Chapter 6 Up the Ante
  ALBRIGHT hid by the corner of 2100 Arcola. The day's opressive heat haze made the reflective glass of the building seem to bend and warp. He carefully watched the building entrance. Whatever was going on up there had to end soon. Shuttles sped by, most of them stopping at adjacent buildings, but nobody was stopping at 2100. Old Blackelk's business was bustling everywhere, except for this location.

  A shuttle gently touched down in a parking spot outside the entrance of the building. It was empty, and obviously there to pick someone up. Thirty seconds later, a slightly annoyed looking James Winston stepped out of the main entrance. Albright pulled back behind the corner to make doubly sure that Winston wouldn't spot him. He dared a peek around the corner of the building, and saw Winston strap in, and the shuttle lift off. It rose up, joined traffic, then headed towards the spaceport. Albright quickly made his way around the corner, and into the entrance that James Winston had just left. He went directly to the elevator.

"Top floor," he told the lift.

  The elevator beeped in acknowledgement, and began its ascent. Albright pulled out his binoculars, and looked through the glass walls of the building. As the elevator rose, he could see more of the spaceport. The binoculars didn't compensate for the heat haze much, but he could still make out Winston's autoshuttle landing on a pad just outside the main hangar. He didn't get time to take a good look, since the express elevator soon reached the top floor.

"Enjoy your visit," said the lift.

  Albright wordlessly left the elevator, and turned right to walk down the corridor. The padded carpets muffled his footsteps as he walked towards the office where he had his appointment. At the end of the corridor was the office's open door. Daylight was pouring in through the large window at the back of the office. He smartly stepped in. Three men were already in the room.

"Greetings. I'm Ensign Charles Albright. You requested my presence," he said.
"Welcome, Ensign. I'm Lieutenant Steven Tyler, and these are my assistants, Lieutenant Aleksandr Primakov and Constable Guido Marks", replied Tyler

  Albright took in the three. Tyler seemed very well spoken man, obviously well educated. Tyler was dressed in an expensive Achenarian business suit. Primakov was dressed in a more usual military uniform, but a parade rather than a battle uniform. Marks was dressed in a similar manner to Tyler, and was built like most police officers - large and burly. Tyler was obviously the oldest of the three - his thinning hair was mostly grey, and his face looked weathered from one too many close calls with the hard vacuum of space. Albright felt very out of place, dressed as a bounty hunter's first mate amongst the sharp formality of an intelligence bureau meeting.

"OK, now we are all here, let's get started. Ensign Albright, would you care for a cup of tea?" asked Tyler.
"Certainly, I haven't had one for a while," replied Albright.
"Milk? Sugar?"
"Neither, thank you"
"Good man. You know that James Winston had never drunk tea. I don't know, bounty hunters are mere savages. He even put milk in Earl Grey. I have to deal with these Phillistines every day, you know," said Tyler, sadly.
"I hope he didn't ask for it to be iced," said Albright.
"Fortunately not. Iced tea should be made a criminal act. Savages, I tell you. They are all savages," Tyler lamented.

  The burly police constable stood up, and prepared the drinks. He looked like he had been doing this task one time too often, but still performed the menial duty with good grace.

"As you know, we are here to discuss our new potential recruit, James Winston. I just met him with Guido, and Aleksandr was watching the interview from the next office. Firstly, I'd like to get the Ensign's report", said Tyler. He looked over at Albright.
"My full report is on this DSU," said Albright, holding up the small data cartridge, "but I'll summarize briefly"

  Albright slid the cartidge across the table to Tyler, who picked it up and dropped it into his suit pocket.

"Firstly, Winston's got a suspicious mind. We had a rather uncomfortable interview on the way here. He did apologise to me later, but I don't think he quite trusts me anyway. Secondly I can't tell either way where his loyalties lie. At the moment, I would say James Winston is loyal to James Winston, and maybe the skipper of the fishing boat he was working on in Tionisla. I'm still not sure why he apologised to me for when he questioned me" said Albright.

Primakov chuckled. "His computer told him he was being unfair to you. He's been confiding in that machine too often recently"
"We hacked into his computer a few months ago," explained Tyler. "It was the only way we knew that we could protect your identity. He spent a lot of money on a very powerful AI machine. We actually had to break into his house to do the job - the machine detected our attempts and was going to inform him"

  Albright raised his eyebrows. It certainly explained a few things - there were spies everywhere for one. It really wasn't that surprising that the intelligence bureau would do something like this.

"We also tried to extract more information from his computer, but it managed to stop our attempts - otherwise we wouldn't have needed to do this whole charade," added Primakov.
"Well, it's obvious we have to make the offer better to even tempt him anyway. We are going to meet James Winston again tomorrow. Any suggestions on a new offer that we should make?" asked Tyler.
"For one," began Primakov, "we aren't offering nearly enough. An assignment like the one we are setting commands at least half a million"
"Why that much?" asked Albright
"Well, any bounty hunter worth his salt well knows that a political assasination often makes you wanted by all three powers, even the one that hired you. The risk is extreme. Fifty thousand simply isn't enough," said Tyler.
"Why did we offer that little then?" asked Albright. This must have been the reason for Winston looking annoyed as he left the building.
"Well, we needed to make sure that Winston wasn't desperate or irrational. It was kind of a filter offer. We now need to appeal to his greed," replied Tyler.
"We will offer him three quarters of a mill when he comes here tomorrow," added Primakov.

