Back | Next

Chapter Forty-Five

Citizen Lieutenant Commander Heathrow leaned back in his command chair and smiled as Lois, the sole inhabited planet of the Clarke System, fell away astern. He hadn't enjoyed dealing with Citizen Colonel White, the system's senior StateSec officer, but at least there were other people on Lois. More to the point, perhaps, Lois had some of the most glorious beaches in the entire People's Republic. He and his crew had been made welcome in traditional Navy style by Citizen Captain Olson, CO of the small PN patrol detachment, and his engineering staff had managed a little creative reporting to justify a full extra twenty-three-hour day of sun and sand.

There were, he thought smugly, occasional advantages to courier duty after all.

Yeah, sure. "Join the Navy and see the Galaxy!" He snorted suddenly. You know, that's probably truer for the courier crews than it is for anyone else, now that I think about it!

He chuckled, but then he let his chair come back upright with a sigh as his mind reached out to their next destination. He wasn't looking forward to his stop in the Danak System. Clarke had a relatively small SS detachment, which spent most of its time fulfilling regular police functions. Personally, Heathrow suspected that the warm, languid tranquility of Lois had infected them, as well. The system's Navy personnel were crisp and efficient enough when onboard ship or crewing the planet's orbital HQ base, but they tended to go native, all crispness vanishing into a sort of planetwide, laid-back surfer culture, the instant they hit groundside, and the same seemed to be true of the SS.

Danak was different, however . . . and not just because of the weather. Granted, Danak Alpha, the inhabited half of the double-planet pair of more or less terrestrial worlds was considerably further out from its G8 primary than Lois was from its G1 primary. That gave it a much cooler climate, and its weather was characterized by clouds and rain liberally seasoned with various objectionable atmospheric compounds from volcanic outgassing. At that, it was a nicer place than Danak Beta. Beta was only technically habitable, and to the best of Heathrow's knowledge, no one had ever expressed any particular desire to visit it, much less live there.

But Danak, unlike Clarke, had been settled for four hundred years, and where Lois had been a resort world catering to the tourist trade before the Republic annexed it, Danak had been a heavily industrialized system for more than two T-centuries. More than that, its current population was up to something approaching four billion, which was extremely large for a system this close to the frontier. All of which meant that miserable as Danak Alpha was, and dour as people assigned here tended to become, the system was very important to the powers that were.

As a consequence, Danak System Command had always been home port to a largish fleet presence, and State Security had made Danak Alpha the HQ for its intervention forces here in the Danak Sector, just as Shilo was in the Shilo Sector. Needless to say, the presence in force of StateSec had not increased the attractiveness of gray and miserable Danak Alpha when it came to choosing someplace as a potential retirement address.

Or, for that matter, one to visit on courier duties.

Heathrow grimaced. Ah, well. We had our run ashore on Lois; I suppose it's inevitable that we pay for it on this end. I just hope Citizen General Chernock has been replaced.

He checked the time and date display on his console. His command was fourteen days, sixteen hours, and thirty-three minutes (base-time reckoning) out of Cerberus. Of course, given relativity's input into things, that worked out to only ten days, twenty-two hours, and some change for Heathrow and his crew, which seemed like a particularly dirty trick. The rest of the universe got to enjoy the full fourteen days between the time he touched base with two different groups of sourpuss, pain in the butt SS types, while his people got cheated out of almost three whole days.

Oh, well. No one had ever said the universe was fair.


Citizen Major General Thornegrave swung himself out of the personnel tube and into PNS Farnese's shipboard gravity. The StateSec ground forces citizen lieutenant assigned to greet him snapped to attention and saluted, and Thornegrave returned the courtesy brusquely.

"Sir! May the Citizen Lieutenant have the honor of escorting the Citizen General to his quarters, Sir?"

The citizen lieutenant had an unfortunately round and puffy, rather dissipated looking face, crowned by the sort of carefully-sculpted hairstyle Thornegrave had always disliked. Despite his immaculate uniform, he didn't look much like the popular concept of an officer, and he seemed determined to overcompensate by demonstrating more than his fair share of panache. His eyes were parked a good fifteen centimeters above Thornegrave's head, and the third-person form of his address, while militarily correct, sounded just a little too studied. As a rule, the citizen major general approved of junior officers who greeted their seniors with proper respect. But everything about this one's manner—from the parade ground punctilio Thornegrave suspected had been learned more from HD than basic training to the powerful hint of apple-polishing obsequiousness in his patently false smile of greeting—irritated him immensely.

He started to say something, then stopped. First impressions could be misleading, and the kid might just be nervous at greeting such a senior officer with so little warning. With that in mind, he rejected any of the several cutting remarks which had sprung to mind and settled for a simple, if curt, nod. The citizen lieutenant seemed not to notice any curtness and turned to lead the way to the lifts.

