Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Weeks 33 through 35 - Kernels and Bits (part 2)

Michael Salsbury
We crossed the neutral zone into Sylkaran space without incident, which surprised me given all I'd heard about the paranoia of The Sylkaran Empire. Simmons fed commands into the ship's computer console and the outer hall altered its shape to resemble a typical Sylkaran personal transport. This would keep most patrols from growing too interested in us, she said. To reduce their interest further, she switched on a stealth technology that would fool bio-scanners into thinking we were Sylkarans - provided the scanner wasn't too close. At point blank range, they could punch through the cloak and we'd be in trouble.

According to all the available intelligence on Sylkara Prime, the PMA had to be in a building belonging to the Sylkaran Intelligence Service. The SIS had a centuries-old reputation for cruel interrogation tactics and the ability to co-opt the resources of the empire's police forces and military. If the SIS wanted someone, they would probably get them.

For all of its advanced technology, The Agency had little data on Tenchon, the capitol city of Sylkara Prime and the Sylkaran Empire itself. I took this to mean that the city had a very effective intelligence and surveillance network.  Non-humans were probably monitored so closely that it was impossible to smuggle out information. I saw nothing about it in The Agency's files on Sylkara Prime, but I suspected that what little intelligence they had was probably gathered at the expense of more than a few  lives. That threat of imminent death sharpened my intellect and survival instincts.

Given that Simmons refused to share any personal information, I engaged her in conversations about the mission. This continued to be the only subject she would discuss at length.  Well, that and Agency policy. She enjoyed talking about that, too. 

By the time we popped out of FTL just outside the Sylkara Prime system, I felt that I knew as much about the Sylkarans and the Sylkaran Empire as anyone born in Alliance space. I had even had their language insta-learned into my brain through the ship's computer system.

Simmons tapped a control on the comm panel. "Director Kelmot, Simmons. We're in the target system. Will commence landing procedure soon. Notify you upon landing."

"Confirmed, Simmons," Kelmot's voice said. "Good luck, both of you. Out."

I looked at her. "I assume that was a quantum link communication?"

She nodded. "Don't worry. The Agency uses a system more advanced than the Alliance Fleet, involving multiple particle entanglements and particles spread across many planets and asteroids. Even if the Sylkarans knew what to look for, they wouldn't be able to track the communication."

"I see. Very elaborate. The Agency values its privacy."

Simmons ignored me and contacted the tower in Sylkara Prime, indicating that we wanted to "see the splendor of Tenchon first-hand, as humble civil servants from the Pildon Colony." According to our research, outer colony residents often visited the homeworld, so this would seem like a mundane visit. 

The response was predictable and unemotional. "Set down on landing pad 172 using the pre-programed flight path. Any deviation will be treated as an attack and dealt with accordingly. You have been warned." Some welcome for a pair of minor government officials on a tourist visit, I thought.

I went to work with the computer as we landed. During the descent, we would read as Sylkarans to the surface to air scanners. Once on the ground, if we were boarded for an inspection (which seemed likely), the hand-held scanners would identify us as humans and the game would be over before it started. I programmed the ship's computer to seek out any device containing bio-scanning circuitry, compromise it through its wireless connection, and reprogram it to read a being as Sylkaran if it was human and didn't have its fingers crossed. That last bit was to protect the scanner modifications from being discovered if we were captured, though I didn't plan on that happening.

Simmons put the ship down softly on the landing pad. A group of four armed Sylkarans, weapons drawn, jogged in our direction. I couldn't tell if the weapons were drawn out of habit or because they'd figured us out. Ihoped it was just standrard operating procedure.

"Take these," I told Simmons, handing her a set of filter plugs for her nose and put in my own. "Computer, if the officials about to board this ship tell us that we are under arrest, or words to that effect, flood the compartment with tranquilizer gas. Simmons and I have filter plugs installed, so we'll be safe."

The computer wasted no time responding. "Confirmed. Approaching Sylkaran bio-scanner reconfigured per your parameters."

"Thank you, computer. Now it's all up to our guests."

The high-pitched chirp of the airlock intercom told us our boarding party had arrived. "Here goes," I said, pressing the open button for the door mechanism.

The Sylkaran police squad, two females and one male, entered. Two of them trained their weapons on us as the third used her bio-scanner on us. "Sylkaran," she said to the others. "Search the ship."

Simmons told me that The Agency built their ships with hidden compartments and shielding designed to conceal the considerable arsenal of devices and resources aboard. If things worked as she said they would, the Sylkarans would find nothing but the clothes and money we wanted them to find.

"Commander," one of the men said, "They've got a drawer full of hard currency."

"What?" She raised her weapon directly at my face. "Explain."

"We are on our honeymoon. The currency was from our wedding gifts. We plan to spend it here in Tenchon." I figured the thought of the infusion of cash into the local economy would get a warm welcome. I was wrong.

"Leave that aboard the ship. Hard currency transactions are forbidden on Sylkara Prime. They can be used by criminals, spies, and terrorists to undermine our security. Since this is obviously your first visit here, I won't confiscate it. If you take it off the ship, you will be arrested. Credit tubes only." She put down her weapon and pulled out her computer tablet. "I've made a note that you've been warned. Disregard my warning and you'll get a first-hand tour of the Sylkara Prime penal system. Am I clear?"

"Yes, ma'am," Simmons and I said in unison.

I cleared my throat. "Commander," I hoped my forced nervousness and sign of respect would conceal the bluff I was about to make, "we didn't bring credit tubes with us on this trip. Is there some alternative for two weary travelers?"

"Visit the Central Bank. They can provide you with a short-term replacement tube after verifying your identity."

"Thank you," I said. So much for spending any money on this trip. Without a credit tube, whatever that was, we were effectively broke - and we couldn't verify a fake identity.

"Alright, you're cleared to leave the ship at your discretion. If you decide to leave the planet, be sure to get clearance from the tower first. If you don't, you'll be shot down."

