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By Frances Teagle
Page 3 of 11

In the outer office, Rai, midway through tidying the desk in preparation for his departure, was riveted by the tinny sounds coming through his intercom. Something must be malfunctioning - though faint, the voices were perfectly clear, but he shouldn't be hearing them. He heard his superior's reply, and, pressing his ear to the speaker, he could make out her footsteps as she crossed to the security booth, then silence.
          He grimaced. Travis again. What villainy was being concocted now? Well, he would never know, as his transport departed in a few hours.
          Yet why shouldn't he know? Rebellion was rising in his soul again. He could find out, perhaps. The only way to do that was to bug his Supreme Commander's office, but he knew where he could lay his hands on the necessary equipment. A prickle of horror ran down his back as he contemplated what he was about to do, and the consequences if he should be discovered. Yet somehow he could not stop himself. An audacious plan was forming in his brain.
  "Ah, Travis, I trust your hand is restored to use?''
  "It is.''
  "Good. I have a task for you, which you may find congenial. As it is top secret, I am giving you your orders verbally, so pay close attention.''
  "Yes, Supreme Commander.''
  "I have been considering the possibility that Marryat is alive, and I want you to go to Cephlon to see if you can find any trace of him.''
  "If I find him alive, do I bring him here?''
  "Yes. See that he talks to nobody and bring him straight to me. We can do a brain wipe and remove the memory of his mission, then he can go back into circulation. I expect you would prefer that to the other alternative.''
  "True. What's my cover story?''
  "Anything you like. Take mutoids and see that they're blanked afterwards. A pursuit ship has been assigned to you. Depart immediately.''
  "At once, Supreme Commander.''
Rai stared down at the tiny bugging device in his hand. Smaller than a pea, it could transmit to a receiver within a radius of a hundred metres. Quite enough for his purposes. The receiver was no problem. He could connect it to his personal computer console, digitalise the signals and convert them to innocuous-looking files. But how to conceal the device from the periodical debugging sweeps that were visited on each senior official's quarters in turn? Servalan's rooms had been checked only last week and another search was unlikely this month, but he knew that sweeps were randomised and it could happen during his absence. He also knew he must report the faulty intercom, as his replacement was sure to notice it. Maybe this was his opportunity.
          Galvanised into action, he crossed to Servalan's door and tapped on it discreetly.
          He put his head round the door. "Ma'am, the intercom's making crackling sounds. Did you call me?''
          She glanced up briefly from her console. "No.''
          "It must be faulty,'' he said carefully. "I'll call Maintenance.''
          "Not now.'' Servalan considered her schedule for a moment. "This afternoon I'll be in Conference Room Three. They can come then. Be in here yourself to keep an eye on them.''
          "Yes, ma'am.''

Some four hours later he emerged from Servalan's office, flushed and flustered. The deed was done. He collapsed into a chair, trying to recover some poise before his colleague came in to relieve him.
          You're crazy to give in to such an impulse, he told himself. Even if they don't catch you at it, what could you do with the information?
          But another voice within answered sturdily, that depends on what it is that I find out.
          As soon as his spell of duty ended, he went to the personal computer in his quarters and, behind a locked door, tested its reception of the bug. After a tense few minutes he heard the Supreme Commander return, in company with another senior officer. Their voices were perfectly clear and should record well. He busied himself with testing the program that would translate and file each day's recording where he could retrieve it via a remote terminal while he was on vacation.
          Once he was satisfied, he set the passwords and disconnected the screen, leaving the processing unit unobtrusively active, then he threw some items into a backpack and raced for the evening transport. Most headquarters staff spent their leave on nearby Vananda, but he would avoid the usual holiday spots and take himself off to industrial Hesquiat, where he could rent a room and some communications equipment to retrieve those files, deleting the originals as soon as he had copied them. If anyone asked what he was doing, he would tell them that he was cramming for his next round of examinations.

Servalan frowned at the newly-decoded message on her screen. It was curt to the point of rudeness.

Supreme Commander, I am instructed to caution you against making further enquiries about Anna Grant. This is a matter of internal security.
Malan, Deputy Chairwoman, Public Safety.
          I knew it! The woman's an informer, or even an agent provocateur. She gave a snort of disgust. Oh well, there was no point in pursuing Grant now, but when she became President...


