Chapters 2 v 1.2

The note was explicit: Dismiss your current lawyer, who has no interest in anything other than seeing you convicted. Your only hope lies with the lawyer being flown up from Earth. Say nothing to anyone. Stryker found this to be intriguing that someone else had his interests at heart. Who could it be, and why were they interested in saving him from conviction? Not that it mattered because he was convinced that the assessment of the lawyer supplied for his defence was accurate. 

The lawyer previously offered to him was middle-aged, and had all the enthusiasm for his defence as someone going for a root canal treatment with no numbing. Why was a middle-aged lawyer doing this sort of defence work? The reason was almost certainly because he was not good enough to do anything else. He cut a sad figure: gaunt, sallow, in a suit that had definitely seen better days, and with a food-stained tie that was tied loosely and left a clear gap between a badly tied knot and the shirt collar. Stryker had accidentally followed the last instruction on the note because when the lawyer asked what had happened, he had responded by telling him to read his report then come and discuss it. He had not returned.

Stryker was now seated in the court interview room assigned to the defence. The room had mid-grey walls, a grey ceiling and a grey steel floor, a simple grey steel table, two grey plastic chairs, and no further furniture. Abandon all hope ye who enter here. It was also designed as an interview room for criminals, but there was one saving grace in that a panel had been screwed over the one-way glass, and the marks on the wall showed that the expected surveillance equipment had been removed. Stryker carefully checked the sockets, but as far as he could see, the room was free of surveillance equipment.

The Space Corps was definitely keen to put this incident behind them, Stryker thought morosely. He was yet to see his new lawyer and he would get no more than half an hour with him before proceedings started. So much for a fair trial, made even less fair through his case being transferred from a military court, where he could expect some sort of understanding for his position, to a corporate court. Here he could expect accountants who never did anything useful in space to present long detailed lists of damaged equipment and the highly inflated costs of replacing it. Parasites! Then to ensure his defence had even less solid material to work with, he was being denied discovery. This new lawyer should at least have something to work with.

The other annoying scrap of information on the one piece of paper he had been given stated he was the only defendant. Either they were leaving Mitchell for later, or, despite their agreement, Mitchell had done a deal with them. A cold chill passed over him. Mitchell would claim that he had been left to his own resources, he had made an understandable mistake under very unusual circumstances, and Stryker, who could have taken over at any moment, had done nothing. And for a free pass Mitchell might well do that, as after all, that would be sort of true. Still, there was nothing he could do about Mitchell right now. 

Stryker was beginning to wonder whether he would even have a lawyer at his side when the door opened, and the man who was presumably his lawyer entered. He was aged about forty, well-built but not overweight, his hair was both thinning and greying, and although he was clearly strained after the flight up to the station, he looked jaunty.

"I'm Sean Bates," the lawyer said, then he added with a grin, "I gather you're in a spot of trouble." He sat down behind the desk and placed a large brown briefcase on the table, but then did not even bother to open it.

"If that's all you know about this, then yes, I guess I am," Stryker said. "Also, I probably can't afford you if you're any good."

"Correct, you can't afford me, and yes, I am good." He smiled as he watched Stryker's expression, and when a disillusioned Stryker did not respond, he continued, "Excellent!"

"Excellent?" a rather bemused Stryker said.

Bates gave a quiet reassuring and supportive nod then continued, "You gave no expression whatsoever. During this hearing, I want you to continue like that, no matter what is said. Do you understand?"

Stryker frowned and leaned forward slightly. "Yes, I understand, but whether I can is another matter. I know –"

"You know nothing!" Bates said sharply. His eyes bored into Stryker's, then his face softened a little as he added with a knowing smile, "The less I know about a certain escapade last night, the better. Understand?"

"You don't want to know –" an indignant Stryker almost shouted. What sort of lawyer was so uninterested in the facts?

