(56) Inaction and Reaction

The Misha Campaign (296-1121 to 299-1121)

64 / 2876 local (296-1121 - 297-1121) : Wonstar / Five Sisters / Spinward Marches

    Nightshade is on its way back to Project Rosebud.  They should be arriving in about an hour -- they're at the top of their trajectory -- which would be about 2 am in the desert.  While everyone else is in the lounge talking to their new guest/captive, Teri Cralla takes Grace Wilhelm's body and dumps it out of the airlock.  The late Wonstar Development Corporation employee should land in the ocean.

    Helia Sarina has told the ship to fetch her if she'll be needed, and rushes off to meet the noble they've kidnapped.
    To the assembled crew, Marquis Korwin Vanderfield says, "I just want to understand the terms here.  Am I a POW, a hostage, a detainee...?"
    Edward "Shark" Teeth replies, "A political prisoner?  A political refugee.  No, uh...  Captain?"
    Misha Ravanos says, "You're a permanent guest."
    Korwin continues, "I just want to understand what my rights are.  As a POW I get certain rights over being a hostage.  Just for your information, I'm immune to most all truth serums, I'm physically able to take any torture that's non-lethal, so if you..."
    "Non-lethal torture?"  In walks a meter-tall barbie doll wearing a sprayed-on tight leather catsuit and a brightly colored  backpack/vest.  "Are we going to torture today?"
    "Would you like to torture him?" asks Misha.
    "Sure," says Helia brightly.
    "Bring your feathers," says Shark.
    Korwin adds, "Of course I don't believe any lethal torture would be beneficial to either of us."
    Misha smiles, "You're not fully up on the capabilities of our doctor."
    Helia pulls out her finger puzzle, and subjects Korwin to it.  He passes the test.  Helia then feeds him hot spicy lollipops, which he enjoys.  She asks, "Do you want to be a permanent guest?"
    "I'm supposed to put on a conference tomorrow," says Korwin.
    "Conference for what?"
    "Gravitics.  I've talked to your engineer about it."
    "You've already met Mich?  OK.  What do you think about Seymour's expostulation on Drexel's theory of non-relational gravitics in bipolar sun systems?"
    "It's an interesting theory..."
    Before he can say more, Helia whips out her handcomp and says, "I was looking at the map, and that --" pointing to the formulae she's just scribbled "-- is wrong."
    "The reason is, it doesn't take into account the mass of your vehicle.  If you're trying to fly a tech 15 gravtank..."
    Helia interrupts him again, "Forget the mass of the vehicle, he's got a number wrong!"
    "Have you reported this to the scientific community?"
    "I can't.  I'm dead.  Maybe Helia can do it."  She turns to where Misha has been talking the status of their guest over with Shark and Robert Morris.  She continues, "Hey guys, if I'm dead Helia could report errors I find in math problems, right?"
    "Yeah," says Robert, "Helia could."
    "Because it wouldn't matter if it was Helia or if it was me, right?  I mean, you and I are dead, so we can't do it."
    Korwin says, "Have you considered a pen name?"
    "Oh, I have another name!  Wait, we haven't been introduced, have we?  I'm Helia.  Excuse me, Helia's dead -- Helia's not dead, but Helia's dead."
    "I'm the Marquis Korwin Vanderfield, from Mora.  Lt. Col. Imperial Army, retired."
    "Another Marquis?  Gosh, there's more Marquises from Mora!"
    Shark reminds her that Marquis Marc is actually from Pallique, he just lives on Mora.  He adds, "Korwin is a gravtank driver."
