The Little Watchmaker

MEDEVAC crew trains for emergency response

7 – THE LITTLE WATCHMAKER

 

The TIMs played on our conceit.

Miners, laborers, colonists, the disgruntled, the disaffected, and the displaced marginalized by an callous planetary administration and incited by the potent cocktail of social reform and religious zeal… it is the textbook climate for radicalization, the classic profile for grassroots insurrectionists.

The TIMs knew that as well as we did. So they baited the trap by acting to type; panicked amateur insurgents cowed by superior UNE firepower and technology, over doing their ad-hoc security measures at an emergency meeting. The Timmies dangled exactly what the Fleet Intelligence analysts expected, counting on us to mount a snatch raid.

And we bit, hook, line and sinker.

Two-hundred and sixty pounds of ANFO mining explosives. They blew out the entire seventh floor.

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Chandra was hanging on by a thread. Marco needed a new arm and eardrums. Esta was still in surgery and would be another four days in a recovery tank. Katja and I lucked out. We happened to be behind a load-bearing wall when the bomb went off. The Pitbull took the rest of the blast. We only felt like we’d been side-swiped by a freight train.

They didn’t find enough of Rucker to fill an ammo box. We had to verify his DNA from blood smears on what was left of his gear.

Informants later claimed the civilians at the business were sympathetic to the cause but had no knowledge of the trap. According to sources, the workers were expendable props. Collateral damage. The nine ‘bodyguards’ were a different story – they had all volunteered for the chance to be martyrs.  After Tien Chang, word was all the TIMs had vowed to strike back, to do whatever it took to hurt us.

And they did.

Forty-eight hours after the raid, I was back on the Hephestus, alone in the Box going over the mission again and again, fending off an equal mixture of rage and guilt. It was somewhere around the ninth re-run when Sahito informed me I had a high-level KCA representative incoming.

“Luo Yuhan, Principal Deputy Coordinator for the Ministry of Colonial Employee Affairs,” Sahito announced. “His shuttle docks in Bay Four in eleven minutes.”

“Principle Deputy who for what now?”

“Luo Yuhan,” Sahito enunciated, “Oversees the Kepler Colonial Administration’s policies for all of Mèng Tiān’s labor force.”

“And he’s coming here, why?”

“Because he has also been directing the KCA’s security actions for the past fifteen months,” Sahito replied.

“So he’s the bureaucratic ass hat responsible for this cluster fuck?”

“That is one way to collate the data,” Sahito admitted. “Intercepted communications state he’s come specifically to meet with you.”

“Why me? Wait… You’re reading KCA data-streams?”

“Fleet Intelligence Services currently monitor all communications system wide. I access them and sift for any information deemed pertinent to CRISIS operations and personnel.” I could have sworn Sahito’s tone was a touch more prim than usual.

There was a pause as the AI appropriated new data. “Fleet S2 algorithms also calculate a 63% probability he is collaborating with Turkistan Independence Movement to some degree or another.”

Memories of my team being carried from the rubble flashed in my head. “So if I shoot this asshole, I’ll get in trouble?”

“Given his position in the KCA, the lack of hard evidence that constitutes the 37% non-collusion estimate, and his connections with the UNE Chinese delegation back on Earth, I strongly suspect so.”

I bit back my anger. “Any idea why he’s coming?”

Another pause. “There are indications he is in possession of critical intelligence relating to the raid.”

I swiped my hand to clear the images of my wounded friends and teammates off the screen. I wished my memory cleared as easily.

I tucked my anger away and collected myself. “I suppose etiquette dictates I meet him in person when he arrives?” I said after a moment.

“That would be prudent, Captain Dante.”

***

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Luo Yuhan was everything you would expect from a highly connected, executive-level bureaucrat:  genuine Savile Row tailoring, flawless Nu-Gen rejuv features, and a pair of ice blue Zeiss-Adallom cyber-optics. He had a firm grip, a confident stride, and the smile of a man who hadn’t heard the word ‘No’ in a very long time.

Mover and shaker in the Kepler system he may have been, Luo was savvy enough to act accommodating. Admiral Sota and the Fleet were a not-so-subtle reminder there were higher layers on the cake. His bosses had bosses back on Earth, and Luo needed to make a good impression.

After the obligatory round of introductions and pleasantries, we returned to the Box. A bandaged Katja joined us. Luo Yuhan bowed to both of us. Not deeply, but enough to suggest sincerity.

“I want to express our deepest condolences for your losses and injuries,” he began. “And offer my emphatic assurance that the Kepler Colonial Administration will do everything in its power to bring the perpetrators to justice.”

“Justice?” Katja said. “I’ll settle for them dead.”

A sliver of a smile passed over his lips before he spoke again. “To that end, I have the location and identity of the suspected mastermind behind the bomb attack.” Luo’s ice blue cyber-eyes blinked twice as he transferred two files to CRISIS command.

Sahito opened them in the holo-display without comment. The first contained the specifics of one ‘Shenhua Six Deep Crust Mine’. My own cyberlink automatically pulled all related data for later inspection. The second was the KCA Personnel Profile for a colonist named Ahmed Tuan al- Asiri.

The ID headshot showed a sullen, undernourished man with a bushy beard and a prominent nose on an oddly scrunched face. His eyes stared narrowly out at me, flat and dark as stones.

