John Thrush, the captain and a pilot, with a taste for the good things in life (especially if they come in bottles or skirts). (Played by David Bell.)
Michael Bond, first officer, pilot, navigator and gunner, formerly of the Federation Navy. (Played by Shaun Murrant.)
Mikail de Konick, mechanic and gunner; a nomad kid who's trying to see a bit more of the universe than the view from inside a homeship. (Played by John Hall.)
Fr Gabriel McMasters, SG, chaplain (unofficially) and gunner. (Played by Dave Devereux.)
Andrej Piper, pilot, navigator and mechanic; a former Mail Service courier pilot who realised the odds against surviving to retirement. (Played by Sean Desmond.)
Miriam Scholes, a psychiatric nurse with space medicine qualifications. (Played by Peter Edge.)
The Barsin Friendly Mercantile Institution has generously agreed to finance the purchase of a Grigoriev-class free trader by a consortium of potential merchant-adventurers. With a twenty-year term and a 10% interest rate, it's hardly the most generous contact, but for people without much in the way of references it's a fair deal. The Institution has even arranged a cargo to get them started: a full hold of containers of raw chishiri cloth to Schneier, for use in protective equipment.
They decide to call her the Megane Hebi 3, and Bond's first business is to bolt down his coffeemaker. De Konick heads for the engineering spaces, Piper starts plotting the course to Schneier, McMasters checks out the gunnery systems, and Thrush starts looking around for speculative cargo to be tucked into nooks and crannies. He ends up selecting pivochka, a barley-based liquor freeze-distilled on Pribitye, and loads a small pallet - plus some more for personal consumption.
A passenger applies for the trip, one Pavl Seyeling; he's a biologist, apparently hoping to find work on Schneier.
The main cargo arrives, and Bond sees it locked down safely. Although Thrush is noticeably smelling of pivochka by the time takeoff clearance is granted, he handles it smoothly, and puts the ship on an outbound course for the jump limit.
Over the next few days it becomes apparent that McMasters spends an hour or two practicing kata each day; the only convenient space for this is the common area, though the variable gravity is quite helpful in this regard.
The jump entry goes cleanly, as do the three weeks in hyperspace, during which the crew start to get to know each other a little better. Right on schedule, the ship emerges from hyperspace in the Schneier system, and commences the run in to the main planet.
During a routine computer sweep shortly before turnover, Bond notices that someone's been fiddling with the ship's computer, probably working on ship control lockouts; it looks as though it's been coming from Seyeling's cabin. After a certain amount of consultation, it's decided not to alert the potential hijacker but to be prepared to deal with him if problems occur; specifically, arrangements are made to cut off his terminal's access to the ship at once (it's explained as "a malfunction"), and to be able to vary the gravity field in his cabin on command.
Just as reentry begins, the ship stops answering to the helm controls. Bond starts to work on the computers, while de Konick starts varying Seyeling's gravity field. With a certain amount of high-speed cracking, Bond manages to regain control of the ship in time for Thrush to salvage the landing trajectory. Of slight note is that the duress mode of the transponder (i.e. "I've been hijacked") was activated at the time of the takeover, but not by any of the crew; Bond manages to get a rough idea of the area to which the ship was to be diverted.
Given the lack of tangible evidence, the captain feels he can't take direct action against Seyeling, who professes complete innocence; but he does hand him over to the local police.
The crew sign over the shipment to Dr Muka Norden of Kosabi. He asks for a supplementary charter; he's in a bit of a hurry to get the cloth out to the factory facility where it'll be used, and the only local transport available is slow and surface-based. He's prepared to pay a reasonably generous fee, as well as arranging for fusion ram permits. The location is in a similar direction from the port to the hijacker's landing site, but not particularly close to it.
The ship is flown to the factory, which resembles an oil rig standing in a clearing in the jungle canopy. Shortly after Norden's crew of cargo-handling robots starts to unload the containers, there's a flurry of laser shots as a large number of people on flight packs come out of the jungle to attack.
Bond closes the hatch, tipping a cargo loader off it, while Thrush starts to spool up the engines; McMasters pushes Norden into a relatively safe corner, then heads for the top turret as de Konick heads for the underside; and from outside comes a call to secure engines and prepare to be boarded. Bond transmits a warning to stay clear on the external speakers; then he picks up a guidance signal, probably from a missile of some sort.
McMasters fires a short burst at the source of the signal, and doesn't see any effect, but the guidance warning disappears. Many of the attackers are killed or injured by the fusion ram exhaust; the remainder duck out of sight.
On the way back to the port, Norden, who's severely disconcerted by this attack, by the story of the attempted hijacking, and by McMasters' voice and stare, explains: he discovered by accident two months ago that chishiri cloth, combined with the sap of one of the local plants, produces an hallucinogenic substance with minimal side effects. (As a part-time evaluator for new substances found on the planet, he was able to run it through standard toxicology screening himself.) He's arranged for a friend to start selling this stuff, but needed more of the cloth to produce more. He rather suspects that the local arm of the Fellowship, a criminal fraternity, wants to get in on the act; and as the only person who actually knows how the stuff is made, he's probably in some danger. He asks for passage off-world... which after some discussion is refused, and he's handed over to Kosabi at their headquarters.
Thrush asks Kosabi to see if they have a cargo available, since he feels it would probably be a bad idea to hang around this world for longer than is really necessary...
Ship's assets stand at Cr438,966.08 in cash and specie, plus a single pallet (50 cubic feet of hold space) of pivochka from Pribitye. The latest the next mortgage payment may be made is 1 October on Pribitye, for Cr1,349,726.90.
