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Shadow of the Trojan Horse

By Jean Graham
Page 1 of 3

Heads turned when Avon entered the crowded lounge. He smiled faintly at the glances, a mixture of the envy and respect usually afforded to an Alpha grade: he had nearly forgotten what it felt like to be one of Earth's privileged class, and the reminder was far from unwelcome.

His demeanor one of practiced arrogance, he crossed to the Alpha section of the darkened lounge and slipped unobtrusively into a chair. The four other Alphas in the section took no notice of him; theirs had not been among the appraising eyes. Ignoring them in turn, Avon ordered Volarian cognac from the Delta grade cocktail waitress, then folded his hands before him on the polished table and waited.

Appearance of indifference notwithstanding, he had not failed to notice the waitress' backward glance, or the flicker of interest in her otherwise dull eyes. That too was something he had forgotten. It had been too long...

His eyes strayed to the mirrored wall behind the railed Alpha level, and silently approved of what he saw there; a man with the cultivated air of superiority bred into his class, a man wearing expensive and well-tailored clothing, deep blue, as also befitted his status.

Without appearing to do so, he studied the smoky room in the same mirror, taking in the cluster of green-clad Gammas at the bar, the grey Beta classes seated nearest his own section, and the sizeable, noisy crowd of Deltas nearest the door. They were a jumble of dirty brown tunics, many obviously feeling the effects of too many ales, a few already sprawled under tables, feeling nothing at all.

His cognac arrived, and Avon paid the waitress, deliberately oblivious to the overt invitation in her eyes. When she had gone, he wrapped a hand around the glass, not drinking but watching the door beyond the crowded bar. At the table just below him, three Beta freighter crewmen and a stunning Alpha pilot, obviously slumming, traded bawdy stories. The spacers' crude laughter sometimes drowned even the Deltas' clamor.

Avon's eyes narrowed cagily. He had chosen this table for a reason. The spacers would draw attention away from the scene about to be played out at his table.

"Drinking alone?"

The question took Avon by surprise, but if he had been startled, he did not show it. He looked up at Vila, clipboard in hand, wearing crisp Beta grey and an insipid grin. Inwardly, Avon cringed. Crossing the grade-class barriers was not prohibited, but a dim-witted Beta attracting any attention whatever in the Alpha section was the last thing they needed. Particularly since he was a counterfeit Beta.

"Sit down, you imbecile." Avon kicked at the opposing chair, annoyed that Vila had thought to come in by the back door.

Grin fading, Vila slid into the chair, casting furtive glances around him. "Sorry," he muttered under a new burst of guffaws from the nearby spacers.

Avon's near-black eyes dismissed the apology. "Don't waste my time," he said icily. "Just tell me what you've found."

"Well, nothing actually." At Avon's look, Vila hastily amended that to, "Nothing wrong, I mean. Standard magno-locks, all of them. Couldn't be easier. We ought to be home and dry."

Avon scowled at the thief's eternal optimism. "Nothing is that easy," he said. "I want to know the weak points, Vila. All of them."

Vila stiffened, affronted, and tried to look Avon in the eye, but he wilted under the impact. "I know my job," he told the tabletop. The strains of an inebriated ballad floated over from the Delta section, and Vila stole an envious look in that direction. "I said I'd hold up my end and I will," he went on. "You just worry about your part with the computers, genius. After all, it isn't every day you get a second chance at the crime of the century, is it?"

Avon favored him with a glacial stare. "Nothing must go wrong this time, Vila. The Federation Banking Cartel is going to be more than impoverished -- it will collapse altogether. A major blow for our fearless leader's celebrated cause."

Vila ignored the snide reference to Blake and passed the clipboard across the table. "Well, the locks won't be a problem. As long as you come up with the computer entry codes, I can handle the magno circuitry with no problem."

"No problem there either," Avon said. "Orac has already determined the codes; all I have to do is call the primary banking computer and verify them."

