(68) Turning the Tide

The Misha Campaign (059-1122 to 060-1122)

071 / 802 local (059-1122 - 060-1122) : Digitis / Vilis / Spinward Marches

    It's about midday.  The crew of Nightshade have returned to their guest quarters in Cormor Home after an interesting conversation with Lap'da.
    Mike still hasn't come up with his criteria for rescinding his threat to destroy their ship if they try to leave.  He left his negotiation goals open, although he made it very clear he wants their ship, and would like Mich to join "them," whoever "they" might be.
    The Sheriff's instructions were that there was to be no violence against either party, and no eavesdropping or other spying, and no psionics use.  The area subject to these restrictions is his entire jurisdiction -- Cormor Forest, Cormor Home, and the train to Center.  Stepping off the train in Center steps out of the Sheriff's bounds.
    It's not known how exactly Mike arrived here -- whether he made the trip by train or not.
    They are not, however, worried by Mike's threats.  Both Helia Sarina and Mich Saginaw are completely confident that they can jump before leaving orbit, and therefore escape without Mike's supposed black ship attacking them.  Jumping in atmosphere will cause a loud bang as the vacuum fills in where they were, but won't hurt anything else.  Helia says they should probably just get up to a good altitude and jump from there.
    They briefly discuss the possibility of kidnapping or killing Mike as a counter to his threats, but since Mike considers himself expendable, it seems likely that "they" consider him so too.  His only use to the Nightshade crew is as a flunky, and a channel back to "them."
    Still, talking with Mike is useful.  As Edward "Shark" Teeth points out, he has let slip a couple of things. One was tactics for using the weapon -- without overwhelming the ship's shields with nuclear weapons, apparently the expander is ineffectual against a black ship.  He spells it out for the benefit of the others: "The only use for the nuclear missiles is to attempt to overwhelm the shields.  Once you've overwhelmed the shields with your entire volley of nuclear weapons, then you can use the expander on your opponents' black ships."  In other words, the shields stop the expander, and the shields are affected by nuclear blasts.
    They still don't know how big Mike's supposed black ship is.  Given that Nightshade has twelve staterooms, yet doesn't require twelve people to run it, there could well be smaller ships -- probably smaller military ships of perhaps four berths.  They know there are larger black ships, because they've seen one, but they have no idea what size ship Mike has.
    The know that Mike is communicating with his ship, and that anything said in his presence is being relayed back to his ship with a one-way ship's power communicator.  As Shark points out, they themselves haven't figured out how to make it work through jumps, so if that's true then Mike must have the black ship power source here in the area.  They also know that within whatever the range is, the egg station has been on and active for a very long time -- 200,000 years since the first logged test message.
    Misha Ravanos reminds them that what they've learned from Lap'da is that thousands of years ago -- in the time of the Ancients -- his original people were part of a group that he gave the name the Crusaders.  Misha explains, "They were warring against something.  They reached this point and ran into their enemies.  At the same time, there was another pair of peoples fighting locally in this area.  The pair that Lap'da was part of were more highly technically advanced, and could certainly clean up the other two.  Something happened, and part of Lap'da's group decided they didn't want to be crusaders any more.  They wanted to settle down, not fight anymore, and live on the planet -- they became the janns.  The rest of them went on to continue the crusade.  The other pair continued fighting too.  But somehow they managed to work out this arrangement where none of these peoples were allowed to attack this planet.  This planet was just off limits."
    Shark says, "Three of the parties agreed not to attack this planet.  The fourth, who the crusaders were fighting, I assume would not have agreed."
    Misha nods -- the enemy were not part of the treaty.  "But anyway, there was an implication that the Crusaders -- the ones who continued crusading -- were also protecting this planet.  Lap'da didn't know that there were still Crusaders, but his belief is that there are -- or at least that their protection still applies, is still in force."
    "Right.  So we have the Crusaders in the black ship, because Lap'da in the past has said his ancestors had a black ship."
    Kalida Siena says, "He said his people came here in the black ships.  Do you remember what was going on 300,000 years ago?  That would have been when the Final War of the Ancients occurred, destroying them.  They were the ones who presumably seeded everything with humans."
    Misha says, "My assumption was that all four parties in these two pairs of wars were Ancients."
    Kalida points out that Imperial library data says that the Ancients weren't human.  She adds, "That's kind of what Lap'da said.  He said that they were not people like us."
    Robert Morris points out that the scryptese term for "people-like-us" as used by Lap'da is applied to humaniti in general, and that Lap'da includes himself in that concept.
