Chapter 22

book_cover18

PUZZLE

In a just universe, the honor of men like the Paladin would prevail. But Captain Holt knew better. He did not live in a just universe. As the rest of the camp slept, he walked towards one of the pilots pulling sentry duty along the perimeter. With a rifle slung over shoulder, the sentry snapped a hand salute as Holt got closer. Holt returned the salute and said, “How does it feel to carry a rifle for a change, Marine?”

“Every Marine a rifleman,” the pilot responded.

As he passed by, the sentry said, “You have the password, sir?”

“You bet. You need it in case you don’t recognize me?”

“Well, now, I wouldn’t be manning my post properly if I let somebody through who looks like the XO but is actually the enemy in disguise. That’s what passwords are for.”

Holt chuckled. “Good man. I’ll be back in a bit. Just want to take a look around.”

“Be careful, sir.”

The sentry’s voice drifted off behind him as Holt picked up his pace and walked away from the camp. When he got far enough away that he couldn’t be heard, he scurried into the dark expanse beyond the perimeter until he was beyond the range of any radio equipment that might pick up his signal. Even if they intercepted it, they wouldn’t be able to decipher its contents, but it would mean a lot of questions he wouldn’t be able to answer when they discovered the source of the signal was in the palm of his hand.

He punched a small button on the transmitter and held it in the air so it could take a random sample of the minute fluctuations in air temperature. A green light flickered, confirming that the device had enough samples to generate an encryption key he would use to scramble the transmission and a corresponding key the recipients would use to decipher it. He tapped the button again and it faded to a steady yellow while his radio and the receiver at the other end exchanged a flurry of data and instructions used to establish the encrypted link. The light switched back to green and he keyed the small microphone.

“Tiger One Tiger Papa One. Message. Do not answer. Immediate. Skyrider egress 12 hours Victor two three one Papa Delta India offset three nautical miles. Further route unknown. Out.” He punched a button to transmit the message and waited for the green light to flicker one more time and then go dark as the transmitter deleted the encryption keys it had generated for the message. He closed his hand around the device, looked up into the night sky and let out slow breath. He stuffed it back in his pocket and walked quietly back to camp.

The Terran Guard operator at the other end recorded the message, stripped the call signs and then forwarded it to the S-2 listening post at MEF headquarters. Colonel Harris rubbed his chin as the message scrolled across the monitor.

“Where did we get this?” he asked the operator.

“Came directly from the Terran Guard, sir.”

Harris closed his eyes as his mind struggled to untangle the logic of the meaning behind the message. That there was a pilot heading for a navigation beacon that somebody thought they should talk to was clear enough, but his business was about unraveling the meaning behind the meaning of things. He couldn’t find any layers to strip away, only that the Terran Guard was helping him with information about something that probably had to do with the ceasefire and the ongoing hunt for the Paladin. None of it settled into place where he could catalog it in his mind as one more piece to a puzzle. The message itself was the puzzle. The only question he could think of that was worth answering was, how did they know?  And why didn’t he know it before they did?  What bothered him most was that the message didn’t come from somebody he knew, and yet the Terran Guard wanted him to know about it. The word crawled into his awareness and danced in his mind: setup.

“Forward it to Bravo One Nine and have her meet whoever this freighter pilot is.”

“Yes, sir.”

“And keep a lid on it. I want to see if anybody comes snooping around about this.”

“Yes, sir.”

Harris stretched his arms and yawned, then stepped out of the listening post. He traipsed through the compound until he reached the smear of blackened dirt where the Paladin had fired his plasma round. Marines shooting Marines, Terran spies passing information back to the MEF – it was all becoming a mess that somebody didn’t want cleaned up. The question was: who?

His immediate thought was General Lane, but the man wasn’t smart enough to make two trips around a tactical board without getting lost. It was too bad the MEF had too many officers who were well suited for analyzing logistics tables and not enough with the skills needed to make good decisions. It occurred to him the General could have been considered a traitor, but the man wasn’t even smart enough for that.

The other side of that equation was, of course, General Godfrey. Misguided but sincere, he understood that all she ever wanted was control so she could run things the way they were supposed to be run, if The Way was something they could all agree was the right way. Which they did not. She didn’t trust Lane as far as she could throw him, which proved she was at least smarter than he was. But Harris wasn’t about to believe that she was ready to just give the Exodus Colony free reign of the Highlands and put General Lane into a comfy political post. That was most definitely not in accordance with The Way.

Harris scuffed the edge of the scorch mark, scattering clean dust along its edges. The Paladin had been smart enough to get clear of all this before it had even started. Well, most of the way. If he hadn’t been laid up with a wounded Cat, he would have made a clean break.

Harris stopped walking and rubbed his chin when he realized it was Major Walker who had made the first real move in this little dance. Which meant he knew something. Lt. Simmons already had orders to report the moment she and Dekker found the Paladin. When they did, he would have to pay the good Major a visit. Until then, he would have to do what he hated most, but sometimes was the most important skill for a good S-2. He would have to wait.

NEXT.png


©2016 Michael J Lawrence