Burning Chalice of Deceit (Part One)

1

#Fetol1/433,096 – they call me the Girl in the Well, the Pearl Diver, the Mineshaft Elevator – why? Because I get to the bottom of things. Only the victims of the biggest crimes and conspiracies need apply, and you can apply to me through Network Zenana Local 435,657. Many thanks.#

That pitch hadn’t needed to change in years. Not necessarily because it was good, but because Fetol had what so many other investigators didn’t: reputation. And yet, somehow, business had run dry. The whole galaxy had apparently, this year, turned dull, with not a single high-level murder, not a single conspiracy.

On .544, N.A. 2605, she had made a definite decision: she would head down to N.Z. Local 435,657 one last time, and then she would quit as an investigator. The world, the galaxy, for the most part, may well have had no more need for money, but supply and demand still had a grip on reality.

The Network Zenana Local building was around two miles from her house, an easy walking distance from her house on the outskirts of 3r99. That the syndication of such a prestigious network was located in such a small town, rather than the Spaceplane’s capital, was perhaps a little odd, but then, Zenana had always insisted on a fierce independence, and were no doubt making a point with such a location. The building itself, too, was perhaps such a statement; a strangely squat kind of high-rise, it managed to be wider than it was high, taking the form of a step pyramid of ever-smaller residential-looking houses. Such brickwork could easily take the strain of twenty storeys, which was just as well: Retoq needed to be in the Editor’s office, near the top. She reached such a place with ease, but noted, as she always did on every visit, that there were no teleporter pads. Such traditionalism was a little jarring, considering the organisation’s publications.

It was also jarring compared to the editor’s office. Everywhere else in the building would have struck human eyes as being akin to an old school building, or perhaps a university department; the editor’s office, however, flashed and buzzed with screens, and had a digitised feel to its flared lighting and silver-and-tan decor. Behind a complex-looking desk sat the editor, Semr7/901,122.

“Fetol. I haven’t seen you in… half a year? Been busy?”

“No. That’s the problem.”

Semr nodded. “Yeah,” she said. “I should’ve known.”

“And that’s why I want to quit.”

Semr nodded again, leaning back on her chair, which was more of a pivoting throne than mere seating equipment. She waved a hand downwards in the direction of the screen on her desk, which closed every function on it, and then made a twisting motion that switched it off.

“Fetol, you know why, beyond the marketing hype, you get away with calling yourself the Girl in the Well?”

“Because I actually fell down a well?”

“No. Well… yes, but more than that. Here’s the thing, and I don’t mean it insultingly.”

Semr pulled back up on her chair.

“You,” she continued, “are not necessarily the brightest investigator out there. You’re not necessarily the most knowledgeable, off-hand. There are probably investigators out there who can have you beaten on every single individual quality it takes to be an investigator, bar one, bar the most important one. Indefatigability.

“In you forty years tied to this post, you’ve never given up on a case-”

“I suspended some,” Fetol admitted.

“But have you ever given up on one? Are there any out there that you’ve just put to one side, never to be dealt with again. Where you’ve turned to the client and said, ‘I’m sorry, but this one’s beyond me’.”

She paused for a while. “No.”

“And that’s why they – in this building, outside of it, think you’re the best. It used to be said that nothing stopped the great Fetol. And I, for one, am especially disappointed that this proves to be literally true.”

Semr left Fetol with that thought and switched the screens on. Around her, Fetol could feel, on the lowest level, that faint whirr from each and every screen around her, a ring of buzzing and glowing.

“So do you accept my… resignation, for lack of a better word?”

Semr didn’t look up. “I accept it if you do. But I don’t think times like these call for you to step down. They call for you to step up.”

“You mean self-assignment?”

“Maybe.”

“I always viewed that as horribly presumptuous. I need a client. Maybe a client who doesn’t realise they’re a client. If I ask speculatively-”

“That’s more like it.”

2

She was tempted to head straight back home afterwards, and work out a plan, but she couldn’t rid herself of the feeling that she would get home and do nothing. She looked up and spotted the almost invisible dot in the sky, and pulled out a small disc from a pocket. She squeezed it lightly and spoke into it.

“Fetol1, house systems please.”

“House computer is present for Fetol1/433,096.”

“Could you beam all non-standard equipment to the nearest Spaceport?”

“Wait 00.00.05, please.”

She did so.

“Done. Directions can be beamed direct if AONI standard is present.”

“It is.”

