Malachi thought for a moment before answering. The truth wasn’t always welcome. “I don’t think so, Tila. I’m sorry. I wish I could help but I just can’t be sure. The thing is, anyone could register a commercial ship with the same name as one of the colony ships as long as they used a different port authority. The transponder chip would confirm it for sure either way but I haven’t found it yet.”
“Is that unusual?”
He shrugged. “I guess.”
Ellie brushed her hair from her eyes with the back of her hand to avoid touching her face with dirty fingers.
“What does a transponder do?”
“It IDs the ship for navigation and fleet comms,” Malachi explained.
“You know, the nameplate from the console is missing too,” said Tila.
“But we know what the ship is called,” Ellie pointed out.
“The nameplate I took from Orion had the port authority on it.”
“So, the nameplate would link this ship to a specific port. We would know which Far Horizon this is,” Tila replied.
“Okay, that’s unusual,” Malachi admitted.
“Not if someone is trying to hide what this ship is, or where it’s been,” she pointed out.
Malachi hesitated, then said, “Maybe.” He returned to the underside of the console with Ellie and continued to look thoughtful.
Tila watched them start another argument over how best to reach the remaining innards of the console.
Ellie protested that she couldn’t reach anything while Malachi continued to insist that she could. He collected more small cuts and scrapes every time Ellie challenged him to reach something she said was too difficult, and then the moment he agreed with her she plucked them out for him anyway.
It dawned on Tila that Ellie made a fuss just so she could prove to Malachi how indispensable she really was. It was obvious now she saw them working together like this. Ellie couldn’t do anything apart from win races and look pretty, so when she had the chance she made a big deal about how essential she was. As Tila listened to them bicker, she also realised that Malachi knew. He was kind enough to indulge her.
After declaring at last that there was nothing else of value in the console, Malachi took his tools back from Ellie and began to carefully pry tiny components free from the circuit boards they had cut out. He neatly trimmed back the wires Ellie had cut.
“Sorry, Tila, all the good stuff is gone. The transponder’s not there. We looked, but…” He left the sentence hanging.
“We?” said Ellie, wiping her dirty hands on the upholstered seat-back. Without looking Malachi threw some small, useless part at her which bounced off her forehead.
Tila sighed. This was going nowhere. She wanted answers, but most of all she wanted hope. So far, all she had gained from their expedition was more questions. But somehow the ship felt wrong. It nagged at her, this little hauler buried so far inside the city. It should have been at the surface.
But what reason would anyone have to hide it? It was just a hauler. It had no value.
So why did it bother her?
Tila stared at the blade in Malachi’s hand.
“How come there are so many chips missing?”
“Probably because another salvage team went over the ship before it was abandoned here.”
“So they took out anything valuable?”
“Yeah, they got most of it. I’m only taking what they left behind.”
She paused to think this through. There was a question she needed to ask but she didn’t know what it was. It taunted her from just beneath the surface of her mind. Just out of reach. She asked another instead. “Why are you being so careful with that knife?”
“Because I don’t want to damage anything, obviously. Ellie, can you hold that light a little higher for me?”
“So how come everything else has been ripped out? I mean, if it was valuable, wouldn’t they have been more careful, like you are being? Why risk the damage?”
Malachi hesitated. He dropped his hands to his lap. “What are you saying?”
“Maybe it wasn’t a salvage team, maybe someone was in a hurry and ripped those parts out so we couldn’t find them.”
Malachi sighed and waved his tool like he was teaching a class. “Tila, I see what you’re thinking, but they could have just deleted the data if they wanted.”
“But they didn’t, did they? Deleting it wasn’t enough. You’re the engineer, Mal, why would they do that?”
“You think this ship has been cleaned out so no one knows what it is? That it’s from your Far Horizon, and someone is trying to hide it?”
“Come on, really?”
It sounded silly when she heard it from someone else’s lips. And yet.
Ellie joined in for the first time.
“We couldn’t find the transponder, and you said that was unusual. And I couldn’t find the navigation data chip you wanted either.”
“Yeah, but—” Malachi began.
“Hold on,” interrupted Tila. “This ship is hidden away, and it’s missing any sort of ID and now we don’t even know where it’s been?”
“But not everything’s missing, look at all the chips I did find.”
“What are they?”
He pointed them out one by one. “This one controls the fuel mix, this provides baseline calibration for life support, this one talks to the gyroscope—”
“Which one controls navigation? Or comms? Or flight plans?”
“None of these do, but—”
“Malachi, have you found anything, anything at all, that tells us what this ship is, or where it has been?”
“You’re going to take this the wrong way. I don’t want to get your hopes up,” said Malachi carefully.
“The comms buffer is missing, but this was a part of it. I think it got caught up in the wires when they pulled the rest of it free.” He picked up a small black square the size of her thumbnail and held it out in his palm.
“What is it?”
“I don’t know exactly. It’s not one of the primary components. It could be a metadata store or a sub-processor.”
Tila turned the tiny chip over in her hands, looking for some clue, some piece of information that meant her journey didn’t have to end here.
“So, it’s probably as useless as every other thing in this stupid shuttle!” She made to throw it back on the floor in frustration but Ellie stopped her and took the chip from Tila’s hand.
She held it between finger and thumb and examined it by flashlight. “Metadata? That’s like data about data, right?” she said to Malachi.
“That’s right, like the address or the timestamp, but not the actual message.”
“So, it is useless,” Tila repeated.
Ellie flapped her hand in Tila’s face to shut her up. “Wait!” she ordered. “Does that mean you can find out where and when messages were sent?”
Malachi’s jaw dropped. “Ellie, you’re a genius!”
“I am? I mean, I am!”
“How does that help?” Tila asked.
“There’s nothing in this cabin that links it to the colony expedition but if we can find any evidence of messages sent to or received from the Far Horizon after the colony ship vanished—”
“It would mean they survived the journey,” finished Tila.
“Maybe it’s not useless after all,” said Ellie as she gave it back to Tila.
“Come to the workshop tomorrow. I’ll see what I can find out,” Malachi said.
Tila closed her fingers around the chip, not crushing it, but forming a tight protective barrier with her fist. She studied her knuckles as she folded her thumb over her fingers.
“I know I saw two ships destroyed and one disappear. In the last twelve years no one has had any answers for me.” She stood up and held out the chip. “If this even has a hint of an answer, I want to know what it is.”