Agent Callie Bader stomped out of Rikert’s office, not bothering to hide her fury at being banished, then turned to stare at the door as the locking mechanism engaged with a metallic thunk.
With a grimace, she trailed after Otto, who was already perched in the open hatch of the bus, snacking on a bag of the gummy water bears he bought by the case from Vir-22s Build-a-Tardigrade store.
“What the hells is Rikert up to?” she asked, kicking the nearest tread.
“Don’t know,” Otto said, popping another gummie in his mouth before adding a thick, “don’t care.”
“You know those things will rot your teeth,” Callie pointed out.
“Worth every cavity,” Otto said, then he stuck his gummie clad tongue out.
“Ack," Callie turned away. "Gross."
“Oy! I resemble that remark,” Otto grinned as he gobbled another few water bears.
Callie rolled her eyes, before turning them back to the office.
Something off there, she thought. Something beyond the fact Director Rikert and the John Doe AD knew—knew and hated—one another.
Of course, a lot of people hated Frederick Rikert. The man was pompous, narcissistic, and—as her Pop Pop would have said—always had an eye for the main chance.
And, now she thought of it, hadn’t Rikert also been part of some big-ass scandal during the war? Some stink about an airstrike?
Something like that, Callie thought. Something messy, and public, that had led to a court martial.
Not of Rikert, though, or he wouldn’t be running an entire sector for GIES.
“Damn,” she muttered as her memory drew a blank.
If only, she thought, there was a way to search the Galactic wide net for the answers she wanted.
Turning her back on the locked door, Callie pulled her palm-comp from its thigh pocket, and almost immediately discovered getting hold of any data would take more than just entering Rikert’s name into Synced-In. Not entirely unexpected, she reminded herself, as the standard-issue palm-comps only operated with enough spatial bandwidth to encompass half a sector.
She suspected the restriction came from GIES Powers That Be, who likely didn’t trust their agents with access to galaxy-wide social media.
Add to that—according to a Locran cy-tech who worked in Tower One—Libra’s AI randomly staggered incoming cy-traffic in order to prevent a catastrophic crash of the system.
The upshot being that any attempts to garner intel from outside the facility took time.
And for reasons she couldn’t name, Callie didn’t feel like she had a lot of time.
Luckily for her, the very same Lorcan cy-tech who’d given her the rundown of Libra’s cyber restrictions was on duty.
And, since said Lorcan wanted to get into her pants, he was inclined to assist with her data dive.
It didn’t seem to matter that Callie was Human, towered two feet and change above his four feet, four inches, and had told him—repeatedly—she played for the other team.
Hope, apparently, sprang eternal.
Fortunately, Mister Optimistic was able to channel his determination into the data dive she’d requested, and in only a couple of minutes, Callie had the information she’d requested.
Too bad the data that popped up on her palm comp was heavily redacted.
Files from the ConFed Citizen’s Registry, Colonial Citizen’s Registry, and the ConFed Marine Corps Archive yielded, respectively, little more than a paragraph or two of general biographical info and a flat Request for Further Data Denied under Decagon Order 12D76Z14.
“What the hells are they hiding?” Callie mused quietly.
“What are you getting on about?” Otto asked, fruity breath wafting over Callie’s cheek as he peered around her shoulder.
“Nothing you’d care about,” Callie replied.
“Oooh, lookin’ into the guv’ner, are we?” he sang inquisitively as he edged closer to study the palm comp.
“There is no we,” she said, elbowing him back. “And I thought you didn’t care about Rikert?”
“No, what I said was I don’t care what Rikert’s gettin’ up to in his office,” Otto clarified. “But I’m always interested in finding out if there’s any dirt to be had on a body. Especially if that body’s a higher up.”
Callie stared. “Seriously? You want to extort a GIES system director?”
“I’m just saying, it never hurts to have a bit of leverage when the brass starts thunderin’ on about missed shifts or improperly filed reports or missing credits from the coffee kitty.”
“That is dis—no, actually that’s typically self-serving,” Callie decided.
“That’s not what I—wait,” she said, turning to face him. “What did you just say?”
“No, not that. Before, the thing about the brass… the brass thundering,” she said, eyes lighting up.
“What about it?”
But Callie ignored him as as her finger hopped over the palm-comp’s awkwardly small keypad, typing the words Keyword Search… Media, Military Action, Thunder, and the name Frederick Rikert… into the search window.
