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Chapter Nine

“We should make Halkirk orbit in another ninety minutes, Mr. Brown.”

“Thank you, Captain,” Damien Harahap said, not looking up from his cabin’s workstation display. “Let me know as soon as I’m cleared to go planet-side, please.”

“Of course, Mr. Brown.”

The intercom went dead, and Harahap shook his head, his expression wry. He’d had more aliases than he could possibly count in his career. Some had been more imaginative than others, and he had a greater fondness for some, but few had been as…bland as “Mister Brown.” It was certainly serviceable, and he heartily approved of not letting anyone know anything he or she didn’t absolutely have to know, but still…

He put that thought away and turned his full attention back to the display. It no longer featured the reams of data he’d studied on the three T-week voyage from Mesa. Instead, it showed a spectacular vista of the Loomis System’s twin inhabited planets—brown-and-tan Halkirk and gorgeous sapphire Thurso—and floating head shots of both the people he intended to meet on Halkirk and the ones he intended to avoid at all costs.

There was really only one of them he absolutely had to avoid: Lieutenant Ottomar Touchette, Solarian Gendarmerie. Not only was Touchette the senior intelligence officer assigned to Loomis, he’d also worked with Harahap in the Madras Sector less than five T-years ago. Fortunately, according to the confidential Frontier Security files Bardasano had provided, Touchette wasn’t in particularly good odor with Nyatui Zagorski, the local transstellar’s rep. Probably because of Touchette’s habit of providing good, honest analysis…whether it said what his superiors wanted it to say or not. From Zagorski’s record, the last thing he wanted was honest analysis of Loomisian public opinion and its possible ramifications.

From Harahap’s new perspective, that was all to the good. Loomis was close enough to the Madras Sector for him to have been at least generally aware of what was happening in the system even before Major Eichbauer seconded him to Bardasano and Anisimovna for the Talbott operation. He hadn’t realized then quite how bad things were getting, however, which promised fertile ground for Operation Janus. Of course, it remained to see whether it was fertile enough.

* * *

“And where do you think you’re going, Innis MacLay?” Maggie MacLay demanded, propping her hands on her hips and tilting her head back to glare up at him better. “I’ve a list of chores for you a meter long!”

“Ah, now!” Innis smiled down at his wife, then scooped her up and kissed her soundly. “It’s not like I’ll be gone forever, Rùnag. And you know I’ll get right on that list the instant I walk back in the door.”

“And if you do, I’ll want to know where my husband is and what you did with him!” Maggie said, swatting him across the top of his head. “There’s a reason that list’s a meter long, you know.”

“And what would that be?” Innis set her back on the floor and tucked an arm around her. He was a tallish fellow, very nearly two meters tall, and she was more than thirty centimeters shorter than him.

“Well, let’s just say that last week it was only two thirds of a meter long. And the week before that it was only a third of a meter. Are we seeing a pattern here?”

“That you’re a bit OCD about adding to lists?” Innis asked innocently.

“That’s one possible explanation. On the other hand, if this list isn’t shorter by the end of the weekend, there will be sanctions.” She batted her eyelashes at him and rolled her hips. “Painful sanctions.”

“In that case, I’ll make this as quick as I can!”

“That would be wise of you,” she told him, and rose on tiptoe to kiss his cheek before he headed out the door.

He smiled to himself as he crossed the modest house’s front yard with its brilliant flower garden and headed for the ground car parked at the curb. That house was a sign of just how light Halkirk’s population remained, even now, and of its modest tech base. Most places, the citizenry would have been packed into towering spires of ceramacrete to utilize limited space most efficiently, but even though Conerock was a major regional administrative center, it retained a broad belt of suburbs dominated by individual family-sized units. Innis was more than glad it was, although he had to agree that there were probably certain advantages—in theory, at least—to apartment towers…assuming Halkirk had possessed the technology and industry to build them. For one thing, a tower had a much smaller footprint for the same population. For another, he supposed it would be convenient to live only thirty or forty floors up or down from his place of employment. Except, of course, that his “place of employment” was out in the midst of the continent of Stronsay’s hushed, green forests.

And except for the fact that you were brought up wanting at least a little space to call your own, he reflected as he unlocked the ground car’s door. And not just a light well inside a tower, either. Real space, with real green in it. And bless Maggie and the kids’ green thumbs for all those flowers!

He smiled again at that thought, but this smile was fleeting. If SEIU had its way, he and a quarter or so of Halkirk’s population were going to be out of a job within ten T-years—fifteen at the most. He was more than a little ashamed it had taken that to get him to wake up and smell the coffee, but his eyes were open now. Which was the real reason he was headed for Fingal’s Tavern this clear, cool Saturday morning. Not for the pint and darts he’d told Maggie about, either.

