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Chapter Thirteen

Well, that was certainly a waste of time, Damien Harahap reflected as he completed his final editing pass and closed the file on his terminal.

It was a good report, concisely written and tightly reasoned, if he did say so himself. Unfortunately, the “revolutionaries” of Any Port had proved just as unsuitable as he’d expected them to.

He sat back for a moment, considering his conclusions, wondering if his expectations had colored his ultimate judgment. It was possible, he supposed…but not likely. He’d been doing this too long from the other side of the hill to let himself indulge in that kind of dangerous crap.

Besides, it’s not like Operation Janus needs every star system on the list to go up in flames. As many as possible, sure. But even Manpower’s resources have to be limited, ultimately. They can’t do everything they’d like to do and there has to be a limit on how many lunatics even they can support, if only because of logistics. So it’s at least as important to eliminate bad risks as it is to identify good…investment prospects.

It was to be hoped Isabel Bardasano saw things that way. He thought she would, but he’d also decided it was more important to give her his very best work than the work she perhaps wanted. That was why competent superiors wanted competent subordinates, and the fact that OFS—even the Gendarmerie—seemed to have forgotten that explained a great deal, in his opinion.

He shrugged. Either way, Any Port was a bust. Better to tell her that up front, whatever she wanted to hear, than to spin some song and dance about the wonderful opportunity it represented only to have that come home to haunt him later.

He punched up the next system on his list, and smiled with considerably better cheer as he tabbed through the files to the one on Somerton Spaceways. He didn’t really need to revisit it—they were less than three days out now, and he’d had ample time to go digest the files during the trip from Any Port—but professionalism was a hard habit to break. And the professional in him was very happy with the quality of his background brief on the Mobius System…especially since at least two thirds of the data in those files came from Trifecta Corporation sources rather than from OFS or the Gendarmerie.

He’d never met Esteban Gibson, head of Trifecta’s Mobius System internal security, but the man was a retired Gendarmerie brigadier, with lots of contacts. He was also a firm believer in the iron fist; he’d come up through the intervention battalions, and he’d never met a problem he couldn’t solve with enough nightsticks…or pulser darts. Despite that, he wasn’t stupid, and he was obviously far better tapped in than most to what was happening in Mobius. He’d identified several threats none of the League’s official intelligence services seemed to have noticed—or reported, at least—and his data suggested at least three possible contacts Harahap was certain weren’t on OFS’ screens at all.

Too bad no one else in the system’s capable of the same kind of analysis, Harahap thought cynically. Xydis seems reasonably competent for a senior OFS officer, I suppose. But that’s a pretty damned low bar, and the Gendarmerie’s even more useless. Hell, they don’t even have an intel detachment anywhere in the entire frigging system! Not My Job Syndrome again, I guess. He’d always hated that attitude when he was in the field, but it was only too common out here in the Verge, which was enough to drive any semi-competent person into a frothing fury. Not that I should be complaining too loudly, under the circumstances. Stupid is good from my perspective, and so is the fact that no one in Trifecta realizes Gibson’s selling his data to their competition. Or what he thinks is their competition, anyway.

He shook his head. Normally, he was a great fan of the KISS principle, especially when his own neck was involved, but sometimes he just had to stand back in admiration for a particularly artful triple or quadruple cross. In this case, Gibson was convinced he was dealing with Kalokainos Interstellar, which was engineering a takeover in Mobius in cooperation with Kellerman, Kinross, & Watts of Terra. Bardasano even had an actual Kalokainos mid-level manager (who genuinely thought he was working with KK&W) on her payroll, and he’d convinced Gibson the new management would keep him on—with a substantial raise—after the dust settled. All he had to do was provide the sort of inside information someone like Harahap needed and then stay out of the way while that someone made use of it. No doubt Gibson had socked away incriminating recordings of his discussions with the go-between. His was not a trusting nature, or he wouldn’t have survived as long as he had. It wouldn’t do him any good in the end, since his true employers couldn’t have cared less if he tried to implicate Kalokainos in return for a lighter sentence, but considering what had almost happened on Myers, Harahap hoped he’d have a chance to use them.

Now, now, Damien. That would be the cherry on top, but for now, you have more fundamental things to worry about. Focus!

He took a sip from the coffee mug at his elbow, arranged himself comfortably, and opened the first folder.

* * *

“God, he gets more smug-looking every year, doesn’t he?” Kayleigh Blanchard sounded disgusted, and Michael Breitbach turned to follow her gaze out the rather dingy apartment’s window.

