Jewels of the Dragon sample

Part One

1.

Kohltri was a lonely planet, the only one orbiting its sun, and far from the rest of the Federation, of which it was a member.

Across the Federation from Kohltri were the Crescent Cluster, the Anarchy of Raas, the Abogarn Hegemony, and other political entities spanning dozens or hundreds of inhabited star systems. But on this side there were only the great reaches between this spiral arm of the galaxy and the next. Not truly empty, but there were too few stars and those too far apart to entice expansion. ·

Kohltri Station, as a consequence, was small. It circled the planet in geostationary orbit 33,000 kilometers above the surface. Its hundred thousand people administered the planet and its commerce, or provided services for the administrators. Station time was set to the surface immediately below it. When the station passed into Kohltri’s shadow, it was night.

Now it was nearly noon. Rikard Braeth, twenty-six in Earth years, stood at the door to the station director’s office. He was very tall, very slender, and moved with a grace that sometimes made him seem lazy. His skin was dark, his hair black and rather unruly. He was not handsome, and his clothes, once good, were now old.

After the briefest of pauses, he reached out and touched the latch plate beside the door. The door slid open and he went in.

The office was not large. In the middle stood a small, immaculate desk behind which sat the Director, head bent over the several screens embedded in the desk’s surface. According to the brass plate at the front of the desk, the Director’s name was Anton Solvay.

On the wall behind Solvay were framed credentials and certificates. The entire left wall of the office was a huge window, showing the deeps of space outside the station. The limb of the galaxy cut a messy diagonal across one corner. On the right wall communications equipment and reference shelves bracketed a private door.

Solvay punched a few buttons, some screens cleared, and only then did he look up. He was a compact man, slightly balding, and somewhere in his fifties — still young, given a life span of about two hundred years. He rose to his feet and extended his right hand. He was fully a head shorter than Rikard.

“Msr. Braeth,” he said as he shook Rikard’s hand. “Welcome to Kohltri Station.” He waved his hand toward one of the two chairs in front of his desk, an invitation to sit. “What can I do for you?’‘

“It’s just a small matter,” Rikard said, taking a seat. “I’m sorry to trouble you about it, but I don’t know who else to ask. I need to go down to the surface of Kohltri, and I haven’t been able to find out how to do that.”

Solvay sat back, a look of mild surprise on his face. “Why in heaven’s name would you want to go down to the surface?”

“I’m looking for my father. I’ve traced his movements all the way from Pelgrane to here. It’s taken me two years.”

“And you think he went to the surface?”

“I do. My father was very methodical. On every one of the sixty or so worlds I’ve tracked him through, his pattern was always the same. He’d come to a world, visit the University Central if there was one, the major museums, and so on, and always the Mines and Minerals Reclamation office. And since the Mines office is on the surface, that’s where my father would have gone after he’d finished up here.”

Solvay drummed his fingers lightly on the desk. “Exactly when was this?” he asked.

“Rather a long time ago, I’m afraid. My father left home thirteen years ago. Your records show he arrived here about two years later.”

“And you were able to follow him here after waiting eleven years? Remarkable. But records like that are not generally available for public inspection. What authority do you have to search them?”

“I’m a Local Historian, accredited by the University of Pelgrane. Getting my degree was part of the reason that it took me so long to start looking for my father.”

“I see. And you found a record of your father on a shuttle list?”

“No, but then I haven’t found any record of his departure, death, or naturalization either. And he always visited the Mines offices. The surface is the only place he could have gone.”

“I see.” For some reason Solvay did not seem very pleased. “That is certainly a reasonable conclusion. I wish I could help you, but I can’t.”

“In that case,” Rikard said, “could you tell me who can? I’m willing to pay for a special shuttle trip, if that’s necessary.”

“No,” Solvay said, “I mean you can’t go to the surface.”

“Why not?” Rikard made sure his voice revealed no emotion other than simple curiosity.

“You don’t have the proper clearances.”

Rikard sighed. This was not the first time he’d had to deal with the vagaries of a bureaucracy. He took his wallet from his inside jacket pocket, took out his Historian’s Accreditation Card, and handed it to the Director. That card had gotten him into a lot of places other people didn’t think he had any right to. Solvay looked over the card, examined the holographic representations, dropped it on the ID plate on his desk to check the readout.

“I hope,” Rikard said, “that that will prove satisfactory.”

“I’m sure that it would almost anywhere but here.” Solvay handed back the card. “You are free, of course, to examine any records that are not restricted by law, but I cannot let you go down.”