    Kalida says that Imperial theory is that it's the droyne who are the descendants of the Ancients -- decidedly not human.
    Misha laughs that Imperial theory on this could well be completely bogus.
    Shark wonders if the Crusaders ended the Ancients.  A lot of Ancient technology has been found, but what about weapons?  The black globes are based on Ancient technology, of course, and there's certainly a lot of artifacts that remain completely unidentifiable.  He then returns to their immediate dilemma, "The whole deal here, what Mike has told us, is 'You have information and possessions we can't let you have.'  Now no matter what he tells us he's going to do, they can't let us go.  We're going to have to escape.  They can't leave us here either, because there's too many ships that come and go.  They would have to put us under permanent guard, and from the sound of his conversation their organization isn't very large.  So they can't afford to put us under lock and key.  They can't afford to let us live.  As a matter of fact, they may want us to try to leave, so they can shoot us while we're not on this planet."
    Kalida nods, "That would explain their poor negotiations."
    "Now that they think that they've pumped us for all the information they're likely to get from us, like where we've been and so on, we're no use to them.  They cannot, according to the treaty, attack us here.  Now if they truly are operating under the Treaty of Versailles, then until we attempt to leave we're OK, but as soon as we attempt to leave they are free to attack us.  So for us to safely leave, we may in fact not be able to leave the atmosphere."  He wonders why the destroyers of the forest got off without retribution.
    Misha says he remembers the answer at the time was clear -- Lap'da said they needed to learn.
    Kalida adds that Lap'da's sense of "no damage to here" was very vague, but the point was that Mike would have to wait until they were outside orbit to blow them up, so that nothing would damage here, so it would fall up.
    Misha says, "So what do you guys think of the following strategy?  We go to him and say something like, we've decided we can't let go of the ship -- we're emotionally attached to the ship -- and we understand what that means for us in terms of our future.  Before we go, we'd like them to tell us everything they know about the black ships."
    Kalida smiles, "So we can take that knowledge out in a blaze of glory with ourselves?"
    "Right."  Misha laughs.  "What do you think?"
    Helia drips sarcasm, "Oh sure, I think it'd work."
    "I didn't think it's going to work.  The real question is, is it going to be fun?" smiles Misha.
    Kalida says, "However it could end really quickly if he simply says no, and that's pretty much the end of it.  There ought to be somewhere else to go after that."
    They then briefly discuss whether they want to stay on planet a little longer, or if there's anything else they want to do here, anything more they want to cover with Lap'da, for example.
    Shark raises the issue of what if anything Lap'da knows about Goose.
    Misha says, "We directly asked him.  He had no reference for Goose -- it meant nothing to him, and we had no way to explain it to him.  Robert was there, and he couldn't manage to tell him either."
    Shark wonders idly how one would describe Goose in scryptese.  He notes that Robert learnt the language by drinking fish oil repeatedly -- and the fish oil came from Goose.  He adds, "The people on Goose recognized the black ship, and they're expecting the Crusaders back -- now we know that they were the Crusaders -- someone in a black ship, but not us.  In fact, expecting someone in a black ship who hasn't been back there in a long time.  It was more like generations than a few years, and given the formality of their society and the way it seemed to work, it could have been many hundreds of generations."  He notes that the humans on this world speak the child's version of scryptese -- jannish -- and that's what Lap'da speaks to them even though his native language is the full version.  Shark continues, "Obviously the Sheriff understands the treaty."
    Misha says, "What makes you think that?  My impression was the Sheriff made up his own treaty to cover this particular meeting.  He's obviously playing some sort of game."
    "And Mike and his people are using this as some sort of base.  Building this multi-dimensional array of zuchai crystals underground -- this is beyond Imperium technology, and certainly beyond the technology of people on this planet.  In fact, this could be where all the gnomes live, for all I know -- the gnomes whose boom box we powered up with the batteries, the source of power for the black ship."
    Helia says, "It's everywhere.  It gathers energy from everywhere.  It draws it as it needs it."  There is a pause, then the larian changes the subject.  She says, "I don't think 'Lap'da's people' has anything to do with Lap'da's body.  I think his manifestation as being humanoid may have nothing to do with what his people originally were."
    "I do," says Shark.  "He built the black ship, which is clearly designed for humans."
    "It's not clearly designed for humans -- Lap'da appears to be human," insists Helia.  "It doesn't mean they weren't some other human sized similar race.  Nowadays they appear to be fully human, but this ship could well have not been built by some human species, just more something that was our size and shape."
