Shadow Of Freedom – Snippet 16

I wonder if all that’s natural or if he’s disguised? Indiana thought. Hell of a disguise, if he is. Nobody’s going to think twice if they notice him. For that matter, you could look straight at him and never “notice” him at all! Probably something we should bear in mind for future use.

“Nasty weather for an off-worlder to be out touring the sights,” he observed out loud, and the other man chuckled.

“I hadn’t expected it to be this lousy,” he agreed. “And if you think it’s bad now, you should’ve been standing out here with me waiting for the last hour or so.”

“Waiting for what?” Indiana asked.

“I appreciate your caution, Talisman,” the other man said, “but if I were a scag my fellow scags would already have pounced, don’t you think? And I promise you, if I were a scag I’d already have signaled the sniper team to take you down rather than let you stand there with a gun in your hand!”

“I see.” Indiana glanced around — he couldn’t help himself — then shrugged and holstered the pistol. The other man had a point, after all. Not that the fact that he did proved he wasn’t a scag playing some sort of complicated game. On the other hand, he obviously did know Indiana’s codename, which was at least a tentative vote in his favor.

“I don’t know you,” he said conversationally, and the stranger nodded.

“I know. To be honest, that’s why I set up the meet out here, where there wouldn’t be a lot of witnesses if you reacted…energetically to the surprise of a new face.” He shrugged. “There’s been a change of plans, unfortunately, and I’m your new contact.”

“What kind of change of plans?” Indiana’s voice was tauter than it had been, and the other man smiled slightly.

“I’m afraid I can’t be a lot more specific than that,” he said. “I have to worry about everyone’s security, not just yours and not just my own. I can tell you it doesn’t have anything to do with anything that’s happened here in Seraphim, though. In fact, I’ll go ahead and admit that it’s more of a logistic problem than anything else. They needed your previous contact somewhere else, so they sent me in to sub for him.”

“They did, did they?”

“Caution is good; I like that. On the other hand, if all we do is stand here and be suspicious of one another we’re not going to accomplish a lot except to freeze our asses off. So. I believe the phrase you’re looking for is ‘It is dearness only that gives things their value.'”

Indiana felt his shoulders relax and drew a deep breath.

“‘And it would be strange if an article like Freedom should not be highly rated,'” he replied.

“True enough,” the other man agreed, then grimaced slightly. “On the other hand, if we’re going to use Thomas Paine, I really would have preferred to get the quotation at least remotely right.”

“Maybe.” Indiana looked at him for a moment, then smiled. “On the other hand, if the scags were to…acquire partial knowledge of our recognition phrases, let’s say, they might just end up researching the quotation without realizing how much we’d paraphrased it.”

“I see.” The other man tilted his head to one side, eyes narrowing. “Clambake didn’t mention that you were the one who’d chosen the recognition phrase. I thought he had.” He nodded slowly. “I don’t know if it would really have done any good, but it was probably a wrinkle that was worth incorporating. Oh, you can call me Firebrand.”

“‘Firebrand’?” Indiana repeated, and grinned. “I like it. It’s got a more…proactive feel to it than ‘Clambake.'”

“I’m glad you approve,” Firebrand said dryly. “And I suppose that’s Magpie still in the car?”

“Yes,” Indiana confirmed. “You want to sit in the car to talk? The heater’s not much, but it’s at least a little warmer than standing out in the open this way.”

“Actually, I’d rather step inside the warehouse,” Firebrand demurred. “No offense, but I prefer a more solid roof and walls between me and any scag surveillance platforms that might happen by.”

“I don’t have any problem with that,” Indiana said and turned to beckon to Mackenzie. She looked at him for a moment, then opened her door, climbed out into the steadily strengthening rain, and joined the two men.

“Step into my office,” Firebrand invited, and led the way into the abandoned warehouse.

It was cold, drafty, and dreary. Abandoned stacks of plastic pallets leaned drunkenly, and a derelict forklift — not one of the grav-lifters the transstellars used in their warehouses, but a genuine, old-fashioned, pre-OFS forklift — loomed in the shadows. Raindrops drummed on the roof, and Indiana and Mackenzie heard the waterfall sound of runoff pounding down through holes to splash on the warehouse floor. It was a thoroughly miserable venue for a meeting, Indiana reflected, watching the plume of his breath. And it was also a perfect metaphor for what had happened to Seraphim since the Office of Frontier Security had come to the star system’s “rescue.”

“So you’re Clambake’s replacement,” he said, and Firebrand nodded.

“Like I say, we’ve had to make a few adjustments. On the other hand, one of the reasons we’ve done it is that we’ve been able to accelerate our plans a little bit.”

“You have?” Mackenzie asked, eyes narrowing, and he nodded. “How much?”

“To be honest, we’re still in the process of establishing that,” Firebrand admitted. “The biggest problem is that shipping’s scarce enough out this way, except for Krestor’s and Mendoza’s, that we have to be careful about our arrangements.” He chuckled suddenly. “There are some advantages to dealing with that crowd, though — not to mention the simple satisfaction of using their own ships against them! Their freight agents are about as corrupt as they are themselves, after all, and smuggling’s always a growth industry in the Protectorates. No one in the League has anything like a reliable estimate of the size of the ‘gray economy’ out here, but everyone knows damned well that it’s huge, so we might as well take advantage of it. Unless things change in the next month or two, what we’ll actually be doing is shipping your goodies in covered by Krestor shipping manifests. They’ll just sort of wander away from the rest of the queue once they hit dirt-side.”