The voice of the man was somewhat muffled over the intercom. Still, there was this ever demanding undertone that put her off at times. Sometimes she knew he already had all the answers and was just putting her to a test. And sometimes he left her completely in the dark, and she had no clue what it would be this time.
“So, how are things?“
The woman considered her next words for a moment. Things had gone the way she had expected but still there was this belly feeling that she had overlooked something. It only rarely happened as she viewed herself as overly thorough, and the man across the intercomm usually agreed with her. But there was a piece of the puzzle missing and quite frankly she did not know which or why.
“He chose the modifications after HR 6421 so we arranged something at an out-of-the-way base on Khun and had his Asp outfitted. He then left for Founders. Later, he found the locator and protocol routines in the firmware we installed. Both, the easy one and the concealed one.”
“As we expected.”
Indeed. It was part of the routine to see if new prospects trusted their potential contractors blindly or if they had it in them. “Yes. Although it may be worthwhile to know that the latter was concealed rather well. He had help from one of his contacts, though, an ex-Sirius engineer named Sanya Kho. It would have required both determination and effort to find and remove these items.”
“Sirius?” The man seemed to be genuinely intrigued. At least his voice suggested it.
“Yes, Sirius. She is an environmental specialist on matter conversion and had at least three assignments we know of that involved terraforming and matter synthesis. But Sirius is unusually protective of her files. Nothing yet.”
“Interesting. Exactly what we are looking for, aren’t we? ‘Know who to trust but also know your limits. And then have your contacts overcome them.’ Also from an observation specialist’s view: If you easily spot malware in your new upgrades – upgrades some mysterious strangers gave to you – you know it is a diversion. You know there has to be some other catch somewhere deep in your systems.”
Was he even speaking to her? It seemed a bit like he was musing for himself, she being merely a source of information. If you were not acquainted with the man it could drive you mad.
“And now what?” she asked.
“Where is he?”
“After he fulfilled his last contracts with Wolf 406 Flag he enlisted in some sort of search and rescue mission for the Alliance. Although ‘rescue’ seems to be somewhat optional. It’s around a scout ship that apparently got lost. Interestingly, it’s in the Corona Austrinae region.”
“He has been there before, hasn’t he?”
“Yes. Almost a year ago, before he joined the Distant Worlds expedition. There he apparently reached the Ceeckia regions. At least Kamzel informed us on that.”
“His doings in the Corona are of interest to us, Mirriam. The Corona was always considered special with regards to exploration attempts. Apart from the fact that in the early days of exploration there were other more alluring targets, that region of space always seemed to hold a certain mystique. A certain …unwillingness… to be explored.”
“What do you mean?”
He paused. Maybe she had struck a nerve there. The man’s interest for the Corona Austrinae region was well known within the organisation. “Do you know of the Bermuda Triangle legends of old Earth?”
“Back on old Earth, in the 20th century I believe, it was supposed to be an area of an ocean where multiple ships and aircraft had vanished mysteriously and without a trace. There were all kinds of speculations about it, namely methane hydrate eruptions, tropic storms, Alien abductions and other paranormal activities. All fueled by conspiracies and superstition. Most sailors or pilots later considered the area to be haunted. And so it is with the Corona Austrinae.”
She considered that for a moment. It was not uncommon, not even in the 34th century, that pilots made up yarn and fish tales about strange sightings and alien artefacts. Infact, the number of tales doubled since the Synuefe ruins had been discovered. She, however, was sceptical, as was her job. And superstition was beneath her. Well, not always, but this time.
“You mean the sector is haunted? I very much doubt that the Corona is special in any way after nearly five hundred years of exploration. There are wrecks all around, some old, some new. And there are unexpected disappearances of spacecraft all right. But to reduce these evidently technological mishaps and accidents to mysterious forces or ‘the unknown’ is a step back. We need facts and not fiction to get us anywhere.”
She heard the man chuckle across the intercomm. Apparently he had his share of fun with all this. “Then let us examine the facts: There have been multiple attempts to thoroughly survey the sector, especially by the Alliance. Well, after all it is literally in their backyard plus the Federation and the Empire have always looked in other directions. The last dedicated attempt was the Alliance’s ‘Long Arm’ program. It started in 3295 and ended catastrophically, scientifically, financially and from a PR perspective. The other power blocks very effectively used that for their spin and according to our sources the Alliance took quite some time to recover from that blow.”
That got her attention: “You mentioned the Long Arm.”
Was there a trace of irritation in his voice? Could it be? “That is very interesting. I met someone recently who mentioned that program as well.”
“A scientist from a Federation black ops project who found his conscience. Most likely with an intelligence background. He turned to us for extraction and anonymous relocation. Later he said the ‘Long Arm’ was the tip of an iceberg or something like that. He hinted at the Federation knowing pretty well what the Long Arm was about. So we set up a chain of events and eventually pulled him out. Coincidentally, Gaspurr was also involved, although he did not know at that time.”
“Yes. He was referred to us as being helpful for the cover story.”
The man had regained his serene tone. “Too many coincidents, wouldn’t you agree? An Alliance exploratory mission goes awry and ends in a catastrophe in 3295. The Federation somehow gets to know and uses it to discredit the Alliance. Next, a Federation top scientist and spy switches sides and he knows about the Long Arm and maybe some of its less savory downsides. He turns to us and with our help, and that of an unsuspecting Gaspurr, he gets out. Later, Gaspurr starts working for us indirectly, because the same extracted scientist recommends him to us.
Why? He thinks he’s a good choice. Some time passes, he works as a data courier and we get to trust him. Then Gaspurr accepts an Alliance mission in the Corona Austrinae to recover something, an area where the Long Arm was active seven years ago and maybe not only had exploratory targets. And where it failed and nobody seems to know why. We know Gaspurr has been to the Corona at least once before. We know this, because that scientist claims he knows. It really does not sound like coincidence, does it?”
That was it. The missing piece of the puzzle and her belly feeling was right: That scientist wanted them to find something and he wanted it to be found by others outside of the power blocks. The balance of power was already delicate and maybe – just maybe – somewhere there was something that could tip it in one or the other direction. And it had something to do with technology or maybe a sensitive research, otherwise the Federation would not have involved this obscure espionage project.
“There are multiple conclusions: Either that scientist wants him to uncover something. Something he himself was unable to uncover, and he wants us to know about it. Maybe to lay his conscience to rest and do us a favor for extracting him. Maybe he even wants to direct us to this find, because he knows we keep an eye on Gaspurr. Or he has his own agenda of finding something and uses him as a pawn. But then, why would he even insist we contract him beforehand? Why make us a witness? And why switch sides at all?”
“This could prove interesting. Where is this most extraordinary scientist now?”
“He booked passage for Alrai Sector but he ended up near Altair.”
“He won’t run away and he is not that important at this time. Have him shadowed for the time being and find out more about the project he worked on in the Federation. There are other matters at hand and we need our attention elsewhere.”
Another change in tone. This time it was more concerned and not as aloof as before: “Is there any news about her after the convoy incident?”
“Then we should proceed as planned and concentrate on the Rift. Contact Gaspurr when he is back from the Corona. See what he found out. And remember.”
She answered the pledge: “Remember I will.”
With that she deactivated the intercomm and walked toward her Diamondback Explorer. Upon her approach the engines were already firing.