(43) Forty-Three

047-1119 to 050-1119

047-1119 : Attica / Querion / Spinward Marches

00:00 Imperial time is 7am local time.

Fostriades has negotiated a price for the repairs -- they will cost 75MCr (talked down from 90MCr). This includes berthing, replenishing life support, fuel, and stores, and use of the heavy equipment and facilities. It even includes restocking their nuclear missiles.

Mich checks the quality of the parts -- they're all good, almost like a lot are to Imperial Navy standards. Fostriades tries to trace their origin, but only some pieces have intact serial numbers, and he doesn't have the information to trace the ones that do. The maintenance progresses smoothly. Mich starts with external items, in particular repairing the hull and external weapon systems first. William assists Mich in supervising the weapon repairs.

Mich notices that the sandcaster turrets contain a nameplate from the Imperial Navy ship the Ethelred. He has not heard of that ship, so he asks Linda to try to track it down, but she can't find any records of the ship. Since it's perfectly possible that these items are salvage, free and clear, he doesn't worry about it unduly. Some items have hidden identification at the molecular level, which Mich removes along with all other identifying marks.

Mich supervises the work, of course, but the general crewmembers do most of the heavy stuff, with help from the marines for items that need unskilled heavy work. Mich stamps identification marks on the components as they are fitted.

The work should be completed on 090-1119.

Fostriades is concerned about the number of crewmembers taking shore leave. He is taking Bill's warning to heart and doesn't want to lose anyone. He also doesn't want to take off with any more pirates on board than when they arrived.

Mich says that they will have some surplus zuchai crystals from the jump drive redesign. They could sell them here, perhaps, to reduce their losses on the maintenance. Mich will, of course, sort through the crystals first to make sure that they retain the best ones for the Anastasia's crystal array.

Mich still wants to send out a message, but given where they are and that the mail route would pass through Cronor, it might actually be quicker (and certainly safer) to carry it closer to the Imperium themselves. Linda will keep an eye out for any ships heading in a favorable direction that could enable them to bypass Cronor -- she can access the flight plans at the main starport.

The Captain makes sure that security is suitable for the large amount of shore leave. So far, everyone who leaves also comes back. Although bailing people out of jail is one of the major jobs of a Captain (he says), he hasn't had to do it yet.

He also updates the ship's library data on this area. There is, it seems, quite a lot of Zhodani anti-piracy activity here.

He then checks on Rufus, who is doing just fine, as is Jack (considering his circumstances). The Captain does instruct NoName that Jack is not to be taught any of the pictures in the little book; NoName assures him that he would not be ready for it, anyway.

William, Alice, and Brock are interested in what entertainment is available. The local specialty seems to be burlesque and music-hall. They find a very good show, with a decent restaurant and bar attached.

048-1119 : Attica / Querion / Spinward Marches

00:00 Imperial time is 9am local.

William's gambling luck continues; even though he is not a skilled gambler, he always seems to do well, particularly with Alice there to bring him luck. This evening nets William 6MCr.

Brock plays poker too, but his main purpose is to observe anyone who might be watching William; he loses 300kCr. He notices that the management seem to be happy enough with William winning so much. Some people are paying attention to William, although none of them look as though they are there to watch him specifically.

When William gets back to the Anastasia, he visits Mich. Although it is 2:30am local time (which William is living by), Mich is at 15:30 Imperial. He tells Mich that so far he is on track for winning the money to repair the ship. William says he could get the company to lend him some money, then he could win enough to repair the ship.

049-1119 : Attica / Querion / Spinward Marches

00:00 Imperial time is 11 local (mid-day).

050-1119 : Attica / Querion / Spinward Marches

00:00 Imperial is 2pm local.

At 3pm local (01:00 Imperial), Bill turns up at the ship. William is amused that everything on the Anastasia always happens "early in the morning" -- William himself, of course, is living by local time.

William meets Bill at the loading deck and escorts him to the mess area on 'B' deck. He explains that the Captain and the others are on Imperial time and are therefore asleep. Brock entertains Bill while William wakes the Captain.

Brock introduces Bill to bean juice. They drink beer with a shot-glass of bean juice submerged in each. Brock asks Bill some general questions about his background and business. Bill says he's lived here long enough to be "from" here, although he has not been here all his life.

