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Chapter Twenty-Six

"I understand you're not a professional reporter, Captain," the attractive brunette said in an almost soothing tone. "And I know it makes people a bit nervous the first time they have to go through an interview like this. But I promise you, I've done this hundreds of times, and none of my interviewees have ever died yet."

The man sitting across the small desk from her in the uniform of a merchant service deck officer grinned and chuckled just a bit nervously. Then he nodded.

"I'll, uh, try to bear that in mind, Ms. Brul'e."

"Good. And remember, we don't have to get it perfect the first time. Just tell us what really happened, in your own words, and then we'll play it back and if you realize you've misspoken at some point, we can correct it. And if you realize you've left anything out, we can put it in at that point, too. The object is to get all of the information into the right people's hands, not to try to be perfect while we do it. Okay?"

"Yes, Ma'am."

"Good," the brunette repeated, then looked directly into the waiting pickup.

"This is a recorded interview with Captain Tanguy Carmouche, commander of the New Tuscany-registry freighterAntelope, concerning certain events which occurred in the San Miguel System. I am Anne-Louise Brul'e, conducting this interview for the Foreign Ministry, the Ministry of Trade, and the Treasury. This record is being made on July 7, 1921 Post Diaspora, on the planet of New Tuscany."

She finished the official tag, then turned back to Captain Carmouche.

"Very well, Captain Carmouche. Could you please explain to us, in your own words, exactly what happened?"

"In San Miguel, you mean?" Carmouche said, then grimaced in obvious embarrassment. "Sorry. I guess I really am a little nervous."

Brul'e smiled encouragingly, and the captain cleared his throat and straightened slightly in his chair.

"Well, we'd arrived in San Miguel early last month to collect a cargo which had been chartered before this Constitutional Convention in Spindle voted out its 'constitution.' Now, San Miguel's always been part of the Rembrandt Trade Union, and the Union's always favored using its own bottoms instead of chartering foreign-registry ships, so there've been occasional problems for skippers who don't belong to the RTU, but generally, we've been able to work things out without too much trouble.

"This time, though, whenAntelope made her parking orbit, we were boarded by aManticoran customs party, not one from San Miguel or the Trade Union. That was unusual, but I just figured it was part of the new political set up, so I didn't worry about it too much. Until, that is, the Manties started tearing the ship apart looking for 'contraband.' "

Carmouche's face tightened in remembered anger, and he shrugged jerkily.

"I wasn't any too happy about that," he said. "I mean, I can understand wanting to keep a handle on smuggling, especially out here in the Verge. I don't have a problem with that. For that matter, I know our own customs people keep a close eye on ships entering New Tuscany, especially if they aren't regular visitors on this run. But there's courteous ways to go about it, and then there's ways that...aren't so courteous. Like the way these bas"

He broke off, shook himself, and grimaced.

"Sorry," he said again. "I meant like the way these people did it. I don't necessarily expect anyone to bow down to me. I mean, I know I'm merchant service, not the Navy. But, by God,Antelope is my ship! I'm the one responsible to the owners, and even if I'm only merchant service, there's a certain amount of respect any skipper has a right to expect out of visitors aboard his ship. I don't care who they are!

"But these people didn't waste any respect on anyone aboard Antelope. They were rude, insulting, and what I have to think was deliberately antagonistic. They didn't make requests; they demanded whatever it was they wanted. They insisted on bringing aboard all kinds of scanners and detection equipmet, too, and they went through every cargo space with a fine tooth comb. Took hours, given the size of our holds, but they insisted. Just like they insisted on checking every bill of lading individually against its cargo containerdidn't matter whether or not the container's port-of-origin customs seals were intact, either. They even made us open a whole stack of containers so they could physically eyeball the contents! And they made it pretty clear that if we didn't do exactly what they wanted, they'd refuse us entry for the planet and prohibit any orbital cargo transshipment."

Carmouche leaned forward in his chair, his face and body language both more animated in an evident combination of anger and increasing confidence under Brul'e's encouraging, gravely sympathetic expression.

