14 : The Lyrian Problem
Star Dancer left Minhotei space before the government on distant Minhot granted permission for the ship to make the transit. No further assaults by the raiders meant that the vessel was at full readiness for another battle and the crew was well rehearsed in the tactics which would be used if Star Dancer came under attack again.
The border of Minhotei space was somewhat arbitrary at the point where Star Dancer left it. Captain Fregath and her crew headed into a sparsely populated area of space, which contained nothing worth having, according to Admiral Gadres. Captain Fregath chose to not to announce her arrival when Star Dancer reached the next regulated zone, according to the navigational data supplied by the Minhotei.
Taking advantage of her vessel's enhanced detectors, the captain chose to avoid all settled regions and the spacecraft in transit between them. She felt that Star Dancer had gathered sufficient data on other alien civilizations to keep the experts at home happy for a long time. Her crew continued to gather navigational and astronomical data, and to log details from scans which detected other spacecraft, but the main thrust of the mission had changed.
Captain Fregath felt that the enhancements made to Star Dancer's systems were important enough to take precedence over further exploration. Reaching home safely with the deductions reached by her Mathies and the developments made by the technical members of her crew had become her highest priority.
Having made a few minor detours, but also good time along the way, the captain called a conference of her senior officers as Star Dancer approached the zone of influence of a known neighbour of their home territory. The ship had been travelling for twenty-eight weeks and it was just two weeks from home space.
Captain Fregath felt that it was time to address the Lyrian question. She chose to do so in a briefing room adjacent to the bridge instead of her ready room. The atmosphere was slightly more formal but there was more room for the eight participants to spread out.
"Our calculations have shown for a long time that we'll have to pass through the Lyrian zone of influence to return to our home zone by the shortest route," the captain began when everyone had been issued with their beverage of choice. "What I'd like to do now is discuss what we do when we get there. Basically, our options are, one: set a direct course for home and check in at the first sizeable Lyrian base as a courtesy; and two: try to sneak through unannounced."
"Neither course of action is exactly desirable," said First Officer Tarn-Verat. "If we turn up on the far side of their Zone from our home territory and say we fell through a black hole, are they going to believe us?"
"And if we try to sneak through, I'd bet on them spotting us through a piece of appalling bad luck," Second Officer Orcand added.
"Going round the Lyrians isn't an option?" said Chief Science Officer Andersin.
"While they may be the least trusting of our neighbours," said Lt. Webber, the navigator, "I should think the others will react much the same. And it won't make the crew very happy, going round."
"Except our detectors are now a whole lot better than anyone else's," said Chief Engineer Jones. "So if we pick our way carefully enough, we should reach the border zone undetected."
"As long as we don't trip any pickets they've set up in the border zone," said Lt. Henson, the Communications Officer. "It's well known they have a network of detector stations on random circulation patterns. And they always seems to know pretty soon after someone strays into their space."
"Could there not be an element of kiddology in that, Captain?" said Webber.
"In what way, Berthold?" the captain asked with a frown.
"Well, the Lyrians are well known for being highly combative over intruders. But when someone sneaks up on them, they could force themselves to play it cool and pretend they've been watching the intruder for a while. Even if they haven't."
"An interesting theory," said the captain. "But where does it get us?"
"We could plead some sort of gremlin in our systems and say we were navigating blind for the moment," Commander Arrik Jones offered.
"Yes," said Webber, "I was going to suggest we could turn the ship around and pretend to be entering their space, not leaving it. Just to confuse them. And as long as they don't do a thorough scan of our drive residual trail until after it's decayed, they'll go along with what we tell them to make us think their detectors really have been watching us."
"Playing the vanity card?" said the Captain. "An interesting idea. But I'd prefer to spare them that confusion. Which brings me back to Arrik's point about our detectors. It's still hard to believe our neighbours are still stuck in the Stone Age of detector technology as we approach familiar ground. And that we could sneak through their Zone."
"I suppose it's possible Spacefleet recovered the message drone we fired into what our Mathies said was a wormhole back to the black hole's location," said Sub-Commander Andersin. "And they were able to use the astronomical data to work out where we ended up. And decided to warn the Lyrians to expect us to head off possible trouble."
"So if we find ourselves heading for a couple of Lyrian heavy cruisers, which are eager to share our data from the black hole...," said Sub-Commander Howard, the Weapons and Tactical Officer.
