Paradox of Oronos

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Chapter 24

After nuclear war ravaged the plant over two centuries prior, survivors had returned to Aultra from Darcane and started over. They began the reconstruction in one of the least contaminated places, a former island nation in the center of the planet’s largest ocean. There a great city rose from the ashes of the Old World. Designed from scratch, the majestic city of Maracasa had risen out of the sea as a shining jewel of art and science.

Under a constant state of construction, it was a well-orchestrated blend of massive towering buildings and structures of every imagined shape. Great sloping pillions were among the tallest structures, along with huge pyramids that buried their roots deep into the false surface. Most of the exposed grounds were tree-lined parks and gardens that covered a vast infrastructure underneath. A complex mass transit system moved goods and commercial cargo, as well as the population, through a well-organized network of tunnels and passages that acted as Maracasa’s lifeblood.

Seven huge pyramids made up the city’s heart. Two rows of three lined a large promenade with one centered at the head of the procession. The last building was the Royal Pyramid and served as the Emperor’s palace and military command center. It was where Fleet Command operated and conducted its secret meetings, one of which had just gotten underway.

The nation’s top three marshals discussed unrelated topics as they awaited the arrival of one of their subordinates. The room fell silent as Fleet-General Mellor was escorted to an open seat at the opposite end of the long table, away from the three officers. Marshal Grindell occupied the head of the great stone table, with Marshals Packlin and Zilldac at his sides.

“General,” Grindell called out, “there seems to be some discrepancy in the instructions you were given.”

“Sir?” Mellor jumped back to his feet.

“You are here, not commanding that ship as you were directed.”

“Yes sir, there’s a problem with that,” Mellor began to explained “The commanding officer has refused to relinquish his position.”

“Refused?” He turned to the officer on his right, “I thought you said this General,” Grindell looked at his notes then mispronounced the name, “Yanex, wanted to rejoin the fleet?”

“Yanex has stated that,” answered Zilldac, pronouncing the name properly.

“He may have stated that, sir,” Mellor said, “but he has taken no action in that direction. He openly defied my authority.”

“Is that true, General?” stated Marshal Packlin, the more combat hardened of the group. “Then how do you explain the battle with the Delphians? But then, you weren’t there, were you? Well, I’m sure the Emperor’s daughter can give us a detailed account.”

Mellor tried to fight back with, “My instructions were not to fight the Delphians. That incident was forced by Yanex. He drew that attack to that system. He had more than an opportunity to avoid that confutation, without putting the system in danger.”

“And a terrible thing it was,” mused Packlin. “One battleship lost and two of their newest carriers captured.”

He turned to his boss with determination. “We should launch an immediate counterattack at Darcane, while they’re still smarting, while they still don’t know what happened. I can mobilize the remainder of our fleet here. With the Rijian back, that’s three battleships and a carrier. We can drop out behind their base and hit it from two directions.”

Grindell stifled the man’s enthusiasm when he stated, “Not as yet, I want those ships to remain here. It would be prudent with our new friend arriving tomorrow.”

“The Oronos? Here?” Mellor said. “I specifically told them not to come here.”

“Apparently they weren’t listening to you, General,” stated Grindell.

“Nor are they listening to this council,” added Zilldac.

“Marshal,” said Mellor, “this Yanex is a very dangerous man. He has declared his ship to be a sovereign state. He answers to no authority.”

“Is he or is not he joining the fleet?”

“At this time,” Zilldac responded, “no. He wants to negotiate with the government.”

“Negotiate? About what?”

“He states that he has some concern about how this matter will be handled,” Zilldac explained. “It’s more likely that he wants to ensure his own position in power.”

Grindell was not pleased. He leaned back as he thought.

“Direct means?” he aimed toward Packlin.

“An option, but I’d want more intelligence first.”

“He knows something,” Grindell pondered out loud. “He’s from the future and he has reason to be cautious.”

Leaning forward on the table he questioned Mellor again. “What about any records he might have of the future? Is he going to turn that over?”

“Absolutely not, sir. He was adamant about that.”

“He has stated that he will turn over data on his ship,” said Packlin.

“What about the information you received on these Krix?” Grindell asked of Zilldac.

“I haven’t had much time to go over it. There’s no record of this race in our data base.”

