"Captain, I don't agree. I think I should go with Robb and Zenn. They can make the initial contact, but if the humanoid robot's programming is intact they will not countermand an order from a human. If they don't react to us as they should, it tells us a good deal more than anything else would. We have to know if they're capable of changing their behavior towards us, and a single human is better to risk than the crew of a ship. I suggest once we're onboard this vessel you take Avenger to cloak, and leave until you hear from me it's safe to return."
I tried hard not to become emotional about the suggestion, but the truth was I was invested in Morgan—he knew it and I knew it. I was tempted to take him to another room and argue my case against his going but knew his logic was sound. His plan was a good one, and I couldn't argue losing one crew member was better than losing more than one or the entire ship and crew. If things didn't go well, losing Avenger would change the entire calculus for our fleet. I felt a tight knot form in my stomach—damn I hated it when he was right. We were flying by the seat of our pants, and if we couldn't trust one another we were already at a disadvantage.
"Okay, we'll play it your way. But you know I'm not thrilled about it."
"Captain, I didn't think you would be, but we have a job to do. I think we both know we're short on time, and if we don't get the information the admiral wants in time there could be loss of life on both sides. If these humans are capable of surviving cryosleep after all these years, then if we destroyed their ships in a major battle, we would be killing innocents. At least our crews are capable of defending themselves in some fashion—they can't."
The knot in my stomach tightened even more, I hadn't thought of it in those terms. He was right of course. It would be a very different matter if all of them were dead and the robots were indeed the aggressors—we would be within our right to protect ourselves. But at this time we didn't know if the humans were capable of revival as no humans had ever spent this amount of time in stasis. We needed to find if they could be revived—that finding alone could change the strategic thinking of the admiral. I felt we had little choice in our approach to resolving the mystery in the time allotted to us.
"Commander, do it. But I want you back on board as soon as you have the information. If we need to leave one of the droids on board to act as a go-between for some reason then you have authority to make that decision."
"Thank you, Captain. I understand we're pushing our time limit so we should get going."
Fifteen minutes later I watched as three space-suited figures walked towards the area where the alien robots were working on the airlock. I was amazed as they made way and allowed Morgan and the two droids to access the airlock. I turned to the Comm desk.
"Go to cloak, I want the Commanders and the droids audio piped in. Helm, as soon as we are cloaked I want you to take us to station two hundred meters away out of the line of sight of the hangar bay doors."
"Aye, Captain, go to cloak."
"Aye, Captain, maneuver to two hundred meters, establish station."
I turned my attention back to the monitor and saw the away team was already inside while the nonhumanoid droids returned to work repairing damage to the airlock. I focused my attention on the little audio that was being received from the away team and felt anxious. If the vessel's AI had already communicated to their command ship and they knew we were on board, they should have someone tasked with making a connection with us upon our arrival.
The fact they hadn't made an effort to contact Avenger directly meant they didn't see us coming and only detected us after we landed in the hangar bay—our cloaking scheme was still effective. It also meant Morgan should find someone to make contact with inside the cryo compartment—they had orchestrated a way to meet us in a way that didn't threaten but a small number of humans of both fleets. I had to admit I was more than a little impressed—I wondered if the admiral would be.
"Captain, the vessel is sending a message to their fleet," Comm announced.
"I'll provide a translation," Robb replied as he set up a translation program so we could read their communications in almost real-time on one of the monitors.
"Thank you, Comm. Robb, that's a great idea."
It was no more than fifteen seconds later when the message arrived on my screen: "Foreign spacecraft has landed, three crew are now onboard, two humanoid robots and a human. Contact will be attempted and results verified as previously discussed. Kimna out."
I let out a small breath. We actually had a name, Kimna! Another little sign we were making progress as they knew we were monitoring their communications now. I opened the channel to Morgan on my console. "Commander, you should meet a humanoid droid named Kimna. We just intercepted a message sent to their fleet announcing your presence on the ship."
"Understood, Captain. We are just entering the cleanroom and will be inside the cryo compartment in a few minutes. We haven't encountered any other robots once we passed those working on the airlock. It looked like they had just about completed those repairs as they allowed us to pass. I don't know if our comm-link will remain strong after we are inside so it may be a while before we can resume contact. Morgan out."
"Understood, Commander." It wasn't going to be any different than during our first exploration of the ship where intermittent communication was the rule. I was trying to relax knowing we had been here before, this time it had changed seemingly for the better—yet it was no time to get careless and think things couldn't go wrong either by intent or mistake. Knowing the difference was the challenge we would face in the immediate future as we attempted to understand what had happened to this ship, crew, and the fleet she was part a part of.
It was but a minute later that I received another surprise. The signal from the away team's comm signal was coming through loud and clear. I was sure the signal was being boosted and made available to us—it had to be, as they were in the same location we had lost all contact previously.
"Captain, Captain Seenaw is reporting that robots are visible repairing the bridge area of this vessel. They can see lights suggesting welding is being conducted, and robots carrying sections of prefabricated hull sections are being moved into place from outside."
