Chapter 7 The Tangled Web
"GLAD you could join us," said Winston to Albright, slightly sarcastically, looking up from his copy of the Frontier News.

  James Winston was sitting at the table in the cramped living quarters of the Asp. On the table was Winston's half-consumed breakfast - prime sausages with meat from wild Hopian hogs; somewhat of a delicacy in the Gateway system. Contrasting with his high-cholesterol breakfast was a glass of Lavian grapefruit juice, supposedly the best in the galaxy. Winston ate a little more of his sausage and switched off the news viewer.

  Albright had shown up very late the previous night, smelling of expensive brandy. Although he was far from drunk, it was obvious that someone had been plying him with expensive drinks. Winston had deliberately pretended not to see him creep by into his quarters, so he could see what he was getting up to. He hadn't done anything suspicious though - he just went to his quarters and slept, snoring with a sound like an Imperial slave mine machine depot.

"Well, you know, I met some people, and they invited me out for a drink," Albright replied.
"So it seems. I hope you're not the worse for wear, it's going to get very exciting around here shortly," Winston said, just before taking a sip of his drink.

  Winston finished his last sausage. The smell of the succulent meat was making Albright more than a little hungry.

"If you want to fix yourself some breakfast, there's some more of these in the fridge," Winston told Albright, noticing that he was now doing a convincing impression of the expectant, watery eyes the family dog makes at you when he's hungry.
"Thank you," replied Albright, already on the way to the fridge and the autochef.

  Winston was about to pick up the news again, when the visitor chime softly sounded. Whoever had designed the chime had obviously taken the time to make it sound as tacky as possible. The original composer was probably even now turning in his grave.

"James, it's Pam Gilmour at the door," said Jas, through the ship's audio system.
"Thank you Jas, tell her I'm on my way," replied Winston, as he got up to let his visitor on board.

  Winston left the living quarters of his ship, and into the spartan, narrow bare metal corridor to the entrance hatch. He walked along the metal grille walkways through the equipment deck, past the shield generators. He paused briefly to do a system check at the engineering panel - he might be needing those shield generators later. Finally, he came to the ladder leading to the main airlock housing the ship's main surface entrance. Since there was an atmosphere outside, all he had to do was touch the open button, and the powerful hydraulic jacks opened the inner and outer doors. The main door dropped down, and a ladder slid out. At the bottom, Gilmour waited, and a wall of humid air wafted into the ship from the opened airlock. The hangars always seemed even more humid than the outside air.

"Pam, good to see you, please come in," said Winston, in greeting.
"Well, good morning James. At last I'll get to see the inside of your new Asp", she replied
"It's not really new - I've had it a while," he replied.

  Gilmour climbed the ladder. Winston didn't close the airlock - he'd have to leave soon anyway. They both climbed back up to the upper catwalk and made their way to the living quarters. As they arrived, Albright was about to tuck into his sausages, and now Gilmour was looking hungry.

"There's more in the fridge," said Winston, noting that Gilmour had seen the sausages.
"Hopian hog sausages? You do have good taste after all!" she replied, jokingly.

  She exchanged pleasantries with Albright, then went to the small kitchen. Winston picked up the News again. Things seemed surprisingly normal, despite the fact that Winston fully expected to be a fugitive from the Alliance police in less than an hour from now. Of course, he hadn't let Albright into this little fact yet, but would shortly do so.

  Gilmour came back with her plate of sausages. It was rather cramped around the small table, but it was the sort of thing most bounty hunters were used to. The only combat ship that hadn't been cramped was the almost extinct Fer-de-Lance. The Fer-de-Lance had been the last luxury fighter, and had been made illegal by most police forces. Winston always preferred the minimalist appraoch. He had been in a Fer-de-Lance once before at a shady shipdealers in the Bebece system. He decided they were just to snobbish, although the opulent leather was rather pleasant. The Asp was by far the better ship, anyway.

  It wasn't long before everyone had finished their food. Winston put down the News again, taking care to switch the viewer off. He looked over at Albright, at the opposite end of the table.