We nodded, watching them exit the ship. The airlock door closed automatically behind them.

I started to open my mouth, but Simmons put a finger to her lips. She pulled out her tablet, "They seemed quite nice, didn't they, dear?" She said.

I raised an eyebrow, then realized what she was doing. She wondered if they'd bugged the ship. Now, I did too. "Yes, I wish we'd brought our credit tubes, though. I'm sorry I talked you out of it."

She walked carefully around the room, watching the display on the tablet. In the rear corner of the room, she pointed to the latch mechanism in a storage cabinet. Facing away from it, she mouthed the words "video bug".

"That's OK," she said. "Let me get your jacket out of this bin." 

I had to hand it to her. She destroyed the bug so adeptly that it looked as though all she was doing was opening the cabinet. She made another pass around the room with the tablet and returned to me. "I think it's clean now," she whispered, "but let's not take chances until we have the ship's computer monitor things for a few hours."

I nodded. The level of distrust among Sylkarans, even for their own kind, was distressing. "Shall we take a stroll around the capitol?" I thought that sounded appropriately innocent, in case anyone was listening.

"Do you have your tablet with you? I'd like some pictures for the folks back home."  If they were listening, we were giving ourselves an excuse for walking around Tenchon taking photos for the Agency. Simmons would have made a good criminal.

"Of course," I said, holding it up for her. "Let me make sure it's fully charged. Ah, it is."

We spent the next several hours just walking the capitol city of Tenchon. Tenchon was an amazingly clean city. Robots cleared up any litter. The frequent robotic police patrols meant that graffiti was non-existent. It looked more like a computer-generated model than a living city, apart from the inhabitants.

Periodically, Simmons stopped me to take 3D pictures. Ostensibly, this would cement our cover as tourists. I was pretty sure that her real intention was to capture as much information about Tenchon's layout as possible. When we found ourselves standing outside the building where the tracker said the PMA was located, I was the one who stopped to get a picture. Conveniently, the building appeared in most of the frame. Within seconds, a robotic security guard whizzed up to us.

"Pictures of this facility are forbidden. Delete that image immediately."

I faced the tablet in the thing's direction, and allowed it to watch as I told the tablet to securely delete the 3D image. 

"I'm sorry. I didn't know this building couldn't be photographed."

"It has been noted that you are offworld tourists. Please observe this symbol on the building," it said, pointing a laser at it. "This identifies all buildings which cannot be scanned or imaged."

I nodded. "Noted. We'll watch for it." It worried me that even the security guard robots knew who we were. They must have quite the intelligence network.

"Violate this rule again and you will be arrested immediately."

It wheeled off, positioning itself by the door. I stood there for a bit, staring at the building like a slack-jawed tourist. "It sure is a nice building," I told Simmons, mostly for the robot's benefit. I expected it to be listening in. "Shame we won't be able to show folks back home how impressive it is."

She nodded, and began walking on.  When the sun began to set, we returned to the ship.

Simmons checked the computer console. "The computer says the ship is clean. It found a nano-bug in the floorboards, so it had a cleaning robot suck it up and eject it from the ship."

"So, let's have a look at that building," I said, feeding the 3D image into the ship's computer. 

"Didn't you delete that?" Simmons asked.

"I just rewrote the interface a while back. Instead of deleting files when I go through that menu, it securely encrypts them and deletes the original. That way I never lose anything important." I smiled at her. To my surprise, she smiled back.

"Nicely done, Biggs."

I called up the 3D scan and we began looking at it. The tablet pointed out the electronic signatures of security cameras, bio-scanners, biometric locks, and a variety of other electronics. Most of the electronics it could identify. Some it could not. 

"That place is a fortress," I told her. "I wouldn't risk trying to bluff my way in, especially with whatever these things are," I pointed at some of the unfamiliar electronics. "They could mines, sensors, alarm boxes, booby traps, or who knows what."

"Agreed," she said. "Do you have another approach in mind?"

"Yeah," I told her spinning the model around. "We know the PMA is underground. They probably have some sensors and cameras underground, but my bet is they designed this building around a frontal assault through the main entrance. If we drill into one of the lower levels with a laser lance, we might slip in undetected... or at least have a chance."

"That makes sense, but I'm not going with you. I'm sent as an evaluator and advisor. I'm not permitted to take part in the operation."

That suited me fine, since I preferred to work alone anyway. I was confident that I could pull the job off without Simmons.


In order to cover my tracks, I compromised and reprogrammed all the security cameras between the ship and the sewer entrance nearest the SIS building. This ensured that their security network wouldn't see me as I left the ship. The only risk I ran was the robotic patrols, which seemed to follow predictable routes.

It took a bit more effort to open the manhole cover into the sewer than I expected. Fortunately, I was out of sight behind a trash bin, so no one would see me straining with it, and failing. No one, it seemed, except the police patrol robot that suddenly appeared in front of me.

"Halt!" it blared. "You will step back from that entrance at once."

I stepped back.

"Produce identification immediately."

I had little to lose at this point, so I decided to take a risk. "My identification is electronic. I will transmit it to you momentarily. I am reaching for a computer tablet to produce the identification. Please do not interpret this as a sign of resistance or aggression."

"Confirmed," it said, but aimed its weaponry at me.

I opened the tablet and had it scan the police robot. I felt my jaw drop open when I found that the robot was based on the same problematic operating system as all the other gadgetry on Sylkara Prime. I had to resist the urge to smile. Quickly, I tweaked the camera code and used it to shut down the police robot. 

"This delay is unacceptable," it said.

"Transmitting now," I told it, and hit the transmit button on the tablet. The robot shook for a moment, then went silent and limp. It had been shut down.

