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chapter seven
Part One

The final day of the European table United Earth Conference was a grey and ugly one, fitting the mood that had descended on everyone as the realization sunk in that they would not make history, yet again. It was the sort of day that trouble arrives on.

No one was better aware of that than James Ticinovic. He stood in the small security monitoring room watching the bank of displays, looking, as he always did, for signs of trouble.

Members of various delegations, some national, many corporate, milled about in the main reception hall at the Network Tower in downtown Baden-Baden, waiting for the Grand Assembly to call to order the closing session in the European Table of the United Earth Conference.

Ticinovic watched as Coombs, a fast riser in Strategic Intelligence, glided through a Squad of mixed military assigned for security at this affair. He didn't like Coombs very much, something about her reminded him too well of a rather strict schoolteacher he had back in grade school, with her dark, sleek suits, tightly pulled back chestnut hair, devoid of flourish, feminine but only in a dominatrix sort of way.

Ticinovic supposed some people were rather drawn to her look, certainly she seemed to have a rather high success rate here in Europe where the latest trends included faux-leather Couvier collars at work, but it did nothing for James and his mid-region, Cathlican upbringing.

He watched as she met one last time with Major Frohman, Security Commander for the United Earth detail, and then, after a quick and seemingly final exchange she stepped back, allowing her ensemble to blend her back into the shadows.

James knew at this point that the moment of truth was only seconds away. Months of work, subtle, frustrating work, was about to pay off, not in the ideal manner, but in a way which would create ripples that would benefit the status quo for a very long time.

His eyes followed Frohman from screen to screen as the Major made his way through the crowd of dignitaries, across the hall, toward his destination. A sly smile crossed James' face, knowing that chaos was about to descend on the assembly. Good, corrective chaos.

Like an eagle he watched Frohman drift through the crowd, appearing to casually monitor the event, even though he was hunting prey. Twice the Major stopped, looked around, as though to spot Coombs, and both times he looked as though his resolve was melting. But in each case, his eyes shifted back to that familiar cold steel, and he returned to his predatory path.

At the other end of the panels Leftenant Gilles called out to Ticinovic a second time, breaking his reverie. Ticinovic looked over at the young woman, startled by her volume. "It's a Colonel Fiche. He needs to talk to you."

James glanced back at the monitors. He couldn't find Frohman. He started to walk towards the Link that Gilles was holding up for him. Obviously, if Fiche was calling directly this was urgent, but why now?

Ticinovic took the Link and held it up to his ear, automatically activating the privacy switch in the device that would allow him, and only him, to hear what was being said on the other side.

He turned, looking back at the displays, trying to relocate Frohman, as he spoke into the Link.

"What can I do for you, Colonel?"

"I need to speak to Browning immediately."

Ticinovic looked around. Browning had frequented the Monitor Room covertly a few times; the General did everything covertly because of the position he was in.

General Browning was in fact the Number Four person in the Network. It was a civilian posting, as was the Number Two and of course, the Number One position of United Network Chief Executive Officer.

By the terms of the United Network constitution, the only one of the top five positions in charge of the Network that could be held by an active member of the military was the Number Three slot, Director of Defence. It was a position held by the person Major Frohman was currently approaching, General Dennis MacPherson.

And it was because of this rule that General Browning had long since assumed the identity of Bradley Robinson, a former Logistics Manager who had been killed in the Battle of Long Bow, but whose death records were suppressed by the Strategic Intelligence branch of Information Management, for later use.

Since his death, records indicated that Mister Robinson had returned to his Civil Engineering job, where he was increasingly being consulted on various developing regional projects. This long list of successful ventures resulted in his assignment to the United Network Regional Development Council, and led to his rapid ascension, as it's Deputy Director.

At that point General Browning assumed the persona, met with Chief Executive Danielle Prystawska, to accept both the Network Medal of Honour and the position of Regional Development Director, the heretofore-mentioned Number Four slot.

Ticinovic turned to the Gilles, "Where is Bradley Robinson right now?"

In a second Gilles had brought up the Master List, tracked the Comm-Tag and scanned the assembly. Ticinovic saw the isolation track zero in on Robinson and tapped the pause on the Link before triggering the second line to the nearest Receptor.

* * *

At the far end of the Hall, Bradley Robinson was standing with CEO Prystawska, an early 50's distinguished woman who looked like the sort of person one would want running the planet.

He glanced from the throng, groups of which were being shepherded into the Assembly Room, towards her while wondering, for the hundredth time, if she would play ball and enact the policies his group felt were needed to ensure the status quo, or if she were the sort of leader that thought they alone knew the correct destiny for the planet.

"Think you'll run?"

She looked up at him and smiled that slight grin she reserved for people she liked,

"Of course I'll run. Wouldn't want the job going to someone who isn't qualified, would you?" She stopped suddenly and then turned to Robinson, "Why? Are you thinking of it?"

Without pause Robinson responded with the first truth he had spoken all day, "No Ma'am. I prefer being behind the scenes."

Prystawska nodded, accepting this response. She reached out and patting his arm as she started forward, "You're too good of a politician to hide back there forever."

Robinson was about to follow her into the Assembly Hall when a very young androgynous person touched his arm. He looked sharply at the protocol violation when he saw the uniform of a Receptor, the gophers, pages and support staff that seemed to outnumber delegates at this thing. In their hand was a Link. Robinson took it and brought it up to his ear, "Yes?"

