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Chapter Nineteen

“Good afternoon, Ensign Zilwicki.”

Helen turned towards the voice as the maître d’ showed her into the restaurant’s main dining room. Quillen’s was one of the city of Thimble’s better eating places, and its prices reflected that. But it was also close enough to both Governor Medusa’s mansion and Augustus Khumalo’s dirtside headquarters to be popular with the Navy.

“Lieutenant Archer,” she said, nodding courteously to the red-haired, green eyed senior-grade lieutenant. He was seated at one of the restaurant’s prized corner tables with one of the few people in Spindle Helen had gotten to know fairly well, and she smiled at his companion. “Ms. Boltitz.”

“Would you care to join us?” Archer said. “We’ve only just placed our orders.”

“Thank you, Sir,” she said, although she had to wonder if she’d have been inviting any third wheels in his place. Admiral Gold Peak had been back in Spindle for less than two full days, after all, and she’d spent most of the first day coping with the results of the Battle of Manticore. Helen knew how much Commodore Terekhov had hated telling her about it, and Archer, as her flag lieutenant, had been just as frantically busy as his boss. He couldn’t possibly have had the time to pick up the social threads here in Spindle, and if she’d been male and had a friend who looked like Helga…

Be nice, Helen, she cautioned herself. After all, he is Admiral Gold Peak’s flag lieutenant. There could be all kinds of legitimate business reasons for him and Helga to grab a quick lunch together. She snorted mentally at the thought. Oh, I’m sure it’s “just business”!

“What’s this ‘Ms. Boltitz’ about, Helen?” Helga asked with a raised eyebrow as the maître d’ pulled out Helen’s chair. “Have I offended you somehow?”

“No, but this is sort of a formal venue,” Helen replied, waving one hand at the crowded restaurant about them.

“And it would have been grossly disrespectful of the Ensign to allow herself to lapse into informality in the presence of an officer of such towering seniority as myself, Helga,” Archer said sternly. “I’d’ve thought you knew that!”

“How do you fit that head of yours into a beret, Gwen?” Helga asked.

“It’s difficult…difficult,” he replied mournfully. “I have to have it sized up at least twice a week.”

Helga chuckled, and he smiled at her, then turned back to Helen.

“I know we haven’t had the opportunity to really introduce ourselves to each other, Ensign Zilwicki,” he said. “On the other hand, we’re probably going to spend a lot of time liaising with each other, so I thought that it might be a good idea for us to get to know one another. I didn’t realize you and Helga had already met, although given another six months or so it probably would’ve occurred to me that the two of you must have, given what she does for Minister Krietzmann and what you do for Commodore Terekhov.”

“It probably really would have, Helen,” Helga told her earnestly. “He’s very quick that way for someone with a Y-chromosome.”

“And you’re grossly disrespectful to someone of my advanced years, Helga,” he said severely.

“Oh, forgive me!”

Helen smiled as she unfolded her napkin, draped it across her lap, and reached for the printed menu. She knew they were deliberately using their banter to put her at ease, but it was also clearly natural to them, and she was glad. Helga seemed like one of the nicest people she’d ever met, and the warmth in her eyes when they rested on Lieutenant Archer was obvious.

Helen allowed her own eyes to consider Archer thoughtfully while she considered what she’d been able to learn about him. Lieutenant Gervais Winton Erwin Neville Archer—no wonder he preferred the nickname “Gwen”—was probably six or seven T-years older than Helga. That made him ten T-years older than Helen herself, although he seemed as unconcerned by that as by the difference in their ranks. He had red hair, eyes as green as Helga’s, and a snub nose. Given that he was a third-generation prolong recipient like Helen, he looked like Helga’s kid brother, but there was nothing “brotherly” about his body language as he sat beside her at the table. He was also, as the second of his numerous given names indicated, a distant cousin of Countess Gold Peak and Empress Elizabeth, although he was obviously—and thankfully—immune to the towering sense of entitlement common to too many aristocrats of Helen’s acquaintance. And, unlike many a Gryphon Highlander, she’d met quite a lot of those aristocrats.

And he doesn’t have the drawl, either. Thank God.

