The click of dress shoes on tile rang the length of the corridor as the two men walked silently to the end of the hall. It was eerily silent despite the fact that there were an even half-dozen doors, and presumably offices behind them, running its length.
When they reached the end of the hall, the military policeman stopped, pushed a door open, and with a slight wave of his hand indicated that the other man was to enter.
Commander Craig Burton looked past the clean-cut MP standing smartly at the door. Beyond was a small, windowless room populated by a gunmetal-gray table, four chairs, a picture of a spaceship hanging on the wall, and a lonely-looking fern in the corner. Burton frowned and turned back to the MP, whose eyes broadcast a hint of sympathy. Burton licked his lips and entered the room.
“Somebody will be with you shortly, sir,” the MP said. “I'll be outside if you need anything.” Burton said nothing and tossed his hat onto the table. The MP silently closed the door behind him.
Burton blew a lungful of air out through puckered lips and scratched the back of his head. He still had no idea what the purpose of summoning him here was; usually when RDF JAG officers wanted to talk to you they simply showed up at your post and started asking questions. That was just the way they operated. There wasn't any consideration given to pleasantries.
But for some reason they'd asked him here, to a JAG corps satellite office on the grounds of the RDF base at Proxima. JAG officers practically lived aboard starships considering they had jurisdiction stretching to every corner of Terran space; even with space-folding technology they probably spent half their careers either going to or coming from an interview for a case. What was it they said? If the mountain wouldn't come to Mohammad, Mohammad must go to the mountain? In this case the mountain went wherever the hell it wanted.
Burton frowned. Pacing as he was wasn't going to make his hosts show up any quicker. He sat down and spread his palms out across the table. Smooth, gray, featureless. There was a metaphor there somewhere, he decided. He leaned back and looked at his watch, which had dutifully synched with local time the moment he touched down. The seconds ticked away almost painfully. There still wasn't so much as a cough from the MP standing outside. Folding his arms, he sighed heavily and looked straight up at the ceiling.
Ten minutes passed before there were two quick knocks on the door. He sat up straight with a start as the MP pushed the door open and two officers entered. Burton rose halfway out of his seat as he realized he was looking at a Marine Colonel and a Major.
“Don't get up, Commander Burton,” the Colonel said as they put their datapads and folders down on the table. He finally made eye contact. “I'm Colonel Daniels and this is Major Solis.” Burton lowered himself back into the chair and the two officers followed suit. The officers wore the usual gray uniforms of the RDF Marine Corps, tailored to near-perfection and decorated with the usual assortment of shiny pins and insignia. The Colonel withdrew a small pair of glasses from his breast pocket and perched them on his nose while the Major, a tall, lean woman with something approaching a scowl on her face set about organizing the various pads and folders.
“Thank you for coming in, Commander. Now, we've got a lot to discuss, so let's get right to it, hm? As you no doubt gathered, we're with the JAG corps,” he continued airily with a wave of his hand to indicate the Major. “You're here because we're investigating a report that you gave an unauthorized interview to a member of the Galaxy News Network. What was the date on that, Major?”
The intense-looking Major officer tapped at her datapad and cleared her throat. “January 6th of this Solar year, sir,” she said without looking up. Burton narrowed his eyes and tilted his head slightly to see what was keeping the Major so intensely occupied with the datapad but he couldn't see the screen.
“Funny thing about dates and times, Commander,” the Colonel said with a smirk. “When you get right down to it, they're meaningless. It's been arbitrary since we came up with the concept, but even more so since we've taken to the stars. It's January out here because it's January on Earth.” He continued casually. “Have you ever been to Earth, Commander?”
Burton found himself swallowing a lump in his throat. “No, sir.” The Colonel shook his head and smiled wistfully, and for just a split-second there was a distant look in his eyes.
“Anyway, January. In the Northern hemisphere it's cold, in the south, it's warm. Even on our own home planet, calendar dates aren't worth a damn. What does January mean out here?” He paused long enough for Burton to be unsure if he was actually asking the question. “Nothing. It doesn't mean anything. We say it's January because it makes it easier to keep everybody on the same page. If I say it's January on Proxima and you say it's August based on her orbit around the sun in this system, everything goes to hell. You accept it and move on.” The Colonel looked straight at Burton and nodded as he finished the sentence. Burton's heart skipped a beat.
