On a Wing and a Prayer

A shot in the dark

It came as something of a shock, therefore, when the silence was broken by several shots ringing out and echoing from the rocks. Dirk spun round, and grabbed Ms Etye around the waist and unceremoniously ushered her to cover behind the nearest pile of rocks, trying to glance around as he did so. Appraising the situation, Dirk saw that Alistan Wright, one of the hired guards, had been hit by fire coming from the very rocks flagged as their sanctuary minutes before, and that everyone else had also scrambled for cover.

After instructing Ms Etye to keep her head down and stay put, Dirk risked another glance over the boulder he was using for cover. Most of the guards and Crawler crew had sought cover to the right of the trail they had been following. A couple of the guards that had been leading the little party were behind a truncated rock pillar just ahead of Dirk’s position. Another two had fled to the left of the trail, and taken up a position behind a mound of rocks and boulders. Murray Gerbert, the First Officer, was bent over Alistan Wright, tending his wounds. As Dirk was absorbing the situation, a guard from each of the positions ahead fell to the new shots fired by their ambushers. The guards were beginning to fight back however, and Dirk saw a shape behind the rocks ahead spin round and fall out of sight. This must be an infamous Duneraider welcoming party, mused Dirk.

Dirk used a combination of shouting and his comm to organise the guards and the crawler crew to fight back effectively. At the same time he was ensuring that Ms Etye stayed calm and kept her head down and was watching for any sign of hysteria that would pose a danger to keeping her alive. Two groups, left and right of the trail, returned fire whilst two more groups circled round each flank. The volume of incoming fire increased and Dirk couldn’t tell whether that was because his flanking moves were presenting targets or if it was simply that the ambush had been sprung. Dirk saw another guard, Galkilk Istinnash, fall. This meant the firebase in front of Dirk’s boulder had been silenced. Therefore Perez, the First Engineer sheltering behind the same boulder as Dirk, ran round the boulder in a low crouch to re-establish the second firebase.

The flanking moves had uncovered more of the Duneraiders, positioned either to protect the main position or provide a flanking manoeuvre of their own. So pretty well all the guards and crawler crew were laying down fire, including Dirk who, confident that Ms Etye would stay put, moved to the edge of the boulder to fire at one of the Duneraiders discovered by the flanking move. Arlana saw she was most needed on the right flank, and went to help. The Captain virtually dragged Ronald Halfesson in a crouching run from their position next to Ms Etye, round the boulder to join the First Engineer.

This proved to be the decisive point, as the return fire slackened considerably. The crawler crew and guards were arranged in four groups, and Dirk ordered two of these to provide covering fire, whilst the other two advanced to take up position behind more rocks and boulders. From these positions, more Duneraiders could be seen in a small wadi they were using as a trench. Arlana called upon the Dunraiders to surrender, pointing our their position was flanked and assuring them that they would be well treated. The staccato rat-tat-tat of auto rifle fire was the Duneraiders only response.

The guards and crawler crew responded, and given their numbers and superior position, had soon silenced the Duneraiders. This appeared to be the last of the opposition, and Dirk tasked the remaining guards to do a careful sweep through the Duneraiders position to ensure there were no more surprised, whilst the crew set about providing first aid to the casualties, and gathering all the injured and Duneraiders in one place.

A moonlit walk

The Captain led them East, towards the Chargras Canyon and the oasis at its mouth. From there they would turn North, leap frogging the dunes to the relatively safer higher ground on their march back to civilisation. They moved slowly but steadily, with the heavy water barrels regularly swapped between porters. Dirk kept a wary eye on Ms Etye, she was facing the ordeal with admirable stoicism, but he knew that her body, unused as it was to such prolonged exercise and hardship, would start to break down at some point. Every hour, the Captain would call a brief halt, allowing everyone to ease the load from their shoulders and adjust straps and boots if necessary. They carried on in this fashion for five hours.

The Captain then called a longer halt, and gave everyone the chance to eat some rations. Dirk watched as one of the crawler crew made a pile of the small, dry, dung pats he had collected during the march. With a little difficulty, he soon had a small fire burning fitfully and was brewing up some tea for everyone. Dirk made sure that Ms Etye had something to eat, even though she did not feel like eating, and that she had a hot, sweet, drink. She was bearing up well, considering, thought Dirk, but the signs of fatigue were obvious in the set of her shoulders and her disinterested stare.

All too soon, the Captain called on them to be on the move again, and they set off through the desert night. The pace became a bit slower and there were more stumbles and trips as everyone started to feel the effects of their exertions. On more than one occasion, Dirk had to provide a steadying hand to Ms Etye, and caught her from falling a few times. Some larger boulders were emerging from the gloom and the Captain had announced that they would have short halt when they reached them.

Paydirt !

It would take the crawler a few hours to secure from harvesting rig and get to the nodule field with the radioactives. Therefore the as the crew went about their duties, a meal was being prepared and with the crawler on its way, everyone bar the driver and officer of the watch sat down for a hearty meal.

As Dirk was spooning dessert onto his plate, there was a loud bang and followed by pandemonium as the lights went out and a shrieking klaxon pierced the air. Everyone cried out in alarm or shouted questions, and the crawler lurched to a juddering halt. Dirk was pulling Ms Etye off her chair and getting her under the table when the emergency lighting came back on.

As the Captain, Arlarna, and the security guard were running around trying to determine the problem and ascertain current threat levels, Dirk guided Ms Etye back to her stateroom, where he stood guard with his body pistol.

It was not long, however, before a security guard called and asked them to reconvene in the lounge at the Captain’s request. Once there, the Captain explained what had happened. A bomb had exploded in the cargo hold and destroyed the crawlers’ power plant. We’re checking through the rest of the crawler now, but were not going anywhere soon, and there may be a traitor on board. Therefore, you will all confine yourself to this lounge, while I and Ms Jeric will conduct interviews and record statements.

A few hours later and the Captain spoke to those assembled once more.
“Well, as you know we’ve now interviewed everybody. However , there is no evidence to suggest that anyone currently on board was involved. It is possible, therefore, that the bomb was smuggled aboard last time the crawler was in dock, or there was another one in the resupply brought in by the air rafts, which we missed. The bad news is that there must be a traitor amongst us, and they may be just as good at lying and covering their tracks as they are at bomb making. The reason I know this is that both air rafts have been tampered – they are damaged and missing some key components. Also, the radioactives round here are preventing our communicators from working and without the power plant, the crawlers radio hasn’t got the power to cut through it”.
“Consequently, we are in a bit of a pickle. We can’t use the air rafts to get back to civilisation, and we can’t call for help. There is a very small chance someone will realise we’re missing, but they don’t know where we are or what our course was, so are unlikely to dispatch a hopper to search for us. So whilst there is plenty of food and water here, the only way out is on foot, and that will be a challenge. Alright, it will be dark in two hours, you have that long to get yourselves appropriately dressed and kitted out, before assembling in the cargo deck and being issued with food and water rations. Any questions ?”.

