Dark times are ahead. Only a fool could believe anything different. The death of planets is the harbinger of things worse to come. We can hope for better, but all we can do, at the end of the day, is expect worse.
— Frederick Rose, c. 5226
25 Novem, 5249 PD
Timrel Winston adjusted the cuffs of his jacket, tugged at the front placket, and adjusted his cuffs again. He flexed his gloved hands, taking a deep, slow breath as he waited outside of the red wooden door, studying the whorls and patterns of the wood’s grain. Being called here was big. There’d been a notice left on his desk to report to the office of the Inspector General immediately. Since he hadn’t screwed up anything lately, it could only mean one thing.
A new assignment. A big one. Considering that the only really big thing that would require an investigation was the bombing of the Whispers…
Focus. Breathe. This is huge. Huge. This could be a career maker. The biggest difference I’ve made ever. It could mean the difference between war or continued peace. His stomach twisted. War or continued peace…
The door came open, startling him. The Inspector General’s page smiled at him and stepped clear of the doorway. “The Inspector General will see you now, Inspector Winston.”
Tim took a deep breath and stepped into the office of Inspector General Sephora Damerian. She stood as he entered, towering over her large desk and the shorter man standing at the window. Tim swallowed hard.
The prime minister. Shit, she is assigning me to investigate the Whispers bombing. He found his voice after a moment. “Inspector Damerian. I came as soon as I got your message.”
“Yes,” the tall woman said quietly, “I know. I’m sorry we kept you waiting. Mr. Parkstone inquired about your qualifications and I was obliged to inform him of my utmost confidence in you as an investigator.” The dark-skinned woman was a head and a half taller than Prime Minister Anton Parkstone and he was significantly less impressive in the presence of the Inspector General. Tim suddenly realized why they never appeared in any broadcasts together. “Prime Minster, this is Inspector First Grade Timrel Winston, one of only three First Grade inspectors still in service to the Office of the Inspector General.”
Parkstone turned fully from the window and extended a hand to Tim, who moved over toward the older man to shake his hand. “She speaks quite highly of you, Inspector. Tell me, how did you get to the rank of First Grade so young? You couldn’t be more than thirty.”
“Twenty-nine, sir, and the same way Frederick Rose did: hard work, determination, not being afraid to make enemies and getting the job done.”
Parkstone glanced toward Damerian. “Ironic that he brings up Inspector Rose.”
Damerian winced. “Yes, well, who wouldn’t? The man’s legendary in the halls of our office, and tragic.” Her throat convulsed as she swallowed hard before she glanced sidelong toward Tim. “Frederick is the only one to be killed in the execution of his duties as an Inspector First Class.”
She means that as a warning. Rose died investigating Mimir. She’s telling me this is going to be about as dangerous for me, especially since no one’s taken responsibility for the destruction of the Whispers the same way no one took responsibility for Mimir’s death…everyone just swooped in to pick up the pieces and finish the job, like Chinasia and the Compact and Idesalli. “I have no intention of meeting an end like Inspector Rose did, ma’am. I’d like to think I’ve learned from his mistakes.”
Except that the only mistake he ever made was being a zealous investigator. He was going to figure out who bombed his home come hell or high water. And that’s what got him killed.
Her expression briefly darkened, then cleared. He’d hit a nerve without meaning to. Tim smothered a wince himself as the Prime Minster opened his mouth.
“That’s good to hear, Inspector Winston, given what’s going to be asked of you.” The Prime Minister drifted toward the corner of Damerian’s desk. He leaned against it, studying Tim for a few long moments, as if taking his measure. “You seem like a smart man, though. I imagine you can already guess what we’re going to ask of you.”
“You need me to investigate what happened at the Whispers.” And not die in the process of investigating. He glanced toward Damerian. “Right?”
The Inspector General nodded slightly. “You’re correct, Inspector. That’s exactly what we’re going to ask you to do. Alone.”
Alone? This really is like Rose’s investigations into Mimir. He sobered. Except some of the stories have Inspector General Damerian helping him. I wonder if those are true. “Alone, ma’am?”
“The Whispers is a long way out, Tim. I only have two dozen inspectors.”
And they’ve got their hands more than full investigating irregularities and violations here. He nodded slowly. “I understand, Inspector.”
What isn’t there to understand? I’m flying solo because it’s a long way out and she can’t spare the hands. I’m sure it’ll be fine. There’ll be someone local to help, right? “I think so, Inspector. I mean…there will be local authorities to help, right?”
The prime minster and the inspector general exchanged glances before Damerian looked back to Tim. “That would mean that there were extant local authorities. Most word that we have says that the place was wiped out entirely. Other reports say that what few survivors there were died at the hands of the attackers or have run for E-557.”
The Rose Foundation colony. Maybe I’ll find some answers there. “That’s the nearest trustworthy system, I assume?”
“The nearest neutral system, at least.”
Damerian ignored the mumble from the prime minster and nodded. “As close as it comes, yes. The Whispers is pretty far out there.” She rubbed at her temple and finally sat back down. “I’m not sure how much help the Wanderers will be, either. They’re very insular. You’ll need an in and I’m afraid we just don’t have one.”
“Well, maybe I’ll find one at E-557,” Tim said, trying to inject optimism into his voice. I’ve got a lot of research to do before I hit the space lanes.
“We can only hope,” Damerian said, sounding momentarily tired. She glanced toward the prime minister again and sighed silently. Tim bit the inside of his cheek. Her gaze shifted back to Tim. “Good luck, Inspector Winston. You leave tomorrow.”
“Understood.” He pivoted on his heel and strode back toward the door.
He turned toward the Inspector General, tilting his head slightly to one side. “Yes, ma’am?”
“Don’t try to be Frederick,” the Inspector General said softly, pain reflecting in her eyes.
He nodded slowly. “Yes ma’am.”
She nodded back and let him walk away.
Next stop, the last colony.
The story continues in Ashes to Ashes, coming in 2013.