Chapter 16 The Suspect
  CHARLES ALBRIGHT surveyed his surroundings. He'd been brought here after a short shuttle ride, flanked by Federal soldiers, through the clouds. They had touched down in a small parking lot, then he'd been lead down a few sterile-looking corridors into a room. The soldiers had locked him in.

  The room was small and square, the walls painted a sickly light green. There was a fake wood table and two chairs. The floor was painted light grey - the same colour as hangars were usually painted. Albright had sat down on one of the hard chairs. The door was definitely quite substantial. It had a small reinforced glastiplex window, but was otherwise featureless. The harsh white lighting was evidently designed for utility, not for comfort. There was nothing to do but to wait for whatever fate beckoned. The soldiers had taken his communicator and ident, so even if he could escape, he would have difficulty trying to get a ride home.

  He had been waiting for over half an hour now. He was still wet from his failed escape attempt across the field, except where the mud had splattered over his face and hair. That was now drying like plaster, and just added to his discomfort. He started picking it off to pass the time.

  A face appeared at the small window. Albright wasn't entirely surprised to see that the owner of the face was wearing the same sort of sunglasses as his pursuers had been. A couple of seconds later, the door clicked open. Three men walked in. The first person in was one of the suit-wearing people. He was of slim build, and about middle aged, and very pale in complexion, as if he had been deprived of natural light. He took off his sunglasses. Albright wasn't entirely surprised when he saw the sunglasses were in fact Micro-Visions. That explained why they were being worn in the dull rainstorm outside. Micro-Visions were extremely expensive lightweight vision enhancers with a built-in communication system and display. That's probably how they had anticipated where he was going when he was running from them. The next two men who walked in were younger - about Albright's age, but physically twice his size. It looked as if someone had packed them into the suits they were wearing. One of them closed the door, whilst the older man sat in the seat opposite Albright. He set a datapad on the table, and briefly viewed it before speaking. He looked up, giving Albright an appraising look.

"Mr Albright, I'm sorry to say that we don't tolerate piracy and murder here," he said, almost pityingly. His voice had a brittle quality to it. He enunciated each word with care.
"Pir - " Albright began.
"Please don't act surprised. We have looked up your activities on the way to Andceeth. We want answers," continued the man. Interrogator thought Albright.

There was a pause.

Albright remembered his training. Give as little information as possible, if practical, demand a lawyer then say nothing. Make no attempt to lie. Instead be economical with the truth... He had to try and answer in such a way not to reveal anything...but not to set off the lie detector that would certainly be buried somewhere around the room.

"Now, a young man like you may have a bright future. Or maybe not. If you choose the wrong path... now you can co-operate with us, or..." said the man, letting the sentence hang in the air.
"I want to talk to a lawyer," said Albright.

The man smiled mirthlessly.

"I know my rights, I lived in the Federation... I'm not saying a word without my lawyer," he added.
"Mr. Albright, Andceeth is a disputed system. Normal Federation rules do not apply. I suggest you answer my questions, or... or, well, I hope we don't have to explore these possibilites, although these two guys are eager to explore them, I'm sure," said the man, pointing his thumb at the two large men behind him.

One of the gorilla-sized men at the back of the room grinned nastily at Albright, and started slapping his fist into his other hand.

  James Winston looked at his watch with some irritation. Where the hell had Albright got to? When he said be back by 1400, he meant it. Jas was now repaired and online. They had some serious hacking to do whilst the rest of the ship was repaired. It was now 1600, and there had to be something going on if he was two hours late. He'd probably found some seductive female and sloped off into the night.

"Jas, how do you feel?" he asked, turning to the console in the Asp's living quarters.
"Fine. All my systems are now within operational limits," she replied.
"Well that's good to hear. Here's an easy one, get Chuck on the horn. He's late," said Winston.

There was a pause whilst Jas placed the call to Albright's personal communicator.

"Jim, his communicator is offline," said Jas, after the attempt failed.
"Offline or destroyed. That's the error code that came back," she replied.
"OK, get a trace. Where was he last seen?"
"Give me a couple of minutes, and I'll get his communicator trace. We can find at least what area he was in when it went offline," she replied.

  Winston began to feel a little uncomfortable. Something was definitely up. Communicators seldom just failed. The word "offline" was not entirely comforting, and "destroyed" even less so. He got up, and pulled out a container of Marvel. He spooned a little of the white powder into a glass and added water, and some concentrated orange, and stirred. The water soon took on an opaque, orange colour. A couple of lumps floated in the glass.

"That looks disgusting," said Jas, as Winston and his drink came into view of one of her cameras.
"What? This is the elixir of the gods. My mother always made this for us on the farm, but we had real milk from a cow then," Winston replied haughtily.
"You drank milk from a cow!" exclaimed Jas.
"What's wrong with that?"
"Well, it's...from a cow!" replied Jas
"What do you know anyway, you're hardware," replied Winston, not unkindly.
"I suppose you have a point. But...ugh... even worse, that Marvel stuff"

Winston looked at his drink, nonplussed. Why would a computer, albeit sentient, worry about milk drinks? He had to concede that the lumps were a little bit unappetising, but in lieu of real milk, he had to make do. Admittedly, he hadn't heard of the practise outside of Phekda either.

"Well, I have the logs. They are interesting. He spent most of yesterday mooching around town by the looks of it. Spent the night here. Went back into the town today, and then disappeared off into an unpopulated area at high speed, and that's the last trace we have," said Jas. She showed a map on the console.
"Where is that place, I mean, where the trace ends?" asked Winston, sipping his drink.
"It's just agricultural land"
"Hmmm. Can you get into the security camera network?"
"If you give me a couple of hours...they probably just have a simple protection system, shouldn't be too hard to brute-force it," replied Jas.

