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When Diplomacy Fails: Chapter Three
Last updated: Wednesday, June 13, 2012 22:23 EDT
Bart sighed. The trip up to orbit was the usual spine-grinder. It was possible to run at lower acceleration, but it used more fuel. That raised costs. They could have larger couches, same story. He always felt imprisoned by the close confines of the seats, and they were either sticky or coarse, depending on the covering. He never complained out loud, though Jason did, and it was amusing to hear complaints about shuttle seats from a man who would very casually return fire in combat.
Next to him, Aramis seemed caught in thought. He was not as cocky as he had been. Some of that was maturity, which also meant less edge. Still, he seemed introspective, not worried. Everyone assumed his relationship with Caron was intimate, but he'd never said, and his expression was thoughtful.
Elke and Shaman both had seemed their usual calm selves, but they were seated behind him and he couldn't tell. Alex was never relaxed, but never stressed. He was seated diagonally ahead, and had something encoded out to work on.
On their first mission, he'd had more executive protection experience than the others. They were all catching up now. Still, he went through mental exercises on procedures. It would probably again be his task to teach the principal the necessary movements for evacuations and relocations, though she might already know some of that, with her background. He also considered how her personality might clash with them. She was strong willed.
There were incidents in her background. It was one thing when a principal wanted more freedom than safety allowed. It was entirely different when they didn't like consulting with their detail, or ignored them.
Then there were potential threats, with a high-ranking bureaucrat and former Assemblyperson who had made numerous people and groups unhappy. Fortunately, most of the more violent ones didn't have a significant dislike of her or a threat record against her.
Though it was often the quiet ones.
In the BuState compound on Mtali, Jason stretched out knots. He'd found the worst, most frustrating aspects of the job possible: Ignorance.
Not that people were ignorant, though he was sure a lot of them were. No, it was that they ignored him.
He had scaled responses for any contingency, from polite greeting, diplomatic request, urgent demand, rude insult, angry threat, punch to the face, shoot in the face, to "call Elke." Some issues here were simply not responsive. The people in question refused to respond to him, or acknowledge him in any fashion.
That was the most aggravating response possible. He could accept a "no," though he'd certainly try to manipulate it to a "Yes." He could appeal up the chain as was indicated by the urgency of the matter. Completely ignoring him put him in a helpless corner.
He couldn't use any violent means at this juncture. His lesser means were being ignored. He didn't want to call Corporate. He was supposed to be able to handle this, and if he wanted promotion he certainly had better. Their response would also be delayed, and watered down by distance.
He had connections, and he had some responses. Cady's team had landed the day before, and were busy securing the Ripple Creek section of the diplomatic compound, which was the Minister's residence and their adjoining apartments. That went smoothly enough; the military, contractors and agencies had no choice but to do as the BuState letterhead demanded.
There were mild complications with Highland's Assistant Deputy Chief of Staff, a position he wasn't even cognizant of. It seemed the man's task was to handle all the routine requests from Very Important People with Something to Say to the Minister, and scheduling of meetings with such groups, around the stuff Highland and her Deputy Chief of Staff, who was on Earth, scheduled first. Magerin Rausch was a nice enough guy, spotless background, and on the list to be admitted with minimal hindrance. On paper, his credentials were impressive. How much of that actually meant something, Jason didn't know. He was also filling in as Protocol head, and in that capacity they would need to talk to him.
"Good morning, Agent in Charge Vaughn," he said as Jason entered the area. He was always perfectly polite.
"Mister Rausch, good morning. How are you?"
"I like this planet in a lot of ways," Rausch said. That was ironic. He was Jewish, and this pit of despair was full of people who'd kill him in a second. It did have nice sunrises, though, ruddy and streaked with clouds.
Jason said, "It's not bad. As to our hopefully final clarifications, I reviewed all your documents. We will try to pass everyone with a minimum of delay, after checking for weapons and other threats. By the time they get to you, they should be cleared. Agent in Charge Cady is responsible for the perimeter, and her second team will be at the doors inside. You will need to let her know, so she can let them know, on anyone to admit. They will still need either pass or escort from you, or to show ID and be on file."
"That's surprisingly easy. There are stories that Ripple Creek are very tough to deal with."
"It's our job to be tough with threats and potential threats. Anyone cleared through the Minister and yourself will be deemed a non-threat, though we'll be ready to respond if that changes. You can always ask for them to have a courtesy escort, which means we'll smile and shake hands and make them feel we're at their service. We won't shoot them in the back unless they make a clear, definite, health- or life-threatening move toward the Minister."
