A DET-ROT STORY

Donald Kenney (donaldkenney@gmail.com)
Last Update: Sun Jul 8 14:51:31 2018



Editing notes

How to kill an otherwise dull holiday afternoon

Take it from one who has tried it. If you are going to blow up your school, pick a day that the principal is not there. I can't say that I'm especially repentant about demolishing either the school or old Mal-Dan. Both of them will be rebuilt better than ever I assume. And I reckon both could do with any improvement that comes their way. Nonetheless, blowing up the school was the cause of my current predicament -- which I'll get around to shortly.

It all started on Star-burst day last. Star-Burst day, is, as you'll no doubt recall, the day when members of dozens of societies, clubs, sewing circles, athletic teams, bands, organizations and/or associations puts on odd costumes and marches through the streets of Greater Ben-von-Marken playing patriotic music in order to celebrate one of the greatest military blunders of all time -- a blunder made by our opponents fortuitously. Those of us who don't belong to any society, club, sewing circle, athletic team, band, organization and/or association are expected to stand on the sidewalks, wave banners, and cheer. I'm going to stand out in the hot sun and cheer for the Ben-von-Marken Animal Society marching string ensemble? I think not.

I tried calling Tal-Ben-Gor-Fre -- my best, to be honest, only, friend -- to see if he wanted to do a little computer hacking. We are, or, more correctly were, entertaining ourselves by cracking industrial memo bases and extracting records of plans to do various illegal, immoral, monstrous and otherwise antisocial things. For some reason, antisocial activity seems to be OK if there is a valid business purpose. But let a kid blow up a prison where he is incarcerated for 36 hours a week deprived of all civil rights ... I digress.

Anyway, Tal was in solitary. His parents had shut down his communicator, and all I got was a message saying he might or might not be available for social contact on Tuesday next depending on the state of his mathematics homework. Since Tal is a math genius, and math is the only subject he more than scrapes by in, I assumed he was in some other sort of trouble and that, knowing Tal -- Tuesday was optimistic.

I spent an hour trying to hack into various corporate computers, but I didn't have a lot of luck. The System's Administrator's Guild has become pretty potent of late. It's a bit hard to argue with guys that tell you "That's nice data you have there. Have any interest in keeping it?" Anyway, they decided that Star-Burst Day should be a five day holiday this year -- at least for System Administrators. Almost all of the usual sites were shut down. The few that were up didn't seem to offer any opportunities for entertainment. The Telly had little to offer other than close up shots of people with impossibly glossy mandibles standing in front of patriotic parades mouthing inanities.

I was pretty much going nuts when I remembered the C65. In case you've never heard of it, C65 is a pretty potent directional explosive. It's not too touchy, easy to shape, doesn't cause your antennae to wither or claws to bleach like a lot of the other common explosives. And you can brew it up in the kitchen sink using materials from the grocery store. Not surprisingly, the authorities have deleted every reference to C65, its manufacture and use from all the standard reference books. And, of course every schoolkid with any interest at all in pyrotechnics knows how to make it and fuse it.

I just happened to have 3 kilos of primo C65 sitting in the garage. Tal had come by it in payment of a debt, and didn't think it prudent to keep it around his house. His old man has a talent for finding and recognizing stuff we'd rather he didn't find and recognize. One wonders exactly how it is that the old guy knows about things like that, but that is yet another subject we have been strongly discouraged from investigating. When it comes to illicit substances, my folks are dumb as fireplugs. The biggest danger is that they might try to use if for fertilizer or mortar or something. Wouldn't that be fun, a fireplace cemented together with directional explosive?

Anyway, I had 3 kilos of explosive and a whole afternoon to waste. So, the issue became what to expend it on. My mind drifted through the possibilities. The impossibly ugly statue of Way-Jon-Gor-Fre in Victory square? Certainly worth thinking about, but better done in the dead of night I think. Destruction of ugliness -- even surpassing ugliness -- isn't something worth getting arrested for. How about the Magic Fountain Mall? Another excellent thought. Not only is it ugly, but it is filled with stores selling unnecessary goods to silly people at absurd prices. Regrettably, it would be nearly impossible to take the Mall out without injuring people whose only crime was being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Scratch that. Then I thought about the Mil-Wof-Gon-Fre Middle School. ... Perfect.

Mil-Wof-Gon-Fre Middle School -- My school -- home of the Fighting Freebooters, lies only two blocks from my home and about three blocks east of Victory square. It resides in a canyon at the mouth of a dingy, polluted, seasonal creek. The school buildings themselves are backed up against a sheer cliff -- alarmed and unclimbable. The front is security fenced with a state of the art intrusion detection setup. The grounds are under 24 hour a day surveillance. No one gets in or out without their presence or departure being recorded. The athletic fields and parking lot are outside the security fence and wind off to the East tying up perfectly good agricultural land in the canyon. The place is designed to keep students in, riffraff out, and to be as secure as possible.

Taking it out should be no great problem.

How? I toyed with thoughts of artillery or aircraft, but I didn't own or have access to either. Moreover, if I built either I'd have to do some testing -- which means a trip out into the desert that would surely arouse some suspicions. There have been a couple of unfortunate incidents preceded by desert trips. My parents and I disagree on what was unfortunate. Their assertion is that my behavior, the discussions with authorities, and the lawyers fees were unfortunate. My feeling is that getting caught was unfortunate. No matter. Anyway, my parents have become conditioned. I mention desert and they start to salivate and watch what I'm up to. Surmountable, but not worth it right at the moment.

A hot air balloon seemed to offer some promise, and I could jury rig one in an hour or two, but the wind direction that afternoon wasn't too great. I'd have to launch from the roof of the Magic Fountain Mall, and you can just bet some busybody would want to know what I was up to.

So I decided on a robot attack.

But, you tell me bots are complicated, incredibly expensive, and usable only for sophisticated scientific activities. Yeah, sure. I had twelve of these Gobi-Dolls -- picked up a garage sale for pocket change. You remember Gobi-dolls? Obnoxious little rodent like dolls that whined and whimpered incessantly while stealing and hiding small objects in their nests. One of the great marketing failures of all time. Not that people won't buy sniveling rodent like toys programmed for petty theft. They have. They will again. Who can forget the Mactopus craze of 20 years ago? But there is a cycle to these things and the marketing geniuses that came up with the Gobi-Doll tried to force the cycle. A decade earlier or a decade later, they'd have been a sensation. Produced when they were, they were a total failure.

Which means that people like me got access to sophisticated little bots for microcredits. Of course, the Gobi's needed a little reprogramming and some mechanical modifications to make them useful. But Tal and I had long since attended to that.

So I took myself, a transmitter, 700meters of fine wire, a carton of miscellaneous junk and four souped up Gobi-Dolls to the cliff overlooking Mil-Wof-Gon. Sure enough five minutes of scuttling along was enough for Gobi number 1 to spot a ventilation tube. Even better there were unalarmed air intakes running back for hundreds of meters through the woods. A few minutes to cut a screen out and Gobi-1 was on its way down the duct.

Gobi-1 was able to get through two filters and a screen, but it got stopped just inside the alarm perimeter by a beam of light alarm sensor. It took Gobi-2 and 3 and a half silvered mirror to bypass the beam long enough to disable it. That was it. Three minutes later, Force Gobi was in the school computer center. Five minutes from then, we had a tap on the network. Ten more minutes and we were logged in as supervisor. ("PASSWORD" is a lousy password. "TEST" is even worse. Both worked.) A couple of more minutes and we had the surveillance system shut down but telling police headquarters that all was well. And we had the architectural drawings of the school up on the screen. From that point it was just a matter of a bunch of routine calculations to decide where to place the charges. My algebra teachers would be proud, I'd found a practical use for some of that stuff. Another 20 minutes and the Gobi were on their way out with little loads of C65. A bit here on a beam, a dab there on a strut. And two loads for, of all things, a pair of keystones that held the wings of the building apart. I had thought those had gone out of style centuries ago. We were even able to hang the fuses off of the computer network so we didn't need most of my 700 meters of wire.

About an hour after I got there, I had the school wired, the Gobi extracted from the target, and all was well with the world. I packed up my kit and carted it home. No point in chancing being caught with it leaving the area AFTER the explosion. Of course, I could have triggered the charges from my bedroom. Probably would have been smarter to do that. But come on now, be honest, would you pass up a chance to watch while your school was reduced to rubble?

I walked back to the cliff above the school, found myself a nice position screened from the surveillance cameras but with a good view of the building, logged into the school computer, took a deep breath, and typed in VENGEANCE!. It was really satisfying. First nothing happened, then a cloud of dust popped out all around the roof. The whole building seemed to take a deep breath and rise up a bit. More dust billowed from the base of the walls. Then the walls majestically folded in and disintegrated. The roof hung in space for a second that seemed to last forever, then slowly fell into the hole where the walls had been. A huge cloud of dust rose from the rubble. I was surprised how quiet the whole thing was. I'd expected to take out every window for blocks around, but the process was scarcely noisier than a distant thunderstorm. Very likely no one would notice the school was gone for hours.

It was time for me to leave. Past time. But I couldn't. You couldn't have either. The dust cloud rose -- slowly at first protected from the gusty wind by the expanding shock wave -- then ripped and quickly dispersing in the stiff breeze. Here and there bricks, beams and pipes moved in the wreckage, snuggling themselves into a more comfortable position. Near the West end of the building a water pipe sprayed water into the air. The bricks finished settling and within seconds the only motion was the bubbling water, and the faint lethargic flopping of a leg attached to what appeared to be a battered carapace in the general vicinity of the now defunct administrative offices.

A carapace in the administrative offices? Drat!!! Not in the plan. Definitely not in the plan. I did the only thing I could do. I scrambled to the nearest public phone, disabled the camera, and called in the explosion and injury to the police. I could hear the ambulances as I skittered home. I disguised my voice of course, but I didn't really have time to take measures to prevent their tracing me. I got on the computer when I got home and tried to cover my tracks, but there were just too many clues to catch and disguise them all. I wasn't really very surprised when fourteen policemen, three police supervisors, six TV cameras, the mayor, two national counselors and a battalion of press types showed up on the doorstep the next morning. I was, as they informed me pompously, under arrest.

Justice - Alien Style

They walked me off with the whole bevy of news types babbling inane questions. "How does is feel to be arrested?" (Just Terrific, why don't you try it Lady?) "Did you do it on purpose?" (Give me a break. does it look like an accident to you?) "Are you sorry" (Only about being caught). "Why did you do it" (I made a mistake. I thought it was the Ben-von-Marken Daily Tribune building.). My dad looked hurt. My mother was in tears of course. The politicos were preening. I tell you, it was some scene. I was almost happy to be slapped into the paddy wagon.

They took me down to the station where they appropriated most of my clothes and all my pocket material. I demanded a receipt, which they wrote out, signed, showed me, then took away. I asked what a receipt they took away was supposed to accomplish. They told me that it was none of my criminal business. I said a wanted an attorney to advise me about things like that. They told me (correctly) that I was a minor and not entitled to an attorney. I told them (incorrectly) that the Planetary charter guaranteed EVERYONE the right to an attorney and quoted them chapter an verse of the Planetary Charter Section 13C, Paragraph 104c. (The obvious content and intent of the charter notwithstanding It does no such thing -- Tan-Mak-Vor-Fre vs the District Magistracy 2067C -- civil rights do not apply to children, pets, blasphemers, or slaves).

They tossed me in a cell and about two hours later they turned up with a natty little monstrosity who informed me that he was Jel-Fon-Gan-Fre Esq. -- a criminal counselor. Sleaze oozed out of every pore of his body. I hated him on sight. I don't think he was real wild about me either.

Jel told me that I was in big trouble and that his advice was that I answer all questions truthfully and throw myself on the mercy of the court. I told him that I could get advice like that from the cops and that he was supposed to be advising ME. He told me that I wasn't entitled to an attorney (Tan-Mak-Vor-Fre vs the District Magistracy 2076C), and I told him his reference was wrong, it should be 2067C. He huffed himself up to let loose a blast then all of a sudden he grinned.

"OK kid you win. I'll represent you. But all other things being equal, you might do well to come clean. Got anything you particularly need to hide?"

"Not really. I guess I'd just as soon not go into where the C65 came from, and there's some stuff on my computer I'd just as soon they didn't read."

"Gee, I'd assumed you made up the explosive in your sink -- just like every other teen age bomber in the past three decades"

"Where'd I get the recipe?"

"Some kid in school'd be my guess. At least that's the usual story. Perhaps someone you don't like so much. Seems to happen that way a lot."

"Suppose I blamed that prig Sal-Nur-Gor-Fre? He's going to deny it -- right?"

"Sure. They always do. No one is likely to believe him."

"What'll happen to him?"

"Assuming no previous record, A week or two of public service -- shining officer's shells down at the police station or cleaning out the amphitheater after daily vespers. That sort of stuff."

"How about the stuff on my computer?"

"Hmmm. Interlocked?"

"Sure"

"Autodetect, destruct if intrusion count exceeded?"

"Of course."

"You any good with computers?"

"Fair."

"Don't worry about it. The cops don't have a lot of rapport with anything that works by logic. If they haven't triggered the booby trap yet, they will within hours. That data is history."

"So, where do I stand?"

"You, my young friend, are in big trouble. I don't yet know how much evidence they have against you. I assume lots. At the very least they have C65 traces on your claws, a building that was C65ed, a voice recording that looks a lot like your voice print, and a couple of Gobi Dolls that seem to have a lot of foreign material caught in their fur -- you know -- dust from the school, C65 residue, that sort of stuff. Somehow the dolls got into your garage and have your claw patterns all over them.

"The charges they have filed so far include Arson, Destruction of Public Property, Willful assault, Computer intrusion -- both misdemeanor and felony , Copyright violation(that's modifying the Gobi dolls), Disrespect for a Public Holiday, Blasphemy(no clue what that is, might be a mistake), Practicing Law without a License, and Felony Murder. I think I might be able to get the Blasphemy charge thrown out, and maybe get the Practicing Law Charge reduced to a misdemeanor. But I'm not sure that will do anything for your cause.

"Who'd I kill?"

"One Mal-Dan-Qual-Fre it says here. He appears to be, or more accurately to have been, principal of your school.."

I felt a twinge of concern. "I didn't really kill him? I mean, he's ressurectable, right."

