By The Sword 13

By The Sword
Chapter 13 Draft (10/11/08)

“Even an avalanche must start with the first snowflake. Gentle and seductive, falling somewhere high in the mountains, perhaps unseen. But given time it will build upon itself, then in time come crashing down, destroying all in its path.”

“And you see us as that snowflake President Reshevsky? I must admit I credit you and the Confederation with much more immediate power.” Hanna Perkins said, doing her best to remain calm and show no hint of how that statement made her feel… She had been on Union for over a month now and it wasn’t getting any easier. Progress happened not like an avalanche but with the speed of a glacier.

“I am quoting the newly arrived Ambassador Que-Ming, they look at things somewhat differently on How Ling than you and I might.”

“Not any different from my point of view, and we do have his vote. I know that for a fact. Sylvan and How Ling have a major data point in common.”

“Most assuredly, the loss of the Divine Spirit with several thousand of your people on board makes that a certainty.”

“You can call it a loss Arkady, I call it premeditated murder.”

“Hanna, stop, please! You’ve dealt with a divided legislature yourself. I have pushed as much as I could. More than many on my own planet wanted. We are going to have our vote sometime in the next week. I would wait even longer if I could. Last week it would have gone down. Even today we are three votes shy, but Que-Ming and his arm twisting support is going to put us over the top.”

“How will he do that?”

“He tells me New Canton and Durban aren’t as free from outside influence as we thought.”

“Well, well, well. What do you intend to do about that little fact. It seems to violate the Federation Charter standards for membership.”

“I’m ignoring it. And every other member state will do the same. None of us wants to open up that black box. More skeletons inside than we care to deal with.”

“I didn’t hear you say that and if asked we never met. I am going over to visit the Prestwick delegation. They seem to be moving in our direction though without word from home I think their hands are tied.”

That’s a problem for more than Prestwick’s embassy staff. Good luck Hanna. Call me tomorrow if you learn anything new.

Que-Ming Li, direct representative of the ‘Lucent One’ look outwardly aged and feeble. Aged—ancient would be a better description. Lean to the point of gauntness, a wispy gray-white beard, small and seeming smaller still by a permanent stoop-shouldered gait. His piercing brown eyes gave lie to the look. His voice was soft, and wandered all around the points he addressed yet he never strayed far, coming back to center with unerring accuracy.

Lucius Pissaro, Durban’s oddly named Envoy had never met him before. Could only vaguely remember hearing about this strange little man no so important to Pissaro’s political and economic standing. The first revelation was that Que-Ming had a pass-code to one of the locked diplomatic computer files. The second was the files contents.

Pissaro was ‘Required’ to give ‘most Extreme Consideration’, consideration to anyone bearing the code. Twenty-seven years in the diplomatic corps and he was not quite as much the insider as he thought.

“Some tea your Excellency? We have some very nice varietal blends. Probably not what you are used to at home but I think serviceable.”

“Thank you Mr. Pissaro. But if you would be so kind, I would prefer some of the marvelous Irish Whiskey your planet is so justifiably famous for.”

Enough experience to completely mask his surprise Lucius said, “I have just the thing!” And went over to a glass-doored credenza where he removed a decanter and several squat glasses. “Ice?”

“An abomination.”

“I quite agree.” Filling each glass half-full Lucius carried one to Que-Ming then retrieved the bottle and his own glass, setting the decanter between them while he took his seat.

After taking a sip Que-Ming spoke first, “I trust you found the coded file informative?”

“An understatement if anything. My instructions were to remain strictly neutral on the issue of Federation support for Cardoman. And I had come to the conclusion that events on Sylvan, events that given the communications lag have not had time to reach Durban, should not materially affect those instructions. I see now that perhaps things have changed. What, exactly, beyond changing my vote do you propose?”

His glass already empty, Que-Ming poured himself another. “War is inevitable. One must make the best bargain one can.” The How Ling Emissary?—was that the proper word?—paused, looking to Lucius, waiting for him to say something.

“Bargains? I understand bargaining. I know what you want. What I would like to know—is what you have to offer other than a string of numbers leading to a file that instructs me to give whatever you say ‘Extreme Consideration’?”

