The Diamondback Explorer swung about and commenced its final approach towards the huge, rotating Coriolis station that was Serebrov Terminal. Docking permissions had been given and Andrew was somewhat happy to be back again. It was odd, really. He had never seemed able to stay in civilized space for long. He was one of those spacefarers who was drawn out into the unknown again and again and who enjoyed the solitude among the distant stars. But when Barnard’s Loop came into view on the way back, he usually felt a kind of joy that he had made it home again. Not far from the Loop, the Bubble that was civilized space lay, the cradle of mankind where they had first taken to the stars so many centuries ago. From out there it looked so fragile and pristine, just a mere drop of water in this vast ocean of stars and nebulae. Andrew was usually relieved to see it this way; usually, but not this time.
He came from urgent business in the Formidine Rift, where they had discovered a huge hulking exploration ship named the Zurara which bore a deadly, decades old secret. On that assignment Commander Jackie Silver had decided that Andrew return to Zero Base at best speed to brief the other Children in person. No comms out there, no relays, not with this situation. Spoken words in person only, OpSec demanded it. There were groups of people who seemingly took great pains to remove anybody who was close to solving that secret or who just happened to stumble across bits and pieces.
No, this time Andrew was not relieved to return home. He was anxious. Whatever power these groups held, it must have been cultivated for a long time now and they had resources at their disposal rivalling those of megacorporations and maybe major governments; or surpassing them.
This time, when returning to the Bubble, there was an air of premonition to it, a dark foreboding that something on a cosmic scale was about to happen.
It didn’t take long to manifest: He realized something was wrong as soon as he entered the system. HR 6421 was an anarchy system after all and mostly full of frivolous freelancers and mercenaries jousting with the local pirates or freedom fighters. But none of it now. Andrew couldn’t believe his eyes when the Nanshe’s scanners identified ship after ship and pilot after pilot. The system seemed to be patrolled heavily by the Children’s own Sword Wing and an assortment of ships from the allied Loren’s Legion and the good neighbors of the League of Star Pilots. It was the first time he had ever seen something like checkpoints for ship travel around the major planets and when he was hailed by flight control, the commander on duty seemed to be under stress and somewhat brusque about the business. When asked what all this patrol fuss was about, the commander just shrugged and told Andrew to ask the Consul about it.
So here he was, finally passing the ‘letterbox’ of the huge station and setting down on one of the landing pads reserved for the Children of Raxxla standby docking bays. The Nanshe came to an abrupt halt, systems shutting down, and automech bots approached to refuel and repair the vessel and maybe add a bit of paint here and there. Andrew would leave the routine to the ground crew. He made his way to the Consul Tower and hoped for a coffee and a shower afterwards. Inside the Tower, he was almost immediately greeted by Mir, the aloof and somewhat non-descript ‘Outsource Contractor’ who had ordered him out of the Bubble not too long ago under some rather discomforting circumstances; and she was per se the owner of his current ship, the heavily customized Nanshe, the Goddess of Prophecy. As he looked at her, Andrew thought he saw something like a prophetic gaze in her eyes. ‘Fitting,’ he thought before beginning his introduction with a customary smile:
“Hi! The message was somewhat garbled and I couldn’t understand it all. But I came as fast as I could, given I had to cover nearly ten thousand light years without an omni-shaver or a soft cushion.”
When he saw her stern face unmoving, as if it was hewn in stone, and her aloof expression taking on a depressing look, his smile instantly froze.
For just a moment Mir seemed to search for words and her composure. She then managed to summon some life into her eyes before just saying “We lost her.”
Andrew was puzzled. “Lost who?” was all he could ask.
“Salomé, Andrew. We lost her.”
He moved a step towards her. “I don’t understand.”
She nodded silently and gestured him to follow her into one of the comm bureaus. They were suited for sophisticated data analysis as well small meetings and had all the means necessary for these tasks. He sat down and Mir closed the door behind them, activated the white noise generator and began to tell the tale:
“As you well know we reached out to you in the Eafots Cell and hurried you across the Formidine Rift: You, Silver, Fox and Sajime.” She waved at the central holofac and it flickered to life, showing a remote area of space with some POI icons flashing here and there. A dotted curvy line appeared, showing the route Team Silver had taken to reach a certain system. “You were one of the first who found the Zurara adrift in the far reaches of the Rift. You heard the logs firsthand so you know what befell the crew and you know it was an elaborately planned scheme to leave no witnesses… not one.”
“Just like those settlements in Eafots and I guess also in the Conflux and Hawkin’s,” Andrew mused while studying the holographic map. Four icons were close to the Heart and Soul Nebulae and they represented those abandoned settlements whose workforces had very likely been betrayed and killed in the same way as the Zurara’s.
“The data you recovered proved invaluable and it is true that the conspiracy can be backtracked to the core worlds here. Salomé made it her personal quest to uncover it. We don’t exactly know how and when she did it but she recruited several allies and went to great lengths to expose this treachery.” She paused for a moment. “Even Alessia and Erimus could not cope with the speed the next events unfolded. The next thing we know is Salomé apparently managed to get access to the Collinder 70 Sector.”
