A Pillar Of Fire By Night – Snippet 38

This book should be available now, so this is the last snippet.

A Pillar Of Fire By Night – Snippet 38

Tauran Defense Agency Headquarters, Lumière, Gaul, Terra Nova

Campbell and Turenge decided to lead their report for Janier with a litany of the anomalies, these ranging from more than double the required numbers of barrels for mortars and towed artillery, to unaccounted for long range multiple rocket launcher systems, to acrylic probably intended for Meg Class submarines but well in excess to needs for the number believed to have been produced, to where the steel from scrapped Volgan warships went, to scores of others. Oddly enough, one of the anomalies was not included.

Why, asked Campbell, for about the five-hundredth time, why did they need twenty-four spacesuits?

She couldn’t answer the question. No theory she came up with made sense. But they cannot be oriented at us; we hardly have a space program worth ruining. They could maybe be used underwater but there are cheaper and better solutions. And, as far as using them on the planet, I cannot imagine how someone would lug three or four hundred pounds around and expect to accomplish anything.

No, there is only one target that makes sense . . . and that doesn’t make sense.

The sirens began to blare, as they did every few days to every week or so. There was seldom much warning, as radar couldn’t pick up the slow drones the Balboans called “Condors.”

And that was a clever thing, the air force types tell me, gaining stealth by substituting random chance and polystyrene foam for extremely careful engineering and manufacture. We can’t pick them up, except visually, and the Earthpigs tell Janier they can’t, either . . . now isn’t that interesting?

Jan went back to the report about to be sent to Janier. We know some equipment went to Zion, and we know a shitpot’s worth were transshipped through Cochin. But how do we know what was not transshipped through Cochin? Or how much was? Or how much might have been diverted, hence how much can be in country? What we have identified, or the Volgans gave to me, doesn’t match–rather, it overmatches–their order of battle as we can see it.

“I need to take a brief trip,” she said to Captain Turenge. “Maybe three weeks. I’m pretty sure you can handle the shop until I get back.”

“No problem,” answered the female Gaul. “Anything I can do to ‘elp?”

“No. And I’ll take only Greene and Dawes with me; the rest of the direct-action team I’ll leave with you in case somebody”–she looked pointedly down towards a particular section of the basement–“should happen to get uppity.”

Merci. Though I still think we’d ‘ave been better off if ‘e and the other one ‘ad died in a fight to the death over moi. If only as a lesson to the others.”

Air Gaul Airship Jeanne d’Arc

Jan knew she was close, at least, to the former base of the Salafi Ikhwan, the base Carrera had raided and destroyed, bringing the ultimate act of the war against the terrorists to a close.

And that, she reminded herself, is suspicious as hell, too. There’s a cross border attack, against an enemy base in an allied country–well, “officially allied”; everyone entitled to an opinion knew they had to play both sides–and suddenly the old high admiral, Robinson, disappears and new high admiral, Wallenstein is in his place? And a few days later a nuke goes off in Hajar, right in the compound of the clan to which the head of the Salafi Ikhwan belonged? How did that nuke get there? The official story, that Mustafa had gotten one from who-knows-where and it went off accidentally stinks to the high heavens. Nukes are hard to make go off; one going off accidentally beggars belief. But if it didn’t come from there, why was there no trace of . . .

Mentally, she replayed the warbling sirens in Lumiere. Well, it’s plausible anyway. But if so, were did he get a nuke? And if he had one, I wonder how many more he might have? Enough to destroy the TU? Or only enough to destroy my home? I’ve never been cleared for the information, but I wonder if anyone I know is. And, if so, how would they know? But, now that I think on it, I’m not entirely sure the reluctance to use nukes against Balboa was purely the result of enlightened sensibilities.

Of course, the Volgans didn’t give me any information on that, but then, they wouldn’t, would they?

***

The flight took a little under two and a half days. Though, in truth, she’d wanted to take a trip on a luxury airship for years, just for the experience, it was also true that such a craft was a better cover for her, in her portrayal of an upper-class dilettante, or someone with an interest in global shipping and ship building playing the dilettante, than a faster jet would have been. She’d also booked the trip as SOPH, Starboard Out, Port Home, to avoid the worst of the sunlight. It had added several thousand drachmae to the cost but, What the hell, the TU is paying.

It also tended to play to both her covers that Dawes and Greene could serve as bodyguards, while publicly acting like boy-toys. Whatever their social background, they’d both served long enough in Anglian special operations, and both been well trained enough, that they could present the right image. She felt bad that one of them had to sleep on her cabin floor every night, just in case the Cochinese–a very suspicious bunch–were vetting passengers, but, after all, needs must . . . .

Dawes and Greene could pull off their parts easily enough. But Jan wasn’t sure she could pull of hers with anyone who grew up to know better. Thus, she took her meals in her cabin, for the most part, the two non-coms taking turns picking them up, thus avoiding social contact with the other passengers.

I suppose I’m missing a great part of the experience, and, moreover, an experience without financial guilt since the TU is paying my way at first class plus. Why, it’s almost like being a left-wing activist working for the World League or Save the Terrorists. But to hell with it. And besides, the scenery you can see this way is entertainment and education enough for a poor girl from a hardscrabble fishing village not far from Saint Mungo. At least, it is when I’m not studying the nuances of international shipping, ship yards, and ship building.

