© David Massey
SOPHIE REDBRIDGE skimmed in towards the sands, her airboard grasped firmly in her bare feet as the fine spay off the seas of Topaz blew into her face. She glanced around at the smiling faces of the surfers and spared a passing glance at the reflection of the familiar Seething white glare of Facece in the purple waters below. An enormous wave began to form below her and she prepared to ride it in towards the distant shore…
The alarm intruded on her consciousness with a strident din. She rolled over in the air field and groped blindly for the kill region. Her wildly flailing hand eventually moved into the region above the timer, and as its invisible laser web was interrupted, the alarm cut itself off and the morning greeting litany began.
"Good morning Sophie, it's time to rise. You're wanted at the office today. Important board meeting for you. Don't forget the protein supplement today, and it's time to check the bulletin boards again…" The sweetly incessant computer voice continued to advise and cajole Sophie from her rest, repeating its messages a second time in case it had not been heard originally, It had begun a third repetition before the waving arm managed to cut off the circuit. Quiet returned to the room, the only sound being the sussurration of the air conditioning and the normal rustlings of a waking body. Idly Sophie wondered why she had been dreaming of her early years on Facece. Any hint that she grew up in the Empire would be most unwelcome in her job. She could not afford to make any slips.
The clock was a computer interface and was programmed to list the day's calendar events as set by the occupant. It would repeat four times and then ring the alarm a second time if there was no response before then. It only bothered to work at all when there was someone in the room, and if there was no interruption after the second alarm and message sequence, it would automatically ring for the building security and medical squad. When you paid rent on an apartment like this, you expected to be well looked after. Casual muggings in secure buildings were fairly rare, but it was good to be careful.
The computer took note of the normal routine of waking. The shower temperature was ready at the occupant's preferred setting. Breakfast was ready when she stepped through the air barrier into the main room again, and a fresh selection of clothes had been laid out where the bed field had been. Some people preferred a holographic projection of an old fashioned mattress over the pressor field, but Sophie liked the illusion of sleeping in space, so the computer supplied that instead.
"OK. spill it." She called tersely, sipping a cup of a dark Oolong tea and nibbling on a delicate sliver of toast. The computer began a detailed itinerary for the day; business meetings, lunch, official guests to recognise and a host of other minor details. From a slot in the wall came the day's mail shot, a package of unusual fertiliser which she slipped into a large handbag. It always amused her that the central computer web of Earth let her collect that particular combination of proteins and minerals.
As she went about the final preparations for leaving for the office, she activated the bulletin board link and peered myopically at the green lines hanging in mid air in front of the grey box of her computer interface. As she quickly scanned down the list of advertisements, one caught her attention and she stared at it with a fixed scowl which would have surprised her superiors. They would have been even more surprised if they had known what had caught her eye, and vastly more alarmed if they had realised what it meant to her.
The offending article was a "wanted" notice, someone seeking a ruby studded platinum necklace. The important aspect was the rubies. Emeralds would have meant no change and sapphires an urgent meeting. Rubies told her she was being closed down. Sophie wondered what was going wrong and why they had pulled her plug. She was a very skilled agent and had infiltrated the Federation government system with ease. As far as she was aware no-one suspected her of being an Empire spy. Of course, if they were any good at all, she'd only know once she had been arrested and charged.
From the coded message, she knew that her removal was to be an orderly affair; an emergency break out would have used a different code. She still had a few days grace and all the contingency plans for a clean exit would be swinging into place. Best thing for today would be to get on with normal routine, pick up the latest gossip and then set the removal machinery in motion.
Sophie was not a girl to panic. She finished her breakfast at ease and made her normal last minute check of the room before leaving for the office. The only break with routine was when she walked back into the bathroom and broke a small plastic ampoule beneath her nose and took a deep breath. She strode out of the apartment in her normal purposeful fashion and casually discarded the halves of the ampoule into a waste bin as she passed the front guard, hiding the action with a sneeze.
By the time she reached the office, her nose was sore and the sneezing and slight cough were becoming more pronounced. The desk sergeant looked up with some concern.
