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Chapter 12 - Can't Trace Time by A.J. Hall

“Vorsoisson!” Owen bellowed. There was, of course, a perfectly functioning intercom between the inner and outer offices, but where would be the fun in that?

A second or so later Tien put his head round the door. He hadn’t made any effort to wipe the air of affronted dignity from his expression. Owen guessed his administrative assistant must have been off sick the day his school ran the introductory course on Winning Friends And Influencing People.

“Right,” Owen said briskly. “I’ve got to go and see about my luggage. Those idiots at the shuttleport are still making feeble excuses. So - ” He tapped the 3-D vid-cube he was holding. “Turns out the city end of their operation is only a couple of kilometres away. I’m planning to show up on their doorstep and see how effective their stone-walling gets when a punter’s there in person. You’re holding the fort while I’m out, Vorsoisson. Anything come up you can’t handle - really big requisition for paper-clips, funny noise from the air-con units, mouse in the basement, you know the sort of thing - I’ve got my comlink. Just give me a call.”

He was out of the office before Vorsoisson could respond. Once in the corridor he headed briskly down the stairs, as though making for the main exit. On reaching the second floor, however, he cast a quick look in both directions, checking the coast was clear. Reassured on that front he was outside Bel’s room within the next two minutes.

As the door hissed open beneath his palm-print he found himself looking into the muzzle of a blunt, snub-nosed weapon.

“Sorry,” Bel saidwith only the barest trace of sincerity. He put the stunner down. “Reflexes.” It made a welcoming gesture towards the bench. “Do sit down. Have some tea - I don’t think that pot’s completely undrinkable yet. Be my guest: after all, my cell is your cell.”

That comment suddenly hit right in the solar plexus. Owen felt suddenly clammy; his breathing harsh and difficult.

“You realise it probably will be if this all goes tits-up? Our only hard evidence is the blood tests showing retcon in your bloodstream. It’ll be your word against Hasek’s for how it got there. And any judge on this fucked-up crazy planet is going to be minded to discard your testimony in the first place. If we can’t prove any of this -“

Bel patted him on the arm. “Relax. You’re babbling.” it said, and sighed. “And heaven knows I should be able to tell.” It eyed him speculatively. “Of course, I’ve never found anything better than a back-rub for beating pre-combat nerves myself.”

“You quite sure you don’t know my boss?”

What Bel might have said next was anybody’s guess. At that moment, though, the vid-cube Owen had been holding gave a brief, unmistakable ‘ping!’

“Ah,” the herm breathed. “The bleating of the kid attracts the tiger.” It raised its comlink to its wrist and spoke into it. “Well?”

Comienski’s voice sounded breathy, agitated. “Vorsoisson passed me on his way to the canteen five minutes ago. Justin’s just headed up the stairs in the opposite direction now. Is Owen with you yet?”

Owen leant over Bel’s wrist. “Just got here, darlin’,”

“Right. Well, if you’re wanting to log onto the network, any time now is good.”

“Straight onto it.”

With Owen’s administrator privileges and Bel’s detailed and arcane knowledge of buggering civilian electronics for military purposes, turning the vid-cube into an unofficial node of the hospital system hadn’t been that difficult. It packed a formidable amount of processing power for something that had apparently been designed to be nothing more than a glorified A-Z of Vorbarr Sultana. And there was only one log-on id which it was supposed to be monitoring, which made the job even simpler.

They watched the display scroll past them for twenty minutes or so in silence. Then Owen put out his hand, touched a key, and froze it. He bent to his own comlink.

“Petrova?”

She took a second or so to answer. “Um?”

“Can you tell me what you’re doing at the moment?”

She sounded rather irritated.

“What sort of call is this? What do you suppose I’m doing? Finishing off my paperwork, of course. It may have escaped your notice, but I was due off shift half an hour ago. And it hasn’t exactly been what you might call a quiet night on the wards, has it? Even by - galactic - standards.”

Owen and Bel exchanged a glance. Bel spoke first. “Um. Paperwork. Yes. I don’t suppose you happened to have approved a request for a patient transfer to the De Rais Trauma Centre recently?”

“Where?” Comienski’s next words were partly swallowed by an enormous yawn, they sounded like ‘Nevvererdovit’. “When?”

Owen moved his finger down the frozen display above the vid-cube. “Recently enough for it to be counter-signed by - well, let’s make that ‘On behalf of’, shall we? - our beloved Administrator Vorsoisson within the last five minutes.”

That provoked a snort of epic proportions. “Ah. So anytime between yesterday and three weeks ago, that’ll be. You’ll have to give me a bit more to go on. Who’s the patient?”

Bel bent to the wrist-com again. “Me.”

There was a small choked silence. Before Petrova could respond Owen lifted his wrist to his mouth. “Comienski? Do this now. Copy full logs of every bit of admin you’ve done for the last four days. Date stamp them. Time stamp them. Copy protect them. Password protect them. Then copy the whole bleedin’ shebang to stand-alone media and bring that up to me - you know where. And then - take yourself off shift. Make sure everyone - and you know who I mean by everyone - knows that Dr Petrova Comienski has left the building. Got that? Oh, and stop to say a loving farewell to your tea-drinking buddies in the security bunker on your way out. See if you can get one of them to walk you to your car.”

Her voice sounded small and scared. “OK. I think I understand. Anything else?”

“Yes.” Owen’s voice sharpened. “Don’t let yourself go to sleep. Have a bath, get changed into civvies - that sort of stuff. But I’m expecting you back here at 15:15. There’ll be someone waiting at the foot of the service stairs to let you in.”

“15:15? Why?”

“Because, it seems, the patient transfer - initiated by you - is due to take place at 15:30. And I thought you wouldn’t want to miss the final act. So see you there, sweetheart. Or consider yourself off the team.”

He cut the com-link. Bel raised an eyebrow at him. “Being a bit tough there, aren’t you? She’ll have been on duty for something like sixteen hours straight by that time.”

“Well? She’s a junior house doctor. They don’t need sleep like the rest of us. It’s a metabolic adjustment.”

Bel looked across at him, a complex expression on its face.

“Do you have to act like a bastard, just to prove you’re in charge here?”

“What?” He knew the aggrieved note in his voice must make him sound whiny, but hell, it really was a bit much. “This isn’t me being a bastard. For me, this is me being a bleedin’ pussycat.”

Bel turned away to complete the preparations of the armoury on the bench, concealing its face from him as it did so. Owen realised, unexpectedly, he would have given his eye-teeth to know whether that was amusement or disgust registering on those mobile features. But when Bel turned back to face him its face was a non-committal blank.

“So. The interval. And at 15.15 - Act Two begins.”