Travis scowled at the leafless trees, mournfully dripping moisture from every twig. What a hole! His movements were impeded by his radiation protection suit, and the face plate of his helmet kept misting up from the fine drizzle that greeted Cephlon's visitors today. He was also uncomfortably warm.
          His search party had already come across the main drive unit from the sort ship they were looking for. Drive units often survived the descent through the atmosphere, and the aerial survey had managed to pinpoint this one by its slight radioactivity. However, no sign of any escape pod was to be seen. Since the terrain was too rough for the ground car, the rest of the search had to be done the hard way, so four mutoids were combing the rocky valley below him with their various sensors.
          Was that a movement over to his right? Some animal, perhaps, or a humanoid. He had heard that a degenerate remnant of the original inhabitants eked out a living in these parts. Well, if they tried to cause him any trouble, they would be blasted for their pains.
          "Commander! Over here!'' Down to his left, two mutoids were flashing their lights at him. He descended the crumbling slope and made his way over to them.
          The soot-streaked pod lay forlornly open to the elements. Its contents had been rifled and fragments were scattered about the area among faint impressions of many footprints.
          "Evidently the local inhabitants have been taking an interest,'' he said. "We may have to investigate their settlements to see if they've taken prisoners.''
          The mutoids nodded. One of them busied herself recording the scene with her holocam.
          "Dust the interior for fingerprints,'' he instructed, "then we may learn who travelled in this one.''
          But the mass of smudges revealed by the powder looked distinctly unpromising. The primitives had dabbled their fingers everywhere.
          "Commander, we have found a pod.'' The other search party.
          "I'm coming. Switch on your trackers, I can't see you from here.''
          Hmm... Two kilometres away. It would take him half an hour at least across this terrain. "Don't touch anything until I arrive.''
          Beckoning the mutoids to follow, he set out as briskly as he could in his cumbersome gear. Normally he didn't mind walking across country, reckoning himself to be a hard man of action, despising the soft indoor life of the city-dwellers. Today might test that hardihood, but he would not complain, nor would the mutoids following at his heels. That was one of the reasons why he preferred their company to that of regular troopers.
          By the time he arrived, he was hot enough to wish he could remove his flimsy helmet to mop his brow, but he must endure the trickling sweat.
          A sealed pod lay before him. Beside it, he could make out two sets of boot prints, one larger than his own, and the other smaller than his mutoids' feet. Jenna Stannis and Olag Gan in all probability. So, they had opened the pod and sealed it up again: was there a dead man inside?
          Steeling himself for what he might find, he opened the hatch.
          It was Marryat.
          The features were blurred by decomposition, but recognisable. Considering that the body had been here for more than fifteen days, it was in quite good condition, despite the relatively warm ambient temperature.
          Once more Travis experienced that anger he had felt as Servalan had blithely explained how she had sacrificed the surgeon who had once saved his life. The memory of how he had stifled his natural revulsion, even when she proposed to post Marryat as a deserter and send his family into slavery, rose up to sicken him, and he cursed himself for meekly acquiescing to her abominable designs.
          A man of honour would have reported her to the High Council. But he was no longer a man of honour. Nor were most of the High Council, come to that - hypocrites, lickspittles and toadies, no more fitted to govern an empire than a pack of mutoids. With a shudder of self-loathing, he leaned down to retrieve the identity cards of his one-time saviour.
          They were gone.
          Wallet, pass-cards, dog-tags - Blake had them. Blake had seen those Triple-A security passes. Blake had talked to Ensor. Blake had Orac. Soon the Federation would learn what Orac was capable of.
          He stepped back. "Record that,'' he instructed the mutoid with the holocam.
          As she obeyed, he considered how to dispose of the body decently. The pod would make a good coffin, he concluded. Let it serve as Marryat's tomb. To keep the primitives from violating an officer's grave, he could weld the hatch closed by adjusting his hand-blaster ray. He would also burn the dead man's name and epitaph into the pod's surface.


Federation Space Command

Died on active duty.

          A small gesture in the face of Servalan's inhumanity.

The first stone was thrown as they were filing through a narrow gully on their return journey. It struck the rearmost mutoid between the shoulder blades, causing her to stumble forward with a grunt of pained surprise. Her companions, hearing her clearly through their helmet communicators, wheeled about, guns at the ready, as several more missiles thudded down among them, one catching Travis painfully on his right shoulder.
          There was no need for orders; the mutoids threw themselves behind whatever cover they could find and returned fire with deadly effect, as a score of ragged men lumbered down the track towards them, or dropped from the sides of the ravine. In a few minutes the gully was choked with bodies, most completely motionless, but a few still twitching.
          Rising to his feet, Travis walked over to the wretched heap, followed by his mutoids. Three or four primitives were alive. he bent to check their injuries, then hauled out the one with the least severe wound.
          "Finish them off,'' he ordered curtly, gesturing towards the rest. The mutoids were thorough and efficient.

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