The Captain decides that they should hail the Zhodani, under the pretext that they are looking for a certain ship -- they will describe a BEACHBALL. Fostriades has liaison skill, and so he will be the spokesman.
William will be at his gunnery station, just in case...
At 06:00 they set a course to intercept the Zhodani ship, going fast enough to look like they're in a hurry, but not so fast that they look like they're attacking. Mich says that they can try 6G, but with the shape the engines are in, it will stress them -- but he will do his best, he says.
Even so, it will take about 10 hours to arrive at an intercept. the Zhodani ship will probably reach their jump point at 10:00, four hours from now.
They decide that they will tell Jack and Jill what is going on -- it would be interesting to see their reactions, and it was after all part of the agreement that they would be kept informed.
The Captain calls Jack, and tells him that they are talking to a Zhodani ship.
"Be careful," warns Jack. "What are they doing here?"
This, of course, is one of the main reasons why they are talking.
They start hailing the other ship. As part of the repeated message, they also say "Warning, possible hostile third party aliens in system, request opportunity to consult and exchange information."
At this distance it takes quite some time for communications to travel between the ships, but the Zhodani ship responds, asking them to identify themselves.
"This is the Merchant Cruiser Anastasia, home port at Spirelle, of the T.W.I.T.S. trading company."
"We detect no other ships in the system," comes the reply, "We do not consider there to be a threat. What are you doing here?"
"We have interrupted our trip to Karakus in order to investigate reports of an alien ship in this sector," says Fostriades. "The hostile ship which is reported to have damaged our companion ship is..." He gives a reasonably detailed and accurate (as possible) description of a BEACHBALL. "We are also searching for any information on the origins of this ship or the people in it. We would like to know what you are doing in this system."
"Where are you coming from, and what is your business at Karakus?"
Fostriades politely declines to answer further questions until they have received an answer to their own.
The Captain and Fostriades are concerned about making sure the Zhodani ship doesn't jump before they get close enough. Since it would reach its jump point six hours before the Anastasia can intercept it, they want to keep talking.
The Zhodani response comes back: "We are on a diplomatic mission. We are prepared to rendezvous and discuss matters with you."
"Excellent!" Fostriades replies, "We are making full speed towards you."
At 09:00 the Anastasia is ready to jump, as all fuel refining is complete. Linda starts computing jumps.
"Jack said to be careful," says the Captain, "So he was at least not influenced to the point where he was not aware of the Zhodani." He calls Jack again, and asks, "Could you explain exactly what you mean by being careful?"
"Well," Jack replies, "Who knows what they're doing out here? They're probably pursuing interests of their own and may not take kindly to an Imperial ship. They might shoot at us, for example. What sort of ship is it?"
The Captain describes it.
"That sounds pretty hefty. It's as big as this ship, and presumably its armament is in good shape."
"Have you ever been in Zhodani territory?"
"I don't think I can answer that question."
"Would Jill know more about the Zhodani?"
"I'm not sure that I can answer that. You could ask her."
The Captain calls Jill. "What do you know of the Zhodani?"
"Because I'm curious."
"Do I gather that some situation has arisen which maybe I should know about? You wouldn't be asking me unless you were in trouble."
"I can assure you we're not in trouble."
"Well, you want to avoid trouble, then."
"We always seek to avoid trouble," replies the Captain.
Jill agrees. "What's happening?"
"I'm sorry, I don't believe I can reveal that information."
"Part of our deal was that I should be kept informed if any situations developed, because I might well be able to help."
"You will be informed as things develop."
"It would probably be very useful if I could be on the bridge."
"Useful to whom?"
"To you, to us. I can respond more quickly."
"I think your ability to respond quickly is not something we question."
"So what's happening? What do you anticipate?"
"Well, we thought we'd go visit the Zhodani," explains the Captain cheerfully, "And see if anything interesting was going on."
"So you've found a ship of theirs?"
"You know, you're awful good at guessing."
"I'm good at guessing. If you recall, information is my job."
Mich points out that it really wasn't that hard to guess.
The Captain tells Jill to wait, and has a quick conference with the crew. He tells William to get a backup person at the Gunnery station (Brock takes over), and that Linda has intercepted additional information that there's a second Zhodani ship coming into the system, and there's debris of an earlier ship here; William is to keep Jill talking and find out everything he can about Zhodani, as the Captain is busy, and he is to find a convenient intercom station and talk to her from there.
