The inner walls of the transport tubes were a smooth ceramic surface lit by strips that ran down the opposing sides. Normally dark, the illumination had been automatically raised by the closing of airtight hatches. There were no tracks or cables running through the vast network of interconnecting tunnels. Instead, magnetic tracks were set into the walls and ceilings of the octagon shaft. Other than the ladders, which were imbedded into the vertical shafts, the only other breaks in the walls were the channels that ran along the walls as part of the emergency breaking system. There were also the occasional access hatches, which were equipped with a manual releases. Heavy doors that sectioned off the system, in case of damage, also had access hatches.
An access port on a floor-mounted hatch between two shafts was jerked open and a rifle was shoved through the opening. It swung about as it investigated the space above. The riflescope’s large eyepiece was turned to the side, allowing an offset view. With his sidearm leading the way, Sands climbed up through the hatch. He found himself in an alcove off one of the main transport shafts. Standing on the portal that led to a vertical drop of several levels, he was able to see a second pressure door in the main shaft, to his right. Sliding along the alcove wall, he moved toward the mouth of the alcove to ensure that no one was poised around the right side corner waiting for them. There was only one other direction he could be. Around the left corner and down main shaft, which was wide enough for two cars to pass.
Holstering his side arm, Sands grabbed the rifle that was thrown up through the hatch. Aurora quickly climbed up and joined him against the wall. Holding the rifle out in front of him, Sands cautiously glimpsed down the long shaft while only exposing his hands. The small image in the scope’s eyepiece was difficult to make out when held out to the side. Not having done that very often, (never) he took some time inspecting the tunnel.
“Well?” Aurora asked as troopers started emerging behind them.
“Don’t see him.”
Aurora snatched the rifle out of his hands as she boldly rounded the corner and stepped into the horizontal shaft. Momentarily startled by having the weapon pulled from his grasp, Sands followed. As they stood staring down the long empty tunnel, Sands reached over to reclaim the rifle. He was surprised by her refusal to surrender it.
“Get your own,” she said calmly. She then started forward, the rifle ready at her hip.
Seeing as that was no place to argue, he pulled his side arm and walked beside her. Imagine his embarrassment if that guy were to drop out of some craves and kill them as they childishly fought.
Aurora quickened the pace as they scanned the solid walls. There were no other offshoots to the closed section. The heavy door was clamped shut ahead of them. How could he have vanished? There was no place to hide. Three soldiers filed in behind them as the rest of their unit scoured the surrounding sections.
Sands hadn’t been unaware of the tension. Times like that were when he was at his best. He was acting on impulse, running on adrenaline, his mind was focused. So focused that when his communicator started vibrating on his hip he nearly hit the ceiling. Aurora waved the rifle in his direction, then chuckled at his answering the call.
“Yeah! What?” Sands blurted into the communicator without thinking that it could have been a superior officer.
“Will you be joining us for the tactical meeting, Vice?” Talya asked with a hint of sarcasm.
“I’m in the middle of somethin’, cover for me. I’ll get there as soon as I can.” He looked up to see Aurora and the troopers rushing ahead of him. They’d spotted something.
Talya sounded annoyed. “Well, what about the reception? They moved it up.”
“I donno, I’ll get back to ya.” He clapped the unit shut as he ran to catch-up with the others. The cover to a small maintenance port lay on the floor. Aurora was already crawling into the small diagonal portal, which led down to a small platform outside the shaft. Sands reached her in a cramped compartment, which housed controls for the transport and had barely half a floor. The open pit dropped down to a catwalk that ran above the ceiling of the level below.
Troopers called out to each other as they rushed underneath the open grates of the catwalk and paneled ceiling. They were all in communication with each other so few looked up as the Colonel dropped with a loud crash on the catwalk. Sands needlessly swung his gun about before giving an all clear to those above him. He swapped his gun into his other hand as he courteously reached for the rifle. It would be easier for her to climb down the narrow ladder if she dropped it to him. She didn’t, Aurora gracefully swung down onto the walkway with one hand on a rung, the prized weapon ready for action. She glared back at him mockingly as they started their search of the new environment.
The area above the ship’s corridors was congested with pipes and equipment. Fractured streams of light spilled up through the grates below and gave the walkway an eerie radiance. There were plenty of hiding places, shadowy corners, dark crevasses, overhead supports for the transport tube, hidden perches above machines. All were suitable places from which to launch a last stand.
“We’ve got an access hatch open into the next cell over,” a soldier shouted from below. Ready for an ambush, the two officers rounded a corner and charged toward an open hatchway.