After a night's rest at the port, the crew learns that Kosabi has arranged for a mixed cargo of feedstocks and precursor chemicals for pharmaceutical and industrial processes on Pribitye; these would normally be sent out by bulk freighter, but there's been a bit of overproduction lately, and Kosabi's staff are aware the the ship and its crew might be in some slight danger if they were to wait around for very long.
One Miriam Scholes presents herself for interview as ship's medic, explaining frankly that she had a difference of opinion with the crew of her last ship; her credentials look good, and she is taken on for a single trip (at low pay) to see whether both she and the other crew want to make a more permanent arrangement - as well as getting her to a more well-trafficked world in case they don't.
Shortly after local midnight, the ship takes off and sets outbound course for the jump point.
As the ship is decelerating near the jump limit, Bond detects a hyperspatial emergence shock, immediately followed by a ship so close that evasive action is required. The transponder is broadcasting the ship's name, Photon Cascade, and a distress signal; but her hull temperature is very low, below cosmic background, and there's no neutrino or other power emanation. Scholes and Bond suit up, prepared to lend "all reasonable assistance".
There's a frosting of cobweb-like substance on the body of the ship, which is a double sphere, clearly not designed for atmospheric flight; the substance evaporates within a few minutes, even where not exposed to sunlight. With some difficulty, Bond and Scholes travel over with thruster packs, match the tumble and gain access. The airlock has to be cranked open by hand, and there's air frost visible inside.
While the ship is of an unfamiliar design, it is definitely of human construction; there are even some hardcopy books in English. On the bridge is a skeleton, with a blaster pistol lying at its side; it appears to have been suicide. Bond examines the pistol, noting that the power cell forms a much smaller proportion of its mass than is standard; he theorises that perhaps this might be a ship from the First Federation era, and that caution is clearly indicated, since those ships were known to rely heavily on AIs.
De Konick joins the expedition, and they examine the engineering spaces. This is certainly a higher technology than any of them is familiar with; the power cells are substantially more efficient, the hyperdrive and normal-space thrusters are smaller and lighter, and there are some systems which appear to make no sense at all. If this could be sold to the right organisation, it might well bring enough money to pay off the ship mortgage completely.
The fusion reactor is completely dead; its two-hundred-year supply of fuel has been exhausted. There are small energy banks scattered around the engineering space (the aft sphere), apparently designed for high redundancy. A few of them still hold some charge.
Piper sends the formal salvage claim, while Thrush jockeys the ship into position to grapple and join hyperspace grids and connect the ships with a passage tube. The freight will be delayed slightly...
The flight recorder (including cockpit voice recorder) is plugged into a stand-alone system. It appears that all was routine in 2508 until the ship failed to emerge from jump. Six months later, life support requirements dropped by two thirds, and the airlock was cycled twice. Five years after that, life support requirements dropped to zero.
Three days into hyperspace, around 0.4 parsecs from Schneier, De Konick (who's been spending most of his time aboard the Cascade, taking notes and removing what power cells he can scavenge) is startled to find the gravity and light suddenly being turned on (though there's still no air). Bond, outside, tries to open the airlock, but is unable to do so against the motors now keeping it shut. De Konick, realising he only has an eight hour air supply, manages to activate the environmental controls; the air is very stale, but breathable.
Piper is suspicious, and starts calculating the parameters of an emergency hyperspace breakout. This is never by any means a safe procedure, but there are times when it might well be better than the alternatives.
On the basis that his explorations may have reactivated something, de Konick returns to the engineering spaces and attempts to disconnect some of the systems - which are drawing power from the hyperspace grid as well as from the internal energy banks. There's a quiet clicking, which gets rapidly louder as a small robot approaches from the guts of the system and fires a laser cutter into his hand.
He decides it's time to leave. The airlock snaps open, both inner and outer doors - if there'd been vacuum outside rather than a passage tube, he'd have been in for a rough ride. As it is, he makes haste to get out, and the airlock snaps shut behind him.
Piper notices a fluctuation in the hyperspace field, and with the captain's agreement initiates an emergency precipitation into real space (and is given a round of applause for completing this very tricky manoeuvre). Within a few hundred miles are two large ships, of a size to carry two or three hundred crew but of entirely unfamiliar design (more of a dispersed structure than a conventional single hull, but apparently built that way rather than accreted in the fashion of nomad homeships). Piper hails one, which replies with a very high-bandwidth data communication, apparently to the Cascade. (If it replies, there's no way of detecting it.)
Bond cuts loose the passage tube and releases the grapples, while Thrush moves the ship away from the Cascade. The large ships are probing with very powerful sensors, of unfamiliar design; the last thing Bond records before the Megane Hebi returns to hyperspace is the Cascade accelerating towards, and being grappled by, one of the large ships, not under its own power but apparently influenced by a gravitic device of some sort.
The remainder of the hyperspace trip, and the flight in-system, are uneventful; but the preliminary report leads to the crew being guests of the naval base on Pribitye for several days while they are politely interrogated. But at least they are given a courtesy payment for the information...
Piper realises that the position at which the pair of ships emerged from hyperspace, in First Federation coordinates, is the equivalent of a round number; it's an obvious rendezvous location.
Having finally got away from the Navy, our heroes head for a spaceport bar. They're planning to split up later, but it's a good idea to be seen together first because it sends the message to the locals "this is a Crew, and if you mess with one you mess with all of them". It's not as though the local cops are going to be much help...