"I know enough already," the lawyer said. His expression became far more serious as he continued, "If you wish to end up free, I don't need you to help the prosecution."

"What? You think I'll –"

Bates held up a hand to calm his client. "Please, emotional involvement leads to facial expressions that are tells to a good prosecutor, and he'll be looking for every clue as to whether his tactics are working. You think you won't do this, and you won't if you stay calm and collected. Say nothing, because nothing you could possibly say will be helpful to your cause. Sorry, but you're going to have to trust me."

Stryker's face showed sullen acceptance. This had all the appearance of becoming an irretrievable disaster.

"If it makes you feel any better," Bates added as he gave a cheerful smile, "I get paid an awful lot for this if I win, at least to a certain degree. I am very good, and I intend to be paid." He then took a rather thin dossier from his briefcase, gave it a very brief scan, then replaced it. He gave a satisfied look, then thought he should give an explanation that would also change the tack of the conversation. 

Stryker watched his lawyer give the documents the brief scan, and at first he felt despair, but then he realized Bates might be just checking an important fact. Perhaps he was prepared. He had to believe, but there was one unexpected thing Bates had said that concerned him. "To a certain degree?" What did that mean?

"You must realise the objective is not to find guilt or innocence." Bates had a challenging grin on his face as he leaned forward, as if inviting Stryker to respond.

"What?" Stryker spluttered in amazement. "Then what is it?"

"It's a corporate court." As Bates said this, his facial expression saddened and his eyes showed anger at what had happened to his beloved Justice system. "Justice was privatised some time ago, you recall. The objective of the court is to assign guilt or innocence in a politically acceptable fashion, to get through proceedings as efficiently as possible and to provide a deterrent example."

"The result goes to the highest bid?"

"Appalled, you are. Understandable. But it is not as bad as you may fear, because if the case enters the public domain and the judgment is clearly wrong, the judge can end up unemployed, or even in jail for perverting the course of justice." He paused, and added, "This need not concern you for the present, but there are a number of powerful players on Earth that want to bring justice back into the government fold."

"And that benefits me how?" a clearly puzzled Stryker asked. For him, politics on Earth was an incomprehensible mess, and it was inconceivable to him that he could benefit.

"Simple. The loss of the corporate hold over the justice system through a minor side issue would never be allowed. That is why you will get out of this, provided you stay silent, be poker-faced no matter what, and show no emotional responses."

"Then back to my question," Stryker said. He had to have at least some minor say in his fate. "What do you mean by a certain degree?"

"The standard policy of the Space Corps is if a ship commander has an accident, no matter what the cause, that person never commands another Space Corps ship again."

"I fully understand that," Stryker acknowledged.

"I now need to know, will you settle for some desk job with them and no promotion ever, and probably reduced in rank?"

"No." That was firm. He had no idea where his future lay, but it would not be behind a desk, passing pointless computer files and being the butt of continual but very quiet sniggers.

"Good. Now we know what we are fighting for. You have one and only one job: sit still and do absolutely nothing. The question is, will you?"

"I guess I have no choice," Stryker said, without any particular enthusiasm. "So I'm effectively in your hands?"

"Yes," Bates said with a broad grin, "but I assure you, if left to your own devices, you will be crucified." He paused, and added, "Not literally, since they are short of wood up here, but I hope you get the picture."

"Then all I can do is hope you are as good as you seem to think you are."

"I am. In the court, they will be doing their absolute best to goad you into falling into their various traps. You must be strong and resolute in your refusal to comply."

Stryker was hardly enthused by this, but after some thought, he recognised with only a few minutes to go he had no alternative to Bates. He liked to control his future so sitting back and leaving himself in someone else's hands was anathema to him, but here he was. 


*   *   *


Much to Stryker's surprise, the chair he was allocated in the courtroom was quite comfortable. The defence sat behind large desks on the left side of the courtroom, the prosecution had equivalent desks on the right side. At the front, looking down on the parties from a raised platform was the more grandiose desk allocated for the judge. There was also seating enclosed by a stained wooden barrier where a jury would sit, but in this case there would be no jury.

