On a Wing and a Prayer

Searching Steel System

More in hope than expectation, Dirk began scanning the gas giant for possible traces of the missing fuel shuttle. He drew a blank but, undeterred, repeated the exercise on the run into the gas giant. There was nothing to be seen and this remained the situation after a few hours in orbit and some very careful scanning.

Dirk had warned the crew that it may not prove as easy as he hoped, and that it was entirely possible that they would never find the shuttle. Secretly, however, he had expected to find the shuttle in orbit and had to work had not to let his disappointment show. He tackled his dejection with activity and was soon plotting the probable course the shuttle took and scanning the route when the Lodestar Phoenix was underway again, heading in-system for Steel.

Again Dirk’s hopes were dashed as they passed through the asteroid belt and there was still no trace of the fuel shuttle, despite Dirk’s best efforts on the scanner. Though Dirk had tried to remain optimistic throughout, the whole mood of the ship was one of despondency. In some strange way this cheered Dirk up as he realised it meant that the crew were functioning as a team and that they didn’t like being beaten by any challenge they took on. Still, there was no-where on the final leg from the asteroid belt to Steel for the fuel shuttle to hide and so expectations of finding it were low.

And so it proved, there was nothing of significance on the route into Steel. If there had been, Dirk couldn’t see how it could have been missed by anyone approaching Steel in any case. So it should have been found before now. Just to complete the search pattern, Dirk started scanning back along Steel’s orbit to where the fuel shuttle should have rendezvoused with the planet all those weeks ago. Suddenly a blip caught his attention, it was in approximately the right place and of approximately the right size – he’d found it !

Before long, Dirk had issued instructions to the crew to land and await his signal and was off in the ship’s boat to confirm the contact and make a salvage claim. A couple of hours later Dirk was alongside the missing fuel shuttle, and could see no obvious signs of fault. He donned his vac suit and went outside to secure a salvage buoy to the fuel shuttle. At first he couldn’t get the buoy to adhere to the shuttle, but after a bit more effort he succeeded and triggered the buoy into operation. He returned to the ships boat and contacted the Lodestar Phoenix.

By the time Dirk had re-joined the Lodestar Phoenix, the cargo had been off-loaded and was sitting on the spaceport apron under the watchful gaze of Damarcus, who was toting a serious looking rifle and at least looked like he knew how to use it. With the ship’s boat safely clamped on once more, the Lodestar Phoenix lifted off and went to retrieve the fuel shuttle.

Under Timbur’s careful direction, the fuel shuttle was manoeuvred into the hold of the Lodestar Phoenix and secured. The return to Steel was uneventful and once back on the spaceport, the delicate process of removing the fuel shuttle from the hold could begin. There followed much sweating, grunting, and swearing in the employment of many grav pallets and forklifts. Eventually, with most of the Lodestar Phoenix’s paint intact, the fuel shuttle sat on the permacrete, beside the Lodestar Phoenix. Despite their weariness, Dirk had the crew re-load the cargo onto the Lodestar Phoenix straight away, to ensure its’ safety.

The next morning Dirk met Gundarsa Olcan, the head of spaceport services on Steel (and it’s only employee) next to the fuel shuttle. Dirk found that Gundarsa was a technician by trade and either by accident or design was a wizard at keeping running old technology with what appeared to be parcel tape and string. Soon they were both inside the rudimentary cabin of the shuttle with Gundarsa popping access panels to peer inside and interrogating the on-board computers. Eventually she straightened up and turned to Dirk, who had been quietly trying to keep out of her way until she had finished.
“Well, as far as I cn see, the engine failed. Luckly, this was when she was perdy much at rest, expectin’ to be caught by Steel’s gravity and go inter orbit afore landing. With the engine failure, she couldn’t land, and didn’t make orbit, which is why she stayed where yere found her.

“I’ll need to get into the engine to find out what the trouble is, but I should be able to get her running again, if I’m allowed. I’m not sure what yere hoping for mister, but I ain’t got two creds to rub together and so can’t pay any salvage fee, and it’ll probbly take a year or more to get a decision out of the Government on Gram.”

“Just trying to be helpful Ms Olcan, and ensure I can get enough fuel to continue my journey” replied Dirk. “I can imagine what a blow the shuttle loss has been to life on Steel, and you don’t get much traffic to ask for help, so I thought I’d play the good Samaritan”.

