(57) Loose Lips

The Misha Campaign (298-1121 to 311-1121)

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

    Nightshade has followed the Imperial Navy System Defense Boat carrying Miss Franklin as far as the Naval Base.  There are signs of heightened but not high security; nothing fundamental has changed on the continent.  A lot of small ships are still on the ground -- no vessels have been scrambled, and there's no extra patrols.  The crew are still not intending to fire on any Imperial ships, at least until there is some chance of hurting the black ship.  If they come under fire, they will evade as they did at the desert site of the Wonstar Development Corporation.
    At this point, quite a few of the crew have introduced themselves to Marquis Korwin Vanderfield by their real names, and have explained that the report of their deaths was premature.
    Robert Morris has started his analysis of the data their bugs recorded.  He finds that a lot of conversation has indeed been captured.  While some of the bugs obviously remained on the helicopter, others did come up with the two WDC people.  Six of the tiny devices did not respond to the ping; they will destroy themselves after seven days, while the ones that were pinged should have fused immediately after transmitting the data.  Edward "Shark" Teeth says that they obviously found one of the devices, since they were ready to respond to the ping; the others should still be at the site.
    The SDB comes in to land.  The ship's senior officers, along with Miss Franklin and her metal attache case, go ashore and walk towards the nearest building.  Nightshade watches from 300m above the boat.
    Despite having apparently been accepted onto the ship, Korwin continues to keep an eye open for opportunities to escape.  He was, after all, abducted against his will -- the quality of life aboard this ship doesn't change that.
    After a few minutes, two air/rafts leave the building towards a central building at the base.  All those who left the SDB are on board.  Once they reach the destination, all go into the building leaving the gravcraft parked outside.
    The building is well shielded.  Attempts to listen to what's going on inside are unsuccessful, despite all Callisto's efforts.  She's good, but even she can't do the impossible.

