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Chapter Seventeen

My, you’ve been a busy fellow, haven’t you, First Sergeant Frugoni? Damien Harahap thought, studying the imagery.

The man looking back at him from the holo display in his cabin aboard the yacht Факел had blond hair, blue eyes, and an improbably innocent expression. Or maybe it only seemed innocent because of what he knew about its owner.

He brought the dossier back up and paged through the screens with a pensive frown. First Sergeant Vincent “Vinnie” Frugoni, Solarian Marine Corps, with enough commendations and proficiency awards to fill a cargo shuttle. Wounded in action twice, mentioned in dispatches three times, and twice turned down recommendations for OCS. All that by only age forty-four—a virtual babe in arms in a society with third-generation prolong.

Obviously a lifer with no interest in a commission, Harahap reflected. Until seven T-years ago, anyway. He shook his head. Somebody damned well should’ve been keeping a closer eye on you, First Sergeant.

He pursed his lips, mourning the fact that not one of the League’s myriad security services seemed to have even noticed First Sergeant Frugoni’s abrupt choice in career changes. What the hell was wrong with those people? Anybody with half a brain should have realized that—

Be fair, Damien, he told himself. You’re actively looking for things like this, but there’s no reason the Marines should’ve been. And there’s no OFS or official Gendarmerie presence in Swallow, either. Anything that’s going on there is on Tallulah’s plate, not the League’s, and I doubt they’re going to advertise their more spectacular screw-ups to anyone outside the system. So I guess it’s not too inexcusable that nobody seems to’ve noticed that Frugoni’s decision not to re-up came barely five T-months after his sister was killed.

Harahap’s current employers, on the other hand, had come upon Frugoni working backward. The steadily gathering unrest in Swallow’s Cripple Mountains had attracted the eye of one of Isabel Bardasano’s analysts almost two T-years ago. The analyst in question had dived into its origins and discovered First Sergeant Frugoni when he realized how much of it stemmed directly from the death of Sandra Frugoni Allenby.

What a stupid waste that was, Harahap thought with genuine regret. No wonder the Allenbys are mad as hell over it.

Sandra Frugoni had arrived on Swallow as a Tallulah Corporation employee, but what she’d seen there had shifted her priorities radically. She’d given Tallulah notice within six months; within seven, she’d had her own medical practice, serving the men and women of the majestic, rugged Cripple Mountains, where isolation—and the fact that no one outside the Cripples gave much of a damn—made good medical care almost as rare as it had been on pre-space Old Terra. Her decision had resulted in an earnings drop of over seventy percent, not to mention the active harassment of her erstwhile employer, but she’d clearly never looked back. Harahap didn’t know if she’d met Floyd Allenby before or after her decision to leave Tallulah’s employ, and he had to wonder how that marriage would have worked out ultimately, given the fact that she’d been a third-generation prolong recipient and Floyd had never received even the first-generation therapies. That sort of thing often ended badly. But it might not have in this case…not that it mattered any longer, courtesy of an inexcusably stupid shoulder-fired surface-to-air missile.

And you’d already decided you were retiring to Swallow when the time came, hadn’t you, Vinnie? It’s not just your sister’s death, is it? You’re one of the ones with a conscience; I can tell. You didn’t like some of the things the Marines have to do, and you’d had a bellyful, hadn’t you? So you were looking for a place to settle down, maybe set up your own guide operation with your in-laws, watch your nephews and nieces grow up. But now there won’t be any of those nephews and nieces, and that was a bad, bad mistake on Tallulah’s part.

And then, of course, there was Frugoni’s brother-in-law.

Harahap switched to another file—one that showed a weathered, tallish man with brown hair, brown eyes, sun-browned skin, a close cropped beard, and a nose that could have served as an ancient rowing galley’s ram. Floyd Allenby was only thirty-two T-years years old, barely half his dead wife’s age, and there were laugh lines among the weather-induced crow’s feet at the corners of his eyes. But there was no laughter in that man’s face these days.

A bit of the berserker there, Harahap decided. Or maybe that’s not fair. The man’s a clansman, and his people are feudists. He’s not berserk; he just has a highland clansman’s notion of what constitutes justice and doesn’t give a rat’s ass what it takes to get it. If that means getting killed, he’s okay with it, but that’s not remotely the same as having a death wish. Better remember that, Damien.

He closed the file and leaned back, listening to the music—it was one of the pieces Bardasano had been listening to during their interview, something called Eroica by some ancient composer named Bayhoven—while he thought.

