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Chapter Six

The security men in the office foyer weren’t exactly unobtrusive. Then again, they weren’t supposed to be, Damien Harahap reflected as he followed Rufino Chernyshev across the luxuriously furnished waiting room. Almost every room he’d encountered since arriving on Mesa seemed to fit that description—“luxuriously furnished”—which struck him as a good sign where matters of future remuneration were concerned. On the other hand, he’d always hated the lavish working spaces with which senior Gendarmerie officers surrounded themselves. Not only was it ostentatious as hell, but the shells of luxury and self-indulgence seemed to lead directly to atrophy of the neural synapses.

The tall, very broad shouldered (and very obvious) bodyguard standing beside the door looked anything but ceremonial, however. In fact, he looked like a very tough and competent customer, and he gave them a very careful once over, despite the fact that he and Chernyshev obviously knew one another well. For that matter, they looked an awful lot like brothers. Which, given Mesa and Manpower’s attitudes towards genetic modification, clones, and cloning, they very probably were.

“She’s expecting us,” Chernyshev said, and the other man nodded.

“I know.” His evaluating gaze lingered on Harahap for a few seconds, then he nodded ever so slightly. “Go on in.”


Chernyshev nodded and pressed the door button, then gestured for Harahap to precede him. Harahap took the hint and stepped through it, projecting his very best air of confidence.

He felt one eyebrow try to rise as he saw the woman seated behind the office’s desk. Because it was a very well-trained eyebrow it did nothing of the sort, of course, but he found himself engaged in some rapid reevaluation of what he’d thought he knew. He’d expected Aldona Anisimovna, who’d taken the lead in the project to destabilize the Manticoran annexation of the Talbott Sector. Instead, he found himself looking at Isabel Bardasano, the wildly tattooed and body-pierced cadet member of the Jessyk Combine’s board who’d clearly been riding backup as Anisimovna’s assistant during their meetings in the Madras Sector.

“Good afternoon, Mr. Harahap,” she said. “Please, have a seat.”

She indicated one of the chairs in front of her desk, and Harahap obeyed the polite command. The chair was quite comfortable, but the slight angularity of the sensor plates in its arms and back were a dead giveaway to someone with his experience. They weren’t quite as good as a full-bore lie detector, but they’d give Bardasano very accurate reports on pulse rate, respiration, and all of those other physical telltales.

Fortunately, after thirty years in the trade, his body was accustomed to responding the way he told it to.

“First, I’m glad Rufino was able to get to you before the assassins did,” she said after he’d settled into place. “I’m sorry we didn’t get to Major Eichbauer in time, as well. Based on what I saw of her—and you—in Pine Mountain, I think the two of you would’ve made a very effective team working for us.”

“I’m sorry you couldn’t get to her in time, too,” Harahap replied, feeling a flicker of respect for her refusal to pretend Ulrike’s death was some great personal loss to her. That was good. He preferred working with professionals.

“I imagine Rufino’s given you at least some idea of what we have in mind,” she continued. “On the other hand, knowing Rufino, I’m certain he didn’t tell you exactly what we’re thinking. And, yes, he knows a lot more about our eventual plans than I’m sure he’s indicated to you. In fact, one of the things he’s been doing for the last couple of months is evaluating how effective he thinks you could be. Understand, the ultimate decision on whether or not to offer you this…position lies with me, but it’s always a good idea to have a second opinion, a sort of crosscheck bearing, I suppose.”

“I understand,” Harahap said when she paused. He didn’t ask what was likely to happen if Bardasano decided the “position” shouldn’t be offered to him. He was pretty sure he already knew that answer…and that he wouldn’t like it very much.

“Basically,” Bardasano continued, “what we have in mind is to include you in something we call Operation Janus. As you’ve no doubt realized, I’m rather more than just a junior member of the Jessyk board. In fact, I represent a sizable consortium of transstellars, all of whose current operations are being cramped by Manticoran intransigence. And, as I’m sure you’ll understand from our previous arrangement, several of those transstellars have their headquarters right here on Mesa. They really don’t want Manticore any closer to them than they can help. That’s what our op in the Talbott Sector was trying to prevent, and it showed a certain promise, even if it failed in the end. Your own work in that regard was exemplary, however, and we believe you might be able to help us with a similar operation on a somewhat…grander scale.”

“Grander scale?” he repeated, this time allowing that wigglesome eyebrow to rise. He would have thought attempting to destabilize the governments of half a dozen star systems was sufficiently ambitious for most transstellars. If Bardasano had something bigger in mind…

“Yes.” She tipped back her chair and crossed her legs. “In a lot of ways, you could think of what you were doing in Talbott as a sort of trial exercise. The object there was to prevent the annexation entirely, if we could, but that situation came at us too quickly for the kind of planning we like to devote to that sort of thing. Because of the surprise quotient, we were never really confident we could pull it together in time. No one blames you for what happened on Montana and Kornati, because that’s exactly the sort of thing that happens when you rush this sort of operation.”