I really should have read his name patch, Thornegrave mused. He was on Harris' staff, so I suppose he's on mine, as well. Ah, well. They're all the same when they're that new. And I'm not really certain I want to know the name of one who seems so much more eager to ... please than most.

He followed his guide, then paused, hands clasped behind him, and indulged in a mild, moderately pleasant spasm of guilt as he watched the citizen lieutenant punch a code to summon a lift car.

He really shouldn't be aboard this ship, he thought cheerfully, and StateSec General Headquarters back on Nouveau Paris would probably be irritated when it learned he was. He was officially assigned to command the Shilo Sector, which meant overseeing the deployment of all the sector's people's commissioners, intervention battalions, spacegoing security detachments, and all the billion-plus-one other details involved in riding herd on so many different star systems in the Committee's name. And to be fair, he enjoyed the responsibility and authority which were his. But there were times when it could get deadly dull, and the best a sector CO this far from the front—or the Capital Sector—could realistically hope for was that things would stay so quiet no one on Nouveau Paris even noticed he was out here. If the capital did notice him, it would almost inevitably be because he'd screwed up in some spectacular fashion, since, by definition, no one ever noticed the places where things went right. Which meant that those who wished to be promoted still higher in StateSec's hierarchy sought to avoid postings to places like Shilo like the very plague.

Thornegrave had recognized the danger when Citizen General Tomkins invited him to a personal meeting at GHQ and begun by describing his new assignment as "not flashy to the untrained eye, maybe, but critically important to the war effort. The sort of post where we need the best man we can possibly find—which was the reason we immediately thought of you, Prestwick. I can call you Prestwick, can't I, Citizen Major General?"

Unfortunately, his best efforts to evade Shilo had failed, and he'd been stuck here for close to two T-years while men and women junior to him were promoted past him. There hadn't seemed to be anything he could do about it, either . . . until, that was, Citizen Major General Harris (no relation to the defunct Legislaturalist clan of the same name) had been obliging enough to drop dead of a cerebral hemorrhage. Thornegrave had never wished the woman any harm, and to be fair, his initial reaction had been one of dismay. But that had only lasted long enough for him to realize that the projected expedition to Seabring was inarguably a two-star command. And since he'd been the only SS two-star available . . .

He chuckled gleefully at the thought of his coup. He supposed it could be reasonably argued that the Shilo Sector was also at least a two-star command . . . and the one to which he had been assigned. But that was the point. It could be argued either way, and he was the senior officer on the spot who had to decide the argument. And so, regretfully, he had concluded that Seabring's proximity to the front, coupled with the reported refractory attitudes of its citizens, gave it priority over a quiet sector a light-century and a half from the nearest fighting. That being the case, there was no way he could justify remaining in the safety of his formally assigned billet, which had left him no choice but to turn Shilo over to his exec and take command of the Seabring expedition. If Citizen General Tomkins disagreed, he could always tell him so ... in about six and a half months, when the reply to Thornegrave's first report from Seabring got back to him from Nouveau Paris.

The chuckle he couldn't quite suppress threatened to turn into a gleeful cackle, but only until the citizen lieutenant darted a look over his shoulder at him. For a moment, the bland-faced young man looked frightened, but then he began to chuckle himself and gave the citizen major general the broad, vapid smile of someone "sharing" in a joke he didn't have a clue about. That, unfortunately, was one of the things Thornegrave could not abide. It was one thing for a senior officer to invite a junior to share a joke; it was quite another for some kiss-ass young prick who thought he was showing his sophistication to deal himself into a joke he didn't even begin to comprehend.

The citizen major general cut his own chuckle off instantly and gave the citizen lieutenant—rodham, guillermo, the kid's name patch said, he noticed—a sudden, cold glance. The citizen lieutenant immediately stopped laughing, swallowed hard, turned away, and punched the lift button again, as if that could somehow magically conjure the slow-arriving car into existence. He stood absolutely silent, as erect as if someone had inserted a broom handle up his backside, while small beads of perspiration dewed his hairline, and Thornegrave looked away once more, satisfied with the effect.

Unfortunately, in looking away his eye fell on Farnese's crest, and he felt a familiar sour distaste as it did. The crest said "PNS Farnese" and that always irritated him. After all, the battlecruiser wasn't a Navy ship; she belonged to State Security, and her designation should reflect that. Except that the Navy's position was that she was only a Navy ship which was assigned to StateSec, as if the true guardians of the People's safety had no right to put on the airs of "real" warriors.

