Chapter 24 The Meeting
  James Winston slid down the entry ladder, and onto the concrete of the landing pad, into the muggy air of a planet that to his mind shouldn't have been there. He stepped back, and his partner carefully stepped out of their stolen Cobra Mk.3. Winston looked out over the spaceport towards the rows of neatly parked Nova Rodstein trading ships.

"James Winston and Charles Albright. Fancy seeing you two here," said an unexpected voice behind them. Winston turned around as if he was on a turntable. Albright turned quickly, and took a step back...
"How...who?" Winston stammered. The person facing them looked very familiar.
"Steven Tyler?" Albright asked, at last.
"Yes. Lieutenant Winston, let me refresh your memory. I hired you into the AJNIB back on Old Blackelk."
"Yes, I do remember that," said Winston, recovering a little. His mind reeled. If the AJNIB was involved in this system, why didn't Saunders know? Perhaps he did. After all, Tyler was there to welcome them.
"Well, you both may be good pilots, but you need a lesson or two in larceny," started Tyler conversationally. "Like make sure you take the ship's owner too so he can't report back to base that someone's swiped his ship. We watched you all the way. Nice work on the pirates," he finished, with a conceited smile.
"What is this place? What's the AJNIB doing here?" Albright said, finally getting a word in edgeways.
"The AJNIB doesn't know. Come inside, and I'll explain what Project Backstab is all about, and the horrifying background," said Tyler, and began to walk towards the spaceport buildings.

  The minnows of suspicion were already darting around Winston's head. He'd already determined that Backstab involved the Federation, along with a fraudulent ship registry in Zearla. It was something definitely fishy. And now a recruiter from the AJNIB was in on all of it. The one who recruited him. If Winston realised that the slaver who tried to capture Albright and himself in Andceeth was sent to take him out by someone involved in Backstab, the minnows would have been porpoises. Albright was wondering why he'd been chased down and interrogated in that festering police station in Diamond if the AJNIB was in on this. Both knew the facts didn't seem to line up right. But Tyler was behaving as if it was all officially sanctioned, and not even making the vaguest attempt to harm them - a bit of an about-turn to how everyone else involved in Project Backstab had treated them. Tyler then lead them into one of the low buildings surrounding the spaceport, the cool airconditioned building in stark contrast to the humidity outside.

  The three walked down a couple of corridors, and then into a large meeting room on the left. In the centre was a large, mahogany table which would have looked right at home in a conference room of the Sirius Corporation. It was surrounded by leather chairs. Winston noticed that it was real leather, not the usual Nauga-Hide simulation. The three sat down.

"Fetch the others, our visitors are here," said Tyler to the room at large. A computer hidden somewhere said, "Acknowledged" in response.
"So how have you boys been?" asked Tyler, conversationally.
"Shot at, chased, captured, escaped, chased, shot at again, but other than that, just fine," Winston replied sarcastically.
"Seems to be the story of your life. Mr. Albright?"
"Fine, considering the circumstances," he said, with a slight hint of tiredness.
"Well, it'll be over soon," Tyler added ominously.
Winston sighed. Oh no, not again he thought bitterly.
"No, not like that. We intend to execute Backstab very shortly, and we think both of you can help us enormously in making sure the project succeeds. We promise there will be no more chasing, capturing or being shot at. Well, not much anyway. The future of the Alliance depends on it, and you have arrived at just the right time. When the others arrive, I'll explain the background fully."
"Why not just explain them now, to save time?" asked Winston. Tyler flinched almost imperceptably, but Winston was at his most observant, and noticed. Winston knew the real answer - because Tyler was worried that neither Winston or Albright would like what they were told and would refuse to co-operate, and if the heavies were in the room, they could be "dealt with"...the flinch told it all...
"Because we all need to be on the same page," Tyler added, somewhat lamely. Winston realised he'd get nothing more than idle conversation out of the man. Tyler felt slightly uncomfortable under Winston's gaze. He felt that Winston may have some experience at interrogating, and realised he'd probably given the game away merely by his body language. He wasn't far wrong.
"Bullshit," said Winston with a wry smile. "I suppose we have no choice though, so we'll humour you, for now." He leaned back into the soft leather of the chair, and folded his arms. Tyler was relieved when the door opened, and the others came in. Winston's unusual charcoal-coloured eyes made him feel uneasy, something he hadn't felt in many years of being an agent of the AJNIB himself. He started to feel as if Winston could dominate conversations just like he'd dominated the pirates on the way in - one slip, one weakness...and you would be destroyed. At least he had numbers on his side now.

