Chapter 8 Deception Under Cover
  WINSTON looked around the table in disbelief. Albright, Tyler, Marks and Primakov put their ident wallets away.

The Alliance! Assasinating a presidential candidate!

  Winston was shocked. He didn't believe that the Alliance was into that sort of thing. Maybe he was just naive about Alliance politics. This was the kind of thing he expected the Empire or Federation to get up to. Perhaps once people got to power, they lost all their moral values, regardless of which side they were on.

There was a long, pregnant pause.

Finally, Winston made up his mind, and spoke. He at least had a trace of morality, even if these secret servicemen did not. He addressed the four men quietly, and carefully, in stark contrast to his previous anger. He was undergoing emotions of surprise and disappointment rather than rage.

"Sorry, I'm not doing it. Not even for the Alliance. I don't do assasinations any more, and certainly not political ones," he said quietly.

Aleksandr Primakov looked up, and smiled. "Good, because we don't want you to assasinate Mr. Mazetti," he replied quietly.
"Why - ", began Winston. He paused, and pursed his lips briefly. "It was a test, wasn't it?" he asked at last.
"Yes, we needed to make sure you were loyal. Had you taken the mission - ", began Primakov. Winston completed his sentence for him.
"- you would have killed me"

Albright shifted uncomfortably as Winston's gaze met his. Albright looked down at his boots shamefully.

"What about Ensign Albright?" asked Winston.

  Winston carefully watched Albright out of the corner of his eye. After years of bounty hunting, he had learned to read others' body language pretty well. It was a useful skill if you wanted to sort the good from bad whilst haggling over the price of the goods you'd just scooped up from a pirate you had wasted, or to know if the policeman you faced would be partial to a 250 credit bribe. He saw Albright flinch almost imperceptibly when Tyler spoke.

"He would have been at grave risk, but as a good military officer, understood this when he took the mission to accompany you."

  Winston knew that Albright would have died with him in the fiery remains of his Asp had he taken the mission, and he also knew that Albright had just realised this for the first time.

"But why did you drag me halfway across the galaxy for all of this? I assume you knew I was no threat to the Alliance working on a fishing vessel, and I somehow doubt you brought me here to teach me what tea was," Winston asked, already suspecting what the answer would be.
"We want you to work for us," Tyler replied.
"We need more combat experienced agents. We are woefully understaffed at present," explained Tyler, with the sound of regret in his voice.
"What if I refuse?"
"You may go back to your fishing boat. But utter a word about what went on here to anyone, and you'll... well, put it this way, you'll live in more interesting times than you usually do," replied Tyler in what seemed like an incongrously unthreatening manner.
"But why me? There's quite a few other good combateers around..."
"We know all about the Sirius Templar. You had to take tough decisions, and handled them well. Most other combateers don't have that experience," replied Tyler.
"How do you know? The press didn't report the half of it..."
"Now that would be telling," explained Tyler, to Winston's irritation.

  Winston looked around the stainless steel surface of the table. Maybe he should join. Maybe it would result in some new adventures. He was rather relieved that the Alliance wasn't after all into murdering its own politicians. Well, not that he knew at least, he conceded to himself. He then had a sudden thought.

"You know, if I had taken the mission, I would have probably succeeded," said Winston, smiling.
Primakov looked at Winston, slightly surprised. "I don't think so," he said.
"I did make Elite you know," said Winston, with a little pride.
"That maybe so, but so had the members of the AJN battle team who would have met you in Alioth. You wouldn't have stood a chance, and besides we'd have warned Mazetti that you were coming," said Primakov.

  Winston scratched his chin pensively. Perhaps it was rather naive to have said that he would have succeeded. He now had to make a decision on the spur of the moment - one that would undoubtedly tie him up for years. He should just forget it all, he thought. The fishing boat was nice, and he yearned for a fresh kipper. It was just his spirit of adventure had been re-ignited. He knew he would just be asking himself "what if" should he go back to Tionisla.

"OK," he began, "against my better judgement, I'll join you. What's my mission?"
Primakov looked over at him. "Your mission at the moment is to read this, and get yourself over to AJN headquarters in Edinburgh, Alioth."

  Primakov slid a data cartridge across the table to Winston, who picked it up. Winston had hoped he would be told something more exciting than this.

"That DSU contains the AJN's code of conduct, and the special rules for intelligence division officers," said Primakov.

  Primakov paused whilst Winston looked at the small cartridge with a slight feeling of dread. Winston never had liked reading rules and regulations. During his brief stay as a courier for the Federation military he had a similar task to start him off, and at the time he was just a delivery boy. Now he had to read the same thing from the AJN. He groaned inwardly.

