus the large and the bigger scheme of things.
Nika: And I can't decide if he asks merely to …
Joshua: Test you?
Nika: Well, to learn … something. Or if he actually wants us to act on such a thing. (a beat) He's a former Companion.
That does lend a certain … flavor to the whole situation, doesn't it?
Joshua: Why did he stop being a Companion?
Nika: He was made an offer he couldn't refuse.
Joshua: So I think that's the other question, isn't it? Or maybe it isn't but why is he still here? Is he feeling that he is protecting the girls?
Nika: I get that impression, yes. He's at least trying to protect the people who live here.
Joshua: So from a practical standpoint, okay, from a purely practical standpoint that we got into our heads to free a hundred and sixty five girls from this compound, there is a better than 90% chance that some percentage of those girls get hurt or killed in an escape attempt.
Moving a hundred and sixty people in the middle of the night is going to be tough no matter what and we would have three dozen armed security personnel to evade on top of everything else.
Nika: We would have to convince the women themselves to rise up. It would be the only way to do it.
Or somehow we or they could take out the security guards or enough of them to allow us to escape. Even so, that would make noise and take time and might give the game away. It would also require advance planning with the women themselves. This is not something you can do unprepared and on the fly.
Nika: Certainly there are enough of them to change the balance of power if they wish to do so. Which is kind of—I don't know, maybe it's just me but….
Joshua: Here's the other thing, and I rely on you for this rather than on me since I don’t have the experience previously but we're not on our own anymore. We're in the military. I am reasonably certain our orders did not consist of 'go make a good impression and oh by the way if you happen to see something like women in a harem, free them and really piss off the Sheikh.' Now, I don't know how much leeway we have and if we don't have the leeway to do it, does that mean … Does that mean we're working for the wrong side? Or does it mean we're working for the military? (frustrated laugh) I don't know the answer to that. I'm sure you asked. Does he mistreat them? I'm assuming any man who has a hundred and sixty five wives probably does not treat them all with grace, respect, and dignity.
Nika runs her fingers through her hair and fists them. She looks daggers at her XO.
Nika: You remember the black hole of despair?
Joshua: You're not there yet. Stop. Look. If you want me to do some information gathering, then I can do some information gathering.
Nika: I would like to know the purpose for which this was proposed to me. Is he asking just to get a feel for us or is he looking for something?
Nika: Meanwhile I'm going to send a message to Christian and see if he can find out for me under what conditions he left the Guild. (nails Joshua with a look) Don't say anything to the others, cuz if this … (fails)
Joshua: Yes. If for no other reason than if you say anything …
Nika: (finishes) It becomes a debate and I don't think that we as a crew get to weigh in on this choice. If there's an absolutely pressing reason to step into this, then you and I have to make that choice.
Joshua: All right. I'll get going on the investigation, then.
They break up. Joshua goes to El Sharif to sound him out and possibly the girls too. Nika goes back to her suite to send the message to Christian.
Joshua knows that given the laws that govern women's lives in this culture that he cannot just walk up to a woman and chat her up. He waits until we're gathered with the Sheikh at our midday meal and tries to Read the wives the Sheikh has brought to serve him at table. Joshua looks for any sign of desperation, despair, and abuse. Conversely, he is also looking for signs of contentment, well being, and affection. In short, he's trying to get a better picture of what's going on. He gets nothing conclusive. Joshua tries another avenue of investigation. When the appropriate moment comes up, he asks to talk to El Sahir privately. Nika's warned him that El Sahir was very like Christian, prone to play Devil's Advocate every time she said anything. Joshua and El Sahir go off to talk after the meal is over. They sit in a courtyard next to a splashing fountain, the better to thwart eavesdroppers.
El Sahir: I see your Captain has talked to you.
Joshua: Yes. She is … torn. And I understand why. Torn between, in some respects, duty and personal decisions.
El Sahir: I would think that these two would be, to abuse a phrase, closely allied.
Joshua: And it's possible they are.
El Sahir: The reason I say that is if one of your goals was to get allegiance, who would be more likely to support you? Someone who has grown fat at the teat of the Alliance, or a community of people liberated?
Joshua pauses to get a feel if El Sahir is playing him. It's occurred to Joshua that El Sahir has some self-interest involved in this. The compound is huge, sprawling, and luxurious. It's very very nice. What servant of a King doesn't dream of taking it all for himself, from time to time? What Joshua wants to know is if the majority of El Sahir's reasons for staging a coup fall under self-interest or selfless concern for the welfare of the people here. Joshua Reads him and gets the sense that El Sahir believes that everything will pass to him if the Sheikh dies, but Joshua cannot be entirely sure if he's reading the man correctly.