He nodded thoughtfully. She was certainly right about that!

“At the same time we were putting that phase of Operation Janus into play, however, we were also standing up several other aspects of the op. One side is purely military, and your particular skill set wouldn’t be very useful there. The other side, though, would be right up your alley, I think.”

She gazed at him, her expression about as emotional as an AI, but he only sat squarely in his chair and returned her gaze levelly. After a moment, she nodded, as if in satisfaction, and continued.

“What I’m about to tell you is, obviously, very classified in my employers’ view of the universe. You do understand what would happen if those employers—or I—should come to the conclusion that having shared this information with you had turned out to be a bad idea?”

“I think I have some small idea, yes,” Harahap said dryly, and she chuckled.

“Rufino said you were a professional.” She smiled briefly, then her nostrils flared as she inhaled deeply.

“Essentially, my employers are worried the Manties won’t stop at the Talbott frontier. According to their sources, Manticore intends to keep nibbling at the Verge, encouraging other star systems to follow Talbott’s example. I’m sure you know even better than I how little love is lost between them and OFS and the League in general. We think—or, rather, my employers think—the worst thing we could do would be to allow the Manties to consolidate in Talbott and simultaneously build up a glacis of local star systems that are…favorably inclined towards them outside that sector. The best solution, in our eyes, is to nip the entire thing in the bud by encouraging the League to express its disapproval of the Manties’ ambitions here in the Verge.”

Harahap nodded again, his expression intent. If Bardasano’s unnamed employers actually believed they could maneuver the Solarian League into quashing Manticoran expansion they were very ambitious, indeed. On the face of it, the entire notion was ridiculous, but Harahap was well accustomed to looking beneath the face of things. And he understood better than most the degree to which money talked with OFS bureaucrats and even permanent undersecretaries in the League government. On the other hand, even the most readily bought-and-paid-for bureaucrat needed at least a minimal fig leaf if the newsies came sniffing around his actions.

“As you’ll appreciate better than most, Mr. Harahap, there are always tensions bubbling away out in the Verge, and OFS hasn’t made itself beloved by the locals. Even leaving Frontier Security completely out of the equation, there are also plenty of star systems where resentment of and hatred for purely local regimes are driving dangerous levels of internal unrest. In other words, Verge systems are a continual hotbed of serious, semiserious, barely serious, and outright lunatic fringe resistance and reform movements. You were recently in contact with some examples of that on Montana and Kornati, I believe.”

“That’s certainly the way to describe Nordbrandt,” Harahap agreed with a thin smile. “It might be a bit overstated in Westman’s case, however.” He shrugged. “He was definitely dead serious, and I don’t think anyone could reasonably describe him as a lunatic.”

Bardasano appeared to consider that for a moment, then nodded, as if conceding the point, before she continued.

“Well, what this phase of Operation Janus is designed to do is to locate and identify as many of those movements as possible. We want to encourage them, to give them confidence and provide them with weapons and training.”

She paused, and Harahap allowed himself to frown ever so slightly.

“Excuse me,” he said into the pause, as he was fairly certain he was expected to say, “but if the idea’s to keep the Manties pruned back, why would you want to encourage resistance movements that can only undermine local regimes on the Talbott frontier? Wouldn’t that actually provide Manticore with an incentive to expand beyond those frontiers on the theory that the locals will greet them with welcoming arms?”

“That would be what one would expect to happen, wouldn’t it?” Bardasano agreed, allowing her chair to swing slowly from side to side as she nodded, but there was something almost bright and…sparkly in those computer-gray eyes of hers. Something that was clearly amused by his question.

“For example,” she continued with a smile, “if you were still in the Gendarmerie’s employ and you learned someone was promising aid to the enemies of local regimes which were allied with the League, or even to enemies of local OFS system administrators and governors, how would you react to that?”

“I’d do my best to stop it,” Harahap replied obediently. “I’d try to infiltrate and shut down the resistance movements themselves; I’d do my best to interdict any weapons shipments; and I’d exert however much political influence and/or military power it took to convince whoever it was that it was a really bad idea to piss off the League.”

“That’s pretty much what I’d do, as well,” Bardasano agreed. “And that would be especially true if the people providing those weapons were prepared to provide actual outside military support when the moment came. Naval support sufficient, say, to interdict the systems involved and preclude OFS administrators from whistling up Frontier Fleet to deal with the situation.”

“Assuming the people in question were stupid enough to make any promises of outside military assistance, the League would probably react…forcefully,” Harahap said slowly. “It’s one thing to provide encouragement; it’s another to provide not only weapons but actual naval support.”