The room was ornately designed and gave the impression of being constructed of dark stained wood that had aged so long the gloss had worn away. This was intended to give the impression of age and long-established justice, but it was an outright sham. Apart from the seats, everything was made of either iron, or more likely ceramic from crushed asteroid. The appearance was a paint job, and careful inspection showed it was flaking badly in some places. Unfortunately, Stryker thought, if Bates were correct, justice here was also something of a sham: all smoke and mirrors to give the appearance of justice.

The Judge-Advocate entered, gave a scowl to the defence, then sat down behind his bench, whereupon everyone else sat down. There was an immediate protest from the prosecution regarding the presence of Bates.

"Your honour," Bates rose to his feet, "my presence has been approved at higher levels and a full transcript of these proceedings will be made available to the Federation authorities. There is a Justice Department recording device in the back of the room that is relaying events to Earth." He then sat down. All eyes went to the back of the courtroom, where a new recording device was screwed in, and cables went first to a power source, and also to a box that was apparently a transmitter.

A chill crossed the rest of the court. The implication was clear. They might be passing judgement, but judgement would be passed on them. The option of favouring the strongest and richest body had, at least in theory, gone out the window. Stryker had to admit he could not have done that, and that lawyer provided by the local Space Corps was too much a wimp to have even thought of it. Stryker had to concede that Bates had scored the first point before anything started, and as he sat back in his chair, he seemed to visibly relax, at least a little.

The Judge-Advocate signalled that proceedings would commence, although his expression had at least lost some of its arrogance. He leaned forward, then said in a deep voice, "Captain Jonas Stryker, you are charged as follows: first, reckless command of a ship in that, when given docking permission, you carelessly approached on a wrong line, then in an attempt to correct, permitted the reckless firing of full thrusters, leading to substantial damage to Space Station Gamma; second, you are charged with being in an area where you were not permitted under the restrictions of your stand-down and when an attempt to apprehend you was made, you struck an officer of the Space Corps Investigation Bureau. How do you plead?"

Stryker looked at Bates, Bates nodded, and he got to his feet and said, "Not Guilty to both charges." He then sat down again. The plea was no revelation, and it was noted with a tired expression by the Judge-Advocate.

The prosecution then opened its case with a summary of what they proposed to prove regarding the first charge, which was basically that a lot of damage had been done to the space station through incompetence by those on the ship, and for the second charge, that the accused had attempted to cover up his actions. Bates waived the opportunity to make a defence opening statement. Stryker frowned, and a sudden fear ran through him: could Bates be merely there to ensure his conviction? 

The first witness, who gave Stryker an apologetic look as if to say he wished he were somewhere else and was only there because he had to be, was sworn in. He gave an unemotional account of what had happened as seen by the station. When Bates was invited to cross-examine he waived that opportunity away. The next witness appeared to be some sort of accountant, and when asked to account for the damage, he enthusiastically produced a large list, followed by an estimate of the costs of repairing the damage. This went on and on, and while he was enthusiastic about his work, it was clear that his presentation was quite soporific. He then went on about the difficulty in replacing the panels, the cost of bringing them up from Earth, and the difficulty of getting the necessary elements from space. When he finally stopped, Bates once again declined to cross-examine, and many breathed a sigh of relief. The Judge-Advocate then declared a break for lunch.

"Well, that was spectacular," Stryker grumbled, as they sat down in a side-room of the cafeteria that was sound-proofed. Stryker sighed in despair at the lunch that would make prison food look downright appetizing.

"You think I didn't do anything?" Bates asked with a broad grin.

"I admit I didn't see a lot."

"Why should I when everything is going so well for us?"

"I don't understand. It didn't feel all that good to me." Stryker was getting increasingly despondent. He was starting to believe his suspicion that this lawyer was being paid by those wanting him in jail was right.

