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Intelligence had located the rebel stronghold fairly early in the game, but had rapidly concluded that to take it by force would be a catastrophic expenditure of lives. The fortress was in a secluded area, well screened by energy shields, and possessed of enough armament to take down a major star-cruiser.
From this formidable stronghold, the rebel leader, Kelas Sondin, directed his terrorist cells with frightening and ruthless efficiency. Intelligence was reasonably certain that his movement would collapse without him, but getting to him was the tricky bit. And even if by some miracle, an armed force were to enter the fortress, it was known that there were multiple passage ways leading out of the base to concealed exits and rat-holes. Assassination would seem to be the only option, and it would have to be cleverly done.
Intelligence hummed and hawed, watched and analysed, chewed pens and scribbled on bits of paper, and finally came up with a plan. Two skilled agents were carefully selected and separately contacted. They were told what each needed to know. The risk was extreme, but both agreed to the task set them.
And so, preparations made, the mission commenced.
Vorn detested Minceley on sight the man looked like a born pencil-pusher. While Vorn moved silently on foot, every inch the professional assassin, Minceley sat on a brown pony and complained. If it was part of some elaborate cover, Vorn didn't see its purpose. The man had to know who he, Vorn, was. Sondin's surveillance, though good, should not be able to pick them up here. No professional would ever winge so much. Vorn concluded with contempt that he had been assigned a very inexperienced, expendible agent to act as decoy.
For such was Minceley's role. In the role of an arms representative, he was to openly approach the fortress. It was possible, if he acted well enough, that he might conceivably get out of this alive. Frankly, Vorn doubted this.
They came to the entrance to the broad, shallow valley where the fortress lay. A large, low edifice, with weapon spires surrounding it, it lay like a sleeping dragon whose mouth engulfed the road they trod. A heat-haze shimmer gave away the multi-layer defence fields that made the fortress so impregnable. In fact visible light was about the only thing that could penetrate them. Beam weapons had been tried, and failed to penetrate. The important areas of the fortress would be deep underground in any case.
"I say, is that it?" Minceley asked. "Can't say I care for that a lot."
"Can't say I do either," Vorn replied. "We're not here to appreciate the architecture though, or the climate, or the beautiful countryside." He gestured at the barren rock that surrounded them. "We're here to do a job, and it's time we commenced. Are you ready?"
Mincely reined in his pony and checked his watch. "I'm not due for ten minutes yet."
Vorn stifled his impatience, and checked his equipment one last time. It was of course all immaculate, from the range of knives and tools to the monofilament cables and the short-range needler. The rack of spy-eyes was in place across his chest, and, in case his only chance was a long-range kill, an amazingly compact sniper laser. He forced himself to relax by dint of long training. He expected security to be fairly high inside Sondin was a cautious one and not likely to rely solely on his high-tech shielding.
"Okay," Minceley said at last. He sounded supremely unconcerned, even bored. Vorn had to give him credit for that. Minceley could have been about to enter a bank to request a loan for all the tension he showed. He nudged his pony out into the valley, and began to openly approach the fortress. Vorn watched him go for a minute or so, carefully scrutinising the weapon spires at the front of the structure. Minceley did not get very far before several lit up, the barrels of their weapons visibly moving to line up on the little man and his pony.
Vorn grunted, and donned the microfilm stealth cloak they all hoped would get him into the fortress. Moving carefully in an oblique line, he kept an eye on the turrets, watching for any sign that he was detected. They remained trained on Minceley however, and Vorn concentrated on getting to the gates of the fortress. He needed to reach them about the same time as Minceley, but despite the holographic camouflage of the cloak, Vorn still needed to move with considerable stealth. The cloak was limited move too fast, and it would create a shimmer that was easily spotted by any adequate motion sensor. It would not suppress sound either, and the ground was surely seeded with listeners hereabouts. Slow and sure was the way, but measured against the need to intercept Minceley at the gate, and the knowledge that the cloak's power pack was only good for ten minutes or so.
He made it safely, with about three minutes of power left. This was a tricky bit if the rebels made Minceley wait outside for any length of time, Vorn's cover would vanish, and the two of them would probably be disintegrated before Minceley could utter his ubiquitous, "I say!"