    "So you're good at gravcraft?  You're good at things that don't really fly.  Of course this ship doesn't really fly..."  Helia goes off on her discussion of whether something needs wings to be able to "fly" as such.  Korwin seems to enjoy it, and participates with enthusiasm.
    Meanwhile, Misha, Shark, and Robert have continued discussing the crew issue.  Nightshade has room for a crew of twelve, and they now have thirteen on board.  Building another stateroom is out of the question.  They talk about perhaps dropping the starfish off somewhere.  Sie's probably the only person on board who wouldn't betray them to any humans -- and if sie did, no-one would believe hir.
    Korwin has mentioned that some Zhodani can fly.  Helia thinks that's worthy of everyone's attention -- particularly Mich Saginaw, of course -- and says loudly, "Really?  You say Zhodani can fly?  Aren't the Zhodani the mind-sucking joes?"
    "Yes," says Mich with feeling, "They're the mind-sucking joes.  You're not a Zhodani."
    Helia and Korwin drop back into their discussion.
    Misha butts in and says, "What do you want your status to be?"
    Korwin replies, "Hopefully free."
    "I think for the time being you need to consider freedom strictly a state of mind."
    "It's OK," says Helia, "It's a big ship."
    Korwin says, "Thank you.  What freedom do I have to move around the ship?"
    "You want to see the waterfall?  We've got a great recipe library.  Every place we go I get recipe books, and some places we don't go I get recipe books too.  Can you cook?  Are you willing to learn?  You could pick up some skills while you're busy being our guest.  How many languages can you read?"
    "Well, I guess we have a translator that can help."
    Misha, Robert, and Shark agree that Korwin is free to go anywhere on the ship except the armory, but he is not to leave the ship unless he's escorted, change the condition of the ship, or communicate outside the ship.  With some cryptic signing, Robert makes it clear to Nightshade where the boundaries lie, and to alert them if Korwin does anything strange.
    Helia points out that there are no locks on the ship.
    Shark says, "They weren't very private people, I suppose."
    Grand Admiral Baron Bridgehead chips in, "Or they respected each other's privacy."
    There are also no panels to operate the doors.  So far as Korwin has seen so far, the doors just open automatically.
    Korwin asks if they can pick up the rest of his personal gear from the Grand Imperial Regency Hotel in Starcom -- his inertial locator, changes of clothes, and so on.  Shark says that it might already be gone, but they could try; he adds that Korwin will take over his stateroom -- it's all cleared out ready for him.
    Shark continues to tell Korwin his limits.  He has free run of the ship, but none of the consoles will work for him.  They show him a holodisplay of the ship layout; Korwin is struck by the sheer amount of space in the ship, and immediately notices that there is apparently no fuel on board.  The engineering components are also excessively small for a ship of 1600 std.
    First Shark introduces him to the whole crew, including Sagan the hiver.  Helia adds that they also used to have a bassalope.  Helia then takes him on a tour of the ship, delighting in his surprise at the solarium with the vast area of transparent hull.
    By Starcom time it's very early in the morning now, so Helia shows Korwin his stateroom and how to use all the various facilities considering they don't have any apparent controls.  She also shows him how to open the outer wall by waving at it.

