Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Week 6 - Agency

Michael Salsbury
It’s said that living well is the best revenge.  People who say that sort of thing aren’t very good at either.  Over the years, I’ve gone through millions of credits perfecting the art of living well.  Tonight, well, it’s about revenge.

Eight weeks ago, my father came to the planet Mastrion to clean out the vault in a small branch of one of the planet’s largest bank chains.  Bank robberies grab a lot of headlines in the media these days because they’re pretty rare.  Between three-dimensional high-resolution holographic cameras, DNA profiling, digital cash, fast-moving robotic guards, and a litany of other technologies, bank robbery isn’t a profitable enterprise these days. 

Occasionally you pick up a scrap of information about the contents of a bank vault somewhere that makes the task worthwhile.  Dad happened to be watching “Life with the Wealthy and Reclusive” when he learned that a woman on this planet inherited a fortune in bearer bonds from her estranged father.  A few discreet inquiries later, and he found they were in one of Mastrion Planetary Trust’s oldest and least-secure branches.  After dropping by the bank to setup an account and scout the security options, he realized he could liberate the bonds from the vault without too much difficulty.

“Should be a quick in-and-out,” he told me before he left, “The vault’s against the back wall of the bank.  There’s a single robot guard stationed inside the vault.  I’ll use a laser lance to put a small hole through the back wall, flip a micro-EMP through the hole to take out the robot, then cut a bigger hole through to go in and grab the bonds.  It’ll take thirty minutes, tops.”

That was three weeks ago. 

A little digging in the planetary news outlets found a news story about a John Doe arrested during a robbery who suffered a heart attack while in police custody.  Posing as a distraught son, which wasn’t too much of a stretch, I was able to view the images of the John Does that the coroner had processed.  As I flipped through the digital file, the barely unrecognizable face of my father stared back at me.  It was bruised severely, swollen in places, and had clearly taken a beating.  I pretended not to recognize anyone in the files in case the planet’s police force was watching, and left.

The photo told me all I needed to know, but I like to be sure.  The crime Dad planned didn’t involve anything violent.  If it had, I’d have insisted on going with him.  He was getting on in years and wasn’t suited to the physical stuff anymore. 

One good thing about all the security cameras we have on us these days is that it’s hard for anyone, including the police, to keep many secrets.  Being an expert in security cameras, alarms, and locking mechanisms – you have to be in my line of work – it was child’s play to identify businesses between the bank and police station with security cameras and footage.  I copied what they had and brought it back to an abandoned warehouse where I’d set up shop.

On one camera, I saw Dad pretending to be a tourist looking for a restaurant.  I’d seen him do that bit before.  As he reached the rear of the bank, the security camera facing the wall turned to static. 
Nearby cameras showed the police arriving a few minutes after Dad knocked out the security camera.  The police response on this planet must be breathtaking.  Seconds after that, I saw my Dad being hauled away in manacles and tossed into a truck.  Enhancing those images as best I could, I could see no indication of a struggle.  No cuts or bruises.  Those happened while he was in police custody.

A few centuries ago, it wouldn’t have been unusual for an uncooperative or violent suspect to suffer bumps and bruises at the hands of the police.  They didn’t have modern drugs and tools for keep a suspect calm and restrained.  But this planet had them, and from everything I could find in the media archives, it made use of them.  Police violence was unheard of.  So why did they rough up my dad?  The right medicines could force you to fall asleep, tell the truth, or become cooperative.  Violence, especially in the case of an older criminal, was as out of place as a two-trunked blue elephant walking down a crowded sidewalk.

Whoever did this to my father would pay for it.  I would see to that.

Before you start getting too concerned, let’s establish a few facts.  While I am quite capable of violence, I employ it only when necessary.  When necessary, I use violence only to protect myself and my freedom.  If faced with the choice of committing murder or being sent to prison, I will choose prison.  No matter how terrible my adversary or how desperate my situation, I will not kill.  I don’t believe in taking the life of another.  It’s not my choice who lives or dies, or how they do it.  So when I say that those who killed my father will pay, I’m talking about ensuring that they are brought to justice… not dying by my hand.  That’s an important distinction for me.  It’s the number one rule I live by:  Never kill.

No doubt this makes you wonder about the other rules I live by.  There are too many to go into, but I’ll give you the most important ones.  I never kill, as I said.  I will never steal from someone who cannot afford or recover from the loss.  I injure someone only when faced with no other alternative.  I never commit the same crime twice, so that I don’t establish a pattern the police can predict.  Where I can, I’ll make sure violent criminals end up in police custody.

In a nutshell, that’s me. 

