The crew had once again come together at the canteen. After a brief flurry of exchanged news - spyder dead, ship systems back on line, Gumelar alive but in a coma - they quickly fell into silence. With most ship functions back up most were lost in the data streams, access like a familiar friend that all of them had felt uncomfortable without.
The ship had been put back under a little thrust for their comfort, although the damage to the ion drive in the attack meant one engine had to be kept offline. Brook was managing a small selection of her engineering drones working on the damaged systems. In order to speed up the repair process, Sully and Fuller were using some of their own drones to clear up the damage in the main-bay. Even Mason had offered to help; three plastoids had been created and given brooms, able to get in to the tighter spots.
Si, meanwhile, had been busy first making sure his purge of the corrupted deep data packets was complete, then investigating the drone from the other ship he'd brought back, although the latter with little success so far. A third task Si had found himself having to do was stopping that hippy prat Lloyd from getting too deep into the local systems. The pirate had proven to be an awkward combination of technically able and curious. Si had considered asking Mason to beat the curiosity out of Lloyd, but if Si was honest with himself, he was quite enjoying the competition. Just as long as he had the upper hand, mind you.
This left Kel and Chen, neither with access to ship systems. This didn't really matter all that much to Kel. It would have been nice to use his host ship to relay over a message to the loop and see what was happening there, but that could wait. For now he was happy to sip a steaming mug off coffee and silently appraise his current crop of crew mates. Those resident to the ship seemed relieved to be back doing something approximating their normal day jobs, but he suspected that in most cases this was being used as a means to take their minds of having to think too much about the bigger questions that events over the last couple of days had thrown up.
Kel was more worried about Chen, however. The scientist pirate was just sat staring into his now cold first cup of coffee (Kel was on his third). Since the situation had calmed down, Chen had lapsed back inside his shell, silently brooding. It seemed certain that the brooding was over Nita's death and Milton's betrayal, and Kel was unsure over how Chen was dealing with both events. It would have been nice to talk to him about it, see if he could help Chen cope, but that wasn't an option in the near silent canteen; the only noise being the culinary drone gurgling slightly as it produced another round of hot drinks.
"So, er, what next?" Kel asked, trying to get some conversation going, getting people thinking about the wider situation. He suspected some difficult decisions were going to be needed.
"What fucking business of yours is it?" Mason demanded.
"I, er..." Kel had expected annoyance at his interruption, but Mason's aggression was always unnerving.
"The scrawny fella' has a point, mind" Fuller drawled, leaning back in his seat. "It looks like we've just about got the ship functional, so then what?"
"Shouldn't we report in to Lanark Horishmo?" Sully suggested "I realise they're gonna be pissed off and all, but some weird shot had gone down". The marine glanced round, his suggestion yielding looks that ranged between nervousness and annoyance.
"No point" chipped in Si.
"Why?" Sully was surprised.
"We don't exist"
"We're not a Lanark Horishmo ship anymore. Fuck, we ain’t even registered as a ship anymore" Si was enjoying the focus being on his superior knowledge once again, and was keeping his answers deliberately vague to maintain his position.
"I am going to slap you if you don't quit it with the mysterious answers" Fuller's point made Si promptly reappraise his approach.
"Ok, it's technical, but essentially it had something to do with that shadow process I wiped out of the AI. I'm not sure how yet, but when it activated, we were wiped from LH records"
"Because they maybe thought that other ship had destroyed us? It was a close shave" Sully said.
"Nah, we weren't registered as lost in battle or to technical failure, or anything like that. We were simply wiped. No record of operations left behind. Shit, there isn't even any record of this ship’s construction any more" Si explained.
"Why? How?" Sully, not for the first time, was baffled.
