Read me the story:
“Ah, Boss? I think trouble might be heading our way.” The AI’s voice was a pleasant female contralto, but not overtly sexy, as Hadroun V-Yenappi was not one to occupy the long solitudes between planetfalls in playing pornographic games with the AI and holosim.
Now, intent on the intricacies of microbacterial populations in his life-support tanks, he did not at first register what the machine had told him. When it did penetrate, he nearly whanged himself a good one on the back of the head as he scooted out of the tank housing, and straightened. “Trouble? What kind of trouble?” he asked, as he stripped off iso-gloves and mask, and dropped them in the recycler.
“Analysis suggests pirate attack as the most likely scenario.”
Hadroun blinked. “Pirates? Here?!?” He was already on his way to the Scheherazade’s bridge, not a long distance to travel. There were no long distances in the Scheherazade.
“It does seem unlikely, but I cannot interpret the data any other way,” the AI said diffidently. “I was attempting to send a routine transmission to the Veran exchange beacon, and receiving no bounce-ping. A routine query to Veran spaceport control yielded the information that the orbital relay sat is down. Since the relay sat is part of their planetary security system, linked to multiple redundancies and backups, it is highly unlikely that a malfunction in one part of the net could impair transmission to the exchange beacon.”
“The planetary security system’s primary function is to deter pirate raids. In attempting further query to spaceport control some one hundred and forty-eight seconds ago, I have been unable to access any comlink. Such frequencies as there are,” was there a suggestion of a sniff in the AI’s otherwise noncommittal tone? It was certain that she regarded Veran as an unpleasant backwater, with no virtual reality net, no other advanced machine intelligences to interface with—a bore, in fact—“seem to be quite efficiently jammed. So I just took a quick peek with my scanners. There’s a lot of hardware up there. Big hardware. Mean hardware.”
“What the hell?” Hadroun was in the pilot’s chair by now, looking at the readouts the AI had acquired. “Who in the name of the seven twisted space gods… woha… that’s heavy stuff. Those aren’t pirates, that’s a full-scale invasion! But who…? And why…? Yikes! Shut down all scan!” No way did he want to make anything that could be remotely conceived of as a hostile move, in the face of that firepower.
“Already done, Boss. I only ran it for seventeen picoseconds. With them right on top of us, that was all I needed. But I’m pretty sure they detected us anyway.”
“Because they’re hailing us.”
“Oh. Pudu. Put it on.”
“IMF Cavell-Scheherazade, this is Klaros Expeditionary Legion Strike Force command. You are required to cease all scan activity, make no attempts to contact planetary locals, and remain in your ship. Do you comply?”
Hadroun muttered something under his breath, then “Scheherazade complies. We are non-hostile, repeat, non-hostile. Cavell Fleet maintains standard trading agreements with Klaros.”
There was both impatience and a touch of amusement in the response. “Understood, Scheherazade. All traffic is currently interdicted but you will be regarded as neutral so long as you comply with directives and make no hostile action. You will be contacted again shortly.”
The transmission light darkened.
“Huh. This is a pretty tankful of neocod!” Hadroun swung the pilot’s chair thoughtfully on its gimbals for a moment, then stood up. “Well, we can’t scan, but we can watch, anyway. Let’s have a screen, Sherry.” He strode to the other end of the bridge cabin, where a small lounge area was laid out around a galley and a holotank. A portion of the wall was already sliding down, revealing a flat-projection screen. As he disposed himself on one of the galley stools, the screen in its turn slid aside, revealing a blank expanse of glasteel, black now.
“One moment. It appears advisable to apply polarizing films, as I am reading considerable heavy-energy discharge flashes in the close vicinity.”
As he watched, finally, a dim window on the Veran spaceport area opened up. The multiple layers of glasteel, with their protective coatings and retractable outer hull plate, had added considerably to the cost of Scheherazade and the indebtedness to the Family Hadroun had incurred with her commissioning, but he liked to be able to look out the window.
“Ahlaveh! They’re serious, aren’t they?”
The AI had been engaging in typical machine intelligence understatement with that “considerable.” The sky around the spaceport was a sparking, splotching patchwork of weaponry displays as Veran plasma chainguns answered Klarosian disruptor missiles. Even as he watched, the film darkened further, and he could feel a rumble through the deckplates. Concussion cannon.
“What I can’t figure out is why?” He frowned in bafflement.
“Yes, why? Klaros loves to throw their weight around, sure, but what is there here for them? Besides being the tail-tip of nowhere, this place hasn’t got a thing they can use, and it’s too far from the Reveille system to make it useful even if they did!” he fell silent, chewing his lower lip thoughtfully. Another thunderous rumble shook the Scheherazade.
“Fleet Intel files rate them with high religious motivations; could this be some kind of theologically-based action?” the AI enquired.
“Yeah, they’re religious nutjobs, but that’s never stopped them from making smart strategic decisions, militarily anyway. What’s the return in force-converting twenty-five million or so backworld mudfoots without significant assets and a year’s travel from anywhere?”
“I cannot offer a more detailed analysis,” Sherry suggested delicately, “based on existing data available to me, which is only the standard Fleet Intel briefing. We have never been to the Reveille system or any of the Klarosians’ ‘protectorates.’” It was as close as the AI could come to begging for information.
“I don’t know much myself. As you say, we’ve never visited this bunch of wyzos, and there’s a good reason for that. Cavells don’t deal in arms or military hardware. Klaros doesn’t do a lot of other business in the Hub. They’re not, uh… well-liked.” He called up the screen version of the Fleet Intel briefing and scrolled through it quickly.
“Yeah, seems accurate as far as it goes. Everything else I know I picked up second hand… baysaree gossip, mostly. They’re touchy, pushy, fanatical jingoists, manifest destiny types. Not a lot of fun to do business with. They stay within the UMC, but only just, and only when they think they’re being watched. But… and I emphasize that, they are also hard-headed realists when it comes to military and commercial strategy. Everyone thought they bit off more than they could chew with that Lojau Hen thing, but so far they’ve hung on to the protectorate, and rumor has it that they’re pulling upwards of thirty teracredits out of there every T-year.”
The AI couldn’t exactly sigh. “Yes, that fits in with what’s on record. No further analysis possible, and I am not, as you know, equipped for speculation.” The last was said with an ‘I leave that up to you irrational human types’ inflection.
Another, louder rumble and shockwave shook the little trader.
“Well, it looks like we’re going to be here for awhile. And I don’t think we’re going to be buying many artifacts at the Festival of Air this trip.”