A real live waiter appeared at her elbow to take her order and she considered the menu for a moment.

“Is the Montana sirloin shipped fresh, or has it been frozen?” she asked.

“At Quillen’s?” The waiter looked deeply offended by the very thought.

“Then that’s what I’ll have, extra rare,” she told him. “Just saw off the horns and show it the fire—briefly. Baked potato with sour cream and chives, and a side salad. Bleu cheese dressing. And do you have iced tea?”

“I’m afraid not, Ma’am.” This time the waiter looked confused rather than offended, and she shook her head with a smile.

“Then just bring me a carafe of hot tea, lots of sugar, and a couple of tumblers of ice.”

“Of course, Ma’am.”

“Oh, and a couple of slices of lemon, too,” she added.

“Certainly, Ma’am.”

He disappeared and Helen looked back to see her table companions regarding her with quizzical expressions.

“Hey, they’d better get used to serving iced tea,” she said. “I picked up a taste for it from the Graysons I’ve met—like Lieutenant Hearns, Helga—and she’s not the only Grayson serving with us right now.”

“I can see that,” Archer said. “It’s your cooking instructions that seemed a bit…colorful.”

“What?” She frowned, then snorted. “Oh, you mean the ‘saw off the horns and show it the fire’ bit?” He nodded, and she chuckled. “Sorry. I’m afraid I’ve been corrupted. That’s the way Stephen Westman always orders it.”

“Really?” Archer smiled. “Somehow I’m not surprised. Everything I’ve heard suggests Mr. Westman’s a…larger than life character.”

“That’s definitely one way to describe him,” Helen acknowledged.

“That’s what I thought. Admiral Gold Peak wanted to meet him when we were in Montana, but there wasn’t time. I hadn’t realized you’d met him, though.”

“Commodore Terekhov assigned me as Mr. Van Dort’s personal aide while the Nasty Kitty played diplomatic tennis between Spindle, Split, and Montana. Mr. Westman and I got to know one another pretty well during his meetings with the Commodore and Mr. Van Dort.”

Archer nodded, and she decided not to mention how much—and how painfully—she’d reminded Westman of Suzanne Bannister Van Dort, his best friend’s sister…and Bernardus Van Dort’s long-dead wife.

“Good. That gives me something else to pick your brain about.” Archer shook his head. “Admiral Gold Peak’s devoured every report she could get her hands on about events here in Talbott, and she’s had me read ’em, too. She figures the more I know about them the better when it comes to handling her schedule. And Helga’s been a goldmine about Dresden and things here on Spindle, but you were right there while Van Dort and Sir Aivars talked Westman into laying down his guns, and he still seems to carry a lot of clout on Montana. Anything you can tell me about him would be more than welcome, Helen.”

“Really?” Helen sat back, thinking, then shrugged. “Well, the first thing anyone needs to know about Stephen Westman is that he’s a Montanan. They’re all a little crazy, but he’s crazier than most. In fact, he’s almost as crazy as a Gryphon Highlander. I think he and my father would get along really well…assuming they didn’t kill each other first. I remember the first time he met with us, and—”

* * *

That Frugoni’s a tough little bastard, Damien Harahap reflected with more than a trace of admiration as he closed the file. I wish I’d been able to meet his brother-in-law, but that old saying about judging somebody by the company he keeps probably comes into play here. A man like Frugoni wouldn’t play second fiddle to someone he didn’t think deserved his support…and allegiance. That says one hell of a lot about Allenby right there.

Which it did, of course.

He closed and security-locked the file. He’d let a couple of T-weeks pass before he went back for the final edit of his analysis of Swallow. It was always a good idea to let his thoughts settle and put a little distance between events and his considered judgment of them. But the Факел was approaching their next port of call, and it was time he turned his attention to the next system on his list.

This one was going to be tougher, he thought. Bardasano’s people had created a credentialed cover that would make it absurdly easy to get into the system without being flagged as a potential subversive by the local security forces, but contacting the system’s real subversives wasn’t going to be easy, since first he had to figure out who the hell they were.