Rufino Chernyshev had been spot on with his “guess” about the new responsibilities Bardasano had intended to offer Harahap. Which was about as surprising as the fact that the sun tended to rise in the east. Chernyshev wouldn’t have had that “chance conversation” with him if Bardasano hadn’t approved it ahead of time. But Harahap had to admit that even his own suspicions had fallen short of his new employers’ actual ambitions.

He wasn’t foolish enough to believe she’d told him anything remotely like everything, and any information she’d given him about Operation Janus bore exactly as close a resemblance to the truth as her superiors wanted it to. That was something a field agent for the Gendarmerie learned to take in stride, but this time the stride had been just a bit wider than usual.

Whether or not he believed everything Bardasano had to say about this “Mesan Alignment,” it definitely had far greater resources than any transstellar—or alliance of transstellars—he’d ever heard of. And it was a very serious player; that much was obvious, because Bardasano had been forced to give him more background than he’d had if she’d wanted to make full use of his intelligence, as well as his skill set. He was positive she hadn’t given him one thing more than she’d decided she had to, but even that restricted information was enough to underscore the sheer, audacious magnitude of the Alignment’s operations. It seriously intended to destroy the Star Empire outright. And while Bardasano hadn’t said so, it was obvious from what she had said—to someone like Damien Harahap, at least—that they’d been working on that for a hell of a lot longer than could be accounted for by Manticore’s discovery of the Lynx Terminus.

I wonder how involved the “Alignment” was in Haven’s decision to go back to war? Hell, given the scale these people seem to think on, I wonder how much it had to do with Haven’s decision to go to war with Manticore in the first place! Seems like an awful lot of work, though, and I wonder what their endgame is? It’s got to be more than just punching out the Manties’ lights!

Yes, it did, but he reminded his curiosity bump that there were some things it was wiser not to know. Especially when one was a newly promoted operative in the employ of a hyper-paranoid interstellar conspiracy. But at least there were some surprising perks involved. Not least among them the vessel with which they’d provided him. Факел had been built on what was technically a dispatch boat’s hull, but the dispatch boat in question had been larger than the bare-bones utility vessels used by most navies or data courier services. Officially, Факел was the Christiane Hauptman, a Manticoran-registered fast personnel transport for the Hauptman Cartel. That was concealed behind a false Solarian registry which listed her as the Caroline Henegar, for use when Harahap wasn’t openly employing his cover as a Hauptman employee. Her actual builders and owners had never given her a name at all, only a hull number—DB-10024—so he’d felt free to bestow his own name for what he thought of as “internal use.”

Captain Yong Seong Jin, DB-10024’s commander, had been puzzled by his choice, initially. She’d never heard of a language called “Macedonian,” but once he explained the name’s origins to her, she’d been amused rather than affronted. That was good, since it had confirmed she really did have a sense of humor.

He suspected Yong was an ex-officer of the Mesan System Navy—or possibly not even “ex”—given the brisk efficiency with which she ran her small command. It was an interesting speculation, given what it would imply about the “Alignment’s” relationship with the government of Mesa. What really mattered, though, was that she was about as professional as officers came. Not only did she obviously enjoy her command, she was smart, had an imagination she wasn’t afraid to use, and was obviously aware of the…modalities covert operations required. He had no concern about her ability to support his mission without accidentally blowing their cover, which was more than he’d been able to say about some SLN officers with whom he’d been forced to work upon occasion.

In addition to the palatial comfort of Факел’s fittings, she was faster than any other ship aboard which he’d ever traveled. He was no hyper-physicist, and he had no idea how the “streak drive” accomplished its magic, but Факел’s interstellar speed was substantially higher than anyone else’s. The fact that the “Alignment” had something like that tucked away in its pocket, reserving it solely for its operatives’ use rather than making it available to the rest of the galaxy for a stupendous price, further underscored just how serious a player it was.

Nor was Факел the only goodie which had come his way.

He wasn’t entirely happy about the new medical package his employers had provided. He’d seen too many ways in which suicide switches could be rigged even without access to someone’s doctor, and he suspected that his new doctor would have been perfectly happy to do just that. That thought was enough to provoke the occasional bad dream, but they hadn’t really needed any elaborate doctor’s visits to set up something like that. There were much simpler ways to go about it, and he told himself firmly to look at the upside.

