* * *
"You wanted to see me, Sir Arthur?"
"Yes, yes I did." Sir Arthur Keita stood behind his desk with a smile, and waved for Alicia to enter his office. She obeyed the gesture, acutely aware of the new blood-red ribbon nestled amid the "fruit salad" on the breast of her dress uniform tunic. He pointed at a chair, and she settled into it, and eyed him steadily.
"I realize your family is waiting for you, Alley," Keita said after a moment, "and I promise I won't keep you long. But I thought you'd like to know that the initial Shallingsport analysis has been wrapped up." He sat back down behind the desk, tipping back in his powered chair. "I'm quite sure that this doesn't begin to represent the final word on the operation, but I think it's about the best summary we're going to be able to put together until and unless we manage to break some additional intelligence information loose. I felt that as Charlie Company's senior officer, you should be informed, in general terms at least, of the report's conclusions."
Alicia sat up a bit more straightly, watching his expression intensely, and he inhaled deeply.
"Essentially, the report-which Captain Watts and I have both endorsed-concludes that there was a massive intelligence failure at all levels. Effectively, we allowed the Freedom Alliance to manipulate us into sending Charlie Company into a deliberately arranged ambush. The entire operation was specifically intended to draw in a Cadre unit-in fact, to draw in Charlie Company-and either destroy it outright or else create conditions under which we would 'provoke' the massacre of all six hundred-plus hostages trying to save it.
"In the first case, the successful destruction of your company, the operation would demonstrate that the Cadre isn't, in fact invincible, and that the FALA was capable of going toe-to-toe with the Emperor's personal corps d'elite and decisively defeating it.
"In the second case, the deaths of so many civilians would be spun as proof that the Empire sets the value it places upon the lives of its military personnel higher than it does the value of the civilians those military personnel are supposed to protect.
"In addition, it appears that they did, indeed, intend to press additional demands, some of which they may actually have believed they could get, given the unprecedented number and nature of the hostages they'd managed to take. Exactly what those other demands might have been is more problematical, since, unfortunately-from an intelligence viewpoint, at any rate-none of their leadership cadre on Fuller were taken alive.
"So far as we can determine, the actual number of armed FALA on the planet was just over three thousand, of whom approximately twenty-three hundred were equipped with battle armor, relatively modern infantry weapons, sting ships, and heavy weapons. I suppose we should count ourselves lucky that they didn't bring along heavy armored units, as well."
He paused, shaking his head in obvious disgust, and Alicia frowned.
"I knew there were a lot of them, Sir," she said, when he didn't resume immediately. "I didn't realize there were quite that many, though. Have we determined how they managed to get them onto the planet in the first place?"
"Not as … definitively as I'd like," Keita said. "In fact, nowhere near as definitively as I'd like. We did manage to take a few of them alive, and to interrogate them, which gave us some additional information. As nearly as we've been able to determine at this point, Jason Corporation, the outfit which built the Green Haven facility, has actually been a Freedom Alliance front for at least ten standard years. By the time we figured that out, unfortunately, 'Jason Corporation' had shut down all operations in what was clearly a preplanned, well-orchestrated business liquidation. Its accounts had been drained and closed, none of its senior personnel could be found, and as far as we can tell, all of the Jason employees we've been able to identify and locate were innocent dupes, unaware that they were actually working for a terrorist-financed corporation.
"At any rate, the Freedom Alliance, when it began planning this operation-apparently quite some time ago-used Jason Corporation to set up the groundwork on Fuller. It built the facility in which the hostages were ultimately held, and apparently used the 'heavy construction equipment' cover to bring in the combat equipment it required for its intended operation.
"For your personal information, and not for the official record, I'm not personally quite as convinced as the analysts who prepared this report that Duke Geoffrey wasn't directly involved in setting all of this up."
Alicia cocked her head to one side, and Keita snorted.
"There's no direct evidence of his complicity-trust me, if there were, we'd be … discussing it with him quite firmly. His Majesty genuinely is as furious over this as he's appeared in public. If we had proof, or even strongly suggestive evidence, that Duke Geoffrey had been knowingly involved, the Emperor would have formally demanded his head from King Hayden. And if he hadn't gotten it, the Marines and Fleet would be moving on Fuller to collect it.
"There is considerable evidence that Duke Geoffrey's director of industrial development, one Jokuri Asaro'o Lowai, knew exactly what was going on. We thought at first that Jokuri might have been a false identity, but we managed to trace him right back to Old Earth, and the Jokuri on Fuller was definitely the genuine article. However, he also wasn't anywhere among the dead or the prisoners we took on Fuller. In short, although we don't believe that anyone managed to get off-world after Marguerite Johnsen entered orbit, he somehow effectively disappeared. The fact that we can't find Jokuri anywhere may indicate that we're wrong about that, but the current consensus appears to be that he was working for the Freedom Alliance and that, as soon as it could dispense with his services, the Alliance eliminated him and disposed of the body. Assuming that the theory has merit, they probably got rid of him because he knew too much and wasn't one of their own inner circle-they couldn't rely on him to keep his mouth shut if we got our hands on him and he found himself facing the death penalty."
