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Authors: David Drake,Roger MacBride Allen

The War Machine: Crisis of Empire III (10 page)

BOOK: The War Machine: Crisis of Empire III
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At least now he had a name for her, Spencer thought.

“However, there is the possibility that our radio link is being manipulated,” McCain’s AID, Ranger, went on. “We therefore request a hardwire link to confirm our mutual alliance.”

McCain lowered her weapon a half-millimeter and nodded almost imperceptibly at Al. “Agreed?” she asked.

“Agreed. We can always kill each other later.” Spencer holstered his own weapon, feeling very much the naked target he had been sent along to be. He knew full well that this woman still might be bad news, and that she was still perfectly capable of killing him if it suited her.
But you have to decide on trust once in a while,
he told himself, wondering if he believed it. There was one point that served to convince him: bursting in like that was a pretty suicidal way to try to kill Spencer. Surely the KT—or its opposition—could think of better ways.

McCain lowered her own weapon—but did not holster it. She reached into the pouch strapped to her hip and pulled out a slender commlink wire. “Spool me out some more cable, Ranger,” she said, never letting her eyes off Spencer. The commlink wire snaked out of the pouch until there were two or three meters of it on the floor.

McCain, still kneeling down, scooped up the slack, and tossed it toward Spencer. He caught it one-handed and walked toward his desk, where the AID was sitting. He moved very slowly, careful not to make any abrupt or rapid moves. He found the plug on the end of the cable and shoved it into the appropriate socket on the side of his AID.

This time there was no delay. “We’re all on the same side,” Ranger announced.

“Agreed,” Spencer’s AID confirmed. “Recommend hardwire link be maintained for the present. Ranger and I are working together to jam any possible surveillance of this compartment. You may talk freely.”

McCain stood up and holstered her gun. “Glad to meet you, Spencer,” she said, offering her hand for him to shake. “Maybe you’re not KT, but I’ll settle for the Navy.”

“McCain. You’re on our list of missing agents.” Spencer looked her over as he took her hand, not quite sure of the correct protocol when dealing with someone who had been ready to kill him thirty seconds ago. She was a tall, big-boned woman, rangy and hard-edged. “Glad you stopped being missing and found us,” he said. “Welcome aboard.”

McCain’s face darkened. “How did you know there were agents missing?”

“Captain Spencer may not be KT but he
working with a Kona Tatsu operative,” Ranger announced. “His AID informs me that he is acting as diversionary cover for that agent.”

“Which agent? Who is it?” McCain demanded.

“Operative Suss Nanahbuc,” Spencer replied.

“Now there’s a heavy hitter for you,” McCain said, obviously impressed. “So finally someone is taking this seriously. With her on the job, I don’t even mind that you’re not Kona Tatsu.”

“What made you think I
KT?” Spencer asked.

“I’ve got a guy I pay as a dockwatcher to see who’s coming and going from the port,” McCain replied as she sat down in the visitor’s chair. Spencer sat down behind his desk, watching her. She might have been sitting, but she certainly wasn’t relaxed. She was still very much on the alert, regarding herself as being in a combat zone.

“My watcher called me an hour ago and said he had heard some captain’s woman was talking big about her secret-agent lover being here to mix it up with the Haiken Maru. He quoted her exactly, and the bimbo used some special KT code words without knowing it. Passive authenticators, we call them. Stuff an operative is supposed to slip into any rumors he wants to plant to let other KT knows where the rumors are coming from. The code words let me know the bimbo wasn’t KT but her rumor source was. So I came in, looking for some help.” Suddenly McCain’s eyes widened as she figured it out. “Except
the diversionary cover—and the captain’s bimbo was Suss.”

“Yeah, it worked perfectly,” Al said, slumping down behind his desk. “Apart from the fact that it was supposed to draw the bad guys and not
We didn’t think you were still around. The KT hasn’t heard from you in months.” He rubbed the scar at the back of his head and started worrying about Suss. Should he contact her, tell her that McCain had come in—or was Suss already embroiled in a situation of her own out there? Better to let his AID take it all in and play it back to Santu later.

