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“You just made us the target of the most dangerous people in the universe, Captain.”
(Part 10 of “The Misfits” series)
Their target was a man named Mirsong Rex, a business titan of questionable reputation. He’d made his fortune on the fringes of human civilization, expanding his reach as humanity did, riding the unregulated bubble worlds as the wave moved ever outward, farther into the Letters and boundary systems. Rex Enterprises were almost always among the first developers to establish a trade station in any newly-settled system. Yet for a figurehead of such an expansive and profitable corporation, Mirsong Rex himself was a surprisingly difficult man to locate. He was also widely assumed to be the architect of the L-Shadra Massacre, which more commonly became known simply as Lambda-Shadra, as it unfolded in that system—far out in the Letters. But the truth of that day was little known, as the only thing murkier than the history of those outer systems was the fog of war in the inner ones, and Lambda-Shadra was, at its roots, a war crime.
Carolina Dreeson’s first call as captain of the Yankee-Chaos was to find and interrogate Mirsong Rex, one way or another.
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Rex was an older man now, Lambda-Shadra having occurred almost three decades prior during the middle years of the West Battery War. Space travel was more of a youngster’s game, and rumors had it that Rex had turned over much of the day-to-day operations of his outposts to his many children, supposedly living an isolated life somewhere in the heart of his network, likely in the Alphas or Betas. Maícon calculated the likeliest location of his compound would be in the vicinity of Alpha-Origgi, where his outpost Ash-Vedal had been the flagship trading station in the sector for nearly three decades.
“What’s the math on that?” Transom had asked him.
“Less math than human psychology,” Maícon asserted. “That which gives you most pride you are least likely to relinquish. Especially ambitious people don’t move away from their own monuments.”
Their plan was to quietly scout the marketplace. The most inconspicuous team of scouts included Sebastian in street clothes, Ren, and Harold. They docked Yankee-Chaos under an assumed name and filed the registration under Carolina’s new pseudonym Captain Vella Triere. There should have been no cause for their presence to raise any red flags with the Rexes. Ren and Harold had a fine morning shopping while Transom had a look at the layout of the market, identifying several areas of the outpost where he would start monitoring for illicit materials or off-book trading.
The hope was that they could catch a glimpse of one the Rexes without detection. From there, the plan was to monitor movement and build a contact list so that either the people or the transactions would lead back to Mirsong Rex himself.
After their cursory scouting trip through the outpost, there was no cause to think their presence had raised any alarms. So they went to dinner. Ren, Sōsh, Sebastian, and Carolina herself, all dressed inconspicuously, with almost no intention of the evening being anything but a pleasant dinner in the culinary quarter. And by every indication, it was just that.
About halfway back to the outer docking bay, with no warning, Transom barked out, “Stop walking, everyone. Metalface, on them,” he ordered, pointing to Ren and Carolina.
Transom walked ahead at a quick but not urgent pace, scanning the two upper levels to the left and right with tactical purpose. The concourse was dark and all but empty, but that hardly seemed suspicious to anyone but Transom, given the time of night.
“What’s his issue?” Ren said.
“Let’s hope it’s nothing,” Carolina replied.
“You know, sometimes I think he’s a little overprotective of you.”
“Shh,” Sōsh said, pointing to the upper tier. “Eyes on.”
They were too exposed, standing in the center of the lower causeway, with walkways above them to both sides. Sōsh moved them to the next raised planter in the center of the causeway in front of them, his eyes keenly focused on the walkways above. The small trees and shrubs offered some cover to hide under, and the planter itself something solid to duck behind in a pinch he hoped wouldn’t materialize.
When Transom didn’t return after nearly a minute, Sōsh directed Ren and Carolina to sit on the floor with their backs to the planter. A few seconds after sitting, they saw Transom moving silently above them on the second level at pace, signaling something to Sōsh as he seemed to glide along. Moments later, the entire concourse, silent seconds earlier, was overwhelmed with the sound of a firefight on the level above them.
“Down! Stay tight,” Sōsh said, ducking behind the planter on one knee himself. “Pull your legs in, both of you.”
The shots that flew at Sōsh came without warning from the upper tier on the opposite side of the planter. Sōsh got down fast once the bolts started flying his way, two pinging off his metal half, which he’d instinctively turned toward the shots. The causeway wasn’t totally empty. Screams now echoed up and down the concourse, sowing confusion and panic. A few civilians went running past. Between the sound of the shots and the screams and the intensity of the incoming fire, somehow that was enough for it to slip past Sōsh that Carolina had been hit, struck in the thigh by a ricochet. Initially, he’d misinterpreted Carolina’s yelping as the reaction of a civilian to her first firefight. It was only after Ren nearly pushed him back into the line of fire to apply pressure to Carolina’s leg that he had a sense they hadn’t gotten out of the initial burst unscathed.
“How bad is it?” Sōsh asked.
“Take her shoe off,” Ren barked at him. “Tear open her pantleg at the cuff. Come on. Quick.”
Carolina was wincing, breathing in short deep puffs, trying not to cry out.
Sōsh got her shoe off and tore open her pants from the ankle to just above the knee, all the while scanning the walkways above, weapon at the ready. Ren was quickly able to assess that the bolt had missed the artery.
“We need to move her,” Ren said.
“Up, up, up,” he said. “We’re moving.”
Transom seemed totally unsurprised and unconcerned to find Carolina in that state, merely bending down to lend her a shoulder to lean on, lifting her to her one good foot effortlessly.
“Eyes on our six, Sōsh,” he said as they began to move down the causeway.
Harold was already making his way to them from the ship at top speed.
“Are they gone?” Ren asked, moving under Carolina’s other shoulder to offer support.
“Gone enough for now,” Transom said. “We need to get the hell out of here, though.”
“Really?” Carolina said. “I was just starting to enjoy the place.”
“That’s the spirit, kid,” Transom said. “Wanna stop for a cocktail on the way out? You’re barely bleeding.”
“I’ve got something a little stronger on offer,” Ren said. “If you can get us to the ship alive, that is.”
Transom shot her a look. “Everyone’s still breathing, doctor.”
Harold arrived, armed with long guns, which he passed off to Transom and Sōsh. He then took up Transom’s position supporting Carolina after she told him in no uncertain terms that she wouldn’t be carried. Sōsh and Transom cleared the group’s perimeter back to the ship without another encounter. Minutes after boarding, Yankee-Chaos was gone from Alpha-Origgi.
Ren made quick work of Carolina’s wound, extracting the bolt, closing the wound, and even using up one of the remaining vials of Leda’s plasma to expedite the healing process.
“A few days staying off it in zero G won’t be bad for you either,” Ren told her. “Let me know how your pain is, Captain, and we’ll adjust your meds accordingly.”
“Captain,” Carolina said, shaking her head. “Some first call.”
“Could have been a lot worse, Carolina.”
Transom came floating into the medical bay.
“Oh, I’m well aware,” Carolina replied. “That’s what I’m upset about. We got lucky. How the hell did you know, Sebastian?”
