I play over and over the CCTV recording that seems to show me leaving the bridal suite of our wedding barge carrying a knife dripping with blood, supposedly shortly after murdering the newlyweds, Jensen Foote and Bonbon Larousse.
Vinny Ayr has shown that the video was faked by overlaying my 'holo-me' onto the body of the real killer, thus masking their identity. He has further evidence that the perp was a woman; we see her visiting my apartment in the guise of a Lyrae Weed dealer when she drugged Tay and stole my Miyaki chef's knife; and we see her buying an identical knife in Bolden Enterprise to use as the actual murder weapon while mine, still bearing my fingerprints, was merely smeared with blood to implicate me.
I watch all these videos repeatedly with a growing feeling that I've seen her before; there's something familiar about her body language, the confidence and muscularity of the walk, the straightness of her back with her head held high and yet with a great ease of movement. We've met, of that I'm confident, but I can't quite pin it down.
Then there's the wisp of blonde hair escaping from her hood as she bought the knife. That should help to narrow down the field, but hair colour is too mutable to be a definitive characteristic.
A case in point – Adalina wanders into the lounge from the bathroom wearing only a towel; her hair, previously the colour of dry moss before it turns brown, is now vibrant orange.
"Whoa! That's a different look," I say as I glance up from watching the video.
"Do you like it? I got the idea from the detention centre jumpsuits."
"It was a shock – no, a surprise – at first, but now it's growing on me."
"Thanks for letting me crash here for a while, it's elite of you," she says dropping down into a sofa. Vinny Ayr and Tay Getty have decided to move into their own place, so I have the space and I like having someone else around.
"Any more thoughts on who tried to frame you?"
This is indeed the puzzle.
"What I can't work out is whether someone really wanted to kill Foote and Larousse and I was chosen as the fall guy, or whether I'm the real target and the newlyweds are the unlucky victims of the killer's plan – merely a way of damaging me."
Adalina lies down on the sofa, resting her wet hair on a cushion. Well that's going to leave an orange mark
"You're the target," she says without hesitation. "It's obvious. You think you've met her before? She wants payback for something."
"I suppose so."
"And all that evidence against you – that was elaborate, meticulous even. Who've you crossed, Andy?"
"Between here and the California Nebula – almost everyone I've worked for, either them or their spouse or their spouse's lover; not to mention the lawyers I've out-evidenced and the police cases that collapsed with promotion and pensions at stake."
"Not very popular, then?"
"Altogether, I was quite happy to leave sleuthing behind for a while."
"But someone's coming to get you, so you'd better get your brain into gear, like Vinny wanted."
I know she's right. Someone, somewhere, is bitterly disappointed that I'm not languishing in a cell, sentenced to death. They'll probably try again, but how?
Next day, a Dolphin fails to return from a routine roundtrip to Jaques Station. The booking was from Colonia Dream, in the Ratraii system, and should have docked back there several hours ago. I get a call from the flight controllers here on Jaques Station saying there are reports of a distress call close by the starport, and it involves a ship of my fleet.
"Let's go take a look," Adalina suggests. "My Python is prepped for departure; she's fuelled and armed."
I exchange my silk dressing gown for a flight suit and we head for the docking area. It feels a little strange to be going into action after such a lengthy period of bean counting; but it's exciting too. I'm glad that Adalina is with me; it looks like she can handle herself.
We enter the hangar and I see her ship is vibrant orange.
"To match your hair?"
"Yep, it's a style thing."
"Well, you certainly have that."
We get permission to launch and we're soon out of the station.
"I'll take the ship into supercruise so we can pick up the distress signal," Adalina says.
"I'll handle the FSS."
Adalina brings the ship to minimal speed in supercruise while I scan for the distress call. As with any active inhabited system there's a host of signal sources – departing convoys, degraded emissions, the aftermath of combat. It takes a minute or two to work through them.
"Found it…and…it's targeted."
We drop out into normal space and find the call has come from right next to the Colonia Expansion tourist beacon. There are three ships in the area, a Beluga, an Orca, and a Dolphin. The Dolphin is in the Linton Travel colours. I check the Id.
"It's the missing ship alright," I say.
