by Ben Stevenson
Part One of Three
One - Canayze Major
The ageing and slightly battered trader ship Taurian Tiger accelerated smoothly away from the dull blue-green planet behind them, and made for the jump-point.
Inside, the Tiger's equally ageing and slightly battered owner, Jack Hunter, lit up a cigarette. Tobacco was, of course, amongst one of the class 'A' illegal substances throughout most of known space, and smoking aboard ship was considered dangerous and irresponsible.
Jack Hunter didn't give a shit. He was sixty eight, and looked like eighty eight. And it was his ship.
He took a long draw from the roll-up and relaxed in his pilot's chair, before swivelling it around to face his new travelling companion. The young man was thin, almost unhealthily so, with a pale, drawn face and shaking hands. He sat slumped on his flight couch, exhausted. A long gouge was visible running down his right arm, from the wrist, right up to where the material of a bloodstained, makeshift tourniquet stemmed the circulation. It was healing now - just - since Hunter had gotten his medicomp to look at it, but it still looked ugly.
'Well, son, it looks like we made it.' Hunter tapped the scanner readout above his head. 'No pursuits, no tracking. We're home free.'
That managed to raise a wan smile.
This kid's been through a lot. He thought worriedly. Hope he pulls through.
'Where are we going?' The strength of the man's voice startled Hunter. At the starport when he had picked him up, he had seemed almost dead. Now he was gaining strength again rapidly. Still, that was all for the good.
'We're going to the safest place in all of Space.' Hunter grinned at the obviously practised line, and raised his cigarette again.
'Which is…?' The young man waited patiently for Hunter to inhale, savour, and blow out his smoke before answering.
'I'll tell you about it: About a lightyear and a half from the bright white star Altair, there is a black hole. It was christened Hawking by astronomers centuries ago, studied, and then left alone. And that's the way it has been for the last three hundred years. Until we found a planet orbiting it.'
'A planet? Orbiting a black hole?'
'Why not? As long as it's far enough from the event horizon to sustain a stable orbit and remain in one piece, there's no reason why a black hole shouldn't sustain a small planet system. It's unlikely but, as we've found, certainly not impossible.'
'And that's where we're going?'
Hunter nodded. 'It's about the size of a large moon. Gravity is Earth normal, give or take a few per cent. Obviously, orbiting a black hole there's precious little heat and no light. We live in habidomes on the surface, and use geothermal energy to power everything. And that is the one thing that little ball of rock has got the most of. Volcanoes. The surface is covered in them. They produce enough heat to form water lakes just under the surface, which we can tap for our own use. They also provide a habitat for a type of bacteria which thrives there. It needs no light, just heat, and produces oxygen. Nowhere near enough to make the air, breathable, of course, but we breed the bacteria and use their oxygen in our own life-support systems. All in all, it's turned out to be the perfect hideout for people like you and me. It certainly lives up to its name.'
The young man had sat up now, some of the paleness of his complexion replaced by a more human-looking flush. His eyes flashed interest. 'What is its name?'
Hunter smiled and blew two jets of blue-tinged smoke from his nostrils. He stubbed out the butt of his roll-up on a console dash and winked.
'Dark Haven.' The young man repeated the name with grudging respect. It had a certain morbid charm to it. He smiled.
So did Hunter. 'Well, you've heard what I have to say, and it looks like you've got some tales of your own, so… what's your story?'
'It's a long one.' The man warned.
Hunter waved his hand at the chart superimposed on the viewscreen. A readout stated ETA: 4hrs 3mins.
The man nodded. 'Point taken.'
He began to talk.
Two - On Elestra
Alan Kyte stepped smartly out onto the busy, sun-splashed street, and donned his sunglasses. As the automatic doors slid silently closed behind him, he smiled, and made off towards the nearest phone booth.
It was a lovely day, and all along the street, shoppers basked in the sun and clean air of Elestra's capital city, Borolis. Kyte had no time to enjoy the weather, though, as he put distance between himself and the Operations Centre of Entrogen Corp. By now, the unauthorised data download would have been detected, and the building would be on panic alert. Still, as he approached the phone booth, Alan was in high spirits. The job had gone perfectly. The data his employers had requested was stored in his implants ready for uploading to them, and he had been in and out of Entrogen in under twelve minutes. Yes, a job well done.
Kyte was a datathief. Working for Willis Random Enterprise, one of the many ETC (Entropy Technology Calculation) chip companies, his job was to covertly steal valuable research data from rivals such as Entrogen, by downloading it to his personal neural implants (put there for just such a purpose), and then transmitting it out to Willis Random. It was a well paid job. Dangerous at times, but the company had paid for extensive personal combat training and concealment techniques. All in all, Alan Kyte was happy in his work. And in his field, he excelled.