"No, it is true that events so far have not helped us in any way," Bates said in agreement, "but they didn't say anything about the incident that wasn't in your report so they haven't hurt us either. There is no point in drawing attention to what you concede anyway."

"But not everything in the report was mentioned," Stryker said. "They ignored the question of the docking beam and –"

"Stop!" Bates said firmly. "I don't want to know your thoughts on that. I happen to know why they probably didn't, and they will pay for that later."

"What about that faulty thruster?"

"Those witnesses knew nothing about that. We can raise that later, but first I would rather wait and see what their expert that examined your ship has to say."

"He'll probably lie," Stryker said morosely.

"He'll probably consider lying," Bates said. "My job is to discourage that."

"Can you?"

"For that we shall have to wait and see." 

"Then there was that last witness who went on and on about the cost of getting new panels. He could repair the old ones, and the elements he complained about are still there."


"Well, at least you could show he was wrong on that and –"

"And invite a redirect, where it would be shown that the witness, who is obviously a lazy sod and would try anything to avoid extra work, was highly distressed at the situation. That would make the prosecution allege that your action had led to deep psychological damage in that otherwise well-recognized employee, which in turn would be an additional damage to the physical damage. You would have just provided help to the prosecution and dug a much deeper hole for yourself at the inevitable sentencing," Bates took another mouthful, then with a smile, he asked, "Why do you think I never asked a question?"

Stryker thought and decided it was better not to insult his lawyer. "I thought that was what I was asking you earlier."

Bates pointed a finger at him, and said, "This is as much dependent on strategy. If I ask questions that won't do our case any good, they might start to think I'm going through the motions, and I'm accepting that you are guilty. If I stay quiet, knowing my reputation they'll start to worry what game I'm up to."

"Suppose they don't know your reputation?"

"If they don't," Bates said with a superior look, "they're not much good and we shall prevail. Now. Let's have lunch."

While Bates ate heartily, Stryker found himself with a very dry mouth and with little interest in the rather standard boring lunch before him, which was nominally complete with all nutritious requirements but devoid of taste and moisture. He was unconvinced by Bates' self-confidence, and he began imagining all sorts of horrible endings.

"You should eat," Bates suggested. "You can't do anything about your future, so you might as well eat."

"Easy for you to say." 

"Then look at it this way. If you return your plate essentially as supplied, those judging you will think you know you are guilty. There is actually one thing you can do for yourself, and that is to look confident."

Stryker nodded, and shoved some food in his mouth. It tasted awful, but he continued eating. 

"Here, have some wine to help it down," Bates said. He called for a waiter and ordered a bottle of a chilled white wine that Stryker realized would be very expensive on the station. "Don't worry about inebriation; it might be good for you right now."

That Stryker could accept, although he shuddered at the bill, which he hoped he would not be paying. As if reading his mind, Bates announced that he would pick up the bill, and pass it on to the person paying his fees. What a pleasant surprise, Stryker thought to himself, but he accepted the glass. He took another mouthful of the dry unappetizing food, and took a good sip of wine. It certainly made it easier to swallow this rubbish.

"Good," Bates said, and placed a hand gently on Stryker's arm. "The first witness this afternoon is Lieutenant Hardy."

"Who's he or she?" Stryker was puzzled at this name.

"Space Corps Investigation Bureau," Bates said, his face now serious. "When you see her, you must do your best to look as if you don't recognise her, and additionally don't care who she is."

Stryker then realised who this Lieutenant Hardy would be: the Scibby he had floored. This should be interesting, but he took Bates' warning seriously. It would not be good policy to be seen to recognize her.


*   *   *


When Lieutenant Hardy took the stand, at first Stryker could not help but notice the bruising and swelling on the side of her head. He felt a little guilty of that, but he did his best to look dispassionate. Hardy gave him a quick cold glance but was then sufficiently professional to devote her attention to the prosecutor. Fortunately for him, everyone was looking at the new witness as she took the oath.