    While they're waiting, Robert produces his first analysis of the tapes from the bugs.  There's some conversation, discussion, personal small talk, and background noise consistent with being in the first underground level.  There are some meetings recorded, all of which are entirely about terraforming this desert area -- plans for construction of the town, water supply, evaporation plant, setting up fields, and so on.  There's a long discussion on the environmental safety of bringing in the nuclear materials for the fission plant.  Everything is totally consistent with the outward purpose of the WDC site.
    Miss Franklin herself would appear to be some sort of WDC manager overseeing logistics.  Arranging transport, bringing in supplies, getting inhabitants in staged through the coastal camp -- these issues seem to be her main areas of concern.  She's also very interested in how the farming's going to be set up.  There's no discussion about where she's come from, or where she's going, or anything about her personally.  There is some discussion of other people visiting this site -- some names are mentioned and noted.
    "These people need to learn to talk more usefully," says Kalida Siena.
    "Or they were talking knowing they were being bugged," says Robert.  "But these were totally passive bugs, and there are no gaps to indicate they were hiding anything."
    All of the conversations are as if there was no knowledge that they were bugged.  There were no signs of anyone except WDC personnel being present.  The conversations are entirely in galanglic.
    The Marquis was here to talk about gravcraft in the desert -- specifically about military gravcraft.  As Korwin says, "I don't think they brought me here to talk about speeder racing."
    Misha Ravanos says, "Would your talk have equally applied to other kinds of gravcraft?"
    "It was definitely military.  It was more a discussion on tactics.  There is however the distinct possibility they just had me here as a figurehead."
    "So if not this world, where would they be talking about?"  Misha looks at the sector map.  "What are these green worlds?  Droyne?  What are they?  Is there a big empire of Droyne somewhere?"  There aren't any of the insectoid aliens where Misha is from.
    Korwin says, "Not a big one.  They just happen to be the offspring of Grandfather.  So we're taught in school."
    Misha looks puzzled.  "What?"
    "Have you heard of Ancients?"
    "OK.  Well, the Droyne are supposedly offspring of the Ancients.  Also known as chirpers.  They're about so tall, little beaked winged things, mostly run in a caste system."
    That seems to satisfy Misha.  He says, "Is it normal for the Imperium to build bases this big?"
    "Remember you've also got the Aslan Hierate coming up from rimward.  They're growing with them.  We're generally peaceful with them, but you never know."
    Shark suddenly says, "Where is Zett on this map?"  The display expands, and the system is indicated about three subsectors over into Foreven sector.  "This is about as close as you can get to there and still be in the Imperium."
    Helia Sarina points out that most traffic into Foreven would be going through Emape into the Hinay Protectorate.  Jump-4 would be enough to go through the gap to rimward of the Lirian Conglomerate, but most traffic would be going through the Foreven Main.
    Korwin says, "So I guess I'm just trying to understand...  WDC's pouring billions of credits into the University of Mora's horticulture department that has a hothouse and an administrative building.  Tons of money coming into this world all under the table and tax free.  Your interest in it is...?"
    Shark fields that one.  He says, "Our employer was delivering information to a courier who immediately went to the basement of the Department of Horticultural Fertilizer."
    Misha says, "So we were being employed -- indirectly -- by Wonstar.  We got curious.  The more we look, the curiouser we get."
    Korwin continues, "Because if they're out to get you, getting away from here seems to make sense."
    "Well, we're not sure that the people who are out to get us are connected.  We don't have any evidence.  We know that parts of the Imperial Navy are out to get us.  We know that for a fact.  We've managed in our curiosity to piss off this part of the Imperial Navy, but they weren't out to get us before we got here, as far as we know."
    Kalida says, "They did seem caught by surprise at that first encounter."
    Misha laughs, "So did that other ship that attacked us!"
    Korwin asks, "Did you guys do something to let them know you had a stealth ship before the system defense boats attacked us?"
    "There would have been a lot of circumstantial evidence.  We had managed to sneak in and out of a lot of places relatively undetected."
    Shark adds that they would probably be ahead of any news from an incident at Mora to get here.  He then says, "We know that there are various random places where black ships, or pieces of them, appear.  Where are black ship relics discovered?  Are they all around here?"
    Robert reviews for the crew the information he had obtained from Count von Hayden's database.  "Count Walter von Hayden is part of an organization called the Imperial Naval Intelligence Special Operations, or INISO.  This database we downloaded and they then fired on us immediately, belongs to them.  It was a compilation of gathered data along with some organizational notes.  INISO are trying to find, secure, and investigate items and technology of those who use the ship's language.  It doesn't have every place mentioned, but it does list some of them.  They have not been able to translate anything, they don't know what it is, they haven't been very successful, they have a good many artifacts, they don't know how they're powered, and they can't get anything to work."
    "They need to hire us," smiles Kalida.
    "Fish oil, man!" drawls Shark, "They gotta have the right drugs, dude!"
    Robert says, "Well, we had it working without the fish oil."
    Misha asks, "We figured out the batteries.  Is that the only difference?"
    Shark says, "We opened the unopenable door.  No-one else knew that there was a door.  We stumbled across the door and got in."
    "Right.  They'd got into the open ship, but not this one."
    Robert continues, "From the analysis of all the artifacts they've found, it looks like this technology was on the losing side of a battle, and the military is guessing that if the Imperium can reach TL-17, they might be able to put up a good fight with whoever was fighting the creators of the black ships."
    Shark says, "Our estimation is that they were a couple off, right?"
    "The caches of some of these artifacts are in obscure asteroid belts waiting to be picked up.  They expect there to be ground caches, but they haven't found anything.  These are caches done by the losers; INISO has found caches and items at Zett, Zaibon, Shionthy, and Regina.  We picked up the ship at Zett."
    Misha says, 'What we found was definitely Imperial Navy, right?"
    Shark nods, "They had moved what they found into an Imperial Navy station."
    Robert says, "Professor Farol's operation is one of the research units supported by INISO.  The guy who originally designed the Anastasia's engines.  Which explains why he equipped the Anastasia with nuclear tipped missiles with this weird script on it.  INISO is not in a hurry, they're accumulating details, they're trying to figure out how it works, and they're trying to keep all their operations extremely secret.  Zett is the master headquarters.  There are other caches, but this document does not tell where they are.  They are scattered around the Spinward Marches and Foreven."
    Everyone else is looking at the starchart, picking out those locations.
    Robert continues, "Now here's a very important paragraph: anyone who knows anything about black technology, even the script associated with it, is a target.  Anyone who looks into it or even shows an interest in the script, or starts asking questions that could be relevant to this black technology, is just as big a target.  Standard practice is to apprehend the persons in question and interrogate them.  They've gone to great lengths to encrypt the database and obscure all their operations.  The motto of INISO is, 'We outrank you.'"
    Korwin says, "So you're hunted by an Imperial Navy special ops group, and you have obviously technology that they're interested in.  Therefore you're targets for them."
    Shark says, "Um.  Yes."
    "I see.  So you could live your life peacefully by getting rid of your black technology... and erasing your minds."
    Robert says, "Now all the items on the ship that have a label on it, we've gone through and defaced or replaced the label so that the script is not visible -- except on Shark's console, and of course mine is nothing but.  We haven't figured out how to change the shape of the ship, or to change its color other than the two schemes."
    Shark smiles, "We want it to be bigger on the inside than the outside."
    Mich says he's seen a room with a zuchai crystal array that was essentially that -- a true hypercube.
    Shark says, "Does Goose have anything to do with the script, other than the klatrin of course?  As I remember, there's no link other than that they recognized the ship.  Oh, and Korwin, you're tainted now too since you've touched black technology!"
    Kalida smiles, "Welcome to the society of targets."
    Shark gets back on topic: "All the places they list are within a couple of subsectors of here.  Zett is the only one in Foreven.  The other three are in the Spinward Marches.  All of them were in systems with an asteroid belt.  Two or three of them have the asteroid belt as the mainworld.  You know, I bet we could find these things pretty easily with our ship."
    In response to a chorus of questions, Robert says, "No, the ship didn't have any information, like it had come right out of the factory.  It also didn't know where it came from or how long ago it was built.  There are areas on the ship's starcharts that are not on ours, and vice versa.  All the starcharts, however, apparently account for star movement.  The preconfigured data is a collection of symbols that are dependent on the current time."
    Misha asks Robert, "Now is the reason it doesn't know the time relative to when it was built because it was turned off, or because it doesn't have the concept of relative time?"
    Robert stares at his captain like his boss is an ape scratching his armpits and grunting.  He says out loud, slowly, "No."
    Shark says, "So the only way we know if this ship can detect these caches is to go somewhere there's currently a cache.."
    Robert says, "Now we do know that when we were leaving the previous cache, there were no other active displays of that ship, even though we knew there were ships there.  They weren't powered up."
    Kalida says, "And we haven't figured out how to get to the bottom of the shaft here."
    Shark says, "Not without blasting our way in.  And now there's a couple of destroyers sitting there."
    "We can take them."
    Mich says, "So we lob our minimum complement of missiles down into the shaft and get out.  What's the minimum you're down to?"
    "Seven.  Five if I'm really on form."
    Mich turns to Korwin and says, "There's a fire button, and if you push it, all missiles leave the ship.  Independently fire and forget, arriving time on target.  In one quick burst, all 720 of them at 100 per second, each one accelerating at 40g.  All coming in at different angles, taking an independent trajectory, so you englobe the target."
    Korwin asks, "What do you do when another target comes up?"
    Kalida and Shark say, "That's when you use the other weapon."  They laugh together.
    "The ship's power source, is that detectable?"
    "No," says Mich.  "We put the D-cells into the jukebox so the gnome will start pedaling his bicycle, and that opens up the hole in n-space."
    Shark says, "And then we unplug the batteries because we didn't need them, and the jukebox is powered off the gnome.  And the batteries are recharged."
    "It's a solid box about a meter on each side.  You can't look into it."
    "The ship's flashlights are powered by the same cube.  You can take them anywhere you want to and they'll still be powered off the ship.  Except through jump -- other than that, there didn't seem to be a distance limitation."
    Shark summarizes part of his conspiracy theory: "We know the WDC is after psychic research.  We know a branch of the Navy is also doing psychic research at Zett."
    Kalida asks, "Does that database list which site was found first, and when?"
    "They don't even list what is found.  They just say that Zett is the main center of research."
    Robert nods.  "There is another center of research for weapons, but it doesn't say where."
    Shark then states what everyone's been thinking.  "Are we done on this world?  I can't figure out how  the WDC is linked in and who this branch of the military is without acting openly.  Now we can't get to any of the secret sites, is my bet, so..."  He starts perusing the astrographic data.
    Robert asks, "So you want to head to the nearest cache?"
    "I wasn't thinking we'd go to a cache.  I was thinking we'd go to Bowman actually, which isn't too far away.  It's got an asteroid belt."
    Misha says, "And search for a cache that maybe they haven't found?"
    "Yes.  But before we leave here, let's attempt to hack their system, and as soon as they detect us we go to Bowman, or Penelope, or Candory."
    Misha agrees.  "OK.  Let's do it."
    "How about we go to 875-496 first?  The asteroid belt is actually around the secondary.  We can check out a couple of systems while we figure out what to do.  We do have a date in seven months or so."
    Korwin says, "I do have another conference coming up in a couple of weeks on another world.  I'd like to at least attend."
    Helia says, "Where?  What's it about?"
    "Gravitics.  Karin.  I'm presenting again."
    "You can practice on us.  I'd like to learn about gravitics!"