If the Sylkarans had any half-decent security, a police robot going offline would raise a lot of red flags somewhere. I had to get it back online quickly. I scanned through its code and found a diagnostic mode, where it essentially did whatever a Sylkaran (or human in this case) told it to do. I configured it to start up in the diagnostic mode and sent a power-on signal. The robot came to life.

"Diagnostic mode enabled," it said. "Provide test instructions."

"Open that manhole," I told it. The robot pulled forward, lifted it, and set it aside.

"Once I have entered the manhole, close it behind me. Roll out onto Vila Avenue from where you came. Erase all logs, recording, and sensor data securely, starting from the moment you decided to enter this alley. Then reboot in normal patrol mode."

"Confirmed," it said.

I climbed down the ladder into the sewer, smiling as it closed the manhole cover behind me. I hoped I could re-open it later.

When I reached the bottom of the ladder, I took a moment to streamline what I had just done with the police robot. I keyed this new hacking program to activate and go to work automatically on any nearby police robots when I uttered the words, "Good evening, robotic officer." When I told them "Goodnight" they would go back to where I found them, erase their little memories, and reboot. In essence, they would forget ever meeting me. If any police techs looked into it, the most they would get is that the robot had some missing time in its logs. It would be a mystery without a solution, and the techs would probably hush it up for fear of losing their jobs.


It was a testament to the paranoia of the Sylkaran police force that I encountered five more police robots in the sewer before finally reaching my destination. For protection, I kept them with me as I made my way to the SIS building. We would have made an amusing spectacle, and I smiled at the image of a career criminal with his entourage of police robots.

A scan showed that I was a few feet from a stairwell on the second underground level of the SIS building. I took out my tablet and reprogrammed the security cameras in the nearby stairwell to project footage of an empty stairwell to the control center.

Taking the laser lance out of the pack on my back, I cut a hole from the sewer through to the stairwell, then cut one through the wall into the stairwell itself. 

Turning back to my police robot escort, I said "Goodnight" and watched them roll off into the distance. I replaced the chunk of wall I removed with the laser lance and did my best to line it up so that anyone coming down the stairs might not notice it. 

I took out the tablet and put it to work watching for electronic devices ahead of me. The PMA was three levels below me, so I continued down the stairs to Sublevel 5. The scanner told me I was level with the PMA now, and that it was no more than a 100 meters from me.

The tablet said that two security robots were patrolling the floor, and that the hallways and rooms were blanketed with cameras and sensors. I stayed in the stairwell, taking control of all these devices one at a time, until I controlled all the security on the floor.

I walked down the hall, around the corner, and found a door leading into the room where the PMA seemed to be. Checking for hidden alarms, I unlocked the door and stepped inside. 

In the center of the room, along the wall to my right, I found a safe. The tracker said the PMA was inside. Taking out my safecracking tools, I worked on the safe's locking mechanism until it clicked open.

Taking the empty PMA out of my pocket, I told the tablet to reprogram it to hold the same egg shape as the original. I put the copy in the safe to avert suspicion, and swallowed the original just in case. It would be my insurance policy. I closed the safe door.

Just as I did so, I heard the door open behind me, and the tell-tale sound of weapons being drawn.

"Stand up," a gravely voice said. I did so. "Turn around." I did.

Three armed guards stood there, weapons aimed at me. Assessing the situation as best I could, the odds of my getting out of the room alive if I fought were approximately zero. 

I said the word "burn" and raised my hands. The nearest guards looked at me, confused, then at each other.

"Burn what?" one of them asked.

That word was a trigger to my tablet and to the PMA scanner to self-destruct. If the Sylkarans looked at either gadget, it would be an inert piece of equipment, unable to yield any secrets. I ignored the guard.

Something struck me from behind. My world went dark.


I awoke to find myself in a prison cell. Cameras placed in each corner of the room let me know I wasn't really alone. 

Moments later, three guards came and took me to an interrogation room.

I was strapped into a chair. Electrodes were placed around my brain, on my chest, my arms, and my legs. I felt like a science experiment.

A man in a black suit, with a white shirt and black tie, carried a chair across the room, placed it in front of me, and sat down. He flashed the sort of smile you imagine a shark might show you just before biting off your head.

He held up a small device resembling a computer tablet.

"This," he said, "is your worst nightmare. Let us begin with a demonstration."

He pressed a button. From somewhere behind him, he produced a large, sharp-looking axe. He stood and swung the axe down on my wrist. I tried to jerk my arm out of the way, but couldn't. The axe went through the arm and clanged into the metal arm of the chair I was strapped to. The pain made me feel like I was about to black out, but I didn't. I looked down to see my severed hand fall to the floor, blood spraying from the stump. He raised the axe again, and struck my right wrist. That hand flopped to the floor as well. Blood poured from both wrists, and the room went black.

I opened my eyes to see Shark Man smiling at me. "That seemed very real, no? Look at your hands." I looked down at the arms of the chair. My hands were still there! I could move my fingers and even twist my wrists slightly, as much as the bindings allowed. He had my attention.

"That seemed very real, did it not?"

I nodded.

"That is but one experience I can give you. There are many more. Some are far more unpleasant. You understand, yes?"

I nodded.

"This device can do more than just deliver pain. It also detects untruths, exaggerations, fabrications. If you do not tell me the truth," his smile widened, "you will wish I had chopped off your hands. Am I clear?"

I nodded. Pain wracked through me.

"You will speak when I ask a question. Do you understand?"

"Yes," I said, surprised at how how frightened and raspy my voice sounded. Had he really gotten to me that much?


Andrea Simmons looked at the signal from the PMA tracker Derek was carrying. It stopped transmitting. That could only mean one thing. Derek had been captured by the Sylkarans and ordered his devices to wipe themselves. Just to be sure, she tried to signal his tablet computer. It didn't respond.

