James Winston slid down the entry ladder, and onto the concrete of the landing pad, into the muggy air of a planet that to his mind shouldn't have been there. He stepped back, and his partner carefully stepped out of their stolen Cobra Mk.3. Winston looked out over the spaceport towards the rows of neatly parked Nova Rodstein trading ships.
"James Winston and Charles Albright. Fancy seeing you two here," said an unexpected
voice behind them. Winston turned around as if he was on a turntable. Albright turned
quickly, and took a step back...
The minnows of suspicion were already darting around Winston's head. He'd already determined that Backstab involved the Federation, along with a fraudulent ship registry in Zearla. It was something definitely fishy. And now a recruiter from the AJNIB was in on all of it. The one who recruited him. If Winston realised that the slaver who tried to capture Albright and himself in Andceeth was sent to take him out by someone involved in Backstab, the minnows would have been porpoises. Albright was wondering why he'd been chased down and interrogated in that festering police station in Diamond if the AJNIB was in on this. Both knew the facts didn't seem to line up right. But Tyler was behaving as if it was all officially sanctioned, and not even making the vaguest attempt to harm them - a bit of an about-turn to how everyone else involved in Project Backstab had treated them. Tyler then lead them into one of the low buildings surrounding the spaceport, the cool airconditioned building in stark contrast to the humidity outside.
The three walked down a couple of corridors, and then into a large meeting room on the left. In the centre was a large, mahogany table which would have looked right at home in a conference room of the Sirius Corporation. It was surrounded by leather chairs. Winston noticed that it was real leather, not the usual Nauga-Hide simulation. The three sat down.
"Fetch the others, our visitors are here," said Tyler to the room at large. A computer
hidden somewhere said, "Acknowledged" in response.
Three men and two women had entered the room. Winston and Albright watched them carefully. One of the men and one of the women were wearing AJN uniforms. One of the men was wearing a uniform that neither recognised, but both had accurately guessed that it was INRA. The other two were in civilian clothes. Winston recognised the casually-dressed woman. She had dark hair, pulled tightly into a pony tail, olive skin, and the same charcoal eyes as himself. He nodded in recognition - it was the woman who'd chased him down the corridors after he came crashing in through the ceiling at the installation in Diamond...and a fellow Phekdan. He knew she worked for the Federation. She flashed him a brief smile that seemed to say "I got you in the end, didn't I". Winston thought he'd soon see about that.
"May I introduce you all," began Tyler. "Our new arrivals are Lieutenants James Winston and Charles Albright of the AJNIB. Recruited by myself, in fact. Around the table we have Theo Cartwright of the INRA, Eduardo Heinrich of the ANJIB, Lisa Betts of the AJNIB, Elyssia Wyatt of the Federation Intelligence Bureau, and John Piquet also from the FIB."
Winston looked around the table, and tried to look amiable and unthreatening as he tried to measure everyone up. Cartwright of the INRA didn't look like the typical storybook INRA man. In fact, he was a small man in his thirties who looked about as threatening as a rabbit. He had very pale skin and his blonde hair was almost translucent. It went well with the dark grey INRA uniform. Eduardo Heinrich had the distinct Latin looks of someone who'd grown up in the equatorial regions of Hope, in the Gateway system. Lisa Betts was probably in her late fifties and as hard-bitten as they come, her shoulder length ginger hair accentuating her granite features. Elyssia Wyatt was slim and athletic, and Winston found her attractive, despite Wyatt being about ten years older than him. Piquet, the guy from the Federation, looked close to retirement. A hulking bear of a man with a shock of white hair, he had to be well over the century. Despite his age, it still looked like he could undo wheelnuts with his bare hands. Winston felt a little happier since he'd chosen a seat right next to the door so they could run if necessary. Albright looked nervous, but was putting on a great show of looking calm and collected. He'd get it right one day.
