By Leia Fee
Byers logged off the system and gathered his things together to leave.
“Going home on time for once?” Nova called from where he was still sat in front of a terminal.
“For once. See you tomorrow.”
Nova waved and turned back to the terminal where a game was running. Byers couldn’t blame him. It had been a remarkably slow week. It wasn’t that he disliked his job, on the contrary it was the sort of thing he’d always aimed to do. But somehow he was restless, unsatisfied. He sighed, shook his head dismissively and walked out.
He strolled through the dome, heading for his usual shortcut through the Gamma section. Nova was frequently warning him about the dangers of taking such a shortcuts, horror stories of muggings by the residents and of passers-by being mistakenly caught up in the periodic security raids. Byers listened and nodded politely and took the same short cut every day.
The daily market was still thronged with people but it was a purposeful and silent crowd for the most part. One or two traders called out trying to catch their attention but they were largely ignored. Byers glanced across at a particularly loud exchange between two of the traders. One of them, a short, balding man was doing his best to hawk his wares to a young woman who seemed in quite a rush to get away. His sales pitch was not helped by the heckling from the watching, taller man.
“Comm descrambler,” The shorter man was explaining, “Viscasts from 33 worlds straight to you—”
He was cut off by a derisive snort.
“Yeah right, Frohike.” The taller man flicked long blond hair out of his face and launched into a string of contradictions.
While they bickered, the woman slipped away and hurried across the crowded square. Byers was still watching the illegal comm traders, wondering why he didn’t feel guilty for not reporting them and for that matter why someone else hadn’t already done so. He didn’t see the woman hurrying towards him until they collided. He caught her arm to steady her.
“Hey, you okay?”
She pulled back and looked at him with an almost frightened expression.
“Yes, fine,” she said hastily and pulled away.
Byers watched her for a moment then, uncertain as to why, he hurried after her.
“Wait. Is there something I can do? Do you need help?”
She paused, looked at him for a long moment then asked. “Is there somewhere we could go?”
“I think a friend of mine, Ravella, might be in trouble,” she said hesitantly.
Byers handed her a cup of coffee.
“What sort of trouble?” he asked, caution vying with sympathy.
“I think she might be involved with the underground. With the Freedom Party. But I don’t know how to find out. I just…” She audibly stifled a sob. “I just… need to know if she’s all right.”
Byers looked at her for a moment. He’d heard about the Freedom Party of course. Everyone had. It was constantly on the viscasts. Security warnings went out constantly, he’d even helped prepare some of the broadcasts. He looked at the woman’s frightened, worried face and made a decision.
“I might be able to find out.”
She beamed at him. “I’ve been trying for days to find her. I access the Administration computer system, but this is all I could find.” She handed him a printout with a string of digits on it.
Byers glanced at it.
“It’s a file reference number.”
Byers nearly jumped out of his skin when Della, as the woman had finally introduced herself, moved up behind him. There was nothing technically wrong with him being in the office after hours but questions would certainly be asked if a strange woman was found there with him. Especially if anyone discovered which systems they’d been accessing.
“All right. I’m into the security system. Give me the number again”
Della read out the digits.
Byers typed a moment longer then frowned.
“There is a file here.”
“What does it say?” Della leaned closer.
“I can’t access it. It’s secured, encrypted.”
“Isn’t there anything you can do?”
Byers stared at her.
“I don’t think you understand. This is a secure system. If we’re caught even accessing it…” He trailed off at her disappointed expression. Then almost to his own surprise he spoke again.
“I could copy it. I think I might know someone who can help.”
A sound from the doorway made him jump and spin round.
“Oh, hello,” said Nova uncertainly looking between Byers and Della.
“Hello, Nova,” Byers smiled reassuringly. “I just popped back to pick up some things I left earlier.”
“Oh, okay. I was just going to get a few things off the computer system.”
“Well I’m done here,” Byers surreptitiously closed the search program, retrieved the datacube and relinquished the terminal.
“See you tomorrow then.”
Byers nodded. “Good night.”
Early the next morning, before he was due in work, Byers stopped in the Gamma marketplace. As he’d hoped the pirate viscast hawker was still there, though his rival heckler was absent.
He looked Byers up and down as he approached, suspicion plain on his face.