“Precisely.” Bardasano nodded and leaned forward. “I realize we couldn’t expect you to continue operating in Talbott, under the circumstances. And I also realize you have less…call it ‘situational awareness’ of local systems’ dissatisfaction outside Talbott. But what you do have, I think, is an eye and a feel for this sort of thing. We’ve identified several star systems with the potential to provide the kind of distraction we need for both Manticore and the League. We have our own people on the ground in many of those systems—transstellars like the ones I represent always have people on the ground, after all. We’re tapped deeply enough into the Gendarmerie and OFS to have access to their internal reports on events and attitudes in those systems, as well, and I venture to say our analysts are more honest in evaluating those reports. I’m sure you’ve had more than enough experience with the way rising bureaucratic seniority leads to an ever-increasing ability to see what you want to see in intelligence from the field.”

Harahap snorted. One of the things he’d most liked about Ulrike Eichbauer was that she hadn’t had that tendency. He couldn’t possibly have counted the number of superiors he’d had over the years who did have it. Who’d rejected his analyses, his warnings, because those warnings clashed with their view of how the galaxy worked, especially in their bailiwick. And who’d then proceeded to blame him and his fellow field agents when the very things about which he’d warned them came to pass. So, yes, it was not only possible but highly probable that Bardasano’s “employers” would get more benefit out of Gendarmerie field agents’ reports than the Gendarmerie itself ever would.

“What I want you to do, at least as a start, is to evaluate our interpretation of that data. I mean we want you there, in-system, on the ground, checking actual attitudes against our analysis. And, probably, we’ll also be asking you to make initial contact with some of those dissatisfied elements. Much as you did with Agnes Nordbrandt and Stephen Westman, in fact.”

“I see.” Harahap considered that, then shrugged. “It doesn’t sound very different from what I was doing for Ulrike. Except that, as you say, I’ll be well outside my regular stamping ground. With all due modesty, I’m one of the best at that sort of business, but it would be unrealistic to assume I’d be able to blend into the background equally well in star systems I’ve never even visited before.”

“That’s understood.” Bardasano nodded again. “Unfortunately, we don’t have anybody who that wouldn’t be true of, and our estimate is that you’d be better at coping with the potential difficulties than most.”

“So I assume I’d be provided with the information I’d need. Or, at least, the information you think I’d need.” He showed his teeth briefly. “That’s not always the same thing.”

“In that case, what information would you require?”

“Oh, I’d want to see your analysts’ take, of course. But I’d also like access to the raw data itself. The ability to draw my own conclusions based on the original source material.”

“There’s likely to be quite a lot of that,” she pointed out, and he chuckled.

“I’m a fast study, Ms. Bardasano. I’ve had to be. And even if I can’t review all the raw data, any of it I can get through would help my feel for the situation. It certainly couldn’t hurt, anyway. And to be totally honest, sometimes the simple confidence that I’ve gotten my head wrapped as thoroughly as possible around the data helps me carry through something like this. I may not always be right in my analyses, but I am more often than not. And the fact that I think I’m right lets me move a lot more confidently. The amount of assurance I can project has a direct bearing on how readily I can get someone like Nordbrandt or Westman to accept that I’m who I say I am and trust me. As far as they trust anyone, at least.”

“I see.” She considered him thoughtfully, then nodded. “Fine. I don’t see any problem, as long as the data’s properly secured while it’s in your possession.”

“I don’t think there’d be any worries there,” Harahap said confidently.

“So you’re prepared to take the assignment?”

He considered that question very carefully. The one thing of which he was totally confident was that she wasn’t telling him everything. In fact, it was unlikely she was telling him more than a third or a quarter of the truth. In her place, he certainly wouldn’t have trusted a newly recruited field agent with the full knowledge of for whom or to precisely what end he was working. By the same token, she clearly understood that for an operation to succeed, the operators in question had to have the tools they needed. And as all those luxuriously appointed offices and suites here on Mesa indicated, it looked like there’d be some nice perks to the job, at least.

I wonder who she’s really working for? he mused. It may be Jessyk, and I’m sure it’s Manpower, but who else is involved? I doubt it’s Kalokainos at this point—not if he’s really the one who tried to have Ulrike and me murdered. But it could be. God only knows the alliances between transstellars are about as durable as an ice cube in sunlight!

“So you want me to evaluate your analyses, run down any local resistance leaders I can, evaluate how likely they are to succeed with suitable outside help, and promise them your ‘employers’ will provide that help?”

“Almost, Mr. Harahap. Almost. Except for that last bit.”

“About providing help?” Harahap frowned. “Forgive me, but I thought that was an integral part of what you had in mind.”

“Oh, it is!” This time Bardasano’s smile could have shamed a shark. “It’s just that we don’t want you to promise we’ll be the ones helping them.”

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