Stephan is gone

Disclaimer: All characters belong to whosoever international law says they do, in this case that is not me. I'm content and no profit is being made.

Set after Shadow

The door closed behind him putting him out of sight of the others, but for a moment Avon stood on the threshold, staring at the wall, his face blanked of all expression. Then his mouth twisted slightly as he recalled Blake's casual but demeaning demand to have the bag of gems returned to him, as if the memory brought a sour taste to his mouth. The twist of his lip became more pronounced as he asked himself why it should. What else should he have expected? He had never asked Blake to trust him, and why should he wish the trust of a man who would do business with the thugs of the Terra Nostra? And yet…. It had irked him for all that, and set him wondering once again how he came to be here.

With a slight sigh he crossed to the bunk and sank down as he rubbed his hand over his eyes. It seemed such a long time ago and then again only yesterday. That time when such a future as this one had appeared impossible. Yet looking back it had taken three words to open the gate to this path… just three words. 'Stefan has gone'.

Avon lay down and closed his eyes calling up the images of a past now more unreal than a dream. Yes, it had started with Stefan he was almost sure of it.

There had been others before Stefan, Julia for one, but his relationship with Julia had been long over by that time, and she was no longer working with him, so there had been no reason for him to be surprised that she had left without a word. He had assumed that she had found another job and another lover and so he hadn't wondered about Julia. Nor had he thought much about it when Kal took off for the horizon, even though it had been so sudden. Kal had always been of the 'grass is greener' mentality and so he had not wondered much about his colleagues' sudden change of direction, just assumed he'd had found an opportunity too good to pass. Truth was he'd been a little bitter about Kal's sudden good fortune, just surprised that he had not taken the time to brag about it, some vaguely uneasy little part of him noting that that was not like Kal. Then came Reece, but he had been irritated rather than surprised when she had transferred out with little notice leaving him with a mound of unfinished analysis. Reece had been seeing another woman's husband for some time and so there were good reasons why she might suddenly find it best to be somewhere else.

But Stefan was different. Stefan going so suddenly made no sense at all, not when he had married only three months before and had a new born daughter he doted on. No there was no reason for Stefan to leave without a word.

At least, no innocent reason. To an analyst of his calibre oddities and patterns were professional life blood and turning that mind set off was not really an option, and so that three word message from Stefan's distraught wife had set him wondering, and then looking for less than innocent reasons.

Once he looked he found them soon enough.

Stefan had supposedly accepted a promotion that involved working on a mining project on a frontier world, apparently taking a hitherto unknown lover with him. It wasn't hard to find the details of their passage off Earth, not much harder to find some details of the project and the documentation flowing from it, but it was a lot harder to find a record of the funding for the project. A Ghost account yes, but when you scratched the surface it contained no substance, no start up grants, no staged payments, no payroll corrections and no audited accounts. A shadow project for certain, but why? Yet there was no indication of just how Stefan might have been involved, and nothing to indicate why he had chosen a lover over a new wife and child. Stefan was gone but in a way that seemed most unlike him. Just as strange was how Stefan's wife, so distraught in those first communications became sullenly resigned, talking of past hints and signs, so quickly. Another deviation from the expected to be explained and one that shut down the obvious line of enquiry.

But if Stefan's leaving opened the door to questions then maybe the others would provide the answers, or a route to one. So he continued to work as if unconcerned, carefully burying his probing behind a screen of routine analysis. At the back of his mind a voice was whispering that this was not just a trivial curiosity, that something vital was at stake that he needed to understand. Perhaps they had something in common that he had not been aware of, something that might make sense of the stolid Stefan being suddenly gone. With a suddenly sharp curiosity he had turned his attention to the others.