Because the main thing Joshua notices is that El Sahir, like all Companions, has remarkable self-control over his expression and emotions. That alone makes him hard to read. He exhibits that trademark serene carriage of Companions, like a perfectly full moon reflected in a perfectly still pond.
Time to toss a rock in that pond and see what the ripples stir up.
Joshua: Might I ask, why you … left the Guild? It may be a personal problem but I thought Companions stayed Companions.
El Sahir: All Companions eventually retire.
Joshua: Well, yes, but—
El Sahir: I wasn't interested in enhancing myself beyond what nature had given me. So there is that. And the tastes of the men and women of the Core was such that my clientee had become mostly … people I had been with in the past.
El Sahir: Tabr needed me for a … variety of purposes and I saw .. Ah, perhaps it was vanity of sorts, but a harem would be something akin to a Temple.
Joshua: But it's not turned out that way?
El Sahir: I believe I have done good for … the women—and men—of Dar Al Tabr, but as you say, things are changing. (a beat) I don't know what will happen but it seems to me that … occasionally when the crops are dry, Allah sends the storm.
Joshua: (small smile) Allah is mysterious in His ways.
There is a long pause between them. Then:
Joshua: If a storm were to arrive, you would … shelter the girls?
El Sahir: As best I could. They are fairly sheltered as it is. They are … ah, flaunted like treasure on occasion but they are … not his most valuable possession. He spends more time defending his mine.
Joshua: He does have … certainly more guards than we have people. Which … is … a challenge. Should it be something we have to worry about. (sighs) I need to talk with the Captain again.
El Sahir: I should warn you that the men from Blue Sun may be offering a buy-out. I don't know if Al Tabr will take it but it's … more than I'm sure that your people could afford.
Joshua: I have no doubts about that in my mind. Do you think it's—you don't know what the figure is, do you?
El Sahir: I don't know.
Joshua: When are they planning to make this buy-out?
El Sahir: They haven't made the offer yet but they have … been making inquires. I believe they are trying to suss out—this is one thing that amuses me about the corporate culture of the Core. They are willing to spend more money than this entire planet has to obtain this mine, but don't want to pay a credit more than they need to. And so they want to find out what his price will be.
Joshua: I'm familiar with that mentality as well, sir. Thank you for talking with me.
Joshua brings everything to a close with a few minutes more of polite conversation, then makes a discreet exit to go find Nika.
Joshua: Captain. (sighs) He seems … at least as far as I can tell, mostly straightforward in his intent for wanting the girls free. But he's a Companion. They are … trained in many ways to be able to withstand the kind of thing that I … do.
Nika: They are also trained to deceive on a regular basis.
Joshua: That is also true.
Nika: So if he's acting on Al Tabr's orders to feel us out to see if we would just blast him to Kingdom Come…?
Joshua: It's certainly possible, but here's the thing. He didn’t seem to be lying to me as far as I could tell, in general. He said that the Blue Sun representatives are looking to buy out and have a substantial offer on the table.
Nika: (long sigh) Ohhhhhhh crap.
Joshua: Which he is not sure the Sheikh would take or not. But if he's at the point where he is not sure, that means there is a non-zero chance that the Sheikh might take it. And he is obviously, underneath it all, angling to be the person in power when it is done.
Nika: Yeah, but if we step into this and put him in power …?
Joshua: If we step into this and put him in power, he is much more likely to be friendly to us.
Nika: Wow. Talk about power brokering.
Joshua: Question is, whether it serves our needs as well as his at the same time. It seems that it does. The problem is that there are 3 dozen guards and we would have to find a way to deal with them.
Nika: And if we free one hundred and sixty five women, where are they going to go?
Joshua: They are not going to go anywhere. I don't think any plan we do would involve freeing the women. The plan is to disarm the current power structure and putting our friend, the retired Companion, in its place and trusting him to treat the women as they should be treated which seems to be why he is here in the first place.
Nika: (quietly) Hmm. I love the hypocrisy.
Joshua: What? That he … that he's still here? He seems to feel that he is doing as much good as is capable of him here.
Nika: No, I was thinking that here we've taken Ah Toy down to free a bunch of women, and yet in this case, instead of rescuing these women, we're looking into whether or not we can destabilize the power structure and leave them where they are.
Joshua: That's not necessarily leaving them where they are. That might be freeing them as well. If the power structure is different then—he doesn't strike me as someone who needs a hundred and sixty five wives to pump up his male ego.