Tall and well-built, and apart from the swelling and bruising, she was quite attractive, with light brown near blonde hair that curled up a little just below her ears. She wore a crisp dark blue uniform, and what particularly struck Stryker were the three ribbons on her left chest. The first one was awarded to the top members of the academy class. He had one himself. The second one was a puzzle because from its appearance it should be a campaign medal, but there had been no recent campaigns, or at least no recent publicly announced campaigns. That could only reflect some secretive anti-terrorist action. The third one was even more of a puzzle, for it was for bravery under action. How had she received that? And more to the point, if she were to be portrayed as a heroine, how could he counter that. As it happened, however, the somewhat ordinary prosecutor made nothing of this.

Lieutenant Hardy's evidence was calm and to the point. "I was walking towards the control room when a masked figure appeared. The figure turned and ran, so I ordered him to stop. He did not, so I fired a shot. He stumbled, disappeared around a corner so I followed, expecting him to be either still running, or lying wounded on the floor. However, he was in another doorway just around the corner, and as I came around the corner, I was struck on the side of the head."

"And this knocked you unconscious?" the prosecutor asked in a sympathetic tone.

"Yes. When I came to, the man was gone."

"And you could identify this man?"

"He had a mask on, so no, not directly."

"So what makes you think it was the accused?"

"Because whoever it was presumably had been to the navigational control centre, and the accused is the only person with a motive."

"Thank you, Lieutenant." The prosecutor sat down, once again with a superior smirk towards Bates.

This time, however, Bates rose to his feet. "Lieutenant Hardy, first let me express my sympathy for the blow you took. However, is it not true that you cannot directly identify the assailant as the defendant?"

"That is true. As I said he had a mask."

"But you shot whoever it was?"

"I fired at him. He stumbled, the bullet had to go somewhere, and there was no sign of an impact on the walls."

"The defendant shows no sign of injury, though."

"He must have had a flak jacket. He was very well padded."

"I see." Bates nodded, then queried, "What sort of ammunition were you using?"

The Lieutenant seemed a little taken aback as if realization had suddenly struck her. "The standard SCIB issued ammunition," she muttered.

"Could you state that more loudly please?"

"The standard SCIB issued ammunition."

"Which should penetrate a flak jacket, should it not?"

"He must have had two."

"Oh really? You are adding them on just to make it sound possible." Bates wagged a finger at her.

"As I said, he was well-padded."

"Yes, you did. So my client had two flak jackets and he took your gun. Have you found any of these?"

"No, but they could have gone to the waste disposal unit."

"They could indeed," Bates said with a smile, then the smile dropped as he continued, "If a gun went into the plasma chamber, the powder would explode and the standard armour piercing bullets would travel. While they would vaporise reasonably quickly, I suggest to you, and if you disagree, I can show you calculations from a respected physicist, that they would last long enough to strike the walls of the drive, unless their trajectory was fortuitously were nearly parallel with the walls, a nought point four per cent probability, according to the calculation. If one struck the electromagnetic guides that prevent the plasma from striking the containment walls –"

"You are correct," Lieutenant Hardy conceded. "There is no evidence of a bullet striking those guides."

"Then to summarise," Bates continued, "you did not see the assailant's face, and you cannot be sure of body shape. You are simply guessing that whoever it was had two flak jackets on, and even if he did, there would almost certainly be a bruise, but my client has no such bruise. He would have had to be very lucky to get rid of the gun, while I also happen to know that such a gun would be very valuable to the criminal element so I put it to you, you have no means of identification."

"Apart from motive, no."

The bruising was a good point. The only reason he did not have such a bruise was he had two such jackets over an ordinary jacket. Hardy could have checked to see if two jackets had gone missing, but she had not, and now it was too late.

"Then let us consider this motive issue. I confess I have no reason to see why it must have been my client."