"Well, now we all know who we all are, I'll explain what Backstab is for the benefit of our newcomers. To help them, I've compiled the evidence that we used and put it on this datapad," Tyler said, sliding two of the units towards Winston and Albright. "You may do your own research if you like, we welcome that, especially if it will help you know you're doing the right thing. To summarize, the Alliance is about to embark on a very dangerous course of action after the elections. Our government has become paranoid. They intend to invade eight independent systems including Enedlia, to head off percieved Federation agression. These eight systems are seen as being strategic. This can't happen as our sources inside the Federation" - he indicated Piquet - "will launch a full-scale response. The war will be extremely destructive to both the Alliance and Federation. The Empire will undoubtedly take advantage of the situation. With the aid of our friends in the INRA and some Imperial staffers who would rather keep the status quo, we've obtained some useful technology. Backstab's primary goal is to replace the AIS politicians and officials that are plotting this attack with clones. Clones that are exactly the same in every respect - except they do not desire to invade these eight systems. This is a tricky and risky proposition. We've had to take over a trading business, Nova Rodstein, to help accomplish this. NRA ships are not viewed with suspicion in the Alliance, and NRA executives often wine and dine with the officials concerned. They will be our avenue for getting the clone agents in. In case of problems, many of the NRA ships have been fitted out as fighters, and will be carrying our operatives, to eliminate any resistance from Alliance officials who may get wind of our scheme."
Tyler took a sip from his glass, and watched Winston and Albright carefully.
"Why not just go to the press with the evidence?" Albright asked.
Winston didn't react, but he knew this clearly had to be bullshit. He had read the RIG story. If the evidence in the datapad he'd been given was verifiable, as Tyler was claiming, then the rest of the press would have been over it like a rash. There was something more to this story than Tyler was making out. And there was the man from INRA...
"Why did you destroy the ASC vessel?" Winston asked, pointedly. Tyler winced slightly.
Tyler stood up, and walked around the table thoughtfully. The others looked on in silence. He walked to Winston's side of the table, and then towards him. He gently started lifting a piece of jewelry that Winston was discreetly wearing around his neck. Tyler knew it would be there, even though Winston never showed it off.
"Hey, thats - " snapped Winston. Tyler hushed him.
He lifted Winston's golden chain. Attached to it was a small, intricately made pendant. Tyler held it up to the light, and turned it around with everyone watching - most of all, James Winston.
"Nice, isn't it?" Tyler said.
Winston shot a sidelong glance at Elyssia Wyatt, who was wearing an identical piece of jewelry.
"Well, congratulations on your Elite rating, James. So who made you the judge, jury
and executioner? Six thousand ships destroyed, I hear. How many by mistake? How
many were offenders who'd got a small bounty by petty thievery or unlawful discharge
of a firearm? How many children, James?"
Both Winston and Albright realised they didn't have a choice - at least, not if they didn't want to meet the same fate as the ASC crew. What was still bothering Winston was the way the ASC ship had been set adrift near the NKW. Why hadn't they just have buried the wreckage right here? At least no outsiders wouldn't have found it. It was the ASC ship that had started their investigation. The others got up to leave, all except Elyssia Wyatt and the INRA man. Winston felt for his partner. He'd be stuck with some icy agent of INRA, wheras he'd at least share a ship with a fellow Elite combateer with the added bonus that she had good looks. After his last encounter with Wyatt though, he sensed things could get rather strained. His first meeting with the woman had resulted in a chase and a very unfriendly wrestling match on the hard floor of Diamond police HQ.
"Mr. Albright, come now, I must brief you on our mission," said the INRA man stiffly.
Winston looked over at his mission partner and shrugged as if to say sorry. Albright
left the room with the man, looking sullen.
Winston and Wyatt walked across the starport to their waiting ship, an Asp Explorer in Nova Rodstein Associates livery. They hadn't exchanged a word since leaving the conference room. Winston felt very uncomfortable, and Wyatt realised her emotion might get the better of her. Ever since she saw that photograph of Winston, on that fateful day that he came crashing through the ceiling...
"Wait, I must get Jas," Winston said suddenly, breaking the silence.
Finally, they approached the Asp. After boarding, Winston wasted no time in plugging Jas into the ship.
"At last, a quality ship," she said.
There was a pause whilst Jas considered this.
"Well, Elyssia, please be careful with him, he's my human," she replied haughtily. Winston coughed, and Wyatt tried to stifle a snigger.