Superimposed over her natural, conscious view, a large arrow pointed into the distance, whilst another, smaller one pointed to a circled teleport booth. She opted for the shorter route, and crossing the road, entering the address and switching the device on took minimal time.

>Your possessions are bound up in a single boxcase, located in Section K, Compartment 435, the uplink told her.

Section K proved to be a long walk away, through a grimy and messy expanse of interior space. The place was seemingly empty and dilapidated, and she quickly realised that this was somewhere she had been before – the A-Port outside 4l8y. Opened to publicity that echoed across both sides of the Spaceplane, it had turned out that a completely automated spaceport didn’t contribute many jobs and didn’t have the same buzz as usual. It continued in use, but it never lived up to the hype it had generated, and its opening was destined to remain forevermore its proudest moment.

She continued down a series of left and right turns, through similar vistas of frayed, faded and worn carpets and peeling walls. The AI units about the place operated on maximum energy efficiency, and with so few visitors, anything beyond doing the minimum was now pointless.

Pulling the boxcase out of the locker, she moved over to a self-routing kiosk, called for a ship, and set the destination for 114,099. Finding her way to a seat, she sat down and waited.

The silence in the departure lounge was eerie to her. At each slight noise she jumped.

“Computer?” she called, and heard echoes down the corridor she had walking in from.

A square of holographic screen appeared close to the main teleporter pad that dominated the room. “Yes?” it simply displayed on a black background.

“When’s the next ship due?”

“Not for another 10.00.00,” it told her. She slumped to the floor and let out an exasperated sigh. 114,099 was not exactly an unpopular destination – what did it really take, she thought, for a ship to bank round part of a Spaceplane and beam her – and it was just her – out before shooting off?

The tenth of a day – standard across most Qareen Spaceplanes, thus causing minimal disconnect – passed very slowly, and just as Fetol had run out of ways to try and confuse the assembler AIs around the walls (she had failed, except when inputting obvious nonsense), she finally saw out of the floor-to-ceiling windows the image of a spacecraft slowly looping round.

She rushed towards the teleporter pad and dived onto it just as it activated.

A brief moment later, standing in a wide corridor lined with something rubbery and shiny, the boxcase resting against her leg, she realised that she had almost missed the damn flight.

Shit, she thought. The indirect route would take a week anyhow, but missing this flight would have meant another painfully long wait on top.

She dragged the boxcase to a nearby room, which happened to be a set of living quarters, intuitively enough. With a final fling of the boxcase onto the bed, she walked over to a desk across the room from it, which happened to display data regarding the ship and journey:

Spaceship: Five-Door Hatchback/Dash for the Line/Egg and Spoon

Construction: H 100m, L 400m, W 400m. Made .687 – .912 N.A. 2569, Spaceplane 115,077, s3p0 Yard 9.

Journey: commencing 435,657 A-Port at 77.23.01 on .544, ending 114,099 Port a320 at (est.) 11.03.91 on .550.

Great, she thought. A friggin’ early arrival.

3

Office of the President of the Qareen Confederation as Bound by the Treaty of Nexus

Sent 69.33.12, .592/2605

Fractal encoding is in effect, path accepted by this device.

Sub: Ruling on Proposed Freelance Investigations

Further files and data are attached.

Fetol1/433,096,

We have considered your proposals and, after some consideration, and having taken into account your recorded experience and capabilities, have decided to grant one of your suggested investigations official status. Effective immediately, you are granted permission for Level 3 Military and QPA access, with an option of Level 2 and/or Level 1 access available subject to written formal request.

The proposal in question was #3: Investigating the Precise Causes of the First to Fifth Intersection Wars. Whilst it may prove impossible to definitively demonstrate the cause, we are nonetheless prepared for a judgement of likely cause.

We have summarised the exact terms in the attached files, but in essence, the terms cover a number of restrictions on protocol, procedure and dissemination. Certain basic restrictions are reiterated as follows: you agree not to share classified information with others during the course of the investigation, you agree not to reveal the result of the investigation unless the OPQC gives formal recorded permission to do so, and you understand that a knowing breach of the rules will be penalised within the remit of the Ministry of Justice, 114,099 jurisdiction.

There is no deadline for this task.

We wish you the best of luck.

Halfway up Compass Tower, in the capital city of a1, Fetol was celebrating. The message had done its best to make the affair appear as sombre and dull as possible, but this was it: she had the government of a galaxy, give or take, supporting an investigation into the lives and fates of quadrillions. It was the biggest job she had ever been given; she knew it would take years, at minimum, to come to the “judgement of likely cause” that they mentioned.