It was getting late, so I walked around the perimeter of the warehouse, setting up an effective but low-tech security system as I went.  If anyone opened a door, window, or roof hatch on this building, I’d hear a loud sound – like glass breaking.  I’m a light enough sleeper that this would rouse me, and stir me to action.

Tomorrow, I’d find out which policemen roughed up my Dad and why.  Right now, I would sleep.


I’m normally a sound sleeper.  Not so last night.  I kept having disturbing dreams, of myself in my Dad’s place.  I’m cutting a hole in the bank vault, slipping in the grenade, and taking out the robot.  I start cutting the hole in the wall and… I’m surrounded.  Caught.  The cops drag me back to the police station.  They’re yelling at me.  I can’t recall why.  They’re hitting me because I’m not doing something.  What?  I can’t remember.  I’ll keep thinking about it.  It feels important, somehow.

The dream did make me realize something.  Since Dad took out the security cameras, I don’t know how far into his scheme he’d gotten.  Had he tripped some hidden alarm?  Had he been unable to knock out the robot inside?  Had he been caught carrying out the bonds?  I needed to know.

Modern law enforcement techniques being what they are, I had to be careful going near the bank.  They’d probably be watching the bank, to see if anyone other than my Dad showed an unusual level of interest in it, figuring that there might be accomplices still at large.  I visited a toy store and purchased a number of children’s toys that contained the electronics I needed. 

I spent a little time wandering about watching tourists in the little seaside town.  I studied what they wore, the kinds of things they did, and using a few hidden microphones the questions they asked the locals.  Then I set about acquiring clothes just like theirs.  With all of this, I was ready to play the part of the typical Mastrion tourist. 

I cobbled together the electronics from the children’s toys into a crude but effective three-dimensional high-resolution imaging system.  I rigged this into the hat I was wearing, a garish, flower patterned, floppy thing designed to keep the sun off my delicate tourist skin. 

I spent the morning sunning myself on the local beach, like all the others.  Then I wandered from shop to shop, looking at overpriced souvenirs, and asking the occasional tourist question.  After an hour or two of this, I asked a question that I knew the answer to.

I smiled at the shopkeeper, taking out my Guide to the Best of Pecourt Tourism.  “Excuse me, miss, but I wondered if there is a pharmacy nearby.  My sinuses are having some trouble with the salty air.”

She pulled her eyes off the screen she’d been fixated on, and looked me up and down.  I noticed her lip curling a bit before she caught herself and smiled with saccharine sweetness.  “Yes, sir.  Go about six blocks south of here, turn right, and walk about two more.  There is a pharmacy next to the bank.”
I tipped my hat, which turned on the built-in recording system.  “Thank you so much.”

She didn’t respond, and was already tapping on her computer screen.

I followed her directions, stopping every so often as though I was trying to remember where I was going.  If anyone was paying attention to me, and I doubt they were, I looked like any of the other clueless off-planet visitors wandering the streets of this little tourist trap.

I walked into the pharmacy, inquired about sinus and allergy medications, selected the one the pharmacist recommended, and stepped outside. 

Pretending to be lost, I walked behind the bank, pretending not to notice its existence despite it being the focus of this whole charade.

No sooner had I turned the corner toward the beach than two pairs of strong arms grabbed me by each of mine. 

“What’s going on?”  I stammered, trying to sound more surprised than I was.

“You’re under arrest!”

“Why?”  I asked.  “I just bought some medicine and was trying to find my way back to the beach.  What have I done?”

They shoved me into the back of a police car.  “You know what you’ve done.  Now sit quiet until we get you back to the station.”


Minutes later, sitting in the police station, I began to realize a few things about the planet Mastrion.  First, its police force was unusually efficient and effective.  Despite career criminals like me existing, most planets see few real crimes.  Sure, there’s the occasional shoplifter or jealous person who murders their spouse, but bank robberies, high-dollar frauds, and things like that just don’t happen.  There are too many psychiatrists, genetic testers, and social programs in place.  Someone like the old-time serial killers would be detected long before they killed anyone.  A person predisposed to violence would be treated and counseled.  Most police forces focus on stopping the occasional mugging, burglary, or speeding motorist.  Not so on this world.  They seemed to respond unusually quickly and effectively.  After all, they’d caught my dad, and he’d spent decades learning to be alert, prepared, and ready to escape.  Now they had me, and I’d done nothing illegal – yet.

Something else I knew was that this kind of police force doesn’t exist without a reason.  That means there’s something equally rare here – organized crime.  Why?  Organized crime generates a need for effective police response.  An organized crime group protects its members from arrest and imprisonment to some degree.  Most of all, organized crime ensures the kind of steady supply of crime that warrants a well-trained, well-staffed, and well-armed police force like the one on Mastrion.

