Staying Productive

Fortunately, the Aeacus had dropped out of fourspace before taking it on the chin; if it hadn’t, its pieces would be scattered from here to Pavo-Indus. There’d be nothing left to investigate. Then John Faldswell would be at home, alone in his meager apartment, spending another evening spiraling away from productive ways to stave his boredom. So yes, barring the 267 souls who perished in the void, this was a fortunate turn of events.

The boundary field around his second-skin gave off a faint green glow not unlike the aurora as he followed Admiral Wenter through the Aeacus‘ recovered wreckage. After 20 years designing warships for the Human Alliance, he decided he’d had enough of making death more efficient. Now he repented by examining the results of his labor; he was a forensic consultant. As they moved silently through the vented ship he noticed the same peculiar black pitting throughout. It told him what finally took the ship down, but not how it happened. “Let’s take a look at the engine room.” The admiral, with that distinctive hitch in his step, even in the reduced gravity, led the way.

The ship used a fourspace modulator to jump any significant distance, but the maneuvering thrusters and all other non-propulsive systems were fusion powered. Faldswell wanted to see the core. This was where the deathblow was struck. A precision shot from the attacking vessel shattered one of the containment magnets. Plasma from the core would have been loosed on the ship; at 400-million degrees it was hotter than any star that nature made. It would have dissipated quickly, but not before scorching the ship down to its subframe. The crew would have been vapor before they’d even known they’d been hit.

It was such a precise shot, though; too precise to be chance.

He collected fist-sized chunks of shattered superconductor in earnest from around the compartment, looking for edge pieces like it was a jigsaw puzzle. At last, he found what he was looking for. He held up a piece the size of his torso—it would have weighed 500 pounds at standard gravity—and showed Admiral Wenter. “You see this white strip here?”

Wenter nodded, his own face dimly lit in emerald hues from the charged barrier protecting him from the vacuum. The white stain resembled a burn mark the size of a deck of cards with three spokes coming out.

“It’s a residue from an adhesive. Standard size and shape for an escape pod beacon. Someone took the beacon out of a pod and stuck it to the containment magnet. Then they forced the ship out of fourspace—you could conceivably do that from this compartment. The enemy was already waiting. All they had to do was fire right at the beacon signal—which is easy to find by design—and the Aeacus consumed itself. Then they hightailed it out of the sector. At first glance it looks like a containment failure; it’s a good cover story.”

Wenter’s face was locked in a permanent grim scowl, but he nodded in acknowledgement. “That’s what I needed to hear. Thank you, John, for making the trip.”

Feldswell was stunned. “That’s it?” It’s like the admiral already knew it was sabotage, like he knew there’d been a traitor in the fleet. But how? Then he put it together. “The beacon,” he said. “There were only 266 people on board when it got hit. All the beacons are accounted for, but the Aeacus is missing an escape pod, isn’t it?”

Wenter maintained his expression—or had it grown more grim?

“Why would somebody do that?” He thought it over while the last of the admiral’s patience boiled away. “What was the primary mission of the Aeacus, Admiral? What was it doing?”

“Alright, John, that’s enough. That line of questioning only leads to more bodies, and I believe you recused yourself from that business some time ago. Come on.”

Feldswell followed the admiral back the way they’d entered, but the puzzle still wasn’t solved; not to his satisfaction. He may have finally found something productive to do with his time.

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