Everyone had been gathered in the main lounge. Sys and Mearr huddled on a couch, baby cradled in Mearr’s arms, sucking on a teat. Cap was nearby, though I could tell from the way he kept twisting back and forth in his pod that he couldn’t decide whether he should monitor the girls’ health or confront T’Vosh about this gathering. Guhle leaned against a wall, arms crossed over his chest and one leg propped up on a stool in front of him.
“What’s this about, T’Vosh?” said Gator. From the look of Cap’s reaction, it likely wasn’t the first time the question had been asked.
“Sit down, hybrid.” It was the first I’d heard T’Vosh express any kind of disrespect for anyone in our crew, but even through the mechanical filter his derision for Gator was clear.
Gator sat, though he remained erect, possibly in case he needed to deploy any of his suit’s features. I settled down on the couch next to him. Tic-Toc in my arms continued his litany.
“What is that noise?” said T’Vosh, turning to face me.
“Bot’s been making it ever since we found him,” said Cap.
“Really?” said Guhle, unexpectedly jumping into the conversation. He leaned off the wall and looked as though he might make a move across the room to inspect Tic-Toc himself, but he just shrugged and settled back into his former position.
“Now that we’re all here, can you tell us what you need from us, Farseer?” This was another surprise — the first time I’d heard anything less than a professional tone come out of the captain when addressing our visitors.
T’Vosh strode to the center of the room and clasped his hands behind his back. He did not turn to look at any one of us in particular. He merely stood statuesque in the center and pronounced the next words like a preacher. “The ore is gone.”
It took a minute for the words to sink in. There were so few. After so much build-up and aggression, I think we all expected something a bit more…raving. But this…this was simple.
The ore is gone.
“What do you mean gone?” said Gator at last.
“Obvious, isn’t it?” said Guhle, closing his eyes. “He thinks we stole it.”
We all waited for a reply, but it didn’t come. T’Vosh merely continued standing there. Maybe he was trying to wait us out. See who flinches first. And so on.
“That’s preposterous,” said Cap. “When would we have had opportunity to take the ore? And why would we? We don’t get the rest of our payment if the ore doesn’t come through.”
A hint of worry was creeping into Cap’s tone, the way it was creeping into everything about the ship lately. So much was going wrong I was starting to wonder if anything could or would go right again. I almost told myself that at least the engines were running, but then I remembered that we had no way of determining if we were on the right course or not.
“Sure,” said Guhle, rising to the challenge of digging our graves with a twisted enthusiasm. “But we wouldn’t need payment if we had a full shipment of raw tranisium ore. Would we? And with the number of things that’ve gone wrong so far this trip — plus the knowledge that, apparently, we’re no longer being watched by the Deepsights with any sort of accuracy — it’s easy enough to think that we might try to get away with another accident or two. Involving some Farseer guests of ours, particularly.”
“Again, though, when would we have had an opportunity,” I said. I wasn’t about to let Guhle bury us. He could mourn Em his own way, but he wouldn’t drag us down with him. “Most of us have been bedridden for the past few days. And the rest have been barely keeping the ship moving. If your cargo disappeared at all recently, then it couldn’t have been us.”
T’Vosh stirred from his imperial position and turned gradually toward me. His gaze — or rather, the vision receptors that served as his gaze — focused in on Tic-Toc. I had had to nearly shout to be heard above the low din of the robot’s mutterings.
“You said you found him recently?”
“He was lost?”
“When Chief died,” said Gator. I don’t know if he was coming to my rescue or merely trying to loosen his own nerves. But I appreciated it all the same.
“Of course, of course. I had forgotten.”
“That’s right,” I said. “You were supposed to be searching for him.”
“And we did. It was during this search that we thought to inspect the ore, on the off chance that your foolish robot had made his way in when we weren’t looking.”
“And…that’s when you noticed that your cargo was gone,” said Cap, drawing the conclusion.
T’Vosh looked over in Cap’s direction, but did not say anything.
“How often to you check on it?” I asked. “Cause it could’ve been gone for a while…”
“We inspect the cargo daily,” said T’Vosh. “We would have discovered this sooner or later. We merely inspected it at this time because of the missing robot.”
“So that means…”
“It went missing while we were away searching for aforementioned robot,” said T’Vosh, interrupting my analysis.
“But it also means that whoever killed Chief could’ve also taken your ore,” I said. And against my better judgment, I failed to fight the impulse to glance over at Guhle. More and more, he seemed to be the only candidate. The sole remaining suspicious figure.
“Perhaps. Or one of you made use of the confusion to make off with our cargo. Perhaps the entire crew engineered your chef’s death in order to disguise this heist.”
“What?” I exclaimed. “Why would we do something like that?”
“An elaborate plan, but not unbelievable.”
“And I’m sure,” said Cap, apparently finally coming to the decision to move away from the girls and confront T’Vosh more directly. “That this is something you will suggest we’d been planning all along.”
“That is what we are here to determine,” said T’Vosh, drawing himself back up to the statuesque position. “If this was a lone agent, acting apart from your orders, or a wider conspiracy designed to bring down the Farseer Imperium.”
“And you wonder why I never signed up with these guys,” said Gator quietly. The comment was clearly directed at Cap, but he made no effort to hide it from anyone else.
“Silence, hybrid. Unless you have a confession or information that will assist us in the investigation, you will keep your filthy words inside your mouth where they belong.” T’Vosh’s fury was mounting. He made no attempt to hide his disgust rom Gator, though he was at least civil to the rest of us in his denouncement of our supposed crime. What was it about Gator that set him off so?
“I assure you, Vigilant Sentinel,” began Cap, steepling his fingers and donning his most diplomatic voice. “That in all good faith and honor, my crew had nothing to do with this.”
“Then where has the ore gotten to?”
“I am sure that it is as much a mystery to us as it is to you. But as we both know, mysteries are difficult to solve at the moment, due to this shadow on your waking vigilance. So I request that you have patience. There is no way for the ore to have gotten off this ship, so we will find it before our journey is through.”
A shadow, I mused. A shadow on the Dreaming. The shadow rises at five o’clock. It’s what Tic-Toc kept going on about. I just hadn’t connected the two.
Apparently T’Vosh and others were putting it together as well.
“What does that thing keep saying?” he said, pointing an accusatory finger in my direction.
Everyone fell quiet for a moment to listen to Tic-Toc’s full litany.
“Tick-tock, tick-tock, tick-tock, the shadow will rise at five o’clock, tick-tock, tick-tock, tick-tock…”
“What time is it?” I asked suddenly.
“Depends,” said Guhle, and I could hear even his voice beginning to slacken a bit.
“Where you’re keeping time.”
“Apparently he’s keeping time,” I said, exasperated. “So what time is it in his clock?”
Then, all of a sudden, Tic-Toc stopped. I was so startled by the sudden silence, that I actually dropped him on the ground in front of me, leaping out of my chair as I did so.
As the boxy robot fell, his panels opened wide and hundreds of small, glowing violet stones fell out of his chassis onto the floor. Tic-Toc then lay still in a pile of tranisium ore.