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Argus's hand-held unit activated; it was receiving a burst transmission from Unit Two. They pored over details of the route they had just received and the potential hazards.
You're good. I give you that, Vila thought as Argus went over their tactical strategy.
All I ask is that you don't get us killed. Nothing beats not getting killed.
"Would it make a difference if I said no?"
"No." If he had allowed himself to relax, Argus would have grinned at the thief's characteristic lack of enthusiasm for danger but in operations mode the rebel leader had no sense of humour. He knew that the thief always came through despite his other failings.
Vila grumbled under his breath, "Then why did you ask?"
"Time to go."
Checking that the corridor was clear they exited the supply room. It was the night cycle at the facility; other than guards at their assigned stations and the odd patrol all should be quiet.
As Unit One advanced through the facility avoiding the various patrols, Tess jumped the surveillance monitors along their route; looping just enough to present blank corridors without raising alarms. Tess was perspiring; this was harder than expected. The active sweeping of the system done to detect tampering was leaving less of a window than expected; there was no margin for error.
She was doing brilliantly but unfortunately with her attention fully occupied, there were several passive detector points which went unnoticed.
Unit One had reached the corridor around the corner from the Level Five Security access door. Argus held up two fingers to indicate that two guards were posted at the door to the lab. They had no intention of gaining access that way. Flayson stayed to watch the guards as Argus and Vila went back along the corridor to a junction and down another corridor looking for a specific office.
Room 1210. They found their objective and Vila went to work on the lock.
New Federation facilities no longer had easily accessible maintenance tunnels large enough for human access. The small passageways could only be traversed by small maintenance drones. At intervals there were movement detectors which were on a completely different system from the security cameras. The section of tunnel between Room 1210 and Level 5 Security just happened to be between detectors.
Once they gained access to the room Argus slid open the ventilation screen giving access to the maintenance tunnel and put in their own roverbot. With the versatile hand-unit they would be able to control its movements and break into the secure lab area. The group's objective was to collect samples and allow Tess to access the closed network inside the lab. It was not connected to the main information system so direct physical access was required.
"This is too easy," Vila whispered to his companion, "I have a bad feeling." He had broken into Federation facilities with Blake and the Scorpio crews in the past and things never went this smoothly. The ease of the operation so far was a sure sign something was seriously wrong.
"Then let's get this over with so we can get out of here. Watch the door, "Argus ordered him.
Vila's "bad feeling" must be contagious, or I'm getting an uneasy feeling too. The rebel leader thought Vila was already nervous enough for all of them. He focused on the task at hand. Flayson was on look-out and would warn them if danger was approaching.
While Argus concentrated on maneuvering the robot, Vila went to the door and checked the corridor. Nothing. He went down the corridor to check-in with Flayson, and nearly stumbled into the arms of Federation security troops. Only quick reflexes made it possible for him to avoid detection. The security troops were in the process of taking down Flayson, there was nothing he could do to save him.
He had to warn Argus. Vila backed away quietly; his heart was pounding so loudly he wondered that the Federation troops didn't hear him. He went back down to the junction. A pulse rifle blast sounded followed by two muted shots in quick succession. Sounds of struggling came from the direction of Room 1210.
Damn. They had Argus too. Time to get out of here.
There was no way to know if Tess's group had been captured too. They were at the far side of the complex. The standing order was to go back to the shuttle if anything went wrong. The scout vehicle had specially adapted boosters to break away from the planet's gravity quickly and special shielding to withstand the additional pressure on the hull.
Vila's last action before leaving the building was to send an emergency burst signal to warn the others get out and for the pick-up cruiser to go on alert.
Jenna was ready the instant the signal was received. She would not power up the main thrusters until the last possible second. The ship was still "invisible" to the planetary defenses but main thrusters blasting online would be hard to miss. The cruiser's scanners did not detect any ship movement in the vicinity.
She wished she knew what had happened but there was no time to worry about that now.
One blip. From the speed they were leaving the planet, Jenna knew it was the scout shuttle. Thirty seconds later there were four more blips. Damn, those were most likely Federation pursuit ships. It was almost impossible to pick up the shuttle now.
Jenna wish it had not come down to this, she was going to attempt a risky maneuver which had never been tried. The speed of the shuttle and the difficulty of firing weapons while in planetary burn would give them one chance. They had a window of two minutes before the Federation ships were within firing range. She signaled the shuttle to cut engines the moment they left the planet's atmosphere.
Being a former pirate ship The Carver, had been equipped with a powerful tractor beam. Jenna would have to direct the ship to go into a controlled dive and judge the speed and trajectory of the shuttle exactly if this were to work. The cruiser captain Sovan, would have to adjust the tractor beam strength enough to slow down the shuttle to a virtual standstill without tearing the shuttle apart and killing the occupants. Pirates were very creative with the use of tractor beams.
