It was fortunate that many of those navigational records were bogus and that some of their true destinations had been deleted. Hopefully, the false leads would cause later investigators enough trouble to make the real targets less obvious. Asking the wrong questions in the wrong places would also trigger alarms among ‘trusted’ contacts privy to Scape Grace’s safeguards. Less overall misinformation was seeded through the inventory and system logs. The crew needed real data about ship’s operations in order to function effectively.
Jolly first made use of its access to communicate with the three nearby ships. To its former ship, the Black Humor, it gave simple directions: return to their previous position, go about their original business, and pretend that Jolly was still aboard as Captain. Jolly ended its orders with: “I plan to return within two fertility cycles. If we have not rendezvoused by three cycles, locate this ship. If it has not been destroyed already, destroy it.”
With that ultimatum, Evgeny was certain that the conversation had been held audibly in a Terran-standard language for his own benefit. The thinly veiled threat was moderately effective. There were already significant swathes of Collective space waiting to incinerate the Scape Grace upon detection. Still, few individuals, much less ships, were wholly devoted to their pursuit and obliteration. Of all the ships that might successfully find and catch a single pirate in the wide universe, a Ningyo command ship was high in the probability ranking.
Black Humor emphasized that capability by sliding effortlessly away from Scape Grace and slipping through a newly folded wrinkle in space to a destination unknown light-years away. So skillful was the work of the Ningyo engineers and pilots that no shudder passed through Scape Grace from that nearby, enormous deformation of reality.Next, Jolly transmitted orders to the Harauch. These were not conveyed in a format available to non-Ningyo listeners. Instead, Jolly patched its suit systems directly through the Scape Grace and sent its message in its native language. For all that Evgeny knew, the message might have been encoded, as well, but the foreign Ningyo script was as good as encryption. Translating it would require a specialized AI to sift through layers of digital formatting, linguistics, and bizarre Ningyo psychology, then reframe the result into a more familiar Terran communication form. None of the AIs on board - even if they were accessible – had the necessary expertise for that task.
While Jolly sat still, plugged into a nearby console, Evgeny and Gleamer exchanged thoughtful glances. Such connections were two-way links. If code could be uploaded to the Ningyo suits, there might be a way to gain access to their control functions. A Ningyo in a compromised suit would be at the mercy of whoever controlled its suit’s actions. It could be forced to move however the controller chose. For that matter, a sufficiently hostile code-breaker could simply depressurize a Ningyo’s suit, killing it instantly. A sadistic hacker could threaten to do so as coercion, or manipulate life support to cause discomfort or pain. There were distinct possibilities there, provided Gleamer could actually figure out how the suit code functioned. Its security was likely the best possible to counter just such attacks… making it that much more tempting a challenge for a programmer convinced of his own superiority. With a nod, Evgeny endorsed more research. Hopefully, Gleamer was having the same thoughts as his captain.
Finally, Jolly fulfilled its promise to attempt contact with the unnamed foreign ship. Here, too, it transmitted and received an encoded version of its own language. In this case, however, it supplied a translation of the conversation for Evgeny’s reference.
Jolly claimed to be saying, “Dear friend, we cannot speak to our friends inside you. They cannot hear us or we cannot hear them. Please open a path so that we may talk to our friends.”
The Ningyo paused for a time to receive a reply. It translated this response as, “I am sorry. I did not know I was interfering. The path is clear but I cannot talk to your friends. They do not understand me yet. Try to speak to them again.”
Gleamer did not wait for orders but opened a channel immediately to Katy and NuRikPo’s public ‘comms. He called out, “NuRikPo. Katy Olu. This is Scape Grace. Report.”
They waited over one hundred seconds for a reply. None came back. Gleamer repeated his hail, cycling the message across a wider frequency range. He then tried the private line. Eventually, he set up a signal to repeatedly signal the shuttle for a callback. A responding ping indicated that the shuttle was receiving and available, but still no reply came from either crew member.
When informed of this result, Jolly shrugged. “The ship says that your people are choosing not to respond. I have no idea why they would ignore you, but that seems to be the case.”
Evgeny was increasingly suspicious. They had only Jolly’s word that the original problem had been resolved, or that the interference was even an accident to begin with. Only the Ningyo was saying that their messages were getting through and that Katy and NuRikPo were failing to reply despite hearing their hails. There was no independent proof. There was also no evidence that Jolly was lying… not yet. Once again, even if their occupier chose to lie, there was little Evgeny could do in response. He would have to take both the statements given – and the possibility of their falsehood – as uncertain data, points for review when choosing later actions.
Instead of directly challenging Jolly’s claims, Evgeny tried other questions: “Did you have the same problem when you visited the outsider ship?”
“I did not personally visit that ship, so no,” Jolly responded without elaboration.
“I didn’t assume that… I meant you, as in your crew. Whoever you sent, did you have any trouble communicating with them, even at first?”
“Why do you assume any of my crew went aboard that ship, at all?”