Fortunately, she had followed Agency protocol and injected Derek Biggs with a tracking molecule as he slept. Using an entangled molecule in her tablet, she could pinpoint his location. He was still inside the SIS building, but several levels up from where the PMA had been located earlier. There was no way to know if Biggs had gotten the PMA or not, but she couldn't let him remain in SIS custody any longer than necessary. They would eventually torture every secret he had out of him. She this knew because this wasn't her first time in Sylkaran territory - a fact she'd been ordered to conceal from Biggs until the mission was over.

Biggs had analyzed the tactical situation well, and knew that any direct assault on the SIS facility would be suicidal. They would not keep him in the SIS building for too long. Sooner or later, their paranoia would convince them to move him to a more secure facility. She would be alert for that move, and she would strike. She would free Biggs, get back to the ship, and leave the planet. The PMA wasn't worth the life of an Agency recruit of his abilities. The Director would understand. It was a training mission, after all.

Simmons transmitted a situation report to Director Kelmot, explaining her planned course of action. He transmitted approval and wished her luck. 


The man in the black suit smiled at me. His little magic box of horrors had shown me what it was like to have my hands chopped off, so he had my attention.

"You will tell me your name," he said. 

"I will not."

He looked at the display on the box. "You are lying. This cannot go unpunished."

Suddenly he jumped at me and jammed metal pins into my eyes. I couldn't see. It felt like he was using them to scrape out my eyes As much I tried to suppress it, I couldn't. I screamed.

Just as suddenly as the pain and blindness hit me, it was gone. His smile seemed to grow slightly. He was enjoying this. I wasn't a killer, but I began to see what drove people to do it.

"Your name," he said, finger poised over the buttons on the box.

There was no harm in him knowing my name. "Derek Biggs."

He stared at the box. "Good. At last we are getting somewhere. You are a human. Did the Alliance for Sentient Lifeforms send you to Sylkara Prime."

"No," I told him. For just an instant, I saw surprise register on his face. I had to suppress the urge to smile. At least I could deliver him a surprise or two.

"Then who sent you?"

I thought about this, about how I could answer honestly without giving away too much to my interrogator. "I don't really know."

His eyebrow raised slightly, then went back to its original position. I'd surprised him again.

"Tell me about them."

While I doubted that the Sylkarans could do much damage to The Agency, I didn't feel right about throwing them under the bus, either. I'd give him as little information as possible. It seemed that his device could detect untruth, but not intentional omission. "I am a career criminal. I make my living stealing money from the rich, powerful, and--"

"I did not ask about you. I asked about who sent you." He wiggled his finger over the button.

"I'm getting to that. They'd been following me for a while. I thought I'd given them the slip, and was working out my next caper on a planet near the neutral zone. They captured me and brought me into their base of operations. They told me they wanted me to steal something."

He nodded, eyes never leaving the device in his hands. "Did you steal it?"

How could I answer this truthfully without telling him I'd swallowed it?

"I'm here with you," I said. "I've clearly not been successful... yet."

He looked up from the device at me. "You actually think you might yet complete the theft?"

"Yes," I said. It was true. The PMA was still in my stomach somewhere. If I got away from them, I might still leave here with it.

"I see. This group that sent you here, is it affiliated with the Alliance government?"

"No, I don't think so."

"The device says your answer is inconclusive. So you suspect some kind of affiliation?"

I sighed. I needed to be more careful with my answers. "They were able to get me across the neutral zone without setting off alarms on either side. They knew where the item they wanted me to steal was located. That made me think they might be with the government, but they told me they weren't."

"Truthful," he said. "Now, what was it they wanted you to steal?"

"A small egg-shaped object, in a safe in your SIS building."

He looked at the device.  "One moment," he said. He got up, taking the gadget with him, and left the room. 

I struggled with the bonds that held me in the interrogation chair. I couldn't get loose from them. I would need to look for another opportunity to escape.

What seemed like an hour later, the man in black entered the room and sat down.

"It appears that your theft was unsuccessful," he said. "The object you speak of is still resting comfortably in its safe."

"Is it?" I said. "I'm happy to hear that." I was, too. It meant they didn't know I had swallowed the real one, and that they'd been fooled by the fake.

"Why would you be glad about that?" He looked at his device, the expression on his face hinting that maybe he didn't believe what it was telling him.

"If you thought I had stolen it already," I said, "you'd be using that little gadget on me again."

"Yes, I most certainly would. What's in that little container?"

"Something this group thought was important," I said. searching my brain for something truthful but unhelpful to say. "They wanted it back badly enough to send me here to steal it."

"Indeed. What, exactly, is in there?"

I was hoping he wouldn't ask that. "Information of value to them. I'm not sure what."

"Lie!" He said, pressing the button. A swarm of insects swarmed over me, biting and stinging me. The pain and sensation were so intense that I lost consciousness.

When I awoke, he was still sitting in his chair, staring at me. The smile was gone now.

"This is the last warning I will give you. Do not attempt to withhold information from me again. I've adjusted the device's sensitivity. Answer my questions truthfully and fully. I am authorized to kill you if necessary. Do you understand?"


"What information is contained in the object? How is it accessed?"

"They don't really trust me," I said. He looked at the device. "So they didn't tell me everything." He continued to watch the screen. "I know it's a list. I know it's hidden in the device and that they can unlock it with the right signal. I don't know what the signal is or how to open it." 

Since he didn't hit me with pain for holding back the details of what was on the list, I doubted that he had really adjusted his device. It clearly had limits. I'd hoped I could mislead him by telling him they didn't trust me, hinting that they didn't tell me what was on the list.

"I see. Were you working alone here?"

I framed the idea in my head to try to protect Simmons. We weren't exactly friends and partners, and her job was just to advise and observe. So, I told myself, I was actually working alone. She was only an observer or a bystander. "Yes, I worked alone."

He flashed that surprised look again. "I see. So you were abducted by a group, asked to steal something important to them from the Sylkaran Empire, and smuggled across the neutral zone to do it?"


"How did you cross the neutral zone?"

