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Chapter Four

Fine, misty rain drizzled down from a dim, gray sky. The brisk wind drove the droplets in billowing waves, almost (but not quite) like fog, and the air was cold, its edge sharpened by the approach of winter. The battered old ground car’s side windows had been patched with tape, drafts probed through its interior, and its aged heater’s valiant battle against the chill was dwindling toward defeat. Water splashed against the vehicle’s underside as it jolted down the potholed surface road, and the passenger side’s old-fashioned wiper blade was frozen uselessly in place.

Indiana Graham hunched forward in the driver’s seat, leaning over the wheel and bending down to peer through the lower portion of his side of the windshield where the equally old-fashioned fan-powered defroster had actually managed to produce a very inconveniently placed clear patch. His coat was thick and reasonably warm, although it was also badly worn, but he wore neither hat nor gloves. The slender young woman huddled in the passenger’s seat who looked enough like him to have been his sister (because she was) was wearing gloves, but she had her hands tucked into her armpits, anyway. Her breath steamed slightly, and she looked thoroughly miserable.

The car splashed through a deeper, wider puddle, throwing up wings of water on either side. Some of that water splashed in through the tape-repaired rear side window, and she grimaced as it hit her right cheek.

“Ugh! Do you think you could’ve found a deeper puddle, Indy?” she demanded, wiping the muddy water off her face with a gloved palm.

“Sorry, Max,” the driver took his eye off the road long enough to dart a smile at her. “I’ll try, but it’ll be hard. Would you settle for one that’s just a lot wider? I only ask because I see one coming up ahead.”

“Very funny.” Mackenzie Graham leaned over to look through his side of the windshield, and her eyes widened. “Indy, don’t you dare!”

“Sorry,” her brother repeated, perhaps a shade more seriously than before, “but the only way across is through.”

She glared at him, but she couldn’t seem to produce her customary voltage. Probably because Indiana was obviously correct. This pothole stretched clear across the road, and while the security fences that paralleled the roadway were old and neglected, sagging with age, they were still sufficient to confine the decrepit old ground car to the paved (more or less) surface.

Indiana gave her an apologetic smile and tapped the brake, slowing down as they approached the wind-rippled expanse of muddy water. The front wheels dropped into it with a splash that jolted both of them, and the car’s motion took on a distinct floatiness. More water sprayed up on either side, although not so high this time. Then the rear wheels dropped into the same hole and Mackenzie was afraid they were going to lose traction entirely. But they continued churning forward with a lurching, muddy sort of determination, and she grimaced and raised her feet as water found its way in through small rust holes, flooding the floorboards. The incoming tide rose to almost a centimeter in depth, they slowed still further, and she braced herself for the thought of climbing out in the middle of their own private lake when the car finally bogged down. But then—with one last, bouncing sway—they broke free of the pothole and regained solid ground.

“I was really afraid we might not make it that time,” Indiana said, as if he’d read her mind and was voicing her thought for her. She gave him a speaking look, and he shrugged. “Hey, I didn’t pick the spot for this meeting, you know!”

“Yeah, I do know,” she agreed.

She didn’t look any happier, and it was Indiana’s turn to grimace in acknowledgment. She was the organizer, the one who kept track of details, but she was also the voice of caution. He was the natural born point man, the fellow who just had to get out in front, couldn’t seem to leave well enough alone or settle for a life of grim, gray obedience to their “betters.” Their father had been like that . . . which was how he’d ended up sentenced to a thirty-five-T-year term in Terrabore Maximum Security Prison.

So far, Mackenzie had prevented Indy from joining him there, and he was in favor of keeping things that way. All the same, both of them realized that at least some risks had to be run if they were going to do anything about getting their father (and several thousand other prisoners) out of the none-too-gentle arms of General Tillman O’Sullivan’s Seraphim System Security Police.

Among other things.

“I only wish I knew why the meeting got moved all the way out here,” Mackenzie went on after a moment. “I don’t like how easy it would be for O’Sullivan or Shelton to just ‘disappear’ us in a place like this without anyone ever noticing.”

