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Mission of Honor: Chapter Thirteen

       Last updated: Monday, May 24, 2010 18:33 EDT



    Audrey O’Hanrahan reached for the acceptance key as her com played the 1812 Overture. She especially liked the version she’d used for her attention signal, which had been recorded using real (if exceedingly archaic) cannon. She had a fondness for archaisms — in fact, she was a member of the Society for Creative Anachronisms here in Old Chicago. Besides, the exuberance of her chosen attention signal suited her persona as one of the Solarian League’s foremost muckraking journalists.

    Investigative journalism of the bare knuckled, no-holds-barred, take-no-prisoners style O’Hanrahan practiced was considerably less lucrative than other possible media careers. Or, at least, it was for serious journalists; there was always a market for the sensationalist “investigative reporter” who was willing to shoulder the task of providing an incredibly jaded public with fresh, outrageous titillation. O’Hanrahan, however, had always avoided that particular branch of the human race’s third oldest profession. The daughter and granddaughter of respected journalists, she’d proven she took her own reportorial responsibilities seriously from the very beginning, and she’d quickly gained a reputation as one of those rare birds: a newsy whose sources were always rock solid, who genuinely attempted to cover her stories fairly . . . and who never backed away from a fight.

    She’d picked a lot of those fights with the cheerfulness of a David singling out Goliaths, and she’d always been an equal opportunity stone-slinger. Her pieces had skewered the bureaucratic reality behind the representative façade of the Solarian League for years, and she’d never hesitated to denounce the sweetheart deals the Office of Frontier Security was fond of cutting with Solarian transstellars. Just to be fair, she’d done more than a few stories about the close (and lucrative) connections so many senior members of the Renaissance Association maintained with the very power structure it was officially so devoted to reforming from the ground up, as well. And she’d done a series on the supposedly outlawed genetic slave trade which was so devastating — and had named enough specific names — that there were persistent rumors Manpower had put a sizable bounty on her head.

    She’d also been one of the first Solarian journalists to report the Manticoran allegations of what had happened at Monica, and although she was no Manticoran apologist, she’d made it clear to her viewers and readers that the waters in Monica were very murky indeed. And as Amanda Corvisart showed the Solarian news media the overwhelming evidence of Manpower’s and Technodyne’s involvement, she’d reported that, too.

    The Solarian establishment hadn’t exactly lined up to thank her for her efforts, but that was all right with O’Hanrahan and her producers. She was only fifty-three T-years old, a mere babe in a prolong society, and if the market for old-fashioned investigative reporting was limited, it still existed. In fact, even a relatively small niche market in the League’s media amounted to literally billions of subscribers, and O’Hanrahan’s hard-earned reputation for integrity meant that despite her relative youth, she stood at the very apex of her particular niche. Not only that, but even those members of the establishment who most disliked her habit of turning over rocks they’d prefer remained safely mired in the mud paid attention to what she said. They knew as well as anyone else that if they read it in an O’Hanrahan article or viewed it in an O’Hanrahan ‘cast, it was going to be as accurate, and as thoroughly verified, as was humanly possible. She’d made occasional mistakes, but they could have been easily counted on the fingers of one hand, and she’d always been quick to admit them and to correct them as promptly as possible.

    Now, as she touched the acceptance key, the image of a man sprang into life in the holo display above her desk, and she frowned. Baltasar Juppé was scarcely one of her muckraking colleagues. He was nine or ten T-years older than she was, and influential, in his own way, as a financial analyst and reporter. It was a specialist’s beat — in many ways, as specialized a niche as O’Hanrahan’s, if larger — and it was just as well Juppé’s audience was so focused. Human prejudice was still human prejudice, which meant people automatically extended more respect and benefit of the doubt to those fortunate souls who were physically attractive, especially when they had intelligence and charisma to go with that attractiveness And where O’Hanrahan was auburn-haired, with crystal-blue eyes, elegant bone structure, a graceful carriage, and an understated but rich figure, Juppé’s brown hair always hovered on the edge of going out of control, his brown eyes were muddy, and he was (at best) pleasantly ugly.

    Although they ran into one another occasionally, they were hardly what one could have called boon companions. They belonged to many of the same professional organizations, and they often found themselves covering the same story — if from very different perspectives — given the corruption and graft which gathered like cesspool silt wherever the League’s financial structure intersected with the permanent bureaucracies. For example, they’d both covered the Monica story, although Juppé had scarcely shared O’Hanrahan’s take on the incident. Of course, he’d always been a vocal critic of the extent to which Manticore and its merchant marine had penetrated the League’s economy, so it was probably inevitable that he’d be more skeptical of the Manticoran claims and evidence.

