Chapter 27 The Net Tightens

James Winston pushed open the door of the dingy pub, reflecting on how he found himself in Roxburgh. It certainly seemed like a good idea at the time - Roxburgh was a notoriously crime-ridden part of Edinburgh - probably the worst place in the whole of the Alioth system. It was reputed to be a no-go area for the Police. This suited Winston. His flight from Alliance Central had been on foot, pursued by the Police. He had swum out of Lake Edinburgh, and muddily ran down the narrow streets, ducking into alleyways whilst Police autoshuttles roared overhead. Finally, he'd found an Army Surplus store, and had helped himself to a tatty pair of combat trousers, and a black t-shirt to replace his soaking suit. Unable to find the store owner, he'd left a few credits on the counter before leaving. Although he was now dry, it didn't stop the Police pursuit until he found himself in Roxburgh. He had a feeling that it wasn't quite a complete no-go zone for the Police, and sooner or later, an armed response unit would be looking for him...

He slunk off towards an empty table in the pub, conscious of a dozen pairs of eyes tracking him, an obvious newcomer and outsider. He dug in the unfamiliar pockets of his camo trousers, feeling the DSUs he'd liberated from the Right Honourable Padraic Stewart MAP. Feeling around, he found what he was after, and retrieved his comm from the depths of his pocket.

The pub had resumed its normal noise. Winston realised he'd never be able to hear his comm, and he needed to call Commodore Saunders urgently. A large man at the bar was arguing loudly with his neighbour. A table erupted in violence as someone had apparently lost a hand of poker to a bluffer. Winston ducked as a beerglass sailed overhead and smashed on the darkened wall behind him. Finally, the poker players managed to calm down their disgruntled compatriot. Winston tried to use his comm, but the large man had resumed his loud argument. The day's stress finally got to him, and James Winston - a wiry, 65 kilogram Phekdan, decided to address the 120 kilogram Aliothan in firm terms.

Winston turned. "Will you shut the fuck up, I'm trying to make a call!" He yelled at the large man, belligerently.

An icy silence descended on the bar. All eyes turned and looked at Winston.

"Thank you!" said Winston, turning his attention to finding Saunders's name in his directory.
"What did you say, boy?" the large man said at last.
Winston uncomfortably realised that everyone was still looking at him. "Spud, calm down, he's probably had a bad day," said the large man's neighbour. He was the kind of person who could spot a nutter a mile off, and had already concluded that Winston looked a little wild, and wouldn't have spoken to Spud like that if he couldn't handle him.

The large man, Spud, pushed his neighbour aside and nonchalantly strolled up to James Winston, and looked down at him. His monstrous 2.1 metre bulk towered over Winston. He smiled a particularly mirthless and nasty smile.

"Boy, you better apologise, show some respect, like," he said dangerously.

The rest of the pub watched on with fascinated horror. Winston stood up slowly, putting his comm back into his pocket and feeling around for his Swiss army knife. A wave of terror swept over him as he realised he had left his only weapon on the counter at the Army Surplus Store.

"Umm, sorry?" he said, hopefully.

Spud looked into Winston's strange, dark eyes. His glacial mental processes were starting to decide they didn't really like the little guy in front of him, and that it would perhaps be fun to smash the little guy into very small pieces. He smiled a slow, threatening smile. His ruddy, pockmarked face looked unused to the act of smiling.

"You ain't from around here, are you boy? You know what we do here with furriners?" Spud said slowly. Winston noticed that his speech was slighly slurred. He could smell the foul scent of Breech's Aliothan Lager on Spud's vile breath. Spud crouched slightly, and leaned forward, his face only centimetres from Winston's.
"And we really don't like Phekdans at all, with your mutated eyes" he concluded. Winston was surprised he'd even heard of the place, let alone was able to notice his strange irises. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw one of the pub patrons violently signalling something to him. He had no idea what it meant.