Julia first. A woman who had shared his daily life for four years, and his bed for nearly two of them, a woman he had thought he had known, and yet who had told him nothing of her intention to leave, not discussed it with him despite their personal and professional relationship. She'd left his group some months before to develop and widen her technical skills, or so she had told the board, and apparently she had moved on for the same reason. The central records showed her requesting, and being granted, a transfer to a military project run out of D124, a satellite on the edge of the inner worlds. The pre transfer interview and test scores were there, at least something listed as her scores were recorded, but he had felt the first real chill of anxiety as he had studied them. He had known her so well, worked with her for so long, that he had no doubt that they were false. Not wildly and obviously wrong but wrong all the same. The project reports submitted under her name showed the same flaws, not that there were many of them as three months before, six months after her appointment, she had been listed as missing presumed dead when a test craft fell to ground during an instrument check. The post mortem details were complete but the resulting fire had left nothing he could identify by sight. Yet there was something that hadn't been quite right and when he dug a little deeper the traces of some unexpected editing were visible.

He'd mulled it over for days, telling himself that it was nothing more than the bungling and hastily covered screw ups he'd come to associate with most of Federation officialdom, but the unease had refused to go away. Those three words were still echoing around his mind, Stefan has gone.

So he moved on to Kal.

On the face of it Kal was another case of someone who had been lured from the project by promises of increased opportunity and salary. The security around the project the records claimed Kal had joined would have defeated most experts, but not him. Later he had wondered if it would have been better for all concerned if it had.

At first sight it all seemed straightforward enough, Kal had been head hunted because of his work on retaining fields, and his appointment and the associated promotion had been fast tracked to allow him to join a Federation support vessel heading to sector nine. The position as section head of a newly formed ion power research unit seemed to be real enough. At least the records of its creation, many months before Kal left, appeared genuine, but as he probed telltales like those in Julia's record began to appear. A number of associated records, recreated with some effort, told the story of an earlier appointment, one suddenly deferred due to the appointees' ill health. Kal's hurried recruitment and appointment and his arrival in post was documented, his first meetings were recorded and his first report filed, then suddenly there was a request for extended leave on personal grounds, leave that was granted. His boarding of a space liner was a matter of record, as was his arrest for assault at the first port of call and the ongoing inquiry. But the record stated he had been held in house arrest until he absconded and there were no updates beyond the original break of warrant report. The initial appointment to the role was now recovered and had been cleared to resume the position. Kal had vanished.

Which had left Reece.

In the end Reece has been the most straightforward. She had resigned after being caught in her lovers' bed by his wife, a space command captain who had returned early from a tour of duty as a result of a technical problem with her ship that required Inner planet attention. An unexpected two day pass and the desire to surprise her husband resulting in a shattered relationship and Reece finding it better to be somewhere else. So she had taken an internal transfer, abandoning matter transference for climatic modelling and her married lover for a new one. One with a jealous nature and a short temper it seemed, for it soon emerged that Julia was also dead, killed by her new man when he thought she was flirting with her section head. Her killer had been sent for behavioural re-alignment but had reacted badly to the medication and had hung himself in a fit of sudden and severe depression. Official condolences to both families were on record.

He'd spent days of uncertainty after that, working at the project analysis as usual, appearing at the necessary meetings, filing the required reports, whilst in the back ground he trawled the project records for any other indicators. There had been no Orac of course but he was very good at what he did, and so he'd found what others probably would not have found. The missing ones, tens of them, gone, vanished in one way or another, and all from the technical divisions. Some left to distant projects far from Earth and apparently unharmed, but many others dead or disappeared or just changed in some way. Most were without family or strong relationships or had resistor links in their past, but that was not the full story, as he dug deeper he came across a myriad of other small telltales, project officers whose family members were suddenly afflicted with illness, or given scholarships or promotion, all suddenly transferred. There were far too many of them for it to be co-incidental when you looked across the whole of the project, but that was something most people would never be able to do. Which was probably why the people behind it felt safe enough in their actions, and he was sure that there was someone behind it, but being sure it was happening didn't provide any answer as to why it was happening.

