Tracking down the Alo Minh would prove to be a difficult task, especially if--as Commodore Mavis now suspected--her captain didn't wish to be found. She had a six- or seven-hour head start, which meant that she was probably out of the range of standard sensors. Even with sensor beacons placed throughout the system there were more blind spots than not, which meant that finding a single ship in an entire system required a fair amount of coordination.
Mavis paced the bridge, delivering orders in a crisp, clear voice. "I want the location of every one of our ships in this system. If they are planetside, I want them in orbit and standing by. I want all available communications relays listening for the Alo Minh's signature key. I want that information triangulated as soon as possible. If the Alo Minh's key isn't confirmed within the next three hours, we'll assume it has ejected the key and it will be classified as a rogue ship."
Katryn Valdyrs replied with an "aye, sir" and began relaying orders. Twenty minutes later, various forces around the system were standing by and the communications beacons were listening for any sign of the Alo Minh.
Once again Mavis found himself waiting. It seemed to be the most significant part of any crisis--the time when most mistakes were made, he reminded himself. Wait for the information, act on the information you get.
An hour and a half later a comm relay reported receiving the Alo Minh's signature key. Twenty minutes later, a second reported receiving the same. It took another forty-five minutes for the third, and then they triangulated the ship's last known position.
The presence of the beacon was a promising sign.
"We have projected their course, sir."
Mavis shook himself out of his thoughts and turned to Ando Fargus. "Report."
"There is a fair amount of delay between the Alo Minh and the third beacon, and between the beacon and us, but even taking that into account I think we know where they are." Fargus pointed to the large holographic tactical map hanging over the bridge.
Mavis frowned. "That's not as far away as I expected."
"Yes," Fargus agreed. "They're moving slower than we thought."
"What is the closest ship to their position?"
"The Damascus," Fargus said. "But not by much... and we could reach their position before Captain Ison if we opened up our engines."
"Good," Mavis said, nodding. "Order navigation to lay in a course to intercept the Alo Minh. I want all possible speed."
"Aye sir," Fargus said. "We estimate it'll take about four hours."
Information, decision, action--and then, as always, more waiting.
Three hours later, the Centurion's communication and sensor arrays picked up traces of the Alo Minh's signature key... but there was no trace of the Alo Minh. This made Mavis very unhappy.
"Where is she?" Mavis demanded.
"I'm... not sure," Fargus admitted. "We should be picking up signs of their fusion drive, at the very least. Unless they're running with their shields up..."
"No," Mavis said. "Their screens would block their signature key."
The signal grew stronger as the Centurion closed the gap, but there was still no trace of the Alo Minh.
"I don't understand," Fargus admitted. "Their signature key is transmitting, but we can't see them. I don't know how they're doing it, but we can't detect them with our sensors."
"Do we have the correct position?" Mavis asked.
"We're still getting triangulation data from the communications relays," Fargus said, "and it points here. That information should be reliable."
Mavis sighed in frustration. "The ship is either there or it isn't."
"We'll know soon," Fargus promised.
Twenty minutes later, they knew.
* * *
Grif waited until the Fool's Errand was four hours out of Varkav before he gave the order to dump the Alo Minh signature key.
They were on the cusp of a dead patch of Varkavian space--just beyond the basic sensor range of the closest planet's sensor array, though they were still visible to anyone watching for their fusion drive.
Grif punched the intercom. "Ktk, get out on the hull and bring the sig key beacon into the cargo bay."
Bennet looked up from the communications station in surprise.
Ktk's race could survive in vacuum for nearly two days without the need for extra protection. This job took two hours to finish. Ktk claimed to enjoy the work--it was preferable, it claimed, to baby-sitting a middle-aged telepath in the throes of psichosis. When it reported it was in Bay One with the sig key beacon, Grif ordered Cyrus to go help with the "refit."
"Come on," Bennet said, exasperated, "give me a hint."
Grif grinned again. "We have an old-model planetary probe sitting in Bay one. Nothing useful compared to today's technology, but it can be programmed to follow a preset course. Cyrus and Ktk are going to put the beacon on the probe, and we're going to give Mavis something to chase down for a bit. We'll probably get an extra day out of it."
Bennet smiled. "A decoy."
Grif nodded. "I figure we've got an hour or so before they realize this artifact isn't where it's supposed to be. And a few more hours after that before they figure out we're the ones who took it. Six to eight hours before they start to look for us, maybe twelve if we're lucky."
"Right," Bennet said. "I'd assume closer to six than twelve."
"Killjoy," Grif said. "Now if I was Mavis, I'd want to find me--er, Jobin Tax, that is--as soon as possible. So the first thing I’d do is stay put and listen to see if we're still emitting a signature key, and triangulate that position."
"I see," Bennet said doubtfully. "And what would stop Mavis from knowing you as well as you know him, and suspecting that you've done all this?"
"On, come on," Grif said dismissively. "He doesn't even know it's me. And let me tell you what, de-coupling a signature key from a ship is hard. You're not supposed to be able to do it outside a shipyard, you know."
"Impractical, too," Morgan said. "It's easier to just mess with the beacon so you can switch signature keys at will."
Bennet didn't look convinced. "If it takes shipyard facilities to de-couple one of those things, how is it that Ktk can pull it off all by itself?"
Grif looked nonchalant. "Trade secret."
"Figures," Bennet muttered, which just made Grif grin all over again.
The intercom beeped, then Cyrus said, "it'll be about half an hour."
Grif punched the intercom. "Get to it. We're on a schedule here!"
He turned to Amys. "In about forty minutes we're going to send the beacon on its merry way. Plot in a course to take us out of the system in a nonstandard route. We'll be flying blind, so try not to map a path through any rocks."
Amys smirked and started plotting courses.
"So what's the plan?" Bennet asked.
"It's pretty simple," Grif said. "We send Mavis in one direction, we go the other direction--screens up to mask our engines. We're going to be just another point of light in the wash. With any luck they won't notice us until we're so far out that it won't matter..."
"What if they notice us before that?"
"Well," Grif said, "there's always plan B..."
Morgan swore under his breath.
Bennet raised an eyebrow. "What is...?"
"Don't ask," Morgan said curtly.
Half an hour later, Cyrus reported that they were finished.
"We've set a rudimentary course," he said. "Nothing fancy, but it'll fly straight, and fast enough to look like a ship."
"Good," Grif replied. "Launch it."
They waited in silence as Morgan monitored the sensor station. "The probe has launched," Morgan announced.
"Excellent!" Grif said. "Amys, tell me you have a course worked out."
"I have a course worked out," Amys said. "Transferring to your station now."
"Excellent! Screens up."
The view ports went dark as the ship's screens powered up, blocking all energy--including light--from passing through them.
"Morgan, extend the passive sensors if you please."
Morgan keyed a command into his console that extended a small array of sensors past the ships screens, allowing them to collect a limited amount of data without emitting much detectable energy. "Done."
"Right." Grif pushed his seat forward, so that it locked into the pilot's station, and reached for the controls. "My turn."
The ship shuddered slightly as Grif entered a sharp course correction and then opened up the engines, allowing the ship to gain speed. "How fast do I need to push her to get out of here in four days?"
"Hell, Grif," Amys said, "just leave it alone. Five days is plenty fast."
"Hmph." Grif thought it over, then shrugged. "I suppose so. There, done." He pushed his chair back out and turned to face the rest of the bridge. "Now it's just a matter of waiting."
"Great," Bennet said. "My least favorite part of an op. So what are we supposed to do while we wait for the ship to leave the system... or for Mavis to find us, and squish us like a bug?"
"Oh, there are plenty of ways to kill time," Grif said. "Drinking for one... though probably not a good idea till we know we're safe. But hey, I have an idea... how about you guys give me back my face?"
* * *
When Fargus came to report to Mavis, he was clearly frustrated.
"We found the signature key," Fargus said. "But not the Alo Minh. Somehow they managed to decouple the signature key, put it into a standard probe, and launch it into space. I'm sorry, Commodore, we've been following a decoy."
Mavis stared at a tactical map of the system, thinking. "Inform all ships in the area that there is a Maximilian-class vessel using a falsified signature key, or else not using one at all. All Maximilian-class vessels are to be stopped, and their signature keys verified, before being permitted to continue."
Fargus nodded. "Aye, sir. Any other orders?"
"Yes," Mavis said. "We're going to have to find the Alo Minh the hard way, I'm afraid."
Fargus nodded again, shifting uncomfortably. He was a man of action, Mavis knew, and didn't like waiting.
This, unfortunately, would require waiting. Lots of waiting.
Mavis was unsure whether the Terran phrase "looking for a needle in a haystack" was appropriate for what he and his people were trying to do. On one hand, a haystack was considerably denser than the space that the crew of the Alo Minh was moving through. On the other hand, a needle was sufficiently different from straw to make it obvious whether you were looking at a needle or at straw.
The Alo Minh, Mavis assumed, was moving through space with screens up, effectively masking most of its energy emissions. It had about a day's head start, moving it well beyond short-range sensors, and was most likely traveling through one of the vast regions of "dead space" in-system--areas where no tactical sensors could reach. The only useful technology in those instances was the use of communications beacons and visual scanners, which were able to provide detailed visual images of things very far away. The most logical course of action was to look at an object in the sky, confirm that it was a Maximilian-class vessel, confirm that it wasn't transmitting a signature key, and go after it.
The only problem was figuring out where to look.
Even with her screens up, the Alo Minh would be reflecting some light: like all technology, screens were not 100% efficient. Still, visually she would be no more distinct than a distant planet, a large asteroid or a very distant star. Visual scanners would confirm she was a ship if they happened to look in the right place at the right time, but the further an object was, the more precision they would need to capture its image.
The only way to find the ship was to sit in one place and look at all the points of light in the sky, figure out which ones were moving, and look at each in turn to see if it might be the Alo Minh. This involved more waiting, and although Mavis was a very patient man he was getting more and more frustrated as the search continued.
The Centurion sat motionless in space, taking visual snapshots of all the points of light in the sky at various intervals and various magnifications, comparing them to see which points were moving. Other ships and stations across the system were doing the same thing. The ones that didn't move were discarded; the ones that did were examined in more detail. This was a laborious process: there were many moving objects to investigate. Even the objects that were already entered into star charts--asteroids, comets and the like--had to be examined, in the event that the Alo Minh was using that object to mask her own course out of the system.
It took time to record the first batch of images, and it took more time before the second batch of images could be recorded in order for the movement to be significant enough to be detected. It took even more time for those differences to be processed, and even more time for a rough estimate of each object's current position to be extrapolated from the images. And even then, looking at each object required a certain level of luck--the data collected was enough to give the sensor crews a general idea of where to look, but not enough to give them precise locations. Two days passed. About a third of the objects had been viewed and dismissed, and they were quickly running out of time.
In the middle of the second day, they found it.
"It is a starship on a non-standard course," Fargus confirmed, "and heading out of the system very quickly. It's the right size for the Alo Minh."
"Can we intercept?" Mavis asked.
"Unfortunately not. None of our forces will be able to intercept it in time, though we have two ships that are close. In another day or two--we haven't been monitoring it long enough to determine its actual velocity--it will pass far enough out of the star's gravity to enable activation of their ATID."
"We can't have that," Mavis said. "Set a course to intercept, maximum speed. All ships in the vicinity are to do the same. I want estimates--accurate estimates, Mr. Fargus--on how close each ship will be by the time the Alo Minh reaches her break-free point."
"Aye, sir." Fargus turned and began shouting orders. Mavis sat down in his command seat, nursing a half-empty cup of now lukewarm coffee.
Centurion's engines opened up, and the ship gathered speed as it aimed for the Alo Minh. It wouldn't be close enough to engage her directly, but if Divine Providence held, it or another ship would be able to prevent the thieves from making the jump to tach.
If they made the jump to tach, Mavis knew, that would be the end of it. According to the two ship inspections, the Alo Minh's ATID was powerful enough and had enough fuel to take it deep into Trade Baron space. Even into Alliance space, if necessary.
"Sir, we have that data--I'm routing it to your chair," Fargus said.
Mavis looked at the data carefully. There were two other ships--a frigate and a scout--that would be able to intercept the Alo Minh fifteen minutes before Centurion arrived. There were many other ships in Centurion's space at present, but none could reach the speeds she could, so she would arrive well before they did.
"Order the two ships at the top of the list to engage," Mavis said. "The other ships may stand down. We will be joining the fray as well."
"Sir, the Alo Minh will be able to activate their ATID--"
"I am aware of that, Mr. Fargus," Mavis said. "Our job will be to counteract that. Please inform me when the Alo Minh is half an hour away from their break-away point."
"It seems we have another day before we engage," Mavis said. "All crew not on duty should take this time to sleep. All crew currently on duty will be relieved before we engage so they can do the same. Everyone has performed with admirable efficiency--let's keep it up."
"I will pass that on," Fargus said.
"Very good." Mavis stood, stretched, looked at his coffee and yawned. "I will be in my quarters. Mr. Fargus, you have the bridge."