Zane’s flight plan took them to a small, grubby-looking space station in a nearby system. It certainly didn’t look like much. In fact, it looked like it was one thrown rock away from depressurizing and collapsing into the nearest atmosphere.
There were a couple hundred moons in the galaxy with a very similar look to this one. Before the advancement of terraforming technology, comapnies would dome small satellites near the target planet, creating a self-sustaining atmosphere for their workers to live on for the few years it took to make a planet hospitable. They would shuttle workers to the surface, and at the end of their shift they would be shuttled back home.
Now, however it was no longer required to have such a large work force until the planet was already sustainable. Which meant moons like this one were a dying breed. This one seemed to still have a semblance of community and economy, as Zane dropped them into a spaceport near a shopping center.
“I never thought I would come to a place that made my old neighborhood look upscale,” said Mari as she took in the sights.
“Good place to lie low,” said Zane.
Ash checked briefly over the hatch door. Maybe before they left this world they could fix the release he’d shot off. “Alright, let’s get moving then,” he said “Where are we heading?”
“This way,” said Zane, gesturing. That seemed to be all he was inclined to say, so they simply followed him, going past a couple food kiosks.
Finally, Zane diverted them to an alley between a takeout place and a dingy looking electronics store.
Jayna looked down as she saw something crawling around in an old cardboard delivery box. “You know, I’m starting to trust your gut a lot less than normal, Zane.”
“You’ll see,” he said. There was a large trash receptacle. He knocked on it a few times.
“…does your friend live in the trash?” said Mari. Zane said nothing.
After a moment, a small hatch in the front of the bin opened up, revealing a speaker.
“Recognition system online,” said a small, tinny voice from it. “Input access code.”
Then it beeped.
Zane’s face scrunched up a moment as he thought of something, then he counted something off on his fingers. Then he leaned into the speaker, and spoke in a loud, clear voice.
“Caveat. Tunisia. Bolshevik. Fructose.”
There was another tone. Then the wall next to the bin opened up, revealing a small elevator.
They got into the elevator, Jayna having to squat a bit as she looked about, confused. The lights flickered once, and then a chime sounded, as they moved down.
“What was that?” Mari asked.
“Probably her codes resetting. It’s new every week,” Zane said, looking up at the roof of the elevator.
They slowly crept down into the bowels of the station, and maybe even deeper. Until, finally, it dinged again, and it opened up, into a simple chamber of grey metal, and a large door that looked too much like an airlock for anybody’s comfort.
“Step through and wait for the next door to open,” a computerized female voice instructed over the intercom system.
“Just play along,” Zane said, holding his hands out as he stood in the middle of the room. The other three joined them. The elevator closed, and they were all blasted with a cool mist that only stung the eyes a little bit.
“What the hell is happening?’ said Ash, covering his eyes.
“We’ve just been decontaminated,” said Mari. “Am I right?”
“Huh, it used to burn a lot more,” Zane said, and then nodded. “Yeah… pretty much,” he said, and then the next door opened with a hiss.
“Right, now, some ground rules,” said Zane. “Keep your voices down. Answer anything you’re asked as honestly as you can. And don’t touch anything. I mean it.”
The room ahead was dimly lit… at least, on one side. It smelled of industrial-strength disinfectant and not much else. On their immediate left and right were rows of shelving covered with knick-knacks, mostly colorful figurines, meticulously arranged. And against the far wall was the biggest source of lighting in the chamber.
Almost an entire third of the wall was taken up by monitors and touchscreens, each displaying a different image, surrounding a huge desk covered with various interface devices. Innumerable wires in every imaginable color came out from the desk, some connecting to monitors, some disappearing into the walls. They were all tightly coiled together and banded into neat patterns, each small zip tie carrying an alphanumeric tag.