Reaching the phone booth, the agent shut the door tight behind him before picking up the receiver. He dialled in a number, followed by a series of seven digit codes, all fed to him by his implants. There was a series of clicks, before:
'Harper Laundrette. How can I help?'
Kyte turned casually, his eyes taking in the scene all around. Scanning for anything out of the ordinary.
'I'd like to drop off some dirty clothes.'
'Certainly sir. Whites? Coloured? Plastics?'
'Oh, a random assortment.'
There were more clicks, before finally…
'Uh huh.' With one last swift glance around, Kyte retrieved a small device from the underside of the payphone and, making a barely audible click, attached it to the device's mouthpiece. 'I'm uploading now.' He gave the mental command, and felt the characteristic queasiness as his neural storage tanks spewed the exabyte or so of data stored there through his skull and into the phone line.
'Excellent. Any problems?' On the other end of the line, Kyte could hear his partner clicking at his console, storing the data safely in the company mainframe.
'None at all. Be with you in five.' Kyte replaced the handset and turned around. The street was just as busy as before. In his minds eye, the datathief pictured the security people at Entrogen going through the CCTV tapes from the front entrance, seeing nothing but static for the eight seconds he would have been on camera. He smiled and patted his pocket. A charge couple phase disrupter, Edmonds had called it. The tall Willis Random technician might be a tad unorthodox, but he certainly had what it takes when it came to kitting out their datathieves.
The Willis Random building was a fair few city blocks away, but Alan had no intention of taking a taxi. A few of his colleagues had come unstuck that way. In the unfortunate event of the disrupter not functioning, or his identity or likeness being established some other way, the ideal way for Entrogen to snatch him would be to pick him up in a cab. No, it was the air tube or nothing.
With a final glance around the street, he descended the nearby steps to Augen Road station, and took an air tube North.
Emerging from the tube, Alan Kyte was greeted with chaos. Sirens blared as emergency vehicles shot to and fro, and the city police had cordoned off a large area of the street. Taken aback, the datathief surveyed the scene. His building, the Willis Random Enterprises HQ, a tall, beige, square-looking office block, seemed to be the centre of attention, with crowds of onlookers being kept back from the entrance by teams of police officers. He began to push his way through the throng, anxious to find out what had happened. An accident? A security breach? Maybe one of Willis Random's competitors had initiated a counter-espionage effort against them, and the company was going high-profile with it.
He finally arrived at the front of the crowd and flashed his I.D. badge at a nearby officer. Obligingly, she lifted her arm and allowed him to pass. Moving quickly, he pushed past the milling security services and into the main reception.
'Alan! God!' The voice was that of Nathan Alden, Kyte's immediate superior in the espionage wing of the company. He broke off from the small group around him and threaded his way across the lobby. 'This is a nightmare!'
Kyte spread his hands in a questioning gesture. 'What the hell happened here?'
Alden cast is eyes to the ground. 'It's Tony MacCleod. He's been killed.'
'Killed?' The datathief was incredulous. He had spoken to Mack less than ten minutes ago. 'What do you mean, killed?'
'The mainframe shorted somehow. I mean the whole thing. All of the terminals in the building exploded. No one else was seriously hurt, but when we found Tony… he must have been touching some exposed metal because he was electrocuted.'
'He was the only one?'
'Yes, he was working on your latest transmission when it happened. Buzzed me a message saying he had "something important" to tell me. Unfortunately, your upload was lost along with the mainframe, so you'll have to retransmit. You do still have the data stored don't you?'
Kyte felt like he was dreaming. Mack, dead. Just like that. An accident.
He snapped out of it. 'What?'
'I said do you still have your data stored so we can upload it again?'
'Yes, yes of course.' He frowned. 'Don't we have failsafes to retain the information after things like this?'
His boss nodded. 'We do, but they were down for maintenance on floors eleven to twenty one during the accident. We lost everything. Fortunately nothing is irreplaceable.'
'Apart from Tony MacCleod.' The other retorted, a little sourly.
'Yes, yes, of course.' Alden looked a little sheepish. 'Look, why don't you head home for the afternoon. There's nothing more you can do here. I'll fetch your stuff, your phone, keys etc. Just wait here.'
'Ok.' Kyte still felt a little queasy. He glanced around the spacious reception area. The security metal-detectors had been turned off, and the gates between desks opened wide to allow the authorities to move around freely. Off in one corner, he saw a medical trolley being wheeled quietly out of a side entrance. Atop the trolley was a sheet covering…
'Jesus.' Kyte swallowed the bile that had suddenly risen in his throat, and turned as he heard approaching footsteps. It was Mark Edmonds, WRE's head research and development man.
