The rescued marines are in good spirits and glad to be away from Staru. It was livable but cold where they were (average temperature -18), with 0.43 gravity -- they are worked up to 0.8 gravity over the jump.
The Anastasia arrives from Staru, and Rufus starts hard work from his sensor station.. There is nothing from the Secondary, from the Primary there are some emissions -- no radio, but some power generation. There are no radio emissions at all, not even a beacon.
As they approach, there are signs of lights and suchlike on the mainworld, but still no radio traffic. There is no sign of anything in orbit either. Fostriades suggests that they refuel first, at the gas giant P6 (furthest from the mainworld).
Dulu should have a class C starport on the mainworld, which is around the gas giant in orbit P5. There should be a colony on a satellite of P6, but they pick up nothing from there.
Fostriades reminds them that though the cockroaches used radio for ground troop transmissions, they have never picked up any radio transmissions from any of their ships.
As they approach the gas giant to refuel, they notice that where the colony is supposed to be on P6-10 there are signs of it being blasted. The battle here was between 069-1117 and 072-1117, almost 300 days ago, so most orbital debris would probably have come down by now. Most of the fighting in the Battle of Dulu was concentrated around the Secondary.
Before they start refueling, Rufus tries to scan into the gas giant atmosphere to pick up any ships, but doesn't find any. There is, however, a little debris in orbit. If there was a ship inside the gas giant, they would have to generate power and he should be able to pick that up, if they weren't on the far side of the planet. Chiang Ho refuels the Anastasia in six hours, avoiding debris in the process.
They think they should now head back to the mainworld, and send a probe out in advance to find out what's there -- they want it to pick up visual, radiation, and pass within visual range of a power source and the starport (where there is no power source). This will be very tricky because of the errors inherent in a complex path at such a distance, but it does work.
The probe detects that the starport area is pretty devastated, but outside that there does seem to be some population areas (towns outside the city) that look visually intact. They can't tell whether they see humans or cockroaches, but it doesn't look like anyone's hiding particularly.
Of course they are now equipped with enough fuel to make their jump straight to Jusk, whatever they encounter.
Standard procedure is that Fostriades will be Acting Captain in the Captain's absence, unless the ship is in extreme danger when Helen would be in charge.
Helen, the Captain, Avon, Brock, Vana, Varda, Kara, Teri, and 24 random marines (the higher ranks) will land with the pinnace to find out what's going wrong. Lia will remain on board the Anastasia to outrank the "bozo" marines that aren't going on the mission.
Chiang Ho brings the Anastasia in to about 3 hours travel from Dulu, and sets the ship at that relative point.
Dulu has a gravity of 0.23G and an average temperature of -3. The atmosphere is thin tainted, so respirators will be required, although not vacc suits.
The theory is suggested that the cockroaches are men in insect suits, but this is contradicted by the marines who have seen them die. The enemy are, apparently, not good to their prisoners -- just beating them with no reason, for example.
Avon pilots the pinnace, taking off at 03:00 with the landing party on board. As per standard procedure, the ship will track the pinnace, and tight-beam communications will be maintained between the craft and the ship.
The pinnace arrives at Dulu at 06:00. They descend through the atmosphere for a close-to-ground approach. The lights on the planet look like a reduced set of lights from buildings -- no street lights or stuff like that.
The pinnace sweeps close over what appears to be a farmhouse, but there are no signs of activity. The terrain is rocky scrub. They continue on towards a town in the night zone. Avon selects a landing site about a mile outside the town, a spot where they can land well out of sight.
Avon brings down the pinnace into the clearing, and with a loud crash and splash it breaks through the surface of the ice on the pond. THAT's why it was so smooth and flat! They lift off again and move away quickly to select another spot, while Avon makes excuses ("It was the snow. Yes, that's it. The snow").
This spot is bumpy but acceptable, in a slight depression. Avon lands the pinnace safely. Brock checks out the air quality; it is thin, and would tire someone out if they tried much exertion; it contains some sulfur contaminants which would cause lung irritation after about 6 hours; filter masks are indicated, and perhaps a respirator. All who can, use battledress. Most of the "bozo" marines settle for a filter mask.
There is no sign of activity outside the ship. They disembark, while Vana leads a group of marines up to the hill that shields them from the town.
Helen and four marines remain on the pinnace to give them rescue or air support as required. Brock will take command of the ground forces. The Captain will go along with the ground troops for his computer skills. The ranking officer (the ONLY officer) of the Scorpionis marines is a 25 year old 2nd Lieutenant (he speaks Galanglic OK on the subject of military operations). The marines themselves are in really good shape, as they had a great deal of hard exercise in the Staru War. Vana picks a Sergeant as her liaison to the Scorpionis marines.
