A Rake by Starlight

A Rake by Starlight: Chapter Five

A Rake by Starlight, by C. B. Wright

WHEREIN Motive is both Rigorously Examined and Studiously Ignored

“…so there’s enough power to copy the ship manifest and some of her logs, but not all of them. We’re making our best guess as to what you’ll find useful, but we can’t make any promises. We’ve got most of the captain’s logs that we can find, but they’re encrypted and may only be partial files. We can’t tell.” Mac sounds slightly defensive over the comm channel. “We’re going to wrap up in another ten minutes. I don’t want to be here when the debris hits.”

“Understood,” Grif said. “Get what you can in the time you have, then get out. Drinks are on me.”

The channel lapsed into silence.

“End communication,” Faldyth announced.

“That went well.” Grif leaned back in his chair and gazed out from the pilot’s nest into the magnificent view. He couldn’t see the damaged ships—they were turned away from them at the moment, with the rear screens up to block any stray debris that might be floating their way—but he had a good view of Uru, the gas giant. It was on the small side as far as gas giants went, but it was still impressive, even at this distance.

“Do you think they’re going to find anything about the squib?” Morgan asked.

“If I had a squib on my ship I’d never put it on record,” Amys said. “If I had to use it, I wouldn’t be taking the records with me. No point in having a secret escape pod if someone you’re trying to escape from can read about it later.”

“I take your point,” Morgan said, “but it’d be awfully convenient if we could find something that mentions where the squib went.”

“Any chance you can track it down?” Grif asked.

“Doubt it,” Morgan said. “Sensors won’t be much help. I can randomly pick points in the sky to spy on, but I won’t know where to look. Any trail it might have left behind will be washed out by the radiation left behind from two very large explosions.”

Grif didn’t really expect a different answer. “Too bad. We’ll have to do this the hard way, then. We need to figure out what they intended when they launched the squib.”

The bridge settled into contemplative silence. A few minutes later Mac announced over the comm channel that they’d finished downloading all the data they could and were heading back to the Fool’s Errand, then the bridge settled into more contemplative silence.

“Well,” Amys said, voice dry, “I think they wanted to get away.”

Grif grinned. “Well. Yes. Obviously there’s that. But that can’t be all of it. Mac’s team says there are bodies on board. They didn’t all evacuate in squibs. You use a squib when you’re trying to pull a fast one. So what kind of fast one were they trying to pull?”

“It was a pretty small craft,” Amys said. “Mac said the room was ten by ten? That’s a crew of one with a little extra room for storage. So what were they moving? A person they didn’t want caught, or cargo they didn’t want intercepted?”

“Do we really want to know?” Faldyth asked. “Two Tylaris Barony ships, no signature beacons, fighting each other. It’s obviously political.” She made an unhappy gurgling sound in the back of her throat. “Politics isn’t profitable. You say that all the time.”

“And I’m right,” Grif said. “The only people who profit from politics are groups who have a shot gaining power. Or the big outfits who can absorb the risk while charging obscene rates to do the dirty work for the groups who have a shot at gaining power. And it doesn’t look like we’re going to get any decent salvage off these ships—it’s too much work at this point. It all adds up to us being better off if we don’t know.”

“Then why are we pursuing this?” Faldyth asked.

Grif slid his chair out of the pilot’s nest, up along the rails and into the bridge proper, where it locked into place with a loud click. “Simple. I really, really want to know.”

The wheezing, splortching sound Faldyth made probably meant she was unhappy. Amys sighed sympathetically.

“Didn’t you recently make a big speech about how you didn’t care why the two ships were fighting?” Amys asked. “I could have sworn you did. Just a few hours ago.”

“That was before I learned about the squib,” Grif said. “I didn’t care then. I do care now. I’ve never understood why people use squibs: they’re inherently defeatist. When you put a squib in your ship you’re essentially saying ‘I believe someone is going to blow so much of my ship apart that this misshapen escape pod will fit right in,’ which is a rather specific scenario to plan for. Someone planned for it in this instance, and I want to know why. I want to know why so much it’s making me crazy.”

“Captain Wallace would not get involved in this,” Faldyth said.

“No,” Amys agreed.

“On the other hand,” Faldyth added thoughtfully, “Captain Vindh doesn’t shoot his own crew.”

“Not usually,” Amys said. Grif grinned.

Morgan scratched his beard thoughtfully. “Well I think it has to be a person. You don’t need a squib to get rid of cargo. You just dump it into space. If these two ships represented different factions in the Tylaris Barony, I’m going to guess that the Suntz was part of the Old Guard who don’t think much of the new Baron, and whoever skipped off in the squib was one of their leaders.”

“Could be,” Grif said. “But if it is a person they’re screwed. The only habitable planet in this system is Tobanth, which is light hours away. A squib’s drive won’t make it that far.”

“Escaping in a squib isn’t a long-term plan,” Amys said. “It’s a last-minute plan. It’s what you do when everything else has gone horribly wrong. Look at it that way—you just got into a squib and shot yourself into space. How do you improvise?”

Grif stood up, stretched and started to pace the bridge. “Well… I want the other side to think I’m just another piece of scrap, so the first thing I do is drift. I drift, and I keep drifting, because I don’t want the ship to notice I have propulsion. Even if they board my ship—which they did—and they find the squib hanger they’re not going to know how to find me. I’m tiny. There’s a lot of debris.”

“I buy that,” Amys said. “But then you see your ship explode. And then you see the other ship explode.”

