No one really knew how the layout of Relays worked across the galaxy. The general assumption was that they were constructed and issued across the star systems as they were to facilitate the most efficient movement and trade of potential sapient space-faring species. This made sense, and fit with the facts as they were accepted by the wider community, and thus was the de-facto official version of things.
The thing that was seen as the largest indicator of this theory’s truth was the ring Relays made around the galactic core. Star systems connected, many of them hubs, in a near-perfect circle around the core, that made trade relatively simple and easy to defend. Having a single circuitous route for galactic trade made both trade and law enforcement much easier, as Turian patrols could make rings around the core or sit on a Relay bottleneck and require ships passing through to submit to scans and the occasional random search.
However, while the circular trade route was regularly traversed and well-patrolled, there were systems that were connected to it that weren’t so. Systems with little enough in terms of resources or useful worlds, that were lucky to be used occasionally for a shortcut. These systems, as it happened, were the perfect staging area for pirates as well as the perfect way for smugglers to skip parts of the trade route to avoid patrols, or outright hide from them.
Thus, though it wasn’t the most popular job, Turian patrols were still routed through these periphery systems. Unlike the patrols along the primary trading routes, which were composed of regular patrols with the occasional random pass-through, routing a patrol fleet through the periphery systems and Relays was entirely and completely randomized, with the primary goal of creating a completely unpredictable schedule of pass-throughs while not diverting a larger amount of fleet power or time than strictly necessary. Though there was the constant chance of pirates, smuggling and courier drones carrying any of a wide variety of potentially illicit things, there really wasn’t anything to justify a more regular scheduling.
Admiral Vos of Citadel Patrol Fleet one-twenty-one, and the fleet that she led, had been rotated here from the border between Council space and the Attican Traverse, where they’d been busy repelling raiders and pirates attempting to sneak through the border, either for attacks on lightly defended worlds in the case of the former or strikes on traders and outposts for the latter. Of course, she knew very well that they’d put her and her people purposefully into a place where having a twitchy trigger finger was more desirable than not, mostly to get them out of the way while they waited for a slot for shore leave and psychological evaluation to open up while still doing some good, she was… glad for this posting.
Honestly, she reflected to herself as she swirled a cup of Tyrus Nyx, the only compromise for comfort she allowed herself on duty, it was rather nice. Downright peaceful and calm, compared to having to keep a constant watch and running into combat situations every few ship-days. She found herself reluctant to truly relax, but that was decently solid evidence of the fact that she needed to, and getting a little time to decompress before facing the shrinks back home was very welcome.
“Approaching Relay, preparing for jump.”
Her helmsman spoke, breaking her out of her thoughts, and she focused on a hologram in front of her displaying the fleet moving into jump formation, a few frigates arranging themselves behind the cruiser she commanded personally. A lot of practice had ingrained the idea of the strongest ship bearing the brunt of any attack either from the Relay or from something on the other end of the jump into the captains under her, and thankfully not so much practical experience on why fleet maneuvers like this were necessary. Even here, in technically peaceful space, habits die hard. Though perhaps, in this case, it wasn’t a bad thing.
The Teleban, Vos’ cruiser, approached the Relay nose first, engines idling as it drifted at good speed. The frigates lagged behind, attempting to keep more or less to the shadow of the cruiser, though understandably it was difficult for even one to be truly shielded. Big as the Teleban was, relative to the average vessel, space was quite a bit bigger.
“Hang- Relay activating!”
“Sir! No scheduled trade through this Relay, not today- whatever it is, it’s not supposed to be there.” another officer spoke up from a console further up the bridge.
Vos stood, calmly staring into the screens displaying the Relay, which was going through startup and obviously preparing to catch something coming from the Relay it was paired with. She swirled her drink again, and made a decision.
“Shields. Double check trade manifests for this Relay, I don’t want a mistake here. Prepare point defenses, charge our smaller guns- we don’t want to spook whatever’s coming through by meeting them with a readied main gun.”
There were various noises of affirmation from her crew, the frigate complement spreading themselves farther and all pointing their bows directly at the Relay, presenting the smallest target possible for whatever was coming through. Vos didn’t doubt for a second that she could trust them to hold their fire. Her people knew what she wanted.
Still, absolutely none of them knew what to make of the situation when the Relay spat out a tiny courier missile that streaked towards them, popped a basic scan, then broadcast a (from what Vos and her crew could tell, a completely legitimate) series of documentation and licenses relating to a Quarian mining corporation before attempting to actually hide in the shadow of one of the frigates. Not that the captain allowed that, the frigate moving away and sending a warning that made the courier back off, but still.