Careless humans. They had walked into the trap on their own without any additional help. The activities of the group had been tracked since the day in Tess's apartment in Commerce City. Humans were such limited creatures, but the abilities of the cruiser pilot had drawn its attention; there was an intuitiveness here it did not understand. The odds had been extremely low for escape, but the skills of the pilot had gotten them away. There was an undisciplined brilliance in the handling of the ship it recognized. Jenna Stannis. In identifying her, it had achieved another of its unfathomable goals.
The pieces were now in place for the next phase of its plans. It had been responsible for the accidental leak in security which revealed the location of the research for the new techno-virus. That had not been the original plan, but its schedule had to be moved up because of the introduction of a new factor. There had been a high risk factor in the operation but there was an urgency now. The finding of the members of the old Liberator crew had increased the percentage of the success of the plan.
One more thing to do.
On the former pirate ship speeding away from the Singoa system Vila was breathing a sigh of relief. They had escaped, just barely; but had lost Argus and Flayson. They were either dead or in Federation hands which was infinitely worse.
Vila was sore all over from the tractor beam maneuver and his head hurt from a mild concussion. Suddenly a sharp pain emanated from his lower back.
Ow. He attributed the pain as another injury to join the other ones he was suffering from. What he did not know was that the tracer in his back had just been shorted out.
Prisoner A5428 was curious, for the first time since his capture he had been allowed more than a couple of hours of uninterrupted sleep. He was still very tired but no longer at the edge of complete exhaustion; this was a new tactic.
What new mistakes are they going to make?
He was shackled to a chair in interrogation room two. As usual two guards were posted by the door and a medtech was standing nearby.
A stranger in a dark blue outfit entered the room with two interrogators, the prisoner did not recognize him. The unidentified man put a case on the table.
"How are you feeling Avon?"
The voice, Avon recognized it from the chess game they had tried to force on him.
"Are we on a first-name basis now?" The Centre interrogators and guards always referred to him by his prison identifier. The only person who ever referred to him by name here was Servalan.
Sester smiled at the man's reply. "You can call me Sester."
This was definitely a new tactic.
"And what do your enemies call you?"
Sester laughed; laughter was an odd sound in this place. The SDC Controller had refused to reduce the level of drugs they normally used on the prisoner but Sester hoped that the increased rest would help his concentration. Even in a heavily drug-induced state the few moves during the aborted game had confirmed the psychostrategist's assessment. This man was a worthy opponent; it would be a shame to break him.
"I'm not a torturer like these fine gentlemen, " Sester suppressed a smile at the interrogators' reaction. "I'm a specialist, I specialize in games."
A specialist. Avon remembered that someone else had called himself that once in this place. Avon had ended up killing him. The analyst had not missed the tension between this man and the interrogators.
Sester opened up the case and pulled out an old marble chess set and a holo-timer.
Setting up the pieces he said, "The recreational facilities in this Centre are appallingly poor. Did you know that they don't even have a chess set? I had to bring my own."
Chess again. The man was supremely confident and arrogant and he appeared to be enjoying himself. At least this is interesting. Avon was curious. Instinct told him that the man was highly dangerous, but he only trusted facts not instinct.
From the psych-profile he had completed on Avon, Sester knew that the analyst would be suspicious and cautious but would he be able to resist the challenge.
"Release his right hand, " he told the interrogators. They hesitated but followed his command.
Freedom of movement was a novelty. Avon flexed his wrist painfully; there were fresh wounds and barely healed scars. He moved slowly both because of the soreness and because the interrogators were on the alert with their clubs. There was a hint of a smile on Avon's face; even partially bound, physically incapacitated and drugged, they were still wary of him.
"I don't often find a player who provides a challenge, " continued Sester.
"You must not be looking hard enough."
"Do you think you can beat me?"
"Don't try to manipulate me Sester."
"You're right, " Sester smiled. Looking briefly at the interrogators he added, "Such tactics only work on inferior minds. I apologize. I promise that no pain will be involved this time if you play. You can trust me, I will never lie to you, I do not need to."
"What is your agenda?"
Sester nodded. "Direct and to the point, good; we need no pretense between us. My goal is to break you."
The two men's eyes locked, the gauntlet had been thrown down; they understood each other.
"A game?" Sester asked.
Avon evaluated the situation, this would be their first battle. He had never lost, not even to the best chess computers, he nodded. It would be useful to find out what kind of opponent the man would be.