Andrew raised an eyebrow: “Collinder 70? That’s beyond Orion’s Belt. It’s been locked off for hyperspace travel for I think two years now. Nobody knows why but it’s one big block of space and people have to fly left or right for a hundred light years to get through to Barny’s. I was there before the Rift and the Zurara skimming the border and poking around for the Wreaken campaign. There’s some activity going on there. I found some wreckages and an apparently lost shipment of performance enhancers; an unmarked T-9 shot to pieces adrift near some gas giant’s rings. Well, you have the report.”
“Yes,” Mir continued. She waved at the holofac and a star map of the area surrounding Barnard’s Loop appeared, again with several icons flashing here and there. “Collinder 70 presumably is the key – or one of the keys – to unlock this conspiracy. That was when Salomé called out for aid rather publicly, which was not her usual mode of operations. She must have found something there, something that was so important she abandoned her cover. We know she wanted to return to the Bubble and address the public and make a statement. That was when an armada of bounty hunters tried to waylay and kill her. Someone must have put them all on her trail.”
She swallowed, trying to hide her emotions: “After a long chase, they succeeded. Two of her closest allies made it out alive. She didn’t. Her Clipper was eventually crippled and destroyed in some backwater system nobody ever heard of. Just at the time when she got separated from her guards while tunnelling in supercruise mode. Perfect setup it seems.”
Andrew chewed on his lips. It sounded like a clean job but still he had to ask: “Escape pods?”
“No. There couldn’t possibly have been enough time to reach one; and none have been spotted thus far since the incident. We still have scouts out there. But they become more symbolic every day.” There was sheer resignation in her words.
He turned away from the holofac and looked at her: “I am sorry, Mir. For all it’s worth I’m sorry. I can’t say I knew Salomé. I had her on comms twice and of course I read all her dossiers on this and that. But I’ve not been here long enough to have known her, maybe like you did. Still, I know she meant everything to you Raxxlans and that she was kind of the lifebreather. I am sorry for your loss.”
She nodded: “Thank you, Andrew. It’s just that an organisation becomes prone to paralysation if you remove the key figure.”
She finally was in her matter-of-fact mode again. When first they met Andrew had felt uncomfortable but he later decided it was the tone he liked most when dealing with Mir.
“This can also apply to those who thwarted her,” he said. “The ones you see behind this conspiracy and all the hassle they throw at us; or at the galactic population at large. There will always be some who think that all should know if they’re in peril, not just some heritage club. Maybe it would be a good idea to get those people together and raise the ante for our dear conspirators by bringing together and making public what we know and what we think we know.”
She looked at him for a long moment, seemingly measuring his words. Slowly her frowns and burnt out look gave way to a more relaxed and balanced expression.
“Excellent idea, and as it happens, the Consul are already at it. You may have recognized some of the ships that voluntarily patrol the system. Some will stay a while and some will spread the word around. Get others involved. It is good you are back, too. There are things we need uncovered around Collinder 70. Go there and also stop over at Maia and get in touch with Roslyn Suarez. She is working for Palin and becoming an expert on meta-alloys. Get acquainted, her knowledge may become valuable for some recent developments in the Pleiades.”
“Is she the grumpy woman from the audio logs? I recall someone signing with ‘R.’ in those logs.
“No, that is another lead we have to follow up and it seems to tie in with a starship cemetery and a clone planet. Suarez is on asset level so do not be too wordy with her. And hurry, just in case some others chose to approach her as well.”
With another wave of her hand she closed the holofac and grabbed her datapad. Andrew got up and made his way to leave the room. As he turned towards the door, Mir suddenly laid a hand on his shoulder.
“I have to add this: Like you said, you have not been long with us. She was our figurehead, the one we looked up to. And now she is dead and you did not even know her. You should not have been thrown into this so abruptly. I am sorry, but it is just the way it is. We have to move on and finish her quest.”
Andrew stood still for a moment, looking at her. He had never before seen her so vulnerable and it pained him to do so. He managed a smile: “No, I didn’t know her in person. Just from comms and word of mouth from Kamzel. But it seems there are things out there she was willing to die for. And people who killed her for those things. I think we owe her one.”
As he moved she drew away her hand. “Where are you going?”
“I need you on comms, just in case,” she added quickly.
“I’m going to see a certain spy-researcher you have extracted for ‘reasons’ two years ago. It’s time for some answers and he was deep in covert ops and secret science. I am no longer buying this ‘I know nothing’ stuff he’s been throwing around. Why did you extract him in the first place anyway? Where has he been in the meantime? I think he has his own agenda and it’s damn time we find out.”
She nodded. “I will transfer his last known location to your contact list.”
Not ten minutes later the Nanshe left Serebrov Terminal for Alrai Sector.