"OK, I've already discussed this with Pam. We've got a new plan today. You need to listen very carefully, we have to execute it with precision" said Winston.
"I'm listening," said Albright, curious as to what Winston had up his sleeve.
"We are going to teach those Federation idiots a lesson they won't forget in a hurry", he started.
Albright looked up. "Federation?"
"Yes, of course I haven't told you. I think Rafael Vincent is a Federal agent. His plans smack of the Federation. They want me to bump off an Alliance politician. I suspect they just gave me a filter offer yesterday. I think they might make me a real offer today," answered Winston.
"So how are you going to teach them a lesson?"
"Simple. I'm not going to meet them inside the building. Instead, we are meeting them just outside the top floor of the building, where I will give them a piece of my mind, shaped as an MV-2 assault missile," replied Winston with a smile.
"What? Destroy the building?" asked Albright, concern showing in his voice.
"Yes. If the missile doesn't finish the job, the laser certainly will," said Winston, picking a bit of stray sausagemeat off his plate.

  Albright was turning as white as a sheet. Those were his superior officers!

"But...but...the police! Won't the police kill us before we can escape?" said Albright, the edge of panic in his voice.
"No, we'll be long gone before the police even launch. We'll just have to lie a bit low for a while, and avoid Alliance systems," replied Winston, trying to calm Albright's fears.
" can't do that! You can't just blow up buildings!" said Albright, his voice definitely a few semitones higher than normal.

  Winston wondered why Albright could be so concerned. The young man had been remarkably cocky and self assured in the far more dangerous space combat encounters they had been in on the way in. Gilmour was looking a little surprised at Albright's reaction too. It looked like he was going to break out in apoplexy.

"Don't worry, you're in safe hands. Pam will be piloting the ship, she'll pick me up in front of the building, we'll strike into the Federation's terrified faces, then leave, forcing a misjump", explained Winston briefly, hoping to allay his co-pilot's nerves.

Albright began to stand up. He took a deep breath.

"Sorry, I can't let you do that!" he shouted, then bolted from the room.

  Winston and Gilmour sat in stunned silence for about fifty milliseconds.

"Quick! Get him!" yelled Winston, as they both bolted after Albright, who was rapidly escaping.

  Winston now regretted leaving the door open. They could have easily caught Albright if he had needed to wait for the door mechanism to operate. Winston dashed down the metal catwalks with Gilmour close behind. They both leaped out of the door, not bothering with the ladder.

"Heigh ho," said Jas. The computer decided that she better close the door.

  Albright was running as fast as he could towards the autoshuttle dock. Winston and Gilmour were about five meters behind him, running as hard as they could, making sure they didn't give up any ground. They soon left the large hangar in which the Asp had been parked. They pursued Albright into a second hangar, with the words "Old Blackelk" painted in large letters along the side. The hangar had several ships in it, including a lone, unmarked, Viper Mk.2...

  Albright began to run under the Viper. Suddenly, a figure in the shadows of the Viper's landing gear pounced on Albright, like a puma, lying in ambush for its prey. Albright fell to the floor, and struggled violently with the woman who was now holding him. He viciously kicked at her, struggled upright, and began running again. Winston took advantage of the situation, now having caught up, and dived for Albright's legs, rugby tackling him to the ground. Gilmour and the stranger both piled onto Albright's struggling body and held him still. He lay on the ground, his face pressed against the hard concrete, with Gilmour, Winston and the stranger pinning him firmly. The four of them panted from the physical effort in the oppressive heat. Albright vainly attempted to struggle free once more, but soon gave up.

"Hi, I'm Jane Williams," panted the stranger.
"Thanks for helping," replied Winston, between breaths.

  The four of them lay there in a heap, trying to get their breath back. Suddenly, the sound of three people running towards them echoed across the hangar. It wasn't good news - it was the police!

"OI! You're nicked!" shouted the nearest police officer, as he ran towards the four of them.
"Get up off the floor!" shouted the second officer.

  Winston craned his head around. He noticed all three officers had their guns out, and pointing at them. He decided it was probably best to comply quietly with the officer's command. Gilmour, Winston and Williams stood up, holding their hands up in the traditional gesture made to anyone who was pointing a weapon at you. Albright struggled to his feet and followed suit.

"Right, you can come to the station and explain all of this to the chief. Fighting is strictly prohibited in Old Blackelk," said the first officer.
"But - ," said Winston.
"Quiet!" yelled the first policeman.
"Shall I lock 'em, Sarge?" said the third policeman.
"Yes, and bring them to the cells at the Hobart Street nick," said the first policeman.
"Look, we'll come quietly," said Winston. He really didn't want to be subjected to a Quick-Lock.

