Chapter 15 On the run
"WELL, Chuck, it looks like we're going to be here a couple of weeks," sighed Winston, looking at the leaden sky over the city of Diamond.
"Yeah," replied Albright without enthusiasm.
"There's nothing we can do until Jas's line drivers are fixed. I'll get the repair shop going in the right way - you might as well take a break. Just meet me back at the ship at 1400 tomorrow, and we'll see if we can do some hacking," said Winston.
"Thanks," replied Albright, who trudged off to his quarters to get a change of clothing.

  The slaver's ship had been unloaded by the Federation, and the crew taken into custody. Winston and Albright had already had about five interviews with the Diamond police - each officer had asked the same questions, and it was starting to wear thin. They had told them everything, except about the Adder they were trying to follow. The police still didn't seem satisfied, despite the arrests they had made.

  The Asp had been detached from the Panther, and brought down to a repair shop on the surface. It was evident that the ship would need a lot of work and money to get running again. Nearly every electroptic transducer had been fried by the energy bomb's EMP. Fortunately, the drive's core was undamaged, but the computer was wrecked. It would be at least two weeks before they could get a new one from AAAI at New Rossyth. Both Winston and Albright had visited the doctor to get their gunshot wounds seen to. The doctor had assured Albright he'd have a good 30-centimeter long scar on his upper right arm for life. It was too late for the doctor to prevent the scarring. At least it would no longer hurt.

  Winston had also noticed that Albright was looking worse for wear. He had, after all, never seen the grittier side of space combat, and a day to relax might let his stomach settle. It had all been rather personal during the battle on the Clipper's bridge.

  Landis wasn't happy. In front of him was Lt. Colonel Bradley, the pilot of one of the Asps that had met the Clipper as it headed in towards the planet. He was a short, hard-bitten looking man, with intense eyes and short cropped snow-white hair. He was wearing a Federal Navy flight suit, but he didn't seem to have the attitude of a Navy man.

"So are you sure that's all you know?" asked Lt. Colonel Bradley, once again.
"Yes, that's it, Sir," replied Landis, glaring at Bradley across the table.

  He had told them everything he remembered during the uncomfortable interview. About the coversation with Bunn he'd caught the tail end of. About Winston's dramatic assault on Captain Vega, and that Winston and Albright were out looking for some ship.

"Well, in that case, you're free to go," stated Bradley.
"Thank you, Sir," said Landis, leaving the room, with relief. He had to tell Winston somehow about the interview. It didn't seem like a normal debriefing procedure.

Bradley turned to Campbell, who had remained silent during the interview.

"What do you think, John?" asked Bradley.

John Campbell, a tall, thin old man who looked like he had an eagle somewhere in his ancestry, shrugged. He was dressed like you would expect an accountant or lawyer to dress, not like the clandestine operative he was.

"I don't know, Lieutenant Colonel. I think we need to talk to these chaps. I have information that the Zearla ship's registry was hacked just before they left."
"Hmmm," replied Bradley, thoughtfully.
"And it sounds like Baron Bunn was awfully alarmed. I think it is highly probable. No, I think it's certain that these two were looking for one of our ships," Campbell continued.
"Do you think they know about Backstab?"
"I doubt it, but I think they might be looking for it although they don't know what it is yet," replied Campbell enigmatically.
"Why would bounty hunters be looking for a Backstab ship?" asked Bradley. "They are under strict orders to avoid trouble."
"Yes, they are, and they have. I doubt it's an accident if they are after one of our ships. Someone's put them up to this," replied Campbell.
"What do you have on these two?" asked Bradley.

Campbell sat down, and pulled out a datapad. He inserted a DSU, and quickly reviewed the information.

"Well, we have James Kyle Winston, 31 years old, born and raised near Newtown, Nirvana in the Phekda system. Been in space since he was 17 except a one-year layoff which ended about four months ago, which he spent at a small island community about 500 kilometers from Manchester, Tionisla. Took up fishing I believe. Made Elite about a year and a half ago. A vicious bastard by all accounts if you're not on his right side - notable for a very inventive assassination of a criminal gang leader at Boston Base, Barnard's Star and for eliminating the Sirius Templar," Campbell told Bradley.
"And the other one?"
"Charles Albright, goes by the name Chuck. 21 years old, lots of sim combat but no real experience. Honourably discharged by the Alliance Joint Navy eight months ago, moved to Tionisla. Evidently hooked up with Winston to become his copilot. He was originally a Federation citizen, but moved to the Alliance when he was 16. Only in the AJN for two years, I guess he couldn't hack being in the military"

Campbell slid the datapad to Bradley, who looked at it. It was showing a picture of the two subjects. Bradley shook his head.