"Sorry to bother you... sir... but I have a Colonel Timothy Fiche on the line for you."

Robinson looked up, half scoping the crowd for witnesses, half looking to make contact with Ticinovic through the surveillance cameras to express his dissatisfaction at this contact. He knew Fiche wouldn't be contacting him this way if it wasn't important so he grit his teeth and replied, "Put the Colonel through."

While hanging back, well back of the crowds, Robinson/Browning listened as Fiche updated him on the recent troubles near the old site of Sweetgrass, Montana. Forty-two people were dead after a group of hunters stumbled upon a community already panicked into the belief invaders were about to take their birthright from them. The grapevine connecting these communities was creating a ripple of blind panic and it was escalating. That brought the total casualties in the region to over a thousand in the last twenty-one days.

If that wasn't bad enough an asset known only as DOVETAIL, a person working out of the Halls of Congress, Union of Western States, had just advised them that a motion was being put forward that afternoon to send units of the UWO National Guard into Buffalo Commons.

Robinson cringed. If either America rolled into that region then the other would feel they were losing out on a vast and rich expanse. And there was little doubt the bitterness of the last Century's history would lead to another civil war, this time West vs. East. WestCan couldn't sit out such a fight and that would escalate the action.

So there it was. No matter how fast Robinson's department, and the Buffalo Commons Constabulary got their act together it wouldn't be in time to stop a continent wide conflagration. It had been what they were trying to avoid, but because of the idiot in charge of the Defence Directory, it wouln't change anything.

"I agree, it's terrible, Colonel, and I wish I could help you but..." His people might control the communications but he was still going to be careful with what he said. Robinson was waiting for Fiche to get to something new, the relevant bits that precipitated this call.

Then it came, "We also believe there are external elements at work in the Commons."

The silence Robinson replied with was Fiche's cue to continue. In short order the Colonel provided the additional details from Victoria Wells' report on the incident at the Cheyenne Dam, specifically the parts about the locals using rifles more modern than they should have access to.

The crisis was escalating, that was not unexpected, but if the powder keg was attracting outside players then a new sense of urgency was needed. Buffalo Commons was now part of a larger battle. "Do we know who?"

"Not yet."

Robinson nodded, knowing that Fiche was skirting the obvious statement. This was the sort of gap that could only be filled by the military and that was the responsibility of General MacPherson, a person who considered deep space forward actions by the Fleet to be a higher priority than short-term Earthbound development missions.

Robinson looked out into the crowd. It was wrong headed of the General, but that would soon change. Earth was the engine of the solar system's economy, and every time the Network stabilized a region it kept the League, the New Soviet, and whoever else wished to subvert the status-quo at bay.

The whole reason the New Soviet were so busy in the Asteroid Belt and beyond was because of how isolated they were on Earth. Although he'd never admit it, Robinson, as General Browning, felt they could have the damn rocks if they wanted them. The Network's future lay with securing planet Earth.

Robinson said nothing as he looked at the monitors and watched Major Frohman remove his pistol from his holster, raise it, aim it at General Dennis MacPherson and pull the trigger, cleanly taking his head off in front of a scrum of the planet's widest circulation Newsnets.

The speed with which this was done was so fast that no one even had time to scream a warning before the General's body had fallen, lifeless, to the floor. Best still was the reaction of the Major's own, hand-picked Security Squad.

The first to knock Frohman down was an Astral Senior Leftenant, a solid built black man, who had plucked the weapon from the Major's hand before he'd even realized who was holding it. The look of betrayal on that man's face was almost worth the price of admission, Robinson thought.

The scrum went crazy. Bystanders appeared as though cued by Central Casting and Robinson knew by what he saw that a major obstacle had been removed. The Number Two in the Defence Directorate was General Antony Baril, an experienced Ground Operations Commander, Commandant of the Astral Corps and no friend of Fleet.

Robinson brought the Link to his ear again, "Start putting together a full PKF Info-Pak on Buffalo Commons."

"But the D-D doesn't favour..." The D-D was insider talk for the Defence Directorate. Colonel Fiche knew quite well what was planned for this conference, and would surely have seen the Newsnet reports on this event, after all, it was on every channel.

It was comforting to know that even the people who control the flow of information still operated as though someone was listening in. You just never knew.

"Buffalo Commons is about to take the news cycle, Mister Fiche. It's time we brought back civilization to the old west."

Robinson severed the Link connection confident of their success. He began scrolling through some of the reports, which had downloaded from Fiche on the recent events in Buffalo Commons and shook his head. They had to work fast if they were to avert a serious global tragedy.

Robinson looked up at the swarm of investigators seemed to come from nowhere. Already Frohman was gone, presumably for his Military Tribunal, which Baril would ensure took place very quickly.

He glanced over at the sidelines, at the mass of Receptors lined up, waiting for someone to ask them to do something. Beyond which Robinson saw, if just for a moment, the shadowy figure of Andrea Coombs, lurking in the darkness.

He'd have to have a word with Fiche about her. Agents and Provocateurs should never hang around after the fact. Besides, her usual assignment was Recruitment and Handling.

Robinson, thinking as Browning for a moment, thought a second about the act he just witnessed. The black officer on the detail had demonstrated something quite special back there.

Obviously he'd known Frohman, respected him by the looks of it, but that hadn't stopped him from acting quickly. Robinson would have to mention that to Fiche as well. They were always looking for more "Ghosts" and if he refused, well, they'd need bodies for Buffalo Commons, wouldn't they?

* * *