“Why wasn’t this information passed onto Fleet Intelligence Services before the raid?” I asked.

“It was included as part of the initial intelligence assessment package we sent the first day the Fleet arrived,” Luo explained smoothly. “It wasn’t until after the incident that our analysts recognized this specific information was pertinent.”

Snake-ass lying motherfucker, Katja linked.

She meant Luo Yuhan.

You’re reading my mind, I sent back.  

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Luo continued. “Ahmed Tuan al-Asiri arrived in Kepler five years ago on the first colony ship. Originally from Turpan in the Xianjiang province, records showed some secondary education in electrical engineering, which is why he was offered employment with the Shenhua Mining Company during cryo-stasis.”

Luo Yuhan paused to smile at each of us. “The Ministry of Colonial Employee Affairs prides itself on a 90+% employment rate among incoming colonists.”

Katja had accessed the file and began feeding me additional details via our cyberlink. More like indentured servitude. PRC policy requires colonists pay back the cost of shipping them to this brave new world.

No shit? What’s the taxi fare on five-hundred light years?  

Yeah well, there’s more, she sent. This guy was one of the first Uyghur deportees. The rest of his family went ‘missing’ during the round-up. Which, I’d guess, is government-speak for ‘left in a shallow grave’. 

Poor bastard was screwed from the start. I replied. The PRC and KCA couldn’t make better enemies if they tried.

Our exchange took less than two seconds. Luo was speaking again.

“…then he went to work in the Hēidòng Deep Shaft as a drill rig operator. Normally, his small size would be a drawback, but in the cramped confines underground, he was ideal.”

I held up a hand. “Small size?”

Luo Yuhan coughed once. “Citizen al-Asiri suffers from the genetic abnormality, Achondroplasia. ”

He’s a—Katja began.

“Mr. Al-Asiri is a dwarf,” Luo Yuhan finished.

“A dwarf?” I said.

Luo nodded. “The Ministry has a strict anti-discrimination policy.”

I managed to say “OK” before Luo Yuhan continued. “According to our records, citizen al-Asiri was promoted after eleven months then trained as a demolitions expert and tasked with opening new shafts and clearing debris.”

You heard right, Katja sent. The bomb maker is an angry, orphaned dwarf with a legitimate grudge who has been trained in explosives by the KCA themselves. I’d call it a bad joke if Rucker weren’t so fucking dead. 

“Great,” I said aloud. “Just great.”

Luo took my statement to refer to his commentary. “Yes, it is unfortunate. KCA Security suspects he was recruited sometime in the last three years. Since then, we believe al-Asiri has honed his skills and made himself very valuable to their cause. Intercepted communications refer their chief explosives expert as Xiǎo zhì zhōng jiang – The Little Watchmaker. We believe it is him.”

I swiped al-Asiri’s file away a little too quickly and brought the Shenhua Six Deep Crust Mine file up in the holo-display. “And now you’re going to tell me this is where he’s hiding.”

Luo Yuhan’s eyebrows raised a notch. “KCA Security believes so. Yes,” he said simply. “The Shenhua Six facility has been a hotbed of insurrection activity from the very beginning. The mine is four kilometers deep and has over two-hundred and seventy miles of tunnels. That makes it the largest refuge for TIM fighters on the planet – indeed, in the entire Kepler system.”

A rat’s nest the size of a city for them to hide, Katja sighed. This gets better and better.

“And you’re suggesting the Fleet go down in there to root them out,” I said.

Luo shrugged apologetically. “Obviously all tactical operations are at the discretion of the Admiral and his staff. However, months of intercepts and multiple, corroborating informants now indicate that the majority of the TIM leadership is headquartered in or around this mine. A decisive strike there would decapitate TIM leadership. The entire revolt would collapse, system wide.”

“If your assessment is correct,” Katja said.

He bowed once more, less deeply than before. “Our Security forces are capable and confident in their determination.”

Capable, my ass, Katja sent. We wouldn’t be here if —

I ignored her and gripped the edge of the holo-display. I took a second to collect myself then leaned forward to look Luo Yuhan in the eyes. “Why are you giving this to me? Why not Admiral Sota?”

He stared back, unwavering, brow furrowed with the suggestion of confusion. “I have passed this data to Fleet Intelligence Services as well, Captain Dante. Given your recent losses however, I surmised you and your team would prioritize planning and executing such a strike based on this new intelligence. Indeed, I thought you would insist on it.”

He paused. “My apologies. My understanding was a CRISIS team leader’s judgment carried significant weight in all Fleet operations.”

I stared hard at him. “It does.”

Katja hissed in my head. Lying snake ass mother fucker…

One of the rare upsides to combat is you know who the enemy is – at least when they’re shooting at you. A hair’s breadth away from reaching out and punching Luo in the throat, it struck me I’d make a terrible diplomat.

An old saying about looking a gift horse in the mouth came to mind simultaneous with a quote from Virgil’s Aeneid:

“Do not trust the horse, Trojans. Whatever it is, I fear the Greeks even when they bring gifts.”

A deep breath. “I will evaluate this new information and coordinate with Fleet Operations.”

Luo Yuhan smiled. “That’s all I ask, Captain. Thank you.”

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NEXT: CHAPTER EIGHT – BLACK ECHO

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