Monday, December 6, 2010

Between the Lines, part 1

It was crazy, even for her, and Maia Kessler would have been the first to admit it.

The hopper's engines thrummed, making the deck under her feet vibrate. She didn't notice. She stared at the email on the screen before her, trying to decide whether it was time to find a psychiatric ward somewhere and have herself committed.

The letter to Helen Luka from "Janus" -- Jan Augusta -- had arrived early that morning. He mentioned that the Gear duellist Simba had been replaced by Yves Knowlton and something about the Electric Nipple. It was old news. The taps on Simba's computer were nearly a day old already. This morning, she'd skimmed the message quickly and moved on to more pressing matters.

But now, in the relative safety of the hopper, she'd been poring over emails, messages, databases... anything she might have missed. Anything she should have seen that would have prevented yet another near-miss on Hiro's life. She'd come across Augusta's email again, and the second paragraph gave her pause. It was the typo that caught her first. Augusta didn't make typos. She'd been reading his leaks to Luka for days, and experience had taught her that he was a particularly careful proof-reader.

She read it again, slowly. Why would Augusta be warning Luka that Paxton employees were at risk? Luka did not work for Paxton and never had. And that typo again, "Msis," now jumped out at her as being damned close to her own name on a standard keyboard. Maybe it wasn't a typo for "Miss." Maybe Augusta was trying to actually name her in the most blatant way he could without giving himself away.

But that would be crazy.

She counted off the strings of circumstances that would result in this message being, not a standard leak for Luka, but a personalized warning for her, Maia Kessler.

First, Augusta would need to know that Luka's emails were being intercepted. That, at least, was a possibility. Lenaris had recognized Augusta's name immediately, and if he was anything as good as the Colonel implied, he'd know Luka's strategic importance and assume information to the reporter would be compromised in short order. Luka herself still seemed oblivious to the tap -- thankfully -- or she was a far better actor than Maia gave her credit for. Still, the informant may very well have intuited the situation better than the recipient.

Second, August would need to know that she, Maia, was the one reading the intercepted emails. That was less likely. For one thing, it was the Badlands Caravan Guild who had installed the tap, not Paxsec. On the other hand, Augusta may have assumed that Paxsec also had a tap -- not an unreasonable assumption -- and that Maia, as the most active agent involved in Hiro's security, would be reviewing the feed. Or that, as an associate of the BCG, she was privy to their feed. It was either a huge assumption on Augusta's part, or his intelligence gathering was much better than anyone knew.

Thinking of Augusta's intelligence gathering led to the third circumstance: he would need to have information that neither Paxsec nor the BCG possessed. A few weeks ago, Maia would have confidently stated that there was nothing happening in Peace River that Paxsec didn't know. Since her transfer, she was willing to nuance the statement to "very few things," but the principle still held. And the BCG had feelers where Paxsec didn't: organized crime. For Augusta to have an information network that extended beyond both Paxsec and the BCG, and for neither of those institutions to have realized it, was starting to stretch credulity. On the other hand, if he had some reliable source in the Prospects, he might have direct access to the Badlands Revolutionary Front. He might have genuine reason to suspect a threat.

Which, of course, led to the most tenuous circumstance of all: fourth, he'd need to care enough about Maia to risk revealing himself in warning her. Maia had seen Augusta's face briefly in the Réunion cafe, and then his back for a half-hour as they tailed him, but that was the extent of her knowledge. And while Augusta may very well have been digging up information on her -- who wasn't these days? -- she had no reason to think he'd care enough about her to warn her about a threat. What possible motive could he have for potentially compromising himself?

Oh, she could think of reasons. Maybe he wanted a favour in the future. Or to get on Paxsec's good side. Or some political tit-for-tat. Or some even more esoteric reason. But while those were all possible, none struck her as compelling.

The whole line of thinking was crazy. She was working herself up over an innocent typo. The hopper hit a patch of turbulence and Maia gripped her seat with her free hand. Crazy, that's what this whole thing was. She ought to move on to the next email. She knew it.


Once thought, it couldn't be unthought. What if Augusta really was trying to warn her? What if there was some threat against her that she let slip away by ignoring his warning? How would she live with herself?

Maia sighed and ran a hand through her dishevelled hair. She wasn't cut out for international espionage games. She had no idea what she was doing, tossed between a half-dozen factions' cloak-and-dagger politics. She needed help. Help from people with experience in these sorts of things. Her first thought, of course, was to contact Lenaris, but she hesitated. If this really was a message from Augusta, it was crafted to fly under the radar of any casual skimming. If he was assuming that Paxsec was reading his correspondences with Luka -- a practical assumption, Maia had to admit -- then this hidden message was designed to escape Paxsec's attention, and that meant that contacting Lenaris might only complicate matters that were too complicated already.

Besides, it might be nothing, and Maia could only speculate on what it would do to her career in Paxsec if she brought Lenaris intel that was effectively nothing more important than "Jan Augusta made a typo."

No, she needed someone outside the chain of command, and she needed someone she could contact without the possibility of her message being intercepted. Which left the other people on the hopper. She scanned the other passengers, frustrated. The only ones who would be of any help whatsoever were the members of the BCG; no one else knew her or the situation well enough to provide accurate advice. Chambers would no doubt be able to ferret out whatever meaning, real or imagined, Augusta's letter contained. But she still didn't trust him, and his recent experiments in "teasing" her grated on her nerves.

Tarmalin was a gunslinger, and an exceptional one, but Maia had no idea how much experience he had in espionage. And their newest companion, Strauss, was so green he might have had his own conservatory.

Then there was Delacroix. He had the experience, it was clear from his methods. He believed his group was morally superior to Paxsec. And he was here, in easy asking distance. He wasn't an ideal confidant, not by a long shot. But much as it galled her to admit it, he was the best choice she had.

She looked up and across the hopper. Delacroix was sitting near the front, staring out the window, scanning the horizon with a scowl on his face. It was obvious he wasn't happy about the situation. Maia suspected that the questions she was about to ask him would make him even less happy. Either he'd dismiss her concerns out of hand in that condescending way of his, or they'd now have yet another potential nebulous threat on their plates, all while needing to deal with the attack on the BCG offices and the preparations for the Norlight talks tomorrow.

There was nothing for it, and fretting was only going to make things more difficult. Suppressing a sigh, Maia unbuckled herself from her seat and made her way, handhold by handhold, across the hopper's main bay.


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