After half an hour, the general hubbub had died down and worried questions answered. Therefore Dirk took Ms Etye back to her cabin and supervised what clothes she should change into and what belongings she should pack. He then sought out Ms Etye’s holocameraman and asked him to take some footage of the devastated powerplant, cargo hold, and air rafts to hand over to the authorities once they were back at Enos downport. He then went to get himself organised, changing into his work clothes and ensuring he had enough things to look after Ms Etye – torch, medickit, knife, sewing kit, blankets, etc. He went to the bridge and downloaded a copy of the crawlers charts onto his hand comp as a back-up. He also sought out Arlana and gained permission to draw a rifle and pistol from the crawlers locker (and helped himself to some emergency flares and a small toolkit while he was there).

Soon they were all assembled in the cargo hold and the Captain was supervising the handing out of provisions. They would not be able to carry a large amount and so the concentrates and high nutrition foods were passed around. In addition to a personal supply of water, there were two drums, cleaned and filled with water that could be carried slung beneath two poles by two people. The captain reminded them about their desert survival briefing and explained how the journey would be conducted. He then led the motly crew through the hatch and down the ramp into the cooling desert air.

It’s hot, damned hot !

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.”

“Thanks Captain.”

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.

Lights, Camera, Action !

Dirk resurfaced around eight hours later and pottered about the galley, rustling up some breakfast. He sat down to eat as Nizekanuu came in.

“What’s been going on while I’ve been catching up on my beauty sleep ?” enquired Dirk.

“Nothing untoward, Captain. In fact no one has left the ship, apart from that old Holo star. And she came back pretty sharpish !”

“Huh ? Ms Etye is back on-board, how come ? I thought she was to be whisked off to do her commercial or whatever it was”.

“Apparently she has to spend a few days in downtown Nomaya, and didn’t like the accommodation they had lined up for her in this slum. So she has asked for the use of her cabin for a few days or the duration of the Phoenix’s stay, whichever is the longer. Ester-Ann thought this came under the classification of non-emergency and didn’t want to wake you, telling Ms Etye that you would sort out terms when you were free.”

“OK – that’s good, a few extra credits never hurt. Does Damarcus know he’s babysitting the holo star again ?”.

“Yes Sir, he’s been looking at what fresh produce he can buy to suit a high passengers’ taste already.”

“Fine” Said Dirk as he scooped up his dish and cup from his completed breakfast and took them over to the washer. “I’ll check in on our Holo Star and then head to the bridge to see if I can make a deal for our cargo”.

Dirk visited Kelli Etye and agreed terms for her stay – 500Cr for up to five days, with any necessary further days being renegotiated. As he was taking his leave Ms Etye spoke.

“Captain, I have to go and look at an ore miner or something that is being delivered to a mining company. Given our approach run to this backwards planet, I would appreciate the company of someone I can rely on to look out for me. Will you come and watch over me please, deah Captain ?”.

“It would be my honour Ms Etye. When are you due to make the visit ?

“Tomorrow morning, Captain. I’m to be picked up at 10am local, and escorted to the freighter for a few publicity shots, then lunch with the Mayor and President of the mining company.”

“Right, I’ll adjust my schedule accordingly, until dinner then Ms Etye” said Dirk as he briefly clasped her hand and headed out of the passenger lounge.

Back on the bridge Dirk plugged into the local comm net to scan the market and look for buyers for the cargo. Prices were not as high as he had hoped for, either this dust bowl was too small or too backward to generate much of a demand or it was simply too small. He did find a buyer, but he would have been taking a loss on the deal. Early days, thought Dirk, plenty of time before things come to a head. At a pinch I could always ask the crew to wait for payment until Caladbolg, their next stop.

The following day a couple of jeeps arrived at the airlock and a well dressed man asked for Ms Etye. Soon Dirk was joined outside by Ms Etye who, dressed in a long loose white flowing garment, a white scarf wrapped around her head with the long ends blowing in the breeze, and dark sunglasses, looked every inch the Holo Star. They climbed aboard the jeeps and were soon heading off to a large freighter that was parked a few klicks away.

Once at the freighter and after the dust had settled, a door opened in the freighter and a huge vehicle grumbled and puffed into view, emerging from the freighters’ hold.

“Right then Ms Etye, when the dust settles we’ll sit you on the crawler and take a few publicity shots” said the commercial shoots director. “Then we’ll travel out to the mining site and shoot the Holo’s we need there”.

Suddenly a ragged volley of shots rang out, and Dirk unceremoniously tackled Ms Etye to the ground, seeking cover behind the jeep for them both. Once Ms Etye had stopped struggling and protesting, Dirk cautiously raised his head and peered over the jeep towards the crawler.
There was a swarm of humanoids all over and around the crawler, brandishing weapons of various sorts.
“Stand up with your hands on your head and move over there.” A harsh voice sounded from behind Dirk. He turned to see that a couple of the raiders had emerged from the billowing dust behind them, one of whom was indicating the direction he wanted them to move in with an ancient looking rifle.

Dirk helped Ms Etye to her feet and whispered reassurances while trying to figure out how to get out of this mess. He had no weapon, as per the local laws, apart from his concealed body pistol; out here on an E class starport, the sanctity of Imperial territory had little impact on those who actually controlled the ground. So his little pea shooter was not enough against this band of marauders. Dirk, Ms Etye, and the rest of the Holo crew were herded together with the crawler crew and a couple of dock workers and crawler crew. A shot rang out and Dirk turned to see one of the raiders clutch his stomach and fall from the top of the crawler. Immediately after there was a muffled crump, and several hatches and windows on the crawler blew open, belching black smoke and small licks of red flame.

Dirk turned back as an exited babble erupted from the group guarding the prisoners, and one older man was pulled aside. He collapsed as a fist was smashed into his midriff and soon several guards were kicking him or using their rifle butts on him. A young woman cried out, dashing from the throng of prisoners, and dived on the man to shield him. She was soon dragged off by more guards and held, kicking and screaming for them to stop. During this distraction, Dirk was eyeing up the opportunities for escape. Unfortunately, none presented themselves as he had Ms Etye to consider, and the raiders who had surrounded the crawler were now coming over to join the guards.

The next moment, more shots started to ring out, and the raiders scattered. It would appear the local security forces had arrived in response to the incident.

“Time to go !” shouted one of the raiders and the guards abandoned the prisoners and headed for cover, away from the security forces.

Dirk bundled Ms Etye into the back of the jeep and told her to keep down. He then ducked over to where the young woman lay across the prostrate form of the older man, heedless of the bullets around them. Dirk quickly checked the man for vital signs and concluded that he was still alive. He pulled the girl around, to get her attention.

“Help me carry him to the jeep and we’ll see about getting out of this crossfire” he shouted.

Mutely, the woman nodded and turned back to the man. Taking one arm each, they crouched low, dragging the body behind them. Back at the jeep, Dirk hoisted the man into the back and leapt into the drivers’ seat. He started the engine and slammed it into gear, spinning round in a shower of dust and gravel to head for the cover of some buildings.

A few shots pinged off the jeep, but Dirk concluded they were random shots and that the jeep was not being specifically targeted. The raiders had their hands full with the local security. Before the jeep reached the cover offered by a stack of cargo containers, the firefight ended as abruptly as it had begun. Dirk stopped the jeep and turned around, the raiders were nowhere to be seen.

