(All rights reserved. All characters and events are fictitious, any resemblance to reality is purely coincidental.)
Scint quietly moves from her cabin to below decks where she finds Mentor slumped on the floor of the galley. She rushes over to him and carefully props him into a sitting position against a cabinet.
'Scint? Whad happened?' Mentor's voice is slightly blurry.
'Sit still, I think you've just passed out... probably the effects of alcohol and wormhole travel...do you feel sick?'
Mentor shakes his head, he can feel a nagging pain in his gut and it occurs to him what the problem might be. 'Hungry.'
Scint nods and gets up.'Well, this is the right place for finding some food but we left my chef and all the fresh supplies in Sayonara. There might be some dry stores somewhere in here. Don't get up. I'll see what I can find.'
Mentor gets to his feet slowly and takes a deep breath, he still feels light headed and slightly dizzy.
'Yes, looking for that too.' Scint rummages around the small galley and finds a crate of bottled water and a box of reconstitute pouches.
'Here you are.' She hands him a bottle of water, then opens one herself, tips half of it into a pouch and takes a deep swig of the water herself. As she drinks she shakes the pouch triggering an exothermic reaction, cooking the contents within a double layer of insulate. 'You're in luck, EggsalaBread in a bag.' She hands him the pouch and Mentor sniffs the lumpy mixture inside. Hunger kicks in despite the smell of eggs and he eats the contents it in a couple of mouthfuls, rounding it off with the rest of the bottled water.
That good, huh?' Scint smiles at his haste and makes a bag for herself, trying not to gag on the sulphurous lumpy gel as she eats.
The eggs start to work and Mentor can feel the fogginess in his brain begin to clear. 'So what do we do now?'
'Wait? For what?'
'I have a rescue plan in place.'
'A rescue?' Mentor tries to work out what in the Five Galaxies Scint could mean. 'How are we going to be rescued out here?'
'You'll see. We ought to go and see what Kainya is up to. Let's keep that bit of information between the two of us, yes? I'm sure you know how to be discreet. Grab a few of these.' She throws a couple of the pouches to him and takes an armful of water bottles from the crate.
Grove stares at the mesmerising patterns in the dust clouds caught in the meteor field around the planets they are approaching. The dust moves in a synchronous velocity with the meteors, orbiting in a slow decay which will eventually see them shower over the surface. As the light catches them they glitter, a halo of light around the shadowy planet. As he watches, something makes him start. He could have sworn a cloud of dust changed direction.
'Cressida, can we replay the footage from this viewscreen?'
'Yes, just scroll left.' Cressida replies, without looking up from her controls. 'Why?'
'Something's not quite right with that dust....look.' Grove replays the footage but all Cressida can see is dust and rocks. 'Not really seeing what you're trying to get at.'
'There. It changes direction. Dust does not change direction in geosynchronous orbits. Can I speak to Yumi and Harp?'
'No, radio silence from now on. Going to have to figure it out for yourself.'
From her seat behind Grove and Cressida, Truro leans forward to look. 'Looks like a sea of bees.' She had seen a vid on a shuttle once, all about bees.
'Swarm.' Grove corrects her. '..and not bees. More like a cloud... can we run a bio-scan?'
'No, no surveillance, no radio, no radar, no scans...silence means silence!' Cressida is beginning to feel the effects of three very long hours in cramped conditions.
'Cressida I think we are about to fly into some kind of nest, or breeding ground for what look like space gnats.'
'Biters?' Truro's voice registers alarm. 'Out here?'
'One of the few truly universal creatures, Diptera Nematocera Ubiquitae, without scans I can't be sure. Not my field. Yumi could identify them properly. There are hundreds of space gnat subspecies, this could be a benign form but there are flesh-eaters and drilling flies...'
Truro shudders slightly. 'I seen a ship eaten by biters in at dock once. All pock marked where the biters had mined into the hull. Salvaged from space with the crew eaten raw and maggoty they said.'
Cressida snorts in annoyance. 'That is not helpful Truro. I'll adjust our path to keep us out of the meteor field for now, just to be on the safe side. The trawler doesn't vent any exhaust plumes and the heat shielding makes our heat signature the same as the space we are in. We shouldn't disturb them, whatever type of biter they are.'
Daniel stares at his face in the small mirror above the water syphon in his cabin. His eyes are beginning to be shadowed with tiredness and his face looks drawn, older. The trawler would take three hours to reach The Scintilla and he could do with a few hours sleep. He drops onto his bunk and yawns, sleep almost upon him. As he lies there his mind returns to the message from Newtrisia Headquarters sent by Senior Consignor Pia Rabette. He had come across her before, on his last mission for the company, Alpha Q6 and he wonders whether she is aware of the tracker, The Scintilla and Scint Bourbon. Perhaps the kidnapping explains her taking over from Consignor Edwear, Scint Bourbon is big news and this mission is meant to be secret. But without the MOGZ being registered, Newtrishia has no claim to the Wentletrap Galaxy. Radio silence seems a bad call on Rabette's behalf now there is another ship in the galaxy but it is a direct order and there is nothing he can do about it.