    The rest of the crew leave the lounge for their own various places.  Shark sleeps in the garden tonight.  Helia leaves a message for the Baron to tell him to prepare for her to take a double dose of fish oil; no response on his part reveals he hasn't received the message yet.

    When they reach the desert site, Project Rosebud as the WDC calls it, the helicopter is still there.  Helia practices bouncing the ship around quietly, centering it on the copter, "drawing" a dome with the ship's position on the command holodisplay.  When she's finished the dome with one pattern, she erases it and starts a new pattern of dots to make the dome.

    Misha calls Korwin to the bridge.  Rather, a series of gentle chimes wakes Korwin, and a voice with a pan-Imperial accent asks him politely to the bridge.  It is not a computer-generated voice, he's sure of that.  The Marquis dresses and walks to the bridge, a little cautiously as he's not used to the doors being so automatic without any apparent means of triggering.
    This is Korwin's first visit to the bridge.  He is struck by the size, and the completely transparent hull.  Misha is alone on the command dais, while Helia is in her pilot's seat.  To the newcomer's surprise, there are many small hammocks attached to the rear bulkhead, with ropes dangling down from them.  No-one is in any of them at the moment.
    Korwin greets the Captain and takes a seat on the dais.  Misha asks him what he's doing on the planet, and the noble replies, "I'm here to present a conference on the use of gravtanks in combat, along with other grav vehicles.  Kind of odd for this planet given the tech level, but..."
    Misha says, "I think you can pretty much count the conference out."
    Korwin explains that it's very straightforward that he's here for, no hidden agendas.  On the other hand...  He can see below him a large steel warehouse in the desert, with mountains in the background.  There's a concrete pad in front of the building, with a large transport helicopter sitting on it.  He says, "So what's this warehouse have that's of value to you guys?"
    "We don't know yet."
    Helia says seriously, "We thought we could hide the ship in it."  She has to be joking.  She pulls out a comic book, puts her feet up on the console, and ignores the conversation.
    Korwin adds, "Now they did ask me to tailor my talk to desert warfare.  This is one of the WDC facility buildings, isn't it?"
    "Yes," says Misha.  "What makes you think that, though?"
    "Pretty obvious from all the literature they gave me.  Not too much, but maps of the world and so on."
    "So how did they describe this facility?"
    "They didn't."
    "Did they talk to you at all why they wanted to talk about this place and desert warfare?"
    "No.  I thought it was kind of odd because this is primarily an agricultural world."
    Misha changes the subject.  "So... we're all wanted by a secret part of the Imperial Navy, and partly to hide from this organization, we faked our deaths.  Now we're generally on the run from the Imperium.  Which means we can't let you off the ship."
    "Most secret Imperial organizations can probably see through the ruse of you being dead."
    Helia pipes up, "Ruse, nothing!  They killed us!"
    "I'm gathering Gracie, who decided to die of cyanide poisoning, probably works for that organization?"
    "We don't know yet," replies Misha.  "We know she does in fact work for a secret Imperial organization, but we're not sure that it's the same secret Imperial organization that's trying to kill us."
    "That's the only problem with the Imperium.  There are far too many secret Imperial organizations.  Now with me, I was Army, straight up, give me a gravtank, give me somebody to blow up.  Life was easy.  Start trying to paint all that stealth coating on your gravtanks, expecting you to hide, duck in and out, that's not my kind of warfare.  Line 'em up and blow 'em down."
    "So my First Officer says I ought to keep you alive.  Says you might be useful."
    "That's a good thing.  I like being alive."
    "Are you useful?"
    "I would hope so.  If nothing else having a Marquis as a hostage has to have some value."
    "Not to a bunch of dead people," laughs Misha.
    "I can drive gravtanks, grav vehicles."
    "Really?  We find that awfully difficult, for reasons I never understand.  I think it's worse than luck, something out to get us."
    Suddenly Korwin notices that there are two system defense boats, carrying Imperial Navy markings, flying a low patrol pattern over the area.  They don't seem to be responding to Nightshade.  He pauses briefly, then continues the conversation with Misha.

    Soon it's time for breakfast, served as usual by Vonish Kehnaan in the lounge.  The cooking is quite amazing, better than Marquis Vanderfield would expect even from a personal chef.  Robert explains that Vonish has a standing offer to work for Sir Geoffrey of Adabicci (youngest son of the Duke of Adabicci) as his personal chef.  Vonish says he came to the Marches to take up the post of starport administrator on Pimane, a real dump, and took the first ship out of there.  Robert was also working for the starport in communications.
    It's still several hours before dawn here in the desert.  Helia has parked the ship 200 meters above the copter.  Everyone relaxes for a while.
    Korwin picks up some ebooks from the ship's computer.  To his surprise he finds a copy of Akim Gavrolovitch's next book, the one he left unpublished after his death and that caused so much news when some of his fans claimed a conspiracy to suppress it.  This novel -- The Arden Gambit -- is his best so far.  In addition to the recipe and local interest books Helia told him about, there's also a good collection of psionic texts, from simple mass-market texts to serious advanced Zhodani scientific journals.