“Yere sure you don’t want summat fere yere trubble ?” Gundarsa asked sceptically.

“I’ll tell you what” began Dirk, “Why don’t you join the crew and I on board the Lodestar Phoenix tonight, for dinner. Hopefully that will demonstrate my good faith, and you can enjoy a change of scene from the rather limited dining opportunities here on Steel ?”.

“Sure, see yere around seven local time ?”

“That would be fine, I’ll see you this evening Ms Olcan”.

That evening a pleasant time was had by all, as they swapped tales of space and their exploits. Dirk felt he had found a friend in Gundarsa and hoped she felt the same way. The following morning Gundarsa came over to sort out the re-fuelling lines and Dirk joined her outside the ship.

“Well Dirk, I can’t pay you salvage, but I can fill yere tanks fere free. So alls I cn say is thank yere again, and if yere ever back this way agin, call in tere see me wontcha ?”

“Thanks for the fuel Gundarsa, but it was not necessary, welcome, but not necessary. If I pass this way again I’ll be sure to look you up. By the same token, if you ever get tired of life in the wilderness, look me up, there’s a place for you in my little fleet anytime, if you want it.”

With that, they went about their respective jobs, and within a couple of hours the Lodestar Phoenix was ready to lift off. Lift off and travel to the jump point were uneventful and easy, with no other traffic being in system. Soon Dirk was sounding jump stations and, casting one last look back at Steel on the rear vid plate, translating to jump space en-route to Olympia.

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Passage to Caladbolg

After the trials and travails of the desert, the run to Caladbolg was mercifully uneventful. Being a little out of the way, there was no traffic in the Enos system to worry about, and arriving at Caladbolg meant a return to civilised traffic control. Therefore the run in was routine, just following the assigned approach lane and touchdown, nice and simple.

Once the formalities were sorted with the authorities, Dirk started to scan the market data for deals on his cargo. He spent the whole day in his cabin hooked into the local net, looking for brokers and comparing prices, only surfacing for lunch.

By the evening, however, Dirk was satisfied that he had identified the best deals he could. Consequently he made arrangements to sell all the goods on the ship, and make delivery. Over the next few days Dirk handled the delivery of the goods, their payments and the forwarding of the relevant taxes to the various authorities. He rounded up Ms Etye’s share from the sale of Arlana’s ores to the nearest thousand credits and paid a visit to her hotel to transfer the funds.

Dirk had relatively little downtime, and only managed a couple of evenings off ship to relax in a starport bar. He had been looking at his next port of call, Steel, and bemoaning the fact that Steel was pretty much uninhabited, and therefore had no trade to speak of. His companions for the evening agreed that Steel was best ignored. He found out that Steel was populated primarily by a small team providing refuelling services and support for the surveying work underway. Steel’s mineral wealth was to be exploited in conjunction with Imperial interests. One snippet of information that Dirk filed away for future consideration was that the automated fuel shuttle which gathered fuel from the local gas giant had gone missing, pushing fuel prices up as the supply became restricted and the extraction costs rose.

With Steel offering so little in the way of trade opportunities, Dirk decided to simply refuel at Steel without trading, and to carry cargo geared for Olympia’s markets instead. So after another intensive day at the computer, Dirk had secured a contract to deliver some freight to Olympia (with a suitable uplift on the standard fee in consideration of the unproductive stop at Steel), and determined that no passengers were looking to travel to either Steel or Caladbolg. He had also arranged to buy 60 tons of pipes and 15 tons of clothing with the ships funds and 60 tons of engine components with his own money. Dirk sat back and smiled to himself, for the first time since the Lodestar Phoenix had risen, she had nearly a full hold.

Over the next few days, the cargo was delivered, checked, and secured in the hold of the Lodestar Phoenix. Before long, the ship was lifting off and plotting a course for Steel, under the watchful eye of traffic control. Soon the Lodestar Phoenix was exchanging pleasantries and hazard information with an inbound Free Trader before making jump.

