After an hour or so, they are met by a cylindrical, streamlined, 600t patrol cruiser. They exchange hails. The Anastasia is refused permission to refuel and is told in no uncertain terms to follow the escort closely into the mainworld at 3G. They land at the class C starport at 05:33. There are a lot of military ships in this system (no surprise).
Chiang Ho has been studying TDS Combat. He gets 2 AT's and wounded in the process. This time he was beat up pretty bad, bouncing off a few walls during high-G practice.
The specifications that Scorpionis gathered on the visitor ships are considered carefully. One of the first targets of the visitors on entering the Dulu system was to try to gain control of the Secondary gas giant.
(At Mich's insistence, the Computer Operator has rigged up a means of eliminating all manuals and texts about the jump drive in case the ship is captured.)
Sir Bridgehead's secret experiments are coming on, but he cannot get the memory transfer to work. It's as if he is missing some important concept...
Jusk is almost tidally locked to the gas giant it orbits (on a 6-day orbit), and the average temperature is 38, ranging between 37 and 41 depending on the position of the three suns in the system.
When the Anastasia lands at 5:30, they are met by an honor guard and a flashy tasteless grav limo. The Captain, Fostriades, Helen, Joe, and Sir Bridgehead go to meet the "higher powers." (Chiang Ho would go, but he is a little indisposed as a result of training.) Sir Bridgehead likes the limo and the immaculate matched guards in their matched uniforms.
They are taken to an executive landing port, through a security station airlock, and land in an indoor garden where there is another full honor guard here to meet them. They proceed into a luxury lounge full of plants, where there are two people plus inconspicuous eager waiters. The Captain suggests the crew should have only one drink each.
One of the people is in full dress Admiral's uniform which is rather overdone, even by Sir Bridgehead's standards. The other person is in T-shirt and jeans. The Navy man introduces himself as Admiral Lhule, Commander-in-Chief of the TradeMain Forces, and the other man as William Rufus. The crew start questioning them in polite conversation.
The Admiral says that his forces are making a defensive stand here at Jusk. Admiral Therrikka (the second-in-charge) has secured the Federu system with the elite Scorpiu-fleet. When pressed, they admit that they don't know anything new to help the Anastasia in her mission. Rufus keeps wanting to run an exploratory mission, but the Admiral feels that they are better off fighting a defensive action as brought them victory at Dulu. The Scorpionis fleets are "a little lacking in the brain department," Admiral Lhule says.
The Captain says they want to hire some marines. Rufus says he knows five girls who are more eager for battle than the Navy chaps and are looking to find some way into the action. They were indeed involved in the battle at Dulu, which is one of the Captain's requirements.
Sir Bridgehead asks how the integration of Corona and Scorpionis is proceeding. Apparently it is going quite well, according to Admiral Lhule: Corona has the economy, Scorpionis has the Navy. There was a big shake-up in the command structure, except for Admiral Cartha. There have been training exercises to improve from some of the disasters of the campaign.
Sir Bridgehead wants some examples of disasters, and the Admiral points to giving up all those systems without a fight -- does that count? Tactically there is not so much of a problem. It's fairly clear that there really was a serious victory won at Dulu.
Sir Bridgehead continues his questioning. Yes, some of the visitor ships did have trouble locking sensors on to Scorpionis ships. No, he won't give up military secrets of TradeMain ships; Sir "CNN" Bridgehead is not discouraged. They don't know whether Staru is enemy territory or not. They don't know much about the unmarked fleet at Lorkin since Rufus went through; Lorkin is an independent planet with full diplomatic relations maintained with the TradeMain Foundation. Lorkin's independence was brought up by the Scorpionis negotiators when Corona insisted that Stevvin be independent, so apparently they had some interest in the system that the TradeMain Foundation have not yet worked out.
There is still no evidence of visitor technology higher than Jump-2. Even the Scorpionis ships are Jump-2: you can't put Jump-3 on a warship and still make it a warship, according to the Admiral. The last they knew about Staru was that one fleet from Dulu came through Darthlaru and Federu and ended up here under Admiral Cartha, the other jumped to Staru and they have never heard of it since. That is the second fleet to go to Staru and vanish, as one went there from Scorpiu earlier. They have (of course!) sent no ships to investigate since.
It is William's prerogative to direct the Anastasia's mission. Rufus declines the offer to come with them, as "old Yethtot here" turned him down when he offered earlier, and now he's acting as a liner for Admirals. The Anastasia's mission will be to find out anything they can from the system. Sir Bridgehead tries to be more specific, so Rufus elaborates. What they know from Dulu is that the visitors' first objective was the gas giant around the Secondary star, and a lot of fighting went on there. Now Staru also has a secondary with a gas giant... So they should get in there, hang around and see where they can pick up any radio transmissions and so on, and try to get indications of what's going on.
Sir Bridgehead asks if there's anyone locally who's a really hot sensor operator, and Rufus says he is, if Yethtot would let him go -- but the Anastasia is considered expendable, probably. The Admiral considers the expectations of them returning from the mission to be classified information. Sir Bridgehead tells him he is going to be surprised. "Very little surprises me, little man," he retorts. Sir Bridgehead takes this personally, and insults the Admiral's manhood, but is calmed by Fostriades and the Captain.
So, they are to go into the system, do a scan, and try to make some sense of what they pick up ... but they MUST come back and not get involved in combat, and should therefore jump out if anything gets too close to them. Based on information from that, their next mission will be worked out when ... if ... they get back.
Everyone agrees that the Scorpionis principle of complete information or no information is not in favor any more. Admiral Cartha is still in command of his fleet, but that's because of his performance at Dulu ... Admiral Cartha "The Butcher" as they call him (he apparently is proud of the name).
William Rufus politely declines an invitation to a party right now, but instead thinks they should leave right away, as soon as they've called the marines -- the leader is called Vana, and Sir Bridgehead is given her phone number. Vana is from Staru, by the way. Sir Bridgehead wonders if she turns letters. Rufus doesn't understand. Sir Bridgehead has had too many free drinks.
Sir Bridgehead wonders about the wisdom of taking Scorpionis people on board, but Rufus says that though their strategy stinks, their tactics are not too bad and they're certainly not lacking in courage.
Meanwhile, back at the ship... There are many guards at the starport. Chiang Ho takes a walk around the ship, watched carefully by the guards. The Anastasia will be refueled free, as they don't have the paperwork to charge one ship, and don't really care how much the Navy's supplies cost anyway. The ship is also reprovisioned completely.
Chiang Ho calls the Captain, because he wants authorization for refined fuel. The Captain asks the Admiral, and he says to tell them that Yethtot Lhule authorizes it, and not to mess anything up or they'll have to answer to him. Refined refueling proceeds, and Mich's monitoring confirms its quality.
The crew return to the ship, with full honor guard again. The armed guards around the ship line up nicely when they arrive. Sir Bridgehead points out that the Captain should be taking notes on how to treat a Grand Admiral, but the Captain thinks he has ideas on that subject already. Mich agrees.
Back on board, Sir Bridgehead calls Vana. It is agreed that the Boss and Brock (their own "marine") should be in on the call, too.
"Hi! Jerry's bar, can I help you? Hey Vana, it's for you!"
"Hi, Vana! This is Grand Admiral Sir Bridgehead..."
Vana is not impressed. Her language conveys this graphically. When he finally says he's heading for Staru, she warms up and says she's got five marines. Sir Bridgehead keeps asking stupid annoying questions ("Do these five have knowledge about Staru? Are you one of these marines?", and gets the responses he deserves ("I'm from there, dumbchuck! What the...??"), until Chiang Ho patches the Captain into the conversation. The Captain invites them to the ship, and after a couple of questions (do they have battledress experience? Will they get a chance to kill some of these guys?) they agree.
About 15 minutes later a groundcar arrives outside and disgorges five women with various and sundry pieces of equipment. Chiang Ho meets them, and Vana asks to see not the idiot who thinks he's an Admiral, but the other guy. The Captain directs them to the Boss, who meets them (with Achilles) in the mess. The crew members present are introduced. The Boss says they are looking to acquire information, but Vana's ideas of information seem to be more along the lines of number of enemy killed. After a few drinks she relaxes a bit. The brew is brought out, and the Boss in particular studies the marines hard under the influence. Chiang Ho tells Helen that he is in no condition to pilot.
The deal will be room and board, use of equipment on the ship, and they will be under the command of the ship's officers (except, of course, the Grand Admiral). They will examine the ship's equipment before they agree, and the Boss in return asks for a run-down on their experience.
They served on a Strike Cruiser in the Faranu-fleet, which was the first one to engage the enemy at Dulu. They "had the shit kicked out of them" (what a colorful lady!) and were one of the few surviving ships. They did board an enemy ship at one point but were beaten back hard and quickly. The enemy have two arms, two legs, work their ships under high-G grav plates (1.5G?) and have bright white-UV lighting.
They are escorted to the marine stores and approve of the equipment. Some of them have brought on board weapons that really require battledress to use effectively, and fortunately they are compatible with the Imperial equipment.
They go back to Chiang Ho's lounge to relax and introduce themselves. The leader of the marines is Infantry Captain Stravanara "Vana" Lebuva (age 34, home planet Staru, a.k.a. That Bitch), the others are Commando Captain Edvardain "Varda" Doskova (34, "swears like a marine"), Infantry Leading Sergeant Anteristan "Teri" Cralla (30), Infantry Sergeant Carathia "Kara" Tostana (26, Sting), and Commando Lance Sergeant Baliaran "Lia" Gerratta (30, Coruska, one of the most decorated (and least promoted) marines in the force -- 4 SEH, among other stuff).
They describe what happened at Dulu. The visitors came out of jump a long way out of the system, and drifted while powered way down. The Faranu-fleet was defending the gas giant of the Secondary, and when the enemy started powering up in close the battle started. The Faranu-fleet suffered badly, and there were a lot of civilian casualties -- visitor ships which disengaged from the naval battle would bombard planets.
(All their gear is on board, so they go ahead and take off while they are still talking in Chiang Ho's lounge. Linus takes a sip of brew, looks round, and leaves. The ship takes off at 12:00 and is allowed to proceed to jump without escort.)
The enemy's attack on civilians was the result of bombarding anything that gave out any sort of emissions. Basically they made a big effort to secure the Secondary and its gas giant as a base, and they sort of succeeded for a while before the other three fleets could rally to the assistance of the remnants of the Faranu-fleet. After the Secondary was regained, an analysis was made of where the visitors had come out of jump, and fleets were stationed there to intercept as they came out. It seems like when they come out of jump, it takes a while before they start shooting ... that's not on the official records, but that's what they say. The remainder of the battle was fought out at jump-point, except for some mopping up in-system.
They don't know what happened at Staru, but something must be going on because the fleet that jumped in there was pretty strong. They reckon it could have been possible that the enemy had slipped through to Staru, and (when asked) maybe even to here? Nobody was defending anything until William Rufus convinced the government that there was a need, so things could have been going on for months, or years even.
It is agreed that Engineering and the Bridge are off-limits to the marines. The Engineers may take them into Engineering -- after all, Mich takes Paula in there rather frequently right now.
They work out how to approach Staru based on the layout of the system. The Primary is a yellow star (spectral class G0 VI); P0 is very hot, and not really of interest; P1 is a gas giant, with three satellites which are all very hot; P2 is a gas giant, with five satellites, of which the first, called Korokal, is habitable with a colony (-19 degrees), the second has a thin atmosphere and is not populated, and the third is Staru itself (temp 1, agricultural), and the other two satellites are not inhabited and lack atmosphere; P3 is a gas giant, with nine satellites, none of which are inhabited, but two are habitable but cold (the fourth and seventh) with breathable atmospheres; P4 is a gas giant with no satellites; the Secondary is in orbit 11, which is a red dwarf (M1 D); all its planets are very cold indeed; S0 and S1 are small worlds; S2 has a moon, and would have a breathable atmosphere were it warm enough; S3 is a gas giant with three moons, none of which have appreciable atmosphere.