Unfortunatley, time had run out. Spud grabbed Winston by the throat, and hurled him across the room with a single, easy movement. Winston hit the opposite wall, seeing a brief flash of white as the back of his head hit the wall hard. He fell to the floor, slightly stunned by the violence of his impact. He heard a stifled cheer from somewhere in the bar, and got to his feet. Spud tossed chairs and tables out of the way, as he approached Winston's struggling body. Winston grabbed the nearest thing he could to use as a weapon, and found it to be a chair firmly attached to the floor. A couple of people laughed at him derisively as he tried in vain to move it. He moved quickly, finding another chair that wasn't so attached, and brandished it threateningly at the advancing Spud. Swinging the chair back, he brought it crashing down on Spud's head. The chair broke, and Spud shrugged off the debris. He brought his fist back. Spud struck, but Winston quickly ducked out of the way. Spud's massive fist made an indentation in the wall! He swung again. Winston ducked and dived for his life. Unfortunately, he was getting pushed into a corner, and he realised that it was going to be not long before he received the worst beating of his life! Finally, boxed in, Spud grinned evilly at him. He brought his fist back to pulverize Winston's head. People in the bar had begun to cheer. Winston was resigned to his fate.

Suddenly, Spud's eyes rolled back, and he slumped to the floor. Winston looked up in surprise. A dozen pairs of eyes swung across the room, to stare at a slim, athletic woman, brandishing a gun.

"Elyssia, am I glad to see you," said Winston with relief.
She smiled sweetly. "What would you do without a woman, James?"
"Have my skull broken, I think," he replied.
Wyatt confidently strode across the bar, conscious of the stares. She re-holstered the weapon. "Don't worry about him, he's only stunned," she said to the bar at large.
"Thanks," said Winston again, drained of energy. "I think that might have hurt. How did you find me, anyway?"
"Wasn't hard, just follow the Police autoshuttles. Then head for the nearest pub once they broke off."
"Fair enough."
"What's the story?"
"We need to get Saunders."

The bar had remained quiet after Spud's attack and Wyatt's dramatic entry. Winston pulled out his comm, and selected Saunders.

"Lieutenant Winston, you better have a pretty good explanation!" came the snarled greeting. Saunders did not sound happy. Winston held the comm away from his ear. Saunders was shouting.
"I mean, what the hell do you think you were doing? The Police and everyone know it was you. The security camera footage was priceless! You -"
"Sir, with all due respect, calm down!" shouted Winston, trying to control himself.
"Give me something to calm down about then!" yelled Saunders, exasperated.
"Come to the Shipbuilder's Arms on Sack Street in Roxburgh, and I'll tell you all about it."
The was a pause.
"Yes. It's about the only safe place we can talk. It's very important."
"Strange definition of safe you have! Well - "
"Trust me! Promise you'll come, Sir," said Winston, desperation edging into his voice.
There was another pause.
"Very well, I'll be there in ten minutes. If it isn't good, I'll deliver you to the court martial myself!" Saunders shouted, snapping his comm off.

Winston looked over at Wyatt and shrugged. "Well, that went about as well as it could, I suppose," he said.

True to his word, ten minutes later, Commodore Saunders touched down in his personal autoshuttle. He set the alarm on maximum security - which came complete with electric shocks delivered to any thief who tried to make off with the vehicle. Quite frankly, James Winston had tried his patience, both by bringing a Fed along with him, being secretive in their proper meeting, and being so publically identified with the assault on an MAP. Winston's name was all over the press. No wonder he had scuttled off into the dingy corners of Roxburgh. The explanation better be good.

He identified the pub, a grimy, dimly lit building across the road. He didn't waste time entering the building. Things were lurking in the shadows. Entering the pub, he felt that things were lurking in the light, too. A number of suspicious characters turned to watch him as he entered. He looked out of place, with his tall, patrician features and immaculately clipped sandy moustache. He spotted Winston and the woman from the Federation sitting at a table. It looked like there had been a fight - there were a couple of overturned tables nearby, a broken beerglass, and a massive but unconscious man. He walked over to Winston and Wyatt's table.

"Explain," he demanded, without introduction.
"Tell me. How many of our AJNIB agents been on the Security Committee with our esteemed MAPs recently?" Winston said, opening with a question.
"Your point?" asked Saunders.
"Just interested. Let's see, they probably have just come back from an assignment in the northern sectors, stay for a few days, and disappear off north again?" Winston asked.

