chapter thirteen
Part Four

Chas was not a short form of Charles, nor was it a pet name given him by a teacher or parent. Chas was the full first name for Topper and he hated it. He hated trying explain it, he hated the difficulty people seemed to have saying it, which is why everyone knew him as Topper.

His dislike for Chas wasn’t the reason Topper had grown up with only a few friends, although it could be easily argued that both things had the same root cause. Topper simply preferred the company of information, he always had. A voracious reader who had, on his own accord, developed a connections-based intellect, Topper was drawn to Information Management naturally, just as his aptitudes drew its leadership to him.

Yet despite his rising-star status Topper continued to use the public elevators, exit on the public deck of Station L5 and enter his workplace through the public portal, just back of the public counters, into what most people thought was just another of the gormless back offices in the massive Information Management bureaucracy.

And that pretty much was the case. The back office was little more than banks of Network Interfaces with support staff, five skilled technicians monitoring systems that daily responded to more than 300 million inquiries as though they were phone centre operators, and 7.2 billion Information Queries from all over the planet.

Equally ordinary was the door he crossed through at the far end, a secured door that only a select few had access to but which looked even to those five technicians like nothing more than the portal to a board room.

Instead it was the security hallway, monitored by a system called Oracle, which permitted Topper’s access to the inner sanctum of the most concentrated Intelligence center in the Galaxy, at least that is, the known Galaxy.

There were six principal centres of control in Information Management, head offices if you will, each with its systems scanning and monitoring all communication and information, looking for the patterns, counting the activities, tallying and providing the most accurate data possible so that decision makers at both the Governmental and Business level could proceed with confidence.

But only one centre, this one, monitored that data stream with an agenda. Only this one had analysts who tried to influence the data stream in order to protect the stability of the United Network. Only one had a centre called Strategic Intelligence and Topper was a rising star there too.

Yet as he entered Strategic Intelligence that morning he felt like one on the outside. In the brief ten hours since he’d last been here it seemed as though the whole world, and weeks worth of planning, had spiraled out of control. In other words, it was another normal day in intelligence.

Colonel Fiche was standing before the big screen at Live Eye, facing Commodore Crystal Tass on the Astral Light Carrier JJ MOORE. They had to be nearby because the communication was real time. Just as real was Tass’ emotion. In the months since they’d first contacted then Fleet Commander Tass she’d gone from concerned advocate of Buffalo Common to staunch defender of the realm. Her personal interest in events had increased as her distance from Earth decreased.

Currently she was upset with Information Management’s perceived failure to report the Troop build up in East America.

Fiche hadn’t heard anything about it until Tass had called. Partly because it was a very new development, something decided by East American President Victor Warez only a few days earlier, yet the old man didn’t flinch, nor had he given the slightest indication of his ignorance.

“Four battalions of tanks from a potential hostile are mobilizing toward my AOR and you didn’t think that worth reporting?”

Normally Fiche didn’t take that tone from others, even those who technically outranked him, as the acting Commodore now did, but the old man knew better than to wave a red flag before a charging bull. Tass already had five of her twelve Astral Carriers near Lagrange space and if she’d decided to she could launch a crippling attack on East America before he could climb up the chain of command and get her ordered to stand down.

Fiche read the Intel on a side display quickly and then faked it, “Commodore, there was no need to rush to judgement.”

That remarked made Tass look like she might have an embolism. Fiche didn’t give her the time to respond, “The tanks are being moved by rail. The tracks end one hundred and fifty clicks shy of Buffalo Commons and those tanks have a top daily speed of a hundred and ten clicks a day.”

“It won’t take a week…”

“It’ll take two days to load the trains, four days to get them near the Commons, at least a week to set up base and then another five days before they’re in ground far enough to interact with anyone. During that time we’re working on diplomatic solutions to head off this crisis. I’m sorry that you are upset you weren’t consulted on an event which only developed in the last twelve hours but that’s the real world!”

He had cut her off, abruptly. Whether it was because he was losing patience or because he was annoyed to have been put on this spot in the first place would only be known after the call ended. Topper gulped because he suspected the latter was the case.

“Now, if you’ll excuse me Commodore, I need to head off World War Five.” He nodded to the Live Eye Operator to cut the line and they did. Whether it was imprinted on his retina or on the display the latent image of a surprised Commodore Tass on the otherwise black main display lingered.

Fiche turned and caught Topper in his sights, “Sections in the Briefing room, now.”

Topper quickly grabbed his Wate from his desk and keyed it to process a recent events summary that he hoped to scan quickly enough to sound prepared. He cursed himself for not arriving earlier.

He hadn’t even made it to the threshold when his day got significantly worse. Through the private portal, what Topper and a few others called the ‘back door’ because it allowed private entry to Strategic Intelligence and was typically used only to disorient visitors, came Andrea Coombs.

Coombs was Fiche’s pet. Although only three years older than Topper, Coombs had been a field operative for five years before Topper had even graduated Magna Ex Machina from McGill. It might have been odd that they were peers in this organization but Topper had no delusions, if they were both up for the same position Coombs would be the victor and Fiche still hadn’t filled the Number Two slot.