The marines are questioned again. The enemy could conceivably have refueled during the battle, but at great risk.
During the trip, the crew mixes and gets to know each other better. The marines served on a 50kt Strike Cruiser, which carried 600 Marines, 50 GCarriers, and a total crew of 1061. Vana and Varda have low social standings, the other marines are reasonable. Lia and Fostriades hit it off right away, and end up in bed before the jump is over. Chiang Ho finally finds a woman who likes him -- Kara. Vana declines a sparring match with NoName (Chiang Ho's suggestion); the marines prefer to engage in shipboard exercises to know every nook and cranny of the Anastasia under varying G conditions.
Chiang Ho summarizes the scans: they recorded about 20 ships (a guess!) around the second world of the Secondary star, and around the gas giant in the third orbit is a ship which seems to match one of their destroyers. Sir Bridgehead fishes for military details, but Admiral Lhule merely admits it is indeed consistent with one of their destroyers. They also recorded a lot of coded transmissions from the P3 orbit on Scorpionis bands of which they have some samples; they are not sure whether it is captured ships or their people still operating. None of these were particularly clear, but on their next trip they could get a lot closer. The Anastasia did not seem to have been noticed during the mission. Chiang Ho suggests that they could use some help by getting some keys to the codes.
For the next run, Chiang Ho suggests that they should launch some scanner/relay probes, and it is indicated that such equipment could be arranged. It is noted that there are both "friendly" and unknown transmissions from P3, and that some of the regular civilian beacons are still operating.
Chiang Ho arranges free catering for the party via one of the waiters at the reception (but does pass out a few Imperial credits).
So what have they actually found out? The crew review the results of their mission. There are maybe (Chiang Ho's guess) 20 ships around S2, and one ship actually in orbit around S3, which doesn't really fit any Visitor ship considering the power output, but could be a Scorpionis destroyer. There are both bad-guy and good-guy transmissions from the mainworld, and during jump the computer has worked out a little about the Scorpionis transmissions: they appear to be tactical communications, including a burst of a spotter calling in artillery fire -- definitely Scorpionis troops of some sort (this is classified to the Anastasia).
There will be a party tomorrow night with the last of the bean juice. The actual bean plants suffered under zero-G but did recover. They are repotted so that they will cope better next time. Since most of the marines can cope very well under high-G, they confirm that the engineers could set up the ship so that medical was under one-G, but the rest as they desire. They have now improved on the normal grav-plate tuning, so they can, for example, change the gravity frequently with a short warning on the marines' commo frequencies before each change.
The ship is restocked and refueled.
Avon suggests going (vacuum) skiing somewhere here for a while, but security in the system is too good. He puts off the plans until later.
They discuss their next sortie. They can almost write their own mission at this point, as it depends so heavily on information they themselves presented to the TradeMain people. At their last meeting, Chiang Ho implied that they should use some proper scanner probes, and that seemed acceptable.
The Captain wants to know if there's another ship that wants to go with them, to make a fast (safe as possible) pass so they could monitor the enemy reaction. All ships here are under Navy control, of course, but the Marines know some other marines who would crew such a ship if they could get one. Coordinating the mission w.r.t. jump arrival times would be tricky, of course. They would have to rendezvous at one of the still-operating civilian beacons or some other location.
None of the Scorpionis ships have much armor. The smallest ship that would be safe enough for the mission would be a 5000t Fleet Escort, which would take a crew of 38. The real problem is that all their ships are just Jump-2, and so would have to refuel insystem before jumping out.
Methods of contacting the ground troops at Staru are discussed. The Marines can use a standard coded hailing transmission, but the crew would rather that they were provided with the actual TradeMain codes. Unfortunately, their attempts to drag it out of the locals fail. They can't contact Rufus directly at all, but have to go through TradeMain channels and they won't let them talk to him, although they would take a message or set up an appointment for him and the Admiral if they want. They do so for the morning after the party (that would be on 313-1117) in case he doesn't make it.
While they do this, Mich specs out the probes he wants. Mich and Fostriades like the idea of a probe emitting signals to simulate a ship. Meanwhile the Anastasia is being fully restocked and refueled.
The probes are ready at 08:00, and the ratings start to load them on board at 08:30. They are to be stored in the missile magazine. Mich checks them, and they are indeed to his specs.
They contemplate waiting until Rufus is on board and just jumping from the ground so that he can go with them.
In the evening, the party takes place. Rufus arrives with two women in IFSS uniform. Joe and NoName are promptly assigned to getting the women drunk and clear of Rufus so they can ask if he wants to go with them. Of course, if the Anastasia jumped from the ground right now, it would not be good for the health of the chauffeur and honor guard at the groundcar. The computer operator has calculated the jump, but is not at all confident about one so deep within a gravity well.
Rufus is invited to see the engines, but is more interested in the bean juice, so Mich takes him to see the bean plants and still. This has achieved the objective of separating him from the women. Rufus agrees that he's hard to reach and complains about the red tape, but tells them that if they call Jerry's Bar they can get his private number. He says that he would love to go in to Staru with them, but he's committed to helping out here. They ask him about the codes, but he says that he is not really in the chain of command on that and so can't help. He does, however, say he'll try to help. He doesn't feel it is necessary to jump from here, and anyway the ladies wouldn't like being hauled off like that. They arrived this morning with the intention of going into the wilds at some point; they looked a bit unwell, though. They rejoin the party.
The illness provokes fears of a space bug, but when Brock checks them out (Sir Bridgehead is smashed right now) they prove to be just "under the weather," with no infectious agent involved. They do look a bit pale and listless. (Mich thinks they look pale and shrunken -- perhaps they are already dead? But then he's been drinking bean juice...) Helen is asked to slip Sir Bridgehead some Undrunk Pills, so he comes around enough to perform an examination. He concurs with Brock's conclusions.
The ladies ask them about the ship, particularly the jump drive. Fostriades and Mich say that everything works just fine, and "explain the jump drive" in a very technical manner, spouting straight jump theory (nothing to do with the Anastasia's engines) but the ladies don't know the difference. They ask if it ever goes wrong, and the engineers dazzle them with science and space folklore. The stories make them look even less well. They ask where the Anastasia will be going next, but the engineers dodge the question.
Fostriades asks about the ladies' ship. It is an IFFS ship, the Sir Walter Raleigh. They just arrived from Joloch, which was where they think they picked up their illness. They haven't traveled very far -- with the walkabout alert they just thought they'd wander off somewhere and see if they could get into enemy territory, since that's what the ship is designed for. They obviously try to pump Fostriades and Mich about the next mission, but don't get anywhere; the bean-juiced engineers stare hard -- Fostriades thinks they may be very slightly out of phase, perhaps as the result of a misjump?
The Sir Walter Raleigh's journey started out at Karma, where Professor Farol put some of his most recent work into the ship. They left on 265-1117 (the Anastasia left on 195-1117). This seems too recent -- Fostriades and Mich think that the Professor has come up with another of his "bright" ideas...
Fostriades and Mich decide that they would like to check the ladies out with some of the equipment in engineering, and since they had expressed interest they take the higher-ranking one down there. It seems a low-risk thing to do since they apparently have virtually no grasp of engineering principles. The suggestion that Mich and Fostriades offer to look over her ship is squashed rapidly with transparent excuses. The engineering equipment, meanwhile, detects no strange fields or anything about her.
She says that some of the stuff in engineering looks like theirs. Is it an FFS drive? No, General Products. She has an FFS drive, which is supposed to be the new hot stuff according to Farol. They started trials "a while ago" which seems actually to be fairly recently. She says they're having no problems with maintenance, thank you, it's not like they've misjumped much. No, they haven't actually misjumped because they've always come out at the right place. Fostriades suggests that there are other signs of misjump, like a tired run-down feeling?
The engineers question her on her next mission: but they don't like her implied idea of accompanying the Anastasia. They would like to see some drawings of their ship ... and it turns out that her engineers are suffering from the same bug that everyone on the ship (17 crew in total) picked up on Joloch. The Chief Engineer is working on it, just keeping things in shape; it's all worked OK for the four jumps from Karma to Jusk. Yes, that is three jumps to Joloch. Fostriades and Mich pause, and look at each other meaningfully -- they say they would definitely like to take a look at those engines. Some of the cabinets here look the same as hers, does that help?
No they haven't had a misjump, but they have of course had a few teething troubles -- it just stutters a bit occasionally, that's all. There were some problems with the computer control on the first jump, but they sorted that out quickly and there were no really serious problems after that. Yes, they picked up their illness at Joloch apparently, where they left ten days ago. They don't really have much of an experienced medical crew on board, but you'd expect these space bugs to have six or seven days incubation. Fostriades and Mich don't like the idea of being accompanied by a ship with an ill crew.
The lady offers a limited exchange of information. The Sir Walter Raleigh is the latest hostile exploratory ship from Karma, a 3000t Experimental Destroyer, airframe needle configuration, with a lot of experimental stuff on board including the new FFS drive. The jump drives were essentially fitted to an almost-complete ship after the Anastasia had passed through. They had not really finished field trials when the walkabout alert came through. They are fairly heavily armored with some decent weapon systems. The FFS jump drive is apparently the result of Professor Farol's collaboration with a couple of other people, probably research students.
They left Karma on 265, reached Joloch on 299 via Ferle and Csarfar, left Joloch on 302 and arrived here today. The drive seems to be holding up well. The illness is probably just something they picked up at Joloch; the symptoms started showing about seven days after they left there. About the time they started to come out of jump? asks Mich. Well no, since they were in jump for ten days. That fourth jump, says Fostriades knowingly. So, are the engineers working on it now? No, not really, because there isn't that much problem with it -- besides the time, it was fine for the last jump. Fostriades and Mich strongly suggest that they should consult with their engineers, since they have experience with off-beat jump drives. Well, they've probably never seen one like this, she says, as it has this thing called a phase inverter or something.
They produce video evidence that they've worked with the Professor, but the lady still doesn't think they know much about it. They persuade her to let them talk to her Chief Engineer right now to see if he feels they should look at it. (The Computer Officer monitors the call to make sure that she doesn't give up any of the Anastasia's secrets.) The Chief Engineer comes on, looking in better health than the ladies. Mich asks him who the two other people were who worked with the Professor on the drives. "Fostriades and Saginaw, apparently, hence the FFS for Farol / Fostriades / Saginaw." They introduce themselves, and rapidly make an appointment to look at the Sir Walter Raleigh's drive tomorrow morning. The Chief Engineer looks both flustered and relieved, but warns them that the Professor may have changed a few things on his own. Only the two engineers will be allowed over, after assurances that they are actually working for the Emperor; they say where the Anastasia (nee Kinunir) was salvaged, repaired, and so on, and explain that a lot of high-ups in the IFSS trust them, so...
The Sir Walter Raleigh is planning on going in to hostile territory fairly soon. Mich says they will be ready to jump in a couple of days. The lady still won't acknowledge that a ten-day jump is really that much of a problem, but Fostriades and Mich are insistent. They then return back to the party, where the engineers are introduced to the other lady as well. The ladies offer to back up the Anastasia with the Sir Walter Raleigh's firepower, and then have some of the bean juice at last.
The Captain suggests that if it would not be too risky, one of the Anastasia's engineers could go with them. They don't like that idea, particularly because the Sir Walter Raleigh's crew don't believe they really have a problem. The crew seem to know so little about the ship, and just took off towards the wilds in a hurry when the walkabout alert arrived.
The Captain also wants this information to be kept confidential from the rest of the crew, except Helen and Linda. He wants Linda to check the records for this ship, but since it arrived this morning there is no information. Fostriades (not Mich) will go over to the Sir Walter Raleigh to reduce the risk. It is also clear that they should reveal virtually nothing about the Anastasia herself. They will, however, provide their maintenance information.
The Captain, Fostriades, Helen, and Lia visit the Sir Walter Raleigh. In fact, only Fostriades and Mich were originally invited ... Lia is posing as a Damage Control person, while Helen is Captain Delaney's aide. They aren't let in at first, but they talk their way on board.