He paused again, frowning, clearly not entirely happy with what he'd just said, then shrugged.
"I don't have any better theory than that, but somehow it doesn't quite feel right. I'm not saying that it's wrong, but I've just got this feeling that there's more to it. Certainly it's a neat hypothesis. Jokuri was in a position to handle all of the details on the Fuller side of the pre-op preparations. He was the Shallingsport official Jason Corporation had to clear all of its operations and shipments with. They couldn't have pulled it off without his active complicity; that much is abundantly clear. I suppose I just can't quite shake the suspicion that it could be extremely … convenient for Duke Geoffrey for us to have such a clearly identifiable-and obviously dead-FALA accomplice. According to Duke Geoffrey, it was Jokuri who first suggested to him that granting the terrorists 'sanctuary' in Shallingsport offered the best chance of keeping them alive. There's no independent corroboration of that, however, and I suppose I just find it a little difficult to accept that whoever planned this would have relied upon a mere industrial development expert to convince a head of state to get involved in something like this. And they had to be completely confident that they'd be offered a site in Shallingsport, since that was where they built their base of operations."
He paused once more, his frown deeper, then shook himself.
"At any rate," he continued more briskly, "however they planned it and however they managed to get all of their equipment groundside, the entire operation was intended from the beginning as a giant mousetrap, an ambush. And our Intelligence people never saw it coming. We dropped you and your company right into the middle of it, Alley, and for that I sincerely and personally apologize."
He looked at her very levelly, and it was Alicia's turn to shake her head a bit uncomfortably.
"From what you've already said, Uncle Arthur, it's obvious that they planned this thing very carefully and put all of the pieces into place long before they actually grabbed the hostages. Given the amount of time that Intelligence had to figure out what was happening, I don't think anyone can blame Battalion or anyone else for not realizing that even a terrorist organization like the FALA could be crazy enough to deliberately confront the Cadre this way."
"Possibly not, once we went into emergency response mode," Keita conceded. "But looking ahead, trying to spot things like this coming, is one of the things Intelligence people are supposed to do. And however it happened, no one did that this time around."
He gave his head a little toss and let his chair come back fully upright.
"There are still quite a few unanswered questions, and the nature of the beast in a case like this is that we probably never will get answers for all of them. That doesn't mean we won't keep trying, of course. In particular, the sheer amount of money and resources that the Freedom Alliance invested in this operation is pretty staggering. It might represent pocket change for the Empire, but it came to quite a few million credits. That's a lot, even for an organization like the FALA. And there's also the little matter of our inability-to date, at least-to even begin to identify the arms dealer-or dealers-who sold them their hardware. As you suspected at the time, it was virtually all of imperial manufacture. We did find a little bit of equipment from one Rogue World or another, but almost all of it was Marine surplus, and so far we've been unable to trace how it came into their hands. We've run the serial numbers, of course, and most of it was officially declared surplus to requirements and destroyed several years back. We're trying to come at it by figuring out who was in a position to falsify the record of its destruction, but I wouldn't hold my breath waiting for us to get to the bottom of it.
"As I say, I don't think anyone has any intention of of letting matters rest where they are right now. When the Emperor himself demands answers, people try very hard to come up with them, and His Majesty really, really wants those answers in this case."
He paused again, as if inviting Alicia to ask any additional questions which had occurred to her. She didn't have any, however. Or, rather, she had a great many of them, but it was obvious from what he'd already told her that no one had the hard data to answer them for her, anyway.
"At any rate," Keita said after a few moments, "that's what we know-and don't know-about what happened. It's not the only thing I wanted to discuss with you, however."
"It isn't?" Alicia asked just a bit cautiously when he paused yet again.
"I'm not planning on springing any nasty surprises on you, Alley," he told her with a smile. "The thing is, there aren't that many holders of the Banner of Terra, as I'm sure you realized, growing up with a grandfather who already had it. Did the Sergeant Major ever discuss with you why he never accepted a commission?"
"He said, Sir," Alicia replied with a small smile of her own, "that he was a 'working stiff' who preferred being in a position to get his hands dirty to getting stuck in a management position. Personally, I've always suspected that he just loves what he does right now too much to give it up."
"I'm sure you're right. But I think, perhaps, I failed to phrase my question correctly. What I meant was did your grandfather ever discuss with you how he avoided accepting commission?"
"Well, no, Sir. Not in so many words, anyway. I just always put it down to the fact that he knows everyone in the Corps-most of them by first name-and that he knew how to work the system too well for anyone to push him into a commission if he didn't want one."
