chapter thirteen
Part Seven

The rich tones and dull hiss of the analog recording played over the speakers of Station One. "Mister President."

Topper looked at Fiche, "That's Sec State McKay."

"Ellen, take a seat."

"The President." Topper added flatly before catching Fiche's look of annoyance.

The female voice on the recording continued, "Mister President, our friends behind the curtain have forwarded a message to us, a request from our neighbours."

A pause, then, "They want to assure us that their plans over the Great Plains are not part of a staging to launch attack against us or anyone else. They simply desire to shore up their presence in-ground."

It was odd that Secretary of State Ellen McKay was nearly speaking in code even inside the Oval Office of the White House, Topper wondered if it was some quirk of her character or whether there was some other reason for her carefully chosen words. Perhaps the President was short-tempered and everyone reporting to him feared what they said would initiate a melt-down.

What Topper didn't realize was that only the reason they were viewing these transcripts was because the American policy of 'Open Government' meant these words would be released directly to the nation's press and because of that everyone spoke in these tones to avoid later embarrassment.

The other voice, President Warez, responded with that mock southern drawl of his, an affectation he picked up deliberately to seem more 'folksy', "What are they suggesting?"

McKay responded, "They'd like to park three carriers overhead at a time, unload and rotate them, but only three at a time. As you know, Mister President, there are no communication assets over that region, they would need at least three just to provide communication coverage."

There was a pause now, presumably while President Warez considered the suggestion. "I want to see recommendations from the Chiefs in an hour, then I'll decide."

Fiche stood up and looked at Topper and Daniels, "Is that is?"

Topper mirrored his stance but not his demeanor, "Yes sir. Very interesting, don't you agree?"

Fiche grunted as he stepped around Workstation One and looked at the larger Live Eye display. Dominated the centre of the display, consuming the equivalent of four normal sized boxes, was a Status Map of Buffalo Commons and the western half of the United States of America, what they still called the 'Mid-West' states.

"Who would want such a thing?" Fiche was ruminating the question.

Topper jumped in with possibilities, "It can't be the League, we're tight on those lines; nor is someone speaking with the New Soviet directly, we've confirmed that. My guess is Australia."

Fiche turned to him, "Australia?"

Topper turned to get the displays to shore up his thoughts but Fiche didn't let him speak, "Has it ever occurred to you that the idea could've come from within East America?"

It hadn't. Topper stopped and looked at the map display wondering how, or even why someone in the U.S. would call Mother Russia in order to get a message to their own President.

"It's frequently faster to get a message to the top by sending it through an outside messenger. We've done it many times." That was true, often harsher messages than intended by less than subtle routes.

"Are you saying someone in the American Government is behind this?"

Fiche looked at Topper who still hadn't gotten it, "Could be someone in another Political party or even someone low down on the chain of command. You heard the way the Sec State was speaking, for all we know she made the whole thing up because that's the only safe way to voice opposition in that Administration."

Topper had never considered that McKay was lying to her own President. It wouldn't be the first time in history that the 'A little bird told me' system was used to safely alter the mind of a leader. He couldn't confirm that because they weren't monitoring communications between the New Soviet and East America, but that was going to change.

As Fiche moved past Topper on his way back to his office he gruffly ordered, "Start looking for likely suspects."

Topper called to Fiche with a cautionary tone in his voice, "I wouldn't be doing my job, sir, if I didn't investigate other possibilities."

Fiche paused, letting Topper realize his position wasn't any more secure than the Secretary of State's. Without looking back he said flatly, "Then do you job, Mister Topper."

* * *

The Flag Officer's briefing room on the Astral Light Carrier JJ MOORE was the least aesthetic room on the ship, which was saying something on this tightly packed, utilitarian combat ship.

It's displays were hung on the wall frames without the benefit of finished panels because Tass herself had called them unnecessary. The cabling was barely contained in the heavily insulated hardwire connections, and the Conference table was a retro-fitted cobbling together of pieces functionally allowing for the full holo-vid conferencing capabilities of a Flag Ship.

There hadn't been much alternative on that last point. There wasn't enough room on JJ MOORE to make a full sized holo-vid conference room and they didn't make HVC tables small enough to fit in the space they had.

Despite all this Tass was facing a row of holo images representing all twelve of her Astral Light Carrier Fleet as well as the live physical presence of JJ MOORE's skipper Langevin and Ground Forces leader Major Andrea Blaxland.

Tass leaned onto the display map before her, a motion that triggered the image of three Light Carriers to move into place over Buffalo Commons, "MOORE will move in, park and drop, remaining in this position. Followed by HAMILTON GAULT and ARTHUR CURRIE, here..."

She stretched out to position the third craft deep over Montana, it wasn't necessary to do it that way, so long as her hand didn't relax the system would know she still meant to move the icon and would continue to 'push' it until her release. "...and here."

Tass stood upright and looked at the board, completely focused on the strategy. "They'll drop in waves, each transiting away from East America and coming around to the two secondary centre's that Network Command have set up in Great Falls, Montana, and Garden City, Kansas."

There was a visible tension at the mention of Great Falls. This had been the site of the bloodiest battle between WestCan forces and the Heartland Free States just before Heartland collapsed. It was technically the first battle of what became the Network while Great Falls and the whole of the Commons had been abandoned not long afterwards.

The briefing continued and the clock started on the timetable, set to begin 72 hours hence. After running down the entire sequence Tass closed off the briefing with a stress relieving, "Keep sharp and Good Luck."

She was unaware as each face disappeared of the wariness on Simon Langevin's face. "We have the 'GO' from Command?"

It was all the Lieutenant Commander said after the last display closed off. Perhaps it was a discussion that should've occurred while the other Commanders were on-line but Simon didn't want this public because he feared what he was about to hear.

Commodore Tass didn't respond while she gathered her things, for a moment Simon thought she hadn't heard him, but before he could ask the question a second time he got the answer, "Not yet."

* * *

Coombs/Mary wandered around her tiny one bedroom apartment without purpose. There was nothing to do and she was lost. She thought of wandering out but recalled that even this neighbourhood was dangerous after dark, not that it looked enticing with the howling winds and bundled people passing by her place. Wasn't this supposed to be spring, when did it warm up here?

She didn't bother with the Televid, the viewing options here were awful. By not being part of the Network the only shows were months, sometimes years old and she'd already seen the decent ones.

Not that the current affairs programs were much better, these people were incredibly full of themselves and equally unconcerned with anything outside their borders. She shook her head remembering her first visit to America. Her partner had told her to make a drinking game of the National News. "Take a shot of tequila," she said, "every time something is mentioned that isn't occurring inside America or happening to an American."

Coombs/Mary tried it and on the sixth night she took her first shot.

They hadn't changed in a decade and Coombs/Mary found herself yelling at the Televid, "For Pete's sake people, there's a whole world out there!"

Just then, the phone rang. It was an odd, metallic ring that Coombs/Mary realized was from an actual bell. She went over to it and picked up the receiver from the cradle, at least it was cordless.


"How are you doing, Miss Mary?" It was Topper, checking in.

Coombs/Mary moved over to a chair by the window and curled up in it as she smiled, normally she couldn't stand Topper but he was her white knight tonight. "I'm fine, baby, how are you?"

* * *