All the Stars Within Our Grasp (Chapter 5)

The Taiyang Empire was, by most estimates, the largest of the Intercultural League empires, the new states chewing away at the edges of the Exterran Stretch. It certainly had the most subjects, arguably covered the most space (though this varied depending on methodology) and yet still managed to exert the most central control over its impressive holdings. And while it lacked the impressive wealth of Paz Castilia or the storied martial and spiritual culture of the Tetrarchy, it was said to hold an edge in scientific exploration. This was but rumor and speculation, as Taiyang shared few of her secrets with outsiders. It was known that Taiyang had an entire planet, Zhebaolei, solely for its research programs, though casual observers would be forgiven for mistaking the planet for a military redoubt. Few outsiders ever had the chance to glimpse its secrets.

That Yang Yizhen had managed to secure a transport to Zhebaolei was already a shock to Jennifer, who had previously held suspicions that the man was perpetrating an elaborate ruse of some sort. This was ample proof. No one outside of Taiyang's bureaucracy could have as much as scraped the tropopause without being blasted into dust.

The transport hatch opened onto a hallway, a suspiciously bland and normal one to Jennifer's eyes. After all the rigmarole, she had expected the scholar's dormitory to be much more alien. She'd chased far less ambitious criminals through a thousand apartment complexes just like this - same too-bright lights overilluminating the drab, neutrally toned walls broken up by identical doors.

Yang Yizhen stepped to the front of the transport, hands folded before him in a maddeningly precise manner. "This is all I can show you, I'm afraid. The research areas are strictly off-limits to those outside of the imperial bureaucracy or the scientific societies themselves, save by a special decree seldom granted to outsiders."

"That's all right," said Jennifer. "The apartment's the important part. You want to know where this Izmik is headed, I'll find it in there."

"I fail to see how," said Yang Yizhen. "This is not to suggest that I doubt your talents, but the imperial investigators have already examined Izmik Xiansheng's apartment many times and revealed nothing of note."

"I have a knack for noticing things that others miss," said Jennifer. "My techniques are a little less conventional."

"Very well. Follow me, please." Yang Yizhen turned down a hallway, gesturing for Jennifer to follow. "Once we have captured Izmik, perhaps you can extol your methods to the Dragon's Court. Even the Celestial Empress will wish to meet the savior of our empire!"

Jennifer froze to the spot. "Savior?"

Yang Yizhen cleared his throat. "...Ah, here is the rogue's apartment!"

There would be little to differentiate Izmik's apartment from any other were it not for the armored imperial guard pacing the hall before the door. He didn't carry the advanced weaponry of the Court guards, bearing only more conventional arms, though the powered suit was intimidating all the same. "Halt!" he barked as they approached. "No one is allowed entry until further notice."

Yang Yizhen fell to one knee before the guard. "Yang Yizhen, fourth ring bureaucrat. I am here for investigatory purposes."

"I should have known it was you by the stink of failure." Stepping around Yang Yizhen, the guard approached Jennifer. "And this one stinks of the Stretch."

"Shen Xiaojie is a highly skilled investigator, hired to aid in the apprehension of Izmik Xiansheng," said Yang Yizhen, rising to his feet. "General Hong authorized me to seek assistance."

"And you brought this woman? Predictable. Only a fool such as you would turn to an outsider yet again." The guard sneered at Jennifer. "This is no place for you. If you had wits at all, you'd return to your domicile and leave the investigations to more suitable parties."

"If there's a more suitable party among your ranks, then I'd be pleased to meet him," said Jennifer. "Until then, you might as well grant me the opportunity to clean up your mess."

"Mind your tongue, woman." The guard stepped back from the door, staring down Jennifer as he did. "You've been given permission so I cannot bar your entrance. However, I do hope that you can refrain from despoiling the scene of the crime with your clumsy Stretch methods."

"I won't write on the walls, I promise." Jennifer nodded to Yang Yizhen. "Shall we?"

Yang Yizhen stepped to the door, the locking mechanism chirping as he placed his hand on the knob. "Please, mind yourself around the guards," he whispered. "It would not do to make enemies among their ranks."

"Are they all going to act like that?" Jennifer whispered back. "It'll be hard not to make enemies if they're this hostile when we meet."

"They will respect you once we have completed our quest, this much I can pledge." Yang Yizhen eased the apartment door open. "Shall we begin?"

