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At All Costs: Chapter Five

       Last updated: Wednesday, June 22, 2005 20:26 EDT



    "Mr. Secretary, Colonel Nesbitt is here for his three o'clock."

    "Hm?" Secretary of State Arnold Giancola looked up from the correspondence on his display with a bemused expression. He gazed at his administrative assistant for a second or two, then blinked. "I'm sorry, Alicia. What did you say?"

    Alicia Hampton suppressed a temptation to shake her head in fond exasperation. Arnold Giancola was by far the most satisfactory boss she'd ever had. He had a reputation for ambition, and she could believe it, but he was unfailingly courteous to his staffers, charismatic, and generally thoughtful. And he'd also become increasingly absent-minded as the interstellar diplomatic situation darkened. He was working far too hard these days, and he'd taken to leaving the security systems in his office up all the time so he could be certain no one would interrupt him while he did it. Which only helped him forget things even more thoroughly.

    "I said Colonel Nesbitt is here for his three o'clock, Sir," she repeated.

    "Oh?" Giancola frowned, then, "Oh! Nesbitt. I'd forgotten all about him. Ask him to come in, please, Alicia!"

    "Of course, Mr. Secretary." Alicia smiled at him and stepped back into the outer office.

    "The Secretary will see you now, Colonel," she told the tallish, gray-eyed, broad shouldered man in civilian clothing.

    "Thank you," Nesbitt said, pocketing the reader he'd been perusing while he waited for the appointed time.

    "Oh, Colonel," she said quietly as he started to step past her, "please do remember that the Secretary's calendar is very tight. He has another appointment scheduled in twenty-five minutes." Nesbitt looked at her quizzically, and she smiled apologetically. "He's been a bit more absent-minded and forgetful the last couple of days. He's likely to forget, and I don't want to cut you off before you're done when I announce his next visitor."

    "Oh, I see!" Nesbitt's expression cleared, and he smiled back at her. "I'll try to keep him focused, Ms. Hampton. And he's lucky he's got someone like you looking after him."

    "We all try, Colonel," Alicia said. "It would be a lot easier if he didn't drive himself as hard as he does."

    Nesbitt smiled again, sympathetically, and walked past her into the inner office. He glanced casually at his wrist chrono as the doors closed behind him, and noted the inconspicuous green telltale on the instrument's face with satisfaction. That little device was of Solarian manufacture, not Havenite, and it confirmed that Giancola's security systems were all up and running.

    "Mr. Secretary," he said, advancing across the deep carpet towards the half-hectare or so of desk behind which Giancola sat.

    "Jean-Claude," Giancola said, in a brisk, no-nonsense tone which went very oddly with the preoccupied façade he was so careful to project for his staff . . . among other people. "Come in. Sit down. We haven't got much time."

    "I know." Nesbitt seated himself in the indicated, comfortable chair, and crossed his legs. "Your charming assistant is rather concerned about you, you know, Mr. Secretary. She reminded me of the short window we have for this meeting because she was afraid you're getting absent-minded enough you wouldn't remember."

    "Good." Giancola smiled.

    "Really?" Nesbitt cocked his head. "Actually, I'm wondering if it's really good tradecraft, if you don't mind my saying so."

    "I don't mind your saying it, although that doesn't necessarily mean I agree with you. Why do you think it might not be?"

    "Kevin Usher's no fool, whatever public image he chooses to project," Nesbitt said. "I don't know whether there's any truth to the rumors about his wife and Cachat -- I think a lot of people wonder exactly what's going on there -- but I do know the rumors about his drunkenness are just that: rumors. Unsubstantiated ones."

    "And?" Giancola prompted just a bit impatiently. "It's not as if I hadn't figured that out for myself, Jean-Claude."

    "And a man who's busy presenting that kind of false image to the rest of the universe is likely to wonder if someone else, especially someone who seems to have changed as much as you have, isn't doing the same thing. And if you are, he's going to wonder why."

    "Oh." Giancola sat back, drumming lightly on his desktop with the fingers of one hand, then shrugged. "I see where you were going now. You may even have a point. On the other hand, it doesn't much matter what I do; Usher's going to think I'm up to something however I act. So I'm basically playing a shell game. I'm leaving my security systems up most of the time, no matter who I'm seeing, which means there's no way for him to tell whose conversations I really want to be certain he can't overhear. I'm sure he understands that; my little charade is to help explain to my staff and everyone else why I keep 'forgetting' to switch the jammers off. It isn't really directed at him at all, except, possibly, in a very secondary sort of way. I do like to spend the occasional minute thinking about how incredibly irritating he must find the entire thing, though."