“I don’t understand,” Rikard said as he put bis card away. “Kohltri is not on any of the military registers. Why can’t I go to the surface?”

“I am not at liberty to tell you that. The very fact that you don’t know why you can’t go down is proof that you have no business on Kohltri. If you want to go to the surface, you’ll have to get authorization elsewhere.”

“Ah, all right. I think I can still afford a round trip. Where should I go, and what kind of clearances do I need?”

“Again, if you don’t already know, then I’m not at liberty to tell you. I’m sorry.”

“Msr. Solvay, this doesn’t make any sense. I know that a lot of people come here-”

“Not a lot, only a couple hundred a year.”

‘‘Close to a thousand, according to your own records. And most of those people go to the surface, as far as I can tell.”

“If they go down, that’s only because they have proper clearance.”

“I didn’t see anything about any clearance in the records.”

“Of course you didn’t; you weren’t supposed to. It’s not good security to label secret things as secret.”

Rikard felt his frustration rise. This conversation wasn’t getting him anywhere. He decided to try another track.

“Kohltri,” he said, “is a mining world, as I understand it!’

“Yes, it is.”

“The records aren’t always very clear on just what is mined here.”

“That’s true. Look, we’re a long way off from the next nearest system. That means we’re vulnerable to certain kinds of industrial espionage. We keep a low profile, in large part as a matter of self-defense. I can’t tell you anything more than that.”

“You mean to say that the ores you mine here are classified information?”

“You’ve see the records, apparently.”

“Some of them,” Rikard said, “yes. Does it matter that I have absolutely no interest in your mines?”

“None at all. I’m sorry.” Solvay got to his feet, indicating that the interview was over.

“I am too,” Rikard said, also rising.

“If there’s anything else … ” Solvay suggested, extending his hand again.

“Nothing right now.” Rikard shook Solvay’s hand out of courtesy. He turned and went out of the office. He went through the outer offices of the administrative section and out into the corridors of the main part of the station.

“Damn,” he muttered to himself. He could feel his face getting hot, and the sound of his teeth grating was loud in his ears. He knew about security, what files were classified and what weren’t. Nothing he’d looked at had any restrictions at all.

He saw someone staring at him in alarm, and others moving discreetly to the side of the corridor. Very deliberately, he made his face bland and tried to suppress bis frustration and anger.

2.

Rikard wanted to get as far away from Solvay’s office as possible. He walked along the corridors of the station with that intent, heading for the far end. As be walked, he worked to put Solvay from his mind, to make himself feel as calm as he now looked. But as his composure returned, he became aware that the scar on the palm of his right hand was itching. He tried not to scratch.

He ignored the other people in the corridors, and they mostly ignored him, though a person as tall as he was always drew some attention. He managed to ignore his thoughts of Solvay as well, but now the tingling in his palm became stronger. However calm he’d made his surface, he was still suffering from internal stress and tension.

That was when the scar itched. It wasn’t much to see, just a slightly irregular line from his ring finger to the base of his thumb. Thinking about it now made the itching almost painful. Gently, he rubbed it with the thumb of his left hand.

He hated to yield, because rubbing or scratching the scar produced a strange secondary effect, bringing a momentary impression of concentric circles swimming in his eyes.

The image never came when be was calm, no matter what work he was doing with his hands. Only when he was angry did the scar itch, and only when he scratched the itch did the rings appear — a visual and mental distraction. They were as hard to see as the motes in his eye, circling the center of his field of vision. If he tried to focus on the rings, they shifted and faded.

This time the circles were so strong that he knew his inner turmoil was only barely controlled. And the visual illusion and the itching scar were not helping him calm himself. After all, the cause of his frustration and the cause of the scar were the same. It was his father he was looking for and it was his father who had given him the scar with its phantom rings in the first place.

Back on Pelgrane, when he was just ten years old, his father took him to a clinic and paid a lot of money for an unusual operation, then paid a lot more to keep the fact of the operation discreet. The surgeons had implanted a small device in Rikard’s palm, a device his father had found somewhere, that was somehow supposed to have given Rikard better than average skills with a gun. Guns had been his father’s one indulgence, the only thing, Rikard now knew, that he had retained from his life before Pelgrane.

The device in his palm was connected by artificial nerves running up his arm directly to the visual centers of his brain where it caused the images of circles. But it didn’t seem to work otherwise; Rikard had no special advantage as a marksman. The surgeons had checked the medical aspects of the operation, but the device itself was strange to them. Even his father had not fully understood the mechanism and had been sorely disappointed by the apparent failure of the costly operation.

