(37) The Egg

The Misha Campaign (199-1121)

199-1121 : Digitis / Vilis / Spinward Marches

    The Nightshade is approaching a stealth object.  Everyone is at battle stations; Kalida Siena's weapons console locked on automatically as soon as the object was detected.

    In the meantime, on the eight day approach, Robert's been working on the automated shutdown program.  It's difficult work, but he's making progress.  It does not look like he'll be able to extend this to a ship like the Nightshade.

    Edward "Shark" Teeth asks for an update on the arcs of fire of the weapon systems.  Of course the missiles exit the launcher forward, but can maneuver to any direction, and the lasers start several meters from the hull and can fire in any direction.  Privately, he is informed that the third weapon can fire in any direction too -- it does not, of course, show up on Kalida's console.
    The object itself has been doing nothing.  It is in stealth mode, stationary relative to the star.
    Misha Ravanos asks Robert Morris to open a channel in tight-beam communications.  They will of course give away their location by transmitting, but he considers it worth the risk.
    Robert opens a channel.  Misha asks him to hail the object; Robert tells him it's not responding.
    Shark points out that if it's in stealth mode, it's using power.  It's not a dead object.
    Nevertheless, there is an open channel, but the object is not responding.
    Misha says, "Hello," to the object.  There is no response.  He tells Robert to kill the channel.
    Shark points out that since their targeting system can see the object in stealth mode, it can probably see and target them.  He suggests closing to 2 km.

    Helia Sarina brings the Nightshade in to 2 km from the object.
    Shark wants to bring up a visual of the ship.  He is astonished to find that there is no visual.  There is a general location, a rough size (between 20 and 100 m), but no visual.  The only reason they know it's there is that their ship indicated it as an "object in stealth mode."
    Misha asks Robert whether the ship can handle communications with another ship, like it does with the starport personnel.  Robert replies that it can, but in this case the object is not responding to hailing protocols, despite having an open channel.
    Shark suggests they try assuming the object is an automated station of some sort, and try to get it to send them its data.  Robert tries that, but still there is no response.
    Shark suggests they dock.  Misha asks for other options from the crew.  Robert tries to hack into the object, but it's not possible.
    Misha asks the ship, "Nightshade, is there anyone on board the ship in stealth mode?"
    "It is an object in stealth mode," replies the ship.
    "Is there a way to ask it it's function, purpose, or name?"
    "It does not respond to hailing protocols."
    Kalida asks, "Are there other protocols we can use?"
    "I don't know."
    "What other types of ship to ship communications do you have?"
    "I don't know."
    Robert says he's been in sparkly pink mode trying everything he can to contact the other ship, and nothing's worked.
    MIsha asks, "Nightshade, If the object in stealth mode were an object similar in design to yourself, would there be further protocols you could try?"
    "I don't know," says the ship.
    Robert says he's tried that too.  He's tried everything.
    Misha asks again, "If this were a ship of similar design to yourself, could you request that it step out of stealth mode?"
    Nightshade replies, "It does not respond to hailing protocols."
    Shark says it's time for physical action.  He suggests sending over one person.  That seems to be the only option left.  He says he has enviro combat, but not vaccsuit.  Should they send the launch, or a suited person?  A gravcraft wouldn't work well this far out from the system.
    The launch cannot be set up for unmanned operation -- and they've never used it before, either.  The gravcraft aren't set up for remote control either, certainly not from the Nightshade.
    Misha asks the ship to take them out of stealth mode, but not turn on the transponder.

    The Nightshade drops out of stealth mode.  There is no response from the object -- it is still not responding to hailing protocols.
    Shark pulls out his binoculars, walks up to the window, and looks in the direction of the object.  He can see nothing there.
    Misha tells Helia to take the ship in to ten meters, slowly and carefully.
    Shark still can't see anything.  It's even stealthy to visual observation.  He says, with wonder in his voice, "We can go into stealth mode in the atmosphere -- we can land in stealth mode," he says.
    Helia flies to ten meters from the "object in stealth mode."
    They still can't see the object.