There had to be some, of course, however well hidden they might be. Even the most cursory examination of Włocławek made that clear. Although the material from Bardasano’s analysts was a lot sketchier than anything he’d had going in on Swallow, they’d pulled together a comprehensive summary of the local power structure and political equation that could have served as a checklist for any regime intent on radicalizing its eventual executioners. It was just that those same analysts hadn’t been able to point Harahap at any recognized contact point for the anti-regime movement which had to be bubbling away somewhere. And for all his cover’s good points, it was likely to create a few initial trust issues where any such movement was concerned.

Part of the reason the analysts hadn’t been able to pick out a contact point here was that they lacked the degree of access they’d had in Swallow because none of the League’s transstellars had a finger in the Włocławek pie…yet. A couple were poking around the opportunities Włocławek offered, but so far the system’s corruption—which was at least as bad as anything even a Solarian transstellar could have contrived—was entirely homegrown, and the failed reforms of the Ruch Odnowy Narodowej had only made it worse.

Much worse.

That sort of thing seemed to be inevitable when reformers were captured by the system. Harahap couldn’t have counted the number of “National Renewal Movements” he’d seen end exactly the same way. In fact, it seemed to happen most often in the systems most desperately in need of reform. Probably because that was where one could always find someone most determined to protect the status quo by spreading around the corruption. Even the most fiery of firebrands—his lips quirked at his own choice of nouns—was a human being, and he’d yet to meet a human being completely immunized against avarice and the taste of power. Once reformers allowed themselves to be bought, they were almost always worse than the corruption they’d originally pledged to fight, and the current ugly unrest over the shoot-down of an air bus full of kids was one more indication that that was exactly what had happened in Włocławek.

Ziomkowski’s real mistake was not purging the local kleptocracy, he thought now. But that was because he was a reformer, not a revolutionary. He thought political power would be enough to “fix the system” without realizing the system itself was the problem. If he’d been ready to take a page from Rob Pierre and send a few thousand people to the wall, confiscate a few hundred fortunes, he might actually have achieved something. As it was

Harahap’s problem was a lot simpler than Włodzimierz Ziomkowski’s had been, because his employers didn’t care whether the system was fixed or blown up, just as long as the effort to do the fixing—or blowing up—was sufficiently spectacular. They’d prefer for it to fail, and he understood why, but the locals were more than welcome to succeed, as far as he was concerned. In fact, in his opinion, Bardasano and her “Alignment” had gotten at least part of their strategy wrong. Discrediting the Star Empire in the Verge probably would go a long ways towards undermining its ability to engineer additional Talbott-style annexations, yet “proving” Manticore’s guilt as a successful provocateur would do the Manties far more damage in the League.

When word of Operation Janus reached Old Chicago, Kolokoltsov, MacArtney, and the other Mandarins would seize the propaganda coup in both hands. They’d gleefully portray Manticore as a corrupt, expansionist, treacherous, imperialistic star nation, and the softheaded Core World idiots who bought OFS’ self-billing as “a galactic force for good” would eat it up like candy. But the Mandarins would also recognize the danger a successful Operation Janus represented to what OFS really did in the Verge, and that would be intolerable to them. That was the ball upon which Bardasano and her superiors should be keeping their eye. Given the interstellar balance of power, the Solarian League was the only player with the potential to actually destroy Manticore. Anything that didn’t motivate the League to do just that was dissipated strategic effort, however inherently worthwhile it might be on a purely tactical level.

Maybe it is, he told himself, reopening the Włocławek file and running his cursor down the index. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t going to pull it off in the end. And Bardasano’s insistence that Janus has to target at least a few star systems with no Solarian presence is smart, really smart. It puts the “Manties’” efforts even further out in the open, and it’s going to make any of the other corrupt local system governments very wary of—and pretty damned hostile to—any extension of Manticoran influence into their backyards.

He chuckled softly at the thought, and not just because he was a craftsman who respected good workmanship. No, Damien Harahap remembered his own childhood, and anything that made someone like the Włocławek Oligarchowie sweat was just fine with him.

Just remember you’re not here to make sure they succeed, Damien, he reminded himself.

* * *

Tomek Nowak frowned thoughtfully as the utterly nondescript off-worlder walked down the old-fashioned sidewalk from the front door of Szymański i Synowie and turned right onto the pedestrian way.