"Well he's down at Ben-von-Marken General and the Carapace is doing nicely. But there's some problem with his last identity save. He has one, and it checks out OK, but after they loaded it, he seems to think he is Way-Jon-Gor-Fre."

"Way-Jon-Gor-Fre? The legendary hero of the Battle of Star-Burst?"

"None Other."

"You know, I think this may not be anything new. I don't think old Mal was all that tightly wrapped before the explosion. Maybe it's just that he's forgotten that it's not a good idea to tell people that you think you're Way-Jon-Gor-Fre."

"You may well be right. However, your problem is that legally you are responsible for this situation. While Mal may not actually be any worse off today than yesterday, the perception is going to be that you are responsible for his madness. That'd be manslaughter except that doing it while you were engaged in a felonious act like blowing up a building makes it murder."

"So what will they do with me?"

"They'll throw the book at you. You have any urge to travel? I reckon you're probably going to."

"Travel? Where?"

"Who knows -- somewhere far, far away. You're about to be transported for a goodly time. But there is one good thing."

"Good thing? What?

"Unless I miss my guess, your school days are over. I doubt you'll have either the opportunity or desire to blow up another school for a great many years."

With that and a warning not to stray into new ground without discussing it with him first, Jel invited the interrogators in.

The next few hours were noisy and unproductive. The cops yelled at me. Jel yelled at the cops. The cops played Good Cop -- Bad Cop. Jel harassed the Bad Cop. Then Jel harassed the Good Cop. The Good Cop and Bad cop swapped rolls. They asked me for my story. I told them my story. They told me to stop lying and tell them the truth. I told them the same story. They asked me if I really expected them to believe that preposterous story? I told them "Of Course not" and spun them a fairy tale about how the Mayor and Chief of Police had hired me to blow up the school. They looked real interested and scribbled like mad at first, then got this mean look as the story progressed and finally told me to shut up. I tried to look hurt and asked why they weren't letting me talk. Jel was rolling on the floor. Finally, the cops packed up and left.

Jel warned my that the cops would be back and told me not to say a word unless he was present.

They were. I didn't.

Jel also warned me that they'd probably try to plant a snitch on me and gave me an antihypnotic drug. I honestly don't know if they tried to drug or hypnotize me, but sure enough within hours of Jel's warning, they dumped a nasty little piece of work on me as a cellmate. The POW sniveled and whined and ingratiated at every opportunity. Finally, he looked so miserable -- presumably imagining what the Good and Bad cop were going to do to him if he didn't come through with something. I let him wheedle the Mayor and Police Chief story out of me. That brightened him right up. I'd imagine that his happiness was only temporary, but he was a lot easier to take happy than depressed. They hauled the piece of work out after dinner and I never saw him again.

I won't go through the details of the trial. Suffice it to say that they don't bother with trials they plan to lose, and the defendant's chances of actually defending themselves are minimal. It didn't help that I was flat out guilty and I, the judge, the jury, the prosecution, and all the observers knew it. Suffice it to say that I don't think that the court represented an instrument of justice and the fact that justice was probably done in my case is a matter of coincidence. I'd recommend that any person innocent or guilty attempt to keep as clear as possible of the legal system.

It was an interesting civics lesson.

In the long run Jel turned out to have things sized up pretty well. To give him his due, he did a great job. He got the blasphemy charge and copyright violation thrown out, and beat the Willful Assault and Practicing law charges. The remaining list was all stuff I'd done and couldn't really argue about, but he managed to get me tried as a juvenile and he managed to get the sentences levied concurrently -- despite a daily dose of slander, misrepresentation, and dishonest reporting in the news -- led by the misbegotten Ben-Von-Marken Daily Tribune. Next time I blow up a building, I know which one it will be.

So what I ended up with was 100 years of public service to be served in my choice of the Imperial Marines or the Department of Alien Affairs. They shoot at you in the Marines. The choice was a no brainer. One day you are a simple school student, the next, you are a computer specialist last class in the department of Alien Affairs -- protector of the rights of Alien races.

They let me out of jail long enough to say goodby to my folks -- mom awash in tears, and dad with a fixed -- I always knew you'd come to a bad end -- look. I managed to get into my bedroom and pick up my persputer and a stack of musics. The authorities insisted on wiping the persputer clean and installing standard software from their archives. Shows excellent judgment on their part. But checking the musics would have shown even better judgment since all the computer stuff that I couldn't readily replicate from memory was interleaved inaudibly into the treble clef of various fine old classics.

I got to spend a few awkward moments with Tal who was temporarily out of trouble. We both promised to write, but I doubt either of us will. I touched claws with Jel and thanked him for his services. He grinned and said that he planned to stick the city, not my folks, with his bill -- which would, he assured me -- be extortionate.

Within the hour, I was residing in a cubby hole in a deteriorating freighter bound for the distant reaches of civilization. I never did get my clothes, pocket materials, or receipt, back from the police.

Transportation

The Glorious Future was anything but glorious and surely represented more past than future. I looked up it's history many months after boarding the GF. Built 600 years ago on Mazigni II it had gone through seventeen changes in ownership including a tour very early in it's career as a luxury ferry, and much more recently service as a cattle barge. It was now owned by a consortium of investors on Gilmorath III who are in the process of driving it into the ground -- flying it from place to place with essentially no maintenance. The Aberazi crew accepted with equanimity the idea that sooner or later, the ship would strand them in some godforsaken place where they would wait for months for rescue.

I quickly learned the first rule of unscheduled freighter travel -- Nothing that needs to get from A to B goes by tramp freighter unless no one really cares how long it takes for the goods to get there. Unscheduled freight is by far the cheapest way to move things from place to place. And by far the slowest. It was clear that no one really cared how long it took me to get to Sol III. Least of all me -- it all counted as time served. And the more I learned about my destination, the better anything that actually moved -- even if slowly, fitfully, and erratically -- seemed to me be.

Another thing I learned quickly is that Interstellar ships almost invariably have monoculture crews. It's a simple matter that the environment comfortable for one race is rarely comfortable for another. I was lucky that I could tolerate the favored Aberazi environment without breathing gear or an environmental suit. So I could wander the ship at will. If I could find any place to go. But even then, the air was 10 degrees too cold, 20% too humid and it smelled odd. Like every other passenger, I spent most of my time in my tiny room where I could set the environment to my taste.

The GF spent a week lurching from my world to a mining camp on a dark moon circling an unnamed planet of a nearby star. Two hours Offloading cargo and off for ten days to a jungle world someplace to toward the Galactic Center. We broke down there and sat for a week while the Aberazi improvised some critical component. We took on passengers and cargo and moved off to a junkyard in orbit around a brown dwarf where some mysterious transaction filled the forward hold with odd looking machinery. Then off to the next stop. No exotic stops. Most of the places we docked at tired, dingy orbital stations where we moved a few boxes back and forth. Sometimes a passenger or two debarked -- lord knows on what mission. Sometimes a passenger was taken on.

After a few days setting up the persputer, I spent my time studying three things. I studied computers. After all I was to be a computer tech. I thought it might work better if I knew something about the Department of Alien Affairs computers. Second I studied the history and culture of Sol III -- and a dreary and depressing effort that was. Third, I studied the culture of my Aberazi hosts. The more time I spent with them, the more I came to admire their unflagging cheerfulness , politeness and industry as they cajoled their deteriorating spacecraft across the galaxy. They tolerated and even encouraged my awkward attempts to talk to them in Aberazi, and eventually they even stopped to chat with me in the corridors. I came to realize that they were unique individuals. I never came to understand them very well, and probably never will, but I learned a valuable lesson from them. Aliens are people too.

The Glorious Future lurched across the galaxy, and finally, after 18 weeks, 23 scheduled stops and 4 major breakdowns, the GF struggled to the dock of another battered space station circling an unremarkable star. The system was to be my home for the next 99 years and 34 weeks.

I was waiting in the air lock when an Aberazi I recognized scurried up. "A benediction" he shouted -- the standard getting among his race. "Thanks, and a blessing upon you" I responded.

"I ... we... have something for you." He/she/or it reached into a pouch and pulled out a small object that looked like a persputer unit, but clearly wasn't. I took it and examined it.

It was a necklace of silvery metal with a number of colored stones set into it. The largest looked large enough to serve as a tiny image screen and probably could form a reasonable sized virtual image. But I couldn't see any controls. "A million thanks. It is?"

"It is a ... " there were a number of beeps and squawks indicating that the auto-translator was having trouble. The Aberazi paused for a second and pulled out a second device similar to the first. After staring at it for several seconds he/she/it said. "Ah, I see. Your language lacks the terms needed to really describe the device. In fact, we do not think most of your race could use it. But we think you can. It is a sort of mirror, and in a way, an amplifier, and an analytic and training tool. But it's really all of those things, and none of them.

"Use it as you would a persputer, but wait until a time when you are able to concentrate your mind without distractions. I ... we ...think it's use will be obvious to you then -- if you can use it at all.

"Does it have a name?" I asked.

"Ah yes, you'd like a name to label it with. I don't seem to find one in your language, and ours would be unpronounceable and meaningless ... how about a name from the planet you are about to visit? Call it a Gideon. On that planet, they have a custom where one religious group prints up a sacred book and leaves copies in rented rooms for travelers to read and, if they so desire, take. The device is something similar, a device that we distribute to those that we think can profit from its use.

"Do you give them to all the passengers?" I asked.

"Perhaps one in five. Many entities can not use the Gideons. A few would use them to harm themselves or others."

"Are there any warnings or cautions."

"None. If you can use it at all, you will quickly find that you must work very hard for it to harm you or anyone else. And now I must go to my berthing station. May the winds of change blow gently on you and yours"

"And on you and yours." I responded

Shortly after the Aberazi left I herded my single bag into the air lock. No other passengers, no merchandise off loaded. Just me and a small bundle of mail inbound and an even smaller bundle of mail outbound. The stop lasted 40 minutes. I watched with mild regrets as the Glorious Future swung slowly about and lurched off toward her next stop.

Sol III

I quickly found that the space station was unmanned. In the tiny kitchen and lounge I found a note tacked on a cabinet with a magnet. "UNEXPECTED VISITORS -- Call 379 on the blue phone. Ask for Gan or Mar. We'll be out to get you in a few days". I found the phone and dialed 379. On the seventh ring, the phone was picked up and a bored voice announced "Department of Alien Affairs, Outpost Sol, How may we assist you?" The voice sounded like assisting me was not high in its priority list.

"Jur-Gen-Sol-Fre here calling for Gan or Mar."

"They're planetside, or off duty or something. You out at the spaceport?"

"If this is the spaceport, I'm out here at it. Am I an unexpected visitor?"

"All visitors to Outpost Sol are unexpected. Who'd schedule a visit here? I'll key up a shuttle. Should be out in about ... um ... 43 hours and 20 minutes. Do us a favor. Offload the mail packs from the shuttle and bring down any mail that came in with you."

Whoever it was hung up. That was my introduction to Outpost Sol. My new home. Actually, it was pretty much the high point of my first year or two of service in the Sol system. At least I was treated civilly.

I spent the first 20 minutes of my 43 hours and 20 minutes examining all of the things of interest on the spaceport -- twice. There wasn't much there. There were three packets of outgoing mail marked for different destinations. The GF had picked up only the mail headed for the Galactic Center and points beyond. I spent the next hour making sure the monitors showed only innocuous activities and the 39 hours thereafter cracking and reading the outgoing and incoming mail.

Most people think that the mail is encrypted and is unreadable. They are partly right. If it is worth reading it is in code--encrypted. And they are right in expecting that it should be possible to do encryption that no one can break. Tal and I had some thoughts on that subject. But undecryptable mail is tougher than it looks for a couple of reasons. Most important, the whole idea is that someone has to read the message some day. Sure, you can code up a message that no one one can read, but that includes the recipient. If you expect someone to read the message you need what's called a key -- something the recipient can use to decode it. There are ways to do what's called a Public Key -- a key the recipient can use but someone like me can't. They work pretty well, but nowhere near perfectly. Over the centuries the state of the art has swung back and forth between extremes of near perfection and abject failure. At the moment we are somewhere in between.

Also there's the problem that the government would like to be able to read your mail. Not that they are going to of course. Of course they wouldn't read your mail. Absolutely not.

But still, a blasphemer or spy or mass murderer might use the mail, right? And you'd want the government to be able to read their mail, right? So the government doesn't let you use all sorts of techniques that might make their mail hard for the government to read. Of course no blasphemer, or spy or mass murderer in their right mind is going to stick to the government's rules. But you and I have to. And so did all the people who were sending mail into and out of Outpost Sol -- with one exception.

I had long since unpacked all the software from the musics onto my persputer, and it was not much of a problem to hook it up to a mailreader stored in a cabinet on the spaceport. The biggest problem was in opening up the mail reader without leaving any obvious trace, but I managed it. I made a note that I needed a real tool kit. I hadn't realized how dependent I was on the collection of tools I had put together in my bedroom at home. Not so bright not to have thought of that. It's not quite clear how I'd have gotten the tools out here since half the government seemed to be employed solely for the purpose of ransacking my meager possessions, but still I should have thought of it.

Anyway, it took quite a few hours to get the mail reader set up, and no where near as long to screen the mail. The plain text stuff was, as always, advertising and government drivel. Jur's mail rule number 1. If they want you to read it, it isn't worth reading. The advertising was pretty stupid and the drivel was drivel. Then I tackled the encrypted stuff. Mostly personal letters chatting about family matters, petty grievances, and the weather. Hardly worth the effort to decrypt. A couple of people were into deep philosophical discussions which held little interest for me. Still though, I wish I had made a record of the sender and recipient names. After a few months on this misbegotten rock, I'd really like to find a few folks with functioning brain cells. There was also a bit of encrypted advertising. I thought I was pretty hardened, but I guess I have a ways to go. Weird stuff there. Interesting, but weird.

And there was the government stuff. There were copies of all the daily reports on station activities. More than I could possibly read and analyze in the day I had. I thought about making copies of them, but if I got caught, They surely would wonder how I came by the reports. I don't think it would take a genius to come up with an answer to that question. I was likely to catch another 100 years, maybe 200 for tampering with the mail. Why? Who knows? But some people take the sanctity of the mail seriously. And if I tried to copy all of the reports, a random search of the persputer was virtually certain to strike into one or more of them. I settled for storing the first, last and two intermediate volumes encrypted and intermixed with segments of a spectacularly badly written juvenile thud and blunder ghost story I found in the space station's extensive 17 book library.

