The obvious insanity of meeting with the Zhodani has forced Sir Bridgehead to find some relaxation method -- he has resumed his violin playing. He is currently in acting command of the Anastasia, and has therefore taken up station on the Bridge.
Helen flies the pinnace over to the Zhodani ship, and hooks up a transfer tube between the two airlocks. The aliens are invited to board the pinnace at their convenience.
Helen does tell them that if they reach a point in the negotiations where they want to give Zhodani a shock, or make a dramatic impression on them, to let her know.
Brock points out that since they are supposed to be a merchant cruiser rather than a military ship, they should try and behave like one and not be too officious -- use "Sure, guv" instead of "Aye, aye, sir!" The marines are dressed a bit more scruffily than they would normally, to try to maintain the air of a merchant ship.
Two Zhodani come through the airlock connection tube. They are not wearing vacc suits and do not seem to be armed -- if they are, it would be with small pistols or possibly grenades.
They exchange greetings. The Zhodani do not seem to recognise Jill. Zenobia looks at them suspiciously.
Fostriades is the spokesman. He is prompted throughout on a private frequency by the people on the Anastasia.
Fostriades addresses the Zhodani. "We think we might have some information which might be of value to you and your employers. On the other hand, being mere common merchants... Information is something one can acquire as well as give out -- acquiring it is also useful."
"So what did you have in mind? What can you tell us? What do you want to know?"
"It's connected to the vehicle we thought we were pursuing into this system. It's not Imperial, not Scorpionis, not in fact anything that has any normal right to be here."
"If I may venture to say so, neither of us have any normal right to be here."
"Yes, on the other hand, our presence in this system is not being accompanied by a major attack on its indigenous inhabitants. Neither of us is in fact doing this. The vehicle which I described to you, however, would undoubtedly have a much more overtly hostile attitude."
"Yes, presumably. So what do you want to know?"
"Well, as you say, neither of us has any normal right to be here. Essentially, we have already said that we are in a place that is unusual for a ship of our sort to be, because of the ship we thought we were pursuing."
"The ship you are pursuing... what is it doing here?"
"Well, if it were here, it would be attacking the system."
"How come you are pursuing it? Does that mean it's gone further on towards civilisation?"
"It's possible that what we actually thought we were pursuing at this time was merely a sensor glitch. Its similarity to the sort of ship that we had previously encountered was rather ominous."
"So what do you want to know?"
"Why are you here?"
"We're on a diplomatic mission."
"What is the nature of this diplomatic mission?"
"We have a matter to discuss with the government of Corona. We want to discuss permission for some of our ships to move through their space."
"What would be interesting in the area beyond Corona?"
"Presumably the same thing that interests you. What can you tell us about that area?"
"You might find it interesting to know that there is no longer a separate Corona Foundation."
"Yes, but Corona is the seat of government." Nominally, of course, this is true, but anything outside the original Corona Foundation is in practice under military rule at present.
Sir Bridgehead is fed up with Fostriades beating around the bush. He wants him to get directly to the point.
Fostriades does get a little more direct -- for a merchant, that is. "You are presumably aware of the some of the events which have caused this shift in the government of that area?"
"Yes," the Zhodani says impatiently. He mutters something in Zhodani to his companion.
"You must understand, sir, that we have to be careful here."
"So, we've told you some things...?"
"We have been beyond Scorpionis. We've been behind the lines."
"Where is the front line at the moment?"
"As far as we know, it's essentially on the border of the sector. Scorpionis -- well, TradeMain Foundation -- currently seems to be holding. Whether this is because the cockroaches are not temporarily pushing isn't clear, but there was a major incursion into Scorpionis space and that seems to have been cleaned up satisfactorily."
"So you are with the IFSS?"
"Only as a matter of convenience," replies Fostriades.
Sir Bridgehead wants to find out what the Zhodani know about the IFSS -- he wants Fostriades to work on the principle that the Zhodani know more about the IFSS than they do.
"I would be interested in knowing," continues Fostriades, "If you became aware of the alien presence through Scorpionis and Karakus, or if you became aware of them through some other boundary."
"As far as we know, there is only one direction. We believe the Zhodani Consulate does not have a direct route to the threat. The distances are too big."
"What is your opinion of the IFSS's ability to deal with the situation?"
"The IFSS at the moment is, I believe, not trying to deal with the threat. It is presently examining its options. How far into the territory have you been?"
Fostriades tells him. "We went in on contract work for the IFSS," he continues. "It did not pay as well as I had hoped, but it seemed an interesting thing to do. The crew was getting rather bored with just taking money and not having any fun."
The Zhodani mutter among themselves again. They seem to have little tolerance for Imperialist obfuscation.