The fellow might not look like much, but he did seem to get around…and to such interesting places. Szymański and Sons was far from the largest vendor of medical supplies in the city of Lądowisko. It was one of the capital’s oldest firms, and it had somehow evaded the voracious appetite of the Oligarchia, but its market share had shrunk drastically over the last several decades. Nonetheless, it remained the primary supplier of the Siostry Ubogich, and the needs of Szpital Marii Urbańskiej and its satellite campuses outside Lądowisko were enough to keep its doors open.

Exactly what this fellow wanted with a Włocławekan medical supply firm was something of a puzzle, however, and Nowak didn’t like puzzles. Especially not when the person at the heart of them seemed to be trolling for information.

All Nowak knew about him was that he represented the Oscar Williams Madison Foundation, a Solarian charitable organization well over three T-centuries old. On the face of it, somebody working for a charitable organization might be expected to spend time talking to the Sisters and their suppliers, but that would only have been true if the organization in question was really what it claimed to be, and OWMF hadn’t been that in a long time. Nowak himself knew very little about the foundation, but his friend Radosław Kot, who’d first noticed Mr. Mwenge, had used his journalistic contacts to do a little research.

Kot’s well-honed suspicions had been roused when Mwenge arrived in a private Solarian-registry dispatch boat which appeared to be little more than a glorified—and luxurious—private yacht. He’d become even more suspicious when he discovered that the Biuro Bezpieczeństwa i Prawdy had given Mwenge only the most cursory of glances when he arrived. Indeed, the BBP had cleared him through customs with accelerated priority and he’d been met at the spaceport by a representative—admittedly, a fairly low-level one—of Hieronim Mazur’s Stowarzyszenie Eksporterów Owoców Morza. That had been more than enough for Kot to dig deeper, and he’d discovered that the Oscar Williams Madison Foundation was quite well known in certain circles. The original organization had long ago been co-opted by the Office of Frontier Security, and while it continued to raise a great deal of money for its ostensible projects, ninety percent of those donations went into staff, overhead, and its directors salaries. In addition, it was liberally subsidized by OFS and various corrupt transstellars in need of good publicity in the League, where OWMF spoke fulsomely of its own good works in the poor, benighted star systems of the Verge…and of how generously OFS and whatever transstellar was currently paying it contributed to its efforts there.

Given the protests which had raged through the capital for three weeks after the air bus shoot-down—and the savage crackdown which had followed—that was exactly the sort of favorable PR the Party needed just now. Personally, Nowak thought Krzywicka and Pokriefke should be more focused on local opinion, but the łowcy trufli were always more worried about how opinion might affect business and tourism than about little things like blood in the streets.

That was probably enough to explain how Mwenge had breezed through security, and he was certain it explained the visits Mwenge had made to the Komisja Wolności i Sprawiedliwości Społecznej’s offices here in Lądowisko. Bjørn Kudzinowski’s “Freedom and Social Justice Commission” would be the logical agency to issue an off-world shill’s marching orders. But that didn’t explain the fact that he actually was contacting legitimate charitable entities here in Włocławek. Unless, of course, he hoped to use his contacts with them to dig for information on the local star system’s subversive elements.

And given how half the Projects took to the streets after the air traffic hack went viral, Pokriefke has to be a hell of a lot more worried about any organized subversives than she was before. I may despise her, but unlike Mazur’s, her brain actually works. Sometimes, at least.

Whatever else the stranger might be, however, Nowak had come to the conclusion he probably wasn’t an agent of the BBP or the BDK. They seldom operated solo—which was wise, given how uniformly beloved they were—and there was no sign of any backup at all for Mwenge. That didn’t rule out the possibility that he and his precious foundation were working for one of the łowcy trufli who’d gotten a sniff of the Krucjata Wolności Myśli’s existence and launched a private venture to smoke it out, however.

No, it doesn’t, Tomek, he told himself. But if that’s what he is, he’s being awfully subtle, and that’s not usually the hallmark of somebody working for Mazur or the other oligarchowie. “Subtle” isn’t in enormous demand when you’ve already got the courts in your pocket.

