(17) Seventeen


087-1118 : ? (0303) / L / ?

Midnight ships time is 04:.1 local time at the igloo. Sunrise will be at 06:.4 local time, which is 02:18 ships time. Sunset will be at 19:.2 local, 15:06 ships time. Midnight local time will be 21:30 ships time.

It's reasonable to assume that Jack must be within three days travel from here, probably on foot, so a radius of 150km should be more than adequate. They should be able to do a fairly detailed scan of this area fairly easily. The Sir Walter Raleigh will continue their search pattern in the meantime. The Captain also suggests that they try heliograph signals, since the spiders seem to know about them, possibly from Jack.

They wait until sunrise so that any other igloos will cast a strong shadow, and at 02:18s/06:.4 the Anastasia takes off to start the detailed local scan, which they complete before noon (08:42s/12:.8), finding nothing. They have, however, noted a number of IR signals, probably from local life forms.

With the sun at its height, they light-signal "HI, JACK" to all the IR locations. A half-hour yields no response. They then skywrite "HI JACK" (one word above the other).

They return to the igloo, and calculate a search pattern from there traveling to each of the IR sources in turn. Before they go, they leave a stock of bean juice and other booze, with a message saying "Compliments of the Anastasia. Have a good time, Jack."

During the search they see a fair cross-section of the local wildlife, some large, some small. Of note they see one group of spiders, a heat-source octopus and some large flocks of flying creatures before finding a second group of spiders, accompanied by two other creatures: about 2m tall, two arms, two legs, no shell, carrying packs. They are headed north towards the igloo site.

Chiang Ho brings the Anastasia, clad in IFSS colors and insignia, to land about 500m to the side of the group, which changes direction towards the ship.

The welcoming party gathered at the top of the cargo ramp includes Fostriades (with Achilles tucked into his coat), Chiang Ho, the Captain (holding two cups of steaming brandy), and several others.

They meet at the base of the cargo ramp. "Hello," says the man. "Jack, I presume," says Chiang Ho in a fit of originality. Introductions are conducted, with the crew giving the impression that they are from the IFSS. With Jack is his wife, Jill. The Captain offers them some brandy.

They are invited into the ship, but the discussion continues on the ice. Jack had no radio, as all the high-tech stuff was in the cutter up towards the north pole and they destroyed all of that when they abandoned it. Jack can talk to the spiders by a whistling imitation of the hooting long-distance communications, but he cannot speak their natural language.

"We are not Bill Darani," says Fostriades, "but we are as close to Bill Darani as you are going to see. This was his ship, but it's our ship now." Jack seems a little confused, and suggests that they indeed continue this inside. It is not to be, as the crew is eager to tell Jack all sorts of things.

The Captain explains, "We found the ship, the ship had all the papers on it, everyone on board was dead, we fixed the computer, we took over the ship, claimed it as salvage, and out of some vague whatever we decided to carry out the missions of the former owners."

"The former owner was sent to find you because you had the latest information," continues Fostriades, "and nobody we found since then seems to have any better information than you probably have. Your daughter was very helpful, and very nice, but she thought you were dead."

Chiang Ho provides some recent history, such as what happened when the cockroaches attacked Scorpionis.

Jack suggests that this current planet is very much a backwater, and the only reason the cockroaches have an interest here is that it is where they found him. Actually, they found his ship at the previous planet, but by using the GCarrier as a decoy they escaped here. He was investigating this system when the cockroaches showed up again.

The Captain says that since he (Jack) left the messages behind, he presumably wanted to be found, and they didn't like the idea of leaving him stranded in the middle of nowhere, so they looked for him. Jack says that sooner or later an IFSS ship would come through and pick up the beacon.

"We are not strictly speaking IFSS," says Fostriades, "We are working with them but we serve the Emperor." Jack says there's too many people on their ship to be IFSS. Chiang Ho explains that the marines are actually from Scorpionis, on detached assignment to them to fight cockroaches.

"Oh yes," adds Avon, "The political alignments have shifted markedly in the face of the enemy, of course." Jack says he was never too much up on those anyway, which apparently is a good thing because most of the crew can't come up with a coherent explanation either.

Chiang Ho says that they are generally quiet and can sneak through occupied territories, which is how they got here. Avon says they have an EMMask. Fostriades says they can make two jumps in a row.

Chiang Ho contacts the Sir Walter Raleigh and calls off the search. They will rendezvous with the Anastasia in about an hour.