Here was the tipping point. Que-Ming, to his own hidden consternation, could not read this man. That meant Lucius Pissaro was either very deep or very shallow. And a shallow man would not hold his position. Should a bribe be offered? That was Que-Ming’s original plan, but it might backfire in the worst way. He must learn more before committing himself.

“I am quite ready to offer most anything you require. Your vote, and Durban’s involvement in getting others to change their vote, is so important to How Ling that there is little or nothing we will not do.”

Lucius didn’t want to ask. He wanted to hear the bribe offered. Just so he could turn it down! The mere existence of the coded file was akin to a stake through his heart. It was the clearest evidence imaginable of corruption at the highest level of Durban government and society.

The wizened old man was too sly to broach the subject leaving Lucius no choice but to proceed himself. “Naturally I will support you and vote as you suggest. My instructions are clear enough on that point.”

“And in return Mr. Pissaro? In return?”

“Nothing! Nothing at all! Without instructions to the contrary I would have favored aid to Cardoman from the start. My loyalty to Durban and our rule of law prevented me from voting my conscience. My conscience will rest easy tonight, my sense of loyalty may not. What more do you require sir?”

“Do not judge your fellow countrymen so harshly. They are not evil, merely human. Someday perhaps you will be told the reason behind the file. Until then I have a list of people I would like you to talk to, explaining your new position. And funds—more than I had counted on, to place under your control and use as you see fit should that seem expedient.”

“And one more thing—perhaps I might have another glass of this fine Irish whiskey before I leave?”

* * *
The band played, the bottle struck, campaign dripped and the crowd cheered. One more ship added to the Cardoman fleet. The newest G-41, CNS Hornet was standing off five-hundred meters from Cardoman Station.

What’s next Woody?” Les Raymond asked as he watched the hulls slight rotation slow and come to a halt.

“We bring the Ranger back and install her other three drive bands.”

“I knew you were going to say that Woody. And where do I get a Captain with enough experience to run her? I’m taking Rafferty and putting him on the Hornet. Lt. Cmdr my ass. He’s a jumped up junior Lt with delusions of grandeur. Or he would have if he didn’t suspect how much he has yet to learn and how much I hated turning the ship over to him.”

“Temper there Les, organic hearts are still best ones and yours isn’t gonna last much longer if you keep thinking like that. He was good, learned fast when I was bringing him up to speed on the Ranger. Your problem is going to be how to crew the Hornet. Do we just mothball her until we have some kind of a new crew however ill trained?”

“I would be doing that, or trying to sell her. She would go in a split second if all four bands were installed and she could make a transition. As it is I lean towards Madry and Borselov’s latest scheme.”

“Won’t work Les. AI is not that good. I don’t think it ever will be. And even if it was, who would take responsibility for a weapons platform like the Hornet operating without human intervention?”

“Well Audie’s not so sure about that, and Borselov parrots anything she says. Not that I blame him. Her track record is pretty impressive. But I’m with you on so much as you’ve heard. Even told Calvert the same and he agreed. That just slowed her down, but not for long.”

“And?”

“Now she says that she didn’t mean full AI, just a tiny subset. She wants to use the Hornet as a remote weapons and sensor platform alright, but with pre programmed responses to possible threats.”

“Sounds like a change without a difference.”

“In most respects yes. And I asked her how she could possibly program discrete outputs to an infinite number of inputs. She had an answer. It goes like this. Let the AI module generate actions and leave a human in the loop to give permissions.”

“With communication lag, the light speed limit, won’t that slow things down so much as to make it useless?”

“As Borselov said, ‘That depends’, the core of her plan is to use AI to generate the threat responses starting now, and we review in advance and approve or say no before they ever get used. I told her it wouldn’t work again. Now I’m not so sure.”

“So you want to try this?”

“Not my call but if it were I’d at least give Audie a free hand and see where she leads.”

“Ok, we’ll do it that way.”

“Rise and shine Yuri, rise and shine. Then make a bee line for my office!”

The message started repeating again via the aimed speaker on the ceiling above his top-level bunk. Yuri looked at the display above noting the time. Almost five hours, a near record for recent times. Petty Officer Tally was on duty so he could talk without disturbing the sleep of the other guy sharing the cube. His promotion was so new he hadn’t been reassigned to new quarters. Truth be known when it came to creature comforts the senior enlisted had the ships junior officers beat all to hell.

