Subsubsection: 4 March 2018 (And the Gnat Won’t Even Notice) Up Subsection: HMS Javelin

8 April 2018 (Big Lump of Evidence)

Meanwhile on Javelin, Alexis Neustadt is visiting from Novaya Europa; Keene and Findlay are his assigned liaisons.
The clean-up from the nanobot incident is suggesting that there’s more to find at the site where the “archaeologists” did their underwater salvage; there’s something massive down there, which blocks between 10% and 80% of neutrinos. A specialist team is being requested from Earth; the Marines will probably be expected to provide security.
Lt Commander Fenton makes a point of seeking out Neustadt and saying that “we” are watching him.
A call comes in from the company that’s supervising automated mining drones in the outer belt; one of them has reported major damage that doesn’t look like a normal breakdown. First reports were of internal power failures, then of the hatches being opened, and then telemetry stopped completely. This seems worth the trip.
A few hours after Javelin sets out, the drone resumes communication: everything’s fine, and the holds have always been this relatively empty. There’s some concern about the possibility of refined metals being launched without a beacon – they might possibly be camouflaged, and the jump point batteries are warned to stay on alert.
The drone is definitely where it claims to be, but it’s not possible to make out any details yet until Javelin gets closer. It’s been processing mostly medium-weight metals, chromium, vanadium and so on; these have a variety of uses.
There’s no sign of damage to the drone when inspecting at range, and no large lumps of refined metal where they shouldn’t be. Close up, there’s some sign of minor damage round one of the loading doors; it might be from hand-held energy weapons.
The Marine boarding party takes a look. There’s nothing obviously amiss except for a large chunk missing from the logs, and competent but not professional repair to the internal systems. Neustadt sees what he can reconstruct; there was clearly a plan for the operation, but he has a feeling that it’s more by-the-book than from experience. It’s hard to work out how many people were involved, but they think somewhere between about four and thirty-odd.
Going through log remnants, Cargill reckons a few thousand tons of mixed refined metals are missing.
There’s a gap in the logs of about three hours; Tanahill digs what he can from local cache on recording devices. It’s not great, but there are at least a few frames of a small spacecraft, perhaps five to ten people capacity, leaving attached to the lump of metal. The ship is assembled from standard modules, though this particular configuration hasn’t been recorded. It’s fairly small for an interstellar ship, with only enough range for fairly short trips.
If they had a military drive, they could have got back to the main world or any of the jump points by now, but they’d certainly have been spotted. A civilian drive wouldn’t have got that far, but would definitely probably have shown a drive flare.
Neustadt finds a data stick in a spare boot in his cabin. It’s labelled “Top Secret: Report on Iron Duke targeting system performance”. He doesn’t touch it, but leaves it exactly where it is and waits to see what happens.
Findlay looks through the sensor satellite logs for unexpected changes in the positions of asteroids. Gretton suggests dropping more satellites out of the ecliptic. Keene spots an asteroid not far away with variable temperature. Looking a bit more closely, the central rock is pretty well camouflaged, but it’s definitely warmer than it has any right to be, and several asteroids nearby are too… sometimes.
By the time they get to a close inspection, it’s clear that this asteroid has been modified; there’s a large hatch, and probably ten or more people; and there’s a suspiciously lumpy outcropping elsewhere on the surface. There’s some radio noise from life support machinery, but no transponder or active sensors. When Javelin gets very close, there’s a radio message: “This is the Free State of New Albion, please state your business”. They do agree to having a party sent over, and Neustadt manages to get onto the trip.
The dock area clearly doesn’t get aired very often, though it could be done. The ship spotted earlier has been disassembled and the modules are in use in other configurations. The landing party suits up and goes to the inner lock, where they’re greeted by a man perhaps in his sixties (prime of second career), who introduces himself as David Farr, the Mayor. He asks them quietly to “tone down the whole you-own-us business” because “some of my friends are not as reasonable as I am”. He’d clearly prefer to pay a fine on-the-spot, but since the British are still using “fiat money” rather than Ethereum-7 that could be tricky. On the other hand he makes a fair point about a small colony not easily being able to stand the loss of several of its members for several months. That doesn’t convince Winthrop-Chase, though, who insists on conducting a search, even when Farr confesses to being the sole responsible party.
Neustadt is suspicious, and so are the others. Farr doesn’t stand in their way, but mostly cautions them that some of his people will be a bit edgy. (“But they’re not going to cause any trouble, are they chaps?”)
There are about forty people living here, apparently all adults, though as they’re crossing an empty storage chamber a girl in her late teens slides out and approaches Neustadt: “Can you get me out of here? This is a really boring place.”
She looks a little odd, particularly in an age of cheap gene-fixing where very few people are ugly. Neustadt and Jansen notice that her eyelids, and skin in general, are a bit thicker than usual, and the ears are a slightly odd shape. Neustadt hypothesises that she’s been toughened for combat in some way.
Winthrop-Chase isn’t prepared simply to take her away from her parents without some sort of excuse. It turns out that they aren’t here, but she volunteered – they had some really interesting computer problems to deal with (orbital calculations, life support operations, and so on) but she’s solved all that and now she’s bored. She switches to fluent Russian when Neustadt stumbles in English. and he’s able to explain the situation without being overheard; she did design the assembly of modules for the metal raid, and indeed for wiping the logs on the drone (“but that was easy”). She floats over to Winthrop-Chase, introduces herself as Konomiko, and tells all (in excruciating detail). It turns out that she volunteered back at Tranquility (a multinational colony one jump from Earth) when the colony was being set up; they were looking for a suitably backwater system, and she helped them find this one. She identifies Daniel, and Nia the asteroid mining expert, as the others involved in the attack on the mining drone.
Those three are arrested and brought back to Javelin. Konomiko does a very unconvincing job of saying “oh, no, don’t take me away, this is my home”. (Someone in the background is realising that he’s just become the colony’s chief sysadmin, and has no documentation…) They leave a drone to keep an eye on the colony.
When they get back, Fenton and another group of Marines confront Neustadt: it seems that a highly classified report has been found in his boot. He denies all knowledge and, while she’d clearly like to arrest him, she can’t quite pull it off (“in the interests of inter-polity amity…”).
On the way back in-system, sensors detect a gamma radiation source in what should be empty space, drifting about twelve AU out from the primary and off the ecliptic. This might well be a damaged ship.
Getting closer, there’s no transponder, and the ship looks like a medium-sized merchant. The name Aurora Australis is visible; that ship was last reported at Mao Zedong, a core worlds colony, within the last few months (and more a core worlds design; freighters round here tend to be smaller).
Queries are sent out to the jump points to see if it’s arrived recently. It’ll take some time to get a response. Backtracking the course, Gretton can’t see any obvious intersection with any of the jump points.
The engine compartment is damaged, and the ship looks slightly compressed – in a way that’s horribly familiar to Gretton. With Neustadt shuffled aside, he explains an outline of what happened aboard Raleigh.
Gretton goes on the boarding party. Internally it looks much like the other Raleigh, having undergone a brief but sudden acceleration of several hundred gravities without warning. Judging by the state of the air and the remains of the crew, this probably happened in the last few days.
The last entry in the ship’s log is from about five years ago, on the border between Novaya Europa and the RGR (which is consistent with the ship’s registered location at that point).
The ship will be taken in tow, and forensic experts brought in. While they’ll make an effort, clearly not everyone on board is going to keep quiet about this.