Dirk had called for an ambulance, had checked the injured man and made him as comfortable as possible, and was trying to keep Ms Etye calm, when a sergeant from the security forces arrived to talk to them.

“Desiccated Duneraiders” spat the Sergeant. “Anybody hurt and did anybody see anything ?”.

Dirk filled the sergeant in on what had happened to the group, what he’d seen, and that an ambulance was on its’ was for the injured man.

“Yup, they’ve not attacked anything this close to the starport before, but it’s Duneraiders alright” concluded the Sergeant.

“Sargent, am I right in thinking these Duneraiders are indigenous, and therefore would have a local language ?” asked Dirk.

“That’s right sir, desert nomads who see off-worlders as fair game.”

“It’s just that I heard one of them shout an order to retreat, and I understood it”.

“Not to worry sir, one of them probably picked up a bit Galanguic, or you heard a couple of words that sounded like Galanguic. You take a look at one of those dead bodies, dressed head to toe in Duneraider gear, they’re Duneraiders alright ! ”. If we need a formal statement we’ll send someone to take it. Now if you’ll excuse me.”

With that the Sergeant touched his hat, turned, and strode away to where a gaggle of officers and men were standing next to the smoking crawler.

The ambulance arrived with more transportation and Dirk saw the older man loaded into the ambulance, accompanied by the woman, before ushering Ms Etye to a waiting jeep. They returned to the Lodestar Phoenix and Dirk handed off Ms Etye to Damarcus to look after, while he went to wash off the dust and change his clothes.

That evening, as everyone was gathered in the passenger lounge, enjoying dinner, Dirk’s comm chimed.
“Lodestar Phoenix, how may I help you ?” enquired Dirk.

“Good evening, Arlana Jeric from Jeric Mining to see Ms Etye” came a woman’s voice over the comm. Dirk turned to Ms Etye and asked if she was up to receiving a visitor.

“Jeric Mining is the company I’m here doing the Holo promotion for” replied Ms Etye, “as I need to understand the situation regarding the shoot and whether my contract still holds, I think I should see her”.

“In that case” said Dirk as he thumbed to comm, “We’re having dinner Ms Jeric, would you care to join us ? I’ll send someone down to let you in and show you the way. Thumbing off the comm, Dirk turned to Damarcus “Damarcus, will you go an escort our guest on board please. Make sure she’s alone before you open the lock, and check her for weapons, I don’t feel like taking any chances”.

Soon Arlana Jeric was seated at the dinner table, thanking Damarcus for the meal which he placed before her.

“Thank you Captain”, she said, “I have come straight from the hospital and have not had a chance to eat. Ms Etye, the holo shoot will still go ahead, but instead of travelling out into the desert on our new mining crawler, we’ll have to take an air-car to the one we already have out there working. It will take a couple of days to make the arrangements I’m afraid, so your departure will be delayed a little. Please accept my sincere apologies for this unavoidable delay and I hope it doesn’t affect your schedule too much. By way of compensation, I will add a bonus to your fee as a goodwill gesture. You can also rest assured that your safety is paramount in my mind, and part of the delay is so that I can hire some guards and get them to the crawler in time for your arrival. They will ensure nothing untoward occurs.”
“Despite what security are saying, I do not believe this attack was made by Duneraiders. You see, Jeric Mining is an independent family business and my father and I have been mining on Enos for a number of years. Everything ran smoothly and we made a decent profit. In the past year however, Dakaar Minerals, a big Imperial corporation, has moved in and is trying to squeeze out the independent concerns. Hence the Holo shoot, we are having to raise our profile and build up our brand just to keep selling the same amount of product. We are up against a large corporation’s marketing resources, so things are tough. I had thought we’d had a run of bad luck – one of our crawlers was attacked by Duneraiders and destroyed, and we’ve lost contact with another one, which I must presume is lost. But, todays attack in the starport, and the way they singled out my father and beat him, makes me think there is more to this than meets the eye. Sure, the Duneraiders don’t like off-worlders much, and they are more savvy than a lot of people give them credit for, but the level of prior knowledge and actions outside of their normal modus operandi evident in this attack makes me think it was not them. So maybe this is another example of the megacorp playing hardball. It will certainly be a challenge meeting our overheads with only one crawler. ”

Dirk told Arlana of his experience at the starport and agreed that it did look like there was more to this than met the eye. They also agreed that the local security forces didn’t seem too bothered with the matter, though there was no suspicion of corruption.

“Well, I can’t say that I am pleased with the situation” began Ms Etye, “but I am a professional and I have never pulled out of a contract yet. However, I would like Captain Gazeta to accompany me, if he is willing. Given this mornings’ excitement, I feel safer with him around. How about it Captain, can we agree terms for you to babysit an old woman ?”

“I’m sure we can reach an agreement Ms Etye, it would be my pleasure to accompany you on your Holo shoot. I should be able to sell my cargo before we leave, and perhaps I can get the inside track and a good deal from Jericorp Mining on carrying some ores out of here”.

With the meal and business concluded, the party broke up. Damarcus escorted Ms Jeric back to the airlock, while Nizekannu headed for the bridge and the night watch. The rest of the crew and Ms Etye headed for their cabins.

Over the following few days Dirk was working his way through the few import-export agencies on Enos, he found one buyer willing to pay a reasonable price for the cargo, but it was not a great profit, and so, with a few days to kill before accompanying Ms Etye to the Holo shoot, he kept looking. He also ensured that the supplies and provisions were replenished by the relevant departments. As departure day approached, however, Dirk had not been able to better the deal, so he called the crew together and asked them what they wanted to do with their prize. The concensus was that as they hadn’t had to buy the cargo, the return was good, and they were unlikely to improve that at their next port of call, so they may as well realise their asset now. Consequently Dirk put a call in to make the sale and finalise arrangements. During this time he also agreed terms with Ms Etye, 100Cr a day plus food and board. Not a salary that would keep the Lodestar Phoenix running, but Dirk would have gone for board and lodging only, what was the point of touring the galaxy if you didn’t stop and look now and again he thought ?

Once the deal had gone through and the cargo off-loaded, Dirk called the crew together again. He handed out their wages and distributed the prize money from the pirate cargo. He left Timbur in charge and ran through his standing orders once more, designed to ensure the Lodestar Pheonix was there for his return.

Action at Enos

Dirk concentrated on his breathing, he was trying to stay calm and focused as the Blue Devil came steadily closer. He had to judge the right moment to launch the missiles – not too far away that the target could react and he’d miss, and not so close that they would see him before he fired.
He checked the connection on the firing switch one more time – now, he thought, and triggered a pair of missiles that were floating off to the left of the launch. He had decided to launch in pairs, partly to increase the chances of a hit and partly to present a more military launch pattern.

The missiles fired successfully and streaked out towards the Blue Devil. Before the pirate vessel could react, one of the missiles slammed home, and the other whizzed past, missing by a fraction. Dirk’s mind filled in the loud bang as his eyes saw the flash of light that signalled detonation of the missile. Immediately he was speaking into the comm, a message that was bounced through one of the comm units that was now about a klick away along the trajectory that Dirk had thrown it, to the left of the launch.