“You told us to stop walking,” Carolina said. “What would we have walked into if you hadn’t?”
“A shooting gallery, basically. There’s not much to it really. I’d be dead a hundred times over if I didn’t have a feel for those things. Just the energy in the place. When something feels wrong, it usually is.”
“Did that sense give you any idea who was shooting at us?” Ren asked.
“Sadly, no. That’s the worst part about getting killed. Usually, you go with no idea who’s done the deed. Most of the people I’ve killed had no idea I even existed, then, poof. The end.”
“He’s just charming, Captain, isn’t he?”
“You hate that he probably saved your life back there, Ren, don’t you?” Carolina asked.
“It’s okay, doctor,” Sebastian said. “I’ve still got a long way to go before we’re back on level terms. But we’re going to need to talk about our approach. That hit could have been Mirsong Rex, somebody operating on his territory with his blessing, or it could have been any of the parties we’re looking to nail down. As soon as you’re feeling up to it, boss, I suggest we put our heads together.”
“Word is out now,” Maícon’s voice echoed through the atrium. “Safe to say, the players we’re trying to track down know that Carolina is investigating them. I strongly suggest the attack on Alpha-Origgi was more a warning than a legitimate assassination attempt, but the fact that these brazen criminals feel they have license to take shots at Carolina Dreeson means we have ruffled some dangerous feathers.”
“How do you think they knew we were after Mirsong Rex?” Ren asked. “Or did they?”
Sebastian was strapped in across from her and Carolina. He sighed. “There’s about five different ways I can figure. Sparrow playing both sides is one. Knocking on the front door at the Murder Mill is another. Slipping away with their bank records. Probably asking too many of the wrong questions at the Drop Mine. Somebody from Exos sharing details of our visit. We need to be more careful about our approach.”
“I strongly suggest we don’t knock on any more front doors,” Maícon said. “Lying low would probably be a prudent move at this point.”
“Sure,” Sōsh said. “Just fly back to Texini and play Sabaca for the next six months right as we’re getting over the target. Bold plan.”
“I agree,” Carolina said. “We’re getting too close to back off. I think we’re much farther along than Sayla ever got, and that’s making some bad people very uncomfortable. It makes me more suspicious about the Lambda-Shadra massacre, like the key to everything might be there.”
“The problem with that—and Mirsong Rex is prime example—is that unlike your great-grandfather and his cabal of bankers, the real players behind L-Shadra are likely all still alive,” Maícon said. “They will defend their interests and their secrets with lethal force.”
“We need an investigator,” Ren said. “Look. This is fun and everything, but we’ve got two war fighters, a surgeon, an archaeologist, and an ancient AI. And here we are, bumbling around the galaxy waiting for the pieces to fall into place.”
“I would suggest this group has made considerable progress,” Maícon said.
“Getting shot at,” Ren said. “Yeah, even I’m getting good at that now. Real progress.”
“Look, doctor—” Sebastian began.
“No,” Carolina interrupted. “Both are valid points. We’ve lost some key people in our team, and we shouldn’t have our surgeon getting shot at. It’s worth considering help.”
“I’d be very skeptical of anyone in your orbit, Carolina,” Sōsh said. “After what happened with Sparrow.”
“I agree, Sōsh. My family and our friends and allies should be avoided. Funnily enough though, that does bring someone to mind.”
Carolina exhibited a mild wince.
“Are you all right?” Ren asked.
“Oh, the leg’s fine doctor. It’s just we said no friends. What about someone who hates my guts?”
“All depends on why,” Sebastian said.
“All the right reasons,” Carolina answered. “None of you can ever tell him I said this, but I think he might be perfect.”
Carolina prepared Transom and Sōsh for their next target to be far less deadly. That didn’t mean he’d be pleasant. He just wasn’t the type to lash out with anything but harsh words, of which, he’d exchanged plenty with Carolina over the years.
Carsten Airee wasn’t an investigator in the strictest sense, he was a historian, a young professor now. He’d stood for his doctoral degree while Carolina was an undergrad studying archaeology. He was very bright but contentious and a harsh critic of her father’s administration. What had impressed her about Airee, though, was his willingness to leave the library, get out into the field, and talk directly with the eyewitnesses and players to the history he was examining. The documents were dead things to him, flat. History, in his view, wasn’t flat. It was a living invisible mystery, waiting to be experienced.
Given the nature of their quest, she knew Airee would be an asset, but she also knew he wouldn’t appreciate having his work disturbed, and he certainly wouldn’t appreciate that she’d be the one disturbing him.
“You two be good when you pick him up,” Carolina told Transom and Sōsh.
“Relax, Captain,” Transom joked, “You’re acting like you’ve never ordered anyone’s abduction before.”
“We’re not abducting anyone,” she said, shaking her head at the both of them.
“Sure,” Transom responded. “We’ll just tell him to come with us voluntarily and then bag him if he doesn’t, but we definitely won’t abduct him.”
“If you hurt him—”
“I thought you didn’t even like this guy?”
“I don’t, and he doesn’t like me either.”
“Okay,” Transom said. “You ready to go pick up Carolina’s boyfriend, metalface?”
Sōsh chuckled and looked at Carolina with a half-smile. “I’ll make sure Sebastian behaves.”
They set off on foot along the dusty desert plains of the deserted little mining world. Maícon had located the group of academics camping in the small abandoned settlement of Harpersville, which, in the years of Hellenia’s outward expansion, was briefly a thriving mining settlement here in the Damon System. It seemed like the type of project she’d have relished months earlier—digging through relics, examining abandoned buildings, mining sites, and rusting machines, struggling to piece together what had happened to turn this planet into a ghost world while others thrived. For a moment, she was jealous of Carsten, and that moment faded to a long sigh at the realization that she’d just sent Sōsh and Transom to pull him away from that work using the not-so-subtle art of intimidation, or so she prayed that was all it would come to.
Carolina only hoped Carsten could forgive her after he learned what they had about the war. She suspected he would particularly enjoy listening to her confess the past sins of her family. That thought had her second guessing her second major decision as captain.
Carolina waited for Carsten at the table in the atrium. Her biggest concern was getting him mixed up in the danger they were now in, so her top priority for Transom and Sōsh was pulling him away from the Harpersville survey group unseen. Quick, smooth, and quiet was the goal. It took about four hours for Transom and Sōsh to return with Carsten Airee, who’d walked with them apprehensively after they’d pulled him into the rocks near the mines and given him the options to come willingly or be carried. He took one look at Sōsh and Transom and decided he had little choice but to walk.
Carolina heard their footsteps and voices at the back ramp from the atrium.
“Sorry we had to bag you like that, professor,” she could hear Transom say. “The Captain said it was for your own protection.”
“You’re sorry?” Carolina heard Carsten Airee responding in that familiar acerbic tone. “Pardon me if I have my doubts about your sincerity.”
She took a deep breath as Carsten stepped into the atrium, Sōsh and Transom trailing behind him, prodding him forward.