I also found some memos about routine stuff including a troubling message about sticking to nutrition quotas -- which quickly revealed itself to be a declaration that the Outpost was to maintain itself on the munificent food budget of 37 microcredits a day per person and how they did that was the Outpost's problem Apparently my tour on Outpost Sol was not going to be a gourmet eating adventure. Mostly the message traffic dealt with petty bureaucratic maneuvering and memoranda dealing with non-problems artificially elevated to crisis levels. Dullness personified. Good news in a way. If I was descending into an incipient war or the nexus of the next great plague contagion, it wasn't obvious from the mail.

That left the two non-standard encrypted messages. One was outgoing, the clear text header indicating it to be a routine progress report from base commander Nel-Nur-Gri-Fre to his eminence Sector Commander Gur-Jen-Gri-Fre. The contents quickly proved to be anything but routine consisting of a several page message encrypted in some non-standard (and therefore illegal) algorithm. The incoming message was from Gur-Jen-Gri-Fre to Nel-Nur-Gri-Fre purportedly responding to another routine progress report. It also was encoded in a non-standard (and therefore illegal) algorithm. Something going on here. A bit of routine smuggling or extortion or some such. probably nothing to worry about, but still not something to overlook. If nothing else, potentially useful for blackmail although I'd be a bit pressed to explain exactly how I happened to stumble on these messages. I made a verifiable copy of both messages encrypted it and mailed it to myself care of Tal back on the home world with a "hold for pickup" label. Tal would have enough sense to look at the Outpost Sol postmark and not forward it back to me. My parents on the other hand ...

I franked the new piece of mail to the station postage account -- another felony, turned the decrypting job on the two reports over to the persputer, and went back to studying the Station reports.

Decoding the station reports was slow dull work and I couldn't keep extensive notes. I managed to get the basics. 3226 personnel -- 1592 male, 1596 female, 32 pre-sex choice juveniles (what were young kids doing out here on staff?), 6 other (Other? Other???). Three Space fleet officers in command positions. Four open command slots filled by temporary assignments from Other Ranks. (Great duty station! Even ambitious Space Fleet Officers -- and they don't make any other kind that I know of -- are passing up open command slots out here.) Something to look into there I think.

There were 3223 Other Ranks minus four temporarily filling Officer slots. The remaining 3219 were broken down as .... You get the idea. Monumentally dull stuff but there is data to be mined there that likely won't be readily available on the station computers. And there is no record of data mining out here whereas once I got to Outpost Sol, it was a safe bet that my computer activities would be closely monitored for quite some time -- maybe permanently if I triggered the wrong alert before I got a picture of the way things lay there.

At that, I almost missed it. Cross correlating and recording numbers that I wouldn't be able to keep, the numbers were all starting to look alike when something struck me about the tabulation in front of me. There were 3307 job slots at Outpost Sol. Almost constant over the several years of reports I had available. The staff moved up and down around 3220 individuals. Not unreasonable. You'd never fully staff a hell hole like Outpost Sol except maybe in time of war. New arrivals averaged about 3 a month, usually in groups of 5 or 6 every 8 or 9 weeks. My solitary arrival was unusual, but not unique. Probably they transferred in groups of trainees from the service schools? Something else to check if there was time. And, now that I think of it, why hadn't they sent me to a school? Not that a DOAA computer school was likely to teach me much about computers, but were they likely to figure that out?

Anyway, we have 3220 people on the base, 3 arrivals a month, 3 deaths a month -- accidents, disease, suicide, boredom. Why weren't the dead being resurrected like old Mal-Durr? A few are, but most aren't because most are convicted felons. They aren't rehabilitated until the last day of their sentence. and why would any culture in its right mind waste resources resurrecting criminal mentalities? Such is the "Logic" on which our society is based.

I checked out the causes of some deaths. They seemed plausible. Output Sol might be dull but it wasn't an especially safe place. Let's see 36 a year -- times 100 years = 3600. So my chances of surviving my term at Outpost Sol were -10% ... ooopsie. I straightened out the math. Each death comes out of a renewable pool of 3200, not from a constantly decreasing population. That made my chances a bit less than even. Not great, but that still wasn't what didn't feel right. then it came to me. People were arriving upright. People were leaving feet first. Ergo -- Nobody was shipping out of Outpost Sol. I had time to verify that in three years not one single person had shipped outbound through Space Station Sol except in a coffin.

Unfortunately, I was about out of time. The shuttle was due up in a few hours, and it would not do to be caught by an early shuttle arrival with the mail reader torn apart, the mail unsealed and a persputer full of unencrypted, incriminating stuff. I shut my operation down; resealed the mail; rebuilt the mail reader and restored the dust coat; I deleted the files I could recreate and encrypted and camouflaged the rest. I finished up by moving the most critical and mysterious material from the great mail raid into the treble clef of Han-Jan-Vor-Fre's Ennui Symphony -- a depressing piece on neo-classical trash that I really regretted ever purchasing.

Welcome Home

The shuttle was a six meter long black painted tube. A number of bent antennae, torn anti-radar nets; warped cooling coils, and other appendages decorated the exterior. A disturbing number of dents, scrapes, and such could be seen through the docking screen, but the docking maneuver was handled smartly enough. It was a bit hard to tell if the shuttle was poorly handled at times or merely ancient and poorly maintained. At any rate, I had little choice. I could take it or I could starve. I opted to take it.

I herded my bag aboard along with the mail. I looked around and found the outgoing mail on the floor under the acceleration couch. I dragged it out and watched in surprise as a dozen spools fell out of the mail pouch. It wasn't even sealed. I quickly scanned through the disks while trying to look like I was juggling them back into the bag. Sure enough there was a disk from base commander Nel-Nur-Gri-Fre to his eminence Sector Commander Gur-Jen-Gri-Fre. I fumbled it and a couple of other disks under the couch. Well drat. I guessed I'd have to go get them. I lay down and fished around under the couch. I came up with four disks. I rose up and dropped them into the mail bag which I promptly sealed and carried into the station and left in its proper slot. The fifth disk -- the Nel-Nur missive of course, was wedged into a shadowy corner under the acceleration couch. It doubted anyone would ever look at the surveillance tape, but if they did, the act should look pretty convincing. And I had 22 hours to figure out what, if anything to do about the Nel-Nur message disk.

I followed the instructions posted by the station door for securing the station and returned to the shuttle. I followed the instructions there for starting the trip down to Outpost Sol.

I had guessed that the journey was going to be dull. The Sol system does, in fact, include a lovely gas giant planet with a magnificent ring. You've seen pictures of it most likely. I figured it was unlikely that we would travel close enough to see any details and a quick check showed I was right. The planet was almost exactly on the opposite side of the sun. Not only would we not pass close enough to see any details, we wouldn't be able to see it at all except as a distant star hidden in the light from the much brighter Sol.

So I spent the trip down ostensibly watching training tapes. I really did spend most of the time with them. I devoted some time to trying to figure out what to do about the Nel-Nur disk. I finally decided to leave it where it was. There was no way to scan it much less try decrypt it. They might search me and my luggage coming into the base. Wouldn't do to have it found. Equally important if I was at all unlucky, I'd draw attention and get my quarters searched. The last thing I would need would be to have them find that disk in my room. Moreover, if the disk was reported missing, they'd run a search. If they found it where it was, little suspicion would fall on me. If it disappeared then I'd be a suspect. A tough call, but better to wait and try to recover the disk if I found a use for it.

22 hours passed eventually while I learned more than I ever wanted to know about optimum strategies for backup of vesper attendance data and other equally fascinating topics. By the time we got to Outpost Sol, I'd have been happy to arrive at the doors of hell itself.

I was a little unhappy that there was no real warning prior to the blast warning as the shuttle rotated and started firing its reaction engines to kill it's velocity. On the other hand I don't suppose I missed much. The screens showed me a great crater pocked planet which quickly expanded to become a crater pocked landscape. That might have been a shock were I not aware that Outpost Sol is on the back of the planet's single large moon. I was able to watch a small black dot in a great volcanic plain resolve itself into a cluster of buildings, tanks, and stray equipment. I was probably to be among the last to see this. The locals are wandering further and further afield and they will shortly have this area in permanent view. The Outpost will be going under cover in a few months.

five minutes later, the shuttle was down. A bored voice emitted from somewhere in the shuttle. "Jur-Gen-Sol-Fre. You aboard there lad?"

"I decided that the ceiling was as good a thing as any to talk to. "sure am. To whom do I have the honor?"

Whoever it was ignored the civilities. "Good-o. Your find a pair of dark glasses in the locker by the door. Make sure you have them on when you leave the shuttle."

I opened the locker and found a set of one size fits all goggles. I put them on and pushed them back up above my eyes since the light inside the shuttle was far too dim to see anything inside the shuttle with the goggles on. "where's the breathing gear?" I asked.

"Taint't any," said the disembodied voice.

"Er. I don't want to seem difficult, but the tapes tell me that this moon doesn't have any atmosphere."

"True. Your point ... ?"

"I can't breath no Atmosphere"

"Neither can any of the other 3200 souls on this rock, and most of them came in on a shuttle and made it to the air lock without breathing gear. Of course if you prefer to stay out there and starve ..."

"OK. OK. What do you want me to do?"

"Any sun sensitivities? "

"No. None that I know about"

"If they were severe enough for the exposure you are going to get to be dangerous, you'd know about them. OK, collect your gear. Stand in front of the shuttle door. Pull your glasses on and make sure they are on tight. Then check them again. OK?

I collected my gear and the mail and pulled on the glasses. A part of my mind asked just how many of the 3 fatalities a month at Outpost Sol were due to the practice of wandering around on airless planets without breathing gear. I chose to ignore it. "I'm ready" I said.

"Check the glasses one last time, no light leaks, right?"

"Right"

"OK, take a deep breath, exhale and tap the door in front you in the center three times. The door will open. Walk forward into the open bay across from you. That's the base airlock. It'll sense your entering it, close the door and pump air to you. Nothing will go wrong, but if anything does, freeze and don't do anything. We'll have somebody out to help you long before you are in serious trouble. Got all that. Exhale. Tap the door three times. Walk forward into the bay. If anything goes wrong, stop and wait for help. And whatever you do, keep the damn glasses on until you are over here and pressurized.

I took a breath. Exhaled, tapped the door walked across to the lock. The door closed in back of me I guess. I couldn't see anything because of the glasses, and I couldn't hear anything with no atmosphere, but I felt air repressurising me. And even before I really needed another breath, things felt pretty normal. "You can breath now" said the voice "It's a practice we try to encourage amongst station personnel. Leave the glasses in the door locker. Welcome to Outpost Sol By the way"

I took a deep breath, removed my glasses, and hung them where they belonged. I grabbed my gear and the mail and entered my new life.

Outpost Sol

I found myself in a control room with a grayshell male at the main desk and a younger man doing something mysterious at a secondary console. The grayshell looked up.

"I'm Sergeant Gan. That's Specialist Gor over there. Welcome to outpost Sol. Dump your bag on the floor and spread the contents out where I can see them."

I did as I was told. Gan got up and walked over. He picked up the persputer and tossed it to Gor who promptly turned it on. "Password?" He asked but before I could tell him, he did something with the numeric keys and said "Oh, Never Mind" He was apparently into the computer as he spent some time typing and reading. I was impressed. I still don't know how he bypassed my password.

Meanwhile Gan efficiently went through my possessions -- checking pockets, opening compartments and so forth. He tossed a couple of musics to Gor and looked up at me. "Empty your pockets onto the console." He quickly swept through the contents. For some reason, he spent a couple of seconds studying a 30 credit piece. Then he said. "You can put that stuff back"

Gor tossed Gan the persputer then the musics and Gan put them on the floor. Gan picked up my bag shook it upside down and tossed it to Gor. Gor opened not one, but three, compartments I was unaware of and pulled out a soiled cloth and a spare key. He stuffed them back in and pitched the bag back to Gan. Gan looked at Gor. Gor said:

"Nothing really: The 'puter is booby trapped. It'd take me all night to crack it (To me) -- Nice job Kid -- there's some stuff running that isn't authorized and a bunch of files that won't stand scrutiny, but nothing those ninnies in there" he flicked a pincher toward a yellow door behind him. "will spot. Oh yeah, and I think the musics are doctored, but it's a first class job and I'm not about to spend three days figuring out how and another three decrypting. How about the rest of the stuff?"

"Nothing. There's a personal monitor in a six chip piece, but it's long since dead. He probably picked it up in change. The rest of the stuff is clean."

Gan then asked me to strip and pirouette. I did so and he came over and gently removed the Gideon which I was carrying on a chain around my neck. He carried it over to Gor rather than throwing it as he had my persputer and disks. To Gor "Log it" To Me, "What did your Aberazi call it?"

"A Gideon. Has something to do with Terra he said"

"Log that also. Can you summarize the readout?

Gor nodded. "Aberazi artifact. Assigned serial number AZQR-17. Nine of previous given to Gungmari citizens. Seven encountered with aliens. Five of previous identified as "Half mirror's". Two as ""Smoke Rings". Two name undesignated or forgotten. Nature and use of artifact unknown. Believed to be innocuous. No constraints on ownership. Not permitted in Class C6 or above facilities except as experimental instruments with appropriate safeguards."

Gor turned to me. "OK kid. We're going to pass the puter and the tapes. The rest of the stuff is clean. I'll keep this 6 chip piece so it doesn't get either of us in trouble and spend it on a drink when I get to Arcturus IV.

"The Gideon isn't illegal and nothing in this system is secured above D7 so it won't get you into trouble. On the Other Claw, I don't think it would be prudent for you to let anyone know you have it. Be as discrete as possible about carrying it and using it. Have you tried it?"

"No."

"When you do, if you find anything that would enlighten your government about what these things are and why the Aberazi are giving them away, We'd be pleased to hear about it. Use your own judgment about whether to just call us with the details. If you need a face-to-face, call Gor or his replacement and tell him you want to return his disk on Battle-Chess tactics.

He turned to Gor. "Give the man a book."

Gor reached into his desk drawer, came up with a disk and skimmed it to me.

