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Authors: Paul Collins

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BOOK: Dyson's Drop
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ANN EKE waited for the shock waves to subside then dived through the ‘hole’ she’d blown in Fat Fraddo’s wall of intersecting defensive fields. She came to her feet in one fluid move then snap-rolled aside as a disruptor beam tore through the space she’d just inhabited.

Her infrared readouts told her the shot came from an auto-drone. She blew it to smithereens then ramped up the readouts. A large hot spot lay dead ahead, presumably Fat Fraddo, keeping as quiet as he could. On the far side of the building, Anneke counted the adrenaline-pumped heat-signatures of nineteen meres and, on the lower floors, almost four dozen cooling bodies.

‘Fraddo?’ she called. ‘You there?’

A voice came out of the darkness. ‘Anneke? That you?’

‘We’ve got to get out of here. Now!’

Fat Fraddo, still in silk pyjamas, was at her side in an instant. Despite his bulk, Fraddo could move as nimbly as a ballerina. ‘Nice togs,’ she said.

‘I’ll get you a pair.’

‘Spare me.’

She led him back to the hole she’d blown with the
n-space
grenade.

‘Nice job,’ said Fat Fraddo. ‘You’ll have to show me how you did that some time.’

Together they slipped through the hole, sprinted for the external balcony, and skidded to a stop.

‘Now what?’ asked Fraddo, peering over the railing.

‘Now this.’ She grabbed Fraddo and shoved him off the balcony. He dropped into space with a strangled cry. Anneke jumped after him.

She caught up with him ten storeys down, grappled him with a harness field, and then deployed a chute field. Suddenly they were floating serenely towards the ground. Fat Fraddo regarded her truculently.

‘You could have warned me.’

‘You would have argued.’

He scowled at her, and then conceded. ‘Yes, you’re right. I would have.’

They landed amid a group of drunken spacers who reeled back and stared at them in shock. Then one said, ‘Hey, it’s rainin’ women!’

Fat Fraddo fumed. ‘I look like some woman to you, fuzzbrain?’

The spacer took a step back. Anneke and Fraddo hailed a late-night taxi pod and got out of there.

In the back seat, as Anneke checked their getaway through the rear window, she said, ‘Those pyjamas really don’t suit you ...’

‘In that case, we’ll go someplace where I can get me some decent skins. And one big juicy botchi burger. Then we got some
talkin’
to do.’

Fraddo decided to join the team. Not that he had a choice. His empire was gone, his employees dead or missing or gone to ground. There was still a hit fee on him, making it unhealthy for him to hang around.

In view of this, he appointed himself head of the control centre he’d already donated to Anneke and set about recruiting indebted techies, a process not unlike the Sentinel oath, involving deep level conditioning to prevent betrayal. Analysts, too, hypnotised to avoid divulging company secrets. Such conditioning cost money, but Fraddo still had access to his enormous fortune, and these days money could buy you anything.

Well, almost anything. It couldn’t buy you absolute safety, since someone else’s fortune could buy your death. And it couldn’t buy you a family, Anneke thought darkly, as she took a taxi pod to what had once been her family - RIM headquarters.

She’d left the control centre in capable hands. Fraddo had codenamed it
Camelot,
from his perverse love affair with long-dead myths. In just three days, Fraddo had put together a competent team, including a squad of brain-wiped meres and his erstwhile employee, Mobus, and liaised them with Josh and Oracle at Enigma.

Together, they had a chance of cracking the location code of the second set of lost coordinates - processing enough data, however odd and seemingly unrelated, to look for patterns in the tide of strange events that had taken place in the last year or so. These events included the ongoing enigma of the Envoy, the statistical likelihood of finding a derelict dreadnought at this point in time, and the mutated monsters Anneke had encountered on the Orbital Engineering Platform - which still visited her in nightmares.

So many odd events. Pieces in a galaxy-sized jigsaw puzzle. But unlike such puzzles, Anneke did not know what the final picture looked like.

She wondered if the mole did.

At RIM headquarters, she disembarked from the taxi pod and strode into the main lobby, bold as brass. She’d decided this was the safest move. Let people know she was there, let herself be
seen.
It was unlikely that a hit would be attempted on her here, at RIM HQ, and in any case the mole’s fatwa had been conspicuous by its absence, another puzzling piece of data. It was as if someone had issued an anti deathward against her, if there were such a thing. Then again, maybe jake had organised his ‘fiduciary gift’.