In later years, after his father abandoned his family, Rikard had grown to hate the scar for what it represented. For a while he had contemplated having the device removed, but he hadn’t had the money then. Later, when he could afford it, he’d decided he had better things to do with the money. And so the device, the scar, and the circles remained.

Now those circles added to his anger, undermined his attempts to calm himself. He clenched his hand and stuffed it in his pocket. Let it itch; he wouldn’t scratch, and then maybe he could calm down.

He walked through the middle levels of the station, the residential levels. Science was “above,” industry and service “below.” There were more people than when he’d gone to the Director’s office. It must be the local lunchtime.

His stomach confirmed that, even as he checked his watch. He could eat at his hostel, but then he would be alone with his thoughts, and he didn’t want that. Instead he walked on to the far end of the station, to the clubs, shops and recreation areas.

He wandered off the main ways, looking for something suited to his mood, until he noticed the marquee of a tavern situated up a side corridor. A couple of beers, he thought, were just what he wanted right now. He went to the tavern door and stepped inside.

It was not as dim as many such places, and fortunately also served sandwiches. Most of the customers were seated at the few small tables between the bar and the booths against the window wall. Through the window Rikard could see the black velvet of space, the stars above and below. From this part of the station he could even see a bit of the planet.

He’d come here for company, so he looked around for someone on whom he could impose, and was pleased to notice a man whom he’d seen several times during the last few days. A familiar face might be more willing to put up with an unexpected lunch partner than a total stranger would be, so Rikard went up to introduce himself.

The man watched Rikard approach. He was a few years older than Rikard but looked as if he’d seen a lot more of the world. He was handsome in the way that Rikard had admired as a kid, the way he’d futilely hoped he’d look. Rikard stopped by the empty chair across from the man and smiled.

“We’ve not met,” Rikard said by way of greeting, “but I’ve seen you in the records office several times, haven’t I?”

“You have indeed,” the man said. He seemed rather reserved, but did not object to Rikard’s presence.

“Do you mind if I join you?” Rikard asked. “I’m tired of eating alone.”

“By all means,” the man said, rising to his feet. He was as tall as Rikard but muscular instead of slender. He extended bis hand toward the empty chair in a gesture of hospitality. “Please sit down.” His tone and words were polite, but there was an underlying tension Rikard had noticed before.

“I’m not intruding, am I?”

“Not at all. I’m Leonid Polski.”

“Rikard Braeth,” Rikard said, shaking his hand.

When he sat, the table flipped up its menu. Rikard punched in his selection and credit ID, and the menu slid down. Immediately, the service slot in the tabletop slid open and his sandwich and a pitcher of beer came up.

“You must be new to Kobltri Station,” Polski said. Though he seemed friendly, Rikard got the impression that he was never truly relaxed.

“I’ve only been here three days,” Rikard admitted. He poured beer into his glass and offered to refill Polski ‘s.

“No thanks,” Polski said. “What brings you to an out-of-the-way place like this?”

“I’m trying to find my father. I’m pretty sure he went down to the surface shortly after he got here eleven years ago, but the station director refuses to let me go down to see for myself.”

“That’s strange. Did he say why?”

“No, and that’s what’s so infuriating. Here I’ve come almost all the way across the Federation, and I know the end of the trail is down on the surface, and now I’m blocked.”

“That would be rather frustrating, I imagine.”

“To say the least. Solvay says I don’t have the right clearances, and then won’t tell me what those are or how to get them. Would you know anything about that?”

“Sorry,” Polski said with a slight smile. “I’ve only been here nine days myself.”

“Are you going to be working here?”

“I’m afraid I can’t talk about it,” Polski said. He took his wallet out of his jacket pocket, flipped it open, and showed Rikard the badge of a Federal Police Officer. He held the rank of colonel, and an attached emblem identified him as a special investigator.

“Just forget I asked,” Rikard said. “But I’ll bet Director Solvay doesn’t treat you the way he does me.”

Polski put the wallet away. “I don’t have any problems with him,” he said.

Rikard concentrated on bis sandwich for a moment. “If it’s not prying,” he said, “can you tell me anything about these clearances Solvay mentioned?”

“I really don’t know anything about them.”

“I just thought that as a police officer … Oh, well, I’ll figure something out.”

“Forgive my curiosity,” Polski said, “but are you by any chance related to Arin Braeth?”

Rikard put down his sandwich, suddenly wary. “He’s my father,” he said. “Are you looking for him too?’‘

“No,” Polski said with another soft smile. “No, it’s just that I studied your father at the Academy.”

“My father went out of circulation thirty years ago.”