Gan turned to me. "Get dressed, pack up your stuff, and go through the yellow door to get your official reception."

"you're going to Arcturus IV?" I asked while I started to pack. (so much for the no one leaves Sol III except in a box theory).

"Yep while you were flying down here, Gan and I received the happy news that our replacements are out at the Space Station. Four months overdue we might add. So, you are dealing with two of the happiest Imperial Marines in the entire galaxy."

I was trying to figure out how to ask how they were getting off Sol III without revealing that I thought they shouldn't be when Gan spoke up. "This is hard duty here. Nothing to do. The entire staff except for our security detail is under the DOAA, so there is no drinking, not much athletics, no partying, no fraternization, no nothing. You can't imagine how happy Gor and I will be to get to a real duty station. Tough break for our replacements of course." He grinned. So did Gor. Big happy grins.

"You aren't under DOAA?"

"Nope" Gor Cackled. "See that Red door over there? This room and 2000 square meters behind that door belong to the imperial marines. The rest of the system belongs to DOAA.."

"Y'know" Gan chimed in "Imperial Marines are wonderful people ..."

"Salt of the Earth" Gor said.

In unison, "... but we'll both be ecstatic to see 38 different wonderful people."

As I packed my belongings, I asked Gor if they routinely worked outside without breathing gear.

He chuckled. "Of course not. Problem is that it takes an hour or so of training to use the breathing gear properly. Used to be that we gave people a quick briefing and had them walk across. And every once in a while the gas regulator would need to be cleared and they couldn't remember how, or they'd turn the gas valve the wrong way and end up with no air."

"Yeah' Gasped Gan. "Remember the senior administrator that followed all the instructions but never put the air feed into his gills because we thought that was so obvious, we never told them to insert it."

"Only one that ever missed that step"

"Yep. Anyway he was in pretty bad shape by the time we got to him. His gills were green and he was unconscious."

"Not that it was so easy to tell in his case."

Gor nodded. "Anyway, we had more trouble than you would have thought. And we almost lost a couple of newbies. Then some genius" Gan preened -- making it fairly obvious just who the genius had been "thought of the idea of just having them walk across without breathing gear."

"... And we haven't lost one since."

"Just in case you ever need to know, the breathing gear is in the forward locker in the box." He gestured toward the shuttle. "We still use it for a few folks who can't quite come to grips with the idea of walking outside without a suit. The briefing disk is there also. And now, it is time for you to start your new life with the DOAA. Just go through the yellow door and introduce yourself to whatever you find there. They'll probably want your files, that's the sealed green disk you've been carrying although I expect you already know that. Good luck lad."

So I picked up my kit and marched off through the yellow door to my new life as a Department of Alien Affairs technician.

DOAA

What I found behind the yellow door was -- nothing. There was a fair sized room with a desk, some control screens, and a couple of empty chairs. The door to Imperial Marine territory closed behind me. I looked for a note or a call button. Nothing. I sat in one of the chairs and waited a while. At first I thought that the reception people had stepped out for a second. Then, when quite a few minutes passed and nobody showed up, I decided that this must be a test. A test of what? And should I do or not do anything? I tried one of the other chairs. Still nothing. A test to see how long I'd wait before taking action? Great. How long should I wait if I wanted to look normal -- which I most certainly did? And if I missed was it better to act too soon or too late? My natural inclination was to do something NOW. So that was probably the wrong answer. I settled back into the chair and dug through my pack. Eventually I came up with a very bad video -- purportedly a classic -- I'd never been able to get through. I settled down and tried to follow the adventures of Got-Tor in the land of the living breadsticks.

About 20 minutes later a door opened and two bright young things not much older than I trotted through carrying food trays. Totally engrossed in a discussion about some music video I'd never seen or heard of, they rolled into the room and made it most of the way across the room before the shorter, cuter one noticed me. She let out a screech than probably woke up half the station and dropped her food tray.

"Hi" I said.

"Who ... who ...." The other one came to her rescue. "Who are you?"

"Jur-Gen-Sol-Fre"

"And what are you going here?"

"I just came in from the home system. I'm to be a computer tech I'm told.

"Oh. I see. We weren't told ... Let me check" She banged out something on an entry panel, looked at the result, banged a few more lines and banged a bit more. She waved a claw at her companion and mumbled something about C28. Her friend -- who was busy picking lunch(?) up off the floor shook her head and said something in some slang that I took to mean "not just now."

"If not now, when? We need C28."

"Oh, alright." She slapped the tray down and slid behind another console. After a brief interval of activity, she muttered something acerbic. She banged something else in. Shook her head. "I don't think C28 is in the cards she said. I don't think I can go higher than C17. Might be able to go with E28"

"Try D26" said the other.

The second one typed something. "D26 it is. Want me to see if I can push to 27?"

"Naw, 26 should be good enough.

Let me hasten to say that at the time, I had no more idea than you probably do what they were talking about. I discovered later that this all had to do with assigning me a room -- one of several hundred minuscule identical cubicles in the C-D-or E wings of the station. But, you ask, if they are identical, does it matter which I was assigned? Exactly. It doesn't. But the sweeties were trying very hard to get me the best assignment they could in terms of the current base social structure that put 2nd floor cubes in the B wing at the top of the desirability pyramid. It made absolutely no difference to me where they put me.

But they meant well, and in their world, they did quite well by me.

The room assignment being settled, the first one turned to me and instructed me to go through the blue door and follow the illuminated line on the floor to my room. Once there, I should watch the orientation disk and It'd tell me what to do next.

I thanked them for their help, made a point of acting like I was memorizing their names and intercom call ID -- which they made sure were where I could see them and, with my meager kit in tow, fled the scene.

At the end of the glowing line in the floor was a small cell similar to the one I had occupied on the Glorious Future. I entered, unpacked, leaned back and turned the video on. A trumpet soared. Strings picked up the theme. For the 100th time in the past eight years, the Way-Jon-Gor theme from the Starburst Symphony rose around me and a pastoral scene appeared before my eyes. I was about to be educated.

The pastoral scene dissolved into a space scene. The Galaxy -- well , some galaxy anyway, faded up in the foreground. The scene locked on a single streamer of stars in one of the arms and raced toward it. Stars swept by. The arm opened up into individual stars a single star separated from the mass and sat stationary in the center of the screen. The star brightened as the camera swept in. The star resolved itself into a disk. The expansion slowed. The star swung off center and another star became centered. No, not a star, a planet. The camera swung in. Blue seas glistened in the sunlight. Bands of snow white clouds swept around it, and still the camera swept in.

I was pretty sure that was about the seventh time I'd seen that stirring scene as a lead in to seven different educational experiences. No doubt about it. I was about to be educated.

The camera stops, holds and then starts to sweep inwards as the orchestra rises to the stirring conclusion of the symphony. As Way-Jon-Gor hacks the statue of the evil Bniath asunder with a crash of thunder the camera races into a cloud bank, breaks through, slows abruptly and focuses on a city. ... And such a city. Needle like buildings soar from huge parks. Ground vehicles stream to and from multilane highways leading down beside a magnificent bay. In the distance a range of snow capped mountains shimmer in the sun. in the air thousands of tiny aircraft flit from building to building to park.

A polished voice, smooth and fluid speaks: "This is the city of Nanganth-Mjr reconstructed from tapes made 800 years ago. This is Nanganth-Mjr today." The scene fades and is replaced by a nightmare scene in grays and blacks. The parks are gone -- replaced by vegetationless craters. The buildings have broken and melted -- shattered -- sagging. The highways are badly damaged and empty. The sea in the bay is dark and sullen. The mountains are masked by clouds of dust. Nothing moves. The city has been destroyed.

"What happened?" a telling pause. "What happened was a war. a war that should never have happened. A war that the Department of Alien Affairs was designed to prevent ever happening again." The next hour and 20 minutes told me more than I ever wanted to know about the Department of Alien Affairs. Shorn of the truly excessive rhetoric, it boiled down to the fact that the DOAA was in charge of all relationships between our race and aliens who weren't strong enough militarily to keep it out. The DOAA charter was to keep the aliens suppressed, out of trouble, and out of our way. The DOAA manages all primitive alien contacts with us and all our contacts with primitive aliens. After taking 75 minutes to say that it then took another 30 minutes to tell me that as a DOAA recruit, I was absolutely, unequivocally and without a doubt a free citizen, but that things would go a lot more smoothly if I acted like a prisoner. The DOAA would tell me when, where, and how to sleep, eat, relax and do anything else that was in my best interest. If I kept quiet, followed orders, and did just as I was told, everything would go just fine.

Did I get that? You bet. For the first (far from the last) time it crossed my mind that I may have made a mistake in choosing the DOAA instead of the Imperial Marines.

There was a short pause and more martial music -- scratchy and overmodulated. A very badly made video had been tacked onto the end of the DOAA's thoroughly professional effort. It turned out to be the rules of conduct for life at Outpost Sol. Rule number 1 was that I should never forget that I was a free and proud man. Rules numbers 2 through 10 said I better not try to exercise my freedom in any way unless I fancied spending a long long time doing unpleasant penalty duties. I was to report to my cell no later than 2100 local time at which time I would be locked in for the night. Meals would be served at 0800, 1400 and 2000. I would have 30 minutes to eat. I would report to my work station at 0840 and would be released at 1810. No days off. No vacations. I was not to fraternize with my blockmates, coworkers, my superior ranks, or my inferiors (I didn't think there were any of those). Aside from that, my time was my own.

The library, gym and movie theater would be off limits for the first 5 years of my term, but I could draw technical manuals, religious tracts, and other morally uplifting material from the library. If I wanted, I could practice close order drill in the drill yard for one hour a day. Oddly, they indicated no particular restriction on my computer use, but I assumed that they would severely limit my access to entertainment channels. They did tell me where to go on the cell computer to find my work schedule, station maps, the orientation tour and such.

So the next stop was the government provided persputer to find out a bit more about Outpost Sol.

The main body of Outpost Sol occupies roughly 40,000 square meters in a single dome. There are an additional 20,000 meters of outbuildings, emergency shelters, etc. I was located on the second level of the C sector of the main dome. Public facilities were at the core of the dome. There were four food halls at four corners of the core. I could eat in any of them, but the C hall was the closest. My work post would be on the first floor of D sector (why had the housed me in C?) nearly 800 meters away. I figured 7 or 8 minutes at a comfortable walking speed. Allow 10.

Which brought up the question of what time it was and when I needed to report. It took me 15 minutes to figure out how to ask about the latter. Turns out that it was 2115 local. I'd been locked in my cell for 15 minutes and hadn't known it. I was hungry. Too bad. I'd be able to eat at 0800 tomorrow. And, I was informed, I would report to my work post at coordinates D123 at 0840 tomorrow morning.

No doubt about it, I was going to love life in the DOAA at Outpost Sol.

I won't bore you with the details of daily life at Outpost Sol. It was monotonous, dull, and not very challenging. My workpost was a desk and computer in an isolated closet. My contact with my boss and coworkers was over a poorly designed and constantly monitored communications setup. The management style was a throwback to the days of Wooden Ships and Iron Men. Fraternization was forbidden. Unnecessary conversation was strongly discouraged.

After about six weeks, I was pretty sure that there was minimal monitoring of my cell/room. I'd found a presence sensor that responded to my presence in the room and reported yes or no about whether I was there. There was also a poorly disguised video monitor that wasn't even hooked into the station network. And there was a better hidden camera and microphone that was hooked in. A pile of books casually dumped in front of the camera satisfied me that the only video monitoring was done by computer only and the computer was sure that I was out there beyond the books because the presence sensor said I was present. A muzac receiver on the shelf took care of the audio pick up pretty much -- at least so I hoped.

After another few weeks, I decided it was time to look at the Gideon. I waited until the block was locked down; checked to make sure that they hadn't favored me with a new monitor or audio bug; and sat down at the desk out of view of the hall.

I removed the Gideon from my neck and set it on the counter. Even though I'd been carrying it for two months, I'd never really examined it closely. There was a neck chain of course and large purple screen crystal. To the side were two smaller green crystals that appeared to be decorative, but probably weren't.

I couldn't see any way to activate the screen so I tried touching it. No success. I tried squeezing it. I tapped it gently on the table. I talked to it. I stared at it and tried sending thoughts toward it. Finally, I tried rubbing it. A view cube about 50cm by 30cm appeared and rotated until it faced me squarely. A mist appeared around the outside framing the central image -- explaining the "smoke ring" name I thought. In the center, an image formed and solidified -- me, in my room, facing myself. A mirror.

But there was something wrong with the mirror image. What? It looked like me. I moved a hand. The image moved a hand. I blinked my eyes. It blinked. I wiped my brow. It raised an arm clad like mine and wiped its brow. All in synchrony. exactly like a mirror, Yet not exactly like a mirror. What differed?

It took took me a while.

But finally, it came to me. The image was almost mirror like, but the image wasn't reversed. When I raised my right arm, the image raised it's right arm. Not the arm on my right side, the arm on IT'S right side. I picked up a (never read) manual and viewed it in the mirror. As I expected, the printing on the cover was normal and readable, not reversed. My mind snapped through to a physics class I had hated and largely ignored -- a real image rather than a virtual one. Very odd, but why call it a "Half Mirror"? And what was the significance of the odd image?

Controls? I tried tapping, gestures, rubbing, projecting emotions. Exasperation was especially easy. Nothing did anything. Then I tried the two probably non-decorative green stones. Sure enough, they moved the image right and left, rotated it horizontally and vertically, moved in and out. Interesting, cute. But what is it good for?

I shut the image off. No small trick. I tried about twenty things. Finally, I found that rubbing the image stone after touching both green stones shut things down ... probably. Easy, natural, intuitive ... for whom or what? At least the Gideon looked inert once I did that. I hung it around my neck and decided to meditate for a few weeks before trying it again.

Meditation produced no insight, so I tried again in about five weeks. That time, I found that the Gideon could show me images from well beyond my austere cell. Anyplace in Outpost Sol in fact. Or beyond for that matter. Regretably whatever principles underlay the device were subject to the speed of light limitation. I could look at things on Terra. But with an annoying 2.4 second delay between moving the focus and seeing the result. Further away, the delay grew beyond annoying to intolerable.

