Swings and RoundaboutsBy Victoria Martin
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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
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.
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.
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