"Well, I managed to put up with their 'customs inspection' without popping a blood vessel or slugging anyone, but it wasn't easy. We got them back off the shipfinallyand we got our clearances from them, but that was when we found out we were going to have to submit to a medical examination before we were allowed to take on or discharge cargo. We weren't discharging cargo, anyway, and they damned well knew it. And I've never been asked for a medical certification to take on cargo! At a port of entry, sure. Anyone wants to keep a close eye on anyone who might be bringing in some kind of contagion. But when there's not going to be any contact between any of my people or the planetary environmentfor that matter, not even between any of my people and an orbital warehouse, for God's sake, since the cargo was coming aboard in San Miguel shuttles!it didn't make any sense at all. For that matter, they'd checked our current medical records as part of their customs inspection!

"I didn't understand it then, but it started making sense later, when I realized it didn't have anything to do with medical precautions. Not really. No matter what we did, there was always another hoop waiting for us to jump through before we were going to be allowed to load our cargo. After the medical examination, they insisted on checking our engineering logs to make sure we weren't going to suffer some sort of catastrophic impeller casualty in heavily traveled volumes of the star system. And after that, they decided they had to inspect our enviro plant's waste recycling and disposal systems, since they didn't want us littering in their precious star system!"

He shook his head angrily.

"The only thing I could come up with, since every one of those 'inspections' of theirs was completely bogus, as far as I could tell, was that it was a systematic effort to make it very clear thatAntelope wasn't welcome in San Miguel. The RTU's always been protective of its own interests, but I was under the impression from everything everyone was saying before the Constitutional Convention that the Manties supported free trade. Well, maybe they do, and maybe they don't, but I can tell you thisif they do think free trade is a good idea, they obviously don't think it's a good idea foreveryone! And after I figured out what was going on, I asked around. There were a couple of other ships in orbit, but we were the only one from New Tuscany. And by the oddest coincidence, we were also the only one being subjected to all those 'inspections.' Which suggested to me that maybe what this was all about was the fact that we hadn't ratified their 'constitution,' and this was an example of payback. I don't know about that for sure, of course, but as soon as I got back to New Tuscany, I spoke to the Ministry of Trade about it, and I don't mind telling you I was just a bit hot when I did. Apparently, I'm not the only New Tuscan skipper this has happened to, either. Or that was my impression, anyway, when they asked me to make an official statement for the record."

He looked at Brul'e and raised an eyebrow, but she shook her head with a commiserating smile.

"I'm afraid I don't really know about that, Captain Carmouche," she said, in the tone of voice someone used to add "and if I did know, I couldn't tell you," without ever saying so out loud.

"Well, whatever," Carmouche said after a moment, "that's about the size of it. Were there any specific questions you wanted to ask, Ma'am?"

"There were a few points where the ministries wanted a little more detail, Captain," Brul'e said, keying a memo pad and glancing down at the display. "Let me see...All right, first, did you get the name and rank of the Manticoran officer in charge of the original customs inspection?"

"No," Carmouche replied with another grimace. "Never offered it. Suppose I should have insisted, but it's the first time I ever had a regular navy officer come aboard my ship and not give his name and rank. Personally, I think he didn't want me to have it in case I ended up lodging any formal protests. Of course, I didn't know then that I was going to be doing that, either. So, instead of asking, I"

They were good, Aldona Anisimovna thought, watching approvingly from the studio's control room. In fact, the New Tuscan Information Ministry had shown a far more sophisticated touch where little things like propaganda and special effects were concerned than she would have expected out of someone with a Verge tech base. Of course, they'd probably needed a bit more sophistication than most, given their local proles' evident unhappiness.

She particularly liked the touch with the pre-interview conversation and Brul'e's efforts to put Captain Carmouche more at his ease. They wouldn't be part of the formal report, of course...but they would "just happen" to have been left attached to the raw footage which would accompany the formal report. Where, of course, Commissioner Verrochio's people would "just happen" to discover them. They'd give a certain additional sense of veracity to the final report when it was presented to Verrochio as part of the evidence supporting claims of harassment. Of course, while there'd been no particular effort to hide the fact that Anne-Louise Brul'e worked for the Ministry of Information, no one had bothered to mention the fact that 'Captain Carmouche' was actually being portrayed by one Oliver Ratt'e, who was also employed by the Ministry of Information. Unlike Brul'e, whoever, who was a recognizable anchor from the New Tuscan news broadcasts, Ratt'e was effectively anonymous. Although he'd appeared in innumerable propaganda efforts, he'd never appeared under his own face. Instead, his job had been to provide the body language, voice, and facial expressions the computers transformed into someone else entirely.

