When at last the grid, now Len’s only source of light, showed him that he had reached just over the cabinet, he could stand easily in the fault he’d created in the beam. When the blue light flickered and cut short, Len checked once again that no one was in the room and hoisted himself up and out of his secret metal tunnel.
Four green Glowbes hung in pairs at either end of the room. They dimly illuminated a small door about three-quarters the height of the filing system to Len’s left and more cabinets on the other walls.
Except for the door, and the windows and cabinets to Len’s right, there was nothing in the room but bare wall and the Glowbes, and the new arrival. This was good in that it meant no other life forms to answer to, but it was not so good in that the absence of anything besides the cabinets meant the absence of an index.
Len had a long night ahead of him.
Len opened another drawer, selected another file, and again scoured every contained document for anything useful. Upon again finding nothing, he replaced each document carefully in its folder and the folder back into the drawer where he had found it. Then he moved to the next folder and began again.
Len had lost count at how many times he’d done this, but he didn’t allow his mind to wander for a moment; when the lit console buzzed softly, reminding him to scan the rooms and hallways outside, he absentmindedly pressed the orange button. His eyes had strained from reading in the dim green light, but he did not pause to rest them. If he allowed himself one moment of boredom, distraction, or exhaustion, it would be one moment he hadn’t spent searching, and he could find himself one moment too short.
Then, suddenly, there it was in his hands. The title at the top of the page read, ‘DETAINED COUNCIL ENEMIES’. Len grinned to himself. 'Merrasheel mine!'
They were all there. Rebels long presumed dead were alive, imprisoned in penal institutions. Their names were typed out neatly, and the coordinates of their prisons were easy enough to locate. Len gazed in awe at the cognomens of hundreds of his allies. In the next folder he found even more, along with their “crimes” – and along with the evidence planted by the Council.
Len shook his head in wonder. His midnight effort had not been in vain. Not nearly so - the information here was enough to keep the Council on their toes for years, maybe decades.
The gadget on Len’s belt began to buzz quietly. Len dug deeper into the files, pulling out information neither he nor even Commander Owen had expected him to find: suspect Rebel bases, which should be evacuated immediately; trading routes the Rebels were known to travel, which should now be avoided at all costs; technology the Rebel fleets were suspected to use, most of it far behind their current technologies.
The device on his belt began to buzz more urgently. In the next file, Len found pictures of his captured friends and of suspected Rebels.
His head swimming with satisfaction, Len heard distantly the tones of a small device clipped to his belt and a sudden, subconscious rush of something told him to stop looking through the drawer for just a half second and press the orange button.
In the dim light of the Glowbes, Len continued his search. Just a few more docs, a few more, and I’ll check… Suddenly the Glowbes’ beams grew far more intense and Len had to blink. It must – it must be daylight hours now, he thought.
“What the –”
Len’s heart skipped a beat. He must have accidentally spoken aloud. His hands returned to the drawer by their own power. It must have been his own voice. But in a fraction of a fraction of an instant, it dawned on him that he had made a terrible neglect. Light was pouring in from the hallway, around a dark figure in the door.
Len froze. Idiot! The lit console was still urging him to scan for intruders. No need, buddy. Len ground his teeth. Not anymore, that is.
“Shut it off,” said the silhouette in the doorway, lifting a weapon. “And watch it – you won’t make a second mistake.” The threat echoed hollowly around the room, louder than death.
Len cautiously lowered his left hand to his belt and firmly pressed the device’s deactivation switch. The beeping and the lights faded within a few seconds. “That’s it,” the figure told Len. “Now put the docs back.” Len hesitated only a fraction of an instant before obeying, thinking frantically as he closed the drawer how he was going to get out of the room in one piece and without raising any alarms. He stood stupidly, staring with longing at the gleaming green databank.
“Move away from the files.” Len took a tentative step backwards, then another, and stopped, dumb. He was still digesting the delicious secrets he’d read. “Turn towards me with your hands in the air. Now come towards me. Nice and slow. Nothing stupid.”