The ramp opens and they are met in the ship by the Chief Engineer (toting a cup of coffee). They go down to Engineering, where the Captain will meet them later. Delaney looks around carefully to see if there are any signs of fighting or anything, but everything looks brand new. Some of the internal fittings are different -- they are perhaps a little more compact and neater than those on the Anastasia. There is no company logo on anything.
In Engineering, Fostriades looks hard at the systems. They are very similar to theirs, and the maneuver drive and power plant look identical. The jump drive is a little different, as are the control systems. Fostriades starts a thorough examination of the jump drive components. The pieces are similar, but some of the way they interlock and are interrelated is different, and the computer control system is completely different. The ship's Chief Engineer is not much help.
It is very thoroughly based on the Anastasia's drive, but the main difference is in the matter phase inverter. The control system is set for automatic inflight computer calibration rather than the manual calibration on their ship. Fostriades is looking for a simple loose connection or something -- obviously if they had a major problem they would be dead, not just jumpsick. He checks the documentation for the computer calibration control system.
The Sir Walter Raleigh's captain arrives, in IFSS uniform. Captain Delaney introduces himself; she is Commodore Judith Watson. They discuss the future mission. The principle is to go in prepared to leave very fast. How quiet is the Sir Walter Raleigh? It has an EMMask, too, with an EMLevel of Faint and ObjSize of Large (the same as the Anastasia). So what does she plan to do in the other system? He is planning reconnaissance -- what is their experience? They came here straight from Karma after a week or so of field trials. No, they haven't been in combat directly, but they're well armed and have done a lot of training exercises.
Delaney lays out his plan. He wants them to go in "noisy" so that the Anastasia can observe the reaction. The Anastasia will jump in two days ahead of the Sir Walter Raleigh and will wait quietly. When they arrive, the Anastasia will fire a probe to pass close by them. This is the signal to start their approach, at which point they are to act like an innocent ship heading for the mainworld and see what reaction they can draw. They are not to get into a fight -- if they can draw a substantial reaction that gives useful information they should prepare to jump straight out. The Anastasia will not drop her EMMask unless necessary, so the Sir Walter Raleigh is to act as if it is alone. They will rendezvous back here afterwards. Commodore Watson agrees to Delaney's plan. If the Sir Walter Raleigh doesn't come out of jump in 16 days after the Anastasia jumps, they will assume that the they have had a problem and are not coming.
Commodore Watson declines the offer of having the Admiral come over to check them out.
The Captain's private opinion (as he later reveals) is that if they had to find a collection of suckers to do this for them, they couldn't have done much better!
Meanwhile Fostriades thinks the drives look OK, but he's not really sure about the calibration -- but his computer skill isn't high enough to analyze it properly. The Captain calls Linda Gregson over to check it out, and together they find that there's a software problem -- if the calibration swings in a particular way, it oscillates a bit before settling down, and that would cause an unevenness in the power supply which would cause the field to fluctuate. She puts in a quick-and-dirty fix, and will work on a long-term solution later (about 3 or 4 days work). Fostriades leaves the maintenance tapes, although obviously the sections on phase inverter calibration don't apply to them.
They return to the Anastasia, where Avon, Brock, and Mich are briefed on the situation. Fostriades asks Brock to check the computer for information about medical effects on the crew of misjumps and jumpdrive malfunctions, and he finds that nausea, weakness, and a nagging fatigue are the most common symptoms, which generally wear off after a week or so. That explains the state of the Sir Walter Raleigh's crew, which is a simple case of jump sickness caused by field fluctuations from oscillations in the power supply.
There are suggestions that they should provide some competent crew members for them, but the Captain vetoes that on the grounds that the rest of their crew is not good enough for them to be safe. They discuss the possibilities (hypothetical only!) of taking over the Sir Walter Raleigh, but although the Captain likes the Sir Walter Raleigh, Fostriades points out it has minimal cargo storage and is less versatile. Avon suggests that Linda could set up their computer to act like the Anastasia's did...
Sir Bridgehead points out that they have now discharged their commitment to the IFSS. The crew in general seems to be of the opinion that they could carry on if they're paid six million a month like this, especially if they can negotiate things like replacing their nuclear missiles. Sir Bridgehead is still concerned about the Sir Walter Raleigh and their crew casualties.
On landing they are immediately asked to go to a debriefing session; Admiral Lhule wants to talk to everyone who has any information at all. They are so keen, in fact, that when the crew balks over leaving the ship with so few people on it, Admiral Lhule and William Rufus come over themselves. They meet in the Boss' suite.
The dogs like the people well enough, although they're not so sure about Admiral Lhule. (Chiang Ho's dog likes the marines and they like him; Linus particularly likes Varda.)
The first thing Rufus wants to know is where the Sir Walter Raleigh is. They are of course not sure, but they should wait a few days for them to arrive from jump before worrying. They present the final status report that they have on the Sir Walter Raleigh -- heavy weapon damage, maneuver drive damage, and some fuel loss. This does not inspire confidence.
Chiang Ho presents full sensor reports from the battle: he suggests that the enemy beat the Scorpionis forces by having very specialized ships and working out which ships are vulnerable to what, then sending in ships for specific targets; they also have a lot of small ships, and their acceleration varies, depending on what they fire, between 3G and 6G. Sir Bridgehead adds that each ship seems to have one or two weapon systems, and they work together in concert. It's a RISC navy -- small, fast, specialized, and each one does a small task well and quickly.
Avon suggests that they could go in again and see if something else is there; they could then just apply massive force at one point. Chiang Ho says they don't know how many enemy ships there are, to which Avon says lots. Chiang Ho says that their tactics aren't that great either, because they were able to nuke a tight formation with one missile salvo.
The enemy did not immediately use nuclear weapons, but only after the Anastasia did. They concentrated heavy fire on one enemy ship for a long time and it was still operating at the end of the battle. They fired 42 nuclear missiles in all and the Admiral agrees to replace them.
The hardest part of fighting them from the Anastasia's point of view is that when they can pull 6G it is hard to get away without jumping.
Rufus asks them what their plans are now they have fulfilled their obligations from the original deal. Sir Bridgehead says that they want to continue to see action, but Chiang Ho says that needs further discussion. Rufus asks them if they would be prepared to continue to assist the IFSS for the same financial deal; the IFSS would refit them and replace supplies and so on. They reply that it would depend on the nature of the mission.
The crew does not yet feel that it is wise to send a couple of fleets in to take the system. Chiang Ho would like to know what is around the gas giant so that they can have contingency plans. They don't have any definite idea of the numbers that are there, or how to find the numbers. Sir Bridgehead suggests that next time they should all go in masked, but Avon and Chiang Ho both point out that it will still be harder because they will be looking for masked ships now.
There are still Scorpionis forces on one of the planets -- could they contact them? Sir Bridgehead says they could use the marines for that. There were also a couple of other quiet ships around the gas giant -- they don't know whether they're hiding, or captured -- if they're hiding, they could make a good contact.
The conquering fleet did have fuel scoops, according to the visual range scan from the Sir Walter Raleigh, so they would need the gas giants as a strategic target.
Chiang Ho points out that their marines would have an easier time of capturing the Scorpionis destroyer because they are familiar with it. The Boss wants to know why that ship can't leave. Chiang Ho suggests that if it is captured, they could look at the bad guys: how are they, what modifications did they make to the ship for their comfort and ease. Once they know how many ships are around the gas giant, they could maybe take them.
They could go in, take the gas giant with a couple of fleets, try to scavenge or salvage the destroyed ships, get everyone refueled and out of there as an operation to take the Secondary star system, get information and get out -- recon by force. But of course, the fleet that comes in does so over three days, and the TMF does not have enough ships with EMMasks.
Mich complains about the probe that didn't work, but his words falls on uncaring ears.
So are they saying it would be possible to go in and secure the Secondary for sufficiently long to refuel the fleets? Well, they want to check it out first; when they made their first pass, all they saw there was just a few ships. So do they think that if they went in there with a few fleets to take the Secondary they could do it without a great deal of trouble? They don't think they know enough to say. Avon says that it would be bad to send in a small number of ships over and over because they would just pick them off -- massive force is called for he thinks. The Admiral responds that they have massive force available, but the crew don't think they know enough yet to commit the forces.
Avon says they need to get some idea of how many ships they have, which they might be able to do by going in and scanning around for a while.
The "several" ships they detected were at the planet in orbit 2 of the Secondary, which although uninhabited does have breathable atmosphere in frozen form -- the only planet of the Secondary which does.
Avon says there are two things to do: contact the resistance on the planet; send a lot of probes out and stay quietly while they transmit -- let them actively scan for ships, and count the number they find, and if the probes are destroyed that tells them something too. To be maximally effective they should send a lot of probes out at once so that one ship couldn't go through and pick them off one at a time. They could launch 24 every 20 minutes between the two ships.
Chiang Ho asks for TradeMain codes so that they can contact the marines. The Admiral dithers a bit and eventually agrees, and says that their Computer Officer can have the codes she was trying to get from their computers.
As everyone is leaving, Chiang Ho moves right up to Rufus and asks quietly if he wants to come with them. He's not sure, but "See you!" he says as he leaves. The Anastasia is given full authorization to restock.
The Sir Walter Raleigh comes out of jump and limps in to the starport. They contact the Anastasia and call for a good medic. Sir Bridgehead, who has been standing ready for this as they approached, goes over with Helen and (at Helen's suggestion) Teri. They find that one person was severely injured while on missile loading duty when his turret was shot out -- he was stuck in a medical deep freeze right away. The Sir Walter Raleigh's Medical Officer does not come up to Sir Bridgehead's standards, but the Admiral does show him some of the facilities of the super high-tech Sick Bay. The Medical Officer is a little unwilling to take advice, but does pick up some stuff.
The casualty would be dead without extremely good medical attention. Sir Bridgehead attends to him and he is then transferred to a ground facility. He should regain consciousness in three months. It is expected that after a year he will be fit enough for a desk job or a medical discharge from the IFSS.
The Sir Walter Raleigh replaces their casualty with one of William Rufus' crew from the Althea.
While over there, Sir Bridgehead compliments them on their performance in the battle. They do have nuclear missiles on board, but they have the usual Imperial hang-up about using them.
He talks to Commodore Watson, complimenting her on the tactical work in the last battle. He criticizes the plan of having the Sir Walter Raleigh's EMMask turned off, then says that they should have used nukes. Watson says that they were still hoping to be able to talk to the visitors and not using nuclear weapons may have helped that. She says that Sir Bridgehead should tell them when a situation arises calling for the use of nuclear weapons. He requests that he be allowed to instruct their medical officer in the use of the Sick Bay, especially the computer system, and this he is encouraged to do.
They check the clocks on the ships to make sure that they are not time displaced, and everything seems OK.
The Captain suggests a quick jump in and out to investigate the gas giant while the Sir Walter Raleigh is being refitted, but if Mich and Fostriades helped them the repairs could be performed in about a week. Since the Anastasia needs to be refitted as well, it is agreed that this is a good idea.
They have three things they want to do on this mission: look at the gas giant; send out probes to detect ships; and contact the rebels. They intend to do it in the order: gas giant, rebels, probes.
The ships will make a pass of the gas giant across opposite sides of the planet and rendezvous outside, then decide which ship will go in to talk to the rebels, then after that excursion both ships will launch all their probes.
They plan to leave at 12:00, as usual. At 11:55 William Rufus comes on board, and he says he should discuss something with the Boss for 3 or 4 hours, but don't let that interrupt their schedule. "Oh gosh, the ship appears to have taken off. What a shame. Do you have room at your sensor station? Now I'm here, it seems a shame not to contribute."
Sir Bridghead is delighted that Rufus is coming with them. He asks if he has any tactical skills, to which he replies that he will take the sensor station. He is added to the crew as a Sensor Consultant.
The Anastasia and Sir Walter Raleigh jump for Staru.