    "I see." Nesbitt regarded him narrowly, then shrugged. "If it amuses you, I don't imagine it's really going to do any harm. Personally, I'd find the entire thing much too exhausting to maintain, but that's up to you."

    "If it starts getting tiring, I can always stop. Usher will probably find that even more irritating." Giancola smiled nastily. "But we're going to have to talk about that some other time. Right now, I need your report."

    "Of course." Nesbitt folded his hands over his raised knee and tilted his head thoughtfully to one side. "I'm happy to say Grosclaude wasn't quite as clever as he thought," he said. "You're right -- he did retain a complete file of the correspondence. Both sets of correspondence. Unfortunately for him, he knew he wouldn't be able to get the file off Manticore with him when he was expelled. They weren't going to be very concerned with observing all the niceties of diplomatic immunity after we'd just launched what amounted to a sneak attack against them, and Manty surveillance is too good for him to get anything by it if they pulled out all the stops. And even if they didn't find it, there was always the possibility the security types waiting for him at our end might. So he piggybacked the information through the diplomatic bag several days before the balloon went up and had it remailed to a private account in Nouveau Paris after the bag got here."

    "And?" Giancola said when he paused.

    "And, also unfortunately for him, it was an account I already knew about. Courtesy of a few backdoors the new management still hasn't found yet, I was able to track the file to his account and also when he pulled it back out after his own arrival from Manticore and lodged it in the secure database of his attorney's law firm. Along with a cover letter directing that the file in question be sent to Kevin Usher's personal attention should anything . . . unfortunate happen to him."

    "Damn." Giancola's mouth tightened. "I was afraid he'd done something like that."

    "Only sensible thing for him to do," Nesbitt agreed. "Although, if he really knew what he was doing, he never would've used this sort of approach. He'd have buried it on an old-fashioned record chip under a mattress somewhere and used someone he'd never had any traceable relationship with before as his bagman. This way, he might as well have left me an engraved invitation."

    "What do you mean?" Giancola asked intently.

    "I mean that the central net is still riddled with StateSec backdoors, Mr. Secretary. To really nail them all shut, they'd have to slag the old system down and start from scratch. Oh," Nesbitt shrugged, "they actually did a fairly good job when LePic and Usher set things up over at Justice. I'd guess they probably managed to find and close a good ninety percent of them. But there were so many in place that they never had a prayer of getting all of them. I'm sure they're still looking, and of course not knowing for sure whether or not they've found my little keyholes does tend to make life a bit more exciting. There's always the chance they have found them and they're just sitting there, monitoring, letting me tie the noose around my own neck before they pounce."

    "I hope you'll pardon me if I, for one, don't find the image particularly amusing," Giancola said tartly.

    "I might as well find it amusing." Nesbitt shrugged again. "I'm taking every precaution I can think of, but if the precautions don't work, there's not much I can do about it. I guess it's the equivalent of your amusement at the notion of pissing Usher off with your silly little mind games."

    Giancola looked at him steadily for a few seconds, then snorted.

    "All right," he said briskly. "Let's cut to the chase. Should I assume from what you've said that you've got access to Yves' file at his attorney's?"

    "Yes." Nesbitt smiled. "I can make the file -- and his letter of instruction -- disappear without a trace any time I want to."

    "I'm sure you could," Giancola said with a slow smile of his own. "But if you've got the access to disappear it, then you've also got the access to change it, don't you?"

    "Well, yes," Nesbitt said slowly, smile transforming into a slight, thoughtful frown. "Why?"

    "I feel quite certain Yves would vastly prefer not to blow the whistle on our little . . . modifications. After all, if I go down, he goes down, and I rather suspect -- given all the people who have been killed in the meantime -- that Usher and Pritchart would make sure both of us went down rather messily. So what he's got is entirely in the nature of insurance, state's evidence he can use to bargain with if someone else figures out what the two of us did, not anything he really wants to use. Which means he's not going to do anything with it unless he starts to feel threatened. Or, of course, unless something really does happen to him."

    "Which is essentially what you're thinking in terms of, no?" Nesbitt said.

    "Unfortunately, yes," Giancola said, and Nesbitt was almost certain the regret in his voice was genuine. Not enough to dissuade him for a moment, but genuine. "But my point is that there's no need for us to hurry. We can take the time to make sure we do things right."