Of course, her celebration of running round the room, arms aloft and facial expression set to somewhat but not overly daft, petered out once she thought through the full implications. For one, the fact that the OPQC had even given her this job meant that they secretly questioned the common sense of the age about the Wars.

It was a well-understood part of Qareen history that the First Intersection War, the one big event that had led to another, bigger one, and then to three more, had been caused by the Shango. The evidence was recorded, but very much a physically-orientated argument: they had opened fire first, they had scored the first kill against an enemy ship (the Conformist Rebel/Unidentical), and, perhaps most tenuously, they had allegedly been the most reluctant in territorial negotiations.

Fetol was not especially a historian, and hadn’t particularly previously felt it was her place to decisively comment, but she had felt that, however valid the first two arguments were, the latter was fatuous. The Wars had never been about territory anyhow, and war was widely agreed amongst the Confederacy to have been inevitable, even before the negotiations; this, too, had become part of the generally understood, common-sense interpretation of history. How these two factors beyond a lack of thought, she didn’t know.

She looked outside where, as was customary on 114,099, a very slow sunset had started to set in. She would start tomorrow, she decided.

4

“Computer, bring up the main diagram again.”

Fifteen days into the investigation, progress had been good, but this had not been without side effects. As the graphics of the wall-screens ably demonstrated, the sheer number of people involved in the lead-up was immense, number in the dozens for the Stoppan alone. For the Shango, a mass of hundreds were involved, cross-networked in an intricate, no doubt constructed web that nonetheless appeared random to an uninformed observer.

She looked over the web, reached out to the top right corner and, pressing against the wall with a finger, pulled it across one of the lines, slashing the connection.

“Save that, but don’t display. Ditto for any others,” she ordered. The name on the end of the line flashed, then zoomed off the wall and disappeared. She went about the top edge of the wall, cutting away lines, and over time, found herself cutting round in a spiral, moving ever further in towards the centre. Eventually, she had a smaller sprawl of names in the centre; she guessed around forty were still there, but it’d do, as a core group.

“Computer, save this grouping as a different version, and transfer both to my personal datapoint. Burn all traces.”

The walls blanked and the screens sank into the walls, leaving nothing but a blank surface.

“I’m gonna need a ship,” Fetol said to herself, and left for the relevant office that would get her one.

5

The Conduit For Sale/Don’t Walk/Xtreme Bidz For Koolness was twenty metres in height and sixty metres in diameter, a relatively fat little bubble by Qareen standards, but Fetol reckoned it would suit her fine. If anything, it was too much; she was reminded of the case she had of a Qareen immigrant on a Shango Darkworld, who took full advantage of a Darkworld Space and post-scarcity and built a sprawling home in a rural area outside one of the major cities. The end result was unrest and threats; the Shango, she had come to realise, could be oddly self-denying at times. That said, the immigrant must surely have known, she had thought at the time, that an overly large house was irrational, and achieved nothing, especially in status, considering that no-one could be denied such a thing.

That, though, was a smaller, long-solved investigation.

She set the controls to automatic, programming the AI to take her to the nearest Darkworld. Landing permission was not a given, but relations between the Federation and Confederacy had never been stronger. She assumed she was safe.

“Computer, estimate the journey time.”

“Journey time should be approximately twenty-six point nine days,” it said in a flat drawl.

More waiting. She went back to her quarters, which, as the only occupant on board, constituted most of the ship’s residential area, and called up the sprawl of pre-war Shango diplomatic networks again, allowing their spidery presence to crawl over the walls of the study room.

Through the void of interstellar space, the Conduit For Sale sped onwards, its guidance systems needed no organic intervention for six days.

6

The bridge tipped sideways, and a groan ran through the walls and ceilings like it was about to implode.

“Shit! Computer, what’s going on?”

The noise drowned out its reply, and Fetol fell over the console and landed on the floor, head hitting a railing. Amidst the mass of data spilling over the main screen, she spotted the speed as well below luminal, firmly down in the Newtonian range, and beyond it, she could see the shadow of something, but the screen wasn’t clear. A flickering suggested the ship’s systems, battling-

The ship spun upside down and artificial gravity blinked out.

– battling to compensate for whatever was disrupting the image.

Artificial gravity blinked back on, and she fell to the ceiling as the ship pitched around again.

