(16) Pandora's Box

The Nightshade Campaign (236-1122 to 237-1122)

236-1122 : 457-973 / Rhylanor / Spinward Marches

    By 01:00, Mich Saginaw has finished building his drilling equipment.  Everyone has been busy enough over the last day or so that it makes sense to rest before attempting to break through to the spatial anomaly shadow in the center of the asteroid.
    After breakfast, Teri Cralla and Mich go out to set up the equipment.  Edward "Shark" Teeth suggests that Mich as well as Teri should wear battledress, but Mich only has experience in vaccsuit and would be a liability in the unfamiliar combat equipment.  Those on the ship will be watching through a full sensor readout from Teri's suit.
    Kalida Siena, Marchioness of Nakege and Helia Sarina go into sparkly pink mode at their gunnery and pilot/astrogator stations respectively.  They're prepared to react as soon as anything dangerous occurs.
    Shark goes into sparkly pink on the sensors to run a remote viewpoint.  Running two remote sensing views would degrade their sensitivity, but Callisto is happy to perform her duties conventionally from the console and leave sparkly pink to Shark.

    The mission gets off to a bad start.  Mich gets into trouble, and can't handle both his own safety and the drilling equipment -- he chooses to look after himself, while the equipment gets stuck in the tunnel.  After some contemplation he figures out what needs to be done to free it, but it needs someone a little more nimble than himself.  Mich will supervise.
    Misha Ravanos himself comes to help.  He's familiar enough with a vaccsuit, although far from being an expert, but his barbarian upbringing makes him ideal for the task of manipulating heavy equipment in a tunnel in an asteroid.  He chooses not to risk his zack under the vaccsuit, although Helia tells him she always wears hers that way.
    This is rapidly turning out to be another away team disaster, like they used to do with the gcarrier.  Misha slips, but manages to wriggle around and avoid ripping his suit.  He is, however, stuck in the drilling equipment.  Teri and Mich work on getting him free, but in the process Misha holes his suit.  Teri slaps a temporary patch from her battledress vacuum triage kit, but insists on carrying Misha back to the ship where he will need medical attention.  Misha is conscious, but hurts -- his right forearm is rather painful.
    Back on board Nightshade, Grand Admiral Baron Bridgehead takes charge of Misha and works on him in the sickbay for a while.  He says that the injury isn't bad, but after treatment the Captain will need to rest his arm for a couple of days to recover.
    So now Shark is the next person to suit up and join the team in the tunnel.  Mich and Teri check his suit and correct his errors.  He then takes great care and extra time to get to the mining gear.  In that time Teri has managed to give the equipment just the right tweak and free it up.
    They are ready at last to resume moving the gear down the tunnel.  Mich joins in again, and immediately jams it again.  All three work on it for a while, but eventually they free it up and carefully move it down the tunnel to the end.  Mich makes sure it's set up correctly to do the final cutting.
    It's been several hours getting things into place.  It's decided to rest and have lunch, and start the drilling in the afternoon.  Misha joins them for lunch, and announces that he'll have his right arm strapped up through tomorrow.