William returns. He explains that the Captain is asleep and will be there in a few minutes, and says he doesn't understand why everyone doesn't adapt to local time, since they'll be there for a month and a half. Bill agrees.

Bill compliments William on his gambling, and (unlike William) does not think that this run of good luck is eerie. He says that most of the big players are staying out of the game for a while, to see how William does and get a feel for his style and weaknesses before returning. The games are all straight -- the establishment doesn't tolerate cheating.

Bill does like the bean juice, and adds that Judy said it was pretty good. He says that the word has spread that the Anastasia has arrived here after battling all sorts of stuff -- they (apparently) ran into the Zhodani, who used nukes on them. The crew are amused at these rumors.

The Captain arrives. He exchanges greetings with Bill, who tells the Captain that his ship has quite a reputation. William explains that they have been in big battles with the Zhodani, who used nukes against them -- but given who they thought they were last time they encountered them, that wouldn't have been unreasonable.

"Who did they think you were?" asks Bill.

"An old friend of yours," says the Captain.

"For some peculiar reason they thought it might be the, um, Helen's old ship," says William.

"Pirate women, flaming red hair, attacks out of nowhere, destroys Zhodani..." adds the Captain.

"Flaming red hair?" asks Bill.

"Well, we added some embellishments," explains the Captain.

William ponders the name of the ship. Bill suggests it might be the Berlin?

They explain that when they encountered the Zhodani, they were already damaged, and that nothing they said really dissuaded the Zhodani that they were not the Berlin.

"Is the Berlin still in operation?" asks the Captain.

"That wouldn't be for me to say," replies Bill.

Brock fetches Helen.

The Captain asks Bill for advice on disposing of Imperial spies -- space them, he says. On it being explained that they want them alive, but not able to report until the Anastasia is well out of the way, Bill recommends dropping them off somewhere obscure in Darrian, like Entrope perhaps.

They discuss the Anastasia's travels. Bill says he knows nothing about the area they came from.

"Have you ever seen a cockroach?" asks the Captain. "The intelligent kind of cockroach, that builds its own ships?"

"...and shoots tactical nukes at you," adds Brock.

William thinks Bill is really not going to believe any of this.

The Captain continues, "Then I take it that these are not common in this area? They are becoming increasingly common over in the TradeMain Foundation. Oh, I'm sorry, the politics have changed in that area -- it used to be, um..."

"Scorpionis and the Corona Foundation," says William helpfully.

Bill looks blank.

"We have a lot of their marines on board," says the Captain. "It seemed a better alternative than remaining at the home world." He continues. "Cockroaches, an alien race. They attack in force, they appear to..."

"Captain!" interrupts Brock, "We are supposed to be trading information."

"That right! Your turn, Bill."

"What do you want to know?" he asks. "The planets round here are pretty well defended by Zhodani. It's getting difficult to do much against trade ships these days."

"Oh!" says William, "I know one thing we'd be interested in, because we've been a long way away for a long time. Have there been any interesting political developments in the Imperium we should know about before we wander in there and get ourselves shot at."

The Captain adds, "And why is the IFSS not necessarily working any more?"

Bill says, "Well, Imperium politics is pretty much the same as it was. How long have you been gone? No, there hasn't been much going on in the last couple of years. Relations with the Zhodani have improved, just a slow process really."

The Captain asks about what is happening at Karakus. "The Zhodani indicated that if we were going to go to Karakus for repairs, we might find that Karakus might no longer be in a position to provide them. It sounded like a Zhodani takeover to us."

Bill does not know of this "Karakus" place. William calls up a chart, shows Bill where it is and tells him they came over 20 parsecs on the last jump. Comprehension dawns. William adds that the last place they were they had an encounter with the Zhodani, something that Bill finds very interesting. As William puts it, "We both showed up in the system and said 'What the hell are you doing here?'"

William says that clearly they have information that Bill knows nothing about, and Bill can't tell them anything they want to know about that area, so it's time for them to shut up. What DOES Bill know about?

The Captain asks, "If you were coming into this are from a long way away, what would you want to know about?"

William asks about the Zhodani and relations with them.