Watching the two of them playing was like watching two masters at work. The others in the room did not fully comprehend the level at which the opponents were playing; they only saw the game with the pieces being moved along the board but there was a deeper game being played.
Partway through, Avon realized what Sester was doing. His instincts had been correct, this was a highly dangerous man, a genius. Sester was taking his measure in the playing of the game, just as he was doing. Avon could not afford that, not when the other man held all the cards.
Avon began to adjust his strategy, with his genius Sester would see it right away; there was no helping that, but at least the man would not learn anything more.
Sester laughed and stopped. "We're at an impasse, aren't we?" The physical chess game was nowhere near a conclusion but they both recognized it would go no further.
"Yes, you are." Avon smiled inwardly, he knew what Sester was now, the man was a psychostrategist.
"Run a full system diagnostic." Tarvin ordered the Commander Technician in charge of the tracer system. They were no longer receiving signals from Vila Restal's tracker. The tracker along with the ASP spy program had been instrumental in helping them discover the rebel's plans to infiltrate the Federation Medical Research Facility on Tingash. The trap had been perfect and they had succeeded in capturing a key rebel leader. Argus was already being transported to the Special Detention Centre on Earth.
Vila had been allowed to escape; he was proving to be a very useful tool but now there was a glitch and they were in danger of losing this valuable asset.
Argus regained consciousness but did not open his eyes. Using his other senses, he tried to get his bearings. It was a habit he had acquired as part of his military training. It had been a pitiless course involving resistance training when captured by the enemy. Regimes that ruled by force were good at training their elite military forces.
I never thought I would have a reason to thank the Federation. It was ironic that he would be using their own training to fight them now.
He recognized the steady hum of a ship's engines; the air had the flatness which was consistent with a ship's air filtration system. He seemed to be in a small confined space. Other than the sound of his own breathing, there were no other noises. He could feel tight straps across his chest, torso, legs and arms, restricting his movement. Various bruises caused discomfort, especially with the tightness of the restraints.
Room 1210. He remembered. Some indecipherable sound, an inexplicable instinct had caused him to spin around and draw his pulse gun. He had gotten off one shot, a Federation assault soldier fell; then they tried to shoot him with stun guns. He dove behind a desk but one of the shots had hit him in the arm and he had dropped his weapon. They went after him, that had resulted in the bruises. He didn't have a chance, they had been ready for him; it had been a trap. He hoped the others got out.
Argus opened his eyes, he had been correct, it was the brig of a Federation assault craft. He was familiar with these, sometimes his commando group been assigned them as quarters when the ship was crowded with troops on their way to some operations theatre.
He was strapped down to a metal bed. It was hard and uncomfortable, but he had slept on worse. He tested the bonds, they were secure and there was a security camera trained on him.
Well, they know I'm awake. He wondered if that would initiate some action on the part of his captors.
The Federation troops had been waiting for them, that much was clear. Had the rebels been betrayed? Had someone been careless?
No one had spoken to him yet. There had been no demands, no questions and now they were transporting him to some unknown destination.
That unknown destination was the Federation Special Detention Centre. Argus had heard of this place before, it was not a good place to be.
"Your name is Drel Argus. You are the leader of a criminal element that seeks to destroy the peace and order of the Federation. You will tell us who the traitors are in the command ranks of the Federation military forces."
With that declaration the torture had begun.
The physical beatings he could endure. He often fought back, which made it worse on himself but felt good when he was able to flatten a few of his torturers. He was in top physical condition and much more trained and experienced in hand-to-hand combat, even with his hands bound behind him.
After awhile the beatings finally wore him down to the point he could no longer fight, then the real torture began.
They asked him the same questions repeatedly. He could even hear them in his sleep, that is if they allowed him to sleep, which was rarely. He maintained a stony silence.
They only seemed to want to know who his high-level Federation military contacts were. There were no questions about the rest of the rebel group; this in itself was troubling.
Did they get the rest of the team? Is that why they're not asking me about the others?
There was no one to ask. Other than the interrogators, the guards and the medtechs, he did not see anyone else. Occasionally he could hear the screams of the other prisoners.
At least I'm not alone. Somehow that was a comforting thought in the isolation, but he didn't recognize any of their voices. He passed each day in a fog of pain and exhaustion punctuated by droning voices asking the same questions over and over.
They were just starting with the drugs and the psych sessions, these were the worst. Even with his resistance training, he knew he could not hold out for long. It was becoming increasingly difficult to focus his mind enough to fight their tactics.
With the advanced interrogation techniques everyone broke eventually, that was what they had been told in their training; it was only a matter of when. The training only served to hold it off as long as possible.
Unfortunately these interrogators were very good.