“The historian you requested, Captain,” Transom said, a wry smile creeping onto his face.
“Dreeson!” Carsten said as he recognized Carolina, sitting at the table. “You have got to be joking. What the hell?”
“Hello, Carsten,” Carolina said. “Please strap yourself in. We’ll be taking off momentarily.”
“Like hell,” he said. “I’m not going anywhere with you. Not like this.”
He turned back toward Sōsh and then toward Transom, who were still standing behind him.
“Have a seat, professor,” Transom said.
Carsten Airee shook his head but complied, taking a seat at the end of the table opposite Carolina.
“Thank you, Sebastian, Sōsh. We’ll be fine back here. Have Maícon get us underway please.”
“Yes, Captain,” Transom said, grinning broadly now.
“So you’re, what, some kind of space pirate now, Dreeson? What the hell?”
“I’m sorry we had to pull you off the planet like that, Carsten, but I really don’t want your involvement with what we’re doing to be known.”
“Actually, you didn’t have to pull me off the planet at all. You could have chosen not to send your psychopath and cyborg mercenaries to abduct me from my survey site. I mean…what the hell is even going on? What is this ship? What are…”
There was a long pause, and Carsten sat at the table with his mouth about hanging open.
“Take a breath,” Carolina said. “I promise you this will all make sense. Just take a moment and allow me to explain.”
“Crew is secure for takeoff,” Maícon said.
“At your leisure, Maícon,” Carolina said, and after few moments the engines hummed and Yankee-Chaos gently began to hover over the desert floor, taking a low but steadily rising trajectory into the dusty little planet’s sky.
Airee stared over at Carolina, shaking his head. She didn’t know where to begin, so she sat quietly as they headed into space, waiting for Carsten to give her a sign that he was ready to talk. She’d never seen him speechless before. For a moment, she found herself guiltily enjoying the feeling.
“Well?” he finally said.
By then, Damon Mines’ atmosphere had drifted away to the dark black of space in the atrium window above them. The weight of gravity had dissipated.
“You were going to explain, Dreeson?”
“Where to begin,” she said, shaking her head. “A lot has changed since I saw you last.”
“Rumor had it you lost your mind,” he said, looking around the ship. “Rumor confirmed.”
“I didn’t hear that rumor,” Carolina said, smiling.
“Okay, well, you disappeared and half of Athos was looking for you, and it was a big news story for nearly a month. Then suddenly your dad was on the news requesting privacy, so everyone just assumed you’d snapped after your aunt died or something. Most people figured you’d been found and sent off to therapy at some private retreat on Hellenia or something. This? Nope. Never would have guessed. So what, you’re playing ship Captain with a bunch of rogue mercenaries?”
“Not exactly. But you’re not wrong that it all started with my aunt. Anyway, it does go back to my family. I’m investigating them. The short explanation is that we need some help developing a new approach, and the secrecy is because it would be dangerous for you if any of the people we’re investigating found out you were helping me.”
“You’re investigating your own family?”
“Yes, Carsten. I know that’s probably hard for you to believe.”
“I don’t believe it. And what? Dangerous? You’re afraid of your own family now? Like people in the government?”
“It’s not really just my family we’re investigating. It probably wasn’t my family anyway. It was probably someone in Mirsong Rex’s family.”
“Mirsong Rex? Probably wasn’t what? What happened, Carolina?”
“It’s not that big a deal, Carsten. It’s just…Sebastian thinks they were only trying to send a message. We were on Alpha-Origgi trying to investigate Lambda-Shadra and somebody shot at us.”
“Shot at you? Like, shot at you? Bang, bang, shot at you? Carolina Dreeson?”
She shrugged, and the sheepish look on her face gave away that there was more.
“They shot you, Dreeson? You got shot?”
“Yes, I got shot.”
“Are you all right? I mean, you look all right?”
“We have an excellent surgeon with us. You’ll meet her.”
“Of course you do,” Airee said, laughing. “Could this get any more absurd, Dreeson? I just. I’m glad you’re okay. I don’t even know what to say.”
“Say that you’ll help us. You’re a historian Carsten, and I think you’re smart, and you’re courageous, or at least you could be if given the opportunity.”
“Well, thank you, I guess,” Airee said. “I was always under the impression that you hated me.”
“The feeling was certainly mutual, by the way,” Carolina said. “But you were the only person I could ever remember to genuinely challenge me about my family. And as much as I hated it and felt compelled to defend my father and his administration, at times, you gave me pause and really made me think. I might not be where I am right now, come to think of it, if you hadn’t.”
Airee looked around the atrium at the state of the ship. “You’re welcome, I guess,” he joked. “So now you’re what, rogue Dreeson investigating crimes within your own family? Connections with Mirsong Rex?”
“Don’t mock me, Carsten. None of this is a joke to me, and for the record, neither of us had any facts to support our positions when we debated, I merely felt compelled to defend my family and you were more cynical than most. Whatever degree to which you might be proven correct is merely luck.”
“Or maybe I’m a student of history, Carolina.”
He looked over at her, noticing a souring of her demeanor, where before she seemed apologetic, now, to him, she looked more like she’d regretted bringing him aboard.
“You’re really doing this?” he said. “Digging into your family’s past? Seriously?”
“Yes, Carsten. But it’s bigger than that, bigger than just my family. It’s the war. It’s the money and the power, all the players. Believe me, you were never cynical enough.”
He shook his head. “That’s admirable, Dreeson. I never would have guessed it in a million years. I mean, speaking of courageous.”
“Will you help us? We need a new approach? We need to know how to investigate these people without getting shot at.”
“Or, you know, actually shot,” Carsten said, smiling. “Just because you have an excellent surgeon and cyborg mercenaries on retainer, Carolina, doesn’t mean you need to use them.”
She smiled. “Does that mean you’ll help me, Carsten?”
“Could I say no at this point?”
“You forget who I am,” Airee said. “Carolina Dreeson abducts me like some space pirate and asks me to dig into the history of the West Battery War with her, and I’m supposed to say no? The Damon Mines project is interesting, sure, but…well…whatever this is, it’s in another category.”
Carolina spent much of the day with Airee in the atrium briefing him on the events that had brought them to the moment. He listened attentively and asked incisive questions Carolina was often reluctant to answer, mostly because the answers might put him in danger if the wrong people learned he knew. Airee eventually grew tired of being shielded so.
“Carolina, either you want my help or you don’t. No one is going to know I helped you. Regardless, I’m all in. If we find out who’s responsible for the war and that costs me my life, I’d consider that a fair tradeoff.”
“We might lose our lives and never learn, though,” Carolina answered.
“It’s risky business changing the universe, don’t you think?”
That answer brought a subtle smile to her face.
Carolina told Airee of the misadventures she and Transom had been through at the drop mine; how they’d gathered banking information on her great-grandfather and how that led them to chasing Sparrow; how they’d ended up at the Murder Mill, and how they’d copied all those financial records. The only part she left out was their trip to the wizards’ vault.