Lastly, it might explain their reaction toward my dad.   He’d committed the sort of crime they probably associated with their criminal elite.  They wanted to know what he knew about the syndicate, so they could take it down.  They probably didn’t believe him when he told them he knew nothing about the local criminal underworld.  When the drugs didn’t get them what they wanted, they probably figured (correctly, I might add) that he had a genetic resistance to them.  They resorted to the only other thing they thought might work – good old-fashioned violence.

I’d solved the mystery of what happened to my father.  Now I needed to focus my efforts on getting out of the mess I was now in.

I looked carefully around the cell, trying to make it appear that I was simply stretching my neck.  They had cameras in the corners of the room, which meant I was probably being watched by a computer surveillance system.  Any unusual or sudden moves and they’d be on me in a second.  I would have to bide my time and look for another opportunity.


The cell seemed escape-proof, which was just as well.  I couldn’t figure out why they’d arrested me.  Since I arrived on the planet, I’d been very careful.  I didn’t even look at the bank.  They hadn’t bothered to grab my hat and its hidden circuitry, so they obviously didn’t pick up any signals from it.  I’d have been surprised if they had, since I’d lined it to prevent that sort of thing.  Why had they arrested me?

A buzz and click from the electronic lock suggested that I might have an answer soon. 

The door opened.  In walked two uniformed officers, weapons drawn and aimed at my head.  A few paces behind came Chief Raines.  I stood to greet him.

“Sit down, you,” one of the uniforms growled.  I sat back down.

The Chief motioned the officers to the corners of the room.  “You remember what his dad tried, don’t you?  Keep your distance.  If he tries anything funny, make sure he can’t get back up again.”

“I… I don’t understand,” I said, trying to sound frightened and confused.

“Skip it,” the Chief said, “The DNA test shows you’re related to the last guy we had in this cell.  He was your father, I believe.”

“Where is he?” I tried to sound scared and confused.  “He asked me to meet him here, but I couldn’t find him.  Did he meet with foul play?”

He began to pace the room, constantly watching me.  “We’ve got truth drugs and brain scanners, the best in the galaxy.  They didn’t faze him.  I’m betting they don’t bother you, either.  Genetic, I expect.  The usual interrogation stuff won’t work on you two.  Probably kept your criminal record cleaner than it ought to be.”

I didn’t say anything, but he was right.  Crime was enough of a rarity that if you could tell a good story and pass a scan, a lot of small-town cops would fine you and cut you loose.  They trusted their technology, and the basic honesty of strangers, a bit too much for their own good – but sufficient for mine.

The chief lit a cigar, took a draw from it, and eyed me suspiciously.  “I don’t need the drugs and scanners, though.  I see it in your eyes, son.  Don’t lie to me again.  Didn’t work for the old man.  Won’t work for you, either.”

“I don’t understand.”

“Let me spell it out for you.  Ever heard the term ‘honeypot’?”

I shook my head.

“In the old days, you’d set up a score that looked like easy pickings.  A pot of sweet honey there for the taking.  Then you’d lay in wait for some crook to break into it.  You’d arrest him on the spot.”

I said nothing.

“Every few months, we hire some actors to pretend to be tellers, customers, and managers.  That little abandoned bank comes to life like a real branch of the First Planetary Trust.  We circulate a phony story about how the vault’s loaded with gold, jewels, bearer bonds, old currency… something.  We’ve got surveillance on that building you wouldn’t believe.”

That explained a lot.  Dad had been suckered in by the First Planetary Trust story.  As soon as he started to break in, they had him.  What it didn’t explain was how they caught me, or why.  I hadn’t even so much as looked at the bank.

“When we caught that daddy of yours, we back-tracked his steps.  Found him playing the same little game you did… stupid tourist with a medical problem.  Surveillance computers flagged you the minute you said ‘sinus trouble’.  We watched you, figuring you’d try to rob the bank, too.  When you didn’t, I had you hauled in anyway.”

“I haven’t done anything wrong.”

He took a drag on the cigar.  “Well, yes and no.  You used fake ID, but then half the kids on this planet have done that.  You bought medicine under false pretenses, but it’s not narcotic, so I can’t do much about that.  On the other hand,” he said, waving toward the door.  “This I could arrest you for.”
Into the cell walked a uniformed officer holding a small box.  She handed it to the Chief, then turned and left the room, locking the cell door behind her.

“I figure this,” he said, holding up a small object the approximate size and shape of an olive, “is a sleep grenade.  Found one like it in your daddy’s stuff.  This one was in your hotel room.  And this,” he said, pulling out a similar one, “looks to be an EMP grenade.  Your daddy had those, too.  The rest of it, I had our experts look at.  They’ve never seen anything like it on anyone else we’ve arrested.  They tell me you could probably use this stuff to slip into half the buildings on the planet without setting off an alarm.  If you did, these little beauties,” he said, holding up the grenades again, “would get you out without hurting anyone.  What I want to know is, who sold you this stuff?  I’ve seen every criminal gadget made or sold on this planet, but I’ve never seen anything like these.”