"...they're bound to have a message for us from Spacefleet telling us to be co-operative," Sub-Commander Orcand finished. "The perfect forgery."
"So what we have to ask ourselves is how quickly their Mathies will do the sort of things ours did with the data," said Chief Engineer Jones.
"So there's a further factor to consider," said the captain. "Will there be embarrassing questions if we pull off a successful sneak and the Lyrians knew we were coming?"
"If we attempt to pass through the Lyrian Zone undetected," said Sub-Commander Orcand, "and if we're detected, we can tell them we were seeking to avoid causing an embarrassing incident by alerting their defences."
"Such as; they see a vessel which doesn't belong and they start shooting?" said Sub-Commander Howard. "Because we know they have a history of doing just that."
"I think Weps has a point," said Sub-Commander Andersin. "If they do detect us, they may well start shooting right away."
"Just as well we've beefed our deflectors up," said Commander Jones.
"It's also possible they may make us disappear on the chance the data we have makes it worthwhile," said Sub-Commander Orcand.
"Is that realistic?" Sub-Commander Andersin said with a frown.
"It's theoretically possible, I suppose," said the captain. "The Lyrians are a culture which prizes ruthlessness where the good of their species is concerned. If some outpost military commander presents his government with a fait accompli, the Lyrian government is likely to accept the benefits and deny we ever reached their Zone."
"Just as well we have a lot of recent practice at sneaking," said Lt. Webber, the navigator.
"The same concern applies if we swan into their Zone with our ID beacons radiating at full blast," said Commander Tarn-Verat.
"On the other hand, if no one's told the Lyrians we're coming, then sneaking through their Zone looks very attractive," said Commander Jones. "That and going round."
"But the extra time ...," said Commander Tarn-Verat.
"Is a significant factor in relation to crew morale, as Berthold pointed out" said the captain. "Which is why I'm prepared to trust our Mathies and Engineering and bet we can spot the Lyrians long before they can see us. And assuming none of their ships detects our drive residuals, we should pull off a successful sneak. Anyone with a problem with that?"
"It's a big universe, Captain," said Tarn-Verat. "With lots of sneaking room."
Star Dancer sneaked for sixteen days with its energy output, drive excepted, reduced to a minimum to reduce the risk of accidental detection. Sub-Lt. Rilla Frand found the Mathies in Detector Control when her shift ended on the border-crossing day. Two hundred and eleven days had elapsed since the black hole encounter. If Star Dancer had been thrown forward in time by 208 days, as the Mathies' calculations allowed, then it had arrived in its Home Zone too late to be able to warn another self not to approach the black hole.
"We're back in home space," Frand announced. "In case anyone hasn't noticed."
"There you are," Lt. Merrith said to Lt. Draxt in triumph, "I told you all these expensive instruments weren't lying to us."
"You mean the captain wasn't joking when she told us we'd be setting a direct course for the nearest Spacefleet base after travelling for two hours on a false course to confuse Lyrian detectors?" said Draxt.
"If you keep the sarcasm up, I won't invite you to be my escort at the celebration party," Frand warned.
"Come and look at this." Draxt hauled an extra chair over to the work station, ignoring the subject of parties.
Frand sat down and studied the diagrams on the screen. "This is supposed to tell me what?" she said eventually.
"Dan O'Neill brought us the latest to come out of the linguists' study of the Osirlanding stuff," said Merrith. "Their atmosphere containment scheme. The latest interpretations are highly significant and we came up with this."
"This is another improvement to the interleaving system for the ship's deflectors?" said Frand.
"Subject to a physicist telling us it's remotely possibly," said Draxt.
"And you expect me to drop everything and get involved in your latest fantasy?" Frand said indignantly.
"That's what he expects," Draxt said with a look of contempt at his colleague. "I suggested taking it to Andersin and seeing if she thinks it's worth bringing you in on it tomorrow. After your party. Which I want to go to with you and you only."
"Ha!" one of the detector technicians said loudly as her comment on the diplomatic lie.
"How does this work?" Frand found herself drawn into the problem in spite of herself.
"There's a virtual framing system, only going outwards instead of inwards." Merrith spread the fingers of both hands and interleaved them like cogs to demonstrate the idea. "Exclusion rather than containment."
"It looks like it ought to work," Frand said doubtfully. "But I can't see how."
"Looks like we need to dump it on Andersin and let her and Engineering organize a working party to chew it over," said Draxt. "And talking about parties..."
