Chapter One: Quinn

“Almost got you, you little weaselly bastard,” I muttered, fingers flying over the keyboard.

For two weeks I’d been chasing this little worm through security.

Slowly building a honeypot, nothing too obvious, chest enough of a chink in the armor that would tempt someone looking for information on Orem Station.

On us.

From behind black ice code walls of I lurked, waiting for my prey to take the bait.

“Come on,” I whispered, watching the screens surrounding me. “Just a little closer…”

“Quinn? Got a minute?” Ronan’s voice snapped in my earpiece.

“Not really,” I growled. “Is it important?”

“Maybe,” he paused. “At least, Nixie thinks so.”

I rolled my eyes.

“But this time, I think she might be right.”

In the control room that had become Ronan’s office, I found Hakon and Davien sprawled in the low chairs Nadira had somehow thought would be welcoming for visiting dignitaries. Not that many dignitaries were going to comfortable visiting with us any time soon.

I winced when I saw Nixie. She’d gone for a pink and purple flashing stripes for her holographic body today.

She could’ve been trying to shock us, to act like a teenager.

But it wasn’t going to work, other than nearly blinding us.

We’d grown up with the Doc after all.

“I really think it’s a match,” she insisted, throwing up a screen on the wall behind her. “Just listen.”

“I don’t see how it could be,” Davien cut her off.

“How should I know how?” She swung her feet from where she perched on Ronan’s desk, deliberately not meeting his eyes. “But the voice print matches what’s on file in the old Daedalus records.”

My chest tightened, just a bit. 

“I can’t believe you even have those files,” Hakon sighed.

“It’s just taken me a while to go through everything.” For the first time, the AI sounded and looked a bit embarrassed. “It’s been pretty busy since we got here, and there was a lot of stuff, and it was hard to tell what was important because it was Doc’s work, and what was just her planning or dreaming-”

“More like scheming.” I interrupted, face twisting into a wry grin. 

“Tell me again with the message said,” Ronan said, rubbing his eyes.

Somehow, no matter how helpful Nixie was being, it seemed inevitable you’d end up with a headache.

“I was bored with scanning for traffic in our region, and everything is been boring in the hub, but then there was this little bounce off of a relay station not too far from the Areitis Sector. And that was interesting, because I didn’t remember ever getting anything out of there before,” she babbled.

Void save us from a bored AI.

“Nobody deals with the Areitis Sector,” Davien said. “Too much trouble.”

“But all of those interesting megacorps are there!” Nixie’s black eyes sparkled. “Just imagine what they’re hiding in their memory banks.”

“They’re hiding snake’s nests that don’t pay if they can help it,” I declared.

It was true, and like everything else we’d been dealing with, yet more fallout from the failed Empire.

Governance rights to the Areitis Sector had been purchased by ThallaCorp from the Empire almost three hundred years ago.

I’m sure it made sense to them at the time. One less area to try to keep in line, and a quick influx of cash to pay the mercenaries the Empire needed to straighten out their little problems at home.

ThallaCorp wanted free rein for mining, industrial plants, whatever.

But in that time ThallaCorp had broken down, divided and fractured into dozens of ravenous competing corporations.

They were just as bad if not worse than the warlords of the Fringe.

They were businesses.

And all they cared about was the bottom line.

“We don’t deal with Areitis, Nixie,” I explained. “It’s too complicated, even for us.”

“Actually,” Ronan sat back, staring at the ceiling. “Doc did send a team out. Years ago now.”

“I don’t have a list of the men who went, Nixie whispered. But this message, I’m pretty sure its a match to the voice print of one of your brothers.

Let’s hear it, I said. We’ll know for certain.

Hiss and crackle filled the air. “…contract failed…betrayed… extraction…Heladae…”

And then it faded away.

“Where’s the rest of it? Davien snapped.

Nixie threw her hands up. “That’s all I could clean up out of the message.  It’s been bouncing around the nets for a long time, degrading the quality with every bounce.” She threw a screen up on the wall facing her and an image filled it.

“I took a peek through some of the Imperial astrophysics lenses,” she explained. “It’s like someone put up a whole series of satellites around the inhabited systems in that sector. Kind of like a shield, or an alarm system maybe.”

“Interesting, but not our problem,” I said. “You can’t tell me you got a print off of that sample.”

“But I did!” The image changed, morphed into a series of scratchy lines, as she displayed the graph for the extracted bits of recording over another, unbroken line.

She played the message again, cleaned up, the hisses and pops gone.

“That almost sounds like Torik,” I admitted grudgingly.

“No fair!” she pouted. “It took me hours and hours to go through all recorded messages from the old Daedalus files. Well, maybe minutes. And you guessed it right away.”

Ronan’s expression was grim. “Did you find mission orders for Torik, or any of his squad?”

“Not yet,” she chipped, “but I’m still looking. Can’t you just ask Doc if she remembers where Torik went, and who went with him?”

“No!” we answered in unison. 

“Doc is…” Davien started, then caught himself.

“If it is Torik,” I tried, “wouldn’t it be nice if we brought him home as a surprise for her?”

And if it wasn’t, or if the message was faulty, we couldn’t be responsible for getting her hopes up.

“Maybe someone should go take a look,” Ronan mused. “The Empire might decide the lease is up on that sector, and we might as well have some current intel.”

“Sounds like he might have gotten into a bit of trouble,” Hakon added. 

“I hope not,” Nixie bit her lip.

“What’s wrong?” I asked, knowing I wasn’t going to like the answer.

The best I can piece together,” she whispered, “your friend sent that message three years ago.”

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