“I made them.”

“I read people's eyes,” the Chief said, “You’re wondering how we found this.”

I sighed and nodded.

“After we caught your daddy, he told us where he’d been holing up.  We found his little stash in the wall of an old factory near the bank.  Made it a lot easier to find your little warehouse stash.”

I made a mental note that if I got out of this mess, I’d make it a point to stop using dad’s old tricks.  They clearly weren’t working anymore.

“Don’t feel bad.  Took us six hours to find his.  This little box,” he said, looking down at it, “has enough inside it for me to put you away for twelve years – maybe longer.”

“I sense an ‘unless’,” I told him.

“Do you?  I don’t have one.  I’m only here to ask a few questions.  First, how did you get all this past our Port Authority and Customs?”

“I didn’t bring it past them.  I made it once I was here.”

He raised an eyebrow.  “I see.  And did you intend to rob the First Planetary Trust?”

“No.  I only came here to find my father.”

He looked at me for so long it began to make my flesh crawl. “You had no other business here on Mastrion?  Say, maybe with the Prime Syndicate?”

I shook my head.  “Never heard of it.”

“Hmm,” he said, looking into my eyes again, “You haven’t, have you?  They’re the planet’s only criminal organization.  I’ve been trying to catch their leader most of my career.  A man they call First Prime.”

I caught a glimpse of a smile as he said the name.  It didn’t make sense.  Why would that make him smile?

He stood up, tucking the box under his arm.  “Welcome to Mastrion.  Enjoy your tour of our legal system and penitentiary.”

With this, he and his men walked out.  I noticed something next to the wall where he’d been standing.  It was small.  About the size of an olive.

I had to suppress the smile.


Later that night, I made a show of feeling ill for the surveillance cameras.  Even managed to force myself to throw up the meal they fed me.  That wasn’t too much of a stretch.  It was hard keeping the jail’s food down in the first place.  Most of it was gray.  What wasn’t hard as a rock was runny and slimy.  I hope someone reserved a special place in hell for their cook.  Conveniently, I landed next to the grenade the chief dropped.  I palmed it carefully.

Over the years, I’ve learned to fake illness well enough to fool anyone but a trained physician.  You can meditate and alter your heartbeat and blood pressure, things like that.  They guards were convinced enough to load me on a stretcher and haul me to the police station’s infirmary.  There, I pretended to be partially conscious, moaning and looking around as though delirious – but taking in the layout and occupants of the room.  I’d have to move soon.

And move, I did.  Slowly taking a deep breath, I carefully dropped the grenade on the floor.  I opened my eyes to find everyone else in the room asleep.  I jumped off the stretcher, ran to the nearest window, and jumped through it.   I fell about ten feet to the ground, knocking the wind out of me. 

Not much time.  I told myself.  Get moving.

I gathered my wits, pulling out shards of glass as I ran.  I put as much distance between myself and the police headquarters as I could.  Where would I run?  I didn’t know.

Think.  Places to hide.  Places dad wouldn’t have used.  Where? 

I noticed a safety rail around an open manhole.  I walked over and looked in the hole.  It was dark.  Would a surveillance camera see me go in here?  Probably.  I’d have to risk it.

I climbed down the ladder into the hole.  It smelled like a sewer, and I was pretty sure the skittering noises around me were rats.  I tripped over something solid, and bent down to feel it.  It was a toolbox.  Inside, I found a flashlight, headlamp, and some tools I was sure would come in handy later.  I loaded my pockets, put the headlamp on, and started making my way through the service tunnels under the city.  Fortunately, no one had thought to put cameras down here.  I hoped there weren’t other sensors, either.

I walked through the tunnels for about three hours, taking the occasional random turn and doubling back on myself.  Police sniffer robots can track you by your scent, but they’re not very bright.  They’ll literally follow your exact trail once they pick it up.  You can use this to your advantage by leaving a trail that will confound the humans following the robot, even if it doesn’t fool the robot.

Finally, I reached an area that could charitably be described as pungent and wet.  I held my nose, jumped into the muck, and rubbed it all over myself.  While a police sniffer bot is an impressive technical marvel, it’s not infallible.  In order to focus on the scent you want it to, dad taught me, you have to teach it to filter out others.  By covering myself in this room’s fragrant bouquet, I could effectively disappear for a while.  As long as I didn’t leave footprints or fingerprints, the bot wouldn’t know where I went.