The upper hatch served as an alternate exit for two sets of doors located down on the main floor. It opened onto a small platform mounted two stories up on the bare wall. With none of the modular walls or floors installed, the cell was a large empty space. Some of the wall and floor sections spilled out from the forward wall. There were also boxes and other materials spread about the floor from the long ago accident. Next to one of the sets of doors, a tall balding man worked feverishly on a wall mounted computer terminal, which most cells contained.
“Right there, pal!” Sands hollered as he started down the ladder. Aurora remained on the platform. Dropping to one knee, she training the rifle on him. He paid them on heed and ignored repeated orders to get away from the terminal by the approaching officer. Taking only the time to lock the main doors, he was intent on finishing what he was doing.
“Get on the damn floor!” Sands ordered as he marched forward, his gun locked on target. His back to the two officers, the man finally stepped back from the wall, slowly. One hand was at his side. The other angled up his chest. Sands had no doubt as to what was in that other hand.
“Drop your weapon! Drop it now!”
Soldiers forced the door on the other side of the cell and led by the Sergeant Blane, spilled in.
Slowly the man turned. His arms were motionless as his gun came into view. The twitch of a single mussel would have gotten him hit by several weapons. Much to their surprise, the stubby civilian made gun was pushed up into the man’s jaw. With a vacant look in his eye, the man that had so skillfully eluded them burned a hole through the top of his skull. Sparks drifted down from the ceiling as the lifeless body dropped in a heap.
“What the fuck?” exclaimed Sands. He couldn’t believe it. After a seemingly desperate run, the man had calmly killed himself. He stood shaking his head over the body as Blane joined him. They were both confounded by the bizarre end to their hunt, almost disappointed.
“What did he do?” shouted Aurora as she rushed up from behind.
“Blew his fuckin’ head off.”
“To the terminal?” She stepped over the body, giving it no more respect than one would any other pile of garbage. Still unnerved, Sands moved around it to see what she was doing on the keyboard. Hitting a button, she ejected the stolen data crystal from the unit, placed it in her pocket, and continued her work.
“It’s blank,” she explained, “he downloaded the information.”
“Where?” Blane inquired.
“On the ship wide network,” Aurora stated in confusion.
“Yeah,” said Sands, “so his buddies can copy it. Lock it down or dump it.”
After working a bit, Aurora proclaimed, “He did something, I can’t access it.”
“What? How the fuck could some hack do that?”
“Look’s like your friend there was a little more than a dick holder.”
Sands frowned at the jab. “You can’t break it?”
“Not from here.” She turned for the nearby door. “Come on.”
Not looking down, Sands’ foot brushed the body on the floor. Startled, he jumped back slightly. Against his will, his eyes affixed to the smoldering hole atop the man’s crown. Sands jumped all together when he turned back to Aurora screaming in his face. She burst into laughter as she headed out into the corridor.
“You’re afraid of the dead,” she laughed.
“No I’m not!” he responded.
“Careful he doesn’t try to hold you.”
Yanex opened his remarks with images that he hoped would drive home his point. Views of Aultra’s cities in ruins flashed on the walls as he spoke of their destruction. Intermixed were death tolls and various statistics that detailed their agonizing drop into extinction.
“These are not estimates,” Yanex explained, “they’re history, they’re fact. It happened. It will happen again if we don’t do something to stop it.”
“I’m sure you’re sincere about your commitment to save us all from this enemy of yours,” Kryton remarked.
“It’s not just my enemy. As I said, this will be an unprovoked attack. They will come, whether you believe me or not. My objective is to ensure our survival.”
“I’m sure we all appreciate that, General, however this Alliance of yours would be extremely abstruse at this time. We are presently at war with one of these so called allies.”
“I didn’t say anything about an alliance, Counsel.”
“Then what are you proposing?” asked Marlanna.
Yanex called for Lieutenant Lorran, who walked around the large table and placed an old style data crystal in front of each of them, the type currently used.
“This is a complete catalog of all of the information we’ve compiled on the Krix, all of the tactical and strategic data that cost thousands of lives to get. This alone will give us a great advantage over them.”
“And what do you propose we do with this information, General?” Mellor asked skeptically.
Yanex ignored him and continued, “In addition, once we return to Aultra, I’ll have ready a complete file on this ship, along with most every other weapon system we deployed against them. With that, we can begin preparing for them.”
“I have a problem with the idea of this ship going to Aultra,” declared Mellor. “I have a serious problem with that.”
“I’m inclined to agree,” echoed Kryton, “national security concerns mind you. Unless of course it were to be under the jurisdiction of Fleet Command. We might be able to wave those regulations.”
“I’ve served this nation for over twenty cycles, General,” Yanex stated. “I know of no such regulation that rigidly restricts foreign vessels from Aultrian space.”