Saunders knew who's section had been recently in charge of briefing agents on the activities of the security committee. He discreetly pulled out his small datapad, and ran a query.

"Well, quite a few, but what's your point?"
"I bet they've all come from Enedlia, and then gone back up there, right?"
Saunders checked his datapad. "Yes?"
"And they are all currently assigned?"
"Every single one of them. That's quite normal, we often have agents up there."
"Don't you think it's funny that they all came from Enedlia, then went back up there again?"
"No, not really, quite normal. Just a break from their duties up there. Look, are you going to tell me what you're going on about, or are we just going to sit in this - " Saunders indicated the whole pub with a sweep of his arm - "flea pit all evening, with me wondering whether I should arrest you now or later?" he asked, frustrated.
"My point is this," continued Winston, pulling out three DSUs and putting them on the table, "that we are in the closing stages of an INRA plot to destabilize the Alliance."
"Oh, good old INRA," said Saunders, sarcastically.
"Yes, good old INRA," replied Winston, completely missing Saunders's ironly-laden tone. Wyatt raised her eyebrows.
"Do explain. Please," Saunders said, tiredly.
"These three DSUs - take them back home with you and read them. I decrypted them whilst in Stewart's office. Unfortunately they are read locked to Alliance government systems only, but your office datapad should read them fine. I caught a glimpse of one of the messages. A man called McMahon was instructing our Right Honourable Member what steps to take next in the invasion of Enedlia."
"So, there may be a plan to invade Enedlia? The Alliance might have valid reasons..."
"Well, guess what. McMahon was wearing INRA uniform. At Enedlia is an object called the NKW. It's some kind of transporter - it doesn't really matter what it is, but it's the gateway you alluded to when you briefed myself and Albright on our first visit to you. Behind that gateway is our mutual friend and AJNIB high-flyer Stephen Tyler."
"Tyler?" asked Saunders, perplexed.
"Tyler and a bunch of INRA agents, Feds, and some of our AJNIB guys. Guess what, they briefed me too. They sent me and Wyatt to verify their story. We should have been put on the Security Committee too, but we didn't quite get there, due to problems with our ship. And if we had, we'd have been suckered like the rest of them quite probably."
"Suckered?" asked Saunders.
"Yeah, suckered. Tyler tells you that they are organizing a team called Backstab. It's almost ready. Backstab's job is to stop Enedlia, plus another seven systems, from being invaded by the Alliance. But the invasion is being whipped up by INRA, guiding the secretive Security Committee. And INRA are guiding Tyler, who will use the AJNIB to stop the invasion. Can you see what's happening?" Winston asked.
Wyatt broke in. "And then, to 'save' the Alliance from the dangerous course of invading Enedlia, a course that will set the Alliance on a war footing with the Federation, Tyler's lot are going to replace the members of the Security Committee with clones helpfully supplied by INRA, and also probably their top, unelected civil servants too. The Alliance population is none the wiser. Tyler is thanked for spotting the INRA plot to force the Alliance to invade, and is promptly promoted to the Head of the AJNIB."
Winston continued. "And of course, our agents are getting suckered. They discover Tyler's hideout behind the NKW, he sends them home to verify his story - which they do, because they sit in on a Committee meeting. Sans INRA guide of course. They go back to Tyler convinced. That's where all those agents are winding up."

They sat in silence for a short while. Another fight was breaking out, and Saunders had to duck as a chair hurtled overhead and crashed into the opposite wall.

"If it wasn't so serious," said Winston, "I'd laugh out loud that the future of the Alliance was about to be decided in a seedy bar in Roxburgh."
"I better get back to my office and look at these DSUs. You two better stay in Roxburgh. The AJNIB is after the pair of you, as well as the Police. I'll make contact with you in the morning," said Saunders. He hurriedly left, dodging a randomly thrown punch as the brawl got further out of control.

