(3) To Be Named

The Crusader Campaign (349-1122 to 355-1122)

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349-1122 : Jake / Lirian / Foreven

    It's time for Nightshade to leave this pleasant sleepy little farming community.  At noon, Helia Sarina takes off and flies them sedately out to 100d, whereupon they jump at 16:00 to Zett.
    Grand Admiral Baron Bridgehead has been working on the mystery of Plague and the disease that kills all offworlders.  He has not been able to figure out from the data what could be causing it, especially as it does not affect any native of the world.

    While they're in jump, Mich Saginaw goes over the video from their exploration of the other black ships, and works on designing something to help them do it more safely this time.  He knows that unpowered black hull material will not cut a zack, and will not cut battledress.  Just putting cloth or rags over the edges might help, but he thinks he can build some frame devices that will clamp over edges to provide a way to pass through the holes safely.  Fortunately the bays themselves are pressurized, which will make it much safer and easier.  They don't need to worry about puncturing a vaccsuit, just personal injury.
    The other thought he has is that the power cube is intact.  One of the two maneuver pods is missing, which provides the large hole through which they entered last time.  For that matter, the dislodged power cube is not an issue -- there's nothing connecting it to the ship, and it's not like it was ripped out or anything.  There's no reason it shouldn't function.  He could also link some of  the ship's systems to Nightshade's power cube so they could move around it more easily, and unlink them later.  That would of course be very hard, involving a very precise positioning of the systems -- so precise that even the motion of air molecules hitting the cube is enough to throw it off.
    They could also steal the power cubes from the other two ships that they know no-one can move them.  He also has plans for the large power cube, to power the large asteroid "hotel" -- they just have to hook it up into the regular power grid there, which will take some work but certainly not too hard.  Not having to supply fuel to the hotel would change the economics of running it -- and provide power for all the weapons systems.
    The other thing he might like from the big ship would be the big gun.  They don't know what the two external sponsons do, but they're bigger weapons than on Nightshade, and these are different.  He can only imagine what they might do, given they're probably even more devastating than the expander they have on their ship.

    Robert Morris points out that if they came in using stealth mode, they would have a problem if they turned up at the docking ring without already having been authorized through the defences.  Of course the ship could take the damage, but since he has the codes all figured out they should be able to come in openly.  He starts work on that, since it's time based but not clocked with real time.

    Edward "Shark" Teeth spends some time working on ideas for another Akim Gavrolovitch book, perhaps incorporating elements of this trip to Zett.  It was on 289 three years ago that he died, and he's only published one book since then.

355-1122 : Zett / Klarn / Foreven

    They arrive in the interdicted system at 04:00.  They know exactly where the station is supposed to be, and Callisto finds it easily just using passive sensors from stealth.
    The rest of the system looks normal.  There's a few emissions from the mainworld, just what they'd expect.  No other ships in the system, and no spatial anomalies or anything else unusual.

    Helia puts them on a course for the docking ring and takes them out of stealth.  Once they've entered into the security station at the entrance, then they will be able to go to central security and authorize themselves for the rest of the areas.  They'll then have to authorize at each arm individually.
    Robert's instructions to Nightshade worked perfectly -- they are not fired upon as they approach.
    Helia locks them onto the station.

    Robert leads the first trip ashore to authorize everyone again.  Every single person that wants to enter the station will have to be authorized through the security protocols.  The records from their last trip have of course been automatically erased, and Robert removed the only permanent record which would have been which ship visited and when.
    Misha mulls over the idea of taking enough equipment here to outfit a platoon or so of troops.  They might one day want to hire some muscle, and it would be good to have enough supplies for them.  Mich points out that the ship doesn't really have quarters for troops, but Teri Cralla is quick to contradict him, saying that the attic is at least as good as the quarters she had on Scorpionis ships.
    Shark suggests also picking up some heavy weapons -- Teri quickly agrees, saying that you can never have enough FGMP-15s.
    Mich also, of course, wants to leave some things behind.  Shark says they shouldn't give stuff to the bad guys, but he's the only one who sees the line so black and white.  Mich believes that anything they leave here will filter back to the Imperium, but Shark feels that it'll be kept for the use of this restricted -- and unfriendly -- group.  Mich adds that this isn't something that he really wants to get into the mainstream of the Imperium, but in case something happens to them, this way the technology won't die.  Mich reminds Shark that this will just be in the inventory system, and no-one will find it unless they come across it by accident.
    Misha asks for clarification of what they're really going to do.  Mich insists they should take the power cubes -- the only place that can build one is the shipyard that builds these ships, and if they take them then no-one can use the other ships.
    Shark asks about patching the one-hole ship up from hull material from the swiss cheese ship.  Mich immediately says that can't be done, it too needs a shipyard to integrate the materials.  The engineer adds that the damage is only consistent with an unpowered hull, as if mundane materials had physically smashed through it.  It was probably not therefore battle damage.