I worked with the Gideon twice a week for months. I learned quite a lot about both the Gideon and Outpost Sol. With the Gideon, I was able to monitor the base's computer administration -- collect passwords, look at what sort of surviellance/activity monitoring was in place, and in general look at what a Solbase hacker had to contend with. It turned out that the monitoring was more extensive than I would have expected. But also that those doing the monitoring, at least the ones on the two shifts when I was in my room (i.e. cell) were quite clueless.

Still, though, I decided to move cautiously. I tried a little routine hacking -- the kind of stuff that was tried two or three times a day by someone or other and was not really taken seriously. I was pretty sure that feeling out the base computer security was expected of me and I was afraid that not doing it might be more suspicious than doing it. But I was careful not to succeed at anything meaningful. And indeed, there seemed to be no consequences.

My room was tossed a couple of times while I was at work. but they did that to everyone I was pretty sure -- and amateurishly at that. They managed the not inconsiderable feat of moving all seven of my telltales and not putting a single one back quite where it belonged. A real quality problem there in base security if you ask me.

They left the books in front of the camera and the muzak player next to the microphone. And they didn't install any new surveillance devices that I could detect even with the Gideon to help look for them.

In short, I tried to paint a picture of a rebellious adolescent slowly being molded into a DOAA drone. I was pretty sure they bought my performance.

I wasn't allowed to socialize (and wouldn't much want to if I could). I had (and have) no interest in matball or other professional sports. So I needed some way to occupy myself in my time off. A reasonable amount of computer study was OK. I was, after all, supposed to be a computer technician. But the things I would be seriously interested in would surely raise red flags all over base security, so I confined my public study to a few courses on the DOAA data management system.

Fortunately, it turned out that the ban on library use was far less overriding than it seemed. I couldn't physically visit the place during my five year(!) internship. But I could access stuff through the computer. And it turned out that my access to fiction and games was dramatically constrained, but just about anything in the non-fiction sections other than material that was actually interesting (like material on explosives or toxins) was allowed. For some reason, the goings on on the neighboring planet caught my interest.

The Terrans are strange critters. Clever enough. Perhaps too much so for their own good. Probably about as smart on average as we are. A bit limited physically. Good visual sensors and mediocre abilities to handle sound. Not much else. Fairly frail, but strong enough to manipulate their environment. Breed enthusiastically -- which is going to cause them trouble soon.

Although they are very much like us, they are, on average, even more delusional, obdurate, dimwitted, opinionated, and often just plain nuts than we are ... assuming that's possible. Not surprisingly, their history is a long and distressing tale of disastrous undertakings poorly executed resulting in widespread and more or less permanent chaos and misery. The Terrans love to make grandious plans, but are more or less incapable of executing them -- unless of course, the need for modification is obvious, in which case they will follow them to the death ... their own and that of others. They are much enamored of a form of government called "democracy" wherein everyone does whatever they damn well please -- regardless of the inevitable consequence that their wreckless disregard for common sense inevitably leads to their activities being "temporarily" (which means "permanently") more constrained than if they just acted more rationally in the first place. ... A real ongoing disaster.

Nonetheless, it turns out that a few of them are remarkably adept at story telling. Thus, over the centuries, they have collected a most impressive selection of "books" -- many of which are quite entertaining and sometimes enlightening even to an alien race. Further, for some reason, those books that have been translated have ended up in the non-fiction section of the library even when they deal with clear and obvious fantasy. I expect that someday, this mine of quality entertainment will be adapted to our media to someone's great benefit. In the meantime, I was in a unique position to explore it.

It's not like I had a great deal else to do.

I spent many long evening hours studying the odd, and frequently perplexing activities of the Solarians as viewed by their storytellers. I became particularly entranced by a genre called "Murder mysteries" wherein one or more Terrans arrange the demise of one or more other Terrans for obscure reasons and possibly in bizarre ways that are then presented to the reader as a puzzle whose details are slowly revealed as the story plays out. It's a very interesting art form.

Things changed abruptly about 18 months after the start of my tour at Oupost Sol. It was evening on my shift. I had finished my meal and was headed to my room for lockdown when my communicator beeped. That was only the third time since my arrival here that anyone had called me directly, and it couldn't mean anything good. I keyed the communicator on, "Jur-Gen-Sol here. What?"

"Jur. Gan-Mor-Tan here. We have a situation planetside."

"... and?"

"We're putting together an emergency team. Ordinarily, we'd use Man-Thor-Dos, but he's part of the mess planetside. We need a computerperson and The skills system tells us that you've done a truly remarkable job of hacking into the outpost computers." Ooops. So much for secrecy. And and so much for hopes for getting out of here in three years. How, I ask you how, could they have been monitoring me without my knowing about it? They must have someone around -- not Man -- who knows a lot more about computers than I thought was likely. Who?

"What sort of Emergency?"

"We'll cover that in person. Report to the Imperial Marine area forthwith and you'll be briefed."

It took me about five minutes to get to the entrance to the marine quarters. The door swung open as I approached. I entered and found myself face to face with Seargant Gan or his twin brother. "Is that you seargant. I thought you had orders to Arcturus."

"I did. And I acutually got there and spent 72 delightful hours before I was summarily shipped back here."

"Why, if you don't mind my asking?"

"I don't mind, but it's kind of a long story -- call it a perverse reward for foolishly letting my superiors know that I'm smarter than I look. I'll tell you the details some other time.

"Right now we need to address matters on Earth. Ambassador Tan has been kidnapped."

"Details?"

"He was visiting Det-Rot substation with a small entourage. The locals apparently observed the landing. We've got a tap on the local's coordination center - something called Det-Rot International Airport. My guess is that our landing crew either forgot to turn on the visibility shields or they aren't calibrated right. Miserable things are always out of kilter. Anyway, the center got about 20 calls. Told them the usual -- run away weather balloon like always. Sent an investigating team to someplace called Flnt -- well away from our base.

"Anyway, everything seemed normal. Then about two hour's into the Ambassador's opening remarks somebody hit the substation. Guards were asleep of course -- nobody can stay awake through two hours of the Ambassador's opening remarks. The automatics went off, and we have tapes, but the guards didn't have a chance. The locals captured them then rolled through the station collecting everyone who wasn't able to hide or secure themselves. All in all, we seem to have 158 captured, a couple of injured, and no idea who the locals were or where they went. We've got 32 witnesses in various states of hysteria who seem to have managed the not inconsiderable feat of not having observed one useful fact. And we have video tapes of most of the operation.

What did they expect ME to do about this? "What do you expect ME to do about this?"

"Well." Gan leaned back in his couch and stroked his mandibles. "Since you might not fancy a couple of decades of cleaning sludge traps in Food Prep, perhaps you'd like to devote your FULL attention to trying to recover our people."

No doubt about it, the man had a way with words.

"I'm a computer expert, not a forensic expert. If this were something our people had pulled off, I might be able to find some clues in the computer. But I really don't think there is a person on this base or planetside smart enough to manage the operation you just described. You need professional help -- The Galactic Bureau of Investigation or some such.

Gen grimaced. "You've obviously never dealt with the GBI. Their forte is public relations and covering up for Director Ver-Hov's numerous indiscretions. I doubt we'll be able to keep them out of here forever, but intend to devote considerable energy over the next few weeks to keeping them at a distance. We have a request in with the Imperial Marines to provide us with an investigatory team. They have something on the way, but not for 6 to 9 days except for one local guy who happens to be me. I have instructions to find out just as much as I can in the meantime -- without destroying evidence. That's your job -- finding out as much as you can, not destroying evidence."

"Have you secured Det-Rot base?"

"Of course not. We have every administrator on Outpost Sol is down there getting in each other's way, conducting non-stop meetings, giving contradictory orders, and making sure that any evidence that might have existed is garbled beyond recognition. My fondest hope is that the locals come back, drag that lot off and maybe leave a clue or too behind. A business card, and a map to their headquarters might be nice if they can spare them." Gan sighed, "Of course then I'd have to decide whether or not to rescue the management, and I'm afraid that I might have to knuckle under and do so.

"The videos are on the computer. File Det-Rot - 13864A. Security Password "Loads of laughs". You might wish to peruse them and report back to me. Shall we say in three hours. No, you're better than that. Make it two. Computers are thru there".

Gan dismissed me with a wave of a claw toward an unmarked door and turned to two frantic looking junior officers who were wearing the expressions of arthropods swimming way beyond their depth.

I picked a computer at random from a row built into the wall console in the room I had entered and keyed up the videos. Took me 5 minutes to get the right capitalization on "LOADS of LAughs".

The screen showed a hallway. Tiled floor. Three lights. Faint muzak in the background. I was nearly asleep after five minutes. How could they expect guards to stay awake? Then the door crashed open, banged off the wall. A shadowy appendage swept through the field of view from the side of the door. Something flew through the air, and flew apart in a cloud of fragments. A loud sound started and then cut off immediately. The screen went blank. The screen stayed blank.

I played the scene back three times. Nothing useful. I froze the picture during the assault. The object was moving too fast to get decent resolution. Whatever was thrown into the room appeared to be about the size of my claw. Presumably some of the fragments would find their way back here despite the activities of the management. I doubted they would tell us anything.

I studied the appendage. Also moving fast. Blurred. Appeared to be the upper appendage of one of the locals covered with mottled cloth except for the digits on the end. They were covered with black cloth.

I played the scene from the infrared sensors.

The screen showed a hallway. Tiled floor. Three lights. Faint muzak in the background. I was nearly asleep after five minutes. How could they expect guards to stay awake. Then the door crashed open, banged off the wall. A shadowy appendage swept through the field of view from the side of the door. Something flew through the air, and flew apart in a cloud of fragments. An loud sound started and then cut off immediately. The screen went blank. The screen stayed blank.

OK, nothing useful there.

The rest of the videos were little better. The best of the lot were the visible light records from the main control room. The showed the usual scene of complete monotony -- augmented by the drone of the Ambassador's interminable introductory remarks which replaced the Muzak on all the other tapes. A few minutes into the tape, An alarm sounded, a screen on the control console went blank. the guards turned to the console. The door slammed open and a local dressed in mottled cloth stepped through. An object -- apparently anesthetic, not explosive, flew from the creature's hand toward the console. A second local stepped through the door and quickly and methodically shot out the sensors with some sort of hand weapon while the guards slid to the floor.

I froze framed the aliens. They both were clearly visible, but there wasn't a lot to see. They were both about 190cm tall -- the second perhaps a bit shorter than the first. There was surely computer software that would give their heights, girth, and, with a lot of calibration, mass -- but I didn't have it available at the moment. Both were dressed in black high topped foot gear -- "Boots" I found they are later called; baggy mottled clothing; black hand covers, mottled caps and odd face gear that I had never seen in any of my research. It was black, shiny, with an odd snout and black air tubes. It gave no clue as the appearance of the creature underneath. Enough data to eliminate 9 out of 10 aliens picked at random, but not much chance of recognizing the critters even if we found them.

OK, not much to be found on the aliens themselves. I spent 20 minutes guiding the computer through analyzing the attack -- what was happening where, when. The bottom line -- at least 16 aliens involved -- probably no more than 30. Well organized. Probably working according to a plan -- or under the command of a brilliant tactician. As far as I could tell, every room of the site had been entered except a the small communication center behind a secured door. The aliens attempted to force the door open and applied an explosive that had no affect. Unfortunately, the aliens quickly and efficiently disabled the sensors outside the Comm center and/or cut the data links. The folks in the Comm center -- wisely I think -- stuck to their posts and kept the door secured until Outpost Sol told them that our rescue force was on the ground and had secured the halls outside the door. By that time, the aliens were long gone -- taking along the ambassador and most of the station staff as mementos of their visit.

My two hours was almost up. I packed up my persputer and scuttled off to see Gan. He wasn't happy with my report, but he was surprisingly non-abusive -- for Gan. I assumed that my analysis was at least as good as he had gotten from anyone else.

Instead of dismissing me as I'd expected, he waved me to a couch.

"Have any thoughts? Gut feelings? Ideas? Stuff you don't want on the record?"

"Not really" I responded. The aliens are wearing uniforms. That makes them police? Military?"

"Routine police raid you think?"

"No, I don't. Police have name tags. We have six clear pictures of aliens. The clothes are identical. No name tags. No insignia. They know each other, and they know who makes decisions and who doesn't. Besides, if my references haven't lied to me, in the Ni-Ted-Sta-Su they have a religious ceremony where they'd have waved a piece of paper called a warrant through the door before they pitched the first bomb in.

"Military?"

"I doubt it. Our soldiers always wear insignia of rank so they can tell who is in charge. Don't all militaries work like that?

"Pretty much, I think. What now?"

"I think we look for local help."

"Local help? The police?"

"Police? Of course not. They'll lock US up and never get around to looking for the aliens. I was thinking of something called a Private Investigator."

"Private Investigator?"

"Yep, a individual who specializes in doing private police type investigations. Don't ask me how they can make a living doing that when the police do the same job for free, but they have people that do that here."

"How do we find one of these pirate investigators?"

"'PRI-vate investigator."

"'Pirate', 'Private'... No Matter. Miserable language! How do we find one?"

"I think people usually look them up in the Phone Book. Something called the 'Yellow Pages'"

"And where do we find these mellow pages?"

"YEL-low pages. You get a copy along with your telephone I think. There's probably a copy around here somewhere. The building would have to have a phone just to avoid suspicion. The locals would notice if they didn't."

We spent the next fifteen minutes searching for the mellow pages. Since we didn't understand what we were looking for, it probably isn't surprising that we didn't find any mellow pages. After fifteen minutes of looking at a collection of familiar objects and strange alien artifacts -- a box of "Girl Scout Cookies" -- mysterious brown diskettes possibly useful for shimming furniture legs -- an odd black centered, yellow stick labeled No 2 1/2 that spread black goo all over my pinchers -- small steel wires bent into odd shapes -- we gave it up. "Is there someplace else we can get the mellow pages?"

"YEL-low pages. We could probably get a copy from the phone company. ... I imagine it'll take about a week. ... Wait a minute. There have their own Pay Phones -- communications devices that you put minicredits into. No video of course, but if you were as ugly as these critters, would you have video? Anyway, they come with Yellow pages.

