“No idea,” I said, “except for the last ship they’ve all left people in our system, and I’m using ‘people’ pretty loosely so I can include the machines.”
Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed that a small ship had left the “pirate ship.” It shot off at high speed, and disappeared behind Earth. I didn’t see any signs of battles, but on the other hand, could I have?
Vaughn watched the small ship disappear. “Huh. Could be that one.”
Haley shook her head. “Maybe.”
This wasn’t getting easier. “Lee said something that made it sound like he expected it would be pirates, or at least look like pirates.”
Vaughn turned his head toward me. “What do you suppose he meant by that?”
I shrugged. “My guess is that even if it looks like pirates it might not be. Maybe some aliens created a group of fake pirates to do their dirty work, or just hired a pirate ship? Who knows?”
Haley frowned briefly. “I guess alien politics couldn’t be less complicated than ours.”
Then she stared at the ship. “Too bad Lee’s not here to tell us what he meant.”
“Yeah,” I said, thinking about that. Well, we hadn’t heard any alarms so far. That had to be a good sign. That is, if the Xiniti had alarms, or if they’d even let them ring where we were.
Deciding not to think about Lee, I tried to think about the next step. I had a feeling that the Xiniti couldn’t bring us too much further. That meant that we’d have to think about going home, and that meant I had no choice but think about Lee. If the Xiniti weren’t done with him, we’d either have to leave or break him out.
Or negotiate with the Xiniti—which would be the much better choice.
“Nick? What’s wrong?” I realized that Haley was watching me.
“Nothing. I think we’re done. Assuming the Xiniti give us the files showing what they’ve got on these ships, we’ll be able start looking for them. Which means we’ve got to collect Lee and go.”
Haley nodded. “I’m sure Lee’s okay.”
“I’m not worried about him,” I began, and then stopped. I was, and it was kind of stupid. Lee could take care of himself.
“Anyway, it’s probably worth looking a little further just in case, but I bet this is the best we’ll get without calculating their most probable landing spots, and trying to find them.”
“Sure,” Vaughn said, “plus it’ll give us time to mess around with this stuff.”
So, we stayed for another hour, and we didn’t learn much. At the end, I requested that they provide files to the jet. They did, and we followed the path back, barely seeing the Xiniti. Once we got back to the jet, we sat and waited.
The jet took advantage of the time to inform us of the progress with the files.
[Xiniti have released the files and begun to transmit.]
A few minutes later, it informed us:
[Transmission received. In addition to the files you requested, they’ve also sent over files related to the examination of the machine that you encountered last summer.]
Vaughn stood and watched over my shoulder as the jet’s comments scrolled down the screen. “Sounds like some kind of alien machine autopsy.”
“Pretty much,” I said.
“It was so creepy,” Haley said. “We were minding our own business, and the next thing we knew, it was attached to the jet, and asking if it could hitchhike out of the solar system.”
I nodded. As I did, more words ran down the screen.
[Lee has been released.]
Moments later, Lee came into view, escorted by a crowd of Xiniti. Within a minute after that, Lee was striding into the ship.
He smirked at us. “Problem solved. The Xiniti and I have an agreement. I’ll tell you about it in a second.”
With his right hand, he gestured outward, toward space. Obviously he didn’t want to talk about what happened where the Xiniti might hear.
I flicked a few switches and pressed a few buttons. Within 10 minutes the jet was floating, and a minute after that, we were in space.
“No details,” Lee said, leaning back into a seat, “but it’s a simple solution. The Xiniti were angry about a few people they didn’t want dead. I offered to kill a few people they wanted dead. Problem solved.”
“Who?” Vaughn asked. He’d sat down before I took off and was using the seat next to Lee.
“I said, no details,” Lee flashed a smile, “but don’t worry about it. It’s no one you’d miss even if you did know them.”
Ignoring all the internal warning bells that rang at that, I said, “We have the files, and we’ve narrowed down the possible ships to four or so. I don’t know anything about any of the aliens involved. You’ll help with that, right?”
“Without doubt,” Lee said. Out of the corner of my eye, I could tell that he was watching the dashboard, particularly the screen that showed our position in space in relation to the Xiniti space station and the jump gate.
He didn’t sound nervous, but he said, “I’ll help you any way I can. Now, could you hurry away a little? Don’t look like you’re running or anything, but put as much distance between us and the Xiniti as you can while still looking casual.”
I turned back toward him. “Why?”
He shrugged. “No reason, but sometimes people get buyer’s remorse.”