She had dropped out of hyperspace as close to Deshtiris as she dared, for the less distance she traveled under power the less chance there was of detection. She had allowed her ship to coast to a point about two hundred miles above the surface, then applied the minimum power needed to bring her into a geosynchronous orbit above her destination. Her orbital speed exactly matching that of the planet's rotational speed, she in effect was hovering motionless above her destination. Then she had applied a small pulse of power, just enough to put her into free fall towards the planet's surface.
It had taken a long time to fall two hundred miles. Unlike a meteor, which enters the atmosphere at an extremely high velocity to start with, her speed was limited to what gravity could induce minus the friction of the atmosphere. Her terminal velocity was sufficiently low that she needn't fear ending up as a shooting star, but quite sufficient to abruptly end her career if not checked before she reached the ground. Against that she had to balance the fact that Deshtiris had a sophisticated net of detectors capable of picking up the low-speed engines used by both fliers and by spaceships when maneuvering in the atmosphere. A third factor she had to consider was that too great a deceleration in too little a time would have smashed her quite as effectively as a direct impact with the surface.
Her life would depend upon the accuracy of her calculations, calculations carried out to seven decimal places of accuracy. The timing of the actual deceleration was far too delicate to leave to chemically based nerve cells and sluggish muscle fibers, and so she had entered the information into the ship's autopilot interface, rechecking every last digit of every number before storing the commands. Then she had rotated the ship into a horizontal orientation, lowered her chair back, and stretched herself out and waited.
She was suddenly crushed into her seat with tremendous pressure, the breath forced from her lungs. She could not move even her hands, much less sit up. Her vision began going dark, and she felt herself blacking out. Then suddenly she could breathe again, and all sensation of motion was gone.
She found herself just thirty feet above the treetops of a deciduous forest. At that height the Deshtiran sensors would be unable to pick up the radiations from her well-shielded surface drive, and she set out on the prearranged course towards her chosen landing spot several dozen miles away. She knew that during her brief deceleration she had probably appeared on the Deshtiran screens, and could only hope that after a brief search of the vicinity the authorities would conclude that the odd "blip" had merely been a glitch of some kind.
When she finally dropped to a landing in a small ravine and stepped outside it was dark. Carefully hiding the ship in a narrow side gully, she had waited until mid-morning; then, unpacking a small motorcycle (typical Brizal standard issue for lesser officers), she had set out along the base of the ravine and in about ten minutes had reached a highway bridge. Soon she was on her way towards her destination, a secondary Brizal base about ten miles away. With her she carried a small case, containing the usual tools and components used by a technician in her position. Included with them, inconspicuous among the jumble of assorted parts, was a small data crystal.
Her identification and associated computer records on file had provided her with easy entry at the main gate. As Lev's advance intelligence had forecast discipline was slack, as was typical for a relatively unimportant installation. According to her orders, she had come from a major Brizal communications center about ninety miles to the south, a reasonable distance to have traveled via the light motorcycle. Explaining her mission to the guard on duty, she had received directions to a low, flat building near the center of the base, where she had parked her motorcycle and checked in with the technician in charge.
"Just a minor upgrade of your security protocols," she had explained casually, flashing her identification card. To her alarm, the technician on duty insisted on slipping it into a card reader attached to his telecom. For a moment she held her breath, then inwardly sighed in relief as her picture appeared on screen, surrounded by the forged information she had planted several days previously. Scanning it carefully, the technician finally nodded.
"CompSec certainly picked a hell of a day to send you here for this," he grumbled as he led her to her requested destination. For a moment she was uncertain what to do next, not knowing if displaying ignorance would betray her in some way. Balanced against that, she realized, were the unknown dangers of inadequate information.
"Why's that?" she asked casually.
"Didn't they tell you?" he snapped, looking at her a bit strangely, she thought. "Teyn's coming for one of his
"Well, it's not my problem," she grumbled. "I've got my orders, and that's all I care about." Once again he gave her an odd look. With luck, she thought, she'd be finished and away long before the dictator arrived.
For a while she input a series of carefully planned commands, which to even a skilled computer expert would be recognized as legitimate procedures for the reconfiguration of the encryption software. Then, seeing to her satisfaction that the technician had lost interest and wandered off to the other side of the room, she began slipping in additional instructions, whose ultimate purpose would be to route copies of all secure data to a fictional address. The real effect would be to pass the data into the hyperspace communications systems used to communicate with ships on trading missions to Qozernon. Once in that relatively open data channel, it could be easily intercepted and decoded by Qozernan security forces.