"You don't go to parties," said Merrith. "There's probably someone counting on swapping duties with you so he can go."
"You mean, you're not going?" Frand said to Merrith.
"I might look in," he said, not promising anything.
"Ha!" repeated the detector technician.
"I think there's an echo in here," said Draxt. "Good, isn't it?" he added, trying to bring Frand's attention back to the diagrams on the screen.
Frand pushed her chair away from the console in a decisive gesture. "I'm not going to get involved in one of your fantasies. I'm going to the party. We're going to the party."
"Of course, we are," said Draxt.
Allowing for the possibility that a Spacefleet vessel had found the message drone returned to the position of the black hole, and the Lyrians had been warned that Star Dancer might cross their territory, Captain Fregath maintained her relatively silent running as she crossed what was borderland home space, en route to the Spacefleet base on Osimer Three.
Two days into home space, the duty detector operator turned toward the command station and said, "Contact, Captain. With the configuration of a Spacefleet heavy cruiser. Also heading for the Osimer System."
"Helm, take an intercept course," said the Captain. "Full speed. We don't need to watch our fuel any more."
"Intercept course to the Spacefleet heavy cruiser, aye, Captain," said the helm technician.
Star Dancer raced on with a new sense of purpose. But at a range of 5.1 standard grids, the heavy cruiser turned away from the exploration ship and put on enough speed to maintain that range.
"What's going on?" said First Officer Tarn-Verat, who had joined the captain on the bridge in anticipation of the first contact with one of their own ships for over seven months.
"They're shadowing us, sir," said the detector operator. Brevett Tom Rogan had a habit of responding to rhetorical questions. "They're keeping us just on their detector limit and out of what they think ours is. Pre Mr. Draxt, of course."
"Helm, resume course to Osimer Three," said the captain. "If they want to play games, that's their problem."
Ten minutes later, Brevett Rogan reported, "Captain, the latest deep scan has picked up another Spacefleet heavy cruiser. They'll reach mutual detector range with the first one in about twenty-five minutes."
"What is there around here which would interest two heavy cruisers?" said the captain.
"I can't think of anything," said Commander Officer Tarn-Verat.
"It's probably too top secret for us to know," Sub-Commander Orcand added.
"Switch on our IFF beacon," said the captain. "Let's see how they respond to knowing who we are."
"IFF beacon active, Captain."
"No course change by the first heavy cruiser, Captain," Rogan reported after the Spacefleet vessel had had time to react to new data.
"Very well," said the Captain. "We'll wait for them to make the first move."
Five minutes later, Brevett Rogan reported, "We now have a third heavy cruiser on the detectors, Captain. We're tracking it to predict a course."
"Very well," said the captain.
"All three heavy cruisers are heading for the Osimer System, Captain," Rogan reported two minutes later.
The crew of Star Dancer watched with interest as the heavy cruisers detected one another and began an exchange of coded signals. Then they began high-speed manoeuvres to surround Star Dancer at a distance of 4.5 grids, forming an equilateral triangle oriented at right angles to a course to the Osimer system with the survey and exploration vessel at its heart.
"They're just matching our course and speed for the moment, Captain," Brevett Rogan reported.
"And they clearly still think we can't see them," said the captain. "Range to Osimer Three?"
"One hundred and fifty-nine grids, Captain."
"Continue on course and we'll see what develops." The Captain surveyed the unoccupied work stations on the bridge. "I'm surprise a few more of our colleagues haven't found something to do up here with something moderately interesting going on," she added to Tarn-Verat.
"The big debate is still going on," he replied. "The engineers and most of the science staff are all in Engineering, still arguing about whether the interleaving scheme the Mathies came up with is physically possible. Most of the non-Mathies think it may just be a piece of elegant theory but they don't like to commit themselves."
"And I should think the Mathies are in Detector Control, hatching up their next bombshell," said Orcand.
"I don't know what I'm more nervous about," the captain said with a laugh. "What they'll come up with next or why three Spacefleet heavy cruisers are just shadowing us, even though they know from our beacon who we are."
Most of the tension on the bridge drained away eventually. It returned during the next watch when Brevett Grad made a routine report.
"Captain, Osimer Three is just coming into detector range. I can see five light cruisers in orbit. There are possibly more of them obscured by the planet."
"That's us even more outnumbered," Lt. Sampar remarked from the helm station.
"Helm, disengage the drive," said the captain.