    The drilling equipment will cut out the whole ball as one lump, leaving a post at the back attaching the ball to the asteroid.  They know where the rock density changes, and that there's basically nothing (vacuum or possibly air) inside the 3 m sphere.  Mich's equipment is designed to be flexible in terms of where they want to cut, and it's perfectly suited to their plan.  They will extract the hard outer shell and whatever's within it from the surrounding rock.  Mich supervises the operation of the machinery from the ship -- all the sensors he needs are built into the unit.
    Everything goes perfectly.  The ball is cut from the rock, attached by a small post at the back.  They move back in to examine it.
    The hard shell is most unusual.  In appearance it is a dark metallic grey.  It is composed of the same basic material as the asteroid, but has some sort of unusual crystalline structure.  As for taking it on board, it would be a close fit between the decks, which are 3 m apart.
    They discuss how to get more information on it.  Shark, ever curious, tries knocking on it to get it to ring, but it suppresses the vibrations completely.  He keeps trying with everything else he can think of, but is unable to get any useful data.  He gives up and comes back on board.
    Shark then wanders through the scientific lab looking for something to help analyze the object.  Fortunately Marquis Marcus Crestworthy left copious handwritten notes on all the equipment he'd deciphered, and Shark soon finds some apparatus that is applicable.  It's somewhat portable -- the size of a small refrigerator -- and has grav plates for pushing around and locking in position.  Shark takes it out through the airlock behind the bridge and down the ramp and tunnel.  He locks it into position and tries to use it, but it is pretty cryptic to someone used to Imperial gear.
    Shark calls for more help.  Marquis Korwin Vanderfield has research experience, so he's the obvious candidate; he even has no trouble with the vaccsuit.  Robert Morris also has a research background, and of course the equipment is actually in his native language.  All three of them collaborate to operate the gear.
    It's a very multipurpose piece of equipment, like most of the stuff in the lab.  Also, the various purposes for which the apparatuses can be used are quite unintuitive, often seeming to be totally unrelated to each other.  Robert's help reading the scryptese is invaluable in this case; as when he sees unfamiliar black tech terms he calls in Mich to help as well, feeding the data back up to Nightshade.
    The shell is artificial and has been built with black tech principles.  It's rock -- a single rock crystal -- with the atoms aligned so that the unspace effects give it certain sensor barrier properties and very high strength.  It's quite simply just a strong container.  A lot of the physical properties can't really be measured, but they do confirm that it's hollow.  They can't determine whether there's vacuum inside or air or whatever -- they don't know the exact mass of the shell.  What is more, it's designed so that if triggered in exactly the right way, it will completely disperse.  That trigger is to fire an unspace hole into in a particular way.
    It takes Mich a while to figure out what he'd need to do to trigger this.  He does have equipment in the engineering shop that will do what he wants, once he sets it up correctly.
    Shark says it's something They put in a locked box.  It was probably a long time ago -- they built an asteroid around it, and they've been gone for a few hundred thousand years.
    Mich's speculation is that if this was a regular cache, how could anybody have opened it?
    Clearly this is not a regular cache, points out Shark.  You have to shoot a particular unspace pulse at it to get it ot open.  It's not like if a battlecruiser cruises by, it's a mine.
    Mich agrees, "It's more like, prove you have the same technology that built it, and then it will open."
    Shark wonders whether they would put something that's dangerous (to them) and hide it like this.  "Is this a Pandora's box, or is it storage for dangerous materials, or is it their long lost history records, a time capsule?"  He looks around and says, "Do we dare?  Boss, do we open Pandora's box?"
    Misha puts it the question to the crew.  Robert is emphatic that they should open it on the ship; Helia opposes that vehemently.  Robert's point is that if it is something that requires an atmosphere, they would lose it by opening it in place.  All agree that they should open it, but Shark backs up Helia strongly and says it should be definitely not be brought on board first.
    Misha suggests taking it to another atmosphere first and opening it there.  Kalida laughs that a derelict ship with atmosphere would be perfect, and Shark joins in and suggests taking over one of the Navy ships here.
    Mich -- ever the engineer -- suggests sealing the chamber in the asteroid, so that if there is atmosphere within the ball, it won't all be lost.  Everyone else nods sagely at his suggestion, and Mich starts work on the project.

