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 Michael Crindon explained how he came to the conclusion that Gavin secretly passed on information to Flashlight.

"Your principal assistant is constantly in contact with many different people." He began. "The responsibilities you've entrusted to him necessitates frequent contact with the management and stakeholders of your mech company."

"Benny acts as my gatekeeper and bridge to the LMC." Ves nodded. "If I spend my time on talking to Calsie and the other executives of the company, I'd be at it for several hours. As a mech designer, my time is too valuable to waste on routine meetings and reports. Letting my assistant attend all of the meetings and provide a summary of the most important developments to me in our daily briefings is a much more convenient arrangement."

Of course, it was only better if Ves delegated this responsibility to a trustworthy person!

Ves always knew that Gavin held an immense amount of power in his organizational structure. His extensive reach and his role as a gatekeeper placed him very close to the center of the web of the LMC's power structure!

Subsequently, this meant that Gavin not only had had access to a mountain of information, he frequently communicated with dozens of people a day! All of those transmissions and communication sessions made it easy to pass along clandestine messages to secret recipients!

"Ever since I became a part of your staff, Mr. Neumann hasn't shown any suspicious activity." Crindon calmly continued. "I've monitored his active communications in secret and I've never noticed anything that stands out. He has behaved impeccably proper and has never shown any sloppiness towards his handling of sensitive data."

"Then.. what is the problem?"

"Though Gavin has behaved completely honestly since my addition to your ranks, that is not necessarily the case in the past. During the Barracuda's overhaul, I've replaced her old databanks with different and hopefully more secure ones. I haven't thrown out the old databanks, though. Instead, I've been diverting most of my time combing over all of the logs."

Ves looked impressed at Crindon. "That sounds incredibly tedious. How can you even cope with such mind-numbing work?"

"Oh, I haven't read through all of the logs in person. I just input them into my security software, which subsequently marks out all of the suspicious and questionable activity it has detected. That still leaves me with a lot of logs that contain false positives. I've spent weeks going over thousands of logs, but my hard work hasn't been in vain. I've detected some suspicious data packages embedded inside routine transmissions that are heavily encrypted."

"How strong is this encryption?"

"Incredibly strong. It's beyond my means to break."

That caught his attention. "So it's not a mass-market encryption method, is that what you're trying to say?"

Crindon nodded. "Only government entities or extremely well-funded organizations use these kinds of encryption. It's very costly to encrypt a message and even costlier to decrypt them. This is because they are very hard to detect. The data packages are most often embedded in real-time projection calls. Imagine if a certain coordinate fluctuates slightly in color or brightness. This is in itself a very covert means of transmitting information. If I didn't watch out for these kinds of patterns, I would have never been able to ascertain that Gavin is transmitting covert information in this fashion!"

Ves possessed enough of a foundation in software engineering to know that there were countless ways to pass on secret messages through innocent transmissions. Comm calls exchanged an incredible amount of visual and auditory data between two parties. Any data points could easily be hijacked into a hidden vessel that surreptitiously transmitted messages to someone who tapped into the feeds.

There was no question that Flashlight had the capability to monitor all of the transmissions between the LMC and the Barracuda. In any case, all of the routine business meetings conducted over the galactic net were hardly important enough to sink the LMC if the details fell into the wrong hands.

What Ves found more egregious was the possibility that Gavin transmitted more sensitive information to Flashlight!

In the following minutes, Crindon elaborated on why he believed that Gavin was sending secret messages to an unknown recipient.

Some of the more technical details related to cryptography escaped Ves, but he understood enough that Crindon's evidence painted a solid picture.

There was a huge issue with Gavin's past communication sessions! That they ended as soon as Ves bought out Crindon and added him to the staff made it clear that the secret transmissions were deliberate and not something accidental!

"Benny might not necessarily be responsible." Ves suggested.

"I'm very certain he is responsible. He has shown suspicious activities."

Crindon projected some archival footage which looked as if Gavin was finicking with something in his pocket while he sat on the toilet. It only lasted for a few seconds before Gavin was about to use the toilet normally.

Ves immediately adopted a strange expression. It turned out that he wasn't the only one up to something suspicious while sitting on the toilet!

"Okay, you've convinced me." He quickly waved his hand. "You don't need to show me anymore footage of this nature!"

Crindon turned off the projection. "At first, your assistant acted very clumsily. That clip I've just showed you happened at the start of your ship's departure to Centerpoint. I believe that Flashlight only recently managed to turn Gavin over to their side. Having studied the subsequent footage, he has refined his methods over time. It's almost impossible to detect that he is acting suspiciously by the time your ship has reached the Kinner Tribe."

"How have you determined that Benny is reporting to Flashlight as opposed to another organization?"

"Through logical deduction and through recent proof. You recently called one of Flashlight intelligence operatives, correct?"

"Yes."

Ves had already briefed Nitaa and Crindon on some of his relations back home. It wouldn't do for them to be oblivious to Leland's true nature once they returned to the Bright Republic!

"Well, shortly after you completed the call, one of Gavin's ongoing transmissions suddenly tripped the alarms I have set in the Barracuda's communication systems. Given the timing of this incident, I believe that Flashlight has requested information from your assistant."