“Give me five Audie and I’ll be right with you. And I sure hope it’s important I haven’t had a good nights sleep in a month.”

“It’s always important when your boss calls Yuri. Make it on the double!”

Less than a minute in the fresher and Yuri was out the hatch tucking his uniform shirt into his trousers. Security waved him through onto the power deck, what the heck, even as a Sergeant he had been a watch standing officer, though that only mattered down here. Nodding to Lt Fitzgerald, the SnapDragon’s Third Officer doing double duty in Engineering, he went straight to Audie’s office.

“Geez Audie, don’t you ever sleep?”

“Sleep? I’ve heard about that once. You can fill me in when you get the chance.” She was grinning from ear to ear and Yuri couldn’t help but reciprocate.

Oh Captain My Captain, what kinda bee is in your bonnet now?”

“The busy one that makes the honey! And better not let Langston hear you call me a Captain while we’re on a Navy Ship, that won’t set good at all.”

“Admiral Raymond just gave me the go-ahead to turn the Hornet into a bee of another class entirely. I want your ass on a shuttle and over there ASAP! Let’s make sure he doesn’t get wheezy and change his mind. I got a data cube with all the latest, and a new secure code so we can do the rest of the work from here.”

“Couldn’t I just stay on the Hornet for a while? I could use the rest.”

“Not a chance. You have six hours on board, plus as long as it takes for the shuttle flight. You don’t expect me to stand your duty for you, now do you Lieutenant?”

“Sure don’t, but what did the Captain Langston have to say about all this?”

“The Captain is indisposed. He’s been in his cabin for the last two days and doing all of his communications through Cmdr. Fletcher. You just do as I say and everything will be fine.”

An hour later Yuri was on a boat heading inwards to the Hornet. An hour after that Fader Jamison was in Audie’s office staring a rant.

“Is your camera off Audie? I can see the light isn’t on.”

Madry did something, waved her hands over a desk-mounted pickup and said, “Why yes it is, even the self diagnostics seem to be confused. I’ll have to reset it later. Looks like nothing but an all ship alarm can make it functional until I do. You know me Fader. Go ahead, we’re off the record.”

“Have you heard what Captain Langston’s done now?”

“Keep talking, clue me in.”

“The Captain’s taken all of my men and put them on mess and housekeeping duty!”

“What? How does that work?”

“All the naval ratings we are subbing for are into training mode. Langston thinks a squad of marines is anachronistic on a G-5 Battle Cruiser so he went and found something useful for us to do. Something within our competence he said!”

“What about the Marine unit training, work on the guns and damage control?”

“If you can believe it, that’s what he complained about first. In his words, and I’m quoting what Cmdr Fletcher said here, “We spend too much time in the gym and seem to enjoy inflicting minor injuries on each other, meanwhile the navy does all the drudge work.” He may enjoy himself in the gym, not that I’ve ever seen him there, but the Seventh Marines sure don’t!”

“The Captain never talked to you directly?” Never gave you an opportunity to comment?”

“Twice in the last week he’s left his stateroom, once to visit the bridge, once to visit the boat bay and hand delivered a packet of dispatches to the mail ship pilot.”

“Hold it right there Fader, I’ll see if I can get a hold of Boss’n Pilchard. He’ll have the inside dope if anyone does.”

Audie told Fader to wait; she would be right back, either with Pilchard or without him. She left her office via the door to her cabin and from there into a passageway outside of the power control room bypassing the sentry on duty their. The opening and closing of the hatches she passed through didn’t show up on any or the ships systems. As a matter of fact to the ship itself she was a ghost. Her image removed from any pickup she passed within range of. Not that anyone was likely to care, but Langston had brought out the paranoid in her.

As she went upwards Audie thought, ‘The Captain really ought to assign someone to verify the code upgrades she was responsible for each weak. But Yuri was the only other person on the SnapDragon that could ever figure out what some of the changes did, and he liked to help.’

Taking little used maintenance trunks, Audie reached the ‘Goat Locker’ without seeing another soul. Master Chief Carl Pilchard was seated at the table, mug of coffee at hand, going over what looked to be work schedules on built in large size display. Audie was in luck again and he was alone. Carl looked up and started to speak. Audie silenced him pressing a finger to her lips. She nodded her head towards the still open hatch signaling he follow her out of the quarters area.

