<>(15) Drilling Down

The Nightshade Campaign (198-1122 to 235-1122)

198-1122 : Mora / Mora / Spinward Marches

    Marquis Marcus Crestworthy promises to arrange everything so they can be the next official team to investigate the Ancient Site on Victoria.  For that they'll want to pull in Jaekovic Ils-Nevronne, their own amateur archaeologist, who's currently at the old pre-Maghiz Darrian base in the Bowman system.  Still, it's a long time until the expedition needs to be formed, so there's no hurry to pick him up yet.
    The options of places to go now haven't changed: Zett, Spirelle, Faldor, and so on.  INISO runs the Zett base, and Mich Saginaw's plans to check in the antimatter generator design would just put it in their hands alone.  They could also, suggests Edward "Shark" Teeth, go to the
Karma FarSpace Station in the Brod system to see if there's any sign of the Professor or the girls.
    Helia Sarina suggests Rhylanor first, then Spirelle is on the way to Faldor, which is right next to Bowman of course.  Zett and Brod are a long haul out into the Foreven sector, although of course with Nightshade it's not such a long trip as on other ships.
    Marquis Marc has been checking the Galactic Enquirer for stories of ghosts, proof they exist, and so on.  Of course the paper is full of them, although they are of varying promise in terms of his new research direction.  He mails the picture of "Satan's Face in Meson Gun Blast" to Robert Morris, saying that was what attacked them.
    Robert proposes going to Rhylanor via 457-973 to scan it on the way, since it's a Red Zone and it will take two jumps to Rhylanor anyway.  This world, though, has an actual stated reason for the interdiction -- to protect a local developing race.  Helia doesn't want to go near the planet -- she feels strongly that the locals should be protected, and it would just be wrong to interfere.  The rest of the crew promises they'll just scan the system, not go to the mainworld, after trying unsuccessfully to convince her that even if they did go there, it wouldn't interfere because no-one would see them.
    They set up the place and date of their rendezvous for the Victoria trip.  Obviously they can't meet there since it's a Red Zone, but they should meet somewhere nearby.  Mich suggests an empty hex for the meeting, but Marc points out that will be hard for Witch-hunter.  The conventional Imperial ship can do two Jump-1's in sequence (she has Jump-3 capability), but it's still fairly dangerous to jump in and out of empty space.
    They settle on Adabicci for a good meeting place.  Both Marquis Marc and Kalida Siena, Marchioness of Nakege, have personal ties to the Ducal family, and so that makes a good location.  They agree to meet on 085-1123, about a month before the science team is due to swap out at Victoria.  In six months, Marquis Marc will send a general message through TAS with more information about the expedition.
    457-973 is an odd system.  In spite of the fact that there are four gas giants, the mainworld is a planet in its own right, warm, with low gravity.  Not that they'll be going to the mainworld, of course...

    Marquis Marc leaves Nightshade, while the rest get ready to leave Mora.  Mich has been working with Grand Admiral Baron Bridgehead on his endurance, so he can stay in sparkly pink during jump longer, but he doesn't know whether he'll see any benefit from it yet.
    Helia flies them up to orbit, heads out to 100d, and they jump for 457-973 / Rhylanor.  It's a Jump-5.
    Mich does his thing, going into sparkly pink before the jump transition, and staying there as long as possible during the jump.  He still needs frequent breaks, but he doesn't wear himself out as completely as he has before.  Robert of course continues with data collection, trying to get enough to start to automate the process.  He might almost have enough data to start getting a feel for what has to be done -- the concept is coming together.
    Once they're in jump, Helia goes back to practicing with her zack.

203-1122 : 457-973 / Rhylanor / Spinward Marches

    After just 5-3/4 days in jump, Nightshade pops out in the 457-973 system in stealth mode.  It's late in the Imperial day when they arrive.
    Callisto reports from the sensors that there are Imperial warships patrolling this system.  There are three destroyers and one frontier cruiser.  The Kinunir class frontier cruiser of course looks identical to Anastasia.
    Shark thinks there is too much force here for a simple interdicted world.  On the other hand, the Kinunir class doesn't get prime assignments, as Mich tells him that without TL-17 systems the design doesn't work too well.  Even so, three destroyers and a frontier cruiser are a lot more than he would expect.  The destroyer at about 3000 std is the largest, but the frontier cruiser is more flexible, since it has drop troop capability.  Kalida smiles, fondly remembering her own combat drops.

    Shark asks Callisto to try to determine which ship is getting most comm traffic, but there really isn't anything she can pick up right now to determine that.  The destroyers are stationed one to a gas giant, while the frontier cruiser is stationed near the mainworld.  Shark asks Helia to go to the nearest destroyer.
    Helia flies them to the outermost gas giant.  As she does so, Callisto continues her system scans, of course using passive sensors only.  The trip takes
8-1/2 hours.

    Today is the maiden voyage of Marquis Marc's ship Witch-hunter.