At approaching seven foot, Edmonds was a giant of a man. He was thick set, and sported a thick black mane, cropped neatly into a pony tail at the back of his head. He had clear blue eyes set in a well-proportioned, handsome face. He was easy-going and pleasant to talk to. As far as Kyte could tell, Edmonds seemed to contradict every stereotype there was concerning 'boffins', and all the better for it.
Right now, though, the huge figure was morose as he approached.
'Yeah.' Kyte nodded and glanced away, not wanting to meet the others eyes. 'Listen, I've still got some of your stuff, I'm heading off now so I won't be able to drop it into the lab.'
Edmonds waved his hand dismissively. 'I don't think I'll be going back up there today. Doc Willis has given everyone the afternoon off. What've you got?'
'Um, just the camera disrupter, a configurable slot card and a flash grenade. Oh, and the phone decoder.'
'Well, drop them in the lab tomorrow, yeah?'
'Just don't drop the grenade.'
Kyte managed a grin at that. He offered his goodbyes, and watched Edmonds squeeze past those who didn't notice his massive frame coming towards them and move out of the way first.
He waited there until, from the corner of his eye, he saw Nathan Alden returning, politely pushing his way through the suited security people who had mysteriously appeared on the scene, holding Kyte's bag.
He approached him and solemnly handed over his belongings. 'It seems you might not have to resubmit after all, Alan,' he informed the datathief. 'I've just checked my console. For some reason MacCleod e-mailed me a backup of the Entrogen data. As soon as we get the decryption computers up and running again we should see what he was so excited about.'
'Fine.' Kyte really wasn't interested. If he had to resubmit later, then he would. For now, he just wanted to go home.
'Excuse me gentlemen.' The two turned at the new voice. A suited-woman joined the pair. 'I hope you don't mind me interrupting your discussion. I'm Francis Kreuger, the investigating officer.' She offered her hand, which was shook by all three.
'How can we help you, Miss Kreuger?' Alden inquired. Kyte looked the woman up and down. Mid thirties. Blonde. Not unattractive. A power-freak, by the looks of her. He shuddered a little.
'It's Detective Kreuger, actually.' The smile was frosty. 'I understand you are the head of the covert research department of this company, Mr. Alden.'
'I am that, yes.'
Kyte rolled his eyes. The legal acceptance of industrial espionage on Elestra often seemed to make the whole 'covert' nature of the operations farcical.
Kreuger nodded. 'Well, I'd be grateful if you could supply me with details of all covert activities your department was involved in over the last two days or so.'
Alden faltered, slightly suprised. 'Detective, as you are no doubt aware, we have no obligation to divulge that information.'
The woman stared at him silently for a second, before replying: 'If any foul play is suspected in this case, we can obtain a warrant to seize the relevant information in order to establish possible suspects and motives. It would save a lot of trouble if you just told me now.'
The operations manager had lost his patience. 'No. I'm sorry. If you say you can get a warrant, then go ahead. Then I will be unable to stop you. But until you do, I think this line of questioning is finished with.'
Kreuger offered a brief, indulging smile, before turning to Kyte. 'And who are you, sir?'
'And do you work for Mr. Alden?'
'That's enough detective!' Alden interjected. 'You know the rules about questioning coverts. Alan, you can go now. I'll see you tomorrow.'
The datathief nodded, and left them to it. He made a beeline for the rear staircase in the lobby, and descended to the basement car park. His attack of the shakes from earlier had receded, and he now felt a little ashamed. He was trained to go through unexpected situations, to keep his cool. Why had he so nearly lost it? He supposed it was the shock of an accident at the office itself that did it. Out in the field, you expected trouble, but on home territory? From a simple accident?
He reached his car and got in. He sat for a few moments, thinking, before leaning forwards and pressing his digital key to the ignition pad. The car needed a couple of tries to get it started (must get that fixed!), but he eventually pulled out of the exit ramp onto the main road, where it was still a fine sunny day. It would be another thirty minutes, with this traffic, before he got to his conapt on the East side of town. He envied Edmonds for second, who lived a mere four city blocks away, but, supposed the drive would give him time to think.
God knows what it'll be like when they move the spaceport to the inner city. He eyed the lines of congestion to either side and sighed.
Winchester 8-11 was a peaceful enough street. Nestled in the low-population density suburbs of the city, it was lined either sides with two-storey apartment buildings and, occasionally, semi-detached single-units.
Slowly, keeping engine noise to the minimum, Kyte rolled along his street towards his building. It always seemed so quiet here, and felt somehow wrong to make too much noise. He pulled into the driveway at number 63 and killed his engine. As he reached for the door handle, though, his personal phone rang.
