Chapter 26 Deceiving Allies

The Council of Ministers of the Security Board took their places at the large genuine oak table. Small lights picked out each place at the desk, giving the wood a deep, warm texture. The building engineers had spent some time setting the lighting levels just right - just right for the decision makers of the Alliance of Independent Systems.

Sitting at the table were the six Ministers of the Security Board, all top politicians appointed to President Mellor's government, and all elected by the citizens of their constituencies. All were deeply worried about the future of the Alliance.

Sitting opposite them was a man in a light grey uniform, resplendent in medals. The man was Jason McMahon. He was a tall and handsome man, slim built and athletic - contrasting sharply with the overweight and mostly balding politicians on the other side of the table. He was briefing the Security Board on the latest developments.

It was hopefully one of the last briefings that McMahon would need to make before the war started. His team had finally managed to convince the Security Council of the imminent threat. His solution had the following of the generals. He turned, and switched on the 3d-projector.

His INRA badge glinted under the cunningly placed lighting effects, as he unveiled the plans drawn up by his team and the top brass of the AJN.

Step 1: Invade Enedlia

He went through the plans to quickly invade and occupy Enedlia and eight surrounding systems, to head off the threat. In actuality, the real threat was the paranoia of the Security Council, and he had them where he wanted them. Their paranoia, far from saving the Alliance, was about to destroy it...

"Boy, are we glad to see you guys," exclaimed James Winston enthusiastically. The commander of a Quest rescue vessel stood in the doorway of the airlock. A young man in his mid thirties, starting to show slight signs of a beer induced paunch. He had the crooked, inquisitive smile of someone who's heard too many stories of woe from shipwrecked crew. He was dressed in the rather relaxed Rescue Corps uniform, consisting of an almost civilian looking flight jacket, trousers and shirt. He wore a baseball cap emblazoned with the ship's name, "Solent Clipper".
"Glad to be of service!" said the Quest's commanding officer with the kind of smile normally associated with fast-food restaurant workers.
"We thought we were stuffed, you should see it back there," Winston said, indicating the equipment section with his thumb.

James Winston, Elyssia Wyatt, and a computer named Jas left the stricken Asp. None of them indicated to the Quest crew what their ship was really about.

"Nice ship," said Wyatt, raising her eyebrows, as they boarded the Quest. The rescue ship had docked with the Asp's still functional airlock, extending a flexible docking tube, making the pair of ships look like some bizarre insects caught in the act of mating.
"Yeah, we like 'em. You know, you're the second today that's had a drive blow up. It must be catching," the Commander said. "Oh, by the way, I'm Commander Frank Smith, and my assistant is Jane Jackson. Welcome on board the Solent Clipper, one of the fleet of the Alliance Lifeboat Institute," he said cheerfully.
"Impressive," said Winston, as they walked through the catwalks of the equipment section. "Class four drive?"
"Of course."

They continued through the ship, which was obviously brand new. Finally, they reached the flight deck - functional, well-laid out, with not much in the way of luxury but plenty in the way of comfort. The ship was intended to spend weeks at a time patrolling the space lanes of the Alliance, rescuing unfortunate crews who had broken down or been shot up by pirates. Here were the controls for the sensitive detection equipment to find the faintest distress beacon. The flight deck was lit with the dim glow of instruments. The full 360 viewsystem gave a panoramic view of the star-studded blackness of space. Jane Jackson, the ship's First Officer, sat at the helm. She was a slim woman, almost of Wyatt's build, but with a pale complexion topped with impossibly red hair. She detached the docking port, and prepared to move the graceful Solent Clipper towards home. The slightest hum and vibration indicated the ship's powerful prime mover was coming alive, and the craft glided away from the wrecked Asp.

"Sir, while you were away I picked up this on the latest scan," Jane Jackson said in her soft Soholian accent, indicating a green and red display. Smith, Winston and Wyatt moved in for a better look.
"An Anaconda on silent running?" Smith asked.
"Yes. And it's headed right for the Asp."
"Friends of yours?" Smith asked, looking towards Winston and Wyatt.
Neither of them knew of the ship. Winston shrugged.
"Freeloaders, scavengers or looters probably," said Wyatt, dismissively.
"Jane, keep an eye on it just in case," said Smith.