    Shark smiles, "Wouldn't it be funny if in fact the Ancients were responsible for seeding the universe because they shot down so many of the black ships over various planets, and we're just the descendants?"
    "That didn't happen where I came from," says Helia firmly.  "Grandfather explains us."
    Misha goes back to the origin of the janns, after they split from the Crusaders.  He says, "They went from high technology -- black technology -- to taking care of forests."
    Shark corrects him, "Planting and creating a forest."  He laughs, "With alternate realities embedded, but that's another story."
    Misha continues, "What I'm getting to is that there was another group of Crusaders who stayed, but didn't give up the technology."
    Helia nods, "I think the janns moved away from the black technology."
    "I'm not sure that the thing that's protecting us is part of the treaty.  All that's protecting us is sort of a combination..."
    Shark says, "Lap'da's implying that the Crusaders are not supposed to come back to this planet at all.  If Mike is claiming membership by proxy in the Crusaders, then he's breaking the treaty."
    Kalida says, "And he'd have to be one of the Crusaders, as he's clearly not one of the others, because they weren't people like us.  And he's not a jann."
    Misha says, "Lap'da said something like, 'Is Mike sure he's even allowed to be here?'"  He turns to Robert, "What would be the right way for me to learn script?"
    Robert doesn't miss a beat.  He says, "Drink klatrin."
    Shark adds, "Several times.  With the risk that if you drink too much you may not be able to speak galanglic, because it's too simple."
    Kalida says, "Except that it hasn't done that to everybody."
    Shark grimaces, "I think... I run the risk if I partake."
    Misha says, "But people on Goose drink this stuff, right?"
    "No," laughs Shark, "The bartender gave it to us.  And there are people on Goose who can blink in and out of the ship.  And Lap'da can move across the forest in no time."
    Robert adds that the tar that they smoke on Goose helps avoid the chemical charge buildup you get if you drink too small a dose of klatrin.
    "I'll drink more," says Helia.
    Kalida says, "I don't know, you got married last time."
    "No, I was married last time."
    "To be married, one has to have got married."
    "That was the problem.  I missed my wedding.  I was married for that year, but I didn't live through the wedding, I just was already there.  Although we were talking about having a child.  I'm not sure I could have come back if we had."
    "OK," says Misha.  "Can I say that this conversation is just too weird for me?"  He hadn't been in the room when Helia came out of her last klatrin trance.
    "I didn't live my wedding, I just lived a year of my married life.  And we were talking about having children."
    Misha shrugs and leaves the subject behind.  He says, "So, I was thinking, if nobody has any ideas where we want to go, why don't we just stay here for a couple of months?  Learn script, and explore the forest.  Talk to Lap'da.  See what Mike and company do."
    "OK!" says Helia brightly.  She reaches around, picks up a jug of klatrin, and puts it down in front of him.  "I'm ready when you are, boss!"  Shark and Kalida grin.
    "I wanted to talk to Lap'da about his thoughts on learning script."
    Kalida says, "He thinks learning is good."
    Helia says, "I think if we take fish oil and ask him to guide us, he probably will.  I'd like that.  Very much.  How about you?"
    Shark says, "Last time he guided us, and he didn't have to have fish oil."
    "Problem is, Shark doesn't need any more fish oil."
    "Robert survived it."
    Kalida says, "He might be all right with a guide."
    Helia says, "Yeah, but there's something about Shark's personality.  He fights the fish oil.  It takes him into bad places.  Wouldn't you say so?"
    "No," says Shark, "It showed me bad things.  Bad things showed up."
    Kalida says, "There are a lot of bad things in the universe."
    Helia says, "Well, Shark looks for the bad things."
    "That's reality," says Shark.
    "Only more so," adds Kalida.

    Misha decides they need to talk with Mike again.  He picks up the telephone to talk to Mike, but the operator says he's not available.  Misha leaves a message inviting him to dinner tonight.  He then leaves a message for the Steward to arrange dinner; shortly thereafter, the Steward calls back to confirm the dinner arrangements.

    That evening, everyone heads over to dinner -- again, a short walk through the forest, and to the same dining room as last time.  Soon after they sit down, Mike arrives.  The parties greet each other pleasantly.  Food and drink arrive.  Kalida and Helia have no problem with the etiquette of the dinner service, along with Mike; Shark has a little difficulty, while everyone else is decidedly ill at ease in this formal social situation.
    "So, Mike," starts out Misha, "Your people -- the group you represent -- what are their origins?"
    "That's not important," says Mike.