He quickly glanced around the car's interior to check he had everything, pulled the phone from its dash-mounted holder, and stepped out.
'Alan, its Mark, Mark Edmonds.' The tech sounded breathless.
'Oh, hi Mark.' He frowned. 'What's up?'
'Where are you Alan?' The voice was urgent.
'Well I'm just walking towards my place…'
'Don't go in!' The force of the words were enough to stop the datathief dead in his tracks.
'What?' He scanned the front of his apartment building for anything unusual. All seemed well.
'Alden's dead, Alan.'
Kyte was physically staggered. Another death? 'Wha…?'
'Turn around, Alan, and get back in your car. Now!'
Galvanised into movement, Kyte did as he was ordered. He flopped back into the driver's seat, his legs trembling. He could feel another panic attack coming on. He had moved the phone from his ear, but now replaced it as he heard the gangly scientist shouting on the other end.
'I'm here, I'm here. It's just a shock.'
'Never mind that! Get moving!'
'Anywhere! Just drive. I'll explain everything once you're moving.'
Obligingly, he fired up his engine once more, and began to pull out of his driveway. There was a loud crunch and the vehicle jerked to a halt.
'What?' the phone was immediately inquiring.
'I've just backed out into someone. A black Airus, I think. Stupid prick has parked right over my driveway. Hang on.'
'No! Alan no!' Edmonds was screaming, now, the panic carrying in the phone signal. And it was catching. 'Get away from them! Drive! Now! Across the garden if you have to! Just GO!'
Two men emerged from the Airus, both wearing dark clothing. Kyte dropped the phone on the car floor and hammered down on the accelerator, twisting the steering wheel for all his worth.
The powerful machine roared into life and swung in a tight semicircle across the patch of greenery fronting the apartment building, leaving parallel brown grooves where the tyres cut through the thin turf. There was a squeal as the rubber hopped down the kerb onto the tarmac of the road, and, spinning the wheel back, Kyte accelerated full pelt along the road, his eyes torn between the junction ahead and his rear view display, superimposed on the glass of his windscreen.
Behind him, the two men had clambered back into their vehicle and were giving pursuit. Kyte swerved left out of the junction without decelerating, and continued to roar along the deserted suburban streets.
'Alan! Alan?' He could hear Edmonds' bassy voice, now sounding tinny through the phone's speaker, coming up from the floor. Reaching down with his right hand, he picked up the phone, flicked it to 'hands free' and put it on top of the dashboard.
'I'm here Mark, I got away. They're coming after me, though. Mark, what the hell is happening?'
'Head towards town.' Came the reply, 'But turn onto the ringroad as soon as you can. If you leave on junction nine you'll pass an industrial estate. Turn into it at the first opportunity. That's where I am.'
'What the hell are you doing there?'
'Concentrate on your driving! Keep me updated from time to time, but otherwise don't speak!'
Kyte nodded his understanding, though it didn't occur to him the other couldn't see. He glanced at his rear view again and saw the black Airus following close as he drove up the slipramp and onto Borolis' ringroad. His own car was a Dariessa, and could theoretically outpace the tailing vehicle by quite some measure, but Kyte was unaccustomed to driving fast, so better just to follow Edmonds' instructions - at least until he knew what was going on.
At any rate, the Airus seemed content to just follow him, and wasn't closing or acting threatening in any manner. They continued like this for a fair few miles, Kyte weaving gently through the sparse afternoon traffic, as the welcoming calm of the familiar neighbourhoods receded, and gave way to the city's more commercial and industrial areas. All the time the black Airus stayed with him. Keeping its distance. Watching.
'Shit!' He slammed on his brakes, nearly causing the nose of the car to touch tarmac. Distracted as he was by his rear view, he had very nearly gone sailing past junction nine. To the angry hooting of other road-users as he cut across their lanes, Kyte skidded his car onto the slipramp and down from the suspended ringroad, onto a sand-covered lane that was as straight as an arrow.
Sure enough to his right, giant rusting gas containers and ageing corrugated steel warehouses rose from the coppery wasteland the estate was built on. He looked ahead for a turn-in, but saw only sand-filled tarmac as far as he could see now the afternoon sun was shining directly in his eyes.
'Mark, I'm off the ringroad but can't see the turn-off to get in.'
'It's coming. It's quite a way but you can't miss it. There's a big blank white billboard just after it.'
Kyte squinted. He could see that. He must be getting quite close.
'Do you still have your company?'
Alan glanced up at his display once more. The black Airus was behind him, sure enough, and was closing on him quickly now. He said as much out loud, and a sour laugh came back from the phone.
