Episode 4: The Ark of the Cortex
Young Zenith and her mother Celest have a big problem and they need help. Fortunately for them, the majority of our crew have soft spots for children in trouble. As well as an assortment of very useful skills and experience.
Celest reveals that the mysterious father is none other than the Right Honorable Crispin Townshend. He is a long time member of the Parliment and rumored to be the power behind the current Prime Minster as well as some previous PMs. He is the linchpin for the current majority political alliance and the architect of many major government policies going back decades.
The revelation that this upstanding politician and family man has a child with a former aide would be very, very embarrassing for him. Celest did her best to hide Zenith’s existence from him but, she explains, he is relentless when it comes to his reputation.
Celest has exhausted her hiding places and wishes for a way to avoid a short life on the run. When she worked as one of his aides she eventually got the very strong impression that he was involved in the shadiest of deals. She came to fear him and this drove her to flee when she became pregnant. Despite Townshend’s affable public persona Celest claims that he is a monster and suspects that he is responsible for numerous accidents that have befallen his political opponents and others who have crossed him.
She never had sufficient access to find any proof.
Meanwhile, it has become clear to all that Winston (the attempted hijacker) is really, really tired of being locked in a cabin with his brother and whatever devices the good doctor has implanted in them. He has offered his hacking skills to the crew in exchange for their freedom.
Valentine has trawled the previous captain’s neglected job queue. (It is really hard to complete work when you lose your ship in a card game.) He’s found a high paying request for certain equipment from a Cortex Relay Station. It is a tricky task from a questionable employer but it would also put the hacker in a perfect position to dig up dirt on Townshend, something that might provide the leverage to free Celest and Zenith from him and The Collectors he hired.
Skipping ahead a few days; Winston has the crew gathered in The Carl’s Lounge. Using the holographic projector built in to the table he is running through the various challenges of infiltrating a Cortex Relay.
The relays are large asteroids or small planetoids positioned at the edge of systems or even deep in the black between. The terraforming process used on the larger bodies of The Verse left huge clouds of nanites floating in their newly created Van Allen radiation belts. These charged particles were discovered to make excellent antenna arrays. To extend the reach of the Cortex network, smaller bodies were terraformed. In addition to often making them just barely habitable they became data nodes that connect humanity’s many worlds.
The hologram shows the various buildings that make up the surface portion of the installation;
A landing pad and Habitation Building
The Command Bunker, that Winston will need to be to access the desired data and systems.
The Data Center, where the equipment that the 10 Fold Merchants desires resides.
A Security Bunker wherein someone will need to run Winston’s hack-bot software and monitor the systems in real time.
These structures are between one and three kilometers apart on a level plain that sits over massive reactor underground. Around the overall site is craters and piles of spent fuel and construction waste.
The approach to Cortex Relay is also problematic, the nanite array will also detect nearby vessels and transmissions at a great distance and high resolution.
There is also the possibility of a maintenance crew being present or a Naval inspection team being on site. These schedules are not published to the cortex and Winston can only extrapolate from public records a rough window for when these could take place.
Our heroes decide to impersonate a maintenance crew initially. Eventually they revise this to disguise the Doctor, M, and Joleen as inspectors from the Navy.
They make a planetary stop to shop for supplies and drop off Valentine. He has some personal business to attend to off camera and he will also be securing the delivery site to ensure that the 10 Fold Merchants don’t double cross them.
At this point they acquire a small second hand military vessel, Winston hacks the transponder into something that will convince the Cortex Station’s systems that they aren’t trespassing. They also get their hands on the required Alliance uniforms, appropriate communications gear, and miscellaneous other mission accoutrements.
Everything goes smoothly until they reach the Relay’s landing pad. There is another vessel already there. They find that a maintenance crew is indeed present. After they round them up in the Hab building their foreman reveals that they’ve just shut down some important systems, effectively turning this Node of the Cortex off for several hours until repairs are finished.
M and the Doctor demand that they get it back online, repairs complete or not, so that they might complete their inspection and get on their way. Winston can not gather the information they require until those systems are back up and the command bunker is free of prying eyes. Dr Yuan-Qi goes with the foreman and a part of his crew to the control center to patch things back together. M stays in the Hab and produces some liquor (laced with strong sedatives) to make sure the rest of the maintenance personnel can’t interfere.
At this point the coast is clear for Bobbi and Grace to take their hovering mule vehicle to the data storage building. There they discover that power to the building, including the loading bay door is out as part of the repairs. Bobbi is able to manually trigger the lock with minimum effort. Once inside they begin unhooking and loading extremely valuable servers while replacing them with identical machines who’s much less expensive components that have been melted in to slag to disguise the theft with a severe power surge.
Off camera Graden and Carlotta went to the Security Bunker to run Winston’s system suppressing software. This allows them to monitor and control the security systems and ensure that they leave no traces behind. Winston and Phillip take the hover bike, recovered from The Collectors in the episode “Shot in the Dark”, to the backside of the control center. Eagerly waiting for the Dr to exit with the maintenance crew.
The maintenance workers get things put back together much faster than their Foreman indicated was possible. However as they restore power to the shut down systems alarms begin to flash. In the data storage building Grace and Bobbi are momentarily stunned by a massive boom from the server area. When power was restored to the building all of the pre-damaged machines they installed shorted the electrical circuits they were connected to. Alarms and fire suppression system activate and the two high tail it back towards the craft they arrived on with a full load of fancy servers.
The Doctor rushes the foreman and his team off to investigate the trouble at the data center and Winston and his brother immediately enter and get to work. As they near completion the facility’s sensors detect an incoming vessel. The Navy cruiser Dauntless is there for an actual inspection, the Doctor attempts to delay them by indicating that there has been an incident with the maintenance crew and it is not safe for them to visit.
The attempt to delay is only mildly effective, thankfully the Dauntless was detected while it was a good ways away. The crew still has to rush to get away before the Navy catches them. Winston can only hurry so much, the unanticipated repairs having delayed his start substantially. Grace expertly pilots the Mule around the exterior of the facility where the terrain has not been paved in order to avoid the Maintenance team headed to the data center.
By the time Winston finishes everyone else is loaded, they rush to join them and Grace is able to keep the planetoid between their ship and the Dauntless as they depart, Winston’s new high level Cortex permissions allow access to the vast antenna’s sensor properties to keep an eye on the massive ship. Dauntless may have gotten a peak at their rear on the way out but our crew had no plans to hang on to this ship.
The mission is a success. The investigation in to the happenings here should take more than long enough for their customer to make use of the Cortex-linked servers in their highly illegal activities. More importantly Winston has copied an obscene amount of data on Crispin Townshend as well as left his intrusion software in a position to provide him with future access to the root Cortex systems.