"What a poser," he said, looking at Winston's photograph.

  The shot of Winston was taken from a rakish angle. Winston was standing by a nuclear missile, arms crossed, dressed in black, and wearing a sultry look. The photo had been taken for a news feature in the wake of the Sirius Templar incident. Albright's photograph on the other hand was just a standard pilot's license picture. Since the dawn of photo idents, no matter how hard you tried, you'd always come out looking like a criminal. Albright's ident photo was no exception.

"Well, what do we do?" asked Bradley, looking up at Campbell again.
"I think the most prudent course of action would be to haul Albright in. I think he's most likely to tell us what we want to know, and then let them go on their way. If it turns out that they are getting close to Backstab, we'll do a full military op to eliminate them when they leave this system"

  Albright stepped out of the auto-shuttle. Sleet now began to fall from the leaden sky. Although the average temperature of the planet Capitol was about 40 degrees Celcius, the city of Diamond was 70 degrees north, where the long winters were frigid, and the summers were only lukewarm. Albright had no idea what season it was, but he already decided it was pretty miserable. The wind whipped the icy rain around and into his face. Despite the cold dampness, the street was particularly busy, with autoshuttles buzzing all around picking up and dropping off passengers. The Federal Military was in evidence, too. Andceeth, being a disputed system, always had a strong military presence. Diamond belonged to the Federation.

  Albright briskly walked inside the glass door of the building, which proclaimed itself to be "Betty B's Bar. Traditional Ales". He was mentally exhausted, and he knew that he just had to sit down with a nice cold beer, and think things out.

  He walked into the large bar room. It was early afternoon, and the bar wasn't busy. About a dozen customers were in the large bar room, mostly in one large group that occasionally burst into raucous laughter. Albright took the bar stool nearest the window. The bartender, a slightly plump middle-aged woman with blonde, curly hair walked up to him, smiling pleasantly.

"What will it be, luv," she asked with a smile. She had a strong accent that Albright couldn't quite place.
"Half-litre of beer," said Albright, sliding his credit ident to the woman.
"Well, we have lots of different sorts, what sort would you like?" the bartender asked, taking in the beer taps with a sweep of her arm.

  Albright looked at the nearest beer pump. He had never seen anything like it. A large, black lever, with a brass top, and a small sign with the name of the beer. It said "Joseph Holts".

"I'll have a Holts," he said, choosing it out of convenience, rather than knowledge of beer.
"Holts it'll be," said the woman, walking over to the beer pump. She began to pull the lever, filling a glass with the deep amber beer.
"That'll be one point ten," she said, charging Albright's credit ident.
"Thanks," said Albright wearily.

The woman went away to service the large group, which once again broke into laughter.

  Albright took a hearty quaff of the beer. It had a strong, sharp flavour that made him feel somewhat better already. The wind blew the rain against the window in a continuous blatter. The almost freezing rain slid down the window, distorting the view of the world outside.

  The grey, leaden sky matched his mood. Perhaps the AJN psychologist was right. Maybe I'm not cut out for this, he though. He remembered the day that the psychologist told him he could never be a fighter pilot, his life long dream. The psych had told him he wasn't "emotionally stable enough." He had been angry rather than upset, and had vowed to prove the shrink who had done his psych screen wrong. He had in the meantime been assigned to pilot AJN transport ships. The opportunity to prove the shrink wrong came when the AJNIB had become so short staffed that they would take anybody who was loyal to the Alliance. Maybe if he could prove himself as an intelligence officer, he could prove to the AJN that the psych was wrong. Best of all, the AJNIB job would mean he would probably see space combat.

  It's not the same as sim combat, he thought. He was deeply unsettled by the fight on the bridge of the Clipper. He hadn't been able to put out the memory of Winston's shape behind the engineer...the flash of light from Winston's gun, then the rain of body parts. He kept thinking about the guard he gunned down. He kept reminding himself that if he hadn't, he would have died himself, but all he could think of was mercilessly pumping fusillade after fusillade of plasma into the guard until his personal shield had given way, allowing the next bolt to tear through the man's torso.

  Could I have done what Winston had done with Vega? he questioned. He realised he had kept a cool facade whilst Winston had gambled with their lives, but more out of being scared rigid than anything else. He realised that Winston seemed to lack emotion. It was true that Winston had appeared to have shown anger back at Old Blackelk, but thinking had looked rather, well...contrived, as if he was following instructions on how to act angry. Worse of all, he now felt he couldn't talk to Winston about his feelings, despite his suspicions that Winston must have been through what he was going through.

