"I don't think so," Barbeth said. "The Fer-de-Lance followed the Cobra here, and certainly left on its own.
There wouldn't have been any time for it to call for other forces to meet it here."
"That doesn't matter," replied Kirrik. "It could easily have sent a cargo ship to collect the junk when it reached wherever it was going. That works out quite well, actually. The pick-up ship would probably have arrived fairly soon after before the debris dispersed, so it must have come from somewhere fairly close."
"The original debris had had plenty of time to drift, and that was picked up," Barbeth pointed out.
"That was found by chance. We aren't talking about people who leave much to chance."
"There's no record of Tebay appearing in any registered settlement, or the Fer-de-Lance."
What this meant was almost certainly a deep space outpost. System space was too well-monitored around civilised stars for a hidden base to remain so for long. In the immediate vicinity of Tiriusri the least stable system was Esgebi, but there there an even greater watch was kept on every planet, asteroid and comet as the various powers there watched each other.
Finding a deep space location was no easy job, which was exactly why they sometimes existed. Safely hidden in the vastness of space such a base was all but undetectable. The time taken for any careless radio transmissions to reach civilisation would provide ample time to move the base. Transmission via Witchspace would certainly not be made as it would very likely be picked up by relay probes sitting in the hyperspace channels. The Fer-de-Lance had probably not sun-skimmed at Tiriusri, otherwise it would have lost its prey. The distance between Orarra and Tiriusri was 2.7 lightyears. That left nearly six lightyears worth of fuel in an unmodified Fer-de-Lance. An impossibly large volume of space in which to find anything. The proverbial needle in a haystack was simplicity itself compared to space.
Unless it survived in complete isolation, though, contact must be made with civilised space occasionally. That was the weak link.
"I think it's time to investigate the affairs of this mysterious Jersisallam again," Jalsa said. "He used to have ships going to and from all over the place. A good candidate for supplying a hidden base."
"More sifting through countless records. Wonderful," sighed Kalangu.
"OK, we're leaving back for Orarra straight away," Williams announced.
Searching through the records on Jersisallam was indeed a tedious and time-consuming task. As would be expected with his dubious reputation much information was missing, and much of it was doubtless fabricated. More reliable were the logs of ship departures and arrivals at various nearby systems, all of which had to be collected and correlated. On top of that it was considered wise to include as many ships that had, or were believed to have had, frequent contact with Jersisallam or anyone associated with him. Even with significant computing power at their facility, it was still over a week before the Naval team had any results.
"We've several possible candidates for supply vessels," Jalsa told them one morning after he had looked through what the computer had reduced the data down to. "There was a handful of Pythons and an Anaconda freighter that often arrived at their destination a little later than would be expected. During most of these delayed journeys they were still carrying almost a full hold of registered cargo, though."
"And nobody had much to say about these delays?" Kalangu enquired.
"They weren't great, a few hours at most. Could have been due to pirate attack or equipment problems."
"Or a diversion to a base just far enough away not to be detected," Barbeth added.
"The same thought had crossed my mind. It's even less of a coincidence when you consider that about two-thirds of these delayed vessels were flying from Esdi."
"If they were nearly full of registered cargo, and it was there at the other end, there wouldn't have been much room for supplies and equipment for a base," Kirrik reminded them.
"They could have increased cargo space by leaving out some of the standard compliment of landing craft and shuttles," Williams pointed out. "Removing five Worms from an Anaconda gives you quite a bit of extra cargo space."
"True. Unfortunately all those ships and their most of their crew disappeared with Jersisallam," Jalsa said.
"And the crew that didn't?" asked Barbeth.
"All dead bar one. She was arrested for supplying convoy information to pirates and then hijacking an escape pod when they attacked. Unfortunately for her the pirates were intercepted by the police, and this Natalia Marchero is now sitting in prison. She's had two assassination attempts on her since then. Lucky to be alive, really. Probably would have been dead by now anyway except that she wouldn't say a word when questioned about Jersisallam's disappearance. She's kept under high security right in this system."
"In a local or GalCop prison?" asked Kirrik.
"GalCop. Does it make any difference?"
"Only that we've no authority over the local one. We could arrange something for her if she's being looked after by GalCop," Kirrik pointed out.
"They won't want to let her go, Kirrik," Jalsa replied. He looked at Kirrik enquringly. "What were you thinking of instead?"
"Release into a low security facility if she won't co-operate. She'll probably be dead within a couple of months then. We might want to offer a change of identity when she's released if she is helpful."
Williams smiled grimly. "If she was working for them then it serves her right."
"I don't approve," Jalsa said. "However, I've no better ideas."
"I'll see her tomorrow then."
"Not on your own, Williams. I think I'll come with you," Jalsa informed him.
Williams half rose. "You don't trust me?" he demanded, half-way to a shout.
"You've had the same training as the rest of us. You know what the rules are when you've been personally involved in a case," Jalsa reminded him.
Williams stayed half-stood. "I've never met this woman before. I've never had anything to do with Jersisallam before. How am I personally involved?"
"You were attacked by the Constrictor. Your grudge against the pilots of that ship, and everything to do with them, is fairly well known. You know what the Constrictor's destroyer said about your opinions in his debriefing."
"I think calling that thing a 'son of a bitch' was quite justified after it nearly killed me. But point taken," he said, sitting back down with a hint of a smile on his face.