'They think they've got you because you're out in the middle of nowhere. No witnesses, see? But don't worry, I'm ready for them.'
Kyte frowned, causing a few sweat beads to drip from his brow into his eyes. No witnesses? Just what the hell was going on? He sped along the road as the junction approached, then, at the last minute, handbrake-turned sharply into the side-road, his rear wheels kicking up a spray of sand as he gunned the engine, jolting the car in the new direction.
Behind him, the tail missed the turn and screeched past, it's wheels locked as the driver hammered down on the brakes. Up ahead, the road led up a shallow slope between lines of gas tanks, up to a giant warehouse - more of a hanger, really, and then stopped. Kyte began to feel the sharp shards of panic in his chest. Where the hell was Edmonds? Why had he directed him here? Surely they would catch him? Then what?
He continued to speed through the thin surface layer of sand, looking between the gaps in the tankers for any sign of the technician.
'Mark? Where are you?' He shouted above the engines high-pitched roar.
'Never mind that. You're still in front aren't you? The dark blue Dariessa?'
'And the black Airus is your tail?'
'Yes dammit! There's no one else here! Just what the hell is going on?' He was nearing the warehouse, his pursuers making up the distance quickly, despite the datathief pushing his own - supposedly superior - vehicle to its limits. Sweat was running down him from his hair, in his eyes, down his neck, the coolness of the trickling fluid seemed to be all he could feel.
Then, suddenly… BOOM! The Airus seemed to float upwards of it's own accord for a split second, before the raging fireball below it became visible. With a roar, the flames expanded explosively below the car, flicking it up like a toy and engulfing it all at the same time. It seemed to hang in the air for a second, at the apex of its flight, while below the explosion rushed outwards, lapping up against the metal of the gas tankers either side, before, still ablaze, it came crashing down on the tarmac to the sound of screaming metal and cracking fibreglass.
Mouth agape as he stared at his rear-view, Kyte suddenly realised his proximity to the metal warehouse ahead. And that he was still travelling at his vehicle's top speed. He slammed on his brakes and closed his eyes as the corrugated steel wall rushed forwards to meet him. There was a crash and for a second he felt weightless. Then he was flung to one side, held in his seat only by his drivers harness, and suddenly sickened by a dizzying spinning sensation. Finally, amidst a sudden silence that sounded loud in itself following the racket of the explosion he had just witnessed, the car came to a halt, groaned, shuddered once as something below gave way, and was still.
Kyte, his shoulders hunched in a defensive posture, his fingers gripping the steering wheel so tightly that his nails had actually punctured the imitation leather, slowly opened his eyes. It appeared that he had actually passed through the front wall of the warehouse, taking most of the steel plating in with him as well. Mercifully, the car was still upright, and other than sitting on top of several layers of convoluted steel wall, hadn't suffered too much damage. It was dim, in here, the light from Elestra's sun, Canayze Major, filtered through the gaps in the construction, tracing shafts of whiteness through the disturbed dust floating in the air.
Kyte let out a long, shaky breath, and looked back along the way he had come. The wreckage of the other car was still ablaze. He could see the towering form of Edmonds investigating, prodding here and there with a long stick. It was clear however, that nothing and no one could have survived that explosion. Two more deaths, then, at least.
He shuddered. Four dead in under two hours. What was happening? And how was he involved? And Edmonds? Was it Entrogen, exacting some hideous revenge for the theft of their research? It was time to get some answers.
Shakily, he got out of his car and began to stumble along the road towards the scientist. He only got as far as the jagged hole made in the wall by his careening car, however, before slumping to the ground in a faint. For Alan Kyte, shock had taken control.
He awoke to the sound of creaking metal, and the sensation of motion. Opening his eyes slowly, he found himself slumped across the rear seat of his Dariessa. He blinked and sat up. The car was still lodged inside the warehouse, but behind the car, being gradually added to by Edmonds, was a pile of metal sheeting. Pulled, Kyte presumed, from under the car.
He shook his head groggily, and reached out towards the door handle. Feeling the movement through the Dariessa's chassis, Mark Edmonds looked up at him and grinned.
'Sleeping beauty awakes.' He joked. But his grin was brief, soon replaced by a strained expression. 'If you're up to it you'd better come and help me clear this rubble.'
Kyte struggled out of the car and stood up. 'How long was I out?'
'Oh, only about five minutes. I would have woken you up soon anyway - we can't stay here long.' He nodded towards the wreckage of the other car, smouldering quietly on the thin road. 'They have lots of friends.'
Kyte sighed his exasperation. 'Mark, what the hell is going on? I don't understand! Why all of the deaths? Why am I involved? Why are you involved?'