Of course, Thornegrave conceded, hanging SSS on the front of a ship's name would probably look a little funny, but it's the principle of the thing! The Navy and the Marines represent vestigial holdovers from the decadent elitism of the Old Regime. It's past time that State Security absorbed them both into a single organization whose loyalty to the People and State can be absolutely relied upon. The people's commissioners are a move in the right direction, but there's still too much room for recidivists to secretly sabotage the war and the Revolution alike. Surely Citizen Secretary Saint-Just and Citizen Chairman Pierre realize that, don't they?

No doubt they did, he told himself once more as the lift finally arrived and Citizen Lieutenant Rodham bowed and scraped him into it. And he had no doubt that, in time, they would act upon their realization. But timing continued to be the problem. Making changes like that in the middle of a war fought on such a scale would always be difficult, and the fact that McQueen and her uniformed, elitist relics had finally knocked the Manties back on their heels made it even more difficult now . . . for the moment, at least. Well, he'd seen to it that the Navy knew who was in charge here in Shilo, at any rate! And he supposed StateSec would have to settle for a gradualist approach ... at least until McQueen overstepped and gave Saint-Just an excuse.

And for now, he thought with a lazy sense of triumph as the lift door slid closed and the car moved off, at least I've put that poisonous little fart Citizen Commodore Yang in her place. Argue that convoy escort is a "Navy responsibility" indeed! Hah! One star loses to two stars any day, Citizen Commodore, especially when the two-star in question is SS!


Citizen Commodore Rachel Yang nodded to acknowledge the report of Citizen Major General Thornegrave's arrival. She actually managed not to spit on the decksole at the news, too, which she considered a major triumph of self-discipline. Citizen Major General Harris had also been SS, and no doubt the woman had had her faults, but at least she'd recognized that running warships was a job for someone trained to run them. Thornegrave didn't. Or perhaps he simply believed that someone whose devotion to the Revolution was pure as the driven snow and utterly devoid of personal ambition (Hah! I'll just bet it is!) was automatically more competent than someone who'd merely spent thirty-three years of her life training for the duty in question.

Damn it, I believe in the Revolution, too! she thought viciously. All right, maybe I do think there've been excesses, but you can't build an entire New Order without some individual cases of injustice. Who was it back on Old Earth who said that liberty was a tree which had to be watered occasionally with the blood of patriots? So where does Thornegrave get off climbing into my face this way? Why does he think Citizen General Harris specifically asked for a Navy officer to command the escort? Does he think my staff and I like being stuck here on an SS ship where we're the only regulars aboard? Does he think we actually requested the duty or something? And he's a frigging ground-pounder, for Christ's sake—not even trained as an air-breathing pilot, much less a naval officer—so what does he know about escort tactics and convoy security? Zip-zero-zilch-nada, that's what!

Unfortunately, he'd also dealt himself the command slot, and all Yang could do was accommodate herself to his demands as unconfrontationally as possible and hope it did some good.

"Has Mardi Gras finished loading?" she asked her com officer.

"No, Citizen Commodore. Citizen Commander Talbot reports that he'll have his last vehicles aboard by twenty-two hundred."

"Very good. But send him another signal. Tell him that the convoy is leaving for Cerberus at twenty-two-thirty and not a moment later."

"At once, Citizen Commander!"

Yang nodded and returned her attention to her plot.


"The convoy is underway, Citizen General."

"Very good, Citizen Commodore. Thank you for informing me. Please let me know a half hour before we cross the hyper limit. I'd like to be on the flag bridge when we make translation."

"Of course, Citizen General."

The expression of the face on his com screen didn't even flicker, but Thornegrave heard the gritted teeth Yang didn't display and hid a smug smile of his own. God, the woman was easy to goad. And he was taking careful note of her behavior, as well as her words, naturally. Every little bit of ammo would help justify decisive action when the time came for the regular officer corps to be completely suppressed at last.

"Thank you, Citizen Commander," he replied with a graciousness as false as her own, and cut the com link.


Citizen Lieutenant Commander Heathrow sat up in bed when the com warbled at him. The CO and XO of a courier boat were the only members of its complement who actually had cabins to themselves, which was a luxury beyond price. Unfortunately, the designers had been forced to squeeze those cabins into an oddly shaped section where the hull narrowed dramatically towards the after impeller ring, with the result that the curved deckhead offered barely sixty centimeters of headroom above Heathrow's bunk. Under normal circumstances, it was second nature to remember that and allow for it when getting up. He had a tendency to forget when awakened in the middle of the night, however, and he yelped as his skull smacked into the deckhead.

Fortunately, the designers had padded it—presumably to avoid killing off captains in job lots. He smothered a curse as he rubbed the point of contact, but he hadn't done himself any lasting damage, and he reached for the audio-only com key.

"Yes?" he growled.

