She reviewed the information for the third time.
It was the simplest of missions. Go, identify, retrieve, leave. She was to be approached by an individual, most likely a Vanduul who was a member of the official party, but they were not sure. There was a passphrase she had to respond to, and after that she would have to follow the instructions she got to retrieve the package. There was absolutely no information about the package itself, but her brother had made that clear enough. Someone was working with the Vanduul to destabilize the UEE. No, that wasn’t right. Someone was working with a Vanduul, probably a clan, which was bad enough in itself. If that was correct, what could be their goals? It was easy enough to see what the Vanduuls could be after. Any form for instability played right into their hands as the scavenger hunters they were. But the human interests, that was more complicated. Not even the largest corporations would benefit from that kind of disruption. Historically war made profits for some, but war in space was not like the sporadic wars back on old Earth. Especially not when the enemy could wipe out whole planets, or even worse, whole solar systems. No, trade was the most efficient way to get rich and powerful, and the competition between the biggest corporations wasn’t far away from war anyway. A cold war, but nevertheless war.
The thoughts brought her back to her training days. Analysing information was what they did most of the time, no matter what else they were doing. Like her old instructor used to say,
I don’t care if you are fighting, flying or fucking, you analyse the situation.
It was definitely that type of training that made a relationship difficult, if there had been time for something like that. Part of her missed it. It was three years since her graduation and of course, her decision. She could still remember the look on their faces when she told them. People working in intelligence do not appreciate surprises, and perhaps it was a testament to her skills that they hadn’t seen it coming. It could also be that the thought could never occur to them. The fact remained that she was good, maybe even the best. No, that was dangerous thinking. Whatever she was then, she wasn’t now. She didn’t regret saying yes, but it annoyed her that she was so easily affected by it. It was time to think about something else.
Except, was all of this really a coincidence?
How long had they worked to try and get the Vanduuls to contribute to the Ark? It was the only thing people talked about for the last two months. Out of nowhere a clan had contacted them and asked to meet with them. They offered no explanation as to why they were volunteering. Hell, even what they were offering was still a big unknown. The Vanduuls wanted to meet in neutral space, near a jump point as a safe precaution for all. Not that the Ark had any muscles to show for. The meeting was considered a risk for the people going. She wasn’t even on the short list, when they had started to plan the whole thing, but then…
“Oh, that fucking bitch!”
She almost jumped in the air.
“C: Record message to brother!”
“You, you, you little piece of shit, oh, you owe me for this, big time! Be glad you have a fast ship, you fucking coward!”
She breathed out in a long, controlled manner and stood still for some moment.
“Message recording ended. Do you wish to send, continue, hold or discard?”
“Hold. No, fuck that. Send it. Send it to that mother fucker.”
As always, she couldn’t help noticing that calling her brother a mother fucker felt slightly odd.
“Good,” she said, pretending that the computer actually cared.
What was she thinking? She replayed the whole meeting with her brother in her head, trying to see what clues she had missed. He had played her so beautifully that she couldn’t but admire it, which did not make her any less mad. She was the best alright. Fucking bastard she thought, but she couldn’t help smiling either.
“You have a reply to your message.”
The computer had no response to her claim.
“Play the message.”
She looked at her brother. He was in the Advocacy HQ and the timestamp indicated that it was a pre-recorded message.
“Hi sis. I expected that you might send me a message after I left, so I had this made and activated when I left. I’m assuming you realized that I played a little trick on you, and knowing you, I’m glad I’m not anywhere nearby.” He grinned. “However, I have no regrets. The situation is bad, and we need you. So I hope you can forgive me, and I owe you one. Just don’t do anything criminal and make me help you. I kind of like my record so far.” He blinked to her, and then the message was over.
She was already calm again. Unlike both her brother and father, she had an explosive temper, but it never lasted long. She put her right index finger and thumb to her temples and rubbed. There were even more questions on her mind now, but enough was enough. She turned to the other desk and looked at the twenty-three small music boxes that she had placed on one row.
“C, are the music boxes supposed to be functional?”
“How do I activate them?”
“By pressing the indentations as indicated on this drawing.”
