(25) No Wild Geese Here

The Nightshade Campaign (287-1122 to 307-1122)

287-1122 : Curmudgeon / Fessor / Foreven

    Nightshade arrives in the system at 19:00 in stealth mode.  The astrographic data seems rather out of date, or at least the description doesn't mesh with the UWP.  Supposedly the world presents a serious risk of getting involved in local politics, but on the other hand the UWP says there is an official population of just 10.
    They've been looking for the Llanamith battle group which they believe has been commandeered by Admiral Lord Santanocheev, who they think is making an end run to attack Zhodani Consulate worlds in Chronor subsector.
    There is very little here.  There's a fairly dim red star, three gas giants, the mainworld itself orbiting the innermost gas giant.  Curmudgeon is classified as tech level 5, Industrial.  It is possible they would not have noticed a fleet come through, especially if all the fleet did was refuel at one of the outer gas giants.  There are no ships currently insystem.
    Misha Ravanos presents their options: they can land on the off-chance that they did or did not see the fleet come through here, or they can just move on.  The consensus is to at least talk to the locals from orbit.
    Helia Sarina flies them in to the mainworld and enters orbit.  Confusingly, there are no less than three beacons broadcasting on Imperial frequencies claiming to be the starport.
    Robert Morris is a little concerned that they can't tap into the net here through another ship, to hide their own way in.  Nevertheless, he tries to tap in anyway; he has to use some active emissions, of course, but isn't too concerned about that just yet.  Still, it doesn't make a difference, as there is no communications network here to tap into.  There are manned starport radios, but that seems to be it.
    Misha says they should come out of stealth and ask by radio.
    Mich Saginaw asks if they want the transponder on -- they're not in Imperial space, and so don't really need it legally here.  Misha agrees.  Helia drops out of stealth mode.

    For once they'll be talking to the starports themselves rather than letting Nightshade handle it.  Robert picks the nearest one and patches Misha through.
    "Hello," says the starport.
    "Hello," says Misha, "We're seeking a large fleet of ships and wondering if perhaps they came through here."
    "No, nobody's come through here.  If you want to come down and land, you can check our records."
    "I believe you."
    "We'll even throw in a free refueling."
    "A free refueling?  Wow.  I'll talk it over with my captain."
    "Okay, we'll still be here."
    "Thank you."  He indicates to Robert to end the call.
    Robert connects Misha to the next starport.
    "Curmudgeon Starport, how can I help you?"
    "Yes," says Misha, "This is the H.M.S. Starduster.  We're looking for a large fleet of ships that would have come through here in the last month or so.  Do you know anything about it?"
    "No, no ships come through here."
    "No ships at all?"
    "No, just you.  So the trade goods are particularly good at the moment.  You might get some really good prices if you come in and land."
    Helia whispers to Misha to ask what they have.  Misha asks, "What do you have?"
    "We have all sorts of local goods here.  What are you looking for?  You can find some pretty good chemicals and raw materials too, if that's your line."
    "We're looking for Blockade Bourbon."
    "What's that?"
    "It's a special kind of liquor.  My captain's overly particular.  I'll talk over landing with my captain and get back to you."
    "Thank you.  We'll be waiting for your call."
    Robert ends that one, and connects Misha to the final remaining starport.
    "Curmudgeon Starport."
    "Hello," says Misha, "This is H.M.S. Watchamacallit.  We're on the trail of a large fleet that would have come through here."
    "No large fleet has come through here."
    "Are you sure?"
    "Absolutely sure."
    "Thank you very much for your time."
    "You're welcome.  You need any services while you're here?"
    "Undetermined at this time."
    "Okay.  Feel free to come back.  Give us a call.  We're the official starport on this world, so don't accept any imitations."
    "I see."  Misha signals Robert to end the call.
    To the crew, Misha says, "What makes a starport official?"
    Helia says, "The government.  Oh my god, I bet there's more than one!"
    "Really?  They all made an emphasis that they were the official one.  I'm trying to figure out if they're simply competing with each other, or whether they're actually trying to lure people in for nefarious purposes.  I have a small urge to go down to the planet and see what it's like, but we can do that later."

    It's time to leave.  They're headed to Atsa in the Zhodani Consulate, and that's just a single jump from here.  They will be arriving in stealth mode; even though they're not an Imperial ship -- Nightshade is registered as from Dulu / Scorpio / Foreven -- they want to be sure not to appear as if they're an Imperial ship pretending not to be an Imperial ship.  Misha wants to make it very clear -- but being not noticed at all is the best.
    Misha and Mich discuss the artificial power signature that they usually emit.  Misha has been wondering if they can emit something that's less recognizable as Imperial.  Mich tells him that all fusion plants have a similar signature, and it's more a function of the tech level than the area of origin.

    Helia takes them out of orbit, out to 100 diameters, and at 23:00 they jump for Atsa / Chronor / Spinward Marches.