What can Jack tell them, asks the Captain? "I like your dog," he says of Achilles.

How did Jack come to be here? "Well, we had a little trouble at the place before, where we were passing through on our way back."

"So you've been in further?" asks Avon.

"Well, yes, that's what we do."

" What do you want to do next?" asks the Captain.

"Well, it's been a while since I've got a message out," he replies.

Chiang Ho says they should send the Sir Walter back before they do anything else. Does Jack have any computer memory units anywhere? No, he doesn't, and he's not sure where he wants to go next. This place is nice, but he's been here long enough. There would be another IFSS ship through eventually, but he would rather be somewhere else for a while.

So what can he tell them about the cockroaches? "What are the chances of useful alliances and trade with them?" asks the Captain.

"I'm not sure," replies Jack, "Based on their ways of dealing with everybody else, I would guess none. They seemed to get more interested in this area when they found there was someone to fight. Their main presence seems to be in the big cluster at the center of this sector."

Chiang Ho asks how far he went, and Jack indicates on the map a long way into "cockroach territory."

"How did you get in that far?" asks Avon.

"Well, I was mostly moving between dead-end systems," says Jack, "Since the roaches have only a jump-2, those systems were not heavily traveled. They seem to like the white F-class stars, and don't seem to care about planets which are not suitable for them: they like places which are reasonably large and fairly warm. This one is too cold for them, although the sun is the right type. Generally they don't bother to capture what they don't want, they either destroy it if it's a threat or else ignore it."

Avon points out that the worst damage they've done so far is to cause the Scorpionis military government to panic and destroy their own planets.

Fostriades asks if Jack has had any personal contact at all -- the crew have some theories based on a few little scraps of information, like the way they interact.

"As far as I can tell," Jack replies, "Once you get off the areas with threats in them, it's a lot easier to travel the deeper you get because they're just not looking for it. They're not very alert unless there's some sort of threat or something going on. We've been able to pass remarkably close to regular cargo ships. I followed some fairly close alongside for a while and they apparently never noticed me there."

Chiang Ho introduces William Rufus to Jack and Jill. Jack comments that Rufus is obviously on the diplomatic side of things -- he thinks that's boring, and that it's a lot more interesting standing on a nice cold planet freezing your feet off.

Chiang Ho asks if Jack wants to pick up anything from the igloo. He doesn't, but Chiang Ho wants to recover his bean juice. He explains that he is an amateur horticulturist, and has some, ah, interesting bean plants. The Captain explains about the stash they left.

Chiang Ho considers the food situation, and whether they should stock up here by hunting. The consensus is that it would be sensible to fill up while they can. Jack says that most of the life here is edible, and that he doesn't know of any other intelligent life here, but then again he doesn't know anything about the sea life except that it is apparently very dangerous. Jack suggests using a GCarrier for hunting, and Chiang Ho explains why they don't have one, and about the demise of the Admiral and why they haven't met him yet, adding "He's an asshole".

Chiang Ho tells Jack and Jill a little about the Anastasia. "It was a research ship, built by Professor Farol. The first jump was made by Darani -- did you know him?" He did. "Well, he crash-landed because when they made the first jump the ship's computers had a bug in the software and the security system killed everyone on board. We were able to get on board and neutralize the computer, basically by pulling its plug and rebooting from an earlier software version. When the ship didn't arrive back at the research center, the Professor decided that the propulsion technique didn't work and the ship was lost in space and he went on to other areas. The computer was the best one at the time, and basically we have a top-of-the-line ship here, Jump-4, ..."

"I think we've have enough technical discussions," interjects the Captain, "Let's go get some dinner and relax, and fly back to the igloo."

Jack recommends a particular 3-tonne herd animal as a good thing to hunt, probably from an air/raft or something safe like that.

Chiang Ho adds "One thing we did find out about the cockroaches is that they're extremely strong."

"Come ON! Enough shop talk!" insists the Captain.

Jack says goodbye to the spiders, and all the humans retire to the ship's lounge. On the way, the Captain takes Chiang Ho aside and berates him for revealing the ship's secrets to random people. Forbidden subjects, according to the Captain, include: detailed finances of the company; cargo; tactical info about the ship (capabilities, strengths and weaknesses); possibly strategic matters, too, depending on who they're talking to.

Chiang Ho takes the ship over to the igloo, where the ship's fuel tanks are topped off and the marines hunt some grazers which are processed to stock up the food supplies. The sleeping arrangements for the ships are arranged. Brock will move in with Chiang Ho, and leave his cabin for Jack and Jill. Joe is in charge of making sure the move goes smoothly.