"What do you think will happen?" asked Wyatt, as an unidentifiable missile narrowly missed her left ear. The smashing sound revealed the object to be yet another beerglass.
"Hopefully he'll look at the DSUs and believe us. He didn't look very convinced," replied Winston glumly. "But assuming he realises what we say is right, we're still in bad shape. If we help the Alliance defeat Tyler and his INRA cronies, then the invasion will undoubtedly go ahead, and the Federation will act to protect Enedlia. If we help Tyler and his cronies stop the invasion, Tyler will become head of the AJNIB and INRA will control our government via the clones. We've got to stop both at the same time. And quickly."
"Desperate tims call for desperate measures?"
"Unfortunately. Somehow, we've got to get the whole Security Committee stopped and at the same time, destroy Nova Rodstein Associates, which we can safely assume is Tyler's private Navy. I think we need to meet Saunders tomorrow, and get the evidence to the Press. That'll stop the Alliance's plans, but Tyler's lot still have to be stopped, and of course they'll know we're onto them once the story spreads."
"And the timing?"
"Has to be impeccable. Get the Press on the case too early, and Tyler will realise he's in trouble and will fall back and re-group. Time it right, and we can stop the Security Council and catch Tyler red-handed. We have to make sure that Tyler almost succeeds..."

Winston felt a large, heavy hand land on his shoulder. He turned around.
"Right you little squirt, you're fucking dead!"
Winston looked up into the snarling visage of Spud out for revenge.
Wyatt calmly raised her gun, and shot Spud between the eyes.
"Thanks," said Winston with a sigh.
Wyatt looked over at him longingly. "I think we ought to get some sleep. I'll ask the bar man if they've got a room for the night," she said. She had unfinished business.
James Winston knew himself he was not a good lover, or romantic. In fact, Wyatt's obvious lust made him feel both excited and a little awkward at the same time. Perhaps if Elyssia Wyatt knew that she only had scant minutes to live, she might have picked a better lover than James Winston.

Saunders sat in his darkened office, and boggled. The DSUs were filled with mainly private engagements of the now-hospitalized Padraic Stewart, MAP. Amongst the usual routine of political life were nuggets of information that were dynamite. Minuted meetings with INRA. Strategy plans. Risks. How to deal with a Federation backlash. Even plans for protecting Edinburgh against a retaliatory nuclear strike. The invasion of Enedlia was predicated on the fact that Enedlia's government had supposedly been caught financing piracy in the Alliance. All the evidence came from, surprise surprise, INRA. Saunders thought about this. Yes, this is how it'd happen. The Alliance would go in, guns blazing - only to be stopped by Tyler's lot who would "discover" the invasion was put up by INRA. Tyler would be of course praised and promoted, and would quietly let the real INRA project - to control the Alliance Security Council - go ahead. No one would question the swift replacement of the unelected civil servants. No one would notice the murder and replacement of the elected Alliance Security Council officials by clones. The fact they'd get voted out of office come the next election was neither here nor there - the damage would be done by then, and their political appointments, "to remove those responsible for advising them badly" would of course consist of more INRA clones. Damn it, James Winston had been right to act on his hunches and steal the DSUs. One thing bothered him though - what did Tyler need with an entire private Navy? It seemed like Tyler would have no need for all those ships in his plans. Then it became clear. The AJN force would be big enough to deal with the Enedlians, but with the Nova Rodstein ships popping out the gateway, would quickly find themselves hopelessly outnumbered. Tyler's force would destroy many AJN ships, leading to a humiliating defeat. It would of course destroy the AJN's reputation - being beaten back by a bunch of traders. The Alliance's politicians would be cowed for years by the humiliation, and would simply roll over to any demands the Federation made. The Federation would probably let the Alliance continue, but only as its poodle. It was almost too late already - the Security Council had been thoroughly brainwashed by INRA's story to the extent that an INRA man could guide them with the Security Council knowing full well it was an INRA man.

There was a knock on his door.