“Dock rumors won’t catch the opposition,” McCain replied. “They seem to concentrate on electronic comm only. You can scream out loud in the streets and they won’t care—but let out any sort of peep on any sort of radio and they’ve got you. That’s how they nailed me—and I think it’s how all the others got killed.” McCain’s voice threatened to crack for a minute, and then she got herself under control. “What was Suss going to do?” McCain asked.

Spencer hesitated, then decided to tell her. Why the hell not? “She went out to try and reach some sort of deep-cover information source inside StarMetal. Face to face. She doesn’t trust electronics either.”

McCain nodded. “Good. If she makes initial contact convincingly, she might get us some solid information tonight.”

“Glad to hear it,” he said, almost at random. He didn’t fit into the world of spies. Even taking that into account, there were a few other things bothering him about McCain. “Who the hell
the opposition? And aren’t you KT types supposed to be a bit more subtle than bursting in with all guns blazing? By now, every person on this ship must know a KT agent has come aboard. Not very covert. And how did you know so fast I wasn’t KT?”

“I have absolutely no idea who the enemy is. No leads at all. But they sure know who
are. So far as I can tell, the opposition has killed every other full-time operative on the planet. It’s possible some of them went into hiding, the way I did—but I doubt it. All we have left are the sort of part-timers and occasionals that make dockwatchers and deep-cover types. The enemy knows who I am. I had no choice but to blow my cover and come in on a frontal, move fast before they could react.” She smiled grimly and shrugged. “The ‘bad guys’ would have blocked any covert approach. As for your last question, I don’t know how I knew you weren’t one of us. But you
I could tell.”

She looked at him, her blue eyes deep and cold, her face drawn and worn, the image of a woman who has been frightened for a very long time. Spencer felt another layer of mistrust melt away. “Fine, I don’t look like a spy,” he said. “But even if we don’t know who the hell the bad guys are, you must have developed some information.” Spencer asked. “What’s going on?”

“Ranger, download everything you’ve got on the local situation to—” She stopped in midsentence. “What’s your AID’s name?”

Spencer shook his head. “Never gave it one.”

McCain looked at Spencer oddly, then seemed to decide not to comment. “Download everything on the local situation to the captain’s AID. Meantime, I’ll give you the short form myself. I’ve been here three months, reporting regularly through my normal covert channels, receiving instructions back from Kona Tatsu headquarters. The planet has exactly one Hyperspace commlink, on a satellite in stationary equatorial orbit over København’s longitude. No other way to send messages to other systems, besides bribing a starship crewman to carry them, or using interstellar radio and waiting two hundred years for a reply. No commercial starships scheduled for a while, and the KT isn’t always that patient, so we had to use the Hyperlink. The KT agents have various ways of sending and receiving through the Hyperwave comsat, using miscellaneous cut-outs and dead-drops, both electronic and physical. The signals are carefully disguised. No one should even be aware that we’re using the Hyperspace link.

“Except my reports and Kona Tatsu HQ’s instructions back don’t jibe. I’d send a report on StarMetal’s activities and get back a signal saying never mind reports on fruit export, they wanted data on StarMetal. I’d update my original report and ask what fruit reports. After two or three exchanges like that, I got a message warning that they thought my reports were being intercepted, blocked, and replaced by a bogus transmission—though that’s supposed to be impossible. I tried alternate means, but nothing seemed to get through. In their messages back to me, HQ starting getting mildly paranoid, to say the least. Then the tenor of their signals back to me suddenly changed.”

“What were the new messages like?” Spencer asked.

“They started asking for more details about the fruit.”

There was a dead silence in the room for a long moment before McCain went on. “Either KT headquarters had been taken over by the Ministry of Agriculture, or else the opposition was playing a whole new game. Not only were they now blocking and replacing KT HQ transmissions—they were cocky enough to mess with
brain about it.”

Suddenly Spencer’s AID spoke up. “Please terminate hardwire connection. It serves no further need.”

“But—” Ranger’s voice began.

