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Chapter Fifteen

“Mr. Harahap is here, Ma’am.”

The totally unnecessary—but highly decorative—receptionist stood aside, holding the archaic wooden door open as Damien Harahap stepped past him.

It was odd, Harahap reflected. Isabel Bardasano could have been a poster child for the Mesan “young lodges,” the members of the Mesan corporate hierarchy who disdained the older tradition of blending into the “legitimate” Solarian business community. The ones who chose to flaunt their outlaw status, effectively giving the entire civilized galaxy the finger and daring it to do one damned thing about them. By and large, the members of the young lodges tended to be on the bleeding edge of every contemporary luxury, fashion, and fad, and judging from Bardasano’s spectacular tattoos and body piercings, one would have guessed she shared that bent.

Instead, she chose to surround herself with deliberate archaisms. The office in which she’d initially interviewed him was part of her “public face” at Jessyk. This was her actual office, the space from which she did her real work instead of simply maintaining her cover with the Jessyk Combine, and it was very different from that other office. The unpowered doors, the human receptionist, the old-fashioned hardcopy books lining the shelves in her office…It was almost as if they were a refuge, a place she could withdraw to, away from the reality of who she was and what she did on a daily basis.

The music playing in the background was another example of that. He didn’t recognize the artist or the melody, but he suspected it might actually be a Pre-Diaspora recording which had survived all those centuries.

“Come in,” she said crisply. “Sit.”

He obeyed the command, taking a chair which, he noted, came equipped with the same sorts of sensors as the one he’d occupied for his first interview with her here on Mesa. Well, that was fine with him. As far as he knew, there wasn’t anything he needed to hide this time around.

Of course, he could be wrong about that.

“Coffee?” she asked. “Something stronger?”

“Coffee would be fine,” he replied, and she nodded to the receptionist.

“See to it, Samuel.”

“Yes, Ma’am.”

The receptionist disappeared and Bardasano tipped back in the huge chair behind her desk as she regarded the ex-gendarme thoughtfully.

“I could wish the rest of my people had your gift for concision,” she said after a moment, stretching out one arm to tap the memo board lying on her blotter. Like many executives of Harahap’s acquaintance, especially those in the covert operations community, she preferred a handheld to a desk display.

“Your reports and analyses are well organized and quite thorough,” she continued. “There’s even some actual humor tucked away in them, but you still get the basis for your reasoning across quite clearly, and you even manage to get it done without a lot of excess word count. That’s especially welcome around here, to be honest. Some of my other analysts obviously think we’re paying them by the word! And you don’t hesitate to offer firm conclusions, either, even when that might involve going out on a limb. Impressive.”

She nodded slowly to herself, and Harahap allowed himself to nod back. She started to say something else, then paused as the receptionist reappeared with a silver tray holding an empty coffee cup, a large—very large; it had to hold at least two liters—self-heating carafe, and cream and old-fashioned sugar. He set it silently and efficiently at Harahap’s elbow, then vanished once again, closing the door behind him.

“Samuel is sometimes a bit OCD,” Bardasano observed, smiling as Harahap lifted the lid on the carafe and sniffed the aromatic steam, then poured into his cup. “On the other hand, he has a fairly good sense of how long my meetings are likely to run. Better than I do, sometimes. Judging by the size of that carafe, I’d say he expects you to be here a while.”

“I don’t have anything else scheduled for the day,” Harahap replied, pouring cream and spooning sugar. He sat back in the sensor-equipped chair, legs crossed, and regarded her calmly across the cup.

“That’s good, because there are a couple of those potential out-on-a-limb conclusions of yours we probably need to consider pretty carefully. But before we get to that, I’ve come into possession of a tidbit you might find interesting.”

Harahap raised his eyebrows in polite, silent interrogation, and she smiled. That smile held an edge he couldn’t quite identify, but whatever it was twanged the instincts which had made him so effective in the field for so long.

“Our sources in the Talbott Quadrant have been…pruned back rather drastically,” she told him. “On the other hand, as I’m sure you’ve concluded from the nature and content of the briefing materials we provided you with there, we have a lot of sources. I mention this because one of those sources is inside the Manties’ Foreign Office, and his latest infodump makes interesting reading. Among other things, it gives us a better picture of who the hell Aivars Terekhov is than we had before. It’s pretty impressive reading in that respect. But what you might find interesting is the fact that it was the activities of someone called ‘Firebrand’ that flipped Stephen Westman from our side of the equation into the support column for the annexation.”