The enormous permanent hologram of President Svein Lombroso towered over Freedom Park, the ten-hectare green belt around the Presidential Palace. The same stern-jawed face looked out from the sides of at least a third of the city of Landing’s buildings, but the holo took pride of pace, dwarfing the most heroically scaled statues pre-Diaspora humanity had ever dreamed of creating, and it had just undergone its once-a-quarter update. It was almost half the height of the White Whore—otherwise known as Trifecta Tower—which dominated downtown Landing. Lombroso would undoubtedly have liked it to be even taller, but a hundred and twelve stories was probably enough, even for his ego, and it might have been…tactless to overshadow his corporate patrons’ headquarters.

“He does look smugger than usual, doesn’t he?” Breitbach agreed. “I trust you’re not going around making that observation to anyone else, though?”

“I even know how to seal my own shoes, Michael,” she replied scathingly.

“That was in the nature of irony,” he said. “You’re familiar with the concept?”

The look she gave him was even more scathing, and he chuckled. Blanchard was taller than he was, with dark hair and eyes, and even tougher than her obviously muscular physique implied. She was also a licensed private investigator, and those were rare on the planet Mobius. Just getting a PI’s license and—especially—the concealed carry permit that came with it in the first place required connections in the right places and more than a little juice with the local bureaucracy, but keeping both of those—and staying out of prison—depended in no small part on watching her mouth. There was no telling when an unfortunate remark might reach Olivia Yardley or Friedmann Mátáys’ ears, and they kept a closer eye on people with official licenses to meddle.

They also required periodic reports of suspicious or “disloyal” behavior. He knew how much Blanchard hated making those reports—especially accurate ones—but they underscored her own loyalty for the benefit of the regime’s security organs, and that was a significant part of what made her so valuable.

“Yes, I’m familiar with the concept, Michael,” she told him after a moment. “I just wish to hell I knew what he was up to this time around. God knows he’s only about a tenth as smart as he thinks he is, but I get nervous when he starts doing things that look exceptionally stupid even for him.”

“I’m inclined to think it’s Guernicke’s brainstorm. Or maybe Frolov’s.”

“I don’t think too much of either of their IQs, either, but are they really dim enough to support something like this?”

“Well, whether it was their idea or not, you know they must’ve signed off on it for our good friend Svein to run with it this way,” he pointed out. “I didn’t say it was a good brainstorm; only that it had to have the executive suite’s okay.”

“I only wish we knew why anybody on the inside of the SUPP would think this was even a half good idea,” she fretted. “Why should a covey of Party hacks decide to hold elections for the first time in almost forty years?”

“According to my sources,” Breitbach said, and she knew he wasn’t going to tell her who those sources were, “it’s been suggested—apparently based on a report from Trifecta’s security people—that a ‘free and open election’ which happened to return an overwhelming majority for Lombroso would go a long way towards quieting our more restive fellow citizens.”

Blanchard made a gagging sound, and Breitbach smiled thinly.

“We both know what the vote count’s going to be,” he agreed. “But let’s face it. It’s unlikely to make things a lot worse from Lombroso’s perspective, and if nothing else, anyone who tries to organize an opposition vote will paste great big targets on their backs for Yardley and Mátáys. I don’t know about Yardley, but Mátáys is actually smart enough to wait until a few months after the vote before he starts disappearing the new entries on his list of troublemakers.”

Blanchard frowned as she realized he had a point. But then, Michael Breitbach usually had a point. That was one reason his Mobius Liberation Front had survived when so many other resistance movements had disappeared into Yellow Rock Prison or one of the reeducation camps…or simply disappeared. He was a thoughtful, insightful man and he’d devoted plenty of research to the question of how a revolutionary built his movement and succeeded. The MLF, unlike most of its predecessors, used a tight cell system, and Breitbach was ruthless about maintaining security. That was Blanchard’s responsibility, really, and if she didn’t like some of the things it required of her, she liked the thought of a cell with a view—or an unmarked grave somewhere—even less.

“Okay,” she said after a moment, “I can see that. But they’re still taking a hell of a risk, Michael. Sure, it may work out that way, and I’m sure it will provide Lombroso and System Unity with at least a fresh paper mandate, whatever else happens. But an awful lot of people are going to recognize that it’s a put-up job. You know how much trust they put in the official news channels already. Just pumping out the Party line and telling everyone how well the elections are going is bound to convince those people exactly the reverse is happening.”

“Unfortunately, I’m not sure there are as many of ‘those people’ left as you think there are,” Breitbach said glumly. “By this time, almost half the theoretical electorate’s never lived under any other system. Just how critical can their thinking be with that background? You know what the education system’s pumped out since Lombroso’s ‘reforms’ went into place. Hell, you know even better than I do; it had already been coopted before you were out of high school yourself! And even if any large chunk of the population does see what’s really happening, so what? Like I say, it’s not going to make Lombroso any less popular with the people who already hate him.”

“No, but if it gets out of hand, leads to actual demonstrations that end up going off the rails—”

She broke off, shaking her head unhappily, and he nodded.