"They put me in a small ship. It was able to temporarily blind the neutral zone scanners on the Alliance side of the zone."

"I see. And how did it get past our scanners?"

"I'm not sure. I think they powered it down during that part of the trip."

He pulled a notepad out of his pocket and scribbled something in it. No doubt it would be instructions to alter the scanners along the neutral zone.

"This ship of yours. Where is it now?"

I thought carefully. "When I last saw it, it was on a landing pad at the spaceport."

"Is it still there?"

"I don't know."

"We will find out. Which landing pad?"

I hoped Simmons had done the smart thing and left Sylkara Prime. If not, I was about to send a lot of nasty people her way. "It was on pad 172."

He got up and left the room again. This time, he put the control box for his little torture device on his chair. I got a decent look at it. It had a color display, which looked as though it was monitoring my vital signs and brainwaves. That wasn't surprising, since it seemed to be messing with them when he tortured me. There were two physical buttons on the device. The red button I was all too familiar with. It caused the painful hallucinations he'd been giving me. The green one, I could only guess about. Perhaps it turned the thing off, or gave you a pleasant hallucination? I didn't know.

My inquistor returned, picked up the device, and sat down. "I've dispatched agents to investigate your ship. We are curious to know how you got past our scanners, and even more so, how you got past those on the Alliance side."

I didn't doubt what he was saying. After all, being able to slip undetected across the neutral zone would make espionage and invasion far easier for the Sylkarans. Plus, the fact that I'd been able to do it undetected meant that they had a security problem that needed to be corrected immediately.

"As I'm sure you know," he said, "Tenchon is blanketed in a variety of security cameras and bio-scanners designed to detect and report all non-Sylkaran beings traveling through the city. Despite this, you were able to travel from the spaceport to one of the most secure facilities on Sylkara Prime without being detected. How did you manage this feat?"

I was dreading this question. My ability to compromise their computer-based devices would keep me safe if I ever got free. It also represented the best hope for Simmons to get off the planet and out of Sylkaran space. I needed to play this carefully. I had to reveal as little as possible. How to do it?

"I had a tablet with me. It remotely disabled cameras and bio-scanners."

"We have examined that tablet. It has no such capabilities."

I nodded. Time to try a bluff. "I'm sure it was wiped clean. If you could compromise Alliance security technology that effectively, would you want them to know how you were doing it?"

"No. You're saying this group who sent you here provided that tablet?"

He'd gone for the deflection. I needed to reinforce it. "Yes. They provided it along with other equipment, like the laser lance I used to cut into the stairwell of the SIS building."

He watched the display on the torture box carefully. "I see."

Something in his shirt pocket beeped. He left the room. I cursed The Agency for putting me in this situation. This is why I didn't like working with others. The Agency had taken my surgically implanted lockpicks and other devices. I had nothing to help me get out of this mess. Like it or not, and I most assuredly did not, I was a prisoner of the Sylkarans for the time being.

My interrogator returned. "Your ship appears to have left the landing pad. My colleagues have reviewed security footage and control tower records. You were not alone when you arrived on Sylkara Prime. You told me you were alone. Such lies and omissions will not be tolerated." 

He pressed the red button. Words can't describe what happened next. This time, there were no hallucinations. I felt as though my entire body was on fire. Then, searing pain from head to toe. I heard screaming, and realized it was me. I shook and shuddered, spasmed and twisted. In the end, I felt blessed unconsciousness.


Simmons knew the reputation of Sylkaran interrogators for getting information. No one knew how they did it, but they appeared to be incredibly effective. She knew that Biggs would eventually be forced to tell them about the PMA, the ship, the Agency, and her involvement. She contacted the spaceport control center for permission to depart. Moments later, she received it and launched the ship.

After she had flown the ship out of Sylkaran scanner range, she ordered it to reconfigure its hull, so that it would appear to be a different vessel when scanned again. While doing this, the computer also rearranged some of the ship's electronic and power signatures, giving it the impression of being a completely different vessel.

Simmons found the specifications and software Biggs created for his tablet. The 3D printer created a replacement and the computer programmed it for her. When she returned to Sylkara Prime, she hoped the hack Biggs created still worked. There was a risk that the Sylkarans had gotten the secret out of him and fixed their devices, but that seemed unlikely given the time that had elapsed. Reprogramming that many devices that quickly would have been an incredible feat, perhaps even beyond The Agency.


I woke up on a cot in a cell without windows, shackled at the wrists and ankles. I wondered if this was another of the man in black's illusions. Since nothing was attacking me, setting me on fire, or otherwise causing me pain, I decided it wasn't.

Two uniformed men entered the room. Two more, with guns drawn, stood just outside the door. Apparently the man in black was finished with me, since he wasn't making an appearance.

"So, where are we going?" I asked the closest man.

His lip curled in disgust. "You're on your way to prison."

"What, no trial?"

He laughed. "You were caught in the middle of the most sensitive building on Sylkara Prime. We wouldn't waste the taxpayers' money on a trial for you."

They forced me out the door of the room and down a series of corridors. When they escorted me down a flight of stairs, I waited until the man in front of me reached the landing, then pretended to trip and fall. I landed on him, knocking him down. In the process, I managed to swipe the electronic key for the manacles. I knew it was the key because they'd had to unlock the leg restraints so that I could negotiate the stairs. I slipped it into the waistband of my pants. 

I was escorted outdoors. I wondered where we had been since I'd been caught. It was the SIS building, the same place I'd been captured. It didn't surprise me that they held on to me for a while. There were probably a lot of heads rolling because a human from the Alliance had managed to get undetected into the most secure building in the Sylkaran capitol city.

Outside the building, a dozen more armed and uniformed guards were waiting. I was directed toward an armored vehicle and told to get inside. The odds of a successful escape were still very low, so I did as I was told. I hoped a better opportunity would present itself. When it did, I'd use the key to remove the manacles and escape.