She paused, and silence filled the office, broken only by the background murmur of the music. She simply sat there, watching him out of those odd silver-irised eyes, her expression completely unreadable even by Harahap. It was obvious she was waiting for a response from him, and he sipped coffee for a moment, then lowered the cup.

“May I ask exactly how that came about?”

“That’s hard to say for certain,” she replied. “Off the top of my head, it looks like you got too fancy and offended his principles.”

Harahap frowned, running back through his conversations with Westman. The Montanan was as stubborn and bullheaded as a human being came, but he definitely had principles. He didn’t bother to think his way through them and all of their implications, sometimes, but he had them—in spades. So it was entirely possible Harahap had offended them in some way, although he couldn’t think of anything. Except…

“Would that have had anything to do with Agnes Nordbrandt?” he asked after a moment, and Bardasano’s eyes narrowed with what might have been a trace of approval.

“I’d say that was a pretty good guess,” she said. “Our source wasn’t able to send us the actual report, only a summary of a general background briefing written from memory. But it does appear you got a bit too fancy by implying your approval for Nordbrandt’s methods to someone like Westman. It seems Mr. Westman had no desire to find himself lumped in with her activities.”

“I could see that,” Harahap acknowledged in a dispassionate tone. “Westman saw himself as some kind of patriotic Robin Hood, and he’s a lot smarter than Nordbrandt. He didn’t have the mindset for terror tactics, but that was at least partly because he recognized how ultimately counterproductive they were, especially on a planet like Montana. Unfortunately, Nordbrandt saw things rather differently, and partly because of the communications lag, I didn’t realize just how far into the terrorist camp she was prepared to go.” He shrugged slightly. “If I wanted to convince him I was a serious player, a coordinator for a sector-wide ‘resistance movement,’ I had to at least drop names with him, and she’d made quite a reputation for her opposition—her legal opposition—to the annexation before she went underground. I have to say I wouldn’t be surprised if he experienced some pretty serious qualms when she went off the rails into mass-casualty operations. If I’d realized she was going to do that, I would’ve tailored my approach to him differently.”

“How?” she asked, and he twitched another shrug.

“I would’ve taken the position that sometimes a revolutionary has to work with unsavory allies. While I personally found her taste for bloodshed excessive and more than a little disgusting, actually, the committee I represented had decided to support her because however thuggish we found her, at least she was actually doing something. Obviously, Montana wasn’t Split, and those sorts of tactics would be completely counterproductive there, which made me just as happy. I couldn’t disagree with the committee’s conclusion that she’d do a lot of damage to the annexation effort, but that didn’t mean I had to like her strategy and tactics at all. Or that I wasn’t afraid they might ultimately backfire on our entire movement if our connection to her became known.”

“I see.”

Bardasano frowned thoughtfully for a moment, then let her chair come upright and reached for her memo board.

“Interesting,” she said as she brought it alive. “That’s pretty much what I expected you to say.”

She did not, he noticed, say she’d approved of his response, and he sipped more coffee, his own expression tranquil while she scrolled through the files on her display. She found the one she wanted and looked back up at him.

“All right, let’s look at the fruits of your recent labors. Why don’t you start by summarizing the reasons you think Custis and Any Port would be bad investments for Janus?”

“Of course.” He lowered his cup, holding it in his lap between both hands. “I’ll take Any Port first, if you don’t mind.” He smiled briefly. “It’s a much more clear-cut proposition than Custis, actually.”

“Tell me about it.”

“First, your basic intel package was badly off the mark.” His voice was crisp but calm, almost dispassionate. “Whoever did the initial political analysis really needs to find another career. The idea that anyone in that star system was serious enough about reform to actually take to the streets was…well, let’s just call it grossly overoptimistic. The current so-called opposition movement’s basically a bunch of professional rowdies who never saw a riot they didn’t like and naïve college students without a clue, all being used by a batch of ‘reformist leaders’ who really want to bargain their way up to the table—and the trough—in the existing system.

“According to your original brief, there were at least three potential targets for Janus. In fact, the only one that might conceivably have been useful was the Any Port Democratic Movement, but it only took one meeting with a representative of their central committee for me to realize—”

* * *

“He’s good,” Isabel Bardasano said much later that evening, watching a spectacular sunset from the veranda of a mansion which officially didn’t exist on an island that was supposedly a population-free nature preserve. “He’s very good, actually. Even better than I expected.”

“Really?” An old-fashioned rattan chair creaked as the man sitting on the other side of the small round table shifted position.