As they're starting on the third beer, a man comes into the bar breathing heavily and giving a Free Trader recognition sign. He brushes past Bond, who's closest to him, and drops a datachip into his hand saying "read this". He heads further into the bar; as he's passing another group of crewmen, the police enter and arrest him in an enthusiastic manner.
Once the police have left, Bond checks out the chip. There are two files on there: a plain text message promising a Cr50,000 reward if it is delivered to Wandkapitaen Hagen at the Nibelung Embassy, and a much larger encrypted file. He starts to prod at the encryption.
A general feeling of paranoia sends the team back to their ship. Consensus seems to be that they might as well send the thing to the place they've been asked to take it to... until Bond decrypts the payload, and discovers that it appears to be orders from Nibelung to the provincial governor at Koshchei requiring him to make ready for the invasion of the Pribitye sector. The jump-off date is set for 7 July.
Various possible explanations are advanced for this. Perhaps this is one of several copies, and the courier was compromised in some way; or perhaps it is a code concealing an entirely different message, though the payload seems surprisingly inflammatory for something of that sort. In any case, it's decided that this can't be sent to its intended destination; McMasters sets out to take it to the Gabrielites for guaranteed safe disposal.
On his way there, he sees an unconscious figure just off the main road; it's a crewman from the Boudicca, one of those who was in the bar earlier. McMasters renders first aid, and discovers that apart from the predictable electrolaser arc burn he's also been doped with something to keep him unconscious for an extended period. As he's contemplating this and calling his crewmates and an ambulance, he gets the feeling that something untoward is happening; sure enough, someone across the road opens up with a plasma carbine.
The fight is short, unpleasant and mostly fatal. McMasters manages to use cover (such of it as isn't being blasted away by the plasma gun) and superior awareness of the situation to kill one and terminally injure the other of the attackers. He calls the police to let them know the situation, and waits for them to arrive. They make it first, then Piper and Bond, then the ambulance crew - by which time the second shooter has died - and finally some of the unconscious man's crewmates from the Boudicca.
The interrupted journey continues; the chip is suitably disposed of.
There is a certain feeling that, while probably nobody's after them right now, getting out of town might not be a bad idea. Thrush finds a cargo of luxuries (mostly exotic foods) for Korzibsky A, and McMasters manages to arrange a shipment of communion wine and other supplies to the same place. Since it's a very inhospitable world, it seems a likely place to sell the pivochka as well.
The cargo is offloaded, but there's nothing ready to be taken outward; it'll take a week or so to call in partial shipments from the various research enterprises. Meanwhile, there's a research station on the asteroid belt that's fallen out of communication - the last thing that was heard was the resupply ship approaching them three weeks ago, and the ship has not been spotted since. There aren't any other ships in system available to take in a salvage/investigation team, so the portmaster offers standard charter rates for transport. It seems like a reasonable way to spend an enforced break...
On the short haul insystem, the members of the six-man team keep pretty much to themselves; they're trained for these hazardous situations, after all, while their transport are just normal merchant spacers.
There's no power emission from the asteroid, and it's tumbling slowly. The salvage team goes by flitter to the docking bay, carrying off the fairly tricky piloting manoeuvre with some difficulty. They leave a radio channel open, and the crew hears that the resupply load appears to have been left intact in the bay, though there's no sign of the supply ship. The team leader goes to check the airlock: tap tap click. Those who've used radios much know that a click like that as the carrier wave cuts out almost always means bad news; the plume of debris, gas and suited bodies that erupts from the docking bay only confirms that impression.
The crew retrieves the bodies of the salvage team - even the intact ones have been killed by the blast - and the captain negotiates a new contract over the link to the main world (each communication taking several minutes thanks to lightspeed delays).
Quote: (Michael Bond) "Does anybody here know about defusing traps and such?" (Long pause.) "Apart from me?"
Thrush carefully flies the ship into the docking bay, then holds it in station against the rotation of the asteroid while Bond and McMasters go in to investigate; he then takes up a position nearby.
Bond and McMasters find a total of ten bodies, nine research station staff and one crew member from the transport ship, with no obvious wounds and having suffered post-mortem decompression. With the quick analysis they're able to conduct, they can't determine a cause of death.
Quote: (GM) "This is not CSI: Tempt Not the Stars..."
Life support and the power reactor have valuable parts missing - they've been disassembled roughly in order to get at them. Also missing are two of what seem to be prototype anti-ship weapons; Father Gabriel spots holes carved through hull-plating targets which would be consistent with some sort of enhanced neutral particle beam.
Once the report is sent, control on Korzibsky-A asks the crew to travel to the nearest boundary of the Koremitsu limit - an obvious place to rendezvous, since the supply ship was not capable of FTL flight - and search there for any further evidence.
After a few hours of active searching, Bond on sensors locates the supply ship; it's a lighter originally from a Solovmyki-class bulk freighter. There's no neutrino emission, but as Bond and McMasters (who seem to be forming the zero-G team) approach they see a light glowing dimly in the cockpit. When they open the inner airlock door - there's pressure, though not very much of it - they're confronted by a woman, clearly fairly badly injured, pointing an improvised weapon of some sort at them. Father Gabriel attempts to speak reassuringly to her, but this doesn't have quite the desired effect; she loses consciousness.
Bond determines that it's just a normal faint - possibly something to do with the atmospheric conditions, as the oxygen level is only just enough to sustain life - and explores the rest of the ship. The power plant has been damaged quite substantially, though it's repairable, as have the communicators and sensors; the life-support system is missing several components, but there's an inspired lash-up that has just about kept it working on battery power.