65 / 2876 local (297-1121 - 298-1121) : Wonstar / Five Sisters / Spinward Marches

    There's still no activity around the copter.  Several guards move around in clunky night vision goggles, ignoring the ship.
    Shark and Korwin discuss the latter's military career while waiting for something to happen.  Mich moans about how many gravcraft this crew has wrecked, and how many times he's had to build one air/raft from the remains of two wrecked ones.
    Shark then mentions something about an organization pumping billions of credits a year into illicit psionic research.  Sounds like a waste of money to Korwin, but Mich says that they can use that to hunt down the mind-sucking joes.
    Now Korwin's had a chance to observe the consoles in use, he notices that Shark's is double labeled in galanglic and some sort of glyph.  Robert's console is completely glyphs, with no galanglic at all.  It's nothing like anything Korwin has seen before, and from the translations it has no pattern to the meanings.
    Shark notices him staring at it, and says, "That's one of the mysteries we've run across.  The mystery we're chasing down now is why a backwater development corporation -- totally tax exempt for the last 400 years -- is funding such research."
    Korwin says, "Obviously there's some mischievous stuff up their sleeve."
    Robert adds, "Why would a tax-exempt want to learn how to use tanks on a planet controlled by the Navy?"
    Shark asks what sort of tactics they were interested in.
    Korwin says, "Modern TL-15 tactics.  Obviously it would defeat any local TL-7 force.  It would seem to me that whatever they're doing here, the locals aren't the threat.  Offworlders like yourselves probably are, and, well, TL-7 isn't much match for you guys."
    Shark asks, "Did you see the Naval Base on this world?  Here, this whole island -- 1200 by 2400 kilometers -- is the Imperial Naval Base, out of bounds for anyone else.  There's also three orbiting Navy stations.  They don't even need to land on this planet to suppress anything the locals can do at TL-7.  They just drop a couple of eggs out the windows.  They don't need gravtanks here.  They didn't talk about any specific areas on this planet, did they?"
    "From the world map, and some of the things they'd said, they were interested in desert warfare.  This is the only desert facility they have."
    Shark tells him, "There's a two kilometer deep elevator shaft under that building, going down to some facility with a fusion plant at the bottom.  But they're building a fission reactor on the surface here.  They have to be hiding something."
    Korwin agrees, "Yes, the fission reactor would hide the fusion plant."
    "Obviously their employees are some of those evil security people, extremely well prepared."
    "I've wondered why a PR person would have a cyanide capsule."
    "She was more your security than your PR person."
    "Then she didn't do a very good job."
    "She had more knowledge than a PR person should have, then."
    "She was a boring date anyway," concludes Korwin.
    "Been there, done that."
    The Baron chips in, "Not me.  I rarely have boring dates.  Helen certainly wasn't boring."
    Korwin continues, "They were expecting me to be some sort of trophy to be shown off to the planet, that they'd brought me in for this.  No, they didn't provide a guest list, but it they said it was a sell out."
    Shark says, "You went to the University of Mora?  Have you heard of the Department of Horticultural Fertilizer?"
    "Yes, I have."
    "Four billion credits a year.  Into that department.  That amount would probably fund the university."
    "They certainly didn't have the facilities for four billion credits.  I mean, we're talking the barn, and the hothouse, and the department building."
    "I suspect that they financed at least one TL-15 survey ship.  For research into mind-sucking joes and similar abilities.  We're trying to find out what they are doing, and what they're into."
    "Four billion credits is a lot.  It's more than the product of hundreds of worlds in this sector.  It'd be hard to lose that even on Mora."
    "So for our own personal interest, given that they attempted to kill us once, and just for general loyalty -- I think it would be good to let the Imperium know that there is something going on.  We're trying to find out what.  So we bugged a couple of people."  Shark pauses, then continues, "I just had an interesting thought.  Where were you going when you left here?  Back to Mora?"
    "Karin.  For another lecture."
    "Which one was scheduled first?"
    "This one.  They were in kind of a rush to put it in, though."
    "I'm thinking mule.  Travelling lecturer innocently transports... something.  Credits, voucher, signals."
    "News to me."
    "It would be.  And they'd never use the same courier twice."
    "I'm certain you guys have gone over my stuff pretty well, except for the stuff that's left in my room."
    "We'll get that next time.  I assume they paid you up through the week?"
    "Oh, this group -- they pay well."
    "I bet your stuff isn't there when we get there.  I'm sorry.  I'm sure they will have taken it."