The visitor chime sounded...

"Who is that?" asked Winston.
"See for yourself," replied Jas, bringing the view outside the hatch onto the console.

The distorted, fish-eye view showed the face of a furtive and nervous looking man.

"Damn, it's Phil! Open up the hatch, quick. He looks like he's worried about something," said Winston.
"No problem"

  The hatch opened, and Landis quickly climbed inside, making his way through the interior of the Asp. Winston waited quietly and sipped his drink. A few seconds later, Landis appeared in the living quarters.

"You would have to end up in the least obvious repair station," said Phil, urgently, as he took a seat.
"Least obvious?"
"Yeah, I thought I'd find you at an orbital."
"You should have called," replied Winston, "I am on the phone you know"
"I tried. It said your communicator was offline or destroyed"
"What? Damn, I thought it had been a bit too quiet"

Winston pulled out his communicator. It was completely blank. He plugged it into Jas's datalink port.

"Jas, what do you reckon?" he asked.
"EMP from the energy bomb got it, by the looks of it," she replied.
"But Albright's was at least working for a while..."
"Yes, his must have been better shielded. You'll have to get a new one, I'm afraid."
"Damn, that's another hundred credits down the tubes."

Landis looked at Winston.

"They interviewed me pretty harshly...the guys who picked us up from that slave ship," said Landis.
"They did?"
"I don't know what they are after. But they are very suspicious of you two. Don't be surprised if they haul you in"
"Haul . . . oh crap, they must have Albright! He's missing, and his communicator shows a very odd trace, and now it's offline!"
"Look, Jim, you have to get out of here as soon as possible. I don't know what they want, but they looked pretty anxious to get it," continued Landis, in warning tones.

  There was a brief pause. Winston thought quickly. He couldn't exactly leave without Albright.

"Jas - go hack that security camera system. We need to know what happened to Chuck - devote all your resources," said Winston, urgently.
"No need," said Phil, "I can get in there in a few seconds"
"How?" asked Jas and Winston simultaneously.

   Landis then did what Winston always called the Bastard Grin. It was a particularly evil one, and Landis always did it when he was about to erase some poor sap's online life back in the days when he spent most of his time hacking into the G.I.N.

"Watch," he said, sliding up to the console.

  His hands danced over the smooth surface of the console, as he logged onto the starport's network. He went through a few security systems with an expert's touch.

"They think they have good security, but they don't" he said, as he continued to make his entry.

Then he was in!

"OK, Jas, send the communicator trace. We'll get the relevant cameras. Do a quick scan for Mr. Albright," he said, confidently.

  Images flashed on the screen as Jas went through the images. looking for Winston's missing colleague. She was fast winding through every video log within the area the communicator was seen in.

"Got him," she said.

  The video showed Albright leaving a bar looking worried. A couple of seconds later, a man wearing sunglasses emerged, despite the gloomy skies. It didn't surprise Winston when he turned to follow Albright. An autoshuttle quickly pulled out of traffic, and four similarly equipped people got out, and began to move towards Albright, who began running away...

  The three watched carefully as the drama unfolded. Albright eventually got into an autoshuttle which sped off into the clouds. In hot pursuit was a shuttle loaded with suit-people and another loaded with soldiers...

"We're in deep trouble," said Winston...

  The men left the room, leaving Albright once again alone with his thoughts. It hadn't been too difficult to deflect the questions. Anything that was too tricky to answer he replied with, "Ask James, he's the commander," hoping that this would be a sufficient delaying technique. At least, if they had Winston holed up in another room, that way their stories couldn't disagree, because there'd be only one story. Winston's story. He hoped Winston wouldn't be annoyed that he'd been lumped with this rather unfortunate responsibility.

  Albright didn't have to wait long. The interrogator returned to the room, this time without his trained gorillas.

He slid Albright's ident and communicator across the fake wooden table. "You're free to go," he said.

Albright nearly fell of his chair in surprise. With the questions they were asking, he was sure they knew who exactly Winston and himself were working for. Maybe they didn't after all...

"Umm, thank you," said Albright.

  He got up. The gorilla-men were waiting outside the door. They escorted him off the premises, and shoved him out of the door into the cold night rather roughly. Albright stood under the bright lights outside the squat building, as the doors slid shut behind him. The lights illuminated the gently falling snow. Albright shivered. He still hadn't quite dried off from his earlier meeting with the large puddle in that field, and it was now well below freezing. Almost three centimeters of snow had accumulated already.

He pulled out his communicator, and switched it on.

"Call Winston," he said to the small device. It beeped in acknowledgement.
"Error. The requested communicator is offline or destroyed."

  Offline or destroyed! He didn't like the sound of that. Perhaps they had caught Winston too? Knowing Winston, he would have been armed, and undoubtedly a fight would have broken out. Perhaps he had been killed! That would certainly explain that error message.

  Albright decided to go back to the ship, and trace things from there. It was likely that Jas could at least get a communicator trace, and find out where Winston went. That's if the ship hadn't been tampered with. Worse still, the ship could be crawling with Federal agents. It was a risk he had to take. It was either that, or freeze to death outside. He began to walk to the small autoshuttle bay beside the building. A lone autoshuttle, lightly dusted with snow, was waiting for a customer. The shuttle opened as he approached, and he climbed on board.

"Spaceport maintentance hangar," he said to the machine.

  It took off into the night. The powerful forward light illuminated the snow like a rapidly passing starfield as the craft accelerated. It disappeared into the clouds. The lights from the city below illuminated the interior of the low cloud making it look like a pink milkshake to Albright's tired mind.

© 2000 Dylan Smith.

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