Edmonds motioned for the other to help him drag some sheeting out from under the car as he explained.
'Me? I don't know why I'm involved. I suppose it could be because I was seen speaking to you. But believe me, it's you they're after.'
Edmonds shook his head. 'No, if all I know about Entrogen is correct, they wouldn't have the manpower - or even the desire - to try something like this. This is a full-blown conspiracy.' He pointed a slightly shaky finger at the datathief, 'And you are in the centre of it, my friend.'
Kyte shook his head. 'I still don't understand. What do you know that I don't? Who is after me? Why are they after me?'
Edmonds picked up what looked like his laptop computer and pointed at the car. 'Get in and drive, I'll tell you my side of events as we go.'
As they turned out of the estate and began heading back to the ringroad, Edmonds, looking rather cramped in the low-roofed interior of Kyte's sports model, began to talk.
'As you know I live quite a bit nearer the office than you do, so I arrived there some time before you, yourself, got home. Well, you know what I do for a living, and it pays reasonably. I've always had a love of gadgets and toys, and in my spare time I've put together a few bits and pieces - mainly security devices - and installed them in my flat. As nothing serious, you understand, just because I'd built them and thought it would be neat to set them up. I've got a couple of audio bugs, a camera and - most importantly - some laser tripwires that aren't hooked into the main alarm system.'
Kyte glanced at him from his driving, and his expression was one of disbelief. 'Christ you're paranoid!'
'No! No!' Edmonds was quick to explain. 'I never thought they'd ever come to any use! It's just that I got some old lasers from… well, I haven't got time to tell you the whole story, but it was just a bit of fun. Anyway, I had linked the tripwires up to my outside light. When they were tripped, the security light would set to a strobe effect, flashing repeatedly at about twenty five hertz - which is what it did when I approached my front door! Now, after all that business with Tony, my nerves were pretty jumpy. Also, if someone was in the house, why hadn't my alarm system gone off? That wasn't there 'just for fun' - you've heard about all the break-in's around West Corner right? So, instead of going in, I decided to nip around the corner to the payphone there, and dialled up my home laptop, which I always leave on in case I need to get some files from it while I'm at work. From there, I could activate all the bugs and camera's in my house to see what was going on. I had my Willis Random computer in the car, still, of course, and so I used that to check out the signals.
'There were two men in my flat, Alan. Two government men, by the looks of them. They had silenced semi-automatics and had positioned themselves just inside my front door - they must have heard my car pull up, you see, and were wondering what was taking me so long.'
'What did you do?' Kyte was engrossed now, as he cruised his car around the ringroad, constantly checking for tails in his rear viewscreen.
'What did I do? I shit myself! I'm a scientist, Alan. I'm no criminal and I'm no hero either. I pulled out of there and drove away as fast as I could. No-one followed me so I parked up a few blocks away and tried to get through to Alden.' He lowered his eyes, and his voice acquired a hushed tone. 'And that's when they told me he was dead.' He shook his head sorrowfully. 'He had been fiddling around with his e-mails or something when his secretary heard a thump from his office. She went in to investigate and…'
'What? Christ Mark What?'
Edmonds' mouth was a grim line as he replied. He tapped the centre of his forehead. 'A single silenced round. Double tap. He was dead before he hit the floor.'
'And his computer was trashed. No, not physically, otherwise Angela would have heard that. His cubic storage array was completely wiped out. Twenty two exabytes of nothing but garbage.'
Kyte couldn't believe it. Wouldn't believe it. Then suddenly his heart froze. 'Oh no!'
'Did you say he was fiddling with his e-mails?'
'Mack e-mailed him a backup of the data from my Entrogen job before he was killed in the accident. Now, if Alden was looking at the same data when he was murdered…'
Edmonds nodded. 'MacCleod's accident suddenly doesn't look so accidental does it? I came to the same conclusion after I asked Angela what Nathan was looking at on his e-mails. She said she didn't know, but that he said something about an upload. I figured that since we haven't done any covert ops for the last six weeks other than your Entrogen effort, he must have been looking at a copy of your data.
'Friend, what you have in your head, someone has already killed twice to prevent it getting out, and would have killed twice more if I hadn't gotten suspicious very early.'
'I guess I owe you my life, Mark.'
Edmonds grinned, however sarcastically, 'I think you owe your life to luck Alan. And your expert driving.'
'So what happened after that?'
'After the phone call? I drove straight to the library and did a bit of background research on Entrogen. It was started by a group of private investors - all big money investors, but all nameless. It makes a consistent loss each year but never shuts down. You know what that says to me?'
