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Swings and Roundabouts

By Victoria Martin
1.

There are moments of victory which seem to encapsulate within themselves the entire past that has led up to this point, when one sees with utter clarity the price one has paid for that victory and the gains consequent upon it. Unfortunately, one is also sometimes forced to recognise that the game was not worth the candle. So it was when the news came in from Gauda Prime.

"Commissioner Antti on the line, Madam. He says you'll want to hear him."

He was correct, of course. I did want to hear him, once I found out what he had to say.

"Commissioner Sleer? Antti here."

"Good morning, Commissioner. To what do I owe this unexpected pleasure?"

"To some rather unexpected events, my dear. It seems my people have wiped out that Scorpio rabble who've been giving you so much trouble."

"Oh, I wouldn't say "trouble", Commissioner. Just mild inconvenience. But do tell me how you achieved this. I hope it didn't involve an incursion into my sector, that would be most... regrettable."

"Of course not, Sleer. I wouldn't want to give anyone the impression you couldn't keep order in your own sector without outside assistance. No, no, my people were smoking out a nest of rats on Gauda Prime - firmly in my sector, you see - and your undesirables showed up right in the middle of the clean-up operation. No survivors. Oh, and one thing that might interest you - it turns out the chief troublemaker on GP was that fellow Blake, the chap who caused so much trouble before the war. Most people assumed he was dead, but it seems there's still a fat price on his head, so my team are very pleased with themselves. They'll probably all want to retire on the proceeds. It's so difficult to keep good staff these days, don't you find?"

"Congratulations, Antti. It sounds like an unusually successful operation. No survivors at all, did you say? Splendid. You will let me have a copy of the report, won't you?"

"Of course, my dear. Young Finch will be writing it up in a couple of days, when he's finished tying up the loose ends. I'll buzz it through to you the minute it arrives. I'm sure you'll be interested in seeing how a successful counter-resistance operation is run."

In fact, it took only a day for the promised report to come through, and during that time I could find nothing sufficiently urgent to distract me from the analysis of my own reactions. I was not a little disconcerted to find that I felt very far from pleased at this news. Of course it was frustrating that it was Antti's people who had pulled off such a coup - and Blake as well! That was a totally unexpected development - but my sense of disappointment went deeper than that. It suddenly became clear to me that I had devoted altogether too many resources - of time, of money, of personal commitment - to pursuing an enemy whose destruction could not significantly enhance my position. While they still had the Liberator, the potential rewards had justified the investment, but with the loss of that ship and her technology the prize had dropped so far in value as to be barely worth the chase. There was the teleport, of course. Scorpio still had that, and I wondered if Antti realised the significance of the unprepossessing little ship he now presumably had in his possession. Possibly not - in which case I might feasibly salvage something to my personal advantage from this debacle. Debacle? What a peculiar choice of word. True, the Scorpio crew had never been more than an annoyance, but one gets tired of constantly swatting at flies, and whilst I should have preferred to take the credit for their destruction myself, I could not but welcome the news that someone else had spared me the effort. And yet, and yet... In truth, what I mostly felt was a hollow emptiness, as if a longed-for present had been dangled in front of my nose and then smashed to pieces. Life suddenly seemed devoid of  worthwhile challenges, and the latest set of figures on Pylene 50 production signally failed to entrance me. By the time the report arrived, I was feeling positively morose.

It was brief to the point of uninformative (doubtless Antti had censored the more significant details), apart from one sentence near the bottom of the main paragraph, which riveted my attention, for it suggested that it might indeed be possible to salvage something from the jaws of Antti's triumph.

_____________________________________________________

Report on Operation Bounty Hunter

Originator: Finch

Rank: Space Lieutenant

Command: 2nd Division, 6th Regiment, Sector 6

Operation Bounty Hunter on the open world of Gauda Prime was designed to eliminate a group of approximately 30 resistors believed to be under the command of the convicted criminal Roj Blake. Their organisation was  infiltrated by Space Major Arlen, seconded from Central Security, who was to contact 2nd Division with a pre-arranged code at a time when a substantial proportion of the organisation was present at the resistance HQ. On receiving the code, the  Division engaged in a frontal attack on the base, meeting minor opposition, and penetrated to the tracking galley, where some eight resistors were found to be present. The leader, Blake, had already been shot and the Division eliminated the remainder in the tracking galley, and those not present during a subsequent sweep of the base. Appended is a list of those casualties whose identity could be confirmed. Following the discovery of the wreck of the space vehicle Scorpio near to the base, three of the dead were identified as members of her crew. Owing to inadequate intelligence in the post-attack scenario there was some confusion over the identity of Space Major Arlen. The initial hypothesis, that the man responsible for eliminating Blake was Arlen, proved untenable and he has now tentatively been identified as Kerr Avon and retained for interrogation. Conclusive identification has proved impossible as there are no computer records containing either genetic or retinal profiles of this individual. Space Major Arlen was regrettably identified amongst the rebel casualties.

