Chapter 17 Confusion and Discovery
  The harsh, bluish light from the powerful lamp outside threw a long oblong of brightness into the darkened hangar, overpowering the dull glow that sidled out of one of the ships - its entrance hatch wide open. A tall and slightly thin figure cautiously peered around the doorway, and quietly slipped inside the hangar, silently disappearing back into the shadows. The figure moved nervously in the darkness, searching for a primitive but useful weapon, eventually reaching down and carefully lifting a short section of angle-duralium. The figure moved around, and a disturbance caused a sheet of alloy to slide off its precarious pile, and clatter to the ground.

  The figure froze. A startled rat bolted from the shadows and into the icy snowfall outside. Nothing moved for about a minute, then the shadowy human form began to move towards the opened hatch of the Asp parked within the bowels of the hangar - gripping the metre-long piece of angle-duralium.

  The figure carefully entered the ship, its shadow cast into the soft light that poured from the ship's interior. Finally, the figure disappeared from sight, quietly creeping along the catwalks of the ship's equipment deck...

"Phil, I think I should find Chuck, then just leave. Can you get me a ship at all? Or give me a ride out of here?" asked Winston.
"I can try at least. I think I know where Chuck might be, too," said Landis, turning to Jas's holopanel again.

  Landis called up a map of the main Federation compound, and moved around it until he got to the western half.

"See this building here?" he asked.
"Well, this is where they do interrogations - criminal, espionage or anything, they hold them here. I've delivered many a prisoner. I know the area quite well," said Landis, scrolling across more of the map.
"How do we get him out?"
"I should be able to bluff it. After all, I am with the Police. Just wait outside in an autoshuttle, I'll find him and get him out, and then we just go," Landis remarked, as if it was all just a routine part of the day's work.
"Isn't this going to have...consequences...for you?" asked Winston.
"Look, this lot are brutal. And you're a friend, and that's worth more than... what was that noise?"

  Winston looked around and scratched his head. Noise? He listened intently. Was the ship's hatch closed? Then he heard it...ever so faintly, just a slight scrape. He relaxed.

"Probably a rat. This hangar is absolutely infested. I probably forgot to close the hatch and one sneaked in," said Winston.
"I hope not. Have you seen the rats out here? Big as dogs, some of them," remarked Landis, acidly. "They need better pest control. This is supposed to be a Federation starport, not some grungy Frontierland"

  The figure sidled up to the cabin door of the ship. He gave the piece of angle-duralium an experimental swing. He could make out two voices, but they were too muffled by the wall and the door in front of him to make out what they were saying. The owners of the voices were bound to be seated at the console. He imagined the room's layout, an Asp's living quarters being pretty tight and cramped. Then he planned his strike. First, hit the closest one as hard as possible, take him out cold. Then capture the other one in the confusion. He hoped they weren't armed. He then realised how stupid that hope was. Perhaps he should hope that they weren't good shots instead.

  Adrenaline rushing, he gently took hold of the door handle, ready to savagely slide the door open then pounce. He made out a few words. "...with the Police," he heard drift through the door. Or at least, that's what he thought was said. He listened carefully. He made out a few more words. "Federation starport, not some grungy..." said a voice. He gripped the door slider tightly with his left hand, and his improvised club with his right hand...

He counted down from three and breathed deeply...

  He wrenched the door open and burst in, swinging his implement down wihout even looking. The angle-duralium crashed into the table with a loud bang, just missing the man seated by the console! Without thinking, the figure raised the duralium club again, and his startled victim spun around in the chair!

"Albright! What are you doing!" shouted the figure in stark surprise!

  Albright stopped, mid swing. He looked into the eyes of the man in front of him. Finally, recognition cut through his frenzied adrenaline soaked mind...

"Jim?" said Albright, not quite sure of the evidence of his own eyes. His arms went limp, and he dropped the piece of duralium, which landed with a dull clatter. He looked to his left, and saw that Landis was there, already pointing a standard Police-issue plasma pistol at his head.

"May I ask why you're trying to brain me?" asked Winston, looking up at Albright in shock.
"I thought...I thought you'd been..."
"I had been what?"
"taken away...captured...your communicator was, ummm... I came to find out where they had taken you then rescue you." Albright's voice trailed off. He looked faintly embarrassed.

Nobody said anything for a moment. If this was a pregnant pause, it was about to have twins.

"Chuck, my communicator was destroyed by the energy bomb's EMP," Winston said at last.

  Landis lowered his gun. Albright collapsed into a seat, looking frightened, embarrassed and exhausted all at the same time. Winston noticed that he looked a mess - there was mud all over him, and he was almost blue with cold. It looked like he had experienced a very action-packed afternoon.