'Look, I've being working in covert ops since I was a teenager, and you get an instinct about these things. Anything without a clear-cut, easily-accessible history, you can pretty much assume that it's some kind of cover for the government or other organisation. The data you copied from that computer terminal was nothing to do with entropy-based chip architecture.'
'So what was it?'
Edmonds shrugged. 'There you've got me. It could be anything. Certainly it's something they desperately want to keep secret.'
'Who? The government?'
'It certainly seems so. I don't think any of the crime gangs around here would be able to infiltrate Willis Random quite so easily. I think we have to assume you're… we're wanted men. You for what you've got stored in your head, and me for being able to remove and decode it, something only me and the Willis Random computer can do.'
'This can't be happening.' Kyte was shaking his head. 'It's like a bad dream.'
'We're in a dangerous business, Alan.' He replied. 'And this is as dangerous as it gets. Turn off here! That's right, we'd better head out of town.'
Kyte gentled the car off the slipramp onto a dual carriageway, and pulled into the outside lane. As he accelerated past the slow moving traffic to his right, he urged the tech to continue.
'So how did you set all that up with me earlier?'
'When I found out how dangerous the whole thing was, I knew you'd be in trouble too. I tried to phone but I couldn't get through at first - then I remembered how crap the reception is as you leave the East side. In the trunk of my car I had all the explosive that you saw go up under the Airus. It was there from this morning when I'd gone to pick it up from the supplier to make more flash grenades. I left it in the car because Alden gets freaked out by me carrying half a ton of cyclonite through the lobby - even if is in safe storage. I was going to wait until the Parcel Express people arrived and unlocked the service elevator. Anyway, I knew that there'd be an ambush at your place, and that by now they would have realised that I had got suspicious and drove away, so they were likely to follow you. My brother-in-law is a demolitions man, and told me about a week ago about the old plant near you which was deserted and due to be blown up within the month. I figured it would be the perfect hideout, and so went there, trying to get through to you all the way. I finally managed just as I pulled into the sliproad - so you can see I didn't have much time to set up my trap - by then it would only be another five minutes before you arrived! I set up the explosives with a pressure trigger, which, in turn, was triggered by an electronic signal from me. Obviously I didn't want it to blow up under you and so had to trigger the trigger once you'd gone past. The rest - well, you know.'
'You killed them.' It wasn't an accusation as such, but Kyte didn't feel comfortable.
'They killed Tony and Nathan.' Matter-of-factly.
'So what now?'
'Now? We get the hell away from here, and find somewhere safe so that I can get at what's in your head and see what all the fuss is about.'
Kyte watched the road ahead thoughtfully for some time. Eventually, he glanced at his companion and gave a half smile. 'You're a fucking genius.'
Edmonds just laughed in his good natured way. 'It's true I'm very resourceful. It goes with the job.'
They drove all through the afternoon and on into evening. Heading South, the amber glow of Canayze Major slowly faded as it crept out of sight over the rim of the world to their left, but still they drove.
Taking it in turns, the two fugitives - as they now considered themselves - travelled eight hundred kilometres along Elestra's largest continent, Lornica, before reaching Dempa, the planet's interplanetary trading station and highest population city. There, under Edmonds' direction, an exhausted Alan Kyte piloted the car through the bustling streets to the Southern outskirts of the city. Emerging from the ranks of tower blocks and commercial buildings, they once again found themselves on open road, only this time they didn't have far to go.
'There!' Edmonds stabbed his finger across Kyte's line of vision, pointing triumphantly at something to the left of the narrow metalled track they had found themselves on.
'What is it?' Kyte followed the other's line of sight. The last dusky rays of the sun threw the place into stark silhouette. Seeming completely black against the glowing pink of the sky, the thing looked for all the world like some taloned, metal hand reaching up to the skies. It was tall - well over eight storeys - and jagged at every edge. Thin, sharp towers rose in their tens from the roof of the thing, and at the structures trapezoidal base, sloping buttresses peeling from the walls to connect with the hard stone earth below.
'It was a factory. Produced synthetic meats for the outlying planets where they can't get the real thing. That was before the company bought it, though.'
'The company? Our company?'
The tech nodded. 'Yep. Our very own Willis Random. They now use this place as a test site for some of the more… unorthodox experiments with entropic explosives.'
'You've been here before then?'
'A couple of times. I get invited to big conferences occasionally, and as often as not, they ship us out here to show off their new toys. There's nothing sinister about it, really. It's just better than housing us all in posh hotels then having to ferry us back and forth from the city for every test session. The bombs are actually exploded on the plain behind. The rock here is dense and hard and so the tests don't cause too much ecological damage.'
Kyte eyed the black silhouette warily. 'It looks to me like they explode the bombs in there!'