    “Hi, Audrey!” he said brightly, and her frown deepened.

    “To what do I owe the putative pleasure of this conversation?” she responded with a marked lack of enthusiasm.

    “I’m hurt.” He placed one hand on his chest, in the approximate region where most non-newsies kept their hearts, and concentrated on looking as innocent as he could. “In fact, I’m devastated! I can’t believe you’re that unhappy to see me when I come bearing gifts.”

    “Isn’t there a proverb about being wary of newsies bearing gifts?”

    “There probably is, except where you’re concerned,” he agreed cheerfully. “And if there isn’t one, there ought to be. But in this case, I really thought you’d like to know.”

    “Know what?” she asked suspiciously.

    “That I’ve finally gotten my hands on an independent account of what happened in New Tuscany,” he replied, and his voice and expression alike were suddenly much more serious.

    “You have?” O’Hanrahan sat up straighter in her chair, blue eyes narrowing with undisguised suspicion. “From where? From who? And why are you calling me about it?”

    “You really are a muckraker, aren’t you?” Juppé smiled crookedly. “It hasn’t hit the public channels yet, and it probably won’t for at least another day or so, but as you know, I’ve got plenty of contacts in the business community.”

    He paused, one eyebrow raised, until she nodded impatiently.

    “Well,” he continued then, “those sources include one of the VPs for Operations over at Brinks Fargo. And he just happened to mention to me that one of his dispatch boats, just in from Visigoth, had a somewhat different version of events in New Tuscany.”

    “From Visigoth?” she repeated, then grimaced. “You mean Mesa, don’t you?”

    “Well, yeah, in a way,” he acknowledged. “Not in the way you mean, though.”

    “The way I mean?”

    “In the ‘the miserable minions of those wretched Mesan outlaw corporations’ deliberately slanted and twisted’ sort of way.”

    “I don’t automatically discount every single news reports that comes out of Mesa, Baltasar.”

    “Maybe not automatically, but with remarkable consistency,” he shot back.

    “Which owes more to the self-serving, highly creative version of events the so-called Mesan journalistic community presents with such depressing frequency than it does to any inherent unreasonableness on my part.”

    “I notice you’re not all over the Green Pines story, and there’s independent corroboration of that one,” Juppé pointed out a bit nastily, and her blue eyes narrowed.

    “There’s been corroboration of the explosions for months,” she retorted, “and if you followed my stories, you’d know I covered them then. And, for that matter, I suggested at the time that it was likely there was Ballroom involvement. I still think that’s probably the case. But I find it highly suspect — and convenient, for certain parties — that the Mesans’ ‘in-depth investigation’ has revealed — surprise, surprise! — that a ‘notorious’ Manticoran operative was involved.” She rolled her eyes. “Give me a break, Baltasar!”

    “Well, Zilwicki may be from Manticore, but he’s been in bed with the Ballroom for years — literally, since he took up with that looney-tune rabble-rouser Montaigne,” Juppé riposted. “And don’t forget, his daughter’s ‘Queen of Torch’! Plenty of room for him to’ve gone completely rogue there.”



    “Maybe, if he was a complete lunatic. Or just plain stupid enough to pull something like that,” O’Hanrahan retorted. “I checked his available public bio, including that in-depth report what’s-his-name — Underwood — did on him, as soon as Mesa’s version hit the data channels. I’ll admit the man’s scary as hell if you go after someone he cares about, but he’s no homicidal maniac. In fact, his more spectacular accomplishments all seem to’ve been defensive, not offensive. You come after him or his, and all bets are off; otherwise, he’s not especially bloodthirsty. And he’s for damned sure smart enough to know what nuking a public park full of kids would do to public support for his daughter’s new kingdom. For that matter, the whole damned galaxy knows what he’ll do if someone goes after one of his kids. You really think someone with that kind of resume would sign off on killing hundreds or thousands of someone else’s kids?” She shook her head again. “Which am I supposed to believe? The public record of someone like Zilwicki? Or the kind of self-serving, fabricated, made-up-out-of-whole-cloth kind of ‘independent journalism’ that comes out of Mendel?”