    It's now about 15:00.  First, Mich identifies and sets up the equipment to fire the unspace hole.  He is a little surprised to find such gear ready and waiting in the engineering shop, but is happy to use it.  He sets up remote control so they can run it from the ship.  Then he builds the pressure door and gets that sealed, positioning it about three meters from the sphere.  It's set up so that if there's a strong overpressure from the contents, it will blow progressively rather than suddenly.
    Helia moves Nightshade away from the line of the tunnel, so anything that blows out of it won't hit the ship.  Sensors are set up inside the chamber, and full active and passive sensors are focussed on the sphere.
    Mich triggers the equipment.  The unspace hole fires into the sphere at a precise trajectory.  The shell just vanishes, dispersing into its own unspace holes within itself.  Not one particle remains of the shell of the sphere.
    Everyone is watching.
    Almost everyone faints.
    Misha alone is conscious.  What he saw twisted his mind, something strange and confusing, and just not right.  Something about 30 cm in diameter is lit up where the center of the sphere was.  He drops into sparkly pink, and looks again from there.  It's almost like it's script writing, but it's not straightforward.  He's looking at something that just shouldn't be, doesn't connect in the right ways.  The crew appear to be fine, but only the Baron, Vonish Kehnaan, and Teri are conscious as they weren't watching.
    Misha calls the Baron to the bridge to attend the unconscious crew.  Before the doctor gets there, the captain turns off the main holodisplay so he too doesn't pass out.  The Baron moves among the crew, waking them carefully; he says there's nothing wrong with them.
    Mich speaks up first, because he's seen something that had this sort of structure before -- but this is much more complicated, using significantly more dimensions than the zuchai crystal hyperarray on Digitis.  This is script language in seven or eight dimensions.
    As Robert comes around, he tells them what this is.  It is... information.  It is concept and background, but the two don't quite correspond to each other.  It's partial information.  It is a lot of information but there isn't enough to make any sense whatsoever.  You need all the components to the puzzle before the script language makes any sense, so alone there's no information you can get from it other than it's a repository of information.
    "So now we have to find more of them, huh?" says Shark.
    Robert says they could take it to Digitis, or they could tell the Arden Society.
    "But not today," says Misha.  Today they have to package it up and get it on board the ship.  Once again the task falls to Mich, and he starts work on a machine to fit around it in a clamshell action.
    Meanwhile Shark runs a physical sensor scan on the object, but everything is getting distorted and he can't get a clear reading.

    It's a relatively simple task for Mich to take his machine down and lock around the object, and retrieve it to the ship.  It masses about three grams.
    Robert explains that they can't tell how many other parts there are.  Until they have them all, it doesn't mean anything at all, including how much is needed to completed.
    Misha asks if there's anything they can do to conceal what they did at the asteroid.  Shark suggests nudging the rock so it falls into a gas giant or something.  They can't have mapped all small objects in the system, and if they give it a slight bump to put it into a spiral into the sun would be the best thing they could do.  As Mich points out, blowing it up or hitting it into another rock might leave fragments with signs of the smooth hole -- even capping it and hiding the hole wouldn't prevent densitometers from revealing the straight tunnel.
    The orbit has been changed somewhat anyway from the vaporized column of rock that used to form the tunnel.  So they decide to send it in an orbit that will arrive at the closest gas giant in a few years.  That should make it look like just another asteroid belt rock that's been deflected out of its original orbit.  They'll need a very good astrogator indeed to figure out exactly what they need to do to achieve this, though -- but they have Helia, of course.
    The larian does her calculations.  She nudges Nightshade's shields up against the asteroid, and pushes it into the right orbit.  The crew have never seen her so intent on her job -- clearly even for her, this is very hard.  But she succeeds, and the asteroid should hit the gas giant in a couple of years.

    After all this effort, it's time to rest.  The whole crew will take some time off, and tomorrow they'll continue on their voyage to Rhylanor.

237-1122 : 457-973 / Rhylanor / Spinward Marches

    Helia takes Nightshade the short distance to a good jump point, and slips them into jump for Rhylanor.
    As usual, Mich does his thing in sparkly pink in engineering.  After all the effort over the last few days, he can't spend as long at it as he would want.  As for the data, he and Robert still don't have enough to put something together, but they are starting to get the hang of it.  They might even be about two jumps away -- if they're lucky, of course -- from putting something together that will do no harm.
    Kalida practices her battledress skill while in jump, and Misha starts working with it too.