    "Is it also classified?"
    "By who?  Who classified it?" asks Shark.
    "We did."
    "If we're not going to share the information, why are you worried about it?"
    Mike ignores him.
    Misha asks, "How come our ship can't detect yours?"
    "Because ours have improved."
    "Is yours bigger than ours?"
    "If you can't detect us, you wouldn't know that."
    "You're right, I don't know, I was just asking.  Another classified bit of information?"
    "Yes," smiles Mike.
    Misha continues, "When was your ship built?"
    "You don't need to know that."
    "Do we need to know anything?"
    "No, you really don't need to know very much at all."
    "Why did you come here?"
    "Because we can come out of this better than just destroying you -- although that's a suitable fall back position."
    "Better how?  What outcome is better than just destroying us?"
    "Us having the ship.  Us having Mich working for us."
    "What would you like Mich to do, if he worked for you?"
    "Much the same as he's working on now, probably, except our facilities are better.  We also have other engineers he could work with as well to accelerate his research.  Jane, for example."
    "What's Jane working on?"
    "That would be classified."
    Misha tries a different tack.  He says, "What do you do when you're not having dinner with groups of potential... destructees?"
    "Me?  Actually, I'm an administrator."
    "What do you administer?"
    "All sorts of things."
    "Like what?  I mean, the parts that aren't classified."
    Mike ponders the question.  He says, "I oversee a lot of government bureaucracy functions."
    "For what government?"
    "That's classified.  I'm only here because I'm the most expendable."
    "What an honor!  You must feel really privileged," laughs Misha.  "How did you become part of this group?"
    "I was born into it.  But we do accept new members."
    "What's the aim of this group?"
    "That would be classified."
    "Then how do you get new members?" laughs Kalida.
    Misha asks, "How do new members know that they want to join you?"
    "They don't," smiles Mike.
    Shark asks, 'Did your father do this job before you?"
    "No," says Mike, apparently missing the point of the question.  "He did something else."
    MIsha asks, "Was he a member of the group?"
    Helia says, "Did the word 'pirate' have anything to do with it?"
    "No.  We don't have pirates."
    "Ah!  Privateers!"
    "No, we don't have those either."
    "You mean you either belong or you don't belong?"
    "Mafiosi," concludes Helia.
    "No," laughs Misha, "They're nothing like mafiosi."
    Mike smiles his agreement with Nightshade's captain.
    Misha says, "OK, so... the aims of the group are decided by the leaders of the group?"
    "Yes.  Although we have an overriding general trend."
    "And that is?"
    Helia interrupts with her latest label: "Illuminati?"
    Mike beams at her, "That's better."
    "Got it.  We've heard about you even where I came from."
    "I don't think so.  You haven't heard about us."
    "No, but we've heard about groups like the Illuminati."
    "Oh, yeah, they're all over popular literature."
    "So do you consider it to be more of a religion, more of a social club, or more of a nefarious underworld organization?"
    "Not really."
    "None of those?  How would you best describe it?"
    "I wouldn't describe it."
    Helia leans forward and whispers theatrically, "An unseen force.  Got it!  That's a good one, isn't it?  Kind of like the Illuminati that way.  Unseen, undiscussed.  Do you guys have a private name all to yourselves?  No?  You don't have a name, you just are?"  The larian sits up suddenly and says, "How do I join?"
    "You would have to be invited."
    "So invite me."
    Misha says, 'Is that how you get new members?  They get invited?"
    "Yes," confirms Mike.
    Helia says, "You don't have the power, do you?  You can't invite a new member."
    "By myself?  No.  I could sponsor you for membership, but I certainly don't intend to do so at the moment."
    "You haven't shown me anything that..."
    Shark says, "But Mich does.  Sponsor Mich."
    Helia says, 'Really?  How about this?"  She whips out her puter and shoves it in Mike's face.  Displayed is a complex mathematical proof.  She says, "This one hasn't been published yet.  There's not enough information on the first page, so you can use your mechanical eye."
    "What, you want to work for us too?"
    "I don't know.  What can you do for me?"
    "Provide you with excellent facilities..."
    Helia says, "Did you guys kill Helia?"
    "I don't know.  Who?  You?"
    "Helia.  You know, Helia.  Didn't you kill the Professor?"
    "Did you kill Helia?"
    "Pardon?  What are you talking about?"
    "Who did you kill besides the Professor?"
    "Anyone at the base, and in orbit."
    Shark interjects, "The poor guy I went hunting with.  He was a nice fellow, too."