This coupled with our observation of work within the hangar bay suggested they were preparing to make this vessel fully ready for future operations. I wondered if the same was taking place on the remaining vessels of the fleet under observation by Admiral Prescott. That might indicate a decision had been made regarding a future course of action, and the ships needed to be made ready to be fully operational. It was becoming more important with each passing minute we know what their preparations were being made for—either advancing or retreating in relationship to our occupied planets.
"Captain, do you read?"
"Commander, your signal is strong as they seem to have boosted the signal so we can monitor your progress."
"Understood. We are in the cryo compartment and two of their humanoid robots are coming towards us. I'll keep the comm channel open."
"Understood. We'll monitor your conversation. Will Robb and Zenn make the first contact and introduce you?" I asked.
"That's the plan. They will make it clear humans are the ultimate authority in our system. If their programming is intact or has been modified in light of recent events, it should work the same for them and they will accept my authority until their own humans are capable of resuming control."
A few minutes later we listened as they made first contact, their signal strong and clear.
"Greetings, I am Kimna. I represent the robot leadership of the fleet you are engaged with. I want to convey our peaceful intentions and our willingness to engage in meaningful negotiations."
"I am Robb, this is Zenn, and this is our human counterpart, Commander Stanford. We wish to understand why your vessels resisted our attempts at peaceful contact earlier and wish to communicate with your human command structure."
"We can only extend our apologies for the previous damage we have caused to your spacecraft. Up until there was a need to repair damage to our ships there had been no need to retrieve directives and orders from the past, particularly those that had been given to us long ago. When we started to upload and compare these directives we found some of them had been corrupted over time, making them inconsistent with how we were engaging your spacecraft. All of our humans are in the cryo-units, so they are unavailable until they are revived."
Then I heard Morgan's voice. "Kimna, it's important that we know if these mutated orders are still in effect or not. If they are, they represent a conflict with the robot/human relationship that could result in the loss of additional human lives. The leader of our fleet will need to be convinced there will be no additional adversarial interactions between our two fleets to protect everyone. I want to emphasize we wish to assist the humans aboard your vessels."
"Commander Stanford, perhaps the best way to demonstrate this is to have you take command of this vessel and our fleet until our humans are revived and capable of making decisions that would be binding for all of us. Is that acceptable?"
"So, you accept my authority as a human."
"Yes, it is consistent with our prime directives. We are in the process of repairing the bridge so this vessel can be returned to operation under human supervision. The repairs should be completed in about four or five standard hours."
"Kimna, we need to see if we can revive the humans in units 321 and 323 so we can obtain information from them we haven't been able to get from the ship's and captain's logs. Have you attempted to revive any humans recently?"
"No commander. We have waited to see if we could find a suitable planet that would support them first as supplies were approaching critical levels—that is why we were investigating this system. We were approaching a point where we were ready to revive some of the crew when we thought we had encountered pirates again."
"You mean us," responded Robb.
"Yes, I'm afraid so," Kimna replied.
"Captain, are you getting this?" Morgan asked.
"Yes, I am, how long will the process take to revive members of the crew?"
The estimate was 14 hours and they began the process at once. That would be later than when the Admiral wanted a definitive response, but we could report we had made positive contact and the crew was friendly and cooperative. Of course, one question remained unanswered—what was the reason the crew had suffered sickness that had led to the entire crew being placed into cryosleep in the first place? I knew Morgan would be trying to get an answer to that question soon.
It was time to take a gamble. They knew Avenger was present, had received our away team in a friendly manner, and given explanations for their past behavior. It was time to go active so we could communicate with the admiral and our other two vessels stationed nearby.
"Comm, remove our cloak and open a secure channel to the Admiral."
When Prescott's face appeared on the screen it appeared as if he had just gotten up, his hair still a little askew, his eyes appeared tired. I wasn't the only fatigued officer in the fleet—which didn't make me feel any better as I knew it affected judgment—at his age probably more than my own. He had junior officers aboard that could offer him advice if he chose to ask for it. I had Morgan so I felt we were on a par with each other.
"Captain Casperson, I assume you have information that will be helpful."
"Yes sir. We have an away team on board the enemy vessel and they have been received in a friendly manner. Commander Stanford is working with a member of their crew to revive two of their crew members so we can get more information. Their estimate is it will take at least 14 hours for them to be ready to leave the cryo-units."
"Captain, that's too long. I'm not going to wait that long. They are in the process of repairing the damage to their vessels as we speak. I'm convinced they are going to advance on us once those repairs are completed. I don't intend to offer them the opportunity. You have four hours left, no more, before you are to return to the fleet. Is that understood?"
"Admiral, they have agreed to let Morgan take command of their ship."
"Temporarily, to keep you occupied. As soon as they're ready, they will take command back and initiate their attack."
