Helia Sarina pulls the ship alongside one of the
larger asteroids. Teri Cralla goes over to the rock and collects
samples for analysis.
At the same time, Robert Morris does intensive scans of the asteroid. There are no signs whatsoever that it has been blasted by stellar material. If that were the case, they would expect to see differences in the side facing the sun at the last blast. There are no such differences. The samples have no magnetic signature, and no radioactivity.
Shark reports to the Captain that there are no physical signs of any matter ejected by the sun. There is nothing to indicate it's anything but an undisturbed hunk of rock.
This, of course, makes Shark more worried than ever about active defenses. It's becoming apparent that the story of stellar ejection is a lie. Perhaps they should check the planet for further evidence. Still, if there's active defenses, they might be able to detect some sort of energy signature.
Robert starts decoding the burst transmission.
It proves to be quite difficult, but he does get it quite quickly.
It's the most up-to-date Imperial
Navy encoding that he "found" on Mora,
that hasn't been implemented in the field yet. The message is a request
for identification in a particular code sequence. It's very interesting
that it's using a new code -- not a twenty year old one. Now he knows
what was requested, he can start working on an appropriate response.
There is a brief discussion as to whether it's an automated transmission. Robert initially assumed it was, but Helia thinks otherwise.
"Think about it," she says, "This whole story does not have to be true. For all we know there's a freakin' Imperial base here somewhere."
Shark says that if there's a base here, they would have kicked them out of the system when they got here. They wouldn't be hiding.
"Yes, they would be hiding, because it's that big thing we're looking for. They know it's here, they're watching it, they're taking care of it. They don't want anything with a signal here so we're in trouble if they find us and we can't justify to them why we're here. For all we know they're going to find out who we are, tie us all up, drag us out to that thing and see if anyone goes mad or not."
"If you want justification, we need lanthanum to fix our jump grid..."
'We're an Imperial ship, and we know we're not supposed to be here."
"...and we have damage to our jump system, and it was a misjump."
Robert says, "The problem is, the only radio signal it received was military encoded 'Who are you and what are you doing here?' It wasn't broadband, it was encrypted. Now we get near there, and we reply militarily encrypted, the next questions are, well, how the hell did we get...?"
Helia says, "That's right. And if we don't reply with the right reply, they kill us also."
Shark says, "If there's live people here, just replying isn't going to be enough. If it's an automated system, the reply is going to be fine. So we must make some sort of guess as to whether it's an automated system or not. If the only thing here is the container, last time any of us knew, it was uninhabited until they came to visit it."
Robert adds, "Now the encryption system they're using is newer than the last visit we know about." He pauses. "What we can do is program another probe with a response. I can do it, but it will take some time."
Misha agrees to that course of action. They'll bring one probe back to reprogram and send in, while the other four finish up the sweep of the belt.
Later that day, Robert has what he thinks is a correct response. The probe will transmit back to them anything else it receives, and if it starts a dialogue he wants to be able to supply responses to the probe from the ship.
The probe receives the burst transmission. It replies. Nothing happens.
Another five minutes, and the probe is picking up
a regular shaped object on the radar. The probe shows them a perfectly
clear picture of a large X-shaped object, colored military black.
There is a central disc with four large cylindrical arms coming out of
it. No landing beacon comes on as the probe approaches, but they
do see a docking port in the center of the disc.
Shark points out that there are no signs of weapons on the object, so it's almost certain that there are weapon installations surrounding the station. Also, since there have been no further transmissions, it's likely it's an automated system. The probe didn't have the directional capability to locate the source of the burst transmission -- except that if the ship didn't receive it, it must be a tightbeam transmission.
The question now is whether to take the ship in, or use the gcarrier...
Misha says they should take the time to finish the other probes' scan of the belt. They can put this probe back on duty too.
Helia and Mich have been at work plotting out the
predicted form of the damaged jump grid. They think they have a good
model of jump behavior. Their idea is that as they approach, if they
get into a situation where they have to get out of there, they will jump.
Helia took freehand notes while she was doing it, and then afterwards ran
it through the computer until she could get the computer to agree.
But where to jump? A jump-0 would get them somewhere in the system, but given the state of the drive it could be anywhere. Still, they have enough fuel to follow that jump-0 with an immediate jump-2, which is enough to get them back to Ferle. They are also a jump-3 to Dorfle, which is also a Red Zone, and to Yerru as well.
