“Next Services: 7.5billion Kilometres”
I spent the journey flipping through the encrypted pages of Leya’s journal, to no avail. Not only did I not see any way of easily decoding it, but I barely recognised some of the languages being used. It was split into sections – which I could only assume were ordered chronologically – each using a different set of characters. Beaten by this puzzle, I slammed the book shut and returned to staring absent-mindedly out the ship window.
When I docked back at Station 34-Alpha, I was welcomed with the familiar hustle and bustle of the central promenade. Businesses lined the Strip – a great many of them owned by fine, upstanding members of our great galaxy. There was a Gulian restaurant that served food which would fill you up as quickly as you wished – a single bite for those in a hurry, or several courses for those travelling for leisure. A bar, manned by a mute Iyr (who never seemed to remove his helmet) sold some of the purest alcohol on the galaxy – just don’t expect great service. And who could talk of 34-Alpha without mentioning the great Trunon, the best plasma-spinner in the sector.
Other businesses, such as the one I worked for, were not held in quite so much high regard. The shop front was coated in a thick layer of dust, the door’s opening protocol needed fixing up, and the ageing holosign was more often than not hacked to instead display pornography (courtesy of the kids of the promenade). These three issues conspired to give the agency the illusion of being a strip club, and attracted all the wrong sorts of customers.
As I entered the agency premises, a small, rotund Bringla looked up from his desk. Well, mostly he did – two of his eyes remained trained on his console. Typically he would be sat, locked up, in his office, but today he was using the communal desks, perhaps taking advantage of nobody else being around.
‘Raynor. You’re late. Expected you back here two rotations ago,’ he started.
‘Yes, sir. Sorry. Came from Terra, other side of the sector. Traffic was a nightmare.’
‘Ah, yes, I forget that you’re one of those. From Terra. Maybe keep that hush-hush for the time being, eh?’
‘What? Why? What’s going on?’
‘You mean to say you haven’t figured it out yet? What sort of detective are you? Come on, Raynor. I’m sat out here, my office door closed, what do you think is going on?’
Oh, leave it out, mate.
‘Maybe, sir, if you sent me on those training programmes you promised when I signed on at this agency, I’d have worked it out.’
Hutch sighed, rolled a few eyes in exasperation.
‘Well, good news and bad. Good news is the company’s been purchased, everyone with shares gets a payout.’
‘I don’t have shares.’
‘Oh? Really? Shit. Just bad news for you, then. You have a new boss. He’s been waiting for you. Everyone else has come and gone.’
Hutch nodded to the closed office door. I noticed that his name had been programmed out of the nameplate, replaced by the name of a P Saotchun.
My former boss nodded at me. ‘Yes, go on. Don’t keep him waiting any longer than you have to.’
What’s the worst that could happen? They fire me? Maybe I should get out of this hellhole anyway.
I walked, cautiously, up to the office door, and poked my head around it.
Another Bringla sat at Hutch’s old desk. He, too, was small and rotund. Maybe they were just all like that; I couldn’t remember ever meeting a Bringla before Hutch.
‘Ah, you must be Ms Raynor, is that right?’
Without waiting for an answer, he brought my file up on the holoscreen in front of him.
I sat down on the chair opposite and opened my mouth to speak. In response, Saotchun put his hand up to my face, signalling that he needed longer to read my file.
If I’m as late as Hutch seems to think I am, couldn’t he have read it in the meantime?
I analysed his face as he continued to read. If this Bringla’s facial cues were the same as Hutch’s, then he was getting less and less impressed the more he read. I hoped that I was wrong.
Eventually, he began to speak. ‘So I assume Hutch filled you in outside?’
‘Not really. Only that you’d bought the company.’
‘That’s right. And, like any business-savvy individual would when taking over a new company, I began with performance reviews. I’m happy to say that over sixty percent of your colleagues passed with flying colours! The others will be fired.’
‘Well,’ I began, a smile on my face, ‘I look forward to working together!’
The Bringla looked me in the eyes for the first time since I entered his office.
‘Oh, you assume you have passed, do you?’
‘No, no, I don’t mean that, I just mean… I was just being polite.’
The room fell silent again for a few more moments.
‘Your performance reports do not impress.’
‘Well, I’m fairly new here, and I haven’t had much in the way of the training that was promised yet, and-’
‘So you’re blaming the lack of training for these average results?’
‘Well, I- Wait, average? I thought you said my performance was bad?’
The Bringla seemed to tut at me. Bringla don’t tut, do they?
‘No, I said your performance “does not impress”. I like to pride myself on only employing investigators who exceed expectation. You do not. At least, you don’t by my usual standards. But it says here… you’re a Terran?’
‘Did my stunning good looks not give it away?’ I asked, and then immediately regretted this flippant response. Sometimes I just couldn’t resist saying these things.