The trouble with space travel without a Stardreamer, thought James Winston, was that it was incredibly boring for the most part. They were only a day away from Edinburgh now, but the day seemed to be dragging on. Nothing interesting appeared to be happening in the news, just the usual run of politicians embarrassing themselves, some loony ranting on in the opinions section, and the usual gossip about the latest Dreamware offerings, and how peer-to-peer networks were destroying the DIAA's revenues. It wasn't as if he could continue his tryst with Wyatt. He was lying in his bunk, trying to get some sleep, listening to Smith snoring one bunk below. If prime movers worked on snore, he thought bitterly, Smith could power a Long Range Cruiser. Somehow, Wyatt had the power to sleep through all of this.

It was no good. He quietly got up, and left the bunk room and went up to the bridge, which was only five paces away from the living quarters.

"Couldn't sleep?" asked Jane Jackson, the light of Alioth illuminating her face as she monitored the progess on the helm.
"No. Your captain snores like a groigan," he answered tiredly.
Jane smiled. "You get used to it after a while."
"Why no stardreamer?"
"We've got to be alert at all times for distress signals. Some of them aren't obvious. We have dozens of signals to sort through per hour. The computers help, but it takes judgement to sort the real ones from random noise sometimes."

Winston wasn't very good at idle conversation. The bridge fell silent. After the continuous danger of the mission, he wasn't prepared for safety. Winston tried to think of something to say. The silence was awkward. It reminded him of his teenage years on Phekda, sitting with a group of other kids, feeling small and awkward. When he did say something, the bully of the group would always verbally smack him down. Then usually physically slap him down. He started feeling inadequate again. Talk about the news. That usually gets some kind of conversation going.

"Looks like the news has been a bit dull whilst I've been away," he said finally.
"Well, yes, usual talk of soap operas, lying politicians, obsession with the media, the usual crap, know what I mean?"
Jackson grinned. "You don't read the news very deeply, do you. Typical Frontier trader type," she said.
"Well . . ."
"Look a bit deeper. There's some stink on why the Alliance Security Council has met every day for the past month. The fleet's been moving about suspiciously."
"They have?" asked Winston, feeling a slight prickle down his spine.
"Oh, the AJN say it's usual exercises, and as you say, the news is obsessed with unimportant crap, so it never gets to the front page. The AJN say they are just doing simulations, but it seems odd that it's happening at exactly the same time that the Security Council have been meeting daily instead of weekly."
"What do you think's going on?"
"I think there's about to be a massive crackdown on piracy myself. It's been quite bad in the northern sectors recently. Your shipping company has been onto the governments of the northern sectors for some time."
My shipping company? thought Winston briefly. Of course, Nova Rodstein Associates. That's why she thinks I'm a Frontier trader, because I'm flying a small trade ship from NRA.
"Yes, well, I have to deal with it pretty frequently, you know."
"And of course, that's why both you and your partner are Elite," said Jackson with a grin.
"No - "
"Look, don't bullshit me. Commander Smith might be oblivious, but I'm not. There's something more to you guys than a pair of marooned Frontier traders. What's NRA up to? They've been increasing their activity quite a lot recently, haven't they?"
Oh boy. Be careful what you wish for, thought Winston.
"Well, erm..." he started, not quite knowing where to go, "well, we are trying to solve some of the piracy problems ourselves a bit. Yes. So they have been hiring combateers recently," Winston said. It sounded lame but plausable, and it was the best he could think of right then.
"Right-o," said Jackson cheerfully. "Because Nova Rodstein Associates have been rather suspicious recently. That Boa on silent running we saw earlier was one of yours. We keep seeing NRA freight ships coming and going completely empty of cargo. You lot are up to something and we're going to find out. I know you're not going to tell me, but the AJNIB is onto you I'm sure," she said. I am the AJNIB, he thought bitterly, but he couldn't mention it . . .
"Well, whatever. My mission is to just help clean up some of the piracy. We're losing vast amounts of cargo to pirates. We were just on our way to Alioth to get some repairs done after the last outing."
"Whatever you're up to, don't think the Alliance is naive. I think there's a good link between increased NRA so-called-trade ship movements and the simultaneous increase in the number of Security Council meetings."

The bridge lapsed into silence. Nice one there, Winston, he thought acidly. What the hell, he thought. When you stick your foot in it, you might as well sink right in.

"Why do you know all of this?" he asked.
"It's amazing what stuff you pick up on when you spend weeks at a time with long range advanced sensors," she replied. "Intelligence isn't our mandate, but we do watch, mostly to help the Police with anti-piracy matters. If I was a conspiracy theorist, I might put something into the fact that NRA is only one letter away from being INRA..." She let the sentence hang.
She's doesn't realise how close she is, thought Winston.
"We're just a growing trade company trying to keep it that way," he said.