Once safely in the routine of jump travel, Dirk raised a topic he had been mulling over, one evening during dinner.
“I heard an interesting thing back on Caladbolg. The automated fuel shuttle that runs between Steel downport and the system gas giant has gone missing and Steel does not have enough resources to investigate. Now, I’ve done a bit of research, and I reckon the shuttle type most likely used by Steel has a tendency to engine failure – probably as a result of occasionally having to make use of the un-refined fuel it has collected. Therefore, it may well be still in orbit around the gas giant. It could of course have fallen into gas giant, or have been lost somewhere en-route. However, I think there is a good chance it is still in orbit, and if we can recover it, there are bound to be some brownie points in it for us. What do you think, are our instruments up to the job and could we recover the shuttle if we do find it ?”.

Timbur looked thoughtful. “I guess we could ferry it from the gas giant to Steel, but with our cargo hold so full we can’t stow her inside. We should be able to lash her to the bottom of the hull, but we couldn’t enter the atmosphere like that” he said after a while.

Nizekanuu spoke next “We don’t have particularly powerful scanners but, give or take atmospheric storms, we should be able to identify any anomalies and then use the ships boat to take a closer look and resolve them further”.

A general discussion ensued regarding the possibility and practicalities of finding and retrieving the missing shuttle. When the group broke up for the night, it had been agreed to try and recover the shuttle.

A few days later, when the Lodestar Phoenix emerged from jump in the Steel system, what preperations could be made had been made. Timbur had worked out the best way to secure the shuttle to the ship, and gathered the necessary gear together, Nizekanuu had run diagnostics on the ships sensors to ensure they were in tip top condition, and gone over the ships boat’s sensors to see what could be done to improve them.

Traffic control at Steel was of the basic variety, a couple of marker bouys and some old traffic news. It would not cause any problems to approach via the systems gas giant, in fact it would not even be noticed. Consequently, once Nizekanuu had completed a sweep of the area and ascertained the system was empty, he laid in a course for the gas giant.

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Looking for Cargo
A few days later, Dirk was doing the rounds of the spaceport, finalising delivery arrangements for the 10 tons of Nickel he had found at a reasonable price and looking for more deals, when he found himself outside Jericorp’s office. He decided to call in and say Hi to Arlana. She was in and invited Dirk into her office for a cup of coffee and a chat.

When they were both seated, with steaming mugs of coffee in their hands, Arlana began.
“Well, things have moved on very nicely back in the Chargas canyon. We managed to get crews together for the other crawlers, properly vetted of course, and I sent one off to mine the radioactives that we found before our little adventure. That is coming on nicely, and we should have the results back here in the next couple of days. The other two crawlers were searching Chargas canyon for the mineral deposit the Dakaar were after, with the help of Salthar Eneshi……and we’ve found it ! The Duneraiders have known about these shining rocks for centuries, and were able to show us where they were. There is a huge seam of iridium and platinum exposed in a small side valley. We’ve negotiated with Salthar Eneshi over extraction rights because, although we have a permit from the planetary authorities, the Dunerainders still contest this, and it makes it easier. We have agreed to help them with some wells, solar stills, and the like in return for their permission and help – they will provide guards and keep other tribes and off worlders away from our operation“.

Dirk managed to close his mouth and responded
“That’s fantastic news, congratulations. Can you process things in time to meet your financial obligations ?”.

“Yes, in fact, the first load came in this morning. Which brings me onto thank you’s. My father and I are really grateful for all your help, what with the attack on our new crawler, the bomb at our depot, and keeping Ms Etye safe during that business in the desert. I’m also aware the trauma that Ms Etye suffered, and glad for both our sakes we are not having to deal with some horrendous publicity about the death of a favourite Holo star. Therefore, I’ve arranged a little thank you gift. Ten tons of Iridium and 10 tons of Platinum from our first load will be delivered to the Lodestar Phoenix this afternoon. One ton of each is for Ms Etye as bonus or compensation, call it what you will. The rest is for you, so please take it with my father and my very great thanks”.

Dirk had to retrieve his chin from the floor once more.
“Thank you very much, unexpected, and not necessary, but very grateful received” Dirk managed to stammer.

A short while later, a still beaming Dirk was sat in a coffee shop using his hand comp to review the trades he’d found earlier. Mmmm he thought, I really want to take advantage of the price here for crystals, Petrochemicals, and Nickel, but funds won’t go that far. Mind you, his internal dialogue continued, the way today’s luck has been going, I could get a short term loan to cover the shortfall.