Sir Bridgehead, meanwhile, works out that one of the equipment pieces in the sick bay is for making intelligent antibodies, that can, for example, pull out all the arsenic from someone's system, or tailor something to protect from a poisonous atmosphere. He is not yet, however, too confident as to whether he can get it to work right every time. He experiments on his rabbits. He could now, he says, produce something that would protect against the effects of the sulfurous atmosphere on Dulu.
The computer officer has been working on interfacing the equipment. She wants Sir Bridgehead to give her full access to all the medical systems -- she says she will put in stuff to make sure that she maintains that access, too -- he agrees, and will work with her on the project. The nature of Sir Bridgehead's work is now public knowledge among the crew.
Rufus has some ideas about the medical equipment -- he's not sure, but he's heard of some advanced stuff that was pulled off some hulk or relic somewhere. Not Ancient, but something more advanced in this area than the Imperium. It is very possible, especially given the lack of any interface between it and the computer when it was installed on the ship, that this stuff has never been hooked up to an Imperial computer, because it was never Imperial equipment -- the only stuff on the ship without a General Products plate! Rufus knows there have been some wrecks picked up in this sector which were very advanced in some respects and very primitive in others.
The Anastasia arrives at Jusk, and is immediately bombarded with calls to identify themselves or be destroyed. They choose to identify themselves, and say that they have urgent emergency communications for Admiral Lhule. They have a tight direct link within ten minutes.
The Admiral welcomes them back. He says that Staru has been recaptured by Admiral Cartha, who has eliminated all roach resistance there. They have destroyed all the remaining ships, which were in the process of setting up a secret base before withdrawing; the base was also destroyed. Staru is now officially a member of the TradeMain Foundation. Admiral Cartha's report was that he had "obliterated" the opposition at Staru, as compared with when he "secured" Darthlaru.
The Captain says that things are not as good as they had hoped. He tells them about the battleships jumping out from Dulu, and transmits the sensor information they have gathered there; he had hoped to be able to say all was clear ahead, but that is not the case.
"By the way," says Admiral Lhule, "If you have Bill Rufus on board, tell the sonofabitch he's a slimy little bugger, will you?"
The Captain reports that the government on Dulu is still functioning fairly well, ominously well in his opinion. Lhule says that this is usual for a local Scorpionis government; he adds that if the battleships entered Staru, Admiral Cartha would know it, although the news would not arrive here for another week. It is suggested that they could have jumped to Faranu, or any other place within Jump-2, even back to L-0803.
The Captain reports that when they were on Dulu, they told them that the enemy fleet had been destroyed at Staru -- this may have been a mistake, he says. Admiral Lhule then assures the Captain that Admiral Cartha is under strict instructions to send back a message at the first sign of anything unusual, even though this is in conflict with traditional Scorpionis military doctrine. Cartha "The Butcher" has the liberty-fleet there, a very competent fleet which includes his 500kt flagship, various 75kt Fleet Cruisers, and a couple of 100kt Battleships -- his morals may be suspect, but his courage and military ability are unquestionable.
Sir Bridgehead points out that Dulu is the key to this whole campaign, as any attack must come through there. When they were there, there were only four ships insystem, and they were jumping out, so it should be pretty easy to secure the system.
(Admiral Lhule, by the way, is the Admiral that was dispatched by the new government of the TradeMain Foundation to take charge of the old Scorpionis fleets at Jusk. His background is in the Corona Foundation, which never had a strong military, but were better at strategy and tactics than the numerically much superior Scorpionis forces.)
Sir Bridgehead asks Lhule if he has any plans to secure Dulu, but he is not prepared to discuss that with them. He does have a Commodore Judith Watson who is rather anxious to talk to them, though.
Commodore Watson comes on, sounding very glad to have them back. They are a bit late... The Captain brags that they encountered 3 TUBE-Ls and a FRISBEE, but is forced to admit that the enemy never even saw them. He promises to tell her sometime about the plans they had if they had been detected. Some further reconnaissance missions might be fun, says the Captain, and the Commodore is anxious to take the Sir Walter Raleigh on another hostile exploratory run. The Captain discusses this privately with his crew.
Now that they are back at Jusk, they suppose that they need to leave William Rufus here to resume his advisory role with Admiral Lhule, but Rufus himself is keen to remain on the Anastasia for their next mission -- he would miss out on the bean mash if he left now!
The Captain calls back the Commodore and says that as soon as they have replenished their supplies, the two ships can head out together. At Helen's insistence, Avon gets the chance to fly the Anastasia in to the mainworld and bring it in to land -- he does a very nice job of it.
The Anastasia is refueled and replenished at the starport on the surface of Jusk, taking advantage of the free Naval facilities as usual. Fostriades looks for trade goods that would be valuable on Dulu, considering their isolation -- possibly small high-tech stuff which can wear out, such as interstellar range radios. He is expecting an extra +4 factor on prices when they arrive at Dulu. The TradeMain Foundation will accept Scorpionis currency when they come back.
It takes two days to load the ship, since the local crews are military personnel rather than the usual union labor.
David Brock takes off and enjoys the chance to see real sky, grass, and so on. He takes Jenny with him.
At 12:00, the Anastasia and Sir Walter Raleigh head out to the jump point, then jump for Dulu at 16:00.
"Oh, great!" says Fostriades between clenched teeth. "You mean they've been messing with our computer to the point where the ship was in danger?"
The Anastasia is hailed immediately. They are requested by a representative of the TradeMain Navy to continue on the same vector with weapon systems downpowered, and wait for a ship to greet them.
Avon wonders why they just didn't shut down the computers and reload.
"Shutting down all computer systems while you're in jump," says Mich, "Considering the computers are managing the jump drive, is a Very Bad Thing To Do. We are not in jump now. NOW we can shut down the computers."
Linda points out that they need to shut everything down -- they can't just switch over to the backup computers because they've been messed with, too.
They take advantage of the time they have to be drifting anyway, and shut down the whole computer systems and bring them back up again clean. Fortunately this is completed before a ship arrives to escort them.
At 16:00, a mere 28 hours after being told to wait, the ship arrives to escort them to the mainworld. The ship is a design originally from the Corona Foundation, rather than Scorpionis.
They explain to the ship that they have returned after bravely fighting the cockroaches. The TMF chap sounds bored and unimpressed, and offers to escort them to the mainworld. They set off on a relaxed two-day trip.
The ex-Navy people notice that although there are not that many ships here, the system itself has been heavily fortified. Avon, with his system Navy experience, points out several of them to the others. All this fortification is new since they were last here.
The automated traffic control system sends them routine messages from time to time, including a protocol for requests they may want to put in.
There are a quite a lot of ships here, many of which are non-military, freighters and suchlike. There are some fairly ratty-looking ships obviously pressed into service in a hurry, but none as badly beat up as the Anastasia.
This system is where Vana needs to meet with Admiral Lhule to discuss reassignment, and the disposition of the Scorpionis troops that they rescued on Staru. The Captain wants to request a meeting with the Admiral, but that is not one of the messages they can transmit given the protocol ("If you would like fuel, press button 1, hang up, and we will get back to you...").
Brock suggests that the way to get around the protocol would be simply to power up the lasers, but Avon points out to the errant landlubber that this might have rather undesirable consequences like they would be blown up.
They best they can think of is to request landing clearance, so they do so. It is now 18:30.
After an hour, at 19:30, traffic control acknowledges that they have received the Anastasia's request.
After yet another three hours, at 22:30, they are given clearance to land in a field ("Does it have a pond? I want to land it in a pond!" says Avon). A detailed precise flight path is transmitted to them, and they finally come in to land at 23:00.
The landing site is marked by a big "X", and next to the site is a portable services unit, with connections for communications, fuel, air, and so on. It has notices in several languages indicating that they can hook up, but to get fuel fed through it they have to pay in advance (the prices are high, but there is a discount for Imperial Credits). They consider whether it will rain enough to fill the tanks, but this seems unreasonable.
The temperature is a reasonable but warm 30-40 degrees. The atmosphere is breathable but somewhat dense, with no major contaminants.
Vana and her group consider their future and discuss their current situation. They need to talk to Admiral Lhule to resolve their position. As far as the ship is concerned, Jack, Jill, and Rufus are currently under close surveillance, with Jack and Jill denied computer access.
Varda, as Protocol Officer, tries to request a meeting with Admiral Lhule. The call is answered by a bored starport authority comm operator, who tells here to call the Admiral's appointments office at 08:00.
Meanwhile, the Anastasia has been hooked up to the services unit at the landing site. They request fuel, which will be delivered on receipt of 800Cr per ton. Fostriades has a fit at the price (not quite twice Imperial cost), especially as they haven't had to pay anything for fuel in a very long time. He checks the cost in Protectorate Dollars, and that comes out to the equivalent of 1200Cr per ton. He is disgusted, but pays the Credits anyway. The engineers monitor the quality of the supposedly refined fuel -- it is up to their strict standards.
Which of the former political units is dominating the TradeMain Foundation: Corona or Scorpionis? Scorpionis has the military, but two of the top three admirals are from Corona; Lhule is from Corona, as is Therikka, but Cartha is a Scorpionis man. So far, though, experience indicates that Scorpionis philosophy and methods seem to be dominant.
Fostriades wonders what would happen if Lhule has fallen out of power. They've been gone a long time...
It does occur to the crew that this doesn't really feel like Scorpionis (not military-oriented enough) but also doesn't really feel like the Corona Foundation.
"Wonderful!" says Lia. "They've managed to combine the worst of both worlds."
"This is Captain Stravanara Lebuva."
"Thanks you for calling."
"I wish to schedule an appointment for..."
They are playing sickening Corona classical music. Vana looks disgusted, but waits patiently.
"Thank you for holding. Have a nice day! What can we do for you?"
"This is Stravanara Lebuva, Captain of the Scorpionis Marines detachment assigned by Admiral Lhule to the starship Anastasia. We have returned to port, and I need to have a debriefing with the Admiral."
"Certainly. What day would be convenient?"
"We have a spot free for you in half an hour, could you be there?"
"Tell me where it is, we'll be there."
"Certainly, we'll transmit the coordinates to you."
"Have a nice day!" The classical music starts whining again.
"You too, bitch!" says Vana. The classical music keeps playing.
The coordinates come in as a flight plan involving a minor orbital trajectory. Vana picks her team: herself, Lia, Teri. She does not want a representative of the Scorpionis marine group along just in case Lhule is not in power.
They all equip themselves with full dress battle armor. They are all fully armed -- Lia carries some grenades as well, just so she'll feel comfortable. Teri has her plasma gun, and a demolition satchel disguised as a cummerbund.
Helen flies them to the meeting in the pinnace. Vana tells her to get there quickly. Traffic control tells them to slow down -- Helen produces an interesting stream of technical garbage, explaining that the reason she is going so fast is that she doesn't want to go fast, however the sparlificous widgets on the ship aren't capable, as their stutter frequency is sufficiently high that you have to get the meliculous waushids calibrated.
Helen lands them on the roof of the designated building.
"Keep the engines running," says Vana.
"And the laser powered up," adds Helen. "Don't worry, I've done this before."
The team disembarks. There is an honor guard at the roof entrance. They are disgustingly ragged by Scorpionis standards -- not only don't their eye colors match, but they are different heights and have different hair colors. They salute, fairly sloppily.
The team guesses that Lhule is indeed out of favor.
They enter the elevator (which has no internal controls). It goes down, then opens to reveal a fairly luxurious entrance lobby, just like any other Scorpionis lobby except for the honor guard, who are again mix-and-match. They are carrying antique bolt-action rifles.
Lia wonders if this is a Corona honor guard.
They continue to a reception room, decorated in the Scorpionis style with many indoor plants and so on. The chairs are luxurious. There are no windows, it being an internal room, but there are several viewscreens with pastoral scenes.
Admiral Lhule is waiting.
There are two matched guards at the entrance to the room, who ceremonially block the team with their weapons, which are NOT bolt-action rifles.
Vana identifies herself, and they are allowed to pass. As Lia salutes, her faceplate clears as her arm goes up, and returns to its mirrored finish when her arm goes down. Somebody has clearly had fun programming her suit.