"Good morning Miss Redbridge." The guard's greeting was the same as it was every day, no indication of a sudden arrest. Sophie had fretted slightly on her short journey to work. but it looked like everything was still normal and the Fed's were not going to close in immediately. The guard motioned towards a small slot in the desk at his side.
"I'm afraid it's another spot check, miss, if you don't mind."
"No, it's OK, Charlie, I'm still the same old me." Sophie slid her left index finger into the opening and felt a slight pressure as the automatic sampler took a drop of blood for analysis. "It hardly hurts at all."
"I'll kiss it better for you any time." Charlie grinned with an exaggerated leer. Sophie was certainly one of the prettiest of the senior team, and she laughed good naturedly at the standing joke. The desk computer Hashed a green light, a buzzer sounded and the security doors popped open. Sophie walked through with a sensual gait and blew a kiss over her shoulder at the guard.
"Never trust a machine," she thought to herself as she strode up the corridor, nodding to passing acquaintances and friends. "The Federation may know how to make splendid computers and machines, but they'll be really upset if they find out how we fool their DNA fingerprinting." Her stride acquired a bit more bounce as her mood lightened. She looked forward to the rest of the day, a last chance to gather a bit more useful information for her bosses back in the Empire.
Sophie was, as usual, the last to leave her floor of the building. Occasionally some of the staff working for her wondered why she took such pride in the plants in the offices and devoted so much time to looking after them. If they had realized how important the bushes were to her other activities, Sophie's colleagues would have been stunned, not to say outraged. Striking to look at, pleasant to smell and filling the office with an off-Earth feeling, the office decor did more for intelligence gathering than any of Sophie's rare raids into the Chairman's files.
Sophie had introduced the shrubs into the offices gradually, starting with a small one perched on her desk. "It was a present from my brother", she would explain to anyone who showed an interest in the chirruping pot plant. Within a few months every office on the floor had one of the whispering plants, and since only Sophie seemed to have the knack of ensuring a healthy growth, she soon took over the feeding and watering of all of them.
The plants were imported from Quphieth, and were a truly alien creature. Of course, in this case plant and animal were not exact terms, and the creature was one of the carnivorous species of that planet. It was sessile, and used colour, odour and sound to attract its prey. At the same time it could photosynthesise and so was able to last without prey for very long periods. It had needed only a minor amount of genetic tinkering to produce a perfect spy plant.
On its home planet, the whispering shruh could imitate the calls of local mobiles, birdlike and mammal-like creatures. The forests and fields of the planet were full of sounds and bright colours, fanciful imitations mixing with the calls of the birds. The human visitors found a fascination in a pot plant which could mimic conversations in a way no Earth-born parrot could ever do. Sophie wondered who the clever Empire operative was who had spotted the espionage potential of the creatures.
As she moved from office to office, using a pass key provided by her section head, she looked for a last time at her valued allies. Each stood in a separate pot, some barely 20 centimetres tall, but a giant two-metre hush was set at the end of the main conference room. Each alien had the same form; a thick, fairly short trunk, with a fringe of bright blue plumes sticking out horizontally for a distance about half the height of the trunk, then a mass of astonishing red fronds at least twice the length of the trunk topped the whole thing off.
At the base of the fronds was a feeding orifice, and in some circumstances a small animal could get trapped in the crown of the plant and dragged down into it. Alternatively insects could be swallowed when a frond simply folded along its length, forming a tight tube. All along the length of the trunk were small openings, which could produce the range of sounds which gave the creature its name. The great attraction for the office staff was the quiet background of alien creature calls that the plant continued to produce once it had been brought to Earth.
At each plant, Sophie paused and thumbed on a small recording device, before introducing some of the special food delivered to the apartment that morning. At the touch of the tailored molecules, the chirruping of the whispering plant changed tone. Instead of the background calls of far away Quphieth, the air filled with the muted conversation of the office staff. Sophie would send the recording to her regular contact, a person she had never met and now never would, who would decipher the mix of voices and subjects and sift it for useful information.
