Aware of the people in the hold and concerned about their comfort, Adalina touches Border Reiver
gently down on Pad 3 of Diva Mines with great dexterity. She doesn't want to add to their complaints.
After they drop down into the hangar, an army of Golden Hand associates gets to work dispersing the cargo. The silver goes off to market while the genuine slave cage is taken off to a separate holding area; the slaves will be sold or auctioned at the earliest opportunity – to avoid having to feed them.
The other passengers – those from the Linton Travel Orcas – are huddled together on the hangar floor; they're surrounded by guards carrying tasers.
"What next?" Adalina asks Cubik Splyne. "Am I allied now?"
"Not quite," he says, and he quickly snatches her gun from its holster and points it at her.
"Give me your communicator."
Slowly, reluctantly, she hands it over and waits…here it comes…subterfuge revealed.
"Andy, get out – I've got company
," he quotes from the screen, then looks at her. "You should have deleted that message, Schmid. You're nowhere near devious enough to be one of us, though I freely admit you would have fooled some I know in the Coalition."
"I…I don't know what you mean," Adalina says innocently, but the time for pretence has gone.
"Come on, I knew all along you were faking – the clean ship, the pirate hair, the incredible backstory, the search for a heat dispersion plate so you could look around Robardin. It was all so blatantly false."
Adalina looks at Border Reiver
and wonders if she can cover the distance before she's stopped. He sees her looking.
"Don't even think about it. Now fall in with your own kind," he says, nodding his head towards the tourists.
Adalina does as he commands and joins the captives. She looks longingly at her ship wondering if she'll ever see her again.
"Okay, move out," Splyne orders his soldiers and with various degrees of pushing, prodding, and low voltage tasering, the party moves out of the hangar.
Like Andy before her, she doesn't know the route they take, even though she's been to Diva Mines many times before. If anyone on the outpost recognises what is happening they don't interfere; they've learnt the hard way to keep clear of Golden Hand operations.
The slow procession eventually reaches that same remote service area where Cipher and Crumlin are waiting. Splyne taps out a complicated knock on the door which is known only to those in the faction – but could be deduced by anyone with a knowledge of Morse code as the letters: G…H…C.
I come round trying to decide which is the greater pain, in the stomach or in the head. It feels like Crumlin's jab to the stomach has ruptured something internal, while Cipher's blow to the head has blurred my vision and given me a massive headache akin to migraine.
I hear the knock on the door and look across the room to see Cipher opening up. Suddenly, the room is full of people – well dressed, affluent people, and I don't understand.
"Move to the back," Cipher shouts, "Plenty more to come in yet."
People shuffle and jostle and complain, but they do as they're told. I see the tall woman in the middle of the group and recognise her from the biography I looked up after reading the Galnet News article about her disappearance. It's Queen Lydia Hadro herself. I realise I'm looking at the tourists for whose safe passage I am responsible, and I wonder if it's best not to introduce myself in that capacity – they might have some idea it was I who planned their kidnapping.
Last in, to my utter disappointment, I see Adalina being shoved through the door. She sees me too and her expression matches mine. She makes her way over to where I'm still shackled to some pipework.
"It's all over then," she says, dispirited. "I'm scared, Andy."
"At least we know the truth," I say, "though it's no consolation."
"What will happen to us?"
"That's rather up to Crumlin and her associates in Golden Hand."
In Colonia Police Department's Precinct 5, Probationary Detective Martinsson hurries into the office of his supervisor. He's animated and enthusiastically smug.
"You need to see this, boss," he says.
"Tell me," Larsen says impatiently; she's weary of mentoring this particular junior officer.
"Reports just in; a fleet of Orcas close to Dove Enigma interdicted and pirated a Hauler. The commander said they were in the livery of Linton Travel. It looks like Linton lied to us and his life of crime continues."
"I thought we established that the video from the wedding barge was faked."
"I never believed it. That friend of his, Vinny, is clever enough and devious enough to have faked the fake. But get this, boss, the Hauler pilot was Jensen Foote's brother. It looks to me like some kind of vendetta against the Foote family."
"That's a huge leap, Detective," Larsen says, but she knows the procedure. "Issue an arrest warrant for Andrew Linton; we'll bring him in for questioning. Any idea where the Orcas are now?"
"Authority ships arrived at the interdiction site, but all they picked up was a high-wake to Carcosa."
