|In her spacious suite on the far side of Space Command's revolving wheel the Supreme Commander was also wakeful, but unlike her troubled subordinate she was enjoying her researches. Kerr Avon was definitely an interesting study.
She passed over his early life with scant interest. His family didn't seem remarkable in any way; he seemed to have quarrelled with his father, a minor official, over the early death of his youngest brother. Nothing unusual about that, she reflected, her own family was constantly riven by feuds.
Ah, the Andaman Project - that was where he had acquired his familiarity with the open air life. Of all the staff living in primitive hut accommodation during those three years, he was the one who had tolerated exposure to the elements best and longest. His superiors had praised him for it.
After that, the return to civilization and work with one of the teleportation research groups, in charge of their data processing system. Again, his superiors were full of praise for his performance; he was reckoned to be particularly brilliant at fault tracing and logic. One assessor commented that although he affected to despise intuition, he probably used it a great deal. A model citizen, apparently, if inclined to sarcasm and secrecy.
And then the anonymous tip-off - Kerr Avon has hacked into the banking system and is preparing a gigantic fraud.
An equally brilliant tracer was brought in to entrap the would-be embezzler, but at the penultimate moment their quarry disappeared. An emergency plan was thrown into gear, banking operations were suspended until the illicit programs were disarmed, and all Avon's contacts were rounded up for questioning. The hunt was up.
It was another eight days before they found him, just about back on his feet after a severe wound, attempting to leave the city with forged papers. The interrogation recordings were interesting, if infuriating. He had stood up to the initial rough stuff well and kept his head. Once convinced that he had no political leanings, the questioners had tried the friendly approach and he had run rings round them. Flattery, candid remorse and apparently comprehensive confessions, even to the killing of a dealer in forged passports were the tactics used to avoid the rigorous interrogation normally meted out to criminals of his calibre. He had easily managed to convince the investigators that the dealer had fired first and he had returned fire simply to save his own life, instead of the more probable scenario in which he had fired first to avoid paying for the papers and the mortally-wounded victim had managed to shoot back. That had certainly saved his life.
The court case, so open and shut, had been prosecuted lacksadaisically; little enquiry had been made into the man and his motives, he was merely shunted off to a penal colony without any thought as to what he might organise when he got there. She personally wouldn't have put it past him to break the security system of the landing ground and seize the next prison ship on its arrival. It had been tried before, but the convicts hadn't had a real systems expert among them. With Avon on their side, who knew what they might have achieved.
Well, the hour was late and she too, needed her sleep. Tomorrow she would get Rai to locate some of Avon's ex-colleagues - there were questions she wanted to put to them.
It was quite obvious when he presented himself at her desk next morning that Rai was not his usual self. His fresh features had grown pale and hollow-eyed. He must be overdoing things.
"Rai, you look terrible," she said gently. "Are you unwell? Perhaps you should see the medical officer."
He had forgotten that winning charm of hers. Taken unawares, he flushed and stammered.
"It's nothing ma'am. Just burning the candle at both ends."
"I'm overworking you, aren't I? You've been sitting up all night hunting through those records. I must get you some help."
"Oh no, ma'am," he blurted out in consternation. Seeing her raised eyebrows he hastily amended his tone. "I mean, I've almost finished my report to you and I'd be ashamed to give up now. especially when you yourself have been working even harder. Please let me finish."
Her face softened again. "Very well, but learn to pace yourself sensibly.
Rai's report on Jenna Stannis was delivered promptly the following day. As in the case of Olag Gan, it held out little hope of turning her into a double agent. Its brief summary of the destruction of the Stannises and several other trading families made it quite plain that the freetrader was at blood feud with the Federation; most telling of all was a simple list of her family's dead. No, Stannis might be of use as a hostage, and ruthless interrogation should prise some valuable information out of her, but as a willing tool she was useless. Brainwashing techniques seldom produced a good result either; if the subject was returned to her comrades as a double agent the personality change was usually too marked to escape notice.
Servalan frowned over the ugly story before her; was that why Rai was acting so strangely? If she had realised how discreditable it was to the Federation, she would have kept Stannis for herself and given him Vila Restal to investigate. Pressing her intercom button, she requested the duty officer to fetch the Stannis material immediately.
That evening, after sampling several of the `most secret' visdisks, she sent for Rai. He had evidently taken it all deeply to heart, and he would have to be handled carefully if he was not to become disaffected and rebellious. It was important to pay attention to the matter now. When he arrived she sat him down and gave him a fruit drink laced with a mild relaxant.
"Rai,'' she began, looking at him with an expression of serious concern, "I want to apologise for unwittingly handing you such an unpleasant assignment.''
Embarrassed, he made a deprecating gesture.
"I have read your report with great attention,'' she went on. "I've viewed several of the recordings for myself and also spoken to some High Council Members about the matter of the seizure of the trading companies more than ten years ago.
