Once they are back in his office, Grom checks how Lilly and Imogen are doing. From what Spearmint told him, it sounded like things were a bit of a mess on Antiga: zerg, crazy cultists… but also vast mineral wealth. The offer of that in exchange for some security help is tempting to Grom, but he wants their opinion of Spearmint, including whether the survivor is stable enough to carry through on his role of Antigan representative. “This sounds like a good deal,” Grom says, “but Redstone did, too.”
Lilly has nothing really to contribute on whether Grom can trust Spearmint. She looks to Imogen, and her partner starts talking. “This is a very different situation than Redstone was. On Redstone, our actions inadvertently escalated the danger there. On Antiga, our actions have decreased the danger there—and with no commentary from the Queen of Blades as a result. Spearmint’s people have reduced the danger there by taking out the hives, and we destroyed the device that was attracting more zerg to the planet.”
“But how do you know it was the only one?”
“Spearmint wasn’t the only party looking for that device and trying to deal with it. People in his group saw it turned on years ago, and their information was that it was the only one. This is a better deal all around than Redstone. And just from a purely geological perspective, the planet is safer, too.”
“Yeah, it’s certainly a more habitable world. It’s got that going for it,” Grom agrees.
“We understand that Grom, LLC, is not a mercenary company, but the opportunities for wealth that exist here might justify investing in one to assist. That’s your call. We brought Spearmint here because we thought that—while this might not be a walk in the park—it would be a good opportunity for your company. And a good opportunity for Spearmint’s people to get things back together, to get Antiga up and running in a way that did not involve any of your competitors.”
“It’s not the only option,” Lilly acknowledges. She does not care if Grom picks up the deal. It just seemed like a good match.
“Aye. But we don’t think the Dominion government would care one way or the other about the current inhabitants of Antiga.”
“Might be a good propaganda piece for them, reclaiming a world once taken over by the Swarm,” Grom speculates. He lets out a long breath. “This is asking a lot of the company. We’re not generally into running a whole planet. That’s more Kel-Morian Combine territory.”
“Running the planet is not what this needs to end with,” Imogen points out.
“No, but it’s thinly populated. There are existing, but navigable, security threats. We’ve got to kickstart their whole infrastructure. It’s a lot.”
“It’s not necessarily that there aren’t people or that it’s too dangerous there. The leaders destroyed all the radio equipment, which is why there haven’t been communications from the planet,” Imogen adds.
“All right, if you think Spearmint’s good for it,” Grom starts. When Imogen nods, he continues, “We’ll take another chance. Sounds like a better deal than Redstone.”
“If it makes your people feel better, we won’t be going along.”
Grom tentatively agrees, contingent on what his survey crew reports back on the zerg situation there. He continues thinking out loud. “I may need to split the profits with a mercenary company. I had to downsize my security force a little bit. Too big of a cost center…”
Durian told Lilly and Imogen he left Grom, LLC. Imogen wonders now whether he was actually fired and if Shreev was responsible because he disagreed with her on Redstone. That pilot may actually have some sway.
Grom switches gears then, asking about the bureaucratic side of the Rose trial, whether a date has been set or even a list of formal charges drawn up. “Nothing we’ve heard,” Lilly tells him. She asks whether he has anything new on the missing witnesses he was investigating, anything beyond what she and Imogen had dug up on Abdul’s abduction. He does indeed have information on one of them, Elaina. She was seen getting on a ship bound for the Sara system.
“Sara?” Imogen asks, making sure she heard him correctly.
“As in Mar Sara, Chau Sara—”
“When was that?” Imogen presses.
“Just a little before Abdul went missing.”
Imogen exhales sharply, screaming internally. She grinds out, “We already thought that a ghost might have been involved in things on behalf of Rose… And now you’re telling us that they went to the Sara system!?”
“Well, yes, that’s the evidence I have,” Grom says, a little confused and defensive. “But I haven’t been able to contact her again. I just know she said she was booking travel.” Imogen asks for information about the ship’s specs, but Grom has no details. When he talked with Elaina before all this, she was pretty cagey. She indicated she was going into some sort of witness protection, but now he suspects foul play.
“Witness protection on behalf of Rose,” Imogen mutters. She tells Grom the working theory. “Rose is using a ghost to do this job of getting all the witnesses out of the way. For some, that might have been just tricking them to come willingly, and for others, it was physically dragging them out.”
“A ghost is a little bit more than I am equipped to deal with,” Grom says haltingly.
“Aye, but you’re not going to withdraw your statements, are you?”
Grom assures her not. He has the benefit of more resources and a higher profile than the other witnesses. There have been no further attempts on him, but he is taking a lot of precautions.
“So, let me ask you this… Are you in a position to do industrial sabotage against Rose?” Imogen does not wish to encourage Grom down this path, but she is wondering how Rose has the resources and access to get ghosts on their payroll. “I don’t know how business works in the Dominion. Do you have a similar ability to tap into the networks to hire such operatives? Do you have connections—”
Grom makes a cutting motion with his hand at his neck, shutting Imogen up. He leans in, voice quiet, even though they are sitting in his own office. “The Dominion’s not as in-control as they want to believe. They may be more so than the Confederacy, but you can get done what you need to get done if you have the resources.” His own investigation into Rose involved hiring some hackers to get into their networks.
“But freelance ghosts?” Imogen asks.