If Bardasano was to be believed, the booster to his prolong had just added close to another T-century to his expected lifetime. The ability to see in near-total darkness wasn’t anything at which a field operative was likely to turn up his nose, either. And neither were the repair nanites swarming around his system. Bardasano had demonstrated their efficacy for him by slashing her own palm and then letting him watch as the deep cut closed and began healing before his very eyes. It was almost like carrying his very own regen clinic around with him, although he strongly suspected they violated the prohibitions on self-replicating, broad-spectrum biological nanotech. The times that sort of initially innocuous technology had gotten out of hand were enough to make anyone nervous, but if it was going to be wandering around the galaxy anyway, he might as well get in on it, himself. The oxygen reservoir implanted in his abdomen and the EM spectrum sensors implanted across his shoulder blades were well worth having, as well, and he’d been promised improved anti-disease nannies when he got back, as well. Unlike the repair nanites, they needed to be specifically coded to his own genotype so they could recognize any intruders, and there hadn’t quite been time to get that done before he had to catch his shuttle for his new assignment.

And let’s face it, he thought wryly, nobody lives forever, anyway. Sure, Bardasano’ll dispose of me in a heartbeat if I turn into a liability, but I already knew that. Probably be a lot harder for me to just…disappear now to avoid that, though. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if my “regularly scheduled medical checkups” are going to include resetting some sort of dead man’s switch from now on. That’s how I’d’ve set it up, anyway. But the pay’s good, the work’s challenging, and as long as I don’t trip myself up and blow an assignment, they’ll keep me around and keep me in the field.

In an odd sort of way, that was almost amusing, and he closed his eyes and smiled as he let the music sweep over him.

* * *

“My God,” Helga Boltitz said, shaking her head as she stared down into her drink. “I can’t…I can’t believe it.”

You can’t believe it?” Helen Zilwicki shook her head, her expression grim, and Helga looked up quickly.

“I know it has to be worse for you,” she said. “And I know I can’t really imagine how much worse at this point, especially with no more information than we have. But it just seems so…impossible.”

“That’s certainly one way to put it.” Helen inhaled sharply, then took a deep swallow from her stein of beer. She took her time before she lowered the stein again and looked at her table companion across it.

Helga Boltitz had to be one of the most beautiful women she’d ever met, and she’d met some really beautiful ones. For that matter, given her adoptive mother’s life-long involvement with the Audubon Ballroom, she’d known quite a few women—and at least one man, she thought bitterly—who’d been genetically built from the ground up to be beautiful. People who bought pleasure slaves didn’t want ugly property, after all. And that didn’t even count the number of people who’d invested in the perfect profiles and skin texture biosculpt specialists provided all across the galaxy.

But Helga was from Dresden, where even prolong had only just become available. There were no biosculpt practices on Dresden, which meant she’d come by every bit of her attractiveness the old-fashioned way.

There were times when Helen—who was built on sufficiently compact and sturdy lines to have heard the dreaded adjective “healthy” applied to her person more than once—found it difficult not to resent people who drew the winning tickets in the “aren’t-I-beautiful” genetic lottery.

Not always a good thing, though, is it? she asked herself. You knew that even before you met Paulo. It’s just

She chopped that thought off sharply. Better not to think about Paulo d’Arezzo just now. Not until they knew more.

“Sorry,” she said, and managed a smile. “Didn’t mean to take out any of my mad on you, Helga. It’s just not knowing.…”

“That much I really can sympathize with,” Helga said. “When Minister Krietzmann got briefed on Commodore Terekhov’s message and we found out you were all headed to Monica but we didn’t have any idea what had happened after you got there…That was pretty bad. And you’re right, it was the fact that we couldn’t know a thing about it for so long.”

Helen nodded soberly. As Henri Krietzmann’s personal assistant, Helga had been on the inside of that message loop right along the Quadrant’s Defense Minister. So, yes. If anyone understood what Helen and every other Manticoran in Spindle were feeling at this moment, it was probably her.

“Well,” she said out loud, looking around the noisy restaurant from their quiet, secluded little alcove, “I guess the good news is that we should be getting follow-on dispatches a lot more quickly than you guys could find out what had happened at Monica.”

“I know.”

Helga sipped her own beer. Since CruRon 94’s arrival in the Quadrant, Commodore Terekhov’s duties—and the Quadrant Cabinet’s respect for his insights—had thrown her and Helen together on several occasions, and she’d decided she liked the young Manty. Of course, Helen came from just a slightly different social strata than Lieutenant “Gwen” Archer, Admiral Henke’s flag lieutenant and the only other Manticoran Helga had truly gotten to know. She certainly wasn’t related to Empress Elizabeth, after all! But she was a Gryphon Highlander, with the sheer bloody-mindedness that implied, and that was something to which any Dresdener could relate.