    Helia continues, seriously, "If she is dead, I'm going to have to kill you one of these days.  But I don't think she's dead yet."
    Mike doesn't react.  He says, "But yes, the Professor is dead, his assistants who were there, anybody else on the base."
    "Did you kill the little girl?"
    "We killed anyone who was there."
    "She was the most intelligent person in the universe."
    "Well, then it's good that we... Like I said, destroying you -- even Mich -- would be an acceptable outcome."
    Kalida says, "So you're all for throwing out the baby with the bath water."
    "Oh, absolutely."
    Misha says, "What of the goals that you can mention does destroying us fulfill?"
    "It prevents you wandering around causing trouble."
    "We already did that."
    "Yes, but we're hoping that you haven't caused too much trouble yet.  Trouble in the wrong places."
    Shark says, "Like passing on information to the various security systems."
    "That would be bad, yes."
    Misha says, "Maybe we don't have the same idea of what trouble is.  So what is your idea of trouble?"
    Mike says, "Attracting the wrong attention."
    "From whom?"
    "Um... we're not sure.  That's why destroying you -- or at least depriving you of the use of the ship -- is such a good option."
    Shark says, "But aren't your crusades over?"
    "Never mind."
    Misha says, "Maybe we're the very people you're trying to protect us from."
    "Pardon?"  Mike is getting more and more confused.
    Misha comes back, "Maybe we're the very people you're trying to protect from us."
    Mike still looks confused.
    "You said, you don't want us to cause trouble in the wrong places.  But you don't know who we might cause trouble with.  You don't know who you're protecting.  From us."
    "Oh no, not protecting from you!  I know exactly who we're protecting."
    Misha shakes his head.  "Let me start over again," he says.  "You want to prevent us from causing trouble in the wrong places."
    "Yes.  Like getting noticed by the wrong people."
    "Maybe we are 'the wrong people.'"
    "If you're the wrong people, you should be dead.  Or actually, I would be, probably.  No, you're not the wrong people."
    Kalida says, "I think I'd prefer that: option two, please!"
    Misha says, "I thought you said you don't know who the wrong people were."
    Mike says, "We don't, specifically."
    "Then maybe we're them."
    "I don't think you are."
    Shark says, "But how can you identify them if you don't know who they are?"
    "By their actions.  If it walks like a groat, if it smells like a groat, it's probably a groat."
    Misha asks, "What's a groat?"
    "Not from around here, are you?  Look it up."  Mike pauses, then says, "We're worried that you might tip off the wrong people.  There are two things.  First, you might spread information to anybody -- we don't want anybody wandering around with this technology, or..."
    Misha interjects, "So this technology is the information you don't want spread around?"
    "That and the presence of your ship.  Yes."
    Shark has noted the fact that Mike used a reference to an animal native to Fulacin / Rhylanor, and fairly common in Aramis subsector.
    Misha says, "This secret group that you're a part of -- is working for them your whole life?"
    "That's basically it," says Mike.  "That's my job."
    "Have you ever considered leaving?"
    "No.  Why would I?  There is no reason to leave, and every reason not to."
    "Could you leave?"
    "Why do you stay?"
    "Because what I do is important, I feel.  I have a useful function.  I'm doing my part."
    Helia says, "An administrator?  That makes you expendable."
    "No, I'm just expendable."
    Misha asks, "In what way does your part contribute?"
    "It keeps the organizations in place."
    "You could do that from anywhere.  There are organizations everywhere."
    "Yes, but this is more important."
    "Why is it more important?"
    Helia answers him, "He contributes to it because of the sheer fact of the matter that he is an administrator, he is justifying his reason to breathe air anywhere, because that's an administrator's job, to justify their own reason for breathing air.  That's the only point of administration.  An administrator's job is to come up with reasons while he's around."
    Mike says, 'Right now you are attempting to justify yourselves.  You haven't totally achieved it yet."
    "I don't have to justify myself.  I'm worth having around, period."
    Misha asks, "What would justify us?"
    Helia adds, "And who are you to say that we need to prove ourselves to you anyway?"
    Mike says, "Because it's on my say-so whether you can actually leave this world or not."
    "Says you.  I mean, what if you're just bullshitting us?  You're a pretty good bullshitter, that's part of your job, that's the other function of an administrator is to give a bullshitter a job.  No offense meant.  I'm not offending you, am I?"
    "No," replies Mike cheerfully.
    Helia continues, "We don't have administrators where I come from.  We don't need them.  But we are amused by you."
    Mike returns to his point, "So, what you have to convince me, is that you will not go around spreading the technology..."
