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Torch of Freedom: Chapter Nineteen

       Last updated: Friday, October 23, 2009 19:12 EDT



    Rear Admiral Rozsak looked up as someone knocked lightly on the frame of his office door.

    “I think I may have something interesting here, Luiz,” Jiri Watanapongse told him. “Got a minute?”

    “Just about,” Rozsak replied with an undeniable sense of relief for the interruption as he looked up from the paperwork which obviously reproduced by cellular fission. He leaned back in his powered chair and beckoned for Watanapongse to step into the office and let its door slide shut behind him.

    “And just what new interesting tidbit have my faithful espionage minions turned up for me today?” he asked after the commander had obeyed the silent command.

    “I haven’t been able to confirm this yet,” Watanapongse said. “I know how much you just love hearing things that ‘can’t be confirmed yet,’ but I think confirmation for this one’s probably going to be a while coming. Under the circumstances, I thought you’d want to hear it anyway.”

    “And those circumstances are?”

    “You remember Laukkonen?”

    “How could I forget?” Rozsak said sourly.

    Santeri Laukkonen was one of those unsavory sorts people who were all too often involved in the basically unsavory sorts of business the Office of Frontier Security sometimes had to deal with. Not even Rozsak was positive where Laukkonen had come from in the first place, although if he’d had to guess, he would have put his money on an origin somewhere in the bowels of the Solarian League Navy’s Office of Procurement. For a Verge gunrunner, the man was extraordinarily well tapped in when it came to “surplus” Solarian weaponry, at any rate. And not everything he handled came in the form of the legally licensed “export varieties” approved for extra-League sale, either. Not by a long chalk.

    For the last several years, he’d been operating out of the Ajax System, whose proximity to the Maya Sector made it of more than passing interest to the people in charge of Maya’s security. Over those years, he and Luiz Rozsak had found themselves involved in some extremely discreet — and very much arms-length — transactions. The most circuitous of all had involved supplying munitions to a “liberation movement” in the Okada System. The order for that operation had come all the way from Old Chicago itself, and the liberation movement in question had provided the pretext for Frontier Security’s urgent need to extend its benevolent protection to the unfortunate citizens of Okada.

    And I still don’t understand why the hell they wanted to do it, he thought sourly now. It’s not like it’s the first time people got killed — in relatively large numbers — in the furtherance of some sort of half-baked strategy, but they didn’t even hang on to the system afterward! Oravil’s right — I really don’t like black ops very much, but if I’ve got to carry them out for a bunch of Old Earth assholes anyway, I’d at least like for them to make some kind of sense afterward. It doesn’t even have to be good sense.

    Actually, he’d come to the conclusion that Frontier Security itself had been played in this case. The “reform government” OFS had installed had just happened to be tailor-made to allow Admiral Tilden Santana to trade in his admiral’s uniform for the presidential palace. And President for Life Santana appeared to be making some substantial contributions to the personal accounts of two senior bureaucrats back in Frontier Security’s HQ.

    “So, what about Laukkonen?” he asked, shaking himself back up to the surface of his thoughts.

    “Well, he’s in the favor-trading business, and he knows how we like to keep track of anyone whose . . . operational interests might intrude into the Sector. In fact, I might as well admit that we went ahead and hinted as much to him.”

    “And just how much of an investment did we make in this ‘hint’ of yours?” Rozsak inquired dryly.

    “As retainers go, it’s not really all that much,” Watanapongse replied. “Actually, it’s pocket change for him, as well as for us. What he’s really after is maintaining access, staying in our good graces, in case another instance of mutually advantageous backscratching should arise.”

    “All right.” Rozsak nodded. “I can understand that. So what tidbit has he thrown our way?”

    “One of the points I’ve hinted to him we’d like to be kept particularly well-informed on is the operation of any StateSec holdouts in our area.”

    Rozsak nodded again. Any renegade StateSec ships had been smart enough to stay out of the Maya Sector, but he’d known at least some of them were operating just beyond the Sector’s borders.

    “Well, I’d say it’s pretty obvious Laukkonen has been one of their suppliers. At any rate, it seems evident to me that he’s got an even better feel for where they’ve been and what they’ve been doing than he wants to admit even now. But according to him, a ‘very reliable source’ — which I take to be one of his StateSec customers — has informed him that several ex-StateSec ships which have been working around this area of the Verge have been pulled off of active operations. Apparently, they’re being concentrated for some sort of special op — something his ‘reliable source’ described as more of a merc operation than run-of-the-mill piracy.”

    “Really?” Rozsak’s eyes narrowed. “I don’t suppose our good friend Laukkonen was able to tell us exactly what the object of this hypothetical ’special op’ might be?”

    “No.” Watanapongse shook his head. “On the other hand, it occurred to me that the evidence Manpower’s been recruiting ex-StateSec units might suggest who was behind it. And if Manpower has an objective in this area, where do you suppose it might be?”