Carl closed the display, and looking bored followed her out. With another touch of her lips she motioned for him to follow. If anyone was watching or ever reviewed the recording, something that would probably never happen, Pilchard’s would disappear from view when he entered the engineering deck. No evidence of where he went next. Audie was of course totally invisible to the cameras.

Still in silence they traveled the corridor to Audie’s room and passed straight through into her office where Jameson was waiting expectantly.

“What’s up Audie? This has been the longest you’ve gone without saying a word since I’ve known you!” They both took seats before Audie spoke.

“Fader, fill Carl in.”

The marine detachment leader, and Pilchard’s long time friend, told the same story he had told Audie, but without interruption.

“Yeah, I was working out some of the details when Audie showed up. And what was that silent stuff all about?”

“Carl—Unless you say something no one will ever know I was there, or you are here. And I trust you will never breathe a word.”

“Sure Audie, if you say so, you can probably do that. And I can see why Fader is unhappy. But really, this move is totally within Captain Langston’s authority and makes some sense to this poor sailor. Those waisters can use the extra training and Fader’s people seem to know what they’re about.”

“Carl you’re not looking at this right,” Fader said. “Audie can you set him straight?”

“I’ll try. Carl the Captain’s been acting odd ever since I came aboard. He runs the SnapDragon as if he is worried about making a mistake, not like he wants to win when the firing starts.”

“That’s pretty harsh. Any real evidence?”

“Dammit Carl,” Fader started saying before Audie shushed him.

“We’ve all been there. Where you throw caution to the wind if you want to win. I don’t think Captain Langston can do that. And he won’t if it comes down to it. Could I be wrong? It’s possible, but I don’t want to wager my life on it. And that’s what this is all about!”

“Shoot Audie, you know all the big guys. Why not just kick it up a notch?”

“Because everything I got is so flimsy. It will—or could be made to look like female hysterics.”

“Female hysterics, from you? No one even looks at you as a female Audie, you’re a legend.”

“What are you trying to get at Carl, that I couldn’t even sell myself on a troop ship?”

“Not at all Audie, the problem would be no one could afford you!”

“Thanks, I think. But I can’t take this suspicion anywhere. We need to handle it here, at least until there is proof.”

“Getting proof, finding fault with your Captain, that looks mighty close to mutiny. And mutiny is still a capital crime, still a hanging offense in this man’s navy.”

“There are a lot of ways to die,” Fader said. “I’d like some kind of say in my own.”

“So what do you want from me?”

“Mostly just to watch and keep notes.” Fader looked to Madry and said, “Right?”

“For now. But it could come to more later on. I want you to be ready to choose should the time come. The safe way—or the Seventh’s way. That’s a clear as I can put it.”

“Ok, I can do that I expect. All I have to do is ask myself, ‘What would Calvert do?’.”

“Yeah, that would about cover it.”

Audie led Carl back out through her quarters and the corridor beyond saying good night. Fader went out through engineering, the same way he came in.

* * *
The office of the Commanding General of Ryman Recon was just about as palatial as anyone might imagine. The rumor mill spin was that its current resident much preferred his smaller working office and used this one only on social occasions. This was a social occasion; he stood up to great the young lady entering the room.

“Good to meet you Commander DeWitt, your information has certainly shaken this place up and not exactly quietly. I do have to compliment you on using my wife as your conduit to get it to me.”

“I have to give the credit for that to Cousin Robbie. And please call me Julie, after all we are related in a roundabout fashion, Robby was sure she would still be working at Children’s Hope as a Doctor. He muttered something about stubborn and dedicated.”

Arthur Redmond leaned back in his chair and had started an oversized belly laugh. Through the tears running down his face he sputtered, “She is that, oh Lord she is that! She is however the best Doctor you are about to find.”

“Yes, Robbie told me as much. He also said she would be quite willing to help and stop my career from going up in flames.”

Art gave a puzzled look and said, “Now about that I would love to hear more.”