Edmonds chuckled. 'Yeah, it is pretty beat up. They tend not to look after the upper levels too well since there's plenty of room to house the ten or twenty executives that they get here at a time on the first and second floors. It's not too bad inside but, as you can see, the outside is hardly aesthetic. Pull in here and park the other side of the factory.'
'Gotcha.' Kyte slowed down to a crawl as he gentled his car off the track onto a sliproad marked out by fading painted lines, leading up to the structure itself. Suddenly, the car jerked a little and the engines died with a splutter.
'Son of a bitch!' Kyte muttered through gritted teeth, and hit the ignition again. The engine whined, and then died again. The car, rolling under its own momentum, slowed to a halt.
'It's been doing this recently. Cutting out in low gear and sometimes refusing to start at all.'
'It hasn't bothered us so far.'
'We were in high gear all the way down here, that's why.'
'Oh yeah, I guess so. Is there any chance of getting it going again? I can look at it for you but I'd rather be hidden in the factory than stuck out here.'
'Give it a second.' He tried again, but with no success. 'How do you know there's no one there now, anyway?'
'There isn't a weapons test scheduled for the next nine weeks. I checked this morning because I noticed there hadn't been one for a while. I think they must have missed a deadline in development and nothing new has been built. Oh! That's it!'
With a whine that rose rapidly in pitch, the Dariessa's hydro-fuel engine kicked into life and Kyte sighed his exasperation. 'See, I did nothing different then, it's just… temperamental.'
'Well, as long as it's working now. Let's get behind the factory.'
They circled the giant building and left the Dariessa under a tin sheet construction clearly meant to be a makeshift carport. Stretching out to the horizon, towards the dying sun, the terrain was utterly flat, bare and featureless. Kyte commented as much, and his companion agreed.
'It's not as big as it could be, but then entropic weapons will never be as powerful as, say, a nuke. And they certainly wouldn't be testing those here.'
Kyte smirked. Nuclear weapons of all kinds were not produced, tested or used by anyone or thing under the United Front Of Humanity's control. Which was to say, almost everyone. The devastation they had wrought upon entire planets during petty skirmishes and space battles during the Occupation Wars was insurmountable, and no one of sane mind would ever need to use such force ever again. Still there were rumours. Kyte shrugged. There were always rumours.
They entered via a side door, using Edmonds' expertise, and the smart card Kyte had retained from his Entrogen job to fool the electronic lock and disable the cheap alarm system. Once inside, Alan immediately saw what his partner had meant about the interior. Someone seeing only the inside would assume it was a hotel. Nothing expensive or flashy - that would attract all sorts of unwanted attention during the long months the place went unattended, but nevertheless, not bad. They refrained from starting up the electricity generator for fear of advertising their presence, and so instead used the Dariessa's engine to power a small kettle they took from the kitchen.
Sipping the weak tea in the car, their faces illuminated by the glow from both Kyte and the technician's laptops, Edmonds caught his companions eye.
'You want to do it now?'
Edmonds shrugged. 'Better to know what we're dealing with straight away.'
Kyte nodded. 'You ready to receive?'
'Yep. Just need your decoding sequence.'
Kyte quoted his half of the password - a complex combination of letters and numbers. The other half was stored in the technician's computer, which was set to receive the data as Kyte's neural implant transmitted it.
Kyte sent the mental signal, and swallowed his tea uneasily as the nauseating sensation began. Edmonds watched the screen avidly, his face given an eerie cast by the flickering blue glow. There was an almost inaudible beep from the computer as the transmission terminated. The computer began unscrambling.
'Right, let's see what we have here.' He punched some keys.
'What is it?'
'Give me a second.' He tapped on his keyboard. Suddenly, Kyte heard the breath catch in his throat. He stared at the screen.
'What is it?' Kyte tried to crane his neck, but couldn't reach.
'Oh shit.' The other breathed. He seemed to be having trouble believing what he was seeing. He blinked twice, very deliberately. 'Oh hell.' He met the other's eyes. 'Alan, we are in big trouble.'
The tech put down his cup on the car's dashboard, and killed the ignition as he handed the computer to Kyte, sitting in the rear seat. The datathief took the computer and, for the first time in his career, it suddenly occurred to him, took a look at what he had stolen.
It was a memo. A government memo. Kyte read it to himself, his disbelief mounting at every word.
To Be Continued...
©1999-2000 by Ben Stevenson
My name is Ben Stevenson and I am a student of Theoretical Physics at the University of Newcastle-Upon-Tyne. I have been writing science fiction stories for many years now, mainly short stories, but I occasionally embark on a longer project. I enjoy writing stories which make use of my understanding of cosmology and astrophysics, and explore unusual ideas andconcepts. My e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org