Back on the Lodestar Phoenix that evening, Dirk reflected on a job well done, he had managed to persuade Kellogue and Brown, the bulk haulers for whom Connel March worked and who had a local office to manage their substantial traffic in Enos ores, to grant him a short term loan of 100,000 Cr to buy Enos Spices. This should sell well enough in Cadalbog and enable Dirk to easily repay the loan and 10% interest. He also invested his own money in some Petrochemicals, and the ship bought some graphite and Nickel. Not a full hold, but definitely one that should turn a tidy profit in Cadalbolg.

Dirk had also talked to Ms Etye about Arlana’s gift, and their arrangements for the coming voyage. Dirk was in a good mood and told Ms Etye that he would not accept a fee for his bodyguard duties, nor would he accept payment for her high passage trip to Cadalbog. The rest of the evening passed pleasantly, with many a toast drunk to their good fortune and mutual acquantancies.

The following morning, with a sore head, Dirk oversaw the loading of the Lodestar Phoenix and ensured that final preperations for departure were made, they would be lifting off in the morning.

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Reclaiming Chargras Canyon

Dirk, Arlana, the Captain join Salthar Eneshi and some of his lieutenants to discuss a plan for getting rid of Drakkaar from Chagras Canyon. Salthar Eneshi tells them that his Duneraiders have been keeping a discreet eye on the off worlders activates and says that they are in the habit of coming together once per month. There is some sort of conference between the three Captains, but it mainly appears an excuse for a spot of downtime. They usually laager the crawlers, and in the enclosed space have a big bonfire, roast a Serik, sing, dance, and generally eat, drink, and make merry. The Salthar goes on to say that whilst they do post a couple of guards, many of them leave their posts to join the party for a while, or sit in place nursing a bottle of liquor.

A plan of attack was agreed, and the allies sat back to await the next Draakaar party. During this time Ms Etye seemed to be enjoying herself, rather than fretting about getting back to civilisation, and so Dirk was freed somewhat from his concern for her. She was enjoying the attention and, Dirk was sure, storing up anecdotes upon which she could dine out for quite a while. This enforced delay also allowed Dirk, Arlana, and the Captain, with one of Salthar Eneshi’s lieutenants as a guide, to recce the usual campsite used by the Draakaar crawlers. The site was in a small bowl, at the edge of the main canyon where, originally, a small side valley joined the main canyon. Whilst this suited the partygoers by shielding the campfire from distant travellers, it would provide good vantage points for the Duneraiders, and enable them to bottle them up in the bowl through firepower. Dirk and the others returned to their own camp to brief the team.

Before long, Salthar Eneshi informed them that the Crawlers were making their way back to their accustomed spot. Smoothly, everyone swung into action. Three Duneraider warriors set off into the desert to order the three warbands, each commanded by one of Salthar Eneshi’s senior lieutenants, into position, while the Salthar accompanied Dirk, Arlana, the Captain and their own guards and a handful of Duneraider warriors to the site, in the air rafts. The next night saw Dirk, Arlana, and the Captain hidden in the small side valley, while two of the three Duneraider warbands lined the lip of the bowl, overlooking the campsite and it’s revellers. The third Duneraider warband had was quietly approaching from the wide canyon floor, acting as the cork to the bowl campsite’s bottle.

The night wore on, and gradually the raucous sounds of celebration emanating from the Draakaar Minerals party, faded. Dirk caught the eye of both Arlana and the Captain, and nodded. Off they went, creeping up as quietly as possible to the laagered crawlers. The position of the sentries had been noted earlier, and whilst they had mostly fallen asleep or were insensible through drink, Dirk and the others were careful to skirt round them. Without event, they each made it to their respective crawlers and gained entry, locking the hatches behind them. Arlana and the Captain were quickly able to ascertain that no one else was on board and locked all points of entry before ascending to the laser turrets in their crawlers. Dirk on the other hand was delayed slightly by a coming across a crew member retrieving a case of beer from a store room. Fortunately, he was engrossed in his task and with his back to Dirk. Therefore Dirk was able to push him into the store room and lock the hatch after him, making an impromptu prison cell. Slightly behind schedule, Dirk was able to check the rest of the ship, lock all external hatches and man his laser turret, giving a wave to Arlana and the Captain whom he could see in the turrets of the other crawlers.

Now that everyone was in place, Arlana gave the signal and three of them powered up the turrets and trained them on the Draakaar crews. Amid the drunken confusion, Arlana’s voice boomed over the external speakers.