However, Minceley was scanned and processed with rapid efficiency. He carried no weapons, and the most advanced piece of gadgetry on him was probably his watch. The screen that protected the gatehouse sparkled and faded, allowing passage into a wide, low corridor, big enough for a double column of tanks to pass through. The walls were lined with weapons points if anyone did ever manage to force the front shields, this corridor would be suicide to traverse. But Minceley rode placidly down the centre of the road. Vorn held his breath as the damned pony decided it wished to relieve itself half way there, stopping as it did so. There could not be many seconds of power left, and Vorn had little idea of what lay ahead. But Minceley nudged the animal on and it continued on its way. Vorn inched his way along one of the side walls, silent as death.
Suddenly, one of the weapon pods on the opposite wall swivelled into life. Vorn braced himself in what he knew was a futile attempt to evade the automatic weapon, and the pod suddenly spat a bolt of green light.
Vorn blinked. A dully glowing spot in the middle of the floor was all there was to show where the small pile of dung had been.
Promising himself that if any of them survived today, he would dine on pony-burger that evening, Vorn finished his traverse of the corridor and, as the far door opened to allow Minceley into a wide courtyard, slipped through.
None too soon either the cloak's power pack was tingling a signal that there were only a few seconds of power left.
Rapidly, Vorn located a pile of crated supplies against an inner wall, and made his way into their welcome cover. There he shed the cumbersome cloak and took a grateful breath of fresh air. Safely concealed, he watched as a squad of ten men surrounded Minceley with weapons trained.
"Dismount slowly," the small man was instructed. There was no malice in the tone only competent efficiency. Minceley got down without fuss, and stretched as soon as he was on the floor. He seemed oblivious to the ring of guns pointed at him.
Vorn half expected Minceley to protest with an, "I say!" but the man quietly shucked his clothing. Of course, it was in his role to do so: an arms representative would be used to this kind of security and take it in his stride.
He did raise a mild objection when they removed his clothing, and the pony's tack, and placed it on a disintegrator pad. A brief flash, and both clothing and saddle were floating dust. "I say! Going to be a bit drafty on the way home, isn't it?"
"Replacements will be provided," said one soldier. "Here, put these on, please." He passed Minceley a small bundle of clothing, which the man quickly donned. It was not lost on Vorn that the fit was perfect. He didn't think clothing sizes had been discussed when Minceley arranged this meeting, so the valley surveillance must be very, very good.
The pony was led to one side and tied to a ring in the wall. A bucket of water was placed next to it. Minceley was ushered away into the central complex.
Vorn permitted himself the luxury of stretching, and a silent prayer of relief and thanks. Now he could get to work in earnest. Minceley had done his job. It hardly mattered what became of him now. Elvis is in the building.
Vorn was good at what he did, and a veteran of so many covert missions, that the next few minutes passed in the same mental state as a window-cleaner cheerfully whistling as he prepared for work. Though every mission was unique, the basic technique never varied. Assess. Don't rush. If there is no particular deadline, take all the time you need. Gather all possible information. Don't act until you've learned all that you can.
The spy-eyes were sent out. Since Vorn had every expectation that the fortress was filled with surveillance systems, they were set to passive scan, which meant he had to wait for them to automatically rove the area, returning to him after a preset time to download their gleaned information. He would have loved to have dared a direct link, seeing live through the eye as it hovered along, but he couldn't risk it that the transmission might be detected.
Nevertheless, it was only fifteen minutes or so before Vorn had a fairly good plan of action. There seemed to be a huge central control room cathedral-like in its proportions, which seemed to be Sondin's intelligence central. Many of the fortress's defence systems seemed to be controlled from there also. Vorn rubbed his chin. If he could not take out Sondin himself, sabotaging that room might offer a good chance for weakening the fortress badly enough for it to be taken by force. The allied forces were watching for just such an opportunity. There was also a good chance that Sondin himself might frequent such a nerve-centre, unless he left it to underlings to collate the assembled data and present it to him elsewhere. But it was a good place to begin.
The route was, naturally, not an easy one. Guard patrols were frequent, and convenient cover was scant. Spy beams criss-crossed access-ways at frequent intervals. Air-conditioning vents frequently offered a way to escape the human guards, but were not useful as passages straight-ways were usually protected by the simple expedient of a pulsing disintegration beam that fired at random intervals down the shafts. Spy-eyes could get through, but a human, no.