“That’s it,” she said, as newsfeed archives from some six years past started populating the screen. “Operation Thunderbolt.”
“Sounds like the title of a porn holo,” Otto observed.
Callie’s lip curled, mostly out of habit, because it kind of did.
Thankfully, he quieted down and the two leaned against the bus to read what turned out to be a six year-old news series that had run in The Galactic Star Sentinel.
The entire series had been written by a freelance correspondent named Faith Ganjol who claimed to have been embedded during Operation Thunderbolt, from beginning to end.
Callie flipped quickly through the first four articles of the five part series, as they offered little more than Ms. Ganjol’s contempt for what she called the ‘ConFederation Imperialistic God Complex’.
As a former member of the fighting force, Callie had heard more than enough criticism from certain members of the fifth estate, but most of the embeds were serious journalists, who did their research and, while they didn’t pull any punches, made sure said punches were earned before throwing them.
Even when that punch might take out a few innocent bystanders, she thought.
“Gonna turn the page, then?” Otto asked.
Callie grit her teeth and flipped to the next screen and focused on the fifth entry, letting out a low whistle while Otto almost choked on another mouthful of gummies as Ganjol described Thunderbolt as, on the one hand, ‘a reactionary response to intelligence both questionable and highly improbable’ and, on the other, a monumental smoke screen undertaken to hide the ConFed’s blind-eye support of the Verdanti monarchy’s on-going reign of brutal, bloody tyranny in exchange for the rights to certain exclusively present ores and minerals.
Even more damning, Ganjol continued to claim the entire fiasco was orchestrated by the Judon Imperial Union.
The Judon, she wrote—citing an unnamed source—never intended to stage a full-on invasion of Verdanti Prime.
The aim of the Judon, this source explained, was to provoke the ConFederation into doing exactly what they did—swallow the bait, hook, line, and sinker.
And although, the Judon military itself was nowhere near Verdanti Prime during the operation, many of the high tech weapons used by the Kydor mercenaries were of Judon origin—the same mercenaries who’d made mincemeat out of the landing ConFed Marines.
And all that was before the commander of Operation Thunderbolt, one Colonel Frederick Rikert, ordered an air strike on his own battalion.
“Whoa,” Callie said as Ganjol’s purple prose climbed to a crescendo as she detailed Rikert’s utter lack of accountability.
Not only did he see no repercussions for his actions, he’d been given a commendation and a promotion for clearing the targeted sector of anti-government forces.
But there was some justice meted out, at the last, Ganjol’s tale continued, by one of the few survivors of the massacre. A brave Marine who spoke truth to power, and punctuated that truth with his fists, beating the newly-decorated and soon-to-be Brigadier General Rikert to a bloody pulp, while dozens of witnesses, this reporter included, looked on.
And while I cannot say I approve of the use of violence to make any kind of argument, nor can I entirely blame Lieutenant Ray Slater for his rage, or for wishing some recompense for the loss of over seven hundred of his fellow Marines.
And beneath that paragraph were posted a number of photos dated before and after the Battle of Reaper’s Hill.
Several were obviously publicity shots, set on the flight decks of StarNaval medical transport cruisers, of the wounded being off-loaded from med-evac craft.
But the images Callie found most interesting were those of (a) the Bridge of the mission flagship, CFSN Paladin, featuring a number of shots of a stern-faced and much-too-immaculately battle dressed Colonel Rikert, apparently studying the live vid-feed of the planet side action on the ship’s status-monitors, and (b) a trio of the few survivors of Reaper’s Hill.
Two of those pictures featured a dirt-caked and blood-splattered Lieutenant Slater, helping to support a visibly wounded female comrade and the third was actually a click-to-view vid-short—of Slater being escorted under armed guard into the HQ building at Camp New Lejeune for court-martial proceedings.
A much better image.
Though the man she had helped deliver into Rikert’s office had longer hair, and the lingering scars from fairly recent skirmishes, there was no question in Callie’s mind as to his identity.
The AD in Rikert’s office was, in fact, former Lieutenant 1st Class Raymond D. Slater.
And according to the article, he was judged guilty of violent assault against a superior officer, demoted and denied all benefits, and sentenced to 10 years in the Danseker super-maximum military penal facility.