    Shark suggests extending the gangplank from the hatch behind the bridge, and sending someone across.  A quick poll of the crew reveals the obvious -- the marines, Teri Cralla and Kalida, are the most qualified.  So they are therefore assigned the mission.
    Shark explains to Kalida how they opened the hatch to this ship -- the hidden panel with the hand crank beside the hatch.  Of course the object has power, and the crank might not work now.
    Misha authorizes the mission.  "Don't die, don't get lost," he says.
    Kalida and Teri go off to suit up in battledress, while Helia lines up the Nightshade with the gangway pointing at the object.
    Still no-one can see the object.  The ship does now indicate that the size of the object is 50 meters, plus or minus 20.

    Teri and Kalida reach the hatch, ready to leave.  Teri is carrying her favorite gun, the FGMP-15.  Both are in battledress; they match, of course, both in Imperial issue suits.  Teri's has no insignia at all, but Kalida's personal suit carries the marks of her Brigadier General rank.
    The gangway extends about ten meters, but it can't be seen over five meters -- it just chops off in mid-space.
    On Kalida's orders, Teri steps out onto the gangway, still in its artificial gravity.  They walk across into nothingness, and vanish.  Contact is lost.

    Kalida steps through, and sees an egg-shaped object.  It has no windows, and is the same black as the Nightshade.  It is about 30 m on the long axis, and 20 m in diameter.  Behind her she can see her own ship; as she stepped through, everything in front of her became visible -- nothing in the view behind her was lost.  The gangway extends another five meters to the object.
    Kalida looks around for some sort of hatch.  She notices something at the far end of the object -- towards the "base" of the egg, and flies over there.
    There is indeed an indication of a hatch outline in the hull.  She's a little surprised at this, as the hatches on the Nightshade were pretty much invisible, but since she's taking all boarding action precautions anyway it doesn't change her plans.  Teri stands guard while Kalida finds the crank access panel, and prepares to open the hatch.
    As Kalida reaches for the access panel, the hatch opens.  There's an airlock behind it, big enough for about three people, oriented as if the "base" of the egg were indeed the bottom.  The interior of the airlock is lit, and status indicators inside are glowing a comforting red.  She reorients, and moves inside as Teri holds guard outside the hatch, FGMP-15 at the ready.
    Kalida briefs Teri on her plans, and moves into the airlock.  The outer door closes, and after a short pause to cycle the air the inner door opens.  Inside is a small circular room.  There is a small rest area, with a bed and small table.  There is one console.  At the far side is a ladder leading to a hatch in the ceiling.  Kalida checks that Teri is still in contact, and feeds her video from her exploration.
    Lights are on, but the console is not powered up.  She walks into the room, and over to the ladder.  It's a normal deck height, about three meters.
    She then moves over to the console, and sits down at it.  It powers up, labeled in the Nightshade's script language.
    Back to the ladder... she climbs up and the hatch above her opens.
    This area is clearly storage, with quite a lot of boxes.  They look like the ones on her ship, also labeled in the script.
    The ladder continues up to another hatch.  She moves on up to the next area, and finds that it's the entire rest of the egg interior.  It's just one single open area.  The other two decks were like a short cylinder inside the egg, and the rest of it here is filled with all sorts of unidentified equipment.  It's quite easy to move around up here -- the gravity is off, and she maneuvers around in zero-g, making sure she gets good video of the entire contents.
    Kalida then returns to the airlock -- which opens for her -- and joins Teri outside the egg.  The airlock door closes behind her.
    The two of them return to the gangway.  Walking out from the egg, they step over the boundary.  The object behind them disappears -- they can see the stars through where it is -- and they regain communications with the Nightshade.

    It's been about 20 minutes when the two Marines reappear on the gangway.
    "Sweet!" says Helia, "I want to go!"
    Kalida and Teri step on board, and the airlock corridor cycles.
    Helia asks, "Should we move away, or are we OK?"
    Kalida replies, "As far as I know we're OK.  I didn't see any other living thing there."
    Shark asks, "Did you go on board?"
    "Yes.  We've got a fifteen minute video of the inside of the ship.  There was one console -- I turned it on, it was all the funny symbol writing.  There were boxes, again with that writing, and a lot of unfamiliar equipment.  So have at it."
    Robert pulls up the video feed on the command holodisplay.  He soon determines that the console is probably dedicated to communications.  Shark theorizes that it's a courier ship, like an xboat, or possibly a communications relay station.
    While they're still looking at the video, Helia moves the Nightshade to line up the starboard gangway with the egg's airlock in the proper orientation.