Thrush docks the Megane Hebi to the lighter, and the woman is brought across to sickbay. Once her more substantial injuries have been fixed up, she recovers consciousness and is prepared to talk - but only to Miriam or to Father Gabriel. She doesn't really want to have anything much to do with the rest of the crew at this stage; she laughs at herself for it, but there's a slight potentially-hysterical edge to it.
She explains that she's Fia Jant, a life-support specialist who was doing some outside work when the supply ship arrived. She heard her friends apparently choking to death, all at once, on the radio; she stayed outside as long as she could, but was caught when she came in to recharge her suit's air and power reserves. There was only one attacker, but he had unpleasant tastes in recreational activity and took her along for the flight out to the Koremitsu limit. He clearly intended that she die here, but apparently didn't realise what a really good tech could do to get a life-support system working again.
She was able to overhear his conversation with the ship that was waiting here. They were speaking in Rus, which she doesn't know well, but she's reasonably sure the ship was called Yadovito and that they were planning to sell what had been stolen to the Empire.
Fia expects a substantial bribe for not trying to assert her salvage rights (in a clash between the resupply company and the research organisation, only the lawyers will win). She plans to use some of that money to charter the Megane Hebi to track down the Yadovito - or at least try to. Rape and murder are Imperial as well as Federal crimes, and they should be able to get an extradition. She's prepared to give formal statements.
Bond conducts some forensics on the lighter's computer, looking for sensor logs from the outbound jump. He eventually confirms that the most likely destination for Yadovito was Korzibzky B. That's a 15-hour jump from here...
A transponder is placed on the lighter, so that either the Megane Hebi's crew or that of some other ship can bring her back to Korzibsky A once the current task is complete.
Note: The players of Captain Thrush and Father Gabriel were unable to make this session.
Fia Jant spends the jump to Korzibsky B with Miriam and Father Gabriel, recording her formal complaint against Flenn (her attacker) and the crew of Yadovito.
Immediately on breakout at Korzibsky B, the ship is hailed by an Imperial intruder (the lightest class of warship that operates independently, but still much more than a match for an armed freighter), and required to hold position for boarding and inspection. The officer who comes aboard identifies himself as Leutnant von Ceti, and has clearly put a great deal of money into the tailoring of his uniform; in spite of this, he seems competent, and gives the standard explanation for visiting Federation citizens that many laws are different in the Empire and that it's easy to get into trouble, particuarly by inadvertantly giving offence. He interviews Dr Jant privately, with Miriam in attendance. He picks up on Bond's curiosity about his mention of other recent traffic; as the inspection ends, he slips a datachip from his palmtop into Bond's hand, out of the sight of the two sailors who accompanied him.
This proves to be a record of recent civilian ship movements in the Korzibsky-B system - technically public information, but something it might take a while to get by conventional channels. The Yadovito travelled in-system, spent five days on the planet, then departed; the jump plan was filed for Last Chance, the nearest other Imperial system. At this point, the Megane Hebi is only five days behind. The decision is made to pursue immediately, rather than taking the time to slog in-system and back; Fia's recorded formal complaint is beamed in-system so that it's in the Imperial records.
It's normally an eight and a half day run to Last Chance; half a day's cut off in this case thanks to supremely good astrogation by Piper and Bond. Fia gradually starts to socialise a little more with the remainder of the crew towards the end of this time.
On arrival, Bond scans the system traffic updates for any mention of Yadovito, and finds she's still inbound, a day and a half away from the main world. It'll still take around four and a half days for the Megane Hebi to get there, so he asks Piper to lay a comms laser on the nearby Imperial intruder pair and lays out the formal charge. The Imperial communications operator agrees to pass it on to the mainworld by encrypted channels, and expects that it will be possible to detain the Yadovito's crew at least until the Megane Hebi arrives, at which point formal proceedings can be started.
Last Chance is a major agricultural world, supplying foodstuffs to most of the other Imperial worlds in this sector, and its spaceport is laid out for heavy lift. De Konick checks for the more interesting non-bulk products, which are valuable even in quantities small enough to be useful to a free trader, though he finds that to get real information he'll have to be planetside in person.
After the landing, which is a trifle more exciting than usual but not damagingly so, the crew is met by what the Quick Guide to Imperial Uniforms assures them is either a policeman or a fleet admiral. Proceedings will be "quite quick", but might still last a month or so, and the crew will need to remain ready to be called at any time. Since this is potentially a month during which the ship isn't earning money, Piper and de Konick get casual work as mechanics around the spaceport; Bond, whose major skills relate primarily to ship-handling, starts teaching classes in Anglic for a small school directly under the main western approach lane (and learns to time his sentences to miss the sonic booms).
After a couple of days, the entire crew is called to the court. When they arrive, a clerk explains one of the wrinkles in Imperial legal procedure: since the primary defendant is "of good family" (more or less a meaningless qualification, but he can show that he's a native of Celestial Jewel, an Imperial world), he is allowed to respond to the insult of being charged by fighting a duel with his accuser (or designated proxy). This is a duel to "unable to continue", with medical care provided; if he wins, the rape and murder charges against him will probably be thrown out. If he loses, and in particular if his opponent wins with style, they will instead gain weight, and this may even help to convict his two fellow crewmembers of conspiracy. He's chosen to fight with knives...
After a hurried discussion between Jant (who while she's clearly sorely tempted doesn't want to go up against a professional knife-fighter) and Piper, Bond and de Konick, all of whom know their way around a knife, Bond steps forward to act on Jant's behalf. The floor of the court has been rolled back to reveal a twenty-foot square of sand. The rules are simple: fight until only one can stand, no leaving the square, no help from outside.