Vana greets her commanding officer, and they exchange salutes. The honor guard remains at the door; Teri stays a couple of meters behind Vana and Lia.
Admiral Lhule offers them drinks, and takes one himself.
"Enjoying a nice fruitful rest, are we?" asks Vana.
"I gather Cartha's got things under control at the other end, so I'm left here mostly putting on shows for the civilians."
"Just one question," says Vana, "Who was responsible for Mutt'n'Jeff?"
"Those two? Well, we had to pick up some local drill teams. I will say that one thing your people have is decent sense of ceremony and discipline, which as you know is why you're in the front line." He laughs.
"We felt that since we were stopping in the neighborhood for a few days we should just pop in and say hello."
"That's nice, that's great. Your ship going to transfer over all the data and everything?"
"I have a full copy of all my data on my report with me. As to what data the corporate members on the ship will divulge, I really have no clue."
"OK. Well, I reckon I'll check with Captain Delaney. He seemed like a pretty nice guy last time round. You still got Rufus on board? Not that I want to put any pressure on him, but I wouldn't mind a chat."
"I don't know if he's available for a chat right now. It's kind of touch and go as regards to his current disposition."
"Yeah, I'd noticed he's pretty flighty. Well, we'll see what comes out of that. In the meantime I'll be glad to accept your report."
Vana hands it over.
"Any off the record comments?" asks the Admiral.
"Ever think about taking a vacation?" says Vana.
"Yeah, I think a lot about taking a vacation," laughs the Admiral. "I think it would be unwise. You no doubt have an opinion on the strategic capabilities of the naval commanders of the old Scorpionis Navy; somebody has to keep things in order."
"It's good to see that somebody's still in charge of things, then."
"Yeah. Admiral Therikka has taken over most of the day-to-day stuff with that, now that we seem to be settled into a strategic holding action, for a while."
"For a while."
"Keeps the Scorpionis people happy, too," he smirks, "I'm sure you'll appreciate that."
"Our current assembly should continue with more of the same?" asks Vana, getting down to the real subject.
"What do you want to do?"
"These people seem to be doing some interesting useful things. They've made good use of our time. Kept us out of the bars."
"That's true. Of course the local brewing economy has gone downhill since you left."
"Not my fault."
"Got sort of boring in one or two of the bars, too."
Vana tries to stick to the subject. "I'd like you to have somebody trustworthy on board that ship."
"It seems to be rather a useful ship. It and it's crew. They're not the usual load of, um... they seem to be able to do what they want with the ship. It looks a bit beat up now. Looks like you've been through quite a fair amount of action?"
"We ran into some bugs and it was an ... interesting time. We swatted them good. We could use repairs, though, definitely use repairs. We took a lot of major heavy hits to our armament."
"Might be some shipyard in Corona that could fix things up. Here we could probably do some work but the facilities are relatively minor. Mostly we're just handling logistical stuff, getting freighters in from Corona and shipping things out on military units."
"I thought I recognized their hand in the traffic control."
"Yeah, the trouble with all these civilian guys is they don't know how to handle real traffic."
"I felt like we were dealing with an automated teller system or something when we came in."
"That's a good comparison, I like that," laughs the Admiral. "I'll have to use that in my next speech to the press. The Corona folks keep expecting us to justify what we're doing."
"Well, S.O.P. is usually 'wait and see', so how do you justify wait and see?"
"It's not quite that bad. Scorpionis has helped slightly in that respect. We've got a couple of new soap operas where they're glorifying what's going on out there. The trouble is that Corona's never really seen any of the action at all. It's working, though."
"You'll probably find when you get into our reports that we managed to run into the old Staru group marines from the victory-fleet. Has somebody set up a repatriation procedure now?"
"We haven't run into that situation much now, not since the other group came out from Staru. The procedure now is that I sign the orders reassigning them to the TradeMain Combined Forces, and assign them appropriately."
"We'll need some orders drawn up. We've got a good working relationship set up between them and the ship's crew. They have been more than simply useful on many occasions -- they've been indispensable. I would prefer if possible to have them reassigned to me. Currently I am still ranking officer among them."
"So, the best thing I think... let's see. How many do you actually have?"
"10. We can get you the names and numbers later."
"I think we have a record of that from the Sir Walter Raleigh. What happened to them, by the way?"
Lia speaks up. "The ship went down in the line of duty, probably a result of damage sustained in battle. Despite the fact that they were designed as a warship, whether they took more fire or weren't as well designed to absorb it they appeared to take considerably more damage than we did."
"When the girls who were running the ship were here with Rufus," says Lhule, "They didn't look like they were as experienced or well trained as most of our people. There is a limit to what high technology can do for you."
"They did pretty well considering how green they were," says Lia.
"Basically they had a catastrophic malfunction after a battle," adds Vana. "No matter how well you maintain a ship, that can always happen."
"So the Imperial ships are not actually invincible," muses Admiral Lhule.
"It was fighting something 25 times its size," says Lia.
"Doing a pretty good accounting of itself at the time," says Vana.
"It got away, and then it blew up afterwards," says Lia. "Which is much better than blowing up in the presence of the enemy warship, that makes it much more difficult to pull out the survivors."
"It seems that the enemy warships like to blow up right next to our ships," says the Admiral.
"They have that tendency," agrees Vana. "They have a severe tendency to ruin your entire day if you get more than two or three of them in the same area of space at a time, too."
"So what do you see as your role?" asks Lhule.
"Currently we've been troubleshooters at large," replies Vana, "Often doing a lot of advance scout work. You'll find a lot of data on that tape concerning the recon work we've done recently, some of which may or may not have made it onto the short formal reports that you receive through other channels."
"You think that it's worth while continuing with these people?"
"Yes. There are strong signs that it would not be wise to leave them unattended in the immediate future."
"In what way? Would you consider them dangerous or merely in need of some real support, or...?"
"In and of themselves they are not dangerous. They appear to be a strong catalyst for events to happen. Where they are, things happen."
"So when are they leaving?"
"As soon as they can get sufficiently fueled up and we can return, probably."
"You have no interest in retiring at the moment?"
"It would not well serve Scorpionis for me to do so."
"TradeMain Foundation," corrects Lhule.
"Yes, sorry, TradeMain Foundation."
"Yes, I spent all those years sitting in front of a soft Corona fleet, wondering if all those things I'd heard about the Scorpionis forces were true, and now I'm in charge of them it's rather nice."
"I wouldn't trade anyone on the ship for ... well, there are one or two."
"Speaking of which, is that Imperial Admiral still on board?"
"Yes, he's still active, still running around."
"Yes, well. Look, there is one favor you could do for me. If the Captain of the ship comes ashore with a delegation, can you make sure the Admiral isn't on it? I mean, the guy is ... like I need to tell you!"
"We'll draw lots. Whoever gets the short straw will go to Sick Bay."
"How about this? How about we form you plus your people plus the Scorpionis marines you have into a new unit? Pick some random number and call it the Nth Expeditionary Force, give it a nice nickname, and take some photos before you leave. You will answer directly to me. I like having people out there who are not caught up in all the fuss and bother."
Vana says to Lia, "Do we dare go back and take nickname suggestions from Varda?"
"If you can pick a number over 130..." says Lhule.
"The 427th Expeditionary Force, the Roachbusters," announces Vana.
"...and we'll have to tidy up the chain of command as well. We'll need to bump you up a rank or two."
Vana groans. "What would that make me now?"
"Maybe Major, Lieutenant Colonel ... and you'll have to pick some of your other marines to fill up the ranks. If you don't mind, what we'd like to do is cast a special medal for your expedition, just a campaign medal thing, and if we can do a bit of a ceremony ... we'll slip the promotions through before that, it'll look better. One of my aides will be contacting you with details of ranks and will rough out the details of the structure."
"You are trying to get me to retire, aren't you? Just one step away from being a full Colonel and then I'd have to retire."
"No you wouldn't, look at me."
"Exactly!" says Vana triumphantly. "I'm never going to be on that side of the desk, thank you."
"We'll set up a special channel, and if you want anything just tell the operator what you want and we'll put you through without all the hassle."
"Make sure that whoever you assign to writing that up knows that we have a retired Army officer among the crew of that ship, and a lot of ex-Navy people, so make it clear that they are advisory roles?"
"We will make it clear that you are reporting directly to me. I'd like to speak to the captain of the ship and maybe define your role a bit better for him."
The team leaves, and returns past the various guards to the roof. On the way, Vana has fun testing how bad the guards really are.
Helen still has the pinnace warmed up and ready. After a bit of banter with Vana, they fly back to the Anastasia. Helen talks to the tower again, mentioning Admiral Lhule's name among the gobbledygook about the widgets. The assigned route back is much more direct.
Vana and Lia discuss the interview. Lhule is clearly not in trouble, but also not in command, either, given the state of the honor guards.
They also discuss the nature of the recent shipboard troubles. They know Jack and Jill are Imperial people, almost certainly IFSS. Whatever, it's clear that the Imperium has factions, and there may be at least two of them on the ship. Lia's guess is that there are at least two Imperial factions on the ship; at the moment they're cooperating, but it's definitely cooperation rather than alliance. The whole ship is rather jumpy. Everybody seems to think the marines are nice and neutral. Vana observes that the Captain thinks they're better than sliced bread. As long as they keep their independence, Lia observes, they can stay out of the politics. They discuss Grand Admiral Sir Bridgehead, and why he might have ended up on this ship.
Once Admiral Lhule's aide contacts Vana, she sorts out promotions in consultation with Lia. The directive that forms the unit requires that Vana will be Lieutenant Colonel. This means that Varda will be a Major, and Lia a Captain. Teri will be promoted to Second Lieutenant, assigned as an aide to Vana. Kara is up to First Sergeant, as Vana feels she should be better educated before getting a commission. The ten ex-Scorpionis marines will retain their current ranks.
Vana requests that the ex-Scorpionis marines that were sent back with the Sir Walter Raleigh should be located and reassigned back to her unit. The request is noted and they promise to work on it.
It will take a total of three days to finish replenishing the air supply. Mich goes outside to check the hull patches, grateful for the breathable air. The gravity is high, however, at 1.27g; Sir Bridgehead will therefore not want to go ashore here.
Mich takes advantage of the comfortable environment to shore up and smooth out some of the repairs. He reckons that if he can buy some spares here, he can bring one of the other missile turrets back into operation. He determines that it would take 180,000Cr and three days. Fostriades approves the expense readily, which rather surprises Mich. This will give them two active missile batteries, doubling their current missile capabilities.
Mich wonders about replenishing missiles; the starport will sell them conventional (not nuclear) missiles. It seems the days of free handouts may be over.
As for Vana's affairs, the medal presentation ceremony is scheduled for three days from the debriefing. The troops she requested are currently on Corona itself. Orders are sent to Corona to reassign them to the 427th Expeditionary Force, and Vana is given the necessary paperwork to take command of them there, if the Anastasia can pick them up. 17 of the original marines will be available there, meaning that just seven of them can't be transferred to the Roachbusters.
Corona would be an extra jump out of the way, but they could make it to Karakus from there in one trip if they filled the bladders for a two-jump voyage over the five parsecs. This would cost them just one week, but Fostriades is not happy about jumping to deep space with the drives in their current state -- he would prefer Corona to Karakus in two regular jumps. It would still save them quite some time over the alternative of having the troops shipped to a planet on their intended route. They discuss route possibilities.
They stock up on food and so on at standard Imperial prices, a pleasant surprise after the cost of the fuel. Fostriades still looks like he'd rather continue with the (free) processed seal blubber and slime they have on board, but this doesn't seem to be popular with the crew. They pay in Protectorate Dollars.
It will take the full three days to replenish air, and they take the opportunity to flush the system with the good atmosphere here.
Fostriades is concerned about the trading possibilities, since they are now paying to run the ship and need to generate some income. The catch here is that goods on Jusk cost about twice as much as normal; Mich suggests a mail run, but the locals won't trust an alien Imperial ship with their mail. The idea of passengers is not acceptable -- they are having enough trouble with the passengers they have already.