"I do appreciate your dry sense of humor."
I appreciate that you think I'm joking.
"Well, that's the personal interaction issue. We all have maps of the facility and the relevant areas marked. Just keep any guests, junior staff, housekeepers or others out of those areas, and we'll do the rest. We try to be polite to everyone, just let us know of any specific titles or addresses."
"I will do so."
Really, it shouldn't be too bad. They had a military perimeter, a BuState perimeter, the building entrance, controlled elevators. By the time anyone got to this level of the building, it would be a nonissue. Likewise, the Colonial Liaison Office, the stand in for an embassy, wasn't their problem.
The military remained a problem. Even the Intel office had passed the buck until he hinted at going over them. Then they'd assigned a captain. Captain Das seemed competent and helpful, but was hamstrung by other duties and limited authority. At the same time, he was earnest, and going over him wouldn't create any friends, might hurt the man's reviews, and wasn't likely to yield anyone more helpful or able.
He tabled that as Cady came in.
"Afternoon, Jace," he acknowledged.
"Hi, Jason. Do you have anything on the perimeter fence request? I still need to know what software they use to monitor those lines."
That issue. He said, "Yeah, I put in a third request to Colonel Goran. They're still ignoring it. I'm sure they'll respond when it's too late for us."
"I know you're working it. It's just very aggravating."
"I have said exactly the same. What's our status?"
Cady shrugged. "I can't approve the fence. I do have our barriers in place inside. They won't allow explosive."
"Elke may have something to say about that."
"Yes, so I've heard." She giggled. "We wouldn't keep getting in trouble if they'd just let us do our job."
He grinned. "Unfortunately, we can't use that as a marketing blurb."
"Well, not officially. Though in the right circles, it would work."
"Heck, we don't need advertising. 'Ask President Bishwanath or Ms Prescot.' It's hard to argue with results."
"Indeed. Perhaps we should unionize for better bargaining potential." Her face was serious.
"I can never tell when you're joking."
"Good. I do appreciate our small arms arriving. Any word on the body armor?"
Sigh. That issue. "Somehow, the weapons were 'diplomatic' but the armor got tagged as 'military materiel.' Held up in Aerospace Force storage until local and BuMil 'inspect' it. I sent another request to Colonel Goran on that, too."
"An Operations Officer who doesn't bother with operations."
"Yeah, though he has plenty of time to smoke, play cards at the O club and organize cookouts."
"I have my updates here," she said, handing over a ramstick. They never sent anything through a network they didn't own, if they didn't have to.
"Great. I'll beat on them as best I can. The good part is that the more falls in place, the less targets for my irritation still exist, so I can apply more loving attention."
"I'd almost say you enjoy the fight."
Right then a klaxon sounded, the emergency light on the wall flashed, and Jason's phone buzzed. He glanced at it to see, "REAL. ATTACK IN PROGRESS, SEEK SHELTER."
He and Cady swapped looks, then jogged for the door. He heard an explosion high overhead. It cracked and boomed.
From the second floor, they bounded down the stairs and out, passing two men and two women coming in. Landscapers. The two mercenaries headed toward the compound entrance. It was secured, the two guards on duty nestled into their reinforced gatehouse. There weren't many people about outside, but those few were trying to get inside.
Jason checked his watch. Almost a minute. Granted, there were fewer BuState people than military, but they were mostly accounted for, while the base still swarmed, and much of it wasn't mission critical. Those people should have been sheltered in seconds.
High overhead, another rocket sought to fall, only to be splattered into fine debris. A brilliant flash and crack of artificial lightning shook the sky in its wake. He couldn't tell the incoming airframe, though it was on the larger end of short range stuff. The counterfire was definitely a combination of laser and particles. The laser marked the target for any physical followup, applied energy to it, and opened a plasma sheath. The particles ripped along that sheath and punched holes in the weakened missile.
Interesting. The military had refused to comment on air defense, even though it applied directly to Highland's safety. He'd seen a Cobra anti-aircraft battery. The core buildings were around an improvised courtyard, and the missiles were hidden within, camo mesh and glittery distortion shields around them, that didn't hide them from engineers with experience building landing fields. Apparently though, the Cobras were backup to the Sentinel Dual Array. He was glad to see it.
Cady said, "It seems they have a lot of trust in their air defense, or a contempt for the local artillery."
"Any kind of counterbattery going out?"
"Not that my sensors can detect. Though if it's distant enough, they may have something more local to it."
"Or they may just be too snobbish and decadent to actually return fire."
"Earth culture? Snobbish and decadent?"