Bond steps up and opens with a feint to judge his opponent; this seems to work, but his own follow-up attack goes wild. After some more probing back and forth, he scores a light wound on Flenn's knife arm. Flenn's return strike is to the guts, and injures Bond severely; he falls to his knees from shock...
but then his eyes seem to catch fire, and he lunges up with a wild swing at Flenn, who's rather taken aback. Bond's no longer even trying to defend himself, but his repeated hits on Flenn prevent the latter from attacking effectively. Flenn goes down with his belly wide open, but Bond keeps on stabbing and slashing... until a court official casually knocks him out with an electrolaser.
This isn't "style" as the Empire understands it, but there's a certain visceral (sic) energy, and the jury seems to be impressed. So is Bond's Anglic class, some of whom saw the duel live and have passed the recording on to the others; he has very few discipline problems that night, though they do ask a lot of questions about just what he was saying while he was attacking.
The trial takes a further week, but the duel has clearly set the tone, and once Flenn is found guilty his fellow crew-members Makarov and Hansler are convicted of conspiracy to commit rape and murder. All three are executed; Imperial justice is direct and blatant.
This leaves Yadovito awarded as compensation to Flenn's latest victim, Fia Jant. She asks the crew to take a look, to see whether it'll be possible to fly her back to Korzibsky A, where they might well have a use for another freighter even if they don't need a hyperdrive-capable ship. The hold is mostly empty, but the two prototype anti-ship weapons are still present in their cases; analysis of the log reveals that Yadovito's crew spent their five days on Korzibsky B trying to contact someone of sufficient rank to be able to buy the things, and eventually gave up and came here instead.
Yadovito's in dire need of some heavy maintenance; it takes another week of work from Piper and de Konick, as well as a significant parts budget, to get her into a shape they would consider spaceworthy. (Fia Jant contributes her own expertise to getting the life support system back up to capacity, and removing the lingering smell of sweat.)
De Konick loads up the holds of both ships with speculative foodstuffs, taking advice from Dr Jant as to what might be particularly popular on Korzibsky A. With Piper on his own in Yadovito, the two ships take off, then rendezvous in orbit; de Konick and Piper lash them together belly to belly, thus allowing sharing of power and life support in case of system failures.
In this configuration they head out to the jump limit, and take the eight and a half day run back to Korzibsky A.
Once they get there, they rearrange the assembly to sandwich the abandoned cargo lighter in between the two ships (since its own power systems aren't working), and run back to the Korzibsky A orbital port in another week.
The various companies involved (Korzibsky A Venture Corporation, which operated the asteroid base and is glad to get its prototype weapons back as well as to see the end of the people who destroyed the base; the cargo hauler KAOP, which is glad to get its cargo lighter back; and the Korzibsky A corporate collective, which is buying the Yadovito from Fia Jant with the intent of dismounting the hyperdrive and using it as an in-system hauler) are generous within the limits of normal business practice. (Details to be discussed later.) Several of the crew decide to keep up contact with Fia Jant, who's now one of the wealthiest individuals in the system...
Note: details of Fia's payments to the crew remain in abeyance until the absent players - both of whom expressed a wish not to take any money from her at all, though that was before she became extremely rich - can be consulted.
Without taking Fia Jant into account, the ship's assets still stand at Cr2,211,422.64 in cash and specie, quite enough to make the upcoming bank payment (which will be due immediately on return to Pribitye).
After some discussion, it is decided to accept Fia Jant's Cr1,600,000 for charter fees into the ship's account.
The cargo is a mixed lot of break-bulk freight: stocks of herbicide in solid form, some temperature-sensitive industrial dyes in refrigerated crates, fusion generator parts and cryo-rated fluid pumps. A passenger also applies: Chiana Kolets, who describes herself as a Deinosophist pilgrim, would not only like passage to Pribitye but hopes to be able to conduct an experiment while on board.
When she is interviewed, this turns out to be a prototype for hyperspatial communications: a transmitter will be left behind at the jump point and make its own transition into local hyperspace, and after a few days she will go EVA in hyperspace and deploy a receiver. It'll need to be on a long cable to avoid interference from the ship's own jump field, but this should cause no danger to ship or crew.
The crew are a little dubious, being concerned that she may want to explore hyperspace solo, but eventually agree to give her passage. Father Gabriel is particularly uneasy about this member of a somewhat odd religion. A specialised contract is drawn up, indemnifying the ship's company against suicidal actions by their passenger, but she's quite happy to agree to this.
Chiana doesn't socialise much, though she makes small-talk (like a rank amateur). The transmitter probe moves away from the ship and throws itself into hyperspace, and the ship jumps.
A couple of days and around half a parsec out, Chiana sets up her equipment and steps outside, well-tethered and with Bond and de Konick keeping an eye on both her and her equipment. Father Gabriel sits in a turret to keep a separate eye on proceedings.
She unreels the probe, which resembles a metallic kite, and starts to talk about the signals she's picking up as it recedes into hyperspace. There is a sudden transition, and the three people outside find themselves observing the flight deck of a Grigorevich-class ship, much like their own. Both Bond and de Konick recognise the member of Boudicca's company whom they last saw on Pribitye, and it seems a reasonable assumption that that's the ship they're watching.
There's no sound, and the image is slightly blurred, but it appears from control movements that the ship's undergoing an atmospheric entry... and not a safe one, as the heat shield is fragmenting and delaminating. Within a few seconds, the image breaks up in a heat plume, and normality - or at least normal hyperspace and the ship's hull - returns. As far as Father Gabriel and the others are concerned, nothing unusual was visible. Chiana reels in her probe, or at least the cable - the end has been sheared, possibly by hyperspace effects.