Jusk is classed as Non-Industrial, TL-5; Joloch is Non-Agricultural and Non-Industrial, TL-B; Hurnarey is Low-Population and Non-Industrial, TL-A; Corona is Non-Industrial and Poor, TL-C.
Fostriades is not impressed by the trade possibilities, to say the least. He explains to the rest of the crew why they cannot possibly make any profit on this route.
Avon puts this into simple words for everyone: they should just get out of here in as little time and as few jumps as possible.
The Captain arranges a meeting with Admiral Lhule for 14:00, and manages to convince him to let him take a marine. The Captain chooses Vana, and on the way asks her what the Admiral will want from him. Vana is mostly uninformative.
Helen flies them in the pinnace. This time they are assigned a very direct flight plan, ending with a landing on the same roof as on the previous trip.
This time, however, the guards at the top door are a perfect matched pair. The guard in the lobby are perfect too, as are the ones on the entrance to the inner room where Admiral Lhule is waiting.
The Captain comments on the change in personnel among the guards; Lhule responds that he "pulled a few strings." They exchange pleasantries.
The Captain declines to add any off-the-record comments to the report that has already been filed by the Anastasia. He tells Lhule that their company trader has been trying to seek out some business for them; Lhule suggests that the prospects might be better once they reach Corona.
The Admiral asks where they will head now, to which the Captain responds that they are going back to the Imperium. The engineers feel, he says, that the ship needs maintenance of a kind that they really can't get short of the Imperium. Yes, they do intend to go through Karakus.
Lhule says that Rufus told him that there are some decent facilities there. "Is he planning to go with you to Karakus?"
"I don't believe he's going to leave the ship very soon," replies the Captain.
"You could give him a message from me, if you would. Tell him Admiral Lhule says put in a good word with the scrambled eggs."
"I'll tell him that." The Captain presents Lhule with a souvenir -- a piece of crystalliron from the cockroach ship hull. Lhule makes no move to touch it. "We'll probably be on our way before too long."
"I gather from the Lieutenant Colonel here," says Lhule, "that things happen where you are."
"I don't know if the rest of the universe stays this exciting all the time?"
"It doesn't. So you'll be leaving soon?"
"I suppose this means you don't particularly need anything to happen right at this moment?"
"OK, we'll be on our way."
Lhule then explains Vana's official status: that Lt. Col. Vana is commander of the 427th Expeditionary Force, which is to pick up the rest of its troops on Corona. Vana reports directly to him. For the time, they are stationed on the Anastasia. He suggests that the Anastasia might, from time to time, put itself in a useful spot for things to happen -- if not, he warns, they might get a little bored, and bored marines are a Bad Thing. The Captain does not think this is going to be a problem.
Admiral Lhule tells the Captain that he will have a special channel set up with the starport authorities to get anything they need. He mentions that their ship's boat pilot seems to have achieved remarkable results. The Captain agrees that she has "unique abilities."
They exchange parting words, and the Captain and Vana return to the Anastasia. The Captain asks Vana to give him adequate warning when she feels she is getting bored. Vana agrees to do that.
The ship's boat docks with the Anastasia at 15:30.
The Captain is ready to jump now, but there is still some work to be done on the ship.
There is in fact about a day and a half before they can leave. Avon considers spending the time more enjoyably. The nearest town is around 40 miles away, and they would need traffic permission to get there, of course. Avon seems unique among the crew in that he doesn't mind all these restrictions the local bureaucracy is imposing.
Avon asks around the crew to find someone to come with him, but Grand Admiral Sir Bridgehead (the obvious choice) can't tolerate the high gravity, and the marines are busy sorting out their unit's organization. In the end, just Chiang Ho accompanies him.
Avon, of course, grew up on a much more restrictive world than this. He has no trouble arranging the necessary permission to fly into town, and even reserves a parking space at the same time. "It's so nice having a well-ordered world," he says.
Avon takes one of the air/rafts, and flies the two of them along the assigned route to town. They are one of the few flying vehicles; as they approach the town center, the traffic cop clearly expects them to fall in line with the groundcars. Avon parks in the groundcar space assigned to them.
This is clearly an entertainment section of town. There are restaurants, bars, nightclubs, casinos and so on. Avon has not been to a casino (or even anywhere civilized!) in quite a long time, and since he is carrying half a million credits, he thinks he will do a little gambling.
This section of town looks pretty high-class. Avon is dressed for a night on the town, and selects the most upmarket casino in sight. He has forgotten to check on local tipping customs, and so tips the doorman 1000Cr. The doorman personally escorts the pair inside and has a quiet word with the manager.
"Would you like a table, sir?" the manager says. "A private box, perhaps? We have a spot for you at our head table, if you like."
Avon accepts the last suggestion. He does not tip the manager in case it is taken as an insult.
The place is reasonably busy. It is indeed quite high-class. Avon and Chiang Ho are led to a raised area, with a roped railing around the edge. This area has a distinctly social elite clientele. There are gaming tables overlooking the main crowd; there is a more private area further back from the main floor where there are tables for eating and drinking.
Avon, of course, does not really know how to gamble. "I'll just be ready to lose a fair amount of money," he thinks, "I'd just like to be an asshole. That's my only goal for the evening. I don't do that very often and it'll be a nice change of pace." There are no good ski slopes around here, after all. He's had almost two million credits for two years now, and hasn't spent any of it. He'd just as well use it now...
The gambling games are the standard ones that seem to be pretty much common throughout the known universe -- cards, roulette, and so on. Avon intends to try 200Cr at each game, and take the one he's doing best at, and blow 10,000Cr or five hours whichever comes first.
The stakes here are fairly high. Most people are betting 50Cr or more as a minimum bet. Avon does fairly well on the roulette wheel, but blows it very fast on the cards -- there are clearly some house rules where he didn't really catch the explanation.
Avon knows he can do better, and tries to win his money back. He decides to put another 5,000 towards the task.
Surprisingly enough, the money starts coming in. He's starting to get the hang of it now, and has picked up the rule about the odd hands and the black cards. He continues to accept the free drinks. Some people start coming over to watch Avon's table, having seen him recover 7 or 8 thousand fairly quickly.
Chiang Ho takes great advantage of the free drinks, and wanders around the tables, placing small bets.
Avon's streak continues. The stakes at the game are going up, and the minimum has risen to 1000Cr. The people at the table are not now the same ones as when the stakes were lower. Avon has kept up with the rule changes as people join and leave the game, and so has now won about 25,000. "If I were smart," he thinks, "I'd quit." Naaah!
As he rises a little in his seat, obviously contemplating leaving, a middle-aged lady with a fur coat and a lot of jewels moves over to him and says "Go on, play some more! I love the way you handle your money..."
Avon decides to play until he has an even 50,000. He loses about 10,000 on the next hand. The lady suggests to the dealer that they raise the minimum stake to 5000Cr.
"Who did you say you were?" says Avon.
"I thought you'd never ask!" she answers. "I'm Alice."
Avon introduces himself. "So what brings you by here?"
"I'm on business. Well, I'm on this planet on business, anyway."
"Where are you from?"
"I'm from a small backwater place you'd never have heard of. Just one of the worlds near Lirian. You probably haven't heard of that."
Avon has heard of it. Lirian is just on the Imperium side of Karakus, although the Anastasia's route skirted it to rimward. "I'm from the Imperium," he says.
"Oh really? Gosh. What are you doing out here? Mind if I join you?" she says, sitting down beside him. "I haven't played this game in a while, maybe I can do a little gambling myself."
"It's got some interesting variants. It took me a little while to get the hang of it. I'm having a little string of bad luck now, but I was doing real well for a while. I think I've got back into it."
"Well, I'll bring you good luck."
"If it goes back up to 5000, how many more rules change?"
"Oh, just a few. Actually me sitting down here changed more rules than the change in the stakes. You know that already, of course."
"Would you mind going over the rules changes?"
"Oh, you'll pick them up, you're doing so well. Let's play."
Avon now pulls in 40,000. Alice loses about 20,000.
"Well," says Avon, "You are bringing me luck."
"Well, that's something. So what brings you out here?"
"Oh, we've been sort of hopping around the universe, doing exciting things."
"Are you with a ship, or are you in business?"
"I'm on a ship, that does business, and all kinds of things."
"It's an Imperial ship, then?"
"Well, yeah, I mean it's not like an Imperial military ship."
"I heard there's some Imperial military ships around here?"
"Well we... it's not... well, it is kind of a military ship, it's not commissioned, it's not a ship of the Imperium. Not an Imperial naval ship."
"Oh, you're a spy! How exciting!"
"No. No. No. No. No. We're a... a... I guess you could say we're mercenaries. Sort of. But we've actually spent some time in cockroach space." Avon accepts yet another free drink -- they certainly are plentiful. As for his gambling, he breaks even for a while. "Yes, it was exciting. They're really dumb. Yeah, it was really exciting."
"I hear that they're allied with the Imperium."
"Who?" laughs Avon. "Who is allied with the Imperium?"
"The aliens!" insists Alice.
This really cracks him up. "People say the silliest things. I don't think anyone could ally with them, you can't even talk to them."
"Well, they're attacking from that side, and the Imperium is attacking from the other side."
"The Imperium is attacking from the other side?" echoes Avon. "The Imperium isn't attacking!"
"That's what I'd heard."
The conversation is clearly distracting Avon's gambling. He just lost 60,000, as the minimum stake slips upwards. He is not discouraged. "We were trying to figure out what was going on. Damn strange. Dumb, they're dumb. I don't know how they managed to even... Strong, though."
"Yes, well they've had a lot of effect on trade, of course, all the time. A lot of ships come through; particularly the Protectorate gets a lot of them through."
"They really don't do all that well if you run into them just a few at a time, but you don't usually run into them just a few at a time. They send in huge, huge numbers of enormous ships and just kind of blow everything out of the path."
"I gather that's what they did to the Protectorate when they came through," says Alice, "A great Imperial battle fleet just came straight through the Protectorate, apparently."
"No, no, I'm talking about the cockroaches! What do you mean a big Imperial battle fleet came through the Protectorate? There's no Imperial battle fleets coming through. What would the Imperium want to attack the Protectorate?"
"Maybe my sources were wrong. You hear a lot of rumors around."
"Well, let me put it this way. We've been out in space for a while, and maybe a lot has changed since I've been out there, but I would be really surprised." His gambling improves. The stakes have increased yet again, and Avon has picked up 80,000. He guesses he's now ahead by over 50,000. He thinks he should really quit, since he's done so well...?
Chiang Ho is still partying on the free drink and food, occasionally trying a little small-stakes gambling. The house obviously considers he is a friend of Avon, and is treating him accordingly. He's having a great time.
Alice orders some food for herself and Avon. He insists on paying, but Alice tells him it'll be on the house. Avon is somewhat surprised. Alice asks him where they are heading now.
"Oh, we're headed back to a couple of systems," replies Avon, "And to Karakus to get some repairs on the ship."
"So Karakus is a good place to get ships repaired?" asks Alice.
"Apparently our engineers thinks they've got hot stuff there. Original manufacturers parts or something, keeps the warranty intact or something."
"So that would take you pretty close to Lirian, then?"
"Yes, but if you're thinking of getting a ride, the Captain isn't very fond of passengers. We've had some bad experiences with some."
"I don't take up much room. I'd pay my way. I've being doing business here with all the trade coming through, and I really could use getting back to Lirian."
"I could talk to the Captain and the Boss, but whatever they say goes, and they don't seem to like passengers too much. Like I said, well... I probably shouldn't say too much about it, but we had a couple of passengers who made a lot of trouble. I mean, I'm not saying you'd do anything like that, you'd probably be perfectly safe, but there was so much trouble, so I don't think the Captain would agree."
"There's no cargo to pick up here. If you're interested in making money... I won't carry any weapons, or anything."
"Well, Fostriades -- that's sort of our businessman -- he's always interested in making money, but I don't know if he'd go for passengers."