“Believe me, the same thought’s occurred to me,” Indiana said. “On the other hand, they don’t really need to get us out in the country to do that, do they? In fact, the more I think about it, the more sense it would make for them to do exactly the opposite. Come in with all sirens screaming and bust us in the middle of the capital, I mean. SWAT teams everywhere, scags on the rooftops . . . Think about the statement that would make!”

Mackenzie shivered with more than just the cold as her all too lively imagination pictured the scene her brother had just described.

“Golly gee, thanks, Indy,” she said sourly. “That ought to be good for the odd nightmare or two.”

“Well, there is a counter argument to their doing anything of the sort,” he said cheerfully. “If they bust us publicly, they’re effectively admitting there’s a genuine independence movement cooking away under the surface. I don’t think they’d want to do that—especially after what’s been going on over in the Madras Sector.”

“Which means it really might make a lot of sense for them to get us out in the boonies this way before they pounce, after all,” his sister pointed out in an even more sour tone.

“Well, yeah.” Indiana nodded. “Come down to it, though, we’ve gotta take a chance or two if we want to pull this off. Besides, all the codes were right, Max. If O’Sullivan’s scags had all of that, they wouldn’t have to lure us anywhere. They’d probably already know exactly who we are and exactly where we live, too, and they’d just’ve come calling in the middle of the night, instead.”

“You’re making me feel enormously better with every word,” she told him with a glare, and he shrugged.

“Just considering all the possibilities. And while I’m at it, what I’m actually doing is pointing out that this almost certainly isn’t a trap because there are so many other ways they could have dealt with us if they knew about us in the first place and that was what they wanted to do.”

She made a face at him and turned back around to sit straight in her own seat, yet she had to admit he had a point. To her surprise, that actually did make her feel better. Quite a bit, in fact.

“There’s the turn,” she said, removing her right hand from her left armpit to point through the rain-streaked window beside her.

“Got it.”

Indiana guided the ground car through the open, dilapidated gate in the security fence. The rain was beginning to come down harder, turning into distinct drops rather than the fine, drifting mist it had been, and he pulled under the overhead cover of the deserted loading dock with a distinct sense of relief. Not only would it protect the car (such as it was, and what there was of it) from the rain, but it also offered at least some protection against the SSSP’s overflights.

The Seraphim System’s indigenous industrial and technical base left a lot to be desired, as the use of something as ancient and old-fashioned as asphalt rather than ceramacrete even here in the planetary capital of Cherubim indicated. But that didn’t mean better tech was completely unavailable if the price was right, and the scags, as General O’Sullivan’s security troopers were universally (and with very little affection) known, tended to get the best off-world equipment money could buy. Even the Seraphim Army had been known to express the occasional pang of envy, but President Jacqueline McCready knew where to invest her credits when it came to “system security.” Which meant the SSSP had first call on the treasury . . . and a large and capable stable of surveillance platforms.

Not even the scags had an unlimited supply of them, however. And serviceability was often an issue, since the Seraphim education system didn’t turn out the best trained maintenance techs in the explored galaxy. So the odds were against any of them being used to keep an eye on such a dilapidated and useless stretch of the Rust Belt, as the once-thriving wasteland on Cherubim’s perimeter had come to be known. There hadn’t been anything worth worrying about out here since the transstellars like Krestor Interstellar and Mendoza of Córdoba had moved in and eliminated Seraphim’s once vibrant small-business sector. These days, either you worked as a good little helot for your out-system masters or you didn’t work at all. And God help you if you thought you could scrape up a little startup capital and try to change that situation.

That was what had happened to Bruce Graham.

Mackenzie rolled down her battered window and looked out, peering into the gloomy shadows which had gathered in the corners of the loading dock. It was still only late afternoon, but what with the rain and the onset of winter it looked a lot later (and darker), and she squinted as she tried to make out details.

“I don’t see anybody,” she said after a moment, her voice more than a little nervous.