Winston and Wyatt settled down into their seats on the Asp's bridge. Winston had gone straight for the command seat, but Wyatt flashed him a look telling him that it wouldn't be a good idea. He settled into the co-pilot's seat. He tried not to stare at Wyatt as she slid her athletic body into the command chair. Wyatt requested launch permission, and they took off.
"Now you'll see what the NKW is," said Wyatt, as they began their rapid climb into the upper atmosphere. "It's not visible on the other side. It's controlled from this side. Only a small navigation beacon marks it in Enedlia. Look."
The sky was almost black as the Asp surged towards the emptiness of space. A bright object, straight ahead, gleamed like a tiny white hole in the inky void. Wyatt zoomed the forward view. As the magnification power increased, it showed the construct. It was nothing more than a sphere, maybe a kilometer across. There really wasn't much to see.
"Is that it?" Winston asked.
It wasn't long until they approached the construct. Winston watched it go by in the side view, and suddenly it disappeared altogether. They were back in Enedlia, with no fuss, no show, not even the hint of a hyperspace transit.
"Why hasn't anyone taken it apart to see how it works?"
Winston unbuckled his harness. Alioth was a safe place, and he just wanted to be a bit more comfortable in his seat. Wyatt didn't seem to want to kill him, which was good at least. She was behaving vastly differently to how she did in Andceeth.
"Well, James, tell me a bit about yourself," she said at last.
Wyatt suddenly felt a twinge of excitement.
"So you're unattached?" she asked, as if to pass the time of day.
They lapsed into silence for a moment.
"Your turn, Elyssia. You probably know my life story from Tyler's records, I don't
have a clue about you," Winston said.
Winston had never been good at idle conversation, and they awkwardly lapsed into silence. He began to read up on the news. There wasn't much to do in Alioth space, as they headed towards Edinburgh, supposedly on a cargo run. Wyatt flicked through her personal mail. She didn't find anything substantial. She watched Winston out of the corner of her eyes and silently cursed her emotions. They got people killed. But on the other hand...there was no threats in Alioth. She had felt raw lust when she first saw the photograph of James Winston, posed with the casing of a nuclear missile from a magazine that had profiled him after he and his crew had destroyed the Sirius Templar. And now she had the real article, sitting no more than two meters away. Unfortunately, it seemed that Winston was hopelessly clueless to her feelings of lust. Not love, she concluded, merely lust. She couldn't explain why; it wasn't like he was a model human specimen, in fact, he had a rather wiry build. It wasn't as if he was particularly handsome either - he had a simple, military style haircut, his face was boyish and unblemished by hard physical work - his features contrasting with the toughened look now favoured by most glamour magazines. She didn't realise that Winston used his innocent looks to his advantage - few ever suspected him of being an Elite combateer. Winston carefully maintained these looks as a means of social engineering. Most bounty hunters, pirates, and other combateers actively tried to make themselves look hard-bitten and roughed up to try and project an uncompromising image. Winston had done the opposite. He found that people didn't take him seriously if he feigned inexperience , and often they'd let their guard down in a face-to-face meeting. He'd managed to tease out a surprising amount of useful information by behaving like a newcomer - often from his enemies. The surprise would then be brutally turned around, as Winston revealed the reality of who he was...the enemy learning how useful social engineering was to an accomplished bounty hunter far too late to be any use to them.
Wyatt leaned down under the console, and removed a panel, and pulled a device out. Winston watched as she replaced it with a similar looking device.
"You can speak a bit more freely now, I'm onto Tyler's game, I think," she said,
replacing the panel.
Winston sat back in his chair, and looked across at Wyatt. Things were getting even more complex. Wyatt touched his hand.
"Oh, sorry," Winston said, removing his hand from the centre console.
Frustrated, and slightly embarrassed, Wyatt keyed a couple of useless sequences into the transponder, where Winston's hand had been lying. The subtle approach was obviously not going to work. Even whilst discussing their mission, Wyatt could barely contain her lust.
"James Winston, you certainly are a bit clueless at times," she said, and smiled.
Wyatt couldn't contain her lust any longer. With her trademark lack of subtlety, she lunged towards Winston, grabbing him by the collar, and almost bodily dragged him across the centre console...
"Oh, that's why you touched my hand," said Winston lamely, just as they both crashed onto the floor...
© 2002 Dylan Smith.