They entered the boardroom through opposite doors and took their place at opposite ends of the table, he quietly, her with the fanfare of a returning hero. She’d heralded a series of difficult events to satisfactory conclusions, including the very dramatic recent change of leadership in the military.

Topper bit his lip, he needed operational experience, he needed a field agent to run, but with his workload how was he supposed to find the time to even recruit someone? Before he could dwell any further on the topic Fiche entered and closed the doors behind him, it was going to be a loud meeting.

* * *

Topper had made his presentation on the recent developments in East America. It was pretty much a summary of what Fiche had told Tass. Damn, the old man was good, his estimates were pretty close to reality and he’d made them on the fly.

Coombs chimed in when he finished as though they’d rehearsed this, which they hadn’t. “The problem with this is East America’s been pretty much closed borders for three decades.”

Fiche nodded, “They’ve always been protectionist, except during the American Century.”

Nearly everyone nodded at that. The hundred years between 1945 and 2045 were an anomaly of outside activity in that nation’s 458 year history.

Topper wanted to continue his presentation but something in the back of his mind was nagging at him. He wasn’t sure if it was just his competitive dislike of Coombs or something else but quickly he started a filter search on Coombs and East America. The trick was going to be digesting the information while participating in the discussion.

“They might have the base camp time cut down. Other trains with supplies, particularly support vehicles for the fuel, are being rushed from other facility on different lines.”

Fiche rose and moved closer to the display where the Theatre Map for North America was on display, “They still have one of the best internal highway systems on the planet." Geography had blessed East America that way.

Coombs piped in again, “It's odd behaviour.”

Fiche turned to her quizzically, while he did Topper rushed through another few items in his filter search. “How so?”

“It’s been a long time since they even threatened to move beyond their border. I can't help but wonder what precipitated this.”

Casey, the junior analyst that seemed to forever get himself into trouble, interrupted, “They never ceded the Territory. Even while the Heartland government controlled the Great Plains the U.S. held to their claim.”

“They released some of the land to the Natives.” Topper spoke without looking up, automatically adding something to the conversation while distracted in his research, it was a common thing for him to do.

Casey picked up on that, “We just recognized the claim made by that Cheyenne band near Rapid City. It was handed over by East America after Heartland fell.”

“Not good.” Coombs said dryly and then seeing Fiche’s questioning gaze she expounded, “By honouring an East American treaty we’re conceding their claim.”

“Not necessarily. We’re simply acknowledging the band’s claim to the land. An invading country honouring a past nation’s contract doesn’t legitimize the previous regime; it only acknowledges the band’s claim.”

Topper looked up brightly, “We need inside intel.”

Everyone looked at him as though he’d just sprouted a pair of wings and announced he was going to fly to Earth. Coombs was the first to speak, “We haven’t had assets inside East America for almost a decade. It would take forever to re-establish…”

Topper interrupted Coombs as he began to pace the room reading from his display, “Actually Andrea, we have an asset that went on long-term disability nine years ago. Well situated, part of the Administrative Pool at the O.E.B. in support of the White House.”

Coombs blanched, “Long-term disability? I thought my legend was closed?”

Topper smiled a slight, and slightly smug, smile. “Apparently not. And the L-T-D has draw back options hinging on nothing more than a Doctor’s note.”

“How did you do that?” Coombs was stunned.

“I didn’t.” Topper said, handing the display over to Fiche, “Whoever closed off the file made sure it had a back door.”

Sams, an otherwise quiet Korean chippie, spoke up on a point, “How did we keep an L-T-D open in a vetted government position? Don’t you need regular Medical reports?”

Fiche had already gotten to that part, “A Medico in place with one of our East American sponsors was kind enough to file that quarterly. Looks like the benefits have been accumulating as well Andrea, your legend is rather well off financially.”

Coombs had hated her time in Washington, DC. The rat infested apartment in Bladensburg, Maryland had bordered on her tolerance and she was younger and more resilient then. The disability had actually been contracted because of those conditions, if it was the same one they’d used.

Coombs smiled, perhaps she could avoid this after all, “What disability is on record?”

Fiche flipped to that part of the display, “McCallion Syndrome.”

That elicited snickers from the others, Topper included. McCallion Syndrome was related to irritable bowel syndrome only in that it had nearly exactly the same set of unpleasant symptoms.

Coombs sat forward and turned to address Fiche and others, including Topper whom she hoped to wipe the smirk from, “McCallion Syndrome isn’t treatable in East America.”

That was true, McCallion Syndrome was a mutated virus that refused to respond to all but one treatment and because that treatment was patented by a bio-pharm company in Montreal it was excluded from use in East America.

Fiche handed Coombs the display, in the info chain was an open Special Visa for her legend, Mary Halburt, to travel outside East America on “compassionate medical grounds”.

A simple entry stamp registered by United Network Customs Control with East America would show her arrival in Montreal. She could be re-introduced directly to Heather Roan Poe - National Airport, Washington, DC with her Medico’s clean bill of health recorded that afternoon.

“With any luck,” Topper added nearly tipping his hand, “you could be back at work in the White House by Wednesday.”

Coombs looked at Topper clearly indicating that she wouldn’t forget this. For his part Topper failed to acknowledge any indication of victory but as he glanced over at Fiche he saw a look of appreciation being returned. Damn, the old man was good!

* * *