McCain reached over absently and yanked the cable out of Spencer’s AID. “Shut up, Ranger. I was getting tired of being on a leash like that anyway.” With the cable between Ranger’s pouch and Spencer’s AID disconnected, McCain stood up and started to pace back and forth about the room. “Our mystery opponents were so sure of themselves, so sure that I couldn’t interfere, that they deliberately let me know they were screwing around with my signals. They
me to know what they could do. The bastards. Once that started, I knew I was working under blown cover. I quit trying to transmit, and concentrated on staying alive. I disabled all of Ranger’s sending circuits, radio and laser, everything. I just hooked them back up again to come in here today. I’ve been hiding out most of the last two months. Not much sleep. Thanks to those smartasses who thought they were being clever.”

“Possibly,” Spencer said. “Either it was smartass humans or else just dumb machines,” Spencer said.

McCain turned around sharply and looked at Spencer. “What?”

“What you’ve described sounds more like the sort of screw-up artificial intelligence rigs make every day than the work of a master criminal,” Spencer replied. “Why in hell would the opposition go to all the bother of fiddling with a private KT transmission and then waste all that effort just to play a pointless trick on you? If
were in a position to take over KT HQ transmissions, I bet I could think of a more productive use for that capability than telling fruit jokes.

“But suppose an AI unit had programmed a false message-from-McCain generator, an independent subroutine designed to match your codes and phrasing, and constructed a whole series of logically connected messages. The way most AI systems are built, the parent program would then spin off the subroutine as a completely independent, external program. Then it would have a complete, all-in-one forgery generation program that could track real events—fruit sales, for example—create reports on them, and feed them to your headquarters.

“Now the computer would have two input sources—you and its very clever you-simulator. Remember, to an AI computer, your real messages would be no more—or less—real than the independent simulation’s messages. It’s all just zeroes and ones to a computer.

the AI unit figures out how to
you phony messages. Maybe it even sends you a few that you don’t know are fakes—”

“Until the program gets a hiccup somewhere and can’t tell me from the simulation,” McCain said, cutting in. It thinks the sim is me—and starts sending
replies to the messages its own
is sending it. Good Lord. I never thought of that. I must be slipping.”

“No reason you should think of things like that, if you’ve never worked in a staff outfit,” Spencer said. “I used to work in an intelligence unit, and we used a lot of AI. We seemed to spend half our time talking the AI systems out of self-imposed delusional states just like this. My guess is that someone out there has a great computer system that happened to zig when it should have zagged. Which is lucky for you and the KT. If it had been just a little smarter, that computer would never have sent such obviously fake messages to the KT in the first place.”

“And you’d never have noticed anything was wrong. You never would have gotten here,” McCain said.

“Yeah, for whatever good the Navy being here does,” Spencer said. “Now that we’re here, what do we do? What were the messages you were really trying to send?”

“That was the maddening thing about it,” she said. “I was trying to report on the subversion of electronic communications. I think that was how StarMetal was managing to buy up so much real estate in the asteroid belt. They were simulating the original sales offers they then bought up.”

“What makes you think that?”

“All sorts of sellers were claiming never to have sent the authenticated messages agreeing to sale. The sellers would get the money; StarMetal stuck with the deals it made. But the prices were low and the deals seemed funny.”

“So why the hell didn’t anyone do anything about it? Sue, or go to the press.”

“StarMetal bought all the judges and the press, too. And as of last year, they own all the calibrated jump points, except the military point you came in. At any rate, StarMetal can decide who exits and enters the system. They’ve completely consolidated their control over this star system—and since they’ve gobbled up all the communications outfits as well, no one on the outside knows about it. StarMetal is the only law here. As long as they didn’t lean too hard, didn’t abuse too many people, avoided raising such a big stink that the Navy decided to come by and take a look around, everything was fine for them.”

“Except that now we are here,” Spencer said, “and StarMetal is not going to like it. Allegedly we’re just here for repairs, but I doubt if they’re going to buy that.”

“Probably they will,” McCain said, “if only out of desperation. If they’re smart, they’ll bend over backwards to be helpful, hurry you on your way before you can hang around long enough to notice anything. That might be a forlorn hope, but I doubt they’ll risk taking on the Navy if they can avoid it.”

BOOK: The War Machine: Crisis of Empire III
7.81Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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