Nevertheless, he gradually progressed. The security was impressive, but prone to the weakness that all really good security systems paradoxically accrue: overconfidence on the part of the rebels. The security was all there, but the security forces were complacent in the strength of the external shields. Here and there, a storage room was left unlocked. Now and again, particularly in places where patrols were frequent, laser-mesh gates were left deactivated between patrols. Confidence growing, Vorn managed to reach one of the doorways to the master control centre.
Getting in would be tricky, but hiding in the entrance to an air-con duct (with a disintegrator pulsing about five centimetres clear of his tightly curled body), he patiently reassessed the options. Periodically, lone technicians would enter and leave through the door. There was a combination pad, and a palm-print, and Vorn suspected the technicians' security passes also sent a transponder code. A little delving with a spy-eye, which didn't just relay camera information but scanned for communication signals and read electrical patterns in machinery, and he was able to disable a couple of critical systems in the door security. Those remaining were child's play to circumvent. Patiently waiting for the next lone technician, Vorn shot him with a sleep needle. Relieving the comatose rebel of a few key items and most of his clothing, the unfortunate sleeper was rapidly disposed of by the simple expedient of shoving him into the air vent until the disintegration ray took care of things. Vorn donned the man's clothing, typed in the man's witnessed combination code, ignored the now-over-ridden palm scanner, and let the rebel's pass assure the security system that he had every right to be there. The door opened. Vorn stepped through, ready for anything.
Ready for anything, that is, except the storm of plasma bolts that enveloped him as soon as his foot hit the threshold. He did not even have time to register any thoughts of failure before what little remained of him hit the ground.
"Well, Mr Minceley," said Kelas Sondin. "I'm sorry to inform you that your brave attempt has failed. As you can see, your attempt to beguile me and keep my attention occupied whilst your companion saw to my downfall has failed. I'm afraid we detected you both as soon as you came into sight of here. Our surveillance really is quite sophisticated; quite thorough. And now, though I applaud your bravery, I am afraid I shall have to kill you too."
Minceley sighed from where he had been crouching down besides the ashes of his former companion. He stood up and straightened his glasses. "I'm afraid you have it wrong, sir. I am not the decoy: he was."
Sondin looked momentarily surprised, and then laughed. "You mean you are the assassin? The great saboteur? And your weapons are ? Please do not try to tell me you are a covert martial arts genius, capable of killing all in this room with your bare hands? And bare hands they are: we scanned you for contact toxins and biological killers. You don't even have a clichιd poison tooth."
"True," Minceley admitted. "But I do have a passive receiver implanted in my stomach lining: a clever device powered from the electricity contained in my body cells and constructed to be exactly the same density as the body material around it."
"You're bluffing," Sondin said, drawing an ugly-looking gun from his belt. "And such a device would be useless to you. No transmission could penetrate my shields."
Minceley flashed a triumphant grin, even as Sondin pointed the blaster at his head. "My accomplice is safely in your base now. When he triggers his transmitter, the undetectable explosive I swallowed under deep hypnosis will reduce everything in this room and several others nearby to fine ash." He frowned suddenly and his eyes widened in fright. "Uh, what did I just say?"
In the courtyard, Minceley's pony yawned and raised a hind hoof to scratch his belly. Then, with seemingly excessive force, he stamped the foot down again. The micro generator hidden in his shoe transformed the force into a tiny pulse of energy enough to send a very brief transmission a short distance. There came a Thud not so much a sound as a heavy impact in the ground. The shimmering field above flickered and vanished to reveal open blue sky. Alarms began to ring. The bored-looking guards in his area suddenly looked very worried and ran off.
The pony deftly bit through the rope securing him to a wall and, with no-one to stop him and the auto-defences off-line, made his way out of the fortress and away.
At a safe distance, he glanced back over his shoulder at the streamer of black smoke trickling from one part of the fortress, rising vertically into the still air. With his tongue, he clicked on his tooth-communicator.
"Send in the bombers now."
"Acknowledged. Proceed to pick-up point. Oh, and congratulations, Agent Horse."
The pony began to whistle a tune as he ambled on his way. Tonguing aside another molar, he extracted a congratulatory mint; his customary way of acknowledging another successful mission.