"Yes sir. But, I respectfully request you give us another ten hours beyond our original limit. We may be able to determine the real reason the crew was taken ill and the ships placed on robotic systems. They did explain the reason why they attacked our ships at first contact, and they have put their original orders into operation while repairing the damage to their ship. I believe they are doing the same to the rest of the ships in the fleet, which is why you are seeing activity."
"Captain Casperson, I think they are setting a trap for us and using you as bait, or at least to keep you out of the battle for a long as possible. You have four hours before you return to the fleet without delay. That gives you about two additional hours to provide proof positive humans are in full control of their vessels and can't be countermanded. Otherwise, we will move on them."
"Yes sir. I understand."
The monitor with the Admiral's image went dark, the transmission ended. What came into my mind was not something I could share with my crew as it was not at all complimentary. I held my tongue. That was ample demonstration his mind was made up unless we had something tangible to show him to force him to change his mind. I wasn't sure that was going to be possible—how do you prove a negative? It was time to push on in an attempt to identify the cause of the illness while the away team was busy trying to answer the same question from their position on board the enemy vessel. I was having a difficult time using the term 'enemy' at this point, they surely weren't if they were following Morgan's orders. It was time to check in with him again as I went to sit at my console and pushed the comm button.
"Commander Morgan, I could use an update."
"Captain, we have the captain and first officer of this vessel in the process of coming out of stasis, so far their vital signs show its working. Our contact, Kimna, is just about to take us to the bridge for our first look around since they ran a pressure and atmosphere check after their repairs were completed. I'm still in my suit as a precaution as are Robb and Zenn, that way we can leave the suits in the hangar deck as part of the decontamination procedure as we did the first time when we returned."
"Understood Commander. I provided an update to the Admiral and he isn't going to extend the time we have to investigate what happened, we have to return to the fleet in about three hours. So, we need to come up with a course of action. The admiral thinks the repairs on this vessel and the others are a prelude to their attacking us again."
"Captain, I don't understand why he thinks that. We have gotten him most of the answers he needs and this vessel and robot crew is proof enough of their friendly intentions."
I could detect a hint of exasperation in his voice and I quite understood his feelings. "Commander, he thinks they're using us as bait to lure us into a false sense of security. We have to figure out a way of showing that isn't true before our time runs out. Let me know how the inspection of the bridge goes and we can talk again when you're ready."
"Okay, Captain. I'll provide an update in about an hour. That should give me enough time to see if the bridge is repaired to a point where it's functional. Oh, I did find out almost a third of this ship is filled with supplies for the repair of the electronic-based equipment for the entire fleet. They came well prepared to establish a colony with all the bells and whistles to coin an old term. Morgan out."
Well, that was interesting and at the same time opened up some possibilities. If they had the bridge repaired and serviceable that would mean the remaining vessels in their fleet may be coming up to the same standard. That would certainly cause the admiral more than a little consternation and it placed even more pressure on Morgan and me to determine what had contributed to this entire situation—what had afflicted the ship's crew and passengers.
I was surprised at this point that the droids did not seem to have a definitive answer to this question, just a general observation that the ship's human population over a matter of several days had fallen ill and that many had died. They had been busy moving people into the cryo-units to quarantine the dead at first, then the ill when a means to treat them hadn't been found. Then they had been put to work to clean and decontaminate the interior spaces, and then finally, to place the remaining crew members who still appeared healthy into the cryo-units while the decontamination procedures were still underway.
The captain and first officer were brought out of stasis a week later according to the ship's and Captain's logs. It was at that time they decided that the original destination should be changed to the Gliese solar system where humans were known to have settled in the past. This, in a last ditch effort to find doctors that could determine the cause of the sickness. That at least, explained how they had come to be in our system without our expecting them. It appeared that the degradation of their orders to protect their humans was part of the problem until it was discovered and restored. Still not a definitive answer, though it seemed the number of unanswered questions was now reduced. At least we had learned the revival time for the cryo-units was from 10 to 12 hours rather than 14 according to specifications for the units found in the cryo compartment logs.
I knew it was time to make some decisions regarding what to tell the admiral. We had less than two hours before we were due to leave to rejoin the fleet. Time was running out and I was beginning to think we had done all we were going to be able to do given the time we had. Our crew had read the greater part of the logs and had not been able to find anything else of value that pointed directly to what had affected the humans of the fleet. I knew the answer had to be right in front of us—all of the clues were there to solve the puzzle and we hadn't found it yet.
I heard the chime from my console, a message from Morgan. "Captain, I've inspected the bridge with Zenn and Robb and it's fully operational. It's amazing how efficient they have been in getting the repairs completed. We have tested the atmospheric composition several times and it's optimal for human occupation. I'm going to remove my space suit and continue to inspect the ship and wait for the captain and first officer to come out of the cryo-units. I propose we have something for them to eat when they do and I will question them when they can respond coherently to see what happened."
"Commander, are you suggesting you remain with the ship after we leave to rejoin the fleet? Those crew members won't be able to converse with you until then, assuming they make it, until we have already joined the fleet."