Fostriades talks to Sir Bridgehead, using Greek so that they will not be understood. Unfortunately, Sir Bridgehead's mastery of the language is limited to the classical ancient Greek he learnt back in his education. Still, they do manage to communicate. Fostriades says, "Do I comment that we were sent by the Imperium?" The Admiral replies, "No. I think that we need to play this as cool as possible. We're traders who have got in over our heads."
"So what is your organization?" resumes the Zhodani.
"We make money."
"What brought you out this way?"
"It looked interesting. It looked like a good route for a freelancer. There are not a lot of Imperial freelancers out this way, and the pickings looked interesting. Sometimes you can do better trade when you're not restricted by Imperial guidelines."
"You say you've had some experience with the IFSS. Do you know how long they've been in this area?"
"We know very little about them. They approached us..."
"What about other Imperial presence?"
"There's very little. That was one of the things that interested us about the area -- less competition. Are the Zhodani taking this threat seriously?"
"Quite clearly, yes we are."
"Possibly even to the extent of moving warships in here to assist the defense of the area?"
"You are not with the IFSS?"
"No. We did a piece of contract work for them."
"Then maybe you are with the Imperial Navy?"
"We are just a single ship. People think you're less likely to be a pirate. We are not pirates."
"'Pirate' is a matter of definition."
"I do not think we have ever committed any overt acts of piracy, by any definition. Frankly it really doesn't make that much money. By the time you have governments looking for you, it becomes far too dangerous."
"Really?" The Zhodani pauses. "So you're not anything to do with any official authority?"
"That is correct. We have no links to any official authority." Fostriades is concentrating hard on not lying to them. So far, he hasn't been doing badly.
Brock speaks up. "So what else do you want to know?"
"What are the TradeMain people like to deal with?"
"We found them reasonably pleasant," replies Fostriades.
"Do you have contacts who we could talk to?"
"We talked extensively to Admiral Lhule."
Brock breaks in again. "We would like to know a little more details about what the Zhodani want, and what your mission is."
"We're on a diplomatic mission. We are here to arrange passage for some of our ships through the TradeMain Foundation to points beyond."
"And the mission of these ships?"
"I think that is classified. I am sorry to use such a crude Imperial term... as you know we are not Imperialist ourselves -- we are not at all expansionist."
"Certainly it is my feeling," says Fostriades, "That the menace beyond the TradeMain is sufficiently serious that a firm and vigorous presence there would be desirable."
"Yes, I think that is basically what we had in mind."
Vana thinks this is a somewhat unlikely goal -- the wimps in Corona might go with letting Zhodani warships into their systems, but Scorpionis (and hence most of the military) would not like it at all.
Fostriades resumes, "We have collected a fair amount of information on their ships, a somewhat more limited amount on their tactics, if you would find this information of use...?"
Fostriades and Sir Bridgehead agree that this information is not really Imperial classified. The Admiral believes that the more people fighting the cockroaches, the better; he does warn Fostriades that they should not appear more military than they have already.
Fostriades offers them a tape, and tells the Anastasia to prepare one like they gave to Lhule.
"We would like that very much. What information would you like from us?"
"I would assume that your government has a similar office collecting information about alien threats to our IFSS?"
"No, we don't."
"You are aware of this threat -- you are clearly making plans to counter it -- I'd be interested in knowing what your people would feel would be appropriate methods of attack, or methods of defense, or methods of dealing with, or reactions to..."
"I think that an appropriate method of dealing with it... hmmm. You have fought them? Your ship is very badly damaged."
"Yes, it is obvious that we have in fact had some engagements."
"Did you find that your technology advantage -- assuming you had one -- gave you a very large edge?"
"I suspect it is more our advanced tactical experience. There is also the fact that we are mainly interested in gathering information -- we are not interested in trying to destroy other ships, therefore we have a tendency to withdraw rather than be destroyed. This is, incidentally, not an approach which appears to occur to them. Their tactics are straightforward and simple."
"How did you yourselves learn of this threat originally?"
"We had heard rumors."
"It's really rather hard to be sure. When we reached this area, we were in fact contacted by the IFSS because they thought we were an appropriate ship to do some information gathering for them. We have a large range. We are therefore able to explore areas that would not be safe for ships with smaller range, and essentially that was the technique we used. Until the actual attack came the threat was not widely known in this area. Now that there has been a major battle and major diplomatic alterations in the relationships between Corona and Scorpionis as a result, I suppose the entire sector is more aware of it than it has been. It was not a widespread rumor, but it was one which had circulated in Imperial areas."
"Well, we heard from the Imperium."
"By what channels?"
"Through normal diplomatic channels."