It was still the best and simplest way to produce high-quality CGI, especially for someone whose tech base might not have all of the latest bells and whistles. In fact, New Tuscany's computer technology was probably at least a couple of centuries behind that of the Solarian League in general. They'd demonstrated over the years just how much could be accomplished by substituting technique and practice for technology, however, and this time around, Ratt'e was appearing under his own face. There would be absolutely no computer chicanery with this little masterpiece, and the same held true for all the others the New Tuscans were working up. After all, it would never do for any of the Manties' contacts in the League to demonstrate that sort of fancy tricks by analyzing the recording.

And by the time Dusserre and his little helpers over at the Security Ministry get done massaging the planetary database, there won't be any way to prove that Captain Carmouche and the good ship Antelope have never existed. In fact, she thought with amused satisfaction, there'll be all kinds of evidence that they have existed. Of course the Manties are going to claim that neither of them have ever visited San Miguel, but who is Frontier Security supposed to believe? The poor, harassed New Tuscans who are asking for their intervention, or the nasty Manties who are trying to come up with reasons why Frontier Security shouldn't investigate?

It was a nice touch, although it was scarcely necessary. Not that she had any intention of telling the New Tuscans that. From their viewpoint, there was every reason to set up an invulnerable defense in depth, since they could anticipate the Manties' protestations of innocence. Especially given the fact that the Manties were innocent, she admitted. But what the Mesan Alignment in the person of one Aldona Anisimovna had seen no reason to worry New Tuscany over was that it really didn't matter at all. No one was going to be looking at any records on New Tuscany. The Solarian League wouldn't feel any particular need to do so; the Manties weren't going to be in a position to do so; and both sides were going to be far too busy with what the Alignment really wanted them to be doing to each other for it to matter one way or the other to anyone.

She watched Brul'e and Ratt'e working their way smoothly through the well-written and carefully rehearsed script and wondered if the sense of almost godlike power she felt as she watched the entire New Tuscany System dancing to the Alignment's script was the same sort of thing Albert Detweiler felt? And if so, was it as addictive for him as she realized it could easily become for her? For that matter, if it was, did he care?

Iunderstand what we're trying to accomplish and whynow, at least, she thought. I wouldn't have understood before he and Isabel explained it all to me, but I do now. But knowing only makes the game even more intoxicating. It defines the scope, the scale, in a way nothing else ever has before. But ambitious as it is, it's still all...intellectual for me. The game is what's real. I wonder if it's that way for Albrecht and the others? And if it is, what are they going to do when we've finally pulled it off and there are no more games to play?

"He said what?"

Lieutenant Commander Lewis Denton frowned at Ensign Rachel Monahan. The ensign sat just a little nervously in a chair across the desk from him in his compact day cabin. Despite the fact that Denton was only a lieutenant commander, and that HMS Reprise was only a somewhat elderly and increasingly obsolescent destroyer, he was still the captain of one of Her Majesty's starships, and at the moment, Monahan seemed only too well aware of the fact that she was the most junior officer aboard that same starship.

She was also conscientious and, although Denton had absolutely no intention of saying so to a single living soul, remarkably easy on the eye. She wasn't the very smartest junior officer he'd ever encountered, but she had a generous helping of common sense, and she was a long, long way from stupid. In fact, Denton was one of those officers who preferred attention to duty and common sense to erratic or careless (or, even worse, lazy) intelligence, and he'd been entirely satisfied with her performance since she'd joinedReprise's ship's company. That was one of the reasons he'd been giving her progressively bigger opportunities to demonstrate her competence and self-confidence, and, so far, she'd met all of them quite handily.