The noise stopped.

“Computer, reiterate. And get us away from the trouble.”

The ship pulled up and banked wide as other systems kicked in.

A rumble shook through the bridge. She dashed to the Boardlayer booth at the front of the bridge.

“Bring all weapons systems on,” she ordered.

“Weapons are not available,” the computer said.

She looked to the main screen, where the flickering had stopped, and “no useful image obtainable” had appeared instead.

She sighed.

Another rumble ran through the ship.

“It is advised that we turn back,” the computer said.

That was odd. No Qareen computer, especially a ship’s computer, would say such a thing.

The rumbling stopped.

The last message from the computer was repeated, and it appeared in text on the main screen and the Boardlayer screen.

Systems – most likely all of them – had been hacked, with relative ease. The message had no doubt been implanted with the minimum of required interference. Someone, she knew, wanted this investigation ended – they somehow knew about it, and they wanted it over. She knew she could rule out the Bhoot and the Stoppan. Beyond that, however, the Shango, the Dharans, her own government – all were possible.

She steadied the ship, steering it back around again, dipping it down in case some kind of artificial barrier had been strewn across a region of space – unlikely, but worth bearing in mind – and met no resistance.

If they want to stop me, she thought to herself, they’ll have to tear the damn ship apart.

Parsec by parsec, Darkworld Komodo drew nearer.

7

“First of all, I would like to emphasise that, I’m not here to pre-judge, or to make assumptions. I want to hear from as many people as possible, I want as many views as possible, and all I ask is that people are honest and open. I recognise and respect that this is, for many people, still a sensitive issue.”

The old man in front of Fetol nodded. “I understand.”

One odd thing, she thought, was that, despite being unwrinkled and in perfect health, and spoke in a standard baritone, he still clearly, self-evidently, was old. This was a man who had seen every last bit of those wars, and every crisis since, and the weight of ages seemed to be evident in his demeanour.

“I understand,” he said, “even if others won’t. You swear this interview will remain a secret?”

“Sir, I have to keep this a secret. My government won’t have it any other way.”

“Mutual interest. Well that helps. Y’see, others will be talking about how you used mind control on me, or read my mind, or other crazy rumours that go around about Qareen. They’re still percolating, you know. It was twenty-six thousand years ago that I made all those mistakes I made, and I’m ready to confess them. Others… aren’t so ready.”

Kakroi Teropa had been joint third in the preference list along with several others, but of course, a cold trail meant that Fetol’s options had been limited. She had sought out the chief diplomat of the pre-war talks and the then-President, the two above them, but the chief diplomat, having allegedly snubbed the idea of peace and agreement, had been self-consistent enough to fight in the war and get himself killed. The President had entered cryostasis shortly after the war, and had never specified a time to be re-awoken. Many of those on a similarly powerful level had gone through similar fates, leaving Teropa as the most powerful man who could testify.

“Still, I can appreciate the irony. A Shango, a Qareen, in the same room, reaching mutual agreement over an issue of mutual disagreement.” He gave a brief laugh to punctuate it.

Fetol looked around the room, a plain-furnished affair that did little to suggest that anything important was afoot. There was a circular table in the middle, and two semicircular banks of seating, but aside from a wide-display digital clock whose fractions flipped and tripped furiously on the right-hand side next to a static date, there was nothing else to break up the room’s spartan arrangement.

She placed a disc onto the table, which auto-loaded a series of questions onto the display. Taking one from the middle, a square mass of pictograms and an attached file, she pulled across a symmetric symbol from the right of the table’s display, and at this point, the question turned into a series of jagged lines, angular and jagged, each branch sucking context and detail from the attached file to fill out the question in a Shango idiom that Qareen languages and dialects could not convey.

“Essentially, how significant would you say the negotiations and their breakdown were to the cause of the war?” would have been the nearest English translation.

Kakroi had to think. He nodded towards the table, scrutinised the question, and just as she suspected he wouldn’t answer (she would later discover that he had an excellent ability to time this), did so.

“They were slightly significant. They were, if you like, the last barrier, the final roadblock that could have stopped things. But if there’s one thing I’ve learnt from history-”

He gave a brief puzzled look to the etymological flurry on the table, which piled up dozens of pictograms for single clauses.

“But if I’ve learnt anything from history,” he continued, “it’s that truly important events and trends have a weight. They have inertia. And pushing that weight back can require almost impossible strength. As was true here.