Bill says, "Relations have been improved, but there has been some strange shuffling of troops around the border areas. One of the Zhodani border fleets moved out, to destinations unknown, but they pulled reserves in. So the forces here are reserves, a little less hardened but more numerically. Right before the fleet left, there was a fair amount of diplomatic interaction of some unspecified nature." He says that there have been no public announcements, and that he does not know where the fleet has gone -- it has not come back through this way, and was not headed into Zhodani space. He suggests that they had clearly done their best to hide the movements.

William asks about Archduke Norris.

"Norris has been working with the Zhodani to a certain extent. He's pulled all the support for interception of Zhodani merchant shipping by unauthorized people. Intercepting merchant shipping is no longer a supported activity. The number of places that are safe to go to is reduced. It's harder to get subsidized parts and things like that. It's not as easy in the pirate trade as it used to be. Some Imperial ships have been helping the Zhodani in anti-piracy activities, but you -- or your engineer -- will have already gathered that."

"So you've never heard of the IFSS?" asks William.

"No. What is it?"

"Oh, it's a non-existent organization. It doesn't exist."

Brock adds, "A non-existent branch of the Imperial Navy, or of the Imperium basically."

"Which doesn't do a lot of it's operations outside Imperial space, says William.

"Or it would, if it existed," says Brock. "But it doesn't."

"It doesn't do anything like help the Zhodani fight pirates, then?" asks Bill.

"Quite the opposite," replies William, "Until very recently, that is. Well, if it existed it would just be kind of keeping an eye out on things, and watching out for Zhodani influence, among other things."

"I gather," says Bill, "That there was an Imperial ship knocked down recently in the area. Remember Rudy? The guy you played poker with? He ran into something rather heavy in Zhodani space a while ago. He tends to go for the high-credit high-risk targets, and what he hit didn't have a great deal of escort until the Imperial ship turned up in an anti-piracy role. The stories are rather wild, of course..."

William asks Bill if he's interested in strange artifacts, and shows him some of the cockroach ship hull. He is interested, and suggests he could find a market for it. William explains that he's not the one who does the dealing, and so they'd have to wake up Fostriades. William goes to do just that.

The crew still wants more information from Bill, but he says he doesn't know what they want. What is their business, for example?

The Captain replies that their business is very fluid.

William returns with Fostriades. The Boss is wearing flamboyant pajamas and a Turkish robe; he is carrying one of his dogs.

Fostriades makes some bean coffee while Brock explains to him that they were discussing the sale of cockroach ship fragments.

Fostriades is not convinced that this is the optimum market for alien relics. He does, however, tell Bill that they will have some jump drive components for sale -- zuchai crystals, for example. Bill is very interested, but curious as to why they are selling vital components when they've just bought a bunch of drive parts. Fostriades suggest they use the crystals as part payment for the repairs and supplies -- Bill's bookkeeper will call him to arrange the deal.

They discuss the cockroaches and this area briefly, catching Fostriades up on the situation. He observes that there is profit to be made in interesting times.

Bill agrees with William that things are changing -- certainly the class of customer here has changed.

William says, "I guess the Berlin picked a good time to retire."

Bill thinks the Berlin could still be doing good business.

"Is it?" asks Brock.

Helen smiles. "The Berlin is not doing any business any more," she says. "That's why I could tell you with confidence that this ship is not the Berlin. I know it can't be the Berlin because I know exactly where the Berlin is."

"So how many pieces is the Berlin in?" asks William.

"It's molecules have merged with something on a much more stellar scale. What's left of it is in a gas giant fairly near here."

Fostriades says that the Zhodani wouldn't believe a word of it. He goes on, "I hear Archduke Norris is cooperating unusually warmly with the Zhodani. Interesting. Any idea if this is Archduke Norris' bright idea for keeping the peace, or is he operating under...?"

Bill replies, "I think it's just an extension of his diplomatic effort of the last decade."

They discuss the IFSS. Fostriades suggests that they are the sort of organization that would be funding covert activities here, and that the Zhodani were quite vehement in their hatred of it after finding them at Karakus.

Bill says that there has definitely not been anything called the IFSS operating here. "The only direct Imperial involvement I know about was the anti-piracy support that's coming in now."

"That's being provided by Archduke Norris," says Fostriades. There are too many factions here for my liking," he adds quietly.