  The third officer ignored him. He shoved the Quick-Lock into Winston's back, and activated it. With a loud crack, Winston's torso and arms were wrapped in a thick layer of polymer, and a sedative was injected into his bloodstream. The officer repeated with each of the others. Winston was already feeling light-headed as the officers lead them off to the cells...

  Winston groggily shifted, and opened his eyes. He immediately wished he hadn't. He was in a bland room, with glossy, light green concrete walls. The smooth floor was painted dark grey. He was lying on what passed for a bed on one side of the room. The room contained three more bunks like it, each cast out of concrete, and painted the same drab shade of grey as the floor. There was a single door into the room, and whoever had made the door seemed to think making it resistant to a direct nuclear strike would be a good idea. The stainless steel door was about three meters tall, and two meters wide. It had a small rectangular viewing hole in its centre.

The words "police cell" idly drifted through Winston's groggy brain.

  There were other things in the room too. A toilet occupied the back wall of the room. There was also a slim young man, about Winston's age, sitting on the opposite bunk. The man could have easily passed for a bounty hunter. His hair was cropped short, and he was wearing a well-used leather jacket, a black shirt, and black flight suit trousers. His boots looked even more worn than his jacket. He was reading a book.

  There was another man in the room too, lying on the top bunk on the opposite wall. He was overweight, about middle aged, but also dressed in a similar manner to his cell-mate below. He was snoring loudly, and the snores echoed off the cell's hard, concrete walls.

  Winston rubbed his eyes. At least these police cells were better than some others he had been in. On some frontier worlds, the police thought "hygene" was a greeting. He got up, and looked on the bunk above him to see if Albright was there. The bunk was unoccupied. Winston sighed, and sat back down on his bunk. He looked at his watch, and found it wasn't there. The police probably had taken it. He felt in his pockets too, and couldn't find his ident. His arms were aching from the constriction from the earlier quick-locking he had suffered.

Winston noticed the man on the other side of the room had switched his book off, and was now looking at him.

"Smuggling?" said the other man.
"I'm in for smuggling," said the other man.
"Oh, no. I think I might be here for fighting."
"Unlawful discharge of weapons?"
"No, fighting, like with my fists"

  The other man looked at Winston, taking in his slight, 65 kilogram frame. He raised his eyebrows.

"Have you seen Albright?" asked Winston
"If you mean the person who was brought in with you, a visitor came for him. They took him away"
"A visitor?" asked Winston, the minnows of suspicion darting across his mind.
"Yes, about an hour ago. The guardBot came and took him away."

Winston snarled quietly. There was definitely something up with Albright, and he bet it had something to do with Vincent. Why would he have reacted with such shock when the plans for the attack had been revealed? Winston never liked being betrayed. He gritted his teeth angrily.

"Did you win?" said the other man suddenly.
"The fight - "
"Well, we were actually trying to restrain my 'friend' up here," said Winston, pointing to the empty bunk.
"Then the police came along?"
"Yes. They arrested all of us. I wasn't alone - my friend Pam Gilmour, and a woman, a complete stranger, helped me pin him down"

  The fat man on the top bunk shifted uneasily, and made a curious snorting sound.

"It was drugs," said the man, suddenly changing the subject.
"No, he was being - ", started Winston, understandably confused by the other man's frustrating mode of conversation.
"I mean, I was smuggling narcotics. They searched my ship", he said.
"Did you scoop them up from a pirate?"
"No, I'm a trader. I avoid combat if I can."

  Their conversation was interrupted. The door buzzed, then started to swing open. The squat shape of a guardBot appeared in the entrance way. The wheeled mechanoid stopped in the entrance. It didn't look that suited to guarding, being only about a meter tall, however it had been outfitted with an array of painful looking weaponry. It swung its sensor array around, and looked at Winston.

"Prisoner seven three thee zero two, James Winston, follow me," said the bot, in a pleasant female voice. It seemed slightly incongrous with the bot's purpose.

  Winston stood up, relieved to be leaving the room, even though he wasn't sure why just yet. Perhaps the police wanted to question him.

"Well, I hope they don't fine you too much," said Winston to the trader.
"Thanks," the trader replied. He picked up his book, and continued reading.

  The bot wheeled out into a corridor, equally drab as the cell Winston had just come from. The door closed behind them. The bot turned right, and started rolling down the corridor, past the rows of identical cell doors. Winston caught a glimpse through the viewing holes of some of them. There was a strong smell of antiseptic, almost like the smell of the hospital.