I was free, for a bit longer at least.  I was also exhausted. I found a dry, relatively rodent-free area to hole up for the night.


I woke up a bit disoriented, but soon came around.  I looked and smelled as though I’d been flushed down a toilet.  This would need to be corrected soon.  Anyone who saw me looking and smelling like this wouldn’t ignore me.  They’d either want to help or call the police.  Besides, I was getting tired of my own stench.

My stomach growled, reminding me that it would need attention as well.

I stayed in the service tunnels, periodically poking my head out to get my bearings.  When I found the Grand Ritzee Palace Hotel and Casino, it was time to surface.  Well, surface wasn’t quite the word.

In the hotel business, cost containment and occupancy are the keys.   You keep costs low by using robots for all the menial tasks:  maid service, room service, laundry, baggage handling, and so on.  The nice thing about robots is that most of them will operate autonomously if the work is repetitive enough.  This means that you’ll rarely find a human working in the basement of any hotel these days.  They do down there when a robot malfunctions, or when a guest complains that their laundry is missing, or a robot doesn’t deliver the guest’s breakfast on time.  The rest of the time, the hotel basement is a buzzing little hive of robotic activity that the hotel employees largely ignore.

For someone like this, this is valuable intelligence.  The basement of hotels like the Ritzee can provide everything a weary fugitive needs.  I found a service hatch under the hotel’s laundry and climbed up and out of it.  A robot stared at me.

“Can I help you, sir?”  From its paint scheme, it was a maid service unit.

“Yes, I need a fresh towel, a washcloth, soap, and shampoo.”

“Certainly, sir.  Which room shall I deliver them to?”

“This one.  I need them here.”

It cocked its head to one side.  “Sir, hotel policy does not permit me to—“

There’s a reason con men used to be called “confidence men”.  They had to exude confidence when challenged by a mark – even a robotic one.

“I don’t have time for your rules.  I’m a platinum card holder and I’m going to be late for my board meeting.  Get to it!”

The robot shook for a second.  “Yes, sir.  Right away, sir.”  It sped off.  A few seconds later, it returned with everything I’d requested.

“Will that be all, sir?”


“And your room number, sir?”

It was calling my bluff?  “I, uh, don’t recall.  It’s on the twelfth floor.  Does 1209 sound right?”
“Ah, yes sir, Mr. Rolando.  Have a nice day.”

Fortunately, I’d picked an occupied room.  Otherwise it’s very likely my robotic friend would have notified the security robots to pick me up.

I found an unused washing machine and configured it to do a warm load of laundry, stopping as it filled the wash basin with water.  Using the towel and washcloth the maid robot provided, I cleaned and dried myself off.  Then I removed my prison jumpsuit and tossed it into the washer with my underwear.

Then, I found another maid robot – or perhaps the same one, they all look alike – and handed it the soiled linens.  It wasn’t fazed by the fact that I was standing there completely naked.

“I’m finished with these.  Room 1209.  Mr. Rolando.”

“Yes sir,” the robot said, and sped off toward the laundry.

You might wonder why I bothered to return the used linens.  Any hotel with robots programmed to assign every towel to a room would almost certainly be auditing its use of towels.  If Mr. Rolando were to check out in the next few minutes, he’d rightfully claim not to have requested a towel.  A quick electronic inquiry would lead them to the basement, and to me.  Returning the towel wasn’t so much a goodwill gesture as a survival move.

I found a safe corner to hole up in while my jumpsuit washed and dried.  Then, I sprinted back to the machine and removed it before it notified a robot that it was waiting to be unloaded.  While I did put on my underwear, I did not put on the jumpsuit.  In fact, I tore it in two.

As I wandered around the laundry room, I looked for freshly laundered clothing approximately my size.  When I found an inconspicuous-looking shirt and pants, I swapped the shirt for the top half of my jumpsuit and the pants for the bottom half.  Again this was a trick to buy time before I might be detected.   The laundry bots counted each garment they washed, ironed, folded, and delivered.  If so much as a single garment went missing, a human response would be triggered to find it.  The Ritzee prided itself on never losing a guest’s luggage or laundry.  The loss of even a single sock would have been treated like a major incident.

Last, but certainly not least, I stopped a room service robot.  I claimed to be a health inspector.  Some robots would have asked for identification.  With the reputation the Ritzee wanted to convey, its robots would bend over backwards for an inspector.  It brought me a tray containing every item on the restaurant’s menu.  When I’d finished eating, I felt human again.

I peered out through a robot service hatch to pick a good time to emerge in the hotel lobby and onto the street.  As I started to open the hatch, I saw a familiar figure enter the lobby.  It was Chief Raines.  I made my way through robot service corridors until I reached one behind the hotel counter.  I listened carefully.