    Meanwhile, Robert has figured out what he needs to hack into the Naval Base.  He wants Nightshade over a suitable ship; he'll bounce his connection through a chain of other ships to disguise their trail.  Helia flies them over, and Robert starts his work.
    The security is standard high security Imperial Navy.  It presents no problem, but Robert still proceeds carefully.  He pulls out troop complement, and starts looking for standing orders and so on.  Helia is ready to break out fast to 10d and then jump.
    The base's standing orders are for the most part normal.  As expected, the base commander reports to the Admiral on Iderati.  There are all sorts of contingency plans: in case of overwhelming force and in case of other various possible situations.  Nothing mentions black ships.  There is a mention of the Wonstar Development Corporation: at the base commander level, it says to do whatever they ask -- treat them as if they have an Imperial Warrant.  It does not mention names, but it does describe the verification procedure, which uses independent hardware devices for coding.
    There is a listing of a name for liaison with Imperial Navy Intelligence.  It's not a name they recognize -- Sir William Kramer.  Contact information is provided -- just a telephone number.  As expected, there's no mention of the special ops people.
    Korwin asks, "If you find out who's at the bottom of the WDC, what's next?"
    Kalida says, "That depends what the answer is."
    Misha says, "I wouldn't be shocked if the WDC is the Archduke."
    Shark says, "Then we could make some guess if we could trust them.  We don't know who we can trust at the moment.  We're in search of 1) the enemy, and 2) our friends."
    Korwin says, 'You have no place other than seven months to be from now, right?"
    "Right.  We can go hide for seven months.  And then we have no idea who's going to be there.  If anyone.  The enemy of the black ship could be there in seven months.  We have no idea.  We left a message in a secret drop box -- we don't know if it's ever going to be picked up."