  Three men and two women had entered the room. Winston and Albright watched them carefully. One of the men and one of the women were wearing AJN uniforms. One of the men was wearing a uniform that neither recognised, but both had accurately guessed that it was INRA. The other two were in civilian clothes. Winston recognised the casually-dressed woman. She had dark hair, pulled tightly into a pony tail, olive skin, and the same charcoal eyes as himself. He nodded in recognition - it was the woman who'd chased him down the corridors after he came crashing in through the ceiling at the installation in Diamond...and a fellow Phekdan. He knew she worked for the Federation. She flashed him a brief smile that seemed to say "I got you in the end, didn't I". Winston thought he'd soon see about that.

"May I introduce you all," began Tyler. "Our new arrivals are Lieutenants James Winston and Charles Albright of the AJNIB. Recruited by myself, in fact. Around the table we have Theo Cartwright of the INRA, Eduardo Heinrich of the ANJIB, Lisa Betts of the AJNIB, Elyssia Wyatt of the Federation Intelligence Bureau, and John Piquet also from the FIB."

  Winston looked around the table, and tried to look amiable and unthreatening as he tried to measure everyone up. Cartwright of the INRA didn't look like the typical storybook INRA man. In fact, he was a small man in his thirties who looked about as threatening as a rabbit. He had very pale skin and his blonde hair was almost translucent. It went well with the dark grey INRA uniform. Eduardo Heinrich had the distinct Latin looks of someone who'd grown up in the equatorial regions of Hope, in the Gateway system. Lisa Betts was probably in her late fifties and as hard-bitten as they come, her shoulder length ginger hair accentuating her granite features. Elyssia Wyatt was slim and athletic, and Winston found her attractive, despite Wyatt being about ten years older than him. Piquet, the guy from the Federation, looked close to retirement. A hulking bear of a man with a shock of white hair, he had to be well over the century. Despite his age, it still looked like he could undo wheelnuts with his bare hands. Winston felt a little happier since he'd chosen a seat right next to the door so they could run if necessary. Albright looked nervous, but was putting on a great show of looking calm and collected. He'd get it right one day.

"Well, now we all know who we all are, I'll explain what Backstab is for the benefit of our newcomers. To help them, I've compiled the evidence that we used and put it on this datapad," Tyler said, sliding two of the units towards Winston and Albright. "You may do your own research if you like, we welcome that, especially if it will help you know you're doing the right thing. To summarize, the Alliance is about to embark on a very dangerous course of action after the elections. Our government has become paranoid. They intend to invade eight independent systems including Enedlia, to head off percieved Federation agression. These eight systems are seen as being strategic. This can't happen as our sources inside the Federation" - he indicated Piquet - "will launch a full-scale response. The war will be extremely destructive to both the Alliance and Federation. The Empire will undoubtedly take advantage of the situation. With the aid of our friends in the INRA and some Imperial staffers who would rather keep the status quo, we've obtained some useful technology. Backstab's primary goal is to replace the AIS politicians and officials that are plotting this attack with clones. Clones that are exactly the same in every respect - except they do not desire to invade these eight systems. This is a tricky and risky proposition. We've had to take over a trading business, Nova Rodstein, to help accomplish this. NRA ships are not viewed with suspicion in the Alliance, and NRA executives often wine and dine with the officials concerned. They will be our avenue for getting the clone agents in. In case of problems, many of the NRA ships have been fitted out as fighters, and will be carrying our operatives, to eliminate any resistance from Alliance officials who may get wind of our scheme."

  Tyler took a sip from his glass, and watched Winston and Albright carefully.

"Why not just go to the press with the evidence?" Albright asked.
"The mainstream press didn't believe us. Only RIG printed the story."

  Winston didn't react, but he knew this clearly had to be bullshit. He had read the RIG story. If the evidence in the datapad he'd been given was verifiable, as Tyler was claiming, then the rest of the press would have been over it like a rash. There was something more to this story than Tyler was making out. And there was the man from INRA...

"Why did you destroy the ASC vessel?" Winston asked, pointedly. Tyler winced slightly.
"We had no choice. We had to prevent this base from being discovered."
"Why not take them captive?"
"Too risky, I'm afraid."
"There's also been complaints of increased piracy in Enedlia. I suspect you were responsible for that too," Winston added. Tyler made no comment.
Winston began to speak again. "What makes you think you had the right to snuff out the lives of those scientists on that ship? Or the traders that blundered into your navigation beacon? Or the bounty hunters you undoubtedly massacred in the process of invading this base? Or the involvement of INRA?"
Tyler saw a chink in Winston's armour. "We are trying to prevent a war that will cost millions of lives and could destroy the Alliance. A few lives lost to make sure our project succeeds is unfortunate, but it's the cost that comes with preventing a terrible war. Don't you think it was justified?"
"Who made you the judge, jury and executioner?" Winston asked, cuttingly.