It becomes apparent - at least to Thrush, who's quite good at reading people - that Chiana's very excited by this development. Nobody's got any sort of useful signal from a hyperspace ghost before; they've always been considered to be entirely subjective phenomena in the human neural system.
Celebration is subdued, though, and cut short when a telltale shows a broken wiring harness in the ship's shared area. De Konick investigates, and finds a half-inch gap in the wires, with the ends neatly severed though not by a knife. Another telltale later shows a similar fault with a similar cause, and at the site of the third one de Konick spots a small silvery creature, about half an inch long. He carefully picks it up with pliers and transfers it to a glass jar.
Investigation reveals that the creature is equally happy in normal pressure or in vacuo, though strong acid kills it and extreme heat causes its shell to melt - though an organic component vaporises off first. Bond sets up the internal sensors to try to look for the small infra-red trace these creatures leave behind, and there seem to be quite a lot of them. Since they seem to go preferentially for high-frequency data cables, de Konick builds a signal generator of even higher frequency and uses it as bait to attract them into the airlock. As the creatures flow in huge numbers across the floor, it becomes apparent that simply flushing them out in batches will take more air than the ship has available.
A separate warning goes off: the enhanced scans have found some high-temperature spots in the cargo of dyes. De Konick and Father Gabriel head for the hold, and de Konick opens a container to find a small canister glowing dull red. He removes it, and the other five; it looks as though these were intended to ruin the cargo, though the motive and perpetrator are a mystery at this point.
While they're in the hold, the crew look at the other cargo. The herbicide containers have been eaten open (either from inside or from outside), and the lice appear to be feasting on the contents.
Thrush takes the decision to eject the herbicide, and Bond and McMasters shift the (pressure-sensitive) dye temporarily into the ship's lounge while de Konick rigs up more lures on the herbicide containers and later evacuates the hold. The first four containers attract fair numbers of lice, but Bond notices that the few specimens they're keeping alive aren't going mad trying to get to the containers; the internal bulkheads are blocking the signal. He and Father Gabriel shift the remaining containers around the outside of the ship until they're just outside the personnel locks; then the dye is moved back into the repressurised hold, the crew put on suits, and the crew area is evacuated to allow the lice to leave for the containers (which are then jettisoned).
The remainder of the hyperspace trip is uneventful.
On breakout, Bond broadcasts the ship's status and is told to approach to a standard orbit for quarantine clearance. A few hours out, the Boudicca comes into communications range, inbound with a perishable cargo from Schneier. Thrush contacts them and suggests in very strong terms that they should check their heat shield; they're reluctant to do so, as EVA work under acceleration is always slightly hazardous, but he is sufficiently convincing that they agree to take a look.
They get back to him rather shocked, and explain that some sort of chemical agent had been applied to render the shield highly brittle. It would certainly have failed during re-entry.
Quote: (Boudicca crewman) How did you have any idea about that?
(Father Gabriel, breaking in) The Lord moves in mysterious ways, His wonders to perform.
(Boudicca crewman) Does he often do that?
(Bond) He's a very good shot...
After a couple of days of intensive radiation treatment at an orbital quarantine station, Megane Hebi 3 is declared louse-free (which she nearly was already) and allowed to proceed to a landing.
There are six free traders in port at the moment, an unusually high number: as well as the Hebi, there's Cecilia Volpe's Amicula Stellarum, Szólát Groditje's Boszorkány, Kenmal Brewer's Boudicca, Varrick Ziralli's Boundary Layer and Irene McDonough's Gambler's Luck. Given recent events, the captains decide to convene a meeting to discuss what might be going on and what could be done about it.
Things seem to be fairly quiet, until sirens sound out across the port; nobody's quite sure what it might mean, but the crew button up the ship and listen to news channels. It seems that Gambler's Luck has been stolen, and is now hovering over the city; the thief is demanding a pardon for this and other crimes, or he's going to crash into the city and set off the fusion pile.
Some discussion ensues. The Hebi is safe; she's inside a blast pit designed to withstand her own fusion pile going up. But there are an awful lot of people out there who aren't.
Alusdar Malcan, second mate from the Luck, knocks on the hatch. He's looking pretty beaten up, and explains that he's just finished explaining to the port authorities that he had nothing to do with the theft of the ship. It sounds as though they're planning to blow her up with kinetic weapons, which he's not entirely happy about - not only is that ship his livelihood, but one of the crew is still aboard, Nelda Wilson, whose third mate's ticket is still damp from the printer (which is why she was standing watch while in port) but who (if she's still alive at all) probably deserves better than to be killed by sub-cee missiles. Since the crew of the Hebi is starting to get a reputation for pulling themselves out of bad situations, perhaps they could help? He's got some software which he was out acquiring when the balloon went up, which will reconfigure a ship's AESA emitters to mimic electronic warfare systems...
A great deal of discussion ensues. Father Gabriel is clear that action must be taken to save the innocent who's probably aboard (even if she probably shouldn't have been left to take a watch on her own, for all her qualifications say it's acceptable). The news, which has now switched to background reporting in the absence of any new information, says that the thief is one Guzh Zapodin, former ground military; it seems he was locked up for a robbery that went sour and turned into multiple murders, and escaped earlier in the day. He seems only to have a small craft licence, so he's likely to have his mental hands full operating the neural interface of a larger vessel.