“The Federation had heard about the Qareen during my childhood, but it was nonetheless in my lifetime that first contact occurred. That first contact was the weight I was talking about. It’s a mass we are still trying to cut down and chip away at, and I know one day it will happen, but back then, it was huge. When you have mutual distrust between two people, that can be hard enough to break down, but between two galactic states, between quadrillions of people, it is almost impossible.

“And that’s the scenario the two of us faced. We, the Shango, the older civilisation. When we as a people sent our scouts and explorers beyond the Intersection Zone, and into the other galaxy, for the first time, we found an almost entirely empty galaxy. A few thousand years later, we were suddenly staring at potential equals. People who had built thousands of their own artificial homeworlds, and they were building them into the Intersection Zone. They probably saw it as expansion, as discovery, as exploration. We saw it as invasion.

“I recall my opposite number met me after the war.”

Fetol leaned over towards the table and tapped a couple of pictograms, and with the AONI dot implanted just inside her ear adding more data, she pulled the symbol across again and span the text around. “How come?”

“We had a peace treaty to agree on.”

She balled her fists and knocked them against her temples, an unspoken “of course” expression. Kakroi gave a comedic shrug.

“So I met her, my opposite number,” he began, and a cascade of lines began shooting across the table again. “And from her, I got a mirror image. The eager young nation who felt they had to face down the bigger power. The rising power that had something to prove, you know.

“Of course, you won the wars. I guess the shoes have been on the other foot since.”

She wondered what exactly the man was getting at with that last remark, but she decided not to challenge it. Touching the disc once, the jagged lines on the table, so abundant they had practically become a surface pattern, were seemingly sucked into the disc; twisting it and pressing it again caused the questions to reappear. None of them seemed to fit what she wanted to ask, but she picked one anyway, that seemed be closest.

“Was there anything strange or unusual that you felt tipped the negotiations in an undesired direction?” it asked, either side of the graphically elaborate translation process.

The old man pointed a finger and wagged it. “You are suggesting conspiracy,” he said, “I am not prepared to go there. I admit it is odd for two democracies to fight one another, and that it was rarely witnessed in pre-Federation history.”

She tapped a pictogram onto the table, no elaboration; one brief jagged line appeared to him. “But…”

He put a hand to the side of his head, an expression of thought. After a while, he let it drop.

“I noticed one amongst our team. I believe his name was Fejir Uliad.”

“I recognise that name. Couldn’t contact him.”

“…and he claimed to be from Darkworld Jeremiah. That didn’t add up for me – no-one was born or raised on Darkworld Jeremiah, but I let it slide because it might have been absent-mindedness or I might have misunderstood or… it didn’t seem important. But his whole story, now, seems odd. He rose to the level he did after three years in the service, which is borderline unprecedented. He seemed to have exceptional knowledge of Qareen psychology, which helped somewhat; he knew what we wanted, and seemed to have a real ability to pick apart what they wanted.

“Now that you raise this issue, it does sound very strange. There was something anomalous about him.”

“Perhaps he was a spy?”

“Hard to say. I doubt he was Qareen. The genetic manipulation technology was fairly weak, and we could always root out fakers within three years. It was a paranoid time, too, so it’s not like those checks weren’t being done regularly. In any event, he went missing during the war.”

Fetol looked down at the table and wondered if purely using the device at her ear would allow her to ask these things quickly enough. The issue was one of translation, which would be fuzzy.

“Is it possible that he might have been Dharan?” she asked, and although he had to squint a little, Kakroi at least understood the critical word.

“Anything is possible with the Dharans. You may well want to consider them in your investigation, but,” – he raised a hand – “you will only ever reach a probable. We cannot imagine how much the Dharans have been manipulating us over the years. A Qareen plot, even now, we could probably catch. The Dharans can no doubt imitate us and our technology perfectly. They could probably dismantle the Federation from another galaxy. I imagine both of us exist purely because of their grace, nothing else.”

“So…”

“If it is the Dharans, then you are diving down a well of causality you will never reach the bottom of.”

8

“It may be advisable to board a Shango ship,” someone – a high-ranking official of some kind, of which there were too many on Darkworld Komodo for her conscious memory – told her. “Although – the Conduit For Sale – can it be auto-piloted back at all? Because it’s not like there’s a cargo bay or storage on any ships around here.”

“It’s a Qareen ship,” she replied. This apparently answered the question. The pair of them continued down the corridor, a cuboid hollow section of a barren, grey and narrow interior of the towering military headquarters on Darkworld Komodo.