“Sir,” the Major said with a frown. The Colonel glanced sideways at her and smirked.
“But that's neither here nor there. At this point, Commander, this is just an interview. You're not under arrest and you haven't been charged with anything. We're just trying to sort out a report we received, verify it with you, really.”
Burton fidgeted slightly in his seat. “Understood, sir.”
The Colonel asked the Major for something and the she passed over a folder. He flipped it open and looked up and down, presumably scanning its contents. He looked up over the top of it at Burton.
“I know, paper, right? I'm not a fan of keeping everything on datapads. I like having this stuff in front of me, tangible. Anyway. I've got all this all here but I have to ask. You're the XO of the Ptolemy, correct?”
“And that's a Seagull-class cruiser.”
The Colonel looked down at the paperwork again. “You've held that position for two years under Captain McAdams, fitness reports good, recommended for your own command, blah blah.” He closed the folder and tossed it back at the Major. “Again, this stuff isn't in dispute but there's a certain script I have to follow. So. On January 6th you gave an interview to a Miss Hopkins, a reporter with the Galaxy News Network.”
“Uh, yes, sir. I did.”
“Tell me how you met her.”
“I met her in a bar on Io. The Ptolemy was docked up and I was off duty.”
“The night of the Fifth.”
The Colonel folded his arms and leaned back slightly. “Go on.”
“A few of the officers went down there together. We had a couple of drinks, I started talking to this woman at the bar...”
“Did she identify herself as a reporter?”
“No, sir. Not at that point.”
“What happened after you met her?”
Burton scoffed and looked at his lap. When he looked up again both men were looking at him. “Well...”
“Did you sleep with her?”
Burton almost choked. “I don't see how-”
The Colonel held up a hand. “Did you sleep with her? Come on, we're all adults here. We've all picked up somebody in a bar, Commander. Did you?”
He licked his lips. “Yes. Sir.”
“Okay. So. The next day she contacts you and mentions, oh by-the-way, she's a reporter and wants to know if you can give her a byte for a story. That about accurate?”
Burton's eyes narrowed again and he cocked his head slightly. “Yeah.”
“Well, it stands to reason if she didn't tell you on the night of the Fifth and you gave her the interview the next day, she must have told you on the morning of the Sixth, right? Relax, Commander. So, the lovely Miss Hopkins asks you for an assist on her story. You said yes. What was the story about?” He paused. “Whatever it was, it hasn't aired yet, that's why I'm asking.”
Burton scratched at the back of his hand. “She said it was a story on the relationship between the RDF base and the Io economy. About how the civilians made a bunch of money off the Navy when we were docked there. I told her about how we went off-post when we came into port.”
“What other questions did she ask you? Did she ask about how often you came through the sector, what sorts of ships were coming and going, stuff like that?”
Burton shook his head. “No sir, not at all. She said she wasn't interested in anything like that. Just where we tended to go, how much we spent when we came through. I figured there was nothing wrong with telling her that much.”
“I see. Well. Here's the problem, Commander. The RDF has Public Affairs officers who are the point-of-contact for the media. You should have told your new friend that you'd love to help her out, but we have protocols for these sorts of requests. She should have gone through the local PA officer, who could have come up with a few personnel for her to talk to.” The Colonel leaned forward on his elbows. “It's their job to sort this stuff out, you know? The media goes to the PA division, they find out what the reporter wants and bump the request up the chain of command, and then we set them up with what they need.”
“I understand that, sir...it's just that she said this wasn't going to be a big thing, just a few seconds of tape, and that they'd jerk her around for a day or two if she went through them. I was helping her out.”
The Colonel straightened up and sighed. “I get that, Commander. I do. And she may have had a point. But we've got rules like that for a reason. It's like what I was saying about the date earlier – we standardize this stuff so everything runs smoothly. It's not up to you to pick and choose when and where you're going to follow that standard.”
