With a wipe of his left hand, the cups and the crockery were swept onto the floor beside the table. Liquids were spilled and there was a soft clinking sound. Other guests in the starport cantina here and there turned their heads but overall – and among all the other sounds – the two men in the booth were left to their apparent quarrel. One of the advantages of meeting in a busy place.
“I’ve had enough of you spoon-feeding me ancient history and galactic politics according to your whims and walk out of things when they get messy. You are just as scheming as the people you accuse of withholding some dire truth from the unknown masses. And you dare lecture me…”
“Andrew…” the other man tried to cut him short. He looked around anxiously as if expecting to be recognized
“Don’t andrew me!” Andrew hissed in a lowered voice. He managed to regain some of his composure but this talk was deteriorating quickly. “People are dying here. People who helped you escape a situation and you said are a trustworthy bunch of Niceguys. And now their figurehead was wiped from the skies in her Clipper by some bounty hunting fucktard!”
The man finally grasped Andrew’s arm and with a nod signalled him to sit down again. There was some urgency in his eyes and after a long moment Andrew finally sat down. The man took a napkin or two and began cleaning the table and wiping away the spilled chai. That didn’t stop Andrew from looking at him as if he regretted not having killed him more than three years ago.
That same man now tried to calm him down. “Andrew, please. Whatever the Raxxlans told you, I owe them a great deal and in fact the whole galaxy does. With the settlements and the Zurara and all that some gigantic consipracy – or at least the semblance of one – was bound to come to light and not all people wanted that. I had to follow some of my own leads without putting the Raxxlans at risk. You know that sometimes you have to play the loner and leave the pack in order to get things done. ”
“You know, you could have shortened our investigations significantly before hiding here. When last I asked you if it was the Pleiades all eyes would turn to you evaded me. You threw me bits and pieces of Nebra Discs, Tablets of Destiny and seven spiteful spirits. Why didn’t you just tell me ‘look dude, things are brewing in the Pleiades area. Go and have a look around, and by the way: people may be shooting at you’? Why all the hassle and riddles?”
“Because it doesn’t work that way and because I only partially had a hunch about what could be going on. And no, it wasn’t just the Pleiades. It’s just that both the Empire and the Federation took a remarkable interest in that area after all those unknown probes appeared and especially after pilots got hyperdicted by equally unknown ships. Only the Alliance was rather quiet about all the fuss and that proved to be as interesting as all the noise the other superpowers were making.”
“Your leads didn’t prevent Salomé from being hunted down like a dog. Nor did your leads have anything relevant to say it seems after her death. In the end the Children had to defend her along with all the allies they could muster. A group of secretive explorers, scientists and semi-mystics against all the bad guys this galaxy can spew out. It was a suicide mission.”
“I know. I was with them.” His gaze was stern and serene.
“You what?” Andrew nearly dropped his spoon, his eyes wide open. This was unexpected. Although it was clear the man was a top spy and scientist he had never taken him for a fighter.
The man on the other hand remained calm. He even leaned a bit closer across the table, apparently trying to ease the conversation. “I was with them when Salomé took her flight towards the Bubble. I met them at a rendezvouz point near the Collinder 70 border.” He let that sink for a moment.
“I was wingman to Ulysses Wolf and we scouted ahead of the itinerary. The closer we came to the Bubble the more hectic things became. There were ships everywhere and our improvised FoF system was simply overburdened.” When Andrew did not react, he continued in his matter-of-factly tone: “You see, most independent pilots’ ships are not equipped with fleet communications systems. They are just not designed to handle and prioritize hundreds of incoming and outgoing comms signals, because having that edge is strictly Navy turf. Then on the last leg of the journey there must have been a spatial anomaly of some kind, possibly caused by all the frameshift activations and cruise tunnels overlapping. I have never seen anything like it. Salomé’s ship must have gotten sucked into it and got separated from her guardians. And it was there that that ‘fucktard’ you referred to hit her. We went to Teorge next and made sure her close friends were safe. It was there that we intercepted a prepped communiqué on voice comms. We boosted it and relayed it on translight. That was all we could do. ” He stared out of the nearby window as if reenvisioning the scene. “I hope it was worth it.”
