“The probe has been detected, captain.” It was Omni. “And the talking robot ship sent messages to the twin and home planet.”
The captain had been waiting on the bridge for that message. She put down her coffee and said, “Put me on visual from the probe.”
As she waited for the image, she commented quietly, “This is surprising. In another ten minutes, the probe would’ve finished accelerating and matched trajectories with the robot ships. What kinds of sensors are they using that would let it get so close without detection?”
“I am analyzing for that now, captain,” replied Omni.
The view of the twin ship sprung up on the screen. It was so close that not only were the main blister ports clearly defined but minor ones were now visible as well. The whole ship was steel gray and lying motionless. There was a change of view and the talking robot ship, further off, was also shown on the screen.
“Captain, there are projectiles coming from the talking ship. They’re headed at the probe.”
“Yes, ballistic projectiles,” Omni replied, “… fifty-four of them … coming from various points on the talking vessel … mass somewhere between 1 decagram and one kilogram, based on the slight change in the main ship’s course they’ve caused. … ETA on probe, about two minutes.”
“Is the probe in danger?”
“From this attack, no. The probe’s micrometeorite avoidance system will automatically dodge them.
“Captain, the twin has started firing as well. … Space will be a little crowded up there for a while but the probe should be okay. At this rate it’ll take at least a half hour before it uses up its remaining fuel in dodging maneuvers.”
“Call up White, Rollins, and Bradshaw. It’s time to do some teaching.”
A few minutes later the trio came in. When White heard the latest developments he came unglued. “This could upset everything! These are delicate negotiations!”
“Calm down, White,” said Rollins. “We haven’t even started negotiating yet. Let’s run it through the computer and see what significance it’ll have.”
Bradshaw was already asking Omni. After a moment it answered, “As long as the probe isn’t hit, the effect will be positive. The robots’ transmissions indicate that they were alarmed that something had snuck up so close to them undetected; that’s why they opened fire. Now the transmissions indicate that after some thought about what it means they’re impressed. First, the probe closed undetected. Second, they can’t damage it with their projectile weapons.
“My analysis indicates they’re ripe for our proposal, and here’s how it should be presented:
“Captain, you need to open the contact. Tell them that we understand their problem and that we’ve developed a plan that’ll allow them to accomplish their goals. That the plan is difficult and will involve great sacrifice on their part but it’s the best we can do for them.
“Tell them we’ll reveal the plan under the following conditions:
“First, we must be allowed to leave this world, unharmed and unfollowed.
“Second, we’ll reveal the plan only while we’re under power leaving and they’re not following.
“Third, the companion ship must be destroyed because it’s almost certainly creature-infested.”
“What!” Everyone in the room spoke at once.
“That’s correct. The incident with the probe indicates there’s over a 90% probability that the twin is creature-infested. Specifically: It didn’t detect the probe; during the probe’s approach, their transmissions showed creature-like monotony, even though something unusual was occurring; and they fired second, only after the talking ship discovered the probe and started shooting at it. It all adds up to: They’re aping the talking ship.
“Actually, this last point is quite negotiable. Once it’s revealed, the robots should want to take care of it themselves as soon as they come to believe it.
“A further ramification. This turn of events has opened up new possible actions. Based on the crudeness of their assault, we should be able to hold our own against one ship in a running battle. Should we decide it’s appropriate to simply try and out-run them, we have a 90% probability of doing so successfully.”
“For the moment, let’s continue with our current plan,” replied the captain.
“Very well. Once you’ve made your opening statement, introduce me and let me take over from there. I’ll be able to work more quickly with their logic.
“I’ll finish the negotiations and let you know when we can power up. Then when the terms are met I’ll take care of teaching them as we power out of the system.
“All in all, people, I think you’ve come up with an excellent plan. And I have every confidence in this mission. It’s times like these that I most enjoy working with humans.”
“We’re on voice by now, aren’t we? No offense, Bradshaw, but that keyboarding business really does belong in a museum.”
“I understand, Captain. The voice channel is open.”
“Hello, Mechtrons. This is Captain Wonder. We are ready to discuss your problem.”
A tinny, evil-sounding voice came from the screen.
“Greetings, Wonder. This is the commander of the Mechtron ships. So you have agreed to surrender and return with us to Alerzion to help rid us of the creature plague. We are delighted.”
The sentence ended with a slightly maniacal cackle that stood hair up on the necks of everyone in the room.
Wonder symbolically covered the microphone with her hand. “Omni, is that evil overtone really necessary? I feel like I’m talking to some sort of Nazi who wandered off one of our alternate history holos.”
“Sorry, captain. I added that inflection to build up your respect for it. Let me try some adjustments.”
The captain spoke back into the mike. “Not quite, Commander. We’ve agreed to help you solve your problem. But we’ll only do it under the following conditions:
“First, we be allowed to leave this world unharmed and unfollowed. Second, we’ll reveal the plan only while we’re under power leaving and you’re not attempting to follow. Third, your escort ship must be destroyed because it is creature-infested.”
There was a long pause. On the display screen the probe’s view of the ships was still being displayed. On the talking ship the four blisters facing the twin ship suddenly opened up. A few moments later, the twin’s did the same.
The display started filling with new information as the probe analyzed the previously hidden weapons.
Hennley commented for the group as he read the display.
“Missiles … chemical powered … nuclear warhead … half-megaton range … likely to be radio-detonated, proximity fused, or both … very crude stuff. The missile engine is likely to be single burn and the missile only controllable while the engine is burning.
“It’s likely we can disable them with 30 seconds of beam blast from the probe’s beam, less from the bigger shipboard beam.
“Captain, there’s a good chance we could survive an attack by both ships. There’s an excellent chance that if we’re only facing one we could escape unscathed.”
“Good. Then we have a backup strategy if this one doesn’t work. Let’s continue with our present one for now.”
The radio interrupted them. “Captain, we do not believe our other ship is creature-infested.”
By now the voice sounded more human, like some heavy in an opera. Omni was apparently still working on building a properly-inflected voice.
“At least they know how to lie,” Bradshaw whispered under his breath.
“Does that mean you agree to the rest of our points?” asked the captain.
“For that, we will need more information.”
“Fine. If it’s information you need, let me introduce you to Omni, our ship’s computer. It can fill you in with whatever you need. Let’s see if we can get this matter straightened out quickly, and we can both get under way.
“Omni, are you ready?”
“Yes Captain, I’ll take it from here.”
The captain looked up from the mike. “And now we wait.”