"Sir, it's Howard. I— Sir, we've got a problem up here, and I—"

The citizen ensign broke off, and the ache in Heathrow's head was suddenly forgotten as he heard the barely suppressed panic in her voice. He could actually hear her breathing—she sounded as if she was about to go into hyperventilation any moment—and he slammed the visual key.

Howard blinked as her skipper's bare-chested image appeared on her screen. It was highly irregular for the citizen lieutenant to accept a visual com connection out of uniform, and the fact that he'd overlooked the minor consideration that he slept in his briefs, not pajamas, added to the irregularity, but vast relief bloomed in her eyes as she recognized the supportive concern in his expression.

"What's wrong, Irene?" he asked, racking his brain for possible answers to his own question even as he spoke. But nothing came to him. After all, what could be wrong sitting here in Danak orbit?

"Sir, it's Groundside," Howard said. "I told them we didn't have any— But they wouldn't listen, and now Citizen Colonel Therret says Citizen General Chernock himself is— But I don't have any more traffic for them, Sir! I sent it all down yesterday, when we arrived! So—"

"Hold it. Hold it, Irene!" Heathrow managed to sound soothing and firm and commanding all at the same time, though he wasn't quite certain how he'd pulled it off. Howard slithered to a stop, staring at him pleadingly, and he drew a deep calming breath. For both of them, he thought wryly.

"All right," he said then. "I want you to begin at the beginning. Don't get excited. Don't run ahead. Don't assume that I know anything at all about whatever is going on. Just tell me what's happened step by step, okay?"

"Yes, Sir." Howard made herself sit back and took a visible grip on herself. Then she, too, inhaled deeply and began in a voice of determined calm.

"I didn't want to disturb you, Sir, or ... or make you think I wasn't willing to take responsibility, and everything started out sounding so routine that I thought I could handle it." She swallowed. "I was wrong, Sir."

Her expression showed the humiliation of a bright, eager young officer who'd wanted to do her job and win her CO's approval only to see the attempt blow up in her face, but her voice was unflinching as she admitted her failure.

"As you know, Sir, we transmitted all the message traffic for Danak on our arrival in Danak Alpha orbit." She paused, and Heathrow nodded encouragingly. "Well, that was all the traffic there was, Sir. There wasn't any more at all, but they don't believe me Dirtside."

"They don't?" Heathrow raised a perplexed eyebrow, and she shook her head.

"No, Sir. First, I got a standard request from StateSec Sector HQ for a recheck of the message storage files to be sure everything had transmitted. So I did that, and told them everything had gone, and they went away. Only then, about fifteen minutes later, some SS citizen major turned up and demanded another recheck. And when I told him I'd already done it, he insisted on remote access to the message files. But he didn't find anything either, and when he didn't, he accused me of having somehow screwed up the message storage. But I told him I couldn't screw it up, that it was all automated. So then he accused me of having done it on purpose, if it couldn't happen by accident, so I told him that I couldn't deliberately tamper with the files because I didn't have a list of their contents—that I didn't even know how many messages had been loaded to the Danak queue, much less what those messages were about! Sir, I can't even unlock the central directory without the authenticated security code from the ground station the traffic is intended for—you know that!"

"Of course I do, Irene," he said soothingly, drawing her gently back from the brink of fresh hysteria.

"Well, I told him all that over and over—I don't know, maybe as much as nine or ten times and in five or six different ways—and he finally went away. But then this Citizen Colonel Therret called. He's Citizen General Chernock's chief of staff, and he started out just like the Citizen Major. Sir, he insists there has to be a message we haven't delivered, and . . . and he says he's sending a full security detail up here to 'talk' to me about it!"

She stared at him with huge eyes, panic once more hovering just under the surface, and now Heathrow understood completely. He didn't understand what was happening, or why—or even how, for that matter—but he understood Howard's terror only too well. And, truth to tell, he felt a swelling panic of his own, for if StateSec decided something had happened to its secure traffic aboard Heathrow's ship, there was no way their headhunting would stop with the lowly citizen ensign serving as his com officer.

"All right, Irene," he said after a moment of furious thought. "I want you to pull a complete copy of all com traffic between you and Dirtsidc on this. I'm going to get dressed while you do that. When I've got my clothes on, I'll buzz you to pipe the copies down here and let me view them. Then I'll want you to connect me directly to this Citizen Colonel Therret. I'll take it from there, and any further traffic from on this is to be routed directly to me as it comes in. Is all that understood?"

"Yes, Sir. It's on the com log, Sir." He heard the enormous relief in her voice, but her eyes were troubled. "Sir, I swear I didn't do anything to their message files. You know that."

"Of course I do, Irene. Hell, like you already told them, you couldn't have done anything without their own authentication codes!"

"I just— I'm sorry, Sir," she said in a small voice. "Whatever happened, it was my job, and—"

"Irene, we don't have time to sit here and let you beat yourself up for something you didn't do, couldn't have helped, and aren't responsible for," he told her. "So hush and get started on those copies ASAP."