"Come," Saunders said loudly. The door slid open. A young man that Saunders had seen around HQ a few times walked in. He was pretty sure he was from the Internal Affairs bureau.
"Agent Mylchreest?" Saunders asked.
"Yes sir. I've come to stop you from being arrested." The man looked at him levelly. There was something very odd about his stare.
"What?" Saunders asked, not sure if he had heard right. He felt a prickly sensation down his back. A slightly frustrated look spread across the young man's face.
"Er, I've come to stop you from being arrested," he repeated.
"Arrested for what?"
"Treason? Aiding and abetting a fugitive?" Mylchreest asked, rhetorically, in a tone of voice normally reserved for lunatics.

Saunders got up, scooping the DSUs he had been reading into his pocket. Agent Mylchreest did an about turn, and Saunders followed.

"Why are you doing this?" asked Saunders, puzzled.
"Because I don't believe them. An INRA agent ordered your arrest."
"INRA agent?" shreiked Saunders, shocked.
"He disguised himself well, but I could sense he was an INRA agent. I'd sensed him before you see."

Now in the better lit corridors of the AJN headquarters, Saunders could see Agent Simon Mylchreest much better. He looked at the young man's face. He couldn't quite believe what he was seeing. Mylchreest's eyes stared blankly, moving erratically. It didn't look like he was looking where he was going, yet he had no problems negotiating the hallways of the building. He was blind! But blindness had been cured for centuries...

"If it's not a personal question, Agent, why are you blind?" Saunders asked.
"I have an extremely rare genetic condition. My eyes are functional, but my visual cortex doesn't work."
"So how do you see?"
"Ultrasound. Echo location. Like a bat. I have implants to do the job. But it also means I don't perceive like you. Alter your skin, and I can still recognise you from your bones. The INRA agent altered his skin to look like a former AJNIB officer. He did a good job, but not good enough. I can tell. They made a mistake. I know your operation, and I know I can trust you. I can't trust them. We must get to Roxburgh to rescue your two agents. Some of my colleagues have already been sent to kill them."

Winston and Wyatt made their way to the small, grubby hotel room above the pub. It was rather good quality for Roxburgh - it actually had an en-suite bathroom of sorts.

"I'm just going to freshen up a bit," Wyatt told Winston, before disappearing into what passed for the bathroom. Winston collapsed on the bed, exhausted.

The sound of running water came from the bathroom, and some vague splashing noises. Winston let out a long, tired sigh, and rubbed his neck where Spud had so unceremoniously grabbed him and hurled him across the bar room. Then he heard a new noise. A tinkling of glass, and something hard hitting the bathroom wall.

"Shit!" shouted Wyatt.

Suddenly, the whole room seemed to heave itself into the air! The lights went out, and there was a sound of splintering wood and breaking glass. Dust filled the air. Winston suddenly jumped up from the bed. The bathroom door was blown open, hanging on by a single hinge. Something low in Winston's stomach did a mushy backflip as he caught sight of what lay within in the dim light. Wyatt's head lay at his feet, the rest of her body nowhere to be seen, a grim rictus her dying expression. Blood and gore hung of the shattered remains of the bathroom. He ran to the door, and dashed down the stairs, leaping three steps at a time. He almost collided with Saunders and Mylchreest coming up the other way.

"Someone's trying to kill me! They've already got Elyssia!" He yelled at them.
"Come on, let's get out of here!" shouted Saunders.

Somewhere in the bar room, shooting started. There was the sound of more windows breaking, and shouting. Winston caught sight of a small metal object bouncing down the stairs. Without ceremony, he grabbed Saunders and Mylchreest and thrust them both through the doorway at the bottom of the stairs, then dived through himself. Saunders went to stand up.

"Get down!" Winston yelled at Saunders frantically. Saunders dived for the floor, and instinctively covered his head.

There was a tremendous explosion. This time the whole planet seemed to heave, and Winston felt something heavy hit him and bounce off. A second explosion quickly followed, lighting up the pub like a flash of summer lightning. Choking dust billowed, and lethal debris flew through the air. There was a blurred moment of confusion, and everything went very dark. Winston tried desperately to draw breath in the dusty air, but couldn't help choking on it. Finally, the noise subsided. Winston tried to stand. He couldn't. He realised he was now in a small, irregular space. The pub must have collapsed!

"Sir?" he asked, hoping to find where Commodore Saunders was. There was no reply.

