(20) Twenty

193-1118 to 206-1118

193-1118 (cont.) : ? (0304) / N / ?

They tow the captured ship back towards the asteroid belt. On the way back, which is a journey of a week with the hulk in tow, they examine it carefully.

The cockroach computer is much larger and cruder than one would expect from the tech level of the rest of the ship, and it may be rather difficult to hook anything up to it. They do manage to set up an electro-mechanical system to allow Linda to manipulate the console physically from the Anastasia. They also hook up electrical sensors and generators to the i/o cabling of the computer, and from that will try to work out some basic things about the system.

They find out that it is practically impossible to crash the computer from the keyboard.

Fostriades suggests that the creatures obviously have an individual IQ of practically zero and a lot of brute strength. The Captain suggests that there are a large number of unintelligent workers and a small number of intelligent ones, and the reason they get better in combat is that the intelligent ones come over to see what's going on -- in dangerous territory you would have intelligent ones on every ship, but in native territory that wasn't dangerous you might no bother stocking any of them in a ship. None of the cockroaches on Jax looked different from the others.

Examining of the computer continues. The screen is simple and it would be tough to break through the protective grid. Fostriades observes that there is a constant assumption that people are going to be abusive to their equipment.

Work continues, with Linda finding out lots more about the computer, including the symbol that they use for "Invalid Command." Given what they now have in terms of characterizing the inputs and outputs, Jill joins Linda in trying to analyze the system further. Work is easier because that section of the hull can be pressurized so they don't have to do this in vacc suits.

The symbols on the screen appear to be ideograms of some sort, like Chinese. Hmmm...Chiang Ho has Chinese heritage, and has been very involved in the TDS symbol books, and Vana worked on establishing communication with the Spiders on Jax, perhaps they can work something out?

While all this is going on, Brock and Avon search the rest of the ship. Most of the ships systems are bulky and solid. The jump drive is Jump-2 capable. The crew's quarters have a large hole in the roof, of course, but still some analysis is possible: there is a single room, fairly cramped, where apparently all the cockroaches lived. Toilet facilities are simple and have no privacy. There is some adjacent storage, containing hand weapons (nothing they haven't seen before), ammunition, a box of small rocks, some items that look like a ceremonial decoration of some sort to be worn around the neck; there is some food, which looks disgusting, reminiscent of slightly rotting meat. The cargo bay contains only containers of metal ore. The command room has direct access to the bridge via a sliding door, and contains some (physical plastic-paper) star charts -- the room has no computer access. The area covered by the charts is most of this sector, with a common notation for most of the cluster and another style of notation for a small area to spinward. Joe, with some input from Chiang Ho and NoName, helps Brock work out some of the symbols, such as that for "Authorized Personnel Only" -- all doors and lockers so indicated are opened and searched (the star charts were found in one such locker). Those four have picked up a feel for the writing system. There is more written information than they would expect on an equivalent Imperial ship. Computer access seems to be dramatically limited to the one console and presumably stuff on the bridge.

Work on the computer has by now revealed that the console is merely an operator's station and it is not possible to run the ship from that device. There are computer links to the engineering sections, but there is also a great deal of manual equipment there, and is fairly labor-intensive. The 2000t ship probably needed 5-10 engineering crew (as opposed to the two on the Anastasia). Where they would expect to find automated adjustments, the cockroach ship often has hand valves and antique stuff like that.

Everything on board the ship is extremely simple. There's a cargo elevator with just "up" and "down" (both large) buttons. The labeling is mostly stencil-painted. Basically it looks like an extremely simple cargo ship.

Computer work progresses. The computer is probably the equivalent of an Imperial Model/2, and basically serves as the ship's computer, rather than a general information system. There is a storage unit, but the captain's log would seem to be a written record. The computer probably does have a record of some of the jumps the ship made, but they cannot be interpreted. The computer room contains just the one computer, but the room appears to have been built to accommodate up to three units, perhaps standby units.

The ship probably had a crew of 15-20. There is a single communal sleeping room; the command room does not contain any living quarter facilities. There are no indications that there are any provisions for privacy. There is a captain's room, but no separate sleeping quarters or anything; from the remains of the bridge they would guess that there are one or two command chairs; the command room contains a communications station but no computer access.

Fostriades take this to mean that essentially all the sentients on board are interchangeable, none of them get any special distinction in terms of how they exist, no special bed, nothing. Brock points out that there are symbols indicating "Authorized Personnel Only." But perhaps that means "Crew only" or something like that -- "Get your intelligence booster shot before you enter this area."

Meanwhile the computer people have identified some circuits that perform computer control of engineering; the precise coordination of jump field maintenance is (of course) under computer control, even though the controls for bringing the jump drive on-line are all manual.