“I pushed him a little on the Westman-Nordbrandt business,” she said. “Not very hard; just enough to let him know I had some potential…issues with the way he’d handled it. He didn’t panic, he didn’t bluster, and he didn’t flounder. I have to assume he didn’t have that information before I gave it to him, but he didn’t even hesitate. He just told me why he’d done what he’d done and what he might have done differently if he’d been aware at the outset just how bloody-minded Nordbrandt was. I got the same sort of response three or four other times when I pushed on some of his conclusions from his recent field trip. He’s smart, he’s quick, and he’s really in command of the material, Albrecht. It’s obvious he actually did go through every damned bit of it, and his analysis was more comprehensive and tightly reasoned than ninety percent of the reports our own people generate. And he’s got the mental agility to absorb new information and integrate it into his analyses—and strategies—on the fly. That’s unusual in someone who provides that sort of painstaking evaluations. In fact, he’s a very rare bird—a top drawer field agent who’s just as good as an analyst.”

“Somehow I doubt you’d be extolling his virtues this way unless you have something more…ambitious in mind for him,” Albrecht Detweiler observed.

“He’s a better analyst than ninety percent of the people I have all the way inside the onion,” she replied bluntly, “but he’s wasted doing prospector work. Besides, by now we’ve pretty much identified the star systems with the most potential for Janus. And much as I could use him in the home office, we couldn’t get full utility out of him without bringing him fully inside, and frankly, at this point I wouldn’t be willing to take that risk. But he doesn’t have to know who’s really calling the shots to be extraordinarily effective—he demonstrated that in Talbott.”

“Where, as we’ve just discussed, he was directly instrumental in that bastard Terekhov’s turning Westman and uncovering the Monica connection,” Detweiler challenged.

“Once Terekhov uncovered that arms cache on Split and IDed our freighter somehow, Montana was falling into Manticore’s pocket no matter what else did or didn’t happen,” she responded. “It was the Marianne and Binyan and his crew who blew that part of the operation. And apropos that topic, I argued rather strenuously against using the same ship to transport Technodyne’s technicians and run arms deliveries. That was the link that pointed the Manties at Monica, not anything Harahap did.”

“Point taken,” Detweiler said after a moment. “So where do you think his talents would find their best and highest use?”

“In a lot of ways, I’d’ve liked to send him to New Tuscany to back up Aldona. He’s already demonstrated he can work well with her, but we’d have had to bring him too far inside for that. Besides, she’s already well launched on that, and throwing him into the mix at this late date would be a waste of resources. No, what I have in mind is to slide him back into what he was doing in Talbott. In particular, I’d like him to take some of the load off Partisan. Instead of sending him racing around eliminating bad prospects, I’d like to see him developing good ones for us. I think he’s got the right mix of brains, audacity, and a dash of humor to handle somebody like the Allenbys in Swallow, for example.”

“Um.” Detweiler frowned, gazing into the sunset while he considered.

“We’d have to bring him far enough inside to make him potentially dangerous,” he pointed out after a long moment, and she snorted.

“Albrecht, that was true from the instant Yucel ordered Eichbauer to work with us in Talbott! We’ve got serious operational exposure in Janus however we set it up and whoever we send out to handle the ‘gardening.’ And in a lot of ways, I’d rather risk losing him than our own deep cover people. For that matter, it wouldn’t hurt our overall strategy if the Manties picked up a Solarian gendarme in the employ of a corrupt transstellar. That would probably help point them down the alley we want them to follow, and it would also pump more hydrogen into the fire when they parade him in the Solly ’faxes. The Sollies will claim he’s not working for them, the Manties won’t believe it, and the Solly public—or a big chunk of it, anyway—will buy Kolokoltsov’s argument that it’s all a Manty fabrication for nefarious purposes of their own.”

She shrugged again, her smile turning briefly sharklike.

“He’s too potentially useful for me to be happy about the thought of losing him, but if we have to lose somebody, I’d really prefer for it to be someone whose loss would actually push our ultimate objective forward, wouldn’t you?”

“I’m inclined to trust your judgment, Isabel. But I think this is one we should probably take up with Collin, as well, since Janus was his brainchild from the beginning.”

* * *

“How’s it going, Damien?”

“Can’t complain, Rufino,” Harahap replied as Rufino Chernyshev paused beside his restaurant table. “Would you care to have a seat, or would it be…inappropriate for the two of us to be seen together in public?”

“I don’t have a guilty conscience,” Chernyshev said with a smile. “Is there some reason you should?”