The plan that's arrived at is to approach from above and behind the Luck, and for Bond and Father Gabriel to slide down cables to cut their way in through the emergency rescue point. (This avoids an excessively close approach, an immediate warning to Zapodin, or anyone having to fly through the fusion ram exhaust of another ship.) Since legalities seem likely to be a problem, Father Gabriel deputises Bond as a lay member of the Order, then (having consulted with his superiors at the chapter house) persuades the port authorities that he should be allowed to have a go. (Actually, it's more that they don't want to have to shoot him down too...)
Bond flies the approach and then hands over to Piper (who isn't trained in vertical flight, but who can hold the ship steady). He fires grapnels at the Luck, and the two slide down. Bond cuts away the rescue panel and they drop into the upper gangway.
Not obvious to them inside the Luck's artificial gravity field, but very apparent to Piper still in the Hebi, the ship immediately drops out of hover and goes into a steep dive. Piper warns the others, who head forward at top speed, Father Gabriel slightly ahead, only to be stopped by the cockpit bulkhead door. Bond picks the electronic lock, but takes a laser bolt to the chest as the door pops open; Father Gabriel dodges and returns fire with his pistols, and Zapodin ceases to be a problem in any but a theological sense.
Bond staggers towards the piloting couch, but drops before he can make it; so it's up to Father Gabriel, totally untrained in piloting, to take control and pull the ship out of her plummet. Some of the city's rooftops are a bit scorched, but he just about succeeds; with a lot of help from the port, he brings her back to a hover, and another pilot is put on board to take her down to the surface.
Bond wakes up in hospital: the Gabrielites may not have pretty nurses, but they do keep the press out. Wilson has also survived - she'd been shot with an electrolaser on "stun" mode.
Bond and Father Gabriel both recall that, as well as his laser, Zapodin had a pretty new-looking (and high-grade) electronic lock-pick with him. Not the sort of thing one would expect to find on someone just out of prison. Conspiracy theories abound.
The news coverage, while it makes heroes of Bond, Piper and Father Gabriel for a little while, seems very heavily slanted against free traders - they have poor security, their maintenance is lacking, and generally they're Not Like Us. Bond and Father Gabriel poke around and comes up with some indications that point towards an orchestrated campaign possibly organised by someone in Sekalar Factors, an inter-sector shipping line; on the other hand, they've just bought up the mortgage on Gambler's Luck, which the local bank had been planning to foreclose on. In any case, an inter-sector shipping line is used to much higher profit margins than in-sector trade can supply, which is how free traders survive in the first place...
Meanwhile, Bond arranges a cargo: it's a long-haul shipment of computer and robot parts to Koshchei, in a big enough lot that they'll have to split the cargo with another ship. Since the Luck's finances still seem pretty parlous, the shareholders decide to cut her in on the deal; indeed, Captain McDonough is very happy to get a cargo, since the owner's representative from Sekalar has been poking around her ship (particularly the engineering spaces) to a very unwelcome extent. She's had crew keeping an eye on him, of course, but he hasn't tried anything dodgy; one might almost think he was looking for something...
The takeoff is uneventful, as are the run out to the jump point and the transition into hyperspace.
As Father Gabriel is taking his regular zero-g practice in the hold, he stumbles on an unexpected seam in the "floor". It's raised by about 1/8", but definitely hasn't been there on previous occasions. He calls Piper, who's the duty engineer; Piper agrees that it shouldn't be there. With some consultation with Bond, who's standing the bridge watch, and after eventually waking the captain, Father Gabriel and de Konick take a more detailed look. There's nothing amiss on the environmental or other automated monitors.
They open, check, and remove most of the cargo crates to the other side of the hold, leaving just one which is not only at one end of the raised seam but which doesn't come loose when its clamps are opened. They record everything they do, for possible later use as evidence. Meanwhile, Bond determines that the other end of the seam would be a good access point for tapping into the ship's data network, though there's no sign of any transmission so far; he takes it out of the loop, and attaches instead a simulated environment based on a live copy of the ship's net but restricted to his own recording system.
When de Konick and Father Gabriel open the crate, they see that there's some empty space at the top, and a lash-up of electronic components further inside. They cut away the sides of the crate, and it becomes clear that whatever's inside has attached itself (and the floor of the crate) quite firmly to the deck. Once they confirm that Bond's simulated environment is in place, they use the hull-inspection X-ray equipment to get an image of the inside. Several things happen: a burst of data goes out on the tapped line, and almost at once the dense core of the assembly puts out a great deal of heat as it melts itself down.
Bond's analysis of the data burst suggests that it was a set of commands to the hyperdrive; the effect, according to his simulations at least, would have been to break the ship out of hyperspace over about a half-parsec area.
The components, which in some cases are heat-damaged, are mostly standard electronics elements. The core was clearly rather more sophisticated, and the electronics experts are able to confirm that it matches designs for semi-motile AI chassis. This is pretty advanced, though not beyond their own expertise; it is however extremely illegal.
The crew spends the next few days searching the ship, in case there might have been a second core or some more motile object. They don't find anything.
The remainder of the trip is uneventful, though darkened by worry about whether something similar was done to Gambler's Luck. Most crews don't do minute inspections of the hold while in flight...
The Hebi emerges on schedule, with Gambler's Luck around thirty seconds behind. Imperial customs intruders hail them almost at once, and the inspection is prolonged and detailed. Once they've left, Bond transfers across to the Luck to brief them on what went on - there's no sign of similar sabotage on board - and they proceed in-system.
The contract specifies delivery to Koshchei's main orbital port, a traditional dumbbell station design, for breakdown and distribution of the cargo to various sites on-planet. Oddly, the company that supposedly ordered the crate that contained the sabotage system claims not to know anything about it.