"That'll be Robardin, won't it? Get on to them for a traffic report."
"I'm on it, boss."
Martinsson returns to his desk and prepares the arrest warrant. There's an optional checkbox marked 'Kill On Sight'. His finger hovers over it; surely his handlers would be pleased to be rid of Linton. The law, so far, hasn't been able to put Linton where he belongs – doing hard labour in a penal colony – so why not end it cleanly? He taps the checkbox and broadcasts the warrant.
As for the traffic report request from Robardin Rock in Carcosa, he consciously 'forgets' to do it.
Larsen has a heavy workload; she's still trying to find the perp of the wedding barge killing – and making little progress. She also has a missing queen to find and there's pressure on her from above to avoid a diplomatic incident. She's reading a report of a sighting of LT-O13
in Carcosa, which bears out Martinsson's news, but is otherwise perplexing – this is the Orca in which the queen was travelling.
Detective Marie-Claire Millefeuille appears at the door of Larsen's office.
"Pardon, Ma'am, two civilians here to see you – they say it's important – names of Ayr and Getty."
Larsen recognises the names.
"Show them in."
After a long consultation, Larsen presses the intercom.
"Get me a team of three SWATs, in here, now."
While she waits, a message pops up on her screen; it asks her to confirm the kill order on Andrew Linton. Unknown to Martinsson – because he's a new recruit – such kill orders have to be confirmed by a high-ranking superintendent, and that has worked its way down the chain of command to Larsen.
The SWAT team arrives and Larsen gives them an order.
"I want you to arrest Probationary Detective Martinsson; there may be resistance, so use all necessary force."
Jenna Crumlin is in quiet consultation with Vesto Cipher and Cubik Splyne.
"Things haven't gone exactly to plan – we wanted to disgrace Linton and take away his livelihood – but I'm satisfied with the outcome. We have him captive and my new plan is to take him – and his hench – to Maia. Bill will want to determine their fate."
"And our fee?" Splyne says.
"You'll get that for all the mischief you caused and you can do what you like with these prisoners ."
"Are you leaving now?" Splyne says, his eyes wandering until they fall on Queen Hadro.
"Yes, I'd like an escort to Robardin where my 'conda's parked."
"I have an idea," Splyne says, "why don't you take the Python that's in hangar three? There's already a slave cage in the hold for your prisoners and you can leave the ship in Carcosa – that's where we'll keep it anyway."
"I'll come with you," Cipher adds, "to keep an eye on Linton."
With weapon drawn, Cipher unshackles me and I rub my chafed wrist, trying to get the blood flowing.
"Move," he orders, pushing me and then Adalina towards the door.
Crumlin leads the way back to the docking area while Cipher follows behind, still with weapon drawn. We desperately look to the people we meet for help but their avoidance of eye contact is assiduous. They want no part of what's happening to us.
At the hangar I glimpse a moment of optimism in Adalina's face when she sees her ship again. This fades as we are pushed into the slave cage that Golden Hand didn't bother to unload.
lands once more at Robardin Rock in Carcosa. Vesto Cipher comes from the bridge down to the cargo bay and takes us from the slave cage at gunpoint. Adalina is despondent and I try to cheer her.
"Don't worry, it's a long way to Maia – plenty of time for things to happen, and plenty of things that could happen."
Cipher hears this and when Jenna Crumlin joins us on the hangar floor he says, "Bin thinkin'."
"Oh," she says, and I can see she's suppressing her laughter and refraining from saying something sarcastic. Men are always attracted to her, appealing as she does on so many intellectual, emotional, and physical levels.
Cipher seems to see this as encouragement.
"Yeah, bin thinkin' about quitting Colonia and takin' a trip to the bubble."
Crumlin is ahead of him and knows even what she's going to say after his next utterance – she's been here many times before.
"And you'd like to come with me in the 'conda?"
"That's it," he says enthusiastically, "I could keep an eye on the prisoners and we could get to know each other better."
"You do know I'm gay, don't you? And if you touch me, you die."
Cipher looks crestfallen but Crumlin shows no pity.
"However, if you can agree to behave yourself," she says after a thoughtful pause, "I can see that it makes sense to have some support on the journey. Let's get our guests in their accommodation, then you go and buy what you need for the voyage. I'll start pre-flight checks on the ship – it's a long haul to Maia."