“Jericorp Mining has now taken control of these crawlers and you are surrounded and under arrest. Slowly put your weapons on the floor and move to the fire and lay face down. If you comply, no one will get hurt”.

There was a great deal of confusion, some of the Draakaar men strove to comply, others drew their weapons and dived for perceived cover, whilst most stared around in confusion, standing up or remaining slumped according to their state of inebriation.

“Not a good move” boomed Arlana’s voice over the external speakers. “Look up”.

As she said this, the Duneraider warriors on the lip of the bowl raised their firearms above their head, making them visible from below.

“Now look out into the canyon” came Arlana’s voice again.

The Duneraider warriors out on the canyon floor fired their weapons into the air, producing an impressive display of noise and smoke.

Arlana’s voice came again “I say again, lay down your arms, and lie on the floor next to the fire and you won’t be harmed. Surrender to my men, and I’ll take you back to Nomaya and give you a fair trial. Resist in any way, shape, or form, and I’ll leave you with the Duneraiders”.

Slowly, but with increasing haste, the Draakaar crews complied with Arlana’s instructions. Once Arlana deemed that it was safe enough, she signalled her guards to come down in the airrafts and take charge of the Draakaar men. Soon they were all locked in various compartments in the crawlers, having been thoroughly searched. Salthar Eneshi, brought his warriors in, and they celebrated their victory.

The next day, the airrafts collected the Jericorp crew who checked over the three crawlers. Ms Etye also arrived, and she and Dirk took their leave of the Captain and Salthar Eneshi. Arlana supervised the loading of the prisoners onto the airrafts from all the crawlers, and took them along with Dirk and Ms Etye back to Nomaya.

Back in Nomaya, Dirk and Ms Etye said a brief goodbye to Arlana, who had her hands full organising the local security guards and the transfer of prisoners into their custody. Soon Dirk and Ms Etye were back on board the Lodestar Phoenix, having cleaned themselves up, changed into clean clothes, and sat down to a welcome meal, while they told the rest of the crew about their adventures.

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Aftermath

With the apparent end of resistance, Dirk ordered the remaining guards to sweep the area of the ambush, looking for more attackers, both wounded and unwounded, booby traps, a camp, or anything else Duneraider related. Whilst the crawler crew were tasked with supplying first aid to the wounded, guards and crawler crew first, Duneraiders second. Dirk also had them all gathered together in the area chosen to make camp. They had been lucky, no-one had died, a few nasty wounds, but nothing life threatening – as yet. But if things were tough normally, the desert would be even more unforgiving to the injured. Dirk ensured that all the Duneraiders were tied up, and set a guard on them and a watch, in case they had friends out there. Arlana got a fire going, and once the surviving water container was brought up, started to brew tea for everyone.

Suddenly, the harsh cry of a Serik, one of the herbivores native to Enos, broke the stillness. Dirk’s head snapped up. From the survival briefing, he knew that Serik’s were diurnal, so one should not be screeching in the middle of the night. Glancing towards the sentry, Dirk saw him point Eastwards. Carefully climbing a boulder, Dirk glanced in the direction indicated. He could see nothing, though he imagined he could hear the soft rustle of feet upon sand. He glanced down at a quizzical Captain and shrugged. The Captain bent down and took something from one of the Duneraiders “try these” he whispered, handing Dirk a pair of Infra Red Goggles. Dirk, put them on and looked again. This time he could see a dozen or more shapes moving towards them. There was a small knot of them in the centre of the overall group, which did not appear to be making undue use of cover. So, not adopting a particularly military or aggressive stance thought Dirk.

Dirk quietly called for Arlana to obtain a pair of IR goggles and join him up on the rock. Once she had done so, he indicated the approaching shapes and whispered
“Company ! I’m guessing more Duneraiders, though they don’t seem to be forming up for an attack. They may not know our exact location, but given the recent commotion, they sure as hell know someone’s out here. Can you ask them to halt and state their business ? If you can imply that there are many of us and we have them covered, that may prove useful”.

“Sure” Arlana replied “leave it to me”. In the local language, she called out
“Stay where you are ! Who are you and why are you sneaking up on good sons of the desert as if to steal their water, like the wind over the oasis ?”