"Won't that be detected?"

"Not the way I plan to do it."

Vila slumped in his chair as another burst of laughter came from the table below. "I'm not sure I like this," he complained.

"You just finished saying that there wouldn't be any problem."

"I don't mean that. I mean Liberator going off and leaving us alone down here. Forty-eight hours is a long time to be stranded. What if something goes wrong? What if somebody recognizes us? What do we do then?"

"I'll tell you what to do now. Keep your head down and your mouth closed. That way our chances of succeeding might be considerably greater."

Vila scowled. "My chances would be greater still with a ready chance of teleporting out of here."

Avon passed the clipboard back to him, smiling crookedly. "Skirting Earth's defenses under the detector shield to drop us off was risk enough. Blake will be back on station by the time we need him. Or...don 't you trust our vaunted 'commander' to keep his word?"

Glowering, Vila suppressed the obvious retort. More than I trust you. Aloud, all he said was, "I still don't like it."

"How remarkably astute."

"It was all Blake's idea."

"Isn't it always?"

"I didn't volunteer."

"You never do."

Vila's intended rejoinder faded mid-word as his eyes caught the mirror's reflection of two Federation troopers joining the Gamma grades at the bar. He went rigid, narrowly resisting the urge to turn and make certain they were really there.

Avon, having noticed the uniforms some time before, quelled Vila's effort to rise with a warning glare.

"Leave now, and you definitely will attract their attention."

Nervously, Vila settled back into his chair. "Are we just going to sit here, then?"

"You are." Avon rose slowly, dropping a single coin beside the untouched glass of cognac. "I'll meet you outside central bank headquarters in one hour. And Vila..."

The thief jumped, still watching the troopers in the mirror. "What?"

"Come alone."

Ignoring Vila's glare, he turned and strode toward the back door. When he had disappeared from sight, Vila snatched the glass and downed the drink in one swallow.

"Very funny," he grumbled, barely stifling a hiccup. "I could get you a booking in Space City. Psychotic Embezzler's Revue. Probably fold within ten minutes..."

*      *      *

The narrow alley behind the bar smelled of lime and damp concrete. Avon followed it north, deliberately away from his destination and further into the cramped, sequestered ghettos that made up the Delta sector of the city.

He had not travelled far when he became certain that someone had indeed followed him from the cocktail lounge. A shadow, indistinct but definitely there, vanished back into the night each time he turned. Cursing, Avon hoped that his 'tail' would turn out to be something simple -- an ambitious Delta grade hunting for an Alpha's purse, for example. Anything but a Federation guard.

One hour to lose him... or her. Avon quickened his pace, slipping artfully round several corners in succession. Crumbling brick walls surrounded him; black puddles splashed underfoot. His sense of direction blurred with the sixth or seventh turn. Ironic to lose oneself in the process of attempting to lose another. And his pursuer undoubtedly had the advantage of local knowledge.

Another corner, and another. Avon broke abruptly into glaring light and halted, blinking in momentary confusion. Street light. He had stumbled onto a main thoroughfare, or whatever passed for it round here. Shabby storefronts glowed a sickly yellow under the sparsely-placed lamp posts. No one was about. Avon turned left, for lack of a better direction, and continued at a brisk pace, still not certain where he was or whether he had lost his companion.

Artificial stars glittered brightly in the overhead dome. Too brightly, he thought sardonically. No atmosphere would have admitted that much light....

Brighter lights flashed in sequence up ahead, and Avon smiled to himself. A theatre. The oscillating marquis touted a tri-dee feature unimaginatively titled "Pollux Playmates." He paid the eight-credit entry fee without bothering to glance at the android vendor, and found his way through a lobby full of battered food dispensers to the far aisle door.

No one had come into thc building after him.