Mwenge moved on down the Mazowiecki Street pedestrian way, headed more or less towards Lądowisko Spaceport. If Nowak’s information was correct, he had a shuttle on one of the private pads, so he was probably headed back to his ship. That might—or might not—indicate that his business (whatever it was) in Włocławek had been completed.

The smart thing to do would be to just let him go his way while you go yours, Tomek, and you know it. The question is whether or not you’re going to do it.

He snorted at the thought, because it wasn’t really a question at all.

He tugged his hat brim a bit lower, shoved his hands deeper into the warmth of his jacket pockets, bent his head against the winter wind, and matched the off-worlder’s pace.

* * *

Damien Harahap considered the imagery projected onto the contact lens in his left eye. The tiny optical pickup hidden in one of his rather ornate belt’s ornamental silver conches gave him a hundred and sixty-degree view of the street behind him. It was a relatively simple bit of technology he’d found useful on many occasions.

The man ambling along behind him was a tallish, broad-shouldered fellow. He’d been there for the last four blocks, and he’d been waiting on one of the benches in the small park outside Szymański i Synowie when Harahap came back out. It was possible he’d simply had a hankering for fresh air. But given that the temperature was barely five degrees above freezing, it would have to be a greater than normal appetite for cold fresh air.

You, Damien Harahap, he told himself, are a suspicious, distrustful, and generally paranoid fellow.

He turned down a side street, moving away from the main thoroughfares and into a part of Lądowisko the Włocławek Bureau of Tourism really didn’t want visitors to see. He passed a burned out storefront and wondered how long it had been boarded up. Had it been a casualty of the recent riots? Or did its charred, forlorn squalor simply represent the norm for this neighborhood? There was no way to tell, but the fellow behind him followed past it without missing a step, and Harahap nodded to himself.

Now for the interesting part, he thought. This guy could be a BBP agent who’d like to ask you a few pointed questions, Madison Foundation credentials or no, given who you’ve been talking to for the last six days. If he’s not that, odds are he’s just an ordinary, garden-variety thug who’s noticed how much cash you’ve been flashing around. Then again, it’s always possible

Actually, he was reasonably sure his shadow wasn’t with the Biuro Bezpieczeństwa i Prawdy. If he had been, he’d almost certainly have already flashed a badge and started putting those pointed questions quite some time ago. And he probably would’ve shown at least a modicum of courtesy when he did, given who “Dupong Mwenge” worked for. But it was also possible he hadn’t gotten the word on who “Mwenge” was, and the local regime’s enforcers seldom objected to making their presence visible as a warning to their fellow citizens. Besides, agents of something like the BBP tended to come in two flavors: the subtle, unobtrusive sort (rather like one Damien Harahap), or else the truncheon-wielding, head-breaking sort. This fellow didn’t fall neatly into either category.

Harahap’s eyes narrowed as he approached a gate in the decorative but battered fence to his left. The wilderness beyond the fence had probably been a pleasant little park once upon a time—Lądowisko’s original architects had tucked scores of small green spaces into the street grid of the capital’s older sections—but now winter-gaunt trees loomed over mazes of underbrush which had devoured playground equipment and what had been shaded walks.

It was the sort of place muggers dreamed of, and Harahap began to whistle tunelessly as he stepped through the open gate.

* * *

Now that’s an interesting development, Nowak thought. I think he must’ve spotted me. The question is why he’s so obligingly wandering into such a handy dark corner. Somehow I doubt it’s because he likes the color of my eyes.

He followed his quarry—if that was what Mwenge truly was—to the gate, then hesitated, conscientiously trying to think of some sort of BBP scenario that might make any sense. He couldn’t. If the czarne kurtki suspected he was part of something like the Krucjata Wolności Myśli, they’d invite him downtown for a chat by breaking down his door in the middle of the night. They certainly wouldn’t wave a mysterious off-worlder under his nose and expect him to fall into some kind of trap. Unless this was truly the first step in some convoluted attempt to infiltrate the KWM’s membership.

You really ought to ask Tomasz before you go charging off half-cocked, he told himself. You know you’re too inclined to act first and think second…or third. And it’s not like you’re the only one you could be putting at risk.