Operational objectives achieved:

Rebel base destroyed, 75% of resistors including Roj Blake confirmed eliminated. The Gauda Prime resistance no longer exists as a credible fighting force.

Operational damage assessment:

Six casualties (list appended). Four of the Divisional casualties are directly attributable to Central Security's insistence that Space Major Arlen remain in deep cover and not be identified even to those Sector 6 forces involved in Operation Bounty Hunter. Had we been apprised of the physical appearance of Space Major Arlen, it would have been immediately apparent that the individual who eliminated Blake just prior to our arrival was not, in fact, Major Arlen and we would accordingly not have avoided returning direct fire when we came under attack from him. The remaining two casualties were sustained during the approach to the entry point and were unavoidable.

Additional outcomes:

Dayna Mellanby, Vila Restal, Del Tarrant and an unidentifed female confirmed eliminated. Remains of space vehicle Scorpio transferred to Command HQ on Thorus Major for reverse-engineering.

_______________________________________­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­

I sat for a long time over Finch's report, attempting to decipher the underlying pattern. It was clearly not merely an elaborate charade on Antti's part, since (I had checked) Finch had already submitted 2nd Division's claim for the reward to the central administration. I had to concede that it was possible that Central Security had indeed managed to find Blake, that I should not have been so certain he was dead, and that, given that he was indeed alive, he might as well be on Gauda Prime as anywhere. But where did the Scorpio fit into this? How long had they known of his whereabouts? And was it really Avon that Finch's troop had captured? It seemed improbable that the rest of his crew would have been on Gauda Prime without him, but it seemed even more improbable that he should have shot Blake. But if the man who wasn't Arlen also wasn't Avon, then who was he? The fact that ID profiling had foundered on inadequate computer records strongly suggested that this was indeed Avon. And what about the report's failure to mention Orac? Was this the result of Antti's censorship or had he failed to find it? Suppose the man in Antti's custody was in fact Avon, what implications did that have for me? Would he reveal my previous identity? On balance I thought he would not, because I found it hard to believe that Avon would tell his interrogators anything. Antti's people were provincial, lacking the experience of Central Security. Their methods would be crude, and crudity was never effective with Avon, who was perfectly capable of dying under interrogation out of sheer bloody-mindedness. I very much doubted whether Antti's people had the expertise or resources for a psycho-chemical approach. On this issue at least, contemplation had restored some of my peace of mind, but in all other respects my meditations were distinctly unsatisfactory, each question generating a sequence of equally unanswerable further questions.

2.

If victory can force an urgent review of the priorities, elevated perhaps to guiding principles, by which one has structured one's life, then defeat forces the still more urgent establishment of a new set of priorities. The following morning I was still absorbed in the intractable mysteries posed by Finch's report, when without warning my office door swished open and suddenly the room was full of troopers, masked and armed, with Antti in the middle of them, looking insufferably pleased with himself. It seemed I had been wrong about Avon, just as, lately, I had been wrong about too many things. Still, one has to put up a show.

"Commissioner, another unexpected pleasure! You're beginning to spoil me. And I see you've brought your family along."

"Oh, I fear there's nothing pleasurable about the occasion, Sleer. I'm under orders from High Command to place you under arrest."

"On what grounds?"

"There are certain questions of identity at issue, so if you would be kind enough to help us with our enquiries -". He gestured at the door.

"I see. I take it I'm to be shipped to Earth? In that case, I'd be grateful if you would allow me a few minutes to change into something more appropriate."

"I didn't know you had anything that wasn't inappropriate, Sleer, but if you have, then by all means change into it. Mardon, Wright, you go with her. If she tries anything, shoot her."

Really, Antti had no sense of style. In his position he had no need for such crudity. But he had given his consent, however ungraciously, and that one mistake would be  enough. When we reached my quarters, I turned to face the guards, lounging in one of my more seductive poses against the edge of my desk. "Hadn't one of you better stay outside the door, in case some zealous subordinate attempts a rescue?"

