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A Game of Wits

She hadn't run past any cross corridors or open doors, had she? No, that wasn't possible. She retraced her steps, and the second door she opened revealed a ladder that provided access to the maintenance and engine compartments below. Descending rapidly, she burst through a doorway and stopped abruptly at the sight of half a dozen crewmen gathered around a Krabacci game.

Jona Norden, the maintenance chief, glanced over at the sound of her entrance and his eyes widened momentarily in alarm. He raised his hands. “Ah, Miss York. What brings you here? And why are you breathing so hard?”

The chief was certainly a cool customer, she found herself thinking even as she surveyed the room. Norden didn't so much as mention the fact that she was practically pointing a blaster in his face.

“Training exercise,” she answered noncommittally as she holstered the Ruger. She looked over the players and those watching the game. Singkai, stolid and still as a statue, sat on one side of the board across from a slender younger Chinan whose soiled work uniform marked him as a member of the engine-room crew. Char Wong was there, the engine technician who came from the planet Pehling, second of the sun Kang. She also noted David Apgar, Korin Paulson, Innis Coulter, and Waylan White.

None of them looked to be breathing hard or concealing a weapon.

“Who's winning?”

“Song Jiang has put up a noble resistance, but Singkai will win.” Norden lowered his hands. “Your leg has been burned.”

“I must have scraped it against something.”

“Life in space can be dangerous,” Norden commented with an enigmatic smile. “Particularly for a woman.”

York couldn't decide whether or not she sensed any deeper threat behind his words. The maintenance chief's expression was unreadable, and his refusal to say anything about the weapon she'd been brandishing only made her more suspicious.  She looked again at the game. She didn't know much about it, but she knew enough to see they had been at it for at least two kilosecs.

“Do you play?” Norden asked.

“No, afraid not.” She shook her head.

“It's a challenging game of wits.”

She smiled and played dumb. “Then I'm certain it's not for me.”

“I believe you'd be very good at it,” Singkai murmured unexpectedly. Then he returned his attention to the board, settling back into his imperturbable silence.

The others stared first at Singkai in surprise, then at her. They seemed more surprised that Singkai had interrupted his game than at the way in which she'd burst in upon them. Norden shrugged and made a slight nod towards the ladder. Clearly, she was being dismissed. Fighting back the urge to demand that each of them submit to a search, she gave up and climbed back up the ladder.

Ensign Michaels was there in the corridor, along with two big crewman. Together, the four of them quickly checked the other doors in the vicinity. Two were dead ends, but the third one concealed another ladder to the deck below. York couldn't figure out how the shooter had gotten to it without her spotting him, unless she'd waited longer to go after him than she thought she had. But it seemed obvious that he hadn't descended the first ladder, not without running into the men watching the Krabacci game.

Four of the eight men present at the game were connected with House Dai Zhan. That looked suspicious, but only superficially so. Krabacci was a Chinan game, after all and it would have been the rare Dai Zhani who did not possess at least a mild interest in it, especially on board a ship where the entertainment options were limited. She was certain that Lu Singkai hadn't wielded the laser which had almost cut her down. The man could never have clambered below so quickly nor composed himself so completely. As for the others, four of them came from worlds ruled by other Houses, they held other loyalties. Why would they help shield a Dai Zhani killer?

Her cheeks were nearly as red as her burned calf as she limped towards the medical chambers, accompanied by the ensign, deeply chagrined. What would Benbow have to say to this one?

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A Mind Programmed

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Vox Day
The Greater Terran Ascendancy finds itself facing a historic crisis when the Shiva-class cruiser ATSV Rigel goes missing during a routine patrol through the Kantillon sector. Fortunately, the Ascendancy Intelligence Directorate's top operative, Daniela York, is on the scene.
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