"Yes, Sir."

He killed the com, rolled out of his bunk, and reached for the uniform he'd discarded three hours earlier.


"—so I assure you, Citizen Colonel, that I've looked into the matter thoroughly. There are no additional messages for Danak in our banks, no messages for Danak have been erroneously transmitted at any of our earlier stops, and no messages have been tampered with in any way."

"So your citizen ensign has already told me, Citizen Commander," Citizen Colonel Brigham Therret said coldly. "I must say, I find this all extremely suspicious."

"If I may be so bold, Sir, could you tell me anything at all to explain what, precisely, you're looking for?" Heathrow asked as courteously as he possibly could. "At the moment, we're shooting blind up here. We know you're looking for something, but we've checked all the places that something ought to be without finding it. Maybe if we had a better idea of what we were trying to find, we could make some educated guesses as to where and how it might have been misdirected, mislabeled, or misfiled."

"Um." Therret frowned, but his expression actually lightened a tiny bit, as if he hadn't considered that. He pondered for several moments, then made a face that might have indicated either indecision or annoyance. "Hold the circuit," he said abruptly, and his face disappeared, replaced by a standard com link engaged, please stand by image.

Heathrow looked up from it to smile encouragingly at Howard. After viewing her message logs, he'd decided to conduct this conversation from the bridge rather than his cabin terminal for several reasons, not the least of which was a desire to place himself in as official a setting as possible. Not that he expected an SS citizen colonel to be particularly impressed by a Navy citizen lieutenant commander, bridge environment or not, but it could hardly hurt. More to the point, he wanted immediate access to Howard and her console in case other questions came up ... and, he admitted, exercising a soothing influence on the distracted citizen ensign seemed like a good idea, too.

He only wished someone could exercise one on him.

The standard holding pattern vanished, and Heathrow blinked at the face which had replaced it. It wasn't Therret. This man also wore StateSec uniform, but he had three stars on his shoulder boards, and Heathrow swallowed hard as he realized he was looking at Citizen General Chernock himself. The Citizen General had a dark face, a strongly hooked nose, and eyes that looked as if someone had figured out a way to carve the vacuum of deep space to order.

"Citizen Lieutenant Commander," the sector CO said flatly, and Heathrow nodded. He knew it looked jerky, despite his effort to appear calm, but all he could do was the best he could do.

"Yes, Citizen General?" he said. "How can I help you, Sir?"

"You can give me my goddamned mail, that's how you can help me!" Chernock growled.

"Sir, I have personally checked Citizen Ensign Howard's documentation on your message traffic—the upload logs, as well as the download logs. And every single message file logged in for you here on Danak has been delivered, Sir. We aren't privy to the contents of those files. Couriers never are, as I'm sure you're aware, so I can't say unequivocally that you received every individual message you should have. But I can tell you that no message with a Danak header is still aboard this ship."

"I would like to believe you, Citizen Commander," Chernock said flatly. "But I find that very difficult to do."

"Sir, if you could see your way to giving me even the smallest hint as to where this message might have originated, at least, then I might be able to shed some additional light on the situation. Without that, there is literally nothing I can do. And, Sir—" Heathrow drew a deep, anxious breath "—I must respectfully point out that State Security regulations pertaining to the safeguarding of classified traffic mean that I cannot give you access to any other addressee's message files." Chernock's brow darkened thunderously, and Heathrow hurried on quickly. "I didn't say I refused to, Sir; I said I couldn't. It's physically impossible for me or anyone else in this ship to open those files or even their directories without the addressee's authorization codes."

"I see." Chernock regarded him with lowered eyebrows, long, tapering fingers drumming fiercely on the edge of his own com console, then twitched his shoulders in a shrug. There might even have been an edge of grudging respect in those flat, cold eyes.

"Very well, Citizen Lieutenant Commander," he said after an endless, thoughtful moment. "I understand from certain other messages in your download to me that you were also scheduled for a stop at Cerberus."

"Yes, Sir," Heathrow said when Chernock paused. "We went directly there from Shilo. I realize it was irregular to use a Navy courier for Cerberus, but the State Security courier who'd been supposed to report to Shilo was late, and Citizen Major General Thornegrave insisted on commandeer—er, assigning us to the duty."

"And from Cerberus you went to Clarke, and from Clarke you came directly here?"

"Yes, Sir. I can download a copy of our astro log, if you'd care to review it."

"That won't be necessary, Citizen Lieutenant Commander. I'm simply endeavoring to be certain I have your itinerary firmly fixed in my brain." The citizen general smiled thinly. "You see, the problem I'm having down here is that there should have been a message— an eyes-only, personal one—directed to me from Citizen Brigadier Tresca."