"Now, I'm telling you this in confidence. It seems that this disgraceful affair was engineered by the previous President's son-in-law, with the sole aim of enriching himself and his family. The independent traders, who were good businessmen, were sacrificed to this man's greed and replaced with a bunch of lazy, corrupt and incompetent commissars who quickly ran the companies into the ground. Massive amounts of public money were poured into the failing businesses, to be siphoned off into the commissars' pockets. I regret to say that nobody has ever been brought to justice for these crimes, but if I am ever in a position to punish them, I will pursue them with a vengeance.''
Throughout this carefully prepared little speech she watched his brow clear like magic as relief flooded in.
And you can really believe that, she added silently. I mean to be President one day soon, and I will purge those corrupt bastards for their stupid inefficiency. They'll find out what retribution means.
Rai was looking as if the sorrows of the universe had fallen from his shoulders. Now to deal with the future.
"I have no wish to persecute the remnants of the Stannis clan,'' she continued, in a gently reasonable tone, "but Jenna has become a problem. If she could be persuaded to renounce Blake and his movement, then some sort of pardon might be arranged. But rest assured; if she is taken, she will be given a fair trial and every chance to co-operate. From now on it's up to her.''
Rai heaved a great sigh and gazed at her with obvious relief.
"All your staff know they can rely absolutely on your exemplary fairness, Supreme Commander.''
She smiled benignly at him.
"Now, since you've been working so hard these last few days, I'm going to bring your next leave forward to start tonight. I want to see you back here in twenty days, rested and ready for the fray again.''
He drew himself up and saluted smartly. This time there was no wariness in his eyes.
Servalan watched his departure with some relief. If she failed to win him over, she would have to transfer him to some high security establishment to prevent him spreading disaffection, which would be a pity, she liked having him around.
She let her mind go back to the days of the Great Confiscation, as it was known. She had thought at the time that it was a colossal blunder. News of the event was carried throughout the galaxy by the fugitives, blackening the Federation's already tarnished reputation still further. About this time someone revived the old "Evil Empire" soubriquet which was still being thrown at the Federation to this day. It had done untold damage.
Of course, not all the dispossessed traders were arrested by any means; many were too widely dispersed for that. The Stannises had suffered the most severely because they were the most concentrated and vulnerable. Some of the largest consortia had turned pirate and mounted raids to retrieve their lost ships and personnel. As a middle-ranking Space Fleet officer she had taken part in the hectic pursuit of the ring-leader, Aulius Vilkonen, after the Cassus raid. She smiled at the memory - a likeable villain - what a pity he wasn't one of her allies... and what a good thing he was dead.
She dismissed the subject from her mind and turned back to the new information on Avon.
Anna Grant? Why was there no mention of this woman in any of the records?
- "Kerr Avon? Oh yes, Investigator, I remember him perfectly well; after all it's less than two years ago. Certainly, he was a very good worker, never any complaints about him, but I'm not that surprised he went to the bad. A malcontent, you know; sullen, always carping and criticising.
- "Mind you, I reckon that girl-friend of his had a lot to do with it - Anna... Anna... Trent, or something like that. If she didn't actually put him up to it, I'll bet she egged him on. Very sophisticated lady, a real dish to look at, but reckless. Married to some boring petty official and looking for excitement, if you ask me. Well, she certainly found it because she was the first of his associates to be arrested and questioned - never heard of again, in fact. Her brother came storming round trying to find Avon to wring his neck, swearing that he'd abandoned his sister. When he heard he was in prison he even tried to get in there to kill him. Grant - that was the name, not Trent.
- "You tell me that Avon's still with Blake, which amazes me. I'd have expected him to drop off on some unsuspecting independent planet and pursue his criminal career in their banking system. Huh, I'll bet he's giving Blake a few problems, but I suppose Blake will need his expertise; there's no denying he's a useful sort of chap.
- "Some friend of his showed up once, asking where he was - ginger-haired fellow, wouldn't give his name - very put out, he was, to find his pal was on his way to Cygnus Alpha. I've often suspected that Avon did a trial run for his fraud, and I've wondered if that man was an accomplice. Yes, I'd know him again, if you've got him on your records.
- "Sorry I can't be of more help to you, Investigator, but Avon wasn't a man you could get to know. He just never let his guard down."
Servalan frowned suspiciously. It reeked of a cover-up. Maybe the husband had sufficient clout to get his wife out of prison and her name expunged from the records. If that was the case, though, her brother hadn't been forewarned. On the other hand, maybe it was Anna who had informed on Avon.
Investigate the Grants and the husband.
A bleep from her intercom roused her from her reverie.
It was Communications. "Supreme Commander, I have Space Commander Travis on the security frequency for you.''
"Put it through to my private booth.'' She rose and went to the soundproof communications booth in a corner of her office. Once she closed the lock, anti-eavesdropping systems would be activated - not even Communications could overhear her conversations. She sat down and switched on.