Chapter 2 Truth or Consequences
"LAST ON THE AGENDA, recruit number one whiskey eighty seven", said Commander Saunders. It had been a long meeting, and the seven members of his recruiting team were looking a bit weary.

  Lieutenant Steven Tyler got up, and commanded the computer to display the potential recruit's details.

"Well, here's his details - they sort of speak for themselves," said Tyler, as he pointed out some of the salient details. "His name is James Kyle Winston, he's a bounty hunter who has been on the ground for a year taking a break, and he's an Elite combateer. Reports say he left Manchester Starport in Tionisla two days ago, with Ensign Albright as his copilot, destination Old Blackelk"

Tyler called up Albright's details onto the screen.

"Albright's on the career fast track and unhesitatingly took the assignment despite the risk, he will be reporting in to us once the assignment has been given to his new captain...who of course has no idea of the nature of what's going on."

  Saunders tugged at his mustache, and looked over the details and grunted with satisfaction. The others in the meeting room were starting to look a bit sleepy, it was about time to call it to a close.

"OK, what happens if Winston turns out to be disloyal?" asked Saunders.
"Well, we'll have to terminate him. We can't risk the operation's details from getting out", replied Tyler.
"What's the risk of him being disloyal?"
"We think it's fairly low. Of course, we are providing him ample temptation in the test we're giving him on Hope, so we'll soon know how strong his loyalty is. If he passes, we'll invite him here and offer him a job. If he doesn't, well, we have five Elite Guard pilots waiting to take out his ship"

  The newest member of the recruiting team, Jane Williams, looked up from her coffee. The look of shock was already spreading over her features. She had only been in recruiting for a week, and had not heard about this rather brutal method of filtering recruits.

"I don't believe this!", she shouted quite suddenly. Saunders looked at her, surprised.
"These ...tactics... are the sort of thing the Empire indulges in! In my forty years of service, I haven't heard of anything so unethical!"
"Lieutenant Williams, may I remind you we are an intelligence bureau, not a kindergarten."
"I realise that, I've served in this bureau for twenty years. I had no idea this sort of thing was going on! What about Albright? He's the poor sucker's copilot, if you find Winston not to your liking, you're going to take out his ship and presumably Albright too?"
"Well firstly," replied Saunders, "Winston's hardly innocent. Secondly, sadly you have to sometimes make sacrifices in this game. Are you sure you are loyal?"
"Yes I am loyal, and this is why I'm so revolted by this proposed action. It might be acceptable in the Empire, but it goes against everything we stand for. I can accept that your potential recruit hasn't necessarily been a good boy, but Albright is loyal and has a promising career. It is..."
"Enough's enough!" roared Saunders. "If you can't cope with the harsh realities of bringing in outside recruits, I suggest that you are free to resign"

  An uncomfortable pause enveloped the conference table. The four men and three women who were on Saunders' team shifted uncomfortably. The commander's eyes were bulging and his face was red.

"OK, meeting ajourned. Williams, if you want to discuss this matter further, you are free to see me in my office tomorrow morning", said Saunders quietly. This always happened with new recruiting officers. They'd have a pang of conscience. He'd soon snuff it out once he pointed out the harsh realities of making sure your intelligence bureau is clean and loyal. Besides, he was sure that Winston would do the right thing and prove his loyalty when he arrived at Old Blackelk and met his operatives.

  The meeting broke up, and the recruiters started leaving the room. Saunders glared at Williams briefly as he left. Williams remained in her seat, still in a state of shock. She could accept that maybe the recruit, James Winston, could be bumped off. She brought up his details again, and noted he had performed an assasination several years ago, as well as various other acts that were not necessarily law abiding. However, Albright was turning out to be a good military officer and could go far in the Navy. If it was merely despicable that they should murder Winston, it was unashamadely criminal for them to take out Albright as well. He probably didn't even know the risk he had put himself into when he took the mission. Williams decided that sometimes she hated having a conscience. It was often not very compatible with working for the secret service.

   "Truth or consequences," she thought to herself. It was the name of a small town in New Mexico from which her ancestors were supposed to have originated. It was also a phrase she lived by.

"Damn it all to hell," she said to the empty room.

  Truth or consequences. She had no option, but if she was to live with her conscience, she would just have to risk a court martial and go AWOL. She'd get in her own private ship, and get to Old Blackelk before Winston and Albright could arrive, and she'd just have to tell them to go home...not even take the test that was being set up. She had no idea what the test was, and therefore she didn't know the right answer. Maybe she could go home with them, and work on a fishing boat too. It seemed like a very attractive proposition at the moment.

  Williams finally got up, being careful to take a note of Winston's ship details so she could identify him when he landed. She strode out of the room, and headed directly for the spaceport. For the first time in her life, it was time to mutiny against a senior officer.

  Commander Winston sat alone in the flight deck, looking out into space. Things were extremely quiet, so he decided to let Albright go and get some rest. In the meantime, he had other things to do.

"Jas, I need to send a message to Pam Gilmour"
"I thought you might," remarked the computer in an insubordinate tone.
"Yes yes. It's serious actually," he remarked
"That's what you always say"

  Winston sometimes could curse artificial intelligence. But Jas was sentient, and knew how to joke. He also sometimes wished that he hadn't programmed her with so many of his inner secrets and personality traits.

"OK, well, give me the keyboard, I don't want anyone overhearing me", he told the computer.

A small keyboard appeared on the console display, and Winston began to type out the message.

I've been dragged into some strange situation, and I might need your help. I'm en-route to Old Blackelk in Gateway to meet with a man named Rafael Vincent. He says he knows me, but I sure as hell don't know him. He told me to meet him at Old Blackelk for a 'serious proposition', also telling me it would be to my extreme disadvantage if I ignored this call. As you know, this usually means come here or we'll kill you. I have no idea what he wants, but I'll probably be finding out. We are about a month out from Old Blackelk. I also have a new copilot whose supposed to be a bit of a hotshot - he's called Chuck Albright. I haven't had a chance to check out his combat skills in a real fight yet, but I'm sure it won't be too long.

If you can help me, show up Old Blackelk and be discreet. I don't want Vincent to be suspicious. I'll radio you if things are going pear-shaped.

  He signed the message, and told Jas to send it. Hopefully the message would find her ship through the numerous hyperspace relays out there before he actually got to Old Blackelk. There were of course no guarantees. Even if the message got to her in time, she might be too far away to help. Still - he had to try. He really didn't want Albright to know either. The whole affair seemed rather suspicious, and he wasn't keen on giving his copilot the jitters. Sim combat was no substitute for the real terror you could have on some of these jobs.

  The keyboard disappeared, and was replaced by the regular instruments. The destination counter slowly fell as the Asp hurtled towards its refuelling stop. He couldn't even remember the system he was in. Perhaps it was Cebece. Just another starport, he thought, as he brought up the details of Rush, on the small planet Camp Sheehan. There wasn't a lot to do. He hoped to have had a bit more time to show Albright the more fun side of space travel, maybe even a detour to Reidquat for some beer. But time constraints prevented that. Maybe on the way home, if they ever made it home.

© 2000 Dylan Smith.

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