"Drive disengaged, Captain," Sampar reported. "Standing by for further manoeuvring orders."
"Comms, make to our escorts using Fleet Code One," said the Captain. "Star Dancer to the three Spacefleet heavy cruisers escorting us. Request a command conference."
"I'd suggest a tight-beam transmission to each of the cruisers, Captain," said Lt. Henson, who had taken over the communications station. "Just to let them know we know exactly where we are."
"Good idea," said the captain. "Tight beam, please, Paias."
Three minutes went by.
"Coded signal received from Luxor, Captain," Henson reported. "One word. Daisy."
"Make to Luxor, one word reply, Ludwig," said the Captain.
"When we were at the Academy," Captain Fregath explained to the expectant faces of her first and second officers, "Johnny Caloway and I used to call each other Ludwig and Daisy. It's a long story."
"It usually is," said Tarn-Verat.
"The cruisers have activated their IFF beacons and they're closing on us, Captain," reported Brevett Grad. "They have their deflectors and weapons powered up."
"They are Spacefleet, I hope?" said Sub-Commander Orcand.
"By their beacons, they're the Spacefleet heavy cruisers Luxor, London and Leipzig, sir," Grad returned.
"Power up our deflectors but not our weapons," said the captain. "They're obviously highly suspicious of us for some reason."
The three heavy cruisers closed to within a comfortable hailing range and re-formed their equilateral triangle formation around Star Dancer. The captain of Luxor made contact.
"You're looking remarkably well for a ghost, Beril," he told Captain Fregath. "Seeing your ship was lost over a year ago."
"Good to see you again, Johnny," Captain Fregath returned. "I take it no one found our message drone at the black hole?"
"That region was posted off limits as too hazardous for navigation after the black hole swallowed Star Dancer."
"Can I ask what date it is on your ship, Luxor?" said Tarn-Verat. "We have October fourth over here. Friday."
"April twenty-ninth," said Captain Caloway. "Monday. Why?"
Captain Fregath glanced at some data offered by Sub-Commander Orcand. "Our Mathies predicted the black-hole encounter would produce a time shift of either thirty-eight minutes or two hundred and eight days. Plus or minus. If it's next year all of a sudden, looks like we went forward in time by two hundred and eight days."
"You really went into that black hole and survived?" Captain Caloway said in a tone of disbelief.
"We encountered some sort of phenomenon quite a considerable distance from what we thought was the danger zone," said Captain Fregath. "Which is why we've spent the last seven months getting home. And along the way, our Mathies have been very busy beefing up our detectors. Which is why we've been able to watch you manoeuvring around us while you thought you were out of our range."
"That's very ... surprising," Captain Caloway admitted.
"And we've also detected quite a fleet around Osimer Three. What's the latest count, Herlith?"
"One heavy cruiser, five lights, Captain," said Brevett Grad. "With up to two more vessels possibly obscured by the planet."
"You can see as far as Osimer Three?" Captain Caloway looked more than surprised.
"And we're coming home with a lot more," said Captain Fregath. "Only I gather we've run into some sort of fleet exercise and you're worried we're imposters and spies?"
"Something like that. Approaching from your particular direction."
"We were wondering if Spacefleet had come across our message and they'd told the Lyrians to expect us. We decided the best thing to do was to try to sneak through their Zone undetected. As the least embarrassing course of action."
"You crossed right through their Zone without being spotted?" Captain Caloway said sceptically.
"It wasn't easy but it was a lot easier than I'd expected with beefed up detectors to help us stay out of their way. What's going on around here, Johnny?"
Captain Caloway shrugged. "The Lyrians have been getting a bit uppity in this region. They're pushing us to see if they can get a degree of resistance indicative of commitment, to quote the diplomats."
"Which means what?"
"They're asserting their acquisitive streak again. If we're not interested in this region, they're willing to take it off our hands."
"And they're willing to keep nibbling right across our Zone till we're gone and they're nibbling the Baltim?"
"Correct. Hence the fleet exercise around the Osimer base. And hence our suspicion when we came across a Spacefleet surveyor-explorer ship where it has no business to be."
"One which was posted as lost over a year ago comes swanning into home space from the Lyrian Zone?"
"Correct again. What did you say your detector limit is now, Beril?"
"Just about thirty-three grids," Captain Fregath said with quiet pride.
"That's going to give the Lyrians a few surprises," laughed Caloway. "Finding us waiting for them when they come sneaking around."