"Not contacts with the IFSS, for example."
"More like contacts directly from the Emperor?"
"If you will."
"In fact possibly exactly contacts directly from the Emperor?"
"That would take a long time."
"As I said, the rumor was rather mysterious. To be frank, we inherited the rumor with the ship. We essentially salvaged this ship, and on board was a private letter to a former crew member of this ship (who was killed in an accident) giving this information. He apparently had been given instructions directly from the Emperor, not through any agency whatever. It would appear that this is a matter in which the Emperor has taken a great personal interest."
"Good." The Zhodani pauses. "Who are you, really?"
"We are exactly who we have said we are -- we are a bunch of freelancers. We like to make money, but we also get bored, so we prefer to make money in interesting places and interesting ways."
"You just seem to be doing too well."
"We have a very nice ship. It's mostly nice because we're very good at keeping it fixed, but in our hands at any rate it's doing very pleasantly. Basically it's an old and fragile ship, but when properly repaired..."
"It doesn't look nice at the moment. You're sure you're not affiliated with the IFSS in any way?"
"Absolutely sure. We've worked for them; that's the extent of our link. Why are you so interested in the IFSS?"
"We're curious how long the Imperium has had a military presence in this area."
"The IFSS isn't military. It was my understanding that it was essentially an extra-Imperial extension of the Scout Service rather than any formal military branch. Their ships are more heavily armed and armored than an average scoutship, but that's because they're in a less safe area... less secure, less settled, more likely to have pirates. Certainly the work which we were doing for them was of an information gathering nature."
"So why are you heading for the IFSS base at Karakus?"
"It happens to have a good dry dock. The ship is in need of service."
"What were your relations with the Imperial Navy?"
"We have some retired Naval people on board, but they are all retired. We have no connection. We have former Imperial Marines. We are Imperial, but we are not formally attached to any Imperial service. Our loyalty lies to ourselves and directly to the Emperor, and certainly not to anything in between; and the Emperor doesn't tend to give us personal orders very often."
"So what can we tell you?"
Fostriades asks them what military tactics they intend to use against this threat; not surprisingly, they decline to answer. Undaunted, he continues, "Have you acquired any information of your own about the threat or its nature?"
"Nothing more than the IFSS knows, and you seem to know more than they do."
"What would you suggest as the most rapid way of dealing with one of these ships?"
"Shoot it down with a bigger one. What's the largest ship you've seen?"
Fostriades tells them about the 50kt ship that fired on them.
"Oh, that's not a problem then."
"The biggest strength they seem to have is sheer numbers, and a certain lack of self-preservation. What sort of experience do you have with people whose capacity for reasoning tactics increases under the stress of combat?"
"Sometimes people perform better under stress, but I feel that's not what you mean."
"Not so much in terms of physical performance or skill, but in actual tactical knowledge. During one of our encounters with a large group, their entire military disposition -- their approach to dealing with the intruder -- changed, became markedly more competent with time."
"It is not something we have encountered."
"You would have no theoretical explanations for such behavior?"
"Not at present. Is it a physiological change?"
"Unfortunately we have had very little success in capturing live specimens, therefore I have no idea what physiological things happen. We have to argue by analogy. I was wondering if you had any analogies to offer?"
Fostriades takes a different approach. "What connection do you have with the IFSS?"
"The IFSS is... evaluating their options at the moment. They are not currently active and we were rather displeased to find that they were operating in this area."
"Was it the contact with the IFSS that invited you out here?"
"No. We were contacted through Archduke Norris' office."
This certainly gets the crew's attention.
"What is your connection with the Archduke?" asks Fostriades.
"Personally no connection, but as you know relations have been improved over the last several years, and he's been a major player in that."
"What were his motives in giving you this information?"
"His motives? Who knows? The explanation was that the threat would affect us, and certainly an invasion into Darrian would do that."
"Was he suggesting any kind of cooperation?"
"Yes. It is the result of the cooperation that we are here."
Sir Bridgehead had of course told Norris about everything when they found the Anastasia. He thinks the idea of cooperation is fascinating. Fostriades points out that the Emperor himself originally expected it, and apparently felt it would be better to go to the Zhodani than to try to deal with the Imperial Navy.
Brock asks them what they know about the IFSS.
"They appear to be a means of maintaining an Imperial presence in areas which are well outside the Imperium."
Fostriades takes up the questioning. "What disturbs you about the IFSS?"
"It just provides particular evidence of Imperial expansionism."
"Do you feel that the IFSS is dragging their feet over this matter?"
"What do you mean, dragging their feet?"
"Not pursuing the threat, evaluating their options."