    From the look in her eye, it was evident which side of that contradiction she favored, even if a huge segment of the Solarian media had chosen the other one. While it was true the Solarian League’s official position, as enunciated by Education and Information, refused to rush to judgment on the spectacular Mesan claims that Manticore — or, at least, Manticoran proxies — had been behind the Green Pines atrocity, “unnamed sources” within the League bureaucracy had been far less circumspect, and O’Hanrahan and Juppé both knew exactly who those “unnamed sources” were. So did the rest of the League’s media, which had been obediently baying on the appropriate trail of Manticoran involvement from day one.

    Which, as Juppé knew full well, had absolutely no bearing on O’Hanrahan’s categorization of the original story.

    “Much as I hate to admit it, given how much impact Mesa sometimes has on the business community here in the League,” he said, “I can’t really argue with that characterization of a lot of what comes out of their newsies. Mind you, I really am less convinced than you seem to be that Anton Zilwicki’s such a choir boy that he wouldn’t be involved in something like Green Pines. But that’s beside the point, this time.” He waved one hand in a brushing-aside gesture. “This story isn’t from Mesa; it’s straight from New Tuscany. It only came through Mesa because that was the shortest route to Old Terra that didn’t go through Manty-controlled space.”

    O’Hanrahan cocked her head, her eyes boring into his.

    “Are you seriously suggesting that whoever dispatched this mysterious story from New Tuscany was actually frightened of what the Manticorans might do if they found out about it?” she demanded in obvious disbelief.

    “As to that, I’m not the best witness.” Juppé shrugged. “I don’t cover politics and the military and Frontier Security the way you do, except where they impinge on the financial markets. You and I both know a lot of the financial biggies are major players in OFS’ private little preserves out in the Verge, but my personal focus is a lot more on banking and the stock exchange. So I don’t really have the background to evaluate this whole thing. But I do know that according to my friend, and to the courier, they really, really wanted to avoid going through any Manty wormholes.”

    “Why?” Her eyes were narrower than ever, burning with intensity, and he shrugged again.

    “Probably because this isn’t really a story, at all. It’s a dispatch from someone in the New Tuscan government to one of his contacts here on Old Terra. And it’s not for public release — not immediately, at any rate.”

    “Then why send it?”

    “I tracked the courier down and asked that very question, as a matter of fact. Got the answer, too — for a price.” He grimaced. “Cost me the next best thing to five months’ street money, too, and I hope like hell my editor’s going to decide it was worth it instead of sticking my personal account for the charges. And to be honest, I don’t think I’d gotten it even then if the man hadn’t been so unhappy with his bosses’ instructions.”

    “And why was he so unhappy?” Her tone was skeptical.

    “Because the person he’s supposed to deliver it to is over at the Office of Naval Intelligence, but his immediate boss — somebody in the New Tuscan government; I couldn’t get him to tell me who, but I figure it’s got to be somebody from their security services — doesn’t want the Navy to go public with it,” Juppé said. “They want it in official hands, because it doesn’t track with the Manties’ version of the story, but they’re asking the Navy to keep things quiet until Frontier Fleet can get reinforcements deployed to protect them from the Manties.”

    “According to the Manties, they don’t have any big quarrel with New Tuscany,” O’Hanrahan pointed out. “They’ve never accused the New Tuscans of firing on their ships.”

    “I know. But, like I say, this stuff doesn’t match what Manticore’s been saying. In fact, the courier let me copy what’s supposed to be the New Tuscan Navy’s raw sensor records of the initial incident. And according to those records, the Manty ships were not only light cruisers, instead of destroyers, but they fired first, before Admiral Byng opened fire on them.”


    O’Hanrahan stared at Juppé, and the financial reporter looked back at her as she frowned in concentration.

    “That’s ridiculous,” she said finally. “The Manties wouldn’t be that stupid. Besides, what would be the point? Is this mysterious ‘courier’ claiming the Manties are crazy enough to deliberately provoke an incident with the Solarian Navy?”

    “As far as I know, he’s not claiming anything, one way or the other,” Juppé replied. “He’s just delivering the dispatch and the scan records, and as I understand it, they’re certified copies of the official data.” He grimaced. “Hell, maybe the Manties knew all along that it was their man who screwed up, and they’ve been working on ‘proving’ it was the League because they figure the only way to avoid getting hammered is to put the blame on the other side.”

    “Oh, sure.” O’Hanrahan’s irony was withering. “I can just see someone in the Manty government being stupid enough to think they’d get away with something like that!”

