A New Deal

Aboard the Crack-In-The-World
Tau Ceti

"Captain Volochkov, the Quartermaster will see you now," said the head that briefly peered around the edge of a barely opened hatch. As quickly as it had appeared, it darted back behind the door, leaving Yevgienyi Volochkov without much of an impression of the face, hair color, or anything else. He had been trained to be good at memorizing faces, but this one escaped him entirely. He was probably a little too distracted by the feeling of dread that hit him when he heard those words. The blood drained from his face, and he could feel the tingling and clammy feeling of fear building despite his disciplined skill at hiding such emotions. He took a breath and stood up, mentally going through his calming exercise. He covered the distance to the hatch in a few strides, but that was all he needed to regain his composure and remind himself of the routine nature of this inquiry. Everyone who had been with the Crack-In-The-World during the past few months was getting grilled. This was just his turn.

The hatch opened again as he approached it, to let him in, then swung closed with a resounding clang. His dread returned when he heard the automatic locks secure and seal it. He looked back toward the hatch, then to his left at the simple table where two men sat amid several layers of scattered files, pages of paper, clear plastic recording DRDs, and data slugs, all lit from below by the glow of two data screens in the table. One of these men belonged to the head that peered out the door a moment ago, the other was Quartermaster Colin MacDuff, de facto leader of the Independence movement's naval forces. There he sat, businesslike and very.normal appearing. There was more grey in his beard than he had imagined, but MacDuff's hair was in his signature tightly bound ponytail, pulled back to reveal prominent veins at his greying temples. He was a small lean man, who gave the impression of a formidable strength, but the lines around his eyes revealed the face of a man who also liked to smile.

"Uh. I'm." Volochkov began rather clumsily.

"Sit down, please captain," MacDuff said, gesturing to a chair at the table nearest to Volochkov, without even looking up from the screen. "We'll need just another moment or two."

Volochkov sat without saying anything, trying to project just the right amount of discomfort and awe that the situation demanded, but no more than that. The two men across the table from him worked in silence as if he weren't in the room, calling up files and data on the screens. Volochkov took this opportunity to study the two, looking closely at their faces and demeanour. He'd seen the Quartermaster before, in file images and recordings, but this other fellow was new. He had a larger frame than MacDuff, and he was clean-shaven. He looked softer and out of shape, which meant he was probably a desk jockey. Volochkov guessed he was a secretary or some kind of personal assistant, but felt that it would probably be dangerous to underestimate him. Finally the assistant looked up and spoke directly at him.

"Captain Volochkov, I understand you had a fair run of it during our little demonstration the other day."

"No navy ships that were part of the Syracuse group survived or escaped, if that's what you mean," Volochkov replied defensively. He intentionally kept the full details of what he witnessed that day to himself. "I chose to return via a series of indirect routes.to protect the safety of the Crack-In-The-World."

"Indeed," The assistant said. He paused just long enough to hint that there was some doubt about the story. "Well, good job on that one. Glad you're back. Let's get down to business, shall we?

"As you know we've been reviewing the actions of the members of the Crack-In-The-World group since the Out-In-The-Cold incident a few months ago. We've assembled and reviewed as much as we could from that day, but logs and sensor data are sketchy. Allow me to review the events from that day: the group was waiting for re-supply, and had just moved to an asteroid field to wait, and to effect repairs. A Commonwealth Navy recon vessel was waiting for us in that asteroid field, and they managed to slip past us. We suffered further damage to our ships, we lost valuable time, and a good deal of initiative, not to mention the three PatComs destroyed that day.

"The asteroid field we had chosen for cover was very good, but it was also a source of interference for our sensors, which means our sensor logs are poor, which means we've had to have every commanding officer in here for a little chat, to give us their version of things. Those PatComs were crewed by experienced and valued members of this movement, so you can, perhaps, understand our desire to get a better understanding of the events."

"I knew them personally Mr. Whatever-Your-Name-Is, so drop your better understanding insinuations and your little chat bullshit. Those 'experienced and valued members of the movement' were my friends. Just ask your goddamned questions," Volochkov replied with an excellent display of anger and moral outrage. It caught the assistant off guard, but he thought he detected a small smile start to creep onto MacDuff's face.

The assistant recovered with a distinctively colder approach. "Captain, let me assure you that we have very good reasons for."

"Captain Volochkov," MacDuff interrupted. "This is not a formal inquiry, nor is it a disciplinary hearing." They remained silent for a moment as the focus shifted to MacDuff. "In fact, we are not the Commonwealth Navy; we simply don't do that kind of thing."