Nika: Then it's time to take this to the crew.
Joshua: Agreed. I can already tell you roughly how Rina's gonna vote on this one.
Nika: Oh, I already know what Rina's vote's gonna be.
Joshua: No, I don't know it for sure, but if I were a betting man …
Nika: The other thing that … Hm. No, we'll talk about it when we get the crew together.
Which they do, in short order, in a private room.
Joshua: So, everybody. Smooth as silk.
Nika: You know what's going on when he says shit like that, right?
Arden: Yeah. (to Joshua) You got your mesh on?
He actually doesn't have any mesh anymore. But it doesn't stop Arden from needling Joshua about it anyway.
Nika: We've been approached somewhat on the down low—
Joshua: Actually, sideways. Down low is a wholllllllle 'nuther expression. Trust me on that one.
Nika: Blue Sun may be moving for a buy-out.
Rina: (narrowly) How much are they going to put on the table?
Nika: There's no way the Independents can bring up enough. There's no way—there's absolutely not enough resources.
Joshua: As El Sahir said, they were willing to spend more than the planet was worth in some respects.
Rina: Yes. I have the picture.
Nika: So … There has been the subtle suggestion of a destabilization of the current power structure of this regime.
Joshua: You're really burying the lead on this one, Captain.
Nika: Yes. I really am.
Arden: That's pretty subtle. I'm not sure I understand.
Nika: I'm not sure I want to say this out loud.
Joshua: Would you like me to, Captain?
Nika: Yes. Go for it. Please. Because I really don't want to do this.
So Joshua lays it out for the rest of us.
Joshua: El Sahir. He is a former Companion.
Rina: Oh, really.
Arden: That's unusual, I would imagine.
Joshua: A little bit.
Beglan: Didn't you fly with a male Companion for a couple years?
Arden: It's still unusual.
Joshua: I guess it still actually is—
Nika: He likes the fact that we took Ah Toy down.
Joshua: He does and is helping the girls as much as possible—
Rina: (Groks it) Oh no.
Joshua: Yes. And he has never directly, obviously, but subtly suggested that he would be in favor of us making some move.
Nika: He will back the Independents if we put him in power.
Kiera: But if we fail, we've successfully turned the Sheikh immediately to the Alliance.
Joshua: Here's the thing. If Blue Sun really does have a buy-out that the Sheikh is interested in, then it's already lost. Now, let's say it's a 50% chance that it's already lost, so yeah, it's a gamble. But on the other hand …
Kiera: DO you have a 100% assurance that he's gonna give—
Joshua: There's no way I can get 100% assurance. As far as I can tell within my abilities, he seemed to be believing what he said.
Nika: The way he approached me really did revolve around the idea that we had taken out someone as horrible as Ah Toy.
Rina: All right. I have a question. So, we pull off the palace coup. We remove Al Tabr. We put El Sahir in his place. There are how many guards? Three dozen? How loyal are they to the current man in charge and how loyal will they be to the man we put in his place? How much resistance can we expect from them?
Nika: I don't know.
Joshua: We don't know.
Rina: Is there a way we can ask?
Joshua: "Excuse me, are you interested in participating in a survey, sir? How loyal are you to the current Sheikh. If there were to be a hypothetical coup …"
Rina: (pissed) I meant El Sahir. This is not a man who would have suggested this without doing research first, right?
Joshua: Yes, I understand. I agree. I'm making light because this is a situation but you are right. Don't roll your eyes at me, Rina.
He points his finger at her for emphasis.
Joshua: (softly) Don't roll your eyes at me. Don't do it.
Rina: (sweetly) Do you treasure that finger, Joshua?
Nika: Boys and girls.
Joshua: Yes, Ma'am. She's right, though. It's worth trying to ask.
Rina: Because that's exactly what he's asking us to do. We put him in power, he does right by the girls, correct?
We are not without some information of our own. Nika reveals Christian's reply to her message. The time stamp puts the lag-time at fifteen minutes.
Christian: I do not know this El Sahir person myself but I will send something to the Core. It's going to be hours or days.
The message ends there.
Joshua: So we're not likely to get any news in time.
Nika: No, probably not.
Rina: And El Sahir is probably not his name when he was a Companion. It could have been John Smith.
Nika: Oh, thanks.
Rina: (raising a brow) How many names do I have, Captain? Hm?
Kiera: How many names do you have?
Rina holds up four fingers. Nika sighs and sums it up for us.
Nika: The bottom line on this is: Are we willing to take the gamble? Our orders were to keep relations with this mine. There was no mention of who had to be in charge of it.