“Right,” Grif said. “That’s when I think I’m screwed. But I’m screwed and I’m alive, and I don’t want the last part to change. But… I don’t have a plan. Unfortunately.”

Morgan keyed in a command to his station, and the large screen at the fore of the bridge displayed a schematic of the Oobachiii system. A red dot pinpointed their position—they were almost to the outermost of Uru’s moons. “I’d try to get to Tobanth anyway. It’s my best shot.”

Grif shook his head. “Four light hours, Morgan. A squib won’t have the speed. Maybe send out a distress call?”

“I would have noticed that,” Faldyth said.

“So not that, then.” Grif stared at his station and frowned. “Why were they here in the first place?”

“It is a Tylaris system,” Amys said. “Technically.”

“Only just. I suppose they might have a contact in one of the mining colonies, but if you consider we could have taken the lot of them on by ourselves if we really wanted to, I’m not seeing a tactical advantage there.”

“Me either,” Amys agreed. She was being pulled into the mystery of it all despite her best efforts. “Anyway, it wouldn’t make any sense because they were…”

Amys’ voice trailed off. Grif glanced at her. She was staring off into space, frowning slightly as she tried to work something out. Then her eyes widened.

“Grif.” Her voice had a sharp, excited edge to it. “They wouldn’t go near Tobanth. They were running without their signature key. Both ships were. Whatever they were doing was completely off the books. They didn’t want witnesses.”

“There’s nothing else worth looking at out here,” Grif said.

Amys nodded. “Exactly. And if I had a secret, I’d put it some place where it wasn’t worth looking. So my guess? The squib went to one of Uru’s moons.”

Grif opened his mouth to protest, then stopped. Oobachiii was a tiny system. It had three planets: Zik, a small cinder of a rock so close to Oobachiii that it was a miracle it hadn’t burned away, Tobanth, the mining colony, and Uru, the gas giant. Zik was useless, and anything on it had a tendency to melt during the day. Uru had eleven moons, though, and none of them had anything particularly valuable. That made them exactly the kind of moons the Tylaris Barony would be completely uninterested in.

Which would make one of them the perfect place for the Tylaris Barony to hide something in.

He grinned at Amys. “I think you’re right. They were trying to get to one of Uru’s moons, got intercepted, and whoever piloted the squib decided it was close enough to try to make the rest of the trip.”

Amys looked at the schematic of the Oobachiii system on the big screen. “Morgan, can you just show us Uru and her moons?”

Morgan nodded, keyed in a command, and updated the screen. “We don’t have anything useful on record about any of these. Just different official-sounding variations of ‘nothing interesting here.’”

“We want something very uninteresting,” Grif said. “Something dead, I think. Completely dead. No minerals, nothing that would make people want to mine it, explore it, or plant a flag of any kind. One that says ‘oh, the Tylaris Barony would never be interested in this place.’”

“Well…” Morgan keys in some commands, and four of the moons light up on the screen. “I’d say that gives us four choices. Ogo, Murati, Vushur, and Los.”

“Eleven, nine, eight, and five,” Grif said. “I guess we’ll have to—”

Mac’s voice broke in over the comm channel. “Captain, we’re standing outside the apex lock. Could somebody maybe open the door for us?”

Grif blinked in surprise. “Morgan, why didn’t you notice our team was back?”

“Because I was looking up planets for you,” Morgan said.

“Right. OK.” Grif walked over to the lift and punched the intercom. “Mac, we’ll send someone up right away. You’re just in time. We found another wild goose.”

There was a short pause on the other end. “That sounds like fun,” Mac said. “Does it involve radioactive clouds or swarms of razor-sharp debris?”

“Not overtly. But we might get caught in the middle of warring factions in the Tylaris Barony.”

There was another, slightly longer, pause on the other end. “In that case,” Mac said, “you’re buying us two rounds.”

After Faldyth announced the channel was closed, Grif started laughing. “I agree with you, Morgan. I like him too.”

The intercom crackled on again. “What the hell, Grif?” Cyrus sounded alarmed. “Did you just say we were going to start a war with the Tylaris Barony?”

“No!” Grif said, sounding a bit defensive. “I said we were going to get caught in the middle of one that already existed.”

Ktk broke in, stating that, for the record, it had just won the bet.

“The hell you did!” Cyrus protested. “The bet was for something happening while we collected fuel. We haven’t even got to Uru yet! There’s no way this counts!”

Ktk replied that they never would have noticed the fighting ships if they hadn’t planned to stop at Uru to refuel, which tied the encounter directly to the decision.

“That’s a technicality!” Cyrus said.

“Technicalities always count!” Grif, Amys, and Morgan all shouted it at exactly the same time, causing Faldyth to blink in surprise and wheeze softly.

Cyrus swore under his breath. “Fine. You win, Bug. Don’t let it go to your head.”

Ktk replied that its head was merely the place where its eyes and mandibles were located.

“Now that we’ve got that settled…” Grif returned to his chair and slid it back down into the pilot’s nest. “Amys, why don’t you lay in a course for the furthest moon out. Which one is that? Eleven.”

“Ogo,” Amys said. “Working it up now.”

“I might actually be able to pick up a radiation trail from there,” Morgan said. “Depending on the engine the squib is using, and whether we get lucky.”

Grif laughed. “Well I wouldn’t count on that. But it’s better than nothing.”

Twenty minutes later Mac and his crew were on board, the course was set, and the Fool’s Errand was on her way.

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