205-1122 : 457-973 / Rhylanor / Spinward Marches

    Nightshade arrives at the outer gas giant in the early morning.  Callisto has not picked up anything unusual.
    The destroyer is simply orbiting the gas giant.  Communications are routine.  It does seem that the operation is being run from the frontier cruiser.
    Robert hacks into the computers, looking for standing orders and so on.  What he finds backs up the published reason for the Red Zone.  The Navy's mission here is to protect the indigenous population until they reach a high enough tech level -- they are to have no outside contact.  The Navy also has the task of supporting the local secret base on the mainworld -- the one that's observing the locals -- in any way it requires.  Their main concern is independent traders trying to exploit resources on the mainworld, and so they're primarily looking for incursions by small ships.
    The frontier cruiser is holding station about 100d away from the mainworld.  This will be their next place to investigate.

he mainworld is at the other side of the solar orbit, about twelve hours away even at 20g and with Helia's astrogation and piloting.  Fortunately she took about an hour's nap while they were doing their work at the gas giant, so she's rested enough for the trip.

    Once at the frontier cruiser, Robert hacks his way in.  He checks for information from the "secret" base, including its location and crew complement.  The logs pass through here too for relay out of the system.  Once every three weeks a courier comes through the system to take information out and bring in any new orders.  It's been about a week since the last one, so another is due in about two weeks.  The courier arrives near the outer gas giant, refuels, and leaves from there.
    The people here are considered physically dangerous.  They are about 12 meters in height, thin and spindly, bipedal.
    At this, Helia says, "Yeah, you've got to worry about the traders coming in and stealing people.  Believe me, I know about that.  Just because you're different doesn't mean you're something to be stolen."
    The locals here are very fast, omnivorous, and are farmers of animals and vegetation.  They have steam technology, although the lack of metals inhibits their development in this area.
  Apparently they consider humans a good food source.
    Robert says there's nothing else unusual on the computer systems.

    Now they decide to spend a month for a full scan of the asteroid belts in this system.  While Callisto will be extremely busy, and Helia will be busy too, the rest of the crew can relax, train, and so on.

233-1122 : 457-973 / Rhylanor / Spinward Marches

    A month has gone by.  The scheduled courier has come and gone, nothing else of interest has happened.

    On the last day of the month, at 17:00, Callisto says she might have found something.  It's very small, and she describes it as a shadow on the spatial anomaly sensor.  The asteroid where it's located is about 300 m in diameter, and the shadow is in the center.
    Nightshade is well away from any ship in the system.  The nearest one is the destroyer at the outer gas giant, but it is a good distance away.  It's decided to position the ship carefully and use active densitometer scans to try to get more detail.
    After an hour on the sensors, Callisto says that there's a 3 m diameter hollow in the exact center of the asteroid.  The shadow reading is coming from there.  There are no tunnels of any kind going down to it.
    Shark wonders if this is a natural phenomenon, but Mich is pretty sure it is not.  Callisto says she can't relate this to anything, as she's never seen anything like it before.  She sticks by her description of it as a shadow of an anomaly.
  The asteroid itself looks normal.  Normal composition and distribution, impact craters on the surface, and so on.
    Shark considers digging down to it.  They have lasers and hand tools, but that would take forever.  The quickest option would be to use the ship's laser to drill down to it.  They're out of stealth mode already to run the active sensors, and if they are very careful about how they use the laser, they should be able to make the tunnel without a great risk of detection.
    First, though, they'll set up a simulation to practice.  It won't be perfect, since they don't know the exact composition, but it will serve well as targeting practice for Kalida.  Robert sets it up based on Callisto's data, which she continues to refine.
    Kalida practices on the simulation, and is perfect on the first shot.  They're aiming for a penetration of 100 m.

    At 19:00, Kalida fires Nightshade's laser.  The resulting tunnel is 107 m long.  Helia drops them into stealth mode and moves the ship away from the rock to let it cool.  Of course it will take some time, but they have time.

235-1122 : 457-973 / Rhylanor / Spinward Marches

    It's two days after the shot when they return to the rock.  Of course they have changed the asteroid's orbit, but it's unlikely that anyone cares enough to watch the orbit of a 300m rock in the asteroid belt.  Even if they were, it would probably be a few weeks before the effect was really noticeable.  Nothing else in the system has changed.

    The job of finishing the tunnel by hand is assigned to Teri Cralla and Mich.  Teri in fact volunteers right away, with her expertise in battledress, demolitions, and heavy weapons.  She figures she can use her FGMP-15 to finish most of the excavation.  Mich will back her up, as the best vaccsuit expert.  Both of them have environmental combat skills.
    Helia brings Nightshade in so that they can extend the ramp directly to the hole.  Mich and Teri go in.

    It's not long before Teri runs into some difficulty, getting caught up at an awkward angle.  Mich takes his time, but helps her out of trouble.  They continue on down the tunnel.  They observe that the asteroid composition indeed looks normal.
    After about two hours, they're getting very close.  The final breakthrough should be with something less drastic, perhaps hand tools.  There's about 10 cm left.  Mich suggests building a mechanical device to drill the remaining distance.  He starts work on it.
    Shark goes down the tunnel to scan with handheld scanning gear.  Helia is concerned at what might be down there, and the potential consequences of breaking through.
    Using ultrasound and whatever else he has in hand, Shark finds that after the 10 cm, there is a change in density and he can't figure out what is beyond.  Something more solid is blocking the scan.  It seems to be a fairly regular barrier.  He's found nothing more than the ship's sensors, but backs them up that there could be a regular spherical hollow in the center.  Their tunnel is 5 m in diameter; the hollow is 3 m.
    It is now 23:30.  Mich will have the drilling equipment built in about an hour and a half.