They reach the outskirts of the town. This looks like a suburban residential area. The houses are square boxes, flat roofs. Brock sends in four marines to find out the race of the inhabitants, preferably without hurting humans.
The advance squad goes out. One of the marines fiddles with the door lock for a while, stands up, kicks the door twice, then shoots out the lock. They go in. There are no more gunshots, and after a while they report back that the house in empty.
Most of the lights were towards the center of the town. The houses around here are in darkness.
There is a trail leading to the town from here. They follow its general direction.
They come up to a wire chain-link fence. There is an open area beyond from which the undergrowth has been cleared, then a small factory of some sort, with some lights on, and some of the snow has melted off the roof.
They examine the fence. It is not electrified, but there is an alarm wire running about a meter from the ground. They cut the hole underneath that, crawl through, and spread out beyond. About 20m out from the building the ground has been graded to reach a loading dock, but out near the fence the ground is still rough enough to conceal them.
Avon takes a good look at the building. The structure is not very strong -- a few shells lobbed through the roof could probably bring it down. There are no signs of any alarms, motion sensors, or anything like that. There are some windows high up, but this is probably just a high light source; there does not seem to be anyone at the windows.
Brock asks Vana to select a two-person team to go in and investigate. Varda and Teri approach the loading dock. There is a large door and a small door leading off it. They go to the small door. Varda examines the lock, then calls back for breaking and entering tools. A marines runs up to her with them, then runs back -- in full view of anyone who happened to be looking out of the window.
Varda fiddles with the lock, then stands back and covers the door while Teri eases the door open. It looks like a light manufacturing plant. There is no sign of anyone. They go in. It looks like it has been recently used -- there are light machine tools set up over most of the factory area, and there are recent shavings at the lathes and drill presses. There is some light from what looks like an office area, and Brock tells them to check it out.
The sounds of small arms fire, followed by the large boom of a plasma gun, are heard from the building. Varda's swearing comes over the radio, then she gives her report. There was one person (human) who came out of the office area and emptied an automatic pistol at them, so they shot him. There is not enough left of him for Sir Bridgehead to reconstruct -- he was unarmored and hit by a plasma gun. The marines withdraw from the building and return to the group outside.
As Varda and Teri emerge from the loading dock, lights and floodlights come on at the adjacent small administration building about 300m away. The floodlights cover about 50m around it, but there is still no sign of any one until Avon notices someone, probably human, at one of the windows.
The group now moves up to the edge of the floodlit area. Brock turns on the outside speaker, "Hello!", and the head moves back from the window. He wonders if this is a prison, but there are only these two buildings plus a shed further on, with no sign of residential buildings.
Brock walks up to the door, from where he can see an entrance gate to the facility about 100m beyond the building, with a simple gatehouse. The door to this building is an airtight glass-paneled door, with another one beyond, probably for air filtering and insulation. The door does not open for him as he approaches. Inside it appears to have night-time low-level lighting. The building itself is about 40m on this side, and there's probably a front door on the side facing the street.
Out in the town, there are sounds of a wheeled vehicle of some sort moving at high speed. They hear sirens getting nearer. The group opens the gate (the gatehouse is empty) and awaits its arrival.
A wheeled Armored Personnel Carrier arrives. The group intercepts local low-power radio communications from it explaining the situation. It's an interesting explanation -- a large group of armored marines, several in alien battledress (Imperial, of course!) is confronting them. They discuss what backup they will need to handle this -- several squads with gas and heavy weapons support.
As Brock approaches them, a couple of local military policemen emerge from the car, and cover him with rifles while using the car as cover. They tell him to stop. He stops and says hello. They ask him who he is, and he says he is Colonel David Brock of the merchant cruiser Anastasia, who are they? He is under arrest for armed robbery, and he is to tell his gang to put down their guns. But they haven't stolen anything! The cops are sure he has stolen something, and they'll work out what later; in the meantime, they are to put down their guns, please, or they will open fire.
"No way!" exclaims the Captain, "We're your saviors, come to rescue you from the cockroaches!" Brock turns around to look at the "stupid Captain." Confusion reigns as the Captain tries to explain, with dubious assistance from the others.
"What happened to your starport?" asks the Captain.
"None of your business!"
"I know what happened to your starport. Your Navy blew it up as it left, fleeing the cockroaches. Big cockroaches. Now where ARE the creatures? Oh by the way, the ships are coming back you know!"