"Yeah. A stretch, I know."
"In other observations, I see that the perimeter fence became live, the gate is locked, but there's no supplemental forces, we remain unquestioned even though our presence and observations could theoretically be intel or terminal guidance."
She paused and he picked up. "The building has not been locked down. I bet our ID won't be checked on entry."
"Well, that makes my job easier," she said. "The local contractors aren't present and the State weenies are useless. Why don't we have Marine guards anymore?"
"It was deemed 'Amerocentric.' Everyone should have a chance. These are Egyptian."
"Even by Egyptian standards, they are sub par."
"So it's all up to you."
"I wouldn't have it any other way," she said, and giggled again. "I'd like Elke to consult with me once she's here."
"I'll relay that."
The flight was comfortable enough, Alex thought. From the shuttle they'd embarked on a cruise liner that was privately owned by BuState, operated by contract and civil service crew, almost all of them veterans. That didn't negate the possibility of attempts on their principal, but it did reduce the probability and change the factors.
Still, it was nice to be comfortable while assessing threats. They each had a stateroom with frills and real wood paneling, which was ridiculous, and felt really odd during maneuvers, but the privacy and minimal but real space was something he appreciated. They'd once traveled all six in a bunkroom, on constant watch. This was nice.
However, he didn't trust the security protocols, nor the risk of anyone snooping, so they rotated between staterooms to discuss business, and did so by hand-writing notes to pass around and then shred. The contrast between state of the art ship and pencil on paper was amusing.
Alex expected trouble at some point. They were hired for that reason. He didn't expect an attack just yet, but political sniping would probably start early on.
Eight days later, they were in system and prepared to transition to protection taskings. He had four of five shooters behind him, with Jason doing recon on Mtali, groundside. They were in what passed as a boardroom for this ship, on sparse but adequate furniture, as unarmed as anyone else. It was a policy brought about because of the risk of damaging the ship and causing leaks, even though the vessel was rated for meteorite impacts at ungodly velocity. Policies were usually based on emotion, not facts, and impossible to argue with.
He stopped musing as the hatch swung. One of BuState's guards was first, then the slight-looking redhead who was the assistant to Joy Herman Highland who came next, all 1.7 meters of her, projecting an attitude three meters tall, all of it bitch.
The BuState security detail looked all too happy to hand her over. One of them came over, presented a tablet to be signed, then nodded as he turned. The four of them left with barely a mumbled goodbye.
That left it all up to Alex, which, while it had downsides, also meant he didn't have to argue with anyone except the principal. He expected that to be enough of a chore.
"Minister Highland, I'm Alex Marlow."
She smiled cordially enough, though it was a politician's smile. It was as real as her hair color and probably her breasts.
"Thank you, Mister Marlow," she said, as she extended a hand. He recalled that she insisted on the appearance of manners. He took it firmly but not too hard.
She continued, "Allow me to introduce Jessie Monroe, my personal assistant, publicist and factotum."
The elfin redhead offered a hand. He took it and said, "Of course we're familiar with JessieM's reports. It's good to meet you." He reflected he was lying as much as they were. JessieM was the unofficial voice of Highland's empire. She made an endless stream of location reports, cute little references, posted fake "questions" that Highland could easily answer.
She was also not part of the contracted protection.
Monroe said, "A pleasure to meet you, too, Mister Marlow. That's without an 'E', yes?"
"Yes," he said, then realized she was publicizing his name, company and location across the entire spectrum.
He wasn't going to address that in public, and it was too late for that incident. However, that shit could not be allowed. Jason wasn't here, so he looked over at Elke. She raised an eyebrow, raised and lowered her head, and turned to her own enhanced "phone."
Then he turned to Highland and said, "Ma'am, I'd like to introduce the rest of the team and get up to speed, if that's okay." He didn't clench his jaw or snarl.
"Of course," she said brightly. He wasn't sure if that was act or honest.
"Very well. Bart Weil is our most experienced VIP protection specialist, from Germany."
Bart let her offer her hand first. He knew all the manners. He even sometimes used them. Highland's expression didn't betray anything.
"Minister Highland," he said with a nod.
"Aramis Anderson handles most of our navigation and is responsible for quite a bit of logistics." Translation, the kid could plot and draw maps, and liked stashing guns and gear where it might be useful. He followed Bart's lead and let her offer her hand, and she held his a fraction too long. Yes, he was quite handsome. Someone in her position should barely notice, though.
"Eleonora Sykora is from the Czech Constituency and handles all our explosive and other hazardous material threats. She'll also be your close escort in some areas."