Sophie loved her whispering plants, they were undoubtedly the high point of her mission on Earth. Every arrival into the building was scanned for recorders, recording media were rigorously monitored and every important meeting was screened for listening bugs. Nobody had even conceived of removing the shrubbery from secret sessions, or that the normal office memo recorders could be turned to other purposes when no one was present. It was easy to smuggle additional recording media into and out of the building, just so long as no recording device was carried with them. Sophie and her allies had almost complete records of every conversation and meeting which had been held in her floor of the complex over the last three years. It seemed a shame to have to say goodbye to all of them.
"Goodnight, Miss Redbridge," Charlie called after her as she left the building. You should see a doctor about that cold you know. Several others in the office had shown similar concern about Sophie's sneezing throughout the day. Although the common Earth cold had long been cured, allergies and visiting bugs from the colonies kept up a constant flow of new minor diseases with the symptoms of sneezing and running nose. It was a serious business to get checked and cleared.
"I'll do that." She sniffed as she walked though the doors into the cool night air. Sophie knew she had nothing to worry about with the infection. She already knew what it was, since she had breathed it in that morning when she broke the ampoule. The illness was just One of a number of covering steps which should ensure her easy removal from the Federation. She had no illusions about her own individual importance, but there was a lot of information about Empire techniques stored in her head. She had every intention of keeping them just exactly where they were.
The bugs invading her system produced a wide range of common disease symptoms, but did nothing to muddy her thoughts. Looking for all the world like a severe flu victim, Sophie returned to her apartment and sent out a coded call for a medical team. They would arrive within the hour and she had a set of final preparations to make before she left.
Her first stop was the bathroom. where she emptied one of her perfumes into the waste disposal. It was a shame to get rid of the stuff, but it was too incriminating to carry around. She had used the pheremone enhancer very sparingly during her five year stint, just enough to attract a few very important gentlemen who had benefited her career enormously. There was no need for blackmail or anything equally sordid. Once trapped by a few drops of the scent in a drink, they were genuinely eager to help her in any and every way they could think of.
"And that young lieutenant had looked so promising," she mused as the fluid drained out of the sink. "I must send a message to the boy. I won't be able to make the date tonight." The last few drops of the liquid swirled out of the sink, she rinsed the bottle and half filled it with a more conventional perfume. She would have to synthesize some more pheremone for her next mission.
A half hour later the door chimed and she admitted the medical team. The doctor gave her a quick scan while the orderly and a nurse stood by. Union rules insisted on a minimum call out team of three, and the Empire were about to put this to good use. After his brief inspection, the doctor turned to Sophie's computer terminal and notified the apartment of three days bed rest and a series of medications to take care of the diagnosed condition. There was a flurry of activity as the patient was ushered into bed and the first of the drugs was administered.
All apartment computers continuously monitored the activity within the rooms. Computer records were admissible as evidence in Federation courts, but abuse of such recordings by non-government officials was a serious crime. In this case, the switch between Sophie and the nurse was made in full view of the computer, but its relatively coarse senses could not tell the difference between the two.
In fact, it would have taken a very skilled observer to notice the subtle differences between the two women. One was slightly stockier, one had artificial hair roots, otherwise they looked identical. This was not surprising, since as soon as the nurse had turned up in the slave pens five years ago. Sophie's appearance had been surgically altered the tiny bit necessary to make the match identical. Only a genetic fingerprint could tell the two apart, and the genetic record for Sophie, stored at the Ministry where she worked, was that of the girl now lying in her bed.
The final operation performed on Sophie before her introduction to Earth had been to replace the tip of her left index finger with a duplicate derived from one of the slave's toes (and the amputation of one of her own toes at the same time, so that both girls retained the same distinguishing features). It was one of the triumphs of Imperial biological engineers that they could keep alive an artificial element, without it being rejected by the host at all. The Federation prided itself on electronic and mechanical miniaturisation. but they were far behind the Empire in biological skills. Sophie had almost laughed aloud each time the security check was run. Genetic fingerprinting ensured that no-one could infiltrate the security system. Well, that was fine so long as nobody had two sets of fingerprints!