“What d’you want?”
“Some help with this.” Byers handed him the datacube, trying to keep his face calm. As though violating Federation law was a routine activity.
Frohike took it and his expression changed from suspicious to speculative.
“Where d’you get it?”
“Off the Admin computers, but I can’t decrypt it.”
Frohike started to say something but stopped and stared past Byers instead.
“Who?” Byers started to turn but Frohike caught his arm. “Don’t look. He followed you here.”
Byers shook his head and shrugged.
“Well let’s go and see what he wants,” Frohike suggested.
Byers shook his head immediately, already uncomfortable with the way the situation was developing.
“I don’t think that’s a good idea.”
“Come on.” Ignoring his reluctance Frohike caught his arm and strode towards the blond man who turned and strolled away. Reluctantly Byers went along with him until suddenly the man ahead of them spun round.
“Can I help you?”
“Uh…” Byers started.
“Nope, we were just looking for the food stand,” Frohike responded smoothly.
“I think it’s back that way.” The man pointed. He glanced at Byers’ work ID badge.
“Oh you work for the Administration?”
Byers glanced down at his badge, which he’d forgotten he was still wearing.
The man stuck out his hand. “Security. Dev Tarrant.”
Byers took the proffered hand but did not offer his own name in return.
“So, food stand?” Frohike prompted after a moment.
“Yes,” Byers agreed hurriedly. “Nice to meet you,” he nodded to Tarrant who gave him a smile in return.
“Federation Security?” Frohike whispered vehemently as they returned to his stand. He glanced around. “Hey, where’d she go?”
Byers looked round too, Della was nowhere to be seen but there was a rather large disturbance occurring at one end of the market.
Frohike was quickly but calmly gathering up his equipment.
“Security patrol,” he explained. “Looks like they’ve already grabbed someone and they only drag them through here as an example, but I’d rather not draw their attention.”
Byers started towards the disturbance, with a sudden sinking certainty that Della was involved. However to his surprise the familiar voice that suddenly yelled out in protest was not Della’s but Nova’s.
“I didn’t do anything! I swear. All I did was play a few games!”
“Oh no,” Byers started forwards again and found himself grabbed by Frohike.
“What are you doing?”
“It wasn’t him it was me!”
Frohike hauled him backwards. “And you want to get caught do you?”
“I…” Byers was distraught and didn’t know what to say.
“Come on, let's get out of here.” Frohike tugged on his arm and after a moment Byers allowed himself to be drawn away from the scene.
“We need to find out what’s in that file.”
“Della still has it.”
Frohike frowned. “Then we need to access the security computers. I know just the guy who can do it.”
Byers felt as though he was functioning on autopilot. He followed Frohike numbly as he led him through the lower levels of the dome. Eventually he stopped outside a nondescript door and pressed and held the entry buzzer.
“Langly! Open up!”
After several long minutes the longhaired heckler from the marketplace slid the door open and stared at them.
Byers sat and watched Langly work his way into the central security network. He clearly had none of the pangs of conscience he himself was suffering.
“Okay, I’m in. What do you need?”
“Check out that FedSec agent. Dev Tarrant.”
Langly pulled up the information.
“Undercover golden boy. Currently assigned to counter-terrorism.”
“That fits. Della was afraid her friend was mixed up with the Freedom Party. Try the friend then. Ravella.”
Langly typed again.
“Got her. Hmm, big file. Suspected in taking part in assorted terrorist activities, contacts with the Freedom Party. Quite well known too, apparently knew Blake before he decided to turn himself in.” Langly turned around expecting some response from the other two, but they were staring at the ID image on the screen.
Byers and Frohike stared at Della’s picture.
The door opening behind them made all three of them jump and turn round.
“You’re reading about me,” Ravella commented.
Byers stared at her.
“I am Ravella,” she admitted, “I’m sorry I lied to you but I desperately needed you to help and was afraid if you knew the truth you wouldn’t.”
“Help with what exactly?” Byers asked.
“This.” She held up the datacube. “This contains proof of numerous crimes the Administration has committed. Drugging the population. Secret, fixed trials. Brainwashing.”
The three men looked at her sceptically.
“Blake’s arrest!” she cried at them.
“Arrest?” Byers shook his head, “Blake turned himself in.”