So Gan and I pulled on the most uncomfortable imaginable alien suits and trudged out to find a Pay Phone. We quickly discovered that the aliens have lots of Pay Phones although most are inoperative. I suppose that they must get violent when they get bad news or something. Anyway, most of the phones we found had been damaged or destroyed. More important, and more aggravating even the phones that were working were missing their yellow pages. Usually the whole book, sometimes just most of the pages. Maybe the natives eat them. I have no idea. Anyway it took six blocks of trudging through the hot sun in an unventilated rubber suit to find a reasonably intact phone book.

Then I had to contend with "Private Investigators". "see 'Detectives". "Detectives" sent me to "Police-Private" The sun got hotter. Looking up a topic sounds easy doesn't it? You've probably never tried looking something up without a computer to do the hard work. YOU try looking up subjects in a badly organized, poorly printed book organized in an alien alphabet that you don't remember especially well. My suit started emitting copious smelly liquid -- both inside and out. A chubby native who looked to mass about 100 kilos waddled up and whacked on the door impatiently. "Police-Private" referred me to "Investigators - Private'". The native wrapped again. The sun got even hotter. I seriously considered burning the clod down then and there, but it would surely be a violation of DOAA rules. Not that I cared much about DOAA rules, but Gan had faded back into the (cool) shadows where he was watching me with some interest. I don't think he would have turned me in, but why take the chance? Finally I found "Investigators-Private" -- a couple of columns of names and phone numbers.

I went native. I ripped six pages of Investigators, Investments, Inventory, and In... who-knows-what out and stuffed them into my pocket. Then I dropped a 30 credit coin in the phone and dialed a bunch of random digits. The phone made odd noises. I listened a minute and hung it up. The 30 credits didn't come back so I hoped it was where I wanted it to be. Wedged in the coin chute where it would keep the fat alien from making a call. I toggled the "Disgusted Expression" control with my tongue, turned and marched out of the booth. My expression apparently intimidated the fat alien who let me pass without comment-- which was kind of too bad. I was really in the mood to kill something.

Hopefully fatso would spend a dreadful ten minutes trying to place his phone call from that hot box.

I headed back for the station. Gan held back for about a block then caught up with me. "I take it we're headed for the barn?" he asked.

"You bet. I'm not spending any more time in this personalized coffin than I have to."

"You don't sound so great. Do you have the air conditioning on?

"Air conditioning?"

"Blue button -- second from right. Audio volume control sets the temperature when the Air conditioning is active."

I tried it and within minutes the sweltering, uncomfortable alien suit was merely uncomfortable, no longer sweltering.

It took us 15 minutes to get back to the station, get under cover, and get the ridiculous suits off.

Gan asked me for the yellow pages, which he spread out in front of him. There were 3 columns -- 50-60 listings for Investigators. I pointed to a big ad that took up half a column. "INVESTIGATIONS! ALL KINDS. Divorce. Bankruptcy. Skip Tracing (What is a skip and what good would tracing it do?). Investigations of all sorts. Strict confidentiality!"

"How about them?" I asked.

"I don't think so." Said Gan. "Just like home -- big ad means big company. We don't wasn't a big company. They may promise confidentiality, but isn't much chance we'll get it. What we want is a small company. One alien. Somebody we can ship to Arcturus without anyone noticing if they turn out to be a pain."

"How do we find that?"

"We pick the smallest, least expensive. ad we can find." That one. He pointed to a listing "Bergen Investigations, 5231 Central Street, Ypsilanti, 8653278."

It was just one of maybe 50 small ads. "Why that one?" I asked. Just curious of course. I didn't really care.

"It's not too far away and Ypsilanti is the only local place name I can pronounce. Translator should handle that of course, but you know how temperamental they are. If it doesn't work out, we'll try someone else."

Gan grabbed the phone and punched out the number. He also did something so that I could hear the conversation. The phone buzzed several times. Then there was a click and a voice -- no picture -- an alien improvement we might do well to adopt in my opinion. At the time, I didn't realize how lucky we were to get through to a living being instead of being shunted off to a infernal device known as an "answering machine" I'm told that many decades ago we used to have answering machines but that they were outlawed during the reign of Gin-War-Mor-Fre III -- a.k.a. "Gin the Corruptible". I believe that possession of an answering machine was a capital crime for many centuries.

"Bergen Investigations. Richard Bergen here."

"Yes," said Gan who suddenly realized that he needed a native name and plucked the first one that come to mind out of the air. "Thomas Jefferson here. I have a problem, I think you can help with."

"What sort of a problem?"

"Missing persons"

"I see. Can you tell me a little more about who is missing? And how long? Did they take money or valuables with them? Did they leave a note?

"It's more than one person. Quite a little group in fact. They've been missing a couple of hours. No, they didn't take anything with them, and No, no note."

"A couple of hours? Hey, while I'd like to take your money, I've got to be honest with you. Odds are they just went out to go shopping or something. I'd bet on their being back. In most cases the police won't look for anyone unless they've been gone for 24 hours. And neither will I."

"... Well, actually, they were kind of kidnapped."

"Gunpoint? knifepoint? Something like that?"

"Yep -- at gunpoint"

"Call the police -- I don't do guns" Pretty obviously Richard Bergen didn't want our business.

Gan was beginning to sound a bit desperate. At least he sounded that way to me. Lord knows how he sounded to Bergen Investigations. "Mr. Bergen. If you could just come out here, I think we can explain to your satisfaction. And we'd pay your for your time of course."

Bergen Investigations thought for a while. "I'm kind of busy. If you come by in the next three or four hours I should be here and I can spare an hour. I charge $45 an hour plus expenses. Four hour minimum, but I'll waive that for a preliminary discussion. Bring $45 in cash to cover the interview and another $180 for the initial 4 hours if I decide to take you on. Beyond that I'll take cash, checks on a local bank or major credit cards.

"We'll be over in about an hour." said Gan.

"I'll be looking forward to it Mr. ... er ... Jefferson. Have a nice trip up from Monticello."

Gan turned to me. "You have any idea what a 'Monticello' is? No matter. You got $225 in local money?"

"Darned if I know." I searched the pockets of the human suits. I found some small folders in the dorsal pockets full of plastic cards. I emptied out a pile of paper onto the table. "Is this stuff money?"

"Some of it." He parsed out a pile of green and gray paper pushing various other stuff to the side. "Let's see now ... twenty, forty, ninety, ninety five ..." He plowed through. "two hundred and seven dollars. We can put in a requisition for another thousand or two and we'll have it in about six months. Or we can take alternate measures. God helps those who help themselves. Let's go." Gan started to pull on his human suit and indicated that I should do likewise.

We pulled on the suits, filled our pockets with the money and other stuff from the table. Gan made sure that he had the yellow pages and we marched out the door. Once we hit the street Gan led me around the building to a large solar bakery with black pavement and reflecting brick walls. The temperature must have been close to the boiling point of water. A half dozen of the local vehicles were parked here with the windows up. I imagined they were even hotter than the bakery. Even with the air conditioning on, the suit was getting uncomfortably hot. Gan started to open on of the vehicles.

"Couldn't we pick one up out front where it might be cooler?" I asked.

"Regrettably not." Gan responded. "The natives are terribly proud of these monstrosities. If we just take one, they will make our lives miserable until we give it back. Better to take one that belongs to Det-Rot station."

He urged me in. I was right. The silly thing was stifling even with the suit air conditioning on. Gan backed the junkheap up clipping a wall and leaving a long scrape down the side of one of the other parked vehicles. Apparently the devices were not easy to control. With a jerk -- several jerks actually -- the vehicle lurched out of the bakery and onto the street. Gan headed down the road. He didn't appear to me to have the vehicle entirely under control, but he didn't hit anything else, there were no pedestrians to endanger, he was, by chance I think, headed in the same direction as other traffic and didn't seem to be driving noticeably worse than the other drivers.

About 6 blocks down the road, he suddenly pulled to a stop and leaped out. "You drive from here" he said. "I have something to do." While I walked around the vehicle to the driver's seat, Gan walked over to a phone booth -- the same one from which I had stolen the pieces of yellow pages. He entered the booth, and did something I couldn't quite follow. A moment later, he strolled out carrying the entire phone in his hands. He climbed into the back seat of the vehicle."

He leaned over the seat. "Best get going. The natives are touchy about their phones. Something religious I think. Anyway, we need to be someplace else when the police get here. That doohickey on the floor makes the car go foreword, and the twisty thing in front of you controls the direction. Just push that knob over on the right all the way up and you'll be on your way."

I pushed the knob all the way up and nothing happened, so I pressed down on the doohickey and the vehicle lurched forward. I stopped it by running into the vehicle in front of me.

"No, No" Said Gan. You have to twist the twisty thing. If you pull the knob down a bit you'll go backward. And that other doohickey down near the floor stops the car."

It took a minute or so, but very soon I was proceeding down the street with only one other minor collision. I was beginning to worry about those. Despite an appearance of substantially, the vehicle really was quite flimsy, and I was concerned the additional collisions would incapacitate it. It only took a few minutes to have the progress under some sort of control.

While I herded the junkheap down the road with occasional directions from Gan, Gan worked on the phone. Finally, there was loud pl-o-o-ong and a metallic clatter. I glanced in a conveniently placed mirror whose function seemed to be to monitor rear seat activity and found that Gan's lap was full of Alien coins. "That should fill out our $225 nicely." Gan said. Take the next right by the way."

I did take the next right which turned out to be a residential driveway. After correcting that, and receiving somewhat less ambiguous directions from Gan we proceeded on our way. With one short delay to dump the gutted payphone into a cornfield, and put Gan back behind the wheel we proceeded West. It was just as well that Gan was back behind the wheel. It turned out that my artificially implanted knowledge of local traffic control devices was considerably less than encyclopedic. I was still pondering what, if anything, a blinking red arrow might mean when we cruised into Ypsilanti. Finding Central Avenue was no problem. The aliens use conspicuous and easily read street signs.

Finding building 5231 proved to be something more of a problem. We first considered the possibility that the buildings were numbered consecutively from some landmark, but it quickly became obvious that Central Avenue didn't have 5231 buildings -- nowhere near. We considered some other possibilities. Eventually Gan noticed that some of the buildings had small numbers in no especially consistent place. Once we realized that they were not religious symbols or prices, we finally figured out that they were building numbers with gaps for new construction. Not a bad system although I think it would have been better to use uniform signs whose nature was recognizable. Anyway, we found 5231 -- part of a dingy and partly boarded up set of storefronts across the street from an abandoned and weed overgrown gas station on the fringes of town. A battered pickup truck was parked in front. The other apparently active business was something called "Madam Mary Alicia's Psychic Conjunction". It had a bunch of dusty quartz crystals in the window and a handwritten sign in the door. "CLOSED -- Back at 4:30"

Gan lurched to a stop next to the pickup. We disembarked and walked off to meet Bergen Investigations.

To catch a Sleuth

Bergen Investigations turned out to be a grungy door in between Madam Mary Alicia's emporium and an abandoned Gift shop. Gan carefully opened the door revealing an unattractive hallway coated with a layer of fine dust and lit by a single flickering 5 watt fluorescent light that colored everything a repulsive shade of greenish white. A wave of heat from the closed hallway blasted us. I looked at Gan. He looked at me, shrugged and walked into the oven. I didn't have a lot of choice. I followed closing the outside door behind me. I noticed that Gan was careful not to touch the grimy walls as he walked down the hallway. Seemed like a good idea to me.

At the end of the hall on the gift shop side was another door. Gan didn't hesitate, he opened it and walked through, knocking politely as he went through. I was surprised that he didn't stop to check things out before he barged in. Not his normal style at all. I think he must have been as hot and uncomfortable as I was, and just wanted out of that hall.

Bergen Investigations -- you remember, the being who was terribly busy -- was parked in a chair behind a battered desk. His worn, and not terribly well polished shoes were up on the desk. He was engaged in some sort of research in a book with a lurid cover featuring a very large bronze colored winged reptile and a female native in what appeared to me to be a rather impractical outfit -- perhaps some sort of traditional ceremonial garb of some tribe. The lady was carrying a large sword. It was somewhat unclear whether the reptile was a threat or a pet.

Bergen Investigations looked up "Mr. Jefferson I presume?" He did remove his feet from the desk and offer his hand, but his heart didn't seem to be in it. He was around 185cm, 60kilos or so. Neither young nor old. Not memorable.

"You can call me Tom" said Gan as he shook Bergen's hand. "And this is John" he added, nodding at me.

Bergen looked at me. "Adams or Hancock?" he asked.

"Wayne" said Gan quickly.

Bergen's expression was unreadable. "You can call me Rick. What can I do for you Gentlemen?" He waved us toward a couple of ugly, uncomfortable appearing, but clean and sturdy, chairs that appeared to have been left outdoors through one or more exceptionally harsh winters prior to having found their way to his office. Gan took one chair, I took the other.

Gan leaned forward. "We need some help finding some missing persons."

"How many"

"Roughly 158"

Bergen Investigations raised his eyebrows. And muttered "158". He wrote something on a note pad. "And how long have they been missing?"

"About 4 hours"

"Any identifying marks ... ? No forget that for now. They left together?"

"Yes, at least we think so." Gan paused a second and corrected himself. "There is every reason to believe that they left together."

"And you think it might be a kidnapping?"

"We are pretty sure it was a kidnapping"

"And you don't want the police involved?"

"Absolutely not!"

All I knew about the aliens was what had been hypnoimpressed into me plus watching a lot of old videos so I was hardly an expert, but it appeared to me that Gan was not doing too well. Bergen Investigations had quit taking notes and was leaning back with his hands folded in front of him. He started to do something odd with his thumbs spinning them around one another -- perhaps a magic spell to ward off evil? Perhaps a spell to ward us off ?

"Can you describe the ... er, victims?"

"Sure -- about 120 cm high; around 50 kilos; bright red -- you'd call it scarlet; four antennae. Some individual variations of course, but that's the general body plan."

"centimeters? kilograms? You guys Canadian or something? Let's see 120cm, 50 kilos. That'd be about 12 and a half feet tall and 25 pounds, right?"

"More like 4 feet and 110 pounds."

"Right." Bergen Investigations didn't sound any too convinced. "and bright red with four antennae, right?"

"Correct."

"Tentacles?"

"Pinchers -- claws."

The thumbs spun faster then reversed directions. "And the kidnappers ... ?"