    “I was just offering one possible theory,” he pointed out. “Still, I have to say that if there’s any truth to Mesa’s allegations about Zilwicki and Green Pines, the Manties don’t seem to be playing with a full deck these days. In fact, I think ‘out of control’ might not be a bad way to describe them. And, for that matter, weren’t you one of the people who pointed out just how stupid what’s-his-name — Highbridge? — was in the lead up to this fresh war of theirs?”

    “That was High Ridge,” she corrected, but her tone was almost absent. She frowned again, clearly thinking hard, and then her eyes focused again, boring into his once more.

    “I’m not about to jump at the first set of counter allegations to come along, especially when they’re coming from — through, at least — someplace like Mesa. So why bring this red hot scoop to me?”

    Her suspicion clearly hadn’t abated in the least, and he shrugged yet again.

    “Because I trust you,” he said, and she blinked.

    “Come again?”

    “Look,” he said. “You know me, and you know how it works. If this is an accurate report, if it’s true, the Manties’ position is going to go belly-up as soon as it’s verified, especially given what Mesa’s already saying about Green Pines. And if that happens, the markets are going to go crazy — or maybe I should say crazier — as soon as the implications for the Star Empire and its domination of the wormhole net sink in. I mean, let’s face it. If the Manties did fake the sensor data they sent with their diplomatic note — if this is another instance of what the Havenites say they were doing all along under what’s-his-name — and they’ve killed the entire crew of a Solarian battlecruiser when they know the original ‘incident’ was their own fault, all hell’s going to be out for noon, and Green Pines is only going to squirt more hydrogen into the fire. The SLN’s going to pound their miserable little star nation into wreckage, and that’s going to have enormous consequences where the wormholes are concerned. There’ll be fortunes — large fortunes — to be made if something like that happens.”

    “And?” she encouraged when he paused.

    “And I’m an analyst, not just a reporter. If I peg this one right, if I’m the first one — or one of the first two or three — on the Net to advise investors to dump Manty-backed securities and stock issues, to reevaluate their positions in shipping, I’ll make a killing. I’ll admit it; that’s what I’m thinking about. Well, that and the fact that it won’t hurt my stature as a reporter one bit if people remember I’m the one who broke the story on the financial side.”



    “And?” she demanded again.

    “And I’m not equipped to evaluate it!” he admitted, displaying frustration of his own at last. “Especially not given the fact that this one’s got a strictly limited shelf life. Frontier Fleet’s going to want to run its own evaluations and check it against what it got from the Manties, we both know that. And then, if it holds up, the guys at the top are going to need to get together, decide whether or not they want to release it right away or confront the Manties with it privately. I guess they could go either way, but I’m willing to bet that as soon as they’re confident the data’s accurate, they’ll go public, whatever the New Tuscans want. That doesn’t give me a very wide window if I want to break it first.

    “But in the meantime, I don’t know whether or not to trust the info, either, and if I do, and I’m wrong, I’ll be finished. You’ve got the background and the contacts to verify this one hell of a lot better than I can, and you’ve worked with most of them long enough that they’ll keep their mouths shut until you break the story if they know you’re working on it. So what I’m offering here is a quid pro quo. I’ve got my copy of the original message, and of the sensor data. I’m prepared to hand it over to you — to share it with you — and to share credit for breaking the story if it turns out there’s something to it. What do you say?”

    Audrey O’Hanrahan regarded him intently for several endless seconds, and it was obvious what she was thinking behind her frown. As he himself had said, it wasn’t as if either of them didn’t know how the game was played. The old saw about scratching one another’s backs was well known among journalists, and Juppé’s offer actually made a lot of sense. As he said, he didn’t begin to have the sources she did when it came to verifying something like this . . . .

    “All right,” she said finally. “I’m not going to make any commitments before I’ve actually seen the stuff. Send it over, and I’ll take a look, and if it looks to me like there might be something to it, I’ll run it by some people I know and get back to you.”

    “Get back to me before you go public with it you mean, right?”

    “You’ve got my word I won’t break the story — assuming there is a story — without talking to you first. And,” she added in a more grudging tone, “I’ll coordinate with you. Do you want a shared byline, or just simultaneous reports?”

    “Actually,” he smiled crookedly, “I think I’d prefer simultaneous reports instead of looking like either of us is riding on the other’s coattails. After all, how often does a columns-of-numbers guy like me get to something this big independently as quickly as someone like you?”

    “If that’s the way you want it, it’ll work for me — assuming, as I say, there’s something to it. And assuming you don’t want me to sit on it for more than a couple of hours after I get verification?”