“So do I. I read the communiqué in the Children’s debriefing. I hope it was worth dying for.”
The man looked back at Andrew: “I am sorry for them. But we all deal with sorrow differently. I had to take a leave and dig in into some last leads I had before all this went down the drain. Last I heard was you coming back from the Rift. Somehow I knew you would come looking for me.” He chuckled.
“I went to Serebrov before. Mir told me everything. Or most of it, I’m not sure. You know Mir.”
“Nobody knows Mir.”
“Whatever,” Andrew continued, “she told me you changed your name and that you went back to Alrai Sector.” He raised an eyebrow. “Cornelius Agrippa?”
The man chuckled: “Yes, it’s an old story.”
“Indeed, 15th century physics, astrology and occultism?”
“You did your homework.”
“Not an allegorial answer to the riddles that Gomes de Zurara provided us with?”
“What’s your agenda then Mister Agrippa? There is something you took from your science spies back in the Federation and the Raxxlans offered to help you. To even extract you. At times it seems to coincide comfortably with their aims of uncovering galactic wonders and at times you vanish and … follow leads? You don’t tell them everything and you didn’t tell me.” He sighed: “Your turn now to make good on it.”
Agrippa played with one of the spoons that survived Andrew’s anger. For a moment he stared out of the window again, obviously wanting to be somewhere else evading questions, but Andrew just wouldn’t let it go. Finally, he looked back at Andrew: “Very well. You won’t like it all, though.”
“I can deal with it.”
“It goes back to my times at FINREG of course. The team had monitored the rise of the Alliance from the very beginning. After all, they attracted some brilliant minds who were upset with the Federation and Empire. Back in the day Alliance counterintelligence was not very sophisticated. They still held up the virtues of an open society and the common grounds of shared information and equality. It was a spy heaven and getting people inside was quite easy. It’s been almost a decade now but I remember it like yesterday: One day we got a lead on an Alliance operation. The SEW, their navy scout wing had planned something big it seemed. While the Federation had their eyes on the Pleiades and Orion the Alliance chose to look elsewhere. That intrigued us. What were they looking for?”
Andrew nodded. “So you decided to have a look yourselves.”
“In a way, yes. We had a source in the skeleton crew that was being assembled. It was all hush, hush and hurry, hurry. The crew was assembled on a pretence of course. Alliance Command wouldn’t tell them the real reason why they were going out, but all ships already had new military grade 3 hyperdrives. Needless to say, that intrigued us even more: Scouts getting retrofitting priority over fleet ships. The SEW also came up with a flashy name as well: They named it the Long Arm Expedition and it was scheduled to launch in 3295.”
Andrew rolled his eyes. Pieces of a puzzle fell together, along with memories of a dead friend. “The Long Arm. Why doesn’t that surprise me anymore?”
“Well, they propagated that the Long Arm was studying stellar flares and low scale x-ray bursts. Beta Coronae Austrinae had a series of coronal mass ejections at that time so it was a perfect cover story. Like I said they wouldn’t give them the real reason they were sent out.”
Andrew smiled wryly: “I guess that goes for all the superpowers and quite a few of their pawns.”
Agrippa seemed amused by that: “Indeed, and who’s to blame them? However, something must have gone wrong. I mean, even before the FINREG acquisition team arrived at the scene. The whole mission was a blunder for the Alliance and they chose to put it in one of their bureaucratic graveyards. It took the Alliance nearly a decade and a new Prime Minister to dig through all the red tape and investigation committees. But there are signs of a new military elite within the Alliance who want to draw level with the Empire and Federation navies; and they are not the patient types. Now there are aims to salvage what can be salvaged from what the Long Arm found out.”
Somewhere deep down a good part of Andrew’s stomach convulsed. What had appeared as a number of coincidences and harmless survey assignments over the last years suddenly felt like a galactic jigsaw. He had flown three contracting missions in the region and ‘honked’ countless stars there, including in-depth surveys of the Coronet Pulsar and Beta C. He also found a dead friend there. His original Asp Explorer he had purchased in 3301 through the Alliance Affiliation Partnership shortly after he received the Alioth Permit had turned out to be one of the last three ships of the Long Arm and there were navy officers in the Alliance who apparently had tried to monitor every step he had taken.