"They interrogated me," said Albright.
"Who is they?" asked Landis.
"The Federation! Or at least I think it was. They think we are pirates, I think...well, that's what they wanted me to think, at least," said Albright, fatigue evident in his voice.
"Did you answer their questions?" asked Winston, concerned.
"I evaded them. They didn't seem satisfied, but they let me go."
"We went through your communicator trace and correlated it with Diamond's surveillance cameras. We saw the chase, well, at least until you got into the autoshuttle," Winston added.
"Well, they took control of the shuttle. They landed it out in the middle of nowhere. I tried to run away across the fields, but they were too slippery," said Albright, with feeling.
"Looks like you fell over once or twice," said Landis, not unkindly.
"Yes. The bastards didn't even let me dry off. I nearly froze in their cell," added Albright, bitterly.
"You know, if you evaded, they know you're up to something. They are well practised in interrogation techniques," said Landis.
"I don't doubt it," added Winston. "We need to find out what they wanted from us. We need to do a little covert operation of our own. Phil, is the building wired for sound?"

  Landis paused and thought a little while. He was just about to answer when Jas broke in.

"Jim, that particular building is the only one in the compound that's not wired. I think that's highly significant," she said.
"Why would a police station not be wired?" asked Winston.
"Because they don't want any record of what they are doing in there, that's why. And no, it's not standard Federation practise," replied Landis.
"Then we need to wire it ourselves. We have the equipment," said Winston.
"Why bother? Why not just get as many light years away from here as possible?" asked Landis, surprised at Winston's high-risk proposition.
"Because we need to find out if we're going to get followed. I need to know why they are so interested in us, and potentially our mission," Winston replied.
"Your mission?" asked Landis. "I thought you were bounty hunters," he said.
"We are. But we are on a mission for a very important customer," said Winston. He felt terrible about lying to his friend, but there was no way he could let on what their real mission was. The risk of discovery would be too great...

"Jim, I just got a message," said Jas, breaking in. "It looks like your hyperdrive part will be arriving early. It will be here tomorrow, so once the nanobots have finished integrating it, we can leave. We can probably get out of here within the next twenty hours"
"That's the first good bit of news I've heard all day," sighed Winston. "Why don't we all get some sleep, and make our plan of action tomorrow. We've got to get to the bottom of this one," said Winston, sounding rather tired.

  The autoshuttle climbed into the clear morning air, the previous day's dismal cloud nothing but a memory. A carpet of snow covered the land as far as the eye could see. The sun, Andceeth, sat low in the sky, barely warming the ground. Winston watched the world slide by. He'd never seen snow with his own eyes - his home, near Newtown, Nirvana, Phekda, had been uniformly warm. His last planetary residence, near Manchester in Tionisla never got cold either. The city of Diamond, however, was frigid during the long winters. The planet of Capitol didn't have much of a tilted axis, so the summer was only marginally warmer.

  He opened the small metal box and peered at the contents. Two dozen AJNIB-supplied monitors. The tiny devices, shaped like a pin with a ballbearing on the end, contained a camera no larger than a mosquito's eye, plus a minute microphone. The ball contained the recording memory and a tiny transmitter. He picked one out and looked at it carefully. Hundreds of credits worth in a tiny package. The problem would be sticking the device somewhere where it would be of use.

Landis watched Winston fondling the device.

"Do they transmit?" he said at last.
Winston turned to face Landis, The winter wonderland ouside the autoshuttle reflected brightly off Winston's sunglasses, making Landis squint.
"Yes. Several modes. Depends what you want them to do, really," replied Winston.
"Well, they are no good then, this isn't an ordinary cop-shop. The place is wired with sensors. Any unauthorized transmission will be detected, and you're rumbled, basically," replied Landis, dryly.
"I can make them record only. Trouble is, we'll have to go back later and retrieve them. Anyway, what base is wired so tightly for electronic espionage, but is lax enough that we can crawl undetected in the ceiling void?" asked Winston.
"A Federation one," replied Landis, smiling faintly. "They just haven't got a clue. Really. This isn't really a high security cop-shop, but the little tyrant in charge likes to think it is so put in a whole bunch of electronic counter-espionage kit in it"
"You don't seem to respect your boss very much, Phil," replied Winston.
"No, I don't."

  Silence once again enveloped the autoshuttle, broken only by the sound of the air rushing by. The note of the prime-mover changed, and the small shuttle began to descend towards its destination, a shuttle-park near the central police station, where Albright had been held the day before. A few minutes later, it touched down, disturbing the fresh layer of snow.

"Anyway, how do bounty hunters get hold of that kind of kit?" Landis asked suddenly, looking at Winston suspiciously...

