Episode One



On the Saratoga

George Blaire glanced around the docking bay as he stepped off the transport. He had come out here on a Navy ISSCV, not as comfortable as a company ship, but he didn't want to attract a lot of attention this trip. Success here would be well worth the inconvenience.

Blaire showed his ID to a young ensign and waited as patiently as his bag was searched. A sailor escorted him to his quarters, much more private and more comfortable than the usual military accommodations although it seemed cramped and spartan to Blaire.

Aerotech was in the middle of a serious mess. The company faced lawsuits from the Tellus and Vesta survivors. Worse, the Chig ambassador's allegations that Aerotech had known they were trespassing on foreign soil when they sent the probe and the two colonial expeditions were starting to surface. It was only a matter of time before they faced an angry UN subcommittee who were looking for someone to blame for the war. It would be politically very useful to make a faceless evil corporation responsible for the war's tremendous costs, both financial and in the lifeblood of so many of Earth's young people.

The military was looking for scapegoats as well. A lot of important people had died in the peace conference bombing, and their equally important friends were looking for someone to blame. They'd settled on a couple of young officers who had the bad luck of being in the wrong place at the wrong time, Blaire thought--not that it really made a difference either way.

It wasn't Blaire's job to worry about whether Aerotech was either legally or morally responsible for those costs. Likewise, he didn't care whether or not Hawkes and West deserved to be punished for their conduct on Anvil. His job was damage control. Aerotech needed the court-martial swept under the rug as quickly as possible, before it led to more questions. Unpleasant questions about Anvil, about the missing probe, about whether Aerotech had known then about the aliens.

It didn't take Blaire long to settle into his small cabin. Afterwards, he placed a call. General Jeremy Beckwith owed Aerotech, but a lot of Aerotech markers had gone down in value recently. That was why Blaire had been sent all the way out here to deal with this personally.

Beckwith agreed to meet with him readily enough. Blaire was more nervous than he had been in years as he left the civilian area of the ship and took a passenger lift up to the rarified atmosphere of VIP territory. Beckwith let him in.

The general stood several inches taller than Blaire. There was a lot of gray in his close-cropped hair, but he still looked like he'd be more at home in the field than behind a desk. His handshake was still strong, Blaire controlled the urge to wince and returned the grip as firmly as he could.

Beckwith waved him to a chair. "What can I do for you, Mr. Blaire?"

"This court-martial could be very embarrassing to the military and to Aerotech as well."

"Scotch?" At Blaire's nod, Beckwith poured two glasses and sat down across from him. The general said, "Any court-martial is an embarrassment, Mr. Blaire. We have to admit our people screwed up before we can punish them for it. A little embarrassment now and then never hurt the Corps."

"The operative word being 'little,' General." Blaire raised his glass to his lips. It was very good Scotch. "Our associations in the past have always been positive for both the company and yourself. If publicity around the court-martial gets out of hand, it could be very negative for the company. I'm sure you can see that would be very negative for everyone involved. The company would be pleased if the whole thing were handled as quietly as possible."

Beckwith replied, "It would be a lot more negative for me if my name came up in association with any hint of some kind of cover-up. I'll do what I can if the opportunity presents itself, but I won't create a scandal to save Aerotech. You just don't bring enough to the table to justify that."

"If your past associations with the company came to light, there would be quite a scandal involved with that."

Unperturbed, Beckwith sipped his Scotch. "I've been playing this game a lot longer than you have, Mr. Blaire. Trust me, your superiors won't do that. If I get upset, or if anything happens to me, certain facts about the company would come to light. It's a case of mutually assured destruction--all our interests are served by pretending those past associations never happened."

"Precisely why Aerotech wants this court-martial kept quiet, General." Blaine tried to keep his misgivings out of his voice. The general was going to come out of this alive whether or not Aerotech survived the next few months.

"I can delay the proceedings and buy you more time, but that's all. Unless Vansen and Damphousse are found alive to corroborate Hawkes and West's story, you're dead in the water. If things go on as they are now, those boys are going to be convicted and there will be a very noisy appeal. If you're a Catholic, Mr. Blaine, I'd suggest you have a talk with Saint Jude. If a miracle does occur and those women are rescued before this goes to the jury, I'll make sure they get their say."

The Scotch burned its way down Blaire's throat. For the first time he realized just how much he personally had riding on all of this. His whole career could end up depending on the testimony of two young Marines who might be lying dead in a swamp right now. It was time he started looking at it with Beckwith's objectivity. The cold fact was, if Aerotech went down, there was very little chance that he could avoid going down with it.

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