Kryton quipped, “I’m sure that one could be enacted very quickly if need be, General.”
Mellor scanned through the data crystal. “This information is also incomplete. You’ve omitted great amounts of information. If this ship is to be turned over, it must be intact, with its entire data base.”
“I will in no way divulge the ships’ history files,” Yanex stated. “In the wrong hands that data can be very dangerous.”
Not aware of the death of one of his staff, Kryton pushed, “How can you expect us to endorse you whole heartily if you edit the information you give us. Frankly General, it gives me cause to doubt you.”
“Not nearly as much doubt as I place in your motives, Counsel,” Yanex responded. “As a member of your staff has already committed an act of aggression against this ship and crew.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about!”
“Don’t you? Be sure to claim his body before leaving.”
“As amusing,” Marlanna called out, “as I find your petty bickering and posturing, you continue to ignore the true issue, our common enemy. Do either of you have any interest in that?”
“What I am interested in,” Mellor blurted out, “is the lack of information and cooperation we are getting. With all due respect, Your Highness.”
Marlanna picked up her copy of the data crystal and waved it at him. “On the contrary, you have received an invaluable amount of information, with more to follow. Yet you protest for more.”
She rose from her seat and strolled toward the head of the table, bare legs flashing with each elegant step. “Actually General Yanex, I fail to see why you are wasting time with two very small men. The true decisions will be made on Aultra, which is where you must go.”
“This ship is not to go to Aultra!” shouted Kryton. “Not without my approval.”
“What you mean to say,” smiled Marlanna, “is not without the Council’s approval. And if somehow they are even more asinine than I believe, this ship will still go to Aultra, because the Emperor wishes it.”
“The Emperor has no say in the matter,” Mellor said.
Marlanna stood behind Yanex and placed her hands on his shoulders. He was even more surprised by her touch, than her frank speech. It left him with an almost tingly feeling as she made sure to stroke his bare neck with a finger. She was truly full of surprises.
“Do not delude yourself, General Mellor. And never underestimate the Emperor. He is by no means dead yet.”
She started toward the door. “I see no reason to continue this conversation. We are keeping General Yanex from his battle preparations.”
“No such battle has been approved,” stated Mellor.
“Perhaps you should inform the Delphians of that.” Marlanna stood by the open door. “Whether you approve of it or not, there will be a battle. And when it is over, you will be grateful. Maybe you will learn how to show it by then.”
She looked Yanex in the eye before leaving. “Do not disappoint me, General. I’m putting my faith in you.”
After the door closed behind her, Yanex remarked out loud, “Interesting woman.”
“At least the Emperor had the good sense not to choose her,” responded Kryton.
In the COC, Sands and Aurora utilized a computer terminal that gave them the security access they needed; it was equipped with an optical scanner for identification. Having seen Aurora’s advance computer training in action, the Colonel was confident that she could break into the stolen information. Skillfully her hands danced on the keyboard until she had managed to get access.
“What’s in there?” Sands leaned in for a closer look.
“History information. It’s just general news and recordings, starting with today’s date and moving on.”
“About ten cycles worth. He just started dumping the file, didn’t bother trying to crack any of the classified stuff.”
She scrolled through the information, pausing to read some of the more interesting headlines briefly.
“We’re not supposed to be looking at this,” Sands said as he read along with her.
“I know. Holder must’ve been planning to have someone else retrieve this file.”
Colonel Marcone appeared from nowhere. “What have you come up with, Vice?”
Startled, Sands hurried to his feet. “It’s historical records, sir. We believe that the assailant has a partner. Someone who might try to download this data.”
Marcone glanced at a placard in his hand and read the identity of the dead man. “If Mister Zollin has a partner, I want them found.”
He noticed that Aurora was still reviewing the data. “Destroy that file, immediately.”
“Sir,” Sands said, “If we erase the file we may not be able to discover who Zollin was working with.”
“How is that going to help you?”
“We can trace any terminal that accesses this file, then arrest whoever is using it. Otherwise we might not be able to prove anything.”
Marcone gave it some thought. He suspected that Kryton, or hopefully Marlanna, had ordered the theft, but without proof he couldn’t possibly move on them. From the attitude he’d already seen, a false or unsubstantiated accusation could be disastrous. As much as he wanted to catch the responsible parties, he couldn’t risk that information falling into the wrong hands. “Destroy the file.”
“Yes sir,” Sands conceded.
“I can over write the data with false information,” Aurora stated without looking up, “we can still trace any inquires that way.”
“Do that,” Marcone ordered. “I want to know who he was working for, before the diplomats leave this ship.”
“Yes Colonel,” Sands saluted.