    He is interrupted by general laughter and snickering.  Helia says, "Don't worry, we can't.  What are we going to do, give somebody else our ship?  That's the only way we're going to spread it.  Somebody gets this ship over our dead bodies."
    "And you might reveal anything you know about it," says Mike.
    "Not only that it draws power from everywhere."
    "So we won't tell anybody.  Simple."
    "Right.  But how do I know you won't?"
    "Because I said so," says Helia firmly, "On the souls of my ancestors."
    "OK.  The next problem is that it's not just the technology, but you could tell people where you got it.  The mere fact that the ship exists is a problem."
    "We're not going to tell anybody where we got it because there's more.  If we need another one, we go back."  Helia laughs loudly, "Duh!  You don't tell people where your secret stash is!"
    "The other problem, in terms of the ship, is... it being seen."
    "Well, it's not like we can hide it!"
    "If you turned it over to us, we would make sure it was hidden."
    "But we wouldn't have it, and we like it."
    "We'd give you another one.  We'll give you Anastasia."
    "I've heard about the Anastasia.  I don't want the Anastasia."
    Shark says, "This ship is our friend."
    "It talks to me," says Helia.
    Kalida says, "If you're so concerned about it, why don't you tell us how we can camouflage its appearance?"
    Mike says simply, "Don't use it."
    "An alternate method.  More useful, something that we would actually do."
    "You already know about stealth mode, and you also know that it's not perfect.  You can pick it up -- not as well as we can, of course.  Is it not reasonable to assume that there are others who can pick it up?"
    Misha says, "Who else can pick it up?"
    "I don't know."
    Kalida says, "Presumably someone else with a black ship, in which case it hardly matters."
    "Well, there are others who can pick it up."
    "How do you know?" asks Misha.
    "We know."
    "You know, but you don't know who they are?"
    Misha changes the subject: "What's your relationship with the Sheriff?"
    "You could call him a business partner."
    "What's the business?"
    "That would be... I'm not at liberty to tell you.  Nor will the Sheriff.  We have agreed to keep that confidential."
    "Is the Sheriff acting as an agent for the government of this planet, or acting for himself?"
    "He's acting for himself.  Otherwise we would have dealt with the government, which is not what we want to do.  We have no business with the government."
    "What business do you have with the Sheriff?"
    "We have a business agreement."
    "What does the Sheriff have that you want?"
    "I can't answer that.  You can be assured that it's a good relationship in both directions.  The Sheriff is a good, principled man.  He also seems to have a liking for you.  I'm not sure why..."
    Shark says, "And if he hadn't?  Had a liking for us, that is.  What would you have done?"
    "We might have started out with this meeting under different terms.  They are quite favorable to you."
    Helia says, "Wait a minute.  Favorable is you're going to kill us later.  Not favorable would be...?"
    Kalida answers the larian, "He views the supposed neutrality as favorable to us."
    Mike nods.  He says, "So what can you do to convince me?  You want to go away with your ship and just keep going.  What can you say to convince me to let you?"
    Misha laughs, "That's classified."  He goes on, "You mean how can we convince you that we won't spread information about the ship?  I don't think we can do that and get away with the ship.  Do you imagine there's some way we can take the ship and not spread information about it?"
    "Maybe.  Now, spreading the fact of its existence is a separate matter."
    "I thought the two matters were related."
    "I'm holding separate the information about the technology, which you can do yourselves without the ship, from going somewhere in the ship and being observed.  If you're going to be alive, you need to convince me you're not going to spread information -- you, anyone who's ever served on the ship, anyone who ever will, anyone who comes on board, this, that, and the other.  If you can find some way to convince me of that, I have no reason to kill you."
    "We're pretty honest people," Misha assures him.  "What if we promised not to tell anybody?"
    "If we put that in writing with sufficient penalties, we could do that."
    Shark asks, "To be enforced by?"
    "That would be part of the agreement.  We would of course include some sort of safeguards both ways."
    "Tell me more," says Misha.
    "I'm not sure.  If that becomes the case, we'll have to work on the details.  But I'm not bringing anyone else in unless there's a firm commitment on that."
    "Who would you bring in?"
    "Someone who can write such agreement."
    "So do you imagine there is some way such an agreement can be judged, and enforced?"
    "The first assumption is that we would equally keep our word.  We would include penalties we were permitted to do -- such as hunt you down and kill you if you told anybody.  And there would be penalties for us if we hunted you down and killed you if you didn't tell anybody."
    "How would those penalties be enforced?" says Misha.