They both shook their heads.

"I see. Well, will you at least let me fetch my clothes from the wardrobe myself?"

More head-shaking.

"In that case, I'd better tell you what I want. There's a plain black -". Under the edge of the desk my fingers found the button and pressed it. With a harmless "pop" the main light blew, reducing the lighting levels to the point where the surveillance camera was rendered useless and the guards had to raise their visors in order to see anything. I have trained myself to hold my breath for well over three minutes and it takes less than two for concentrated sonovapour to overwhelm an adult human, so a good minute and a half before I could expect Antti's reinforcements to reach my quarters I had activated the sliding panel at the back of my wardrobe and stepped through into a new world.

In the interests of factual accuracy, I should concede that it was not actually the world that was new but me. External identity is a fluid construct, composed of a few key elements that can be changed at will. I knew this long before I became Servalan, but somewhere along the line I seemed to have forgotten it. Perhaps I became so attached to that particular identity because it came closest to providing me with all I have ever wanted - power, wealth, security, adoration, and all their various sub-categories. When I became Sleer I failed to divest myself of all the trappings of Servalan's persona,  I clung to the gorgeous dresses, the flamboyant sexuality and the personal grudges. It had been a grave mistake, for Sleer was not Servalan, had faced different challenges and had had far less impressive resources to draw upon, and the elements of Servalan's identity which I had been unable to discard had severely hampered Sleer's progress. How many people had I killed in order to conceal a former identity that should never have been an issue? It had been a ridiculous overreaction. I could have avoided both that wastefulness and the awful, creeping fear of discovery that had been the background music to my existence, if I had only committed myself more fully to my new identity. Yet it was only now, as I fled Sleer in fear of my life, that I recognised what a fool I had been.

There is little point in indulging in lengthy recriminations, however. Intelligence manifests itself not in avoiding mistakes but in avoiding their repetition. Concealed in the corridor behind the now sealed wardrobe door was a Space Major's uniform and various ID tags. I sorted through them, opted for Space Major Foster (recently returned from a lengthy posting on an obscure planet), and emerged at an exit point just outside the airpad.  I had plenty of time to commandeer a planet hopper before it occurred to Antti to suspend all space flight.

It is a matter of plain common sense to have a number of emergency exits. A few hours from the planet, the hopper docked with a larger vessel, crewed by two mutoids whose command override trigger had long since been deactivated and who were in any case officially listed as having been destroyed on active service. Space Major Foster gave way to Space Major Ryant (covert operations for Central Security, Outer Worlds Division) and I instructed the crew to lay a course for Thorus Major. Antti was unlikely to anticipate a direct penetration of his HQ, but even if he were capable of such lateral thinking, I would still have had to go there, for that was Avon's likeliest location, and right now I needed Avon. For Avon, I was convinced, was my only route to Orac.

3.

Thorus Major is the seat of Sector 6 administration and boasts an FSA base, a sizeable prison with an interrogation wing and a provincial capital with ideas above its station. I found myself a room in a small hotel and whiled away some very tedious hours in the main shopping area, where I managed to buy a halfway decent dress in vibrant, un-Sleerish yellow, before  heading for the university quarter. I had been led to believe that this was where the military spent their free time as the military do, drinking, whoring and picking fights with the students; and sure enough, in the fourth bar I trawled through, I found Space Lieutenant Finch, well on the road to indignity and scattering largesse with a liberal hand to a group of appreciative fellow officers. When he went to the bar, I manoeuvred myself into the seat next to him and said in his ear "I hear congratulations are in order. Can I buy you a bottle of champagne?"

Finch glanced down at me - he was a tall young man, blue-eyed and astonishingly young - and said "You heard right." His gaze was appreciative, though I could tell he found focusing something of a challenge, so I was not surprised when he added, visibly delighted with his own quick thinking, "Tell you what, you c'n buy me some fizz "f I can buy you some. Deal?"

"Deal," I said.

"Bottle of bubbly on the tab, Jeb. Who're you anyway?"

I produced my ID. "Space Major Ryant. I'm in intelligence, but I've got three weeks shore leave, and god help me, Thorus Major was the closest thing to a civilised planet I could find in this sector."

Finch clearly thought this was the wittiest remark he had heard all week - perhaps it was - and since laughing had apparently put him off-balance, hung one arm round my shoulder.

"You don't look much like a Major."