"From Citizen Brigadier Tresca?" Heathrow blinked again, then looked at Howard. She looked back helplessly and shook her head. But he hadn't really needed that, for his own memory of their (very) brief stop at Hades was quite clear.

"Sir, there was no message from Citizen Brigadier Tresca," he said. "We receipted only a single transmission from Camp Charon, and it was directed to Citizen Major General Thornegrave in Shilo."

"Are you positive about that? There couldn't have been some mistake in the routing?"

"I don't see how, Sir. It wasn't addressed specifically to Citizen Major General Thornegrave, just to 'Commanding Officer, State Security Headquarters Shilo Sector,' but the destination code was clear. That much I can pull up for your review if you wish."

"Please do so," Chernock said, and for the first time it actually sounded like a request.

"Make it so, Citizen Ensign," Heathrow said quietly, and Howard complied instantly. The record was part of the information she'd already pulled together at Heathrow's instruction, and they watched together as Chernock considered it on his own com screen.

"I see," he said after what seemed a very long time to read such a short string of letters. "There appears to have been some confusion here, Citizen Lieutenant Commander. Do you have any idea what this message concerned?"

"None, Sir," Heathrow said very firmly indeed. Even if he'd had any idea, admitting it would have been a very bad move. Regular Navy courier COs who waxed curious about secure StateSec communications tended to end up just plain waxed. "All I can tell you," he went on, trying not to sound cautious, "is that one of the messages in the Hades queue specifically requested a response. It's SOP for the courier to be informed whenever that's the case, Sir, in order to ensure that we don't hyper out before someone groundside reads all of his or her mail and realizes a response is necessary. We aren't normally informed which message requires an answer or what that answer's content or subject might be, of course, and never when the subject is classified. In this case, however, my assumption would be that, since the only message we received from Camp Charon was coded for delivery to Shilo, Citizen Major General Thornegrave must have requested the response."

"I see," Chernock repeated. He gazed unreadably out of the screen for several seconds, then nodded. "Very well, Citizen Commander. You've been most responsive. I believe that will be all ... for the moment."

He added the final qualifier almost absently, as if the need to intimidate regular officers was so deeply ingrained it had become reflex, and Heathrow nodded.

"Of course, Sir. If I can help in any other way, please let me know."

"I will," Chernock assured him, and cut the circuit.

"My God," Justin Bouret said fervently from where he'd lurked outside the pickup's range. "I thought for a while they were going to come up here and demand to take the message banks apart!"

"Wouldn't have done them any good, and Citizen General Chernock knew it," Heathrow said in an oddly detached tone. He felt the tremors of relief tingling in his fingertips and toes and raised one hand to mop sweat from his forehead without even trying to conceal it from his subordinates. "Even if they did take the banks apart, they couldn't make any sense of them," the citizen lieutenant commander went on. "Unless they have either Shilo's authentication codes or a copy of StateSec GHQ's override software, that is."

"You know," Bouret said thoughtfully, "I'll bet that if they did have it, they would have been up here."

"Maybe." Heathrow tried to make his tone final enough to end the conversation before Bouret said something unfortunate, then shook himself and smiled at Howard. "You did well, Irene. Very well," he said, reaching out to squeeze her shoulder.

"Thank you, Sir," she said softly, looking at the deck. Then she raised her eyes to his and smiled suddenly. "And you did pretty well yourself, Sir!" she added daringly, and blushed dark crimson.


"Do you think they're telling the truth, Brig?" Citizen Major General Seth Chernock asked.

"I think . . . yes," Citizen Colonel Therret said after a moment. Chernock's eyes asked the silent question, and he shrugged. "Everything Heathrow said or offered can be checked from hard records, Sir—if not here and now, then certainly as soon as his other messages are unlocked for delivery." He shook his head. "I don't see him exposing himself that way if he were actually up to something. If he hadn't known it would all check out—which it wouldn't, unless he was telling us the truth—he' would've made us dig it out of him rather than offering it before we could even ask."

"But that's impossible," Chernock said. "It was Dennis' move."

"Sir, I realize how important your chess games are, but—"

"You don't understand, Brigham. Or you're missing the point, at least. Dennis and I have been playing chess by mail for nine T-years. It was his move, he knew Heathrow's routing would bring him here, and he would never have passed up the opportunity to send it."

Therret kept his mouth shut. He had never understood the odd bond between Chernock and the brutish, self-indulgent Tresca. Obviously Tresca possessed both patrons and an excellent performance record, or he would never have been selected for a post as sensitive as Camp Charon's warden. But Therret had seen enough evidence to make some pretty accurate guesses about the sort of gross sensuality and permissiveness Tresca had extended to his Hades personnel. Nor did the citizen colonel doubt the rumors of prisoner abuse and mistreatment. And while Therret would shed no tears for enemies of the New Order, he considered that sort of behavior destructive of discipline.

