Chapter Nineteen

Rear Admiral Rozsak looked up as someone knocked lightly on the frame of his office door.

“I think I may have something interesting here, Luiz,” Jiri Watanapongse told him. “Got a minute?”

“Just about,” Rozsak replied with an undeniable sense of relief for the interruption as he looked up from the paperwork which obviously reproduced by cellular fission. He leaned back in his powered chair and beckoned for Watanapongse to step into the office and let its door slide shut behind him.

“And just what new interesting tidbit have my faithful espionage minions turned up for me today?” he asked after the commander had obeyed the silent command.

“I haven’t been able to confirm this yet,” Watanapongse said. “I know how much you just love hearing things that ‘can’t be confirmed yet,’ but I think confirmation for this one’s probably going to be a while coming. Under the circumstances, I thought you’d want to hear it anyway.”

“And those circumstances are?”

“You remember Laukkonen?”

“How could I forget?” Rozsak said sourly.

Santeri Laukkonen was one of those unsavory sorts people who were all too often involved in the basically unsavory sorts of business the Office of Frontier Security sometimes had to deal with. Not even Rozsak was positive where Laukkonen had come from in the first place, although if he’d had to guess, he would have put his money on an origin somewhere in the bowels of the Solarian League Navy’s Office of Procurement. For a Verge gunrunner, the man was extraordinarily well tapped in when it came to “surplus” Solarian weaponry, at any rate. And not everything he handled came in the form of the legally licensed “export varieties” approved for extra-League sale, either. Not by a long chalk.

For the last several years, he’d been operating out of the Ajax System, whose proximity to the Maya Sector made it of more than passing interest to the people in charge of Maya’s security. Over those years, he and Luiz Rozsak had found themselves involved in some extremely discreet — and very much arms-length — transactions. The most circuitous of all had involved supplying munitions to a “liberation movement” in the Okada System. The order for that operation had come all the way from Old Chicago itself, and the liberation movement in question had provided the pretext for Frontier Security’s urgent need to extend its benevolent protection to the unfortunate citizens of Okada.

And I still don’t understand why the hell they wanted to do it, he thought sourly now. It’s not like it’s the first time people got killed — in relatively large numbers — in the furtherance of some sort of half-baked strategy, but they didn’t even hang on to the system afterward! Oravil’s right — I really don’t like black ops very much, but if I’ve got to carry them out for a bunch of Old Earth assholes anyway, I’d at least like for them to make some kind of sense afterward. It doesn’t even have to be good sense.

Actually, he’d come to the conclusion that Frontier Security itself had been played in this case. The “reform government” OFS had installed had just happened to be tailor-made to allow Admiral Tilden Santana to trade in his admiral’s uniform for the presidential palace. And President for Life Santana appeared to be making some substantial contributions to the personal accounts of two senior bureaucrats back in Frontier Security’s HQ.

“So, what about Laukkonen?” he asked, shaking himself back up to the surface of his thoughts.

“Well, he’s in the favor-trading business, and he knows how we like to keep track of anyone whose . . . operational interests might intrude into the Sector. In fact, I might as well admit that we went ahead and hinted as much to him.”

“And just how much of an investment did we make in this ‘hint’ of yours?” Rozsak inquired dryly.

“As retainers go, it’s not really all that much,” Watanapongse replied. “Actually, it’s pocket change for him, as well as for us. What he’s really after is maintaining access, staying in our good graces, in case another instance of mutually advantageous backscratching should arise.”

“All right.” Rozsak nodded. “I can understand that. So what tidbit has he thrown our way?”

“One of the points I’ve hinted to him we’d like to be kept particularly well-informed on is the operation of any StateSec holdouts in our area.”

Rozsak nodded again. Any renegade StateSec ships had been smart enough to stay out of the Maya Sector, but he’d known at least some of them were operating just beyond the Sector’s borders.

“Well, I’d say it’s pretty obvious Laukkonen has been one of their suppliers. At any rate, it seems evident to me that he’s got an even better feel for where they’ve been and what they’ve been doing than he wants to admit even now. But according to him, a ‘very reliable source’ — which I take to be one of his StateSec customers — has informed him that several ex-StateSec ships which have been working around this area of the Verge have been pulled off of active operations. Apparently, they’re being concentrated for some sort of special op — something his ‘reliable source’ described as more of a merc operation than run-of-the-mill piracy.”

“Really?” Rozsak’s eyes narrowed. “I don’t suppose our good friend Laukkonen was able to tell us exactly what the object of this hypothetical ‘special op’ might be?”