293-1122 : Atsa / Chronor / Spinward Marches

    Nightshade arrives at 11:00 after a now consistent 5-1/2 days in jump.  Mich decides that this is pretty much the limits of the vortex generators at the moment; to make further progress he needs a mathematical genius, or preferable several -- like Helia, Helia, and Sally.  Of course there's a high probability that the last two of those are no longer alive, perishing with Professor Farol on the research station on Karma.  With that crew, however, they could start advancing the science of jump.  Mich has started work on a paper on vortex generators, sensors, and jump drives.  None of that is actually black tech, and he's careful to keep it in the context of the Imperial technology stream.  He can now incorporate samples of the control logs -- empirical data to back up the theory.
    For most of them, this is their first visit to the Zhodani Consulate, although of course in stealth mode they won't exactly be visiting as such.  Still, Mich has made sure that his helmet is working properly now that they're in the land of the mind-sucking joes.
    Shark keeps working on Zhodani language.
    Misha keeps training Kalida Siena, Marchioness of Nakege, in the use of her zack.  The instruction is painfully slow -- Misha seems unable to improve the speed of her progress, but certainly isn't getting in the way.  Strangely enough, at this point Helia is the best instructor for basic Zack Fighting; Kalida starts making fast progress under the larian's direction.  Kalida still is at the level where she needs to wear her safety necklace to avoid hurting anyone else.

    Atsa has a white primary star with a dim red dwarf secondary.  It's a busy system with lots of ships coming and going.  There is definitely a naval base, but no signs of a battle going on or even of a massive Imperial battle group.  As far as Callisto can tell, there are no signs of there having been a battle here either.  All the normal transmissions are being made.  Nothing out of the ordinary is going on.
    Robert gets the idea to sneak up on Zhodani warships and try to figure out their transmissions and coding methods.  While they're doing that, Helia will (at Misha's request) be ready to jump immediately for Ninjar.  Mich will be ready as well.
    The process of tapping their communications is normal procedure for everyone now, but making it riskier is that they've never done this with Zhodani ships.  Helia matches perfectly with a fairly good sized warship.
    The first task Robert does is to start the ship learning the Zhodani language.  That's pretty easy.  The next thing to do is to crack the coding scheme.  He records the data stream, but Zhodani cryptography is quite different.  He has the coding system -- sort of -- but it's modulating in a very unexpected way.  He understands Imperial and even Hiver coding, but the Zhodani are using some strange modulation that he just can't grasp.  He can gets snippets of information, but all he can do is hang on to the interpretation for a short while and then lose it again when the modulation changes.  He tells everyone that from the clear data he does get, that everything is normal here and there is no state of alert.
    He asks Helia how long they can stay in position to gather data.  She says that as long as the ship doesn't jump, she can follow it for quite some time.  She has positioned Nightshade clear of the surrounding escorts and fighter screen, and should be safe in this position next to the much larger warship.  In fact, she tells Robert, this ship is in transit between the mainworld and the naval base on the secondary.  She estimates that she can stay in position gathering data for about eight days.  Vonish will have to take over piloting watch while she sleeps, of course, in case of any sudden course changes.  The Doc could keep her awake for eight days, but the consensus is that they are much better off with Helia rested -- otherwise if the Zhodani ship does something sudden in five or six days when the Doc says she might get a little touchy, it might be quite unpleasant.

301-1122 : Atsa / Chronor / Spinward Marches

    Even after eight days, Robert still hasn't cracked the Zhodani code.  Whatever they've done is extremely clever -- they're obviously better at it than the Imperials and even the Hivers.  Still, he keeps working on it -- once he's cracked it, he can use it to improve their own algorithms.  He does have enough data from this one run, he thinks, to finish the work eventually.
    It's 16:00 and the ships are approaching the naval base at secondary.  Helia says that she's expecting them to start maneuvering soon, and they need to break off.
    Misha asks her to take them away from the naval base, and jump for Ninjar.
    Helia does so.  She takes them clear for an hour, and then jumps at 17:00.

307-1122 : Ninjar / Chronor / Spinward Marches

    They arrive in system at 05:00 in stealth mode, after 5-1/2 days in jump again.  Everything seems normal here too, but again it's a busy system.  The naval base here is larger than the one at Atsa, but there is a lot less here in general terms.  There's less refueling options -- there is some water on the mainworld, and the only other possibility would be searching for iceballs in the asteroid belt.  An incoming fleet here would not be able to refuel before -- or during -- battle, so would have to win in order to refuel.
    There is no sign of an Imperial fleet here, and no sign that one has been here.
    Robert is still working on the Zhodani codes; at least he's now certain he has enough data.  He is making progress, but it is going to take longer.

    Misha goes back to Grand Admiral Baron Bridgehead and asks him about the likely progress of the fleet -- could they have beaten them here?
    The Baron says that if Santanocheev was coming here, he would have been here already.  If he had been destroyed, they would have seen signs of the aftermath wherever the battle was fought.  The fleet came to neither Atsa or Ninjar.
    So what now?  They do have a restriction on their movements in that they need to meet Marquis Marcus Crestworthy at Adabicci on 085-1123, about 130 days from now.  At Nightshade's jump-6, that still gives them plenty of time to "mess around" as Helia puts it.

    At 07:00 they jump for Mizan-fel, the plan then being to go to Gyomar, then back to Curmudgeon to see the sights.  Beyond that, there's nothing except to see how the time's going in terms of their rendezvous with Marquis Marc.