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“Thank you sir.” I wasn’t surprised that he’d heard of the case; it had been dragging on for four years by the time it reached me at Coughington and Scuttle.

Sir Thomas sat forward in his Siteazy and clasping his hands together rested them on his dark wooden desk. “Yes, well, I have taken the liberty of asking the Board of Governors to send a note to Bill Scuttle requesting an immediate leave of absence for you in connection with your pro bono contribution here at UNPOL. We haven’t given them any details of your role here other than to say it is of vital importance to the Nation. Something that won’t do your Contributory Record any harm either. Now take a look at the wall screen,” he said, indicating the wall behind me. I stood up and turned the straight-backed wooden chair to an angle that would allow me to talk to Sir Thomas and have an easy view of the screen. I sat back down and folded my hands into my lap.

An image appeared of a man sitting naked on a Biosense chair in white space. Jibril Muraz. He sat in the lotus position, his eyes closed. He seemed perfectly still, and were it not for his bio data indicating his vital signs streaming across the bottom of the screen in a constant flow, like a stock ticker, you might have thought him dead.

Sir Thomas cleared his throat and said, “This is how he has been since he requested to see you. He’s in the White Room in the Deep. The White Room is a new development here and we only use it in extreme cases. This one qualifies. Basically you feel as if you’re in a cloud, with no sense of depth or orientation. You wake up sitting on that chair without a floor beneath your feet. It’s experimental but so far we’ve had good results. So far that is until Mr Jibril Muraz. He’s resisted Truth Treatment which is highly unusual with all that rubbish about being an alien, and he has obviously penetrated our information systems because of the data loss. So irrespective of the sixteen criminals who are now scattered around the universe — and we haven’t a clue who or where they are — the fact that this Jibril Muraz is in our systems is enough cause for huge concern. We need you to bring all your skills to bear as a negotiator and draw him out, get him to speak.”

I waited for Sir Thomas to continue and when he didn’t, I asked, “Do I have to conduct the interview in the White Room?” There it was, my final acceptance that I had to take this role, but then I’d really accepted the instant I heard he’d asked for me. My mind flashed a quick image of Cochran and I pushed it away. Focus.

“No, but we would prefer it if you did.”

I took out my Devstick and looking at the case file information, said, “According to this, the timing between his request for a meeting with me and the sudden disappearance of all of his related data was almost instantaneous. That couldn’t have been a planned coincidence — wouldn’t that indicate that he has an accomplice?”

“Yes, that’s possible and our current most likely scenario. That or he planted a data time bomb and counted, which we haven’t ruled out. Either way the implications are extremely serious.”

“Yes, I understand. Is it possible that his accomplice is still in the system and watching us?”

“Yes, it is possible and there is a risk.”

I turned to face Sir Thomas and he studied me with his serious look and said, “If his accomplice is in the systems he may be able to manipulate the building’s various alarms and defenses. We have our best digital trace and infrastructure people on this but they still haven’t been able to detect the source of the deleted data, so…”

Just leaving that ‘so’ dangling like that didn’t give me much comfort at this sudden turn of events. The day was not improving.

“What defenses and alarms are we talking about?”

“Well in a worst case scenario, paralyzing sound will be released, nerve gas will flood the room and the partition between you and the prisoner will rise while the door to the room will stay locked.”

“I see.”

“I want you to take a stun device with you as protection. Both of you would most probably be unconscious the sec anything happened but just in case, as a purely precautionary measure, I’d feel more comfortable if you took the stun gun.”

He pulled open a drawer in his very traditional battleship of a desk, took out a black, squat-looking device and laid it on the dark green blotter in front of him. It seemed out of place in this antique throwback of an office. Even his title was antique, one of the last Knighthoods given for services to the Realm before that Realm was merged with all others after the Last Great War of 2056. He was just twenty-one years old when knighted by the King of England.

I had never had to take a weapon to a meeting before. It was a strange feeling, a feeling I didn’t enjoy. Like most humans I despise violence in any form, and apart from the very occasional hormone inspired scuffles of my youth, had never experienced it in its physical form.

“I’d rather not. I want to go in naked, as he is. Either that or clothe him before our interview,” I said, and swiveled in thechair to face Sir Thomas directly.

Sir Thomas sat back in his Siteazy and frowned, lifting a hand to stroke his slightly dimpled, fleshy chin.

My arguments mentally assembled to convince him that what I was proposing made sense, but he interrupted my thoughts by saying, “All right. No stun gun and you go in naked.”

“Thank you, sir,” I said, nodding to him in acknowledgement of his acquiescence.

“Not at all Jonah — thank you. We’ll be monitoring everything that goes on and at the first sign of any trouble we’ll get you out. I’ve put a Special Ops team on standby and they’ll be outside the door to the room.” Sir Thomas stood up and held out his hand smiling. Most of us don’t shake hands anymore: we’ve borrowed the practice of ‘wai’ from the Thai and Indian cultures, but everything about Sir Thomas is antique, including his handshake. I took his hand, shaking firmly. His palm felt sweaty in my grip, and I resisted the urge to wipe my palm on my trouser leg.

Leaving Sir Thomas’s office, the path under my feet lit the way to the nearest Lev ports. I followed the directional arrows, their subtle light blinking direction in time with my steps.

The Lev politely enquired, “Where do you wish to go, Arbitrator Oliver?”

“Er yes, take me to Jibril Muraz. And I want to travel off-line please.”

“Certainly Arbitrator Oliver, eight minutes to destination,” the Lev said as the Lev capsule started to move. I sat down. You couldn’t really feel it moving, but the portal on the Devscreen next to the Lev door changed from the spinning UN icon to show how the capsule was moving through the complex. Only newer buildings have Levs; the older buildings still have the Lev’s forefather, the elevator. A touch of the keypad or voice instruction could display your position relative to the universe if you really wanted to know that or simply your exact location on Earth. It could also display others traveling around you. Useful when you’re lonely and looking for company, but right now I wanted to travel incognito, as far as I could be incognito when all those I reported to, and a fair few I didn’t, could track my tag in a milsec if they wanted to. The portal showed I was about five hundred meters from surface and tracking deeper, as well as in an easterly direction from my uncle’s office.

“Destination is now estimated to be reached in approximately six minutes, Arbitrator Oliver.”

Six minutes. My thoughts were still flashing across the inside of my forehead. I could feel them. My temples started to throb. Six minutes and I’m there. It wasn’t much time and usually I’d prepare for days, even months before a meeting, but there was no time. I took out my Devstick and reviewed the data that I had copied earlier. There wasn’t much but what there was I read three times. The Lev spoke again.

“Arrived at destination, Arbitrator Oliver. Have a good day.”

I rose from the Biosense chair in the Lev capsule a calm man. I felt like I could use a really strong alky, but I was calm.