Grom will not admit to having hired thugs or hitmen before, but he knows such things can be done if you have the credits. A ghost is surprising to him, though. Rose is a much bigger company than Grom, LLC, so they could certainly afford it. He wonders if they have eyes on running whole planets like the Kel-Morians do. “From what I saw in the Rose emails, they wanted a hit job. They wanted these witnesses eliminated, no trace. I don’t know why this assassin didn’t do that.”
“The assassin had other things that he could use them for,” Imogen says. “And if you assassinate them, bodies can be found. Whereas if you just abduct them, then they’re gone.”
“What would an assassin need a person for? And how do you know this assassin is a ghost, anyway?” Grom asks.
“There was cloaking residue,” Lilly volunteers. “And a witness who saw Abdul being dragged by nothing.”
“Somebody who had a functional personal cloak was doing the abducting,” Imogen adds. “And the ship on the roof of Abdul’s apartment building was cloaked. Anyone can operate a cloaked ship, but only a ghost”—or anyone else psionic, Imogen thinks but does not say—“could have a personal cloak.”
“So, what, the Dominion’s got a rogue ghost on their hands? Is there a place to report this?” Grom asks.
“The Dominion’s not the only one with ghosts,” Imogen points out.
“Umoja’s got ghosts, too?”
“Not as far as I know. But the UED does,” Imogen replies. Grom curses the Earth fascists, muttering about how he hates them. They nationalized everything when they rolled into Korhal, and it took him a long time to put his company back together. Lilly nods in understanding; she fought against the UED then, alongside zerg, even. “The UED was defeated,” Imogen acknowledges, “but there could very well be some of their forces still around. Or if anyone deserted from their service, they would be operating in the fringes.” The idea of rogue ghosts really opens up the floor for anyone to be involved—do Kel-Morians have ghosts? But Imogen is building a theory of her own here. Neiman, his faction destroyed, is abducting people on behalf of Rose and taking them to an old Confederate facility on Chau Sara. But to what purpose?
It is hard to know much about ghosts beyond just rumors. If you show too much interest, you might get whacked—or carted off to a training facility yourself. It occurs to Imogen that she may be showing too much interest in and knowledge of this topic. Grom seems trustworthy enough in business, but that pilot Shreev is not. Imogen clamps up. She does not even trust Lilly with the truth about her abilities, so it would be best to just leave this subject alone for now.
“So, that’s what I know,” Grom concludes. “If those witnesses have been further abducted and they can testify to that, I would hope that can speed up this case. But you’re saying the Dominion doesn’t care, won’t do anything about it…”
“We’re headed to the Sara system soon,” Imogen says.
“We’ll keep looking,” Lilly assures him. A trial is not going to help Grom’s situation at all, not if Rose Corp can just hire ghosts! Probably they have someone in the government in their pocket, too.
“Do you know why Rose was targeting you?” Imogen asks then, wondering if there is a lead they are missing.
“Because I’m their primary competitor.”
“But you said they’re a larger operation than you. Is there nothing specific? It sounds like they’re investing a lot of resources into messing with you.”
“They are. I’m the next biggest competition. If they take me out, then they’re the only mining company that can take Dominion contracts. The Kel-Morians are a separate entity. They butt heads with the Dominion sometimes, but they consider themselves independent. So if Rose takes me out, they have that much more share of the pie, but more importantly, they don’t have to worry about competition at all. And that will save them a lot of resources… I suspect, anyway. Of course, if this whole thing gets out, maybe I take them down, instead.”
Grom provides Lilly and Imogen with information on the starport Elaina departed from so that they can see what else they can learn regarding the ship. On the off chance that it is not Neiman’s, Imogen wants to be able to recognize it when they get to the Sara system. The only habitable planets are Mar Sara and—just barely—Chau Sara. Mar Sara City is the main hub of terran settlement on the primary world, and they will be passing through there on their way to Li June’s.
Imogen asks after Spearmint, and Grom says he can go back to Antiga with the survey team in just a few days. There is no need for Lilly and Imogen to drop him off. That suits them just fine; they can go after the bengalaas and kakarus when people are not being held captive by a ghost. Imogen was not too keen to go climbing up more cliffs, anyway. She has one last concern though. “So that survey team you’re sending… How many pilots do you have in your stable? I don’t think it would be a good idea to have Shreev on that job. She has a past with us that I don’t want coloring this Antiga project. We’re only peripherally involved in it. Spearmint’s hopes for his planet shouldn’t be at the mercy of an unrelated feud.”
“I understand that you and Shreev didn’t get along, which is unfortunate, but she is one of my better survey pilots.”
Lilly eyes widen a bit. She’s one of his better survey pilots?! She feels bad for Grom.
“As you said, you’re only peripherally related. I just won’t mention you at all. If she didn’t see you here with him today, it won’t be a problem. And if she finds out, I’ll have Spearmint tell her that you two didn’t want to be involved.” That is sufficient for Imogen. Grom sees her and Lilly out, thanking them again for getting him out of the Rose mine on Brontes IV. “Sorry to have to ask you to rescue those folks again, but you’re good at it,” he tells them.
“Hopefully we won’t have to rescue you again,” Imogen replies.
“I hope not!” he agrees.
“But we will, if you need it,” Lilly assures him. Grom gives her his personal comm number, and she smiles. Now if they find anything out, they can just tell him without so much production. “And if someone is kidnapping you, you have our number,” she reminds him.
He bids them farewell, and as they ride the elevator down to the main floor, Lilly cracks her neck and checks her knife, shaking off the tension of being cooped up in an office building all morning.