    "Unless something happens to him which really is an accident," Nesbitt pointed out. "He could get run over by a ground car, you know, or break his neck skiing. He spends enough time doing that he could even die of sheer physical exhaustion. Hell, he could get hit by lightning! In which case his letter of instruction would be opened even though we -- you -- genuinely hadn't had a thing to do with it."

    "Not very likely," Giancola replied. "I think the odds are fairly heavily in our favor in that respect. Still, you're right. It does behoove us to move expeditiously."

    "Which I could do much better if you'd tell me exactly where we're moving to."

    "Well, if Yves has gone to such lengths to be certain incriminating evidence against me will surface if something happens to him, then I think it's only fair for us to see to it that the incriminating evidence is there."

    "What?" Nesbitt didn't raise his voice. Indeed, it went flatter. But there was no amusement at all in his suddenly intent gray eyes.



    "Relax, Jean-Claude. I realize it sounds bizarre, but consider this scenario. Here you are, my senior internal security officer, responsible for finding leaks anywhere in the Department. Eventually, as you and I are both painfully aware, the current unpleasantness with Manticore is going to come to an end, one way or the other. When it does, there are going to be some very hard questions asked about the discrepancies between their version of our diplomatic correspondence and our own. Original documents are going to be compared by the victors, whoever they are, and neither side is going to be particularly amused by what they find. So, all things being equal, I think it would be a very good thing if you -- efficient, hard-working person that you are -- were the one who discovered that the documents had been tampered with from our end."

    "I hesitate to suggest that you might be out of your ever loving mind, Mr. Secretary," Nesbitt said. "On the other hand, the possibility does present itself to my keen intellect."

    "Don't worry, I'm not." Giancola leaned forward in his comfortable chair, his expression suddenly very intent. "The problem is that the documents were tampered with from our end. With access to both sets of originals, it wouldn't take Usher very long at all to prove that, and I'm confident the Manties could do it even more quickly. So our best defense is to make the discovery ourselves and be properly horrified to learn that my trusted colleague of many years, Yves Grosclaude, was responsible for the manipulation which led to the current, horrible bloodshed."

    "And just how did he accomplish that?" Nesbitt asked in a fascinated tone.

    "Why, by way of one of those StateSec backdoors you were just telling me about. After all, he was associated with the old Foreign Ministry's internal security services. Apparently, he was closer to StateSec than we ever suspected, and he used one of the old StateSec access programs to hack into my secure database and acquire copies of my personal and official encryption keys. That's how he was able to forge doctored versions of the correspondence and pass them off as genuine to the Manties."

    "And the alterations in the Manties' notes?"

    "He did that the way it was actually done," Giancola said with a smile. "He stole the Manticoran Foreign Office's encryption key from my secure database, as well."

    "He did what?" Nesbitt asked very carefully.

    "So, StateSec did manage to bury one or two skeletons in Nouveau Paris without your knowing about it, did they?" Giancola chuckled. "You know InSec and StateSec -- all of the old régime's intelligence services, really, except possibly NavInt -- were always more focused on political espionage than military intelligence. I think that's one reason Saint-Just was always so ready to embrace political operations, like that attempt to assassinate Elizabeth and Benjamin. And why, frankly, StateSec did such a piss-poor job on military intelligence all the way through the last war. They weren't very good at it because their institutional mindset just didn't work that way. But they were quite good at political and diplomatic espionage. I found some fascinating things in the Foreign Ministry archives when they were handed over to State after the Constitutional Convention. Including a few notes which suggest that Queen Elizabeth's father's grav-skiing 'accident' wasn't quite as accidental as everyone thought it was. Which, coupled with what happened in Yeltsin, might just help explain why she hates us with such outstanding virulence.

    "At any rate, among StateSec's accomplishments was the corruption of one of Foreign Secretary Descroix's senior staffers. Someone senior enough, in fact, to have physical access to her official files."

    "My God," Nesbitt said, finally startled out of his normal air of amused cynicism, "they actually stole Descroix's encryption key?"

    "Not her personal key, no, but her departmental key. Which is another of the reasons I'm fairly confident the Manties would quickly figure out who did what if they got a chance to compare the raw originals. I'm going to be dreadfully embarrassed when I realize no one here in State realized we never saw Descroix's personal key on any of the correspondence. Of course, there was no reason why we should have felt unduly suspicious, since all of it had the official Manticoran Foreign Office codes, but still --"

    He shrugged self-deprecatingly.

    "So," Nesbitt sat back in his chair once more, drawing his normal persona back about himself, "Grosclaude stole both sets of keys from your database?"