They did, however, know what to make of the small pirate fleet that followed after.
It was almost comical, really. A few corvettes, refitted civilian ships with armour and guns grafted shoddily to their hulls, following a long-decommissioned frigate class military ship that had come from who knows where running smack into a veteran Turian patrol fleet, albeit a rather small one as patrol fleets went. They came through pushing their most likely barely functional engines, noticed the fleet, then spun and tried to put the brakes on as best as they possibly could to make speed back towards the Relay. One attempted to charge their FTL to make a jump passed the fleet and further into the system, but a disabling shot from a frigate called the Pyragen put a stop to that.
The pirates surrendered almost immediately after that. Too far from the Relay to make a runner, going too fast in the opposite direction and unable to jump away, it was that or get lots of holes punched in them until they did. Really, admiral Vos was rather pleased that she’d managed to capture a little fleet of bad eggs like this with only a single shot. Usually, she had to batter them around a bit before they backed down, but she supposed that the typical brand of low-lifes she faced coming out of Terminus were a far more aggressive breed. And aggressive breeds tended to get hammered by a dispatched task force after making enough of a nuisance of themselves. Boarding would take hours as soldiers swept the ships for anyone who thought otherwise, but that just gave them something to do until the larger fleet she’d signaled showed up to drag the pirates out of the system.
Vos hummed, then stepped over to the edge of one of the console pits, where one of her bridge crew was reviewing the pirate’s documentation. She watched over his shoulder as a recording of the courier missile jinked and dodged, completely avoiding incoming fire with swiftness and dexterity that would outright kill an organic. She made a rather impressed noise, despite herself.
“That is some serious evasion algorithms for a civilian courier…” she placed her taloned hand on the back of the bridge officer’s chair, leaning forwards to get a better look. “Are we entirely certain that this thing isn’t STG, carrying some sort of intelligence?”
He shook his head. “We’re sure, sir. All the paperwork checks out, the courier most definitely belongs to an above-board Quarian mining corp- and you know how the lizards hate working on Rannoch.”
“Hrm.” Vos stood again, considering. “What was its payload?”
“Data chip. Let us access the thing without a fuss, but it’s just a series of coordinates- and all of those check out, too. Spirits, it isn’t even uncommon for mining corps to communicate using couriers just like this one- though a lot less smart- in and out of systems that have patchy FTL comms, or none at all.”
“Then why chase it?”
He shrugged. “Pirates in this region of space typically make low-effort swipes at couriers, often because they contain the locations of outposts they can raid or ore deposits they can illegally mine themselves. From what’s here… I’d guess they made a light attempt to capture the courier, it dodged them in a manner that was far too sophisticated for a simple courier drone, and they thought that either they had something of extreme value on their hands… or an STG drone that’d report them the moment it got home, at which point the nearest patrol- probably us- would be assigned to stomping them out and they’d have to abandon their hunting grounds.”
“And they never considered that it might just be a really paranoid Quarian company?”
“They didn’t know it was Quarian.” Another shrug. “To be fair, neither did we until it told us. Not like corporations bother with livery on their basic drones. Its most expensive feature is probably somewhere between the Eezo core and the VI driving it.”
“Sir?” another bridge officer called to her from farther down the bridge. She nodded to the Turian she’d been speaking to and made her way down. “The courier is pinging us with release requests. Orders?”
Vos narrowed her eyes in thought, leaning back slightly. If this were the frontier, she’d probably have ordered the thing stripped to the bolts and superstructure, and only reassembled when it proved clean beyond the shadow of a doubt. Only, this very much wasn’t the edge of the Attican Traverse, and as far as they could ascertain this was a perfectly legitimate automated courier drone that had just had enough bad luck to fall afoul of a small pirate fleet, but enough good to balance it out that it led them into her patrol. It wasn’t even particularly suspicious for it to have a remarkably good VI; Quarian quality, that was the word in the Citadel systems.
She could have it held… but, really, there wasn’t any reason for it. She had a gut feeling, something that was whispering that there was something there that she wasn’t seeing- the way the facts lined up was just a little too perfect, maybe? She wasn’t sure. But, she was sure that she couldn’t justify a Turian patrol fleet holding up a Quarian courier belonging to a mining corp directly out of Rannoch based only on a hunch. A few maybes, some suspicious things and a hunch would wither in front of the senior admiralty panel that’d be called when Rannoch started shouting Palaven-ways.