Which was what had led directly to her request for this interview, even if Denton didn't have a clue in Hell what was going on.

"He said he was going to formally complain about our 'harassment,' Sir," Monahan repeated now.

"Your harassment," Denton said in the tone of a man trying to get some ridiculous concept straight in his own mind.

"Yes, Sir."

Monahan sounded more than a little anxious, and Denton could understand that well enough. A great many junior officers who'd screwed up would make it their first order of business to get their version of what had happened in front of their commanding officers before any inconvenient little truths could come along to make matters worse. In Monahan's case, though, that very notion was preposterous.

"About the harassing you obviously hadn't done, Rachel. Is that what he was implying?"

"Yes, Sir."

"Had you done anything that could have gotten him pissed off enough at you to fabricate some sort of complaint in an effort to make trouble for you?"

"Sir, I can't think of a single thing," she said, shaking her head. "I did everything exactly by The Book, the way I've done it every time before. But it was like...I don't know, exactly, Sir, but it was like he was waiting for me to do something he could complain about. And if I wasn't going to do it, then he was ready to claim I had, anyway! I've never seen anything like it, Sir."

She was obviously even more confused than she was worried, and Denton made another mental check mark of approval for her end-of-deployment evaluation. Despite her evident concern that he might wonder if she was trying to cover her posterior, she'd reported the entire episode to the XO as soon as she'd come back aboard ship. And the XO had been sufficiently perplexedand concernedto pass her report along to Denton before she'd even left his office. Which was the reason Monahan was now sitting in Denton's day cabin repeating her account of the customs inspection.

"So you went aboard, asked for his papers, checked them, and did a quick walk-through, right?"

"Yes, Sir."

"And he was giving you grief from the very beginning?"

"Yes, Sir. From the minute I cleared the personnel tube. It was like he was on some kind of hair trigger, ready to bite my head off over anything, no matter how polite my people and I were. Skipper, I think I could have complimented him on the color of the bulkheads and he would have managed to turn it into some sort of mortal insult!"

The young womanshe was only twenty-two T-years oldhad clearly never experienced anything like it. Denton had, on the other hand, although it had usually been from a Solarian merchant spacer, not someone from New Tuscany. Some Sollies went out of their way to attempt to provoke a Manticoran officer into providing a basis for complaints and allegations of harassment. It was something Astro Control back in the home system encountered with depressing frequency from Solarian ships passing through the Manticoran Wormhole Junction, as well. Some Sollies simply resented the hell out of the fact that a single little out-system star nation dominated such a huge percentage of the League's total carrying trade. They went around with planet-sized chips on their shoulders where the Star Kingdom was concerned as a consequence.

But the Sollies who did that also knew they were representatives of the Solarian League. They were armed and armored with all of the arrogant Solly assurance that there was nothing any mere Manticoran could really do to punish them if they got out of line. That was one of the things Denton himself personally most hated about Solarians. And it was also what puzzled him about this incident, because New Tuscany was a single-system star nation, so poor it didn't have a pot to piss in. So what could possibly possess a New Tuscan merchant skipper to risk deliberately antagonizing the Royal Manticoran Navy here in a star system which had just become Manticoran territory?


Denton shook himself back up out of his thoughts and looked back at Monahan.

"Sorry, Rachel." He gave her a quick smile. "Wool gathering, I'm afraid. You had something else you wanted to add?"

"Yes, Sir."

"Well, add away," he encouraged.

"Sir, it's just, well..." She seemed a bit hesitant, then visibly steeled herself for the plunge.

"Sir, it's just that I had this funny feeling that he wasn't really saying any of it for my benefit."

"What do you mean?" Denton's eyes narrowed.

"It was more like he was talking about me than to me," she said, sounding as if she were picking her words carefully, trying to find the ones to explain whatever it was she was groping towards. "Like...like somebody in one of the Academy's training holos, almost."

"Like he knew it was being recorded," Denton said slowly. "Is that what it felt like?"

"Maybe, Sir." Monahan looked more worried than ever. "And it wasn't just me he was complaining about, either."

"Meaning?" Denton tried to keep any note of tension out of his voice, but it was hard, given the mental alarm bells trying to ring somewhere deep down inside him.