“Yeee Ha ! Hunter one strikes. Decoy one, execute fireplan Alpha. Come on Hunter Two or there won’t be anything left for you”. Dirk switched frequencies and relayed another message through the other comm unit which was currently arcing through space about a klick away in the opposite direction. “Hunter Two. Powering up now. Leave some for me boys !.

Meanwhile on the Lodestar Phoenix, Ester-Ann registered the explosion behind her and executed her part of the plan. The Lodestar Phoenix rotated 180 degrees and started to decelerate. At the same time Nizekanuu used the targeting computers to start painting the Blue Devil with fire control radar emissions, even though the range was too great to fire.

“Hunter Two, Fox One. Tally-Ho !” announced Dirk through the right hand comm relay as he triggered a pair of missiles that lay off to the right of the launch. They both fired, and streaked off towards the Blue Devil. They missed, but as Dirk studied the launch’s passive scanners on his tablet, they did have the desired effect. The sensors were detecting concentrations of radar reflections to the left and right of the launch, suggesting that the pirate had been fooled and was searching for the imaginary Hunter One and Hunter Two among the asteroids. As the second pair of missiles whizzed past the Blue Devil, Dirk could see they were breaking off the engagement, and as they rolled and changed vector, Dirk could see a small vapour trail leaking from slightly aft. The first missile had obviously done a significant amount of damage, certainly enough to convince a pirate who was apparently caught in a trap that discretion was the better part of valour; as his supposed prey had turned round to engage him and two, as yet unlocated, enemy vessels were firing on him from the flank. The Blue Devil had altered course and was using her superior speed to vector between the Lodestar Phoenix and the Dirk’s approximate position and open the range as quickly as possible.

Ester-Ann kept up the pressure by altering her own course onto an intercept heading and announcing over the comm “Decoy one, bay weapons deployed, cleared for engagement when in range”. Although she took care not to come into range, whilst giving the appearance of trying to hunt down the hunter.
Apparently the pirates were badly spooked by Dirk’s ploy as they started to jettison cargo containers from the Blue Devil as they ran. Presumably trying to tempt the pursuers to break off and retrieve the cargo. Given the performance of the Type T, it was not long before the Blue Devil had reached the jump limit again, and soon the small burst of electro-magnetic radiation was all that was left of them in the Enos system.

“Well done crew” said Dirk into the comm as whoops and shouts of joy erupted on the bridge of the Lodestar Phoenix. “I’ll meet you at the cargo, but don’t touch anything until I’ve had a chance to give it the once over”.

A few hours later, Dirk had collected the remaining missile and piloted the launch to rendezvous with the Lodestar Phoenix. He set Timbur to de-commission the missile he brought back whilst he examined the cargo containers from the vid pick up.
“Well, they look OK from here” announced Dirk, but you can’t be too careful. Damarcus, you come with me and we’ll go fishing. Ester-Ann, can you de-pressurise the cargo hold please. We’ll bring them straight in and have a closer look before opening them”.

Several hours later, they had six new cargo containers tied down in the hold. It had been a difficult job as they had spread over quite a distance on their separate trajectories. The Lodestar Phoenix had to carefully manoeuvre close to each container before Dirk and Damarcus went EVA to stop the containers spinning and then push them into the cargo hold. With the cargo bay re-pressurised, Dirk sent Damarcus off to wash and change (and to keep him at a safe distance), while he checked over the containers once more, still buttoned up in his vac suit.

“Right, the so and so’s have booby trapped the containers.” Dirk informed the crew. “Timbur, can you keep a close eye on my suit vid to make sure I don’t miss anything, and I’ll have a go at disarming them”. Another tense hour later and Dirk had successfully disarmed the booby traps and determined that the Lodestar Phoenix was now the proud possessor of an additional 60 tons of Basic Manufactured Goods.

After washing and changing, Dirk joined most of the crew for a meal in the crew lounge.
“Well done crew, that couldn’t have gone any better, everyone kept their heads and did their jobs. I’m proud, and very grateful, to all of you. The good news is that you’ll all benefit from your heroism. I’ll see how much I can get for the pirates cargo, and then divide it amongst the crew – so a nice little bonus on top of your pay.” A chorus of cheers and delight erupted around the meal table.

As the meal was cleared away, Dirk and Ester-Ann joined Nizekanuu on the bridge to take the Lodestar Phoenix down to what passed as a starport on Enos. Dirk only relaxed completely, once the formalities of traffic control and customs were completed and the Lodestar Phoenix nestled safely in her berth with no further surprises occurring.

“Finally” announced Dirk. “Set the port watch please Ester-Ann, I’m going to my cabin to sleep for a fortnight. Please try and refrain from waking me, even with an emergency” he joked. “Just tell anyone who is going off-ship to be especially vigilant, as demonstrated by our welcoming committee, this dirt ball is not exactly the epitome of civilisation”.

Welcome to Enos

A slight lurch to his stomach, told Dirk he was back in n-space. He glanced around the bridge and reassured himself that everyone was doing their job, before studying the information relayed to his own plot. A vessel appeared on the scan and before Nizekanuu could resolve the contact into type and heading, the comm indicated an incoming message.

“This is the Blue Devil, cut your drives and standby for boarding”.

Questioning glances were exchanged around the bridge.

“OK – welcome to Enos” said Dirk. “Nizekanuu, check the local traffic regs and see if it’s normal not to announce yourself as an official ship. Ester-Ann, give me a least time and max time intercept course from the Blue Devil, assuming max. acceleration, just in case. I’ll try and establish exactly who our friends are.”

“Lodestar Phoenix calling Blue Devil, please advise of your arm of service with the Enos government, authorisation reference, and reason for boarding.”

“Sir, it is normal practice for official Enos ships to announce themselves as such. They should also quote their authorisation reference, but apparently they don’t always” proclaimed Nizekanuu. “Contact has been identified as a Type T Patrol Cruiser, and they have changed course towards us and are accelerating.”

“Ahhh, so they are an unauthorised welcoming party” mused Dirk. “How are those plots coming Ester-Ann, and is there anywhere we can hide ?”.

“Sir, least time intercept to zero acceleration, relative, is 1 hour and 7 minutes. Max time intercept to zero acceleration, relative, is 3 hours 39 minutes. Although we will be within their missile envelope after 2 hours and 45 minutes. If we lose a few minutes from these times, we can reach a thin asteroid belt, though it’s more likely to obscure rather than hide us, Sir”.

“Thank you Ester-Ann, please lay in a course that will take us to that cover at maximum acceleration” said Dirk as plan was forming in his mind. “Nizekanuu, have a very good look for any friends the Blue Devil may have out there, particularly on our heading.” Dirk toggled the ships PA system “Now hear this, now hear this. We have attracted some unwanted attention and are having to remove ourselves from the area. Nothing to worry about, but we may have to make some sudden course changes, so lock everything away and strap yourselves down, Captain Out.”

“He is on his own, Captain” announced Nizekanuu. “Nothing with him, or in front of us”.