Prey Nokor, Cochin

The town was a riverport, well inland. Jan could smell it before she could see it. Indeed, given that she was arriving at night, and liberal provision of electricity was something that, like poverty, the formerly socialist Republic of Cochin aspired to, she couldn’t have seen it if her cabin had been facing the wide river.

There’s something else there, too, beyond the stink of the mud and the marsh. I smell poverty . . . a trace of what I grew up with, wood smoke and piss and shit that nobody bothers to bury or cart away . . . .garbage . . . maybe disease and bodies . . . unwashed bodies, too, even if healthy. Onions. Those are very poor people, down below.

She sensed the engines of the airship were having to strain a bit. So, we’re downwind. That might explain the stench.

After a bit, the stench was gone but the strained thrumming of the engines remained. And then she felt the huge lighter-than-air craft begin a lazy circle to port, finally revealing the few main thoroughfares of the city that were well lit with both streetlights and nightlife. At that point, the airship’s descent became relatively quicker than it had been, quick enough to give some of that sense of an elevator going down. Even as the descent accelerated, the engines went neutral, and then reversed at low power to fight the tail wind. When the ship finally touched down into its concave landing pad, Jan hardly felt it.

***

Customs was a fairly painless passage. In the first place, the first-class passengers had a separate–and very quick and courteous–line, paid for as part of the price of their fare. But in the second place, Cochin wasn’t worried too much about people smuggling drugs in, since few of the people could afford any such thing. They were far more concerned with people trying to smuggle things–antiquities and young sex slaves–out, actually. And their one external threat, Ming Zhong Guo, had few tourists, few enough for them to be watched like hawks. Of course, the Cochinese took a keen interest in the activities of the Zhong embassy staff.

In any case, for Jan, being neither a Zhong tourist nor a member of any official delegation, there was no tail. She was easily well trained enough to have spotted one, and even had she not been, both Greene and Dawes were. None of the three spotted anything remotely like a tail, on the taxi ride to their suite at the Hotel Daydream, which was, arguably, Prey Nokor’s finest. Its decor was, interestingly, far more influenced by Tuscany than Gaul.

I wonder if that’s a deliberate slight of their old oppressor.

***

Jan had had her secretary, back in Lumiere, make a number of appointments with various concerns in Cochin. The secretary had done so posing as part of the staff of a long-existing, but completely spurious Anglian shipping company, with interests also in ship-building. That spurious company, itself, was a temporary borrowing–with permission–from Jan’s official chief, Sidney Stuart-Mansfield.

She went through appointments with three builders and two chandlers and a scrapper. Only one of those was useful, when the scrapper mentioned three more companies that were allegedly skilled in modifying ships for original uses. One of these turned smaller freighters and coasters into yachts.

Hmmm . . . I wonder if . . . no, probably not; the legions seem to have used others for that kind of work.

Two others did more substantial modifications. Of these, one, a Mr. Nguyen, who was also a cousin of one Commander Nguyen, seemed to Jan a little greasier, a little greedier, and perhaps not as conscious of his previous client’s security as he might have been. He also seemed confidently competent. Moreover, his French was at least as good as hers.

“I no longer have them here to show you,” said Mr. Nguyen, “but my company can and has turned a warship into a freighter and a civilian freighter into a warship. We have the architects. We have the welders and fitters. We have everything. Whatever you want or need done, we can do. Most of my people learned their jobs from the Federated States Navy.”

Something in his phraseology . . . aha . . . inspiration strikes.

Jan’s face became very serious. “Let me get to the point,” she said. “My cover as a dilettante is only that. I am here on serious business. What my company is interested in, Mr. Nguyen, is making a proposal to the Federated States to provide for them what their existing arsenal ship program is failing at; a low cost, heavily armed bombardment ship, mounting either cannon or guns or both, to assist in clearing the beaches for opposed landings for their marines. We think there might be considerable profit in this, the more so, of course, if costs can be kept low, which Cochin’s cost of living says is possible.”

Jan didn’t have to feign interest when she asked, “So explain to me how your people go about such a job, from the very beginning . . . Ah, yes, of course I understand your time is valuable and of course my company will pay for it most willingly.”

***

And so where did that ship go? Jan wondered. Where did that ship go, with its squadron of nitrogen preserved attack and transport helicopters? With its hovercraft? With its almost nine hundred long-range rockets? With its Volgan infantry fighting vehicles that are more powerful than any tank of the Great Global War? And where did it pick up its infantry? Because somewhere, it is picking up twelve to fourteen hundred infantry.

How do I find it? Nobody knows who owns any given ship. There are civilian ship watchers who do a better job of tracking ships than any intelligence service, but they’re usually anywhere from a couple of days to a couple of months behind. And we of the intelligence community? Nobody pays enough attention. Some of us try. Most of us usually fail.

Maybe more importantly, if the target is who I am beginning to suspect it is, do I tell anyone or just keep my pretty little mouth shut?

In any case, I have time to think about it; the next few days are filled with appointments and bribes for heavy duty scrap metal dealers, and then one who deals in slave labor.

 

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