    It's time to send the technical crew.  Robert, Mich Saginaw, and Shark suit up to go across.  Helia is very keen to go too, but Shark says she should wait for another trip.
    Robert sets up a fiber-optic cable for communications while they're inside the stealth bubble, but it is snapped at the connection when the hatch of the Nightshade closes behind them.  They keep going anyway.  Shark does a few experiments with the stealth boundary, leaning back and forth, before he joins the others at the airlock.  The hatch opens in front of them, and they move in to the airlock, which cycles automatically.
    They find the egg is set up exactly as they'd expect from Kalida's description and video.  Mich confirms it's the same technology as the Nightshade.  There is, however, no power cube on board.
    Robert goes over to the console and turns it on.  He says it's definitely a communications console.  He checks the message log; the last message received was the tightbeam transmission they detected, and it contains the same (or rather, the equivalent in script) as the Sheriff's message from the forest.  The message was not so much relayed as replayed -- it was stored, then it was fed through equipment which just used power in such a way that the power use was the data of the message -- it didn't actually do anything with it.
    "Oh, cool!" exclaims Shark.  "They're the gnomes!  They're the people inside the box, pedaling!  They encoded the message in the power stream by drawing power.  Now who can hear it but the people on the other side, creating the power?  No-one!  So replay transmitted the message to the gnome.  To the other dimension where the power is generated.  They're talking to the gnomes -- when I said that, I was serious.  They are the gnomes."
    Robert says, "Well, we could insert a message that says, 'We're here at your relay station if you want to come any sooner.'"
    "I wouldn't do that," smiles Shark, "But we'll talk to the boss.  I mean, now it will say, 'Not only can we talk in your language, but we can find you too.'"
    Robert wonders if they can do the same thing with their power system.  He does point out that it's has to be a one-way transmission, from power user to source.
    Shark asks if the console can be reconfigured for engineering or something.  Robert says it's just a communications station -- there's no access to any other functions.
    Shark then goes up to the storage room to look at the boxes.  None of them are opened, and their weight varies.  They're all labeled in the ship's script.  Shark is having some difficulty with the language, despite learning more about it in his last klatrin experience.  He inventories them -- they are all the same size and shape, but of course the labels on every box is different.
    Robert has been looking through the comm logs again.  There are very few messages transmitted.  The one that Robert intercepted (now presumed to refer to Mich) passed through.  Before that, a couple of months before they arrived here, was a message saying "In place and ready, stand by."  There is a first test message that was fed through approximately 200,000 years ago -- two thirds of the time Lap'da claims his people arrived here.  There were a number of other messages over the years, mostly of the "I'm here, everything's fine" sort.  There is apparently no facility to receive a message through the power system, just from the RF transmissions to this station from the planet.  So it's a one-way relay -- unless, as Shark suggests, sticking his head through the hatch above, the zuchai crystal array on the planet has something to do with it.
    Robert goes up to help Shark with identifying box contents.  There is a lot of food, some generic tools (probably the same as on the Nightshade).  He then turns to Shark and says, "So as far as we know, this has been sitting right here in stealth mode for 200,000 years."
    Shark adds, "Not being clobbered by comets, or asteroids, or other debris from the Oort cloud."
    "Space is really, really, huge, so the probability of getting hit is very small.  Also it's made of the same hull material as the ship, and it doesn't have a large gravity field drawing things in towards it."
    Mich tells them about the systems.  There is a small station-keeping maneuver drive.  There are some simple sensors, so it can avoid objects on a collision course.  There's life support to the small living section, as well as atmosphere in the rest of the egg.  There's radio receivers, and communications equipment for local communications.  It just feeds the communications to the person at the console -- there's no automated response.  It is really pretty simple -- it keeps its station, avoids large objects, it relays what comes in (assuming it's properly structured).  There is no power cube -- it looks like the setup of the launch, remotely powered.  There is no way to tell where the power source might be.  Mich wonders if their launch can send a message to the ship.  The egg has no controls to turn off the stealth -- like the position to be held, it can be reconfigured by an engineer.  All non-communication settings like that are part of the initial setup.
    Shark points out that such messages could be sent using a flashlight, or medical scanner, or any of the items powered by the Nightshade 's cube.  They had better start learning morse code!
    They've pretty much seen everything now, so they return to the ship.

