The rest of the ship still has power, but the computer has frozen on a blank blue screen and is no longer responding to inputs. Fixing it is way beyond Imogen’s skills, but she thinks maybe Li June would be able to coax it to give up a bit more information. The Umojan observes the quietly humming equipment in the room, wondering if the ship can actually fly. She pulls out some tools and begins crawling under panels, inspecting equipment. It is flyable, but she does not think it is spaceworthy. Another thought occurs to her, and Imogen looks around the central room appraisingly. The vulture bike should be able to fit in it, but the difficulty will be getting it through the main hatch. They might need to partially disassemble it. Finally, she announces her judgment to Lilly. “So this is what I’m thinking. We load the vulture bike into the ship, we get the ship going, and we fly the ship close but not to Li June’s compound.”
“Then we can escort Li back to the ship and see if she can get anything else out of these computer systems. I think that’s better than us trying to pull out part of this mainframe and hoping it’s the right piece.”
“Okay. You going to deal with the tracker here?”
Imogen nods. She saw some impressive antenna arrays on the exterior of the ship when they approached it. Hopefully that is enough to boost a signal so that she can reach Neiman and sort this all out. She does not want the tracker to report any steps they retrace. Imogen is idly looking around the room as they discuss this, and she notices there are surveillance cameras inside the ship in addition to the outside ones that are part of the main sensor suite. These cameras are active, but the main computer is down, so she has no way of checking if they were logging information there. Imogen tries carefully interfacing with the camera system itself. This is more Li’s area, based on what the older woman spent all last night doing.
From what Imogen can tell, it looks like they only record video, not audio, so she and Lilly will not have given away anything about why they are here, just that they are. The cameras likely cannot send a ton of information, but they are motion-activated, grabbing one-minute recordings whenever they detect movement. They would not need a wide bandwidth to send just that much back. It looks like the information goes out as a general broadcast, rather than a narrow-beam transmission to a specific location. The transmissions have been happening for at least the last couple weeks. Nothing seems to be transmitting right now, but a set-up like this is probably rigged to send regular updates, and she has no way of knowing what the schedule is. Hourly? Daily? Weekly? Imogen sighs. She will definitely need help from Li to sort this out. But first, it is time to talk with Neiman about the tracker and set up a research collaboration between him and Li.
* * *
Once Imogen starts fiddling with the comms, Lilly announces that she is going to get the bike and heads out across the creep to where they stashed Old Red. The paint is a little scratched up from the inspection those zerglings were giving it earlier, but otherwise it is no worse than it was before. She brings it up closer to the ship. With the bike at the foot of the ramp, she can tell that it will probably need some adjustments to fit through the hatch. She hears Imogen’s voice from inside the ship, “You can borrow the toolkit!” Lilly runs in and snatches up Imogen’s backpack, bringing it back outside to partially disassemble the bike.
Lilly starts removing pieces from Old Red, but before long, she gives up this approach. Without the schematics, her work is haphazard, and if she takes too much of it apart, the bike will be unusable. She decides to just apply elbow grease and try shoving it through the hatch with her own brawn. She smiles to herself as she gets a good hold on the bike. Li has more red paint, so even if Lilly scratches up the vulture, she will be able to patch it up soon enough. It is nice working out here on Old Red, getting a bit of space from the computer that recognized her. It is a little tight, but she manages to get the bike through the hatch and nosed into the tech center without any further nicks or scratches. The bike takes up a lot of space in the main work area, but what were they going to use it for anyway? Lilly grins again and gives Old Red a pleased pat.
Imogen looks up from her comm at Lilly and asks for the toolkit back. She has already tried using the sensor suite to boost her comm signal, but the crackling connection only lasted long enough for her to hear Neiman’s salutation. Unwilling to give up, she wants to see if there is anything on the roof that needs adjusting.
“You going outside?”
“Aye, I’ve got to fix the antenna on this thing.” Lilly hands over the tools and says she will stand watch outside. “First, I need you to boost me up,” Imogen requests. Lilly’s height and strength make the scramble much easier, and Imogen reaches a good perch. She realigns the off-kilter dish and marvels at how frail everything up there seems. Maintaining this all would be a huge effort… and expense.
