chapter thirteen
Part Nine

Several thousand kilometers away Topper knew what to call it, “occupation”.   But that word was only one of many zooming around the mind of Chas Topper as he fought for sleep.

- - - Lines in… / Sec State… / Lines in to Sec State… / proof… / involved… / Line in… / Sec State involved… / direct or…? / lines in… / how to prove…? / isolate calls… / lines in… / sec state to prove… / direct or messenger…? / how to prove…? / isolate calls… / access logs… / can we access logs…? / line in… / filter calls through logs… / most likely suspects… / is Cricket still active…? / Cricket might know… / Cricket’s at the Pentagon… / Pentagon or State…? / which…? / does it matter…? / lines in the U.S… / direct access or intercepts…? / direct access or messenger to the President…? / lines in… / would the Selectric have State…? / State or just Executive…? / ask Coombs... / how to ask Coombs…? / bring up, look, we’ll do the rest… / lines in… - - -

Many hours later as his peer, Lieutenant Casey, entered the backroom of Strategic Intelligence, Topper was hunched over at his desk with the weariness one only displays after many hours of carrying the worries of the world on their back.

“Yikes!” Said the Junior Analyst in alarm. “How long have you been here?”

Topper looked up, allowing the bags under his eyes to do all the talking. “How do you find a needle in a haystack when you’re not allowed to look?”

That was the crux of the problem. East America had so few connections to the outside world that it was almost impossible to tangibly infiltrate their internal communications. How then could Topper confirm his superior’s assumption that the offer by the Network to limit their Buffalo Commons’ Fleet to three ships at a time was false and came from within the United States?

Casey looked back at Topper blankly, “Are you sure the needle is in that haystack?”

Of course not. Topper didn’t believe that for a moment, but his boss did and Topper needed to prove the theory wrong before chasing his own. He shook his head negative.

“Then look for the needle where you can. If you don’t find it then the needle has to be in the haystack.”

"quod erat demonstrandum," Topper thought, "Q.E.D.”. What else did he expect. The space outside the haystack was larger but easier to search because it was searchable. He leaned back, let out a sigh and then proceeded from this new angle.

First off, asume the intel is accurate and the call came through Sec State from Russia. Number of calls between the two during that period, fifty-seven thousand, nine-hundred and eighty four. Filter the ones that aren’t encrypted and that leaves seventy two.

Topper began the decryptions on those with specific emphasis on the ones between the New Soviet Embassy in Washington and Russia, as well as the ones between the East American Embassy in Russia and home.

Step two, how would word have gotten to Russia from the Network? Assuming this wasn’t a New Soviet ploy to keep a Fleet of Network controlled Light Astral Carriers from Earth Orbit the message would’ve had to come into them from someplace. Had it been from a place directly in the Network one of his earlier flags would’ve found even contextual references. No such luck.

So it had to come from a non-aligned nation. The League had the greatest number of interface connections to the New Soviet communication grid but the governments didn’t trust each other and Network spies were too well embedded in the League for something that big to happen without a peep.

New Zealand was pretty much hostile to the rest of the planet and was under a very intense microscope right now. Nothing was coming in or going out of that island nation these days.

Which left either the New Soviet itself or Australia. Anyone inside the New Soviet communicating directly with a Network contact would find themselves immediately under suspicion, if not en route to a distant prison, which left the land Down Under.

Australia had some of the best aerospace schools on the planet and expressed their intense desire not to pick sides in the Global cold war by actively supplying both sides with some of the finest engineers. It was one of the few places on the planet where Network Liason Centres and New Soviet Trade Embassies could both be found.

That alone made it a perfect spot for the transfer of intel, for a discrete request between hostiles. So much so that Topper was starting to wonder if it might not be their achillies heal.

The first filter was done. A call using the exact wording the Secretary of State had said to the President was made from the East American Embassy in Moscow to the State Department in East America. Highly encrypted and the time code was exactly six hours before the statement was passed onto the President.

Trying to isolate how the information got to the Embassy in Moscow was next to impossible, but Topper was surprised a moment later when the filtration system isolated a business call between Kelli Hobarth, Australian Trade Commissioner and a middling Plant Manager in St Petersburg, Russia named Dimitri Aldrikov. The markers weren’t the same as the coded speech passed between the Embassy and mother nation, they didn't need to be couched in that language because they were so far outside the beaten path. So what Topper heard as he played the intercept was the clearly worded request from Hobarth that Moscow pass a message to East American.

The words were clear as a bell, but the information was missing the most important peel of this particular ring, who in the Network had made the offer?

* * *

Ask anyone who knew her at any other time and without hesitation they would say that Crystal Tass was a patient person. As a child, she'd laid in the mud for hours, without even a yawn, waiting for the game animal to appear that would be her first kill. As a youth she's waited diligently each day for the better part of three months at the Union of Western States Immigration office for some word that she was landed and could work legitimately. And as an adult, she'd dutifully ignored the obvious backlash against her background that kept her from promotion while lower ranked members of her graduating class pushed past her up the chain of command.

It had always paid off. The buck that wandered into range in the fourth hour and was completely unaware of her presence, so much so she'd bull's eyed him to the ground, dead, before he could even twitch. The Office Manager directed her to a friend who was looking for hard working labour, a prerequisite in getting status that no one had told her about before hand. And Command had eventually recognized her unerring confidence and reliability, eventually promoting her faster up the chain of command, and well beyond her peers, many of whom were floundering in their incompetence.

Tass was patient. But that patience was rapidly running out.

And that fact wasn't going unnoticed by Lieutenant Commander Simon Langevin.

“Do you believe she's likely to give the order, Commander?” It was a wary, carefully worded question and Simon knew what it meant.

“Honestly, Admiral. I don't know her well enough to say, but she is agitated by the proximity to the problem, particularly with the 'hold' order.”

Admiral Sedgewick nodded thoughtfully. She'd read Tass' file. Stable, reliable and patient were repeated over and over again throughout it. But Caren Anne Sedgewick knew those traits could fire out an airlock when home and family were threatened.

Simon pressed the point, “Admiral, what would be the harm in proceeding? Three ships at a time might seem threatening but certainly not an Act of War.”

“We're not terribly confident they would see it that way, Commander. Although I'm want to agree with your assessment.” Sedgewick couldn't say that the backroom intel had whiff of an offer, not until the East American's blinked at it. Frankly, not knowing where the offer was coming from was only half a disturbing as the realization that no one official had thought of it first. It was a measured and reasonable negotiation offer.

They had troops on the ground, they had to support them. If the East American's continued pressing for the Buffalo Commons border as they were the Network would have no choice but to get as much in ground as fast as possible.

Letting them run just the three ships at a time would at least ensure order was maintained while avoiding the rush by either side.

“Keep an eye on things, Commander. If the situation changes let me know immediately.”

Langevin nodded, unsure how he would carry out that order if Tass decided to charge in. The image of the Admiral faded from his display.

It wasn't often that one found themselves in the midst of a pivotal moment in history, more seldom was realizing it ahead of time. Certain knowledge, Langevin decided, wasn't worth having.

* * *