"Humans. Various sizes. All in costume. We have pictures"

"Right. Pictures. Yes, you would have pictures, wouldn't you?" The thumbs spun even faster. They reversed again. "And you want me to ... ?"

"We want you to find the kidnapped individuals. We'll handle things from there."

"That's it? I'm supposed to find 158 four foot high, bright red critters with 4 tentacles."

"Pinchers" Gan corrected.

"... pinchers. who have been kidnapped by humans?"

"That's it." Agreed Gan.

"And you don't think that if these 158 critters were anywhere within 1000 miles that all you'd have to do to find them is look at the TV?"

Bergen investigations planted his feet back up on the desk and picked up his magazine. "I've no idea what you and the duke (he nodded in my direction) are up to, but you've found the wrong private investigator. I don't do anything illegal. I don't do anything involving guns or drugs. I'm not clairvoyant. And I don't do anything connected with space aliens. I'd have mentioned that up front if you'd told me more about your 'associates'."

"You mean you won't help us?"

"You got that right."

Gan was becoming perturbed "You don't believe me do you?" He rose from his chair

Bergen Investigators put the magazine down again and rose also. "You got that right too."

Gan reached up and in one movement ejected himself from the alien suit. "Do you believe me now?"

Bergen Investigations stood open mouthed for about ten seconds, then lunged for a desk drawer. I have to give Gan credit. Without thinking at all, he reached to his belt, whipped out his standard issue, pistol gripped flashlight and pointed it at the detective. If I didn't know better, I'd have sworn that Gan held a Betelguessian nullity ray projector. The alien didn't know better. He stopped, slowly stood erect, raised his paws and stepped back.

Gan spoke to me out of the corner of his mouth. "Go around and see what is in that drawer."

I walked around and looked in the drawer. If contained several small vials of pills, a glass flask half full of some amber fluid -- window cleaner perhaps -- and a pistol gripped device that I recognized as a native firearm. I confiscated the pills, window cleaner(?), and firearm. I returned to my chair.

Gan nodded toward the gun and spoke to Bergen Investigations. "I thought you didn't do firearms."

"I don't take cases where other people have firearms. They make me feel insecure. My own firearm makes me feel very secure -- except when someone else is holding it. I don't suppose that you'd like to give it back?"

"You suppose correctly. Now if you'd like to take our case, I suppose that your feelings of insecurity might become a concern of mine."

Bergen Investigations thought for a minute. "I'll have to know some more before I can tell you if I can help you. In the meantime, Perhaps I could persuade you to take my gun away from your sidekick before he accidentally kills one or both of us." He turned to me. "That lever you just twisted is the safety, and I, for one would appreciate it if you would point the gun at the floor and twist the knob back in the other direction." I did so. Gan held out his pinchers, and I handed him the gun. I was willing to bet that Gan had no more idea how to handle the thing than I did, but if it made everyone happy, I was more than happy to hand it over to someone else. Besides which it just might be a good idea to replace the flashlight with a more dangerous weapon.

Bergen Investigations sat down and made a sweeping gesture. "You've hired an investigator. If you gentlemen will pull your chairs closer, we can get on with this." To me he said "If you want to slip out of that human suit and get comfortable, I don't guess it will bother me a lot.

Next Chapter

"Why don't you call me Rick?" Bergen Investigations asked. "Are your names pronounceable or would you prefer to stick to Tom and John"

"I'm Gan and he's Jur. There's more to the names than that, but you don't want to get into that right now."

"OK, and how did your people get kidnapped?"

"We have a base over in Can-Ton township. Someone raided it and made off with most of the staff."

Rick thought for a minute. "Do you mind if I ask why you have a base in Canton township?"

"Basically it's like one of your ... er ..." he fumbled looking for a word. He and the translator came to terms. "I think 'consulate' is the word I want. It's a place where our people can come for advice, support, to handle goods coming on and off planet, etc. It's also a place where they can get our food, drugs, magazines spend a few hours out of costume. Talk to others of their own race."

"Why Canton?"

"It's close to Det-Rot airport. Nobody there ever gets out of their cars, and everyone there can afford a car. Very little chance of accidental discovery. And it's a good place for a secret base. Would you look for an alien consulate in Canton?"

"Me? No. Apparently someone did, however. Any idea how they found it?"

"We think they tracked a shuttle in. Something went wrong with the shields on the landing. Got reports from all round the area."

"And you have pictures?"

Gan dug out a pile of pictures and a bunch of computer summaries. We went over pretty much the same post mortem we had back at the station -- with a few added touches. For example Rick wanted to know how we knew that the kidnappers were humans and not aliens in human suits. Gan explained that aliens probably wouldn't bother with an obscure base on a jerkwater planet (not his terminology -- he has more tact than that) and in any case they would have taken different stuff and they certainly would have devoted the time and resources to crack the comm center door since everything really important to an advanced race was back there.

Finally, Rick settled in on the photos of the human raiders. He pointed things out to us as he went along. The guns were M-16s he thought, the standard weapons of the US military but widely available. The outfits were "fatigues" a standard battle dress used by every army on the planet apparently. Rick agreed that the absence of name tags and rank insignia was unusual -- especially the latter. The odd face thing was a gas mask. Rick couldn't guess whether they were for disguise or because of a genuine fear that we'd hit them with a gas that would turn them all into frogs -- maybe both. He pointed out that the boots on all the photographed aliens were brightly shined -- parade ground stuff -- not day to day working boots. And most of the uniforms looked to be freshly pressed with sharp seams. Belt buckles were brightly shined.

His conclusion -- not professionals. A real military raiding team might remove name tags, but not insignia. And they wouldn't wear their parade outfits on a raid. Surely any combat team would dull the belt buckles lest the shine give their location away. So, amateurs. But well trained amateurs.

They'd managed to put together a raid in 90 minutes after the landing. That included deciding to attack. Collecting the troops, giving everyone assignments, collecting transport, arranging somewhere to go afterwards, and a dozen other steps. Either the landing was coincidence or the raiders lived very near the base and were very well organized. And where had the kidnap victims been taken to, and what had been used for transport? And how had all this been accomplished without disturbing the neighbors?

Eventually Bergen Investigations leaned back in his chair. We took that as a cue to sit back in ours. "Let's go over the possibilities" Rick suggested holding a hand in front of him in an odd way. "The police are certainly nearby. But they'd have had name tags and insignia. And there would have been a guy with a bullhorn directing things from a safe distance. There'd have been a zillion newspaper reporters and lawyers, and TV cameras and such. Those parasites park on the police radio frequencies and they'd have been there in seconds. So, not the police." He folded a finger over.

"They haven't armed the fire department -- yet -- and if they had I can't see the hook and ladder guys handling weapons as professionally as this lot did. So, not the fire department." Another finger folded over.

"Private police would have uniforms, and some of them are competent enough when they are sober. But I can't imagine a group of rent-a-cops pulling off something like this. They'd have killed someone by accident, and left clues behind, and probably burned the building down to boot." Another finger flipped over.

"Likewise terrorists" He was out of fingers.

"You tell me it's not aliens." He flipped all the fingers back up and folded one over. I'd kind of hoped for something less obvious and more exotic.

"The military have organizations that can do what we saw here." He paused. "But not in Detroit." Another finger.

"Likewise the feds" Another finger.

"And I think we can write off the National Guard and Army Reserve. They could do it, but not that quickly." Another finger.

I was beginning to be impressed with the number of private armies these natives could muster. Maybe they had more going for them than their architecture, transportation technology, phone system and entertainment videos indicated.

"OK" Bergen Investigations wound up his soliloquy. "When you have eliminated all the possibilities whatever remains -- no matter how improbable -- must be the answer. It has to have been the Michigan Militia."

"What is the Michigan Militia?" Gan asked.

"The Michigan Militia is a gang of locals that are a a few sandwiches short of a picnic. They think that the United Nations is coming to get them in black helicopters, and have armed themselves against that day. They have a military organization, arms, the most fanatical of them train regularly. It wouldn't surprise a lot of them at all to find that the UN was in league with aliens. It all fits. And there's another thing. They didn't plan all this this afternoon. I don't care how good they are, no one could pull of this raid without weeks of planning. They knew where your headquarters was, and they've been training for this raid for quite some time."

"So?"

"So, they are local. Which means that probably your missing people are stashed someplace not too far away. And there are people around here that know who is in The Michigan Militia and where to find it."

"Can you find it?"

"Probably -- for a fee."

"We can afford your rates", said Gan.

"I'm sure you can afford my normal rates. However, this involves guns, and I charge extra for dealing with people with guns."

"No problem" Said Gan. Probably true. We can always print up a bit more money -- albeit not quickly since it is the Outpost Sol bureaucracy that does the printing. "You're hired"

"In that case, can I have my gun back?"

Gan, ostentatiously slapped the flashlight on the table next to his right pincher and handed back Bergen's gun with his left. Bergen took the gun, did something to it, and dropped it into the desk drawer.

Gan looked up. "Aren't you going to take your gun with you?"

"Absolutely not. I'm NOT going to pull a gun on a group of armed fanatics. If they search me, I don't want them to find a gun registered to Bergen Investigations. and besides which, I'm going to have you backing me up with your ray gun -- right?"

"Right!" said Gan stood, holstered his flashlight, and zipped up his alien suit. I zipped mine also. I wondered briefly why it was OK for the natives to find Gan's ray gun but not Bergen's gun. One almost suspected that he doesn't much care what happened to Gan -- or, by implication -- me. A piece of trivia I filed away for possible future need.

"Good" said Bergen. And so we marched into the afternoon sun to seek out a substantial group of local crazies armed to the teeth and ready for action, suspicious of anyone who might be in league with something called the United Nations. Against them we had arrayed a mighty force consisting of an unarmed and possibly mentally defective private investigator, an aggressive and competent Imperial marine armed with a high intensity flashlight, and a mildly terrified computer expert -- me.

Desperately seeking a Militia

Once in the parking lot, Gan offered to drive. Bergen agreed immediately -- a step I'm sure he regretted within seconds once Gan starting the engine and blundering into traffic.

"Where to?" asked Gan narrowly avoiding a collision with a large green vehicle covered with advertisements.

"We're looking for a pay phone." Answered Bergen as Gan swept through an intersection neatly hooking a large metal can on the side of the road with the rear of the car and flipping the can across a lawn. I thought I detected a slight whimper in Bergen's voice.

"There's one in a corn field up the road" I offered.

"What's a pay phone doing in a corn field? Never mind. We're actually looking for a phone book."

Gan -- who was apparently getting the knack of piloting the car -- neatly whipped in between a small yellow vehicle and a large brown van. I heard Bergen suck in air abruptly. The yellow vehicle emitted a raucous noise. "There's one" he said, slowing the vehicle abruptly and sliding between a tree and a pole before taking the final bit of velocity off the car by running into a building. about 50cm to the left of a pay phone. A small puff of dust rose from the building and a large sign overhead started to wave gently. More raucous squawks. The driver of the yellow vehicle waved an appendage and yelled something unintelligible. Gan cheerfully waved back.

Bergen jumped out and went to the phone. He checked the phone book shook his head and returned to the car.

"Looking for the mellow pages?" I asked.

"Yellow Pages." Bergen corrected. "Yes."

"Will these help?" I dug out my six pages from my pocket?

Bergen looked at them. "Thanks, but we need G"

"The book these came from is the one in the cornfield"

"And the book was intact? Before you got to it?"

"Yes"

"And you can find it again?"

"Sure, why not?" I only found out later that the aliens nearly totally lack a direction sense and spend much of their time not knowing exactly where they are. That explains a lot. Personally, I don't see how they can function, but then, they don't function all that well.

"Let's go" Said Bergen.

Gan piloted us back to the cornfield in his own inimitable fashion. I noticed that Bergen was sitting bolt upright in his seat and was gripping a fixture on the door with a death grip. As we slid to a stop, Bergen asked Gan, "You don't have a driver's license do you?"

"A what?"

"A piece of paper that says that ... Never Mind. The point is that you need one to drive a car."

"What do you mean I need one to drive a car? I don't have any lie-censor and I can drive this thing fine."

"There are two schools of though on that" remarked Bergen. "But the point is that if the police stop us -- not unlikely given your driving -- and you don't have a license, they will throw you in jail until you produce one. That's likely to take a while. I drive from here on out." He held out his hand for the key.

Gan looked hurt, but he gave up the key.

I got out to fetch the phone book and asked Bergen Investigations if he (somehow, and I'll be damned if I can remember how or when, I had determined that Bergen was male) wanted just the book, or the entire phone. He thought for second before opining that the phone in its current state was unlikely to be much help. "maybe just the phone book" he said.

It took me only a minute to retrieve the phone and cart it back to the car. I "handed" it to Bergen. He thanked me, flipped it open, and worked his way through to a page marked "Guns and Gunsmiths"

"Is the Michigan Militia in the Mello Pages?" I asked.

"No", But they have a great many firearms. Probably too many to explain easily.

"I'm guessing that they own and operate a very large firearms store in or near Canton Township. One with an attached firing range where creepy looking dudes with guns wandering in and out at all hours is more or less normal. My bet is that your friends will be stashed in their basement or warehouse.

That struck me as being a lot of conjecture and not much foundation. But what did I know? We didn't hire Bergen because we were doing great on our own and needed to be slowed down a little.

"So here's the deal," Bergen explained. "They'll have a real store and a real firing range. If you walk in off the street, you can buy or shoot a gun or buy ammunition. It'd be suspicious if you couldn't. But they really don't want a lot of walk-in business, so the service is slow, and not very enthusiastic. And the prices are a bit on the high side. So they won't be any of these outfits with big ads. And they've probably got a facility that covers a lot of area so that they can have meetings and such without the neighbors participating. That means they won't be in malls or downtowns. Most likely, they'll have no ad, just a listing and the address will be in an industrial area on a side street, not a main drag."

Conjecture on top of guesswork atop a structure of pure imagination. On the other hand, it's not like Gan and I had any better ideas. And cost was no object. As a practical matter, we could surely print more Terran money than Bergen could request.

"So you're doing what?" Gan asked.

"I'm going through the list and eliminating all the outfits with ads and/or strong retail locations. Then we'll go on a drive-by tour of the remainder and see if any look like they could be a militia headquarters."