All of that was true, but he knew he wasn’t going to ask anyone. Partly because there was no time—not if he meant to take advantage of the opportunity Mwenge had so courteously provided. But there was another reason. If Mwenge turned out to be one of the BBP’s leg-breakers, Nowak would deal with him, one way or another. And if the Biuro ended up dealing with him, instead, at least he’d limit the damage to just himself.

Assuming the suicide protocols worked as promised, anyway.

He followed the other man into the park.

* * *

Harahap turned sideways, edging through a gap in the overgrown bank of some unpleasantly thorny native shrub which squeezed tightly on the rutted path. On the far side, he found a small, muddy pond, heavily grown with some sort of reed. A thin skim of ice reached out across the shallows to where a single, forlorn waterfowl floated disconsolately. It was, he thought, a fitting metaphor for the gray, sullen despair-flavored discontent all about him…except for the volcanic heat growing steadily hotter under that tide of dissatisfaction. Even making due allowance for the inherent stupidity of greed and a certain lack of imagination he found it extraordinary that none of the local security agencies seemed to grasp that the ice under their feet was as thin as the ice fringing the pond before him.

There was no ready exit from the pond’s cul-de-sac, however, and he shrugged. He would have preferred to have a bolthole if he needed one, but sometimes an agent simply had to play the hand he’d drawn. He moved a few meters closer to the pond, then turned and faced back the way he’d come, still whistling and with one hand in his right coat pocket.

* * *

Nowak had never spent any time in this particular park, since he had an aversion to beating off muggers. Now, unfortunately, Mwenge had given him the slip. He had to be somewhere along one of the paths, but he’d managed to get around the initial bend and disappear before Nowak rounded it in pursuit, and the Włocławekan had no idea how those paths were arranged.

He stood very still, listening. The normal city sounds were faint and muted by the ratty, once elegant tenements that rose like some decaying ceramacrete canyon around the park. The cold, cutting wind was broken into little more than an unpleasant breeze by the same tenements, and as he cocked his head he heard—very faintly—the sound of someone whistling.

This is getting ridiculous. Why didn’t he just leave a trail of breadcrumbs like the kids in that old story?!

Well, either it was an ambush after all or else this Mwenge really wanted to talk to him badly.

There was only one way to find out.

* * *

As the man tailing him pushed through the same prickly gap, Harahap revised his size estimate upward. The fellow had very broad shoulders, too, and he carried himself like someone who spent at least an hour or so every day in the gym. He also seemed unsurprised to find Harahap waiting for him. His expression never flickered as he used his left hand to disengage a thorn-edged branch from the right sleeve of his coat; his right hand, however, stayed as firmly in his coat pocket as Harahap’s own hand.

“I wondered when you’d be along,” the ex-gendarme said calmly as his right thumb disengaged the safety on the compact pulser in that pocket. “Welcome to my office.”

His left hand waved to take in their desolate surroundings, and the newcomer snorted in what seemed like genuine amusement.

“You wondered that, did you?” he said. “Well, I wondered why you were so obliging about showing me the way here.”

“Sometimes you have to be ‘obliging’ to get the people you’re interested in meeting to talk to you.”

“Really?” The other man tilted his head. “And what makes you think I might be that kind of people? As far as I can tell, all you’ve done for the last week is talk to the kind of people someone working for a charitable foundation—especially one like yours—ought to be talking to. Which isn’t at all the kind of people I am.”

“No,” Harahap conceded. “On the other hand, the people I do want to talk to would know what was going on with organizations like the Siostry Ubogich. And they’d probably get suspicious and come all over curious if someone from off-world started talking to those same organizations. Especially if that off-worlder let slip just how much he disapproved of the SEOM and the łowcy trufli.” He smiled thinly. “And, while we’re at it, I should probably point out that I’m none too fond of Minister Bezpieczeństwa i Prawdy Pokriefke, either.”