    Kalida says, "If we didn't tell anybody, then who would know?"
    Mike says, "First of all you'd have my word, but I doubt that's good enough for you."
    Misha says, "Your word's pretty good, but..."
    "My word is very good."
    Shark says, "At least as good as ours."
    "My word is good," emphasizes Mike.  "If I promise you something, that's how it will be, and I will not promise you something that I cannot promise.  We don't break our word."
    "Who's we?" asks Misha.
    Shark says, "Can you name your organization?"
    "No.  I would not name our organization."
    Kalida says, "If we put together this treaty, will you name the organization?"
    "Yes.  If that's what you want.  But you will sign it."
    Shark says, "And we get to chose the witnesses."
    Helia says, "What's your penalty if you do something?"
    Misha says, "A deeper concern of mine is not necessarily your word, but who judges compliance?"
    Mike says, "Who do you suggest?  How about the Sheriff?"
    Kalida says, "He's not truly neutral, as he's a business partner with you."
    "It not so much that he's not truly neutral, as he has a business relationship with me and he has some sort of relationship with you.  It was just a suggestion."
    "Lap'da," says Helia.
    "Who's that?"
    "He's one of the jann."
    "That would be acceptable," says Mike.
    "OK," says Misha, "There's room for negotiation here.  What would you consider not telling anybody?"
    "Anyone who was not part of your crew, say."
    Helia asks, "What if someone leaves our crew?"
    "They must still not tell anyone."
    Misha says, 'What if someone joins our crew?"
    "You can tell them."
    Helia says, "If someone leaves our crew, and then decides to tell, you will take care of them at that time?"
    "That would be a violation of the agreement on your side."
    "But there would be no penalty against the rest of us."
    "Yes, there would.  It's up to you to ensure your compliance with your side of the agreement."
    Misha says, "So what information would you want us to not tell?"
    "Anything that you learnt from us in the course of preparing the treaty.  Anything about the ship or its technology, it's origins or history."
    Kalida says, "That should go the other way, too.  You shouldn't tell anyone about us."
    "We will not."
    Helia says, "And you will tell us things we don't know yet about your ship?  Give us more information?"
    "We still haven't dealt with the issue of the ship being a hazard by its presence."
    Misha says, "Let's move on to that, then.  In what way is it a hazard?"
    "If the wrong person were to notice a ship of this type, it could be a serious problem."
    Helia says, "So are you saying there are places you don't want us to go, or...?"
    "I don't know where they all are.  I know places you can go.  This place is safe.  Our worlds are safe."
    "Where are your worlds?"
    "I can't answer that at this point."
    Misha says, "So, in terms of percentages of the two sectors the Imperium touches here..."
    "I have no idea where these other places may be.  One of our tasks is to make sure that there aren't such people, but we are spread thinly and we can't tell for sure."
    "How common are these people?"
    "I don't know.  There may not be any.  But if there are, the consequences could be disastrous."
    "How many safe places are there?"
    "Very few.  In terms of guaranteed safe, maybe a dozen."
    Helia says, "So how do we balance this against your proposed restriction of trade?  We need to be able to make a living."
    Mike nods, conceding her point is reasonable.
    Misha says, "If the ship is in stealth mode, is it safe?"
    "Unless you come close enough to someone who can detect stealth mode."
    "And these people who you're trying to hide the ship from can presumably detect stealth mode?"
    "We don't know if they have that capability, or whether they're just relying on us being complacent."
    Kalida says, "So you're saying that if we just completely accidentally brushed against someone we didn't know was there who was looking for us, that would be in violation of the treaty."
    "That would be a major disaster."
    Helia insists, "But would it be in violation of the treaty?"
    "It could be, but the consequences are such that you should never do that, never put yourself in that situation."
    "But how can we know?"
    "The same way we know.  We don't."
    "If we sit at home somewhere with the ship parked in a garage, maybe -- maybe -- nobody would find out we have the ship."
    "You could park it here."
    "And do what?" asks Helia.
    Kalida says, "And yet you're taking your ship around."
    Mike says, "Not very far, and we do not do so lightly.  This is a safe world."
    Helia says, "Are you saying you think we are careless?"
    "No, I don't.  I am just saying that we are... paranoid."
    "Well I'm glad you said that!"
    Misha says, "We'd have to know more about the aims and origins of your group before we could enter into it."
    "What do you need to know?  Our aim is to protect... people."
    Helia says suspiciously, "Which people?  From what?"
    "Everyone from... death and destruction."
