Friday, November 12, 2010


Soft light played over Maia Kessler's table at the Sapphire Cafe. The cawfee at her right hand steamed. She hadn't drunk much, but the staff insisted on replacing it every half-hour when it had stopped steaming, and Maia never bothered to stop them. This late at night, there was almost no one else here. Ambient music covered the hum of the lights and the cawfee machine. Her PDA sat before her on the table, carefully positioned so that the screen was hidden from the two concealed cameras on either side of the room. Idly, she tapped the page, just often enough to appear to be reading.

She was, not to put too fine a point on it, terrified.

She'd been living in a more-or-less terrified state for the last two weeks, and it showed no signs of abating any time soon. She used every trick she'd learned in the war to appear calm and collected: she kept her breathing even, her heartbeat slow. She replayed happy memories in her mind, thought about cheerful music, focused on details instead of the big picture.

Because if she thought about the big picture too long, she was certain she'd break down.

She had gone home after work, when it was clear that Chambers and Delacroix weren't going to let her in on their stakeout. She'd had dinner with Celina and Tanya for the first time in weeks. Tanya was snappish and sarcastic, Celina brooded, and Maia... well, she'd tried to maintain some semblance of normalcy, but it never lasted very long.

She'd even manage to sleep for two or three hours before the adrenaline woke her again and she took to the streets, moving away from the core and the Executive Tower along streets she'd never taken before. She'd walked into the Sapphire Cafe at random, one of the few places still open in the middle of the night. And she'd stayed there, thinking over what Delacroix had said.

It was all very well for him to cast aspersions on Paxsec. He didn't live in Peace River; he wasn't on their payroll. He could accuse them of murder, rape, assault... Hell, he could accuse them of whatever he wanted and be gone as soon as the Free Emirate delegation packed up and left for home.

Not that Maia didn't believe him. Quite the opposite. She'd lived in Peace River most of her life, and as a result, she'd be prepared to believe just about anything about Paxsec. If Delacroix had told her Paxsec ran secret experiments on human lab rats, that they pumped narcotics into the water supply and replaced babies with changelings, she'd be prepared to believe that, too.

She sipped her cawfee -- they'd replaced it again when she wasn't paying attention. As far as anyone could tell, she was just a late-night manager, hard at work on some project or another, and the workers who bustled about the cawfee shop left her alone.

Which was good. Because most importantly, she was prepared to believe -- and did, in fact, believe -- that Paxsec had eyes and ears everywhere. No doubt since she'd come to work for them, they'd increased the surveillance on her home. Her phone lines were undoubtedly tapped, along with Celina's and Tanya's. There were four layers of redundant surveillance in her office and at least that many on the computer on her desk. Even with fifteen cycles of training in electronic warfare, she suspected there were even more bugs she hadn't caught, more cameras on her every moment of the every day.

Maybe, if she was lucky, someone just checked the feeds at random intervals, part of some grand rotation of monitoring agents. If she wasn't lucky, there was someone watching her feeds every moment of every day, sending thrice-daily reports to Lenaris on her every move and conversation.

So when Delacroix had confronted her with his accusations about her employer, when he had spoken about Father Lelland and Colmar Station back during the war, she had smiled and nodded and deliberately not looked to her PDA, which she suspected had some sort of listening device that eleven sweeps had yet to uncover. She did not say anything against Paxsec. Speaking out against Paxsec was as good as treason, especially if you were the only manager in a building full of trigger-happy executives.

The song changed in the cafe, still instrumental and still ambient. She caught sight of the waitresses leaning against the counter and talking in hushed voices.

Delacroix had presented her with every reason in the book to mistrust her employers, without ever knowing that she was anything but happy and loyal. Unfortunately, he had given her no reason to trust his own team. He had asked her to delay reporting back to Paxsec, and Maia had no way to know whether Paxsec tacitly listened in to her every conversation. If she delayed her reports, sooner or later Colonel Lenaris would summon her and ask why she had done so, and there were several thousand things she would rather do than face that conversation.