" Look, you're going to be surrounded. I suggest you surrender. Who are you? Let me see your face."
Brock pops his faceplate open.
"Do you have some identification?" the cops ask.
The Captain presents his wallet, Imperial Credits, Travellers' Aid Society card, etc.. The radio transmissions start up again, saying that someone here has ID as a Captain Delaney from the Imperium. It looks like real ID, and the guy's got stripes on his battledress.
"That's my ship up there," says the Captain.
"Yeah, you and the green men."
"Just what would you like me to call down fire on to prove it?"
They laugh, and the Captain threatens to call it down randomly on something lighted.
"Are you going to invade us?"
"No! We're here to help you. We want to find out what happened with the cockroaches. Let me put this to you bluntly: you are trying to make decisions which you are not equipped to do. You need to let us talk to someone in appropriate authority, you do not want these decisions on your neck. I believe you can understand that. If you mess us up, you're the one they'll want hung."
"Well, at least lower your weapons." The radio calls for the chief. The Captain's ID is returned to him.
A couple more APCs come down the other end of the street, and stop about 100m away. They block the street, and about a dozen people emerge and cover the group with rifles. Varda smiles to herself in the sure knowledge that her gun could do severe damage to the APCs, and since it is a high-tech Imperial weapon, the locals won't know that ... yet.
Back on the Anastasia, Fostriades checks the location of the pinnace. It is airborne and closing on the confrontation. Fostriades calls the craft on a private line, and says "Don't do anything too rash, Christabel."
Brock offers the cop a cigarette. The tension eases somewhat as they wait for the chief to arrive. They chat, and the Captain congratulates them on surviving, after what they saw on Staru, where the cockroaches killed them all but about 100 marines, but they were bottled up there. They are trying to track down the remnants. As far as the cop knows, nothing has been through here recently. He thinks the idea of giant cockroaches is a real comic-book thing, but the Captain tells him that their medic has dissected some. The fighting in Dulu, it seems, was restricted to naval action, except for some bombing and the Navy destroying the facilities on the way out. The Captain drops some names of the Scorpionis Admirals.
Another two APCs arrive, presumably with the Chief.
"There is going to be a problem," the Captain tells the cop, "I have been informed by the marines that there may be a medical situation in the factory." Varda says she thinks it is more of a janitorial situation, actually.
"Some person from the office block who called them in said he heard gunfire."
"Somebody thought it might be good to shoot at the marines before talking to them."
"Brave guys those guards. Stupid job, couldn't pay me to do that myself."
The Captain and Brock approach the Chief.
"Hello. Captain Delaney of the Anastasia. We're just out of Staru."
"Do you have any identification? Yes, that looks good to me."
"We're actually an Imperial vessel, but we're temporarily under hire from Jusk and the IFSS to investigate Staru and beyond."
"Ah, Jusk. That's right near the new capital, isn't it?"
"Yes. Well, we came through Staru and found nothing there but dead cockroaches and 100 starving marines, and some disintegrated ships."
"Apparently the invading ships were manned by these large bugs."
"Well, either they were manned by those bugs or they had incredible insect problems! Anyway we came through expecting to find another world like Staru in dreadful danger. So what can we do for you and where did the invaders go?"
"The Navy beat them off, as far as we know."
"What direction did they flee in?"
"The Navy got them all, as far as we know."
"Your Navy is still sitting back at Jusk, scared to death. They think this place is crawling with cockroaches."
They are invited to bring their ship down -- obviously not at the starport, but they have some clear areas they could use. They haven't seen any enemy around, but they've laid low, really. Technically the planet's on blackout. Avon observes that they're showing lights, so they've obviously slacked off a bit.
The chief suggests that they break up this situation and arrange another meeting in more comfortable circumstances. As for the guard, the chief will deal with the paperwork.
A meeting is arranged at the games arena on the far side of the town, and they can come in to land there. It'll be a nice show. Perhaps they could make a flypast over the city on the way in. They will lay out a cross for them to land on. They set a time for eight hours away that they will land the pinnace on the games field. There will be a representative of the ruling Press Agency to meet them.
Helen is called in to pick up the group. The pinnace appears immediately from behind a hill and lands in the factory yard. All embark, and the pinnace returns to the Anastasia.
There is a short discussion about the cockroaches, and the progress of the conflict so far. The Captain wonders aloud if there is any indication that the cockroaches have used a ship disguised as an asteroid. Fostriades mutters "Oh no, not Porky's again" and looks tired. The Captain responds that that was what got him into this in the first place...