"I assume he would be checking the controls to get evidence of this alleged false navigational beam."

"Alleged? Did you check to see whether there was such a false beam?"

"I did. There was no sign of any failure of the system. It was working as required."

"No sign at all? You are sure?"

"I checked. I am sure," came the testy reply.

"That is where it becomes interesting," Bates said, "because I have evidence here that ten hours before my client's ship intended to dock, there was an exercise scheduled for a pilot training scheme that involved the beam being altered. So you say you saw no evidence of that during your examination?"

Lieutenant Hardy frowned, and a worried expression appeared on her face. "No, I did not."

"As it happened, there was no training exercise, which raises the question, why was the navigational beam shifted? I also put it to you that if the reason were less than kosher, it would be highly desirable for the perpetrator to remove all evidence of that from the computer records. Don't you agree?"

"I suppose so." Then when she saw Bates was about to ask the obvious, she added, "Yes."

"In which case the person who struck you could have been the person who adjusted the control computers and deleted the exercise?"

"That is possible," the Lieutenant agreed, "but surely whoever set the exercise would have full authority to be there and would not come in a mask."

"But by not being masked, he or she would be identified. The whole purpose of a mask is to prevent that, would you not agree? Especially if it were done at a time the approved person was not supposed to be there?"

"That could well be the case," came the rather reluctant concession.

Bates thanked the Lieutenant and indicated there would be no further cross-examination, and when the prosecutor did not request clarification, the Lieutenant was dismissed.

Immediately, a further officer got to his feet from the back of the room and handed a note to a court official, who immediately passed it to the Judge Advocate. The note was read, the Judge-Advocate frowned, then declared a recess until the following morning.

Bates turned to Stryker and said, "Now we wait. Why don't we go and have a drink?"

There seemed to be no good reason not to, so they went to the Station Bar, ordered two beers, then Bates indicated they should go to a small alcove that he had reserved.

"Reserved?" Stryker asked.

"Yes, I have made this reservation very well known. I expect the prosecution will come and make an offer. Recall, the object now is not to find guilt but rather to conceal and keep concealed certain matters. What I hope is I have put it into their corporate minds that this is starting to get highly unpredictable."


"Because I know a few things you don't," Bates said, "and my questions to Lieutenant Hardy could lead some of the very important players to start to realize that I know them. They also know that these things must not come out, and let me assure you, it is only the guarantee they won't come out that will save your hide."

Bates was correct. Ten minutes later, the prosecutor and the person who had handed the note to the official that had apparently caused the disruption for the day came over. As they were coming, Bates turned to Stryker and said, "No matter what they say, you say absolutely nothing. If they make an offer, we have the right to privately discuss it. If you say anything, they may take it as acceptance or rejection and there may be no further offers."

"OK, but one important point. If they make an offer that lets me walk, I want to make sure that Mitch isn't dumped on."

Bates looked thoughtful, then nodded. "You realize there's a limit to what I can do, and there's a very good chance that since Mitchell was not tried, he's made a deal with the prosecution?"

"Yes, but maybe he hasn't. If he has, no damage in asking, and I may also get a clue as to whether he has."

"Fair enough. But remember, no matter what, your Lieutenant would have to agree to everything in the deal?"

"Yes, but you can try."

"I can. So let's see what they have to say."

The two men came up to the table and were about to sit when Bates said, "You realize, gentlemen, that to occupy a seat in this bar, you're expected to have a drink?"

The prosecutor almost looked as if he would choke out an objection, but the executive waved him to a seat and said, "The same for you two again?"

"Why not?" Bates said cheerfully, and made sure he was looking confident in front of the prosecutor.

When the drinks arrived, and Bates had raised his glass and said, "Good health!" he had a sip, then added, "This case is certainly interesting."

The prosecutor looked irritated, and almost ready to get abusive, but the executive stopped him by putting a hand on his arm and gave a clear look that he was there on sufferance. He turned to Bates, and said, "What would it take to finish this right now?"