Julie shot him a conspiratorial grin, “Oh, you mean when my appointment next week with the personnel office reveals that my Career Ending! Unauthorized Pregnancy! Hah, it’s really just an Ovarian Cyst! Which of course allows my Mom to loudly and publicly proclaim her fear that it’s cancer, and all modern doctors, especially those having anything to do with the government, are incompetent practitioners of Voodoo Science!”

“She will of course spare no expense to get the best surgeon on the planet to start cutting on me and poking around. The doc in question just happens to be her brother of course. I get a purely cosmetic little scar, it’s benign and I get to go back on duty. You can’t get punished for a legitimate medical problem you know. At least not officially.”

“I have to make sure you don’t spend much time around my wife, that’s for sure. Either that or get your career track changed to spook 101. But, more to the point, why the request for the private audience? You could have sent Robbie’s little public gift over by regular delivery even though the Calp General’s helmet will look good in the trophy room; why are you really here?”

“There are two things General, I’ll go with the easy one first.”

“Robbie needs help and he knows that you are the one for that, but he can’t be too obvious, ask for so much that your government refuses— so, he kept his request as small as possible. He needs trainers, Robbie says that his people are good; the exact words were ‘Damn Good’. The problem is with the advanced stuff that he is no longer physically capable of demonstrating and teaching properly. He needs to train a company and need a training team to match, but for sure, they need to be qualified trainers.”

“Believe it or not, with the current political situation I can pull that off with a few words to the proper ears. When there is talk of money changing hands I can always find an audience.

The information Mr. Trebeck sent along could make even more possible soon. I won’t go into what I mean by that because I shouldn’t have said it in the first place. I expect you to be truthful about our discussion when you return. The contingent I plan on sending will have to be a volunteer unit. But I think I know someone, in fact I’m sure I know someone, who will agree to lead it.”

“Why volunteers?”

The General paused and seemed to look off into the distance. He then said, “Because I want a chance to give an up or down on each of them. Nothing more on that topic either. Now tell me about the second reason you’re here, the hard part.”

“This is extremely sensitive Sir. It reaches to the centers of power in the Ryman Government,” Julie began slowly and then continued in a rush, telling every thing that was known and suspected about Ryman involvement with the Calps, careful to keep separate the two classes of information.

All the time Julie was talking Redmond was taking notes. When she was finished he handed her one of the pages.

“This is what I will be sending out to get the ball rolling.”

Julie read the handwritten note.

To: General Record, Distribution: Alpha
From: Comforcerecon Arthur L. Redmond
Subj: Career Enhancement Opportunity

Ryman Office of Out World Liaison solicits Volunteers for a Training Assistance Detachment. Members Volunteering must be FULLY QUALIFIED in all major categories and be rated as Trainer Qualified in at least three. Duration of the assignment will be a minimum of six standard months and will include Displacement and Hazard pays.

Location will be the Planet Cardoman and such other locations as designated. The Liaison Officer will be Col. Robert T Davis of the Cardoman 7th. Departure date upon confirmation of acceptance.

Applicants may forward their packets to Maj. Terrence A. Redmond at stop A 1774.

End-It Roger K. Gunnerson ADJ.

“I can get this started on my own by saying I am sending in observers. Strictly speaking that will be true. The fact that Cardoman is footing the bill is a plus, a big one. If even a tenth of the information you’ve provided is true, and I will do some checking on my own about this though I don’t doubt it, the base allegations are grounds for expulsion from the Confederation. With that in mind a little innocuous help sent to Cardoman will make a good cover for some of those involved.”

“But what about this pattern of ongoing aid to the Caliphate? It’s going to become general knowledge in the Confederacy before too much longer.”

“Knowledge and proof are two different things. Acting on either, something else again. No outside influence is going to change Ryman’s political structure. The Conglomerate won’t let it happen. We have too many people beholding to us on the other Confederate worlds for anything to happen at Union on that front. All the Conglomerate wants to do is be on the side of the winner. That and make sure on Ryman things continue as usual. They have made the decision that Cardoman is going to lose and are placing their bets accordingly. You and I will have to prove them wrong. Anything else Julie?”

“There’s one more thing General, I need to be sure there’s a spot for me on that ship taking your observers to Cardoman. I need to get back to my own ship, and they’re going to need Naval Officers in Cardoman Space even more than trainers when the Calps finally arrive.”

“Commander DeWitt— you can count on it.”

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