“I don’t either,” Indiana acknowledged. “On the other hand, we’re a couple of minutes early. He may still be on his way. Or—”

He broke off as a man stepped out of the dim recess from which he’d apparently been examining the ground car. The newcomer moved calmly and unhurriedly, with his collar turned up against the cold and a soft hat of a style which had once been called a “fedora” pulled well down. He looked like a mid-level manager, or possibly someone a little further down the pecking order from that.

He also looked nothing at all like the man the Grahams had expected to meet, and Indiana’s ungloved hand stole into his coat and settled around the grip of the shoulder-holstered pistol.

Indy,” Mackenzie said softly.

“I know,” he replied, and patted her on the leg with his free hand, never taking his eyes from the stranger. “Stay here.”

He drew the pistol from its holster and slid out of the ground car, holding the gun down beside his right leg where it was screened from the other man’s sight. Then he stood there, his shoulders as relaxed as he could make them, while his pulse hammered and adrenaline hummed in his bloodstream.

“I think that’s probably close enough,” he said, raising his voice against the sound of the rain as the stranger came within seven or eight meters of the car. His tone, he noticed with some surprise, sounded much steadier than his nerves felt.

“Works for me,” the stranger said calmly, and shrugged.

His accent was slight but noticeable, that of an off-worlder, and he held his own hands out from his sides and turned the palms towards Indiana, as if to deliberately demonstrate that unlike the Seraphimian he was unarmed. Or, at least, that he wasn’t actively flourishing any recognizable weapons at the moment, anyway.

He was a very ordinary, eminently forgettable looking man, Indiana thought. He was of medium height, with medium brown eyes, medium brown hair, medium features, and a medium complexion. In fact, that word—“medium”—pretty much summed up everything about him.

I wonder if all that’s natural or if he’s disguised? Indiana thought. Hell of a disguise, if he is. Nobody’s going to think twice if they notice him. For that matter, you could look straight at him and never “notice” him at all! Probably something we should bear in mind for future use.

“Nasty weather for an off-worlder to be out touring the sights,” he observed out loud, and the other man chuckled.

“I hadn’t expected it to be this lousy,” he agreed. “And if you think it’s bad now, you should’ve been standing out here with me waiting for the last hour or so.”

“Waiting for what?” Indiana asked.

“I appreciate your caution, Talisman,” the other man said, “but if I were a scag my fellow scags would already have pounced, don’t you think? And I promise you, if I were a scag I’d already have signaled the sniper team to take you down rather than let you stand there with a gun in your hand!”

“I see.” Indiana glanced around—he couldn’t help himself—then shrugged and holstered the pistol. The other man had a point, after all. Not that the fact that he did proved he wasn’t a scag playing some sort of complicated game. On the other hand, he obviously did know Indiana’s codename, which was at least a tentative vote in his favor.

“I don’t know you,” he said conversationally, and the stranger nodded.

“I know. To be honest, that’s why I set up the meet out here, where there wouldn’t be a lot of witnesses if you reacted . . . energetically to the surprise of a new face.” He shrugged. “There’s been a change of plans, unfortunately, and I’m your new contact.”

“What kind of change of plans?” Indiana’s voice was tauter than it had been, and the other man smiled slightly.

“I’m afraid I can’t be a lot more specific than that,” he said. “I have to worry about everyone’s security, not just yours and not just my own. I can tell you it doesn’t have anything to do with anything that’s happened here in Seraphim, though. In fact, I’ll go ahead and admit that it’s more of a logistic problem than anything else. They needed your previous contact somewhere else, so they sent me in to sub for him.”

“They did, did they?”

“Caution is good; I like that. On the other hand, if all we do is stand here and be suspicious of one another we’re not going to accomplish a lot except to freeze our asses off. So. I believe the phrase you’re looking for is ‘It is dearness only that gives things their value.’”

Indiana felt his shoulders relax and drew a deep breath.

“‘And it would be strange if an article like Freedom should not be highly rated,’” he replied.

“True enough,” the other man agreed, then grimaced slightly. “On the other hand, if we’re going to use Thomas Paine, I really would have preferred to get the quotation at least remotely right.”

“Maybe.” Indiana looked at him for a moment, then smiled. “On the other hand, if the scags were to . . . acquire partial knowledge of our recognition phrases, let’s say, they might just end up researching the quotation without realizing how much we’d paraphrased it.”