“I know, dropped completely out of sight, no clue or word of him since.”

“And yet you studied him at the Academy.”

“Him and others like him, though Arin Braeth was always my favorite.”

Rikard kept bis voice calm and even. “You know,” he said, “as a kid I never really knew what my father did before he met my mother. It wasn’t until I went out exploiting, to pay my way through the university, that I ever heard anything about his past. Since then, I’ve heard people call him all kinds of things. But to me he was just my father, even if I didn’t always understand him.”

“You said he left home more than eleven years ago? You must have been quite young then.”

“It was my thirteenth birthday.”

“Not a very pleasant birthday present, I imagine.”

“No.” He finished his beer and poured another glass. “The money had run out. And he didn’t like being poor. He told my mother he was going to try to make one more score — I didn’t know what that meant then — but he never came back.”

“And you think he’s here now.”

“Maybe I don’t, after all.”

Polski considered him a moment. “Rikard,” he said, “I’m not after your father. As far as I know, nobody is any more. And even if they found him here, there’s nothing anybody could do about it.”

“I guess after thirty years the statute of limitations does run out.”

“On most things, yes. Not on someone like the Man Who Killed Banatree, of course. But that’s not the point. In spite of all the stories about him, your father was never indicted for anything. There’s no doubt in my mind that he did the things he’s credited with, at least most of them. We’re also sure he did other things we know nothing about and may be responsible for things with which he’s not been connected. But the thing that makes Arin Braeth so special, the reason he’s the subject of an entire semester’s course, is that there is not one shred of evidence against him. And without that, who’s to make an arrest?”

“You almost sound as if you admire him.”

“I do. In a way. We’re sure he was responsible for some of the most daring crimes and exploits of the last two hundred years. Your father was known as a pirate, among other things, feared through half the Federation. His reputation extended into the Crescent Cluster, and even the Abogarn Hegemony. And yet, there was never any proof. Was he, or wasn’t he, the man of the legends? If he was, how did he get away with it? If he wasn’t, how did he get such a reputation?”

Rikard smiled sardonically. “Father didn’t let me in on any of his secrets.”

‘‘To have gotten away as clean as he did, whatever the truth, he couldn’t have trusted anybody. Not even your mother, I’ll bet.”

“He trusted her with everything except the details of his past. As far as I know.”

“She knew what kind of man he was?”

“Oh, yes.”

“She must be quite a woman to have made him change his ways so radically.”

“She was. She died three years after he ran off. It broke her heart.”

“I’m sorry. You hate him for that?”

“Not as much as I used to.” He picked up his sandwich and had another bite. “I’m older now. I have a better perspective. Whatever anybody says about him, whatever the truth may be, when I knew him he was just a fine man, a fine father. He was well liked on Pelgrane, served several times on our city council, and had lots of friends who stuck with him even after the money ran out. But that wasn’t enough for him.”

“And now you’ve come looking for him.”

“I want to find out what happened, why he didn’t come back. I suspect that he died down there on Kohltri. I just want to know for sure, find his grave if I can. I wish I could make Solvay understand that.”

“As I remember the story, just before he disappeared, he rescued the Lady Sigra Malvrone from one of the most hideous kidnapping and extortion rings in existence.”

“The Lady Sigra was my mother. Her father, Lord Malvrone, knew about my father and hired him to get my mother away from the kidnappers. When Father brought her back, Lord Malvrone refused to pay. Just shut Father out completely.

“What he didn’t figure on was that my parents had fallen in love, and Mother just decided to hell with her family and went off with my father. They had enough money between them so that my father could retire. Until his investments went wrong, we lived just like any other middle-class family. My mother gave up her past too.”

“So what are you going to do now?” Polski asked.

“I’m not sure, but I haven’t exhausted the records office yet. Right now I’m going to finish this beer, maybe have another, take a long nap, and then do a little more research, just to see what I can dig up.”

“Don’t dig up any trouble,” Polski said.

3.

Kohltri Station, as small as it was, did not have to operate around the clock. Rikard waited until the night shift was two hours old, with only a skeleton staff on duty, before returning to the records office. Though he preferred not to do anything illegal, he didn’t want to be observed should the necessity present itself. As a Historian, he had every right to make use of the facilities, even at this hour, but he would not let any mere legality impede him if he found something interesting.

The offices were locked at this hour, but his authorization card unlocked the door without a hitch. The place was half dark, which meant there was no staff present to glance casually over his shoulder at the readout screens.