MacDuff turned to his assistant and spoke in a friendly and conciliatory tone, "Geoff, we've been at this for hours now, without a break, and you've had the lion's share of it. Why don't you take a wee stroll down to the galley and gi' us a minute to have our .'Little Chat' while you catch your breath."  The look he gave Geoff, the assistant, made it clear that this was more than a friendly suggestion. Geoff seemed to understand. He gave Volochkov a final unfriendly look as he collected a file from the table, pushed his chair back, and walked toward the exit. MacDuff and Volochkov watched each other intently as they both waited for the hatch to close behind the assistant.

More silence followed the sound of the hatch re-sealing itself. Finally MacDuff broke the silence, and the steady look he had been directing at Volochkov. "Let's start again, shall we? This time: the no-bullshit version. Clear?"

"Very clear, sir.  Thank you," Volochkov replied.

"Don't thank me yet, Captain," MacDuff leaned to the side and reached down for something in his briefcase at the side of his chair. He pulled a small, unmarked grey box from the bag and placed it on the table between them.  He placed both thumbs firmly and squarely on the opposing sides of this box, and held them there for a moment until a distinct click was heard. He removed his thumbs from the box and folded his hands on the table in front of him, nodding toward the box as he resumed his discourse. "Now we can be very clear. No bullshit, and a guarantee that no one else is listening." His eyes made darting glances toward the walls and ceiling to convey his message.

"We have only a few minutes, so listen very carefully, and say nothing," MacDuff leaned in closer across the table, and gestured with a finger for Volochkov to do the same in a kind of mock conspiratorial tone as if they shared a secret. "We know we have a spy in our midst. We've known for some time. The Navy recon incident was not our first indication of the presence of this spy. Now, someone went to a great deal of trouble to make sure we wouldn't have much sensor data to assemble regarding that incident. However, we have a couple of remarkably talented specialists in our midst, both of whom are very loyal to me.  They've gathered some data telling me what I need to know about this spy." He paused here for effect, studying Volochkov's stony expression. "These data are not widely available to our fellow leaders in the Independence movement. Not yet, anyway.  We have enough data to go beyond mere insinuations. Captain, these data all point to the Wolf-In-The-Fold. In short, they all point directly, and irrevocably, to you."

With a quick wave of his hand, MacDuff cut off any reply by Volochkov, and let that last comment sit there on the table between them for a moment. "Now, here's the thing: I know, I know, that you're the spy, and believe me, the irony of your ship's name has not been lost on me.  I'm impressed you've managed it for so long, so I figure you're not alone.maybe some of your bridge officers are in on it. But as surprising as it may sound to you, I've been waiting to see exactly whose spy you were. I'll surprise you even more: I'm actually relieved to learn that you're Commonwealth Navy," he chuckled with delight at his own candour.

As MacDuff watched and savoured the reactions he saw in Volochkov's face, he jumped in. "Aha! I can see that you ARE just a little bit surprised by my 'no bullshit' approach. Well here's the crux of the matter: I'm going to leave you right where you are. I need you to stick around and do a few favours for me, and believe me when I remind you that you need me to keep you there. One word, and this conversation might stop being our little secret. That goes for any accidents that may befall me, as well. Do you have any idea what the good people of the Crack-In-The-World group, or anyone else in the movement, for that matter, would do to you if they found out that you were Navy? I'm sure you do. You probably have a little pill, or a special tooth or something to save yourself from that kind of pain. You might even try to run, but allow me to remind you that you lot aren't the only ones with spies. I'm sure some of our operatives would relish a little retributive side mission to break the monotony, so don't think you can run away, either."

Volochkov could only sit and listen in stunned silence, his pretense and role-plays shattered in a series of pre-emptive revelations.

MacDuff continued, "Make no mistake about this: your days of spying for the Commonwealth Navy are over. You've been exposed, at least to me. You are.how do they put it: 'Compromised', isn't it? Oh, don't worry. I'm not trying to turn you into a double agent, or anything. You don't need to worry about betraying the Navy. I'll even give you a few tidbits of juicy intel here and there to let you keep the Navy spooks happy. We wouldn't want to jeopardize that Navy pension now would we? But ken this: from now on, you work exclusively for me, personally. You are now MY operative. I've got other errands I need a specialist like you for. You already know the new chain of command: Whatever I tell you to do, you do it. Simple, isn't it? In the minute or so that we have before our friend Geoff returns, lets discuss your new job description."




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