The short ride to Li June’s manor is uneventful. When Lilly and Imogen arrive, the former magistrate recognizes their vehicle and disables the two entry turrets to allow their safe passage inside the walls. Afternoon tea awaits them in the sunroom, but Li herself is in the command center. When they come into the house, she waves them over to join her. “Y’all are back kind of early, now aren’t ya?”
“We got a faster ride,” Imogen cheerfully tells her.
“Did you soup up your bike even more?”
Imogen responds with a sly smile, “You could say that.” Li acknowledges the comment but does not rise to the bait. She turns back to her computer network and resumes furiously typing. Imogen notes that the older woman looks tired, but that is no surprise considering the all-nighter she pulled protecting her systems from Neiman. That thought sobers Imogen. Li asks if they found what they needed on the salvage operation. “We got some information before the computer started acting sort of weird,” Imogen tells her, “so we thought we’d bring the computer to you, and you might—with your extra knowledge in this area—be able to extract a little bit more.”
“I might be able to do that,” Li allows. “Have you got the hard drive? I could just plug it in somewhere.”
“We do have the hard drive,” confirms Imogen, “but it’s about three or four miles away.”
Li looks up from her computer at that, puzzled. “Did you bury it out in the sand? Did your bike breakdown—no, your bike is here.”
“We have the ship,” Imogen admits. “We got it up and running.”
“You got the ship flying?!”
“Yes, ma’am,” Lilly affirms.
“Nah, y’all are yanking my chain.”
“That ship had a hard landing. A few years ago.”
“Aye, it did, but someone had logged in somewhat recently, so it hasn’t been totally abandoned. They logged in as the admin.”
“Sounds like they hacked their way in,” Li says.
Imogen shrugs. “You’re a little more conversant in these things than we are, so we’d appreciate you taking a look at it.” Li downplays her fluency with computers, and Imogen points out that she herself has certainly never spent the whole night patching a network, so Li is definitely more experienced.
“Well, if I knew what I was doing, I wouldn’t need to patch them in the first place, and it wouldn’t’ve taken me all night,” Li counters. Imogen warns her that her systems are likely to suffer additional attacks in the near future. “So someone’s going to be coming after my network? Why’s that?”
“Because he doesn’t like that you kicked him out,” Imogen replies with a sigh.
“Oh, you tried to arrange—” Li begins.
Still stinging from her failure, Imogen cuts her off. “That’s a dead end.”
Li does not blame Imogen for the collaboration opportunity falling through. “Well now, maybe it’s for the best. Some people aren’t comfortable working together. I get it.”
“He said he had everything he needed for what he was doing.” Li points out she can protect herself better the more she knows about what he is up to. Imogen tries to piece together what clues she has. “Well, I told you he said he was conducting experiments on the drone, and you said that sounded sort of weird—”
“It didn’t sound like he was just researching to see how these things work. Maybe he was trying to make something.”
“Could be. And you said someone accessed this science vessel recently?”
“Someone. And he knew that’s where we were,” Imogen points out, considering that maybe Neiman was the one who had logged in as admin. She thinks out loud for a moment, “But that’s no surprise, since he had the tracker, which he wasn’t apologetic about, by the way.”
Li declares, “Well, that’s just rude.”
“That’s what I thought,” Imogen mutters. Returning to the topic of the hacking on the ship, Imogen tells Li, “I don’t know if it was him. I don’t really understand how these networks all work together. Clearly he had accessed yours, but from what he said, it didn’t sound like he had ever been to your compound. He didn’t know who you actually were, just that this was a network with what he needed.”
“I am tapped into a few places where he might have been able to attach himself,” Li considers, annoyed. Then she sighs. “It’s the nature of the beast. If I want to tap into the outside, I’ve got to open myself up a little bit.”
“He knew we were at the research vessel, but I figured he knew that because he had been in your systems and knew what you knew about the local area, but beyond that… I don’t know.”
Lilly is also thinking about the ship. That science vessel, it needs a new coat of paint.
Li has spent the better part of the afternoon studying the access logs for her own network. Whoever has been piggybacking on her data streams has most likely known about that science vessel for months. Imogen tells Li all she has determined about the transmissions being periodically sent from the ship, including that they did not fly straight to the compound because she does not know how to shut them down. Li appreciates the discretion, but she is reluctant to leave her outpost even to go just a few miles away. Lilly offers to bring the ship closer, but Li is just as uncomfortable with that solution.
At this point, Imogen pulls out the sample jars, hoping to put Li in a more cooperative frame of mind. She presents the material she pulled from the unknown zerg that talked to them, which Li identifies as a broodmother. She has heard of them but never seen one, so this specimen is of great interest to her. Then they tell Li about the implanted hydralisk that was guarding the science vessel. Imogen provides the tissues samples as well as the bits of equipment she pulled off it, both of which Li takes for study.
Lilly adds the sample she got from the delivery zerg that had the bladder of vespene. Li tells them that was a drone, a worker-zerg. They primarily transport things, but they can also turn into structures, like the ones Lilly and Imogen saw on Redstone III. Drone behavior is well catalogued already, and the bladder itself is not useful; Li says it is essentially a rusty barrel.
Lilly makes a joke about Snowball turning into a building one day, which reminds Imogen about what else they found. “Lilly, can you pull out the catalysts?”
Li looks them over. “If my research is correct, if you get a reasonable amount of creep, put your Snowball upon it, and pour one of these catalysts over him, he should bubble up into a cocoon or egg and turn into whatever one of these zerg is. What do you have here? You have a hydralisk. All right. You have a drone. Okay. And you have an unknown. I leave it up to you what you want to do, if you want to use any of them. You don’t have to decide right now, of course. I’ve got enough creep samples to provide the substrate for you. That’s not a problem; creep is unfortunately in abundance here on Mar Sara. So you can do what you want regarding that, if you want to take the gamble. The implant will still be in his brain, so hopefully he won’t turn hostile. Do you want me to run any tests on these?” Imogen requests Li concentrate her attention on the catalyst labeled unknown, but they give her a small portion of each.
Returning to the topic of Saffron, Li suggests a solution acceptable to everyone: Lilly and Imogen will return to the ship, and Li can talk them through disabling the surveillance over comms. Audio is not being transmitted in the outgoing packets, so that should be safe enough. Then Lilly can fly Saffron much closer to her outpost for Li to take a look at the mainframe.
Before they return to the ship, though, Imogen requests, “Now that we’re no longer under attack, you can help me out with fixing the bike, Lilly.” Lilly rolls Old Red into Li’s garage and pulls back some of the heavy sheets of paneling so that Imogen can disconnect the gas tank. Lilly pulls it out of the bike and drains it, then Imogen patches it properly with the tools and materials Li has. They reassemble everything, and Imogen runs some checks on the electrical systems.
Lilly touches up the paint, masking the scrapes from zerglings and cramming Old Red into the science vessel. “What’s saffron? What color is it?” she asks.
“Saffron is a very expensive Umojan spice,” Imogen replies, “the stamen of a crocus. Sort of a goldenish-yellow, kind of orange color.”
“Okay, got it.” Lilly continues her work on Old Red, but she starts thinking about what to do with the exterior of the bleached yellow-gray science vessel. Should she make it entirely one color? Or just redo the pale yellow trim with some orange? Should she not get too attached to it? They might just need to scrap it for parts, depending on what Rory says. But she did fly and land without crashing, Lilly reflects. So far Saffron has a lot going for her.