"Meaning that he didn't say just 'you' when he was complaining about what a hard time I'd been giving him. He said that, but he also said things like 'you people,' too. Like there were dozens of me, all trying to give him and his friends trouble."

"I see."

Denton sat in thought for several more seconds, not particularly liking the speculations chasing around the inside of his brain like hamsters in an exercise wheel, then returned his attention to the ensign sitting before him.

"Rachel, I want you to know that you did exactly the right thing reporting this. And that neither the XO nor I believe for a minute that you did a single thing wrong aboard that ship. I don't know exactly what his problem was, but I'm sure you handled yourself just as well as you always have in the past."

"I tried to, Sir," she said, unable to hide her enormous relief at his firmly supportive tone. "The more it went on, though, the more I started wondering if I had done something to tick him off!"

"I doubt very much that you did anything at all," Denton said in that same firm tone of voice. "Unfortunately, you may well encounter the same thing again. God knows most of us have run into it a time or two, although it's usually from the Sollies, not from someone like the New Tuscans. I'm sorry it happened to you here, but it's probably just as well to get the first dose out of the way early in your career."

"Yes, Sir," she said, and he flashed her a smile of approval.

"All right," he said with an air of finality. "I think you've probably given me everything you've got, so there's no point our sitting here chewing it over any more or wondering what kind of wild hair might have inspired him to go off that way. I would like you to go ahead and record a formal report on this, though. If he does actually decide to complain to someone, I want to have your version of the encounter already on the record to help shoot him down."

"Yes, Sir," she said again.

"In that case, why don't you go ahead and get that taken care of right now, while events are still fresh in your mind?"

"Yes, Sir."

Monahan obviously recognized her dismissal, and she rose, braced briefly to attention, and left. Denton gazed at the closed door for several moments, then punched a combination into his com terminal.

"Bridge, XO speaking," a voice said. "What can I do for you, Skipper?"

"I've just finished talking with Rachel, Pete. I see why you sent her to see me."

"She did seem more than a little upset," Lieutenant Peter Koslov said. "But it was the nature of what that New Tuscan bastard said that really worried me."

"Agreed. I don't want to make a big thing out of this and worry her any more than she already is, especially not before she gets her formal report together for me. But, that said, I want you to have a word with the rest of her boarding party, especially Chief Fitzhugh. And have a quiet word with any of the other JOs who've been running the customs inspections. See if any of them may have heard some of the same kind of remarks and just not been as willing as Rachel to bring them to our attention. And if they have heard anything like that, I want details of time, place, and content."

"Yes, Sir."

Koslov sounded rather grimmer than he had a moment ago, Denton noticed.

"One other thing," the CO continued. "I want every party that goes aboard anybody's merchant shipping wired for sound and vision. I don't especially want you to mention it to anyone aboard ship, either, because I don't want anyone obviously playing to the camera from our side. So find someplace to put a parasite cam. I don't want to give away any image quality unless we have to, but I'm less worried about picture than I am about sound."

"Skipper, I don't think I like what I think you're thinking."

"Well, if you hadn't been thinking in the same direction yourself, you wouldn't have gotten Rachel in to see me quite this promptly, now would you?" Denton shot back.

"It was more an itch than any sort of full-blown suspicion, Sir."

"In that case, your instincts may just have been serving you entirely too well, I'm afraid," Denton said grimly. "I don't have any idea why this might be going on, and it may be that you and I are both just imagining things. But it may be that we aren't, either, and Admiral Khumalo made the point that he wanted us to keep our eyes and ears open when he sent us out. So go ahead and make those inquiries for me. And get those bugs planted. Maybe we can sneak them into the boarding officer's memo boards or something. I don't know, but I do know I want the best hard records we can get of every visit to a New Tuscan ship. And I want the same thing from our inspections of anyone else's shipping, as well, to serve as a base for comparison. Clear?"

"Clear, Skipper," Koslov replied. "I don't like where we seem to be going with this, but it's clear."

Chapter Twenty-Five | Storm From the Shadows | Chapter Twenty-Seven