“However,” added Packlin, “the information states that they are from an unexplored sector.”

“That’s rather convenient, we can’t verify that part of the story without risking exposure,” Zilldac said.

“We must keep this under wraps,” Grindell stressed. “If this is at all, or even partly true, it could have far reaching ramifications. There would be wide spread panic and hysteria.”

“Whether you trust this Yanex or not,” Zilldac stated, “we can’t deny the power of that ship. It must not fall into enemy hands. We need to keep its existence a secret.”

“I don’t see how we’ll be able to contain it,” Packlin said. “The Delphians know about it, and there’s the Attragone’s crew. Once we start exploiting their technology, everyone else in this sector will know. They’ll be all over us.”

Grindell thought a bit. He had to gain control of things before they got too far out of hand.

“That ship is a derelict,” he announced. “A long-range probe found it and we’re investigating its origin.”

He waved at Mellor to finally be seated and asked, “Will Yanex go along with a cover-up?”

“He might sir. He has expressed a desire to support Aultra, alone.”

“Good, we’ll utilize his patriotism.”

“How do you want to handle the technology?” Zilldac asked. “We’re to get that when he arrives.”

“I’m not as opposed to it coming here now,” Grindell said slowly. “We’ll make a public announcement about finding this wrecked ship, then just let it fade into the background. That will let everyone know we have it, and it’s nothing special.”

Zilldac expressed his doubts with, “It won’t play long in our media, but what about the Delphians? They lost three ships to it.”

“We ambushed them. If they know anything more than that, we’ll deal with it when it comes up.”

Grindell then made Packlin happy. “How long before the Attragone can get under way with those captured carriers?”

“The last report from Gilderith was two to three days.”

“Good, as soon as we can get them back here, we’ll re-fit those ships and add them to our fleet. Once the Oronos is secure, we can free up our remaining fleet here, along with the Attragone, for a counter-strike on their base in Darcane. Any leaks about advanced technology we attribute to those Delphian carriers.”

“I don’t have the available units to refit those ships,” said Zilldac, “they hold three squadrons.”

“I should think that just having them here will be enough of a deterrent,” smiled Packlin.

“He’s right,” Grindell said, “plus, your priority is the Oronos. I want to expedite repairs and get her operational as soon as possible.”

“What about General Yanex?” asked Mellor. “What if he should become, uncooperative?”

“Then we’ll deal with him appropriately.”

Colonel Marcone received the two officers in his office, next to the General’s. He’d spent little time there since his promotion and had plenty of work backed up. With his head buried in the computer screen, he gestured at Sands and Aurora to have a seat.

“I’d like to formerly request access to the historical files, sir,” Sands jarred him with.

Marcone’s fingers stopped dead on the keyboard. “Why?”

“I have reason to believe there’s more going on here than just the theft of those files.” A sharp kick in the calf corrected him. “We believe.”

Marcone leaned back with his arms tightly folded. “The General has restricted those files for a reason, one that I agree with.”

“This man Zollin,” Sands explained, “if he hadn’t off-ed himself here, he would have killed Kryton, then himself. We think there might be something in that investigation that shows who he was really working for.”

“I can’t grant you access.” Marcone turned back to his computer. “Gather what information you have and present it to me. I’ll go over it with the General.”

“Yes sir, but we’re not done gathering information. We think this could be big, something to do with the overthrow of 4224.”

“I’m sure you may be onto something, but you’ll need to use the tools at your disposal. Once you’ve exhausted them, we’ll take a look at extreme measures; if the matter warrants it.”

“Don’t bother,” smirked Aurora, “he doesn’t even have access.”

“I beg your pardon, Captain?” Marcone snapped.

“The Colonel has made a formal request, are you denying it?”

“I will act on the Colonel’s request when and how I see fit.”

“If you fail to act, we have the right to move up the chain of command, as regulations state.”

Marcone pointed an angry finger at her. “Don’t you start quoting regulation to me, Captain. If you want to discuss reg’s, let’s take a look at you. We can start with those boots. Are they within reg’s?”

“Yes Colonel.” Aurora swung one of her high-heeled black boots onto Sands’ lap. “They’ve been approved by my unit commander.”