William goes to the nearby mess area and uses the terminal there. He checks the computer to see if there is any indication of a second Zhodani ship in the system -- there isn't.
He calls Jill. "Jill, this is William Avon. The Captain's busy and wanted me to fill you in on what's going on. As you've already guessed, there happens to be a Zhodani ship in this system. We're trying to figure out what it's doing here. Some of this has already happened, but if you found a Zhodani ship, what would you do?"
"I think I'd try to stay out of its way."
"Just completely avoid it?"
"Yes. We could try talking to them and finding out what they're doing here -- that could be very useful information. I would like to talk to them, but if you want to ... what sort of ship is it? You don't have any more information than the Captain, then? Either we could talk to them or we could just carry on."
"Have you had experience dealing with Zhodani before?"
"I have a little knowledge. I have some idea of what to do to talk to them, yes."
"They say they're on a diplomatic mission."
"That sounds like a very good excuse, doesn't it?"
Meanwhile, Varda (wearing her psi shield, as always) takes a couple of guns from the marine stores, and rigs them so they are incapable of firing but look fully functional to a detailed inspection. She takes two marines from those on standby, and tells them to leave their weapons. She sends three other marines to the loading dock, fully armed, and tells them that she and the two marines will be arriving there shortly with Jill, and they are to await orders there.
She gives the inoperative guns to the two marines, and tells them to come with her. On the way down on the lift, she explains that they are going to escort Jill to the loading dock, where they will space her. They proceed to Jill's cabin.
William is still talking to Jill. "Any suggestions on how to talk to them?"
"Hail them as normal."
"Do they often travel in groups?"
"Depends what they're doing. Out here, I wouldn't have thought so. It's probably an isolated ship. I do speak Zhodani, if that's a help."
"We've already hailed them and had some communications, so obviously the translators are working."
"I think the Emperor would like to know what they're doing here."
"We think so too."
"How about bringing me up to the bridge so I can listen to this?"
"I don't believe I can talk the Captain into that. I think it would be interesting, at the very least. I will certainly pass on your request. If you can give me some indication of what exactly it is you might be able to do, or why specifically you should be there, I would have a much better chance."
"I appreciate that. It's difficult to know until I know what they're doing here."
"They claim they're on a diplomatic mission..."
"Yes. And what did you say you were doing?"
"Hunting a BEACHBALL. Just a second." William plays back the recording of the communications.
"It sounds to me," says Jill, "Like they might be hiding something."
"Shortly after that," says William, "The Captain said he was picking up indications of what might be a second ship, but I haven't heard back since then."
"A second ship? That sounds like trouble. Either we should talk to them while being ready to jump out at an instant, or we should go ahead and leave anyway."
"So you really think just avoiding them's the best?"
"It's as good as anything."
"Have either you are Jack had any dealings with them that they might recognize you, or you might mean anything to them, or...?"
"I would sincerely hope that they did not recognize me."
"Why is that?"
"The sort of work I do, I don't think I really want them to have me on their files."
"Then why did you say you wanted to be on the bridge?"
"They won't recognize me, as far as I know. If they do, we are in serious trouble... but it would tell us a great deal."
"OK, I think I'd better see if the Captain is free and talk to him." William calls the Captain.
Meanwhile, Vana has dismissed the marines in the loading dock and tells them to return to their duties. The marine outside Jill's cabin is told to expect Varda to arrive with two marines to escort Jill to the loading dock; he is to stay on guard until they arrive. The marines on the travel route are ordered to stay out of sight.
William asks the Captain why marines are entering Jill's cabin. This is news to the Captain, so he in turn asks Vana about it.
"They're the marines that we sent down there," explains Vana.
"Two marines, plus Varda, to escort her to a location where we will be standing by, and we will space her."
The Captain breaks out with laughter. "You're kidding! Please order the marines to bring Jill, under additional guard if you like, here. Misunderstanding."
Vana tells Varda to escort her upstairs, and explains the situation to the Captain. "The two marines escorting her believe she is being taken to an airlock to be shot and spaced."