Dinner passes quietly. After dinner, Fostriades takes Jack to his suite for an ouzo, while the Captain engages Jill in conversation in the ships lounge.

The Captain says he is interested in hearing her and her husband's accomplishments in having survived in a really tough environment, and about their travels, and the fascinating life they've been living. He adds that her daughter is delightful, and altogether he seems very interested and eager to hear Jill tell everything.

"Well, we haven't really done much," says Jill, "Just lived on this planet for a while."

"You're in the middle of alien territory, we barely got here by the skin of our teeth. It must be fascinating business, meeting all kinds of strange and different cultures."

"It's sort of boring really. It's been interesting here."

"And you fit in so well with the spiders."

"Yes, they helped us out of the northern broken ice -- they get around a lot better on that stuff than we do."

"You and your husband must really enjoy puzzles, with all these encoded encrypted messages."

"Well, they're mine, actually. I was sort of the, uh, well, I thought it seemed a reasonable way to leave a message."

"It took us some flying, but it was unmistakable that this was no cockroach that we were looking for."

"So you call them cockroaches."

"Do they have natural names?"

"I suppose they do. They have language, we picked that up, but we never found a reference point to understand any of it."

"Yes," puts in Avon, "It seems hard to start a civil conversation with them."

"Either they ignore you or try to destroy you, it seems like," continues Jill. "The cockroaches don't take every planet, just the ones they are interested in. They wouldn't really be interested in this one normally -- it's too cold, and there's no interesting fighting here. They enjoy a fight, it seems, and they fight among themselves too, but only when they're bored."

"So how long have you and your husband been working on the cockroaches?" asks the Captain.

"We've been in this area for a long time, we've been on deep space missions for a while."

"You didn't have an EMMask or anything like that, did you?" asks Avon.

"No. The Aldrin was just a simple standard survey scout ship."

"I'm amazed that you could make it in this way," Avon says.

"The further you go, the easier it gets. Also we never really went anywhere too populated, we just by-passed their main groups."

"So when the cockroaches get bored, they don't seem to bother any more, so maybe the way to defend against them is to pull away?"

"They don't seem to get on with long sieges or anything like that. They like to have a fight and be done with it."

"What happens when they get defeated?" Avon asks, "Or is this something that doesn't happen often enough? They were at one time rumored to be invincible, but they were turned back, so... It all depends how they react to that sort of thing, some people will bring back three times the force, and other enemies they may decide it's not worth the trouble. It would be really nice if we knew which was likely to be the case here."

The Captain says, "We've either scared them or we're standing on top of a mountain proclaiming ourselves king right now."

Avon suggests, "A best strategy might be getting out of the way and blowing apart worlds in the way..."

They reflect about how Scorpionis might feel about this strategy. Avon offers to bring Jill up to date, but she's not interested, as long as the Imperium is still going strong. Avon tries to explain the unification of Scorpionis and Corona into the TradeMain Foundation, but makes it sound confusing.

Jill is reassured that Strephon is still Emperor, last they heard anyway.  She has never met Archduke Norris.

The Captain continues, "So what is there out this way that would merit Imperial attention?"

"Colonization," Jill replies. "If the cockroaches could be contained a bit it would give some of the alien races a chance to catch up. There are some of these further in somewhere, but I'm not the geographical expert so I don't really know much about it."

Avon asks Jill about the spiders. She says, "They really have quite an intricate musical and social aspect. They would only be interesting enough to the cockroaches if they could put up a fight."

The Captain asks about the possibility of making recordings of a performance, and speculates mildly on thoroughly unethical methods of making sure the recording would be unique.

Jill says, "The cockroaches seem to wreck the worlds they're on, they aren't environmentally conscious or anything.  Standard procedure seems to be strip mining and so on."

The Captain asks, "Are there any worlds that humans would be interested in that the cockroaches wouldn't, or is there some sort of overlap?"

"The cooler places like this one, " Jill replies, "There are worlds out there that are comfortable and nice. They prefer the heavier gravities, denser atmospheres, bright suns -- of course there are fair number of brighter suns out this way -- they prefer the warmer places. With an F-class star, there's often two worlds one of which is warm, the other cool. If you could come to an agreement to have one each it would work very nicely, but I think they'd rather wreck the other world than let someone else have it."

The Captain speculates on the possibilities of absorbing themselves into the cockroach worlds and becoming part of their hive so they don't bother with them. "Anyway, I think there are possibilities here."