"So, what's the problem?" Adalina wonders. "She looks to be in one piece."
As we watch, the Dolphin turns away from the beacon and its boosting thrusters light the scene. She boosts again…and again. Having visited the beacon the guidance systems should have taken the ship back to supercruise and on to the next waypoint.
"Where's it going? Adalina, can you follow the ship and keep pace?"
"Surely," she says, boosting the Python. "Matching vectors now."
I hail the ship.
"Lima Tango Delta One Fiver, are you receiving me? This is Andrew Linton of Linton Travel."
I repeat the call two more times before there's a reply.
"Oh, thank Bell! Can you help us?" a woman's voice pleads desperately
I'm relieved to hear her, not wanting a repeat of the Beluga incident.
"What's happening?" I say. "What appears to be the problem?"
Another voice replies – male, and angry rather than thankful.
"Get us out of this," he says. "We've been going round the visitor beacon triangle for hours."
"Triangle?" I say, puzzled.
"Yes, triangle. We go from Repairs Concluded to The Colonia Expansion to the Jaques Visitor Beacon, then back to Repairs Concluded, round and round, time after time. The fuel level's becoming critical."
I think hard.
"Something has gone wrong with the Autonomous Guidance System," I say to Adalina.
"You think?" she says.
I think harder. My priority is to get the travellers to safety before the ship dies. I call the Dolphin again.
"How many in your party?" I ask – I should have checked this but I've been preoccupied of late and maybe have been letting the business run itself a tad too much.
"You mean you don't know?" the angry voice replies. "We're a family of three."
"Okay, that's fine. What I want you to do is get into escape pods and abandon the ship. We're right here to scoop you up and take you wherever you want to go."
With the comms open I hear a baby crying and the mother trying to soothe it.
"How old is the child?" I ask, worried about my plan.
"She's six months," the father says, and I hear the mother's anxiety in the background. "I don't want her in an escape pod on her own."
"No, I agree," I say. "Can she go in a pod with her mother?"
"She'll have to, but I'm not happy."
Five minutes later we see two escape pods launch from the Dolphin. They're way too close to Adalina's Python; we crash into them and they're sent tumbling crazily in opposite directions. Adalina shows her skill as a pilot by deftly swinging around then approaching each pod in turn and scooping them gently into the hold.
"Could've used collector limpets, I suppose," she says, "but they've got a vicious snatch that would send a conscious person into hysterics."
"You did the right thing. Now I think we should set a course for Ratraii, where these people expected to be hours ago. I'll go below and see about getting them out of their pods and into a cabin."
"What about the Dolphin?"
I consider this. I would like to know what happened to it that made it behave the way it did.
"We'll leave it for now going round in circles – or triangles – and come back for it later."
I go below to the cargo bay and open up the escape pods. First out are the mother and baby. I reckon the baby's in the best condition, protected by her mother and a liberal scattering of cushions taken from one of the Dolphin's cabins.
"Are you okay?" I ask the mother while working on the second pod; the mechanism to open the pod hatch was slightly bent in the collision with the Python and it's a struggle to activate it. I can see the man inside getting more and more angry, and I'm tempted to leave him there until we reach Colonia Dream. In the end I grab a persuasive hammer from the tool station and the door is released.
"We're okay, I think," she says, checking the child's limbs. "Can't speak to Abe's state of mind, though."
The man tumbles out of the pod onto the cargo bay floor. As he stands up I see that he's a good fifteen centimetres taller than me and his face is fifty shades redder, not least where a bruise is blossoming after his pod was in collision with a speeding Python.
He clenches his fist and holds it up to my face.
"See this," he says. "These fingers are how many stars I'm going to give you when I review your service."
I think he's joking and I smile; no fingers visible means no stars; that'll dent my average score as a travel business, but by only a little.
The punch, when it comes, takes me by surprise. I hear the squelching, gristly crack as my nose breaks and I go sprawling on the floor. He advances towards me thinking to continue the assault.
"No, Abe, let it go," his wife calls out. "We're safe now, and it's thanks to Mr Linton."