There was a rush of stale air from the other side of the door, the odor of absence found in places abandoned to the whims of time by their inhabitants. Jennifer stepped forward through the threshold, then stopped in her tracks, her senses frozen by the sight before her. "What the hell..."

Mr. Izmik's apartment was empty. Not "empty" in a metaphorical sense, as when Jennifer referred to cluttered apartments as "empty" if they had been stripped of anything that the occupant couldn't easily replace, a sure sign that he had already fled. No, Mr. Izmik's apartment was empty in a shockingly literal way. There was a desk with a built-in interface and uplink - all standard issue, coming with the apartment - pressed up against one wall, one small box sitting in the center. Beyond that, there was no furniture, no decoration, no personal effects, no additional devices, no food, no clothes, nothing to suggest that anyone had lived within at any time in the recent past.

"Huh." Jennifer scanned the wall by the door. "Does this apartment have any sort of virtual customization interface? Filaments in the walls, integrated projectors, that sort of thing?"

"We do not have such features in the dormitories," said Yang Yizhen.

Jennifer ran a hand along the wall, hoping to brush her fingers along a hidden panel or catch. "Um...is there a button you press that makes the rest of the furniture and fixtures pop out of the floor?"

Yang Yizhen shook his head. "We lack these functions as well."

"Well, this is certainly weird." Jennifer slipped a single foot into the apartment, stepping gingerly as though the whole thing might be a fiction. "Did he bring anything in at all? Or does the empire take care of the furnishings?"

"We make a range of furnishings available to our scholars, but Izmik never made use of this service. We had always assumed that he had opted to furnish the apartment himself." Yang Yizhen slid into the apartment behind Jennifer. "Is this unusual?"

"I've known a lot of cons who travel light, but most of them still bring something along with them." Jennifer worked her way further into the apartment, studying the walls, the carpet, the ceiling - anything that might add sanity to this unexpected situation. "It's not just empty, there's no sign of life at all. No creases in the carpet, no crumbs, scuffs on the wall, patterns in the dust...you guys didn't clean in here, did you?"

"The apartment has not been touched," said Yang Yizhen. "As I have explained, our investigators have thoroughly studied this space. There are no concealed cavities in the walls, floor or ceiling. There is no holographic trickery or electronic concealment at play. Our elite teams covered every centimeter with all manner of sensors as well as their own hands. There is only what you see before you right now."

Still reeling from the sight of the place, Jennifer approached the desk and slid open the box. Inside were a series of cards - old-fashioned business cards of very high quality. "Let's see here...Destiny, Inc...Apocalypse, Ltd...Exosphere Communications...there's nothing else written on any of these."

"We have thoroughly investigated the names," said Yang Yizhen. "None of these companies exist within Exterran space or within the domains of any other nearby life forms."

"So they're fakes." Jennifer ran a thumb along the edges of the cards - they were extremely thick, made from some unusual stock that refused to bend or soften at the edges. "Really good fakes. Someone must have too many credits to waste them on something like this for a joke."

"Then this is a clue?" Yang Yizhen brightened up, trotting over to Jennifer's side. "Might this grant some information on the thief's whereabouts?"

"Maybe." Jennifer returned the cards to the box and proceeded to pace around the apartment, idly studying the bare walls. "What do you know about this 'Izmik' character, anyway? What's his background?"

"There is much to tell you of Izmik, but we assume that all of his information is false," said Yang Yizhen. "We are already certain that the names of his relations are fictitious."

"Yes, but every lie contains some kernel of truth," said Jennifer, leaning against the wall. "Say he claims to be from the Stretch - easy dodge, most thieves would say that. It's a lot safer than claiming to be from one of the empires because no one will make you prove any special cultural knowledge. But the exact region matters a lot. If he claims to be from the Federation core, then he wants people to think he's from a wealthy, well-connected family. Means he's a risk taker - those perceived connections open a lot of doors, but he risks getting caught if he has to deal with a person who actually holds those connections. Now, if he claims to be from a Sagittarius slum, then he's trying to stay invisible. He's a patient type, very cautious, sticking to the shadows, running the long con - above all, he doesn't care what anyone thinks of him. It's best if they don't think about him at all."

"Yes, I can follow that reasoning," said Yang Yizhen. "He professed to hail from a colony outside of Exterra. I believe he claimed it to be a Federation project on a satellite in the Agolgan territories."

