“And then I slit my own throat,” said Matilda.
“Literally? Or metaphorically?” asked Ellison.
They were back at the King’s Armpit.
“Literally,” said Matilda. “I couldn’t get away from the place fast enough.”
“How did you do it, if they confiscated all your blades?”
“After I found the gun runners I went over to a knife merchant and asked to test out one of the blades.”
“That must have left a mess.”
“Yeah, but he’ll be able to charge more now for the knife that killed Matilda Scarletstrike. So it all balances out.”
“So what did you learn?”
“They come from Lamacoln,” said Matilda. “They say, it’s a couple of days’ sailing away. They’ve got an unmonitored import-export gate there. I didn’t know there was any such thing.”
“I wasn’t supposed to tell you,” said Ellison.
“What? You knew?” A knife appeared in Matilda’s hand. Ellison hadn’t even seen it move.
He pushed his chair back, keeping an eye on the knife. “But now that you’ve found out on your own…” He checked his pockets until he found the piece of paper from Welton Layton, the assistant grid administration. He put the paper down on the table and covered up the last gate with his hand, the commercial gate 700 miles away to the east. Instead, he pointed at the line just before it.
“Why didn’t you tell me?”
“It’s more than six thousand miles away,” he said. “That’s farther than anyone’s been and come back. And Layton said it belongs to some group called the Cult of Avourel.”
She stabbed the table next to his hand and he jerked it back. Then she picked up the paper and squinted at it.
“That’s not six thousand miles,” she said. “It’s not a six, it’s a three.”
“Still, even three thousand miles,” said Ellison. “That would take a sailing ship…”
“More than a month,” said Matilda.
“So you take one trip and now you’re an expert?”
“I kept my ears open,” said Matilda.
“Anyway, if it’s a month away that’s still too long a voyage,” said Ellison.
“I think that little squiggle there that looks like a seventy three is ‘k’ and ‘m.’ For kilometers. And the comma is actually a one. So it’s three hundred eleven kilometers. That’s about… ” she did the division in her head. “Two days of sailing.”
She looked at the last gate on the list. “And that means that the last gate is 700 kilometers away, not miles.”
“And it’s to the east,” Ellison added. “That puts it on land, not out in the sea.”
“So about three weeks of travel,” said Matilda. “It must be new if I haven’t heard about it yet. I’ve heard they’re considering opening a new gate to the north, too, but I thought those were just rumors. Why are they suddenly opening up new gates?”
“Maybe it has to do with the new board of directors,” said Ellison.
“Or they’re just looking to make a little extra money,” said Matilda. “Anyway, did the lawyers get anything out of Chambrs while I was gone?”
“Yes,” said Ellison. “Vladimir was Vladimir Miroslav Krupin. Chambrs saw some files that mentioned it and the context was that this was the guy’s real name, not an in-world moniker.”
“I never heard of him.”
“There was a Vladimir Krupin associated with the Humanist Alliance.”
“They blew up Civinos, right?” asked Matilda. “And killed you back in real life?”
“Yeah,” said Ellison. “And a couple of thousand other people.”
“You made it back, though.”
Ellison nodded. “I had life insurance.” But most of the others who died were returnees, and nobody had been able to revive them.
Krupin was supposed to have died, as well as the other Humanist attackers. And, as a Humanist, he had a no-resuscitation order in place. Vladimir’s death was final. The had been nobody to prosecute. Well, nobody other than Ellison. If Vladimir Krupin was still alive…
“So what’s going to happen now?” Matilda asked.
“The government investigators were very interested. A whole army descended on us when we ran a background check on this Vladimir. They must have pulled people off of everything else they were working on.”
After the investigators scooped up Chambrs Rawlyn and all relevant files, Ellison had checked the court dockets. Each time he was back in the real world, he checked on the progress of the Civinos investigation. He knew who all the investigators were and the judges who were handling the cases. Some of the information, like court schedules, was publicly accessible. Immediately after Clinio Lind informed the investigators about Vladimir Krupin, the court docket had cleared. Everything was indefinitely postponed. The list of cancelled meetings included a deposition by a Cassia Stylianoum. But Ellison knew her better under her Krim name, Wynefrede Aumberden. The court documents didn’t explain what the deposition was about, but the fact that it had been called off right then indicated that she was somehow connected to the case. Distantly connected, or the meeting would still be on. But still connected.