Where I'd have entered everything into a computer then filtered and sorted and printed, Bergen simply drew lines through the mello page entries he eliminated. Then, presumably using his knowledge of local geography, he wrote numbers in the margin next to the remaining entries indicating the search order. It took him about 40 minutes. It'd have taken me about two hours. If I knew the local geography. And if nothing went wrong. Interesting.

Gan and I zipped up our suits once again and we trudged out into the afternoon heat. Bergen -- who clearly had no intention of ever returning the keys to Gan -- drove. Rather better than Gan in my, and surely in his own, opinion.

I had the search list. Bergen asked me to tell him the first two destinations and to continue to feed him the next two at every stop as we went along. That turned out to be a workable arrangement. Fortunately Bergen's bunch of Terrans use a relatively sane decimal numeric system (why they don't use base 8 like us eludes me) and Bergen's manual writing was clear. So I was able to find the first two entries with little difficulty. Pronouncing the names in a way that Bergen could understand was more of a problem, but it turned out to be (barely) possible.

The first target turned out to be a dusty storefront tucked between an edifice that proclaimed itself to be something called a bank, and an establishment that had a green and orange sign proclaiming it to be the "First International Tabernacle of Christ the Messiah". The store itself appeared to be empty. There was a large white piece of paper on the door. Bergen parked the car, jumped out and said "Back in a second." Seemed unlikely. And was. It was more like 25 seconds.

"You can cross that one off. Apparently 'Freedom Firearms' didn't believe in paying taxes. The feds have shut them down."

I had a lot of questions. For example who or what are these feds? And what are taxes? But I decided to keep the questions to myself as I didn't think that satisfying my curiousity would further our cause.

I drew a line through Freedom Firearms and fed the next two names and addresses to Bergen. The next stop was a functioning storefront. Bergen parked the car, went in and returned in about 5 minutes. "They sell guns and hunting licenses. But mostly they deal in bows and arrows. Seem to be pretty fired up about bow-hunting."

I put on what I hoped was a quizzical expression. Bergen paused went through a series of expressions that I interpreted, correctly I think, as puzzlement, enlightenment, then amusement. "Oh yes." he said. "YOU wouldn't know what a bow is. It's a primitive device with a spring (sort of) that is stretched tight, then released to shoot a vaned projectile at a target. There are two of them there in the front window."

The description did nothing whatsoever to inform me, but there was a mannekin in the window aiming an odd looking weapon that I assumed was a bow. Primitive? It was sleek and machined and didn't look all that primitive. What the launching device and projectile with it's shiny four sided point looked like to me was -- potentially lethal.

"Did you see anything like that being carried by the kidnappers?" Bergen asked.

I said "No"

"OK" said Bergen, let's assume those aren't the gun dealers we are looking for.

The next two stores were eliminated by Bergen on grounds that they were too small and too mainstreet -- whatever mainstreet is. Then came the fifth establishment.

SouthEast Michigan Blackpowder Suppliers turned out to be a large metal sheathed building in a neighborhood of large metal sheathed buildings with large doors -- all closed. A smallish rectilinear structure with two large display windows full of firearms and mannikins dressed in combat fatigues -- clearly an architectural afterthought -- was appended to the front A sign declared "Firearms, Ammunition, Antique Weapons, Hunting Supplies. Retail and Wholesale. Target Shooting" Another sign said "Shooting Range" above an arrow pointing around the corner of the building. At least a dozen vehicles -- two wheeled and four, some designed to carry people, others apparently dedicated to cargo, were parked in a rough line near the door.

"I think we're onto something." Said Bergen as he drove past and turned down a road lined by yet more of the metal-sheathed buildings. "The next step is to figure out how we're going to approach the place."

He drove sedately down the street, turned down a side street and stopped next the curb in front of yet another metal sheathed structure.

"Why are we stopping here?" Asked Gan.

"Well, parking across from that Blackpowder place, consulting for a while, then getting out and skulking around might be a bit obvious. I imagine that if the folks there were involved in the raid on your place, they might be a bit keyed up and suspiscious of strangers -- especially strangers acting suspisciously.

"Let's see what we have here." Bergen pulled a small device out of his pocket, did some things with his fingers, then leaned over to show Gan and I a miniscule overhead picture of a building that was quite obviously SouthEast Michigan Blackpowder Suppliers. Nothing unusual about that, except that nothing I'd encountered at Terra Station had prepared me for the Terrans having that level of technology.

"How?" I asked.

"Satellite photo" Said Bergen.

"And anyone can call up a satellite photo with a resolution of better than a ... wait for autotranslator ... meter?"

"Sure" said Bergen sounding puzzled.

"Real time?"

"No idea." said Bergen. "Probably not, no leaves on the trees in the image."

"Interesting." And it was interesting. Went a good way toward explaining how the raiders found Det-rot Station and were able to put together a precise attack.

"Anyway, said Bergen. I'm thinking that this structure -- he pointed to what seemed to be a separate building -- is the firing range. There don't seem to be any other buildings. So, i'm guessing that your friends must be in the main building here.

"I don't suppose that you folks don't have any wierd alien sense that might allow you to detect if your friends are in that building without having to start World War III?".

Gan and I looked at each other. "Well," Gan said, "I could possibly hear and smell 158 people if they weren't immersed in water or frozen solid. But not from across the street, and not from this smelly, noisy thing."

"You could do that even if they were inside one of these warehouses and you weren't?" Bergen sounded amazed. I later learned that the humans had essentially no sense of smell. Their hearing is actually not all that bad, but they can't screen frequencies very well and they, do not, for the most part,use the abilities they have. What is curious is that many of them live with parasites called dogs that can hear and smell quite well. But it never seems to occur to them that they are inferior in many ways to their "pets".

"Maybe. Not reliably, but it's not impossible."

"Not exactly confidence inspiring." said Bergen. I was hoping for some weird alien power. "But it's better than nothing and ..."

Weird alien power? the phrase rattled around in my mind ... aliens ... wierd ... should mean something? ... Why? .... How? ... I'm missing something ... what fits in with weird alien power ... something ... It's there somewhere ... it's ... it's ... Then it came to me. "The Gideon."

Gan look surprised. Bergen looked puzzled. I tore open the top of my human suit, and pulled the instrument out from it's usual hiding place around my neck.

"Can that thing do something useful?" Gan asked.

"Yes, I think probably it can"

Gan -- generously, I think in retrospect -- did not mention then or later, that I'd been instructed to let him know if I found out anything about the device. I suppose there is some truly draconian punishment for ignoring orders of that sort, but apparently I have managed to avoid it.

I put the Gideon down on the peculiar rounded divider between the front seats and turned it on. The steel building in front of us, "McNamara High Pressure Pipe" acccording to the faded sign on its face, shimmered to life in the smoke ring. I moved the image down the street, around the corner, down that street until SouthEast Michigan Black Powder shimmered into the image.

The building looked a bit different than it had previously. I quickly realized that the vehicles that had been parked in front of the building were gone -- all of them.

"Is that ... ehrrr ... camera visible to the folks in the building?" asked Bergen.

"I don't know for sure, but I don't think so. Do you want me to bring it back here so we can see?"

"Yeah, best do that?"

I quickly trundled the image back to a position in front of Mcnamara High Pressure Pipe and rotated it until it showed our vehicle and its inhabitants -- us.

"I sure can't see it." said Bergen. "How about you folks?"

"No" said Gan and I.

Just to be sure, I moved the focus toward our car, brought it through the window and stopped it about 30 cm in front of Bergen. Bergen looked at the space where the "camera" seemed to be. Then he waved his hand through it, treating us to an image of complex body internals. He retracted his hand, looked at it, turned it over, looked at it some more, then muttered "I guess that wasn't the smartest thing I've ever done, but it doesn't look like there's any damage." He flexed his fingers -- presumably to make sure they still worked.

"OK" he said. Let's go back and see what's going on at the gun store.

Michigan Black Powder suppliers seemed to be dead quiet. I moved the window toward the store doorway There was a hastily lettered sign taped to the window. "CLOSED -- DEATH IN THE FAMILY. WE'LL BE BACK MONDAY AT 10:00 a.m. SHARP"

"What's a Monday?" asked Gan.

"Three days from now." Bergen answered.

I moved the window into the unlit storefront which featured several display cases full of hand weapons, longer, shoulder fired, weapons, and miscellaneous implements. I looked at Bergen.

"I'm not sure what all of it is. Ammunition. Bullet molds. Some loading tools. Some stuff I don't recognize. About what I'd expect. Can you get that gidgie into the building?"

"Of course." I moved the window through a door into a hallway, through another door -- that one secured with a chain and large lock. The window now showed us a large unlit room. No sign of humans. There were rows of shelves full of boxes, unboxed firearms, and a variety of other stuff. I swept the window up and down the ailes between the shelves. Sure enough, in a back corner I found the staff of Det-Rot station -- all 158 of them -- stacked six deep in two orderly rows.

That was that. Gan called his superiors and crews showed up with large vehicles in a surprisingly short length of time. We were dismissed without even a word of thanks. We drove Bergen back to his office. Gan somehow arranged for Bergen to be paid, and quite remarkably, an envelope was waiting at Bergen's office by the time we arrived there. Bergen looked at the slip of paper it contained and looked pleased. He asked us if we wanted to come in for a drink (of what?) which we declined. Bergen asked us not to reveal his part in the rescue effort as he feared retaliation. After some more talk and vague promises which neither intended to keep to get together at some future time, we left Bergen and returned to Det-Rot station with Gan driving even more erratically than on the way out. If that's possible.

We hung around the station for four full days while the Det-Rot staff were de-estivated, calmed down, and debriefed. We learned not one thing we didn't already know -- not even how the aliens had put the staff into hibernation. To a man/woman, they didn't remember. One minute, they were fully engaged fighting raiders in their station and the next they were waking up with an upset stomach, fresh bruises and splitting headaches.

Neither, did Sol station's expert investigators have any luck figuring out who the raiders were or where they had gone. It turned out that the raiders were not associated with Michigan Blackpowder. In fact, shortly before the raid on our station, they had strolled into Michigan Blackpowder, held the folks there at gunpoint, blindfolded them, loaded them into trucks and carted them off to someplace hundreds of kilometers away in a wilderness. The kidnapees were held there for a few hours, unbound, then pointed down a dirt road and told to wait fifteen minutes then leave at their own chosen speed. Which they did -- arriving at civilization hours later, tired, dirty, and in a foul mood.

gap

gap

-- And so we resume back at Sol Station with Jur and Gan huddled in the Imperial Marine enclave ...

"Jur" said Gan. "I didn't want to bother you before, but the accident with the shuttle?"

I looked up

"It wasn't an accident" said Gan.

"Eh?"

"It wasn't an accident. Someone deliberately released the safety interlocks on the shuttle and kicked off the thrusters while you were outside the air lock."

I guess I'd really suspected that was the case. I wasn't really surprised. I thought about it for a while. "But why go after me? What good would killing me do anyone? It's not like I'm hot on the track of anyone or anything."

"I've given that some thought" Said Gan. "One possibility is that they think you know something. Maybe you don't, but they think you do?"

I shrugged that off. I don't see how.

"Maybe you know something, but don't appreciate its importance?"

"Could be, but I can't imagine what. I don't think I know anything relevant that you don't know. Would make a lot more sense for you to have an accident than me."

"Maybe it's something you could do. You're better with the computer than anybody else on the base."

"Could be, I suppose, but I don't see how that would help us. I suppose that you could bring in a gang of computer experts and tear the station machines apart. Maybe they will find something. But didn't Jor do that when he was here? What's the likelihood that I would do something he couldn't? Not high I think.

"Not High" agreed Gan. " Unless it is something that was done since Jor left. We should be able to check that pretty quick?"

Yup. But don't get your hopes up. Got any other possibilities?"

"Something you own maybe".

I laughed. "Three changes of clothes? My musics disks? My Persputer?"

Gan mulled that over. "Your persputer maybe. It's unique right?"

"Well, Yes. but not that unique. Jor didn't have any trouble getting into it, and I imagine his persputer has ten times what I have. Nobody tried to kill him."

"Jor said there were unauthorized programs running on your persputer. What do they do?"

"Just some code cracking stuff. There were some oddly encrypted messages in the station mail bag out at the depot. It's trying to break them."

Gan looked perplexed. "You raided the station mail and found illegally encrypted messages?"

"Sure. You know me pretty well. What's surprising about me going through the mail?"

"You going through the mail? Nothing at all. Exactly what I'd expect. Do you think you are the only one who goes though the outgoing mail? We check every bag and I can guarantee you that there have been no non-standard encoded messages incoming or outgoing through the station mailbag in the past 20 years."

"'Au contraire', I assured him. One each incoming and outgoing when I was out at the portal. And another in shuttle 3. Probably still there."

Gan thought a while. "We'll go look for it in a bit. But if they knew you had been perusing the mail, it won't be there, or it won't be the same message. So why kill you? And if they don't know about your snooping in the mail then there is no reason to kill you. Besides, if they knew you'd been messing with the mail, wy wouldn't you be in the brig. Messing with the mail is illegal.

I wondered briefly, just what you could do to create a punishment zone worse than general duty at Sol Station. I decided that it might be possible and that the whole idea was depressing. Meanwhile, Gan was still thinking aloud.

"Who sent the outgoing and who was the incoming addressed to?" He asked.

"The base commander and sector commander respectively. But if someone(s) unknown is getting to the mail after you screen outgoing and before you screen incoming, it wouldn't matter who it was addressed to, right?

"Good point, but if a message somehow gets past the incoming intercepts here or at sector, would you want it to go to someone who would be almost certain to investigate it? Besides which, if you weren't really sure of what you were doing, how would you hide an illicit message?"

"Me? I'd embed it in advertising fliers that no one is going to read?"

"Exactly. I think we can take it as a given that the folks in charge have something going on the side because if it were anyone else, they'd use advertising fliers or something else to looks innocuous for a vector.

"And whatever they are up to is probably why they tried to kill you. If we ever figure out what they are up to, we'll probably see why they think you are a serious danger."

gap


gap


Copyright 2006-2012 Donald Kenney (Donald.Kenney@GMail.com). Unless otherwise stated, permission is hereby granted to use any materials on these pages under the Creative Commons License V2.5.

This page will have been validated as Valid HTML 4.01 Transitional prior to posting on the web site. W3C Logo Image omitted.