"Also, you'll need to wear this when you show up," Primakov continued, tossing a package at him.
"What is it?" asked Winston, already suspecting the answer.
"Uniform. You can hardly show up at Navy Headquarters wearing ...that...", said Primakov, mock disgust in his voice.

  Winston's jaw set rigid as he was about to rebut Primakov's statement. His clothing had no holes, and although his leather jacket might have seen better days, it was at least in one piece. He didn't think he was any worse than other bounty hunters he knew.

"What about my friend Pam Gilmour?" asked Winston, concerned about his friend.
"The police have been instructed to hold her until you leave this system. If you contact her, you must not tell her what you're new job is," replied Primakov.
"And who is to be my co-pilot?"
"Ensign Albright will accompany you, of course. I assume you're not going to harm him," said Tyler, an unmistakable tone of menace laid onto his last sentence.
"Albright's fine, I won't hurt him," said Winston, looking over at Albright.
"You better not, he's going to be your partner on your mission," said Tyler.
"Right, and lastly, we need you to sign in with your ident," said Primakov.
"The police took it, and my watch," replied Winston, slightly irritated.

  Primakov slid the two items over the table. Winston picked up his watch, looking at it carefully. It appeared all in order, so he put it back on. He activated his ident by touching its biometric scanner. Primakov put the ident reader in the middle of the table, and Winston wordlessly ran his ident card. The reader beeped quietly and accepted Winston's electronic signature.

"You are free to leave, Lieutenant James Winston. But don't let your rank go to your head, and get to HQ as quickly as you can," said Tyler.
"Thank you sir," said Winston, hoping to sound appropriate.

  Winston stood up, and picked up the package containing the uniform. Albright got up, and followed him. The guardBot was still waiting at the door, and led the two men to the exit of the police station, and to a waiting autoshuttle. They strapped themselves in, and Winston instructed the machine to take them back to the spaceport. The doors closed, leaving the two isolated from the sounds of everyday life outside of the Old Blackelk police station.

"You didn't realise they were going to kill you, did you?" said Winston, suddenly.
"Well, I knew that the mission was dang -"
"Look, cut the crap Albright. I could tell that you had just realised that had I have taken that assasination, your charred remains would be orbiting Turner's World right now," said Winston harshly.
"I knew - "
Winston cut him off rather more gently this time. "Look, I'm not trying to give you a hard time. I was as naive as you once. It's a wonder I made it out of my teenage years. Just make sure you think when you take on a mission. Especially if they tell you you'll be alright when the plan involves blowing up the ship you're on"

  Albright's self-confidence seemed to have drained a bit. He looked at his boots again.

"You know, when people send you on kamikaze missions, I wish they'd tell you," sighed Winston. He had lost too many friends to bravado. It's just bounty hunters sent themselves on kamikaze missions sometimes, with the lamest of justifications.
"What's a kamikaze?" asked Albright, slightly puzzled.
"It means divine wind. It's a kind of term for a suicide mission. There's some history to the term which I don't remember, but it had something to do with an early technological era war," replied Winston.

  Winston looked at himself in the mirror in his quarters. It had only taken a few days to get to Edinburgh, on Turner's World, in Alioth. They had spent most of the time just resting - there wasn't much to do when travelling in such a safe system. Winston had sat down and read the contents of the DSU Primakov had given him, and gone through all the VR tutorials. It was not exactly riveting. Fortunately, Albright hadn't seemed to take it personally when Winston had threatened to finish him off in that meeting room a few days earlier. Winston had apologised to him for his outburst. It had all been a bit humiliating.

  He stared at the new James Winston in the mirror. The well-worn leather jacket had succumbed to an immaculate flight lieutenant's uniform. This consisted of a navy blue flight suit, with four gold stripes on each shoulder, a spotless white shirt and a dark blue tie. On the right shoulder was an embroidered Alliance Joint Navy shield, and on the left was his home unit, the Alioth 7th Squadron. The worst thing had been the tie. He had seen them, but never had a reason to wear one. With great embarrasment, he had to ask Albright to show him how to put it on. If he heard the words "Windsor knot" one more time, he felt he might scream. He had also made sure his face was properly shaven, and his hair freshly cut. Fortunately, bounty hunters and the military had the same ideas on how hair should be cut, so this hadn't been an issue.

  He left his room, and met Albright in the Asp's cramped living room. Albright smiled at him. He was similarly dressed.

"Well, how does it feel to be clean?" he said.
"Hey, I'm always clean, I just might look a bit worn," replied Winston. Junior officers weren't supposed to say that sort of thing, he thought.
"Come on, we better go, they don't like it when you're late," replied Albright.
"I was never cut out to be in the military, you know," grumbled Winston.
"OK, let's see your salute one more time," said Albright

  Winston made the gesture. He thought it was rather silly, but the military seemed to have these customs deeply ingrained. He spent hours in the VR suite, being bawled at by the virtual drill seargent. At least it passed some of the time as they hurtled through the void.