He pronounced the Polish better than most off-worlders, Nowak noticed. At the same time, his accent was additional proof he was an off-worlder. But…

“You may not realize it, Mr. Mwenge, but that kind of talk can get someone in trouble here in the Włocławek. And for someone who’s not fond of Mała Justyna, her czarne kurtki were awfully quick to get you passed through security when you arrived. For that matter, Hieronim Mazur’s not in the habit of sending Stowarzyszenie representatives to greet his more trenchant off-world critics. Assuming they really are critics, of course.” He smiled thinly. “I’m sure you can understand my confusion here.”

Harahap smiled back as his earbug translated “Mała Justyna” into Standard English. “Little Justyna,” was it? That was one his intel reports had missed, and he wondered how. Somehow the nickname didn’t sound like a term of endearment.

“I can understand why you might be a little…puzzled,” he said out loud. “And obviously it wouldn’t be very smart of you to simply take my word for it that I’m one hell of a nice guy. On the other hand, we’re not going to get anywhere if we both just stand here with the pulsers in our pockets aimed at the other fellow.”

Harahap smiled more broadly as Nowak’s eyes narrowed.

“Now,” he continued in the reasonable tone of a man commenting on the weather, “I suppose it’s possible you’d have no interest at all in talking to someone who, A, doesn’t like what he sees in this system; B, managed to come up with a cover identity the local regime actually welcomed on-planet; and, C, might be in a position to provide someone here in Włocławek who didn’t much care for his current government with assistance in changing that government.”

He smiled again, more broadly, as the eyes which had narrowed went suddenly wide.

“By the way, I’ll deny I ever said any of that if it should turn out you’re actually a deep admirer of Pierwszy Sekretarz Krzywicka.”

“And if I recorded it while you were saying it?” Nowak asked, sparring for time while he tried to deal with his astonishment.

“Well, in that case,” Harahap reached into his left hip pocket and slowly and carefully extracted a small device and held it up, “I will be bitterly disappointed in the box of toys my superiors sent me out with.”

“What’s that?” Nowak’s voice was suddenly deeper, sharper, and Harahap shrugged.

“Check your com,” he suggested.

Nowak looked at him suspiciously for a moment, then raised his left arm, shooting his jacket cuff to look at the bracelet on his wrist. He gazed at it for a moment, then his eyes snapped back to Harahap.

“I’m afraid you need a new one,” Harahap said pleasantly. “And this time you might want to invest in one that’s hardened against directional EMP. On the other hand, I think I can be pretty sure any recorders hidden about your person are equally dead. And unless the pulser in your pocket’s military grade—like the one in my pocket—I doubt you’ll be able to shoot me very well. So if it’s all the same to you, I’ll take my hand out if you’ll take your hand out and maybe we can talk like civilized men for a few minutes.” He smiled again, and this time there was genuine warmth in the expression. “I promise not to ask you to make any commitments or even tell me who you are…this time. But judging from your actions, and unless you’re a much better actor than I think you are, if you’ll pardon my frankness, I think you’ll find it worth your time.”

* * *

Well, that went better than expected, Damien Harahap reflected an hour later as he watched his new acquaintance walk through the park gate and head back towards the heart of the city.

The Włocławekan hadn’t fallen all over himself providing information about any secret organization he might or might not represent. And it was always possible he represented no such thing, although the fact that Harahap was still un-arrested strongly argued that he did. Barring that possibility—which would end badly for one Damien Harahap sometime very soon—he seemed to be exactly what Harahap had been looking for.

Tough, smart, and pretty damned ballsy, too, he thought. And not just a low-level hanger on. Somebody else put him on to me, and he was either sent—or took it upon himself—to check me out.

The Włocławekan had given him a name—Topór—which his earbug translated as “Axe” and probably bore about as much resemblance to his true name as Mwenge did to Harahap’s. Aside from that, he’d spent almost the entire hour listening, with only an occasional question, while Harahap spun his spiel. Then he’d accepted the encrypted com combination and departed.

It would be interesting to see if he used it…and whether or not any second meeting he might arrange was a Biuro Bezpieczeństwa i Prawdy trap.

At least it’ll keep life from being boring, Harahap told himself philosophically and resumed his interrupted walk to the spaceport, whistling once more and enjoying the brisk night while he thought about the PR strategy he was due to discuss with Bjørn Kudzinowski’s senior assistant for off-world information.

It really was a marvelous cover.

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