It didn't help that Chambers and Delacroix didn't trust her, by association. After working more-or-less smoothly together for a few days, she sensed that the conversation with Delacroix was a turning point. He wanted her to keep information from Paxsec, and when she couldn't -- or, perhaps to his mind, wouldn't -- he shut her out. She could feel the rift growing and was utterly unable to stop it.

Her phone rang.

"Kessler," she said, maintaining the polite, professional tone she'd groomed over years of sales.

It was Agent Carol, one of her two contacts back at HQ. She wondered if he ever slept, or if he and Agent Ashwood took shifts at the desk so that someone connected to her would always be on duty. She listened to his voice come through the other end of the phone, and her stomach knotted.

"Were we involved?" Her brow furrowed.

"Chambers," said her contact. "And his group. Deal with it."

The line went dead and she stared at the phone. She did not curse, but she desperately wanted to. Instead, she dialled. For a moment, she wondered whether Chambers would pick up at all, but in the end he did. A brief conversation in which Chambers was alternately stonewalling and recalcitrant eventually revealed that his group had, indeed, been behind the flash-bang grenades on the metro, that they had taken men into custody, and that they were planning on interrogating them... somewhere. Chambers assured her he would send a complete report on whatever they discovered, which meant that it would be a partial report containing whatever they deemed appropriate for her to pass on to her superiors.

She hung up the phone. She still didn't curse.

She turned back to the table. Her PDA wasn't truly meant for the work she was about to do, but back at the office, she had patched it into Paxsec's cellular network tracking service. She made one final sweep for bugs, trackers, and anything else that might be sending information back to HQ. There weren't any, or if there were, they were buried too deep for her to find them.

A moment later, she'd pulled up the metro surveillance camera feeds. There they were: Delacroix, Chambers, and Sam, flashing the Paxsec badges Delacroix had assured her they kept for "nostalgia." They dragged their prisoners into a car driven by Strauss. The image was a little grainy, but it did the job.

With the time stamp available, Maia quickly found the surveillance camera feed from the train itself, and watched Sam drop a flash-bang grenade right near him and three tough-looking customers. Another flash-bang report from the other end of the train registered. That was Delacroix's grenade, stunning the other two mercenaries. A handful of late-night commuters were hurt, though not seriously. Maia breathed out slowly, grateful for small miracles.

Impersonating Paxsec officers, assault, possession of weapons on the metro... she probably had enough information to severely compromise Chambers and the rest. (Though, she was certain, the good Doctor would wriggle his way out of any serious reprimands.) She contemplated the screen.

With infinite care, she copied the files and uploaded them to a secure -- heavily secure, heavily encrypted -- disused node on Hermes72, where it joined a small but growing collection of files. If she had done her job properly, and she'd spent long enough on the project to ensure that it was as good as she could make it, it was untraceable.

She logged out of the network and returned to the surveillance tapes. There was a button sitting innocuously at the bottom of the screen, one of the perks she'd received when she signed on with Paxsec: "Erase Footage? Yes/No"

She could, with the press of a button, ensure that her copy was the only one that existed of the incident on the metro and its aftermath. She could cover for Chambers, for Delacroix. But missing footage, for an event as important as this, would raise flags, and those flags would point right back to her. Someone back at Paxsec would know she was covering.

She stared at the screen for nearly ten seconds, mind churning. Finally, she tapped her choice. The image remained frozen for a moment longer, before Maia began the careful task of hiding her digital fingerprints. She breathed evenly, she kept her heartbeat slow, she thought of happy memories.

She was not even a little bit sleepy.

She placed a few chits down on the table and stood up, slipping her PDA into the side pocket of her jacket. She was the very image of a hard-working, diligent manager. She smiled and nodded to the waitresses behind the counter before taking to the streets. She'd been in one place too long, and it was time to get moving again.

Hermes 72 - Heavy Gear RPG - Most artwork Copyright 2002 Dream Pod 9, Inc.