Airee was most interested in the banking data from the Murder Mill—the five impossibly good investors, Carolina’s ancestors included.
“There’s more there,” Airee declared. “That’s where I’d begin, respectfully. It’s not a bad instinct to go after Mirsong Rex. He very well could be your mystery investor or merely the hired gun commissioned to carry out the L-Shadra massacre. Maybe not, though. Nobody’s ever pinned that on the Rexes definitively, and I don’t think anyone in their circle is going to reveal the truth of that matter. It’s the mystery investors you should be looking into. You have some clues there in the bank records.”
“We tried to track those accounts down, but we don’t exactly have any legal right to request their information from any of the banking entities. We only know the names of the investment groups.”
“They had to sell to make a profit, though, Carolina. At some point, they had to dump their shares and cash out, right?”
“Okay, so regulatory agencies would have noticed the pattern on these trades if they all happened on Athos? Presumably?”
“One would think.”
“Same with this group in Hellenia. Who knows about the other groups in Etterus and the Protectorate; but, if we figure out what one of them is doing, we’ll find that they’re all running the same scheme to hide their money from their home systems.”
“How do you know so much about finance, Airee? This isn’t your field.”
“Not exactly but not exactly not. One of my professors wrote a history of Athos from the standpoint of financial capital. He called finance the secret history of human civilization. He used to say that a history text without an accounting of the accounting was like an anatomy textbook that never talked about blood flow. We really should consult with him.”
He shrugged and shook his head. “I know. The fewer people who know…I get it.”
“So, here’s the question I didn’t know how to address: what point is there in making all that money if you can’t access it?”
“It’s the right question,” Carsten said, smiling. “The obvious answer is that they can access it and nobody can see.”
“We’re talking war money. Like, my family’s wealth. Orders of magnitude more maybe.”
“Like magic,” Carsten said. “Make all that money disappear but not disappear. That’s the question. If we figure out how they’re doing that, we’ll probably be able to at least track down the Hellenia group, probably your long-lost Dreeson cousins, by the way.”
“No offense,” Carsten said. “It’s just probably true.”
“It’s warranted,” Carolina replied. “There’s nothing you could say at this point to make me any more cynical about my family than I already am, Airee, okay. I’d prefer it if we could just stick to solving the problem.”
“Sorry. Old habits,” Carsten said. “The thing is, these records alone would be enough to get an investigation going if we could trust in the agencies on Athos, but I’m presuming you don’t think you can.”
“My professor, the finance guy, we were debating politics, and he told me one time I was way off, said I was too harsh on your dad and the powers that be. He said they were beholden to powers beyond their control, the vagaries of markets, the tides of capital. He asked me who I thought the most feared person in the government was, and of course I said your father. Who do you think he told me it was? You’ll never guess.”
“Hmm. I’d have thought you’d guess the Defense Chiefs, not the Chief Solicitor.”
“Do you know who Rina Tomashi is?”
“I’ve never heard of her.”
“She’s like the assistant to the undersecretary of the Chief of the Exchequer or something insanely obscure like that. After my professor told me about her, I looked into her and what she did, Carolina. She’s a forensic accountant. She’s basically an assassin by other means. She’s kneecapped more or less every serious political rival your father’s ever gone up against. Things that quietly go away? They go away because she goes snooping into the finances of campaigns, personal wealth, business transactions, anything, and when she’s done, let’s say at the very least, there’s a deal to be done. Worst case scenario, your dad’s latest rival ends up in the asteroids recycling metals for ten-to-fifteen years.”
“What’s your point, Carsten?”
“We could use someone like her. Probably more than you could use me. She’d know the parameters—what kind of banking channels you’d need to hide such sums.”
“If that’s the answer, then let’s try to figure out what those parameters are.”
Maícon assisted for several hours as Carolina and Carsten worked to define the necessary attributes of their mystery bank. The institution would need to be able to move large sums of money, be close enough to the main areas of the Battery to communicate readily, yet it had to be far enough outside the main systems to escape regulatory scrutiny. It would almost certainly have a currency exchange to convert the different currencies of the investment groups found in the murder mill files. It might even hold the money in its own currency until it was time to transfer it back to its holders.
As the hours ticked by that first day, one by one, the possible institutions that could be moving dark money like that came off the list. Some were too small, too unstable, too newly established, defunct. For Carolina, it was a revelation to think to go back to hundred-year-old records to find the right institutions, but that was Carsten’s instinct, finding the answers in the lost environments of the past. Even that, though, was proving a fruitless prospect by the middle of the second day, at which point Yankee-Chaos was floating in interstellar space with no direction.
Sebastian, Sōsh, and Ren were largely giving Carolina and Carsten space in the atrium while they worked through the seemingly endless lists of banking institutions. But it wasn’t lost on them how well the pair were getting on despite the work going nowhere.
In the evening on the second day, Carsten crossed paths with Sōsh in the commissary while Sōsh was fixing dinner. Carsten was heating yet another coffee.
“You two seem to be like old friends,” Sōsh said. “She told us different.”
“Yeah, she said you didn’t much care for her back on Athos. Kinda made me wonder.”
“What? Who wouldn’t like Carolina Dreeson? Right?”
“More or less,” Sōsh answered.
“She’s an entirely different person here. Back on Athos, she was always so…I don’t know, like perfectly put together. Always the right mannerisms, the right friends, the right clothes, never a hair out of place. I never had a conversation with her I couldn’t have guessed exactly what she was going to say to me.”
“And here, she’s different?”
“Yes and no. I mean it’s funny to me. It’s like here it seems like she’s playing a role, acting like a starship captain, wearing the clothes, casually dropping getting shot into a conversation.”
“You just said she was acting a part back on Athos, though, right?”
“Are you sure this one’s not the real Carolina and the person she was back on Athos wasn’t the role she had to play because of her family?”
“Well, maybe,” Carsten conceded. “Regardless, I like this version a hell of a lot more. Says what she’s actually thinking, isn’t trying to impress anybody. I never thought I’d see her in a flight suit. I mean we’re talking about a girl who never wore the same piece of jewelry twice.”
“Got your attention well enough,” Sōsh said.
“Oh! jewelry,” Airee said, his eyes growing wide. “Oh, those bloody geniuses! Dreeson, I’ve got it!”
“Hang on. I’ve figured it out,” he said to Sōsh twisting back toward the atrium, abandoning his cold coffee pouch to float idly in the commissary cutout. “Dreeson, get back down here!”
“Obviously, jewelry,” Sōsh said to himself, shrugging. “Who didn’t see that coming?”
By the time Carolina had come back out of the Captain’s stateroom to hear what the commotion was about, Carsten Airee had a small audience already gathered at the table.
“Figure something out, professor?” Transom asked as he strapped himself in opposite the head of the table.
“Yes, actually. I figured out how they’ve been…” Airee started, just noticing that everyone else at the table was smiling and shaking their heads.
“Take a deep breath,” Ren said, grinning. “I’m sure the Captain will be well impressed.”