  Tyler stood up, and walked around the table thoughtfully. The others looked on in silence. He walked to Winston's side of the table, and then towards him. He gently started lifting a piece of jewelry that Winston was discreetly wearing around his neck. Tyler knew it would be there, even though Winston never showed it off.

"Hey, thats - " snapped Winston. Tyler hushed him.

  He lifted Winston's golden chain. Attached to it was a small, intricately made pendant. Tyler held it up to the light, and turned it around with everyone watching - most of all, James Winston.

"Nice, isn't it?" Tyler said.
"Nice? It's my bloody..." Winston snarled. Tyler cut him off with a gentle voice.
"Our friend James Winston is more subtle than most, wearing this discreetly. You all know what it is?"

Winston shot a sidelong glance at Elyssia Wyatt, who was wearing an identical piece of jewelry.

"Well, congratulations on your Elite rating, James. So who made you the judge, jury and executioner? Six thousand ships destroyed, I hear. How many by mistake? How many were offenders who'd got a small bounty by petty thievery or unlawful discharge of a firearm? How many children, James?"
Suddenly, Winston found himself on the defensive. "We're not talking about me, we're talking about you," he hissed, trying to derail Tyler's impeccable point-out of hypocracy.
"Well, I suggest you're in no position to to criticise. I fully admit we had to undertake some very unpleasant killings to keep Backstab secret. It was regrettable that we had to wipe out every bounty hunter who knew the whereabouts of the NKW, and one I particularly regret. I had to order the death of a relative, the relative who had tipped me off to the existence of the NKW and its whereabouts, including his seventeen year old grandson. But if our plan succeeds, and war is averted, they did not die in vain," Tyler said, sorrowfully.
"Why is INRA involved?"
"They have the tools to help ensure our success. Simple as that. INRA is not the bogeyman it's made out to be," said Tyler.
"Why did you spare us?"
Tyler handed Winston's Elite pendant back to him, then spoke. "We believe you are loyal to the Alliance and can help our cause. You have the skills we need."
"That's a big risk, isn't it?" Albright asked, speaking at last.
Tyler turned to him. "Indeed it is. But since we were expecting you ever since Elyssia arrived with news of what you were doing, we had time to formulate a plan that will win our mutual trust. We cannot allow you to operate together, of course, until we understand exactly where your loyalties lie. James - you will go with Elyssia, and Charles, you'll go with Cartwright. We will allow you to leave this system so you can verify our claims for yourselves, with data that we could not have possibly tampered with. And then we will execute Project Backstab."
"How long have we got?" asked Winston grimly. He wasn't particulary keen on being told what to do by Tyler.
"Time is of the essence I'm afraid. Three standard weeks. But that should be plenty of time to check our claims. I'm confident you'll find that you can trust us, and I'm confident you can play a key role in making sure Backstab succeeds, and we prevent the war that'll otherwise happen."

  Both Winston and Albright realised they didn't have a choice - at least, not if they didn't want to meet the same fate as the ASC crew. What was still bothering Winston was the way the ASC ship had been set adrift near the NKW. Why hadn't they just have buried the wreckage right here? At least no outsiders wouldn't have found it. It was the ASC ship that had started their investigation. The others got up to leave, all except Elyssia Wyatt and the INRA man. Winston felt for his partner. He'd be stuck with some icy agent of INRA, wheras he'd at least share a ship with a fellow Elite combateer with the added bonus that she had good looks. After his last encounter with Wyatt though, he sensed things could get rather strained. His first meeting with the woman had resulted in a chase and a very unfriendly wrestling match on the hard floor of Diamond police HQ.

"Mr. Albright, come now, I must brief you on our mission," said the INRA man stiffly. Winston looked over at his mission partner and shrugged as if to say sorry. Albright left the room with the man, looking sullen.
"We must do the same," Wyatt said with a sigh. "We'll just go to the ship and launch straight away, I don't see any point in hanging around here. It's not that there's much to tell you, really," she said tiredly.
"Albright's always getting the short end of the stick. He got paired up with me for a start," Winston said, with an air of finality.