“Good, from his positioning, he wasn’t expecting us, and we are just an opportunistic target as far as he’s concerned” concluded Dirk out loud. Just then another call came in.

“This is the Blue Devil, cut your drives and standby for boarding. Failure to comply will result in us opening fire”.

“I think we may have upset him” said Dirk, “Ester-Ann, can you contact Enos traffic control, tell them what is going on and request assistance from the relevant Authorities please. Meanwhile I need a chat with Timbur, beep me on my comm if anything else turns up, and no one is to respond to the Blue Devil unless I say so, clear ?”.

A chorus of “Aye Aye Sah’s” greeted Dirk’s back as he left the bridge. Soon he was down in Engineering discussing the feasibility of Dirk’s embryonic plan.”
“What I need Timbur, is a method of remotely triggering one of our missiles, it doesn’t need to be fancy, just kick the missiles ignition and the on-board targeting can take care of the rest. Can we do that ?” Dirk asked when he had explained the situation and outlined his plan.
“Mmmmmm” Timbur mumbled as he rubbed his chin thoughtfully. “Well, I reckon I should be able to rig something up, but it will have to be fired manually, I won’t have time to wire it into the ships systems. Would that do ?”

“I can work with that. How long would it take to make me six of these little surprises ?”

“I should be able to manage that in time, but it won’t be pretty.”

“It doesn’t have to be pretty, it just has to work. I’ll leave you to get on with that. I’ll send Damarcus to help you and I’ll let the rest of the crew into our little plan”.

On his way back to the bridge, Dirk sought out Damarcus and sent him down to help out in engineering and asked Billy Weedin to hold Kelli Etye’s hand and try to keep her calm through the coming crisis. He also ducked into his cabin and changed into his vac suit.

Back on the bridge, Dirk checked the situation with Ester-Ann and Nizekanuu before explaining the plan and their part in it. He spelled each in turn as they went and changed into their own vac suits. He then went in search of a couple of hand held comm units, initially, and then to help Timbur.

An hour later the call came over Dirk’s suit radio “Time to slip off Captain” announced Ester-Ann. “On my Mark, Three….Two…..One….Mark”. With that Dirk released the magnetic clamps of the Lodestar Phoenix’s launch, and with the merest hint of power nudged her into the asteroid field. He then set about his preparations. First he threw out a couple of the comm units, and secured their tethers to the hull. The tethers were of different lengths and thrown in opposite directions, that would allow Dirk to use them as relay stations, masking his own location. He then took the missiles, Timbur had only managed to jury rig five in the time available, and again placed these in positions away from the launch, with the control wires leading back to the open door of the launch where they were secured and from where Dirk intended to trigger them.

Once his preparations were complete, Dirk went back to the small bridge on the launch to check on the Blue Devil. Good, the passive scanners showed that the pirate, for that is what the Blue Devil must be, was still on course hunting down the Lodestar Phoenix. Dirk returned to his firing position in the launch’s airlock. It would not be long now he thought.

Maiden Voyage

Dirk smiled to himself as he stood on the bridge, he had his own command again. a good feeling. Intellectually, Dirk knew being in command of merchant vessel was fraught with danger, for as well as the potential for conflict there was also the worry of not being able to generate enough cash to keep the crew paid and the ship running. But, there was the thrill of being in command again, which crowded out such logical thoughts and just left him with a deep rooted pleasure of captaining a ship.

The crew had seemed to settle in well during the straightforward outbound run to the jump point. They did plot a course around a Type M Liner that was inbound, but no significant challenges were presented to the crew. It would take a more critical situation to test the mettle and cohesion of this crew.

After jump the crew found a comfortable rhythm, and Dirk was slowly getting to know his crew, and they him. He got on well with Timbur, the Engineer, probably because they were more closely matched in age and had more experience and stories to share than the younger members of the crew. Ester-Ann, the pilot, was very efficient, but Dirk struggled to warm to her as she seemed to be trying to prove herself all the time, leaving little room for pleasantries. Nizekanuu was an entertaining chap who was very enthusiastic, but Dirk thought he would need to be careful with him in case his excitement caused him to miss an important detail. Billy Weedin was the Medic, to whom Dirk also warmed with his stories of his medical missions to different planets. Dirk also had a soft spot for Damarcus Preston, the steward, who was barely out of nappies, but who Dirk found to be a quick learner and able to follow orders, making him a rather valuable commodity.

With the crew better acquainted by the time they came out of jump, things began to feel more relaxed on the bridge. The run in to Asteltane High Port was routine, just an exchange of greetings and heading info with a Type S scout which was also in-bound. With the ship safely settled in her berth and the fees and formalities taken care of, Dirk secured the ship from Docking and set the Port watch. That would mean the off duty crew would most likely leave the ship for a look around, while the on-duty crew would start the process for pumping off waste and taking on fresh water, oxygen and fuel. Meanwhile Dirk would start contacting people to arrange delivery of his freight and mail, and look for a buyer for his cargo.

Over the next few days, Dirk managed find a buyer for his Basic Consumables and although this was achieved easily, Dirk negotiated such a good price that he took the deal there and then, generating nearly 200,000 Cr – all profit Dirk found to his surprise as a lack of organised government meant there was no-one collecting taxes. He had less luck finding sellers though, with little more than the usual basics, plus some radioactive ores. Not that there wasn’t any cargo, just that the prices were high out here in a backwater. The radioactives weren’t too bad, just very expensive to begin with. Dirk gave it some thought, without rushing into any decisions, with the profit on this run he could afford to run through Enos as a refuelling stop, though that would reduce the profitability for this run. The trouble was there was not much on offer in Asteltane that anyone would pay a premium for in Enos, and you had to pay top dollar in Asteltane to get it in any case.
Nobody wanted any freight shipped to Enos either, same problem for them as for me regarding supply and demand though Dirk. He did manage to find a mail package that needed transhipping, and as pickings were slim decided to accept standard fees rather than haggle. However, that changed one day when Dirk had been on the High Port looking for some new clothes. The retailer was making polite conversation whilst trying to interest Dirk in some old fashioned shirts, when he realised Dirk was a Merchant Captain and asked him to carry a small shipment of clothes to Enos. As the retailer was offering standard carriage charges, Dirk tried to talk him into a better deal. Unfortunately, the retailer was well aware of the trade situation at Enos and played hard ball, reducing his fee offer. Dirk sighed inwardly and accepted the offer, at least that would off-set some of the crew wages which were due at Enos.

Dirk did have a stroke of luck one evening, when having a quiet drink with Timbur, he overheard a mature woman complaining about the lack of star liners in the vicinity. After introducing himself, Dirk ascertained that the woman was Kelli Etye who had been a leading star in the holovids some years back, and that she needed to get to Enos for a screen test. Turning on the charm, Dirk managed to persuade her that the Lodestar Phoenix was suitably up-market – or at least exclusive with no other passengers – and she agreed to take a High Passage to Enos. When he got back to the ship, Dirk snagged Damarcus to rustle up some of Ms Etye’s holovids to play during the voyage and buff her ego.