Sands quickly pushed her leg off. He didn’t recall giving her permission to wear them, but also hadn’t told her she couldn’t. Either way, he didn’t like where this was going. He sought the quickest exit by saying, “That will be fine sir. We’ll do what we can.”

He grabbed Aurora by the arm and made for the door.

“Tread lightly,” Marcone warned. “Both of you.”

Out in the corridor, Sands growled, “Why must you be such a bitch?”

“Because I enjoy it,” she said with an evil little grin.

The Oronos did not receive a welcoming party when it dropped out of ex-space, outside the system containing their formerly dead planet. It was a return to a place, which in a strange twist of fate, they had never been to. It was not the world that they had fled helplessly from as the enemy closed in. Nor was it the clouded ball of death they had bombed in what seemed an eternity ago, or rather to come. It was, and yet it was not, their home.

The welcome they did receive was not the warm embrace extended to conquering heroes that so many of them needed. Instead, they were greeted by mistrust and suspicion in the form of a coded message from Fleet Command, signed by Marshal Grindell personally.

General Yanex read the coded instruction with mixed emotions. Although they were clearly not happy to have him there, they did not order him to leave. He suspected his reclusive guest had something to do with that. His staff wasn’t pleased with the instructions either. Somehow the word, “request,” in the instructions seemed ill placed.

“They want us to masquerade as a derelict ship,” Yanex explained to those officers who were readily available in the COC.

“So that’s how they want it played,” Marcone mused.

Hellor said, “That shouldn’t be a problem with the external damage.”

“They want us to reduce our power signature to a minimum,” Yanex added.

“No problem,” smiled Hellor, “ECM can make this thing look like a shuttle craft.”

“Without jamming. They don’t want any hint of our advanced technology to leak out.”

“It’s a little late for that, isn’t it?” Marcone said sarcastically.

Yanex brushed over the remark and spoke to Ratoe instead. “Reduce the power grid to a minimum operating level.”

Ratoe thought a moment, he was hard pressed to remember how to carry out the order. “I’d need to take the phase drive off line and bleed off the charge. That’s the biggest thing running right now.”

“It’s barely running,” said Marcone. “With a full shutdown we can start repairs.”

“Yes, it’s been barely running for quite a long time.” Yanex turned to the young officer, “Well done Major.”

“Thank you sir,” Major Ratoe smiled.

“Shutdown all but two reactors,” the General ordered, “one fore and one aft.”

“Commander,” Hellor asked, “are we standing down to standard operations? Under the alert we’re to maintain combat readiness. If you downgrade the power grid, I won’t have enough power for the main batteries.”

“There in lays the intent of the orders,” stated Marcone. “We can move into orbit, only if we’re helpless.”

“There’s no shields,” Hellor explained, “and other than flight op’s we’ll have no offensive systems.”

“What about the secondaries?”

“Limited.”

Yanex had to give that some deep thought. Under Chapter Fifteen he had the authority to cancel the alert status that had existed since the start of the Krix War. However that also meant changing his position. Under the emergency condition, he was legally the supreme commander of the Alliance, or what was left of it. Going to standard operations essentially meant ending the war with the Krix and resuming peacetime operations. It would compromise his position in dealing with the Aultrian government. As it stood, he held his post by edict of law, a law that existed even then, a law that had been enacted by that very government.

“I’ll waver the combat status in the log,” he finally said. “We’re under the protection of local forces anyway.”

Then another thought occurred to him. “We’re entering a maintenance status, covert operations, whatever sounds best in the log.”

“So we’re still at war with the Krix?” Marcone asked. He knew the reason behind it, but just wanted to hear how absurd it sounded.

“Yes, until further notice.”

“What about the crew?” Marcone asked.

“We’re probably a temporary crew sent to retrieve this ship. We may be getting false identifications. In the meantime, we’ll start working on concealing our point of origin. Once I’ve met with Fleet Command, we’ll have better idea of what they have in mind.”

Following the standard military approach path into the system, Oronos was met by four large industrial towing ships. Far from needed, the escorts took up positions to tow the wrecked ship into safety. By the time they entered the shorter range of most civilian sensors, the Oronos was near completely powered down. After their long fight to get back, the indignity of being towed into orbit of one of Aultra’s two moons was all that some could bear. However, even this did not downplay the significance of the moment, they were home.