And sitting at the desk was… a girl. She was slim. Scrawny, even. Her skin tone looked like it may have been similar to Ash’s, if Ash stayed out of the sun for a few months and skipped a few too many meals. Her head was shaved, and the only clothing she wore was a tank top and a pair of bloomers, both white. A pair of large headphones covered her ears, and her spidery fingers kept switching between multiple keyboards, on and off.
“Who the hell is this?” Jayna asked softly.
Zane sighed. “She’s family,” he said, and took a step forward. “Um, Hi Troia… hope we’re not interrupting.”
‘Troia’ reached back, holding up a hand with a single finger upraised. After about a minute, the hand went down. Carefully, she removed the headphones and spun around, her eyes seeming to shine in the darkness. The left was a hazy sea green, the other a dull salmon pink. She looked Zane up and down.
“Zane,” she said, her tone rather flat and mechanical. “You look… well, I suppose.”
“And you look like you haven’t been eating enough vegetables,” said Zane. “Remember what I said?”
“It’s hard to get fresh vegetables in the middle of this… mmm, commercial wasteland.” She looked at the other three ship members. “Are these the three you told me about?”
He nodded. Troia gave an almost-smile.
“Ash and Jayna, I take it?” she said. “He’s told me so much about you that I feel like I know you already.”
She looked over at Mari, considering her. “And you must be the new girl. I like you. You’re very clean.”
Mari raised an eyebrow. “I guess I’ll take that as a compliment.”
“That’s the highest compliment Troia probably gives out,” Zane said.
Troia nodded. “You don’t normally come visit personally unless you want something. You came this way directly from Biridi. Why?”
Zane flushed guiltily. “I’m sorry,” he said. “It’s not that I don’t–”
“No, no, it’s okay,” said Troia, turning back to her row of computers. “It’s not like I really have the inclination to entertain on the best of days. But seriously, out with it.”
Zane handed over the tablet. “Something is on that tablet,” he said. “I don’t know what it is, but somebody paid Johnny a boatload of chits to get it from us. I’d like to know it is.”
Troia looked at it, tapping against the screen. “Hm.” she said, and moved around, plugging the tablet into a console that was separate from the others. One screen flashed off and then back on. “Not every day your own work stares you back in the face.”
“…what?” said Zane.
“Someone behind more proxies than even I could count hired one of my alts to build him an encryption system a few months ago,” said Troia, looking the tablet over. “Wouldn’t say what for but it was worth ten thousand chits. That buys a lot of disinterest.”
“Alts?” said Mari. “What exactly is it that you do here?”
“Cybersecurity, or lackthereof, for anyone that can pay the chit count.” Troia said. “But if you pay me to encrypt it, and someone else pays me to decrypt it, I don’t become a very reputable agent either way. My alts take care of any of those issues. Hell, some of them even have better social lives than me,” she said, tapping away at the keyboard briefly.
“It’ll be easy to undo this, but it will take a few minutes,” she said. “Opening up a decrypt this deep isn’t like just unlocking a box. There’s processes that have to run. And just because I’m nice, I’ll lock it back up afterwards. Nobody will know it’s been tampered with.”
“We appreciate that,” Ash said, taking a step forward.
“Nah ah–not you,” Troia said, holding up a hand again. You smell like engine oil and dirt. You stay there.”
“Don’t take it personally,” said Zane, as he pulled Ash back. “She’s really… sensitive.”
“So how did you meet Zane?” Mari asked, moving towards one of the chairs that wasn’t filled with broken computer parts.
Troia looked back, cocking one eyebrow. “He didn’t tell you? We’re–“
A strange expression crossed Zane’s features, and his eyes met Troia’s for a moment. Troia seemed to participate in the silent conversation, assented, but didn’t like it.
“…family,” she said, looking back at the screen and grumbling a little.
Mari frowned, but didn’t say anything else.
“Zane, I didn’t know that your family was so… nontraditional,” Ash said.
Troia gave a slight upturn of her lips in response. She looked like a woman unused to facial expressions. “That is certainly one way of putting it.”
