A Call To Arms – Snippet 18
“I was hoping I could run a theory past you,” Chomps said. “It’s a bitâ€¦oddâ€¦and I know you’re pretty good at outside-the-line thinking.”
“Sure. Go ahead.”
“Okay.” Chomps took a deep breath. “Here’s the thing. I’m wondering if that exiled dictator from Canaan — General Khetha — might still be alive.”
“I thought the Cascans said Khetha was one of the men who was murdered.”
“They also thought the murderer was blond with a mustache,” Chomps pointed out. “And even the Cascans admit the victims’ DNA was degraded, and that they only identified one of the samples as Khetha’s after they knew what to look for. Who’s to say it was actually him?”
“Let’s assume for sake of argument that you’re right, that Khetha’s still alive,” Travis said. “I assume you have more theory to go along with it?”
“Yes, Sir,” Chomps said. “Okay. Khetha kills someone — probably a random guy in the street — who’s close enough in height and build to pass as him after some time in a denature bag. Maybe he substitutes the guy’s DNA for his own in his mansion’s records; maybe he just assumes the degrading will be enough to do the trick. In that case, it could have been Khetha, not the killer, who took the courier ship and made a run for it.”
“Or else they’re both aboard?” Travis suggested.
“The Cascans said the security cams show only one man getting aboard the shuttle.”
“None they shared with us.”
Travis nodded. “Okay, so now it’s Khetha and not the killer who escapes from Casca. Go on.”
“The killer now goes to ground on Casca for a couple of years,” Chomps said. “Not impossible if he’s prepared the papers and has enough money. Somewhere along the way, Khetha decides there’s something he needs from Canaan, either more looted treasure or something else. So he sends a message to someone in the League, who then charters Izbica. This someone and a buddy come aboard as passengers. The freighter heads to Canaan, bouncing around a few more ports on the way just to muddy the waters, where Khetha’s agents pick up the goods. Then they head to Casca.”
“Hold on a second,” Travis said, quiet alarm bells going off in the back of his head. He hadn’t heard anything about passengers, and he certainly hadn’t seen a copy of the freighter’s itinerary. How was it Chomps knew all this? “So they just pick up these gold bricks or whatever and stash them aboard?”
“Izbica’s passengers have taken over two of the holds and loaded them with a secret cargo,” Chomps said. “Supposedly running under diplomatic privilege via the Minorcan government. The treasure or whatever could be in there. So they head to Casca, where they do a little more trading and add the killer to their party. That now makes it the party of three that Izbica shows on their personnel list.” He lifted his hands. “Does this make any sense, Sir? Or am I just spitting at a radiator?”
“I think you’ve been reading too many thrillers, Chief,” Travis said. “Why would Khetha go to all that trouble? And I mean as far back as Casca. The courier boat was his — he could have just taken off whenever he wanted.”
“Unless he was also conning his own entourage,” Chomps said. “If he was running out on them too, or else trying to throw off other enemies, going to ground on Minorca is about as deep a hole as you can find to lose yourself in.”
“It’s still way more complicated than necessary,” Travis said. “New topic. How exactly do you know so much about Izbica and her particulars? I don’t even know all that.”
“I have sources,” Chomps said evasively. “Thank you for your time, Sir. If you think it’s too complicated, then I’m probably blowing smoke into –”
“Hold it,” Travis cut him off as the visual memory of that blanked display suddenly bounced back into his mind’s eye. “What did you just have on that display?”
“It was nothing, Sir,” Chomps said, a little too quickly. He pushed off the side of the compartment with one of his large fingers and began floating almost imperceptibly toward a spot directly between Travis and the display. “Just some stuff I was working on.”
“Like hell,” Travis bit out. “It was confidential ship’s data, wasn’t it?”
Chomps’s face had gone wooden. “No, Sir.”
“Don’t lie to me, Chief,” Travis warned, pushing off the bulkhead toward the display.
Chomps got there first. “I can’t let you see this, Sir.”
“Why not?” Travis demanded. “Because I’d report it?”
“Yes, Sir, you would,” Chomps said. “And that would be bad. For both of us.”
“Sir.” Chomps’s throat worked. “Travis. Please. I need you to trust me. Like you did back in boot camp.”
“That wasn’t about trust, Chief,” Travis bit out. “That was about me sticking up for someone in my squad.”
“It still is, Sir.” Chomps braced himself. “What are you going to do?”
Travis felt his gaze slip to Chomps’s shoulder, trying desperately to come up with a solution that would let his friend off the hook. He’d done it once, back in boot camp. Surely he could do it here, too.
Only he couldn’t. Then, it had been a question of dangerous malnutrition, and Travis had been able to see his decision as the morally right thing to do.
But there was no such moral gray area here. Someone — Chomps or someone else — had hacked into Phoenix’s records and accessed confidential information. That was a clear violation of Naval Code.
And unfortunately, it put Chomps’s actions over the line.
“I need to know who gave you that information, Chief.”
Chomps’s face hardened even more. “No one, Sir,” he said. “I accessed it by myself.”
“I’d prefer not to go into the details, Sir.”
And unless Travis was willing to call for an official enquiry, he was at a dead end. “Very well, Chief,” he said. “Return to your duties.”
“Aye, aye, Sir,” Chomps said. To Travis, he looked like a man who’d just lost his best friend.
Maybe he had.
Later, as Travis sat in his cabin, the stillness of the midwatch broken only by the sound gentle snoring from Fornier’s rack, he spent an hour trying to find the least damning way to write up Chomps. Finally, he settled on unauthorized access to ship’s computer records. If he — and Chomps — were lucky, it would just be passed over as something small and ridiculous from Rule-Stickler Long and no one would bother to follow up on it.
Still, it would remain in Chomps’s record. At any point from now until the heat-death of the universe someone could call Travis in front of a board somewhere and ask why he hadn’t provided any details, and what exactly those details were. When they did, he would have to tell them.
And at that point, he and Chomps would both accept the consequences.
With a touch of his finger, he sent the report into the depths of Phoenix’s computer. Sometime tomorrow, Commander Vance Sladek, Phoenix’s XO, would pull up the various reports and read or skim through them.
Until then, Travis would hit his rack, try to put this out of his mind, and get whatever sleep he could. Sufficient unto the day, he quoted tiredly to himself, are the troubles therein.
* * *
There was no summons to the XO’s office the next day. Nor was there one on the second day, nor the day after that. By the fourth day, Travis was finally beginning to breathe a little easier. Surely by now the press of other business had safely buried Travis’s report until such time as everything was transferred en masse to Manticore and BuPers’ even more massive computer system.
On the fifth day, Travis was abruptly called to Commander Sladek’s office.
The meeting was short and about as unpleasant an encounter as Travis had had in the seven T-years since Secour. He was warned about burying reports that should have been promptly brought to the XO’s attention, told to stay away from idle gossip and wild theories, and told in no uncertain terms that the next time something like that happened it would go on his record. When Travis dared to ask about Chomps, he was told that it was none of his business.
But a later check of ship’s records showed that his old friend had been dropped a rank to Missile Tech First.
From that time on, Chomps never again spoke to Travis aboard Phoenix except when absolutely necessary, and then in full formal speech.
Perhaps Chomps had indeed lost his best friend.
Perhaps Travis had, too.