"Do you want to talk about it?" I ask Tay after we've been sitting in silence for five minutes. Because I'd like to. I want to know what's troubling you
"Talk about what?" she says disingenuously.
"About last night; your nightmare or panic attack or whatever it was. Let's not pretend it was nothing."
I'm trying to sound concerned, and that's genuine, but there's something else that's worrying me. We're about to travel to Colonia together, which is over twenty thousand light-years away. The commander of a ship has to be concerned with safety and having a crew member with mental health issues is certainly a risk on the long-haul, when there's too much time available for introspection and brooding.
"It was just a bad dream," Tay says dismissively.
"It seemed like more than that."
"Just drop it!" she says sharply.
I'm taken aback by her sudden anger and it convinces me I need to get to the bottom of her problems—but maybe not now, not while she's in this mood.
"Okay, but I want you to know that you can talk to me, anytime, anywhere; I'm ready to listen."
She says nothing more on the subject and I think it's better if we move on.
"I've found some passenger missions we can take today. It's time we made some progress with this case."
"Good," Tay says, in a brighter tone, "I'll go and prepare the cabin."
To build our cover story as a travel agency when we join the Christmas Carriers' Convoy, we've set up Linton Travel
and opened its doors for business. We ferry criminal masterminds and rebel leaders from system to system, sometimes on short-haul transport jobs, more often on sightseeing tours. One of our aims is to find out what the delinquent fraternity knows about Eldrin Dood and his mission to carry antimatter containment designs to Etienne Dorn in the Colonia region.
We soon find that short-haul transports don't give us enough time to get to know our passengers—and probe them for information—so we concentrate on the longer-haul sightseeing missions. This enables us to drop questions casually into the conversation: Has anyone heard of Eldrin Dood? Did they know about his disappearance? Isn't space travel dangerous? Someone ought to go look for him—maybe there'll be a reward.
In this fashion, we spend a couple of days visiting geysers and ammonia worlds, exotic locations and sites of historic interest—it's actually quite interesting, but not fruitful.
It's not until we've completed a dozen or so missions that we come across Johnie Day. He's the hench to the diminutive Rylee Castaneda, widow to the leader of a pirate squadron. She's taking a short break from trying to hold the gang together.
Johnie is perhaps less discreet than he should be. We're lucky to find him in an expansive mood while Castaneda's not around.
"Sure, I heard of Dood," he tells us. "Somethin' 'bout a fleet of transports he was puttin' together, built for deep space–Type-9 Heavies and Defenders we heard."
This is a surprise. We thought he was simply couriering documents.
"Where was this happening?" I ask as casually as I can.
"If I recall correctly, it was at Jameson Base. If you're interested you should talk to Irma; she's the spotter at Jameson."
"Spotter?" It's a new term on me.
"All pirate gangs have them; watchers at starports and outposts who keep an eye on comings and goings, reportin' back valuable cargoes and possible kidnap victims. Irma's the spotter at Jameson."
Johnie clams up when Castaneda joins us on the bridge but, at last, we have a lead.
We finish the mission and go straight to Jameson Base, the sprawling outpost in Shinrarta Dezhra where the engineer Lori Jameson centres her operations.
It doesn't take us long to discover that Irma Alvarado is working as ground crew, which seems the perfect cover for identifying pirating opportunities.
We follow Irma into a diner at the end of her shift and go for a direct approach, taking the seats either side of her in the booth she's chosen.
"Irma, we'd like to talk about Eldrin Dood; we heard about his transport fleet."
Irma looks furtively about her to see who might have heard.
"Quiet!" she hisses. "You trying to blow my cover?"
"Sorry," I say more softly, "but we'd like to know what you've seen."
"What's it worth to you? Intel costs, you know and, given the size of the Dood business, I reckon this info is worth plenty."
I look at Tay, she holds the purse strings on my expense account.
"We can give you a million for whatever you have," she says.
"Make it two and we can talk," Irma haggles.
I'm about to object when Tay says: "Done. Now, spill."
Irma removes the glasses she's wearing and gives them to me. I put them on and her fingers run over the screen on her arm, tapping icons and making gestures. The screen in the glasses flashes up an image.
"This T9 is only one of a dozen similar ships that Dood brought here for engineering work," Irma tells us.
"I'm curious," I say, "as to what sort of engineering this was. Lori's all about scanners and fuel scoops isn't she?"
"I thought that, too, and I tried to get a closer look. Security was tight but I managed it. There were some fuel scoop mods being made but, stranger than that, several kilometres of copper tubing were taken on board and, stranger still, thousands of tiny holes were drilled into the hull; it was bizarre."
"That's a riddle, for sure. And, there's a whole fleet been modified in this way?"
Irma nods. "We couldn't see much value in the T9s and left them alone—but we did put a tail on Dood himself. He's what we call in the trade a 'high value target'."
My lousy poker-face lights up like a neon sign saying: "Get your free credits here."
"Someone followed him? Where did he go? What did he do?"
Irma doesn't miss the signals and shuts down.
Tay sighs and asks: "How much?"
"Another two mill should do it," Irma says, boldly testing the value of what she knows.
Tay nods and prepares to transfer the cash.