Adalina and I are pushed unceremoniously into yet another slave cage, this time on Crumlin's Anaconda, Ellen
. Crumlin throws in a quantity of food cartridges and bottles of water.
"Makes these last as far as Gandharvi," she says. "It's more than I usually give, but I want your nerve-endings to be in good condition – all the better to feel the pain that Bill Auer has lined up for you."
We sit and wait in the half-light; there's nothing else we can do, and there may be several weeks of this to endure. If Crumlin's ship can jump fifty lightyears we'll have upwards of four hundred hyperspace jumps ahead of us to reach the bubble, and even more to reach Maia.
"Let's not start yet," I say to Adalina, "but I would like to know your life story – where you grew up, how you got into spaceflight, how you got that scar on your cheek."
She lets out a faint laugh, which is good to hear.
"That won't take very long; I'll be done before we've left Eol Prou."
"It'll be up to me, then, to keep you entertained."
Anything so we don't think about what's at journey's end. Yet again I have contrived to put someone in danger who is wholly undeserving of the fate that awaits us in Maia.
"All pre-flight checks complete," Crumlin says. "We're cleared to launch and the course is set for Caravanserai."
"I'm not going to miss Odin's Crag Detention Centre," Cipher says, settling into the co-pilot's seat. "Let's go."
lifts heavily off the pad in Robardin Rock and rises to the rotational axis. Pushing the throttle forwards, Crumlin takes the ship expertly out of the asteroid base and boosts away. She lines up for the first jump and punches in the command the second mass-lock is broken.
The countdown completes and they make the transition into hyperspace.
Vinny Ayr is inside a large black container of the type used by security services as a mobile command and control centre. He sits in the pilot's seat of a generic mock-up of a flight deck. All of the standard controls of a spaceship are available to him in their usual place. He wears a virtual reality headset.
He is flanked on his left by his wife, Tay Getty, and on his right by Detective Larsen of the Colonia Police Department. They too are wearing headsets and see what he sees.
is in mid-hyperspace jump when the HUD goes black.
"What the…" Crumlin says as she tries to switch between panels and flicks on and off several times the control that toggles the HUD. Everything is dark as they hurtle through witchspace. None of the controls work – though that's normal during a jump for the flight controls.
"What's happening?" Cipher says.
"I don't know…now let me concentrate. If we don't have control when we come out of witchspace, we're toast…and burnt toast at that."
"I have control of their ship. I could have left it to the software, but this is much more fun."
In the headset he's seeing the cockpit of Crumlin's ship, but in his version the HUD is lit up and he has total control of all functionality.
"It's like telepresence in a fighter, but in a ship instead. Hold on…coming out of witchspace now."
Crumlin's heart is thumping fast as they arrive in a system. She yanks at the joystick but there's no response; she zeroes the throttle but they keep moving. The HUD is totally dark and the panel controls do nothing.
"Get ready to die," she says to Cipher as the Anaconda noses towards the primary star. The fuel scoop at least is working – but they don't need extra fuel to get where they're pointing which is straight at a huge flare arcing towards them from the star's fiery surface.
"Enough," Tay says to Vinny. "Don't forget Andy and Adalina are on that ship."
Vinny pulls back on his joystick and Crumlin's ship, which is now only one thousand light-seconds away in the same system, turns away from Eol Prou LW-L c8-127 and away from danger.
"Just having some fun," he says. "I don't get to fly a 'conda very often."
"Can we bring them in now, please," Larsen says. "I won't be happy until Crumlin is under arrest."
"It's more than that," Vinny says. "You'll get the whole gang and clear up half-a-dozen cases all at the same time. Switching to Autonomous Guidance, now."
They take off their headsets.
"They should be arriving in a few minutes," he says.
"It was genius to use their own software against them – the same autonomous guidance they installed in Andy's fleet," Tay says, squeezing Vinny's arm. "Every time one of their ships attempts a hyperspace jump it will fly here to Odin's Crag and there's nothing they can do about it."
Larsen takes a call.
"Aha…I see…okay…good job."
Vinny and Tay look at her enquiringly.
"The tactical team on Diva Mines report that all of the Linton Travel tourists are freed and are safe and well, no casualties. The Golden Hand Coalition is decimated – but Cubik Splyne fled the scene."
"How did you know where they were – the tourists?" Tay asks.