"Having met your grandfather, there's probably something to that," Keita allowed with a slight chuckle. "However, trust me, it isn't easy for someone who's managed to win the Banner to avoid getting turned into an officer. In fact, a commission-or, at least, the offer of one-usually goes with it. In your case, the Cadre -" he meant himself, Alicia knew perfectly well, although he would never come right out and admit it "-had already decided you'd earned a battlefield promotion before the Emperor decided to award the Banner. But there's always a lot of pressure to get anyone who's won it commissioned, because you don't pick up the Banner if you're not exactly what we're looking for in an officer."
Alicia felt her cheeks heat very slightly, but she kept her expression only politely attentive, and Keita suppressed a grin.
"The problem is that you can't really twist the arm of someone who holds the Empire's highest award for valor. In your grandfather's case, I strongly suspect that he used the Banner as a club to beat off any threat of a commission. In your case, obviously, that's not happening-of course, you were a lot younger and more innocent when you won it than he was."
This time the grin broke free, at least partly, and Alicia smiled back at him. Then he sobered slightly.
"What I'm trying to say, Alley, is that your commission came before the Banner was ever awarded. Now that you've received it, though, the tradition is that you get to pick-within reason, of course-where you go next."
He made an inviting gesture, and Alicia frowned.
"I appreciate that, Sir," she said finally. "But I'm not sure where I want to go. Except -"
She paused, obviously hesitating, and Keita cocked his head to one side.
"Spit it out, Alley," he said. "At the moment, you've got pretty much a blank check for anything you want to ask."
"Well, in that case, Sir," she said quickly, almost as if she was pushing herself to get it out quickly, "I've heard that the Company is going to be disbanded. Is that true?"
"Where did you hear that?" Keita asked.
"I'd rather not say, Sir. But, is it true?" She stared at him appealingly.
"Why specifically do you ask?" he asked in reply.
"Because it would be wrong, Sir," she said with a fierceness which surprised even her just a bit. "The Company deserves better than that. It deserves better."
"Alley, at the moment Charlie Company consists of the exactly nine people," Keita pointed out gently. "We'd have to reconstitute it from scratch. It's not just a case of transferring in a few replacements-we'd have to literally rebuild it, as if it were a completely new company."
"We've still got the support staff at Guadalupe, Sir," Alicia said, her tone diffident, but stubborn.
"None of whom are active-duty Cadre," Keita countered.
"But -" Alicia began, then stopped herself. She looked at him, her expression more stubborn than ever, and he chuckled softly.
"Relax, Alley," he said, his tone and expression both serious. "No one's going to disband Charlie Company. Mind you, we're not going to be able to put it back into the field for a while. I meant it when I said we'd have to reconstitute from scratch, and, as you know, the Cadre is never oversupplied with qualified personnel. However, I have it directly from the Emperor's own lips that Charlie Company, and its battle honors, are not to be allowed to disappear. In fact, that's where I was headed a few minutes ago."
"Sir?" Alicia sounded puzzled, although her enormous relief that the company was not going to be written off was obvious.
"You're a brand new lieutenant," Keita pointed out. "You and I both know you've still got to get OCS out of the way, but we both also know you can handle the job. In fact, I'm confident that you'll be as successful as an officer as you were as a noncom, which is pretty high praise, I suppose.
"But, it's going to be a while before we start thinking about additional promotions on your part. Even the Banner isn't going to convince the Cadre to move you up any faster than your experience, seasoning, and confidence justifies. However," he looked at her intently, "there's the little question of where the brand new lieutenant gets assigned when she reports back for duty from OCS. That's what I wanted to discuss with you. Where would you like to go?"
"I … hadn't really thought about it, Sir," she replied, and to her own surprise, it was true. "I guess I've just been worried enough about the possibility that the Company would be disbanded that it never occurred to me to think about going anywhere else. I just wanted to go back to the Company. But I can't, can I? I mean, it isn't there, anymore. And, as you say, it won't be there again for a while."
"Neither of those last two statements is completely accurate, Alley," Keita said quietly, almost gently.
She looked at him, eyebrows rising, and he waved one hand.
"Charlie Company still exists," he told her. "It has nine personnel on its roster. You're one of those nine people. As for your second statement, I didn't say Charlie Company 'isn't there' anymore; I said we're not going to be able to put it back into the field for a while. But what I was going to suggest to you is that if you want to exercise the traditional prerogative of the Banner and request a specific assignment, the one I had in mind was command of First Platoon, Charlie Company, Third Battalion, Second Regiment, Fifth Brigade."
Alicia stared at him, and he smiled.
"If you want it, it's yours," he told her simply. "It's probably going to take us the entire time you're off at OCS to get the rest of the new table of organization filled. But I can pencil in one assignment right now, if it's the one you want."
Alicia discovered that she couldn't speak, and he laughed gently.
"Should I take that as a yes?" he asked.