LOWELL CITY, MARS
The aide materialized beside General Stefanak at a most inconvenient moment. The girl with him was too schooled to react; she'd been with her company for two years now, and it was the most popular and discreet first-class company on Titan. The girl took no notice of the intrusion, but the general lost his erection.
"I'm so sorry, sir," the holo said, averting Malone's eyes, "but there is a level-one message:"
"You are not to blame," the general said ritualistically. "One moment."
The girl was already pulling on her dress, eyes properly downcast. She would, of course, be paid anyway. Stefanak put on a robe and bowed to her; she returned the gesture and left through the side door. Her long black hair flowed down her back, the ends glowing with tiny holographic beads. There had been nothing holographic about the rest of her. This level-one had better be important.
He walked into his outer office and waited for Malone, who probably had to travel across the base from Communications. Level-one messages were physically encoded and hand carried. This one must have just come through a few momentsago. While he waited, Stefanak poured himself a drink, thinking about the girl.
Maybe he needed his hormone levels adjusted again. He wasn't eighty anymore.
Malone appeared with the communication cube, bowed, and left. Stefanak activated the security shield. While it was on, nothing could enter or leave his quarters. No electromagnetic radiation, no compression waves, no air, not even neutrinos. Then he switched on the cube, using level-one protocols.
It was from a recon team to a remote and unimportant planet, funded and mounted by soft-science professors at Princeton University, for the usual squishy "research." But every recon team had a line-rank military representative on it. Usually junior officers fought not to go on recon. Usually it was an E-year of irrelevant boredom on primitive planets, most of them uninhabited.
Not this time.
Stefanak viewed the cube once, and then again. He sat thinking for a full five minutes, very carefully. The Zeus was available, or could be made available, without attracting significant attention. A command-level line officer could not be made available, but there were ways around that. Physicists ... leave that to Malone. But maybe the whole mission could be made to look like just another low-priority scholarly expedition. Yes. Salernos would be the one to arrange that, she had plausible contacts ...
When Stefanak finished his planning, he released the security shield. Malone waited outside. The general told him to put together an immediate meeting with the Solar Alliance Defense Council, highest-ranking officers only, all participating governments urged most strongly to attend.
This might change everything.