Mich points out that they have four weeks to return the box, and they've spent quite some time already. If they want to return the box and bluff, they'd have to go directly to Ferle. It's decided that will be their course of action, and they can decide during jump whether to build a retaliatory bomb into the device or not.
Helia brings the Third Eye carefully towards
the X-shaped object, calculating jump points continuously as they move
in. Mich keeps the jump drives warm and ready to go -- the matter
phase inverters actually make it easier. Robert runs the scanners
to identify weapon installations. Everyone on board straps down and
dons vaccsuits -- just in case.
The burst transmission comes in, and the ship replies as Robert has programmed. He identifies the source as a small innocuous looking asteroid nearby. So those other small asteroids could be the gun installations.
Misha orders Helia to bring the ship in to dock in the center of the disk. She brings the ventral port into position, and extends the docking tube.
It will take Robert to crack the security to get them in. Shark will look for physical boobies. The two of them suit up -- Shark with his saftied zack under the vaccsuit -- and Teri accompanies them in battledress with full armament.
At the end of the docking tube is a manual hatch.
It's hard to tell if there's air beyond. Shark hauls the hatch open.
Inside is a large airlock. There's a security keypad at the far end
of it, near the inner door. The lock seems free of traps. They
step in and close the outer door behind them.
Robert does a little work with his hand computer, and taps away at the keypad. The inner door of the lock opens.
They step in. It's about 0.2g in here, and
as they enter low lighting comes on. It's an entry area. There
are racks for vaccsuits, full, and battledress too. There's an armory
door. Also in the room is a desk with a computer, and forms laid
out ready to fill in. There's no-one here.
Shark examines the forms. They're standard security clearance forms. To his surprise there are no security doors or anything like that around. The assumption seems to be that if you get here and past this desk, then you are supposed to be here. The forms are merely to record the fact that they came. Shark glances around, and notices that as he suspected there are backup means of recording the fact -- there are hidden security cameras everywhere.
Robert goes over to the computer terminal. It's in standby mode. He brings it up and gains entry.
Teri walks up behind him and looks over his shoulder, so those on the bridge can see what's on the screen.
Shark checks the doors -- there are no labels on any of them, but there are security keypads at each one.
Robert brings up a station inventory. There
are tons of stores here: vaccsuits, food, electronic supplies, engineering
supplies, missiles (nuclear and conventional) everything. There's
probably enough stuff here to restock and do minor repairs to an entire
The next thing he needs is a station map. That's no problem. Most of the stores are in Arm D, the Depot arm. The contents of Arms A, B, and C are not recorded. The central disk has living quarters, offices, tactical rooms, conference rooms, support infrastructure.
At Misha's request, he checks to see if anyone is on board. Currently there are four people - one marine, three civilians.
Now Robert accesses the station logs. He's really getting the hang of the security system. The last visit was by the Midu Agashaam class destroyer Alfred, for a routine store survey and replenishment as necessary. It was three years ago. The ones before that indicate a pattern of five years between visits, so they should have two years before the next one.
The Marquis Marcus Crestworthy's visit is in the log. It's listed as a research operation, Arm C. It's followed by a cleanup operation a few weeks later. There is no other information listed here.
There is no record of anyone stocking up here. The supplies are inspected, and rotated if out of date. So they could stock up here, and know it probably won't be discovered for two years. Then they can try to erase or otherwise compromise the security systems.
Robert naturally would like to be able to run the station's computer systems from the ship. Unfortunately there is no way to set up such a link -- at present, anyway -- as he'd need an extreme security clearance. He decides not to do that yet.
Shark records the log of visits. It's unfortunately listed only by ship identification, with no personal names mentioned at all.
This computer system is purely administrative. Station log, supply inventory, administration -- nothing else is accessible from here. The security station holds the most promise for getting to the security cameras and so on.
Shark asks Mich for a list of the supplies he needs to fix the ship. The engineer rattles off his requirements, and Robert quickly confirms that there are plenty of what he needs in Arm D. It would take at least a month to complete the work given the limited manpower. That would make them late at Ferle, but Misha decides their priority is to repair the ship so they can again travel safely.
To effect the repairs, they'll have to bring the ship into Arm D. There is a dock inside the end of the arm, that they can enter from the outside. That would be opened from the Operations center, a separate computer system.
