People gather outside Budrys Installation ready for the convoy's departure. It gets very busy with so much normal traffic coming and going, so we decide as a group to move away from the station. A destination for the jump is chosen so we can all get aligned.
It's always a moment for celebration when commanders get together for an event like this. Some people release chaff and the occasional heat sink, while others have brought along flak launchers, which strikes me as odd for a haulage convoy. Flak does make an impressive firework display when several are fired at once, though, and we all sit back and enjoy the show while we count down to the jump.
The jump manager asks me to move into a new position so the group is nice and tight. I'm just moving forwards when flak explodes around me and my 3D shields only just hold up.
I don't see who fired and I don't know whether it was deliberate, but it's a warning for me to be on my guard. I have 'report crimes against me' switched on and within a minute a couple of authority ships break away from circling Budrys and come over to scan everyone.
Two ships immediately high wake and I guess it was the culprits. I don't have a wake scanner on board so I don't know who they are. Tay comes to the bridge from the luxury cabin where she's been relaxing with her friends.
"All okay?" she asks. "What was that noise?"
I explain about the flak. "We need to be careful. Someone, and maybe more than one, knows what we're doing here."
"So much for the cover story," Tay says. "What do we do? Keep up the pretence?"
"Can't do much else," I say. "We need to keep going–and find out what happened to Eldrin Dood."
"Do you want me to take the ship to Hillary?"
"No, I've got it," I say. "You go spend some time with Mai and Jaquelyn–do some catching up."
We make the mass jump and then plot our individual routes to Hillary Depot. I'm happy when I'm out there on my own. There's one interdiction attempt while we're in the bubble, which I evade, but I don't think it's connected to the Dood case.
For the Orca it's forty-three jumps to Hillary so it takes less than an hour for me to receive landing instructions for pad 11.
While I organise the ship maintenance, I suggest to Tay that she takes our passengers to explore the depot.
"While you're looking around, see if you can find Casey Hayden."
"The spotter? Will do."
Many pirate groups employ lookouts who tell them when tasty cargo passes through a system. We've already met Irma Alvarado on Jameson Base and she told us about Casey Hayden here in Hillary Depot. She'll certainly have a busy few days as the Christmas Carriers' Convoy passes through.
Tay and her friends head off to find a bar while I look after the ship. There's plenty to do but I take a moment to look out of the canopy. I catch sight of a figure moving stealthily from shadow to shadow. I make a guess that Casey Hayden has come to me and I quickly leave the ship to catch up to her.
"Casey Hayden?" I call out. "Don't run, I just want to talk."
She looks at me nervously with a hand resting on the grip of her sidearm.
"What do you want?"
"Information–that's your job isn't it?"
"I'm interested in a pilot called Eldrin Dood who came through here a few months back. Do you have records going that far back?"
Casey is much more relaxed and surprisingly less mercenary than Irma when it comes to sharing what she knows. My guess is she's starved of company, probably shunned by the locals, and welcomes the contact.
"Oh yeah, I remember him–not your regular traveller that's for sure."
"Well, he's a trillionaire for a start. He could buy Hillary Depot a dozen times over, and he knows how to throw a party. That's where the trouble started."
"Everyone in the Depot was invited, including the travellers who were here at the time. He laid on all the food, drink, and entertainment that was to be had. It was such a party that has never been seen here and most likely will never be seen again. Normal activities ground to a halt for two whole drunken days. Two hundred of the women are now with child."
"And the trouble?"
"With all that drink around, tongues were loosened and tempers were frayed. Arguments were followed by fights and then murders. Some of the disagreements were brought here from the bubble and I think they were connected to what Dood was carrying in his hold."
"You looked at his manifest?"
"Of course, that's my job isn't it? He had a fine collection of rare goods, for his own consumption I think, and his material store was well stocked. The oddest item in the store was a prototype antimatter containment unit–possibly the rarest item he was carrying. A lot of the talk I heard was about how to take it from him."
"What happened to Dood, after the party."
"Some say he was killed and his ship stolen; others say he ran away. But the last time I saw his ship it was headed for the smugglers' rendezvous. What happened there, I couldn't say."
"Where is it, this smugglers' rendezvous?"
"Get in your ship; climb above the depot and align the two towers with the central peak of the crater behind you. The towers point in the direction you should go. That's where smugglers go to meet."
I don't wait for Tay. I launch the ship and follow Casey's instructions, aligning the towers.
I head in this direction and climb out of the crater. I'm at an altitude of four kilometres and about thirty-five kilometres from Hillary when I see a point of interest ahead of me. I drop to the ground and jump in the SRV. The signal is strong to the north of my position and I advance towards it.
It's wreckage, unprotected by skimmers. I ignore the canisters and target the comms link.
I don't know what to do with unusual encrypted files, but I know someone who does.
Before returning to the ship I notice another signal further north. I steer towards it and drive over the lip of a large crater. There I see it, a Federal Assault Ship. It doesn't seem to be in bad condition but there's no response as I drive up to it and try peering through the canopy.
The scan shows its pilot is Commander Paul Goodwin and I recall that this was the pirate who was assigned to follow Eldrin Dood from the bubble.
I try to raise the ship on the comms. There's a faint, crackling response.
"Who…who are you?" Goodwin struggles to say.
"You were following Eldrin Dood. What happened here?"
"There was…a fight…here. Dood came to meet someone and…I wasn't the only one who followed him."
"Do you know who he was meeting?"
There's a pause while Goodwin gathers his strength. "An explorer…I don't know his name…or maybe someone who knew where to find an explorer…it was all very confusing."
"And people fought for this information?"
"It's all just rumour…this mythical system they talk about…that will make you the richest in the galaxy…they fought for its supposed location…or maybe the whereabouts of the explorer who knows where it is."
"Did Dood meet his contact?"
"As far as I can tell…the fight followed…I got caught up in it and I'm toasted…Dood got away."
"Is there anything I can do for you?"
I drive back to the ship and even before lifting off I send the unusual encrypted files to Vinny Ayr in the bubble; he's my go-to cryptologist and he's never let me down.
Tay is very relieved to see me as I land back at Hillary Depot.
"We thought you'd left without us. That would have been cruel."
"This place is a dump; there's nothing to do, nothing to see."
"Well, you missed the party of the century," I say and bring her up to date with what I've learned.
"So, we continue with the convoy?"
"To Amundsen and beyond."