“Chief Raines, how nice to have you with us again.  Your usual suite?”

He nodded.

“Shall I have a robot take your case to your room?”

“No. I’ve got it.”

“Very good, sir.  Here is your key.  Suite 1502.”

Raines took the key and got into an elevator.  Fortunately, there were elevators for the service robots, too.  I told one of them there was a spill on the fifteenth floor and rode up with it.  The ride was a bit unnerving.  I don’t think the elevators are designed to carry more than the weight of a lone robot. It groaned and shuddered a bit as it took us up.

I’m not sure quite how we managed to beat Raines to the floor, but I had to jump quickly as he got off the elevator and walked to his room.

Was Raines here to meet a secret lover?  Was he making some kind of business deal?  I had to know.
Several minutes later, another man left the suite Raines was in.  I puzzled over this for a moment.  When Raines rented the room, the clerk made no mention of another guest being there.  That might have been a case of a clerk being discreet, but then again he had referred to it as “Your usual suite” which would have been a faux pas, too. 

The more I looked at the man, the more he seemed familiar.  Something about his build, the way he moved… It was Raines!  Why was he in disguise?  An undercover sting operation?  A clandestine affair?  Whatever it was I was determined to know.


Raines walked out to the parking lot and toward a Royal Deluxe II, one of the more-expensive ground cars manufactured.  It was way beyond a police department undercover budget, and a lot more expensive than any honest police chief – even the chief of an entire planet’s police force – ought to be able to afford.  I knew I was on to something, I just didn’t know what.

I hailed a robotic taxi.  Using the tools I’d swiped from the tunnel worker’s box the day before, I disabled the robotic driver and manually controlled the cab.  I followed Raines until he entered a gated community.  I drove the taxi several blocks away, reactivated the robot, and slipped away.

Carefully, I climbed the fence into the community where Raines had gone.  Sticking to the shadows and behind landscaping, I found the Royal Deluxe II parked outside one of the largest mansions in the community.  This certainly wasn’t Raines’ home.  Whose was it?

I jumped when a hand touched my shoulder, and spun around quickly.

“What are you doing in my flower bed?”  A man asked.

“I, uh, I’m with the homeowner’s association.  I’m checking to make sure your grass is being kept within regulation length and that your mulch is to code,” I compared the length of a few blades to my finger, then brushed away a bit of mulch.  “You passed.  I’m not sure about that place,” I told him, gesturing toward the house where Raines had gone.

The man turned white.  “You’re gonna go inspect that one?  Pretend you never saw me,” he said, and rushed back inside his house.

Trying to stay in character, I wandered about conducting similar inspections of hedges, flowers, and garden gnomes, periodically looking at the mysterious house.

It became clear the more I studied the house that it was more headquarters than home.  Armed guards patrolled inside and out.  I thought I saw the glint of rifles in the attic windows.  Snipers?  Whatever this house was all about, I doubted police work was part of it.  There were too many expensive cars parked outside, and too many well-armed people guarding it.

I will find your secret, Chief Raines.


The house was a fortress too well-defended for one many to take on alone.  The odds of getting in and out without being seen were virtually zero.  If I couldn’t go in, I could at least watch who came out.

Swiping the necessary materials from nearby shopkeepers, I setup a camera to grab an image of every person who went into or out of the house.  A few computer searches told me all I needed to know.  Virtually every person going into or out of the house had a criminal record.  The few who didn’t were known to associate with criminals, or defend them in court.  This didn’t explain why Chief Raines was coming and going from the place.

Suddenly, something Raines said during the interrogation made sense.  I’ve seen every criminal gadget made or sold on this planet, he said.  That bit of confidence betrayed him.  The only person who could possibly have seen every criminal gadget would be a criminal.  Not just any criminal, but the one in charge of making and selling those same gadgets.  Raines was First Prime of the Prime Syndicate.

Finally, it was time.  I would get revenge and live well.  A plan was forming in my brain.


Raines was leading a double life.  As Chief Raines, he’d become the shining beacon of law and order on the planet Mastrion.  He’d dazzled the media with daring arrests and raids.  Conveniently, these always seemed to hit the Prime Syndicate’s enemies, never the syndicate itself.  He made loud speeches, boasting that he and his men would find the First Prime and bring him to justice.  No one would have suspected that Raines himself was First Prime.

As First Prime of the syndicate, Raines could pull off highly profitable crimes, virtually certain to have no police response.  His criminal success made him the unquestioned head of the syndicate.  His ability to recruit criminals who’d managed to be released from custody on technicalities was almost uncanny.