He started the engine and pulled away from the curb, wondering exactly what Tad was going to tell him.

* * *

“Come in, please, Mr. Henry,” the dark-haired and dark-complexioned woman said, rising behind her desk and extending her hand in greeting as the receptionist ushered Damien Harahap into her office.

“Good afternoon, Ms. MacRuer,” replied, taking the proffered hand and gripping it firmly. “I’m glad you were able to see me on such short notice.”

“Well, I have to admit I was a bit puzzled by your call.” Nessa MacRuer sank back into her desk chair as Harahap seated himself in one of the comfortable but old-fashioned chairs in front of it. “MacNish, Tonnochy, and Duncannon is one of Elgin’s older law partnerships, but I’m a bit perplexed by just how it is we can help you.”

“I can’t say I’m hugely surprised by that.” Harahap smiled pleasantly. “It’s been my experience, though, that the fastest way to accomplish something is to go directly to the person you need to talk to. Or, in this case, one of that person’s closer associates.”

MacRuer tilted her chair back slightly and raised one eyebrow. She was a striking woman, Harahap thought, especially here on Halkirk, which had one of the less genetically diverse planetary populations. There was clearly a lot of Old Earth Asian genetic material in Ms. MacRuer, and he wondered if her exotic—by local standards—appearance had been a factor in her professional success. The odds were good that it had. On the other hand, that same exoticness was likely to be just a bit of a handicap in her current unofficial and very quiet avocation.

“Really?” She cocked her head to one side. “My understanding is that you’re in Loomis as a silver oak purchaser for”—she let him see her checking a memo on her display—“the Hauptman Cartel. That’s a Manticoran firm, isn’t it?”

“Yes, it is.” Harahap nodded. “And I realize I’m a bit far from home, but let’s face it, you don’t find silver oak growing on just any planet.”

“No.” For just a moment, something bitter might have flashed in the depths of MacRuer’s tone, but if it had, she controlled quickly. “No,” she went on more pleasantly, “silver oak really is Loomis’ main claim to fame, I suppose.”

“And well it should be,” Harahap said, and meant every word of it. The dense-grained, gorgeously patterned and colored wood was incredibly beautiful, which explained the staggering prices it commanded from Core World sculptors and interior decorators. “I have to say I understand why the market is prepared to snap up every square meter of it it can get!”

“Yes, it is.” This time the bitterness was more pronounced, and her smile looked a little forced. “But, as I say, I’m not quite clear on how our firm can serve you. MacNish, Tonnochy, and Duncannon specializes in real estate law and transactions, not the commodity market. Besides, if you’re in the market for silver oak, you’d really need to speak to the Cooperative.”

“I understand that.” Harahap acknowledged, then opened his slim briefcase in his lap and arched an eyebrow of his own. “Perhaps it would move things along a bit if I showed you what I have in mind?”

“If you’d like to.” MacRuer sounded a little puzzled, but she nodded.

“Thank you,” Harahap said, and extracted a compact electronic unit. He leaned forward to lay it on the corner of MacRuer’s desk, and her almond eyes went wide as he pressed a stud and a green light flashed.

“There. Now we can talk,” he said, and hid an inward smile as MacRuer darted a quick, nervous look around her office. Her body language seemed to put physical distance between them without ever actually moving. That was good; he’d hoped she’d recognize the unit.

“May I ask what that is?” she said after a moment, although her assumed ignorance fooled neither of them, and this time he allowed his smile to show.

“It’s only a privacy unit, Ms. MacRuer,” he replied. “Of course, it’s an off-world privacy unit, and I suppose it’s remotely possible I failed to register it with the local authorities when I landed. Is that a problem, do you suppose?”

His gaze held hers very levelly across her desk. To her credit, she neither swallowed nervously nor wiped sweat from her forehead, but he could see the intense thoughts churning away behind her eyes. Loomis was one of the star systems whose law codes required all anti-surveillance devices to be registered with their security forces. Quite a few systems, especially in the Shell and Verge, had regulations like that, although most Core World populations refused to tolerate them. On the other hand, only a minority of the systems which did have them were quite as ferocious as Loomis in enforcing them.

“Actually,” she said after a moment, “it could be quite a significant problem. As an officer of the court, I’m obligated to report any unlicensed privacy units, and I’m afraid the penalties for possessing one are quite severe. Especially for off-world units.”

“I’m not surprised.” Harahap set his briefcase on the floor beside his chair and leaned back, crossing his legs. “I’m sure Ms. MacQuarie and the UPS get nervous when there’s no software backdoor to let them listen in on a conversation anyway. Oppressive regimes tend to be fussy that way.”