    Robert goes aboard and authorizes everyone, using their real names of course.  He then checks to see what other ships might have visited since they were here last.  The Tigress class dreadnought Llanamith was here -- the flagship of the battle group they have been seeking for so long.  It was here from 123-1122 to 200-1122.  Shark recalls Marquis Marcus Crestworthy's story of his Starburst for Extreme Heroism -- that's a lot of windows to black out on a dreadnought.  Marquis Marc was pulled out of regular navy operations to come here, for this unit that isn't part of the regular navy but has been concealed inside it.
    Robert quickly compares inventory.  He finds that what was taken was regular supplies, some ship repair materials, and a quantity of (only) atomic missiles.  Aside from not restocking conventional missiles, it would be a normal post-battle resupply.  Robert laughs that they can now take anything they want, as when they erase the record of their visit, it will look like the battle group took it.  He then points out that just because a dreadnought came here doesn't mean they had authorization to go into the black ship arms.

    With everyone authorized at the entry station, Robert now needs to go to central security and extend the authorization to everywhere else, then go to each arm and extend their authorization to that arm.  The plan is to pull Nightshade into the bay with the large ship to make it easier to explore and salvage.
    Central security is quickly done, and Robert moves on to each arm to make the security entries there: Arm D, the depot storeroom; Arm C, one-hole ship; Arm B, the big ship; and Arm A, where Nightshade was.
    Robert then goes to the controls for Arm B, evacuates it to vacuum, lets Helia bring Nightshade in and park like a minnow beside the 10,000 std beast, and puts the air back.
    While that's being done, Shark goes around to each other arm to attempt to see if anyone has been there or taken anything.  He starts with Arm A, which appears exactly as they left it.  On close examination however, he finds some very subtle sign that someone has been here.  He asks Robert to come down and check the computer here carefully to see if there's anything at all, however slight, that he can get from here.  Shark does a full forensic examination here  He estimates that there was exactly one person who visited here, on the short end of medium size.  He reports this to the Captain.  Furthermore, from the pattern of evidence, the person came in for exactly one thing -- to see if the ship was still there.  Someone who knew the ship was here now knows it's gone.  They also knew who had been to this system because it was in the obituary, and no-one else presumably attempted to come here between the last supply ship and the Llanamith battle group.
    Robert finds that everything has been erased from the computer in Arm A.  There are no records at all remaining.  Mich wonders idly if they can construct a dummy ship and put it back in there.
    Shark then checks the other two black arms, and finds exactly the same thing.  His skills even allow him to figure it out in Arm B, where everyone has been tramping about over all the evidence.

    Given this, it becomes a priority to be able to detect anything approaching.  All they really need is enough warning to get on board the ship, which then gives them lots of options.  Working the sensors from inside the station is pretty hard, but if they're close enough to the walls Callisto might be able to get just enough through remote sensor points.  Shark would like to be able to give her access to the sensors on the defence asteroids, but the best that can be done is a little of the station's sensors.  It doesn't add much, but it helps eliminate the blind spot through the bulk of the station.  Also, of course, they can listen for the identity burst -- that will give them perhaps an hour's warning of someone docking at the station.
    Callisto now adds that she's been going through the records of last time the ship was here, and since then someone's added meson guns to the defense systems.  Some are installed on station, others in nearby asteroids.
    At least they should be able to hold off anything coming through in a defensive position, and the intruders would have to authorize their way through to them first anyway.  Of course as soon as they entered the dock they would know another ship was here, and exactly who it was.  That's why, says Robert, they'll have to destroy all the records to maintain any secrecy.
    Shark says that they'd have to remove the records from the computer, because they can't destroy enough to wipe out everything.  Kalida Siena, Marchioness of Nakege, points out that destroying the records is easy -- one expander shot in the center of the station and the records will be eliminated along with most of the station.