  Winston and Wyatt walked across the starport to their waiting ship, an Asp Explorer in Nova Rodstein Associates livery. They hadn't exchanged a word since leaving the conference room. Winston felt very uncomfortable, and Wyatt realised her emotion might get the better of her. Ever since she saw that photograph of Winston, on that fateful day that he came crashing through the ceiling...

"Wait, I must get Jas," Winston said suddenly, breaking the silence.
"Who's Jas?" Wyatt asked.
"My AI module."
"Boys will be boys," sighed Wyatt, as she followed Winston to the ship he'd arrived in. It only took a few moments to disconnect Jas from the Cobra Mk.3.

Finally, they approached the Asp. After boarding, Winston wasted no time in plugging Jas into the ship.

"At last, a quality ship," she said.
"Hey, have some faith in me," Winston replied.
"I thought you were going to abandon me to that Cobra Mk.3. Hateful ships," she said. "Now I'm at home with an Asp," she added.
"Strange machine," remarked Wyatt.
"Who is she?" asked Jas.
"Jas, meet Elyssia Wyatt, my, err..."
"erm, OK, and Elyssia, meet Jas, my faithful AI."

There was a pause whilst Jas considered this.

"Well, Elyssia, please be careful with him, he's my human," she replied haughtily. Winston coughed, and Wyatt tried to stifle a snigger.

  Winston and Wyatt settled down into their seats on the Asp's bridge. Winston had gone straight for the command seat, but Wyatt flashed him a look telling him that it wouldn't be a good idea. He settled into the co-pilot's seat. He tried not to stare at Wyatt as she slid her athletic body into the command chair. Wyatt requested launch permission, and they took off.

"Now you'll see what the NKW is," said Wyatt, as they began their rapid climb into the upper atmosphere. "It's not visible on the other side. It's controlled from this side. Only a small navigation beacon marks it in Enedlia. Look."

The sky was almost black as the Asp surged towards the emptiness of space. A bright object, straight ahead, gleamed like a tiny white hole in the inky void. Wyatt zoomed the forward view. As the magnification power increased, it showed the construct. It was nothing more than a sphere, maybe a kilometer across. There really wasn't much to see.

"Is that it?" Winston asked.
"Yes. That's it. The navigation signal will bring us to the right coordinates where the NKW exerts its influence. Then we'll be flipped across some ten thousand light years into Enedlia."
"Where did it come from?" Winston asked.
"No one's really sure. All we know is that it's not human. Oddly, we've never found any evidence of an alien race on the planet we just left."

  It wasn't long until they approached the construct. Winston watched it go by in the side view, and suddenly it disappeared altogether. They were back in Enedlia, with no fuss, no show, not even the hint of a hyperspace transit.

"Why hasn't anyone taken it apart to see how it works?"
"Everyone who's tried has failed."
"No one knows. The surface has been impervious to all our attempts. The current theory is that it doesn't really occupy our space/time. It's all technobabble to me." She set the hyperspace target to Alioth, and launched the Asp through witch space.

Winston unbuckled his harness. Alioth was a safe place, and he just wanted to be a bit more comfortable in his seat. Wyatt didn't seem to want to kill him, which was good at least. She was behaving vastly differently to how she did in Andceeth.

"Well, James, tell me a bit about yourself," she said at last.
"I don't know where to start," he replied awkwardly. He didn't know what she knew, and didn't really want to volunteer any information.
"Are you married? Any children?" she asked idly.
"Neither. Closest I've got to a long term relationship was with Pam Gilmour." He smiled wistfully. "But we sort of grew apart, and she's making her own way in the universe. We still meet from time to time, but we're just friends."

Wyatt suddenly felt a twinge of excitement.

"So you're unattached?" she asked, as if to pass the time of day.

They lapsed into silence for a moment.

"Your turn, Elyssia. You probably know my life story from Tyler's records, I don't have a clue about you," Winston said.
"Well, after leaving Phekda when I was 18, I moved to Beta Hydri and served as a mercenary in the Federal Navy for ten years. Then I joined up full-time, and quickly moved into the Federal Intelligence Bureau. A year ago, they allocated me to Project Backstab in Diamond, Andceeth. We used the Andceeth base as a sort of dead-drop for our INRA friends, making sure they could be trusted before bringing them through the NKW."
"How did you reach Elite?"
"Mainly by taking on the photo and bombing skirmish missions at Eta Cassiopiea, and a bit of bounty hunting when the military was quiet."