Crewmembers crowded monitors and the few available view ports. The Tyramma gathered in the Belly Lounge to watch the distant blue sphere slowly grow as they closed in. Some stood in silence, while others murmured in disbelief. Lazell stared out in wide-eyed wonder as the planet of her birth filled the window.

“It’s the New World,” she said in reverence.

“It’s the Old World,” quipped Aurora.

“They’re the same,” the girl said softly. “All this time, we’ve been searching for what we lost, our home.”

“It’s not our home. We aren’t welcome there.”

“The people will welcome us, we are of them.”

“What do ya mean, we’re not welcome?” Bogan blurted out.

“Did you post for leave yet?” she asked out loud.

“There is no posting yet,” someone called out from the back.

Bogan pushed his way over to the Colonel and declared, “I’m beyond my commission, I want to resign, right now.”

“Hold on, hold on,” Sands responded as others joined in. “We’re all over our times, but let’s not get carried away here, we’re still on retention.”

“The war’s over,” said Bogan, “I want out.”

“There’s still a job to do here,” Sands announced to the anxious room. “The mission comes first.”

“We’re here, the mission is done,” someone else shouted from the other side of the group that converged on him.

“The mission is done when the Commander says it’s done. Listen, I know you’re all anxious to get off this pig, I am too, but we can’t just rush into this. The Commander has all our interests at heart. He’ll do the right thing by us. Just give it some time.”

Few were happy with that. It was Marcus who came to the inundated Colonel’s aid.

“He’s right!” Marcus shouted. “We’re a hundred cycles in the past. There’re no lives for us to just return too. There’s going to have to be some adjustment.”

“Hey!” Talya shouted from the bar, “look at this.”

As people gathered around, she instructed the bartender to replay the broadcast they’d just watched. Local and civilian channels had become available as soon as they dropped out. Without orders to the contrary, Major Tollyn hadn’t blocked any incoming signals.

A well-dressed woman filled the large screen behind the bar with an artificial smile as she read the news of the day. “Military representatives have today confirmed the discovery of an alien ship.” Her image was then superimposed over a slightly blurred picture of the Oronos. The ship was shown from its worst possible angle, the heavily damaged starboard side.

“Described as a multi-purpose vessel, the derelict is said to be heavily damaged and from an as yet unknown system. What happened to the ship’s crew and how it got here remains a mystery.

“In other news, heated debate continued in the General Assemble today over the proposed writ that would give local law making abilities to the individual states and planets. Counsel Shylock of Darcane has denied charges that he is attempting to weaken the central government in a push for independence.” The significance had been lost on her. Follow-up stories would receive even less attention.

“Is that it?” Sands asked in disbelief.

“What about us?” Lazell asked.

“We don’t exist,” answered Aurora.

“Clam down,” Sands called out. “This is just some cover story they threw at the press, don’t worry about it.”

“We don’t exist, Sands,” Bogan stated, grabbing him by the arm.

Sands jerked free. “Look at you guys, we should be celebrating our return and you’re gettin’ yourselves all freaked out over nothing.”

That seemed to help some. Marcus also helped out by trying to split the crowd up with the idea that they should have some toasts.

Sands called up his old standard line that had bailed him out of those situations before. “I’ll talk to the Commander, find out what’s happening. Be cool, everything’s all right.”

“Is it?” Bogan pushed as others started breaking up and returning to the window. “What about you? You really believe that shit? How far from home are you?”

“No further than anyone else, pal.”

“What about us?” Russell asked as he poked him in the back. “There’s a lot of people from Earth here. None of us just want to disappear, you know what I mean?”

Sands pulled him off into a corner. “Man, don’t even start that kinda shit. We don’t need that here.”

“We? What do you mean we?” Russell balked. “Do you have any idea what the people from Earth are going through on this ship?”

“It’s the same thing everyone else is going through. They just have more experience with it. But believe me, this is hard on everyone.”

“No it’s not.” Russell pointed at the window. “They’re home, you’re home. You think any of us is going back to Earth? Even if we could, what’s there for us? Their world is a hell of a lot better off than they left it.”

“And Earth isn’t?” Sands was growing angry at his insinuations, but tried to stay in control. “Everybody dies in the future, remember? If there’s even the slightest possibility of preventing that, I’m all over it. Winning this war means saving Earth. The best chance of doing that is here, now. That’s why I joined the military. I gave up my life the day I took that oath.”