"You could give it a try. Let's see, what's the standard ticket rate?"
"Don't even talk to me about money! I'll let you talk to Fostriades."
"Hmmm. Standard Imperial rate is about 8,000 a jump." (Alice is wrong, it's actually 10,000 for high passage.) "It's a reasonably luxurious ship? Quite comfortable? You seem to be doing quite well."
"Yeah, it's a nice ship. The food is not good but it should be better when we get the supplies on board here."
"I could pay, say, 15,000 a jump?"
It is now around 1:00 in the morning. Fostriades has been looking for deals all day, so Avon thinks it will be fine to call him with this great news. He does.
Steve Howard receives the call. Fostriades is in his cabin. Avon says it's about a big money-making opportunity, so Steve puts the call through.
"Hi, it's William Avon! How's it going?"
"Fine," answers Fostriades. There are strange noises in the background.
"Hey, there's this nice lady here who wants a ride to Lirian and she says she'd be willing to pay 15,000 a jump, so I promised that I'd ask. I know you didn't want passengers, but..."
"It's not my decision, it's the Captain's decision."
"But you're the money person, right?"
"Only half again as much as high? That doesn't seem to be in accordance with costs around here."
"So, like, what should I tell her?"
"As far as I'm concerned, no!"
"Well, Fostriades... Hello? Hello?" Avon turns to Alice. "He seems to think it isn't enough. If you want to talk to him, it's fine with me." Alice offers 25,000. Avon tries to raise Fostriades again. "How about 25,000?"
"You want to speak to the Captain." Fostriades hangs up.
Avon asks Steve Howard to connect him -- he hesitates, but puts it through.
"Hello?" says the Captain, feebly.
"Hi! Captain, how's it going?" says Avon, enthusiastically. "Oh. Were you taking a nap? I'm sorry about that."
"I'm sure Fostriades can bail you out."
"No, I'm not in trouble! Just a money-making opportunity."
"Fostriades handles the money."
"Well, Fostriades sent me over to you," Avon says. Alice suggests that he should just go ahead and take her aboard -- they won't mind, she says.
"What's going on?" asks the Captain, still rather sleepily.
"Oh. We've got a passenger here who's going to pay us 25,000 per jump and I just thought I'd let you know."
"Fostriades said to take a passenger?" the Captain mumbles.
"No, Fostriades said I had to double-check with you."
"Uh... um... where is she staying, are you going to keep her in your room?"
"I'm sure we can work that out."
"Is she in the habit of killing people and taking over ships?"
"I'll ask her. OK, I'm glad it's OK!"
"Tell her we'll have a passenger application form for her in the morning."
Avon assures Alice that there will be no problem. "The Captain has decided to create a little paperwork in the morning -- this planet must be rubbing off on him. He wasn't sure we had any free cabins, but I have a large cabin, we could put a curtain up or something."
"I'm sure that wouldn't be a problem."
Avon thinks it's getting a little late to go back to the gaming tables. "So what else is there to do around here?"
"This is about the best place in town," says Alice. "Do you have any more plans for tonight?"
"Not really. This is fun, but I'm not sure what we're going to do with the rest of the evening. What time is it? Oh! No wonder the Captain was asleep!"
"Really, is it that late already? Amazing how the time flies by."
"Well, can I walk you back to wherever it is you're staying?"
"Certainly, it's right next door. Unless... we could go back to your ship, if you want to."
"I guess we could go back to the ship now, if you like. Let me see if I can find Chiang Ho. Oh, there are all those forms to fill out. Well, you can stay on the ship, that won't be a problem. So your name is Alice...?"
"Yes, Alice Cooper."
"Certainly tonight there won't be any extra cabins for you, though."
"I could borrow your couch or something."
"Yeah, that's fine.
Chiang Ho has gone back to playing a small-stakes roulette table. He is pretty well smashed. They collect him, and walk back to the air-raft. Alice will get her luggage sent out to the ship later.
Avon does not think he is too drunk to drive. There is no doubt whatsoever that Chiang Ho cannot help -- Avon and Alice lay him down in the back seat, and he snores contentedly while they fly back to the ship.
Steve Howard is still on duty on the bridge, and he opens the vehicle deck for Avon to fly in. The air/raft lands perfectly in place. It's about 04:00 in the morning.
The marine on the vehicle deck calls Vana and tells her that Chiang Ho and Avon are back. He further reports that Avon has brought a woman with him, and Chiang Ho is laid out and will probably need someone to carry him down to Sick Bay.
Vana arranges a marine escort, sends Varda to investigate, and goes back to sleep. The marines wake up Sir Bridgehead (why should HE get enough sleep? No-one else has tonight...) to come up and attend to Chiang Ho.
Avon takes Alice to his cabin, ignoring the marines escorting them. Avon takes the couch, leaving the bed for Alice. He apologizes for the state of the room.
The doorbell rings. It's Varda, come to find out what going on.
"Who's the floozy?" Varda asks.
"There's no floozy. This is Alice, she's going to be a passenger. Why are you up, anyway?" asks Avon.
"Somebody," says Varda, staring at Avon, "brought an unauthorized visitor on board our vessel..."
"No, no, I talked to the Captain about it."
"Yes, but the Captain has not talked to me about it."
"He seemed to be a little sleepy."
"I wonder why?" Varda is apparently not pleased. "Perhaps it might have been because it's four fuckin' a.m. in the morning."
"No, it was one when I talked to him," says Avon, helpfully.
"OK. And so the two of you have been doing what for the last three hours?"
"What do you care?"
"I have to fill out a complete report."
"Well, thank you for your concern."
Avon closes the door. He has, it seems, had enough of talking to Varda for one night.
Varda posts a guard in the corridor, goes up to the bridge, and arranges for computer access to be disabled in Avon's cabin with a clear conscience: "If we need a Chief Gunner planetside, I don't think it's going to be any good that he shows up half-crocked."
She questions Steve Howard about whether the Captain has been notified that there is a visitor on board, and about the content of Avon's communications. Steve is not able to help her much.
Varda insists on calling the Captain, over Steve's objections.
"Who is this?" groans the Captain.
"This is Varda."
"You too? Bring them by, have them fill out forms in the morning. Goodnight."
"No, Captain, he already brought her by. She's sleeping in his cabin, with him."
"It's not morning yet."
"I know, it's four fuckin' a.m."
"She's supposed to show up in the morning and fill out lots of forms. Lots of forms."
"I think she wants to get an early start. She's sleeping in the room, I have a guard outside the door, computer access to the room has been terminated. If it's no problem with you, Captain, I'll finish by terminating both of them and then going to bed myself."
"Why don't you wait till morning? Goodnight."
The Captain wakes a while later and calls Varda. "You may not terminate them. Goodnight."
Mich sees the air/raft arrive. He continues with his work on the ship, which he completes that night.
At 9:00, the Captain wakes up. He contacts Linda and asks her to produce some complex paperwork for the passenger and find out as much as possible. "The gunner is bringing some lady on board and interrupted everybody's sleep last night. The forms are for her. And him."
Varda, in full dress uniform and a black armband, then presents herself to the Captain and says she is ready to carry out his orders concerning the passengers. Which orders? To oversee the dispatching of the unwanted visitors, of course!
The Captain does not seem impressed by Varda sense of humor. He tells her she can present the paperwork to them, if she wants. Varda suggests there might be someone better suited...Sir Bridgehead, perhaps? The Captain thinks that would be a little excessive.
The Captain calls Avon's cabin. Avon seems a little sluggish this morning. The Captain asks him to bring the guest to the bridge to fill out the paperwork. Yes, it does have to be done right now -- when would Avon suggest, 4 a.m. perhaps?
Avon rouses himself, then wakes up Alice and tells her that the Captain is anxious to get started on the paperwork. He takes her to the bridge, collecting some coffee on the way. They are, of course, accompanied by a marine escort. The escort, for some reason, are stomping their boots, shouting to each other, and generally making quite a racket. Avon looks rather ill, and wishes they'd be quieter.
They arrive at the bridge, where the Captain greets Alice cheerfully and dismisses the guards.
"Alice," says the Captain, "Can you tell us why you want to travel on our ship?"
"I'd like passage back to Lirian, or as close as I can get. I've been here on business."
"How is it you came out this way?"
"I'm in business, mostly trading in various goods and things. All sorts of things really -- things that make money. This time it's mostly textiles."
"How is it that you've not made plans for your return?"
"I could go back by various scheduled flights through Corona, but the chance to travel on an Imperial ship ... I know they're a lot more reliable and a lot more comfortable, and generally a lot quicker."
It occurs to Avon that he forgot to mention a few things about this ship. Since Alice arrived at night, it's unlikely she noticed the heavy battle damage, for example...
"We're not exactly a standard Imperial ship, you realize?" says the Captain.
"That's all right," replies Alice. "To get through Corona to Lirian I'd have to find somebody who was doing the trip."
"If you travel with us you'll have to accept some fairly heavy restrictions on your movements. As I said, we're not exactly a standard Imperial ship. We are not accustomed to carrying passengers."
"That's quite understandable," Alice says.
The Captain then gets Alice and Avon started on the forms. Alice does say she needs to get her bags sent over, and arrangements are made for her to call later.
Linda hands a very large stack of forms to Alice, and a merely large stack to Avon. He is not impressed.
"Captain," asks Avon, "What is this?"
"We've been working on a passenger protocol," explains the Captain. "I realize that it might seem a little bit cumbersome, but if you could help us work out some of the kinks with it..."
"How about if we file this part in the round file?" Avon asks, holding up his stack.
"Varda in particular is very interested in seeing how well this passenger protocol works, and has offered her personal assistance."
"Well, after the last passengers we got on..." starts Avon. As the Captain tries to drown him out, he continues, "...I can understand why you might want a little bit more information. Captain?"
The Captain strolls off, muttering platitudes.
"Everyone's acting so strange lately," observes Avon.
Avon and Alice start on the forms. Alice really doesn't seem to mind. A continuous supply of coffee no doubt helps.
After a while, Linda comes by with another stack of paperwork. "I'm really not sure what they're for," she admits.
"They're the Captain's revenge for waking him up at one o'clock in the morning, that's what they're for," grumbles Avon. "Oh, by the way Linda, if you want a clue, the Captain gets real grouchy when you wake him up at one o'clock in the morning."
None of the forms are as helpful as the Captain had wanted. Linda, in the limited time available, had put the emphasis on volume rather than content.
After several hours, the forms are all filled out. Alice sends out for her bags; Varda looks forward to the pleasure of tearing them all apart while searching them.
The Anastasia will be ready to take off at 03:00 tomorrow morning, on 354-1118.
Fostriades finds it suspicious that Alice is filling out the forms quite so happily. At a carefully chosen awkward moment, he arrives with his dogs. Alice is not irritated in the slightest, and Achilles and Zenobia seem to think she's OK -- no more, no less.
Avon, on the other hand, is quite frustrated. He explains to Alice that this is not usual. He has no objection to filling out forms when they're justified, of course, but these are quite pointless. He does, however, think it's an improvement over how they handled Jack and Jill.
Alice's luggage is delivered to the ship around 12:00. It is clearly an expensive set, of the style and amount one would normally expect when traveling planet-to-planet.
Varda takes everything apart. There are a lot of high-quality clothes and jewelry, but nothing remarkable except 2.5MCr in cash. Varda is disappointed to find no weapons. She calls Avon and Alice to tell them they can come and pick it up. Alice is still trailed by a marine whenever she moves around the ship; she doesn't seem to mind.
When they arrive, they find the luggage spread over the cargo receiving area in neat piles. Avon questions whether this was really necessary; Varda replies that it is standard procedure. Avon observes that they have acquired a lot of new standard procedures recently.
Alice expertly repacks her luggage, and with Avon's help she carries the luggage back to Avon's stateroom. Alice will be sharing this cabin, and the one bed, with Avon for the duration of the trip.
This increases double-occupancy amongst the luxury crew cabins: Paula has already moved in with Mich, and Lia has been sharing with Fostriades for quite a while.