Ellison also ran a background check on Krupin. The identity provided by Chambrs was registered to an off-system space station. It was one of those operations that lived in a legal gray area, located just beyond the Kuiper belt.
Identity files were cached in multiple data centers around the solar system. When someone pulls up an identity, the nearest cache is used in order to reduce latency. But, to Ellison’s eyes, Vladimir Krupin’s official identity print looked a little off. Officially, the only way to check for sure was to do an audit of his hosting provider — but, according to his identity brief, was off-system as well.
If Ellison could find Vladimir before the man heard that he was being investigated, Ellison would know his true identity. Waiting for the legal system to work could take years. Decades. Or the off-system operation could delete its files before the investigators got to them.
There might be a chance, if Ellison got to Lamacoln quickly enough, that he might be able to find Vladimir and confirm who he really was. Ellison’s identification would stand up in court. Any number of cheating spouses could confirm that.
“Clinio has a ship ready to go to Lamacoln as soon as we can find out where it is,” said Ellison.
“Well, you’ve got the location, right? Three hundred eleven kilometers away, to the west.”
“Apparently that’s not good enough,” said Ellison. “Is it exactly west? Or a little north or south of west? There are a lot of islands out there. Clinio’s captain isn’t willing to just sail around randomly trying to find it. He says he doesn’t want to lose his ship on a wild goose chase.” He tapped his fingers on the table. “This case is giving me an ulcer. The closer we get…”
Matilda put her hand over Ellison’s. He looked up at her in surprise, but she pinched her lips, shook her head, then glanced meaningfully towards the door.
Ellison started to turn his head but she squeezed his hand until it hurt. “What?” he asked. “What’s going on?”
Matilda let go of his hand then signaled someone at the other end of the room. “Don’t look now,” she said in a low voice. “But our ticket just walked in.” Then she stood up and added, a little more loudly, “I’m going to get another beer. Want one?”
Ellison shook his head.
As Matilda walked to the bar, two other mercenaries got up from their table. These were the men that Matilda must have been signaling, Ellison thought. The three of them converged on someone who had just walked in. A sailor, judging by his clothes. Ellison got up to follow them.
One of Matilda’s mercenary friends grabbed the newcomer by the shoulder. The man spun around, trying to get away, and ran right into Matilda.
“Hello, Salty Dog,” she said. “A little bird told me you could help us out.”
Salty Dog smiled weakly. “Sure, anything for you,” he said. “Do you want my money? A knife?”
“No, I don’t want your money,” said Matilda. “We need…” She paused. “Let’s see that knife.” She looked back at Ellison. “I lost my entire spare travel set on Port Royal,” she explained.
Salty Dog pulled a knife out of his boot and handed it to her.
She balanced the knife in her hand, then peered at the blade. “Nicely centered,” she said. “Good balance.” Then she held the knife straight out in front of her, so the light from the oil lamp hanging over the bar glanced off of the edge. She slowly tilted the knife to the left and right, then tapped the edge of the blade against a fingernail. “It’ll do.” The knife disappeared from her hand.
“So can I go?” asked Salty Dog.
“No,” said Matilda. “I heard you’re training to be a navigator. We want to offer you a job.”
“Oh, a job,” Salty Dog relaxed. “Sure. I’m in between ships right now. Had a little misunderstanding with the crew…”
Matilda headed towards the door. The mercenaries followed, pushing Salty Dog ahead of them. “That’s good,” she said over her shoulder. “We’re going to Lamacoln.”
“What?” Salty Dog stopped and when one of the mercenaries prodded him in the back, he dug his feet in. “I’ve been sworn to secrecy,” he said.
Matilda took her new knife back out. “Did you swear to keep it a secret from me?”
“No, not specifically…”
“I’m sure they would have made an exception for me,” Matilda said.
Salty Dog nodded. “Yeah, they probably just forgot,” he said, watching the blade catch the light in front of his face. “If they’d known, they would have made me swear to keep it a secret from everybody except Matilda Scarletstrike.”
“Glad to hear that.” The knife vanished again and Matilda clapped Salty Dog on the shoulder. “Let’s go find us a ship.”
“It’s docked hear the Crow’s Nest,” said Ellison.