No, no, better to let the thing go with a bit of a refuel. Later, when she constructed the action and seizure report, she’d pass a recommendation up the chain to keep an eye on this Hyperion company and its directly related corporations. The STG might not like Rannoch, but you couldn’t move through the galaxy without going through every checkpoint along the way.
Still, she watched the entire process of the courier undocking, preparing for FTL to the next Relay and jumping. Just because she’d decided to let the thing go didn’t mean she trusted it.
I grumbled as I undocked the Envoy class vessel from the automated refueling station, something of the self-serve fuel stations of the galaxy. A ping from the station itself, obviously the work of a VI just filling in the blanks of an existing reform while the station attendant probably napped in the control center, confirmed that my transfer of credits had been confirmed and wished me a good day.
I was not having a good day.
I didn’t really know what I was thinking, making a copy of myself just to seek out a place I could place a larger manufacturing facility. Well, I mean, I knew exactly what I was thinking and why- after all, I’d been the me that had planned it, until I’d been copied into this ship. And, yes, it WAS vital that I seek out a good home for large-scale industrial construction of defense and manufacturing infrastructure.
More, I meant the fact that I’d thought I could just pop a version of me off to some isolated star system to set up such a system. Ah, that is, I’d thought there was nothing wrong with it at the time; I mean, I was an AI. I couldn’t get bored, I didn’t have the sort of brain chemistry that necessitated social contact because I, well, didn’t have an organic brain anymore. But, when I’d been intending to jump off to start Stellarising systems and trying to find a good place to set up shop, a courier had shown up from Rannoch, having followed the little directional beacons I’d left for exactly something like this.
Apparently, to my surprise and, er… my surprise, I suppose, Dis had begun acting… strange. Slightly more erratic in their messages, which were slightly fewer and more irregular. Nothing that would really mean sending whatever ships we could cobble together to intervene, but it had been enough to concern Rannoch, and enough for them to send along a courier keeping me in Council space until they could work out what was going on from a distance. Current theory was that Dis was somehow being tangibly affected by all of our mutual feelings of loneliness, which everything I knew about AI said shouldn’t happen… but, then again, things that “wouldn’t happen” back in my- our- home universe as compared to Mass Effect’s, and the fact that we were all copies of the apparent brain scan (maybe, current working theory) of an organic person back from our universe. And, of course, there was the more unspoken concern that hung in the background, that Dis had tripped himself with some sort of Reaper trap and it was... messing with him. Which is why Rannoch was reading everything that came out of Dis manually- using a cabled Geth platform to stick the data cards from the couriers into a machine with no networking and reading them as text files.
I wondered how he’s doing. Did he ever get to that Dark Souls fic he (we?) had been thinking of? It… wasn’t really something I could do here. Writing fanfic, that is. Would have to familiarize myself with the local fiction, how fanfic was written here, where it was posted… sheesh, English wasn’t even a language outside of Earth and wouldn’t be for a couple centuries. Nothing really made you feel small like realizing that your language really was one of dozens on a galactic backwater that still used telegraph.
I was getting off track.
I began systems checks while communicating with the station tower, navigating via maneuvering thrusters through the various docks that made up the inside of the station, a mix of basic repair bays and refueling docks like the one I’d just left. They were built mainly to take civilian and commercial cargo ship traffic of the corvette and frigate classes, though I suppose one of the super cargo ships that trawled the circle of trade could dock to the outside if they were really insistent about it.
Right now, I was working under an Ingen permit for manned scouting of deposits, flying out to where I- well, Rannoch, had sent the VI drone to scout for the Rachni. Normally, I’d draw a ton of attention for being a ship going for a simple recon run that was packing a spinal mount gun and a number of shorter turrets, but fortunately the courier had been attacked by pirates on its way back to Rannoch. So, thus, it was perfectly fine that I was running a ship packing just short of military ordnance.
Well, not perfectly fine, I’d had to fudge the actual power of my weaponry a little to get the security permit through the Quarian government. Which was fine, I could just turn down the power a bit if I had to put holes in somebody. Which I really didn’t want to do, but… urgh.