Asteltine was a quiet place, thought Dirk, the most exciting thing that had happened this week was the scout ship they had come in with departed, heading for the jump point at an acceleration Dirk could only dream of. Realising that nothing better would be coming along, Dirk decided to set sail as soon as possible. Consequently he made up his mind to buy some of the radioactives and basic manufactured goods, he could afford 5dt and 10dt respectively, and all his cash would be tied up in those. He would either have to sell the manufactured goods, whatever the cost, or persuade the crew that there was nothing to buy on Enos and to take their pay at the next stop.

The purchased went smoothly and soon the freight, mail, and cargo had been loaded onto the Lodestar Phoenix. Ms Etye arrived and ensconced herself in her cabin, which left Dirk free to request clearance from traffic control. Undocking occurred without incident and soon the Lodestar Phoenix was heading for the jump point once more. Dirk did have a minor scare when a Type C cruiser emerged from jump, but after a tense hour Dirk accepted that it was on its own and not part of the pirate fleet that had attacked Penelope, and so relaxed a little.

Dirk only fully calmed down after they had translated into jump space and the transit watch had been set. The voyage in jump space turned out to be quite entertaining for Dirk, as Ms Etye liked to be re-live old glories and dining at the captain’s table played to her sense of self importance. Consequently, what could have been rather a chore turned out to be enjoyable as Ms Etye regaled them with stories from behind the scenes on holovid sets and the misfortunes and misdemeanours of some of her showbiz friends. Dirk even found he liked some of Ms Etye’s holovids, which he watched with her in the passenger lounge, sharing cocktails.

Soon, however, the passage through jump space was nearing its end and Dirk returned to the bridge to prepare for translation back to normal space.

Lodestar Phoenix Rises

Dirk strode up the gangway connecting Iderati High Port to the Lodestar Phoenix, noting with pride the freshly painted name on her nose. It wasn’t perfect, he would have to consider a full repaint during her annual maintenance – if he could afford it, but it was good enough to pass muster for now. He punched the security code and stepped aboard to be greeted by a fairly unpleasant musty smell. I must rustle up some cleaners he thought.

Dropping his luggage off in the crew lounge, Dirk made his way to the bridge and slid into the command chair. Logging onto the ship’s computer, he set about changing the passcodes and reviewing the security measures, and bringing the air scrubbers back on-line…….

A couple of hours later, Dirk leaned back, hands behind his head, contemplating a job well done. He was happy that he had set himself up with new master codes, new crew codes, and that the ship was safe from unwanted intruders. A review of the maintenance logs showed that the monthly maintenance had been undertaken by Kellogue and Brown Tank Transport and had checked that the fuel tanks were full. He had also booked a cleaning crew to come in clear the previous occupants’ possessions and perform a deep clean of the entire ship. The air scrubbers were beginning to have an effect as well.

After a short break to eat the lunch he had brought with him, Dirk set about exploring his new domain. He systematically went through the crew quarters and crew spaces, looking for anything of use or value. Apart from clothes and the usual entertainment cubes, there was nothing of any significance or worth, except for a small locked case in what appeared to be the previous captains’ cabin. The crew spaces were equally empty of interest, although Dirk was able to satisfy himself that the galley contained enough sealed comestibles to negate the need for restocking and allow him to jettison all of the open items. The ships’ locker produced the usual assortment of tools and gadgets, along with a shotgun and a couple of stun pistols. The passenger compartments only needed a brief walk round to ascertain that they were devoid of personal items, and simply set up ready for passengers. As expected, there were no vac suits on board, the previous crew had all been wearing theirs, but at least the emergency pressure suits were all present.

Dirk placed a call to a specialist cleaning company who, for a small premium, were able to come in to start clearing and cleaning the ship in the morning. Dirk fixed himself a small supper in the galley, and then settled down in the passenger lounge with the locked box. After twenty minutes, and a trip to the tool box, Dirk had prised open the box to discover a few personal mementos belonging to the previous captain, and an intriguing piece of plastifilm. Dirk could scarcely believe his eyes, he appeared to be the proud new owner of an Imperial Travel Warrant allowing the bearer to travel to Andor and Candory. Dirk didn’t know a great deal about these two systems, but he did know they were inhabited by Droyne and that the Imperial Navy presence in the sub-sector was largely focused on controlling these Red Zones. Authorised travel to these systems was extremely rare, therefore an official travel warrant, must be rather valuable. A thought struck Dirk, the operative point there was ‘official’. He got up and went to the airlock in the boarding corridor. Passing the document under the passport scanner, Dirk was rather surprised when the machine gave a small beep and flashed a green light – the document was authentic !
Dirk went to bed in one of the passenger cabins, trying to figure out what to do with the travel warrant, should he hand it in to the Imperium, or could he somehow profit from it ? The issue remained unresolved when the alarm went off, signalling an early start to what Dirk suspected would be a long and busy day.

Shortly after Dirk had showered, dressed, and breakfasted, the cleaning company arrived. After carefully checking their credentials, Dirk set them to work, starting with the crew quarters before working their way through the rest of the ship. Dirk was immersed with ‘paperwork’ and arranging delivery and loading of the freight, mail, and goods when the comm buzzed. ‘Hello, you’ve reached the Lodestar Pheonix” responded Dirk.
“Hi, Timbur Tollway, reporting for duty” said the image that popped up on Dirk’s screen “is the captain around?”.
“Hello Timbur, I am the captain” replied Dirk as he scanned the vid feed from the airlock. Seeing nothing untoward, he pressed the release to open the lock. “Welcome aboard. I’m on the bridge, but I’ll come down and meet you in the passenger lounge”.
“Aye, Aye, Sir” came the response.

A few minutes later Dirk and Timbur were in the passenger lounge shaking hands. Dirk explained the situation regarding the Lodestar Phoenix, and that the cleaning crew were working through the crew quarters, so it would be a while before Timbur could stow his gear in his cabin. As they were talking, Dirk’s tablet beeped, there was another comm call. This time the face of a young woman stared out of the screen.
“Morning, I’m Ester-Ann Davies reporting for duty. Is the captain on-board ?”. Dirk sighed, this could get repetitive. Hello Ester-Ann, I’m the captain, I’ll just pop down and let you in”. As he was leaving the passenger lounge Dirk said to Timbur “Stow your gear in one of the passenger cabins until the crew quarters are free and I’ll introduce you to our pilot”.

At the lock, Dirk once again looked at the vid feed from outside the ship, checking that Ester-Ann was alone and this was not a set up, before letting her in.
“Welcome aboard Ester-Ann, we met at your interview, I’m Dirk, your captain. Come on up to the passenger lounge and I’ll introduce you to our Engineer.”
“Thank you, Sah ! Glad to be aboard”.
“It’s OK Ester-Ann, this is not a military ship, we don’t need titles, and hopefully we’ll all become friends.”

They headed along to the passenger lounge where Dirk introduced Ester-Ann to Timbur. After a little chit chat, Timbur excused himself and headed off to engineering to review his new realm. Ester-Ann did likewise, stowing her bag in a passenger cabin before Dirk took her to the bridge where she started to review the set up. Dirk headed back to check on the cleaning crews progress, his tablet beeped and Ester-Ann’s face appeared. “Sir, I have the astrogator at the lock.”
“Thanks Ester-Ann, if the coast is clear, let Nizekanuu in and ask him to meet me in the passenger lounge please”.
“Aye Aye, Sir!”.