    “Exactly what I was thinking,” Rozsak said a bit grimly. “Did Laukkonen say anything which might suggest how soon the op’s likely to kick off?”

    “Nothing definitive. Probably not for at least another three or four months; that was the best estimate he could give us.”

    “If they’re calling them in from individual operational areas, that’s probably an underestimate of how long it’s going to take to get them concentrated,” Rozsak thought out loud. “And after operating solo for so long, even StateSec types are going to see the need for at least minimal training and drill before they try squadron-level operations again. Bearing that in mind, I’d say five months, maybe even six, would be more likely.”

    “I was coming up with the same guesstimate,” Watanapongse agreed.

    “All right,” Rozsak decided. “I think we have to take the possibility that Laukkonen is onto something real seriously. On the other hand, we can’t start redeploying our available units on the basis of pure speculation. See what you can do about confirming this. I don’t expect you to be able to nail it down absolutely, of course, but beat the bushes. See if we can shake out anything else to support Laukkonen’s version of things. And do your best to get us some kind of realistic time estimate if it looks like there’s really something to it.”

    “Yes, Sir.”

    Watanapongse nodded and turned back towards the office door, then halted and raised an eyebrow as Rozsak raised an index finger at him.

    “I’ve been thinking,” the admiral said.

    “About –?” Watanapongse asked when Roszak paused.

    “About Manson,” his superior said, and the intelligence officer grimaced.

    Lieutenant Jerry Manson was a fairly capable intelligence officer who, unfortunately, both thought he was much smarter than he actually was and possessed the loyalty quotient of an Old Earth piranha. Either of those failings might have been acceptable by itself; in combination, they were anything but.

    Manson had been planted on them originally by Ingemar Cassetti — a fact of which, he undoubtedly believed, Roszak and Watanapongse were both unaware. They’d kept him in place because it was always easier and safer to manipulate the spy you knew about rather than inspire one’s adversaries to plant spies you didn’t know about, but they’d never entertained any illusions about his loyalty or lack thereof. He’d been quite useful on several occasions, too, yet that usefulness had always had to be balanced against the need to keep him completely in the dark where the Maya Sector’s true plans were concerned.

    That had still been manageable, if increasingly difficult, but now that Cassetti had been removed from the equation, there was no need to “manage” his chosen spy. And even if there had been . . . .

    “You’ve read my memo, I take it?” Watanapongse said aloud, and Rozsak snorted.

    “Of course I have! And I agree. As long as he was just an orphaned little grifter, with no replacement master to call his own, the situation was workable. Now, though?” The admiral shook his head. “If he’s sniffing around opening some sort of covert channel back to Old Earth, the time has come to cut our losses.”

    Watanapongse nodded. He was quite confident Manson didn’t even begin to suspect how closely and tightly all of his communications had been monitored ever since he’d joined Rozsak’s staff. If the lieutenant had ever suspected the truth, he would never have risked sending his own message back to Frontier Fleet HQ on Old Earth. It seemed evident that he’d finally come into possession of at least a few fragmentary clues about “the Sepoy Option,” though. He’d been careful to keep them to himself when he drafted his message to Commander Florence Jastrow (who happened, herself, to be one of the more loathsome people Watanapongse had ever met, which undoubtedly explained why Manson would have thought of her), but he’d also made it clear to her that he suspected his superiors in the Maya Sector were up to something they shouldn’t have been doing.

    Unfortunately for Lieutenant Manson, his message had been not only intercepted but quietly removed from the queue. On the other hand, he was bound to start wondering about that in the next few weeks. At the moment, he was undoubtedly expecting a reply from Jastrow; when one never came, on the other hand . . . .

    “How do you want to handle it?” Watanapongse asked now.

    “We’re sure we’ve shortstopped all of his fishing expeditions?”

    “As sure as you ever can be in this sort of game. Which is to say, almost certain.”

    “Then that’ll have to do.” Rozsak thought for a moment, then shrugged. “An accident, Jiri. Something as far removed from us or anything related to his official duties as you can manage.”

    “He’s scheduled to go grav-skiing Friday,” Watanapongse observed.

    “Really?” Rozsak leaned back in his chair, expression thoughtful, then nodded. “I do hope he’s careful,” he said.

    It was Watanapongse’s turn to snort, then he nodded and headed back out of the office. Rozsak watched him go, lips pursed in silent thought for several minutes, then shrugged and returned to his unending paper chase.



    “Would you like some more potatoes, Jack?”

    “Um? Ah, I’m sorry, Mom. What did you say?”

    “I asked you if you’d like some more potatoes.” Christina McBryde smiled and shook her head. “Your father and I are delighted your body could join us for dinner tonight, of course, dear, but it would be kind of nice if your brain could keep it company next time.”

    Jack snorted and raised both hands in chuckling surrender.