That answer arrived not too long afterwards. He'd been keeping watch for signs that the rate of transfer out was changing and three months after the message from Stefan's wife he saw the first signs of a campaign of reassessment. Suddenly the numbers of budget and progress reviews increased and the tally of people reassigned began to grow. Then, quietly, without announcements a whole division was wound up. There was no longer any doubt in his mind about what the changes meant; the matter transmission project was being mothballed and a more than usually thorough and ruthless containment process was being put into place.

Night after night he had sat in his quarters and reviewed his data, hoping that he had missed something or that he could find a way to set it down to chance; but all the searching still led to the same conclusion - the project was being closed and anyone who might have enough knowledge to be of interest to other parties was being contained or eliminated.

Stefan is gone. The memory of that message came back to him. Why was Stefan gone? The others might have been seen as a threat, people open to blackmail or loose tongued or driven by ambition, but why Stefan? He was about as clean living, loyal and conventional as a man could be. He would never have done anything to risk his family, or betray the authorities come to that, so why had they found it necessary to dispose of Stefan? There was only one possible answer, the things that Stefan had known. Things so secret and valuable that the knowledge had made them, who ever they were, unwilling to trust the power of threats to his family. Given the nature of the project and their role in it he wondered why the possibility of such events had not occurred to him before.

The chill that thought had brought had reached into every cell of his body, because Stefan had been his assistant and everything Stefan had known he had known, and he had known much more besides.

If knowledge was behind Stefan being gone then why had he been left behind?

It wasn't hard to work out the answer to that; it was because he had known more than Stefan. He had a reputation, had been more experienced and, he knew, far more talented, and so they had waited. For the moment at least. Maybe they had hoped that he would find the answer after all, the answer they had brought him into this vast and sprawling project to find, the one that would tell them where they were going wrong. The answer he was so close to, closer than he had let them know.

Night after night he had paced, looking for another explanation and not finding one. Stefan was gone; all of the main analysts and technical experts were gone now. Only he was left, and as the project was finally wound up it seemed likely that he would be next on their list. So what did he do, other than wait for the next appointment, the one that might well end up in a sudden accident? There was no one he could appeal to, those remaining that he might raise it with were almost certainly implicated and taking that route would only hasten the inevitable.

He realised with a shock that in his mind the threat had passed from being possible to certain.

He could run, he had the skills to do it, but he knew that he could never run far enough; he could hide, he knew how to do that too, but the only possible hiding places would be nearly as dangerous and would offer shelter for only a short period of time. What other options did he have?

So he'd continued working as if nothing was wrong, carefully monitoring who was leaving and who just didn't turn up. By now the rumours were rife and an air of tension was creeping like sonovapour across the floors. The junior staff kept their eyes on their work and scurried out the way if he met them in the corridor; his senior colleagues looked tense and wary in meetings and avoided his eyes if he met them in the public areas. He continued with his work and stayed away from anyone outside of his department as much as he could.

The day they formally announced that the project was to close and that the teams were being reassigned he made his way home in a daze. Two more of the senior members of the physics team had disappeared in the last few days, suddenly transferred to outer world locations, their work space vigorously cleared during the night; he'd seen the look in their assistants' eyes and known he was no longer alone in his fears.

Two days later an unexpected visitor arrived in his office to sound him out, so he said, about a new and very challenging project in the outer worlds and he knew he was out of time.

That evening he had paced the walkways around his quarters finally ending up in a small restaurant where he sometimes ate. The broadcast service was playing the days' criminal justice stats and amongst them was the news that a senior civil servant had been found not guilty of diverting funds to the Terra Nostra. Avon had watched the scenes in astonishment wondering how the verdict had been managed. Those around him seemed no less surprised but no one was willing to voice the word they were all thinking.

Money. It came down to money. Money made it possble.

He'd paid his bill and walked slowly home, trying to suppress the desperate excitement the incident had stirred. Money. He had long suspected that in the Federation it was the only reality. Enough of it and you were untouchable, which was why it was so very hard to make it of course; at least to make it legally. Not that he'd ever really cared about that, his skills brought him most of the privileges he cared about and the others were not really worth the cost of pursuing them. No, as long as he could live the way he wanted to he'd not cared much about financial wealth. Until now.