"Well, I think you'll probably get by," said Albright, after watching Winston's salute.
"Why do they have all these customs?" asked Winston.
"The like discipline. Just be thankful that you didn't have a real drill sergeant. Those guys are evil," replied Albright, as they began walking towards the ship's aft airlock.

  In contrast to the sticky, humid air of Old Blackelk, Edinburgh was quite pleasant. Alioth hung in the bright sky, gently warming Turner's World to a pleasant temperature. A few fair weather clouds drifted across the sky. Winston and Albright stepped out of the Asp. The ship was parked in the AJN's spaceport, and the two walked down the pathway towards headquarters. The AJN kept their spaceport and headquarters immaculate - the lush grass was mown short, and the buildings glistened in the sun. The sprawling complex covered a few square kilometers to the west of Edinburgh. A number of small AJN craft were parked neatly on some of the pads. Winston's Asp looked incongrous amongst the military craft.

  Winston came to the gate to the main reception. Above it was a most surprising sight. An Eagle Mk.3 Long Range Fighter, glistening and polished, was attached to a heavy looking chrome pillar. It was posed at a rakish angle, its landing gear retracted. Winston turned to Albright in puzzlement.

"What's this for?" he asked.
"It's a gate guard," replied Albright.
"Gate guard?"
"Yeah, I guess it was a ship they saved from the cutting torch when it reached the end of its useful life", Albright replied.

  Winston briefly looked in wonder at the gate guard. It even had missiles attached to the pylons. He then continued on towards the main building's entrance.

  The reception building was a sprawling, three level building. It looked like it was built out of a single, continuous sheet of one-way glass, with an entrance built into it. Winston could see himself and Albright approaching in the mirror-like reflection from the glass as they approached. The doors slid open, and they went into the reception area. The reception area looked more like a hotel reception than a naval headquarters. Thick carpets lined the floor, and a teak reception desk covered the wall opposite the entrance. A large indoor fountain occupied the centre of the reception room. The reception clerk, dressed in a smart uniform was seated behind the desk. A tall, patrician looking man was standing by the desk. He turned to face Winston and Albright as they approached.

"Lietenant Winston and Ensign Albright, I presume," he said as they walked up.

  Albright saluted smartly. Winston decided it would be a good idea to follow suit. The long hours with the virtual drill sergeant finally paid off.

"At ease. My name is Commodore Saunders. Please join me in my office and we'll discuss your upcoming mission," he said.

  Winston tried to size up Saunders. He looked to be about fifty years old, with sandy coloured hair and a moustache. He looked slightly eccentric, and spoke with a type of voice that made Winston inexplicably think of the name "Biggles". They followed Saunders through the corridors of the interior of the building, and finally made a sharp right turn into an office. As they walked in, Saunders closed the door.

  The office was quite large, and had a heavy looking oak desk in the centre, surrounded by a few swivel chairs. The large window looked out over the grassy courts that were interspersed between the various buildings that made up the AJN's headquarters. However, the office looked like the results of an explosion in a bookshop. Data cartridges littered all available surfaces. There must have been hundreds of petabits worth of data haphazardly strewn across the office.

"Forgive the mess, I'm not terribly tidy," said Saunders, as he cleared a pile of DSUs of a couple of the chairs.
"I'm not too tidy myself, sir" said Winston, feeling a reply was in order
"You know, I've always said that a clean and tidy workplace is a sure sign of a sick mind," replied Saunders.

Saunders sat down behind the desk, and cleared off some space.

"Take a seat, gentlemen," he said.

  Winston and Albright took a swivel chair each. Saunders began fishing around for a DSU, and after a brief search, found what he was looking for. He inserted the cartridge, and then began to speak.

"Something worrying happened to an Alliance Science Council mission about three months ago," he began.

Albright whispered discreetly into Winston's ear. "Worrying usually means fatal," he said.

Saunders contined. "A science council Panther Clipper was lost. We found its remains by chance, hurtling out into interstellar space in the Enedlia system. There were fifteen crew on that ship - we found twelve dead bodies. Someone had deliberately destroyed the flight data recorder. However, they hadn't realised that a QAR was fitted."
"Quick access recorder? like my Asp's ops logger?" asked Winston.
"Yes, precisely. The QAR is used for the ASC's maintenance teams. What we found was disturbing. We managed to recover a few frames of video from the wreckage of the FDR showing a normal outdoor world. The QAR however, shows that the ship was attacked whilst landing. Someone had obviously gone to the effort to drag the wreckage into space and set it adrift. The other thing is that Enedlia doesn't have any outdoor worlds, which contradicts the landing data we retrieved from the QAR. It's like whoever was disposing of the wreckage dragged it through hyperspace too."
"That seems to be rather a lot of effort to go to. I wonder why they didn't just cut the ship up where it stood?" asked Albright.
"That's what worries us. The only reason why someone would attack an ASC ship was if it had found something they didn't want to be found out. This would also explain the effort made to get rid of the ship. Perhaps whoever did it not only didn't want us to know what was going on - but they didn't want to know their side to know either, hence they didn't scrap the ship in situ", replied Saunders.