    The crew of Nightshade relax, but keep an eye out for activity.
    Korwin peruses the ship's library, including some of the evil mind-sucking joe subject matter.  He finds that it varies from light mass-market books to serious Zhodani technical journals.  He finds one at his level and settles down to read.

    About two hours after dawn, three people emerge from the building and walk out to the pad.  One of them is Miss Franklin; they don't recognize the other two.  One of the men refers frequently to his hand computer while pointing out things to Franklin.  She's wearing a hat to protect from the sun, but the two men are just sweating in their dark business suits.
    Callisto picks up audio from the conversation.  They are talking about future construction and layout, and where everything will be located.  It does correspond to what they've seen on the blueprints.
    Shark again wonders why they've put in a detectable fusion plant now, rather than waiting until the fission reactor is built.  Do they have some timeline where they're expecting something to happen?  But what is their time constraint?  The building went in more than a year ago, but less than forty years.  It's possible the Imperial Navy here isn't on the same chain of command as the regular Imperial Navy, and that might be why they're not worried about anyone detecting a fusion plant.
    Korwin asks if they've investigated the command structure.  Does Bridgehead know any of them?  There would be no reason for Navy SDBs to run neutrino scans of the planet.
    Shark states that some portion of the Navy has blown up the last two ships they've served on.  He adds as an aside that he is sure that the organization that took charge of Anastasia is in control of at least part of the Navy.  "Oh, and Naval Intelligence has sent us into a death trap, and reported us dead immediately.  So we don't trust the Navy.  But we do trust the Archduke."
    Mich says, "The Archduke himself has told us personally that he's not interested in what we were doing.  We offered all our work and knowledge, and he said it would not be necessary."
    Coming back to the local situation, Shark says that the Navy has been here for 600 years.  The WDC has been tax exempt for 400 years.  He adds that you can't get tax exempt non-filing public service company status -- the application process contains conflicts that make it impossible -- so it has to be done by direct order.
    "You mean with an Imperial Warrant," says Korwin.
    Mich says, "Too bad ours went missing.  We had an Imperial Warrant."
    Bridgehead adds, "We didn't ask where it was after Fostriades left.  He was the one who was holding it."
    Shark says, "And several members of the crew of the first ship who either left or escaped the crash landing have been recently assassinated."
    Mich says, "NoName is alive.  He was doing something on Ianic, where he was recently in the news.  Avon left with his girlfriend.  We know Chiang Ho withdrew his money recently and picked up his ship."
    They watch the three people outside the building wander around for a while and then go back inside.

    Shark splits his training time between pistol and zack.  When Korwin asks, Shark tells the noble that a zack is their combat clothing that they picked up on a world called Goose.  Those are the bodysuits that some of the crew are wearing, black (like Helia's) or a shade of grey.
    The usual suspects also work with gravcraft racing.  Korwin wins no matter what handicap he's given, except when Robert cheats more blatantly than usual.

66 / 2876 local (298-1121 - 299-1121) : Wonstar / Five Sisters / Spinward Marches

    Soon after dawn, the two people who arrived in the helicopter -- and the two guys in overalls who fly it -- walk out of the building and straight to the copter.  The man and woman are carrying the same metal attache cases with which they arrived.
    The copter takes off.  Helia flies Nightshade after them, staying within 100 meters as needed to get the data off the bugs.  They take a large circuit around the base, about an hour flight, and come back in to land.  They walk back into the building.  There were no transmissions during the flight.