That was extremely serious money. Albright wouldn't mind a cool three quarter million credits right now. It would be interesting to see Winston's reaction to this offer.

"There is one thing that I'd like an explanation of, though. Nobody mentioned the Viper - it spooked me a bit on the way in," said Albright.
"The Viper?" asked Tyler, obvious concern in his voice.
"Yes, an unmarked Viper Mk.2 followed us to Old Blackelk. Winston thought it was the police. Nobody briefed me about it though." replied Albright

The other three were now looking at Albright with a look of concern.

"Ensign, there was no Viper Mk.2 in any of our plans," said Tyler.
"We'll have to check this out. This is extremely worrying, it could mean that the opposition know about our plans and are spying on us," said Primakov.
"Ensign, thank you for bringing this to our attention. Constable Marks, I'll need you to investigate this right away," said Tyler.
"I've put the full details plus the scanner logs from Winston's Asp in my report if it will help you," Albright told the others.
"Yes, thank you for thinking of doing that. It will be very useful to us", said Tyler.

  Winston climbed out of the shuttle. He still couldn't believe it. Fifty thousand credits! What a joke. There's no way I'd ever do the Federation's dirty work for even ten times that much, he thought. Battle fleet or not, he was going to teach those idiots a lesson, then go home and lie low for a while.

"Thank you for using Old Blackelk's premiere transport system. The cost was four point five credits", said the autoshuttle, as Winston disembarked.
"Thank you," Winston replied to the machine.

  Fifty thousand rotten credits! How did they ever think he'd take the job for that money? There was just something too suspicious about the whole thing. They could offer him a million, and he still wouldn't take it. In fact, they could offer him anything, and he wouldn't take it. One thing he had learned is that greed just gets you into trouble. He began walking to the hangar where his ship was parked, when he saw another autoshuttle approach. He paused, and watched as Pam Gilmour climbed out.

"Pam, do you know what those stinking, filthy bastards wanted?" asked Winston, as Gilmour approached him. "They wanted me to take out the Alliance presidential candidate!"
"Which one?" asked Gilmour.
"Kevin Mazzetti, you know, the one who is favorite for the upcoming elections," replied Winston flatly.
"Who wants you to do that? How much did they offer?"
"I don't know for sure, but it smacks of an incompetent Federation operation. They had the gall to offer fifty thousand", replied Winston.
"What are you going to do?"
"I'm going to teach those idiots a lesson. I'm not doing the Federation's dirty work," said Winston.
"Do you remember a woman coming up to us last night? She said something about us being in great danger", asked Gilmour. She wasn't entirely sure whether it was the result of last night's partying, or whether the encounter had actually happened.

  Winston thought hard. He seemed to remember someone coming up to them, but all he could remember was his disappointment that the person wasn't going to buy him a beer. They had to plan something quick. His next meeting with these people was only a day away.

"Pam, we need to go somewhere quiet and out of public view to discuss this. I think they've got spies everywhere," Winston declared.
"Where were you thinking of?"
"We'll take a shuttle out to the coast. I noticed on the way in, the coastline to the west is riddled with caves. They will have difficulty spying on us there."
"That sounds like a good plan. What about your co-pilot, Albright?"
"There's a principle called need-to-know. I don't think he needs to know right now, so we'll leave him behind. Where did he go, by the way?" asked Winston, curious as to what might be holding his co-pilot up.
"I haven't seen him since we split up to watch the building. I suspect he's probably headed back. He might not have been able to hail a shuttle - it was quite busy down there"

  The shuttle Pam had arrived in still hadn't departed to pick up a new fare. Winston started walking towards it.

"Let's go. I'll block hire this shuttle for the rest of the day," said Pam, as she turned to follow.
"That sounds like a good plan"

The pair climbed into the shuttle, and strapped in.

"Manual control, please", Winston told the shuttle. Where they were going was not likely to be a programmed destination.
"Please identify with your pilot certificate," replied the shuttle's computer.

Winston showed his pilot certificate to the shuttle's computer. A few moments later, after the machine had gone to the pilot database to validate the license, the manual controls slid out of their housings.

"Thank you Commander Winston. Have a good flight," said the computer.

  Winston gently applied some bottom thrust, and swung the small craft westwards and began to accelerate. He kept his altitude low, only about three hundred meters above the tops of the dense jungle that covered most of Hope's landmasses.

"Did you bring that computer of yours, you know, Jas?" asked Gilmour
"No, once again, need-to-know. Computers can be dangerous things sometimes," Winston replied.

