I gave the ship more speed, but not to the point where I risked damaging the engines.
On one of the screens appeared the words:
[There is no sign of pursuit, but their passive scanning systems should have no trouble tracking us back to Earth.]
“Oh?” I thought about that. “Let me know if there’s any sign of action.”
I glanced back toward Lee and Vaughn. “They won’t really do anything right? They like the Heroes League. They feel like they owe us.”
Lee gave a small shrug. “Well, sure, but they’re a little hard to figure out. You’ve got that warrior race honor, but they’re also telepathic with each other, so that makes things complicated. We’re not talking a group mind, but almost everything is shared, so they don’t have as much of a sense of individual responsibility. They might decide that what I’ve done cancels out what the League did for them.”
Haley turned away from the dashboard to say, “That doesn’t seem fair.”
Lee gave a grin that was ever so slightly too wide. “I wouldn’t worry about it. They would have attacked by now if they were planning to. There’s no reason to hesitate. It’s not as if you could do much to their ships.
“Of course,” Lee continued, “they might have received orders to destroy the planet so that no one else can kill the inhabitants and strip it for resources. Then they’d wait till we got back and fire off a few planet busters. That, and have the Jay and Kay self-destruct.”
“Wait,” Vaughn said, “they’ve got self-destructs in the Jay and Kay?”
Lee thought for a second. “Well, I can’t say for sure, but in their position I would. The ships are on loan from the Xiniti, so I’m sure they’ve got something like that. Otherwise what would they do if Earth tried to attack them?”
Vaughn’s mask hid the upper half of his face, but his jaw dropped a little. “Does the government know?”
Nodding, Lee said, “I’m sure of it. It’s probably in the contract.”
Vaughn shook his head. “This alien shit is a huge pile of suck.”
Haley burst into laughter, and then covered her mouth with her hand. “Sorry. It was just…” She looked like she was going to burst into laughter again, didn’t, and said, “Sorry.”
Lee smiled. “Sure. It is a huge pile of suck, and we’re in the middle of it. You mind having the AI open up those files? We’ve got an hour and half to kill.”
“Maybe a little less,” I said. “This trip made me realize something really obvious. You know how we’ve got inertial dampers? I realized I could use them to slow down instead of doing half of the trip speeding up, and half slowing down thing. So now we’re going full out most of the way there, and slowing down near Earth.”
I stopped to think, and then said, “It’s probably standard practice for everyone else in space, but it totally explains how the ships moved in the games I played. It didn’t occur to me that real ships could move like that.”
Lee nodded. “Good job. I wondered when you’d recognize what the games were. Now we should take a look at the footage.”
We did, and Lee identified the ships. The AI sent them to the screen in the middle of the ship’s dash—a small version of the Xiniti’s much larger screens.
“That’s from one of the machine races, but you recognized that,” he said. Then, “Those two ships? They’re from the Trans-species Collective. Strange to see them out this way, especially their military. They try to keep a low profile.”
The badly painted ship I’d pegged as a pirate ship appeared on the screen.
Lee nodded. “That’s more what I expected to see.”
“Pirate?” I asked.
Lee shook his head. “No. Well, close. It’s cargo ship, and not well kept up. That model’s favored by pirates and free traders—the kind of free traders that handle the illegal stuff.”
Underneath the screen where the ships hung in space, words appeared.
[I’ve correlated the dates of the groups’ appearance and their known technological requirements with unusual technological activity, and believe that I’ve found several spots that are likely under some form of alien influence.]
Earth appeared on the screen, turning slowly. Red spots appeared in the middle of Michigan’s upper peninsula, near Chicago, in Brazil’s Amazon, in the Libyan desert, near Berlin in Germany, and near Kiev in the Ukraine.
“That’s a… range of places.” I tried to see a pattern, and didn’t. “Are there any that point to one kind of alien or another?”
The picture changed, labeling the spot in the Libyan desert “Machine race,” Berlin and Kiev both as “Trans-species Collective,” and the rest as “Indeterminate.”
“I guess we’ll have to figure out how to get all these spots checked out,” I said.