He walked through the outer offices, past the cubicles used by government workers, and into the hall of regular consoles. He looked into every room, even the closets and restrooms. That, he now knew, was what his father would have done. When he was sure there really was nobody else in the office complex, he went back to the main hall and took the console farthest from the door. It was in a comer where, by turning his head, he could see the whole room. That, too, was what his father would have done.

Rikard knew very little about Kohltri other than that it was one of those places where all or most of the business was done on the station. The planet itself merely provided raw materials. In this case those were ores rather than woods, fibers, organics, spices, or whatever. He called up the index, scanned it quickly, and chose a recent report on the planet’s nature and resources.

There was only one city, just called Kohltri, directly below the station, population not specified. There were mines whose products he did not recognize. There were imports of equipment, much of it unspecified or identified in code. The main export was refined ore. All the references were unusually cryptic, and he wasn’t much interested in mines. But this was a good set of files to revert to if someone should come in. He precoded a call so that he could switch in a hurry if he had to.

Once again he examined the records of his father’s arrival and residency. This time he compared them with his own similar records and with those of other visitors at various times during the last twenty years. He was looking for any code or sign that distinguished either his father or himself from the people who had gone down to the surface. He could find none, no clue as to who had clearance or what clearance was.

The records of interstellar movement of people and goods were remarkably thorough — if sometimes cryptic, obscured by bureaucracy, blurred by time, and full of jargon. They hinted at unusual things about business transactions between Kohltri Station, the surface, and other worlds, though only a Historian would notice. Every world had its irregularities, but he wasn’t interested in them at the moment. He skimmed through the records, then called for the lists of those who had departed Kohltri for other systems.

A message appeared on the screen, asking for his authorization code. He keyed in his Historian’s registration and was immediately given access.

The lists up through this very day produced no evidence that his father had ever left the Kohltri system. He closed that file and opened another. It came on-line without a pause.

And it told him that at no time, from the moment of his father’s arrival up to this afternoon, had he or anybody Rikard could identify as him applied for or been given permanent residence on the station. That was an unlikely possibility, but it closed another loophole. There was just one other major file to double-check. He called it up.

The death records were similarly complete. Rikard’s father had not died on the station. A quick scan of a related file showed also that he had not been arrested. Rikard closed that file too and sat staring at the prompt on the screen.

The records of bis father’s two-year trip across the Federation had revealed very little about what he had been looking for. That it could make him rich, Rikard had no doubt, and if his father had found it, Rikard wanted his share. His father, alive or dead, owed it to him.

He bad only one thing to go on: wherever his father had gone, whatever other offices he might have visited, he had always checked with the Mines and Minerals Reclamation office. Rikard had seen the record of his father’s inquiry about the Mines office here, but that was on the surface.

Arin Braeth would not have left Kohltri without going down to the surface to investigate it in person. If Rikard could have followed, he wouldn’t have to be doing what he was doing now.

He queried the computer for the records of the shuttle flights; they had to contain the information he needed. Once again he had to post his authorization. As before, access was immediately granted.

At first this list seemed just the same as the others, but as he read through it, be saw that it was in fact quite different. A few of the passengers to the surface were identified as government officials with specified business. A few others were coded, obviously for security reasons. All these showed a cross-reference to a list of people returning from the surface.

But they were the minority. Most of the shuttle passengers appeared to have come from other systems rather than from the station population, but they had no return-entry reference. Neither did their names appear on the list of those who had come from other systems. The two lists did not correspond.

Far more people went down than came up, and those few who did return to the station from the surface, aside from official and coded passengers. were not the same as those who had gone down in the first place.

These anomalies didn’t help him with his original problem, though. There was nothing in any of the records to indicate who had clearance or what it was.

Within twenty-four hours after Rikard’s father had checked out of his hostel, six people had gone to the surface. None was listed as Arin Braeth. He could have assumed a false identity, but it would have been for the first time since leaving Pelgrane.

Just to see what he might turn up, Rikard made a copy file of those six people, including all codes, abbreviated references, and data keys, then exited the shuttle file and set up a larger search among all the other files he had examined, hoping to shake out a pattern. These six people must have had that mysterious clearance, and if Rikard could learn what it meant in their cases, he might be able to fake clearance for himself. With or without Solvay’s knowledge or approval.

Before the search could produce anything. several messages flashed on the screen simultaneously. The search could not continue without entry into other files, restricted files.

He sat back to think for a minute. So far everything he’d done had been perfectly proper and legal. This was as far as his certificate entitled him to go. But he was too close to quit now.