Avon offers his opinion: "The possibility of blowing them to bits is a lot better possibility."

The Captain is not convinced. "The fact that they went in and conquered that Scorpionis world and, once they had conquered it, didn't bother with it has promise."

Avon adds, "I sure as hell wouldn't want them for neighbors, that's all I can say." He changes the subject. "Have you seen any of these cockroaches close up?"

"Well, we've looked through at the bridges of ships," says Jill.

This surprises the Captain. "Looked through at the bridges of ships?"

"Yes, we made close passes to cargo ships."

"That's fascinating!" says the Captain, "So what do they seem to be doing when you peek in on them?"

"Not much," replies Jill, "Most of the stuff is probably pretty automated."

"They don't seem to have a very high tech level."

"They seem to vary, of course, but we guess around 11 or 12." Jill says that the cockroaches are definitely the biggest threat out this way.

"So were you just out here to explore, or was this a special project?" asks Avon.

"We've really just been pottering around this area," explains Jill, "But we've obviously kept a good eye on the cockroaches."

The Captain says the Sir Walter Raleigh will be going back for repairs, and that they could easily send a message back with them. Jill says she would like to send word back to her daughter. The Captain offers the use of the computer's library to bring them up to date on what's been going on while they've been gone.

Meanwhile, in the Boss's suite, the ouzo-drinkers relax. Fostriades gives Jack a drink of ouzo, livened up somewhat by a dose of the Admiral's truth cocktail. He is obsessed with finding out how the Emperor managed to find out so much so early about the threat. He asks Jack about this.

"Gosh this is strong stuff," are Jack's first words.

"Yes," replies Fostriades, "I had it specially imported from Midas."

Jack babbles a lot about nothing much, keeping away from important subjects (as if deliberately? thinks Fostriades). He mentions the Emperor's wine cellar, and that he knows it well. Jack asks what brings Fostriades out here, and he replies "cockroaches." Jack says he has several names for them, mostly not complimentary.

Fostriades returns to the subject of the interrogation. "How long have you known about the cockroaches?"

"Ages and ages," replies Jack, "You lose track of time when you're deep in space."

"How old are you?" asks Fostriades.

"Me? Oh, depends how long I've been here..."

"Ten years."

"...so I'd be getting on sixty or seventy. I've never really bothered to keep track."

Fostriades then starts questioning in earnest. "How long have you been looking for the cockroaches?"

Jack seems to be having less trouble staying on the subject now. "Well I haven't been looking FOR them, as such, but I've noticed them for ages and ages."

"Where were they when you first noticed them?"

"Out in the big cluster," replies Jack. "They spread their way to spinward and I suppose that when they didn't find anything interesting they came back this way."

"What were you doing there?"

"Just looking around, really, to see what's out here."

"How did you get messages back so efficiently, like pointing out that the cockroaches were a problem?"

"We never noticed that the cockroaches were a problem, really," answers Jack, "The spiders use hooting sounds to communicate over distances, and some of them travel quite a fair way."

"I was thinking of the cockroaches in the big cluster," says a frustrated Fostriades.

"Oh, I think they use much the same sort of things as we do," says Jack helpfully, "I don't think they have faster-than-light radio or anything."

"How are you able to get messages to the Emperor so efficiently?"

"I wouldn't call communications with the Emperor efficient."

"He seemed to be able to mount an efficient response before anyone else in the Empire knew there was a problem."

"He's like that."

Fostriades changes his approach. "Did you ever know Bill Darani?"


"Is he a friend of yours?"

"Well, an acquaintance really, yeah, I mean, we both do things for the Emperor, but I didn't really know him too well. You know him, do you? This was his ship, you say. What sort of ship is it? It seems interesting, General Products"

"It was the Emperor's arrangement," explains Fostriades.

"Well, that explains everything then," says Jack, having apparently assumed the role of interrogator despite the truth-babble drug. "What are you doing out here?"

"We're working for the Emperor," replies Fostriades, "We're working directly for him."

"Where are you planning on going next?" Jacks questions resolve into insignificant babble again.

Fostriades resumes control of the interview. He asks again about the Emperor's efficient information gathering. Jack points out that simple things like wars (the Fourth Frontier War, for example) are generally left to the chain of command and the normal communication channels.

"The IFSS doesn't really seem very interested in this sector," observes Fostriades.

"No, they're not really, are they?" asks Jack.

"Do you work for Rufus?"