Ravella shook her head vehemently. “He was arrested, tortured, brainwashed then made to recite a load of apologetic Federation propaganda over the viscast.”
She stared at them.
“Please, the proof is in this file. Help me decrypt it. Please.”
Langly and Frohike looked at each other, then at Byers who nodded slowly.
Ravella smiled broadly at them. “Thank you. I’ll leave the datacube with you. I’ve got to go to meet someone.”
“Who?” Byers asked.
She left the three men staring at each other in confusion and concern.
“Langly, what’s taking so long?” Frohike demanded.
“Any second now.”
“Yeah, here we go.” Frohike watched the decrypted data appear on the screen.
Byers read it aloud.
“The recent attempts of the Freedom Party to expose the adjustments made to the rebel leader Roj Blake are a hindrance to security but are soon to be dealt with. Surveillance is in place in the experienced hands of Agent Dev Tarrant who—”
Frohike interrupted in alarm. “The guy who was following you?”
“She’s being set up.” Langly said.
“We’ve got to get to her. Warn her.” Byers was near frantic. “What else is in the file?”
Langly scrolled the text down and Byers continued reading.
“There’s a time and meeting place here… They’re going outside?”
“What exit?” Frohike asked quickly.
“That’s not far. We might be able to reach her in time.”
“Here.” Frohike stopped by the exit and pointed to the circuit integrators. “The lock’s been forced.”
Langly opened the door and peered outside. The silhouette of a tall man was still visible heading across the fields.
“We can still make it.” He stepped outside, followed by Frohike.
“This is a category 4 crime.”
“Your second one today. Come on.”
They hurried across the fields in pursuit and reached the entrance to the tunnels a few minutes behind Tarrant.
“They’ve sealed the entrance,” Frohike said, thumping it.
“We’ve got to find a way in,” Byers insisted.
Langly looked up at an approaching light.
They dived into the bushes as the lights resolved into aircars clearly marked with the FedSec emblem. Armed troops poured out and started cutting open the door. The three watching men crouched in silence, trying not to breath too loudly.
After a few minutes the security officers were all inside and silence descended again. Byers stood up.
“Byers…” Langly stared at him in disbelief.
“We can still find her.”
Frohike shook his head. “It’s too late.”
“No. I’m not giving up yet.” Byers stepped resolutely towards the hanging remains of the door. “Are you coming?”
Frohike and Langly looked at each other then followed Byers inside.
They were no more than a few paces in when they heard raised voices. Moments after that, they heard the sound of blaster fire.
“Oh no!” Byers started to run towards the sound.
Frohike and Langly jumped forward to restrain him.
“‘Oh no’ is right,” snapped Frohike, “Getting ourselves killed isn’t going to help.”
“He’s right,” Langly agreed. Byers reluctantly stopped struggling as approaching footsteps sent the three of them scurrying into a side corridor. Langly stifled a cry of surprise as he collided with someone already there. The man pressed a finger urgently to his lips as the footsteps passed them by. They sagged against the wall in relief.
Byers turned to the tall man they’d run into and did a double take.
“You’re Roj Blake.”
The man nodded.
“And you three are…?”
“Friends of Ravella’s. We found out about the ambush but we couldn’t get here in time.”
Blake nodded sadly.
“Well thank you for trying.”
They walked back to the dome together. Blake stopped once the reached the upper levels.
“We should split up now. I’m not a safe person to be around.”
“So what are you going to do now?” Byers called after him.
Blake turned back to them and sighed. “Start again. Keep trying to find people willing to believe me, willing to expose what’s happening.”
“We want to help.”
Blake looked at him then at Frohike and Langly.
“It’s dangerous. You saw what happened out there today. They didn’t take any prisoners.”
The three of them moved closer together and stared resolutely back at him. He nodded.
“Reach as many people as you can. Tell the truth. Don’t let them cover this up.”
He started walking away. “And be careful!”
They watched him until he reached the end of the corridor when from nowhere the black-clad figures of Federation security grabbed him. This time even Byers had the presence of mind to retreat rapidly around the corner.
Grimly they looked at each other.
“So what do we do now?” Langly asked eventually.“We do what he said,” Byers replied without hesitation. “We tell people the truth.”
Back to Fannish Pursuits.