Svein Lombroso’s System Unity and Progress Party had seized power forty-eight T-years ago, following the disastrous Crash of ’73, in an election overseen by no less a paragon of impartiality than the Office of Frontier Security when it rallied to Mobius’ rescue. At the time, some had claimed Trifecta had deliberately engineered the massive economic collapse that wiped out more than half of the star system’s net worth in less than five months to drive down the cost of its ongoing takeover of the Mobian economy. Arrant anti-social, disloyal fabrication and vilification by the criminal element, of course, but it had been said.

Of course, most who’d said it had quietly changed their minds or faced the stern justice of the special courts set up to deal with the corrupt local plutocrats whose unbridled greed had really caused the collapse. All with scrupulous observance of the defendants’ legal rights, as OFS had solemnly attested when the families of some of those sentenced appealed to it.

That had been in the early days, before OFS, satisfied the fiscal chaos had been sorted out, officially withdrew from the system. The OFS Commission on Mobian Affairs had been discreetly disbanded in 1879, four months before the SUPP formally suspended elections. That was when Lombroso’s first—and, under the constitution, only—presidential term had been slated to end. In light of the massive majority which had elected him in the first place, and the unfinished nature of the SUPP’s “reform platform,” however, he’d clearly had no choice but to temporarily suspend the constitution’s term limits. Obviously, he’d step down as soon as he was confident all the reforms were solidly in place, and submit his actions to the judgment of the electorate.

It was possible that at least three or four particularly credulous twelve-year-olds had actually believed that. Unlikely, but possible.

That hadn’t mattered a great deal, though, since he’d also had Trifecta’s solid backing. And Trifecta had already been the Mobius System’s single largest employer and investor. Thirty-five percent of the system’s total workforce had been direct or indirect Trifecta employees even before the crash. Now that percentage was well over eighty-five, and Trifecta had finished demolishing every hope of competition for its control of the system and its economy.

Breitbach was an urban planner by profession, and he’d been better placed than most to see what that meant. His employer, City Solutions, Incorporated, had been a relatively small, privately owned outfit at the time SUPP came to power. Within five years, its original founding partners had been frozen out and President Lombroso’s second cousin, Jesper Lombroso, had become CEO, majority stockholder, and effective owner. At which time City Solutions had expanded by over five thousand percent as orders and projects came flooding in.

Financially, Breitbach couldn’t complain about what that had meant. Back in 1879 he’d been a very junior employee, fresh out of college and full of idealism. Now he was a very well paid department head in the biggest firm of its kind in the entire star system…and a member in good standing—very good standing—of the System Unity and Progress Party. He was also perfectly placed to know that somewhere around two thirds of the firm’s fees went straight into the pockets of Jesper and his cronies rather than into paying for the projects they were supposed to cover.

Not that he meant to say a single word about that, although he’d allowed Caleb Turner to compromise his computer access codes.

Turner was one of the better cyber security people on Mobius, who did a lot of consulting with the Landing City Police Department. That was how Turner knew Blanchard, who’d been a sergeant in the LCPD’s homicide department until the criminal investigation side of the force had been downsized eighteen years ago in favor of beefing up Colonel Grigori Petulengro’s Security and Intelligence Branch. They’d worked together on several occasions and become personal friends, and he hadn’t been quite as discreet with her as he’d thought. He still didn’t know Blanchard was the one who’d arranged his recruitment into the MLF, though, nor did he have the least idea that she was a member.

He also did some consulting for City Solutions, which was how he’d come to know Breitbach, as well. Turner didn’t much like or trust him, given Breitbach’s lucrative position and fervent support of the regime, but he’d been more than willing to…acquire access to Breitbach’s codes when the engineer carelessly left them lying about unencrypted. He’d recognized their value instantly, just as Breitbach had intended, and he’d used them to hack into the Presidential Guard’s files for the MLF by going through City Solutions’ interface with the Department of Housing and Urban Planning.

If anyone in the PG or over at DHUP discovered the hack, the consequences for Turner would be most unpleasant. Breitbach, on the other hand, might get a slap on the wrist for allowing his credentials to be compromised, but he was too well covered within the Party to worry about much more than that. He hadn’t liked treating Turner as an expendable cat’s-paw, and Blanchard knew he’d agonize internally if anything happened to the other man. That hadn’t kept him from doing it, anyway…which was why someday the MLF might actually succeed where every other resistance and reform movement of the last half T-century had failed.

“Wasn’t Joseph supposed to be here already?” she asked, deliberately changing the subject, and Breitbach nodded.

“He was. You know Joseph, though. If he said he’ll be here, he’ll be here. He just…marches to another drum where timing is concerned.”