But Stefan was gone, he reminded himself, and it seemed clear that his skills would not protect him any longer, in fact now they might well damn him. The new project could be genuine but there has been something about the man in his office that convinced him that genuine or not accepting it would be a fast track to sudden death. There was no one who could help him now, no one who would risk doing so. He'd known for a long time that the Federation was a world where people covered their own backs, a place where many would sell a friend to the security services if they thought it would bring them a larger living space. No one would help him even if they could.

As he returned home the thought solidified, his only escape now was money, and his only security was a lot of money.

He'd sat late into the night turning the idea around in his head, inspecting it from all angles. The more he thought about it the more certain he became. If what he suspected was true then seeking some form of legal protection was pointless, as was personal protection. He knew a few people who might be able to give him some short term respite and times to think, but no one who would, or could, protect him in the loner term; after all they all had their own safety to consider so who would be willing to risk it once they knew the stakes?

He could turn the job offer down but they would wonder why, and there would be another one soon anyway, and if there wasn't then maybe he would have an accident or a sudden mystery illness. As far as he could see his only chance of delaying what looked to be the inevitable would be to find an opening that offered a good excuse for not taking what they were suggesting without raising suspicions, something that was visible enough for them to feel that he was still within their grasp. Something military perhaps or security related, something so orthodox that it would lull them into believing he had noticed nothing and that they had him contained.

Something that would give him the opportunity to find the money he needed to run and be safe. Somewhere amongst his acquaintance there must be someone who could help him. Some one who could find him the niche that might buy him the time he needed.

Avon opened his eyes and stared at the up into the shadows his hands and sighed.

There had been of course. Tynus, a man whose job involved in him in finding others with the right skills when necessary, someone whose intervention at this point would not be suspected. Not that he'd known the other man well, he'd been the type of person everyone in Avon's position had known, and looking back there had been inconsistencies about Tynus that should have warned him to take care. Desperation however can make you blind, make you play down the risk and accentuate the advantages, which was exactly what he had done. He'd known there would be a quid pro quo, there always was, but he hadn't really had any choice and it hadn't been long before the nature of that pay back had been made clear to him. But he would have needed help in his new criminal venture any way and it was better to place your reliance on someone knowing that the other party was in the venture for the usual selfish reasons, at least that way he could predict what his co-conspirators would do. Or so he had assumed.

Odd, he'd never seen himself as naïve and yet he had never considered the possibility of treachery and avarice on the scale that Tynus had apparently been capable of.

But Tynus had found him the security project and the way to slide him into the selection list. He'd have accepted it even if it hadn't offered him the path to theft in the hope that they, whoever they were, would feel they had contained him sufficiently and forgotten about him. Six months later, when he first met Anna and known that he had to get them both away, he had convinced himself that they had.

Avon sighed deeply, the rest, as they say, was history.

Wearily he got to his feet and began to strip off his tunic, the pain of knowing that Anna was dead and of the uncertainty around how she was dead was a frequent visitor even though he knew that it was better not to think of it.

Blake had nearly dragged them into the Terra Nostra's sink hole but they had escaped, though it had cost more deaths; not deaths of his making this time. If the man thought to chasten him by his petty gestures he would find himself mistaken. The events that Stefan's' disappearance had set in motion were not yet played out, but maybe he was approaching a new chapter, He had not betrayed Tynus but he had killed Anna, and for that alone he could never be damned enough. There could never be a great enough atonement for the fact that he survived but had gifted death to her. The only thing he could do now was to go on surviving, he owed it to her and sworn on her memory to go on living until the day he could make it right.

Avon tightened his grip on the garment in his hand and stared at the wall smiling bitterly, now Blake was plotting to take them to Earth and there could be no doubt as to why. He'd promised he would go back and he was taking them all with him, regardless of the probable consequences. Maybe he should not oppose Blake on this; maybe this would give him his chance. Perhaps the day of that atonement was approaching.