"It's difficult to say" Si shook his head, then saw Fuller scowling at him "No, really, I'm not stringing you along. There's only so much I can work out from this end. The shadow AI received a burst transmission not long after we got the probe recovery tender. After that everything turned to shit; we got wiped, the other ship attacks, then the spyder kicks off"
"Where was the transmission from?" Chen had been stony silent up to now. Kel had assumed he was still deep in his own thoughts, not listening to the conversation going on around him, but now he saw that wasn't true. The scientist in Chen wanted answers.
"You think someone is going to upload a shadow AI then telegraph where they're commanding it from?" Si replied sarcastically.
"I thought you were supposed to be good" Chen not so much sounded authoritative, more the tone of his voice was so straight forward that it engendered compliance.
"Best I can say is inner planets. The signal got bounced all over the solar system on the way here, that kind of operation needs big computing power. So either the Mars shipyards or Earth. Moon at a push"
"Earth" Lloyd wasn't even looking at the rest of the crew, instead he was looking suspiciously at the small paper tube that the culinary drone had dropped in front of him. It was difficult to assemble something vaguely narcotic out of a conglom ship's herb and spice stores, but Lloyd was up for a challenge. Ignoring the stares from around the small canteen, he tentatively pressed one end of the makeshift roll-up against his heat pad while sucking on the other. With a cough and a splutter a cloud of a grey-blue smoke erupted from his mouth and nose. "Too much cayenne" he gasped.
"What the fuck you say?" demanded Si.
"Too much cayenne, gets in the way of the roasted elf bark" Lloyd's eyes were now watering.
"Before that. You said Earth" Sully shook his head as he said this, part in frustration and part trying to get out of the foul smelling smoke cloud.
"What? Oh yes, Earth. The signal came from Earth" Lloyd answered, stubbing out his failed experiment while simultaneously transmitting his next recipe to the drone.
"How the fuck do you know that? You're just guessing" Si was annoyed at being shown up by this hippy-come-rival.
"Cos it's the same deep lurking protocol that was on the probe" Lloyd picked up the hand terminal they'd used on the probe; the data that ended up being their ticket back to the conglom ship. "I know a thing or two about re-routing signals about the place and I'm telling you dude, this one came from Earth"
"But why?" asked an exasperated Brook "You can do all this fancy electronic wizardry as much as you want, but it still doesn't explain why someone, somewhere tried to kill us on more than one occasion".
"Must be something to do with the probe, that's when things started going weird" Kel surmised.
"The aliens, dude" the culinary drone dropped off Lloyd's next creation, but he wasn't quick enough to stop Sully make a grab for it, screw it up and throw it back towards the culinary hatch. "Not cool dude" Lloyd complained.
"So let's break it down" Sully said, ignoring Lloyd's protests "Someone back on Earth took exception to both the probe and us, but we don't know who, why or where exactly they are?"
"Exactly" said Brook, "we're still no closer to working out what the heck is going on"
"Then we go find out" Chen's statement was again simple, but it resonated around the people in the canteen and a contemplative silence fell upon them once again.
"How?" said Fuller after a little while "Whoever it is have tried to wipe us out once, will sure as hell try again if we rock up in Earth orbit. Plus they've shown themselves to have access to some pretty serious tech"
"I know some people back on Earth in the...." Chen paused as he thought of the correct term "...informal economy. We go in via them, stay low key"
"I don't know" Sully scratched his temple uncertainly "All sounds a bit farfetched to me"
"Yeah" grumbled Lloyd, getting up to wander towards the culinary hatch "It's not like we've got a mystery to solve" he nodded at the rest of the crew "or revenge to be sought" here a nod at Chen "All while located on a kick ass intervention ship bristling with military tech running totally off-grid and not an authority figure in sight" he turned back around to the crew after picking up the crumpled roll-up.
"This could almost be fun"
TO BE CONTINUED...
Thanks for anyone getting this far! I've gone way over my initial plan and have in many ways bitten off a bit more than I can chew. However, it's been a lot of fun and I'm looking forward to getting back to the story in 2013. Until than, have a great Festive period and see you in the new year.
The spyder says Merry Christmas....