Mission Of Honor – Snippet 44

“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.