The armored vehicle wormed its way through the city and out into the countryside. This actually brightened my mood. Bio-scanners and cameras where everywhere in Tenchon, but this far away from civilization the devices were probably fewer and further between. If I managed to escape my captors, I had a chance at remaining undetected for a while. Hopefully I'd be able to escape this miserable planet.


Simmons had slipped a tracking molecule into Biggs' food on the flight to Sylkara Prime. Her detector showed that Biggs was still on the planet, but moving out of the city.  Had he escaped? Possibly. If not, she would free him. She hadn't lost a trainee yet. 

Simmons told the traffic controller that she was there to visit a friend in the city. They gave her a flight path and told her to land the ship on pad 48. She acknowledged, but told them she was having difficulty with her flight controls. She told them she'd do her best to follow their flight path, but couldn't promise there would be no deviations. She had the computer fake some radiation leakage and heat signatures indicative of thruster problems.

"Confirmed," the controller told her. "We're sending escorts to help you down. Follow their instructions."

"Acknowledged," Simmons said. Biggs seemed to be on the move. She hoped she could get to him before the escort vehicles arrived.


Looking out the window at the front of the transport, I saw a large building in the distance.

"What's that?" I asked one of the armed men. He ignored me. I asked the other.

He smiled. "That's Lumax prison. It'll be your home, for a while."

"What do you mean, 'for a while'?"

"They'll keep you there, interrogating you until they've extracted everything you know. Then they'll shoot you or ship you off to Colony Twelve. We don't get many humans, so they'll probably send you to the Colony." He smiled at the other guard, who smiled back.

"I gather there's some inside joke here I'm not getting."

The quiet one nodded. "Yeah. Colony Twelve is where weapons and medical experiments go on. It's called a life sentence to go there, but life spans aren't that long there."

I didn't like the sound of that. "Why?"

"Let's just say the prisoners participate in the experiments." The two of them laughed.

I had no intention of becoming anyone's guinea pig or weapons target. With the prison getting closer and closer, my time to escape was running out. I looked at the two guards in the rear compartment with me, and the other two in the cockpit of the vehicle.  I would take the two back here with me, and try to jump out the back. Then I'd deal with the two up front when the vehicle stopped and they got out.

I placed my hands in my lap, next to the waistband. When the two guards seemed not to be paying much attention, I slipped the electronic key into my hand. Then, as quick as I could, I unlocked the manacles and grabbed the gun of the nearest guard. I stood up and pointed the gun at one guard, then the other. 

"You," I said, pointing the gun at the one who still had his sidearm. "Get up slowly and walk to the back of the vehicle. Make a move for your gun and I shoot."

He stood up slowly and started toward the back of the vehicle.

"Unlock the door and open it," I told him. 

As soon as the doors began to swing open, I ran at him full speed. I grabbed him around the throat as my momentum knocked us both out of the transport onto the ground. It was a hard fall, and nearly knocked the wind out of me. My unwilling companion took the worst of it. I think I heard a rib or two crack when we landed, but it could have been my imagination. I hoped it wasn't.

I grabbed the fallen guard's gun, having dropped the one I was holding in the fall from the transport. He was lying on the ground moaning, making no attempt to get up. 

Behind me, I could hear the vehicle screeching to a halt. There was nothing but open fields in any direction, except for the prison straight ahead. As much as I deplored the idea of killing another sentient being, I knew the Sylkarans didn't share that belief. 

I turned toward the vehicle, weapon drawn. The guard in the back climbed out, hands raised in the air to let me know he wasn't a threat. The two in the front weren't so ready to surrender. They walked around the sides of the truck, weapons at the ready.

"Give it up, human. You don't have chance," the one on my left said. "There's no way you can shoot all three of us before one of us gets you."

"Maybe not," I said. "Which of you wants to risk being the fist one I shoot?"

The three of them started moving closer. They were calling my bluff. I was going to have to shoot, or I'd be recaptured.


Simmons made it appear that the ship was somewhat out of her control as she followed the flight path toward the spaceport.  When Bigg's signal suddenly stopped moviing, she veered off the flight path toward him. She wasn't sure what she'd find when she got there, but she was determined to save him.

She arrived at the location to find Biggs in a stand-off with three men in uniform. She fired the ship's weapons at their feet, knocking them off-balance and probably unconscious. She landed as close to Biggs as she could, and opened the airlock door. As soon as he was aboard, she lifted off.


I'd never been as happy to see someone as I had Simmons. From what the man in black had told me, I thought she would have been back at The Agency by now.

"You came back for me. Why?" I asked her.

"Not now," she said, frantically working the ship's navigational controls. "Get on the weapons console."

I ran to the console and sat down, activating the ship's defenses and weaponry.

"What's going on?"

"Any minute now, the Sylkaran military will coming to shoot us down. Be ready for anything."

She fired the thrusters as hard as they would go. The ship shuddered under the stress but began climbing through the atmosphere.

"Five ships coming from two o'clock," Simmons said.

I checked the scanner. They were moving fast.

"Five more coming from nine o'clock," I told her.

"Damn," Simmons said. "We're in a lot of trouble. I don't think we can take down that many ships."

"I know." I brought up a communications console. I punched in the frequency Kelmot had given me, and the first of the recognition codes. I told the console to repeat the signal until it got a response or I told it to stop.

The fighters from the two o'clock angle reached us first. I managed to shoot two of them down. The others circled us like hornets, firing as they did so. Within seconds, the others came into range. I did my best, taking out two more. I had to give Simmons a lot of credit. She flew the ship like a professional. Our attackers got a shot in here or there, but she managed to evade the worst of their fire.

The comm system beeped. It had received a response. I punched in the response code. It seemed that the rogue Alliance spy was willing to talk. I hoped we survived long enough to ask him for help.

Another pursuer down. 

"This is Ethan Crosby," a voice on the comm system said. "Who are you and what is your business?"