    Mich has been busy.  He has stowed all his anti-matter jump drive components and practical manuals in Arm D, and Robert follows up by entering it all in the inventory.
    While he's there, they pull out the items they want for the ship.  Misha requests twenty suits of battledress, fully equipped with FGMP-15.  Teri suggests that if they're for their own use, they should get 25 to keep running, so 30-35 would give enough units to switch out rather than force repair.  Teri also produces a good list of lesser weapons that she would want if she was putting a squad together.  She goes off to join Mich.  They arrange to pull it out into a docking bay, and transfer it with a gcarrier which they also add back to the Nightshade's vehicle stock.  There is a transfer lock in each Arm to allow such operations, and of course it opens only from inside.

    Done with his investigations, Shark moves on to investigate the big ship.  His first thought is to check the crew quarters for personal effects, to get an idea of whether the ship has been crewed at any point.  He figures those will be on the outside of the hull, and he can enter through one of the holes with a grav belt in the 0.2g environment.
    Indeed he finds the crew quarters.  He moves up to the .75 m hole.  He brings out the robot dog he's been working on, and tries out the autonomous flight for this.  It works.  This room is about three times the size of the staterooms on Nightshade, but the deck height is the same.  He reports he's probably found Admirals quarters, with extra furnishings but absolutely no personal effects of any kind.
    He moves on down the hull, looking for a hole that's safer to enter.  He finds a two meter one that passes on down to the next deck below, ripping out most of the floor of the stateroom.  On the deck below is not more staterooms as he'd expect, but an emergency low berth area.  It is not populated, but it's clear that there are twelve places here.  That's the same number as the staterooms on Nightshade.
    Shark remembers pushing the doors manually on Nightshade, and tries the same trick here on the stateroom door.  He'd come prepared, with a jack with attachments to do the job.  Here, though, with the door near the center of the wall, there really isn't anything to push against.  He moves on further down the ship to see if he can find a better door to work on.
    Meanwhile, he reports back to Misha that he thinks there's exactly twelve staterooms and emergency low berths, and therefore that this ship has exactly the same crew as theirs.
    Misha comes to join him to help with the doors.

    Meanwhile, Mich and Teri have been busy, getting as much done as they can so they can leave at really short notice.  He now grabs a knapsack full of batteries and diagnostic gear, and goes in through the airlock into engineering, cranking it manually.  It's not the quickest way in, but it is the safest.
    He hurries to where the cube has been pushed across the floor.  Since the unspace connections are already linked, that should not be a problem.  He starts with the diagnostics, and finds that the meter and a half cube reports red.  It's good.  He starts feeding it batteries, putting in each one until it turns blue, then puts in the next one.

    Misha and Shark working together have managed to ease the door to a stateroom a little way open.  Now they can fit the jack, and use that to open the door the rest of the way.  Now they move out into the hallway.  It's a larger hall than their ship, but the layout looks exactly the same with twelve doors along it, and a large double door forward, and an open area to the rear.
    It looks like Nightshade but built bigger.  Why would it need to be bigger?
    Shark still continues the search for personal items, but he's pretty sure that these ships were part of a stash.  Perhaps it was in an area being used for target practice when the found them?
    There are no personal items in the large identical staterooms.  Shark and Misha move on the the bridge doors, and force them open too, enough for the jack.  The bridge is enormous, but has exactly the same number of stations as Nightshade.  They can see out into the bay -- the visibility properties are not powered, which is something that Shark had forgotten.