    Back on board their ship, they tell everyone what they've discovered -- including that they can't figure out anything about where it might be powered from.
    Mich and Robert check their own power systems to see if they can set up that sort of communication with the launch.  They find it's already built into the launch.  It is of course only one-way.  It's labeled as "fast alert message."  They still don't know the range of such a system, but presumably it would be the operational range of the launch.  As for what that range is, they have no idea, and the ship itself says, "I don't know."
    They tell the crew that the Sheriff's message was relayed correctly, and that none of their open broadcasts were relayed -- they didn't have the right protocol.  They can now send a message from here via the console on the egg.  Their only clue so far as to range is that the medical scanner operated several thousand kilometers from the ship, and that there was no change in power drain with distance.
    Robert points out that the message, while one way only, could be instantaneous with an infinite range -- they have no way to know.  You could make it two-way by having each ship having a transmitter unit slaved to the cube on the other ship.
    Shark adds that at the moment there is no evidence that they've been on the egg -- unless they go over and send a message, of course.
    Robert says that they don't need to be on the egg to send a message, now they have access to the correct protocols to access the relay.  He asks Sagan if sie wants to go over, but the hiver declines -- sie doesn't trust these alien systems not to shoot one of hir race automatically.
    Shark asks Robert if there's anything more they can pull out of the systems over there.  Robert replies that they have everything -- there's just the message log, no entertainment even.  Mich adds that there's not even any control over anything like position, which is all hard-coded into the system and can be changed only by an engineer.  It's pre-programmed to have the stealth on, and to avoid anything that might collide with it.
    Shark suggests to Mich that he rig up one missile to leave here and use power, and so when they jump they can see how far away the power communication works.  Or they could even use something like a medical scanner, just pick up transponder systems and relay it through the power system or something.  They can work on it during jump, and leave it somewhere later.
    Mich suggests renting a locker somewhere and leaving it there.  Then he stops, and with a strange expression on his face, says he's just remembered a black box they found a long, long, time ago.  There was a black box, which just transmitted a signal.  He shielded it to mask its signal while it was on the Anastasia.  It could not be opened without destroying it.  They eventually traded it to Jack the Younger (of the FarSpace Service) for an EMMask and other services.  Mich says they found it near the Anastasia -- they figured it was designed so that if anyone ever found the Anastasia and moved it, it would squawk and someone would know they had the Anastasia.
    Shark says quietly, "And it worked.  They eventually found the Anastasia and blew it up."
    Mich says, "Or they took the Anastasia and blew everything up to hide that they took it."
    "But then they came after you... if it's the same people."
    "The Anastasia was not in serviceable condition.  They would have had to haul it away with a freighter, just like it was being hauled away.  The 2000 ton ship was broken."
    Shark says again that they should work on the transmitter.  If it does work, they can plug it into the Mora net and just have it transmitting all the time.  Put it in the Marquis ' house, and have it transmit news data up to date.

    They decide they will send a message through the egg.  They discuss the content for a while, whether to reiterate the same message or send a new one.  In the end they take Misha's idea -- "This is the Nightshade, contact us."
    Helia takes the opportunity to go over to the egg and look around.  Unfortunately, as the lock starts to cycle, it's apparent that a seal on Robert's vaccsuit hasn't been properly connected, and is leaking to vacuum.  Helia quickly identifies the problem and fixes it.
    Robert has rigged up the fiber-optic cable again, but again it fails.  Obviously there's a flaw in the design here -- going through the airlock just isn't working.  Next time, he says, he'll take a small unit to put on the ramp and run the cable from there.
    On board the egg, Robert sends the message (in script, of course).  The whole message is just one symbol, and an easy one at that.  It's so simple, in fact, that he has no trouble vocalizing it -- so he sends the message in voice too.  Helia watches over Robert's shoulder, and she is pleased to notice that she indeed is getting better at the language.  She says she needs more fish oil experiences.  Robert nods.
    Helia looks over the entire egg.  She can't find anything they'd want on the Nightshade, and she satisfies herself that it's just a station, not a ship.
    They return to the Nightshade.