"I believe that we may want to force this at a future time, but right now she is useful, so let's bring her up to the Bridge. We'll do this some other time."
Vana tells Varda to take Jill to the Bridge. It will not be necessary to inform the escort of the change of plan.
Varda arrives at Jill's cabin. Jill would like to know where they're going -- she looks concerned. NoName would like to know, too.
"We're carrying out the Captain's orders, NoName," says Varda, "Please remain here."
"I can't do that. I need to stay with her at all times."
"Very well. You may precede her."
"I would prefer to walk behind."
"You may walk behind her, but you both will precede the escort. Do be aware that you will be walking between the marines and her. You may be in the line of fire."
"Trust me, I will not be in the line of fire."
William has a sudden thought. He calls Alice. "By the way, Alice, remember that person I told you if you saw her to shoot? Well... don't!" He is about to go back to his gunnery station, but at that point a marine asks him to move out of the recreation area, as a security exercise. They discuss it briefly and politely, and a thoroughly suspicious William finally agrees to go into the corridor forward of the area, where he can still see the recreation area. He hears the lift go past, and is then permitted to return. He goes to his gunnery station.
Jill and her escort reach the lift. Varda presses the "up" button. Jill still looks concerned.
Another two marines are ordered to the lift on "B" deck. When the lift arrives, Varda collects the (inoperative) guns from the two escorting marines and tells them that they may stand down. Varda turns to the two new marines and tells them to escort Jill to the Bridge. Jill looks reasonably pleased.
Before Jill arrives, the Captain and Vana discuss her reactions. Vana says that either the psi helmets aren't working, or Jill just isn't that good. The Captain suggests that maybe she can't read minds, just project -- or perhaps she was so cool because she had already convinced the escort that she was going to the Bridge? Vana suggests they need to do the same experiment on Jack, and it might be a good idea for those two marines to report to the Sick Bay for the Admiral to check them for psionic influence. Perhaps Jack can read, and Jill can write, as it were? There has been no psionic activity registered on the monitoring equipment.
Jill arrives at the bridge, and the marine escort is dismissed. Vana takes appropriate precautions for the ship's security.
Jill is assured that she has been told everything they know. The Captain tells her that it was a mistake about the second ship.
This makes Jill feel better -- one ship pottering around looking at things wouldn't surprise her, but two ships are a lot more noticeable and she wouldn't expect the Zhodani to be doing anything too obvious out here. There is a much stronger Imperial presence here than they would like, as technically this space isn't anybody's.
It is now about 10:00, and the Zhodani ship has come to a halt at what is presumably their chosen jump point. The Anastasia is still six hours away. There have been no other communications, except that the other ship has (finally) turned on its transponder. The signal identifies it as a Zhodani courier.
Fostriades takes a nap on the Aux Bridge while things are quiet. Before he does, though, he reminds people that if they have any computer exchanges they should look for worms -- in both directions.
At 16:00 the Anastasia reaches rendezvous with the Zhodani ship. Now they are close, they can see more details: it seems to be 2000 tons, airframe needle configuration, reasonably well armed with a 50t missile bay (ouch!), four missile turrets, two laser turrets, and four sandcaster turrets. It is William's considered opinion that a fight with them would be a bad idea. Fortunately, a jump is ready, and all they have to do is press the big red shiny button...
Helen says that if they want her to be involved with the communications, she would like to be somewhere that they would not know she was aboard.
The Captain pulls her aside, "What haven't we asked you that we should have?"
"I may be known to them, if we're unlucky."
"Was this in your privateering days?"
"I have a criminal record."
"Among the Zhodani? You know them well?"
"Reasonably. I'm wanted for piracy, murder, all sorts of other stuff."
"Fascinating! Against Zhodani? Are they easy to kill?"
"Depends on your ship."
"Well, I tell you what. Borrow a battledress from the marines and be one of the standing guards. We'll have a few of the others in battledress so you won't stand out."
The Captain informs Vana that they will have an "extra" marine join the guards. It will be Helen, in battledress -- she goes to the marine stores to be outfitted. According to the Captain, Helen has apparently been busy in this sector.
The Captain discusses with Fostriades what they want from the talk with the Zhodani, and what they are prepared to reveal themselves. This includes how to have a meeting with them that will not indicate how unusual the Anastasia actually is.