A flicker of orange light penetrated his space from a small fire that had broken out. Winston shoved some debris out of the way that was lying on him, and discovered he was more or less unhurt. He couldn't move his leg. As his eyes adapted to the dark, he saw a substantial steel beam was lying on his foot. He wondered why he couldn't feel any pain, and realised that he had got lucky - although his foot was pinned, the beam was supported by a piece of broken concrete that had prevented it from crushing his foot. He could see the night sky above him, and some fresh air wafted through a hole in the wrecked building. With a feeling of dread, he saw a disembodied forearm and hand lying next to him, and recognised it as Saunders's. He could see some bloody remains crushed under a large concrete boulder, which was undoubtedly what was left of his commanding officer. He could also hear someone pacing around, kicking debris. In the dim light, he caught sight of Saunders's side arm, which was lying about a metre or so away. He shuffled his body as much as he could, and reached out for it, setting it to full power. The power cell had enough for one lethal shot, and no more. He tried to work his foot free, but he wasn't making much progress. The sound of the person outside drew closer.

A light was shone in Winston's face. He looked up, shielding his eyes with his left hand. The person carrying the light momentarily put it down, and Winston made out the shape of a man. He couldn't see a uniform, or make out the man's features. The sound of the gun being loaded with a fresh cell was unmistakable though. He saw the shadow of the weapon being pointed at him.

"Next time, try and be more subtle about it," Winston muttered darkly, as in one movement he raised Saunders's handgun and shot the man in the head. The man collapsed, his gun and light clattering to the abused ground near Winston.

Winston shone the light at the beam trapping his foot. He tried to work it free, and found by bending his knee, he could slide his foot by painful millimetres upwards. His foot suddenly came free, and an agonizing case of pins and needles started in earnest. Winston thought it was better than being trapped there forever, or shot in the head. He got up, and crawled out of the wreckage through the hole that was above his head. Saunders's autoshuttle was still parked across the street. It looked as if it had only taken minor damage from flying debris from the pub. Winston limped up to it, and tried to open it. Suddenly, he felt a tremendous surge of energy fire up his arm, almost like his arm had exploded! His arm flew back, wrenching his shoulder, and he was thrown bodily back into the wreckage of the pub in a painful heap. As he lay panting on the ground, feeling as helpless as a beached fish, he realised that he'd been electrocuted by Saunders's auto alarm. It wasn't time for ceremony. He crawled over to the wreckage of the building, and leaned in through the hole where he had been trapped, and lifted out the gristly remains of Saunder's arm. His deceased CO's hand was still intact. Limping painfully back to the autoshuttle, he pressed Saunders's hand on the lock panel. The door swung open. He collapsed inside, pulling the door shut.

"Add driver," he said tiredly to the autoshuttle.
"Please ident with a biometric," replied the machine in a dull, female sounding voice. Winston pressed Saunders's severed hand on the panel.
"Please present new driver's biometric," said the machine. Winston pressed his hand on the panel.
"New driver accepted."

Winston cracked open the door and threw Saunders's hand out, and closed the door. He wondered what to do next. Wyatt was dead. Saunders was dead. Presumably, the person Saunders had come with was dead. Someone was trying to kill him. His mission partner, Charles Albright, was behind the NRA's gateway, possibly tens of thousands of light years away. The last time he'd seen Jas was when he'd put her module in Saunders's office for safekeeping. He wondered who it was who had killed his compatriots and was trying to kill him - it was either the AJNIB or the INRA. He wondered if he'd live long enough to find out. The evidence he had stolen from Padraic Stewart's office was probably lost, too - so he couldn't just use the Press to stop INRA's plans. He didn't even have a ship. All he had was Saunders's autoshuttle, a light rifle with a fully charged cell, and the dusty fatigues and black T-shirt he'd got from the Surplus store. If his pursuers didn't kill him, the cold nights certainly would.

He lifted off the autoshuttle, and flew away from the rotten Roxburgh district, and out of Edinburgh. Every scenario he could think of led to either him being dead and Backstab going to plan, or him being alive and getting to watch Backstab going to plan.

© 2003 Dylan Smith.

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