After a while, Winston slunk back off to the bunk room. Smith had apparently rolled over, and his snores were now muffled by the blanket. Winston climbed into the top bunk, and failed to fall asleep - his mind was racing. Maybe that nutter Tyler was right. They had to get into one of those Security Council meetings somehow.

Wyatt and Winston sat in Commodore Saunders's chronically untidy office in AJN HQ. As usual, DSUs littered the desks, floors and visitor's chair. Winston had to carefully move some out of the way so that Wyatt could have a seat. The pair had urgently discussed the conversation that Winston had with the FO of the Solent Clipper lifeboat. They decided to both see Saunders. The conversation had not gone well. Saunders was hung up on Wyatt being associated with the Federation. They had decided not to tell Saunders yet of what was going on in Enedlia with the NKW, the hidden base and the INRA and AJNIB staff being there. They had to find out about the Security Council meetings first. Winston had tried his best to explain that something bad was happening without revealing his ace.

"Sir, something is going on. Jane Jackson should really be in the AJNIB, her suspicious mind is onto something. With their sensor suite they've definitely seen the suspicious things with NRA, and it maps almost one-to-one with the increased security council meetings. Look - ", he said frustratedly.
"I'm not happy," said Saunders. "Your work has been good so far, but this is getting a bit too unorthodox for my liking."
"If we get caught, you have my word of honour that we won't mention your name. We'll say we broke into your office and used your computer to get elevated access privileges to Alliance government buildings. Espionage is what we do, and we sometimes need to do it at home too," pleaded Winston.
"Very well. This meeting didn't happen, by the way. You really are on your own if you get caught where you shouldn't be. I will just have to trust your judgement," Saunders said, looking unsatisfied.
"Thank you, Sir."
"But you'll have to go alone. I can't risk having a Federal agent loose around the place."
"I understand fully," Wyatt said.

Finally, Saunders granted Winston's AJNIB ident full access to all government buildings. He hoped dearly he wasn't about to regret it. He wondered how the court martial might go if it all went pear-shaped.

Wyatt and Winston left Saunders's office. They spoke quietly as they left AJNIB HQ.
"I'm going to try and get into the Right Honourable Paddy Stewart's office. He's the head of the Alliance Security Board. He must have some info in there. Hopefully he's been careless with some of it."
"How long do you reckon it should be before I begin worrying about you?"
"Give me six hours. If I don't get anything today, we'll try the next minister. And the next, 'till we find out what's going on."
"I don't think we have much time. I suspect Tyler will launch his plans very soon."
"I know. It's ironic that if I get caught by Mr. Stewart, he'll call for me to go to jail for the rest of my life when we're possibly saving him from being replaced by an INRA clone."

Winston had got changed. He was now wearing the usual outfit of the many civil servants that buzzed around the huge Alliance Central government buildings. He felt uncomfortable in the suit, even though it was a high quality, if understated product of Achenar. It wasn't tailor made to fit him, it was just something out of AJNIB stores. He was a little surprised they kept suits. He was wearing the little ID badge that all the civil servants wore whilst going about their official duties.

It wasn't hard to find his way around Alliance Central. He had a map most conveniently provided at reception. "I'm going to be briefed on the Gateway Traffic Congestion Committee," he'd told the receptionist, picking the most dull sounding piece of bureaucracy from a smorgasbord of meetings that were listed as occuring. The receptionist had taken one brief look at his badge and that was it. Of course, since his ident opened the door, he must have been genuine. He followed the corridors around, and went up a lift to the top floor - the Penthouse - where all the top politicians had their offices in the Alioth system. Most AIS politicians were from the independent systems that made up the Alliance, and were appointed by their respective governments. They needed a home away from home where they could take their part in the grand Alliance bureaucracy.

No expense had been spared on the Penthouse. Thick wall-to-wall carpet lined the floors. Active noise reduction systems kept the environment quiet. It was understated rather than gaudy - no glitz like in the Empire - just the impression of wealth from simplicity, if that wasn't a contradiction. At the end of the hallway was a vast viewing area, looking out of the building and across Lake Edinburgh at its foot and beyond to the rest of the city. Models of AAAI ships sat on pedestals. It wasn't hard to guess who the biggest corporate lobbyist was around here.

Winston found Paddy Stewart's office without much trouble. "Rt. Hon Padraic Stewart, MAP" said a polished brass plaque on the door. Winston noticed it was cunningly arranged to look permanent, but since politicians had a habit of getting voted out of office, more careful inspection showed it could indeed be removed without too much trouble. Winston pressed the pad on the door.