The screen showed a hand pressing down with two fingers. She tried to press the first one as shown. Nothing happened. She repeated the process on the second. Still nothing happened. She continued and not until the fifteenth was there a sound. For a short time there was a sound that reminded her of a violin. She pressed it again, but nothing happened.
“C. I did just hear sound coming from the box right?”
“Yes. Sound waves were recorded. Would you like me to replay them?”
She pressed the remaining, but nothing happened.
“C, do these boxes require energy to play?”
“Unknown, but very likely.”
“Are there recordings of them playing in the archive?”
“Have anyone else heard or used them?”
“This crate has not been opened in the Ark’s lifetime. I have no records earlier than that.”
That didn’t really say much, and perhaps she could find something in historical archives, but that would take time. She lifted the piece that played a little and sat it on the analyser.
“Scan this for me.”
A small device came out of the wall and started to shine a laser on the box. Then a second device came out and placed itself over the box.
“What? What do you mean?”
“Object is not possible to scan. Density too high to make any imagery.”
“What is it made off then?”
“Material not identifiable. Atoms indicate presence of a form of Moissanite.”
She had no idea what that was.
“What else is unusual about it?”
They were annoying these boxes, but also a challenge. She was going to listen to that music.
“Ok, run every NDT on them, and notify me of the results as they come along.”
Five hours went by, and still she had nothing useful. It was like the boxes were teasing her. There was only one test left. She checked up on the progress. The test had now run 316 times.
“C, why have this test been run 316 times?”
“Anomaly. Test results indicate a malfunction. Trying to identify malfunction.”
“What’s the malfunction?”
“Test keep registering object as a perfect black body. So far it emits the same temperature under any conditions.”
Emma wasn’t a physics researcher, but she knew the basics, like any pilot.
“So, you are saying that the box absorbs all energy?”
“No. Test is malfunctioning. Result is physically impossible.”
Somewhere inside her head an instinct triggered.
“Try to cut off a tiny piece of the corner with the laser.”
“Warning. Action is considered destructive testing. Please confirm that you wish to proceed.”
“Emma Acord confirming.”
The laser went to work, emitting a faint blue light.
“Stop laser cutting.”
The light disappeared. Quick, but carefully Emma placed a piece of her jacket on the corner. It was made of thin plastics. It remained unharmed. She placed her pinky there. It felt exactly like before.
“What was the power of the cutting laser?”
“Do you read any temperature fluctuations from the box?”
Ten seconds of 90 kW. That was a lot of energy for a music box. She moved her hands towards the indentures and stopped. What if they were not music boxes, but some obscure assassination device made to get rid of Messer. There were plenty of those around. No, she couldn’t believe that. If so, you didn’t need twenty-three of them.
Why were there twenty-three of them?
They were not similar, and the tag said that they belonged as a set.
“C, can you identify symbols on the boxes that indicates numbers or some sort of identification system?”
She placed her fingers lightly on the box. Again the sound came, but this time it lasted longer. It wasn’t music, at least not by any human definition. It was a mixture of storming winds and a high pitched violin without a melody. Then it stopped. Around nine seconds. She touched it again. No sound.
“You’re a greedy little music box, aren’t you?”
She replaced the box with another one and confirmed the laser use for ten seconds. Same result. This time the sound was closer to music. There was a beat, deep and slow, almost like a very big heart and the sound resonated in the room and made her ears feel funny. This time it lasted around twelve seconds. She felt herself smiling like an idiot. This was turning into a Discovery. Not only did the boxes exhibit impossible physical characteristics, but they actually played music!
“Analyse done. Symbols found.”
The screen came to life and showed a row of small symbols. It wasn’t difficult to see the pattern. Each symbol was different, but linked to two other symbols on each side. It took her some time, but soon she had all the boxes placed in the indicated order. She had placed them with a centimetre to spare on each side. The circle was big enough that she could stand inside it. But she would need to charge them and with the amount of energy they required, someone might be noticing and she had no intention of sharing her discovery just yet.
“C, use the laser on each box for ten seconds. When one round is finished, wait for five minutes, and then repeat. Do this for ten rounds.”
“Warning. Action is…”
“Yeye, Emma Acord confirming.”
The laser went to work.
She left her office and locked the door.