There was one more task to accomplish, and for this she needed access to one of the consoles in the main administration building. Asking the technician for directions, she had packed up her equipment and emerged into the sunlight, for by now it was near noon.
As she stepped into the lobby of the much larger building, a voice addressed her sharply. "Hey! You, back against the wall, arms out." It was a guard, with a symbol on his shoulder that for a moment baffled her as she complied. Then with a sinking feeling in the pit of her stomach she recognized the insignia for Teyn's personal bodyguard. Looking around, she saw two other bodyguards standing at attention, with the remaining occupants of the room also standing obediently against the walls, their arms straight out horizontally in the Deshtiran equivalent of the American "hands up!" position.
A moment later four men emerged from a central corridor. Three of them were more bodyguards. The fourth she instantly recognized as Krigghin Teyn. She had never forgotten that moment, as she stared at the man who had been responsible for the death of her adopted parents, Wilorian's decades of exile on Earth, and the evil that had befallen her home planet. With a supreme effort she had eradicated every trace of emotion from her face, lest her hatred betray her and her mission.
As they passed within a few paces of her, Teyn had hesitated for a moment, directly meeting her blank gaze. Then he had slowly looked her up and down with an unpleasant leer that sent shivers down her spine. As they had continued on and out of the building, the remaining bodyguards in the room falling lazily into step behind them, she saw Teyn whisper something to the man next to him.
Only when the seven were completely gone did the room suddenly return to life, as a buzz of quiet conversation sprang up where before there had been an uncomfortable silence. Forcing herself to focus on the task at hand, she had shaken off the uneasy emotions that had seized her for the moment and obtained the directions she needed. Soon she was once again seated before a data console, looking for all the world like a bored low-level technician performing routine maintenance.
Entering a series of search commands, she located the target she had sought for so long. Years of cautious probing had told her where in the Deshtiran data network the information she needed was located, and now at last she was at a terminal that would provide her with access. From her work case she removed the small data crystal, after furtively glancing around to make sure she wasn't being watched too closely. Slipping it into an open socket, she entered one more command and waited as her father's long-sought research archives at last fell into her possession.
She glanced nervously at her watch. She knew it would take forty seconds to download the information she needed, and for forty seconds she resumed keying in innocuous instructions in case anyone glanced in her direction.
The download completed, she had just finished removing the crystal and slipped it back into her case when there was a commotion in the hallway and a moment later two of Teyn's guards swaggered into the room. Brushing off a technician's protests, they strode directly towards her.
"You," one of the guards said curtly. "Come with us."
Suddenly feeling a knot at the pit of her stomach, she managed to choke out, "Have I done something wrong?"
"Just follow us," the guard snapped. The two seemed to be sharing a private joke of some kind. "Don't worry," the other guard said to the technician. "We'll get her back to you soon enough."
A few moments later she was in the corridor between the two guards. "What's this all about?" she said defiantly, guessing that a truculent approach could do no harm in the current circumstances. "I have work to do. You can confirm my orders with CompSec headquarters."
"Oh, don't worry, babe," laughed one of the guards, the stern demeanor now abandoned as they boarded an elevator. "You'll be back in plenty of time before the office closes. Besides, Teyn outranks your boss."
"Teyn?" she said, her throat suddenly dry.
They left the elevator and stepped into a corridor. Apparently this was a floor reserved for VIPs, as the carpeting and walls were much richer than the institutional decor they had just left. A moment later they entered a luxuriously furnished suite. There was a door at one end of the room with a bored-looking guard standing next to it.
"Now listen closely," the first guard warned. "Our leader and inspiration Krigghin Teyn," and the words reeked of thinly veiled sarcasm, "took a fancy to you earlier this afternoon. And what Teyn wants, Teyn gets. I'd suggest you do anything he asks for, no matter what it is. Get the picture?"
She had during all this had an escalating apprehension of what was going on, and her quick mind had already eliminated the alternatives and fastened upon what appeared to be the only feasible plan of action.
"Oh, is that what this is all about?" she said, adding a distinct leer to her voice. "Why didn't you say so in the first place? I was just wondering what to do for a little excitement this evening. I suppose I could do a lot worse than our beloved leader, couldn't I?" She slowly ran a hand through her artificially black hair and grinned lewdly as the guard ran a scanner over her tight-fitting clothes, a bit more slowly than necessary, presumably checking for weapons.
"That's the spirit, babe," laughed the guard by the door, opening it for her. "Go for it."