Sir Bridgehead has chosen a suitable uniform for the occasion -- one of his finest. He suggests to the Captain that he might benefit from a book called "How To Dress To Win Friends And Influence People." He suggests that the Captain's shore abilities are limited to saying "The cockroaches are coming! The cockroaches are coming!" The Captain acts slightly odd.
They take the pinnace down to land at the stadium, while the Anastasia will do a carefully planned fly-past to generate a super-neato sonic boom at a critical point. Sir Bridgehead, the Captain, the Boss, Avon, Helen, and their marines will be in the visiting party. This leaves Chiang Ho in charge of the ship, and Brock of course as the ranking ground troop officer.
Nobody really trusts the locals. The Boss in particular is unsure as to how they will react to the news that Scorpionis has now been reformed into the TradeMain Foundation.
Avon pilots the pinnace into a perfect landing at the stadium, on the cross set up for them. They are right on time, 11:00. The place looks like a large football stadium. The stands are packed despite the snow on the ground. There is a military band, a raised stage with sound equipment, and so on. The sonic boom slightly mistimed, in that it comes while the pinnace is still making its approach; disappointingly few people look up.
The atmosphere of course is thin and contaminated with sulfur compounds. Sir Bridgehead carries his filter mask, although does not wear it initially. Avon, Teri, and Kara will remain on the pinnace to guard it. The rest march down the ramp to meet the welcoming committee on the stage. The band strikes up -- it sounds terrible to the crew, who are used to Imperial music.
Sir Bridgehead walks up to the microphone and says, "Good evening! This is Grand Admiral Sir Bridgehead of his majesty's ship the Anastasia." The microphone runs through a translator to the stadium's sound system, and through his own translator he hears his words coming back to himthe translation seems fairly liberal: ["This is Grand Admiral Sir Bridgehead. I am most pleased to be arriving at this most gorgeous and glorious of all worlds."] The crowd cheers. "We are filled with excitement and pleasure that you still remain on this planet after such an extraordinary battle that took place here months ago. On our trip back we shall tell about your courageous..." [Congratulations on your great victory! We salute you!] "When we go back to the Scorpionis Navy we shall tell them that thanks to your efforts this system is secure." He waits for applause. [We congratulate your great Navy on its great victory and salute all the people present and it is an honor to be here!] The applause arrives (at the same time as the scoreboard flashes something).
Avon wonders whether there is any relationship between Sir Bridgehead's speech and the translation; he suggests saying that they are all wearing polka-dotted underwear.
"We would like to find out if there are any messages that you would like us to take back with us when we go to the Scorpionis fleet and when we return with the fleet to...um..." [We have come a long way to see the site of such a great victory, and we can tell that honor of the military forces in reflected in the hospitality of its people!] Sir Bridgehead is finding it a little difficult to speak while hearing these different words coming back. He steps down from the microphone. There is great applause.
The Captain steps up as the Admiral steps down. "Captain Delaney of the Anastasia. I just wanted to say it's good to see you." That is translated straight, and the Captain steps down.
One of the locals now steps up. His voice comes directly over the speakers. "On behalf of the people of Dulu, we welcome the visitors from the Imperium, and let the festivities commence!"
"What an interesting world they have here," says the Captain.
"It's an orderly world," responds Avon, "I like that in a world."
Sir Bridgehead merely admits a grudging admiration.
The band strikes up with a stirring march, which grates on their ears again. Varda mutters her opinion of the music to herself.
A very large limousine (small bus?) drives across the field and out to the stage. They all go in, including the three locals from the stage, who have obviously decided that Sir Bridgehead is in charge of the group.
The limo goes into the town, but they can't tell where because there are no windows, just projections of pastoral scenes. There is what would probably be soothing music -- soothing, that is, if one liked the hideous martial music on the field.
The three with them are dressed in what is apparently the height of civilian fashion suits; conservative but good, Sir Bridgehead reckons. They say they are going to the press building. The journey takes about 15 minutes. The vehicle rocks rather a lot by Sir Bridgehead's standards, even though the tech level here is about the same as his home planet.
The vehicle stops and the doors open. They disembark into what is obviously a low-tech version of the reception area they saw on Jusk. The van has stopped on a paved area: there are pot plants around, a fountain -- a garden-type place as on Jusk, but with harsher lighting. They are welcomed by a person dressed once again in a civilian suit, the height of conservative fashion -- the workmanship of his clothes is particularly high for such a backward planet. Sir Bridgehead thinks he is higher in social standing than any of the locals they have met so far.