"Hello, Elyssia, glad you could make it," said Lt. Colonel Jack Bradley, as the woman walked in through the door.

  Elyssia Wyatt was an Elite rated pilot. She was about middle-aged, her almost midnight-black hair tied back, and a fit, curvaceous body that made something stir low in Bradley's hind-brain. Her face was smooth and unblemished, hiding deep within a deadly instinct that could cut like a knife. She wore a tight-fitting black flight suit. The only jewelry she wore was an Elite pendant, presented to her ten years before when she made Elite. She intensely disliked the Andceeth system, and even more, this police station. The man in charge - what was his name - Campbell was it? was an idiot. Lt. Col. Bradley wasn't a bad sort though, although she could never get over the fact that her superior officer had a lower Elite rating than she did.

"We have a mission for you. It might be risky, but we're not sure. However, it's essential to our operation," continued Bradley.
"Well, Jack, you always save the good ones for me," replied Wyatt, with good humour.
"Seriously, we don't have enough Elite pilots. It's ironic - they don't like me to send you on dangerous missions because they are too frightened of losing an Elite pilot."
"I told you the boss was an idiot," she replied, frowning a little.
"It's not his decision. Campbell isn't bad, really. Much of what he does is a bit of a front."
"I dunno, I always want to give him a good hiding whenever I see him," replied Wyatt, smiling a little at the thought.
"I wish you'd give me a good hiding," replied Bradley, ducking slightly.
"Oh, Jack, pur-lease!" replied Wyatt, laughing.
"OK, let's get down to business," said Bradley.

  Bradley picked up a datapad, and showed it to Wyatt. She looked at it, reading the information, thoughtfully biting her lower lip. She continued to page through the information, stalking around the room while she did so. She finished reading, and put the pad on the table.

"Well?" asked Bradley.
"Tell me more." replied Wyatt.

  The datapad had contained information on two people, a ship, and some vague mumblings on a danger to Backstab. She glanced at it again, feeling slightly guilty. She thought that the man standing next to the nuclear missile in the photo might have been a bit of a poser, but he was rather attractive to her, even if he was a bit on the young side for her. The other one was a far too young for her liking. She was old enough to be his mother. She could tell that the months in space were causing her to have emotions again...and emotions in this game could be deadly, especially when your adversary might not have any. She straightened herself, and put illogical emotion out of the way for a solid order of cold-as-ice professionalism.

"Well, as you see, Commander Winston and his second in command, Mr. Albright, have caused us some headaches. We are reasonably sure they know about Backstab, or are at least on its trail and will compromise our plans."
"What makes you so sure? I thought Backstab was under good cover?" asked Wyatt.
Bradley sighed. "It is. Supposedly. However, there was a breakdown in Zearla. These two people were responsible for some hacking back there. The local baron tried to cover up the fact by sending a slaver after them, but the slaver was defeated"
"Defeated? Destroyed?"
"No, not quite. Apparently, their little fleet attacked Winston's Asp. Now you will notice from the datapad that Winston, like you, has achieved the Elite rating. This caused some problems for the slaver, so they energy bombed him, and managed to pick up his ship. However, somehow the pair managed to overpower the crew with a little help from one of the Federation undercover anti-slavery squad members. Quite a bloodbath, by all accounts. One or two of the slavers had to be identified by their DNA"

Wyatt raised her eyebrows, and looked at the photographs on the datapad again.

"We interrogated Albright, on the account that he's obviously inexperienced. However, he skillfully evaded our questions. But he hasn't been in the business for long enough to know that his evasion hinted that something was up," continued Bradley.
"His business?"
"Yes. We aren't quite sure what their business is at the moment. It looks like they are bounty hunters on the outside, but we have our doubts. If they are working for someone, we haven't been able to find out who. Neither of them seem to have any strong affiliations to anyone."
"So what do you want me to do exactly? Bump them off? Seems a shame to finish off an Elite Commander," said Wyatt, looking a little too longingly at the photograph.
"No, we don't necessarily want you to bump them off. But we need someone who is at least their calibre to, well, lead them astray. We have a Backstab ship ready to go. We need you to command the ship. To put not too finer point on it, you're bait. We want to see if they will follow. When they do, we will have a large force ready to terminate them with extreme prejudice if they won't cooperate. We have a very nicely equipped Cobra Mk.3 that you'll be using for this mission."
"OK, so when do I leave?"
"Today, hopefully. Their ship is being repaired. They were waiting for a part for their rather exotic hyperdrive. We managed to find an AAAI dealer a few light years away with the part they need, and managed to order it so they can leave a bit quicker. They received what they thought was the good news yesterday. The part is probably being fitted right now," said Bradley with a conspiritory grin.
"Why go to all this effort - I mean, I'm sure you can imprison them, send a fleet after them, or something like that - and be done with the problem?" asked Wyatt. It seemed to her that they were going to a lot of unnecessary effort.
"Well, we are not sure for one. We don't want to be on a wild goose chase. Also, if they do know about Backstab, we need to find out where the leak came from. They must have got the idea to hack Zearla's registry from somewhere. If we just eliminated them, we would never find the leak. It's a pity because it would make my job much easier if I could."
"Where do you want me to lead them, assuming they follow?"
"Anywhere, but stick to independent systems if you can, and do not lead them anywhere near Enedlia. Anywhere but Enedlia, for obvious reasons"
"What was that noise?" Wyatt asked suddenly.