“I wonder if they’re going to release the news?” she asked quietly, and Helen glanced back at her quickly.

“They’ll have to. It’s not like the news services aren’t going to be telling people about it pretty damned soon anyway,” the ensign pointed out. “This is the biggest story to come out of the war in the last twenty T-years, Helga! The Solly services’re going to be all over it, even if our own newsies weren’t. Besides, Manticore figured out a long time ago that it’s better to come clean when the shit hits the fan. You owe people that. And even if that weren’t true, if you tell them what’s really going on when the news is bad, not just when it’s good, people tend to trust your word.”

“I can see that,” Helga agreed. “And I’m not saying any one should—or could—keep a lid on it forever. I’m just wondering if they’re going to release the news now.”

“You’re probably in a better position to know about that than I am.” Helen shrugged. “Off the top of my head, though, I’d say they probably will sit on it at least a while longer. Like I say, follow-up dispatches have to be en route. I’m guessing Prime Minister Alquezar and Baroness Medusa would just as soon have more information in hand before they start panicking everybody.”

Helga nodded, listening to the restaurant diners’ cheerful, murmuring hubbub. Everyone seemed so upbeat, so cheerful. The possibility of a confrontation with the Solarian League might loom over them, but they were part of the Star Empire of Manticore now. The shield of the Royal Manticoran Navy extended over them, and, in the meantime, the annexation’s impact on the Quadrant’s economy meant a far better—and healthier—future for themselves and their children.

Except that that shield had just been dealt a shattering blow.

“Do you think it’s as bad as the preliminary report suggests?”

“Probably not. Well, maybe.” Helen grimaced. “After Lovat, I’d never’ve expected them to try something like this. A direct assault on the home system? That took what a friend of my dad’s would call great big brass ones!”

“I don’t think anyone would’ve expected it after so long,” Helga said. “I mean, you’ve been fighting Haven for ages. If anyone was going to launch this kind of attack, why not do it a lot sooner? Wouldn’t that’ve made more sense?”

“No.” Helen shook her head. “Anybody who tried something like this was going to get royally reamed, even if they ‘won.’ That’s the reason no responsible strategist would’ve signed off on it, even after we’d demonstrated the deep strike would work. In fact, I think the Commodore probably put his finger on what happened—or why it happened, at least.”

Helga arched an eyebrow at her, and she tossed her left hand in a sort of throw away gesture.

“Sir Aivars,” she said, using the title Terekhov had received at Baroness Medusa’s hands, along with the Parliamentary Medal of Valor, less than a week earlier, “thinks they did this—threw the dice and went all in—exactly because of what Duchess Harrington did at Lovat. They got reamed there, too, thanks to the new MDM control systems. Their birds have just as much range as ours, Helga; they just have less accuracy, and it gets crappier as the range extends.”

Helga nodded. As Krietzmann’s assistant, she’d been present when Terekhov briefed the Defense Minister and the rest of the Cabinet on the new Manticoran missiles. She didn’t pretend to understand the technical details, but she understood the consequences of being able to utterly destroy an enemy at ranges from which she couldn’t even hit your own ships.

“Well, the Commodore thinks they must’ve figured their only chance was to hammer us hard enough to force us to surrender before we got the new weapons broadly deployed. I don’t think anyone in Nouveau Paris could’ve expected it to be a good chance, and they must have projected massive losses for their own side. But after the summit talks fell through and they saw what happened at Lovat, they probably decided it was throw the dice and take their own lumps in hopes of pulling it off or screen Mount Royal Palace with their surrender offer.”

“And so all those people got killed,” Helga said sadly, looking back down into her drink once more. Then she looked up quickly with something almost like a gasp. “Oh, Helen! I didn’t mean to suggest that—”

“’S all right.” Helen shook her head. “Oh, I’m worried about enough other people I know in the Fleet, but it doesn’t sound like they got anywhere near Hephaestus. It must’ve driven Captain FitzGerald crazy to be sitting on his bridge doing nothing in the middle of something like that, but there’s no way the Kitty could’ve done one damned thing until they get her repairs finished. So I’m not worried about Hexapuma or…or anyone aboard her.”

Helga nodded with a relieved expression, but she found herself wondering which “anyone aboard her” Helen wasn’t worried about. It sounded like a much more personal “anyone.”

“Well,” she said, “Admiral Gold Peak should be back in another three T-weeks or so. Maybe we’ll have at least some good news for her when she gets here.”

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