WHEREIN A Message is Constructed and Sent On Its Way
They took a moment to rest, and recover from the effects of the gas. As they lay on the ground, coughing up phlegm and breathing in the clean air, Grif closed his eyes and forced himself to think.
“Well.” Grif drew in a ragged breath after a final spasm of coughing. “With any luck they think we’re still in the hospital, incapacitated and helpless. We’re lucky they didn’t use a proper nerve gas.”
“MediCorp is going to be mighty pissed anyway,” Amys said. “I bet that gas contaminated a lot of medicine.”
“Where are we?” Bennet asked. “And if this is a way out of the hospital, why wasn’t Station Authority sitting on top of it, waiting for us to come out?”
Grif looked around. The room was crowded with cables. At one end, a large generator hummed softly. “It’s a backup generator, I think. Doesn’t look like it’s been used much, but it’s on…”
Grif pointed with his good arm at a door on the far end of the room. “And that,” he said, “appears to be the only way out. I bet we find a few Station Authority guards out there…”
Amys sighed. “What do we do? We can’t go back down there and wander around in the gas, waiting for Station Authority to take us down.”
“No,” Grif agreed. “That would be a bad idea.”
“But if we go out that door–hell, if Station Authority is waiting for us out there… bad idea number two.”
“Yes, but here’s the thing,” Grif said. “Now that I’ve had half a second to think about it, I don’t understand what the hell the Baron is doing handing me over to a Sword in the first place.”
Bennet shrugged. “Why not? I mean, from her perspective. I know why not from your perspective.”
“Because,” Grif said, “the Trade Baronies are neutral. Tyrelos is a place where… entrepreneurs regularly come to roost. They wouldn’t roost if she started handing them over to the Alliance or the Radiant Throne any time a high-ranking official asked nicely… or even asked not-so-nicely.”
“Maybe the Baron and the Radiant Throne have some kind of deal they’re not telling anyone about,” Bennet suggested. “That would explain why she tried to do it on the sly.”
“Yeah…” Grif stared at Bennet thoughtfully.
Bennet frowned. “What?”
“Nothing,” Grif said. “I just wonder if any other Baronies have arrangements like that…”
Bennet didn’t reply.
“Well, that’s a conversation for another day,” Grif said. “Right now I have an idea. Bennet, exactly how good are you with computers?”
“Pretty good,” Bennet said.
“I assume they taught you how to do all the complicated stuff in spy school… breaking through computer security, accessing that which is not meant to be seen, that kind of stuff.”
“Yes,” Bennet said. “But usually I have tools for that. Tools I don’t have with me, because for some reason I thought going to visit you in a hospital would be a simple and straightforward experience.”
Grif grinned. “Now you know better. I hope you’re not completely helpless without your tools, because this…” Grif stood, walked over to the generator, and pointed. “…is attached to this.” Grif pointed to a dusty terminal set into the wall beside the generator. “Diagnostic equipment, I expect. It’s hooked up to the generator here… and the generator is wired to the hospital’s main power supply, so it’ll know to turn itself on if the power goes out.”
Bennet got up and crouched next to the terminal, studying it carefully.
“The main power supply,” Grif continued, “is–if we’re lucky–hooked into a lot of monitoring equipment in the main office, or the security room, or a data center or something.”
“So you want to use the terminal to get into the hospital systems,” Bennet said.
“If you can manage it,” Grif said. “If you can get me into the hospital systems, I can get a message to the Fool’s Errand without letting anyone know we’re doing it.”
“Well…” Bennet touched the terminal and the keypad lit up in response. “Maybe. It isn’t a full keypad, which might be a problem… but…”
The terminal display blinked on, displaying a schematic of the power generator. A moment later the schematic disappeared, and data scrolled up the display.
“I can get us in,” Bennet said. “Someone logged in to the terminal last month to do something routine and they were very sloppy when they logged out…”
“Great,” Grif said. “Try to get to the hospital comm relay.”
“Why is it you know this stuff can be done, but you don’t actually know how to do it?” Bennet sounded annoyed.
Grif shrugged. “Can you fly a starship?”
Bennet shook his head.
“But you know that people do fly them, right?”
Bennet grumbled quietly to himself as he worked. A few minutes later he turned to Grif and Amys and smiled. “I’m in. The generator sends a signal to something when it needs maintenance. The something looks like a comm relay address.”
“Excellent!” Grif grinned. “Get me there and I’ll do the rest.”
“Hold on a minute,” Bennet said. “If we use that address we’ll probably wind up activating the maintenance message. That might alert Station Authority.”
“Er… right. Don’t do that.”
Bennet stared at the screen intently. “If I were designing this relay network, I would number the relays sequentially. At the very least, I would adopt some kind of naming convention that would make all the addresses consistent…”
“Liar,” Grif said. “If you were designing this system you would make it as confusing as possible to prevent enemies of the state from doing what we’re trying to do now.”
“…yes,” Bennet admitted. “You’re probably right. Luckily, whoever designed this wasn’t that paranoid. Here’s the main system.” Bennet moved so Grif and Amys could get a look at the terminal screen. Sure enough, it was displaying a primary system menu.
“Excellent.” Grif moved up to the terminal. “Excuse me.”
Bennet stepped back and Grif crouched in front of the terminal. He gingerly moved his left arm–it hurt even to move for simple tasks, but he persevered–so both hands rested over the keypad.
“I thought you couldn’t program,” Bennet said.
“This isn’t programming.” Grif began to type. “This is communication.”
Amys and Bennet watched what he was doing intently. After a minute, Amys laughed, nodding approvingly. Bennet looked at her in confusion.
“What’s he doing?” Bennet asked.
“What he said he would,” Amys said. “He’s sending a message to the Fool’s Errand. That’s the navigation protocol SL beacons use to give ships positioning information before they drop out of tach.”
Bennet looked at her in disbelief. “He’s writing a message in the SL beacon protocol?”
“I am,” Grif said. “And despite my enviable focus and determination, I’m quite capable of hearing everything you say when you’re less than half a meter behind me.”
“Well, what’s the point?” Bennet sounded a little defensive. “SL beacons don’t actually send messages. Just the positions of things in space.”
“Yes,” Grif agreed, “but those things have names. And those names are created manually, because it’s easier to do that than to have a database entry for every single damn thing floating around in the galaxy. So I’m sending… hold on… seventeen dummy locations, and in each of the identifying fields I’ve got a piece of the message I want to send. The bulk of the data is just a bunch of zeroed coordinates and distances, with only the text field changing every time. Unless you can read SL protocol–which takes a while, unless you’re a navigation terminal–the message isn’t going to make a lot of sense. I’m pretty sure Station Authority won’t be watching for it.”
“Clever,” Bennet admitted. “How do you plan on sending it to your ship?”
The dispatch relay was a network every hospital in the city used to coordinate the availability of medical facilities in case of an emergency. It usually listed how many beds were available for various types of injuries, and was updated as the figure changed. Even when no beds were available–which, Grif guessed, was probably the case with the MediCorp facility at present–it would still send the message “no facilities available at present.” Grif planned to piggyback his own message on the transmitter. It would scramble the data being transmitted by the relay for a moment, but would be almost immediately corrected.
“Sneaky,” Bennet said, impressed. “Must run in the family.”
“No need to be rude.” Grif sent a final command through the terminal and smiled. “There. Message sent. Now we need to try and get out of here.”