“Knock it off, you three,” Carolina said. “Airee? You’ve got something?”
Carolina pulled herself down to the open seat at the end of the table. Carsten was smiling broadly.
“It’s perfect,” he said. “Genius.”
He paused, seemingly waiting for someone either to guess or to ask for the answer.
“Carsten?” Carolina said.
“Lime Harbor?” Ren echoed. “Hasn’t that place been a radiation bath for like a hundred years?”
“Yes, roughly,” Airee said, still smiling.
“And the thing is, we think about history in years, dates, events, but most of the things we see fit to remember unfolded over long periods of time. We just forget how drawn out they were. We remember that, ‘Oh, the war started on Veronia seventy-two years ago on a Tuesday,’ when actually it was building for years over dozens of events, just like Lime Harbor’s decline.”
“Sorry, Airee,” Carolina said. “I’m not making the connection.”
“Look,” he said, projecting a timeline on a floatscreen above the atrium table. “The bank on Lime Harbor closed seventy-five years ago. For about thirty years before that, Aldura, the settlement’s star, was spewing increasingly deadly levels of radiation on the planet. People didn’t leave overnight, they left over decades. And we think of the place now as a resort outpost, a vacation spot. It’s even in our parlance still. It’s what you all think of when I said Lime Harbor, right? Relaxing in the sun, no?”
Everyone seemed to agree.
“What people forget about Lime Harbor was that it was a sneaky quiet commerce hub. That’s where all the tech jewelry started. It’s all over the Battery now, but it started on Lime Harbor, as well as dozens of other boutique luxury items, because people are loose with their money on holidays. They had precious metals in reserve, commerce, and because of all that, Lime Harbor was a banking hub with its own currency and its own regulatory system. The central bank could have moved this money or held it easily, Carolina.”
“There’s only one problem with that theory, Airee,” Carolina said. “Lime Harbor is dead, like Ren said, a radiation bath. You said yourself the bank closed seventy-five years ago.”
“Unless it didn’t, Dreeson. Who’s there to check? I mean, there were holdouts, just like there were back on Damon Mines—people who hung on for years, decades. People still used to go on holiday at Lime Harbor during the first few decades of the war, long after the businesses left. Who knows how many years families stayed? But if the bankers shut the door and left, who’s going to bother to see whether they’ve shut off the servers? The infrastructure would still be there, regardless. They had a space elevator and a solar array that powered the whole colony. The power’s probably still on today.”
Maícon’s disembodied voice echoed through the atrium. “That is a very clever deduction, Mr. Airee. It’s plausible. As you say, an ingenious solution to our secret investors’ money problems.”
“Who’s up for a little sun?” Sōsh said.
“Burch is going to be jealous,” Ren said, laughing. “And Juice.”
“How could an archeologist say no to a ghost world?” Airee asked Carolina.
From space, the planet didn’t look so unwelcoming, and the star itself looked no more threatening than any other large K-class star. The radiation readings didn’t lie, though. Lime Harbor was no longer fit for sunbathing. But, just as Airee had guessed, the lights were still on in the station atop the space elevator, even a half-century after the place had been vacated. Nearly everyone was crammed into the flight deck, trying to have a look at the space elevator, when Maícon put up an image on all the screens.
“Ships, Captain,” he said. “Two of them approaching the station.”
“Negligible to nil,” Maícon said. “They look to be armored cargo carriers without offensive capacity, possibly designed to traverse Aldura’s corona.”
“To what purpose?”
“There were serious scientific efforts made to elongate the life of the star,” Carsten said. “It’s possible they were roboticized and left on a loop when the last residents left.”
“Plausible,” Maícon agreed. “Regardless, we will not be competing for docking space.”
Maícon dove the ship toward Lime Harbor’s atmosphere, instructing everyone to take their seats for entry. He turned Yankee-Chaos over to give everyone a fine view of the city out the atrium window as they descended. Apart from the obvious abandoned state of the place, the city looked surprisingly appealing—slate rooftops, stone structures, wide, dusty cobblestone streets.
“That’s interesting,” Maícon said, focusing the exterior camera toward the main road to the space elevator, which he displayed on all screens. “Most likely robotic, but definitely recent activity.”
The screen revealed a street with two well-worn pathways, presumably tire treads, which Maícon was easily able to follow to a group of industrial buildings to the northwest of the space elevator itself. Maícon put the ship down in the middle of a large, open square adjacent the old industrial sector of the city.
As soon as they were on the ground, Carolina sent out Transom and Sōsh to clear the area and report back on the activity in the industrial sector.
Carsten appeared in the entrance to the flight deck as she was monitoring their feeds. “You’re going to have to explain to me at some point how you became captain of this little pirate ship here, Dreeson. Most rich girls who have a breakdown don’t end up on Lime Harbor looking to break into top-secret banks in search of illicit war money. You’ve done pretty damn well for yourself.”
She looked back at Airee, smiled, and gestured to the seat beside her.
Sebastian, Sōsh, and Harold approached the warehouse from a distance, following the vehicle tracks and observing. It was hard to imagine that they wouldn’t have been seen landing by people or bots on the ground, but whoever was here, they didn’t seem to have noticed the new visitors flying into the city unannounced.
As the small party finally reached the warehouse where the tire tracks ended, the sliding doors opened and a truck exited the warehouse pulling a trailer filled with large metal spheres. Sebastian directed the group behind a nearby building to get out of sight.
Once the two-truck caravan had set off down the well-worn tracks in the road, Sebastian took point as they approached the building, entering through a back doorway. There was a steady noise coming from a large room to their left as they entered. That proved to be machinery, which, as they examined more closely, was responsible for producing the metal spheres the bots had been hauling. The noise of the room masked their footsteps as they progressed to the other side of the warehouse. It also made it impossible for them to hear the woman working in the adjacent room. She was repairing a robot with her back turned to them as Sebastian entered.
“Excuse us,” he raised his voice, startling the young woman.
She screamed and turned toward them, reaching for the tools on the table but coming up empty handed.
“Who are you? What do you want?”
She glared at Sōsh and then back toward Sebastian.
“Please,” she said. “Don’t hurt me.”
“We’re not here to hurt anyone,” Sōsh said. “We didn’t expect to find people. We heard the city was abandoned.”
“It is,” the woman said. “We’re the only ones here.”
“I’m Sōsh, and this is Sebastian. What’s your name?”
“I’m Sisco,” she said. “Sisco Dreeson. I’m here with my fiancé. He’s a fighter. He’ll hurt you if you harm me.”
Sebastian smiled, looking over at Sōsh. “We’re not going to hurt anyone,” he told her. “Not today.”
“Knock it off, Sebastian,” Sōsh said. “We’re sorry for startling you, Sisco. Do you have a few minutes to meet with our captain maybe?”
“I need to replace the batteries on these units or we’re going to fall behind again.”
“Harold can do that for you,” Sōsh said. “Do the bots need any direction once they’re reactivated, or are they self-directed?”