The Ningyo’s brevity and evasion were a marked contrast from its typical riddling verbosity. Evgeny felt certain he was tracking something important. He continued to push, “So how did you learn how to communicate with it? How do you know what it’s like, what it wants?”
“We discovered it during exploration of an inter-galactic chasm. It looked quite different at the time, something like a pineapple. It was calling out for help. A distress beacon is fairly universal. After pulling in close, we worked on rudimentary translation. Actually, the AI ship did most of the work. It used our input to build a common base for communication and eventually learned some of our language. From there, it told us what it needed.”
“And you just agreed to help… out of nobility.”
“If you mean doing the right thing, then yes. As I understand its story, it was sent as an explorer, with orders much like our own. It found itself further out than expected and unable to return. I’m not sure if it meant a navigational error, engine failure, or both. In reversed circumstances, I would hope for the same treatment. The Golden Rule is a solid moral law.”
“Well, you’ve already claimed moral superiority. I’d claim superior wisdom, though. For all you know, that’s the first scout for an invading army. It could be lying to you up and down. So you help. You send it back home with all sorts of intelligence about our nature and capabilities… and it brings back a fleet to take advantage of our kind, giving nature.”
“Our nature? I’m sure that enough of the Collective shares your violent distrust to deal with an invasion, if it came to that. You argue from weakness. Is it not equally likely that this intelligence is being truthful? If we send it back whole and happy, might it not present a positive report, reducing the likelihood of hostilities from its home system… whenever they do eventually manage to make contact across the gulf?”
“Of course I argue from weakness. That’s the point. Actually, none of this is the point. You’ve already decided what to do and strong-armed us into going along. What I want to know is what I need to do to survive your folly… for myself and my crew to come out of this alive. What you’re not answering is: what is going on over there? You’re telling me that you know nothing of the internal nature of that ship or its technical capabilities?”
Evgeny grew increasingly agitated as he spoke. Some of it was feigned: an attempt to draw a reaction in their verbal conflict. Some of the anger was real, though. If the Ningyo was being honest, then it really was a fool. The Locust Colony had held high, noble goals of understanding between cultures – Terran and Maraug – and so left itself open to destruction by those who opposed such goals, the Maraug apostates. The Collective itself was not based on ‘friendship’ or ‘helpfulness’. It was a business plan, a compromise reached to minimize overt aggression between star-faring cultures by keeping them out of one another’s way. At its roots was a military alliance, later expanded by necessity into a series of economic treaties. The diplomats could dress up those agreements in moral finery, but underneath, the Collective was only a temporary acknowledgement between neighbors who saw more profit in cooperation than conflict. As soon as that balance changed and favored war, the Collective would collapse.
To Evgeny’s challenge, Jolly replied, “What you need to do is trust. It would be nice if you would trust me, trust us, trust our friend over there… but at least trust your own people. And if you can’t trust them personally, trust them professionally. Trust yourself. You entrust your life, every second, to the competence of your crew. Trust them now to understand and adapt to their situation. If they were not capable, you would have sent others. You would have hired others. For all I know, you reward incompetence with death… you don’t strike me as a benevolent leader, for some reason.”
Evgeny knew his ego was being stroked but could not help being placated. He did agree with Jolly’s central point: He had little recourse but to trust Katy and NuRikPo’s expertise. If they were making bad decisions, they would die, or else they would return in shame. If not, they would return whole and bearing something of value.
Even so, he could do more than nothing. Jolly’s help was apparently worthless, but there were other courses to pursue. While the Ningyo held Scape Grace’s leash, it did not control her fully. Even while abandoning one line of attack, Evgeny was laying plans for the next. He needed some private conference time with a few people.
The opportunity for scheming was coming up shortly. They would have six Terran standard days of travel before reaching the Zig mining outpost. Between now and arrival, there would be plenty of time to lay plans. The Ningyo were likely to be obnoxiously present during that time, but they could not be omnipresent.
Evgeny covered his silent plotting with sullen acknowledgement: “Not benevolent, but at least capable. I wonder which of us has held command longer or dealt with more trouble. You’re making sense despite yourself. Still, I had better hear about it the very moment we get a reply from my ‘people’. Right now, you have my grudging cooperation because you implied there was something to gain. If I have reason to doubt that this project will yield a net profit – and I count the loss of crew a very high expense – then my cooperation will be far, far more grudging.”
“See, and raise. I’ve been Captain of Black Humor for the equivalent of four Terran years. Care to reveal how long your buttocks have warmed this chair?” Jolly shifted as if settling itself comfortably into the aforementioned seat.
Soloth bash’ Soloth chose this moment to interrupt, interjecting, “You have access to our records. Anything you need to know about captain Lerner’s command can be found there. As a practitioner, I have to say: I am appalled at your pathetic grasp of Dominion.”
Its words drew the attention of everyone on the bridge, even including the formerly stoic Punch. The Ningyo enforcer actually put hands on weapon grips and stepped forward, but was stopped by a gesture from Jolly.