"Our tail was Paul Goodwin. Last I heard, they'd left the bubble and were headed for Hillary Depot"
"The whole fleet, or Dood alone?"
"Oh, the fleet left a week earlier and were headed towards The Festival Grounds—but you know that's the sort of curved route a lot of ships take to Colonia, when they want to avoid company."
I'm pleased that we're making some progress and I sense that we have as much as we're going to get from Irma. We're standing to leave when I think of something. "One last question, what's the name of your spotter in Hillary Depot?"
Tay folds her arms as if to say: "We've paid you plenty."
"It's Casey Hayden," Irma says. "Now, leave me be."
We fly back to Viktorenko Holdings, feeling more optimistic about the case.
"You were telling me," I say, "how Eldrin Dood was born to Tertia Dood and Ard Strang—the first male Dood in generations."
"Oh yes," Tay says, picking up the story. "That was back in 3279—Eldrin's twenty-five now, if he's still alive that is. Ada was still running Dood Corp back then and it was Ada who disinherited Tertia. I think Amaryllis still felt love for her daughter even though they argued terribly."
"But she couldn't do anything about it because of this matriarchal thing?"
"That's right. It wasn't helpful that Tertia fought alongside Strang in their battle against the galaxisation of economies; you know, ever larger companies dominating markets on a galactic scale and shifting profits around to avoid taxes."
"And Dood Corporation is one of those businesses."
"That's where the trouble started for Tertia. Convoys and factories were attacked and sabotaged. Billions worth of damage was inflicted. In the end, Ada sanctioned a hit-squad to eliminate whoever was causing the trouble. Tertia and Strang were ambushed and killed in 3283. Eldrin was four years old."
"So, he was taken back by the Doods?"
"No, not straightaway. He lived a nomadic existence with Strang's family, drifting from system to system. It was only when Ada died in 3289 and Amaryllis took over the organisation that Eldrin's prospects improved. He was ten when Amaryllis adopted him and brought him home. Of course he was poorly educated and he had to start working at the bottom of some widget business, but with coaching and training he moved rapidly through the ranks."
"How much did he know about Ada's part in his parents' death?"
"I really don't know," Tay says thoughtfully. "I don't think anyone does."
The next day, we decide to take a break from the criminal classes and accept a mission to take Maynard Silva, a famous explorer, on a tour. There are five destinations in total and we settle in for a relaxing ride.
After visiting the Buzhang Ku 3 b ice geysers, Silva makes his way to the bridge. He looks puzzled.
"Found this in my cabin," he says, handing me a hard-copy photograph. "Reckoned it might belong to a previous occupant."
I take the image and see that it's a copy of the one that Tay gave me. It's Eldrin Dood.
"That's mine," Tay says, taking it from me and holding it close to her chest.
I file away this insight into Tay's head for a later time.
"Funny thing is, though," says Silva, "I know this guy. Met him only three months back, if memory serves."
This is an astounding piece of good luck. Of all the famous explorers in all of the systems who are looking for a joyride in an Orca, this one bumps into us.
"How did you meet?" I ask.
"Well, he came looking for me as it happens, and lucky to find me, too; I'm not often in the bubble; I like to be out there," he says with a yearning, faraway look in his eye.
"Oh, really, what did he want?"
Silva chortles: "Only the contents of my skull. I never met anyone, apart from another serious explorer, who was so thirsty for information. He wanted to know where I'd been, what I'd seen, what were the strangest things I'd come across. I told him about Lucy in Centaurus—you know, the carbon star that's so cool its core has crystallised into a 1032
carat diamond. He didn't seem that interested and wanted to know had I seen any dark matter dwarfs and suchlike exotics. I told him: 'Hey, just because Zwicky's Principle says if it can happen it will happen, doesn't mean you'll find one in your own backyard.'"
"Did you get the impression he was looking for somewhere in particular?" I just know that it wasn't pure academic interest on Eldrin's part to be tapping this explorer for his knowledge.
"Well, yeah. He kept asking had I heard of the Thequa Cube."
"I've not heard that myself," I admit. "Have you?"
"Sure, but knowing isn't believing. The Thequa Cube is supposed to be a region of space, about thirty-two kylies from here, where ships disappear. They enter the region and they don't come out. It's the sort of story that parents tell their adventurous kids to keep them on the ground."
"But Dood believed in it?"
"Seems that way, don't it? If it's anything, I reckon it's either a wandering black hole that catches people unawares, or it's aliens of some skin or another. Now, can we get back to my trip; seems like I'm giving better value for money than you."
"Sure thing, Commander Silva."
Silva returns to his cabin and we set a course for the Vamm system where there are more ice geysers.
While I fly the ship, Tay looks at the galaxy map.
"The highest system in Thequaa looks to have co-ordinates (-20,200, 1980, 24,100)," she reports. "And, interestingly, to reach it from the bubble you would travel, very broadly, through The Festival Grounds—which is where that Type-9 fleet was headed, according to Irma."
interesting. Doesn't explain though, that Dood was last seen in Polo Harbour."
"Mmm, maybe he was going to run his courier mission to Colonia and then head to Thequaa to join the fleet; it wouldn't be that much out of his way."
We certainly have plenty to think about on our way to Polo Harbour, where we hope to find more evidence of what Eldrin Dood was doing.