    “Sorry, Mom — sorry!” He extended his hands in front of him, wrists together. “Guilty as charged, officer. And I can’t even argue that my parents didn’t teach me better when I was a sprout.”

    “I’d heard you’d had a proper upbringing,” his mother told him, dark eyes glinting. “I have to admit, though, that until just a second or two ago, I would have found the rumor hard to believe.”

    “Ease up a little, Chris,” Thomas McBryde intervened with a chuckle of his own. “The accused has admitted his guilt and thrown himself on the mercy of the court. I think a little clemency might be in order.”

    “Nonsense!” Zachariah put in from his end of the table. “Throw the book at the bum, Mom! Off to bed with no dessert!”

    “Oh, I couldn’t do that to him,” Christina replied. “We’re having carrot cake with butter cream icing.”

    “Oh, my. Your carrot cake?” Zachariah shook his head. “That would constitute cruel and unusual punishment.”

    “Yes, it would,” Jack agreed emphatically.

    “Why, thank you,” his mother said with a dimpled smile. Then her expression sobered just a bit. “Seriously, Jack, you’ve been distracted all night. Is it something to do with your job, or can you talk about it?”

    Jack’s blue eyes warmed as he looked across the table at her. Christina McBryde was a sculptress and a painter, one whose light sculptures, in particular, commanded high prices not just here on Mesa, but in the Solarian League’s art markets, as well. She’d never really wanted him to go into law enforcement, far less into Alignment Security. That was a job she knew someone had to do, but she’d been afraid of what a career in AS might cost her older son’s soul along the way. She hadn’t stood in his way, especially when all of the LRPB’s aptitude tests confirmed how good he’d be at it, but she’d never liked it.

    His father had been more supportive, although he’d had more than a few reservations of his own. He himself was a senior administrator in the Department of Education, and he’d never made any secret of the fact that he’d been both relieved and happy when his and Christine’s oldest child, JoAnne, had decided to go into childhood education. Their second daughter — and their youngest child — Arianne had turned out (not surprisingly) to share Zachariah’s scientific bent. She was a chemist, and despite her relative youth (she was only forty-nine T-years old) she’d recently become a scientific advisor to the CEO of the Mesa System government. The McBryde family could take solid, quiet pride in its contributions to the Alignment and to its homeworld (which weren’t always the same things), yet there was no denying that both of Jack’s parents worried about him.

    And with good reason, he thought. He managed to keep his own expression light and semi-amused, but it was difficult. Just as it was difficult to realize that barely a T-month had passed since his first conversation with Simões. It didn’t seem possible that he could have become so aware of — and oppressed by — the other man’s pain and its inevitable final outcome in so short a period. Yet he had . . . and with the becoming, for the first time in a long time, he understood exactly why his mother had wanted him to do something else with his life.

    “In some ways, Mom,” he told her, “I really wish I could talk about it with you. I think you’d probably be able to help. Unfortunately, it does have to do with work, so I can’t discuss it.”

    “You’re not in any sort of . . . trouble?” she asked quietly.

    “Me?” His laugh was at least three-quarters genuine, and he shook his head. “Believe me, Mom, I’m not in any kind of trouble. It’s just –”

    He paused for a moment, then shrugged.

    “I can’t really talk about it, but I suppose I can tell you it’s just that one of the people I’m responsible for is in a lot of personal pain at the moment. It doesn’t have anything to do with his job, or with me, really, but . . . he’s hurting. And even though the reason he is doesn’t have anything to do with his job, it’s to the point where his emotional state could start affecting the quality of his work. And because of the nature of what he does and what I do, I’m one of the very few people he can talk to about it.”

    He glanced at Zachariah from the corner of one eye and saw from his brother’s explanation that Zack had realized exactly who he was talking about. Zachariah’s blue eyes darkened, and Jack knew he, too, was comparing their family life with what happened to Herlander and Francesca Simões.

    “Oh, I’m sorry to hear that!” Christina’s quick sympathy was genuine, and she reached out to lay one hand on her son’s forearm. “At least if he can only talk to a few people about it, I know at least one of them is going to have a sympathetic ear,” she said.

    “I try, Mom. I try. But it’s one of those cases where there’s not really much anybody can do except listen.” He shook his head, his eyes shadowed. “I don’t think this story’s going to have a happy ending,” he said quietly.

    “All you can do is all you can do, son,” Thomas told him. “And your mom’s right. If he’s got you to talk to, then at the least this person, whoever he is, knows he’s not all alone with it. Sometimes that’s the most important thing of all.”

    “I’ll try to remember that,” Jack promised.

    There was a moment of silence, then he shook himself and smiled at his mother.

    “However, in answer to the missed question which started this entire conversational thread, if we’ve got carrot cake for dessert, then, no, I don’t want any more potatoes. I’m not about to waste any space I could use on a second or third helping of carrot cake on mashed potatoes!”

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