“No, they’re fine once the batteries are in.”
“It would be my pleasure, ma’am,” Harold said, walking over to the table and assessing the situation. “Please.”
“Who are you people,” Sisco said. “Did you come to help?”
“Something like that,” Sebastian said. “Come on. Let’s go see the Captain.”
When Sōsh and Transom brought Sisco back to the ship, Carolina and Airee were shocked to hear there were humans in the city still. They were even more surprised to see a distant Dreeson in the person of Sisco, who explained that it was her fiancée’s family who’d originated from Lime Harbor. His grandfather, Barlow Riche, had never left. In fact, the old man was up in the main house.
“Dying, we think,” Sisco said. “He contacted us two months after we went back to Gracia because he’d gotten very sick and couldn’t continue to run the operation.”
“Ren,” Carolina said.
“On it,” Ren responded, heading to the medical bay for her bags.
“I’d like to have our doctor take a look at him.”
Sisco put her hand over her mouth and began to cry. Carolina got up and approached her.
“He’s been in so much pain,” Sisco said, embracing Carolina. “Thank you. He wouldn’t let us take him from the house.”
“Well then,” Carolina answered. “Let’s go see if Ren can get him comfortable.”
Carolina left Sōsh to watch the ship.
On the walk up to the main house, Sisco explained to Carolina that Barlow had been there his whole life struggling to keep the star from deteriorating beyond salvation. All the scientists had long since given up hope. But the old man had remained, keeping the robots running experimental slugs into the sun’s corona in the hopes of saving Lime Harbor. Then, just as his life’s work finally produced the breakthrough he’d been waiting for, the old man had fallen ill, short of breath with shooting pain in both his legs. That’s when Sisco and Alex had come back to help him.
“Barlow’s not mobile anymore,” Sisco continued as they walked through the old stone streets. “That’s why Alex is with him. I can’t lift Barlow out of bed anymore. Alex goes down at night to do the bot repairs he can’t talk me through. He’s the engineer, but I’m learning.”
When they got to the house, Sisco took Ren up to the bedroom where Barlow was convalescing. Alex came down to meet the group that was there—more people than had been in the old family homestead in half a century.
“Did Sisco’s parents send you people?” he asked as he entered the main room at the foot of the stairs. “You brought a doctor? I just can’t…I can hardly speak I’m so grateful.”
“We have other business here,” Carolina said. “But we’re happy to help a man in need. He’s in excellent hands.”
“Other business?” Alex asked. “In Lime Harbor? It’s been a long time since that’s been said, I’ll bet. Anything we can help you with?”
“We should think that over,” Carolina said. “You folks are pretty isolated out here.”
Alex looked puzzled by the response, but shrugged his shoulders and said, “Well, if you can think of anything, we’ll do what we can to repay your kindness.”
“Mr. Riche,” Airee said. “My name is Carsten. I’m a historian, and if he’s feeling up to it, I’d love to speak with your grandfather. His knowledge, his life, I’m sure I don’t need to tell you, but he’s truly a treasure, historically speaking.”
“Interesting group, you’ve got here, Captain,” Alex said. “We’ll see how he’s doing, Carsten, and if he’s up for it, I’ll ask him.”
“Much appreciated,” Airee said. “This is some city.”
After a few hours, Ren re-emerged from upstairs, joining the others in the front room of the house where they were sitting, waiting for news. The old man was sleeping comfortably now, but the news was not good. Ren had already told the family.
“Cancer,” Ren announced to Carolina, Carsten, and Sebastian. “I can’t do much at this point but keep him comfortable, but that’s actually a lot, because he was in real pain.”
“The radiation?” Carsten asked.
“A lifetime of it. I might have been able to help a year ago, but he’s just too far advanced. I can’t see him making it through the week.” Ren turned to Carolina. “How’s it going with the banks?”
“Maícon is trying to map the city’s coms network. He’ll let us know what’s next when he’s got something.”
“Maybe the old man can help,” Airee said. “He knows more about the city than anyone. Is he lucid, doctor?”
Ren nodded. “I heard you were asking about him. I actually think that’d be a great idea, Carsten. A life like his? I’m sure he’d want nothing more than to know people heard his story. If he’s up for it, I’d support that.”
“And he’s still all there?”
“Oh, yeah,” Ren answered, smiling. “He’s a pistol.”
Carolina left Ren and Airee with the family for the night. By early evening, Maícon had mapped the power grid and communications network well enough to have a sense for where the banking hubs would be.
The following morning, Carolina and Sebastian went back up to the house to check on the family. They found Ren, Airee, and Sisco in the upstairs bedroom with Barlow, who was alert and in excellent spirits. Airee was smiling from ear to ear, soaking in every last detail.
Barlow had been up since dawn, talking and talking, telling stories of the old city in the years when people were still visiting. He spoke of the exodus, when the scientists Harper Corp. had hired to save the star finally gave up on the colony. “A financial decision,” Barlow declared. “The star can still be saved.” A statement Alex had confirmed the previous day.
Banking, Barlow explained, was a major financial sector in the colony. It was an off-world hub, mainly for Gracia and some of the Trasp worlds. “But they closed the banks when Harper Corp. left,” Barlow said. “After that it was all downhill. That’s when the real exodus started.”
Barlow pointed out the three main bank buildings on the city map. “I’m no banker,” he proclaimed. “But I think their executive offices would be where all their processors were. But that all got turned off when I was a kid, maybe sixty years ago. Maybe more.”
He looked over at Carolina. “So you’re the Captain? What do you think of our fair city, Captain?”
“I think a life spent trying to save a world this beautiful is a life well spent, Mr. Riche.”
He smiled. “Please, call me Barlow. Your doctor here tells me I’m dying, which is fine. I’ve lived a long life. I’m home. I’ve got family around me. And I’d like to be on a first-name basis with the good folks coming and going, if that’s not too much to ask.”
“I’m Carolina, Barlow. Carolina Dreeson.”
“Oh,” he said smiling. “Like our little Sisco. Maybe you two are cousins?”
“There’s a lot of us Dreesons,” Carolina replied, smiling.
“Sisco could show you to the banks. She’s explored the whole city.”
Barlow seemed to be oblivious to who Carolina was, but Sisco wasn’t. She looked over at Sebastian and Airee to confirm she’d heard what she’d heard. She’d thought the Captain looked familiar, but to hear it from Carolina’s own mouth was a surprise.
“Sure, Barlow,” Sisco agreed. “We’ll get Carolina suited up and I’ll show them the way when they’re ready.”
Sisco explained that they didn’t want to be out in the midday sun without a proper suit. There were only three buildings in Lime Harbor that were safe without radiation gear once the sun came up—the Riche home, the warehouse, and the inner rooms of the space elevator’s main concourse. The Yankee-Chaos, of course, was well shielded too.
It wasn’t long before Ren dismissed everyone, stating that Barlow shouldn’t over-exert himself. He, also, had agreed to continue talking with Airee about the history of Lime Harbor.