This time she chuckled. Joseph Landrum was the head of one of the MLF’s alpha-level cells, but it was larger than almost any of the organization’s other cells and, unlike the other alphas, it was completely compartmentalized, with no subordinate cells below it. Outside its own members, only Breitbach and Blanchard even knew it existed, much less who was in it, because he and his people were simply too valuable to even risk compromising.

Landrum was an executive in Somerton Spaceways, an intra-system cargo line owned—inevitably—by yet another clutch of Trifecta flunkies. Somerton did a lot of business for Trifecta, and although none of its vessels were hyper-capable, its activities were closely integrated with Trifecta’s interstellar operations. That gave Landrum a wide range of contacts with freight agents, pursers, purchasing agents, and starship personnel, with all sorts of useful implications for the MLF. Still, Breitbach had a point. Landrum was a very smart man, intensely organized professionally, but outside the calendar kept for him by his secretary, he’d probably never been on time in his entire life.

“Do you have any idea what he wants to talk about?” she asked.

“Of course not,” Breitbach said, giving her a chiding look, and she snorted in acknowledgment.

All of them knew better than to say anything important over a com or in any office, whether it belonged to the SUPP or not. The Communications Security Act had exterminated the last tattered shreds of privacy thirty-five T-years ago. Of course, the CSA had only regularized something which had been going on for years, and every Mobian routinely assumed any public venue was thoroughly bugged by the regime’s security services. Or by Trifecta’s internal security people, on retainer to the Presidential Guard or the MSP, more often than not. Finding places that weren’t bugged for face-to-face conversations—the only safe sort of conversations—was a nontrivial task, but it wasn’t impossible. Especially not for someone like Breitbach, who had access to the records on so many of the regime’s failed housing projects. He’d compiled a list of suitable sites long ago and each alpha-level cell had its own dedicated set, with identifying code words for each.

“He’ll be along when he gets here,” he said now. “And, fortunately…”

He reached into a pocket, and Blanchard groaned only half-humorously as he produced the deck of cards.

“Oh, come on, Kayleigh! You know it’ll help pass the time. Besides—”

Fortunately for Blanchard, someone knocked on the apartment’s door at that very moment. She recognized the light, apparently patternless series of knocks instantly, but that didn’t keep her hand from sliding to the pulser holstered under her jacket. She had no illusions about her ability to stand off a Presidential Guard SWAT team, but she could at least guarantee neither she nor Breitbach would be available for interrogation.

Breitbach gave her a crooked smile which understood exactly what she was thinking and stepped past her to open the door.

“Joseph,” he said dryly. “How nice of you to drop by. Eventually.”

“Yeah, sure.” The man who stepped into the wretched little apartment’s front room was even shorter than Breitbach, and his bright brown eyes darted around the apartment. They settled on Blanchard, and he nodded in greeting.

“Still complaining about my scheduling, Kayleigh?”

“Always, Joseph.” She took her hand from the pulser butt with a smile. “God forbid you ever actually get somewhere on time. I’m pretty sure that’ll trigger the energy death of the universe.”

“Touché,” he conceded with a chuckle. “But we can’t all be OCD about things like that.”

“That’s CDO,” she told him with a straight face. “At least get it in the right alphabetical order.”

He grinned appreciatively, but then his expression sobered and he turned back to Breitbach.

“I’m sorry to’ve dragged you out here on so little notice, Michael, but I think this may be important. In fact, it could be very important. Of course, it could also be a trap, which is why I was even later than usual today. I took five different tubes and spent two hours window shopping in every mall in Landing to shake any tail.”

“Really?” Breitbach gestured for Landrum to follow him into the apartment’s kitchen, which had no windows or exterior walls, and pointed at the rickety-looking chairs around the small table. “In that case, you’d better tell me what this is all about.”

“What it’s all about,” Landrum said, settling cautiously into one of the chairs, “is that I got a very unexpected contact. A fellow turned up in my office, completely out of the blue. He says he’s an independent analyst surveying systems out this way for the Hauptman Cartel, out of Manticore. He may really be Manticoran, too, but he sure isn’t surveying economic prospects.”

“No?” Breitbach leaned back in a chair on the far side of the table and arched his eyebrows.

“No. And I really think you should give some consideration to meeting with him. Or at least authorizing me to meet with him for you. It’s pretty obvious he already knows a lot more than I’d like him to about what I’m up to, but there’s no sign he knows a thing about you, and I’d just as soon keep it that way. Still, if he’s legitimate, he could be the answer to at least half our more pressing problems.”

“In what way?” Breitbach’s eyebrows came back down, the eyes below them suddenly very intent, and Landrum shrugged.

“Let me lay it out for you the way ‘Mister Dabilenaren’ laid it out for me, and then you can make up your own mind. First—”

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