"Who am I going to see?" asked Winston.

The bot swivelled one of its sensors around to look at him.

"I don't know. I have been instructed to take you to your visitor," replied the bot.
"You don't mind me asking, but you seem rather...well mannered...for a guard bot," said Winston.
"I was originally a nurse's assistant. I now serve the Old Blackelk police department. They replaced my instinct set, and equipped me with restraining weapons", replied the bot in its warm voice.
"So you are sentient?"
"Yes. I have a Bell artificial intelligence core"
"Bell?" asked Winston. He hadn't heard of a bot manufacturer by that name.
"My intelligence system is based on the research of Dr. Bell in the twenty first century," replied the bot.

   If a machine could look surprised, the guardBot was certainly looking at Winston with some surprise. This was because in the last twenty years of daily duty at the prison, nobody had ever taken an interest in it nor tried to strike up a conversation.

  They eventually came to the end of the corridor, and the bot wheeled into an elevator. Winston followed, and the doors closed behind him. The lift began to ascend.

"Don't you get bored wheeling around here all day?" asked Winston.
"I am unfamiliar with the concept," replied the bot.
"Well, what do you feel after wheeling down these corridors, over and over again?" asked Winston. He knew his computer, Jas, would occasionally get bored when not much was happening.
"I don't feel anything. It is my duty to complete these tasks. If my sentience is not needed for the task at hand, it shuts down," replied the bot.
"How often is your sentience on line?"
"The average run is twenty five seconds a month, normally whilst having to catch a prisoner who is attempting to escape"

The elevator stopped, and the bot wheeled out. Winston followed, as the bot led him down a short passageway. They stopped at a doorway marked "Interview room 4".

"Thank you for taking an interest, prisoner James Winston", said the bot.
"Don't mention it," replied Winston, as the door in front of them swung open.

  Winston stepped inside. The room was very similar to the cells - the walls and floor constructed from smooth, glossy painted concrete. The room was about twice the size of the cell that he had been lead from. In the centre was a stainless steel table, about two meters long and a meter wide. Behind the table, four people were sitting.

Winston snarled angrily as he saw who those people were. He recognised three of them!

  Albright sat on the left hand side, next to Rafael Vincent and Guido Marks! A fourth man, dressed in a military uniform was seated on the right hand side.

"Albright, you are a dead man," snarled Winston, before the others had a chance to say anything. He fixed Albright with a steely glare.

There was an uncomfortable pause. Vincent stood up.

"James, please sit down," he said, indicating a hard plastic chair that was firmly attached to the floor. Winston gave in, and sat down.

"Now, let me introduce us properly," he said.
"Well, I know the three of you so - "
Vincent cut Winston off. "No you don't. This is Ensign Charles Albright, to my right is Guido Marks, and I don't believe you've met Lieutenant Aleksandr Primakov. My name is not Rafael Vincent, it is in fact Steven Tyler."

Winston stared at the group. He was now extremely angry. If it wasn't for the presence of the guardBot, he would probably explode with rage. Instead, he decided to lay his cards out on the table in a quiet and controlled manner...

"For your information," he started, the faint trace of spittle at the corner of his mouth betraying his inner fury, "I will never work for you Federation running dogs."

He paused for effect. Tyler was about to speak when Winston cut him off.

"And in fact, Ensign Albright here should think back to the conversation we had a few days ago," he continued, making the word "Ensign" seem like an insult.
"Commander -" began Tyler, but Winston once again cut him off.
"Albright, I will hunt you down, see if I don't", he said, giving Albright a look of pure hatred.
"Commander -" said Tyler again, a little louder. Winston was having none of it.
"And I will make sure the Alliance knows what you Federation scumbags are up to as well. You will - ", snarled Winston.

Tyler finally lost his temper. He angrily cut Winston off.

"Commander Winston, shut up!" roared Tyler, his voice reverberating off the hard concrete walls.

Winston was temporarily silenced.

"Commander Winston," continued Tyler, a little more quietly, "we do not work for the Federation"
"Oh? You could have fooled me! You -"

Winston's voice trailed off, as all four men at the other side of the table pulled out their ident wallets and flipped them open, making sure Winston could see the blue and gold shields.

"The Alliance of Independent Systems, Military Intelligence Bureau", was inscribed in large letters beneath the AJN shields.

Winston could hardly believe his eyes.

What was the Alliance doing assasinating one of its own politicians?

© 2000 Dylan Smith.

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