“I see.” The other man tilted his head to one side, eyes narrowing. “Clambake didn’t mention that you were the one who’d chosen the recognition phrase. I thought he had.” He nodded slowly. “I don’t know if it would really have done any good, but it was probably a wrinkle that was worth incorporating. Oh, you can call me Firebrand.”

“‘Firebrand’?” Indiana repeated, and grinned. “I like it. It’s got a more . . . proactive feel to it than ‘Clambake.’”

“I’m glad you approve,” Firebrand said dryly. “And I suppose that’s Magpie still in the car?”

“Yes,” Indiana confirmed. “You want to sit in the car to talk? The heater’s not much, but it’s at least a little warmer than standing out in the open this way.”

“Actually, I’d rather step inside the warehouse,” Firebrand demurred. “No offense, but I prefer a more solid roof and walls between me and any scag surveillance platforms that might happen by.”

“I don’t have any problem with that,” Indiana said and turned to beckon to Mackenzie. She looked at him for a moment, then opened her door, climbed out into the steadily strengthening rain, and joined the two men.

“Step into my office,” Firebrand invited, and led the way into the abandoned warehouse.

It was cold, drafty, and dreary. Abandoned stacks of plastic pallets leaned drunkenly, and a derelict forklift—not one of the grav-lifters the transstellars used in their warehouses, but a genuine, old-fashioned, pre-OFS forklift—loomed in the shadows. Raindrops drummed on the roof, and Indiana and Mackenzie heard the waterfall sound of runoff pounding down through holes to splash on the warehouse floor. It was a thoroughly miserable venue for a meeting, Indiana reflected, watching the plume of his breath. And it was also a perfect metaphor for what had happened to Seraphim since the Office of Frontier Security had come to the star system’s “rescue.”

“So you’re Clambake’s replacement,” he said, and Firebrand nodded.

“Like I say, we’ve had to make a few adjustments. On the other hand, one of the reasons we’ve done it is that we’ve been able to accelerate our plans a little bit.”

“You have?” Mackenzie asked, eyes narrowing, and he nodded. “How much?”

“To be honest, we’re still in the process of establishing that,” Firebrand admitted. “The biggest problem is that shipping’s scarce enough out this way, except for Krestor’s and Mendoza’s, that we have to be careful about our arrangements.” He chuckled suddenly. “There are some advantages to dealing with that crowd, though—not to mention the simple satisfaction of using their own ships against them! Their freight agents are about as corrupt as they are themselves, after all, and smuggling’s always a growth industry in the Protectorates. No one in the League has anything like a reliable estimate of the size of the ‘gray economy’ out here, but everyone knows damned well that it’s huge, so we might as well take advantage of it. Unless things change in the next month or two, what we’ll actually be doing is shipping your goodies in covered by Krestor shipping manifests. They’ll just sort of wander away from the rest of the queue once they hit dirt-side.”

“Isn’t that risky?” Mackenzie asked.

“Not really.” Firebrand shrugged. “I know we got the first couple of shipments in using the ‘tramp freighter’ approach, but that’s actually a lot riskier than doing it this way. There just aren’t enough legitimate tramps visiting your system to cover any kind of volume shipments, Magpie. If you people are going to pull this off we need to move some serious mass and cubage, and, realistically, Seraphim doesn’t have enough independent business to attract a genuine tramp. The transstellars have choked your people out too thoroughly for that. So if we want to bring in the weapons and other equipment you’re going to need, we’ve got to get a bit more inventive. And the good news is that if we do it this way, the freight agents who arrange the shipments are going to have every reason to keep them totally off the books without asking too many questions. Frankly, they aren’t going to give a rat’s ass what’s being shipped, even if they realize it’s actually weapons, as long as they get paid off and it doesn’t come back on them.”

Mackenzie looked less than delighted, but Indiana nodded.

“He’s got a point, M—Magpie. He’s right about how hard it would be to find any kind of legitimate excuse for an independent freighter to drop in out here, anyway.” He grimaced. “That’s part of the problem, isn’t it? The fact that there’s nothing to attract anyone to do business with us?”