    The power comes on.  This surprised Shark and Misha, but just gets a satisfied nod from Mich.  The engineering console is intact.  Mich fires it up, and finds almost the entire ship is blue.  Sparkly pink is not operating.  Life support is up.
    Shark points out that they can open doors on their ship and walk out into vacuum without losing air.  The question is whether they can do that arbitrarily anywhere on the ship, or whether it's only in specific areas.
    The jump drive is totally out.  It's proportionally the size Mich would expect to jump 10,000 tons, but it's torn up badly.  Whole areas of the ship are shut off.  Mich leaves off all the grav plates, as very few of them are working.  Structural integrity is marginal -- sections of the hull are not stable.  He reports to the other team where to avoid and which areas are safe.
    Shark checks the weapons console, which is still intact -- there are a lot of holes in the bridge.  The labelling is of course all in script language, but Shark does manage to read it somewhat.  The main weapon (singular) is operational.  Lasers are down.  Those are the only weapon systems on the ship.
    Mich reports that the computer systems are in bad shape.  Some autonomic systems are working, but main intelligence is down.
    There's clearly no practical way to take the main weapons.  The only thing they could do would be to tow this ship around until it's pointed in the right direction.
    Misha directs Robert to see what he can find out about this main weapon from the computer, while he goes back to check on the garden.
    Much to Misha's surprise, the garden is perfectly intact.  It's absolutely enormous, looking like a jungle but in perfect control.  The waterfalls are all running.
    As Shark points out, that might mean the ship's boat is intact too, underneath it.  He goes to check.  There are two launches just like theirs, plus one substantially larger, about the size of a scoutship.  The large on is essentially a large version of their own launch.  It has no jump capability, clearly, and does not have its own power cube.  It has living quarters with small staterooms for six.  It is about 120 std.  They could not fit it in the vehicle bay on Nightshade, or get it through any of the doors.  Mich informs him that powering it would not be as simple as just moving over the power cube -- they'd have to build a whole engineering section to support it.
    So what else might they want from the big ship?  There really isn't anything of value except the main power cube, which Mich definitely wants to take.  He also strips whatever seems useful out of the maintenance shops, including enough to install the power cube in the asteroid hotel.  Shark reminds him that they have the pre-Maghiz Darrian base as well, but Mich says that this much power is needed on the hotel.  He will save a whole lot of work by bringing some of the linked control systems, which will take about a week.
    The garden will continue to run by itself without power.  They leave everything as they found it.
    Robert has not been able to figure out what the main weapon might be.  He reminds them that they found out about the expander through simulations, and they can't run simulations here with the main computers down.
    Shark is curious whether the hull on the one-hole ship could be made to hold pressure if it was powered up.
    Mich says that it would if the shields were up, but there are many things you can't do with the shields up -- communicate or jump, for example.  There would also be a structural integrity problem to a certain extent.  Also the hole itself ripped through some of the systems under the bridge deck.  Of course, all they need to repair it is a black tech shipyard...
    The plan is to use the large ship cube to power the hotel, and they can use the small one either on the Darrian base or on Marquis Marc's new ship, Witchhunter.  Mich will power the big cube down before taking it over, after recharging all the batteries of course.  The one-hole ship is showing red for the cube and so on.
    Now if there was enough storage space on their own ship, they could transfer the large ship's boat to the mining base and use it there, but of course that's impractical.
    Mich suddenly has an idea -- they could tow it out of there, accelerate it at 20g, and let it go.  They could catch up with it later and accelerate it some more.  Of course it would still be sublilght speed.  On the other hand, if they just shoved it out of system they could come back for it and collect it.  Only they would know it was there.  It would be safer travelling in empty space than in this system.  They'd find it, decelerate it, then bring it back and pack it in a transport.  Alternatively they could set up the smaller power cube in the bigger ship, set up an autopilot, and get it going.  It would not even have to accelerate rapidly, just enough to get out of the system and shut down to standby.  No-one would ever see it.
    Now with a really good pilot, the big ship has one maneuver pod and could be run carefully with that.  That would change the plans -- they could take all the black tech out of this station and send it out safely.