The figures stopped and a voice replied in the local language. Arlana whispered a translation to Dirk.
“He says he’s Salthar – that’s like a war leader – Eneshi and he’s come to find out who is trespassing on his tribes lands and engaging in warfare. He goes on, if we are really good sons of the desert and not thieves in the night, we will welcome him onto our camp and offer Hagashi – that is traditional Duneraider hospitality – so that this matter can be peacefully resolved”.

A hurried, whispered, conference was held between the Captain, Arlana, and Dirk. They concluded that as the approach had not been aggressive and that the crawler crew and guards were in no shape for another fight, the best course of action would be to parley with these Duneraiders and perhaps buy their help to escape the desert. Then Arlana called out in the local language
“We are truly good sons of the desert and have nothing to hide, so please come in peace and share our water”. Turning back to Dirk and the Captain she went on in Galanguic.
“I’ve asked them to join us, using the traditional phrases which invoke water hospitality. Things should be okay as long no one seriously insults them, but it is quite acceptable to have your weapons to hand. I suggest the guards take up positions at the edge of the group, and keep their weapons handy and their eyes peeled.”

The shapes quickly resolved themselves into humanoid figures as they approached, and then the individual Duneraiders could be made out. Salthar Eneshi bowed to Arlana, as she welcomed him and his men into the camp and introduced the Captain and Dirk. Salthar Eneshi bowed to each on turn. Arlana then invited him to sit by the camp fire, and asked if he would share their water, motioning to one of the crew to bring up the remaining water container and a bowl. Once it was filled, Arlana took a sip and then passed it on to the Salthar. It then went round the Salthar’s inner circle and back to the Captain and Dirk. The crew then offered water to the other Duneraiders.

Arlana told the Salthar about the sabotage of the crawler, the trek that night, and the encounter with the hostile Duneraiders. Salthar Eneshi asked to see the captives, and the four of them moved over to where the captives were being guarded. The Salthar spoke to the captives, and just got blank, sullen looks in reply. He then reached down and pulled open the robe at the neck of one of the captives. He grunted and spoke to Arlana, who looked shocked, and bent down to see for herself.

“He says these are not Duneraiders, but off worlders” announced Arlana “look at their clothes, they are wearing off-world clothes under their robes”.

They returned to sit by the fire, and as dawn was breaking, the Captain had one of the crew organise some of their rations, to share with the Salthar. As they were eating, Salthar Eneshi spoke to Arlana. He then raised his hand and loudly called out to his men. Meanwhile Arlana turned to the Captain and Dirk, to fill them in on what had been said.

“He says that his tribe is one of the more settled ones and they spend their time mainly in and around the Chargras Canyon, the oasis at its’ mouth in particular. For some months now, off-worlders have been wandering around the Canyon near a wrecked crawler, and trying to force the Duneraiders off their ancestral lands. These Chkrit’s are dressed the same as the others, the Duneraider robes are just a disguise. From his description of the markings on the crawler, it sounds like one of ours that was lost more than six months ago”.

At this point two Duneraiders walked up to them, half carrying, half dragging a figure between them. The Salthar carried on talking to Arlana, gesturing at the new prisoner. Arlana translated for the Captain and Dirk again

“This is another of the ambushers, Salthar Eneshi’s warband captured him half a klick east of here, trying to escape in an air raft. He is inviting us to join in his interrogation”.

At the sight of the stooped and bound figure, Ranold Halfeson let out a small cry. Salthar Eneshi rounded on him in an instant, jabbering away in the local language. Arlana translated once more

“He’s calling you a traitor and saying that you’re in league with this man. He wants our permission for you to join in the interrogation, and you won’t be asking the questions. What have you got to say for yourself Ranold, how do you know this man ?”.

Halfeson’s face had gone white, and he kept throwing nervous glances towards the Duneraider Warlord.

“If I tells ya wot I know, will ya keep us away from these savages ? he asks.

Thinking it through quickly, Arlana nods and replies

“As long as you can convince me you’re telling the truth, then I’ll extend my claim for vengeance over the two of you. But let’s be clear, all that means is that you’ll be prosecuted when we get back to the starport”.

“Sure I unnerstand ya, I just heard what them savages do to their prisoners, ‘specially the off-world ones. An’ I don’t want no sun baked savage carving me up and feeding me ter what passes fer scorpions round here”.

Arlana spoke to the Salthar and the conversation became quite heated. Eventually, however, they seemed to reach agreement and the Salthar called to his men who then brought the other prisoner over and shoved him down next to Halfeson.