“Yes,” she admitted after a moment. Her expression firmed. “Yes, it is.”

“There’re going to be some other changes, as well,” Firebrand went on. “For one thing, the situation with the Sollies is heating up from our side, as well. To be honest, the distraction quotient you and the other people we’ve been talking to represent may be needed more badly—and sooner—than we’d been thinking.”

“I see,” Indiana said slowly while his thoughts raced.

Part of him was delighted by the prospect of accelerating the schedule. Another part of him was unhappily aware of how speeding things up might lead to mistakes, the kind of slip-ups that got people jailed . . . or killed. And although he’d never had any illusions about the philanthropic selflessness of his allies, Firebrand’s announcement had reminded him that he and the Seraphim Independence Movement were just that as far as Manticore was concerned: a distraction for their main enemy.

Well, it’s not like it was any kind of a surprise, he reminded himself. And it always comes down to self interest in the end, doesn’t it? I don’t doubt the Manties wish us well. Everything I’ve ever heard about them suggests they wouldn’t much care for what OFS has done to us here in Seraphim. But the real reason they made contact with us in the first place is that they’re up against the Solarian League. Against someone that big you need every distraction you can get, and it’d be unrealistic as hell to pretend that isn’t what Firebrand’s here to arrange.

I guess we’re just going to have to hope they don’t decide they’re in such deep shit that—however regretfully—they end up figuring they’ve got no choice but to use us as an expendable distraction.

“I know what you’re worrying about,” Firebrand said shrewdly. “Don’t blame you, either. But look at it this way, Talisman. Sooner or later the fact that we’ve been helping you—and quite a few other star systems, I might add—is going to leak, no matter how hard we try to keep it a secret. For that matter,” he shrugged, “there’s not going to be a whole lot of reason to try to keep it secret, once it’s a done deal. And when that happens, we’re not going to be able to afford a reputation as someone who uses, abuses, and betrays allies. That’s exactly what Frontier Security’s been doing for centuries, and the whole point of our support for you and the others is at least partly to prove we’re not Frontier Security. What I’m saying is that we’re not in such a deep crack that it’s going to make sense to us to throw you and the others to the hexapumas, because if we get a reputation for doing that kind of thing, no one’s going to trust us enough to work with us after the dust settles.”

Indiana nodded slowly, although it occurred to him that if Firebrand really was planning on “throwing them to the hexapumas” (whatever a “hexapuma” was), that would be exactly the argument he’d use to convince them he intended to do nothing of the sort. On the other hand, it did make sense . . . and if he and Mackenzie weren’t willing to take at least a few chances, he hadn’t had any business organizing the SIM in the first place.

“I have to admit I’m not as sublimely confident as I’d like to be,” he said.

“No reason you should be,” Firebrand agreed, then smiled at his expression. “Look, I’m a professional at this kind of thing. By definition, you guys are amateurs. I don’t mean to be casting any aspersions by that. I’m just saying that the nature of independence movements and revolutions is that the people in charge are generally getting on-the-job training, since it’s something most of them are only going to do once in their lives. And it’s not the kind of career that lets you sign up for training courses at most colleges ahead of time, either. Right?”

Indiana nodded, and Firebrand shrugged.

“All right, that means all of this is terra incognita for you, and we’re talking about your home star system. If it goes south, you and everyone you care about are going to be utterly screwed, Talisman—that’s just the way it is. I understand that. And I understand why you’re bound to be nervous. Having to rely on somebody else—somebody whose motives you know perfectly well aren’t the same as yours—ought to make you nervous. So don’t think anybody on our side’s going to get his tender sensibilities hurt if you exercise a little caution and . . . creative skepticism, let’s say.”

Indiana felt himself nodding again, and he was more than a little surprised by how relieved Firebrand’s attitude made him feel.

“We’ll get the weapons shipped in to you,” Firebrand went on. “If I can, I’ll try to arrange to get an instructor or two shipped in, as well, but I’ll be honest—the odds of my being able to pull that off aren’t real high. We’re way too strapped for manpower. On the other hand, we’ll get you all the tech manuals, and most of the launchers and other heavy weapons come with VR simulator programs.

