Bitter 352

President Wu didn’t seem too perturbed by Mum’s icy demeanour. More fool him, thought Britta.

“I am not threatening you or your family,” said President Wu via the translator. “The young lady questioned the honesty of my people. I admit they failed in that regard. I want her to know the same mistake will not be made twice. I will always be honest with you, no matter how uncomfortable it makes you, or my own people.”

The people around him certainly didn’t look happy with the way things were going.

“The facts are the facts,” said the translator once he had listened to the next flood of Mandarin. “We cannot allow the project to stall, and your daughter is holding a vital part of the process back. I liken it to the purchase of real estate. If you need an entire area for a building, but one landholder is refusing to sell his plot, then he has a great advantage that he can use to raise the price. That is the way of business. But if he refuses to sell at all, making the entire investment worthless, then he is a courting a great deal of danger. This is the way of the world.”

He was polite and clear, or at least that was how the translator portrayed him. But he was also relentlessly insistent. He claimed not to be making threats, but somehow managed to make every sentence sound like a sword being unsheathed. And that was through an interpreter. How much more intimidating would it be if she was hearing it from his own lips?

Suddenly Britta had an awful vision of things going horribly wrong. They would refuse to take no for an answer, force her onto the plane, and take her back to China, where they could keep her in a lab like a specimen.

The big driver, these men in suits, the women who looked like athletes, there was no way to prevent them dragging her onto the plane if they wanted to. What could her parents do in the face of outright violence? Ask the government to intervene? They were hardly going to send the SAS into China to rescue her.

It would be too late. Rich, powerful men didn’t worry about the law or creating diplomatic issues. The UN sent people like that polite notes asking for an explanation if and when they had a moment to spare.

Her hands were trembling and she felt sweat beads forming on her forehead. What was she doing putting everyone in danger? For what? So she could avoid playing a video game. It was stupid.

Cave, cave, cave.

“Do you honestly need her that much?” said Dad, sounding more interested in the fate of New World than worried about his own.

President Wu spoke again, but was interrupted by the men standing either side of him. Whatever he had just said had got them quite excited. President Wu raised a hand and barked at them. It really sounded like a bark.

Once they’d quieted, which they did almost immediately after being barked at, he spoke again. There was no way to know if he was repeating the comment that had got his colleagues excited, or if he was saying something new.

“I am being nothing but honest,” said the translator. “It is not a desired outcome, but she is a vital part of the project. Her presence is required. Not a copy, not her readings, her physical presence. We are forced to give you whatever you want, you have but to name it. If you want this jet, it is yours.” He copied the hand gesture the President had made a few seconds ago, indicating the aeroplane sitting behind them.

It would be nice to own a luxury jet, but they didn’t really have anywhere to park it. But more importantly, Britta realised he had just preempted Dad’s idea to offer them a detailed download of her central nervous system. Apparently that would not be good enough.

“For how long?” asked Mum.

There was a pause from the man who up till this point had been very loquacious. He adjusted his glasses, then spoke in a different tone. Much more sombre, which Britta would have thought impossible.

“We do not know at this time,” said the translator. “All our efforts are aimed at working on a solution, but I cannot say with any certainty.” The apologetic look in the translator’s eyes was an uncanny match for the one in the President’s.

They were being so open about the whole thing, it was hard not to feel flattered by it. They were willing to tell her all the horrible things they were prepared to do, but only so they didn’t have to do them. There was a heavy implication in the warm air that this was special treatment.

Britta felt an increasing level of discomfort. This man was clearly a great businessman, a great negotiator. Why would he offer her whatever price she wished to name? How could that be good for his business? And for every generous offer of anything she wanted, there was a blood-chilling warning gently tossed in to complete the package. It was hard to know which she should respond to, greed or fear.

“You aren’t being honest,” said Britta, croaking on the words slightly as her throat dried up. “You say you are, but even now, you have those glasses that let you hear everything we say, while you force us to listen to only what you choose, through him.” She pointed at the translator, and then dropped her hand because it felt rude to point. “I feel like you’re going to take advantage of me, no matter what I decide. It’s not a very nice feeling.”

There was silence from across the tarmac. Then President Wu snapped his fingers and one of the women came forward, swishing her hips like a model on a catwalk. She was wearing glasses, just like the men. He pointed at Britta, and the woman walked out of the group, taking off her glasses as she approached. She held them out for Britta to take.

Britta’s hands were still shaking, but she forced them to stop as she took the glasses. She wasn’t sure what she would see when she put them on. She had been told they translated, but was that all they did. Back at the APE facility, Clark had glasses that could control a whole roomful of holograms. What would these reveal when she put them on?

There was only one way to find out, so she raised them to her face and slid the arms past her ears.

“Oh,” said Britta, looking around her. “I wasn’t expecting this.”

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