None of that should have been tolerable to Seth Chernock. The citizen major general was an intensely self-disciplined man, and one of the few true intellectuals who had served State Security since the very beginning of the New Order. He'd been a sociology professor before the Harris Assassination, with a tenured position as assistant department head at Rousseau Planetary University in Nouveau Paris. As such, he'd needed all his self-discipline under the old regime to conceal his disaffection with the Legislaturalists and his disgust over their insistence on propping up the moldering remnants of capitalism and its unequal distribution of the fruits of society's productivity. Not only had the RPU faculty senate never realized his true feelings, but he'd also managed to conceal his membership in the Citizens' Rights Union from Internal Security. After the Harris Assassination, he'd emerged as one of the leading intellectual supporters of the Committee of Public Safety, although Therret suspected his enlistment in State Security represented a sense of disappointment with the Committee. Chernock obviously realized that Citizen Chairman Pierre was unwilling or (more probably) unable, in the middle of a war, to complete the sweeping program of change Chernock had endorsed. But his own zealous commitment to it had never wavered, and State Security was certainly the logical place for someone committed to preparing the groundwork for his grand plan.

Since joining StateSec Chernock had become even more disciplined . . . and much colder. Therret had known him for only six T-years, but he'd seen the change in him even over that time period. The citizen major general remained capable of astounding warmth and friendship, but it was as if he were rationing the ability to feel human emotions solely to those in his inner circle. As far as the rest of humanity was concerned, he had retreated behind the icy armor of his intellect and his commitment to the ends of the Revolution, deliberately making himself hard as the accepted price of achieving his goals.

All of that should have made Chernock loathe Tresca, who was certainly no intellectual, about as undisciplined as a man could be, and (as Therret felt certain Chernock recognized) far more committed to the cause of Dennis Tresca than that of the People. Yet the citizen major general had taken to the ex-noncom the first time they met. In fact, Chernock was one of the patrons who had gotten Tresca his current assignment, and he looked forward eagerly to the slow, stretched-out moves of their interstellar chess games. And crude as Tresca might be, he did play an extremely good game of chess, Therret admitted. But then, the citizen colonel had never thought there was anything wrong with Tresca's basic intelligence; Therret's problem was with how the citizen brigadier used it ... or didn't.

"No," Chernock went on, rising to pace back and forth, "Dennis would have sent his move. But he didn't—not unless Heathrow and that hysterical citizen ensign are both lying, and as you just pointed out, that would be incredibly stupid of them when we could check their stories so easily. Hell, all we'd have to do is ask Dennis to verify their version of events in our next dispatch to him!"

The citizen general fell silent, hands clasped tightly behind him while he paced faster and harder. Therret watched him moving back and forth, back and forth, until he felt like a spectator at a tennis match. Finally he cleared his throat.

"So what are you saying, Sir?" he asked.

"I'm saying something is wrong on Hades," Chernock said flatly. His voice was decisive, and he turned to face Therret as if grateful to the citizen colonel for pushing him into stating his conclusion out loud.

"But what could be wrong, Sir?" Therret asked, honestly bewildered. "Heathrow was just there. Surely he would have known if anything hadn't been kosher!"

"Not necessarily," Chernock said in a more reluctant tone. "He would have known if anyone had attacked the planet from space and captured it, yes. I'm sure there would almost have had to be gaps in the orbital defenses, wreckage, any number of things to suggest combat, if that were the case. But if the attack didn't come from outside . . ."

His voice trailed off, and Therret blanched.

"Sir, are you suggesting the prisoners somehow—? But that's impossible, Sir!"

"I know. But so is the idea that Dennis didn't send me a chess move—or at least a reason for why he didn't send it. I'm telling you, Brigham; something had to happen to prevent that. And if it wasn't an external attack, then somehow the prisoners must actually have gotten to Camp Charon. And they must have done it successfully, too. If they'd attacked and been suppressed, Dennis—or his XO, if Dennis had been killed—would surely have reported it to the next competent authority on Heathrow's flight plan. And that competent authority would have been Danak HQ, which means me."

"Sir, you realize what you're saying here?" Therret said very carefully. "You're telling me, on the basis of a chess move that wasn't sent, that the inmates of the most escape-proof prison in the history of mankind have somehow overpowered their guards and taken possession of the planet."

"I know it sounds crazy," Chernock admitted. "But I also know it must have happened."

Therret looked at him for a small, endless eternity, then sighed.

"All right, Sir. I don't know if I agree with you—not yet, anyway— but I can't refute your reasoning based on anything we know at this moment. But assuming the prisoners have taken the planet, what do we do about it? Alert Nouveau Paris and the other Sector HQs?"

