Episode 27

A Sort of Madness

Bertrand Opol frowned as he wondered what sort of madness had recently infected the secretive geniuses who ran the intelligence agency for the Greater Terran Ascendancy. He'd worked nineteen years for the Directorate, the last four of them on Faraday as system chief, but he'd never before seen what was usually a smooth-running, if occasionally bureaucratic organization buzzing in impotent fury as if it were a toppled bee hive.

In the last four days, he'd seen more encrypted messages marked Top Secret relayed from the sector capital than he'd received since the day he'd been named chief. Something was up, which meant that something, somewhere, had gone seriously wrong, that much was clear. But what it was, and what it had to do with the cyborg operative who had somehow managed to upset August Karsh's applecart, was a mystery to him.

This Myranda Flare was dangerous, of that there was no question. The information he'd been provided was less than entirely forthcoming, but he'd been playing the game long enough to read between the lines. She was one of the cyborg's premier hitters and for reasons unknown, she'd been turned loose in the Kantillon Sector by Dr. G. Opol doubted she would turn up on Faraday; it was two subsectors away and relatively unimportant in comparison with Rhysalan, which was the closest major world to Weksler, the scene of her last sighting.

But he dutifully ordered scans of all incoming passengers and arranged for no less than ten surreptitious interviews with likely candidates, all of whom were determined not to be Myranda Flare. It was unfortunate that two of the innocent women who'd tripped the scanners had not made it through the interviews with their sanity entirely intact, but his orders had given him no room for maneuver at all. The psych probes were brutal, but they were a necessary evil when galactic security was at stake.

He shook his head. What did the madmen on Kantillon expect of him? He had 47 agents with whom he was supposed to cover an entire planet! There were three national governments for every agent! And then, he had been ordered to drop everything on the off-chance that his men might be able to find one woman, one highly trained woman, in a population of 18.6 billion?

It was a complete waste of time and effort. He glanced at the time and saw he could have left for lunch nearly two kilosecs ago. He snapped his fingers three times to shut everything down, and eased himself out of his chair. The office was nothing special, the agency's front was that of a small lending company that specialized in financing pre-natal DNA modifications, which gave him the ability to meet openly with anyone who could scare up a woman capable of stuffing a pillow inside her clothes.

There were no good restaurants nearby, so he decided to take his var. It was parked on the roof, so he took the lift up and enjoyed the warmth of the sunlight on his face as he stepped outside. He noted that the windows had automatically darkened, thus keeping the inside of the var from overheating. This pleased him, for he was a cleanly man and he disliked getting sweaty at lunchtime, then trying to work the rest of the afternoon being distracted by the knowledge that his body was being engulfed in rapidly growing bacteria.

“Open,” he called to the Zhang Su and the door opened. At the sight of a woman sitting in the passenger seat, he froze and dropped his hand to the holster under his left arm.

“Put that away, Bertrand Opol,” she called out to him. It was not an attractive voice, it was strangely flat and unemotional. “I'm unarmed, and besides, it won't do you any good.”

He ignored her demand and drew his Howa from the holster. But when he tapped on the safety with his thumb, nothing happened. He gingerly tested the trigger and found it was locked solid. Confused, he looked from the slug-thrower to the woman, and tried to turn the safety off again. It didn't respond. Somehow, the Howa had been transformed into 600 grams of useless plasmetal.

“I told you it wouldn't do any good, Mr. Opol,” the woman said, waggling a small device in her hand. “Now, get in the var. I have a message for August Karsh.”

August Karsh? The first faint suspicion that the woman might be the mysterious Myranda Flare entered his mind. But it wasn't every day that strangers dropped the name of the director in front of him, much less claimed to have a message for Opol to give him. And besides, after the black magic that had rendered him unarmed, what choice did he have except to play along.

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