"I'm sorry, but Mr. Stewart is not in," said a synthesised voice. "If you would like to leave a message..." Winston hit Cancel, and looked around.
He serruptitiously tried his AJNIB ident on the door.
"I'm sorry, but you do not have acc...", Winston hit cancel again.
Bugger. He looked around for somewhere to loiter for a while. He heard voices...

"Yes, Minister, but the Minister for Social Security wouldn't agree," said some insipid civil servant, as two men rounded the corner. Winston quickly slipped into the next corridor.
"Well, Mr. Phillips, I'll see you at the next meeting then," said a voice which must have been Paddy Stewart. He had stopped at the door that Winston had just tried. Winston took a quick peek around the corner, and saw the civil servant make an about turn and leave. Stewart raised his ident.

Time for subtlety is over, Winston thought, grabbing a fire extinguisher from the wall. Where his ident failed, violence would undoubtedly prevail. The Minister offered his ident to the door, which slid open.
"Last incorrect access attempt was three minutes and seven seconds ago," intoned the door robotically. The Minister paused. Probably just someone absentmindedly trying the wrong off--
His thoughts were cut off as a fire extinguisher bounced off his head, knocking him out cold.

Winston slipped in through the now open door, dragging the Minister inside. The door closed. He dragged the unconscious Minister over to his desk, an imposing piece of natural oak furniture. He pushed the Minister's hand onto the biometric scanner of the terminal, and hoped it would work.

Suddenly, alarms sounded! Winston realised he must have been seen attacking the Minister with a fire extinguisher! He grabbed every DSU he could find, and put them into the terminal, shouting "Decrypt!". He pocketed each one in turn. He decided to take a quick look at what was on the Minister's agenda, and he was so stunned, he nearly forgot about running away... he started a video message. It was from a man named Jason McMahon. The man was in INRA uniform. It was to call a meeting about the invasion of Enedlia! Quickly shoving another DSU into the machine, he copied the message off.

He ran to the door, and pressed the panel.
"Insufficient access," intoned the door.
Winston whirled around and grabbed the unconcious politician. The man's body was heavy. He heaved it over, now sweating from the effort, and tried to find the Minister's ident. He couldn't find it. In desperation, he threw the fire extinguisher at the window. It bounced off, and the pin broke. Foam started spraying around the room as the hose whipped around like a stung snake. Foam doused the furniture, the Minister and James Winston. If the situation wasn't so serious, Winston would have laughed at this point. Winston grabbed the discharging fire extinguisher just as Security opened the doors! He aimed it right at the persons on the other side, and saw them reel back. They were armed, and carrying Quick-Locks. Winston was unarmed, and had nowhere to run. Holding the fire extinguisher like a battering ram, he charged at the security guards. Surprised by the onslaught, the lead security guard toppled over as Winston crashed into him!

"Stop!" shouted one of the guards. Winston almost chuckled, as if yelling "Stop!" would slow someone obviously engaged in some kind of information robbery! He now saw there were two other guards. The one he'd knocked over scrambled up, and the three gave chase. Winston entered the big glass viewing room a short distance away. He found a particularly fetching model of a Saker Mk. 3, and brandished it hopefully as the guards ran in. He hurled it with all his strength. It looked like his luck was in this time. The sharp point of the swept forward wing jabbed into one of the guard's arms. He yelped and dropped his gun. But he had to be lucky three times - the guards only had to be lucky once. The other two guards opened fire. A pane of the window behind him exploded outwards as the plasma bolt hit it. They were shooting to kill! Winston went for the window, and dove headlong out of it.

They say water is like concrete if you hit it at a high enough speed. Even though gravity was less than one g on Turner's world, if you fall six stories into water, it can be deadly if you hit it wrong. Winston realised as he fell, although he'd seen this done once in a Commander Jameson spy-flick in the movies, Commander Jameson had a very good stunt double. He wasn't really trying to run away from a number of armed guards. He had time to plan his jumps. He hadn't had to hurl himself through a hole in a window that had been put there by the high-energy weapon fire that had missed him by mere millimetres. He also hoped the water was reasonably deep. He was also a little amazed about how long he had to think about things as he plummeted towards Lake Edinburgh. He closed his eyes, and tried to do his best dive. He was fifteen the last time he'd dived into the water, and that time he had belly-flopped...with that pleasant thought, he hit the water with savage force. Fortunately, his dive was a good one.

Several hours later, Commodore Saunders buried his head in his hands in horror as he watched the news. He groaned inwardly when the security camera footage from Alliance Central quite clearly showed a man leap out of the Penthouse and into the Edinburgh Lake. It was quite obviously James Winston.

© 2003 Dylan Smith.

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