“Not here in Mesa.” Harahap smiled back and pushed one of the other chairs out with his toe. “Sit down. The beer’s pretty good here.”

“They do have a fair selection,” Chernyshev agreed. “What’re you drinking?”

“Something called Old Tillman.” Harahap held up the old-fashioned bottle. “Product of Manticore, if you can believe it.”

“Oh, I can. Actually, it’s pretty popular in these parts, despite the source.”

Chernyshev sat and punched his order into the table terminal. A hover tray with a frosted stein and a bottle of Old Tillman arrived at his shoulder in less than thirty seconds. If it had taken more than forty-five, it would have been free.

“Is the security on this place”—Harahap twitched a raised index finger in a circular motion at the dimly lit restaurant’s overhead—“as good as it claims?”

“Is any restaurant’s security ever as good as it claims?” Chernyshev countered with a smile, watching the head on his beer as he poured carefully into the stein. Then he shrugged. “As far as anyone who might…how is it they put it in the bad novels? ‘Wish us ill,’ isn’t it?” Harahap snorted in amusement, and Chernyshev went on. “As far as anyone like that’s concerned, it’s probably just as good as it claims. Now, where our esteemed superiors are concerned…”

He shrugged again. It was a very different shrug, and the whimsy had faded from his expression.

Harahap nodded. It was only to be expected that his new employers would keep an eye on anything their hired help got up to. It was interesting that Chernyshev was so willing to admit it, though. And his body language and tone were equally interesting.

Of course, he reminded himself, someone as senior as Rufino seems to be might find it pretty damned useful to be considered “one of the guys” when it comes to bitching about the front office’s…intrusiveness.

“Well,” he said out loud, “I don’t have a guilty conscience where ‘our esteemed superiors’ are concerned, either. And I suppose it makes sense for them to keep an eye on their employees.”

“Like I said when we met, it’s nice to deal with a professional. To be honest, it took me a while to get as philosophical about it as you seem. And I’m willing to bet I started in this line of work at a considerably earlier age than you did, too.”

Harahap nodded again, noncommittally. He suspected Chernyshev knew exactly when he’d first gone to work for the Gendarmerie.

“Should I assume you just happened along at this particular moment—a coincidence, I might add, I would find difficult to believe—or are you here for a purpose?” he asked.

“No, I didn’t just ‘happen along,’ and no, it’s not a coincidence. Not that I’d turn down a nice bowl of the house okroshka and a skewer of the lamb shashylk to go with my beer. The beef and chicken okroshka’s especially good, if you haven’t tried it. And the pelmeni aren’t bad, either.”

“Obviously, I should let you order,” Harahap said with another smile. “So why not get the non-coincidence out of the way first so we can enjoy our meal?”

“Sounds like a good idea to me.” Chernyshev set his stein on the table in front of him, drew a privacy unit from an inner pocket, and set it on the table beside the beer.

“Like I said, security’s probably as good in here as Starozhil Aleksey claims it is, but let’s not take any chances.”

“Go ahead,” Harahap invited, and Chernyshev switched it on and picked his beer back up.

“All right, Ms. Bardasano sent me to ask you to drop by her office again tomorrow morning. Around nine, let’s say.”

“Sent you to ask me?” Harahap said ironically, and Chernyshev chuckled.

“Those were her very words. Mind you, I think she’d be just a little irritated if it turned out you couldn’t fit her into your busy schedule.”

“By the strangest coincidence, I just happen to have an opening in my calendar tomorrow morning.”

“I thought you might.” Chernyshev sipped, then lowered the stein again.

“She also authorized me to give you a sort of preliminary brief on what she has in mind,” he said in a rather more serious tone. “She’ll want to handle the actual specifics herself, of course. She just wants me to give you a sort of…call it a general overview, since I had a hand in setting up a good bit of what you’ll be dealing with. And, to be honest, one reason she wants me to is that she has a lot less actual field experience—especially in this kind of operation—than you or I do, and she’s smart enough to realize it. One of the things I like best about working for her, to be honest. She understands there are aspects of Janus where someone who’s been there and done that is a better choice as a briefer.”

“Make sense to me,” Harahap said with unfeigned approval. If he had a centicred for every desk-jockey who’d thought he knew everything there was to know about field ops and screwed the pooch…

“Well, in that case, let me start by saying your new assignment will be similar to what you’ve already been doing for us but that you’re being moved up from prospector to handler. I imagine you’ll be taking over existing relationships in at least some cases. In others, though—”

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