  Saunders picked up a couple of DSU readers, and inserted a data cartridge in. He slid the two readers over to Winston and Albright. The devices, the size of an A4 sheet, were just showing some text from the DSU. Winston carefully read what it said. It appeared to be a story. A story that James Winston was quite familiar with.

" 'Raxxla!' Jason said. 'Remember: Raxxla!' Then, as he pushed Alex back into the cramped escape pod, he shouted 'Remember me, Alex!' ..."

Winston looked up.

"The Dark Wheel. I've read it. What's the deal?" he asked.
"I expect you have read it," said Saunders.
"But it's a story. It''s...what parents read their children if they want them to grow up to be bounty hunters. What can it have to do with the ASC vessel? It's a fictional work...isn't it?" Winston asked.
"Well, the Dark Wheel might be fiction. However, we think that something like it might be reality, and that the ASC ship had stumbled across it."
"And our mission is to find out what happened?"
"You've got it," replied Saunders.
"Look at this," said Albright suddenly, pointing out some data on the reader to Winston.

Winston read the text aloud. "No planets of the atmospheric composition that the QAR recorded exist within 25 ly of where the ship was found"

"Someone's hiding something. We need to find out. This is why we wanted to recruit you, James Winston. We think it might be some highly organized and powerful pirates, but we don't know for sure"
"Well, do you have any leads?" asked Winston, hoping for something to at least get him started in the right direction.
"Only one, and we're not sure whether it will take you anywhere, but it's worth investigating. The QAR recorded passing a vessel just over 2 AU from its eventual point of destruction. The ship was an Adder registered in the Zearla system, a particularly backward feudal state. The ASC asked Zearla's registry for the details on the ship, but the registrar never replied", Saunders said.
"I guess it looks like Zearla will be our first stop then," observed Albright.
"I would agree. I have a suspicion that the commander of that ship knows something about this. The bounty hunter's network might help here..." replied Winston.
"I would agree - that's another reason that we wanted you to work for us, you know the right people. However, I must stress that you do not let on that you're working for us," admonished Saunders.
"We'll just tell them we are on a private vengeance mission if anyone asks. Perfectly plausable. Bounty hunters are doing this all the time on behalf of rich merchants," replied Winston.
"Very well, that sounds fine to me," Saunders replied, tugging at his sandy moustache.

  Winston thought about it. He had been to Zearla once before, and he could agree with the assessment that it was backwards. The spaceports were in an advanced state of disrepair, most of the population were agricultural serfs, and all you could buy there was food or tractor parts. The system's ship registry couldn't hold more than about a hundred ships. There probably wasn't a registrar there - some peasant probably got tasked with meeting the minimum Galactic Registration Treaty requirements.

"Well, I better not keep the pair of you any longer. All we have found out so far is on those DSUs. Good luck on your mission, both of you. I hope we'll see you back here sometime with the mystery solved," said Saunders, smiling.
"Well, we hope so too," answered Winston.

  Saunders guided the two from his office, and back outside. They bade each other farewell, and Saunders disappeared back into the main building, leaving Winston and Albright in the bright Alioth sunshine.

"You know, the AJN has some good rec facilities," stated Albright.
"What were you thinking of?" asked Winston.
"Well, specifically, over in that building there," said Albright, pointing across the spaceport, "is the AJN officer's bar. They have some very good beer."
"You know, that's the best thing I've heard all day," replied Winston, thinking of a nice, cool glass of brown.

  Winston straightened his tie, and the pair set off purposefully in the direction of the bar. It would be the last beer for a long time to come...

Footnote: The AJN Intelligence Division stopped recruiting this way after a particularly embarrasing incident where the would-be recruit turned out to be disloyal, and very nearly succeeded in assassinating his target. In fact, James Winston was right when he claimed he could have succeeded in the assassination mission they tried to give him - the AJN hadn't reckoned with the wiliness of the typical bounty hunter. It was only because the intelligence division had made very good decisions about who to try and hire that this recruitment policy lasted for the three years it did. In the meantime, however, the AJN had managed to recruit quite a number of bounty hunters and learned a great deal from them.

© 2000 Dylan Smith.

[Onto Part Two]  [Back to The Edge]  [Back to AliothNet]  [Contact Us]