A few moments later, Dirk was shaking hands with Nizekanuu, a young nobleman who was working his way back to his family’s lands in the Imperium. Dirk was just finishing welcoming Nizekanuu aboard and sending him off to check the astrogation computer and charts when his tablet beeped once more.
“Excuse me,” said Dirk, “I’ll catch up with you on the bridge, later” and turned to his tablet, dismissing the astrogator.
“ Sir, I have a call for you” said Ester-Ann’s voice from the screen.
“Thanks Ester-Ann, who is it our medic or steward ?” asked Dirk.
“Neither Sir, they would not give their name, and they’re on audio only.”
“OK, Thanks Ester-Ann, patch them through and I’ll see what they want.”

“Hello captain, you don’t know me, but I had an agreement with your predecessor.” Said a deep, gruff voice. “ I wondered if you had the document in question, and whether I could still count on that agreement”.
“I am at least aware of the document” replied Dirk, thinking of the Imperial Travel Warrant. “What had you got in mind ?”.
“Meet me in the Drifters Inn in an hour and we’ll talk things through”.
“Fine, who shall I ask for ?”.
“Don’t worry, I’ll find you.” With that, the line clicked dead and Dirk was left to contemplate how to handle this.

Fortunately, the next calls that came in were the final two crew members, Billy Weedin and Damarcus Preston, and some confirmation of cargo delivery times. Dirk went through the welcome routine and also had them stow their kit in a passenger cabin. The “doc” sat in the passenger lounge, reviewing the ships medical supplies and equipment, whilst Dirk pulled Damarcus to one side.
“I’ve got a meeting off ship, and I need someone to cover my back, just in case. Are you up to the job ?” asked Dirk.
“Sure am Sir” replied Damarcus.
“Good. It shouldn’t come to anything, but I want you to go to the Drifters Inn for a cup of coffee, and just keep an eye out to make sure the man I meet hasn’t brought any friends. If he has, give me a nudge on my tablet and get back to the ship.”
“OK boss, should I be armed ?”.
Dirk noted the excitement in the young mans’ voice, but didn’t have too many options. “You can take a stun pistol. But don’t use it unless your life is in danger, clear ?”.
“Sure thing boss”.

A little later, Dirk walked into the Drifters Inn and scanned the patrons. He saw Damarcus, sitting towards the back surreptitiously glancing over the top of his tablet, but neither gave any sign of recognition. He ordered a drink at the bar, and took a seat at the table where he could watch the entrance. He turned at the scrape of a chair, and a man sat down at his table. “Hello Cap’n” said the man. “I’m Dennis Hale, and your predecessor had something for me. Can you help me ?”. Dennis didn’t elaborate on why he wanted the Imperial travel Warrant, and Dirk did not pry.

“Well, that all depends” replied Dirk, “there has been a change of management, and that kinda negates previous arrangements. It seems to me that I have several choices. I know the location of a valuable original document, which by rights should go back to the issuing authority. But then, I’m sure there are several people who would like to own such an original, and would be prepared to handsomely reward an intermediary who could get one. So why don’t you tell me what the arrangement was and I’ll tell you whether I can work with that.”
Dennis gave a long thoughtful look at Dirk, finally, after apparently reaching a decision, he said “OK, that seems fair enough. You don’t look like someone who would mess me around. The arrangement I had was for 60,000 Imp Cr for the original document. I would need to verify the authenticity before I thumbed over any cash though.”
It was Dirk’s turn to pause for thought. “Deal” he said, holding out his hand. Call me tomorrow around noon, and I’ll tell you where to meet me for the exchange”.
“I’m glad we could do business” replied Dennis, shaking Dirk’s hand to seal the transaction.

Dirk returned to the ship, followed a little later by Damarcus. “Well done lad, that went well”.
“Thanks boss, it was fun”.

The cleaning crew had finished with the crew quarters, and so Dirk and the crew moved their belongings into their cabins and unpacked. That evening they gathered for a communal meal in the passenger lounge. Once everyone had arrived and introductions made, Dirk welcomed them all, formally, to the Lodestar Phoenix. He ran through his standing orders, at least one person on duty at all times on port or when passengers where aboard etc., ensured everyone had access to the ships computer and the crew security codes, and explained his ethos for running the Lodestar Phoenix. When he was finished he raised his glass and announced a toast to the Lodestar Phoenix and new beginnings.

The following day, the crew had settled into a routine, the checking over of the ship’s systems and the loading the cargo and freight as it arrived. Dirk once again established Damarcus as backstop for the transaction with Dennis Hale, this time at a venue of his choosing. The call came in and Dirk arranged the meet in the Yellow Hiver. This time Dirk was waiting for Dennis and spotted him, carrying a small case, as he entered the bar. Dennis briefly scanned the faces and made his way over to Dirk. “Are we all set ?” he asked as he sat down. Dirk just nodded.
Dennis placed the case on a chair between them and opened it, placing a debit cube on the table. A small scanner sat in the case. “If you would be so kind ?” asked Dennis, nodding toward the scanner. Dirk discreetly produced the Imperial Travel Warrant and placed it in the scanner. No sound emerged, but a small indicator light blinked green. Dennis’ eyes lit up and a feral grin spread across his face “Now we’re in business” he whispered. “That seems good” he said out loud and picked up the debit cube. Dirk produced his own, purchased that morning, a useful bit of kit he thought. Disposable finance cubes, load them up with currency, and spend away, electronic cash – no need for credit, no need for a bank account, practically untraceable, unless you registered them to an account. Dennis thumbed across 60,000 Imperial Credits and Dirk checked the balance on his own cube, sure enough, the wireless transfer had completed.
“A pleasure doing business with you” Dennis said as he pocketed his cube, the document, and packed away his scanner. A brief hand shake and he was gone. Dirk, collected Damarcus and returned to the ship satisfied with a job well done.

The next couple of days saw the cleaning crew finish, the ship crew sign off on all systems, and the cargo loaded and locked down. Dirk had also used some of his new found wealth to order in some extra supplies, fresh food together with a few cases or nice wine and a case of whiskey. Something to make the Cold Dark a little more comfortable, though the wine was at least in part in case they ever managed to get some High Passage business. He also repaid the 25,000 Cr he had taken from his reserve fund on Karin to buy the current cargo.

Finally everything was ready, the course to Asteltine was laid in, clearance was given from traffic control, and Dirk gave the order to release the station clamps and head out. The transit to the jump point was uneventful, a customs pinnace gave them a fly by, presumably checking the ship against its’ filed flight plan; and a Type M Liner jumped in-system when they were nearing their own jump point. Then came the translation to jump-space and the Lodestar Phoenix secured from Jump stations and settled into a jump space watch system on her maiden voyage.

Dirtside on Iderati

Dirk and Connell met over breakfast as arranged. Dirk found he was really warming to the Freighter Captain as they discussed what needed to be done over the next two weeks.