“I’m afraid this conversation is over, Mr. Henry,” MacRuer said. “As I just pointed out, as an attorney I’m an officer of the court. Not only am I obligated to report your unit, but I feel I should also point out to you that there are limits to acceptable criticism of our star system’s government.”

“And I’m sure Ms. MacLean and Ms. MacFadzean would never dream of transgressing those limits,” he said calmly, and watched her nostrils flare as those two names hit home. “Otherwise, as an officer of the court in good standing, I’m equally sure you would have reported them to the authorities long ago.”

“I don’t think I’m acquainted with either of those people,” she said.

“A word of professional advice, Ms. MacRuer. When someone walks into your office and hits you cold by mentioning the names of your coconspirators against the government, the shortest response is usually the safest one. Too many syllables tend to indicate nervousness. And it’s never a good idea to deny you know someone when the local authorities already know you’ve met with them. Next time, I’d recommend just saying ‘Who?’ and leaving it up to the other fellow to steer the conversation into something which will incriminate you properly.”

She sat very still for several seconds, then sat back and crossed her own legs.

“Who are you, really?” she asked.

“A Manticoran representative. And I really am here about the silver oak. Just not in quite the way you may have assumed.”

“If you expect me to say anything that could incriminate me or implicate me in any sort of wrongdoing, I’m afraid you’ll be disappointed.” She smiled brightly. “I have no idea what sort of fanciful flight of imagination may have brought you to my office, of all places on Halkirk, but I assure you that MacNish, Tonnochy, and Duncannon maintain an excellent relationship with Treasury, Security, and the rest of the Administration.”

“And very useful that is for you, too,” he agreed. “On the other hand, you might want to be a little careful. Lieutenant Touchette picked up on the meeting you had with MacLean several months ago—right after she resigned her parliamentary seat in protest. I don’t think he’s mentioned it to Macquarie or MacCrimmon, and I imagine you can cover yourself by creating a document file about a land purchase. She’s certainly well-off enough to make that work. But I’d go ahead and get started on the paper trail now, if I were you. When you have to rush something like that at the last minute, you’re likely to miss some small detail, and that’s all the forensics people really need to pull it apart.”

He paused, and the silence stretched out for several seconds, thin and brittle, while he wondered which way she was going to jump. Then, finally, she inhaled deeply.

“I do know both of the people you mentioned,” she said. “I’m sure you’ll appreciate, however, that admitting I know them—in fact, that Erin MacFadzean’s been a personal friend for many years—could be…professionally detrimental, let’s say, given their rather extreme political views.”

“Oh, come now, Ms. MacRuer! Their rather extreme political views?” he shook his head chidingly. “I don’t think Lieutenant Touchette realized that what he was seeing was a planning session of the Loomis Reform Party’s provisional wing. I’m not sure about that, though,” he added in a thoughtful tone. “From everything I can see, Touchette’s not one of President MacMinn’s greater admirers. And I’m fairly confident he thinks Zagorski is as stupid as he is greedy. So it’s possible he did realize that and just chose not to pass it along to them. I don’t think you can count on his not passing along evidence of additional unexplained meetings. And OFS didn’t assign Frinkelo Osborne as a ‘trade attaché’ in the Solly Legation here in Elgin because he was stupid, either.”

“All right.” MacRuer let her chair come forward and planted both hands on her desk. “You’ve said enough to convince me that if you’re working for MacQuarie the Uppies will be breaking down my door sometime soon. But that’s about all I have to say to you. I won’t even ask about a warrant. We both know how pointless that would be.”

“The UPS does have a habit of writing its warrants after the fact, doesn’t it?” Harahap said. “I wonder why they continue to bother with that particular legal fig leaf.”

MacRuer said nothing, only looked at him, and he snorted gently.

“Relax, Ms. MacRuer. I’m not an Uppy, and I have no intention of entrapping you in anything. In fact, after we finish our conversation, I’m going to leave your office, go back to the spaceport, and take a shuttle right back up to my ship. I’ll be in-system for another three or four days. If at the end of that time, you decide—or Ms. MacLean or Ms. MacFadzean decide—that you want to talk a little more before I leave the system, I’ll be available.”

“And just what sort of ‘conversation’ do you have in mind?” she asked.

“It happens,” he said, “that I really am a representative of a Manticoran concern which is very interested in the situation here in Loomis. I did tell a little white lie when I told you I was here for the Hauptman Cartel, however. What I actually represent is a certain rather low-visibility agency with security concerns of its own. In particular, the Star Kingdom—I’m sorry, I keep forgetting officially we’re the Star Empire now—is more than a little nervous about the Solarian attitude towards our recent annexation of the Talbott Sector, particularly after that unfortunate business in Monica. Now, I realize you’re not going to ask any leading questions that I could use to incriminate you in the People’s Court, so I’ll just chatter away about why that brings me to Loomis.