“So you betrayed Earth to save it, hu? You’d save your home from the Krix so it can be invaded by Aultra.”

Sands gritted his teeth. He didn’t like what he was hearing. Russell had no idea of what he went through, what his decisions were based on. He had no conception of how different his life had been on Aultra, how much better. Sands didn’t want to admit that he was actually looking forward to living there again.

Russell asked, “What if you had to choose between Earth and Aultra? You don’t have to answer me, but you have to answer yourself. Which would you choose?”

Sands finally had it put flat out to him. He thought long and hard about it over the following days. His reasons for leaving Earth in the first place seemed so shallow, they were simple compared to the knowledge he had gained. He in no way regretted his choice then, and in the same situation he would do it again. However now, in the barbaric past, before the series of widespread riots that would be called the Race Wars, before the world government, before the intervention of outside worlds shook every aspect of civilization, how would he choose? Sands had to face the cold fact that he would choose as he had before, only now he would face it for the fact it was. He would choose Aultra.

When things settled down, Sands managed to pull Aurora from the room.

“You weren’t helping in there,” he grumbled as they waited for the transport.

“They’re all so eager to get a hold of this ship, I don’t want to end up as a loose end, you know what I mean?”

The doors parted and she followed him in as he stated, “There’s two-thousand of us, what could they possible do?”

“I don’t know, how about a mass grave on some rock out there?”

Sands laughed then called for the COC. “If we were back on my planet I might be concerned, but this is Aultra, get real.”

Aurora saw some wisdom in what he said. However she was still uneasy. As civilized as Aultra was, these had been dark times. Loosing Darcane in the present war had been devastating and was sighted as contributing factor to the government’s demise.

However none of that answered the question that was now burning in her head. “Where the hell are we going?”

“To see the Commander.”

“Really?” she said in her sarcastic tone, “I always thought you were full of shit when you said you’d talk to him.”

Sands tried to stumble past that with, “I had an idea. If we can’t use the history files, maybe we can trace Zollin through present information. We can access the planet-wide information system from up here. I did it once before, before we lost Aultra to the Krix.”

“You’re not asking your buddy first? Marcone won’t be happy about you over stepping him.”

“He said to use what resources we had, and the Commander is the only one who can authorize a covert operation.”

“Oooo, covert operation, sneaky, sneaky. You’re getting to be quite the little operator, aren’t you?”

Sands smirked a bit. He hadn’t realized how important this had become to him. He also didn’t see how his other responsibilities were being pushed aside for it.

“What good will that do anyway? If this guy’s some kinda spy, it’s not gonna be in his personnel file.”

“No,” Sands explained as the doors opened, “but we might be able to dig up enough to show the Old Man that we need to get into the history files. Or better yet, a little surface recon’ might be in order.”

“Really,” Aurora actual smiled. Somehow the idea of walking in her native sun had seemed impossible, even as the ship moved into orbit of one of Aultra’s moons.

Then it changed, the short-lived feeling of jubilation vanished. Those distant memories of her green childhood home had been buried deep below layers upon layers of pain and anguish. She’d become incapable of dealing with the thought of it actually happening. She knew there was no bringing back her childhood days of innocence, but even the thought of seeing those very places was far more than she could handle. The smile dropped into the well of emotion that began bubbling up in her. In that one moment she let all her defenses slip. The great walls suddenly came crashing down and she nearly burst into tears. It took everything she had to turn back that tide. She restrained herself from blurting out that she didn’t want to go.

Sands didn’t notice the change in her expression as they entered the COC. If he turned and asked what was wrong in that short time it took them to pass through security, she might’ve exploded. However, by the time he was done spouting some of his varied conspiracy theories, the barriers were back in place, and the walls reinforced.

General Yanex sat in his chair surrounded by the bustling activity of the COC. He was lost in his own thoughts of green fields when the two officers approached. The Colonel’s salute caught him off guard and he tried to minimize his startled reaction as he turned to them.

“Yes, Vice,” Yanex said softly, “what do you need?”

“We’ve reached an impasse in our investigation.”