Highland said, "Very good. Pleased to meet you, Miss Sykora."
"Elke is fine, if you wish."
"Jason Vaughn is from Grainne Colony, and is already on location, preparing and doing advance observation." Her expression went from confused to understanding at his non-presence, and she nodded. "He's a technical specialist on mechanicals and electronics." Mechanic, gunsmith, lockcracker, and occasional pilot.
"Horace Mbuto is a surgeon in addition to being an executive protection specialist."
As she shook his hand, he said, "I have your medical files, ma'am, but if there's anything else I should know, please do tell me. You have full privilege, and I like to be prepared for any eventuality, no matter how rare."
"Thank you. I'll try to get you a load." She didn't seem bothered by it, which was good. At her level of government, she had to be familiar with general security protocols. However, she was probably also rather secretive and wouldn't share that info. People at her level were worried about any leaks of any kind, with good reason. Actually, to that end, Ripple Creek might be more reliable than her staff. They all cashed checks, but Ripple Creek's loyalty was bought and paid for, at least for the duration.
They moved through into the docking compartment. It was already cleared of crew, but Elke made another sweep, and Aramis physically checked hatches.
JessieM tapped away at her screen.
"I'm not getting any signal in here," she said.
There was the barest hint of a smile at the corner of Elke's mouth. Alex decided he owed her a drink for picking up on that and acting on it. They couldn't have many "problems" with reception, but hopefully they could talk about it and get JessieM to tone down the intel leak. Probably not, but he'd try.
Elke reported back, "It all seems clear."
Without Jason, she was the go-to person, and their physical checks hadn't shown anything. He preferred redundancy, but he trusted Elke.
"Then we'll stand by to transfer at Ms Highland's pleasure," he said.
She smiled a polished, professional smile and said, "We may as well do so now, then."
He said, "Yes, ma'am. Elke, Aramis, lead."
They took up position and preceded Highland, with Bart alongside her and Alex and Shaman at the rear. They locked through three hatches with chuff sounds and pressure shifts, into the deluxe landing shuttle, and took very comfortable couches.
And how the hell did this luxoboat get insystem? It had to be hauled externally, and the energy cost would be insane. Even Caron Prescot never did that. She rode very basic shuttles up and down, and even the resort customers didn't have it this nice.
The UN government had the money, but there were better ways to spend it, he thought.
Highland and her assistant took seats far forward. Alex indicated a bit of space, and the team sat four rows back. These were deep rows, with very comfortable couches, enough leg room even for Bart, adjustable tables and screens, everything. There was just enough airflow and mechanical noise to make an effective privacy screen.
Aramis gave an inquiring look, Alex translated it and nodded assent for him to talk.
"What's the word on weapons?"
"Approved?" Aramis asked, disbelieving. Yes, they actually had weapons.
"Yes, armor with spares, two armored transport vehicles. Full commo suites. Knives, Jason's hatchet, pistols, carbines, two squad weapons, that autocannon you like, a couple of sharpshooter rifles."
"And explosive?" Elke asked.
"It's supposed to be coming."
"Then I shall raise our principal's standing in my portfolio."
Aramis flared his eyes. Alex could read his thoughts. Real weapons, and no one whining about what the locals might think. There had to be a catch, but he'd deal with it. Elke, of course, used explosive for things people never anticipated. They always assumed big blasts, and she could do that, including low-yield nukes. However, she started with firecrackers and smoke and escalated as needed. The only problem was that she used geometric or logarithmic progression. They tried not to share that fact.
Alex said, "Jason will be waiting on the ground, with Cady, and they should have a minimum battlefield kit ready for us. They'll bring it in before we go out."
Aramis said, "I like this gig better all the time."
"I'm just wondering when it will go south," Alex said guardedly. "We aren't getting a big check for nothing."
On his right, Shaman said, "Not all our contracts have been dangerous. Only about one in four. Though they tend to make up the difference in value. I'm considering that she certainly has a strong opinion of her value, and until the last ninety days before the election, she's not eligible for Special Service Branch protection. If she thinks there's a threat, we are arguably better than BuState security, and she's not the one covering the tab."
"There is that," Alex agreed. "And she's certainly made a lot of claims of enemies."
Aramis asked, "You think there's more to those stories than grandstanding?"
Alex shrugged. "There may be, which would justify us being here. It could also be that our presence is supposed to suggest there's more to those stories, for campaign purposes."
Bart said, "Let's hope that's the case, and run a tight operation. Either way, it's what we're paid for."
Aramis said, "And no quibbles over weapons. So it's certainly not one of our worst assignments."
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