“The key point, the critical timing, is still going to be up to your people, though. There’s no way we can predict from our end when the situation here in Seraphim is going to be right. That’s going to be a judgment call on your part, although we’d obviously like it to happen sometime fairly soon, let’s say.” He smiled crookedly. “We don’t expect you to commit suicide by moving too early, though. If for no other reason, because we’d sort of like you to succeed and go right on being a distraction for the Sollies, if you see what I mean.”

“Yeah, I can see that,” Indiana acknowledged.

“To be honest, one of the things we’re still working on is the best way to coordinate your actions with ours. You’re obviously going to need some fleet support to keep Frontier Fleet from just securing the planetary orbitals and dropping gendarmes and kinetic weapons on your heads. We’re probably not talking about any really heavy units of our own—just something big enough to keep Frontier Fleet off your backs. But we’re either going to have to have a firm schedule for when you’re going to move, or else you’re going to have to have some way to communicate with us to tell us when you’re ready. And, frankly, providing a communications loop that’s both secure and reliable and covert is going to require some thought. The good news is we’ve got some time to think about it before the first big shipments start coming in. If anything inventive occurs to you folks, don’t be shy about sharing it. I said you’re amateurs, and you are, but sometimes amateurs think outside the box in ways that would never occur to us stodgy old professionals.”

“We’ll think about it,” Indiana promised him. “I don’t really expect we’ll come up with anything that won’t already’ve occurred to you ‘stodgy old professionals,’ but if we do we’ll certainly let you know.’”

“Good!” Firebrand cocked his head to one side, eyes narrowed for a moment, obviously running back over all they’d said. “I think that’s about everything, then,” he said finally. “For now, at least. I’ll be on-planet for a few more days, and I’ll use the channels Clambake set up to get back in contact with you before I leave. I’ll also be setting up a message account here in Seraphim—I’ll give you the access code so you can ‘hack’ the account rather than being an official addressee—and we’ll use that for me to get you the information on the shipment schedules. I’m assuming you still have that one-time pad Clambake gave you?”

“Yes,” Mackenzie said dryly. “I’ll agree we’re amateurs, but we have managed to hang onto the secret code book, Firebrand.”

“I was sure you had.” This time, he gave her a dazzling smile, no mere grin. “In that case, though, I think we’re through here. And now that we’ve had a chance to get to know one another, so that you’re not likely to be, oh, waving any pistols around the next time we meet”—he darted a humorous look at Indiana—“I think we can probably arrange to get together somewhere a little more comfortable and dryer next time. A nice little mom-and-pop restaurant with tables in the back where no one’s likely to overhear a conversation, maybe.”

“Sounds like a winner to me,” Indiana agreed with heartfelt sincerity.

“Good.” The Manticoran agent held out his hand. “In that case, I think we should all be going. And if you don’t mind, I’ll let the two of you leave first.”

“Not a problem.”

Indiana and Mackenzie each shook the offered hand in turn. Then they nodded to him, headed back out across the loading dock, and climbed into their battered old ground car.

The man called “Firebrand” watched as the car vibrated to life, backed out of its parking space, and headed off into the rain once more.

They were bright kids, he reflected. In fact, he estimated they probably had at least a five or ten percent chance of actually pulling it off. Of course, their chances would have been one hell of a lot better if they’d actually been dealing with Manticore.

Well, you can’t have everything, “Talisman,” Damien Harahap, one time Solarian Gendarme, more recently agent of the Mesa System government, and currently in the employ of the Mesan Alignment, thought dryly. And at least they’re a lot closer to sane than that maniac Nordbrandt!

He smiled and shook his head. He actually had nothing at all against “Talisman” and “Magpie,” when it came down to it. In fact, he wished them well, not that he actually expected things to turn out that way. Still, it was nothing personal. Only business.

He watched the ground car disappear through the drooping gate and checked his chrono. Seven and a half minutes, he decided. That ought to be a sufficiently random interval before he headed off in the opposite direction himself.

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