But Abe's not stopping; he's only had one swing at me and it wasn't enough to calm him. I stand up and take two more blows, one to the gut and another to the face. Then there's a loud report as Adalina fires two rubber bullets at Abe, one at each leg. The big man goes down with a scream and is soon bawling louder than his baby.
"We only wanted to see Jaques Station," he sobs. "Come all the way from Sol…start a new life."
I hold the baby, my nose dripping blood onto its white one-piece romper while the woman holds Abe, soothing him as best she can.
"There's a picture for the album," Adalina says, making a picture frame with her fingers. "We're outside Colonia Dream, if anyone's interested."
After we drop off our passengers, giving them a full refund and a token for a further journey, we head back to Colonia to find the Dolphin.
"I expect it's still making circuits of the tourist beacons," Adalina says, "so that's the place to start looking."
"Yes, so we can either wait at one of them or go round ourselves in the opposite direction."
"I prefer moving to staying still, action rather than inaction," she says. "Targeting Repairs Concluded."
We drop into normal space and set a course for Jaques Visitor Beacon. It's a journey of 25.8 kilometres and it doesn't take long in Adalina's dirty-drive Python. There's a Beautiful Corners Beluga at the beacon; they're one of my main rivals in the local travel industry, but they're paying pilots to fly their ships. Their costs are higher than mine, so it's a battle of attrition to determine who wins.
No sign, though, of my autonomous Dolphin.
"Colonia Expansion next," Adalina says, swinging the ship to its new target. "It's 34.1 kilometres."
She boosts all of the way to Colonia Expansion and all we see are ships coming and going from Jaques Station which sits inside its net of authority ships. We reach the beacon and the Dolphin isn't there.
"Where can it be?" I'm exasperated.
"I guess it just ran out of fuel. At least there's nobody left on board to asphyxiate. Let's finish the triangle…targeting Repairs Concluded again…58.7 kilometres."
I'm glad Adalina is here helping me. She's very practical and it calms me to be with someone so methodical, which I put down to the years of learning Latin that she's told me about.
We're still twenty kilometres from Repairs Concluded when there's a thump on the hull, and then another and another.
"What was that?" I say, looking forward out of the cockpit.
Adalina brings the ship to a dead stop and we find we're surrounded by wreckage. I see bent slabs of hull clinging by a few rivets to the frame of whatever ship this was. Mangled thrusters turn slowly end over end without purpose and the power plant, floating free, still glows red hot. Then I see it, the piece of wreckage I was hoping not to find.
"Well, now we know where the ship is," Adalina says. "It either self-destructed or was pirated; I don't suppose we'll ever know which."
"Maybe we will," I say. "Look, over there…it's the black box."
SAIB – the Space Accident Investigation Board – has long made it a requirement for all ships to carry black box recorders that log everything that happens during spaceflight. I've used a fair few in my time to detect insurance fraud and also provide alibis for people wrongly accused of crime.
Image available under CC_BY_SA
Adalina deftly scoops the black box from among the wreckage.
"What now?" she asks.
Recovering the black box recorder is one thing; it's quite another to access and understand its contents. We're going to need an expert. I go online and look for nearby stations that have search and rescue contacts; they're usually backed by teams of analysts who know how to open up these units and they have specialised software to read their contents.
"It looks like Balakor's Research Post in Tenjin will have the facilities we need."
"I'll plot a route."
Adalina performs a controlled drift around the banks of solar panels and touches down expertly on pad 3 at Balakor; it's like she's been here before.
That's confirmed when she says: "I have friends here I'd like to look up, but I can show you where the Search and Rescue offices are."
"No, that's fine; catch up with your friends. I don't know how long the black box analysis will take, but you know where I'll be."
She sets off while I fetch the electric cargo trolley that's plugged into the hangar wall and park it beneath the Python's cargo hatch. I winch the black box down onto the trolley's flatbed and make my way to Search and Rescue.
Arnulfo Harrington is the contact who greets me.
"What do you have for me today, Commander?"
Search and Rescue will pay good money for a range of recovered items: escape pods, personal effects, and wreckage parts, in addition to black boxes.
"I'm not selling today," I tell Arnulfo. "I have a black box that I want to have analysed."
"I see, personal is it? If so, we charge you ten thousand credits for an initial examination, and a further ninety thousand for a full report."