Taking a deep breath, she put on what she hoped was an eager expression and stepped into the room. She found Teyn lying on the bed, covered only by the bedsheet, waiting for her. After slowly looking her up and down, as he had in the lobby, he ordered her to undress, and she did. When she finished, he eyed her approvingly, slipping off the side of the bed and stepping over to her.
With what he no doubt considered a seductive smile, he slid a hand around her slender waist and sighed in satisfaction as he felt her hands slip softly around his neck. Then the glint in his eyes was replaced by sudden terror as he felt those same hands fasten around his throat with a grip of steel.
For just a moment he struggled, unable to breathe, fighting the superhuman strength of those hands, and looking into a face bearing an expression even more horrified than his own. The last thing he heard was the sharp crack of his own neck.
Shaking with revulsion, she thrust the hideous thing away from her onto the bed and sank to her knees, fighting nausea. She listened for any sign that the guards outside had heard anything out of the ordinary, but there was no sound, and she concluded that the room was relatively soundproof.
The next half hour was the longest of her life. She forced herself to bundle the body into the bed and arrange it and the sheets to appear as though Teyn were asleep, facing away from the door. Then she waited, sitting on the edge of the bed with a sheet wrapped around herself in case one of the guards should unexpectedly enter.
Finally, the time she had allotted now expired, she dressed herself, took a deep breath, and softly opened the door. Summoning every last reserve of self control, she winked at the guard still waiting by the door and closed it behind her.
"Someone ought to explain to that guy that his women like to enjoy themselves too," she sighed in disgust. "Fast asleep," she added in explanation. "That's no way to treat a lady."
The guard grinned. "You're kind of old for him, you know," he said. "Fourteen-year-olds are more to his taste." He leered at her. "Now I, on the other hand, can appreciate a nice ripe woman like you."
She ran her tongue over her lips. "Sounds promising. You free later?" Suddenly fearing that he was going to ask Teyn, she hurriedly added, as casually as she could, "Oh, before I forget, your boss wants a wake up call in a half hour."
"Typical," sighed the guard. "Tell you what," she said enticingly, "how about if I check back in an hour? I should have that job done by then. Or does Teyn object to you getting his leftovers?" she jeered.
The guard grinned again in anticipation, obviously not offended. "As long as he gets first crack, he's not fussy. See you later," he added, as she gave him another wink on her way out.
Once in the hallway, out from under Brizali eyes, she nearly fainted from suppressed tension. For a moment she thought she was going to collapse, as her legs threatened to liquefy beneath her, then she pulled herself together and strode purposefully out of the building. A few minutes later she was back on the highway, her case with the precious data crystal safely strapped to the rear of the little motorcycle. She knew that even if the guards waited the specified thirty minutes to give Teyn his "wake up call," her margin of safety would be vanishingly small.
Of her flight from the planet, she preferred to say as little as possible, even after ten years. Suffice it to say that she had barely lifted off before she found herself hotly pursued; obviously Teyn's body had been found.
Her ship crippled by a direct hit as she left the atmosphere, she had narrowly escaped being marooned forever in limbo between universes. Her return to Qozernon was a bitter one, saturated with self-loathing for what she had compelled herself to do.
Unfortunately, there was more. Two days after her return she was stunned to see a perfectly healthy Krigghin Teyn addressing the monthly meeting of the planet's puppet legislature. Hardly believing her eyes, convinced it was a holographic deception, she had run the broadcast through every computer algorithm she could think of, as well as several new ones she had created in a frenzy of panic. All confirmed that the images she had seen were real, not altered in any way.* She couldn't fathom how or why, but Krigghin Teyn was alive.
That evening an odd message appeared in her email. Unlike most communications, this included no video, or even a holographic still. It was simply plain text, and her blood ran cold as she read it.
She must have reread the message a dozen times, wondering what was real and what wasn't; what it was all for; what it all meant. And then, for the first time since leaving Wilorian on Earth twenty years earlier, she had allowed herself to cry.
* Television transmissions on the Twin Planets are holographic and carry far more information than the blurry, flat images conveyed via Earth television. A side effect of this is that it is far more difficult to modify a live broadcast without detection, as even highly advanced computer imaging programs inevitably introduce repeating patterns and artificial regularities that a real-life image lacks, and which sophisticated computer analysis can detect. - Ed.
MIKIRIA. Copyright © 1998, 2000 Lamont Downs. All rights
reserved. No part of this work may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or
transmitted by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or
otherwise, without written permission from the author,
except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles