At eighteen hours twenty, a proximity alarm sounded on the bridge of the Clive Pillmore. The sensors pointed to a number of objects having appeared less than ten kilometres off the port bow.
“Let’s take a look,” Ishmael said.
The large display showed the view from the port-side cameras. The view was clear. Suddenly, standing alongside there appeared a ship about half the length of C-pill. It was sleeker and had a more business-like, or at least meaner aspect. Looking like something from one of the more evil Star Trek empires it carried, seated on its upper surface between the missile bays and laser banks, six smaller craft that were as sleek as the infamous Nubian Royal Starship used by Queen Amidala of the Naboo [Hang on. Isn’t that the third of the cake-made ships mentioned in Chapter 3?].
“We’re being hailed,” the comm officer said.
“Acknowledge and display,” Andrea said.
Joan’s face appeared on the monitor. “Hiya, Andy. You are there? Can you unhide for me?”
Ishmael nodded as Andrea looked at him. He switched the ship’s SEP module to ‘visible’.
“Thanks, Andy. Merry says you’re expecting me.”
“Well, yes, I was. Kind of.”
“The admiral informed me yesterday, but I was on-planet when it came in and only saw it an hour ago. We are ready, though, if you wish to come aboard.”
“I’ll be on your pads in two.”
“How will you manage that? Our pads only link with Packway.”
“Pass-through. Packway will bounce my energy to you.”
“You trust that?”
“Why not?” She closed the link.
“Ishmael, send a welcome party to the pad bay, please.”
Five minutes later, the honour guard appeared, piped and escorted onto the bridge Rear Admiral Joan Weinberg and her ship’s master, Commodore Gertie Elliott.
“What do you think of her?” Joan asked Andrea.
“Looks good. Tell me about her.”
“She’s the latest iteration RX-class heavy cruiser, HMDSV King Charles V – we call her Chucky – and she’s accompanied by a squadron of six MX-class attack craft. All seven are QBE-equipped. It takes a lot of power to drive those things but, by golly, do they speed up operational decision-making.”
“So why exactly are you here?”
“Mostly for my engineers to fit some upgrades to C-pill. But, whilst we’re here, we can put Chucky through her paces and see what the new capabilities can really do.”
“New capabilities? What are you planning to destroy?”
“Nothing, Andy. Don’t worry. It’s the new scanners I want to try out. They’re supposed to be able to detect life up to five kilometres underground and up to twenty-five kilometres underwater. The deepest in the solar system is the Mariana Trench, but that only goes down to eleven kilometres. I’m hoping you’ve got something deeper here for us to look at.”
“I wouldn’t be surprised. We haven’t been looking at the oceans, and we couldn’t even see the large population on land, because we couldn’t penetrate the forest canopy.”
“We saw a small population centre in the forest as soon as we arrived. Lily, our QBE, named after King Charles the fifth’s queen, Lilian, counted two hundred and thirteen thousand, eight hundred and forty seven by heat signature and life-sign. The forests are teeming with life, too; large and small.”
“I think I like your scanners.”
“We have upgrades for you,” Joan reassured her.
“Come with me, both of you,” Andrea said, “and you, Ishmael. There’s something I want to show you.”
They walked together to Andrea’s office. There, in a display cabinet on a table behind her desk, stood three large and exquisitely detailed tri-metal models: one was a scaled-down but uncannily accurate replica of the Clive Pillmore, one of the Sir Prijs and one of a ship that was sleeker than either of the others and carried, on its upper surface between the missile bays and laser banks, six smaller craft.
“Recognise anything?” Andrea asked.
“That’s Chucky!” Joan shouted excitedly.
“I have to say, she makes C-pill and Sir Prijs look positively antiquated.”
“They don’t need to be that sleek in space. It’s mainly to look like fighting craft. On a diplomatic mission, I’d rather turn up in C-pill any day, but it’d be comforting to know that Chucky and her entourage – KCV1 to 6 – were there in the background if I needed support.”
“So, Joan, what’s our timetable?”
“Team one will upgrade your AI. That should take a couple of days, maybe three if they hit any snags. That will also upgrade your pads, too, as they’re controlled by the AI. Team two will work on your sensors. Again, should be no more than a two-day job. Team three will look at your manufacturing capability and upgrade it to permit manufacture of more robust defensive armaments. You won’t need offensive capability; if our QBEs have instantaneous communication, we can be here within seconds if you need us. Maybe not Chucky, but certainly a team of support fighters which will be happy to submit to your QBE’s command.”
“That sounds good. What think you, Ishmael, from a tactical and engineering standpoint?”
“More than happy with that. As long as the aliens aren’t aware that we have offensive-capable company up here.”
“That’s a good point, Ishmael. Joan, I shall be bringing up a pair of visitors from the planet tomorrow. Can you and your entourage run invisible whilst they’re here?”
“We usually do, the same as you do; it’s the most efficient way to run the SEP. Any reason you particularly want us to now?”
“We are moving gently towards seeking to coexist with them on their planet…”
“Of course. That mission’s still on, isn’t it?”
“Do you know something I don’t, Joan?”
“I’ll brief you later. Flag grades only, I’m afraid.”
“Okay. But can you? Run invisible?”
“We probably won’t need to. I plan to spend two or three days on a sensor survey of the planet, using our new scanning capability. As you know, the normal SEP setting that absorbs light significantly reduces the range of the scanners. I’ll need at least a full day for the oceans alone, and to get maximum effect, I’ll need to be on the minimum SEP setting so I’ll start on the opposite side of the planet.”
“How will you know when it’s safe for you to move into our quadrant?”
“Your QBE will be able to tell Lily as soon as it’s active, and also whether your visitors have left.”