Captain Calen turned to tell Trell to begin finding the coordinates, but the Ensign was already working quickly on loading the transmission. Calen turned back to the loudspeaker and addressed the voice again as her Scuttler fully drifted into the Cypulchral Cloud, obscuring the windows with a purple haze.
“What do you mean? What’s the signal, and how does it find us?”
“Keeping transmissions open gives it a door to you!” said the voice on the other end of the line. “I’ve note had long to try to figure it out, but I’d swear that it actively targets the most sensitive parts of computers. It transmits itself, and it comes so fast and frequently that it can overwhelm a system. I’ve never seen anything like it.”
“How did it attack your systems?” asked Calen. “What happened first?”
No voice responded.
“Hello?” said Calen.
“I cut the transmission,” said Trell. “I’m sorry, Captain. I had the coordinates.”
Calen clenched her fist for a moment before shaking her head.
“No need to apologize,” said Calen. “It was… tactically sound.”
“I’d say this confirms the old stories about the Cypulchral Cloud uploading data onto ship computers,” said Captain Ortega. “Sounds safe enough now that we know what we’re looking for, though. If we just keep the signals down…”
“Don’t try to make this out to be easier than it is,” said Calen. “Just because we can fill in some missing portions on the map doesn’t mean there won’t still be dragons here. And don’t forget that we’ve still got the Soul Survivor to find. If you have any good suggestions for searching a dust cloud the size of a small moon for a robot the size of a person without using any sensors, I expect to hear them as soon as we rescue the poor soul lost in this infernal haze.”
“I’ve got a few thoughts on that matter,” said Ortega. “The Astroguard has some search patterns for regions like this. It won’t be easy, but they’re meant for times that the sensors have been disabled instead of times that we’re just choosing not to use them. We should have a bit of an advantage there.”
Calen nodded and walked to her chair at the center of the bridge.
“Glad to hear the Astroguard is good for something,” she said. “Trell, input those coordinates. I won’t be much good refining your directions without sensors, so feel free to take initiative on course corrections as needed. Ortega, make yourself useful and go stand by a window, see if you can get a visual on anything.”
Ortega nodded and approached one of the smaller windows. The view was significantly less useful than the viewscreen would have been in most other situations, but it gave him enough of a forward view that he could at least make sure that they wouldn’t be crashing into anything. As long as it didn’t come from the starboard side of the ship.
He was glad that Captain Calen hadn’t asked him for more details about the Astroguard’s nebula-searching patterns, as they weren’t any more advanced than most other organizations that had similar search and rescue operations. Someone familiar with even rudimentary military protocol… someone like Doctor Silas Rogers… would know how the patterns unfolded and could come up with a good plan for avoiding detection if they didn’t want to be found.
Ultimately, his plan for finding Rogers was based more on personal familiarity with his quarry. If Doctor Rogers had a specific plan for the Cypulchral Cloud that went beyond escape and evasion, it meant one of two things. Either Rogers would soon contact the nearest vessels to gloat and add to his personal legend once the plan was finished, or the plan would activate in some spectacularly visible way.
Unfortunately, tracking Rogers in that fashion meant that it would require waiting until he was done or nearly done with the scheme. Rogers was predictable, but capable. He didn’t think that Captain Calen would appreciate a plan that involved sitting and waiting… especially not in a place that Morcalans seemed to fear… but he knew that if he could count on anyone to help him act quickly once Rogers revealed himself, Calen and Trell would be not only willing but enthusiastic to leap into action.
Or, he might get incredibly lucky and locate Doctor Rogers using the search patterns. Luck would help him win the day one way or another. Or a lack of luck would help Rogers to win it.
“We’re approaching the coordinates, Captain,” said Trell. “He’s not very deep into the Cloud. Assuming that his calculations were right, we should be nearing him soon.”
“Good to hear,” said Trell. “We may all be claimed by the Cloud in the end, but we’ll make sure that whoever’s lost out here won’t die alone.”
Ortega kept looking through the window, peering ahead. He couldn’t make out much at all. He shook his head and started to turn from the window but glanced down.
“Wait, there’s something,” he said. “We might be here already. Something’s…. under us. Not sure how far.”
“Full stop, Trell,” said Calen. “Captain Ortega, you’re dressed for a spacewalk with that fancy Astroguard flight armor of yours. Head to the airlock and try to get a better visual.”
“Sure thing, Captain,” he said, erring for a casual acknowledgement since he wasn’t familiar with the Morcalan military policies for addressing fellow Captains on their own ship. Calen didn’t react, so he decided that it would do for now.
He walked toward Airlock Two, the same airlock that he and Doctor Rogers had used to first enter the ship. He stepped inside and let the door close, activating his suit’s helmet. The familiar visor and protective plating slid into place around his head as the air began to cycle. He double checked that the sensors in his space suit were off just in case his own suit would be susceptible to whatever “the signal” was, and prepared to step directly into the cloud.
The airlock’s outer door opened. He saw a strange, ambient light illuminating the purple mist of the Cypulchral Cloud, making him wonder if elements of the cloud might be dangerously radioactive deeper in. He stepped through the airlock’s threshhold and started to fly.