"How long will it take?"
"Oh, about three days for the full report. We do, however, offer a premium service; it's while-you-wait for an extra fifty percent on the price."
That's about twice what I'm used to paying back in the bubble, but I guess there's less competition out here. I remove a glove and touch my finger on the paypad.
"I'll take the premium service, and I want to sit in with the analyst." You don't get if you don't ask.
"Of course; bring the unit through; I'll assign an agent to the workflow."
We go through a door into a large space where I see orderly rows of escape pods waiting to be processed and banks of shelving loaded with wreckage and personal effects. There's a separate area for black boxes and we head that way. At the back are the rooms where the boxes are cracked open and analysed.
We enter the first room and Arnulfo introduces me to Kelsie Short.
"Kelsie, this is Commander Linton. He would like you to take a look at his black box."
"Sure thing, Arn," she says, and then to me: "Pop the box on the bench, Commander, and I'll open it up."
Kelsie, is young, nimble, and efficient. She uses purpose-built power tools to open the hermetically sealed black box and, once inside, she connects cables to three different sockets.
"So, let's take a look," she says, moving to a holo-station. "What are you most interested in seeing?"
While I'm thinking, she uses hand gestures to start the black box analysis app, displaying and arranging in the space before her a list of the recordings that the black box contains.
"Well, I'd like to know first what happened to the ship."
Kelsie taps the journal file and says: "Go to end of file."
The journal file opens and I see the last entry, hovering in the air.
"Who is Vesto Cipher?"
"Oh, we see Vesto's name popping up here quite regular. He's a career criminal: smuggling, piracy, all manner of mischief — operates out of Trakath and runs with the Golden Hand Coalition. Looks like your ship was pirated, but weren't you on board at the time?"
I explain about my fleet of autonomous tourist ships.
"Huh, wouldn't get me on one of those. Don't you know space is dangerous
Point taken. I see in the list of available documents a file called 'Software Update History'.
"That update history — is it just updates to the black box software or to all systems on the ship?"
"Oh, it's everything. Want to take a look?"
I nod and Kelsie opens the document. I don't know what I'm looking for, but I do know that the Dolphin was not performing to spec when it started its circuit of the tourist beacons around Jaques Station.
I had no idea that so many updates were happening in the background. I see changes to Flight Assist systems, Galnet News, the Codex. In amongst the masses of data I see a record that's of interest.
"What's that one about AGS?" I say pointing to a line in the file. The display responds to my poking finger by drilling down into the detail of an update to the Autonomous Guidance System.
I read through the log; it seems to be a routine update. Then I notice the date it was installed: 33050625. This is three days after I was released from the Odin's Crag detention centre.
"Can you tell whether this is a bona fide update or was injected by hacking?" I ask, recognising that this is a little out of the ordinary for a black box analysis, which is usually all about finding ways to improve the safety of spaceflight.
Kelsie is not thrown by the question.
"I'll look at the download site of the software provider," she says, "and see when the latest release was issued."
A few minutes later she has the answer.
"No, the latest release of the package you're using was back in April. I think you've been hacked, Commander."
I'm beginning to understand.
"Someone has installed a rogue version of the guidance software, specifically to damage me or my businesses."
"Let me dig deeper," Kelsie says, clearly enjoying this departure from her usual role. "I should be able to work out, from the network log, where the update came from."
"You can do that?"
Her arms fly back and forth and her hands make precise gestures as she selects, zooms, and dismisses various documents. She reaches a conclusion.
"According to its network address, that update came from a server on Diva Mines in Trakath. The server existed only fleetingly; it's offline now. I guess its one task was to hack your systems."
I see immediately the need for action. If all of my ships were hacked then the Dolphin incident could be repeated elsewhere.
"Thank you, Kelsie," I say hurriedly, "you've been very helpful. Please could you work up your full report and send it to me on Jaques Station?"
"Sure thing, Commander."
I rush away to find a café where I can get online. I need to put a hold on all departures of my fleet until the AGS software has been checked. I'm sure that whoever framed me for murder tried again to damage my business interests when they discovered I was released. My next step is to go to Diva Mines and check out the Golden Hand Coalition.