"Mr. Crosby, this is Derek Biggs." One of the Sylkaran ships scored a hit, and our ship shook violently. "My associate and I are in trouble. We were told to contact you if we were out of options. And--" The ship shook again. "I think we're out."

"Who told you to contact me?"

As I opened my mouth to speak, Simmons shook her head. She didn't want me to reveal the existence of The Agency.

"Let's just say it's someone who thought you could be trusted." Simmon seemed OK with that answer, and returned to the controls. The ship had just made it into space.

"Your signal is coming from Sylkara Prime. I doubt anyone there trusts me."

"You're probably right about that," I said, firing a few more shots at our pursuers. "Look, I don't have long. We're under attack by Sylkaran fighters. We're outnumbered and barely holding our own. We could use your help."

"How do I know I can trust you?"

"I gather those codes I just used tell you I've got friends in high places back home. If that's not enough, I'm sending you a sensor data feed so you can see what's going on." Another hit on our ship. I smelled smoke and the lights began flickering. "I can't talk anymore. We're in real trouble."

Simmons and I did our best, but it wasn't enough. There were too many attackers. As good a pilot as she was, and I haven't seen better, she couldn't keep the ship under control. We were heading back down to Sylkara Prime, almost out of control, with our pursuers close behind.

Our harnesses kept us from being thrown around the control room as the ship tumbled across the planet's surface, but loose debris pounded us mercilessly. I saw a piece of control panel hit Simmons in the head. I hoped she was OK. I wouldn't have been able to stand the guilt of her being killed trying to rescue me.

When a piece of metal lodged itself into my thigh, I wished I'd been in the black suited man's hands. At least I might have passed out from the pain.


Ethan Crosby's shipmates stared at him as though he'd grown a second head, one that was purple and had flashing yellow horns.

"Are you serious?" Mills asked him. "You want to fly to Sylkara Prime to rescue someone you've never met, just because he knows your old Alliance Intelligence recognition code?"

Crosby nodded. "I do. Look, Mills. Those codes are considered top secret. Only the highest ranking members of Alliance Intelligence have access to them, and they don't hand them out to just anyone. Whoever this is must have connections. Or worse, the Sylkrans have gotten access to the heart of Alliance Intelligence. I don't have to tell you how bad that would be."

"Have you considered the very real possibility," Mills said, "That this is a trap, and that the Sylkarans extracted that code from your memory when they interrogated you as a spy?"

"Yes. But if there's a chance this Biggs guy is legitimate, I have to help him."

Mills rolled his eyes. "Why?"

"I'm on the Alliance's bad side right now because we stopped their agents from taking CORA. I'll bet most of them think I'm a traitor working for the Sylkarans. This is a chance to show them I'm still on their side."

"That's worth the risk to you? Just to save face."

Crosby nodded. "Yes. If we ever manage to get the Sylkaran High Council out of power, I want to be able to go back home. Don't you?"

"Yes, but if they kill us on Sylkara Prime, that point is moot. I don't see any particular benefit in being dead."

"That's something I hope we can avoid."

Mills stared at Crosby, analyzing him. "What's in this for us? Why should we join you?"

"Suppose, just suppose, that this guy's on the up-and-up. He's been on the surface of Sylkara Prime. You know how paranoid the Sylkarans are. They have bio-scanners everywhere. How did this guy get there? How did he survive there without being caught?"

"Good point. They should have had him the moment he arrived. All the more reason to believe this is a trap."

"That's why we'll have to be careful. But if he operated on that planet at all, he knows how to get around their bio-scanners. If we could do that, it would open up a lot of options for us. Let's see if we can get the others to go along.


I awoke in a prison transport next to Simmons. She was already awake. Through the front window of the transport I could see Lumax prison not far away, and getting closer.

I looked at Simmons, hoping that she had some trick up her sleeve, some way out of the situation. She held up her manacled hands and said, "I'm in the same boat as you now, Biggs." She shook her head as though she couldn't believe our situation.

In all my years as a criminal, I'd never been inside a prison. I'd been arrested a few times, but always managed to slip away with a hidden lockpick, a micro-grenade full of sleep gas, or a well-placed bribe. Thanks to the Agency, the surgically-implanted tools were gone. The Sylkarans took anything else I had. I couldn't see a way out.

When we were inside the prison perimeter, the guards separated Simmons from me and took each of us to separate wings of the prison. They shoved me down a corridor lined with cameras, and probably more than a few scanners for contraband and potential escape tools. At the end of the corridor, a door buzzed open and I was shoved through.

"Remove all clothing," a uniformed man holding a computer tablet said. Beside him stood two other uniformed men, holding not clipboards but some very unfriendly looking weapons.

Surveying the room, I saw that there were cameras in several strategic locations. If I moved quickly enough, I might be able to take out the three men in the room with me, but whoever was watching those cameras would certainly send additional forces. I decided not to take the risk. I stripped and tossed my clothes aside.

"Step back," the clipboard holder said, and I did. He grabbed my clothes and tossed them into an incinerator. 

"Hey! I paid a lot of credits for those," I told him. His goons answered with a pair of rifle butts in my gut. Clearly they had no sense of humor about the job.

Clipboard guy walked to a cabinet on the wall and grabbed a small bundle from it. He tossed the bundle on the floor in front of me. "Your uniform," he said, tapping on the tablet's screen. "Take him to his cell."

The two armed guards marched me out the door on the opposite wall, down a series of corridors, then up a flight of stairs. I walked down a hallway lined with prison cells. Most were occupied by non-Sylkarans and non-humans. When we reached one of the middle cells in the row, the guard told me to stop, turn left, and enter the cell. The door slid shut and the lock buzzed behind me.

Fortunately, the Sylkarans seemed to have enough free cells that they didn't need to put more than one prisoner in a cell. This meant that the risk of an unwanted night-time advance from a cellmate was extremely low. It also meant that I was very much alone. Normally, I preferred that, but as they say, misery loves company. There was no denying how miserable I felt.