    Kalida says, "You cause death and destruction on people.  That's hardly protecting them."
    "On a limited scale.  The Imperium has many worlds that execute people.  Secret services execute people all the time, whether they deserve it or not."
    Misha says, "So can you be more specific about what sort of death and destruction you're protecting people from?  What death and destruction?  Which death and destruction?"
    Mike grunts.  He says, "Somewhere at least on the scale of attempted genocide."
    Helia says, "Who genociding whom?"
    "From genociding you all, and us."
    Misha says, "OK, I get that.  Who's the genociders?"
    Mike says, "If we knew, then we would be in a better position."
    "What do you know about these people?" asks Misha.
    "Aside from that their capabilities are very strong, and they have a history of destroying and killing..."
    Helia says, "So you're pissing up a rope, hoping it's the right rope."
    Mike looks really puzzled at that.
    Kalida takes up the slack.  She asks, "How long a history?"
    "As long as we've known of them."
    "How do you know what you know about them?"
    "It's in our charter."
    Misha asks, "What is your charter?"
    Mike laughs, "Protecting you all from death and destruction!"
    Helia observes, "By threatening us with death and destruction, that ain't making no sense."
    "It certainly does.  Your secret services do it all the time."
    "My secret services?  I think not."
    Kalida says, "That's beside the point.  Where does your charter come from?"
    Mike says, "From us.  We put it together.  Not me, personally, but... The Society was set up to do exactly that.  It's its original charter."
    Misha asks, "And when did this charter come into existence?"
    "Long enough."
    Helia mutters, "And oh so far away?"
    Mike mumbles, "Not very far away at all, actually."
    Misha says, "Do you actually know when?"
    "Yes, I know."
    "Well, I'm afraid that's just not enough."
    "What do you need?  Fame and fortune is not your motive, obviously.  What will it take?"
    "I can't tie my fame and fortune to a group I know so little about."
    "Well, ask the Sheriff about us.  About our integrity."
    "It's not your integrity I'm concerned about..." starts Misha.
    "OK, so why don't you trust me?"
    "...it's your history and motives.  I do trust you.  I trust that you believe you can destroy us as we leave the planet.  I trust that you believe you are trustworthy.  I trust that you believe in your motives.  What I don't know is what your motives are."
    "Our motives are to protect everyone and maintain secrecy while doing so."
    "Well, those are our motives too.  To that extent we are already part of the same organization."
    Mike does not look convinced.  He says, "I see your point, but rogue agents are not a good thing, and you are are distinctly a rogue agent if your motives are as you claim -- somewhat aligned with ours, but you're distinctly a rogue agent."
    "Rogues are not a good thing?  There are no rogues in your organization?"
    "Not in our organization.  From our organization.  At least from our... overall general pool of membership.  The pool from which we would draw members.  We don't believe there are any operating around here."
    "What's the pool?  Can you tell us about that?"
    "No.  Not at this point.  If you sign the treaty, yes we will."
    Misha decides it's time to wrap up the conversation.  He thanks Mike for his company, and the two parties get up to leave.
    Before they go, Mike asks, "Where would I find this Lap'da?  I want to meet with him, find out if he's a suitable referee."
    "You ask for him," says Helia, "The Sheriff knows him.  So does the Steward."
    Misha adds, "I was going to say you'll find him quite informative, but perhaps you will not."
    The crew laugh among themselves.  Clearly there is an in-joke that Mike does not get.  Nevertheless, he thanks them, suggests dinner again tomorrow night, and they go their separate ways.

    Once he's gone, as they're walking through the forest, Kalida says that the last time they were here, the Sheriff did say something about this group, they just didn't know it at the time.  She says, "We were talking about getting back in contact with Jane, and Shark asked the Sheriff if he knew who she worked for.  He said not exactly, there's some small rich group, he's not sure where they're from, who have an interest in this place and some of the trade and so on.  They provided him with help setting up his zuchai array and the equipment that runs off that.  We asked what they got out of the arrangement, and he said, 'I'm not sure.  They get some trade goods.  They're involved in the mushroom trade.'  Remember the mushrooms?  We asked if it was for foodstuff, and he said not really, not in that sort of quantity.  He said he wasn't sure exactly what it was used for, but it seems to be fairly valuable to them.  He said, 'They've provided me with a lot of help.  They get to come and stay here if they want, or they can use the facilities here.  Sometimes information, if there's anything they need.  It's well worth cooperating with them.'  He said they're generous, and have certainly treated him well."
    They ponder that as they walk back to the guest quarters.