Before heading back to the ship, Sisco gave one of the spare radiation suits hanging in the back room to Carolina.
“You’ll need to wear this if you want to come out with me,” Sisco said. “I have to meet Alex down at the warehouse first. Your presence, your Harold, you’ve been a godsend. We’re catching up on things we’ve needed to do for weeks. Alex is excited again.”
“I’ll need a suit too,” Sebastian said from the doorway.
“You’re coming too?” Sisco asked.
“She goes, I go.”
Sisco looked over at Carolina, who nodded.
“I suppose we could squeeze you into Barlow’s suit. It might not be comfortable, but it’ll work.”
“That’ll be fine,” Sebastian agreed, turning and leaving Carolina and Sisco alone.
“You have an eclectic group,” Sisco said. “I like most of them.”
“That one,” Carolina said. “He’s the one who keeps me breathing, and he’s damn good at it.”
“That doesn’t surprise me. Anyway, I’ll meet you in the lower square at N’Kedi Place. We can search those bank buildings together.”
“Very good,” Carolina replied. “Ping me at the ship when you’re on your way.”
The excursion to the banks began in N’Kedi Square shortly after midday. Bright sunlight beamed onto the two smaller figures in radiation gear. Behind them, Sebastian cut a taller figure in a stretched-out orange and black suit. Their faces were obscured by their tinted hoods, and the muffled voices of the two Dreeson girls went back and forth as they shouted to each other deciding which of the banks they should explore first.
It was shockingly hot in the sunlight. By the time they got to the first bank, they were all ready to get out of the sun.
“Don’t take off your hood when we get inside,” Sisco reminded them. “It’s cooler in there, but the radiation is just as bad.”
“Noted,” Sebastian said.
The doors and windows of many of the old stone buildings were adorned with fine, decorative wood matching the classic architecture of the city. A century of heavy radiation and zero maintenance left the thick wood brittle enough to breach. Transom blasted the old door open with several good kicks.
They spread out and searched the first floor, making their way up the offices floor-by-floor and then down into the basement. There was no sign of any operating equipment. It took nearly two hours to clear the first bank and its offices.
The second bank, the Lime Harbor Trust was Airee’s bet on where the money would be hiding. It was the bigger of the two private banks but not the issuer of the LH Cronor. He suspected that would’ve meant less outside scrutiny from the business interests and the banking industry when the Lime Harbor banks were shuttered. Despite those suspicions, after two more hours of searching, they didn’t find so much as a working light in the Lime Harbor Trust, and certainly no working computers.
The colony government’s bank, LHB, was the big one. It was a long walk, and the Riche house was nearly along the way, so Carolina decided they should check in with the others before searching the final bank.
Back at the Riche house, they took off their heavy suits, ate, rehydrated, and gave their sweaty skin a chance to breathe before setting out again. The sun was getting low by the time they walked back down to the banking sector.
“The radiation levels are dropping,” Sisco announced as they approached Alba Square.
Sisco took off her radiation hood as though to prove the point. Carolina and Sebastian followed suit. The sun was approaching the horizon, casting a brilliant orange light over the rooftops as it descended. The square in that light—empty, dust-filled, barren, and beautiful—was a perfect relic of the high human societies of the past. Carved stone icons, gargoyles, castle walls, high haughty columns. Carolina couldn’t help but wish that Carsten had been with them, there to witness this sunlit picture of the past.
The LHB offices were nearly twice as big as the first two banks, but it didn’t take them long to discover signs of activity. Shortly after entering, Sebastian found a trail of footprints in the dust that led down the back stairway into the basement. While the other banks had been hollowed out, the LHB’s basement had remained just as the bankers had left it.
In a back room, there were empty racks that had recently been disturbed. The server blades were missing, only recently cleared out. Someone had clearly beat them to it.
“Have you seen any ships?” Carolina asked Sisco.
“Not since we’ve been back—thirteen weeks now, I think. We can ask Barlow, but he would have mentioned it, I’m certain.”
“Sparrow?” Sebastian said.
“Maybe,” Carolina responded, gesturing toward Sisco. “Let’s not get too deep into the speculation business here.”
Sebastian turned and walked away.
Sisco shook her head. “I don’t understand. Who would want all this old gear? It’s been gathering dust down here for nearly a century. What were you looking for.”
“This was an evidence trail,” Carolina explained. “The less you know about it, the safer you’ll be. You, Alex, and Barlow are here all by yourselves.”
“Well, they didn’t bother us whenever they came,” Sisco said. “I’m glad of that.”
“Yes. We can be thankful for that. Let’s get you home.”
Back at the house, Carolina consulted with Ren briefly before visiting with Barlow and Airee. The old man was fading, as eager as he was to tell stories of past times.
Carolina brought Carsten down to the front room where Sebastian was cooling off after a long day in a hot radiation suit. Airee asked them what had happened at the banks, peppering Carolina with questions about the state of each building.
“You think they knew we were coming?” he asked.
“I think they must have taken all precautions,” she answered. “Once we visited the Murder Mill and took financial records, they probably figured we’d get here eventually, so they got here first.”
“Damn,” Carsten said. “I thought for sure we had them. Well…anyway…what’s next?”
“What’s next is that we take you back to Damon Mines,” Carolina answered. “We’re getting to the point where your getting lost in the hills and surviving is beyond the point of believability.”
“I’ve been known to take long walks,” he joked.
“I think you should say your goodbyes to Barlow if he’s still awake.”
“What’s the sudden rush?” Airee asked.
“It’s a dead end, Carsten,” Carolina said. “We’re trying to stop a war here. Every day it goes on thousands of people die. We don’t linger at dead ends.”
“It was a brilliant thought, Carsten. Sometimes these things just don’t work out.”
Her mood had shifted to dour so fast he’d barely had time to process that they were leaving. Carsten suddenly had a feeling in his gut like it was the last thing he wanted to happen. He stood in the doorway, speechless.
Transom cast a look over toward him. The enforcer. Carsten Airee sighed and shook his head.
After he left, Transom asked her, “Are we really going to bug out on these people like this? Right now?”
She shook her head. “Damon Mines is close enough we can leave Ren with the old man and come back.”
She glared over at him.
Sebastian put up his hands. “Sorry, boss. I’ll shut up and see if Ren wants me to run more supplies before we go.”
“Good,” Carolina said, sighing.
As Sebastian left, she could see Sisco poking her head into the room, apprehensive to approach. “It’s okay, love, come on in.”
Sisco stepped in diffidently. “I overheard,” she said. “You’re leaving already?”
“Just taking Carsten back. We’re going to leave Ren with you to care for Barlow. Our Harold can help in the warehouse so you and Alex have time with Barlow. You’ll be in good hands.”
“You know we’re actually distant cousins, right?”
“I only know a few of the Gracia branch of the family, Sisco. And I haven’t had much luck with distant Dreesons recently. Close Dreesons either, for that matter. I’d prefer it if we could think of each other as friends.”