  He took another deep pull from his beer, already feeling the effects of the alcohol. The rain outside had again turned to damp snow, the moist flakes sliding down window as they were driven by the wind. A distant flash of lightning surged across the sky, a dulled rumble of thunder following a few seconds later. He looked around the bar. Curiously, he saw a man sitting at the other end of the room, dressed in a business suit and despite the grey sky, wearing a rather sinister pair of sunglasses. He looked like a bad guy from a Jameson three-dee flick. Alarmingly, the man was watching him. Albright looked at his beer, and quickly finished it.

"Thanks," he said to the bartender, who was standing nearby, filling a half-litre glass.
"Cheers, luv. Chin up lad, it's not the end of the world," she said.
"I wouldn't bet on it," he thought rather than said as he started to leave.

  Albright nonchalantly, but quickly walked towards the door. He dared to steal a glance at the man who had been looking at him. He noticed that the man was standing up. He tried to quicken his pace subtly.

  He left the bar, and made a right turn. The wind drove the wet snow into his face, chilling him to the bone. He kept his pace up, and rounded the corner of the building, making his way towards the nearest autoshuttle dock. A black auto pulled out of traffic, and stopped by the side of the road just ahead.

Four men, dressed in suits and wearing sunglasses stepped out.

  Albright screeched to a halt, and made a quick about-turn, walked quickly across the street, narrowly avoiding being run over by a speeding auto-shuttle. Quickly glancing back, he noticed the four men were following at a quick pace. Abandoning nonchalance, Albright ran for it. He sprinted down a side road before coming to an alleyway to his left. He ducked into the alleyway, dashing down half its length. He paused to get his breath back. He was feeling hot, despite the icy wind and driving sleet. He almost fancied he could hear the wet sleet sizzle as it landed in his hair and on his face. There was a muffled roar, and above him, he glimpsed the dark shape of a Cobra Mk.3 scraping through the bottom of the clouds as it thundered by on its approach into the starport. Its navigation lights were the only hints of colour in the dark grey sky.

  He walked down the alleyway until he came to the end, which emerged into a wide boulevard. The street was busy with traffic. Autoshuttles peeled off to go down side streets. He was hoping one would stop to let some people off, so he could get in and get back to the ship. He nervously looked around, just in time to see one of the suits catch sight of him.

  He started to run again, pushing past pedestrians. Suddenly he spotted an autoshuttle setting down. The door opened, and the passenger got out. He sprinted towards it, and jumped in.

  The shuttle was still occupied by someone. He yelped in surprise as the suit-man sitting in the other seat made a grab for him! He quickly jumped out, before the door slammed shut, and broke into a run. Glancing back, he now noticed he was being pursued by a couple of Federal soldiers, each bearing some nasty looking weaponry. But salvation was in sight... ahead he spotted an autoshuttle dock with four shuttles waiting! He expended the last of his energy on a mad sprint to the dock. He leaped into the nearest shuttle and slammed the door down, not wanting to wait for the automatic system to do it for him.

"Spaceport maintenance hangar!" he yelled at the shuttle's computer. One of the suit-men came up to the shuttle's window. Albright gave the man the finger as the shuttle took off, and joined traffic, leaving the suit-man standing by the kerbside.

  The shuttle sped off in completely the wrong direction. He suddenly realised with horror that if he was being pursued by the authorities, they could take control! The small shuttle veered off, and climbed. He noticed four other shuttles following him. All he could do was wait, as the shuttle climbed up into the low cloud. He realised they could be taking him anywhere. The shuttle flew on for about two minutes, before breaking out beneath the cloud. There was nothing around - just some farm fields that was used to provide Diamond's food source. The shuttle descended, and set down in sodden field.

  Albright forced the door open. He decided he wasn't about to give up. He jumped out, landing in the field with a splash, and started to run in what he guessed was the right direction. The field was very difficult to run in - the dirt clung to his boots as he splashed through the ankle-deep water that had accumulated from the rainstorm. It was also extremely slippery, and he fell over, face-first into a deep puddle. He struggled up and began to run again, just in time to see his pursuers close in. Quickly they landed, boxing him in. He tried to dodge around them, but succeeded only in falling down again. He lay panting in the dirt, and struggled to stand.

  The doors of the nearest autoshuttle opened, and four soldiers jumped out. Albright was now to exhausted to run any more, as the soldiers grabbed him, and hustled him into their shuttle...

© 2000 Dylan Smith.

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