After sleeping soundly for six hours, except for a dream involving my ship exploding, I'm woken by Tay shaking my shoulder.
"Linton, wake up," she says. "There's a message for you from someone called Vinny Ayr. There's a mug of tea for you on the bridge."
I rouse myself, pull on my boots, and head for the cockpit. After quaffing deeply my brain starts to work. I'd sent the unusual encrypted files I'd found at the smugglers' rendezvous to Vinny Ayr, a cryptanalyst. If he's decrypted them already then he's earned the million credits I'd paid him.
There's a covering message and a number of attachments which I expect will be the plaintext versions of the encrypted files.
"Andy, you really do send me the most interesting stuff. This time it wasn't only the encryption that was unusual; the content of one file is totally mind-blowing, if it's true. I've encrypted that one again and I'll send you the unlock keyword separately. The others files were encrypted twice–once using standard document protection and again as part of the overall package. Thanks for the payment upfront, I've booked a tour of Sol as a reward."
The first file I open is a spreadsheet listing the expenses incurred over the last few months.
I see the tens of billions he paid Lori Jameson for the engineering of his fleet of Type-9s. I see the eight hundred million, plus some small change, that he spent on the party at Hillary Depot. That was on 29Sep3304.
On 01Nov there is an entry described by the single letter 'W' to a value of 200,000 credits. The last entry in the file is the charge for restock and repair on 02Nov.
"That 'W' stands for 'woman' or 'whore'. It means he's seduced someone or paid them to spend time with him," Mai says, looking over my shoulder.
"How do you know that?" I ask. "Do you know him?"
"Sure," she says, "we all do. We've all worked with him at one time or another and we know what he's like."
"Womaniser of womanisers," Jaquelyn says. "Mr Tosterone we call him, among other things."
I move on to the next document. It's a calendar and appointment book. I look at the recent and future entries. There are innocuous entries for business meetings at various Dood sites, a further smattering of the letter W, and another cryptic entry for a meeting with MS on 20Sep3304.
There's an entry for 02Nov which reads: Hong Bao, 340, 35
"Any idea what this means?" I ask the group–it looks like Mai and Jaquelyn are happy to join Tay and me in the quest.
"Well, Hong Bao is a famous explorer," Mai says. "He's been round the galaxy several times and visited every corner. Don't know what the numbers mean."
"I think I do," I say, remembering my encounter with Paul Goodwin. "340 is the heading you get when you align the towers at Hillary Depot, and if you travel on that heading for 35 clicks you come to the smugglers' rendezvous."
"So, Dood met Hong Bao covertly on 02Nov," Tay says, "and there was a ground battle there."
"But Goodwin said that Dood got away," I say, "so I'm wondering why these files were in the wreckage that I scanned."
We sit in silence, equally puzzled.
"Let's brainstorm," I say. "Shout out your ideas, no matter how crazy."
After a long pause Tay goes first.
"Maybe the wrecked ship was travelling with Dood–as an assistant; that's not unknown for Dood executives."
"Good," I say, even though I doubt the possibility. "Anything else."
"Maybe this Goodwin was wrong and the wreckage you found was Dood's ship," Jaquelyn suggests.
I don't say anything but I don't think there was enough scrap metal at the wreck site.
"Mai, anything?" I say after another pause.
"Well," she says thoughtfully, "what if someone hacked into Dood's systems and stole the files? Maybe they were looking for the same thing as Eldrin. If he detected the breach that could have been how the fight started."
"It's complicated, but it fits the facts."
Apart from Vinny's encrypted document, there's one more attachment in the package. It's an audio file.
[Eldrin Dood] "You've definitely met with Bungaree?"
[Hong Bao] "As sure as I'm meeting you now."
[ED] "Where can I find him?"
[HB] "He's a very private person; he may not want to see you."
[ED] "Leave that to me; I just need to know where he is."
[HB] "Okay, then, you need to head over to Lagoon Sector–Amundsen Terminal. Look for Kelly Hale. He'll set up the meeting for you, but it's always minus ninety."
[ED] "Thanks…wait…what's that?"
[HB] "I'm out of here."
There's the sound of thrusters firing up followed by weapon fire which lasts for no more than thirty seconds. Then the recording ends abruptly.
"It looks like you're right, Mai," I say. "This audio file must have been streaming into the wrecked ship and ends when Dood destroyed it. My guess is that Dood assumed that Goodwin was hostile too, and that's why he attacked him."
"What do you think Hong Bao meant by 'it's always minus ninety'?" Tay wonders aloud.
"Temperature, latitude, longitude, metres below the geoid, who knows?" Jaquelyn says.
"Well, latitude is the most likely," Mai says. "Ninety degrees west doesn't pin anything down, it's half a great circle. But, latitude minus ninety is the south pole–it's a precise location."
"Let's go take a look," Tay says.
I really feel that we're building a strong team here and it intrigues me that Mai and Jaquelyn are really motivated to help out. After all, they're supposed to be on holiday.
We climb away from Amundsen Terminal and go into supercruise. It's not a large planet and it takes only a few minutes to glide down to the south pole.
"I'll go," I say, and I'm soon dropping to the surface in the SRV. I don't know what I expect to see, but that's why we're here.
It's a cold, desolate place that's far away from prying eyes. There's no reason to come here. I drive around wondering how long I should linger, then I slam on the brake. In front of me, barely perceptible in the regolith, are two sets of SRV tracks. They stop within a few metres of each other.
"There was definitely a meeting here," I report to the team. "But there's nothing else to see."