Chatter with the traffic control tower cleared me for leaving on approach to the outgoing FTL section, marked with a number of signal buoys. The commercial-grade defense turrets that decorated the station didn’t track me, but I wasn’t sure that they were much more than ornamentation meant to make visitors feel safe. Honestly, I couldn’t detect any charge in them, and I had severe doubt that they were even hooked up to a targeting system. They’d seen better days, which looked to have been approximately two or three decades ago.
One of the weird parts of culture in the wider galaxy I was still getting used to was machines decades old that were still in service. Sometimes you could even get places that were counted as historical, that used only well-maintained tech that ranged from between fifty years to a century or farther old. Bit of a twister when I’d picked up codex information from stations about places older than my country of origin that were still futuristic by my standards. You got pubs like that back home, but other than that, I couldn’t think of any good comparisons. And by “like that”, I meant entirely age-wise.
… Hang on.
I observed through sensors, settling into place and waiting for confirmation of permission to jump towards the Relay pointed in the direction I wanted to go, as a small sub-corvette class ship undocked from the station and moved into place to line up for FTL.
Now, normally, this’d be all fine. I would have noted that someone was in line, gently pushed the control tower to pick up their pace a little with a small ‘tip’, then I’d be on my way. However, normally I wouldn’t have noted the same ship with different livery and slightly different hull arrangement in the last two stations I’d been to.
Oh, sure, chameleon ship following me doesn’t stand out at all. Alright, to be fair, it would have most likely slipped right by the average bridge crew without them really noticing, but I had high grade sensors and, well, I was an AI. Nothing within one light second of me escaped my notice.
I pinged them with a standard signal that essentially meant ‘watch out, I’m here, confirm you see me’ packaged with a request for telemetry exchange. This would normally be standard for FTL jump queues, with everyone in the line exchanging data to ensure that even the small chance of collision in the Relay’s incoming FTL area was reduced farther. However, in this case, the moment the other ship connected I used it to hide me piggybacking through the data stream and rooting around in their computer core.
Props to the crew, the computer core was well-wiped, indicating a Relay chaining that just indicated them making small-scale trading rings around the galaxy. However, it didn’t really matter how good an organic was- or thought they were- I was an AI. And deleted files leave fragmented ghosts of themselves, sometimes.
In this case, I got lucky, reconstructing just enough of some bits of data left almost like dregs in the bottom of the metaphorical data barrel. Parts of completely different routes that overlapped with information in their core, but that wasn’t what I wanted.
I should be perfectly passable. My permits are all in order, I’m (technically) allowed to carry the ordinance I’m carrying, my route has been logged with the Quarian and Citadel governments and everything lines up as well as Rannoch and I could possibly make it. And yet, here I am, being followed by a ship that’s making a very involved effort to hide its presence from me.
Even if they looked deeper, this vessel was supposedly owned by an independent contractor that worked for Ingen directly and occasionally for Hyperion. And, buried behind security software that I’d purchased specifically to “hide” things I wanted intelligence organizations to find, was a file on the supposed captain of the ship. The Quarian himself was a complete fabrication, of course, but the file defined him in corporate speak as a bit of a weirdo and a loner that owned his own vessel and crewed it with Geth that he commanded, but he was effective so Ingen overlooked his eccentricities.
Even had a whole program specifically to simulate his voice and face if somebody called and wanted video.
Suffice to say, I should be fine. Honestly, from what I’d seen just poking through the files of a couple other ships while I was waiting for the refueling to finish, I was probably one of the cleaner, if not the cleanest ship there. Maybe that was the problem? I was too clean? I’d have to send a note to Rannoch to include some minor infractions and run-ins with customs and Turian patrol fleet checkpoints in other cover stories… or, maybe not? No idea what set them off.
Frustratingly, though, while I could access the little fragmentary bits of old files that contradicted current ones, there wasn’t anything really damning or indicative of why they were following me. If I had to make a guess, I’d say that they most likely had a secondary computer core that was physically disconnected from the primary computer core and wasn’t connected to even a single device that was capable of wireless communication. Of course, to determine whether or not that was true, I’d have to do an active scan of them and there was no possible way they’d miss that.
I considered, then put the location of the wreckage the scout had logged near the bottom of the list, pulling up a corporate order that would have looked to have come down the line from the top, and would be confirmed if they ever decided to check. I had no doubt that, if this ship was following me, it was most likely STG and there were more than likely others that I hadn’t noticed because they hadn’t crossed my path twice. I didn’t know WHY they were following me. Yet.
But I did know it was annoying.
- Man in the Van with a Plan
Writer of many fics, reader of many more.
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