Daniel rubs a hand over his eyes, releasing the tension. Whatever is going on, whatever game is being played out around him, he could only play with the hand he has been dealt. Right now, what he needs is sleep, maybe Rabette's reason for radio silence would become clear once they rescued Scint Bourbon. As he closes his eyes, Daniel wonders how many more missions like this he'll pilot. Maybe this will be his last one. Maybe he would retire, ask Cressie to... The thought remains unresolved as he falls deep into dreamless sleep.
Juno wakes with a jump, as though falling and landing at the same time. She rolls over from the edge of the bed to find Tourmaline, sprawled out over her silk sheets, hogging the space. For a second or two she watches him sleep, the slow rise of his chest, then the DEMI messenger pings again and she pulls on a robe and finds the remote for the screen positioned above the bed.
'Hello... Juno, is that you?' Pia Rabette stares at the image on the vidlink. As far as she can tell it looks like a naked man on Juno's bed. Juno swears under her breath as she recognises Pia's face and clicks to voice only. 'Pia, so sorry, I didn't realise it was you.'
'I'm not interrupting anything am I?'
'No, no that's just.. nothing, just a one night thing, from a hack chat! Don't judge... no one you know.'
'I wondered if we could meet up and talk.'
'What.. now? It's not very convenient now.'
'Juno, I need to ask a favour.'
'Pia... I can't keep doing this. I'm sorry that...'
'No, no this isn't about that. Look, I can't talk over the DEMI. Can I meet you tonight?'
'Just this once, the last time...'
'Good. Same place, same time.' Pia cuts the link and the call ends with an advert for Fast Fondue.
'Hack chat? Who was that?' Tourmaline's voice makes Juno jump for the second time.
'No one. Just some unfinished business. Nothing you need worry about.' Juno throws the remote on the floor and climbs over the bed to sit on Tourmaline's legs, running her hands up over his thighs, 'Now, lets see how awake you really are.'
Edwear tucks in hungrily to the reconstituted eggs in the pouch Mentor has given to him. 'So hungry! So what normally happens next, Kainya?' While Scint and Mentor had gone looking for food, he had navigated The Scintilla to a point between two neighbouring planets, hidden for now, from the Saturn Anne II.
'What do you mean, what happens next?' Kainya sips on a bottle of water watching Edwear eat.
'Well, there must be some kind of protocol after you've tracked down a ship in a new galaxy, some espionage protocol. What normally happens.' There is a sharp edge in Edwear's voice, a tone he has never used with her before and Kainya is alarmed by it.
'I would pass the information on to my contact and get paid.'
'So you have stepped well beyond the boundaries of your normal spying remit?'
'What are you getting at?'
'Who are you going to negotiate these fabulous new deals you think we are all going to get super rich with? Do you even know how it works out here?'
Kainya stares at him. Is he using his knowledge as a consignor to undermine her?
'Do you even know what a MOGZ is?' Edwear swigs back the last of the eggs and raises his eyebrows at Kainya, waiting for her to answer but she remains silent.
'If you want to take this galaxy, if you want to milk it for all the scadillions you can, you need to register a MOGZ claim before anyone else. Did you remember to bring a MOGZ claim form while you were busy kidnapping us?'
Kainya suddenly realises something, Edwear is not hers anymore. Something has changed. Perhaps it was the kidnapping, or the thing with the screaming and the tranquillator earlier or the subterfuge... whatever it was, she had lost him. 'Why did you think I bought you here Edwear. You know all this stuff. Didn't think I did it because I cared about you did you? You do know I don't care, don't you?'
Edwear tries to brace himself mentally from her words, harsh as physical blows.
'Well, whatever the reason we are here, perhaps we should just concentrate on..' But before Mentor can finish his placations, the flight deck starts to echo to the sound of drumming.
'Does anyone know what in the Five Galaxies that is?' Scint asks, running to a console and calling up an exterior camera. The viewscreen expands in front of them revealing the external hull of The Scintilla, now barely visible, lost in a swirling cloud of space gnats.
Each gnat in the cloud is a perfectly formed flying machine with an exoskeleton of a pressurised carapace, covered in a fine down of hairs, trapping a layer of oxygen around it, protecting its soft body parts. Its wings, antennae, legs and mandibles are pumped full of an antifreeze mixture of alcohols and glycols and its small brain is part of the larger 'cloud brain' of the colony, searching for heat signatures indicating possible food sources. Their serrated mandibles are capable of biting through rock, metal and biological material with ease, like the hull of a space ship. Like the hull of The Scintilla. On the viewscreen the cloud is slowly landing on the hull and setting to, the sound of the gnats chewing in unison reverberating around the flight deck.