The security office was cramped and untidy. Lieutenant Hamasa Tareen was obviously the kind of person who worked well amongst clutter. Bell found the security officer staring at a computer terminal.
“I’ve been going over Commander Murphy’s records Captain. I’ve found no leads in his public logs. He simply talks about the fulfilment of his duties.”
“What about his private logs?”
“I have used security over-ride to access some of those. So far the main topic appears to be the injustice of the civilian colonial lottery. Evidently he was very bitter about his family not being chosen to travel on this ship.”
“Tell me something we don’t already know Lieutenant.”
“Well I’ve found no evidence that he had any enemies – he certainly doesn’t mention any. Hold on.”
“What is it?”
Tareen hand his hand up to prevent interruption. He was focusing intently on something. After a moment the Captain prompted again. “Lieutenant?”
“I’ve found something Sir. It’s a video memo but it’s encrypted. My security override doesn’t open it.”
“Is there any way you can crack it?”
“The best I can suggest is a brute-force attack which is unlikely to yield results. Ideally I would need his private encryption key.”
“Well there’s not much chance of finding that is there.”
“Not really Captain. It seems that the video was transmitted on a sub-space channel. It was a scheduled process.”
“When was it scheduled for?”
“The computer sent the message on the twenty-first of October 2190.”
“Where was it sent?”
“Into deep space. I’ll have to talk to Lieutenant Kerensky to figure out if there are any known spatial bodies at these coordinates.”
“You do that Lieutenant, and see what you can do about decrypting that video.”
“Aye Sir. Now may I ask Captain, what leads you to suspect the possibility of foul play in this case? Couldn’t this simply be a system malfunction.”
“These systems don’t just fail Lieutenant. Every system relating to the life-support of the crew and passengers on this ship was subjected to extraordinary testing. I’ve been speaking with the engineering crew. They’ve been running diagnostics and looking in to why the engineering androids didn’t repair the XO’s pod.”
“Any results yet?”
“When they query the status of the pod, the system reports it is in perfect working order.”
“But we know that’s not true.”
“Exactly. I have engineers pouring over the lines of code in the diagnostic software. They’ll have answers for us soon, but they’ve found something else that fascinated me.”
“What’s that Sir?”
“The FTL engines that powered our journey here ran at twenty-five percent of capacity for the entire trip. According to logs, every time that the system was instructed to increase speed it reported that the ship was already travelling at maximum possible speed.”
“So that would explain why our journey took five hundred years.”
“And what does the bridge android have to say about this?”
“Well, like L5, the android that cared for me during the trip, he says he can offer no explanation.”
“So if somebody sabotaged the system to make the ship go slow, as well as causing a malfunction in the Commander’s pod, then we have our murderer.”
“It seems likely Lieutenant.”
“I’d better get back to this Sir.”
“Report to me the minute you know something.”
Colonel Millwood loved the feel of a plane hurtling through space at high sub-light. The feeling was more emotional than physical given the lack of friction or inertia, but he loved it all the same. They had been travelling for about an hour and were nearing the asteroid belt.
“How’s it going over there Hornet,” he asked of Ensign Sarah McDermott, his wing.
“All systems nominal Badger. Looking forward to doing some fancy flying amongst the rocks.”
“You and me both Hornet.”
An indicator on Millwood’s HUD let him know that it was time to begin deceleration”
“Throttling back Sir.”
Deceleration took a couple of minutes. As Millwood’s plane came down to cruising speed he got visual confirmation of the asteroid field. It was breath-taking. Some of the asteroids were so small they looked like clouds of dust to his eyes. Others were so large they were practically moons.
“Okay Hornet. We’ll split up. You fly a standard search pattern around these rocks and eyeball anything interesting. I’ll run a few scans.”
Millwood had already uploaded the Captain’s mineral signature from the data chip during the journey. He activated his sensors and began scanning the nearby asteroids.
It didn’t take long for him to get a positive result. Sensors indicated a signature that matched that given to him by the Captain. The next step would be to obtain a sample. Millwood brought his plane in close to one of the larger asteroids that tested positive. He took aim and launched the collection apparatus.
A grappling line launched from the underside of the plane and sailed toward the rock. The force drove three sharp pins into the surface of the asteroid just enough to hold it in place. Next, a small drill began to bore into the rock. Having retrieved the sample, the apparatus released its pin hold on the asteroid and was retracted back into the plane.
Millwood power up his thrusters. He would take one more sample from another asteroid.
“Seeing anything interesting Hornet?”
“Nothing out of the ordinary Badger, although I’m getting some mighty pretty photos to take back. What about you Sir?”
“I’m just taking a few geological samples.”
“What for Sir?”
“Just routine. Nothing for you to worry about.”
Millwood was now in place and collected another sample. When it was done, he fired his thrusters once more and began to move on a slow arc back toward the direction they had come.
“Okay Hornet I think we’ve seen enough. Let’s move on.”
At that moment Millwood felt a sudden forceful impact against the hull of his plane. Alarms and sirens began to wail all through his cockpit.
“Sir, what’s happening?”
“I’ve been hit. Looks like asteroid damage.”
Millwood frantically looked over the readouts on his HUD. How had he missed an incoming rock?
“I have you on visual now Badger You had flames for a second.”
Flames were a bad sign. Fire would not last long in space before it exhausted its oxygen supply. If McDermott had seen flame then there was a chance that a compressed chamber on the plane had been breached, or even worse – an oxygen tank.
“How bad does it look Sir?”
Having read the diagnostics Millwood’s heart sank. “It’s bad Hornet. I’m dead in space.”
“Your engines look okay Sir.”
“Yes, the engines are fine, I could get up to full speed but the inertial dampeners are shot to hell.”
“Which means that when you hit top speed your body will be compressed to a thin paste on the inside of the cockpit.”
“Exactly. There is no way I can get back to the Endeavour before my oxygen runs out.”