The following morning Dirk escorted Ms Etye to Jericorps offices. There they were met by Arlana, who welcomed them and introduced them the team of six who had been hired to provide security both for Ms Etye, and the crawlers on-going operations. She then went through what the morning had in store.
First there would be a safety briefing, what to do if the air raft came down, or if separated from the crawler, and the dangers posed by the desert – some wildlife, the Duneraiders, and the obvious ‘sunny’ conditions. Then they were shown a map of Enos and zoomed in to the area that represented Jericorps mining lease. The location of the crawler was highlighted, and Arlana picked out the route they would be taking to meet up with it.
After the briefing Dirk was invited to avail himself of the equipment stores, should he feel the need. Experience had taught Dirk that preparation saves lives and therefore, even though he was not expecting any problems, he decided to take up the offer as a precaution. He was joined by a couple of the security guards who had decided to re-visit the cache after considering their first acquisitions. Dirk thought it was a belt and braces approach, for he thought he could probably cope, but he had the added burden of Ms Etye, and she would take some helping should anything go awry. Consequently he stuffed a backpack with a set of working clothes, a blanket, torch, compass, a couple of canteens, some dry ration packs, and some other odds and ends, and added it to his holdall which held his clothes, washbag, and other personal items.
The head of the security team, Bertil Coolson, then went through the security arrangements, which basically meant stay close to the crawler and don’t go anywhere off the crawler without a partner, a comm unit, and letting the duty security officer know.
Finally the morning drew to a close and they all enjoyed a light lunch in the boardroom of Jericorps head office. Soon after lunch, the air rafts that had arrived from the crawler that morning, were being loaded up with supplies and the personal gear of the passengers.
Dirk’s head snapped round as a sudden commotion grabbed his attention. Two of the security guards were wrestling a dock worker to the ground, sending a tool box spinning out of his hand.
After checking that Ms Etye was safe, Dirk went over to view the proceedings. The apparent dock worker was not co-operating, his dock pass was a poor forgery, but who he was or what he wanted was not forthcoming.
“May I ?” asked Dirk, holding out his hand to the security guard who had retrieved the tool box.
After a glance to Bertil and a returning nod, the guard said “Sure” and handed it over.
Dirk examined the outside very carefully. It appeared new with none of the scratches and dents he was used to seeing when dealing with technicians. Taking it over to a corner of the yard and using the stacked pallets there to shield the rest of the bays’ occupants from any potential blast, Dirk carefully opened the tool box. Inside was large block of explosive, a tangle of wires, and a timer, steadily ticking off the seconds. Dirk called over the Head of Security and showed him what he had found.
“It looks amateur and pretty straightforward” declared Dirk. “If you don’t mind and clear the area, I’ll defuse it”.
Bertil gave Dirk a long appraising look and then nodded
“Okay” he said and strode off to clear the yard of people.
Carefully and without incident, Dirk pulled free the detonator. After making the bomb safe, Dirk called everyone back, and preparations for the journey continued. Soon it was time for everyone to
climb on board an air raft and head out to the crawler. The would be bomber had not been persuaded to talk, but the Crawler could not afford to be without the air rafts for long, as they were integral to the prospecting operation. Hence the need to mount up and move out. Maybe word would be radioed out to the crawler when the security forces found out what the motive was. Dirk dismissed such concerns from his mind and concentrated on getting Ms Etye organised and onto the allotted air raft.
After the excitement at Jericorps head office, the journey out was uneventful – long and tiring but mainly, thankfully, uneventful. The trip did give them the opportunity to appreciate the enormity of the desert, and the varied terrain presented; the sea of dunes studded with occasional boulder fields, falling away into wadi’s and canyons or rising in craggy mesa’s at intervals. In an air conditioned air raft flying over it, the desert had a lot of beauty Dirk thought. But he also appreciated that it would be a whole different ball game at ground level, without the benefit of air conditioning.
Several hours later, both air rafts had docked in the crawler’s bay and Dirk and Ms Etye shown to their cabins, while the provisions were unloaded. Ms Etye had a cabin to herself, but Dirk had to double up with the Head of Security. After freshening up after their trip, the new arrivals gathered in the lounge. There they met the crew not on duty, had the layout and operations of the crawler explained, and ate a meal. Dirk had not appreciated the size of these things before, the only time he had seen one in the flesh, he was distracted by someone shooting at him. It really was a huge vehicle, the size of a small starship really. There were four principle decks, engineering – with the power plant, propulsion, and mining equipment, cargo hold – with the storage tanks for extracted minerals, crew deck – with quarters, galley, and mess, and the command deck – with the control bridge, air raft bay, and air conditioning. There was also a flying bridge which gave a good view of the mining operations. Dirk also noted that there were a pair of laser turrets used to cut up larger deposits into chunks that the crawler could manage. They sounded just like those found on a starship, and Dirk fancied giving them a whirl to see how similar they were to the starships he knew, and if he could cut it as a desert miner.