"Until their spies steal the secret," Sub-Commander Orcand pointed out.
"Let's just hope our Mathies have come up with another miracle by then," said Captain Fregath.
After conferring with the other cruiser captains, Caloway, the senior officer, sent London on ahead to Osimer Three to use the advanced communications systems on the base to make a report to Spacefleet HQ. Star Dancer and its escorts remained in free space until London returned. Commander Sentig's vessel had brought the local sector commander, Fleet Director Irving, to take command of an exploration group consisting of Star Dancer and the heavy cruisers Luxor and Leipzig.
Irving, a large, vigorous man with a ready smile, seemed pleased to be out of his office and on a secret mission when he joined the four captains in Luxor's briefing room. His smile broadened when he shook Captain Fregath's hand.
"There was a large note of incredulity in the response from Spacefleet to the announcement that Star Dancer is back in home space, Beril," he said. "We're all surprised and delighted you're back."
"We're rather surprised ourselves, Director," said Captain Fregath. "And equally delighted."
"I'm afraid your return to civilization has been postponed, though," Irving added. "Our exploration group is under orders to head for an area near the border, which Spacefleet Intelligence is worried about. Star Dancer is to use its super-detectors to sweep the area and see what you can find. Your range is now thirty-two grids, as advertised?"
"Officially, it's now close to thirty-five after some further tuning up, sir," said Fregath. "What are we looking for?"
"Whatever we can find. Intelligence haven't given us any clues to avoid preconceptions," said Irving.
"Sounds a familiar story," said Commander Bright of Leipzig.
"But before we go anywhere," Irving added, "Star Dancer is to copy all its research files to London for transfer to the Osimer base."
"This is a routine precaution rather than an expectation we'll run into trouble, sir?" said Captain Fregath.
"Indeed," Fleet Director Irving said with a smile. "I think the best place for me to plant my flag is aboard Star Dancer if that's where I'll get the best view."
Commander Tarn-Verat activated his communications link to warn the crew of Star Dancer to expect a visitor.
Fleet Director Irving became almost as regular a visitor to Deflector Control as Star Dancer's Mathies. Despite his professed ignorance, it soon became clear that he was looking for an early warning of something quite specific. But he kept the nature of the 'something' to himself, to the frustration of the detector technicians. They were expert performers on their instruments and they felt that they could find the mysterious 'something' if they knew more about the settings which were likely to find it.
The discovery came out of purely conventional data. Navigation Officer Webber extrapolated the probable courses of two Lyrian vessels, one leaving their Zone, the other heading back in that direction, and obtained a probable point of convergence. His reputation took a dip when scans of the convergence area detect nothing at all.
Fleet Director Irving seemed happy enough with the navigator's results and he was content to haunt Detector Control and live on the Mathies emergency-ration biscuits on the way to the convergence area in the shadow of one of the Lyrian vessels.
"This is it, Beril," the fleet director told Captain Fregath when the Lyrian transport vessel parked in a close orbit around a lump of rocky space debris after making thorough scans of the surrounding area. Director Irving was the focus of a group of senior officers at the main display tank in Detector Control.
"We've suspected the Lyrians were building an outpost in secret in our territory for some time," the fleet director added. "Their argument will be that if they can work here without being chased off, then it's an area which we don't want and which they should be entitled to annex."
"You can't fault the shielding over there," said Captain Fregath after rechecking the detector readings. "We're picking up nothing at all from that rock."
"So what happens now? A couple of our ships just happen to zoom into the area at the wrong moment?" added First Officer Tarn-Verat.
"That probably wouldn't achieve anything," said Irving. "Any Lyrian ship approaching it would just steam right past the rock. And any ship in orbit would get under weigh the moment it detected our ships. No, Intelligence will say it's better to know where they are and what they're doing than to close down this operation and make them start all over again somewhere else. They'll probably just keep this base under surveillance for the moment."
"I hope we don't get that job, sir," Tarn-Verat remarked.
"No, I think you're overdue for some leave, Clivv," the fleet director said with a laugh.
"So we're done here?" said Captain Fregath.
"Yes, it's time for you to make your triumphant return from the black hole. Probably from a direction other than this one, though," the fleet director added.
"As long as the detour doesn't take too long," said Captain Fregath. "I'd hate to have a mutiny on my hands after announcing another delay. Even if I can count on at least two of my officers backing me up," she added with a significant look in Korolas Draxt's direction.