All of this depended on no one connecting the dots.  If the politicians and his fellow policemen realized he was the First Prime, they’d come down hard on him.  He’d find himself in a cell and never see the light of day again.  If the criminals in the syndicate knew their leader was the Chief of Police, some would feel betrayed.  Some would worry that Raines would spill the beans on their entire operation to save his own skin, and would kill him before he got the chance.

If the syndicate thought Raines was stealing from them, so much the better.


The plan had come together well.  I’d bundled all my little surveillance photos of the syndicate house, along with a floor plan and a grainy picture of Raines in his First Prime getup marked “First Prime, aka Chief Raines”.  I’d stolen copies of his hotel registration record and included those.  Copies of the package were set to the news media, the planet’s governor, and Raines’ own second in command at the police headquarters.  In a few hours, Raines would be answering some very tough questions.

I’d transferred one of the Prime Syndicate’s main accounts to one of Raines’ personal accounts, then to the police general fund, and then through a series of numbered accounts off-planet.  I encrypted the account numbers and transmitted them off-planet digitally, and deleted the originals. 

By the time an auditor worked out the money trail, I’d withdraw it and buy an island on some tropical planet.  The syndicate would figure Raines decided to cash out when the police figured him out.  Their response would swift and unkind.

Perhaps “those people” are right after all, living well can be the best revenge…

My face was all over the media as a fugitive from police headquarters.  Arranging a flight off-planet was proving to be difficult, but I’d found a spacedock worker who claimed he could slip me onto a freighter heading to the next star system.  I’d arranged to meet him in a bar near the spaceport, where I’d pay him a small fortune for his help.

I found a table in the back of the bar, ordered a drink, and waited.

Three well-dressed men walked in the door.  I felt the hair stand up on the back of my neck, and started looking for an exit.  I slipped out of the booth and toward the kitchen door, but stopped when another well-dressed man pointed a gun at me.  The others quickly moved into position behind me and tied up my arms and legs.

“The First Prime’s been lookin’ for you,” one of said.  I felt a needle sink into the back of my neck and the world started going dark.  I should have realized the syndicate would have spacedock workers on their payroll…


I woke to find myself chained to a wall in a basement.  I had a pretty good idea where that basement was.  I’d probably been watching it from outside a few days earlier.

“Tell the boss,” I heard someone outside the door say, “He’s awake.”

A few minutes later, the door was unlocked and in walked Chief Raines in his First Prime garb.  He looked in my eyes, then immediately turned and ordered the others out of the room.  “I need to talk to this one privately,” he said.  “We have some unfinished business.”

Neither of us said anything until the door clicked shut.

“I see it in your eyes,” he said, and pulled out a gun.  “You know.  Say it, and I shoot you dead. Understood?”

I nodded, “Got it.”

“I saw that same look in your dad’s eyes, right before I caved in his skull.”

I felt sick, then I felt rage.  Raines would pay for this… somehow.

“You’ve caused me a bit of trouble with my men.  They think Chief Raines robbed them of their operating funds, but I think we both know who did.  No, don’t say anything.  It’s in your eyes.”

“Here’s what’s going to happen,” he said, attaching something to the side of my head.  “This little gadget will explode if you say my other name, or if I press this button.”  He held up a small device with a red button on the top.

“In a moment, one of my men is coming in with a computer.  You’re going to give him the account numbers he needs to restore the syndicate’s funds.  If you don’t, I press the button.”

I looked at him.  And if I do?

“If you do,” Raines said, “I’ll give you the button, and you can press it when you’ve had enough.”


I knew I couldn’t trust Raines.  If I turned the money over, he’d press the button, or leave me chained up down here without food or water until I pressed it myself.

If I didn’t turn the money over, his associates would keep putting pressure on him, and I would buy myself a little time.  Time for what?  I didn’t know.  Escape?  Possibly, but not likely.  Some kind of deal with one the syndicate people? Maybe.  The police.   They were my best bet, provided they didn’t tip Raines off beforehand.

I stalled.  I told the man I’d moved the money through a bunch of accounts, and I couldn’t remember all the numbers.  I’d encrypted them and stored them on a chip.  I’d sent the chip off-world in a package.

Raines didn’t buy it until he looked me in the eye.  He screamed when he did, because what I’d told him was true.  I’d sent a copy to different off-world storage locations.  Even with his connections, getting to private files on another planet would take time.  He demanded the encryption key I used.  The key was very long, and I went out of my way to forget, back up, and so on through it.  If they had managed to write it down correctly, it would be a miracle. 

Raines told me that as soon as they had the data and decrypted it, I was a dead man.   


I heard gunfire in the house above me.  It sounded like two small armies squaring off, and perhaps it was.  Gradually, over time, the gunfire subsided and the sound of people walking through the house grew louder and closer.