Sophie's duplicate had been kept suspended in a drug-induced coma for five years, her memories periodically updated by censored versions of Sophie's activities. When the girl on the bed recovered from her present mild disease, she would resume her job at the Ministry apparently without a break. Sophie wondered how good a job she would do - at least her time as an Empire slave was finished. It seemed like a lot of effort to go to protect one minor intelligence operative, but the techniques had been perfected over many decades and now nearly every agent had at least one cover duplicate in warm storage.
The next few days were spent finalising her disappearance from Earth. The first thing Sophie did was to put a message out on the bulletin board, just one of the many passenger requests. Her conversation with the doctor had been enough to convince her that the Feds were a lot closer than she had thought and her original ideas of leaving by commercial liner looked less promising. As a trained spy, Sophie knew how sophisticated the Federation computers could be, and how thorough their searches would be if the alarm was raised. Although Sophie was quite certain that her DNA record was completely watertight, there was always a small measure of doubt. Her motto had always been why take risks?, and she was determined to keep to it. The fewer times her DNA was taken into Earth central records, the fewer opportunities there would be for something to go wrong - all scheduled commercial flights were recorded automatically for insurance purposes.
The DNA records of all travellers were kept for seventy-five years or more in central records, but access to them was carefully controlled. However, a full-blooded search for an Empire agent would be enough to get access to the information. Some of the Federation's main computers were intelligent enough to make leaps of apparent intuition and might make the link between her new identity and the old one, even though she had taken all sensible precautions at the time. Better safe than sorry - if she could find a suitable trader, she might be able to avoid registering for a full DNA check, using a small shipboard unit instead of the normal commercial one used for liner flight registration.
While her hair returned to its natural colour and shape, she sent messages to two contacts. These were a pair of young models, near enough her shape and size to confuse, but with no links to the Empire whatever. They had been contacted through an agency and thought they were on their separate ways to casting interviews on nearby planets. Few actresses ever travelled off-planet for a casting, at least while they were relative unknowns, but since their fares and some small expenses were paid, the girls were unlikely to object. In fact the only thing which would really annoy them would be any delay in getting to their destinations. Woe betide any police who tried to keep them for any time at all!
In another day, Sophie had received three offers of transport to Facece, second system of the Empire and home to most of its intelligence agencies. She picked one at random, selecting a battered old tramp freighter which advertised a fairly luxurious modified passenger facility. Two days later and Sophie left Earth aboard the Never Too Late. She had walked aboard carrying her hand luggage and breathed a sigh of relief when she saw the antiquated authorisation equipment for passenger registration.
Passenger transport aboard freighters varies greatly from ship to ship, from squalid little cages with barely adequate air conditioning to sumptuous sealed units with all imaginable facilities and comforts. There was almost never a direct connection to the rest ot the ship. The Never Too Late was different, though; the passengers were able to visit the cargo holds and even communicate with the flight deck. Sophie had checked that she was the only passenger for the trip to Facece, and she managed to strike up a cordial friendship with the Captain of the vessel within a few hours, even without her phial of pheremone enhancer.
Sophie spent the next few days fretting. splitting her time between the luxurious confines of her cabin and the communication centre of the ship. Sophie was surprised at how vulnerable she felt as the freighter made its way out of the Sol system. She was acutely aware that any military vessel could swiftly overhaul them, and her arrest was an easy matter for any armed ship. She was in no doubt that the Captain would hand her over if it was demanded. One look at the ship's equipment had shown her that he was not able to run or fight against any serious opposition.
If the Captain was concerned with his passenger's interest in the news media he did not show it. and he left Sophie alone to monitor the channels as she saw fit. Gradually her anxiety passed, as they moved f'urther from Earth towards the jump point. There seemed to be no panic on Earth, no Empire spy calamities were reported and her extraction from the Federation Government had not been noticed. As they approached jump point, Sophie retreated to her cabin and took her dose of quittoline and breathed a prayer to the god which looks after all jump travellers. As the internal klaxon announced entry into hyper space, Sophie gave thanks to her slave. She wondered for the first time whether the girl would enjoy working for the Federation as much as she enjoyed plotting against it. She leaned back, preparing for the no-time of hyperspace, and as she left the confines of the Earth system she reflected that it was always a pleasure when a plan works well.