    A couple of hours later, the two come out again.  They are not going to the copter, just standing there waiting on something.  What they're awaiting becomes apparent very shortly as one of the SDBs comes into land beside the pad.
    Robert says that the transmitters probably are too weak to penetrate the ship's hull.
    The two WDC people walk to the SDB and start to board.
    Before the lock closes up, Shark quickly asks Misha if they should signal to collect the data.
    "Do it," Misha says.
    Shark says, "Pilot, move us in closer, fast!"
    Helia does so, very rapidly and very precisely.
    Robert transmits the signal.
    The data comes in.

    All at once:
    Shark barks, "Take us up three clicks!"
    The door to the SDB closes; Miss Franklin is inside, the man did not make it in and is lying on the ground after leaping out of the way of the door.  The SDB takes off at crash climb speed.
    The other SDB plasters Nightshade with massive laser fire.
    Helia climbs rapidly.  The laser fire goes off target, slips back on target briefly following the ship, and back off again for good as Nightshade accelerates.
    The laser has been tearing up the ground where it didn't hit Nightshade, but where the ship was in the way of the fire, it's left a shadow in the damage.
    The two SDBs have been climbing and splitting up in an evasive pattern and are fleeing the scene.
    Helia follows the one that is carrying the woman, in a sort of drunken random pattern so that they can't do whatever they did to retarget them.
    Callisto tracks both SDBs and other traffic, while Kalida smiles and says all the weapons are ready to go.  Callisto also says that the suitcase was outside the SDB with the man who jumped.  Misha says to go back for the suitcase and break off pursuit.
    Korwin notices that Helia is surrounded by a sparkly pink light and doesn't seem to be working the console controls.
    The desert site is heavily scarred.  The copter is cut in half, while the warehouse has taken severe damage with a large gash in it.  There is no sign of the suitcase or the person.
    Shark says that this clearly indicates that the WDC is more than casually involved in with the Imperial Navy.    They clearly had pre-planned this -- shooting at wherever the transmission originated.  The time between the pinging and the shooting was consistent with the SDB being ready, and firing on an order given as soon as the transmission was detected.
    Korwin suggests, "Perhaps your goon squad back at Starcom has been infiltrated."
    "Goon squad?" says Shark.
    "You know.  The guys that jumped us in the cab and took us to the warehouse."
    Robert says, "They were not aware of this."
    "But they're aware of you guys."
    Misha says, "We know somebody's watching.  It's not all that weird."
    Shark counters, "But to be ready to react with ship aggression that quickly..."
    "OK.  I think it's reasonable for them to have guessed we're in a cloaked ship, and that's how we managed to get in and out so secretly.  They knew they were looking for a cloaked ship, so that's when they prepared to fire."
    "That also means they detected the bugs."
    "Not necessarily, but that would be another very good reason why they would be ready for us.  Let's just get out of here for a little while and figure out what we've got."
    The SDB is still working its evasive pattern.  Helia quickly catches up, and moves so that they're above the Imperial boat, staying invisible.
    Over the desert site, a lot of excitement is starting up.  Several destroyers are arriving from orbit.
    "Can we drop a bomb?" asks Helia brightly.
    "The weapons are all ready to fire," says Kalida, just as brightly.
    Robert adds that since she can fire about ten missiles at a minimum, that might be overkill.
    Shark agrees: a hundred kilotons of nukes is too much.
    Korwin notes this conversation with interest.  He also noticed that Nightshade used a whole lot more than 6g, and has compensators to match.  And of course he couldn't fail to notice that the ship took direct hits from full military offensive laser fire, and not only didn't it do any damage but no-one on board had any thought that it would.  Aloud he gives no hint of what he's observed, but just comments on the reaction of the Navy: "This stinks of an intelligence operation."
    Robert says he'll start working on the recording.  If he could translate these ape grunts to glyphs, he could just process it himself, but it will take some time in galanglic.