There was relative silence for another moment or two, and then the screen flashed green. “Ah, there we go,” she said simply and looked to Zane. “Come here… I think you’re going to want to see this,” she said.
Zane looked over at the tablet. And then his face went strangely green. “Is that…?”
“A list of names and locations,” said Troia, nodding. “Very… interesting names.”
Zane looked closer, and Troia stood up for a moment. She came perhaps to Zane’s shoulder, and she moved closer to the screen. “Selentium Furnishings… Sinopharm Supply… I don’t like where this is going,” she said, her eyes narrowing.
“What’s all that mean?” said Jayna, trying to get a closer look without invading Troia’s personal space.
“They’re members of a consortium that had been funding some exceedingly shady practices,” said Troia quickly. “But I thought they had gone defunct years ago. There’s more, too. All organizations that can be traced back to… something.”
“Something?” Jayna said with a frown.
“Nothing of consequence,” Troia said, and then turned. “But nothing good either. I can probably look into who gave me the tip in the first place, but it’ll be a while before I can give you any news.”
“I don’t want to–” started Zane, but Troia’s finger interrupted.
“Don’t try to dissuade me, I’m curious now,” she said. “I tried to sniff this guy out, y’know. I like to know who I’m dealing with. And it’s very rare that I can’t find something like that out.”
“How would we keep in contact? It’s obvious you run a pretty tight ship here. But you can’t do all your investigating from here.” Jayna asked.
“I have legs when I need to walk somewhere. And I can get in contact with you without anyone else knowing. I’m good at what I do,” Troia said, turning to face Jayna.
“She really is,” said Zane. “We’ve probably worked with her before.”
“Probably,” said Troia, turning back around. “I can never keep track.”
Ash pulled Zane to the side. “Look, Zane,” he said softly. “I’m willing to look the other way a lot of the time, but I need to know, if we’re getting into trouble here I wanna be able to see it coming.”
Zane couldn’t quite look Ash in the eye. “If… if there’s something that I… that I thought could really hurt you guys,” he said, his tone strained. “I’d… I’d tell you, okay? Please believe me.”
Ash sighed. “Okay. I’m with you.”
When he looked back Troia was watching both of them, head tilted. “So. I’ll lock this up. You put it back in the box and the bag, and deliver it like nothing happened. As soon as I figure out who did it, I’ll let you know.”
“Thank you, Troia,” said Zane.
“And I’ll take my usual method of payment,” said Troia.
The others looked nervous for a moment, but Zane reached into a jacket pocket and pulled out a figurine of a mermaid in a pirate’s hat. Troia’s face lit up with the first genuine smile the crew had seen as she accepted the treasure.
“Where’d you get this?” Troia said, looking at the fine detail.
“Kanaloa,” he said with a similar smile. “Thought you’d like it.”
“You’re right. It’s perfect,” she said. Slowly and carefully, Troia walked over to one of her small cases and carefully rearranged it before placing the mermaid down, displaying it between a small shark with a human tattooed on its fin, and a unicorn wearing a dark blue cape.
She let out a satisfied little sigh as she went back to her perch, then her usual demeanor returned. “I’ll be in touch,” she said. “Lock the door on your way out.”
“Of course,” Zane said.
Troia turned, cleaning the tablet hurriedly and then placing it in Mari’s hands. “Good luck. And if you talk to–”
“Right, of course,” Zane repeated quickly. “Shall we go?”
They went back through the decon chamber and back up to the elevator, which took them right outside the dumpster.
“That was… interesting,” said Mari, as the wall closed behind them.
Jayna nodded, stretching for the first time. “So now we just wrap it back up and drop it off like it never happened?”
Ash looked at his datapad. “Actually, it already hasn’t. Er, you know what I mean,” Ash showed them. “Our ship is currently stationed at a refuel depot off Biridi and we have apparently already ordered parts and repairs to get there. There’s even receipts of us picking them up.”
“She’s nothing if not thorough,” Zane replied cheerfully.