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.