"An offer?" Bates raised an eyebrow.

"A discharge, with a benefit of twenty thousand?"

"An honourable resignation," Bates countered, "an irreversible end to these proceedings, a somewhat larger payment that we can negotiate in a minute, and the same offer made to Lieutenant Mitchell."

"With the same conditions I shall require."

"Which are?"

"No subsequent public statements, no further legal action, the incident is simply forgotten."

"That should be acceptable. I still have to discuss this with my client, but let's add to the sweetener. A hundred thousand."

"Fifty thousand, minus one. That's my top offer because that is the limit on discretionary spending. Anything over that has to be publicly disclosed."

"Currency in Federation Currency Units." These could be converted to virtually any country's currency.

"Of course."

"Then why don't you take a walk, I'll discuss it with my client, and I'll wave to you when we have an answer."

The two got up. The prosecutor looked as if he was being forced to eat prison slops, but it was apparent that he had no choice, and was only there in case a deal could not be reached.

"You should take it," Bates said. "The alternative is –"

"You're probably right," Stryker said, "that if I stayed in the Space Corps I would never fly again, and I would get the shit jobs."


"Then subject to the same offer being made to Mitch, yes I'll take it."

"Good." Bates waved, the two returned, Bates gave a sequence of legalese that essentially meant the deal was accepted subject to written agreement, and all bets were off if the Space Corps reneged on any part of the deal.

"Then we meet again at 0900 hrs tomorrow," the executive said, "and subject to signatures being produced, the court case will stop, and your client and Mitchell can take the shuttle down to Earth." With that, the executive stood up and left. 

Bates gave the prosecutor a baleful look, and he too decided to leave.

"And when you finish your drink, we'd better find Mitchell."

"And I should start using the web to find another job," Stryker said. "That money is nice, but it isn't going to last forever." 

"As it happens," Bates said, "I know where you could have your first interview back on Earth. It would mean a little travel, though."

"Where to?" Stryker said in a curious tone.


"Norway?" That was a surprise.

"Good to hear your hearing still works," Bates said. "You will still have to give a good interview, but you never know. I have tickets for you if you wish."

"What does this job involve?"

"For that, my friend, you have to go there to find out. I can say that you should be qualified."

"You know a lot more about all this than you're letting on aren't you?"

"Oh yes, a lot more, and you're lucky I do, and more to the point, you're lucky the corporation has finally worked out what they fear I know. Oh, and as an aside, I promise neither I nor anyone else I am associated with had anything to do with your so-called accident. It was just that when it happened, the reports raised a lot of interest in certain circles, they guessed what had happened, and then they hired me to see if I could save your hide, and at the same time confirm their suspicions."

"You didn't know?" Stryker accused. "Your performance was bluff!"

"Only to a point. I 'know' quite a bit, but proving it would be rather difficult. However, they don't know how much I know, what I can prove, and how much could leak if they persisted. There is guilt there, and they are happy to put the lid on it."

"Then I guess, thank you."

"I know you would rather have justice," Bates said, "but I assure you, from where we are now, what we have is the best we were going to get. Now, let's find Mitchell."


*   *   *


After some thought, Mitchell accepted the offer. This concerned Stryker. Mitchell should have grasped this escape enthusiastically. It was looking more likely that Mitchell had done a deal, and was analysing the consequences of the offer. Nevertheless, they could hardly withdraw the offer. The documents were simple and Bates had assured them they were free of hidden snags. The signatures were produced, then they promptly made their way to the shuttle, where they boarded after ensuring their personal belongings were on board. Nobody spoke. Bates was rather tired, and neither Stryker nor Mitchell had anything to discuss. Stryker was suspicious of Mitchell, Mitchell said nothing, but then again, Stryker realized, Mitchell had hardly initiated a conversation during their two missions.

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