While the occupants of Avon's stateroom are busy, Lia searches it to make sure Alice has brought nothing unusual aboard. There is indeed nothing unusual, but Avon's gauss rifle is of course kept in his cabin. So if Alice is carrying any weapons, they are presumably on her person ... and it would be rather hard to hide any weapons with the dress she is wearing now.
Mich and Chiang Ho emerge from their staterooms, to find Fostriades asking for some bean juice. Bean juice? With BRUNCH?? OK...
Fostriades takes a slug and goes to Avon's cabin to collect payment for the trip. Avon lets him in -- he seems relieved it is only the Boss, not a marine.
Alice Cooper and Threasis Fostriades are introduced. She agrees to pay for each jump in advance, one jump at a time, and hands over the agreed 25,000Cr.
Fostriades stares strangely at the 25 feathers in his hand. He looks at Alice. Now he notices she looks remarkably like a chicken, perhaps a sports team mascot. Yes, that's right, he remembers her plucking those feathers from her breast.
Avon looks at Fostriades. "Are you OK?"
"Yes, fine," replies Fostriades. He looks rather spaced out. He thanks Alice, and hurries back to his cabin, where he puts the feathers carefully in the safe.
Mich and Chiang Ho invite Alice and Avon to lunch. The crew comment on the remarkable improvement in the food -- Mich is of the opinion that bacon and eggs is much better than processed whale blubber and green-slime-spam.
Fostriades soon joins them. He gulps down two strong cups of Turkish coffee, and starts to look almost normal by the time Vana, Lia, and Helen arrive.
Mich introduces himself to Alice, carefully wiping his greasy hands on his uniform first. Avon explains that Mich is a good engineer.
Chiang Ho compliments her on looking much less fuzzy than the last time they met; she says he's much more vertical now.
Alice asks about the ship: it's some kind of mercenary vessel, isn't it?
"This old bucket?" replies Mich.
"We amuse ourselves," says Fostriades. "I gather you're into trading?"
Alice explains that she's in business, working for herself rather than a corporation. Fostriades immediately starts discussing trade with her, explaining that they too engage in speculative trade. They agree that there's nothing worth buying here.
Alice asks about the food, rather warily. Mich is vocal in his disgust of their previous rations, while Vana thinks he's being a wimp.
Alice asks about the armament on the ship -- it seems to be fairly heavy for an independent trader? Fostriades and Avon explain that they don't always follow established routes, and have to watch out for pirates. Mich tells her about the omnipresent marines -- they were picked up a while ago and have taken over the security of the ship, he says.
Alice asks where they are headed overall -- she knows they're going near Lirian, which is very convenient for her.
Fostriades says they are going to Karakus.
"Oh yes," she says, "There's some sort of ship repair facilities there, is that right?"
"It's the best place for this ship," says Fostriades.
"Yes," agrees Mich, "We're past due our yearly maintenance, the jump drives are..."
"That's what I thought it was!" exclaims Avon, "I told you there was something about keeping the warranty intact!"
"It can be a bit flaky at times," says Mich happily, "But we're holding it together. Nothing really to worry about."
Alice continues: "So Karakus is an Imperial starport, then?"
"It's a good sized starport," answers Fostriades.
"So there would perhaps be an Imperial Naval base there, something like that?"
"I think it's a private shipyard, isn't it?" says Avon.
"Wasn't it the IFSS?" says Mich.
"So what kind of business brought you here?" Chiang Ho changes the subject, much to the relief of Fostriades.
"Mostly dealing in raw textiles this time around. Finished goods would be good to deal with, but they want to do that themselves. I deal in a few other things, whatever seems to be making the money well, you know how it is."
"So," says Mich, "You're heading back to Lirian?"
"Yes, that's where I run my business from."
"How did you transport your textiles?" asks Chiang Ho.
"I rented cargo space on ships to Corona, then scheduled freight lines from there. I make enough on the speculation that it's worth buying the space for the goods."
Fostriades tries to identify her accent: to him it seems fairly well educated, possibly an Imperial education. "So why the big interest in the Imperium?" he says, "You seem awfully curious about us."
"Well, you don't see many Imperial ships in these parts. You see a reasonable number in Lirian, but not out here."
"Karakus is only a Jump-3 from Lirian," observes Mich, "How come you hadn't heard much about what was there?"
"It doesn't seem like there's much trade going that way. That's why I was surprised when you said it was a big starport."
"Well," says Mich, "Even sending traders out from Lirian to Corona..."
"We've never come across much in terms of starport facilities at Karakus. They've never contacted us."
"You pretty much have to go through Karakus," insists Mich.
"Yes, but no starport contacted us. It was just refueling and on our way, I gather. I spend most of my time in my cabin on voyages -- there's not much to do on most of these ships. It's fairly much a case of catching independent traders when they go through -- there's not many scheduled flights from Lirian to Corona."
"And you came out this way because you thought there'd be some money in it?" asks Fostriades.
"Yes," answers Alice. "There was."
"Have you been to the Imperium itself?"
"No, I've never actually been into the Imperium."
"Pity. You'd probably enjoy it." Fostriades launches into an enthusiastic description of the tourist attractions of Five Sisters. It is convincing, although not too accurate.
"So what sort of things are good to make money on out there?"
"The Imperium is very large and diverse. Madam, you know yourself..."
"What was that one run we were making a killing on?" asks Mich. "There was this one world that just had trees, and barbaric type civilization. Give them trinkets and they'd give us trees, and weed, and corn. We'd ship it, just a couple of jumps away was a high spaceport that desperately needed food."
"You know how it is, Madam," says Fostriades. "you attune your buying and selling to the individual needs of the area."
"I just wondered," says Alice, "If there was anything special..."
"I didn't ask that."
"I find it very useful to be legal. Particularly when it comes to stuff that you're selling."
"One man's legal is another man's illegal."
"Only if you can justify it."
"If one has a signed note from the Emperor," says Chiang Ho, "Anything is legal."
"So what's the Imperium's business out this way?" asks Alice. "Are you scouting out for them or something?"
"Now madam, surely you understand that if we were, we'd hardly be talking about it to you."
"But we aren't anyway," says Avon. "We were just out here because we were curious, it was interesting, and the Boss thought we might be able to make some money."
"We got this idea," says Mich, "That we knew to pick up some people who had been lost out in this way for a while. We found them and they weren't as nice as we thought they were. So we're bringing them back." Fostriades kicks him hard under the table.
"More Imperial spies, is this?" asks Alice.
"Imperial spies?" says Mich, "What spies?"
"Yes, ma'am," says Vana, "Why would you bring up the topic of spies?"
"Have you seen a psychologist on the subject of this obvious maladjustment you have?" says Fostriades. "You seem almost to have a persecution complex about Imperial spies!"
"Was there something going on with Imperial spies?" says Avon.
"Well," says Alice, "There must be, mustn't there? The Imperium has spies everywhere."
"You definitely need to see a doctor, ma'am," says Fostriades.
"That's probably true, don't you think?" says Avon. "Everyone has spies everywhere. Any system worth its salt is going to have some spies around to find out what's going on."
"Well obviously I should take security precautions," says Vana.
"I notice you have been," says Alice.
"I haven't. I will now. Thank you for the warning."
"It's just I've heard these rumors, and it seems reasonable to assume that if that was happening, then there would be spies out here. Maybe it isn't the Imperium -- who else would attack?"
"The cockroaches are attacking," says Fostriades.
"She's heard that there's someone attacking from the other side," explains Avon.
"Maybe it's the Zhodani moving rimward," says Fostriades. He pauses. "There's always more money to be made in troubled times."
"That's what I'm doing out here," says Alice. "You've noticed what the prices are like. Maybe you'd like to bring a cargo out this way from Lirian?"
"That could be arranged," says Fostriades, "But we don't normally rent cargo space."
"Well," says Alice, "Maybe we could work a deal where you get a cut of the profit. It depends on how much you have to invest."
"Generally we prefer to do our own investments."
"Well, I have the business connections. We could move some cargoes that might not be able to be moved on regular lines -- perishable things, stuff like that."
"We'll just have to see when we get there. The advice of a good broker, particularly with local knowledge, is invaluable -- although it does usually come with a price tag attached."
"Particularly an Imperial ship, I'm sure, gets a lot less trouble under certain circumstances. If the rumors are right and there is an Imperial fleet moving in, then you won't be so affected."
"If the Imperium invaded I'm sure we'd be better off," says Avon. "I would not consider that something worth worrying about too much."
"Frankly," says Fostriades, "If the Imperium has invaded it will be very irritating for us as well. We are NOT a regular military ship. We are a freelance vessel."
"So are you wanted by them?"
"So have you ever tried any creative cargo appropriating?"
"Madam, we are NOT pirates!" insists Vana.
"We don't need to," says Fostriades, "We do just fine on legitimate business."
"I was just curious, that's all," says Alice. "I like to know what sort of ship I'm traveling on."
"Aye," says Mich, "Welcome aboard, matey!" The real breakfast has left him in excellent spirits, it seems.
"Have you ever taken on such a... you seem remarkably unshocked or worried by it, frankly." says Fostriades.
"Well, you seem honest people," says Alice. "William over here is certainly a good gambler."
This comes as news to the rest of the crew. They all turn to look at Avon.
"Yeah, I made 50,000Cr last night," says Avon.
The crew are impressed.
"You probably just got lucky," says Vana.
"I went in there intending to lose a lot of credits having fun," says Avon. "I think that's maybe the secret. If you go in there to make money, you lose money, so..."
"Well, I was bringing you luck," says Alice.
"Yes, that's true. I was losing until Alice got there."
"Really?" says Fostriades.
"Have you spent a lot of time in that casino since you've been here?" asks Chiang Ho.
"When I come here, yes. I've only been here about four or five days. I followed a simple route here from Joloch, and Hurnarey, following the Jump-2 main."
"Aren't there other ships heading out to Joloch from here?" asks Mich.
"Well, yes and no. There are, but most of them are run-down freighters. Almost everything that is capable of flying has been pressed into service."
"We're 40 years old," says Mich.
"Some of the stuff they're pulling out is 2 or 3 hundred years old. Quite frankly, Imperial ships have a reputation for much better reliability and comfort."
Mich and Fostriades point out that's probably due to the maintenance -- which they are heading back to get.
"This must be a pretty fancy ship if you can't get the maintenance out here."
Mich and Fostriades say their biggest problem is a lack of parts, especially the proprietary General Products components -- even the coffee makers have the GP logo on them. Alice has not heard of GP as a starship builder. Mich explains how baling wire and duct tape can be made to fix most things.
Mich expresses some impatience at the prospect of not having an assigned take-off approved yet. Avon explains that paperwork and ordered procedures are generally a good thing. Mich makes his excuses and leaves to check on the jump drive.
Fostriades asks Alice if she knows anything about the trade coefficients of this area? Since she does, he quickly shuttles her off to discuss trade matters.
Alice seems to have a good knowledge of the specialty trade -- how to find goods which are reached through channels other than the normal trading procedures -- stuff which requires local contacts. This hovers on the dubious edge of legality -- some things are legal in one place and not another, for example. She knows how to get good profit from this business without actually stepping over the letter of the law either buying or selling it. This is a bit too speculative for Fostriades. Alice also has experience in getting things past customs officials without losing too much money in the process -- all using regular legal methods, apparently. Fostriades listens carefully.
Since they are going to be in port tonight anyway, Avon tries to get together a group to go back to town. No-one really seems interested: Alice wants to settle on the ship, while many of the rest of the crew need to catch up on sleep before take-off tomorrow. Fostriades says he'd prefer Avon to stay, as he doesn't want to get woken up at one in the morning again; anyway, who knows what Avon would bring back this time? In the end, Avon agrees to stay on board too.
Fostriades arranges a flight plan, with a take-off at 03:00 the next day. Mich would have preferred to leave at a more reasonable hour like 11:00, but the Captain seems anxious to get off this world. They are assigned a direct path out, at the requested 2g -- they don't want to give away how fast the ship really is.