“Understood, sir. I'm sorry,” Burton continued. The Colonel jotted something down quickly and the Major was still tapping away on her datapad, seeming oddly disinterested in the conversation as she had from the moment they sat down. “Is it enough to say it won't happen again?” He cracked an innocent smile and chuckled. The Colonel bit his lip and nodded, the corners of his mouth turning up slightly. Even the Major looked up and smirked.
“Not really, no,” the Colonel said. “Major, maybe you could explain this next part.” The Major finally put down the datapad and folded her hands on the table.
“Certainly, sir. Commander, the woman you met, the woman you gave the interview to, is a known operative of the Red Nova Faction.” Burton's stomach instantly knotted itself into an icy ball and he felt the side of his face twitch.
“Judging by your reaction, I'm sure you're aware that that's a terrorist group operating off one of the disputed planets out on the fringe of Republic space. We've been tangling with them for years, Commander, and one of their favorite tactics is to slowly turn RDF officers they see as particularly vulnerable. In your case, since you're a young, single officer born off-Terra and you're in line for your own command, you were a candidate.”
Burton forced a laugh and clenched his fingers around the cold metal of the chair's armrests. “You're kidding, right? This has got to be a goddamn joke!”
The Major shook her head slowly. “Absolutely not. The playbook for Red Nova Faction reads like this: they approach a mark, usually have some sort of sexual encounter, and then see if they can call in a small favor, something innocuous like this that's just technically wrong enough that if you do it, it's a decent indication that you're worth working on a little more. From there the paths vary but they usually gradually test a little of their propaganda on you, measure your reaction, and if you respond favorably they bring you in all the way. Tell you who they are and what they want you to do for them. Usually they don't ask a whole lot of you but they do get you to undermine the security of the RDF.”
“We've had our eye on Miss Hopkins for a few months now,” the Colonel said. Burton's mouth fell open and his head swam.
“Obviously you couldn't have known, Commander,” the Colonel went on, “but they picked you out for a reason, and you took the first step for them. So, if I were you, I'd be very careful of what I did off-duty from now on. We'll hang on to the tape of this conversation just in case.”
“Tape,” Burton croaked.
A smile spread across the Colonel's mouth like a sunrise and he pointed to the corner of the room. “In the fern. Nobody ever pays attention to our poor fern.” The Major cleared her throat.
“In any event, Commander, consider your aspirations of your own command forfeit. We'll arrange a transfer to a post closer to home, so to speak. You can come up with the reason for the transfer if you like. Family obligations, health reasons, it doesn't matter, really. Just know that we will be watching you.”
“I...I thought...but...you're JAG corps,” Burton stammered. The Colonel laughed, a single, loud laugh that bounced off the walls of the room and resounded in Burton's ears for a moment.
“It's just a uniform, Commander,” he said. “Just like the date, it's totally arbitrary. The only meaning that it has is that which I tell you it has. For the record, I'm Colonel Blake, RDF Military Intelligence. This is Major Stuart of the same.” The Major began gathering up the folders and datapads and stacking them in a neat pile.
“What about the reporter? Are you arresting her, then?”
“Arresting?” The Colonel glanced at the Major and scoffed. “You don't want to know what we're doing to the talented Miss Hopkins at the moment. Suffice it to say that she won't be filing any more reports for GNN.” The two officers stood up and pushed in their chairs. Blake stepped to Burton's side and put a hand on his shoulder. “Consider yourself lucky, Commander Burton. Usually anybody who gets mixed up with the Faction ends up having a shuttle accident or a sudden heart attack. But,” he sighed, “there's always tomorrow. If you catch my meaning.”
Burton's heart pounded against his chest as the two men picked up their things.
“Sergeant,” Blake called. The MP opened the door and appeared. “We're finished here.” He indicated Burton with a thumb jerked back over his shoulder. “Wait ten minutes and then show the Commander out.” The MP nodded stiffly and stepped back as the two officers left the room. Blake stopped in the door.
“Oh, and Commander,” he said breezily. “The RDF appreciates your loyalty and vigilance in this matter.” Burton could only stare.
The MP shut the door quietly and the click of dress shoes on tile receded gradually down the hallway.