I'm on Balakor's Research Post in the Tenjin system, a sprawling scientific outpost with wide-ranging research interests. I was at the Search and Rescue contact to have a black box analysed, but now I'm running as fast as the micro-gravity allows to find a place I can get online.
Wake Up And Sell The Coffee
is the first joint I come to. I order a Total Espresso
– a single coffee bean heated by focused microwaves until it explodes beneath a flow of steam which captures the flavour. I find the nearest terminal and log in.
As quickly as I can I abandon all pending tourist and transport missions – I can't risk a repeat occurrence of what happened to the Dolphin
. I pay the fines and take the ensuing hit to my reputation. I'm still worried though because out of the entire fleet three Orcas are missing. The rest are safely docked awaiting validation of the Autonomous Guidance software. I've tried contacting Vinny to ask him to do this but he and Tay have gone on a trip of their own and I can't reach them.
I check the missions that the Orcas are on. My face drains of blood and I'm verging on catatonia as I see the details: a visiting head of state with her entourage, a rich tourist with friends, and a famous explorer are, hopefully, out and about on their separate excursions but none of their ships have phoned home recently to confirm their location. If these people are in trouble then it will be serious for me – especially if the head of state is in jeopardy. I've defended clients against negligence allegations in the past and it didn't go well in the cases that were lost.
I slap myself out of the stupor and anyway the caffeine from the Total has kicked in. My travel business has ground to a halt and I have this threat hanging over me from an unknown source. I thought I was done sleuthing but now it seems that the best way to use my time is to get to the bottom of who's attacking me – and stop them.
Back at the Python I find Adalina looking happier and more relaxed than I've seen her and there's a petal-soft blush to her cheeks.
"Good visit?" I ask, raising one eyebrow.
"Good visit!" she says, the blush reddening slightly.
"Do you want to know about the black box?" I say, not necessarily wanting to burden her with my cares.
"Oh yes, I'm curious."
"Well, it turns out that the Dolphin was shot up by a pirate from Trakath called Vesto Cipher."
"Cipher!" she says in surprise. "But you've seen him, Andy. He was the dritsekk that interdicted me. Remember? In the mess at the detention centre?"
"All muscle and tattoo? Yes, I remember him. Apparently he's aligned with the Golden Hand Coalition on Diva Mines."
"That's right, he was waiting for the Coalition to pay his fine."
"Also, somebody on Diva hacked into the Dolphin – and maybe other ships in my fleet – and uploaded their own version of the autonomous guidance software."
"So they can take over a ship at will and send it wherever they like?"
"It looks that way. I think I have to go to Diva Mines to investigate."
"You mean we
have to go to Diva. I'm coming with you."
"You don't have to get involved if you don't want to," I say. "This isn't your fight."
That look of determination reappears in her eyes, the one she wore when I first met her at Odin's Crag.
"Well, I'm making it my fight. Look, your tourist Orca can't go up against pirates, but my Python can. Since Cipher shot me down I've beefed up the shields and the weapons and I feel like taking Cipher out if we meet him."
I'm so grateful for the help and companionship that I give her a spontaneous hug, catching the distinctive musky fragrance of recent intimacy. Good for her; lucky Adalina.
Now that we're partners in this affair I tell her about my other concerns.
"Three Orcas are missing, one of them carrying a visiting head of state."
Adalina assimilates this news and demonstrates how quickly she thinks.
"Could be a kidnapping – someone after a ransom; or maybe it's a revolution – a coup while the leader's taking a vacation; or maybe it's just reputational damage to you, Andy."
"We'll just have to wait to see how it plays out – see what crops up on Galnet News. Meanwhile, let's get over to Diva, though we won't find any Orcas there – they need a large landing pad."
"Before we go to Diva I need to visit a station with outfitting – and hairdressing."
"It's your ship, Adalina; you have control."
We travel to Colonia Dream where the outfitting is half-decent.
"I suggest you find a café or a bar and wait this out," Adalina says. "Coiffing can be time-consuming."
When I get the call and return to the hangar there are two surprises. The Python has been converted into a pirate ship; she's now called Border Reiver and has a frankly disconcerting Pirate Red paintjob.
The second surprise is that Adalina has matching hair colouring – blood red with midnight black streaks.
"This is my angry hair," she says, "a sort of warpaint."
I understand, now, that Adalina matches her appearance to her mood and dresses the ship accordingly. I guess at her plan.
"You're thinking of going to Diva Mines as an undercover pirate? That's a dangerous game."
"I know," she says, "but, thinking about it, if there are people there who mean you harm then it would be better for you to keep a low profile and let me do the footwork. If I can get in with the Golden Hand I might find out who you're up against."
I see the logic but I'm reluctant to ask her to take the risk; I remember the mental damage inflicted on Tay when she became entangled in my work – although to be fair she did have her own agenda. Adalina sees the doubt in my face.
"Don't worry, Andy, I'm all grown up and I can handle myself."
I relent and I'm grateful for the offer.
"Okay, let's do it."
It's a short flight to Trakath and the approach to Diva Mines is short and uneventful.
After we request docking and complete the landing, there's a warning from the station controller.
"Keep your nose clean, Schmid. We'll be watching you."
The Golden Hand faction has a very small presence in the station but I guess they cause trouble out of all proportion to their size. The warning is based on the assumption that a newly arrived pirate ship has dealings with the faction.
"What's next?" Adalina asks as we drop into the hangar.
I go to Starport Services and bring up the Mission Board. Golden Hand Coalition is way down the bottom.
"First, we – meaning you
– need to build some reputation with Golden Hand; if you're ever going to break into their circle you probably need to be at least Friendly."