The person offers them a drink. The Admiral, of course, accepts -- much to the irritation of the Captain. Sir Bridgehead asks how things were during the battle and since. The man says that his Navy totally trounced the invaders. The Captain interjects that they met a large number of those invaders at the next system; he is ignored. The Scorpionis Navy took some fairly heavy losses, so they regrouped and fell back to protect the capital at Joloch.
In conversation aside, Fostriades is of the opinion that the invaders never came back here, but in the confusion managed to refuel and go on to Staru, where they were stalled by good luck and a lot of bravery, and the others apparently think they've attacked something too big for them to handle, and they are therefore not coming in yet. He believes that what happened at Staru might have been the critical thing, and that's what's sort of weird because that was the battle that was fought in the black hole and nobody knew a thing about it until they went in to see what had happened. But if they'd been able to get out of Staru, they could have done an awful lot of damage.
The person does not expect any news at the moment, as their news feed went down when the Navy left. They have seen no sign of any invaders coming through the system since. Sir Bridgehead expresses astonishment that the Navy abandoned them, but the person says they are not abandoned.
The Captain mentions the new political state, and that there was a large battle at Staru which turned back the invaders. The TradeMain fleet should be arriving fairly soon. Several other Scorpionis planets are going their own way, as it were, and since the Imperium is not interested in local politics...
Sir Bridgehead interrupts to ask about the condition of the site of the old starport. "I'm not sure I have that information with me right now," comes the reply.
...would Dulu have a possibility of trading with Imperial ships at the proper time? continues the Captain. This is received positively, and would be a matter for the Financial Bureau.
The Dulu representative changes the subject abruptly. Will they be staying long?
It's come as such a surprise how well Dulu has weathered the invaders, that the Anastasia's crew are still deciding what to do. Sir Bridgehead says they should return right away to Jusk to inform them of the situation here. Perhaps the Anastasia would like to carry some press dispatches?
The man asks them for information that might be of interest to their readers. When asked about the invaders, Sir Bridgehead says that they flayed humans alive and apparently looked like large cockroaches. The Captain asks if they know about the sacrifice at Darthlaru? Fostriades tells him that the military authorities, in covering their retreat, in order to ensure that higher tech equipment would not fall into the hands of the invaders, attacked and largely destroyed the entire civilian population of Darthlaru along with all its installations. The chap thinks this was a great gesture on the part of the civilians.
Sir Bridgehead warns him that the invaders will attempt to return at some time. This is not news. Can they bring news from anywhere else? The Emperor in the Imperium has a new heir, Sir Bridgehead says. But how are the Scorpionis rulers, how are they doing? Have they taken up official palace residence at Joloch? "They're at Jusk," says Sir Bridgehead (perhaps the drink is affecting him? It wouldn't be the first time...). They are well beyond the reach of pursuers, answers Fostriades. Sir Bridgehead says they have been removed for safe keeping. The Captain says they were not in evidence at Jusk, at least.
As for more news, the Captain spends a while extolling the virtues of the Imperium and how they have helped the fledgling TradeMain Foundation in this dangerous period. Fostriades blathers encouragement for Dulu to join the TMF.
Sir Bridgehead and the person trade compliments. Drinks flow further.
The interview finishes with a photo session, including several shots of an enthusiastic Sir Bridgehead with several young ladies, and one of the whole group raising their glasses in a toast.
The group is taken back to the stadium in the van, and it is parked this time so that the door opens directly to the pinnace. The bands are still marching up and down, and the crowd is cheering happily in the falling sulfurous snow. A miserable cold wind has struck up.
Back on board the pinnace, Avon lifts off and returns to the Anastasia. Fostriades is of the opinion that these people are a pretty slimy bunch, and speculates that the Butcher of Darthlaru might even try to become the new leader of Scorpionis.
They reach the ship at 15:00.
What does William Rufus know about Porky's, asks the Captain?
Some years ago, Rufus explains, the Zhodani and Sword Worlds were mobilizing for war against the Imperium. Part of the advance preparations was a ship disguised as an asteroid. The plan was that the ship would go to Glisten (a strategic point in that part of the Imperium, a subsector capital), hide in the asteroid belt there, to make a sudden strike to disrupt the entire subsector and the path to District 268, which would then be open to Sword World invasion. As a field trial, they put this ship into the Zaibon system, but it was discovered when a few mining ships disappeared and a group of ex-servicemen came in and discovered the ship. When confronted with this, the Sword Worlds and Zhodani backed down and therefore a Fifth Frontier War was averted.
At 16:00 they start heading for jump point, to go to Jusk this time; there was some discussion about jumping to L-0803 in the next sector, but they won't yet.
The Anastasia jumps for the secondary.