    "Exactly. It's going to be up to you to actually set up the access he would have used. On the other hand, you're also the efficient and dedicated security agent who will discover the security breach, so be sure you set it up in a way that makes discovering it plausible."

    "I can do that," Nesbitt said thoughtfully. "It'll take some time, though. Especially to establish that all of this happened months ago."

    "I assumed it would." Giancola nodded. "That's why I'm so pleased by the realization that Yves isn't going to be in any hurry to start blowing whistles. We've got some time to work with. But just to be on the safe side, we should probably deal with his insurance file first."

    "Yes, tell me what you've got in mind for that, if you don't want me to simply make it go away."

    "Two things," Giancola said. "First, we need a substitute letter of instruction to his attorney. One which has nothing at all to do with the contents of that particular file. Can you do that?"

    "No problem," Nesbitt said, after a few seconds' thought. "He used a standard self-generated legal e-form for it. Probably didn't trust attorney-client privilege to hold if his lawyer knew what he had in mind ahead of time. Since no flesh-and-blood knows what should be in it, no one's going to ask any questions if I alter its content."

    "Good. Go ahead and get that done immediately. And once we've defused that particular landmine, we need you to go into his existing file and make some judicious alterations. I don't want you to get rid of it entirely. I don't even want you to make it incriminate someone else. Instead, I want you to turn it into a forgery."


    "Yes. It's going to have to be carefully done, but I want that file to prove Yves planned on setting me up as the fall guy for his manipulation of the notes. I want it to be good, but I want there to be a provable flaw in it, something a good security type like yourself can spot."

    "You're figuring that if the fellow who really did it all also manufactured evidence that you were responsible for it, it will demonstrate that, in fact, you didn't have a thing to do with it," Nesbitt said slowly, gray eyes beginning to gleam.

    "Exactly. The only way to 'prove' I didn't do it is to provide someone else who obviously did. And if the someone else who did it also manufactured evidence to implicate me in order to divert suspicion from himself, he obviously wouldn't have tried to divert it to someone who was really his accomplice and might have evidence of his own to prove his guilt as part of a deal with prosecutors."

    "Neat," Nesbitt said after several moments of consideration. "Complicated. And I can see a half-dozen places right off the top of my head where the entire thing could go off the rails. But it's doable. It really is. And it's so damned Byzantine and filled with double-think and possible failure points that it would never have occurred to a professional like Usher -- or me, for that matter. I think I can pull it all together for you, but putting all the pieces in place is going to take even longer than I'd thought. I don't like having that long for something to go wrong in."

    "Not a problem," Giancola disagreed, waving one hand in a dismissive gesture. "As soon as you've dealt with the lawyer's instructions, Yves can go ahead and suffer that accident. It will have to be a very accidental accident, you understand?"

    "That I can handle," Nesbitt said confidently.

    "Then as soon as that's out of the way, you can move on to putting all of the other bits and pieces together. Once everything's been neatly tied to Yves, we can 'discover' the evidence anytime we want to. For that matter, we might even decide the thing to do is to steer Usher and his FIA to the evidence. Let Kevin turn it up. In fact, if I weren't afraid we'd be getting too fancy, I'd almost prefer for him to find Yves' evidence falsely implicating me and accept it initially, until State's own security types detected the fact that it was a forgery. Having him suspect me, or even formally accuse me, when I turn out to be totally innocent, would help me tilt the balance in the Cabinet against LePic."

    He gazed thoughtfully at the ceiling for several heartbeats, then shook his head regretfully.

    "No. We've got enough balls in the air without adding that one to it."

    "You have no idea how glad I, as the wizard charged with conjuring all these minor miracles for you, am to hear you say that," Nesbitt said dryly.

    "I'm always pleased when I'm able to make my associates happy," Giancola assured him. Then the Secretary of State's eyes narrowed once more. "But now that you're a happy wizard, do you really believe you can pull all of this off?"

    "Yes. I'm not absolutely positive of it -- not with it all coming at me cold, this way. But as I said, I think it's doable. I'm going to have to sit down and look at it very carefully, probably for several days, at least, before I can tell you more than that. At an absolute minimum, though, I'm certain I can disappear Grosclaude's evidence if it turns out we have to do that, instead. And I feel reasonably confident I can arrange the database hack you want and make it crystal-clear he was behind it. As for the rest, I'm going to have to see how it all comes together before I can tell you positively one way or the other."

    "Take your time -- within reason, of course." Giancola grimaced. "One thing I think we can count on is that this war isn't going to end tomorrow, or even next week. We've got time to do it right . . . and we'd damned well better not do it wrong."

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