Jill thinks that given an hour or so and a box to plug into the cockroach computer, she could do something to the system to make it misjump.

There is no fuel refining equipment on board, and there are signs that the ship was not running on refined fuel and has probably never done so. The ship does have are fuel scoops. The engineers are not sure how to interpret this: can they run reliably on unrefined fuel, or do they tolerate misjumps (particularly in such a dense cluster)?

The conclusion is that they probably tolerate the loss rate. This really implies that the plan of getting ships to misjump would not be a real problem to the cockroaches, although Jill could set it up so that the jump field would break down and tear the ship apart -- that would be spectacular if it occurred insystem.

Brock introduces practical matters to the issue: how will they get these boxes into the ships? Jill says that's a military matter, not her problem.

The engineers think that if they could get the right sort of substance into the fuel system of a ship in the right concentrations, they could cause a big enough fluctuation of jump drive output to have disastrous consequences.

The cockroach ship uses a barium jump field grid, like Vargr ships -- a lot cheaper than the lanthanum used in Imperial ships.

200-1118 : ? (0304) / N / ?

The Anastasia arrives at the asteroid belt with the captured ship in tow. They find a very convenient large asteroid, and tether their prize to it.

A discussion follows of potential means of crippling ships in jump, like a mine that injects something into the fuel tank (difficult) or a shaped charge mine that blasts a stream of hull plasma into the jump drive area, for example.

Brock postulates that since the cockroaches apparently have a hive mind, their ships may be set up so than one can control another ... although the ship they have may be one of the subordinate types. They could really use an intact bridge to try to work this out, and they would really like a live cockroach too, although such a creature should be in a "black box" in case they really do have a hive mind and can communicate telepathically.

There is quite a lot of traffic in this system, both to and from the jump point and normal-space traffic to and from the secondary, so they have a lot of ships to choose from to attack.

It is much easier, it is decided, just to become pirates, uh, sorry, privateers, and go out and blast cockroach ships directly. Helen says that you don't really need that much of a permanent base provided you can find the facilities when you need them.

"Speaking from experience..." observes the Captain, "Did you realize we've been treating Helen with a fair amount of awe because she was a former pirate? If any of us locate to another ship now, we'll be in exactly the same position!"

Helen teases them saying she will turn them in when they get back to the Imperium, and the whole crew immediately leap to defend themselves ... obviously a guilty conscience.

"We haven't broken any law," says Avon.

"Nuclear missiles? What missiles? Did you plant nuclear missiles on this ship, Helen?" ask the Captain, "That's just the sort of thing you'd expect from a former pirate. Were you planning to blow us up with them or something?"

"Helen's a spy for the Imperium," suggests Mich, "Actually we don't know what she is, but she's not what she says she is."

"None of us are what we say we are," responds Fostriades.

"What do you say you are?" asks Brock.

"Sir Bridgehead picked me up on Zaibon, in a bar," answers Helen.

"Helen, alias..." says Mich.

"Christabel, at least," adds Fostriades.

"We can't say you're not what you say you are unless you tell us what you say you are," suggests Brock.

"Sir Bridgehead thought I was a call girl when he picked me up..."

"Well, OK." Brock is mostly satisfied. "Are you a call girl?"

"Well, at the moment I have a solid relationship, so I suppose no."

"OK, so you are not what you said you were!"

"I'm just somebody who's picked up a lot of useful skills along the way," says Helen, "It's amazing what you can learn from people in an asteroid belt."

They have basically decided that their next course of action will be to go out and find another ship or two to blow up. They will head out to the jump area to pick another target -- at the moment they should be safe from anyone finding a pattern in any of the disappearances. They decide to try to ambush a fairly small ship again.

They decide against scavenging air from the cockroach ship, as the rumors about the bad smell seem to be true. The food stores are rotting, and have been that way for a while. Apparently the cockroaches like their food half-rotten.

201-1118 : ? (0304) / N / ?

So, they have now finished fastening their prize ship to the asteroid, and head off to attack some more innocent cockroaches. They choose a different part of the jump area from their previous attack. It is a 5-day trip to get there, running very quietly.

206-1118 : ? (0304) / N / ?

A couple of ships in the 10kt range jump out before they get there. They then notice a group of ships coming out from the planet to the jump point, which eventually is resolved by the sensors to 5 ships, probably around 2kt each but some variation in size (1-3kt), probably some much like the ones they jumped last time. The Anastasia moves in for the kill, on a precise closing course. The other ships are all moving in close formation, within 25,000km of each other -- just ripe for a heavy nuclear missile salvo.

At 14:00, they close with the cockroach convoy...