"Ah! Perhaps I should be a little more straightforward. When I said they were evaluating their options... they are evaluating whether they have a need to continue existing. We were astonished to find them out there -- to even learn of their existence -- and so, it would appear, were the Imperial officers that were working with us."
"You've already come considerably further than the IFSS's main base. Did you discuss things with them at Karakus?"
"There are still ships at Karakus, who are dealing with the matter of the IFSS at the moment."
"Your contacts with the Imperium -- these people you've been working with -- they're basically diplomats operating through the civilian government rather than military?"
"Well, we're working with both. As far as we can tell, the Imperial people were as surprised at the IFSS as we were. It's produced rather a dilemma that they're working on."
"It was our understanding that the main Imperial interest in this sector was simply that it was the area from which the cockroaches were approaching."
"It is our experience that any Imperial interest eventually leads to some attempt at expansion."
Brock suggests to the Zhodani that their earlier statements imply that the IFSS is no longer loyal to the Imperium, or more accurately no longer loyal to their masters.
"The existence of the IFSS did not seem to be known to Grand Admiral Winchester."
Grand Admiral Winchester is a name Sir Bridgehead knows -- he is in command of several Spinward Marches fleets. Those fleets are readily reassignable, and have worked on the Zhodani border and so on. The fact that Winchester did not know about the IFSS is very telling, thinks Sir Bridgehead.
Fostriades asks where they think the IFSS acquires its authority.
"At the moment, the matter of whether they have authority is something they are discussing, I believe."
Fostriades hopes they do not change their mind about who has authority while they are sitting in dry dock.
Sir Bridgehead asks Rufus what he thinks -- he considers it rather worrying. He then asks Jack what he thinks the purpose of the IFSS is; he thinks it's mostly information gathering, but refuses to reveal where they get their authority. He relays this to Fostriades.
Fostriades says, "One of the difficulties about dealing with official channels is that so often official channels are often involved with competing among themselves."
"Yes," replies the Zhodani, "This is a trend I have noticed in the Imperium."
"Frankly that's one of the reasons why we're no longer working for the IFSS. In fact, we are currently between contracts."
Fostriades and Brock ask if the Zhodani drink -- they say they don't see why not. Unfortunately there is no bean juice on board the pinnace... they arrange for a party later that day on the Zhodani ship. The Zhodani wonder why a Merchant Cruiser would not have good accommodations. Fostriades replies that they are mostly a cargo hauler.
"What did you say the name of your ship was?" asks the Zhodani.
"When was she registered?"
"She was registered when we salvaged her, on 041-1117."
"How so?" asks Brock.
"I'm just curious that you seem to have a ship with lots of cargo space but apparently crude accommodations. It's very well armed and has apparently been used in battle."
"When you're on the taking end of most of the shots," replies Fostriades, "The word 'battle' is... uh..."
"I gather some ships don't give up their cargo too easily, then."
"We do not take cargo. We do not choose to have our cargo taken, therefore we are well armed. Moreover when you're gathering information against warships, it is frequently likely to expect that the warships will shoot at you. We were gathering information about the cockroaches..." Fostriades finally is fed up at the crew heckling him over the comm, and clasps his hands over his ears in frustration. He manages to recover, and says, "We can defend ourselves."
"Apparently you have the capability to handle boarding parties as well."
"We are lacking in a serious way of transporting boarding parties."
"The pinnace seems to do a fine job for you."
"And if you'd chosen to shoot it down?" Fostriades is insulted that they are insinuating that they are actually pirates. Brock asks the Zhodani if this is the case.
"I was curious. I can think of some pirates that... Pirate activity in the fringes eased off rather suddenly about the end of 1116, beginning of 1117, and I find it curious. I was implying that those who were pirates may have moved elsewhere."
"Never having been a pirate," says Fostriades, "I can't comment. I prefer that pirates not be active around me, and I have noted that when a ship has turrets and an apparent ability to defend itself, pirates tend to cease operating in the vicinity of that ship."
"When did we pick up Helen?" asks Mich.
"Shut up!" says Fostriades. "About that time. Anyway, she's only one Captain."
"How do we know Helen's a Captain?" asks Sir Bridgehead.
Vana mutters something under her breath, probably about spacing the lot of them.
Anyway, the party is set for 20:00 on the Ste'saja. Vana thinks this is a bad idea, of course. The Zhodani do request that they don't bring any weapons and so on that look like a boarding party. Vana tells Varda that she won't be able to take that tactical nuke on board after all, even though it isn't a boarding weapon. The Zhodani say they don't mind the psi helmets, by the way, and dogs are allowed too.
They say their good-byes. Fostriades promises to bring the tape over with them when they come.
Helen goes out and disconnects the tube, and then flies the pinnace
back to the Anastasia.