On the ground, Lilly bounces on the balls of her feet, still feeling amped up from the stim and the rush of emotions inside the ship. Working on Old Red certainly helped her calm down some, but back out on patrol now, she leans into the chemical rush a bit, striving to remain alert. She catches a spot of movement down to the southwest. A zerg of some sort is coming up the slope to the mesa top, headed in their direction. The creature sits low to the ground on little legs, its wings swept back towards its tail, giving it a shape vaguely like a stingray. Shockingly, it has no vicious spines, teeth, or tusks. Not even any claws, just two stunted arms with big pincers in the front. It is larger than a zergling but moves comparatively slowly. It does not look particularly dangerous. “Imogen,” she calls out, “we’ve got something coming up.”
“Aye. Just… just a minute,” Imogen acknowledges distractedly. The antenna is almost aligned, but who knows how long before something else goes wrong. She needs to place this call now while she can. With the dish pointed up into space at just the right angle, the call finally goes through. She hears Neiman’s voice more clearly this time, and he is finally able to hear her reply to his greeting. “I’ve got some questions for you,” she tells him. “Did you know that there is a tracker in the comm that you gave me?”
“Tracker! Oh, it’s a regular, routine precaution,” he says dismissively. “Those kinds of things are just standard issue. I’ve been tracked my whole life.”
“So you track everyone else?”
“Oh, the comm just has a tracker. All the comms I have, have trackers. It would be extra work to try to rip them out.”
Imogen furrows her brow. He sounds rather matter-of-fact about this, like he does not understand why she would be concerned to find a tracker. Is it really so commonplace where he is from, or is he hiding something? She cannot tell.
“Were you able to get your samples to your researcher friend?” he asks.
“Aye, I was. And she would like to collaborate with you.”
“She’d like to collaborate? Really? And… who is she now?”
Neiman hacked Li’s computers; there is no reason to pretend otherwise. “Oh, I think you know who she is.”
“Uh… Is it Lilly?”
“Lilly isn’t the one whose computers you hacked to get the location of the cerebrate.”
“Truthfully, I am not sure whose computer it was that I hacked. I only tried to get the data feed. I didn’t really poke around to try to see who owned the network. My deepest apologies, but I had to get that data. And if she didn’t secure her network, that’s basically like leaving the door open.”
Imogen presents the offer that Li June agreed to, an exchange of numbers in both directions so that they can share information. Neiman’s response, however, is not what Imogen was hoping for. She fears her description has just made Li’s networks sound more attractive, so much so that he is likely to go after them again. She hopes that whatever Li did overnight helps them withstand the intrusion, because at this point, Imogen doubts Neiman is a trustworthy ally.
“I think that might be a little bit risky,” Neiman says. “I don’t know this person. I’ve been doing well on my own. I’ll be honest; I think I have all the things I need to do what I have to do. I think it’s just an unnecessary risk for me right now. And uh… what are you up to right now?”
“Well, if you have all you need, then you don’t need any of these other new zerg that I’ve collected samples of,” Imogen tries, seeing if she can tempt him into any kind of deal at all.
“You are correct. I have no need for…” He pauses, as if he is thinking or maybe looking at something. All Imogen has to go by is the sound of his voice, and it is not reassuring. Then he speaks again, and she knows this relationship is over before it even began. “You’re calling from a certain science vessel, aren’t you?” The smirk in his voice gives the lie to his earlier blasé response about the tracker.
“Don’t be coy with me. I’m not calling you to play games. I know you’ve got a tracker, I do. We’re all on the same side here of not wanting to get killed by zerg. Aye, you know secrets about me; I know secrets about you. This game-playing is not going to advance anything. If you want to work on your own, fine, I’ll throw away this comm, and we’ll be done. Either play nice, or play by yourself. I don’t need you,” Imogen seethes. In her frustration, she lets slip more than she should. After all, a week ago, she was asking him questions about psionics, indicating that she wanted to learn from him. Now, having made an agreement with Malorn, she has no need to put up with this Earth ghost’s antics, but there was no reason to let him know something had changed on that front.
“Have it your way,” Neiman replies. “I work best alone. You helped me get what I needed. Farewell.”
Imogen jabs the soldering iron through the comm, destroying the tracker and the rest of the circuitry. It’s like Li June said: the only person who has your best interest at heart is yourself, she reflects grumpily.