“Investigation?” It took him a moment to recall what they were talking about. A hypothesis on how to proceed next had dominated his thoughts. The people whom he would meet in the next few days had to be carefully placed in lists of who could and couldn’t be trusted.

“Yes sir,” Sands continued, “I think that Zollin was definitely working for someone else. He was meant to kill Kryton, then himself like he did here. The guy might’ve been some kinda spy or programmed to self-destruct.”

“Entirely possible,” Yanex said as he glanced over at a monitor with a message for him.

Sands announcement had not been the revaluation he had hoped for. The General should have been pointing out what a genius he was right then. He now had to shuffle through his mental notes and reorganize his speech.

After a clumsy pause, Sands stated, “The investigation into Zollin’s other death might have brought out who he was, who he was working for.”

“It didn’t.” Yanex was already way ahead of them, “That investigation was a wipe. It concluded that he acted along, dissipate evidence to the contrary.”

“What evidence was that?” Aurora inquired.

Yanex considered letting them have access to that one bit of information, then decided against it. Any further leak of future data could compromise his position. It was then he decided to destroy the protected files. All of the ship’s computer cores would be striped of historical data. He would, of course, keep a secret copy for himself.

“I can’t reveal that,” stated the General. “I don’t want any more of this information falling into the wrong hands.”

“Then how are we supposed to work on this if you’re tying our hands?” asked Aurora.

Sands glared at her, he wanted to backhand her across the face, but decided against it. It might not look good in front of the General. Especially if he ended up on the floor.

Luckily the General was not as thin skinned as some others were. He actually valued the criticism of his subordinates; provided it was presented properly.

“I’m not tying your hands, Captain,” Yanex responded. “I’m limiting the reach you have.”

Yanex leaned forward and whispered to them. “I’m about to enter into some very sensitive negotiations here. As much as I’d like to have this incident as tool against someone, I can’t have it turned back on me.”

“What if we were to access the ground based network?” asked Sands. “There might be something in there.”

Yanex thought a moment. “A limited inquiry. And you are not to reveal who you are under any circumstances. Is that clear?”

“Yes sir.”

Returning to his list of names, Yanex had no doubt as to who would top the, “Do not trust,” list. Marlanna entered the COC flanked by her bodyguards. The two soldiers waited near the entrance as she sashayed her way down to the main floor.

“Welcome home, General,” she declared. “The Emperor awaits your arrival.”

“The Emperor? I was to meet with the Council.”

“In time. However, the Emperor does not wish to wait for the bureaucracy to get its self organized.” She smiled at some inside joke that only she knew the punch line to. “I am sure we all know how slow the government can move.”

Having just come on duty, Marcone approached from behind as he took in the comments.

“I thought the Emperor had relinquished all his power to the Council,” he boldly challenged her with. “What is the point of seeing him?”

Marlanna was undisturbed by the remark. “That is not entirely true, Colonel. The Royal Clan still wields a great deal of clout.”

She turned back to the General. “You would do well to side yourself with such a powerful, influential ally.”

Yanex rose from his seat. “I will meet with the Emperor. The mission would be well served by his support.”

“Excellent,” said Marlanna. She moved for the rear exit, followed closely by her guards. “A shuttle can take us directly to his compound.”

Yanex patted Marcone on the shoulder as he followed. “A type two shuttle, Colonel (armed defensively).”

Seeing the disconcerted look on Marcone’s face, he leaned over to whisper in his ear. “Don’t worry, I don’t trust her either.”

Over his shoulder he saw the woman leave the center. Then in a slightly louder voice, “But, she’s right. We need as many friends as we can get.”

With permission from Major Tollyn, Sands and Aurora used a terminal in the communication center to access Aultra’s planet wide computer network. Government maintained files on all citizens contained clan associations, family lines, education, and employment background. Zollin’s file looked much like anyone else’s when Aurora called it up. It was actually a little too bland. He grew up in the city, did a short stint pushing buttons and carrying other people’s water in the military, then a couple of administration jobs before signing on with Kryton. It was the fact that he had a prior government position before Kryton that caught their attention. He’d left a cushy job, suddenly and without reason, to work for a private corporation for about a year. Then he somehow ended up on Kryton’s staff where he advanced to the politician’s personal assistant and later killed him. (Or rather would have.)