“So who are you aiming to meet?”

Fetol stopped and pulled out the disc, setting it to project holographically onto the wall to her left. The pictograms shifted over the diagram, and she traced a hand over it, searching until she found one particular set.

“His name is… Tarko Ilrap. Qareen sources say he was a colonel.”

“By the end of the Fifth War, yes. He was a captain from the second onwards. Lieutenant before that,” the official said, before tapping a device on his ear and beginning to speak very quickly and intermittently to someone he was connected to. After three corridors of this, he turned to her again.

“Ilrap is currently located on Darkworld Kraken. The next ship out to there leaves in 1/77, it’s the SFS Ordinance 34. Journey should take around three days.”

“Thank you very much.”

“It’s peacetime, Fetol. The Federation can easily help an ally.”

9

Another ship, another long journey. The Conduit For Sale seemed to easily make its way back, although as it and the Ordinance 34 flew away from each other, Fetol noticed the lag in tracking getting increasingly worse. This wasn’t unexpected, but it still managed to bother her.

Still, she couldn’t deny that, in spite of all her reservations, Shango hospitality had been unfailingly polite. She knew, too, that Shango ships were ordinarily opulent to a ridiculous degree, but the Ordinance was a military ship, and as such, her quarters – no smaller than anyone else’s – were big enough a) for the bed and b) for a door to grant access into the room. The walls could bring up screens easily enough, and the place was not a luddite’s paradise, but it was nonetheless small.

Nonetheless, she got used to squeezing through the corridors rather than confidently striding through them, and spent much of her time in the training areas towards the rear of the ship. Apparently there was no issue with this. “Our next war’s probably not with the Confederacy,” one officer told her, “it’ll probably be with the Dharans, actually. Once we’ve got the measure of them.”

The training areas, though, generally did not contain any kind of classified technology or military secrets; certain places, like meeting rooms, comms units and the bridge were off-limits for those good reasons. Throughout the whole journey, she managed to see the very dull inside of one meeting room – a place which was slightly less barren and gunmetal grey (more a silvery grey, in fact) than the rest of the ship, and had some actual sitting room. Obscene luxury and ascetic self-denial, she thought, perhaps the two strangely oppositional facets of Shango society.

Of course, the circumstances that prompted such a visit were less than ideal.

“It’s not an emergency,” the ship’s captain explained, “but it is something to be concerned about.”

On the table that took up most of Meeting Room 2 was an image of stars, a fairly nondescript depiction of space that would have been unworthy of comment but for a ribbon-like white line that spiked at one point, and a glowing yellow line that ran from one end of the table to the other with it.

“Qazak, explain as you wish,” the captain said. The relevant Qareen pictograms appeared on the table, and then faded away again.

“OK, so if this is the route we have taken,” Qazak began, tracing his hand over part of the yellow line and explaining very slowly and simply, “then this is another measure that we have had the sensors constantly scanning for during the route. As you can see, it’s near the table edge for almost the entire journey, but for this one moment here-”

“It spikes.”

“It’s like a flash, as if something just passed us,” he continued, “now, the rest of this indicates matter, and for the most part, it indicates the parts of the ship near the sensors and the occasional amount of space dust and interstellar medium. Every so often we come rather too close to planets or asteroids or comets. This spike here, though, is a metamaterial surge.”

Fetol initially didn’t quite understand. Metamaterials were hardly unknown to the Qareen or Shango; the ship should easily have picked up such a presence and compensated.

“Did you compensate for it?”

“To the maximum amount we could’ve done,” the captain said, “it’s an automatic system. But if the sensors were not on the highest range alert, which they always are in the Intersection Zone-”

She looked quizzically at him.

“Just in case,” he said, “you can’t know the future, can’t assume the status quo will always be so, et cetera, but anyway: if the sensors had not been pushed to the degree they were, we would not have caught this.”

“I suppose what we should ask,” Qazak said, “is this: was there anything unusual that happened to you before you reached Komodo?”

She explained about the incident where her ship was buffeted about, how the main screen had been unable to show a view, and how it had gone on for some time and then simply stopped, allowing her to carry on again.

“It could well be the same faction.”

“Who?”

“Either some Qareen faction we don’t know of, or the Dharans. One way or the other, I hope you weren’t too attached to that ship.”

The day afterwards, the Conduit For Sale’s tracker stopped broadcasting.

Continue to Part Two ->

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