    “No problem there.” He shook his head. “I’m already working up two different versions of the story — one version that breaks the exposé of the Manties’ chicanery, and one version that warns everyone not to be taken in by this obviously fraudulent attempt to discredit them. I’ll have both of them ready to go by the time you can get back to me.”

    “Fine. Then have that stuff hand-delivered to me ASAP.”

    “Done,” Juppé agreed. “Clear.”

    He killed the connection, then leaned back in his own chair, clasped his hands behind his head, and smiled up at the ceiling.

    The truth was, he thought, the “official New Tuscan scan records” were going to pass any test anyone cared to perform. He didn’t know who’d obtained the authentication codes, but he could make a pretty fair guess that it had been the same person who’d coordinated the entire operation. Of course, they could have been grabbed considerably earlier. That might even explain why New Tuscany had been used in the first place. Cracking that kind of authentication from the outside was always a horrific chore, even when the hackers in charge of it were up against purely homegrown Verge-level computer security. The best way to obtain it was good old-fashioned bribery, which had been a Mesan specialty for centuries.

    It didn’t really matter, though. What mattered was that they had the “records,” which didn’t show what the Manties’ records showed. And those records were about to be authenticated by no less than Audrey O’Hanrahan. He could have gone to any of half a dozen of her colleagues, many of whom had hard won reputations of almost equal stature and almost equally good sources. Any one of them could have broken the story, and he was quite positive every one of them would have, assuming the records proved out. But there were several reasons to hand it to O’Hanrahan, as his instructions had made perfectly clear, and only one of them — though an important one — was the fact that she was probably the most respected single investigative reporter in the entire Solarian League. Certainly the most respected on Old Terra.

    It’s all been worth it, he thought, still smiling at the ceiling above him. Every minute of it, for this moment.

    There’d been many times when Baltasar Juppé had longed for a different assignment — any different assignment. Building his personal, professional cover had been no challenge at all for the product of a Mesan gamma line, but that very fact had been part of the problem. His greatest enemy, the worst threat to his security, had been his own boredom. He’d known since adolescence that he had a far greater chance of being activated than either of his parents, and definitely more than his grandparents had had when they first moved to Old Terra to begin building his in-depth cover. But even though recent events suggested that the purpose for which the Juppé family had been planted here so long ago was approaching fruitarian, he hadn’t really anticipated being activated this way for at least another several T-years.

    Now he had been, and he thought fondly of the recording he’d made of his conversation with O’Hanrahan. It probably wasn’t the only record of it, of course. He knew she had one, and despite all of the guarantees of privacy built into the League Constitution, an enormous amount of public and private surveillance went on, especially here in Old Chicago. It was entirely possible — even probable — that somewhere in the bowels of the Gendarmerie someone had decided keeping tabs on Audrey O’Hanrahan’s com traffic would be a good idea. It would certainly make plenty of sense from their perspective, given how often and how deeply she’d embarrassed the Solly bureaucracies with her reporting. But that was fine with Juppé. In this case, the more records the better, since they would make it abundantly clear to any impartial observer that he’d done his very best to verify the story which had come so unexpectedly into his hands. And they would make it equally abundantly clear that O’Hanrahan hadn’t known a thing about it until he’d brought it to her attention. Not to mention the fact that she was no knee-jerk anti-Manty . . . and that she’d been suspicious as hell when she heard about his scoop.

    And establishing those points was, after all, the exact reason he’d screened her in the first place instead of simply very quietly delivering the information to her in person.

    Just as Juppé had frequently longed for something more exciting to do, he’d experienced more than a few pangs of jealousy where reporters like O’Hanrahan were concerned. The public admiration she received would have been reason enough for that, he supposed, but her life had also been so much more exciting than his. She’d traveled all over the League in pursuit of her investigations, and her admirers respected her as much for her sheer brilliance and force of will, her ability to burrow through even the most impenetrable smokescreens and most carefully crafted cover stories, as for her integrity. Even more, perhaps, he’d envied how much she’d obviously enjoyed her work. But what he hadn’t known until this very day — because he’d had no need to know — was that just as his own career and public persona, hers, too, had been a mask she showed the rest of the galaxy. And now that he knew the truth, and despite the envy that still lingered, Juppé admitted to himself that he doubted he could have matched her bravura performance. Gamma line or no, there was no way he could have equaled the performance of an alpha line like the O’Hanrahan genotype.

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