His specialty at the university had been research methods and his greatest interest was accessing ancient or faulty files — or secured files. He had gone beyond the curriculum, using the questionable methods he developed to discover still others. Now, perhaps, was the time to use his bag of dirty tricks in earnest. If he was careful, if he still had the knack, no one would ever know that he’d broken the station’s security.

He keyed in a request to access one of the restricted files, one he hoped would tell him more about those six people eleven years ago. As expected, he got a message asking for his secunty code. Just to test it, he tried his Historian’s registration. It didn’t work. Then he started using his unorthodox tricks. It was like sneaking in the back door, finding a path that was bizarre enough to be unguarded. After several sideways movements and subtly off-key requests, he was into the restricted files. That was what he liked.

The list was more or less as he had expected, with entries for his six people, but he could make little sense of the rest of it. There were numerous cross-references, but whether they were to people, places, products, or events he could not tell. Still, in what he could understand, there was nothing to make him believe that any of the six was his father.

He requested a similar file for the following day and was not asked again for a security code. This file was like the first and contained nothing more intelligible or interesting. He checked the next three days and still learned nothing. On a hunch he tried the previous day. Nothing.

He worked his way into one of the other restricted files, one concerning people coming up from the surface. It was just as cryptic, mysterious, and confusing as the first. No clues.

He tried another sequence of files, reporting on shipments of goods from the station to the surface. One of them seemed to list ground transport vehicles, with some references which made little sense, apparently for secondhand vehicles but with price differentials that were completely out of line, even for a government contract. And the credit accounts were not in the form of the government codes he was familiar with.

Something called “balktapline” was mentioned once or twice. The entries, with the transporter given a code instead of a name, the lack of any destination, and price or value being in another code, suggested that it was some kind of contraband, maybe narcotics, black-market items, or locally illegal products.

That was none of bis business, but if Solvay’s clearances had to do with smuggling, it was no wonder that he didn’t want Rikard going down to the surface where he could learn more. Rikard found the thought amusing. Solvay had nothing to fear from him; it was Leonid Polski who was the threat. Was that why Polski was here? Rikard didn’t really care.

He skimmed through a few other files, but could make no more sense of any of them. There were shipping lists, passenger lists, and sometimes hints of transport to and from the surface that did not go through the station. The entries were obscure, partly in code, and with the cryptic cross-references that were now becoming familiar. There was plenty of material to look through, but the night shift was running out. He’d have to quit soon and plan to come back later.

He was not so completely absorbed in his work that he did not hear an outer office door opening. He listened for a moment, his fingers above the keyboard. There was a pause, then he heard the door close softly. Whoever was there had not meant him to hear.

He cleared the screen and called up the public files he’d set up for cover, the ones concerning Kohltri’s production and shipping of ores. He heard a soft footstep at the door to the console hall. He called up reference material on the kinds of ores Kohltri produced. The door opened, but he did not look up from the screen. Instead he pretended to be absorbed in the document, though the words went right through his consciousness without stopping.

From the comer of his eye, he could see a woman standing in the doorway, watching him. He took his hands from the keyboard, leaned back, and continued to read. When she started to come toward him, he looked up, carefully feigning mild surprise.

The woman was maybe forty, well built, good-looking, dressed in blouse and slacks. But she had a hard face and a stiff tension that reminded Rikard of Leonid Polski, though somehow she was harder and colder.

She walked right toward him. Rikard watched her, not touching the keyboard. She would be able to see clearly that it showed a perfectly innocent file.

“You’re Rikard Braeth?” she said, not really a question.

Her voice was mellow but emotionless, her face expressionless; her eyes revealed nothing.

“Yes, I am,” Rikard said through a long and very real yawn.

“Up kind of late, aren’t you?”

“I couldn’t sleep. I thought I might as well find out a little more about Kohltri ‘s mines.”

“Indeed. Someone’s been looking into restricted files. That wouldn’t be you, would it?”

Rikard pushed his chair back. “Look for yourself,” he said.

She didn’t bother to look at the screen, just kept her eyes fixed on him. Rikard affected an expression of puzzlement and offended innocence.

“You switched files,” she said, “just as soon as I entered the outer office. You’re pretty good.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“Of course you do. But it doesn’t matter. Director Solvay wants to see you, right now.”

Rikard fought to control his tension. “What if I don’t want to see him?’‘ he asked.

She moved her right hand behind her to the small of her back. “Then I’ll have to carry you,” she said, and brought her hand back into view. She held the conical spindle shape of a police jolter.

Rikard stared at it for a moment. “I’d rather walk.”

4.

