chapter thirteen
Part Six

“Well, as I live and breathe!” Coombs froze, was her cover already blown? Had she just been threatened? Was she under attack? She didn't think so, there was something… familiar about that voice.

She turned and saw, weaving through the crowd of people in the main foyer of the OEOB Building, someone that her brain suggested was named Shelley Hudson, charging for her with her arms outstretched while bits of her jiggled about.

The mugging, for surely Coombs couldn't think of another name for it, enveloped her in a cloud of some cheap perfume that also seemed familiar and Coombs couldn't quite place it until she realized with a flash it was the same scent that she was now wearing, although in far smaller quantities, as part of her cover as Mary Haliburt.

Hudson pulled back, holding Coombs' shoulders firmly as she stared at her with those soft bovine eyes, “Who can hardly believe it. When I saw your 'Return to Work' order I almost cried.”

Coombs, or more currently Mary, was surprised how strong the memory of this person was, someone she presumably hadn't seen in almost a decade, but recalled with intensity as a warm and perhaps overly friendly supervisor.

“You haven't changed a bit.” Shelley paused, a half-glance back at 'Mary' and then, “we really need to take you shopping dear, that style went out of fash ages ago.”

Coombs/Mary looked down. The style was never in as far as she was concerned but a decade ago it had been de rigueur here in Washington, DC and the first order of business for any spy was to fit in. Weakly she offered, “I suppose.”

Shelley was already on her next topic, she waved Coombs/Mary past Security before remembering where she was and then promptly took her prodigal over to the desk to get her properly gated.

Coombs/Mary presented herself before the Guard, a sharp looking, wiry man, who under different circumstance might have had Coombs swooning. He paused a little too long, stared a little too hard, and while he continued to look at her suspiciously he ran additional securities through his system.

Coombs/Mary began to wonder if something in her packet was wrong and if her legend was going to be blown before she even crossed the threshold. That would be bad, for this close to the Executive she'd be jailed for sure, imprisoned inside hostile territory and probably under 24-hour observation.

The face of the Guard betrayed nothing, but his eyes were certainly taking in a fair amount of detail. Coombs/Mary swallowed hard, trying even to suppress that, lest it betray her 'innocence'.

“Ah, here it is. That's a very old file.” Another pause as the Guard did a fifth thing and then handed the ID over with a smile, “Welcome back, Miss Haliburt.”

Coombs/Mary wasn't even given the time to exhale before Shelley Hudson took her hand and dragged her down a hall in the Old Executive Office Building, through a few more pass protected doors and eventually into one of the larger rooms in the place.

“Don't know when you had the time but your file says you're up on the Selectric.” Coombs/Mary didn't have a clue what that meant, which meant she was quite sure she wasn't up on the 'Selectric', whatever that was.

Shelley swung her around with a gravitational slingshot that landed Coombs/Mary in one of those old style generic office chairs, the type that was supposed to be good for you but seemed to cause greater strain than the ones they replaced. That too seemed to be a universal constant.

“I hope that's true because we no one else in the building is up to speed on this thingy.”

Coombs/Mary looked at the 'thingy' before her. It was a monstrous device that looked as though Dr Frankenstein himself had built it.

That shouldn't have surprised her. East America was nearly on its knees economically. Since the formation of the Network they'd been on the receiving end of crippling sanctions and embargoes almost a dozen times for a practice that was barely tolerated back when the United States of America was a superpower.

East America, as it was called everywhere else on the planet, had always been aware that they couldn't compete on a level playing field, so in the spirit of 'growth' they continued as they always had, making trade agreements that they only honoured when it was convenient for them.

And because that didn't fly these days, the USofA slipped further and further into that most unique of American funks, Protectionism, which is why their “state of the art” data processing interface was little more than an unaesthetic box of recycled junk, the likes of which Coombs had never seen before.

Coombs/Mary pulled up to this machine and looked at it warily trying to figure out how to start it up but was surprised to discover that her hands instinctively knew what to do with it to make it hum, and click, and fibber-de-digit.

Shelley Hudson squealed in delight.

Coombs/Mary smiled slyly. Fiche, that crafty bugger, he must have had additional engrams inserted during the memory refresh, and the moment the boxes started opening on the display Coombs/Mary realized why. The Selectric was full of automated transcripts from various high level departments in the OEOB as well as the Executive Branch, better known as the White House.

It was her job to filter through the mass of discussions, find the tagged words picked by the Selectric according to sophisticated filtering protocols, and replace them with less inflammatory phrases before they were released to the general population. It was all part of this Administration's commitment to 'Open Government'.

Coombs/Mary smiled that half-grin of hers, with thinking like that these people could do very well in the Network.

* * *

Three Hundred and Twenty Eight thousand kilometers away, drifting along the Lunar Orbital path, like all Lagrange facilities do, Fiche and Topper watched as the displays captured by the contact lenses Coombs was wearing scrolled across their screens.

“Yesterday's capture?”

Topper nodded. “Uplinked in her sleep. She doesn't know?”

Fiche shook his head negative, “She's got protocols for big news but too many people in that building are trained to spot suspicious behavior.”