I sat down on the cot and considered my surroundings. Instinctively, I went to work looking for items I could repurpose as tools to escape from the cell.  A small sink with a paper cup and soap on it, a towel hanging from a hook on the wall, a toilet, and a cot. 

Under the mattress were plastic straps to provide support. These were strong, but too flexible to serve as possible lockpick material. The towel was too small to turn into a rope of any useful length. It appeared that the Sylkarans had seen their share of prisoner escape attempts. They didn't seem to have left anything behind of any real use to a would-be escapee. I sat back down on the cot, my face in my hands.


Crosby explained the situation, and his thinking, to the others.

"How do you plan to verify this man's claims?" Brell said. "For all we know, he's not a human. He might even be working with the Sylkarans."

"You're right," Crosby said. "That's why I'm proposing we approach this carefully. We'll come out of FTL outside of scanner range from Sylkara Prime. We'll have CORA turn on stealth mode, and give every other craft a wide berth as we approach. We'll search for human life signs on the planet. If there aren't any, or those life signs aren't in prison, we get the hell out of there and leave Mr. Biggs to rot. But if we do find human life signs, and they're in Lumax prison, he's probably on the level."

"Then what?" Brell looked at him suspiciously. "You're not thinking of going down to the planet to get him?"

"I was thinking that, until I remembered what someone told me when I was at Lumax, before they sent us to Colony Twelve. Another inmate said that Lumax is used as a holding facility until they ship you offworld. The Sylkarans don't like the idea of criminals on their planet, so they don't hold them long."

"I don't see how that helps," Brell said. 

"It means, you simpleton," Mills said, "That sooner or later Lumax will fill up and it will be time to ship Biggs and his associate to a prison colony offworld. When that happens, we can follow the transport and hit it when it's most vulnerable. We board it, free Biggs and Simmons, then get out before the Sylkaran fleet can show up."

"Ah," Brell said. "I still don't like it."

Mills rolled his eyes. "You wouldn't. Unless the plan is 'go and hide' you think its too dangerous."

"Nothing wrong with a good hiding place," Brell said. "Better than getting shot up."

"CORA can handle a prison transport," Crosby said. "I'm not saying it's going to be a cake walk, but it'll be nothing compared to what we dealt with on Rygell-3."

Brell shuddered. "Yeah, well it still doesn't mean I have to like it."

Mills stared at Brell. "But you'll go along with it."

"Well, yeah, obviously," Brell folded his arms over his chest and looked away.

"Monroe, Tork... Are you in?"

They nodded.

"CORA, set a course for a location outside sensor range of Sylkara Prime."


I stared at the food which had not-terribly-generously been provided by my Sylkaran captors. It sat there on the plastic tray like three lumps - one gray, one brown, and the other slightly-green. Apart from the color, they might well have been the same thing. None of them had any discernible flavor or texture. If not for the growling of my stomach, I wouldn't have eaten any of the lumps.

The only somewhat-bright spot in my daily existence in Lumax prison was the brief "exercise" period where we were allowed to walk outside on the grounds. While this outside area seemed at first much less secure than the cells, to a trained eye like mine it was obvious that there were robot sentries on patrol outside the fence, snipers posted on the building, armed guards, and cameras all over. I suspect that before you could even touch the fence, you'd be shot from several directions. If I spent enough time here, I'd probably test the theory.

I knew it wouldn't come to that, though. The other prisoners were getting increasingly nervous about a transport that was on the way here. It would take all of us away to some colony where, as they put it, "life expectancy was low" and you'd be glad for it. A lesser person might have been disheartened by the news, but not me. Once we were on that prison transport, we'd be off this planet and away from its armies, fleets, and electronic detectors. We had a better chance of getting free.


Mills drummed his fingernails on the console.

Brell groaned and rubbed the back of his neck, "Would you mind not doing that, Mills?"

"Would you prefer I took my boredom out on you?" Mills glared at him.

"Guys, no one says you have to just sit around. Why aren't you teaching each other how to pick locks or disable alarms or something?" Monroe looked at Brell, then Mills, and back at Brell.

"Crosby, how much longer are we going to sit here doing nothing?"

Crosby sighed. "Look, I've been watching the number of life signs in the prison, and CORA's scanning for prison transports. Until then we need to stay silent and still, just to make sure the Sylkaran defenses don't pick us up."


Something was up. They woke us all up early, ran us through the showers, and marched us down a corridor I'd never seen open before. At the far end I could hear the sounds of thrusters being shut down. 

They were about to move us off Sylkara Prime. 

While they'd kept us separated within the prison, both male, female, and androgynous humanoids were being taken out to the landing pad. That probably meant they had some way to control our movements aboard the transport. Judging from the size of the thing, it wasn't going to be a comfortable separation. That didn't surprise me. The Sylkarans had a real knack for treating their enemies with complete contempt. I began to see why so many Alliance citizens hated them.

We were filed onto the transport one at a time. When it was my turn, they marched me into the passenger compartment and sat me down in a seat which bore an uncanny resemblance to the one used by the man in black. As soon as I sat down, thick metallic bands locked around my wrists arms, and ankles. I tried to buy some wiggle room by contorting myself a bit, but the restraints only bit down harder until the wiggle room was reduced to a mild shake. 

I heard Simmons being brought in later. I couldn't see her, but I heard her cry out in pain when she tried to fight the guards who'd brought her aboard. From the noises I heard after that, they didn't place her in the chair delicately. When they brought another prisoner in later, I had to smile when I saw blood on the guards' faces and uniforms. Simmons must have torn into them pretty hard. 

Minutes later, every seat in the transport was filled. The thrusters began powering up and soon the transport took to the air, and I hoped, toward a possibility for escape.


(to be continued)

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.


Post a Comment