Andrew eyed Agrippa with a frown before asking “New military elite? Who’s in charge of that reclamation?” In fact, he already knew the answer.
“Rear Admiral Reynaldo Cortez.”
“You know him,” Agrippa said matter-of-factly.
“I did a survey assignment in the Corona Australis region not so long ago. It was on contract basis for the SEW and when finished I was summoned to give a debriefing. Cortez was the one in charge and it was more like a tribunal then. He repeatedly tried to nail me on my findings and if there was something noteworthy beyond my report. He tried to be rather intimidating.”
Agrippa nodded. “Yes, I was aware of that freelance deep sky assignment the Alliance was mounting. Of course the Alliance wanted to have a scapegoat if something went wrong. I made sure you were aware of the assignment nonetheless. I wouldn’t have wanted to have some newbie go on that mission and confirm or discount one of the most important finds in maybe fifty years..”
“You what?” ‘Dumbfounded twice in a row,’ was all Andrew could think right now.
He leaned even closer. “Andrew, your talents and dispositions were known to some people long before you were openly contacted. You had some knowledge of that area already and at that time it seemed you somehow had a personal involvement there. So we chose to give you a nudge.”
“Not the Children at that time but rather a loose group of scientific minded people inside the Pilots Federation.”
“Please spare me the details and yes, I was personally involved. I tried to find a friend. Now, what was the Long Arm all about?”
“The Alliance was looking for the Thargoids of course.”
“Yes. Or more specifically, a very prominent yet elusive legacy from the Thargoid encounters. Whatever fairytales you may have heard, humanity encountered them some 50 years ago and also most likely before that; and in the wake of their disappearance the Alliance was created. More or less, you asked me to spare you the details. However, the name Turner was heavily involved in this and although it’s not so very well known the Corona Australis region also had a certain importance in the Alliance’s beginning days.”
“It was one of the last regions where one of their chief exploratory ships was heading through, a so called Turner-class vessel. For all that we know, only four of them were ever constructed. And these ships were said to have been augmented with reverse-engineered Thargoid technology. To give you an idea: Think of frameshift travel and our miniaturized fusion tech fifty years back. And there is more: Some sources indicate that the Turner ship vanished near the Coronet Pulsar near Beta C.” He made a small pause and leaned back a little. “So the Long Arm was not out to measure and chart solar flares. They were out to find and recover the lost Turner ship. That was when the Federation decided to step in.”
“Step in? I’m sure I don’t want to know all the messy details.”
“I’ll tell you nonetheless while we’re at it: It landed on our desks and like I said before we had an agent in their crew. It worked at first. Our source was able to divert their flagship, the Mark Antony, to a predetermined location where an acquisition team would have taken over. The Mark Antony had all the science stations and comms systems. It was the chief prize. But something went wrong and it ended in a catastrophe, when nearly all ships were lost. It was said that for reasons unknown the Antony had dropped from supercruise while fuelscooping. That was when they got caught in a flare, losing all data and crew. Years passed and now with rumors of the Thargoids returning to our doorstep the Alliance dug out all the details and mounted their next attempt to uncover what went wrong. That was when you entered the race for clues. And I am informed you made it somehow. But what exactly happened no one seems to know. Your debriefing is surprisingly vague, given all the fuss the Alliance went through with their Long Arm. That may have made Cortez a bit agitated. However, you haven’t even told the Children, have you? I mean about what you found there?”
This time, Andrew looked out of the window. His memories drifted from barren moons and empty space to burning stars and a shattered escape pod with a familiar face. And then back to the Children, Raxxla and some menacing alien presence out there to devour it all. Or so they were told by the media spin.
“No,” he said at last. “I planned to but it all happened so fast. And I was out there for the most part, I just didn’t find the time.”
Agrippa nodded and put on a wry smile: “Like I said: Sometimes we play the loner. Time to make good on it, I guess.”
(to be continued…)