Ves bought the story. The request he posed to Leland a couple of hours ago must have confused the Flashlight agent to no end. Since Leland himself couldn't really figure out why Ves was interested in Venerable Fontain, then asking Gavin for clarification made a lot of sense!

There was still something questionable about the timing. "Benny stopped transmitting information since you joined my staff, right? Why did Flashlight act so carelessly in using the same suspicious transmission method?"

The security expert pursed his lips. "I reckon that they don't know or think the chances of getting caught is too low. If I did not comb through all of the past records, I would have never set the alarms that were on the lookout for suspicious patterns in Gavin's communication sessions. In addition, Gavin may be aware of what presence signifies, but Flashlight may not have been brought up to speed yet. Your assistant did halt in transmitting any covert messages immediately after I came aboard."

In other words, due to the information asymmetry between the informer and the recipient organization, the latter hadn't been on guard!

"Do you have any idea at all what intel Benny passed on to Flashlight?"

"That would require me to crack the code. I'll be honest with you. Even if I have access to all of the processors and advanced computing equipment of Rawlings University, it will still take me a decade to decipher the secret messages!"

Government-funded intelligence agencies did not make use of simple commercial encryption methods. What they valued the most was making it as difficult as possible to crack their encryption through brute-force methods!

"Okay, I guess deciphering the messages isn't possible."

"The most expedient way to find out the truth is to confront and interrogate the subject in question."

Ves looked calmly at Crindon. "We are not going to do that to Benny. What he has done isn't necessarily illegal in the eyes of the Bright Republic. At the very least, I find it hard to imagine that he can say no to Flashlight if they secretly approached him and requested him to act as their informer in my staff."

Though Gavin's behavior still constituted a betrayal in his eyes, Ves really didn't blame him for doing so. Ves learned first-hand that Flashlight was incredibly ruthless. They were also effective in what they did. A normal Brighter like Gavin stood no chance against the most cunning spies of the Bright Republic!

Considering Flashlight's objectives and areas of interest, there was no doubt that they wanted to keep a closer eye on Ves. Sending Leland to the LMC was one means to keep tabs on their erstwhile external partner.

Ves had constantly put up his guard against Leland since the latter joined his staff as Flashlight's liaison.

Now, he realized that Leland essentially acted as a decoy! Ves could stare at Leland all he wanted, but the true informer in his inner circle turned out to come from an entirely different direction!

He smacked his palm against his face. "Goddammit! I underestimated Flashlight! Just because they have remained low-key lately doesn't mean they've gone on a holiday. They're still up to no good!"

"Mr. Larkinson, any state is wary of their prominent citizens. A Journeyman such as you who is on the rise merits careful watching. If not Gavin, then someone else. In fact, it's very much possible that Flashlight has converted several members of your staff into informers. I will have to devote a lot of time to monitoring their activities in order to identify them. Even if you remove them from your company, there will always be someone else who has agreed to spy on you on behalf of your state."

In other words, this was an inescapable reality. The Bright Republic possessed too much interest in its prominent citizens to let them go about their lives without keeping an eye on them. Who knew if they would abuse their power over society one day?

Even if Ves forged a friendship with Flashlight, that didn't mean the latter would let down their guard towards him! In fact, it was a given that they would keep an even closer eye to their external partner!

That was just how spies operated!

"If Benny is tasked with passing on information to Flashlight, then the transmissions probably concern my personal life." Ves guessed.

He took a page from Crindon and resorted to logical deduction to determine the nature of the clandestine messages.

"That is what I think as well. If Flashlight wants to gather intelligence on the state of the LMC, then they can simply hack its databases or convert one of the managers or executives of your company."

Ves ruefully chuckled and began to stroke Lucky's back. "I don't care if they have access to the entire database of the LMC. My company is merely a vehicle to earn money and spread my works to the galaxy. The true value of a mech company resides in the heads of their lead designers!"

Flashlight knew this as well. This was why they approached and turned his assistant into an informer in the first place.

Gavin's close and frequent proximity to Ves meant that hardly anyone else knew more about the boss of the LMC!

Throughout this meeting, Crindon had remained remarkably calm. Unlike Ves, he didn't share any close friendship with Gavin.

"What do you wish to do now that I've informed you of your assistant's second loyalties?"

"Nothing."

"Nothing?"

"Nothing." Ves repeated and let out a heavy sigh. "While I'm not pleased that Benny is serving two masters, it's not entirely wrong. I do value his input and my friendship with him. I don't want to spoil the chemistry we have just because he feels obligated to serve the Bright Republic in this capacity."

This solution did not entirely sit well with Crindon. "Sir, I highly suggest you reconsider. If you don't want to confront Mr. Neumann, then you can resort to more discrete methods of phasing him out of your life. You won't have to spoil anyone's feelings or clue Flashlight in that you are on to their actions. For example, you can promote him to a seemingly-important management function within your company."

Though this suggestion sounded viable, Ves really didn't feel like getting rid of Gavin at this time.

"I'll think about it." Ves said non committedly. "For now, let's act like we don't know that Benny is in touch with Flashlight. I don't think anything he's doing right now poses an acute threat to my interests."

"If that is what you wish. I will make sure to observe him closely. Without cluing him in, of course."

"Of course."

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