We return to Amundsen Terminal. I'm waiting for Vinny to send me the key to open the final document. Meanwhile, my team gets to work looking for Kelly Hale. It turns out not to be too difficult. Hale is everyone's go-between, a wheeler-dealer, a wide-boy, everybody's friend. They bring him to meet me.
"Kelly, did my colleagues explain why we want to talk to you?"
"Yes, yes, you're looking for my good friend Bungaree."
"So, can you help us?"
"No problema. The fee is…" Hale has a good eye for setting a price, "twenty million."
"A bit steep," I say. "How about two million?"
"Sorry, it's what he always charges; standard fee and all that; it's out of my hands."
"Give us the information and you'll get your money," Tay says impatiently. She's clearly used to dealing with these sums which, frankly, scare me.
Hale is surprised at the easy way the negotiation is concluded and is slightly wrong-footed. He maybe gives away more than he should.
"If you head over to Attenborough's Watch–you can find it easily enough–you'll find him holed up there. He's an old man now and very reclusive."
Hale leaves and we locate Attenborough's Watch in Lagoon Sector FW-W d1-122.
We make the single jump to the system and are soon parked up in Attenborough, an asteroid base sitting above some planetary rings.
"Let's split up and search the base from top to bottom," I say.
It's a fairly small outpost and there are only a few watering holes. The locals know Bungaree and we soon learn that he lives on board his Asp Explorer which sits in a hangar at the back of the base which is permanently assigned to him.
The ship looks like it's a thousand years old with only a handful of flakes of paint clinging tenaciously to its hull, which is rough to the touch, scorched, and blackened in all the places that regularly overheat. The canopy is almost opaque there are so many striated scratch marks on it.
"Can't believe this is the ship that flew to Amundsen recently," Tay comments. "It looks like its own engines might tear it apart."
"These old kites are tough," I say, "like the Cobra, the Hauler, and the Type-6. Those are the ships that built the bubble in the early years."
"Thanks for the history lesson, Grandpa; where you around in those days?" Tay jests, elbowing me fondly in the stomach.
"Who are you? What do you want?" a genuinely old voice hails us from inside the Asp.
"We've come to ask you a few questions. Kelly Hale sent us," I say.
"Shouldn't've done that. Don't like people…comin' here."
"But we're here now."
"Yup, true," he says. "Come on up then. Got any cheese? A man likes cheese."
Tay and I climb aboard the Asp while Mai and Jaquelyn go in search of a deli to buy the old-timer his favourite nibble.
Bungaree is ancient, we think. His face is starburnt, dry, and wrinkled, especially around the eyes from squinting at a million suns. Half camouflaged by the wrinkles, a long scar runs down his right cheek. His hair is long, thin, and pure white. But those eyes, they've seen the galaxy–as much of it as a person can see in a lifetime. There's sadness and a knowingness about them.
"Questions, you say? Always people got questions, not even knowing what to do with the answers."
"We want to know about your meeting with Eldrin Dood at the south pole of Amundsen's planet," I say.
Bungaree doesn't have a wide repertoire of facial expressions and none of them is exaggerated. I see what I think is withdrawal and reserve.
"No good'll come of it, young'un" he says. I give Tay a wry smirk at the "young'un".
"We only want to find him, make sure he's okay."
Bungaree looks at me shrewdly; he knows that's only half true.
"Tell you what I told Dood," Bungaree says. "You might want to write it down."
We listen with bated breath.
"Negative two zero two six seven comma two zero nine nine comma two four one seven seven. That's it, I say no more, now go–leave the cheese by the undercarriage."
We hurry back to the Orca.
"Three comma-separated numbers; that's a set of co-ordinates isn't it?" Tay says breathlessly.
"Yes, and they sound vaguely familiar."
I open the galaxy map and zoom in to the co-ordinates Bungaree gave us, which are: (-20,267, 2099, 24,177)
"There's nothing there," I say. "Let's check them again. Could we have misheard?"
I'm looking at the right region but there are no stars at all.
"What's the sector?" Tay asks.
I zoom out slightly and move around the map until I come across a red dwarf.
"It's Thequa," I say.
"The Thequa Cube!" we say simultaneously, remembering that Dood had repeatedly quizzed Maynard Silva for what he knew about the region of space where many commanders had gone missing.
In fortuitously timely fashion the inbox pings and I see the message from Vinny containing the key to decrypt the final document. It's an email.
Our hunch is correct and the money spent building the fleet is justified. The rumours I'm picking up suggest that it does exist–an antimatter system right here in our galaxy. Imagine it, a star made of antihydrogen! Exactly what we need!
There are strong indications it's somewhere in the Thequa Sector. People say that if the laws of physics allow it, it will occur somewhere in the universe. We're just the lucky ones to have it so close by.
I'll take the fleet in that direction. Your job will be to find an explorer called Hong Bao; he knows how to get to Bungaree–he was the first explorer to survive in the antimatter system and knows where it is. When you find the co-ordinates, send them to me.
I go straight back to Bungaree. I want to know it all, whatever he thinks the consequences might be.
"We couldn't find anything at the co-ordinates you gave us."
"That’s right, it don't show on GalMap. It's too dangerous. I persuaded the cartographers to destroy all information about it. But you seem bent on your own destruction, so I'll tell you this: Thequa AA-A j0
does appear in your navigation panel when you get close enough to it. There's a neutron jump you have to make to get there and an antineutron star in system you can use to get away–curiously, you can still boost your jump and not be annihilated."
A sadness appears in his eyes.
"Lost my best friend and travelling companion in that system."
"Del–Del Costa, you might have heard of him–he tried scooping the star and disappeared in a bright gamma ray burst. My advice is–stay away."