    So the data is all collected.  A quick survey indicates that the whole continent -- including the underground facilities -- is indeed Imperial Navy.  Outlying sites include ammunition stores, nuclear warhead stores, and other hazardous or high security facilities.  There's nothing to indicate this is anything other than a regular Imperial Navy Base.
    Robert backs down the communication system slowly and carefully, and does so successfully without anyone firing at them this time.

    Helia flies Nightshade up to 10 diameters, and they drop into jump for 875-496.

    Korwin is a bit disturbed to find that the transparent walls of the ship are still that way in jump.  It doesn't look like it does on Imperial ships, though -- there is a glowing grid a couple of meters from the hull of the ship, and the greyness of jumpspace starts there.  The grid is constantly shifting, forming and breaking connections, in what Mich tells him is a dynamically adaptive  jump grid to account for jumpspace viscosity variation.  On the bridge, the solarium, and the lounge there's no way to "close" the windows, but in the staterooms most of the crew blank their outer walls.  He finds he gets used to it over time, though, without the freaking jump madness he was sure would result at first.  But it's pretty clear he isn't going to get to Karin.
    Mich continues to work on his vortex generators for the jump system.  He makes a slight but very significant step in understanding how the dynamic grid works.
    Everyone continues with their own training; Shark works on zack and pistol, of course.
    There's also the matter of having more people than staterooms.  Shark needs somewhere to be his personal space, and while both Helia and Teri Cralla offer to share with him, that doesn't satisfy his requirements.  Sagan doesn't want to share, but he is open to the idea of being dropped off somewhere safe.  Mich doesn't mind sharing with Teri, so Shark moves his stuff in room C-25, while Mich moves in with the Scorpionis Marine in C-18; Korwin is in C-22.

304-1121 : 875-496 / Five Sisters / Spinward Marches

    On the sixth day of jump, Korwin is a little surprised to see that everyone else is certain they will come out of jump today.  Indeed they do, and set about the task of searching the asteroid belt.
    The mainworld here is tidally locked and so there's a good habitable zone despite the low average temperature.  The secondary also affects the climate drastically depending on how close it is to the mainworld.
    There is not a lot here except traffic control beacons and what passes for a starport.  The biggest installation of significance is a Scout Base, but it seems to be a small one and there's not much activity in the system.
    There is some minor activity in the asteroid belt.  Callisto points it out to Misha.  Nightshade stays in stealth mode while investigating.
    According to the transponders, there is a 400 ton mining vessel and a standard 100 ton seeker.  They're orbiting a large rock.  Closer visual inspection confirms the transponder data; the 400 ton ship is probably a converted merchant, while the seeker is a standard ex-Imperial ship.  Both are rather scruffy with eroded paintwork, but at one point they were quite well decorated; the tail numbers are not noteworthy.

311-1121 : 875-496 / Five Sisters / Spinward Marches

    After a week of careful searching, they have found nothing unusual in the asteroid belt.  Callisto does point out substantial lanthanum deposits -- if they've detected it, those miners have a major strike on their hands -- but there is nothing to indicate a black technology cache.
    Shark has been running a sound imaging program from the various bug recordings.
    Kalida starts researching good places to sell the North Whipsnade whisky they picked up on Wonstar.  Obviously the officers' mess at any naval base would be good, but they can probably sell it at a profit pretty much anywhere the locals can afford it.