"Really, a colony? That's interesting." Jennifer walked back to the desk, picking up the box in both hands. "Fake business cards from fake businesses. No personal belongings of note. Very neat. Claims to be from outside of the Federation proper..." She tapped the box against one hand. "This one's unique. I've never seen a crook handle himself like this."

Yang Yizhen grew visibly worried. "Then you do not know."

"On the contrary," said Jennifer. "He's going to the Cradle. They always go to the Cradle."

"The Cradle? You speak of the source, the origin of human life and our glorious civilization?"

"That's the one."

"Then it is hopeless," said Yang Yizhen. "No one alive can locate the Cradle, and no one would dare go in search of it."

"You're wrong on the second part," said Jennifer. "I know a guy who's up for it."

------

In some isolated corner of the galaxy, separated by known civilization by some trillions and trillions of miles of silent oblivion, lies a living myth. From a great distance, it is just another desiccated marble pirouetting around an anonymous star, another stone in the sea. However, to the outcasts of Exterra - the dregs left in the wake of imperial dominance, the undesirables begging at the gates of the Exterran Federation, the criminal swine taking their daily bread by whatever means are available to them - this planet represents, if not paradise, then certainly the hope of one.

The planet had a proper name used by few other than scholars of the Human Exodus and a few imperial scribes. To everyone else, it is simply "the Cradle," the forgotten origin of Exterran civilization, abandoned by a lucky few survivors after a catastrophic event placed the population beneath a death sentence. The Cradle is a place of mystery and controversy. The basic history of humanity prior to the Human Exodus is well known, but the precise details have been lost due to general apathy and a series of unfortunate technical failures. No one can say for sure what brought the Cradle to ruin, because for a long time nobody cared. They cared so little, in fact, that no one noticed that their data on the location of the Cradle had been corrupted and, over the course of a billion recursive cycles, completely annihilated.

Following the formation of the Exterran Federation, there was a serious, focused effort to locate the Cradle. The odds weighed against the project by billions of billions to one, but the general consensus among all of humanity was that the information was worth having at any cost. Then the stability of the early Federation came to an end. Independent private powers rose and fell beneath their own weight, the first empires swallowed each other only to be smashed to fragments by hostile neighboring species, petty wars wracked the outlying regions as the now-stateless peoples grasped for power. Once it was over, no one cared about the Cradle.

But if the rising powers had abandoned any hope of finding the human home world, there were others who kept the faith. There was a folk legend, popular in the lost ranks of society, in which the Cradle never truly died. It was indisputable that the Human Exodus left many people behind. The generation ships that departed the Cradle for the depths of space carried only the powerful, the wealthy, the supremely lucky, and those considered useful to the architects of the Exodus. Meanwhile, those of less value were left on the doomed planet to await death, which greeted them in short order...or so everyone assumed. The desperate clung fast to the belief that the abandoned humans had survived the catastrophe and gone on to forge a new society, one for and by the people left behind, the ones deemed useless by their fleeing masters. It would have to be a paradise for outcasts, not to mention a beacon of freedom from the Federation and the empires who had neither the means nor the desire to find it.

Of course, those outcasts had no more information on the location of the Cradle than anyone else, and hope made victims of many of them. The lucky ones, taken in by charlatans and thieves, merely lost their money and time gambling on some new method to find the lost planet. The more ambitious (and more larcenous) among them took matters into their own hands and simply took off for the Cradle in whatever craft they could beg, borrow or steal. These voyages did not have happy endings. Those who were not caught as they escaped fell victim to their own poor piloting, snaring themselves in the gravitational field of some planet or crashing while taking an unwise detour through an asteroid belt. Many a criminal's corpse was found still within Exterran territory, having met some mishap. The rest lived long enough to lose their bearings and perish from radiation poisoning or failures in their life support systems. Their fates were known only by the wreckage of their vessels, found by salvagers or drifting back to Exterra with the aid of half-functioning autopilot systems.

Easily a million souls had met dismal, lonely ends while seeking the Cradle, and yet there would always be more. In fact, just as Jennifer Shen and Yang Yizhen were examining Izmik's apartment, a tiny spacecraft was heading into deep space, far beyond the claws of Taiyang.


So here’s something I’ve been meaning to add:

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