"No," Chernock said decisively. "We move on this ourselves, Brig. Immediately."

"Sir, we only have two or three of our own ships here in Danak right now. And if the prisoners have managed to take Styx, I think we have to assume they've also taken over the armories, the battle armor storage and vehicle parks. . . . We'll need troops and additional firepower, not to mention a way to deal with the orbital defenses."

"Orbital defenses?" Chernock looked startled by the citizen colonel's last remark.

"Sir, it's a logical consequence of your basic assumption," Therret pointed out. "Assuming they've actually taken Styx, then they must have taken the central control room pretty much intact—and broken most of the security codes—because they were able to receive, read, and respond to the message traffic Heathrow delivered. That being the case, can we afford not to assume they have control of the orbital defenses, as well?"

"No. No, you're right," Chernock said, and grimaced sourly. "All right, we need a ground combat element—probably a good-sized one—and an escort capable of taking on the orbital defenses. Damn!" He slammed a fist down on his com unit. "That probably means we do have to send all the way back to the capital!"

"Not necessarily, Sir."

"What do you mean?" Chernock turned back to the citizen colonel, and Therret shrugged.

"I read a report on the Cerberus defenses a couple of months ago, Sir. It was generated by the Navlnt Section after that disgrac—" He stopped himself as he remembered who had been responsible for the tardy response to another escape attempt to which he had been about to apply the adjective. "After that unfortunate business with Citizen Secretary Ransom and the Tepes" he went on after only the tiniest hesitation.

"And?" Chernock chose to ignore his chief of staff's self-correction.

"It pointed out that the system was much more vulnerable to external attack than anyone with InSec or, for that matter, with our own HQ staff had ever realized. Apparently there's some way to attack unmanned orbital weapons from long range and take them out without ever entering their own engagement envelope." He shrugged again. "I didn't understand it all—it was written from a naval perspective—but the conclusion, I believe, was that even a few battlecruisers could probably blow a way through the defenses. Our own ships here in Danak might not have enough firepower, but if we conscripted a few naval units, we could almost certainly shoot our way in if we had to."

"We could?" Chernock looked disturbed by the thought that Hades was so much more vulnerable than he'd assumed. Or perhaps he was disturbed by the notion that he might have to become the one responsible for blowing a hole in the defenses StateSec had always thought were impregnable . . . and use units of the distrusted regular Navy to do it. He frowned in silence for several long seconds, then sighed.

"All right. If that's what we have to do, then that's what we have to do. But it's going to take time to organize all this."

"It is that, Sir," Therret agreed grimly, then smiled crookedly. "On the other hand, we should have some time in hand. Hades isn't going anywhere!"

"No, but if they get their hands on a ship or two, the prisoners might," Chernock pointed out.

"Not very many of them," Therret countered respectfully. "It would have taken thousands of unarmed people to overrun the garrison. I'll grant they might grab off the odd ship arriving solo, but they'd need more life support than they could possibly have captured that way to get any significant percentage of the prison population off-world."

"And if they sent a courier to the Manties to request a relief convoy?"

"They may have done that, Sir," Therret conceded after a moment. "I don't know if the Manties are in a position to respond to a request like that after the hammering the Navy's finally given them, but it's certainly possible. In that case, though, I doubt very much that we have enough firepower in-sector to meet them in a stand-up fight. So either they'll have come and gone before we get there, or they'll be there and we'll have to avoid action, or they haven't come yet and we'll get in in front of them, or else they're not coming at all. That's a fifty-fifty chance of accomplishing something even if the prisoners did manage to get their hands on some sort of courier, and if we send dispatches to GHQ, we can certainly get a relief force to Cerberus a hell of a lot quicker than the Manties could."

"Yes, and then we might as well post the system's coordinates on a Navy info site," Chernock sighed.

"We can't have it both ways, Sir," Therret said almost gently. "Either there's a serious problem, and we need Navy help to deal with it, or there isn't."

"I know. I know." Chernock frowned into the distance, then shrugged. "All right, Brig. Before we do anything else, check our force availability. We've certainly got the manpower to restore control of Camp Charon. I don't know if we've got enough intervention battalions ready to go, but I'm sure we can draft enough Marines from the Fleet base to do the job, especially with orbital fire support available as needed. What I'm not sure about is the availability of transport and/or naval escort shipping. I want a complete report on my desk within three hours. Can you do it that quickly?"

"Almost certainly, but this is coming at everyone cold, Sir. I'd estimate that it will take at least a standard week—probably a little longer—to get a troop movement organized on the scale we're projecting. And I have no idea at all how quickly the Navy can respond."

"Then I guess we're about to find out," Chernock said grimly.


Back | Next