“And you must be shorter than that dwarf Mauraug… because the Joke goes completely over your head,” Jolly retorted. The insult had little effect, being incomprehensible to any of the non-Ningyo present. There was a moment of confused tension while everyone tried to decide how to react.
Evgeny fell back on his default role: taking command of an uncomfortable situation. “We’re all at different spins here. Could we get this caravan moving? The sooner we start, the sooner we’re done and out of one another’s faces.”
Jolly sighed theatrically. “So much for Comus’ dreams of cultural comity. Yes, fine, hammers down, wagons ho, and roll out.” With this stream of gibberish, it brought up navigational orders on its console, transmitting these to their neighboring ships as well as to Evgeny’s navigation console.
Gleamer muttered quiet insults while turning back to his own console. He typed manically. Whatever he was doing was unclear to Evgeny. On the surface, along the public channels, it looked like the programmer was trying a range of frequencies and alternate communication methods to reach their crew aboard the unnamed ship. Evgeny knew his young recruit well enough to realize that such simple routines could be run by an automated program. What Gleamer was actually doing with all his inputs was the real question. Physical typing was only an addition to whatever neural streaming Gleamer’s perforated cortex was performing. Right now, Gleamer was working on multiple projects simultaneously.
Once, the young man had tried to explain the experience of cybernetically enhanced cognition to Evgeny. It was a foreign enough realm to even require its own vocabulary. Evgeny had struggled to grasp the concepts of ‘executive partitioning’ and ‘interlinked parallelism’. Actually understanding what Gleamer felt while fully integrated was impossible for a purely biological sapient. At best, Evgeny had managed some tolerance for his communications expert. It required some sacrifice and effort to adapt to a different mode of existence. Gleamer had gained abilities most Humans would naively desire, but at some cost. It made it difficult for him to relate to slower sapients, those with single minds and singular attention. It made him impatient when forced to match their speed and focus. It also made him miserable when disconnected, not to mention dependent on maintenance to keep his artificial systems in good repair. The networking cable was something of an umbilicus, feeding his appetite for stimulation and taking away the excreta of a constantly creative mind.
Evgeny was pleased to see that Gleamer’s infatuation with the Ningyo was evidently dulled. That was one victory to be claimed in his verbal sparring against Jolly. The Ningyo had been revealed as something other than the infinitely cheerful, clever, enigmatic, benevolent, and/or talented creatures some Humans still expected. Pushed hard enough, Jolly became evasive, stiff, and even angry.
Perhaps Evgeny had even scored points with his Mauraug first mate. That gain was pleasant to think about, though not particularly necessary. Soloth was less impressed with posturing than action and more pleased by effects than intentions. Evgeny’s brutal practicality had won the allegiance of Soloth and the crew’s other Mauraug. No doubt, the Humans on his crew considered him something of a hybrid. After all, most of the pirates still active in Collective space were Mauraug. Why wouldn’t a Human pirate captain naturally emulate their habits? Perhaps some of the crew thought him a Dominionist convert. Well, the Scape Grace certainly would wreak bloody prejudicial vengeance on any Mauraug Apostate ships they came across, but not for reasons of religion.
No, that grudge was personal. Just like Evgeny would make it personal if these Ningyo harmed his ship or his crew. Tklth… was an exception. The Vislin had initiated hostilities and had suffered the consequences. Evgeny would not have begrudged Jolly an execution as justice for the loss of its own colleague. That Jolly permitted Tklth to live was either the sole proof of its moral superiority… or else a special kind of sadism. Time would tell how much Ticklish would really have to suffer.
Once the navigational plans had been input, all three ships wasted no further time before accelerating. They maintained a simple equilateral formation, staying within easy visual range of one another. The Scape Grace led, with the Harauch behind and to one side, and the ship with the untranslatable name directly behind ‘Grace. Their distance was no more than necessary for safety, just beyond the reach of their projected energy ‘exhaust’.
The unnamed ship seemed to use standard propulsion not terribly different from the systems employed by Harauch or Scape Grace. It kept up with their speed well enough. Perhaps its current form even incorporated structures functionally equivalent to the engines of Collective-built starships.
The group of ships settled on a speed matching the Harauch’s highest safe velocity. While not as crippled as it had feigned after ‘Grace’s successful shot, the salvager was still damaged and under repair. Evgeny wondered if the Ningyo crew aboard their pretended pirate ally had volunteered to play decoy, or had been ordered into that duty by Captain Jolly. How many Ningyo had been hurt or killed by that single blast? For that matter, how many of its own crew had Jolly been willing to risk in order to draw in the Scape Grace?
The answer to those questions were quite relevant. They might reveal just how willing the Ningyo commander would be to sacrifice everyone, including both its own crew and Evgeny’s, in the pursuit of its goal.
Not that it made a difference. Whether Jolly was a noble paragon or an idealistic idiot, it still wasn’t making any bad bets with Evgeny’s collateral. It had already been lent enough credit to gamble. Evgeny Lerner might not be a titled Captain, but he was sure as hell master of his own ship. It was time to start preparing the proof of that claim.