‘They did not, no,’ Saotchun replied, giving me a funny look. ‘If I were to judge you against my usual standards, I would fire you straight away, but…’
He trailed off, and I couldn’t help but wonder if this was just for dramatic effect. I remained silent, waiting for him to finish his train of thought.
‘Can you say “fuck” yet?’
I raised an eyebrow. ‘I’m sorry?’
‘This word: fuck. I met another Terran once, he refused to say it. He was insistent that to use such a word would go against everything that he, and all Terrans, hold dear: their morals.’
‘I mean…,’ I replied, ‘I could say it if you really want…’
I could picture my mum shouting at me, horrified that I would say such a thing.
Young woman, you wash that mouth out this minute, you hear me?
‘Can you?’ Saotchun replied. ‘That’s not a rhetorical question, I stress. You see, all the Terrans I’ve met have been missing that certain… quality. That edge, that investigators need in order to do their jobs well. That ability to bend the rules, to break them if they see fit. I’ve never known a Terran to do that. In fact, they go the other way: they look to spread their sense of morality amongst the stars. I’ve never known a race without religion to be so preachy. So, with this in mind, I ask you: will you say it?’
‘Yes, I can say it.’
A pause. Only by giving in could I fill the empty air.
Saotchun roared with laughter, clapped some of his hands together with joy.
‘I wish I’d recorded that. A Terran, swearing! Who would’ve thought it!’
He waved his hand over the desk communicator, opening a line to the outside office.
‘Hutch, come in here, will you? And bring the last file.’
After a scuffling from outside, the door opened behind me, and Hutch stood at the threshold to the room, file in hand.
‘Did she pass?’ he asked, mouth hanging slightly open.
Well don’t look so surprised, mate.
‘She’s on probation,’ Saotchun replied. ‘Give her the file, will you?’
Hutch ambled on over, placed the tablet on the desk in front of me.
‘This case,’ the new boss told me, ‘Will either cement you as a permanent member of the team, or will be your last case. You understand?’
‘Now, unfortunately, I let all the employees who arrived back here on time choose their own cases, and so this one… this one is the case nobody picked.’
I looked down at the file in front of me. It was a missing persons case. Of course it was – my colleagues were no fools.
‘So I-’ I began to ask, before I was interrupted by Saotchun.
‘So if you solve this case, you stay on the team, yes.’
‘But it’s a missing persons case! We solve maybe one in ten of these.’
‘Well, then,’ the Bringla replied, an overtly fake grin on his face, ‘Maybe you’ll arrive on time for your next performance review?’
I nodded, looked down at the console, and skimmed through it.
‘Missing daughter… government minister…’
‘Yes, very sharp man, he was,’ Saotchun added. ‘An Itagurina… Itagurinato… Itagurinatipi…’
‘Itagurinatipilaz,’ Hutch offered.
‘Yes! One of them. They’re a very sharp species, aren’t they? You Terrans could learn a thing or two from them! Anyway, yes: missing daughter of a government minister. Last see on Z’h’ar, amongst the…’
Saotchun’s eyes scanned the document. ‘…Amongst the Iyr – oh! That’s an easier one!’
As I skimmed, I saw something else on the page, which made my heart drop.
‘It says here this is a “no win, no fee” contract? How do you expect to turn a profit with that clause in our contracts?’
Saotchun laughed. ‘Well, Ms Raynor, I expect us to turn a profit by having employees skilled enough to solve these cases. And that’s precisely why some of your colleagues had to go.’
He shot Hutch a damning look, and my old boss suddenly became very interested in his shoes.
‘Look, it’s not just me, or my colleagues – nobody solves these kinds of cases. Nobody! Usually, by the time we even receive these cases, the target is long gone, off-planet, maybe even dead. You’re really gonna give me this as the only chance to save my job?’
‘I am, yes.’ He lent in close. ‘Look, don’t get me wrong, I’ve been in your position before. I didn’t inherit my position, I worked for it, and, at the very start of my career, I, too, was the latest recruit in some crappy agency which barely turned a profit.’
Hutch opened his mouth as if to argue this point, but then thought better of it.
‘But you know what I did?’ he asked me.
‘I worked. Hard.’ Saotchun sat back in his seat, no longer pretending to be sharing some big, dark, secret with me. ‘And I solved cases like this. And then I got promotions, and I learned to manage people, delegate. And, after a great many years of hard work, I now own a chain of detective agencies throughout the sector. I am living my dream. So, if I were you, I would work hard, solve this case, and think about where you want to be in five cycles.’
Saotchun stood up from his desk and opened the door for me to leave.
‘Solve this, or you’re out, understand?’
‘Good. I’ll be keeping three of my eyes on you.’
A Note From The Author
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