“Clear!” someone shouted and the door blew open.  Through the opening stepped three heavily armed SWAT officers and a uniformed policeman.  I tried to look pitiful and avoid eye contact.  He was one of the two uniforms in the room when Raines interrogated me.

“This is the one who escaped police headquarters a couple of weeks ago,” he told the others.  Turning to me, he smiled.  “Thought you got away, didn’t you?”


I sat on the bunk, staring into the next cell at the bloated form of the former Chief Raines, former First Prime.  He sat there, shoulders slumped, head slowly shaking back and forth, murmuring to himself.  The image made me smile.  Was I happy at seeing justice done?  Surely not.

An image of myself in the steel mirror on the wall jarred me back to reality.  I was trapped.  They had my name, my face, my fingerprints, and my DNA.  The list of charges they held me on ensure that I wouldn’t be out of prison until long after I’d have the dexterity to pick a lock, the hearing to unlock a safe, or the strength to haul away the loot.  My criminal career was over.

I laid down on the bunk, turning away from Raines.  I didn’t want him to see me this way.  He might decide that he’d won.  Tears wanted to come, but I held them back.  I wouldn’t give Raines the satisfaction of knowing this arrest was never part of my plan. 

I began to curse my own hubris.  What made me think I could take down the Chief of Police for an entire planet?  Why did I think I could rob the planetary mafia and get away scot-free?  What was wrong with me to think one man could do this?  I had no answers.

Wallowing in my misery, I barely heard the electrical buzz and click of the cell door unlocking.  When it finally registered in my addled brain, I turned my head in the direction of the door.  A uniformed policeman stood there, glaring at me.

“I said, let’s go.”

I didn’t need to hear the words again.  I stood up.  I walked to him.  He put cuffs on my wrists and irons on my legs. 

“Follow me,” he said, and walked out of the cell block.  I followed, head down, more to keep an eye on the path ahead of me than out of a sense of failure – though that weighed on me, too.
The cop led me down to the parking garage and opened the back of a ground car.  He pointed at the back seat.  “Get in.”  I got in.

He put a bag over my head.   The world went dark.

I tried to engage him in conversation, but failed.  I felt the ground car make turn after turn, speed up, slow down, stop, and start again.  I tried to picture the route in my mind but quickly lost track.
It wasn’t long before I realized what was happening.  He worked for the Chief.  He was taking me to some remote location where he’d claim I tried to escape, and had to shoot me in self-defense.  I wasn’t about to let that happen, but at the moment I couldn’t think of a way to stop it.

I felt the car glide to a stop, and heard the cop get out.  A click from the door next to me told me he’d opened the door for me to get out.

“No,” I told him, trying to sound more confident than I felt.

“What do mean, no?”

“If you’re going to shoot me, you can do it here.”

“Get out.”


He grabbed the bag and yanked it off my head, nearly pulling my nose off in the process.  It took my eyes a moment to adjust to the light.  What I saw then confused me.  We were parked outside the Delandri Spaceport.  I was too confused to speak, and looked up at him.

“I don’t know who or what you are,” he said.  “All I know is you have some very powerful friends.  They pulled me out of bed.  They made it very clear that I was to bring you here, and do this.”

He unlocked my chains.  I looked at my wrists and ankles.  They were free.

“Thank you,” I told the cop, and meant it.

“Don’t thank me.  This wasn’t my idea.  I could end up in prison just for bringing you this far.  Your friends told me to bring you here, hand you this envelope, and leave without looking back.  That’s just what I intend to do.  If you want my advice, disappear.  If I see you again, you go back to jail.”

“Got it,” I told him, and climbed out of the vehicle.

He closed the rear door, climbed into the passenger seat, and drove away as though I was about to explode.

I looked down at the envelope in my hand, and tore it open.  Inside I found a temporary identity chip, a small vial with three pills inside, a ticket on the Starliner Campbell Queen, and a note.  The note read simply, “These pills will rewrite your DNA.  Take one each morning for three days.  You will be renewed, with a new identity.  When you grow tired of doing what you do for mere money, call our name.  We will find you.  We will give you a new purpose.”  It was signed simply, “The Agency.”

I had no idea who this Agency was, but any group powerful enough to arrange for me to get me out of jail, off the planet, and rewrite my DNA was a group too dangerous to get close to.  I’d accept their ticket and their pills, then get as far away from them as I could.  

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About the Author

Michael Salsbury / Author & Editor

In his day job, Michael Salsbury helps administer over 1,800 Windows desktop computers for a Central Ohio non-profit. When he's not working, he's writing, blogging, podcasting, home brewing, or playing "warm furniture" to his two Bengal cats.


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