It suddenly occurs to the Captain that although they have the jump calculated, nobody has told Mich. He corrects that oversight, and the drives are rapidly warmed up and ready to go. The maneuver drives at least have a chance to cool down now -- the extended high-G run stressed them rather, and they will need to be examined carefully while they are shut down during jump.
They have decided to meet with the Zhodani, and discuss suitable locations. The Observation Lounge seems the best choice, but Vana has security concerns about going through the Aux Bridge to get there; actually she has a very poor opinion of the ship layout as a whole.
Fostriades hails the ship from the Aux Bridge. They in turn request communicating over a tight-beam laser link.
The person at the other end is clearly a Zhodani, wearing a formal turban. The Captain was expecting this, and has covered his psi helmet with a crude turban of his own; the others who may come into view are also ordered to do so.
The man speaks: "This is the Zhodani ship Ste'saja."
"This is the Imperial Merchant Cruiser the Anastasia," replies Fostriades.
"I gather you are bound for Karakus?"
"That is correct. And yourself?"
"We're passing through the system. What is your business in this area?"
"We've been regularly trading in this area," replies the Captain. "There's good money to be made. As we said, we are a merchant cruiser."
"Interesting. You are a long way from Imperial space."
"We've been further."
"How far have you been? What is there out there?"
"You tell us!" laughs the Captain. "I don't suppose we've been nearly so far as you have -- that's a nice ship you have there."
"Thank you. Yours seems a little tattered."
"We've had to meet interesting creatures. You never know what one might find."
"No, one doesn't. Like Imperial ships a long way from Imperial space, for example."
"Or Zhodani where you least expect them."
"Do you perhaps want to meet and discuss ... where you've been, what information you have?"
"Well, that depends. We've been places, and we have information. We are merchants, and we usually look for a mutually beneficial transaction. It's a sort of habit."
"What sort of benefit did you have in mind?"
"For information," says Fostriades, "Information is often the best return."
"That depends what information you have and what you want to know."
The Captain replies, "You could say that the information we have is probably of supreme interest to the Zhodani empire. I am reasonably willing to bet that it's not information that's exactly rife in this area."
"Are you with the IFSS?" asks the Zhodani.
"Me? Us?" says Fostriades. "The IFSS is a very bad paymaster."
Jill is urgently trying to attract the Captain's attention. He puts the transmissions on hold. Jill is most emphatic that they shouldn't know about the IFSS.
The Captain opens the channel again. "The IFSS? What's an IFSS? Are you with the IFSS?"
"If you're out here..." starts the Zhodani.
The Captain interrupts. "Excuse me," he says to Fostriades, "The IFSS, are they a contract agency? Do we have an account with them?"
"Not a very good one. Not any more," says Fostriades.
The Captain gets back to the Zhodani. "Excuse me. You have some information about the IFSS?"
"Most Imperial ships out here seem to be related to them."
"I'm sorry. We're with the T.W.I.T.S. trading company. We do appreciate information about our competition, though. That is generally considered useful information."
"Yes. I think maybe we should meet and talk."
"Would you care to meet on board our ship?"
"Could we invite you aboard ours? We have an Observation Deck... There's a suggestion that we could send out the pinnace."
"Yes, we could agree to a meeting on your pinnace. We would like your pinnace to dock with our ship so we could transfer on board."
"Very well. We will be there in an hour." This means they will meet at 17:00.
It is pointed out that the Anastasia may need to jump while the Captain is on the pinnace...
Mich declines an offer to attend the meeting. Anyway, both engineers should not leave the ship, and Fostriades is wanted at the meeting for his Liaison skill.
The Captain discusses who will be going with him. Vana is told she will go, Fostriades of course (taking Zenobia), and Lia too. Helen will fly the pinnace. It is decided that Jill (and of course NoName) will accompany them.
At the Captain's request, Vana tells Varda to arrange for Jill's suit
to be rigged so that it can be used to incapacitate her, if necessary.
Varda delegates a marine to go down to Mich and ask him to do it. A combination
of explosives and corrosive poisonous gas (improvised from Engineering
stores) should do the trick. (Knowing how Mich feels about having Jill
alive on the Anastasia, this may have been an incredibly stupid
move...) Vana will hold the controls for the suit.