“OK, tell me what you know, and make it convincing” Arlana said.

“Well, this is ma bruvver, Donald, and we woz ‘ired by Drakkar minerals to cause a bit o’mischief. I joined ya crew and woz to stop ya making enough money to pay ya lease. After we found them radioactives, they would a sold fer a pretty penny, sose ya coulda made the payment. I ad a crate in the hold, which contained a bomb, I sets this off and the engine goes kaput – no more radioactives. I also fries the electrics in one o’ the airrafts. I was plannin to leave with the other airraft, but it were broken, so I ad to stay put. Donald ere, was on the crawler team, searching for summat.”

“And what is your part in all this Donald ?” asked Arlana.

“Well I was working on one o’ the crawlers out in Chagradas Canyon. We was looking for summat, minerals I ‘spose, coz we ad a crawler. Well, we met up with the other two crawlers at the wreck site, that was ya crawler miss, and then we runs search patterns along the canyon. We gets a call that ya crawler was wrecked a couple of days ago and that ya woz organised and heading out on foot. So, the boss rounded a few of us up and came out here to set an ambush. Ya knows how that went” he said miserably.

Arlana explained what had been learnt to the Salthar, resulting in a short discussion.

Turning back to Donald, she said

“The Salthar says you have been harassing his tribe, killing livestock and attacking people. Is this true ?”

Donald looked uncomfortable

“Ya miss, Drakkar wanted the Duneraiders out of the way so they could keep whatever it is their searching for to themselves”.

Arlana held a further conversation with the Salthar, then drew the Captain and Dirk aside.

“Salthar Eneshi says he will help us, he is willing to guide us to his oasis encampment, provide care for our sick and injured, and then let us take the airrafts back to the starport with Ronald and Donald. In return, he claims the rest of the ambushers, and invokes the responsibilities of hospitality, saying that his enemy is our enemy. What he wants is our help in driving the rest of the Drakkar men out of the Canyon. To be honest, I’m keen to know what has gotten Drakkar so fired up, and why they are prepared to steal our lease. Are you in ?”

“As long as I can keep Ms Etye safely out of the way, then I’ll help” replied Dirk.

“Good, now I’ll see what the rest of the crew think” and Arlana turned to call her crew into a huddle. Dennecheck was nowhere to be seen. The crew split up to search for him while Arlana explains what is going on to the Salthar.

A short while later, the crew have regathered, having found Dennecheck wandering around beyond the firelight.
“Geez, can’t a guy have a whizz in peace nowadays ?” he exclaimed ruefully.
There were murmurs of apologies from the crew members, but several questioning glances, if Dirk was any judge.

There was a further conference between Arlana and Salthar Eneshi, which culminated in what appeared to be more formal language, and a clasping of forearms. The agreement was reached, presumably.

The Duneraiders then led them to the site where the air rafts had been parked, and rigged some kind of netting between them and some boulders. It did not look much, but provided a surprisingly adequate shade from the sun. The heat of the day, therefore, was mainly passed in sleep, idle conversation, or maintenance of clothing and equipment. A couple of the Crawler crew did spend time going over the air rafts to see if they were serviceable and could be started. Much to everyone’s relief, they were pronounced as functioning. Both the Duneraiders and the Arlana’s team maintained a watch, partly on the desert, and partly on their new found allies. Once night was beginning to fall again, the Duneraiders brewed some tea which they shared all around, and brought out some kind of Jerky, which they also offered to all. Most declined, pulling out their own rat bars instead. Once the meal was complete and the netting packed away a long, Arlana, Dirk, Ms Etye, and the more injured crew boarded the air rafts with Salthar Eneshi and his guard. The Captain had been asked to come along as well, but declined, preferring to stay with his crew.

It was not long, therefore, before Dirk found himself in the Duneraider settlement. The rest of the party arrived several hours later, looking hot and tired. The prisoners were herded into a solid looking building and locked in, the rest were offered the use of another building, pretty basic, but quite comfortable after the past few nights hardships. Ms Etye was invited to join the Duneraider women in their house, and from which men were excluded, and she accepted gratefully, hoping for a few more creature comforts.
Once people were settled into their new quarters and somewhat refreshed, Dirk joined Arlana, the Captain, Salthar Eneshi and a couple of his lieutenants for a council of war.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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