The corridors of the station were empty. The woman walked a little behind Rikard and to his left, giving him no chance to get away or attack her. She didn’t say anything, and Rikard didn’t try to question her. Though she wore civilian clothes, she had to be part of the station’s police force. Rikard was sure she could be quite dangerous.

She did not signal their arrival at the office, just palmed the door open. Inside were two other officers, in local uniform, one on either side of the desk. Their jolters were prominently displayed on hip holsters. As the door slid shut, the woman put hers away and nudged Rikard forward to stand in front of Solvay’s desk, then stepped back out of Rikard’s sight.

After a moment the private door opened and Anton Solvay came in. He stared at Rikard as he moved to his desk. His face was grim.

He sat; Rikard remained standing. Solvay said, “You think you’re pretty clever, don’t you?”

Rikard returned the man’s gaze. He kept his anxiety out of his face and said nothing.

“You have to be clever,” Solvay went on, “to be able to gain access to restricted files.”

“I was looking at Kohltri’s history and products files,” Rikard said.

“Yes,” Solvay said, “when Msr. Zakroyan walked in on you, but not before. When certain restricted files are accessed, even by me, an alarm sounds and subsequent use of the files is tracked for later audit. So we know damn well what you were looking at in there.”

Silence was better than a futile denial, but Rikard’s palm started to itch.

“What did you think you were going to find out anyway?” Solvay asked.

“Evidence that my father did in fact go down to the surface eleven years ago.”

“In those files? That’s pretty farfetched.”

“If you’ve tracked my search, you can figure it out for yourself. If my father is on a shuttle list, his name was changed for some reason. I was just trying to identify him.”

“Even though you knew you were intruding on restricted files.”

“I’m a Historian. I have the right to research whatever I want.”

“You do not have the right to go into government files that contain sensitive information.” Solvay’s voice was tight and controlled. “I want to know why you deliberately overrode our file security system.”

“I thought that I might be able to figure out what it would take to get clearance.” .

“You’re evading the issue. But then perhaps I should expect that from someone who uses clever tricks to break into restricted files.”

Once again Rikard felt that silence was his best response. Solvay touched a button on his desk and one of the screens on its surface lit up. He looked at it for a moment.

“Look,” Rikard said, hoping to distract him, “I’m not interested in anything in those files. I just want to get down to the surface and find my father. You could easily assign me someone from your office to help me. They would see to it that I didn’t get into anything you want kept secret.”

“Easier for you, perhaps,” Solvay said without looking up.

“Easier for you too, because if you won’t do that, I’ll be forced to go to Higgins or Kylesplanet and get court orders giving me the power I need to find my father. I have a right to find him, no matter what security you think you need.”

Solvay looked up sharply. “You’d do that?”

“Damn right I would. My father is here, and I intend to find him, whether he’s alive or dead.”

Solvay glanced briefly over Rikard’s shoulder to where Zakroyan stood. “I don’t think it’s a good idea to go quite so far.”

“It’s your choice,” Rikard said. “If you won’t help me, then I’ll leave tomorrow on the first ship to Higgins.”

“No, I don’t think you will. You’re not going to go to Higgins or anywhere else.”

“How are you going to stop me?”

“Very simply. I’m going to file charges of espionage, illegal access to restricted files, improper use of authority, and anything else I can think of.”

“You can’t prove anything that will delay me for long.”

“You forget. You’re not in the heart of the Federation now. Here, I’m the court. No, my friend, I think you’ve just overstepped yourself.”

The two police officers started paying more attention, and rested their hands on their jolters.

“I demand to speak to a Federation Police Officer,” Rikard said.

“If you can find one,” Solvay said, “go right ahead.”

“Fine, then please call Colonel Leonid Polski. I don’t know his address, but he arrived here about nine days ago.”

Rikard’s words took Solvay by surprise. The Director stared at him, then beyond him to Zakroyan. “Is he bluffing?” he asked her.

Zakroyan came up to stand beside Rikard. “There is a Leonid Polski registered here,” she said to Solvay. “I wasn’t aware that he was a Federation officer.”

“Well, find out, dammit!”

Zakroyan went to the communicators mounted on the wall beside the desk. She punched a few buttons and a moment later whispered into the wall mike.

There was a pause. The response, when it came, was tuned so that only she could hear it. She listened, her eyes fixed on Solvay. Then her expression changed slightly and she turned to stare at Rikard. “Thanks,” she said to the mike, and turned off the communicator.

“Colonel Polski,” she said to Solvay, “is here under special orders, with complete security.” She turned to Rikard. ‘‘Why is he here, do you suppose?”