“From what Francis has said, the court case should take about a fortnight to complete” began Connell. “After that the Henry T will be handed over to Kellogue and Brown Tank Transport, who will need to re-register her. Following that, they will sign the Henry T over to you, and you can lodge the name change and file for a home port. Any competent solicitor here will be able to do that for you. In the meantime we can look for new crew members and you need to think about filling the Lodestar Phoenix’s hold. What position are you going to take Dirk ? I know you were in the Navy, but did you log any bridge time ?”.

“Well, I could figure out how to get us where we want to go, and I can find my way round a turret, but I’m not sure that would sit well with being the owner. So, for starters, I think I’ll just try being Captain/Owner and if I need to get my hands dirty in a turret, I retain that option. If that doesn’t work out, or we can’t find a decent Astrogator, then I’ll rethink my position.”

“That seems fair enough” replied Connell. “I can make a few calls to some personnel agencies and see who is around, and then interview any likely candidates”. “Rather than ship folks up to the Dalrymple’s Dream though, we should hire a small office dirtside to hold the interviews. This hotel would do, but is probably expensive, we could get something closer to the starport at a more reasonable cost. Are you happy for us to conduct the interviews together Dirk ?”

“That would be much appreciated” Dirk replied “That way I can get a second point of view and pick your brains about the quality of the qualifications people hold for the various specialties I need”. “I would also appreciate some pointers on finding a cargo for the Lodestar Phoenix, could you help me out ?”.

“I’d be delighted to, I’ve got to hang around for a while as the legal process takes its’ course and as a the Captain of a Large Freighter I don’t get to play the markets much anymore. It’ll be fun !”.

“Great !” exclaimed Dirk “where do we start ?”

Connell went on to outline the options available to Dirk, and the basic processes for going about securing a freight or mail contract, finding passengers, and speculating on the markets by buying the goods themselves”.

After breakfast, the calls were made. A number of possible candidates for the berths were found, a temporary office at the starport rented, and interviews scheduled over two days in the coming week.

For the rest of the day, Dirk and Connell set up the interviews and looked for cargo. Unfortunately, they could not find a broker who had any cargo available, nor anyone who was looking for passage to Asteltine. However, they were able to find two brokers needing to ship some goods there. Dirk studied Connell closely as he negotiated with the Brokers.
“Not a bad result” said Connell, when they had returned to their hotel for dinner that evening. “We managed to get a nice little premium on each of those freight contracts. Though 30 tons won’t fill your hold. I guess there is not much demand out in the asteroid fields. Still, it leaves plenty of room for your own cargo, if we ever manage to find any. But lack of demand at least meant that there was some mail that needed shipping out there as well.”

“That was an education” replied Dirk, “thanks. I feel much more comfortable about handling this type of negotiation myself now, and I wasn’t looking forward to doing that on Asteltine. The fees should cover the crew and running costs on the next run, so I just need to worry about refuelling.”

The rest of the week passed in a blur of activity, sorting things out for the ship and dodging news crews looking for an interview. During this time Dirk noted that the Delta Wave, a liner from Karin came into port and headed off to Flamarrion – that must be where all the passenger trade went, he thought. All that is apart from that shifty looking chap who wanted to get off planet quite badly. Dirk wasn’t surprised when he saw him a couple of days later in the company of a couple of beefy security personnel. He also had another encounter with pick pocket, but this time managed to catch him in the act. The thief did not get away with any credits, but did manage to elude Dirk and disappear amongst the crowd.

During this time Dirk also joined Connell on the Dalrymple’s Dream on several occasions, discussing easy ways to improve security, which would ironically have prevented Dirk from taking action against the mutineers. Following Dirk’s recommendations, Connell left the crew to get on with implementing them.

The interviews went well, and Dirk managed to find people he thought were ideal for most positions, and people who were certainly competent, if less than ideal, for the rest. Connell also managed to fill his vacancies on the Dalrymple’s Dream. The crew selected for the Lodestar Phoenix were told that they would need to report for duty in approximately one week, and were asked to leave their contact details for Dirk to confirm when they should report for duty.

Dirk spent a lot of time with during this first week on Iderati with Connell, enjoying his company both during the working day and in the evenings, when they would swap space tales. Connell was not available every evening, however, as he went off to oversee matters on the Dalrymple’s Dream. On one such evening, Dirk fell into conversation with a man in naval uniform. He was passing through Iderati to join a new outfit being formed. They had a pleasant conversation on military topics, and the officer’s parting words were for Dirk to get in touch if he ever fancied a return to the sharp end of life in space.

During the second week on Iderati, Dirk attended the preliminary court hearing and the prize hearing, both of which went well. The criminal case would not need anything further from Dirk, his deposition, forensic evidence, and confessions were sufficient to prosecute the case against the mutineers/pirates. With the speedy resolution of the criminal case, the prize hearing was a formality, and very soon Dirk was in a solicitors office with Francis Braun and Connell March, signing over and renaming the Henry T to the Lodestar Phoenix, provisionally registered out of Adabicci.
“Welcome to the Merchant Captain’s Club” announced Connell, standing and shaking Dirk’s hand.
“Congratulations, Captain, and thanks again for your assistance” said Francis, also gripping Dirk’s hand as he made the proclamation.

As soon as he left the solicitors office, several hundred credits lighter for the privelige, Dirk and Connell headed for the Lodestar Phoenix’s berth. On the way, he placed calls with the crew and asked them to report for duty the following day.

Dirk and Connell reached the ship and Dirk took a moment as he crossed the boarding tube and entered his own ship for the first time. A quick once over and after changing of security codes, Dirk and Connell were sat on the bridge with steaming cups of coffee in their hands. The two friends sat in companionable silence, a broad grin stretching across Dirk’s face the entire time.

Dirk and Connell still had much to do, and the Dalrymple’s Dream was now free to depart the system, so time was pressing. They redoubled their efforts to find a cargo for the Lodestar Phoenix, and were rewarded with some possibilities. Most of the cargo available were basic commodities, though some cybernetics and medical supplies were offered for sale. Even if Dirk could have afforded the multi-million credit price tag of these goods, the market in an asteroid field was likely to be minimal. Consequently, Dirk decided to go for basic consumables, the sort of thing that was likely to have a steady demand on Altestane. Consequently, after dipping in to his reserve funds, Dirk purchased 60 tons of basic consumables for 117,000 Cr and had them delivered to the Lodestar Phoenix.

Dirk had gotten used to life in a civilian starport, and spotted a couple of dodgy characters as he was out and about. Each time, an unflinching stare persuaded the curs to seek their fortunes elsewhere. What he was not prepared for though, was the sequence of events that unfurled that week. Over three days, three ships limped into port, all bearing battle damage. Apparently, a significant force of ships attacked Penelope and these ships, already outbound, managed to avoid capture or destruction. There was great speculation in the media as to the nature of the attack. Was it pirates, or conquest ? The conclusion the media drew was that it was a corsair band, and that the most likely escape routes were Gohature/Ralhe/Debarre or Gohature/Ralhe/Asteltine. As Asteltine was on Dirk’s itinerary, he made a mental note to approach with caution.

Finally Dirk had concluded all his business dirtside, and relocated to the Lodestar Phoenix to await his crew and cargo.


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