He zipped down and slowed when the object became clearer. It wasn’t a full ship. Instead, it was a long piece of metal, almost half as long as Calen’s scuttler. A transparent tube ran along the center of the metal, with a coiling filament faintly glowing within. Ortega turned back to the scuttler, prepared to report that it wasn’t more than garbage, either a remnant of the fabled superweapon or of some other ship that became lost inside the cloud after the war.
Before reaching the scuttler, he realized that the ship’s stationary position at full stop made it a reliable point of reference. Spacial drift would occur, of course, but for short periods of time he should be able to perform short range scouting.
Ortega changed direction, and launched himself forward along the ship’s hull. He resisted the urge to check to see if he could see the window he had been looking through before since he wanted to keep his eyes firmly on the vision-obscuring mist. After moving ahead of the scuttler, though, he routinely glanced back to make sure that he could still see it behind him, knowing that he’d have to turn back if it became too hard to see.
The swirling vapor within the cloud parted as he moved through it. He made sure to look over and under his flight path periodically, just in case the ship wasn’t lying on his expected path, but the clouds seemed just as thick in that direction as any other.
Just as he was beginning to think that he should head back to the scuttler, he saw a dim shadow. He looked back and ensured that Calen’s ship wasn’t too poorly obscured before he pushed on and got his first clear view of the distressed vessel, a view that made him excited and pleased moments before making him uncertain.
The vessel was a one-man fighter ship of a standard, almost generic design. Only one of its engines was active, and then only if sparking violently could be considered “active.” But the thing that drew his attention the most was the symbol on the vessel’s hull that identified it as a vessel of the Dyson Empire.
Much earlier, on another world…
Sister Barris scrolled through the digital palimpsest, keeping fresh on all of the data regarding her client. Azar had little in the way of a public record, and much of it had been stored as hard copies instead of digitally. While the virtual record of Azar wasn’t nonexistent, he was one of the few true cases where Barris needed to find a literal paper trail. Which, unfortunately, meant waiting for the baristerbots to run their errands and scan the data. She wasn’t expecting to find any surprises that could hurt Azar’s case, but she knew that BristleCorp’s lawyers would be doing at least this much.
She was taking care of this particular batch of data sifting over a light lunch at a cafe that made the overcast day feel cozy. She traced her finger over the information on the flimsy screen, allowing the data to move past. She saw nothing upsetting, but there was less actual information than she wanted.
A man in a suit entered the cafe and scanned the room until he saw her at the table. The man approached her table and sat in the opposite chair. Barris looked up from her work.
“Can I help you?”
“Maybe,” he said. “You’re Sister Barris, yes? Representing Azar?”
“Oh,” she said. “Yes, I am. I was wondering if someone would be talking to me about that, actually. I didn’t expect to hear about it here. If you’d like to talk officially, my office would probably be more convenient.”
He shook his head.
“No, I don’t think we need anything so formal. In fact I’d like this kept quiet.”
“All right,” said Barris. “Maybe you can help me, then. My information on BristleCorp’s involvement is… strangely absent. Why can’t I find any official documentation for Azar’s project?”
“It was irrelevant information, so the records weren’t kept,” he said. Barris smiled.
“Seriously? That’s honestly the story you’re using? No one gets rid of data, not entirely.”
“It’s what I was told,” he said. “I don’t know all the details. I’m sure your client can tell you more.”
“He has, it’s just strange that the information isn’t officially there.”
“It may be a moot point,” he said. “You should drop this case. Tell Azar that our settlement options will be better for him in the long run.”
“I can’t do that,” she said.
“For starters, I don’t believe that it’s true. He stands to make more money by keeping the money he has now, and the suggestion that it’ll cause negative impacts on the galactic economy is shaky. And even if it did, he’d have the money to easily remain unaffected.”
“I don’t think it’ll be better for him monetarily,” he said. “I think it’ll affect his quality of life. I’ve been hearing things from some of the higher ups… this isn’t an official meeting here. The official talk… it’s going to come later. And they’re already planning for you to disagree with them. It’s a formality. They’ve already contacted… unofficial people for when you tell them that you won’t drop it.”
“I’d rather not go into it,” he said. “People unaffiliated with BristleCorp who can get their hands dirty. I don’t know exactly what it’ll mean, but if you don’t go along with BristleCorp, then they won’t have a reason to call these people off.”
Barris stared at the man’s face. She wondered if it was just a fear tactic, but she couldn’t see any sign of a lie on his face.
“I’ll think about it,” she said. “But I think I still won’t be abandoning my client.”
“Fine,” he said. “That’s good. For now. But when they really ask you later… probably at your office… I think you should change your answer then.”
“I won’t,” said Barris. “But thank you.”
The man nodded, rose, and left. Barris turned back to the palimpsest, but wasn’t sure she could focus on it. She expected a threat, but not a warning of a threat. Fortunately, the Order of Fierce Mercy had ways of protecting its clients. She’d just hoped they wouldn’t need them so soon.