“Huh.” It was all Topper had to add as both returned to scanning the intel for meat.

* * *

Another thirty thousand kilometers away the Astral Light Carrier JJ MOORE remained parked just outside Lagrange space. Commodore Crystal Tass however was anything but stationary, pacing about the ship in expectation of a bite to the lure she cast only a day earlier.

It was making the crew nervous and Lieutenant Commander Simon Langevin decided something needed to be done about it.


She turned expectantly, like a soon-to-be father when the Doctor comes out of the delivery room. “Yes!”

Simon closed the distance between them, underlings didn't comment on their superior's behaviour in public. “You need to find something else to do, you're making the crew nervous.”

Tass didn't want to hear that and was instantly cross but experience had taught her that Simon was correct. She was a Flag Officer and had to set the tone for the Fleet. If she couldn't do that in a positive manner then she needed to remain out of sight.

“Agreed. Thank you Commander.” Tass turned and bee-lined for her Flag Quarters, which thankfully were large enough to pace in. Her patience was running out and she didn't know how much longer she could wait before she'd need to take action.

* * *

Dalores Tackleberry opened the door to the Oval Office and peered inside.

The chair for the President had its back turned from the desk and although Victor John Warez was in it, he was miles away as he stared blankly out the windows of the Oval.

“Mister President?”

Warez broke from her reverie and half-glanced over his shoulder acknowledging his Secretary who took the motion as her sign to continue.

“Secretary of State McKay is here for you.”

Warez had been waiting for McKay to arrive ever since the appointment was made. Unlike a century earlier the Secretary of State for the United States of America, wasn't a well-known position. The official duties involved meeting with only four other governments, none of which were willing to entertain any concessions to America.

The unofficial duties were to try and gather intel on their enemies, but with a closed border and few trade agreements there was little reason for cities around the world to permit an American embassy anymore and therefore few opportunities to spy.

Certainly, with most Network decisions being done high in orbit on Network facilities, there was nothing to be learned from the one body that threatened them most.

Because of this the Secretary of State spent most of her time attending what few international conferences she could get invited to and take really good notes.

Warez motioned her in and rose, moving from behind the desk to the large conference area in the middle of the room that all these briefings occurred at. He was surprised when Secretary of State McKay entered alone.

“Mister President.” It was a formality that everyone who worked for him felt obliged to begin with. He was somewhat tired of it, but rose none-the-less and welcomed her inside, “Ellen, take a seat.”

Unlike previous meetings McKay didn't dawdle. “Mister President, our friends behind the curtain have forwarded a message to us, a request from our neighbours.”

Warez felt his eyebrow rise on its own; this was surprising news, if it meant what he thought it did. He leaned forward in his chair encouraging McKay to continue.

* * *

“Lieutenant, you might want to see this.” It was Daniels, one of the Live Eye Operators and the morning shift attendant to the Coombs/Haliburt downloads.

Topper immediately dropped what he was doing and moved to the display Daniels was pointing at. He began to read the text and the screen captures Daniels had made before the image showed Coombs filtering the transcript.

“How old?”

“Six, maybe seven hours ago.”

Topper was amazed and about to turn to find Colonel Fiche when he noticed that each frame of transcript has a pulsated black and white bar running down the side of it, he pointed to that, “What's this?”

“No idea.” Daniels replied after isolating, enlarging and augmenting the bar.

With taking his eyes off the isolation image Topper slowly stood upright, his eyebrows were furrowed in a way they always did when he deep in thought, he shook it off, “Run a comparison to...” He couldn't remember the term, “Optical audio, optical track, celluloid optical, any combination.”

“Optical sound track?” Daniels offered weakly.

Topper snapped for Daniels to bring up the comparison, “Show me!”

A moment later the Optical Sound Track sample in their master data file appeared beside the pulsating line on the edge of the conversation frame that Coombs was working on. It wasn't identical but it was close enough for both to realize the two technologies were operating under the same principles.

“Analog sound.”

“Can you 'play' theirs?” Topper was hoping Daniels was worth their investment and recruitment. The young analyst's fingers flew over the console attempting to extract a system written protocol using these principles. A moment later he hit the Xmit and the crackling sounds of a hiss-ladened audio track came weakly over the speakers of Workstation One.

Both crouched forward, leaning in so as to clearly hear what was being said. Finally as the recording came to an end Topper stood straight again trying to put what he heard in context.

“The curtain,” offered Daniels, “would be the New Soviet, right?”

“Da.” Topper said flatly.

Daniels turned in his chair, making direct eye-contact with Topper as he replayed the recording in his head. “And the Neighbours...?”

“The Network. Specifically Canada, WestCan and the U.W.O.”

“So who made the request?” It was THE question but they couldn't sit on this until they figured that out. Topper turned slowly until his eyes came to rest of Colonel Fiche's office.

“Clean it up.” Topper said as he moved away from the Live Eye.

* * *

Fiche keyed the door open at the first buzz, his day was just beginning and the pace was still lazy. That was about to change. He looked up to see who it was and caught Topper's Christmas Morning Frenzy expression. Something big was up.

“You've got to hear this!”

* * *