"You don't look much like a man who's worth several million credits. Is it true, then? How did you manage to pull that off?"

We worked our way through several bottles in the end, or at least Finch did, and I heard the whole story, several times over, along with a number of others I wasn't remotely interested in.  In the rare intervals when Finch felt socially constrained to express an interest in something other than his own achievements and his plans for spending his reward once he finally received it, he made polite inquiries into my career and the path that had led me to Thorus. I informed him that I was currently directing covert operations on an unspecifiable planet, but that I had previously worked for Central Interrogation. As the evening wore on, I boasted about some of the nuts I had had to crack and the superiority of Centrally trained officers over all others. If he had not had better directions in which to channel his testosterone by that point, he would have been seriously offended by the implied aspersions I cast on his colleagues, but as it was he told me that he himself had brought back to Thorus a particularly tough nut, one that even I wouldn't be able to crack. After that it was simple. We agreed that he would sort out the authorisation for me to gain entry to the interrogation wing and that, since I would be there only in a semi-official capacity, no-one else should be present in the cell. I would have let him come back to my hotel with me - he was sweet, and his boyish self-confidence reminded me rather poignantly of Tarrant - but he was so drunk there was absolutely no point.

We met the next day at the entrance to the interrogation wing as arranged, Finch looking rather the worse for wear and I eminently respectable in my uniform. He was clearly rather embarrassed and uncertain as to what he had got himself into, but my air of professional efficiency soon calmed him down and he even gave me a little tour of the complex before leading me to Avon's cell. It was a simple matter to plant a couple of sticky explosives in convenient corners during this tour. Security was unforgivably lax under the circumstances, but then I could hardly expect Antti to know Avon as well as I did, and in any case Antti thought he had bigger fish to fry.

I palmed the detonator while Finch was opening the door. At this stage, speed was of the essence as I could not be certain of Avon's reaction. If necessary I would have to disable the surveillance cameras on entering the room, and hope that the blast from the explosives would distract attention from the monitors.

Avon looked dreadful. I was unsure if he would even be able to stand, which would have posed a significant problem, but when Finch said "Well, he's all yours, Major; how do you want to start?" he rolled his legs off the bunk and sat up. He failed to recognise me at first, merely gazed dully at the two of us, then a sudden quirk of disgust caught the corner of his mouth and he said "I wondered when you'd turn up."

"What?" said Finch, and I triggered the explosives. Finch spun round towards the door and I took out the surveillance camera with my first shot and him with my second.

"Put on his uniform," I said to Avon, and started stripping off the jacket. I was tugging off the second boot before I realised Avon was making no effort to get off the bunk.

"Get a move on!" I snapped.

"Why? What's the point?"

This was hardly the time for protracted explanations. "Right now, Avon, it's you and me against the entire Federation. You've seen to that. Now, I can march you out of here at gunpoint, or we can watch each other's backs, but one way or another we're leaving, and then we're going to find Orac. Understand?"

"Orac? If you say so." Rather unsteadily, he crossed to the body and began to pull the uniform on over his prison overalls. It was fortunate Finch was a few sizes larger, in his current state he could not have squeezed into anything too tight. The boots cost him some effort, but although it seemed to take a lifetime to get them on, in reality it cannot have been more than a minute or two. I watched him in silence, suppressing the impulse to point out the urgency of the situation. I had long since learned that there was no point in rushing Avon. Finch's gun was still lying where he had dropped it and, under my watchful gaze, Avon very deliberately picked it up and then turned to face me.

"You trust me to watch your back, do you?" he said, raising the gun. There was an expression on his face that I could not read, and for the first time since Antti had burst into my room, I felt a trickle of genuine fear. After all, he had shot Blake (and what was the backstory to that?). Perhaps I should have been less confident that I could predict how he would react when offered a chance of survival. Slowly, steadily, the gun rose until it was pointing directly at me.

"Avon, I have a ship," I said impatiently, but made no move. It seemed important to put no further pressure on him, to let him weigh up his options in his own time. We faced each other across the gun while another endless moment dragged past, longer even than when he was pulling on Finch's boots, and then with an abrupt movement he gestured at the door.

"Why not? At least I know where I am with you. I take it you know your way out of here?"

"Of course." I retrieved Finch's ID card and inserted it in the lock. As I stepped through the door I heard Avon fall into place behind me and lowered my head to make sure he could not see the smile that I was somehow quite unable to suppress. What with new challenges to be faced and old enemies to be outwitted, things were definitely looking up.


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