Adalina looks at the missions on offer from Golden Hand. There are only three and they're all poor-paying internal report deliveries – but that's normal for a commander with neutral reputation.
"This might take a while."
"Don't worry, the rewards will grow as we complete more missions."
We take all three delivery missions, to Ogmar, Tir, and Tenjin – right back to Balakor's in fact, and we earn a time bonus on each. Then it's back to Diva Mines and the mission board.
"Another report delivery along with a load of biowaste, both going to Talalay in Deriso," Adalina says.
We hold our noses, make the delivery, and return for more.
"This is more like it," Adalina says, grinning. "Smuggle narcotics to Whirling Station in Ogmar, and even more narcotics to Dove Enigma in Colonia."
"I might even think you're enjoying being a pirate."
"Well, it's something different, isn't it? Don't you ever wonder what it would be like to follow a different path through life?"
"I'm trying," I insist, "I really am, only the galaxy seems to be pulling me back to detective work."
Smuggling isn't difficult if you use heat sinks and silent running to dodge the authorities – and other pirates. We're soon back at Diva Mines and we find we're creeping through a 'cordial' relationship with the Golden Hand Coalition.
The next mission board stops us dead.
"It's just massacre missions in Ogmar," Adalina says, more subdued now. "Not only that, it's civilians. It's one thing to help rid the region of pirates, it's quite another to harm innocent civilians. I'm not sure I can do that, Andy."
I have a huge respect for life – all living things – and I've seen a lot of death, mostly at the hands of bad people. I share Adalina's distaste for taking any of these missions but I don't see how we're going to make progress unless we do.
We sit in silence for five minutes each with our own thoughts. I reach a conclusion.
"Why don't you sit this one out, Adalina, let me do it?"
She looks at me with a mixture of shock and disappointment.
"I have a plan," I say, trying to sound reassuring. "Nobody needs to die today."
Out of the five missions available I select the one with the smallest reward and the lowest number of targets.
"The contract is for four civilians. Let's do it."
"Not me; I'm going to my bunk; let me know when it's over."
Alone in the cockpit I do routine pre-flight checks; I haven't flown a Python for a while but I have very fond memories of when I did. I find I can apply a little further engineering to the weapons in the area of efficiency, then I'm ready.
Ogmar is a busy High Tech system and it's not hard to find mission targets. I drop in on a group of unsuspecting ships: an Adder, a Viper, and two Sidewinders. I scan them and see how inexperienced they are; not one of them is better than competent.
I target the first Sidewinder flown by Benson McCauley. Two sustained bursts of lasers melt the shields and the Python's multi-cannons destroy the Frame Shift Drive. I take the hull down to five percent and then hail the pilot. In the process I pick up a bounty and become wanted.
"Benson McCauley, it's your lucky day. I want you to get in your escape pod and let me scoop you up."
"Are you a slaver?" MCauley asks nervously; I hear the stress in his voice. "I'm begging you, please don't send me into slavery, I have a family – two young kids."
"That's not my aim," I say, trying to reassure him. "Just do as I ask and you'll be back in Whirling Station, boasting of your exploits, in less time than it takes to bake a greeble."
"Okay," he says uncertainly, and a few minutes later I scoop the pod and take the remaining percentage out of the Sidewinder's hull. The explosion is modest compared with some. I check my transactions tab to confirm that the kill is registered.
This will work. If I'm careful I can complete the mission without killing anyone.
The other ships in the little convoy have high-waked so I need to go hunting. At the next signal source I repeat this procedure with another Sidewinder – they are the easiest targets after all. Things don't go my way, though; my target has more skill, a faster Sidey, and mines. I feel how the Python lacks agility and thrust in the chase, and the victim's shields are still intact by the time they've high-waked. The other ships have disappeared too.
So I proceed to the next signal source. I quickly take down a Sidewinder and scoop up the pilot – that's two out of the four I need. Amazingly, the other ships in the fleet are still hanging around. Don't they have homes to go to? Really, these people don't understand how dangerous it is out here. There's an Adder ambling along, its commander seemingly unaware of what just happened. That's three.
Within another twenty minutes I've completed the mission quota and can think about returning to Diva Mines – and letting Adalina know it's all over. First, though, I have to keep my promise to the pilots of the ships I destroyed.
I go to Whirling Station and drop off the escape pods, but the authorities notice my bounties and before I know it I'm back in the Odin's Crag detention centre. I pay the fines and access the transactions tab with trepidation – what if the mission details have been wiped?
But it's fine – we can still complete the mission and boost our rep with the faction.
I tap on the door of Adalina's cabin.
"It's alright to come out now," I say, "the mission's done and no civilians died at our hands."
It's quiet for a moment then Adalina appears. I tell her how my plan worked and she seems more cheerful.
"So, we can carry on?"
"Yes, let's go and see what's on the mission board."
The massacre missions have gone from the list – so some
civilians probably died today – but our options now are different. We're about eighty-percent of the way to becoming friendly with Golden Hand Coalition.
"What about this one?" I say. "It's to source and return progenitor cells – forty altogether."
Adalina searches the trade route data for progenitor cells.
"Looks like Whirling Station in Ogmar is the place to go."
"Ironic, I was just there."
In less than half-an-hour we've completed the mission, and we're pleased to see we can choose five pluses to add to our reputation. Suddenly, we're friends with the coalition; we get a notification and then an extra message, which invites Adalina to hang out with the Golden Hand in their lair, which is of course a bar – The Blaster and Limpet
. According to What's On In Diva Mines
, a guide to the outpost's nightlife, the bar used to be frequented by miners, but not since the Coalition moved in.
"Are you okay with that?" I check with Adalina. "It's about to get a lot more dangerous."
"I'm fine," she says, "it's why we came here isn't it?"