“You see, Ms. MacRuer, we’d really like Frontier Security and Frontier Fleet to have something besides us to worry about. That’s our nasty, calculating motive for talking to you. On the more altruistic front, we really do disapprove of people like Star Enterprise Initiatives Unlimited.” He grimaced as he rolled out the name. “You may not realize just how much the Star Kingdom frowns on the kind of slash-and-burn exploitation people like Zagorski specialize in. Your silver oak is a priceless resource, and not just for your system, but his get-rich-quick strategies are going to burn through your entire supply of mature silver oak in less than fifteen T-years, and we both know it takes an absolute minimum of thirty-five T-years to replace a stand. That sort of thinking is stupid on a galactic scale, and what it’s going to do to your economy in the long run is a lot worse than just stupid!

“I’m not going to pretend we’re on some sort of crusade to heal all the galaxy’s ills, because, frankly, all the galaxy’s ills aren’t our responsibility. But in this instance, we see the opportunity to kill two birds with one stone. If we can identify people who are…unhappy, let’s say, with the status quo in their home star systems and might be thinking about doing something about that—people like those here in Loomis—we see every advantage to us in supporting their efforts. Obviously, we don’t want to get a reputation for encouraging people to do stupid things, so I’m not prepared to offer you and the Provos any sort of blank check. But if I can satisfy my superiors that you have a genuine organization and a genuine plan—one that can succeed and that would make things better, not worse, in Loomis—I think you could count on not just financial support and shipments of weapons, but also our best effort to keep Frontier Fleet from interfering, as well.”

Despite an excellent poker face, MacRuer’s eyes had widened while he was speaking. Now he smiled at her again.

“I think that’s more than enough on that front for this first meeting,” he told her. “This is a dance I’ve been to more than once, and I know how the steps go, but your people are doing all of this for the first time. You’re going to have to go home and talk to your leadership. Frankly, I think you need to take your time and do that right. And I’m sure you wouldn’t have gotten this far if you didn’t have at least some contacts in UPS, so you need to use them to make sure I actually have a ship in orbit and actually leave. Most local agents provocateur don’t spend their time sailing around between star systems,” he pointed out drolly, and despite her tension, she chuckled. Then his expression turned serious once more.

“I would appreciate your getting back to me before I leave in at least one respect. Travel time is a copper-plated bitch in organizing something like this on an interstellar basis, so I need to know whether your people are sufficiently serious to make it worth our while for me to come back again. I’m perfectly willing to do that if you are serious, but if you aren’t—or if you simply don’t want to trust the first stranger to come blowing in your door—and, frankly, I wouldn’t blame you if you don’t—then we need to concentrate our available resources on other star systems who are more prepared to let us work with them. I’m not saying I want any detailed commitments from you at this time. To be honest, I’d be leery about the viability of any sort of strategy you could put together that quickly. But if Ms. MacLean and Ms. MacFadzean are interested, I can arrange my schedule to get back here and confer with you. Or, at least, I can arrange for one of my associates to do that. And I’d arrange contact codes before I left.”

He held her gaze for several seconds longer, then reached out to the privacy unit once more.

“As I say, I think that’s probably enough for a first meeting, especially a cold first meeting,” he said. “And in response to something you asked about earlier, I have an excellent cover for any future contact between you and me or one of my associates. In fact, we should probably go about setting that up, shouldn’t we?”

He pressed the stud again, deactivating the unit, and tucked it leisurely back into his briefcase. Then he took a note board from the same briefcase and flipped it open.

“Actually,” he said brightly as the display came alive, “the Hauptman Cartel’s considering investing in direct shipment of both silver oak and seafood from Loomis, now that the Star Empire’s expanding into the Talbott area. Before, you were much too far away for practical shipping considerations. Now, that situation may be changing, given the existence of the Lynx Terminus, and Mr. Hauptman is very interested in acquiring his own orbital warehousing facilities here in Loomis. I’ve done a little research, and I’ve discovered that your firm represents SEIU in most of its orbital leasing and sales agreements, so it seemed to me that you were the logical people to approach. If you’ll open a folder, I’ll send over the specs on what we’re looking for. Then you and I probably need to discuss availability and price ranges. For starters, the Cartel is thinking in terms of an investment of no more than, say, fifteen or twenty million Manticoran dollars. That would be about sixty to seventy million of your credits, if I have the exchange rate right. Assuming Mr. Hauptman’s hopes work out, we’d be increasing that to—”

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