“I have no idea,” Rikard said. “I just met him this afternoon. We had a nice conversation. I’d like to talk to him now, please.”

Solvay started to say something to Zakroyan, but she held up her hand to silence him, then leaned across the desk to whisper in his ear. Solvay occasionally glanced at Rikard, and Zakroyan looked over her shoulder at him once. The two police officers were fully alert now. They glanced from Zakroyan to Rikard and back, and kept their hands on their jolters.

Rikard was in far more physical danger than he had expected. He cursed himself silently for his in-caution and indiscretion. He had thought of his search as just a bit of slightly irregular snooping, and he’d been too smug about his cleverness in breaking into the files to watch for hidden alarms. It was not the way his father would have handled the situation. The information in those restricted files must be damaging to Solvay; more than a little petty smuggling, more than Rikard had realized.

At last Solvay and Zakroyan finished their whispered consultation, and Zakroyan turned around to sit on the edge of Solvay’s desk. They both stared at Rikard.

Solvay cleared his throat and said, “Well, Msr. Braeth, you wanted to go to the surface. You should be pleased to learn that we have decided that you do in fact have adequate clearance after all.”

Solvay’s words were a surprise and a threat. “I don’t understand,” Rikard said.

“It’s not necessary that you do,” Solvay told him. “You do want to go to the surface, don’t you?”

“Yes, but. .. ”

“Fine. The next shuttle leaves in two hours.”

Rikard didn’t like being put into a comer, even one of his own making. “I’d like to talk to Colonel Polski first,” he said.

“I don’t think that can be arranged,” Solvay told him. “It is really a most inconvenient hour.” He turned to Zakroyan. “Emeth, escort Msr. Braeth to his room. He is not to use the communicator for any reason whatsoever.”

As she rose from the desk the two cops came forward. Rikard’s palm itched madly, but he just clenched his hands. Zakroyan took his shoulder to tum him around. He shrugged her hand off and walked to the door. The two cops followed.

Outside, Zakroyan fell into step beside him. The two cops took their places immediately behind. They walked toward Rikard’s hostel. ·

He had difficulty keeping his face under control. He wanted to go to the surface on his own terms, not under Solvay’s gun. Not much choice now. He was in trouble, and possibly in danger of his life. Best to worry only about getting to the surface alive and in one piece.

As they left the administrative section, Zakroyan smirked, showing emotion for the first time. “It’s a one-way ticket, Msr. Braeth.”

“You’re going to kill me?”

“I don’t have to. If you’re not tough enough, the surface will take care of that for me.”

“I don’t understand.”

“You will soon enough.” She was baiting him and enjoying his discomfiture.

There was absolutely no one in the corridors. Even at this hour there should have been a few people about. Neither was anybody on duty in the lobby of the hostel. It seemed everybody had been warned to stay out of sight.

They reached Rikard’s floor, where the cops took up stations on either side of his door. Zakroyan came in with Rikard and stood with her back against the door, her arms folded, watching while he packed.

He had only one suitcase, into which he quickly put his few clothes. There were some files which he packed into his note recorder, a portable word-processing and data-base computer. He was packed within fifteen minutes. He left the suitcase and recorder on the bed and sat in the room’s one chair.

He watched Zakroyan, she watched him, neither of them speaking. Rikard’s nerves were on edge. At last the two hours passed, and Zakroyan stood away from the door. “We’d better get moving,” she said.

Rikard picked up his two cases and, at her silent instruction, preceded her out the door. The two cops outside were alert and ready. All four walked to a part of the station Rikard had not visited before.

It was the shuttle depot, and nobody was on duty there either. Zakroyan worked the controls herself. The door slid open, the shuttle hatch on the other side slid open, and Rikard went in. The other three did not follow. Rikard turned to see Zakroyan, a slight smile on her face, punching the controls again. The hatches closed.

There were twenty seats on the shuttle but no other passengers. Rikard tossed his suitcase on one seat, the recorder on another, and sat down in a third. There were no ports or windows. He felt his stomach clench, his palm itch. He rubbed the scar; the circles floated in his sight.

After a moment he felt a slight jerk. It surprised him. If it was just the shuttle departing the station, it should have moved without any jerk at all. A few seconds later he felt a gentle vibration, also unusual, and a sign that the shuttle was not in good repair.

The planetary drive took the shuttle away from the station and started it down to the surface. You could go from star to star in just a few days on the flicker ships. It took nearly a day to travel the relatively infinitesimal additional distance from a system’s jump-slot to planetary orbit. The trip to the surface lasted an hour.

~~~~~