“No.” Watanapongse shook his head. “On the other hand, it occurred to me that the evidence Manpower’s been recruiting ex-StateSec units might suggest who was behind it. And if Manpower has an objective in this area, where do you suppose it might be?”

“Exactly what I was thinking,” Rozsak said a bit grimly. “Did Laukkonen say anything which might suggest how soon the op’s likely to kick off?”

“Nothing definitive. Probably not for at least another three or four months; that was the best estimate he could give us.”

“If they’re calling them in from individual operational areas, that’s probably an underestimate of how long it’s going to take to get them concentrated,” Rozsak thought out loud. “And after operating solo for so long, even StateSec types are going to see the need for at least minimal training and drill before they try squadron-level operations again. Bearing that in mind, I’d say five months, maybe even six, would be more likely.”

“I was coming up with the same guesstimate,” Watanapongse agreed.

“All right,” Rozsak decided. “I think we have to take the possibility that Laukkonen is onto something real seriously. On the other hand, we can’t start redeploying our available units on the basis of pure speculation. See what you can do about confirming this. I don’t expect you to be able to nail it down absolutely, of course, but beat the bushes. See if we can shake out anything else to support Laukkonen’s version of things. And do your best to get us some kind of realistic time estimate if it looks like there’s really something to it.”

“Yes, Sir.”

Watanapongse nodded and turned back towards the office door, then halted and raised an eyebrow as Rozsak raised an index finger at him.

“I’ve been thinking,” the admiral said.

“About –?” Watanapongse asked when Roszak paused.

“About Manson,” his superior said, and the intelligence officer grimaced.

Lieutenant Jerry Manson was a fairly capable intelligence officer who, unfortunately, both thought he was much smarter than he actually was and possessed the loyalty quotient of an Old Earth piranha. Either of those failings might have been acceptable by itself; in combination, they were anything but.

Manson had been planted on them originally by Ingemar Cassetti — a fact of which, he undoubtedly believed, Roszak and Watanapongse were both unaware. They’d kept him in place because it was always easier and safer to manipulate the spy you knew about rather than inspire one’s adversaries to plant spies you didn’t know about, but they’d never entertained any illusions about his loyalty or lack thereof. He’d been quite useful on several occasions, too, yet that usefulness had always had to be balanced against the need to keep him completely in the dark where the Maya Sector’s true plans were concerned.

That had still been manageable, if increasingly difficult, but now that Cassetti had been removed from the equation, there was no need to “manage” his chosen spy. And even if there had been . . . .

“You’ve read my memo, I take it?” Watanapongse said aloud, and Rozsak snorted.

“Of course I have! And I agree. As long as he was just an orphaned little grifter, with no replacement master to call his own, the situation was workable. Now, though?” The admiral shook his head. “If he’s sniffing around opening some sort of covert channel back to Old Earth, the time has come to cut our losses.”

Watanapongse nodded. He was quite confident Manson didn’t even begin to suspect how closely and tightly all of his communications had been monitored ever since he’d joined Rozsak’s staff. If the lieutenant had ever suspected the truth, he would never have risked sending his own message back to Frontier Fleet HQ on Old Earth. It seemed evident that he’d finally come into possession of at least a few fragmentary clues about “the Sepoy Option,” though. He’d been careful to keep them to himself when he drafted his message to Commander Florence Jastrow (who happened, herself, to be one of the more loathsome people Watanapongse had ever met, which undoubtedly explained why Manson would have thought of her), but he’d also made it clear to her that he suspected his superiors in the Maya Sector were up to something they shouldn’t have been doing.

Unfortunately for Lieutenant Manson, his message had been not only intercepted but quietly removed from the queue. On the other hand, he was bound to start wondering about that in the next few weeks. At the moment, he was undoubtedly expecting a reply from Jastrow; when one never came, on the other hand . . . .

“How do you want to handle it?” Watanapongse asked now.

“We’re sure we’ve shortstopped all of his fishing expeditions?”

“As sure as you ever can be in this sort of game. Which is to say, almost certain.”

“Then that’ll have to do.” Rozsak thought for a moment, then shrugged. “An accident, Jiri. Something as far removed from us or anything related to his official duties as you can manage.”

“He’s scheduled to go grav-skiing Friday,” Watanapongse observed.

“Really?” Rozsak leaned back in his chair, expression thoughtful, then nodded. “I do hope he’s careful,” he said.

It was Watanapongse’s turn to snort, then he nodded and headed back out of the office. Rozsak watched him go, lips pursed in silent thought for several minutes, then shrugged and returned to his unending paper chase.