“What you’ve done, Carolina, these past couple days is more than what I could expect from family, so you can think of us any way you want. You’ll always be family to me and Alex.”
“We’ll talk more when I get back,” Carolina said. “It’s been a long day for all of us.”
“Sure,” Sisco agreed. “I’ll never be able to properly thank you.”
“You’ll never have to, my friend. What you and Alex are doing here is beautiful. It’s exactly what we’re fighting for.”
Just then, Sebastian came back downstairs with Airee. Carolina got up and the three of them walked down to Yankee-Chaos in the twilight with hardly a word among them.
When they got back to the ship, Carolina had Maícon start the engine and took Sōsh outside to discuss something she didn’t disclose to Carsten or Transom.
Carsten was in the atrium, shaking his head, wondering how so suddenly with so little explanation he was heading back to Damon Mines.
“What do you think that’s all about?” he asked Transom, referencing Carolina pulling Sōsh outside for a private conversation.
“That’s about the Captain’s prerogative, Airee,” Transom said. “If she wanted us to hear the conversation, she’d have held it in front of us.”
Carolina came back inside through the back ramp with Sōsh and went directly up to the flight deck. Sōsh armed up, slinging two bolt rifles over his shoulder, as well as his go bag. Transom chipped in, exiting the medical bay with another rucksack filled with medical supplies.
“Try not to use all those,” he said, handing the medical bag over and gesturing to the guns.
“Zero intention of it,” Sōsh answered. “See you in a few.”
He exited the back ramp and Transom gave the all clear to take off.
A straight line between Aldura and the Damon system was a little less than eighteen hours flight time. Carolina was exhausted from the long day sweating senseless in that radiation suit, so she slept the full first ten hours of the trip. She hardly came out of the captain’s stateroom afterward.
Carsten spent most of the trip at the atrium table, combing through the recordings and notes he’d taken of Barlow. Sisco, also, had given him thousands of files to comb through, files she’d dredged up from the city’s archives, of the city’s golden era, of its history, its years clinging to life, its diminishment, and finally its death. She’d pulled together a wealth of information in the hopes of rallying people back on Gracia to the cause of resurrecting the grand old colony—both for the sake of the place itself and in Barlow’s honor. It was one of the most intriguing pieces of history Airee had ever been privileged to uncover. Mentally, he knew this. He felt, though, like he’d been punched in the gut. It seemed like Carolina was sending him away simply because someone else had gotten there first. And the only other person there to talk to was her Etteran psychopath of a bodyguard, which he still couldn’t fathom a person like Carolina keeping around.
She came out a few times to eat, and each time, she only really took a cursory interest in the story he was trying to piece together on Barlow, Sisco, and Alex. “It’s such a phenomenal place. In the past, Dreeson, nobody could have dragged you from such a city.”
“In the past, Airee, I was a different person, with different obligations.”
It was the middle of the night on the Harpersville side of the planet when they dropped into Damon Mines. Maícon was able to sneak them within thirty kilometers of the town without alerting the heavy drone coverage that was presumably running infrared in search of a lost historian who’d wandered into the mountains.
“You need a coat, Carsten,” Carolina said, approaching him at the back ramp in the darkness. “It’s pretty chilly out there.”
“Yeah, chilly out there,” he said. “Anyway, see you around, I guess.”
“Don’t be like that, Carsten.”
“Oh, yeah, I’ve got no cause to be upset. You pull me off the survey like a space pirate, sweep me up in the biggest adventure of my life, and then suddenly it’s like, what? Cold. Not chilly, Carolina. Cold. So what am I supposed to say, thank you?”
She took him by the hand. “You used to hate me. And back then I’d given you no reason to. I’m asking you not to hate me now, even though I’ll understand if you do.”
“You’re not going to save those people, are you? Alex and Sisco? Or the city?”
“Why do you ask?”
“Because I’m going to write a book about them. Somebody has to help them save that planet. All that history. And for the life of me, I can’t figure out what’s going on in your head if you don’t care about such things anymore.”
She looked up at him and shook her head.
“The war, though, I know. You’re more frustrating than you ever were, Dreeson, I swear.”
“So are you, Airee.”
She leaned in and kissed him on the cheek. “Be safe walking back. And, please, Carsten, this is life or death. You can never tell anyone you saw me. I need you to swear it.”
“All the mysteries of the universe couldn’t hold a candle to your mind, Carolina Dreeson. As much as I hate to give you what you want, because you always get what you want, I will. I swear I’ll never tell a soul. Promise.”
She waited at the back ramp for Carsten to walk out of earshot. Then she said it softly. “Not always, Carsten Airee. I don’t always get what I want.”
Sebastian was seated at the Atrium table when she walked back into the ship.
“Care to tell me what the hell’s going on, boss?” he asked. “I know you had a good reason for dumping him.”
“I didn’t want to.”
Transom shrugged and shook his head. “Obviously. You know I see everything, right?”
She strapped in at the table, and as she did, the ship began to rise.
“He can’t know, Sebastian.”
As the ship steadily climbed, Transom could see a figure stepping into the Atrium from the back room.
Transom started laughing. “Hey, handsome, who’s flying the ship?”
“Still me,” Maícon said, approaching the table in his new body and sitting. “As it happens, I can do two things at once.”
“Would breaking into defunct banks be one of those things, perhaps?”
“Among many other useful things.”
“Did we find what we were looking for?” Sebastian asked Carolina.
“All that and more,” she replied. “The Etteran connection, the Trasp connection. Who paid Mirsong Rex for Lambda-Shadra and about a hundred other terrorist acts. And the mystery investor, the mastermind.”
“It isn’t Clem Aballi, is it?” Sebastian said, shaking his head. “It was never him.”
“It is far more dangerous than we ever could have imagined, Sebastian,” Maícon said. “We are going to need to be very tactical about every move from here on out.”
“Well? Don’t keep me in suspense. Who’s the architect?”
“Nilius is his name,” Maícon said. “And that fact is going to change the galaxy.”
“Because he is not a man, Sebastian. He is one of us. Among the oldest. An AI. And he has been orchestrating the financing of the conflict since before the war began.”
“That was all there, hiding in plain sight in Lime Harbor?” Sebastian asked.
Transom shook his head in disbelief. “You just made us the target of the most dangerous people in the universe, Captain.”
“Yes,” Carolina said. “They took a shot at me, Sebastian. And they missed. You’re damn right I took their money. I want them to know that I have it and that I know all their secrets. I want them to be afraid. I want them to be looking over their shoulder every second for the rest of their lives until they’re dead.”
Sebastian smiled. “If you try to kill the queen?”
“Then I suppose we should go pick up our people before those bastards go back to Lime Harbor looking for the people who ruined their party?”
“I’m going to hang a sign on that bank,” Carolina said. “C.D. was here.”
“Best to hurry.”
“We have time,” Carolina said.
“Then we start playing this game on our terms for a change. And we won’t be sending any messages. Now that we have our real target, Sebastian, we will not miss.”
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