Even Fat Fraddo had frowned at that. ‘Maybe you got somebody on your side, girl, somebody you don’t know nothin’ about.’

‘Well, that’s reassuring.’

Despite her confidence, Anneke was on high alert as she walked into the lobby. She saw startled looks registering on faces, gestures in her direction. The whispers hummed like swarming insects. One or two faces scowled, the rest were curious or admiring. After all, she was the girl who had saved a million lives on the floating city of Arcadia. She was also the girl who had supposedly died in the process. And those ‘in the know’ thought she had been killed in an inexplicable attack on a certain hospital.

Some people didn’t like their heroes coming back from the grave. And certainly not twice.

At the security check she passed over her credentials. After a full body scan, she was allowed in, her credentials handed back by a young security guard who smiled at her then thrust out his hand to shake. Surprised by his gesture, she did so. just wanted to shake your hand, Ms Longshadow. Outstanding what you did on Arcadia. Brilliant!’

And then all the guards were shaking her hand. Bemused, she was ushered through to the appointments desk where an officious and stern-faced individual greeted her. ‘Please state your name and the nature of your business.’ Even the man’s voice sounded like the electronic ‘larynx’ of an AI. Indeed, it reminded her of a suitcase she’d once owned.

‘Agent Anneke Longshadow. I’d like to see Commander Rench, please.’

‘Really? And do you have an appointment?’

‘No, but I suspect Commander Rench would like to see me.’

‘The Commander is a very busy person, Agent Longshadow. He certainly doesn’t have time for chit-chat with anybody who walks in off the street.’

‘Perhaps you should let him decide. Of course, if you want to risk incurring his displeasure, then that’s up to you.’

The man’s eyes narrowed. He was being cornered and he knew it. ‘Let me talk to his attache.’ He activated a dampening field, which was pointless since Anneke could read his lips.

‘Sir? It’s the lobby here. I’m sorry to disturb you, but I have Special Agent Anneke Longshadow here. Yes, sir. I know that, sir. She wants to see the Commander. I thought - very well, sir. Right away, sir!’

He put down the phone and eyed Anneke with dislike.

‘You may go up. The Commander will see you in Conference Room A on the eighty-fourth floor. Follow the -’

‘I know the way.’ Anneke took the biometric pill the man held out and swallowed it. It would perform a thorough read of any internal bioware she might be concealing and would track her through the building. If she became lost, the AI that ran the building’s basic homeostatic functions would guide her back to the correct path. If she refused, security would be alerted.

Anneke did not meet the attache. Instead, she was ushered into Conference Room A by Rench’s personal assistant - a young woman with a crew cut and a stark military manner.

‘The Commander will be in shortly. Can I get you a coffee, ma’am?’

‘Ruvian, if you have it.’

‘Right away.’ The PA hurried to a refreshment bar in the corner and poured the coffee herself, instead of having the auto-waiter do it. Nice touch, thought Anneke. The human face to the iron fist. But RIM had always operated thus: its long vigil to protect humanity from itself, and from the harsh realities of the galaxy, always contained this seed of humility. It was what, in Anneke’s opinion, made RIM special.

And why she did not want to see RIM destroyed. Rench kept her waiting, as she had expected.

When he finally marched in and sat down he gave her a look of pure hatred. Anneke was taken aback. Aside from the one encounter last year on the Ethics and Standards Committee, she barely knew the man. How could he harbour such intense emotion towards her?

‘Special Agent Longshadow.’

‘Commander Rench.’

‘Different circumstances.’

‘Quite.’

‘So let’s cut to the chase. What do you want?’ Anneke finished her coffee and set the cup down. ‘I think you’re making a grave mistake. By dismantling the task force and changing RIM’s traditional priorities, you’re playing right into the hands of the mole who just happens to be in control of Quesada and, through Quesada, the
Majoris Corporata.’

Rench’s complexion darkened slightly. His only other sign of reaction was a snarling grin. ‘I’m glad we’re not mincing words today. So let me answer in kind.’

‘By all means.’