Pausing to make sure of that, he moved on into the auditorium, pausing once again to allow his eyes to adjust to the darkness. He made his way down the aisle then, never once glancing at the glowing cube of the tri-dee screen, where something or someone was engaged in what sounded like a deep-breathing exercise.

A guttering neon arrow marked an exit at the front of the amphitheatre. Avon shoved aside a musty velvet curtain and emerged into another alley, even damper and filthier than the others he'd travelled this evening. He checked his chronometer, squinting at it in the murky light. Forty minutes left...

Which direction was which? He had nothing to navigate by, and no familiar landmarks. And to ask someone would be a risk, not to mention embarrassing. Undecided, he chose a direction and walked. And though he saw no more shadows, heard no indications of pursuit, the sixth sense impression that someone continued to trail him remained. He tried to dismiss it -- a last minute case of nerves -- but the feeling stubbornly refused to succumb to his logic, and persisted.

He stopped abruptly, and listened. Something had moved in the concrete corridor ahead of him. Avon froze, squinting until he made out a human figure, entering the alley from a door. It weaved drunkenly, fell, got up again.

Dreamhead... or an overzealous soma patron.

The man staggered toward Avon and moved on past him, oblivious. Avon waited until his scraping footsteps had faded. Then, inspiration having struck, he approached the door the man had come from, turned the grimy knob, and slipped inside.

"And what is your pleasure, sir?"

Avon nearly jumped at the abrupt address. The soma hostess, an enticing assembly of feminine attributes, wore nothing but an obligatory smile. His eyes appraised her once, quickly, before he pressed a coin into her outstretched hand. He wondered fleetingly where she would put the money.

"Your vidphone," he said flatly. Then, on an afterthought, he added a second coin to the first. "And a glass of your best adrenalin and soma."

She nodded. "Adrenalin and soma it is, sir."

Music, or what Avon supposed was meant to be music, literally shook the dirty brick walls. Smoke, and an incredible tangle of human bodies, some moving, some not, jammed the interior. The hostess raised a hand, signalling a compatriot somewhere in the bar-well central to the room. The hand came back to beckon Avon forward.

"The vidphone is this way."

She led him through the haze, around -- and in some cases over -- clustered patrons in various stages of both intoxication and undress. Avon carefully masked his disgust, and kept his eyes on the back of the hostess' head.

They reached an alcove on the far side of the room, where an ancient and well-scarred vidphone sat forlornly in residence, and Avon caught her arm before she could leave him. A ten-credit note suddenly joined the two coins in her palm.

"That," be said close to her ear, "is for the location of your third exit."

When denial loomed in her eyes, he promptly matched the ten-credit note with another. "And... a direction. South."

Her eyes travelled over his clothing then, as though seeing him for the first time, then came to rest on the notes, suspicion warring with greed.

"I'm not with the Administration," he assured her. "In fact, I suspect I am probably trying to elude them. I need an unwatched exit. And you have one."

The suspicion never quite left her brown eyes. An Alpha defying the Administration was even more uncommon than Alphas slumming in soma dens. Loyalty and respectability were supposed to be bred into them, after all. And here, obviously, was some sort of genetic throwback, devoid of the finer virtues. That, or a very foolhardy Federation spy...

Another unclad female delivered a smudged glass of adrenalin and soma to the hostess. She handed it to Avon.

"Make your call," she said. "Enjoy your drink. When you're ready, I'll be here."

Avon met her eyes, non-verbally sealing the agreement, then silently watched her melt back into the smoke. Placing the drink on the vidphone's ring-stained counter, he slid into the bench, fished another coin from his pocket, and fed the meter. In moments, he had utilized Orac's access codes to reach the central banking computer, verify the door-entry sequence, and destroy all trace of the inquiry. A very useful gadget, was Orac. He wished sullenly that the little perspex computer had been around three years ago, when he had tried this scheme for the first time. How different his life might have been...

He sipped idly at the drink, grimaced, and left it on the counter to go in search of the hostess.

*      *      *


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