In the morning, Dirk was admiring the views from the flying bridge, watching the air rafts leave on their search patterns. Hal Southerland, the Crawler Captain, was explaining how crawler prospecting worked.
“The air rafts fly set search patterns, while the crawler advances, searching on its’ axis of advance. At regular intervals, the air rafts search pattern brings them back to the crawler, so that if we have struck a nodule field, they can help in harvesting. If they spot a nodule field, once the crawler has completed its current search, it will make best speed for the nearest nodule field, with a least distance/time route plotted through any fields found by the air raft search after that. The air rafts can continue their search pattern whilst the crawler is in transit, but then rendezvous with the crawler for harvesting. Once harvesting is complete, the air rafts are free to resume their search pattern. In this manner the crawler is almost exclusively engaged in harvesting or transit, maximising return. When our tanks are nearly full, we call in a hopper to take off the harvest, and then start on filling them up again. When we’re harvesting, we need every man on the job, and so we won’t have time to babysit your Holo star for her commercial, but during a search, hopper transfer, and perhaps a brief stop during transit, she can get some footage.”
“Fair enough, Captain. Any chance I could have a go in one of those turrets ? I know my way round a starships turret systems, so would like to see what the differences are.”
“Sure, most of our guys learn their trade in the deep dark. Find Thoris Dennechek, and tell him that I said to show you the ropes and let you fire her up during the next harvest.”
Dirk did not have long to wait, after only a couple of hours, the air rafts returned with news of nodule fields they had spotted. They had also uncovered a crawler wreck, and even though it had obviously happened a long time ago as evidenced by the eroded metal and the fact that it was an obsolete model, it was still a stark reminder of the dangers the deep desert posed. Soon, however, the crawler was making best speed to the first nodule field while the air rafts returned to their search. A couple of hours later and the crawler started harvesting. It was a reasonably large field and the captain estimated that harvest operations would run non-stop for the beast part of two days. With no opportunity for Ms Etye to record her commercial, Dirk was free to get involved with the harvest. He found that the laser cutter turrets were very similar to the weapons turret he was used to and felt he had made a worthwhile contribution to the harvest at the end of the first eight hour shift.
Dirk found he settled into the routine of crawler life rather quickly, because there was a routine to follow and that the crew each had a clearly defined role in that routine, Dirk found himself drifting back into his habits from his military days. The crawler travelled to another nodule field and started harvesting, with Dirk keeping Ms Etye occupied and calm, when necessary, whilst stealing as much time as he could to get into a turret and help out with the harvesting. After six days of operation the tanks were almost full, a good mix of base metals, copper, Zinc, Iron and the like; and the Captain called in the Hopper, anticipating a rendezvous with full tanks. During the transfer of harvested metals from the crawler to the Hopper, Dirk accompanied Ms Etye a little way into the desert to get some wide Holo shots with the Crawler in the background. During this halt, Dirk noticed a pair of air rafts in the distance. Back on the Crawler, Dirk mentioned this to the Captain, who asked Dirk to show him on the Holo Map where they were. Given the difficulty in estimating distances in the desert, Dirk could not be sure whether the air rafts were within Jericorp’s leased area or not. However, their movements did not tally with any of the standard search patterns the Captain identified. All too soon, however, and the Crawler was back into its’ routine, running hard for the next nodule field and then harvesting, pushing all thoughts of air rafts out of Dirk’s mind.
Then the news that Arlana had been hoping for came through, one of the nodule fields located was giving radioactive readings. A decent harvest of radioactives would go a long way to easing the financial pressures that Jericorp faced, at least for the immediate future. The Crawler headed off to the new field with everyone in high spirits, including Ms Etye, whose Holo footage was nearly complete. With luck, and a stop or two to get the last elusive footage required (some atmospheric shots at dawn and dusk, so far prevented by harvesting operations), Ms Etye and more importantly Dirk, at least in his eyes, would have completed their mission, and could hitch a ride back on the next hopper.