Mich walks in. They discuss the parts, such as the good Imperial Navy sandcasters that are now on their ship.

Fostriades shows Bill the coffee machine with the most unusual General Products plate. He is very interested, and wonders where they picked it up. They explain that it came with the ship as standard equipment.

"Do you know anything about laser door openers?" asks Mich. "Why would you put a 2kW laser in the door opener sensors?"

"Depends what you want to do with something after you've sensed it," says Bill. "Or to make sure you have nothing to sense."

"That's standard equipment on this ship," says Mich. William says that as far as they know, they may be standard equipment on all General Products ships.

"You're willingly flying a General Products ship?" asks Bill.

"Hey, the price was right," says Fostriades. "Remarkably right."

"Well, they do have a bit of a reputation."

"Deservedly so."

Mich says, "Did you know this class of ship has been known to start a minor war? In Lirian..."

Bill does not know where that is.

Mich continues, "There was that weird box we picked up, too."

Fostriades explains that they found it in an Octagon Society place, and the box was a lot more modern than the building.

Bill says he thought the Octagon Society was pretty much abandoned after it was discredited.

Mich says, "It was an interesting box that sent out a signal when maneuver engines were operating near it. The box itself was impervious to X-rays and any other form of analysis that was available to us. We could not open the box, we could not even cut off a piece. I did put shielding around it and we carried it with us for a while. We got a good price for it. We found it on Spirelle, by the way. Have you heard of an artifact like that? We noticed the signal, and traced it to the Octagon Society building, where we found the box under the floor. The floor was covered with layers of dust like no-one had been there in years."

"If you find anything else like that," says Bill, "I think I can get you a good price on it."

"As what?" asks Mich. "As just an artifact for collectors, or does it serve some useful purpose?"

"Whether it is or not, I'd sell it as an Ancient artifact. If you go back there and find something else like that, I'll get you as good a price as anybody."

They return to discussing the cockroaches and their experiences with them.

Mich says, "Most of our damage came from two encounters. One we jumped in, they saw us and fired before we could react."

William adds, "We came into a system that we thought we knew was going to be abandoned."

"We bravely ran away," continues Mich. "Luckily we made it out of that one... and we had another case where we were a little too close to a very big explosion. Another ship was destroyed very actively very close to us, and we were caught in the blast. That did some extra damage. We were limping back."

"Well," says Bill, "I'm glad you made it here. We're one of the best sources for starship parts in four subsectors."

Mich was impressed at the availability of the good quality parts they needed.

Bill says, "We always make sure we have top-quality stuff. Most of our customers rely on our parts to be good -- their line of business doesn't allow for failure in use."

William says, "It's a lot less forgiving when you're out solo."

Mich says, "When we were out so far away -- it's been nigh on two years since our last jump drive service. We've kept it together with chewing gum and baling wire. Yes, that last jump was quite impressive. We were lucky we had some fuel left, because we came out in dead space, fortunately just a short range away from this place."

"I'm glad you made it," says Bill. "It'll be a very mutually beneficial visit. It's certainly for at least one of you been a very profitable visit so far."

William agrees that so far it has been quite comfortable.

Mich points out that they're going to be here for a long time, but if William offends someone gambling he can always go to the doctor for a new leg or whatever. "It's the only thing the Grand Am is good for," says Mich.

"He's certainly a quite remarkable doctor," says William. "Maybe we could sell him?"

Bill says there's not much of a market for retired navy admirals. Now the engineers, on the other hand, could pull in quite a salary.

Mich says it's never boring on this ship. "Especially the last couple of months, when every jump we've been babying the drives. At least people stop bugging me after about the tenth day of the jump."

William asks Bill about the gambling establishment. It is one of his enterprises, and pays for itself mostly in information. William mentions the show they saw in town. Bill says that for sophisticated entertainment, they'd have to go to Attica.

Bill starts to leave. Mich does his sales pitch for bean juice and coffee -- he explains the research they did to get the coffee right -- and tells him that another batch is due soon; he explains the process in very general terms, from the hydroponics to the distillation. Bill says he might take some later, perhaps a keg or two for a few selected guests. Bill's bookkeeper will discuss it with Fostriades when he calls.

Bill is escorted from the ship.