"No I don't," replies Jack, "and I wouldn't want any job where you may have to take up a desk job." He suggests that in another 20 years or so he might like to retire to this planet.

"Retiring from which service?" asks Fostriades.

"The IFSS technically."

"Oh, come on, you're no more IFSS than we are."

"Yeah, but I'm no less either".

Jack asks for more ouzo and states how it's making him feel funny. He comments on the spiders' eating -- they eat plants, leaves mostly, but humans need some of the meat for nutritional completeness, and the spiders helped them hunt it.

Fostriades resumes his questioning. "How come you're so much farther out than the IFSS?"

"They're wimps," explains Jack matter-of-factly. "The IFSS just hang around where they think is a long way out, but they never really go very far. I mean, it's like the Imperium sits there in their little house, and the Scouts walk down to the end of the driveway, and the IFSS walks down to the end of the street, and hardly anyone ever goes any farther than that."

"But the Emperor doesn't seem to be sitting in his house much."

"He didn't exactly get where he is today by sitting around waiting for something to happen," says Jack, then suggests coffee as he's feeling rather odd.

Fostriades provides Turkish coffee, and makes encouraging suggestions.

"Sooner or later somebody else would have turned up here eventually. Anytime anybody's gone for 3-4 years, people presume them dead, but 3-4 years isn't much. You haven't really been anywhere unless you're gone for a few years." Jack starts feeling ill and tired, and finally lies down on the couch, looking green. The truth drug has probably run it's course now.

Meanwhile, back in the lounge, the Captain receives word from Joe that Jack and Jill's room has been "prepared" and is ready for them, so they check on Fostriades and Jack. They find that Jack has apparently succumbed to ouzo and Turkish coffee. It seems that the effects of alcohol after ten year's abstinence have taken their toll, and the Captain offers the opinion that it is due in no small part to the "Greek stuff" that Fostriades produced.

A gurney from sick bay is used to carry the sleeping Jack to his room, and the doctor prescribes a few pills to counteract the hangover. Jack and Jill retire to their room for a well-earned rest.

Brock will give them a quick physical tomorrow morning, although they do seem in good enough health.

The Captain and Joe speculate on how many of the bugs they set in the room last the night...

The Captain, Avon, and Fostriades remain in the lounge to reflect on the conversations. Jack's daughter was very open once she apparently trusted them, and gave every impression of being extremely high up in the IFSS. As Fostriades says, "At no point did she give the impression of working in a different chain of command, whereas this guy not only chronically refers to the IFSS as 'they', which is significant in its own right, but is hiding things in a way nobody in the IFSS has ever bothered to try. For someone who's been cast away on an island for ten years, he's been asking a suspicious lot of strange questions."

Fostriades says they can't really ask Jack questions implying they don't trust the Emperor. The Emperor told the IFSS about the cockroaches, not the other way round.

The remaining lounge lizards (the Captain, Avon, and Fostriades) discuss strategy in light of the new information. If they could make useless a system which would leave a Jump-4 gap, it would effectively stop the cockroaches. If they took out Dulu and Staru, for example, it would work...

But how could they take out a system? Fostriades explains that the Darrians are rumored (in legend) to have a weapon which will turn a sun supernova. "So all we have to do is go all the way back to Darrian, persuade them to tell us about the star trigger, assuming they even have it which they may not..."

The Captain comes up with another idea. If something became interesting on the other side of the cluster, the cockroaches may shift their attention to that.

Avon feeds him the straight line: "But how are we going to get enough stuff somewhere to make it that interesting for long enough?"

The Captain proposes creating a Bermuda Triangle by causing an area of space to be inexplicably dangerous -- shipping going through it would mysteriously go missing, or develop problems several trips later -- all sorts of different problems, too, with no obvious connection other than having traveled through the area. It should be enough to cause the cockroaches to worry about it but have difficulty determining what is causing the problem. The cause, of course, would be the Anastasia, sneaking up to cargo ships and attaching mines, or blowing them up, or placing a device in the fuel scoops to release a contaminant into the fuel to cause a catastrophic misjump.

Avon prefers blowing up the planets.

The Captain suggests that the doctor could produce time-bomb viruses, so that some of the things they would plant would not be mechanical at all. Computer viruses, suggests Avon?

The general characteristics of anything they plant should be that it should be non-obvious at the moment it is planted and for some period of time after that. They would only do this to the cargo ships, and need not get close to military ships. What about creating poisonous barnacles that after a year release contaminants into the fuel tank?