Once the file had been replaced, Aurora set up a program to instantly alert them to any activity.
“Now what?” Sands asked.
“We wait,” she responded.
They sat side by side in silence, starring at the screen. Nothing happened.
“This is too easy,” Sands mocked. “This guy’s a hundred cycles behind the times and he still broke into a classified file in record time.”
“He was pressed for time. Maybe this is the best he could come up with. Some kinda contingency plan in case he got caught.”
“Zollin,” uttered Aurora, “I know that name, I’ve heard it before.”
“From some of the other diplomats?”
“No, a long time ago, in school, he did something.”
She just rolled her eyes at him.
“Good, bad, naked?” he pressed trying to glaze over his inane question.
“Something big, in the future.”
“Well, it’s not gonna happen anyway.” Sands thought a bit. “Can you look it up?”
“No, we just wiped the only unsecured copy of the history files.”
“Wait a minute,” Sands suddenly realized, “what if he made more than one copy of that file.”
“And left one for us to find,” she added going back to work.
“What are you doing?” Sands asked as lists of short computer symbols scrolled by on the monitor.
“These are entry commands made into the system. I’m trying to isolate that one terminal Holder used. See exactly what he did.”
Sands brushed over her dig of calling Zollin, “Holder.”
“I didn’t know that could be done.”
“It can’t,” she winked. “Here it is. Shit! He made two separate copies of it.”
“I knew this was too easy. Can you get into the other copy?”
Aurora made a few attempts, but failed. She quickly realized why. “The other copy’s in use. It’s being downloaded.”
Sands and Aurora bounded into the Belly Lounge. With the adrenaline of the hunt having re-surged in them, they were stopped short at the sight of the packed room. Officers and crew in dress uniform as well as the visiting dignitaries filled the room. The talk was loud and joyful as the idea that the long nightmare could finally be coming to an end set in. Not only was it a reception for the visitors, it was a sign for the crew that they could finally have some chance of a normal life, after the coming battle of course. Somehow they weren’t too worried about the Delphians though.
“Over there,” said Aurora as she pushed her way through the partygoers. With Sands on her heels she found the computer terminal at the end of the bar unoccupied.
“Can we scan it for genetic material? Find out who used it last?” Sands asked.
“Excuse me, sirs,” said a crewman, who was doubling as a waiter. He went straight to the terminal and started punching in an order.
“Hey! Get away from there!” exclaimed Sands. The man stepped back, confused.
“Forget it,” Aurora said. “Everyone in this room’s used it.”
“If we can get a scan of the keyboard and isolate who should and shouldn’t be using it.”
“He and the other waiters have had contact with everybody in the room. The data’s corrupted.”
Sands cursed under his breath. He glanced about the room, then went over to the terminal and pulled open a small draw underneath it. There were several blank modern crystals scattered about the draw. He turned and focused on Kryton and some of his staff as they gathered off to one side.
“They’re still here,” he said quietly. “They can’t leave the room right away without drawing attention. They used one of these crystals to copy the data, we can scan for it.”
The newer type of data storage device was made-up of a different material than the ones the guests would normally have on their persons. Even the information they had been given by the General was on the old style chips. There was no reason one of them should be carrying one of the ship’s data crystals.
Aurora shook her head. “You can’t just sweep the room looking for that crystal. You have to be tactful.”
Talya approached with a smile that poorly hid her aggravation. She was in dress uniform and her blond hair was up.
“You’re late,” she admonished them, “and look like shit.”
“Did you see anyone using that terminal?” Sands pointed.
Hardly glancing over at the bar, she ignored the question. “The squadron has an advanced deployment. You haven’t even seen the battle plans and we launch right after this reception.”
“I’ll look at it while we deploy. We’re hunting a spy here.”
“Isn’t that a security matter?” Talya snapped. “I should think that your priorities would be with the squadron and its safety.”
Sands became irritated at how far she was stepping out of bounds. It was not appropriate for a flight leader to scold her squadron commander. Having been oblivious to how much she had been actually pushing him lately, the sudden realization hit him in the face.
“I set the priorities in this unit,” he said in anger. Sands wasn’t about to defend his missing the briefing, not that he could. Rather than engage in an argument that he would lose, he stood glaring at her.
Aurora broke their staring contest with, “We can’t sweep the room without pissing everybody off. But they’re all leaving the ship too. Blane can scan them on the way off.”
Left with no other options, Sands was forced to turn the hunt over to someone else. Someone whose job it was in the first place. He nodded in consent, and tried to swallow his anger.
“Get the unit to the launch bay,” he ordered Talya.
She made no attempt to hide her anger as she slammed her half-empty glass on the bar and stormed out.