The Debriefing of Doctor Hiroko
The Hamilton O. Smith sets a course for Altair, which holds the nearest Tau Ceti University campus; the plan is to drop off Dr. Hiroko and everything else gathered during the mission to New Axom. Rhone and Dr. Everett decide to take advantage of the several idle weeks to learn as much as they can about Hiroko’s current condition before turning him over to a lab team. Despite shooting Hiroko up with Content Not Found: Ketaseravol (military grade version of the drug seravol, which decreases psionic resistance), Rhoane is unable to make contact with the doctor. Alan hits upon the idea of connecting Dr. Hiroko up to the other piece of Orion technology onboard the ship, which happens to be sentient and very skilled at computer systems invasion – Sharon.
Convinced of the (relative) safety of the procedure, Chief Engineer Schmidt assists building an hardline interface in the astrometrics lab between Dr. Hiroko and Sharon that excludes the rest of the ship’s systems. Putting all their eggs in one AI basket, the final connection is established and Sharon immediately cuts through any and all resistance Hiroko can muster. A torrent of data begins to spill over into Sharon’s data banks, and Rhoane can finally make psychic contact with the lanthanide cybernetics that have now completely taken over all of Hiroko’s higher brain functions. Unexpectedly to all, huge swathes of Sharon’s code begin to activate at being connected to another piece of Orion technology, and she starts to become fully aware of how much of her functionality is damaged. The data that is gathered will require months to sift through…
Negotiations Between Equals
A short duration into the trip, the Smith is hailed by the Chironian Union ship Content Not Found: Arjuna, which just happens to be on an intercept course. They extend an initiation for Captain Borza and his command staff to come aboard the Arjuna and settle up the matter of the _Bellerophon_’s salvage rights.
Borza takes Captain Khalsa up on his offer, and soon most of the senior staff are enjoying a buffet spread aboard the Arjuna while Stromness negotiates the details of the agreement. In the end, TCU agrees to part with 1% of the lanthanide proceeds in exchange for everything taken from the Bellerophon (including the plasma cannon which will be considered a gift to the people of New Axom). In addition, the Smith will be allowed to keep the five drones which were repurosed as Johnny Five’s mobile recon squad. A shuttle from the Arjuna picks up Sgt. McMahon, Dakini, and the stasis pod containing the unnamed lieutenant; the two crews part on amicable terms.
The Matter of the Ballarat
On the last leg of the trip to Altair, Lucid Conundrum picks up a distress call coming from the vicinity of Pelletier’s World, a belt-mining and trade hub settlement. The ship requesting aid is the Content Not Found: Ballarat, but the transmission suddenly cuts out in the middle before Lucid can respond. The captain orders Sharon to lay in an intercept course and for the crew to prepare to render assistance.
Arriving at the _Ballarat_’s coordinates, they find the open-frame mining vessel badly damaged, with numerous high-energy scars across her structure – Lucid detects signs of a recent hyperjump out of the area, so there appears to be no imminent threat. As they draw near, Rhoane is immediately assailed by a painful psionic signal that brings him to his knees, unable to block it out – he can gain enough control to pinpoint the source of the signal as one of a number of tiny devices trailing behind the Ballarat, connected to the main ship by carbon-fiber cable.
Although a hail is initially unanswered, eventually a video link is established with the bridge showing three synthetic crew members who insist that Everything Is Just Fine, Really. They apologize for troubling the Smith due to an industrial accident, but assure Captain Borza that no assistance is needed. Simultaneously, Lucid Conundrum picks up on a separate narrow beam transmission to the ship detailing an approach vector to the Ballarat that would be suitable for, say, a boarding shuttle. Captain Borza decides to accept the invitation rather than the apology, and orders JB3 to send an armed away team to the Ballarat and figure out what the hell is going on.
The shuttle launches with:
Johnny Five, in command
Bishop, piloting the shuttle
Chris “Gamble” Hamilton
During the approach, the shuttle provides details of the psionically active device which Rhoane is very much interested in turning off – JB3 dispatches one of the drones to cut it free of its tether and haul it back aboard the Hamilton O. Smith_. A cursory examination reveals that it has a buckyball shell over a shock harness, with a rudimentary life-support apparatus roughly the size of a human head at the core. Delivering the device to medical (where Rhoane has also gone to get something for his pounding headache), Dr. Everett establishes that yes, the _Content Not Found: screamer is a brain in a jar. Specifically, a human brain suspended in a nutrient fluid which is commonly used in a number of dubious (and some outright illegal) scientific practices revolving around cerebral research and modification. Rhoane wants it destroyed, while Everett refuses on the grounds that it is a human being, albeit one that has been extensively modified to emit a continual psionic scream.
Meanwhile, the boarding party has successfully docked and encounters no resistance to moving into the ship’s central structure. Wats notices some disturbing readings coming from the ship’s engines – a gradual increase of power which, with the reactor shielding damaged as it is, will kill every living thing in the vicinity once it reaches a lethal output. Wats and Bishop are sent to lock down engineering while the rest of the team moves to take the bridge.
In engineering, Wats learns that the reactor spinup is a preparation to hyperjump out of the area – wanting to be neither stranded nor dead, he gains enough control over the ship’s systems to prevent the engines from kicking on. While doing this, a nearby console flares to life and shows the image of notable Alpha Centauri pop star Jackie Singh. “Carolyn” starts asking if anyone aboard has advanced medical or scientific knowledge – Bishop claims to have taken a geology course at one point, which prompts “Carolyn” inform them that notable scientist Dr. Kurchetov is onboard.
The rest of the away team advances towards the bridge, and finds the remains of a ruined defense bot – cursory analysis shows that the attacking force was most likely Orion in origin. The team eventually encounters resistance in the form of three heavily customized synthetic crewmembers (Gamble spots a telescoping lens in the place of one of their eyes) who shamble towards the troopers. Everyone’s environmental alerts go to read, blaring about the presence of explosive chemicals coming from the synthetic zombies. Johnny Five orders the team to open fire, and they manage to take out the legs of the zombies, allowing time for the troopers to take cover before the quasi-living bombs explode. Dusting themselves off, the team prepares to storm the bridge when the security doors politely unlock themselves and slide open.
This takes the three synthetics on the bridge by more than a little surprise, and they are quickly disarmed and restrained. Aslakhanov informs Captain Borza that they are now in control of the Ballarat, which is followed by “Carolyn” shouting over the intercom that she claims the ship under the “fugitive arrest and retrieval provisions of the Barnard Accords”, naming Dr. Kurchetov as the criminal being sought.