"Apparently, one of the jewels in Queen Hadro's outfit has an emergency transmitter embedded in it. To save the battery it doesn't activate until it detects that it's in a non-anarchic system. It started transmitting as soon as it entered Trakath space. It took a while to triangulate the signal but as soon as she stopped moving we knew where she was to the nearest centimetre."
"I know this system," Cipher says looking out of the cockpit, "and I know where we're going."
Jenna Crumlin raises an arched eyebrow to make a question mark of her face.
"Odin's Crag," he says, "Detention Centre."
"How can this be?" Crumlin says, continuing to wrestle with the joystick.
"Give it up," Cipher says bitterly. "They've won."
The ship approaches the detention centre and even without a docking request – at least not one that they can see – the autodock system takes over and they touch down on Pad 1.
The reception committee is a whole SWAT platoon, with Larsen and the megaship commander behind them.
"Come out with your hands in the air," SWAT platoon leader, Sam Norton, calls through a megaphone.
A gunshot echoes around the hangar and everyone is on high alert.
"Stun grenades and flash bombs! We're going in!" Norton shouts, but before they get close to the ship Cipher calls out to them.
"Hold your fire! We're coming out – peaceable."
Cipher emerges with his long, strong arms locked around Crumlin's waist. Her own arms are trapped and she's writhing and screaming with frustration. Despite her martial arts skills, she cannot break free from his grip.
"I told her not to do it and that it would go worse for her, but she insisted," he says. "Linton's been shot."
Once Crumlin and Cipher are in custody, the commander steps forward and says to Cipher, "Vesto, what are we going to do with you?"
"Usual cell?" Cipher says optimistically.
"No, I think it will be something more permanent this time."
Larsen's thoughts are elsewhere.
"Medical team! On that ship! Now!"
In the Jaques Station hospital I'm in a private room, propped up in bed by a mountain of carefully arranged pillows. Chief Surgeon, Helena Foxx-Sweeney, has just left after a post-operative visit and I feel like I've been visited by an angel, not sure if I'm alive or dead.
My visitors arrive together. Vinny, Tay, Adalina, and Larsen all look at me with deep concern but I feel better than they think I look. My left shoulder is heavily bandaged and would be very painful were it not for the analgesic drip into my right arm.
"That was close," Vinny says, "not far from your heart."
"That's where Crumlin was aiming," I recall, "and if it hadn't been for Vesto Cipher tussling with her she wouldn't have missed from that range."
"I told Detective Larsen about that," Adalina says.
"But it won't make much difference to his sentencing," Larsen says.
"That says a lot about how valuable I am – not," I say, managing a smile.
"Your favourite detective, Martinsson, is also under arrest," Larsen says to bring me up to date. "He was working for the Golden Hand all along; only became a cop so he could act from the inside."
"I got that full report from Kelsie Short about the Dolphin's black box," Vinny tells me. "I sifted through it and asked Kelsie for the raw data. I found a spurious transmission to a communicator owned by Martinsson that confirmed installation of their version of the guidance system. Detective Larsen, here, was quick to act when we showed her what we'd found."
"Can't say how glad I am to be rid of him," Larsen says. "It looks like you're in the clear, Mr Linton. The wedding barge killings are solved – we found that Jenna Crumlin boarded your ship well before it departed and hid in that empty cabin that we quizzed you about."
"And the CCTV isn't started until the ship leaves dock," I say, "so there was no sign of her until she committed the murders."
"By which time the holographic version of you, overlaid onto her, was active. The CCTV saw only you."
My mind is buzzing with the details and I'm feeling drowsy from the painkillers.
"I think I'd like to sleep now."
"Sure thing," Adalina says. "But I'm looking forward to that chat you had planned for our journey to Maia."
"Oh yes…soon," I say. "By the way, I like your new hair colour; sunny yellow suits you."
They leave me and I drift in and out of sleep. I reflect that maybe Linton Travel is finished as a lifestyle. I recognise that I haven't done with sleuthing because, actually, the life of a private investigator makes me feel the most alive, the most connected. I realise, of course, that I'm not a first-rate detective and it's only my friends and associates that lift me from third-rate to second.
Friendship – that's what it's all about; like that wise old French aviator said long ago on Earth: Il n'y a qu'un luxe véritable, et c'est celui des relations humaines