“Trofo. . .Sonsabitches threw him to the wolves,” Callie growled, instantly realizing her tone had carried a bit too loudly.
“So, the guv was a big hat during the war,” Otto said, reminding Callie of his presence at her elbow.
“More like a big douchebag,” she replied.
“No surprise, is it?” Otto said with a shrug. “Reminds me of my old man. Spent close to thirty years in the British Colonial Guard. Turned ’im into a right alcoholic bastard. He was the main reason I decided not to serve. Still,” he continued after a short pause, “I didn’t think even Rikert was the kinda tosser who’d rat fuck his own people.”
Callie snorted. “I’d say dropping plasmo-chem bombs on his own troops goes way beyond rat fuck.” She threw a tense look at the office door. “And I think he’s about to finish the job.”
“You know what? I think you’re right,” Otto said after a pause. “And I kind of hate that.”
“There’s more to hate,” Callie said, “when you consider that we were both present when a living AD entered that office.”
“And if he don’t walk out alive, we become loose ends,” Otto said.
As one, the two agents turned to look at the locked door.
“We gotta find out what’s going on in there,” Otto said.
“But how?” Callie asked, dropping her voice as a pair of Libra employees passed by in a small open cart, parking it three doors down.
“Hold up a minute, luv.”
“I’m not your luv,” Callie muttered.
“Don’t get your knickers in a twist,” Otto said, eyeing the two Libra staff as they exited their cart and entered one of their office.
“Tell you what I’d like to twist,” Callie muttered but, as soon as the two Libra staff stepped out of their cart and into another office, pulled something from his pocket and held it out. “I think this’ll do the trick.”
“No offense, but I think we need something more than a gummie for where did you get that?” her voice turned to a hiss as she moved to block the view of the device in his palm.
“This little guy?” Otto held up the device—a magnetic short-range audio monitor called a fly—as in “fly on the wall’—used by the Vir-22 police trying to crackdown on illegals labs aboard the station.
“Won it off one of the Vir constables in a game of five card stud,”
“Of course you did,” Callie said, sharing his grin before she realized she was getting along with Otto. “But wait, those are only good for five minutes, right?” This because Vir-22 was in Rasalkan Space, and the Rasalkans had a taboo against eavesdropping—apparently it was akin to dipping into another’s thoughts—the flies were only usable for five minutes before their batteries needed to be charged.
Five minutes, the Rasalkan consulate had declared, was more than enough time to figure out if some lowlifes were cooking Mist or not.
“We got more like three,” Otto admitted, shrugging awkwardly at her stare. “I may have been curious if Agent Kowalski had anything t’say about me when she rung up her mum, last week.”
“Three minutes,” Callie said.
“Maybe two and a half?”
“You’re killing me, Smalls,” she said, then sighed. “It’s not a lot of time.”
“Probably enough to find out if Rikert wants to…” Otto paused and drew a finger across his own throat.
“Dammit,” she said, then glanced down the corridor, first the left, then the right. “Okay,” she said, giving him a nudge with her elbow. “Let’s do this.”
He nodded, crossed to the door and set it against the bulkhead, only wincing a little at the tiny thunk of the magnet adhering to the bulkhead.
“Ready?” he whispered.
“No,” she whispered back. “But do it anyway.”
He grimaced, flicked the fly to active, and they both leaned down close, the better to listen to Rikert, who was saying, “—those punches hurt something fierce.”
“I think you cracked a rib,” the man they’d learned was Ray Slater replied.
“And I would love to take full credit for that rib,” Rikert continued, “but in all fairness, you should blame Conal Ving, Anders Kurosawa, Mahmoud Trelaney, and Hermine Chan.”
What the fuck? Otto mouthed at Callie.
No clue, she shrugged at him.
Both leaned closer as Rikert continued.
“—may not remember the names of every one of the thousands of marines I commanded, but I do recall every one of the ADs who sacrificed their genetic excellence for my benefit. For the benefit of every Baseline sapient willing to pay for the privilege.”
Callie and Otto stared at each other.
“I can’t believe I’m sayin’ this,” he said at last, “but this sounds worse than murder.”
“I can’t believe I’m saying this,” she said, “but I think you’re right.”
Then they both leaned back down to hear whatever else they could, in the one minute and forty seconds the fly had left.