Kiera: Well you only die once. Why not?
Rina: Excuse me.
Nika: She's died a couple different times, so you know … (a beat) … I actually died once too.
Kiera: I only wanna die once.
Nika: He's approached me under the guise of freeing these people but I gotta tell ya, how much of that is playing us to get us to what he wants? And I am concerned about that possibility.
Rina: Yes. How do we know he is not going to crayfish once we put him in power, hm?
Joshua: That's actually one I haven't heard either.
Rina: Is that not what we say on the Rim? Us backward people?
She explains. It's a sudden reversal on one's word, much like a crayfish sudden and powerful backing away from a predator.
Joshua: To the best of my abilities, I don’t think he's playing us. That is not a 100% guarantee by any means. He's a Companion. But … I think I would rather gamble and lose on a cause that fits the Independents' general philosophy than do nothing and hope that it comes out for the best.
Kiera: (joking) I would rather leap into it with the Don Quixote power of belief!
Arden: I'm just concerned over if this is an actual true scenario. It seems awfully convenient.
Joshua: Okay. So, once again, to the best of my abilities, he seems like he's telling the truth about how he feels how the girls are being treated. And sure, I certainly don't doubt that there is some self-interest there. If you were him and you thought you could put yourself put in power and get the benefit of the compound and 36 guards and the Thorium mine and in your mind, do something good, then yeah. But there's no way to know that unless somebody thinks they can slip in and ask the girls. We’ve got a few days—
Beglan: I'm not wearing a dress.
Kiera: (kindly) It's okay, Beggar. You're a comely lad, but I don't think you can pull it off.
Arden: You're not wearing a dress.
Joshua: So the question is, do we have enough information to make a decision? And if we do, what's our choice? I think we do.
Nika: At the bottom of it all, Blue Sun has the money to buy out the Sheikh at some point. Whether it's this particular offer or they'll come at it with an offer now and he says, "Uh, that's too small I'm not going to take one that small," and they come back with another one, it seems to me that's pretty much a done deal at some point. Cuz there's no way anybody on the Independent side can come up with enough money to buy this man out.
Rina: So you think El Sahir would say no, no matter how much money they throw at him?
Nika: I'm saying it's a definite that this mine will wind up in Alliance or Blue Sun hands. Or Blue Sun's hands and thereby the Alliance's hands. I'd say it's pretty much a given. It's a matter of when, not if. If we destabilize it and put El Sahir in charge, or help him take charge …
Rina: We're just buying time.
Nika: … Maybe. Maybe we're just buying time or maybe he actually does believe enough in the right of self-determination to make that allegiance with us.
Kiera: With the Blue Sun people here, and us obviously destabilizing it, and it changing hands, does that precipitate a Blue Sun/Alliance attack on the mine? Knowing it's changed hands at our instrumentation?
Now there's a thought.
Nika: There's the question of how many do we have of a Blue Sun crew on a ship parked somewhere?
Joshua: I won't necessarily say it's true but these guys, Glen and Alan, they don't look like Human Resources to me. They don't look like the put-on-the-blue-gloves-and-kill-everybody-in-sight sort of-guys.
Beglan: They'll whip out their checkbook.
Joshua: Yeah, I'm less worried about them pulling out guns.
Nika: That's not what she's asking. She's more worried about them running home and tellin' Mama that we just took the mine and the Alliance carpet-bombing it.
Joshua: I don't know. It's certainly possible.
Beglan: What would your dad do if he knew the mine changed hands?
Kiera: My dad would just renegotiate.
Beglan: Why would it be any different for Blue Sun?
Kiera: I'm not worried about Blue Sun. I'm worried about the Alliance.
If Blue Sun wants a resource, it's not going to blow it up. Blue Sun is in the business to make money, not kill it. Blowing the mine up is the sort of thing that governments do, because they aren't in the business to make money.
Joshua: But Blue Sun is the inbred first cousin of the Alliance.
Kiera: So is Blue Sun here as a representative of the Alliance or just a company, as I tend to know them? Like Veridian.
Joshua: Another thing. While this place is of strategic importance, it's not of enough strategic importance that it has both sides sending in fleets to take it over. Yes, they would all like to have the Thorium mine—Blue Sun, Alliance, Independents—but I'm not sure if the Alliance has the manpower or fleet power to carpet bomb the whole thing.
Rina: (shaking head) The Sheik has the mine rigged to blow. All you need is one good bunker-buster.
Kiera: So I guess what it comes down to is this, Joshua. Do you like him? Not "I like him and I want to roll him," but do you like him?