When Aurora suggested calling the corporation to see if they had any record of him being there, Sands offered, “Yeah, but let’s not call the number he gave us.”

“Why?” asked Aurora.

“If it’s a dummy job they could have someone answering to cover for him. Ya know, the people that scrambled his head might have put this there to cover his training time.”

She chuckled at his hypothesis. “You just love this conspiracy stuff, don’t you?”

Sands nodded vigorously as he smiled.

Jumping back into the central network, she located the main number for the corporation. Much to their surprise, no one could remember Zollin, even though an employment file was mysteriously placed in their computer.

Sands reached over to switch the screen back to Zollin’s personal file. “I bet they remember him,” he pointed at the number given for the fictitious entry.

Aurora was unable to match the number with an address in the network and the communication company was unwilling to release any billing information.

“If we call that number,” Sands asked, “can we trace it?”

“Of course.” Aurora leaned back and called out, “Hey, Troll.”

Major Tollyn was not amused at being addressed in such an undignified manor within his section. He leisurely finished up his business with one of his officers before strolling over. “What?”

“Can you trace this number if I call it?” Sands asked.

“I could,” was the response as he stepped around to take the seat next to Aurora. He playfully elbowed her a few times as he faked losing his balance. She countered with a push that nearly erupted into a full-scale shoving match. There were also growls back and forth as he worked on the computer. Then he rambled on about how illegal it was and recited regulations against it. Tollyn even pulled two of his people off other duties to assist him. Finally he said, “Go ahead.”

Aurora sounded uncharacteristically friendly as she told the woman who answered that she was considering hiring Zollin for some job. The woman was all too happy to transmit the man’s records, she even recounted some personnel experiences with the dead man. Stories that Aurora was willing to listen to and even prolong as Tollyn seemed to be having some difficulty with the trace.

“I’m sorry, who did you say you were with?” the woman finally asked, her demeanor suddenly changed. Aurora made up some name as she tried to stall. However it was too late. The woman was already on to them. The line went dead.

Sands jumped from his seat and peered over Tollyn’s shoulder. “What’d ya get?”

“I’m more interested in keeping them from tracing us right now,” Tollyn muttered as he worked and gave instructions to his assistants.

Sands was dumbfounded. “They’re tracing us?”

“Hang on.” Tollyn said as he and his assistants worked to keep their own identity secret.

“I’ve got an idea sir,” called out one of the young technicians.

“Go ahead.” The trace was getting dangerously close to the satellite relay. Tollyn was trying to reroute the signal through the ground-based network, just as the hunted had just done. By illegally tapping into the network computers, they could send the call through different paths and junctions. Station to station, city to city, hunter became the prey as signal wound its way across the planet.

“That’s it!” smiled the technician. The squiggle line on his monitor turned back on itself and began retracing its own steps.

“What did you do?” Aurora placed her hands on the man’s shoulders as she leaned in for a look.

“I looped it around so it will retrace its own steps,” the man said proudly. “They either terminate the trace or it goes back to them.”

“Good job, Crewman,” stated Tollyn as he intently watched the line change color, indicating that it was doubled. It reverted to its original color as it left its original path, then suddenly ended.

“What?” Sands asked. He had no idea what was going on. “Did they find us?”

“No,” said Tollyn, “but we might have found them.” He pointed at the screen where the line ended.

“That’s them?”

“Maybe, it might just be a relay module, but it’s definitely some kind of control point.”

“How do we find where it is?”

Tollyn hit a few keys and an address popped up on the screen.

“It’s a general office building in Maracasa.”

Back at her computer, Aurora called up the address in the communications records. “Looks like a utility room on the sixty-fifth floor.”

“It’s a relay module then,” stated Tollyn.

“That thing will lead us back to where that office is right?” asked an excited Sands.

Tollyn leaned back and folded his hands behind his head. “Not necessarily. There could be a number of them leading back to the source. This could even be a transmitter or something.”

“If I get the thing,” smiled Sands, “can you trace it?”

“If you get it?” The opportunity was as clear to Tollyn as it was to Sands. “You wouldn’t know what to look for, it’s probable hidden. You’ll have to manually trace the connection. I should go with you.”

“Not a problem.” Sands shook the man’s hand. “Looks like a little surface recon’. You up for it?”

Aurora gave a reluctant nod.

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