  Winston had never been good at idle conversation, and they awkwardly lapsed into silence. He began to read up on the news. There wasn't much to do in Alioth space, as they headed towards Edinburgh, supposedly on a cargo run. Wyatt flicked through her personal mail. She didn't find anything substantial. She watched Winston out of the corner of her eyes and silently cursed her emotions. They got people killed. But on the other hand...there was no threats in Alioth. She had felt raw lust when she first saw the photograph of James Winston, posed with the casing of a nuclear missile from a magazine that had profiled him after he and his crew had destroyed the Sirius Templar. And now she had the real article, sitting no more than two meters away. Unfortunately, it seemed that Winston was hopelessly clueless to her feelings of lust. Not love, she concluded, merely lust. She couldn't explain why; it wasn't like he was a model human specimen, in fact, he had a rather wiry build. It wasn't as if he was particularly handsome either - he had a simple, military style haircut, his face was boyish and unblemished by hard physical work - his features contrasting with the toughened look now favoured by most glamour magazines. She didn't realise that Winston used his innocent looks to his advantage - few ever suspected him of being an Elite combateer. Winston carefully maintained these looks as a means of social engineering. Most bounty hunters, pirates, and other combateers actively tried to make themselves look hard-bitten and roughed up to try and project an uncompromising image. Winston had done the opposite. He found that people didn't take him seriously if he feigned inexperience , and often they'd let their guard down in a face-to-face meeting. He'd managed to tease out a surprising amount of useful information by behaving like a newcomer - often from his enemies. The surprise would then be brutally turned around, as Winston revealed the reality of who he was...the enemy learning how useful social engineering was to an accomplished bounty hunter far too late to be any use to them.

  Wyatt leaned down under the console, and removed a panel, and pulled a device out. Winston watched as she replaced it with a similar looking device.

"You can speak a bit more freely now, I'm onto Tyler's game, I think," she said, replacing the panel.
"This ship is bugged?"
"Was. I removed most of them earlier. I had to leave one in until we arrived in Alioth, so as not to stir Tyler's suspicions."
"Can we trust him?" asked Winston.
"I don't. He obviously doesn't trust anyone else."
"What do you think of Backstab?" Winston asked.
"On the face of it, it looks genuine enough. I just have a hunch it's not altogether straightforward. What about you?"
"Well, now I can speak freely, I think Tyler's full of crap," began Winston.
"Go on."
"Assuming what Tyler told us is true, he's still going about it the wrong way. I simply don't believe that the papers wouldn't pick up on the conspiracy he's trying to stop if the evidence is there. It just doesn't add up. There's something he's not telling us."
"There's a lot he's not telling us. Like how he's going to become head of the AJNIB when Backstab is complete," Wyatt added.
"I did some digging. I have a top security clearance on the project. Steven Tyler has been a bit careless, and his personal timetable is all in the database back at the base. Also, it seems like he's giving INRA a quid-pro-quo"
"What's that?"
"In return for their help, he's going to allow INRA to control one of the clone agents used to replace one of the scheming Alliance officials. That's very dangerous, and he's given them control of a senior civil servant. An unelected officer - someone who's practically impossible to remove from office."
"Which one?"
"The Presidential Secretary."
"Not good. That's just not good. What are you planning?"
"To dig for more evidence as to why only RIG published a story about this."
"We need to stop Backstab," Winston said.
"More importantly is averting this war that Tyler talks of. I can tell you that the reason for Backstab is genuine. I've checked those facts quite thoroughly."
"I think we should tell Commodore Saunders about this. Maybe he can get some resources. If we can get the evidence, and get it to the press, maybe we can derail the reason for Backstab."
"It's not that simple. What's going to happen to the Alliance if the citizens suddenly find they can't trust their supposedly idealistic and good system of government? That would cause a crisis in itself."
"That's a very good point," remarked Winston.

  Winston sat back in his chair, and looked across at Wyatt. Things were getting even more complex. Wyatt touched his hand.

"Oh, sorry," Winston said, removing his hand from the centre console.

   Frustrated, and slightly embarrassed, Wyatt keyed a couple of useless sequences into the transponder, where Winston's hand had been lying. The subtle approach was obviously not going to work. Even whilst discussing their mission, Wyatt could barely contain her lust.

"James Winston, you certainly are a bit clueless at times," she said, and smiled.
"Why do you say that?" he asked.

   Wyatt couldn't contain her lust any longer. With her trademark lack of subtlety, she lunged towards Winston, grabbing him by the collar, and almost bodily dragged him across the centre console...

"Oh, that's why you touched my hand," said Winston lamely, just as they both crashed onto the floor...

© 2002 Dylan Smith.

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