Operations is two decks down by the central elevator,
underneath this entrance lobby. Robert shuts down this computer and
they enter the elevator. This level of security is straightforward
for him now, and he takes them through the keypads.
The center has various cameras and controls, central computer, holographic display of the station -- everything they'll need. There are notably no controls for doors to Arms A, B, or C. The door to D, however, is easy, and Robert opens it.
Shark calls Helia, and tells her to look for the open door. He tells her to bring the ship into that arm, where they can restock and repair the ship. Misha nods his agreement.
Helia disconnects the docking tube and takes the Third Eye into the bay. To her surprise, there is room for about a 20kt ship in this arm, even considering the portion taken up by supplies.
Robert closes the door to Arm D behind the ship. Then he pressurizes the bay so they can work without suits. He rolls out a work platform, big enough for a 5kt ship -- the smallest platform -- and asks Helia to land on it. She does so.
The platform has local controls for artificial gravity, but for now Robert activates it from here. The work platform has controls so Mich can adjust that locally as he wants. Robert then issues the commands for the supplies they need, and arranges for it to be delivered to the platform. All the requests are in the system; there is of course no mechanism for charging for the supplies.
Everything is ready for Mich to start work on the ship. Not only does he have the supplies he needs, but a full complement of modern robotic tools to do the job. It's an engineer's dream.
In Operations, they decide it's time to try to find
their way into Arm C. Robert puts all the consoles back into the
standby mode as appropriate for there being a ship in the bay.
They go down another deck into Security. This is the next level of control, a formidable roadblock, but Robert passes them through with ease.
Security looks much as they'd expect. There are consoles, and a large detailed holographic display from a composite of all the monitors. There is access here to A, B, and C Arm Annexes. They can get to the arm, but not into it.
Now they're here, Robert wants to set it up so that all the crew has full access through the station. He can indeed authorize personnel to have access -- as much as the security center can authorize, anyway. He immediately enables the three of them for all access permission -- they should just be able to walk and the doors will open for them. Teri declines to open her battledress, and so must be escorted.
The obvious priority is that Teri must stay with Robert. He's the one they need to get around -- and get out -- and so he must be kept alive. If Robert is hurt, she is to do whatever is necessary to get him to the doctor, by whatever means she needs.
It is possible to set up access from the ship here, but he would need to go up four levels of authorization to do that. Robert doesn't want to push his luck that much at least until the ship is repaired.
Now they walk over to C Annex. Robert stays
in Security, with Teri of course.
In C Annex is a lounge, with a door at the far end. There's just the usual things in there -- coffee dispenser, seats, armament over the door. The door does not open as they approach.
Shark brings the Doctor aboard to examine the medical
facility here. It doesn't excite him. Next Robert gets him
authorized for access to the ship.
The Doc asks Robert if he's set him up for the higher level of security he is entitled to, as a Grand Admiral (even a retired one). Robert of course has not. The Grand Am will not tell them what his security rating was, even when Shark flashes his old badge at him.
Robert does brief the Doc in the situation with the other arms. The old man asks Robert to leave, along with the rest of the crew, while he authorizes himself to the computer. He does that, a matter of a few moments, and the others come back in.
Bridgehead leads the rest of the group to C Annex,
telling them to follow him -- and to look respectful!
The Baron steps into the lounge, and the door beyond opens for him. They all step through into the room beyond.
It's a control room of some sort, with various terminals and consoles. There's a large window in front of them, but it's shuttered. The Baron looks confused for a moment -- he expected the shutters to open for him. He then walks to the other door, and slams straight into it. The door seems to sneer at him as he gets up from the floor.
It's decided not to try to bring up any of the consoles here until the work on the ship is done. Again, being able to get out of here is a big priority.
Robert, still in Security, checks what the Admiral did to be able to get the extra access. There is no record of it, other than he identified himself satisfactorily. He's just one level above where the rest of them are -- another three levels to go for full access. Also there's no real information available other than that they have. Everything is spread among separate computer systems, compartmentalized. The purpose of this station hasn't even been recorded. Presumably research is currently on hold here pending some new idea.
They now settle down to spend a month here.
Work starts on the ship, and all the crew (but not the hiver)
are authorized to wander all over the ship. Sagan will be stuck on
the ship, or at least in the repair bay, for a long five weeks.
Helia wants to upgrade the bridge of the Third Eye while they're here. The best they can come up with is beefing up the inertial compensators to military standard, and adding some more "toys,", including some decorative plants.