‘You are no longer privy to the internal decisions of this organisation and the fact that you are aware of recent policy decisions is both alarming and interesting. And I promise you I will pursue that. For now, let me say this: there is no mole inside RIM and there certainly is no
Majoris Corporata.
Personally - and I’m being frank here - I think you concocted this story. It’s patently a glory-seeking exercise; dare I say you have excelled in its execution.’

Anneke bit back the reply that came immediately to her lips and steadied her breathing. The man was trying to bait her. Why? Was this conversation being analysed, looking for deceit in her voice? She had to assume so. But the other factor was still there: his peculiar hatred for her.

Then she remembered something Jake had said.

‘You know, Rench and I - and your uncle Viktus
-
all started in RIM together. We were friends .for a while. Then things changed. Rench developed a hatred towards Viktus and me.

She took a gamble, inserting subtle sneer-tones into her voice. ‘What happened between you, Viktus and Ferren has blinded you.’

Rench stood up so quickly his chair flew backwards. His face was flushed, his eyes glinting dangerously. He spoke with a raspy voice, as if with some old hurt.

‘Get out of my sight.’

He turned and strode to the door then abruptly stopped, tilting his head slightly as if listening. He turned back. ‘Change of plan. Consider yourself under arrest.’

He exited. A moment later a guard detail burst in, pointing disruptors at her. She raised her hands, submitting peacefully. The turnaround caught her by surprise. More, she was shocked. As if her own family had turned on her.

Jake came to see her in her cell.

‘I had to declare myself your counsel before they’d let me see you,’ he explained as he sat down on the bunk beside her.

‘How’s Deema?’

‘She’s going great. Well, as great as a kid can be who’s locked away out of harm’s way. She sends her love.’

Anneke smiled. ‘Tell her I’ll see her soon.’

Jake looked about the cell. They both knew that was a white lie. ‘How are you doing?’

Anneke shrugged. The arrest still stung, but she didn’t want to talk about that. ‘I’m okay. At least I’m safe from Brown’s fatwa in here.’

‘Glad you’re looking on the bright side of things.’

‘Why? Because everything else is so dark?’ WhenJake said nothing, Anneke sighed. ‘Okay, let me have it. What are they planning?’

‘They intend charging you with sedition, consorting with known criminals, withholding vital information, and sundry other charges.’

‘Great. Is there an upside to this?’

‘They dropped the treason charges.’

She stared at him. Treason? Were they crazy?

‘Guess I don’t have many friends left at RIM.’

Jake shook his head. ‘You have friends, Anneke. Powerful ones, too. But right now everybody is keeping their head down. People have been pensioned off left, right and centre - including me.’ Anneke started, butJake shushed her. ‘We knew that was coming. That’s why I needed to be your counsel to get in here. I’m on borrowed time. Two more weeks and I start clearing out my desk.’ Bitterness had crept into Jake’s voice. Anneke put a hand on his arm.

‘I’m sorry, Jake. You gave them a century of your life and they’ve turned on you.’

‘Right now, I’m more worried about you than me. I’ll get by. But Rench intends throwing the book at you. Indeed, you’ve become something of a cause celebre - but not for good. You represent the old way of doing things, RIM as it once was. By lambasting you, Rench is making the boldest statement possible that things are changing.’

Anneke blinked back tears. ‘He’s using me to destroy RIM.’

‘A court martial has been convened for tomorrow morning.’

‘He’s not wasting any time.’

‘He doesn’t want sympathy for you to grow. But you’re not alone, Anneke. Your supporters will be there. You’ll have proper counsel, too. I’ll be co-counsel.’

Anneke shook her head. ‘No.’

‘Pardon?’

‘I don’t want you there, Jake.’ Jake stared at her, dumbfounded.

‘I need you to remain a free agent,’ said Anneke.

‘Rench will take note of any who champion my case and hit back at them. If I read him correctly, he’s a vindictive little tyrant who now has a chance to strike back at everybody he imagines has slighted him over the years.’

Jake sighed. ‘That’s pretty accurate, I’d say.’

The court martial began on a positive note. Anneke’s holo record was displayed before the closed court, although certain sections were suppressed for galactic security. Anneke could see that the jury of RIM agents and officers was suitably impressed. But as the day wore on, the prosecutor systematically twisted every praiseworthy action on her record, highlighting Anneke’s tendency to ignore standing orders, to work outside the RIM command structure, and to take matters into her own hands.

BOOK: Dyson's Drop
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