Mission Of Honor – Snippet 17

Detweiler chuckled appreciatively, released her hand, and nodded at the chair in front of his desk. Taliadoros and Detweiler’s own bodyguard busied themselves pouring out cups of coffee with the same deftness they brought to certain more physical aspects of their duties. Then they withdrew, leaving her with Albrecht and his two sons.

“I’m glad you appreciate Bolide’s speed, Aldona.” Benjamin Detweiler set his cup back on its saucer and smiled slightly at her. “And we appreciate your using it to get home this quickly.”

Anisimovna nodded in acknowledgment. The “streak drive” was yet another thing she hadn’t known anything about six months ago. Nor, to be frank, was it something she would have expected out of Mesan researchers. Like most of the rest of the galaxy, although for rather different reasons, she’d been inclined to think of her home world’s R&D community primarily in terms of biological research. Intellectually, she’d known better than most of humanity that the planet of Mesa’s scientific and academic communities had never restricted themselves solely to genetics and the biosciences. But even for her, those aspects of Mesa had been far more visible, the things that defined Mesa, just as they defined Beowulf.

Well, if it surprised me, I imagine that’s a pretty good indication of just how big a surprise it’s going to be for everyone else, too, she thought dryly. Which is going to be a very good thing over the next few years.

The streak drive represented a fundamental advance in interstellar travel, and there was no indication anyone else was even close to duplicating it. For centuries, the theta bands had represented an inviolable ceiling for hyper-capable ships. Everyone had known it was theoretically possible to go even higher, attain a still higher apparent normal-space velocity, yet no one had ever managed to design a ship which could crack the iota wall and survive. Incredible amounts of research had been invested in efforts to do just that, especially in the earlier days of hyper travel, but with a uniform lack of success. In the last few centuries, efforts to beat the iota barrier had waned, until the goal had been pretty much abandoned as one of those theoretically possible but practically unobtainable concepts.

But the Mesan Alignment hadn’t abandoned it, and finally, after the better part of a hundred T-years of dogged research, they’d found the answer. It was, in many ways, a brute force approach, and it wouldn’t have been possible even now without relatively recent advances (whose potential no one else seemed to have noticed) in related fields. And even with those other advances, it had almost doubled the size of conventional hyper generators. But it worked. Indeed, they’d broken not simply the iota wall, but the kappa wall, as well. Which meant the voyage from New Tuscany to Mesa, which would have taken anyone else the next best thing to forty-five T-days, had taken Anisimovna less than thirty-one.

“Now,” Albrecht said, drawing her attention back to him, “Benjamin, Collin, and I have skimmed your report. We’d like to hear it directly from you, though.”

“Of course,” she replied, “but –” She paused, then gave her head a tiny shake. “Excuse me, Albrecht, but I actually expected to be making this report to Isabel.”

“I’m afraid that won’t be possible.” It wasn’t Albrecht who answered her; it was Collin, and his voice was far harder and harsher than Albrecht’s or Benjamin’s had been. She looked at him, and he gave a sharp, angry shrug. “Isabel’s dead, Aldona. She was killed about three months ago . . . along with everyone else in the Gamma Center at the time.”

Anisimovna’s eyes widened in shock. Despite her recent admission to the Mesan Alignment’s innermost circles, she still had only the vaguest notion of what sort of research had been carried on in the Alignment’s various satellite centers. The only thing she’d known about the Gamma Center was that, unlike most of the others, it was right here in the Mesa System . . . which implied it was also more important than most.

“May I ask what happened?”

She more than half expected him to tell her no, since she presumably had no operational need to know. But Isabel had become more than just another of her professional colleagues, and Collin surprised her.

“We still don’t have all the pieces, actually,” he admitted. “In fact, we never will. We do know someone activated the self-destruct security protocols, and who it was. We’re still guessing at some of the events leading up to that, but given that Isabel was on her way to take him into custody, we’re pretty sure why he activated them.”

He paused, expression grim, and Anisimovna nodded. If she’d had a choice between pressing a self-destruct button and facing what would be euphemistically described as “rigorous questioning,” she would have chosen vaporization, too.

“What we still can’t prove is exactly what he was up to before Isabel became suspicious of him. We’re sure we’ve figured out his basic intentions, but we’ve had to do most of the figuring from secondary sources. There aren’t any primary sources or witnesses left on our side, aside from the one low-level agent who seems to be the only person to’ve done everything right. But there’s reason to believe the Ballroom was involved, at least peripherally.”

“The Ballroom knew about the Gamma Center?” Astonishment and a sudden pulse of panic startled the question out of her. If the ex-genetic slave terrorists of the Ballroom had discovered that much, who knew how much else they might have learned about the Alignment?

“We don’t think so.” Collin shook his head quickly. “We do have a few . . . witnesses from the other side, and based on their testimony and our own investigations, we’ve confirmed that Zilwicki and Cachat were here on Mesa and — almost certainly — that the Center’s head of security made contact with them.”

Anisimovna knew her eyes were huge, but not even an alpha line could have helped that under these circumstances. Anton Zilwicki and Victor Cachat had been here on Mesa itself? This was getting better and better by the second, wasn’t it?

“None of the evidence suggests they’d come expressly looking for the Center,” Collin went on reassuringly. “We know how the traitor discovered they were here in the first place, so we’re confident they didn’t come looking to make contact with him, at any rate. It looks like he decided, for reasons of his own, that he wanted to defect and jumped at the chance when he realized they were here. In fact, we have imagery of him actually meeting Zilwicki — that’s what made Isabel suspicious in the first place. Zilwicki hadn’t been IDed from the imagery before she went looking for . . . the defector, but she did know that low-level agent I mentioned had already fingered him as a Ballroom peripheral.

Unfortunately, the first person he reported that little fact to was the Center’s chief of security.”

He smiled thinly at Anisimovna’s grimace.

“Yes, that was convenient for him, wasn’t it?” he agreed. “We think that’s what triggered the decision to defect, and it also put him in a position to keep anyone higher up the chain from realizing Zilwicki was on-planet. The only thing that screwed him up was the original agent’s suspicions when one of his bugs caught them meeting in a seccy restaurant. We were just lucky as hell our man had the gumption and the balls to go directly to Isabel. Unfortunately, ‘lucky’ is a relative term in this case. Our man didn’t know his ‘Ballroom peripheral’ was Anton Zilwicki, so Isabel didn’t realize it either. If she had, she would have approached the whole thing differently, but she clearly had no idea how serious the security breach really was, and she decided to handle it personally, quickly, and, above all, quietly. Which, however reasonable it may’ve seemed, was a mistake in this case. When he realized Isabel was coming for him, the defector was able to trigger the charge under the Center. He took the whole damned place — and all of its on-site records and personnel — with him. Not to mention one of Green Pines’ larger commercial towers — and everyone inside it — when the charge went off in its sub-basement.”

Anisimovna inhaled suddenly, sharply. She might have known the Gamma Center was in the Mesa System, but she’d never guessed it might be located in one of the system capital’s bedroom suburbs!

“The only good points were that it was a Saturday and early, so most of the Center’s R&D personnel were safely at home, and the defector had apparently set up a fallback position to take out Zilwicki and Cachat in case they stiffed him. He used it, and we’re ninety-nine-point-nine-nine percent sure he managed to kill both of them . . . even if it did take another nuke to do the job. So they’re both dead, at least. But not” — his jaw muscles tightened, and his eyes went terrifyingly cold — “without another Ballroom bastard using a nuke on Pine Valley Park. On a Saturday morning.”