Len grimaced. He’d had a fleeting hope that the gunman would make the mistake of wanting to see what Len was looking at and would come into the room. He silently kicked himself, both for being so stupid and for hoping for the same stupidity from a PF man.
Len walked toward the light of the doorway. He braced himself, thinking that maybe he could have a fighting chance…but the man had a weapon in his hand, and probably many more in his military pockets. It wasn’t worth it. As he walked miserably toward the doorway, Len started to see the contours of the intruder’s face.
Len stopped in his tracks. “Iv?” he whispered. “Iv, old friend!” His face broke into a relieved smile. His shoulders relaxed as he gave a small laugh. “It’s been so long. But you don’t look a bit different.”
The PF man faltered for an instant, clearly confused by Len’s words, but then he regained himself. “Shut up. You’ve got as much business speaking as you have snooping in here, Rebel. You’re under arrest.”
Genuine surprise slapped Len’s face. “Iv,” he said dully, “don’t you remember me?” To the frigid silence that followed he continued, “Iv, it’s me, Len! You remember Len, don’t –?” Len stopped short in response to the blaster raised to his chest. His blood ran cold.
“Iv.” Now it was a hoarse whisper. “Iv, don’t you –”
“I remember a traitor and a killer.”
Len’s face paled. “Iv,” he spoke with carefully handcrafted words; “I am not a killer. Or a traitor. I did leave the Protective Forces, sure, but with good reason –”
“Good reason.” Iv spat the words like shards of glass, but the weapon lowered a centimeter.
Acutely aware of the blaster before him, Len nodded. “They were arresting innocents. Still are, as it were. And not just civilians – Sel was a fine cadet.”
“She plotted against the Council.”
“Lies, Iv! You and I both knew her,” Len pleaded. “What did she do? What could she have done? She was smart, that’s all. Sel didn’t do things. She knew things, Iv, that was her crime.”
Silence was the reply.
Hoping it was encouragement, Len offered softly, “Irah, Bru, Jano – what were their crimes, Iv? Intelligence! The Council is crushing us. Remember Steiana? PF men ordered to open fire on innocents, hundreds of innocents –”
“They were rebels all,” Iv gritted, “plotting to decree independence. Thankless rebels.”
Knowing that the frozen sheet he stood on couldn’t support much more strain, Len swallowed and asked, “Why did you join the PF, Iv? I remember the first day of training, the very first day; you told me you were going to be the greatest protector in the Forces. You knew – everybody knew – you could go the distance.” Len nodded to the arrows on Iv’s shoulders. “And…and so you have.”
“And so I have,” Iv confirmed, his already frosty voice growing more wintry. “In fact, old friend –” Len winced at these new shards of glass – “I have risen to a level such that I need no order for shooting down an enemy.” He keyed a command into the blaster and held it steady with Len’s chest. He looked directly into Len’s eyes. “I give the order now.”
An imminent fist tightened around Len’s ribs. He licked sweat from his upper lip and whispered, “No, Iv. You – you wouldn’t. I’m unarmed.”
“Mm. And your poor rebel forces can’t afford any armor.” Iv eyed Len’s skintight suit casually. “Maybe with you gone they’ll spend their funds more efficiently.” With an almost conversational tone, he added, “Or maybe they won’t.”
Len tried one last time. “Iv, please. Shooting an unarmed civilian is Steinana all over again, is – is – murder in cold blood! That’s killing the people PF – you! – are supposed to protect!” he yelled in desperation.
“Yes.” Iv agreed. “But killing an enemy of the Council destroys danger to civilians. It is you Rebels who cause the unbalance. The fact that you are unarmed just makes things easy.”
Len never got the chance to reply.
A jolt rippled through him and he shuddered and collapsed. He lay still, shocked at his own death, curled ever so slightly in the shadows cast by the dim Glowbes above.
Iv stared blankly at the body for a moment, then turned. In the doorway he pressed an intercom and summoned a janitor for file room 3-6B8. When the message was confirmed, Iv marched off to his drills without looking back.
And Len lay still.