  Winston didn't know of the break-in. However, his deeply suspicious mind told him that Jas might have been tampered with, especially in the light of the shennanigans he had just been subjected to. He knew he could trust Pam, after all, she had been an exemplary copilot in the past, and had been here for him this time. He also had to be suspicious of the shuttles. He couldn't say much within range of the shuttle's computer. When a big power like the Federation got involved in anything, they spared no expense when spying on someone they were after. The shuttle sped over the jungle, and it wasn't long before the pair could see the ocean on the horizon.

  As they approached the cliffs, Winston gradually reduced power and slowed the small autoshuttle. The sharp, rocky formations looked spectacular, as the sea sprayed over the coast, pounding the rocks as it had done for countless millennia. The pair looked through the windows of the craft, looking for a suitable spot to land in the beautiful, but inhospitable coastline. Eventually, Pam spotted a relatively flat area at the bottom of the cliffs.

"Over there, at about your ten o'clock", she said.
"I've got it," replied Winston, as he brought the small ship in low over the water.

  The shuttle touched down gently on the small rocky beach, the bottom thruster throwing up spray from the surrounding water. Winston shut the engine down, and the pair unbuckled and left the craft. The roar of the sea was loud. A stiff breeze whipped the ocean into boiling whitecaps that occasionally crashed over the surrounding rocks. Three small seal-like animals watched Winston and Gilmour pick their way across the rocks towards the entrance of one of the many caves that perforated the cliffs. They weren't used to seeing human visitors, and quickly fled back into the broiling depths of the sea. The pair entered the dark cave. Winston pulled out his Maglite, and shone it into the darkness. They splashed through the knee-deep water, and came to a slight bend in the cave. The roof was only just over their heads, and dripped damply. A couple of nondescript winged creatures fluttered away in alarm at the pair's presence. Finally, they came across a dry ledge at the back of the cave where they could sit without being in half a metre of water.

"I think we should be safe from surveillance here," said Winston, examining the cave's walls.
"I hope so," replied Gilmour.
"I have a plan. I'm going to teach those bastards a lesson they won't forget, but I need your help to execute the plan, and it's probably going to be dangerous," said Winston.
"I'll assist any way I can," replied Gilmour.
"Well, this is the plan. We take out the top floor of 2100 Arcola. That's where they will be waiting for me. An MV-2 assault missile should do the trick, but it'll get the police on our backs"
"OK, but how do you make sure they show up?"
"I was just coming to that. Of course, I can't guarantee they'll be there, but I think I can make sure they will."

  Winston paused briefly, and pulled out a paper notebook and a pen. Old technology, but technology that can't spy on you. He began to draw a plan view of the area where the building was.

"Firstly, I will take an autoshuttle to the building. They will see me leave in the shuttle, and make my way. They won't suspect anything that way. When I leave, you'll need to get the Asp fuelled and put an MV-2 missile on it. Hopefully they won't be watching the Asp by then because they will have seen me coming. Then you fly it to the front entrance of the building, here", said Winston, pointing to the entrance on the plan.
"OK, but you'll be hanging around. How are you going to contrive a wait? You'll arrive minutes before I can, at least, especially if I have to buy fuel", said Gilmour.
"Simple, I'll have a smoke. There's no smoking in the building, so it'll look like I'm just taking a quick drag before entering", he replied.
"I didn't know you smoked," said Gilmour, surprised.
"I don't. But many bounty hunters do, so it won't look suspicious if they see me doing so. I'll try and fake it if I can, I can't stand tobacco", Winston added.
"OK, so I pick you up. I take it we attack straight away", Gilmour stated.
"That's correct. We'll just rise vertically up the building's face, and loose off the MV-2 right at them. Extra points if we go up the side of the building the office is on, and they see us grinning at them. A few bursts of the laser can be added if necessary", said Winston.
"Then leave, forcing a mis-jump so we can't be followed?" asked Gilmour.
"Exactly. I'll drop you off once we're away from Alliance systems. The police hopefully won't know you were involved since it wasn't your ship, so you can go back and pick your ship up," Winston said.
"Why not get the ship ready early - before you leave for the building?" asked Gilmour.
"They specifically instructed me not to refuel. They will be suspicious enough, and I don't want to arouse further suspicion. I'm gambling that they will stop paying attention to my ship when I leave to meet them," Winston answered.
"When do you tell Chuck? He will have to know, he's your co-pilot," Gilmour asked.
"I'll tell him a few minutes before I leave. Well, let's get out of here, I could do with a beer," said Winston.
"Me too," replied Gilmour.

  The pair left their hideout, and splashed back through the water that kept gushing into the cave each time a wave rolled in. They emerged blinking into the daylight. The local equivalent of seagulls wheeled overhead, looking for a tasty morsel in the broiling ocean. Winston and Gilmour climbed back into the calm of the autoshuttle, and lifted off to begin their journey back to Old Blackelk and a nice cold beer.

© 2000 Dylan Smith.

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