  Both Wyatt and Bradley looked up at the ceiling. They heard some kind of faint scratching noise. Suddenly there was a slight pattering noise that seemed to move across the ceiling. Bradley relaxed.

"Oh, it's rats. It's disgraceful. This is supposed to be a Federation spaceport, not some flea-infested Frontier base. The whole place is infested with rats. Some the size of dogs," said Bradley, regretfully.
"No ratcatchers around?"

  Winston cursed silently. There wasn't much space in the ceiling void, nor many structural members to hang onto. It was also very dark, and now he was stuck.

  He hoped Albright hadn't got himself stuck as well. He could only use his communicator in a case of dire emergency, because the transmission would be tracked and it would be all over. It wasn't quite a dire emergency yet. He reached out to try and grab a narrow joist, trying to spread his bodyweight out across the flimsy ceiling supports below. He had deployed five of the tiny AJNIB-designed bugs so far, their pin-head cameras and microphones hopefully sticking into somewhere useful.

  He reached out and managed to just about get hold of the joist. He pulled himself forward. The ceiling creaked dangerously, and he felt the structure start to bow in below him. He froze, wondering what to do next. He was sure that he'd be caught if he came crashing through the ceiling. He heard the muffled sound of a door open and close beneath him, and some conversation start. More trouble. If the ceiling gave way, he'd be caught very quickly indeed.

  He listened hard to the conversation drifting up from below. It sounded like a woman flirting with a man, and the man seemed to want to receive some kind of "hiding" from the woman. He continued to listen as their conversation became more serious. When he realised they were discussing him and Albright, he got a cold shiver. Up until now, he didn't really believe that anyone really knew what they were up to - but now he realised that people were getting suspicious. Hacking Zearla's registry, apparently, had been a bit of a giveaway. As the conversation went on, he realised that he was now firmly in the sights of another Elite pilot. At least they hadn't yet figured out who they worked for. He resolved not to follow the bait, as the talking below continued. He also had to find out what was going on at Enedlia too...

  Suddenly, there was a light pattering ahead of him. He stared into the gloom, pointing his small light into the ceiling void ahead. A couple of meters away skulked the biggest rat Winston had ever seen. It had to be the size of a small dog. Winston was rather disturbed to notice the rat was curious and it had started to scuttle towards him. He reasoned that rats that big probably weren't scared of much.

"Bugger off!" Winston whispered hoarsely.

The rat kept crawling closer. Winston could feel the ceiling start to move. It could barely support his weight as it was. The rat must have weighed at least ten kilograms.

"Go on, bugger off!" Winston whispered urgently at the rat. He tried not to think any heavy thoughts. The rat's whiskers twitched as the creature sniffed the air. To Winston's horror, the rat cautiously edged towards him. He watched transfixed, as the rat's front paws joined him on the section of ceiling he was lying on. The rat continued to move forward, the rest of its body moving onto the already sagging ceiling section.

"Oh shiiiit!" exclaimed Winston loudly, as the ceiling finally began terminally sagging...

  Fasteners started to ping out of their housings, one striking Winston sharply on the back of his head. The rat had now begun to back up, the fact that the ground beneath it was moving rather dangerously finally registering in its simple, rodent mind.

It was too late...

   The ceiling finally collapsed with a loud crack. Winston didn't even have time to utter another curse as he, the rat, and the ceiling caved into the room below, trailing pieces of polystyrene and low-grade nonstructural alloy. He landed with a loud crash on the table in the middle of the room in a cloud of dust and polystyrene ceiling tile! The rat let out a startled screech, and bounded out of the room through the open door, its paws skidding as it madly tried to gain traction in its panicked attempt to leave.

  Winston looked around madly, mildly stunned by his rough landing in the middle of a table, into the face of the woman he had heard talking. He quickly looked around the rest of the room, to see a man with hair as white as snow, and piercing blue eyes, sitting at the table he had landed on.

"Glad you could drop in, Commander Winston," he said, as if crashing through the ceiling was the normal way of entering the room...

© 2000 Dylan Smith.

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