As the crew cast about for a new cargo, they are greeted by Leutnant Karl von Koshchei, a local who's a member of the Imperial Fleet (as opposed to the native Koshcheian services they've been dealing with so far). He seems rather less switched-on than Leutnant von Ceti at Korzibsky B, though this may be Bond's biases showing through; he certainly buys a lot of drinks, and doesn't stint himself. After entertaining the crew, he admits that one of his jobs is to try to recruit more merchant shipping for the "Koshchei sector" - trade is increasing, and while of course the Imperial shipyards can easily turn out as many ships as are needed, trained crews are rather harder to find.
He offers both the Luck and the Hebi cargo contracts: the Hebi's is for a triangular run, taking luxury and high-tech goods from Koshchei to Last Chance, packaged foods from Last Chance to Ivanov's asteroid miners, and minerals from Ivanov back to Koshchei. Obviously it'll be a bit of a change of pace if they take it up long-term, so he suggests they do the run once - at a generous 5% over standard cargo rates - and see if they want to continue. The Luck is offered a rather longer run, shuttling to Sakura; Captain McDonough is certainly willing to give it a try, and Captain Thrush agrees that while they may well not want to take up a regular route there's no harm in doing it once.
The journey from Koshchei to Last Chance goes uneventfully. Bond finds himself being formally baptised into the True Catholic Church, but otherwise life goes on pretty much as normal.
As the ship comes in for the very easy approach to Last Chance's starport, the crew decides that they should aim for a quick turn-round; they're not entirely happy about what happened here last time. However, there's a small and happy crowd waiting for them at the dock, including several of Bond's old Anglic class from August.
Mostly they're glad just to see Bond again; the only significant entanglement is an invitation to dinner by the local Law Society. Since the unloading of luxury goods and and loading of packaged food will be taking place overnight anyway, they decide to go along, getting suitable formal clothing constructed in the ship's auto-tailor.
On the way, they get a bit further away from the starport than they did on their previous visit. It's notable that a lot of the ground traffic here would be considered armoured vehicles on most other worlds. When they get to the dinner, they find out that farming on Last Chance is a high-energy business: even the herbivores are best herded with explosive shells, and the carnivores that have evolved to prey on them take anti-aircraft and anti-tank guns to stop. Since heavy armament is an unavoidable part of the rural life, this appears to make a little more sense of the legal customs... in fact, contrary to what Bond had believed, they operated duels to the death here well before the Empire took over, and in fact the Imperial system has reduced the effects and frequency of trial by combat quite substantially.
When the mood turns to anecdotes, the local lawyers' theme runs along the lines of stories that end "so then I cut his arm off" or "I was in hospital for three days but I still won the case". Bond avoids any accounts of fighting against the Imperial Navy by talking about anti-piracy patrols; Father Gabriel recounts some of his experiences on aid convoys. The evening passes convivially.
On the way back to the ship, de Konick picks up a supply of energy weapon components; his experimentation with high-tech beam weapons, based on the ones he found aboard the derelict Photon Cascade back in May, has led him to realise that he's going to be burning out a lot of kit trying to get things working at the high-tech standards of the First Federation.
The crew returns to the ship and lifts out for Ivanov without incident.
Ivanov is a world where the unfortunate natives are being uplifted to Imperial standards of civilisation. For example, they are given the opportunity to work as labourers in the starport, thus exposing them to high-tech Imperial civilisation. There's no orbital station, even though most of the cargo is going to and coming from the asteroid belt rather than the planet itself.
The non-native population appears to consist largely of the Imperial Viceroy (Wilhelm von Ivanov) and his hangers-on, and a large contingent of sociologists who are both studying the natives and attempting to "improve" their lot. There's no Catholic church, so Father Gabriel arranges to hold a service before the ship leaves.
While Scholes is in the cargo bay supervising the loading of bulk minerals for Koshchei, one of the native workers stumbles against her and passes her a datachip, muttering "tell Koshchei" before he continues with his work. She takes it to the captain, who gets Bond to check it for electronic dubiety. It proves to contain a number of video files, apparently taken from fixed-mount cameras in a derelict city; a group of unarmed natives is being hunted down by people wearing armoured exoskeleton suits and carrying energy weapons. Bond secretes a number of encrypted copies about the ship; the plan is to do nothing about this until they get back to Koshchei.
With several hours of loading still to go, the captain is called to the control tower to complete some extra paperwork. Father Gabriel goes with him, expecting trouble; even his reflexes aren't good enough to save him or the captain from a heavy electrolaser stun barrage. Twenty minutes later, with no word from the captain, there's a call for the first officer to join the captain in the control tower.
Quote: (Bond) Is going to the rescue with the ship doable?
(Scholes/de Konick) Rescue?
Bond decides that this is almost certainly a bad idea, but the semiportable energy weapon being wheeled into the dock - behind a gunshield - suggests that it's a bit late to call the locals' bluff. Scholes gets onto the cargo bay tannoy and tells the locals to get out now; they do. The crew decides that they can't win a fight here, and blasting directly out of the dock would kill too many people; they surrender. Bond secures the ship, but as they walk towards their captors there's a shout of "Look! They're resisting!" and more stunner fire.
The whole crew wakes up in a crude hut, which looks as though it's been constructed from shipping containers (not an uncommon building material on isolated colonies); there's an open doorway and a couple of windows. As they look around, they see that they're in a bombed-out city looking remarkably like the one on the video chip; a closer look suggests that it's been constructed deliberately to look that way. Bond checks the sky, and reckons that they're ten or twenty miles to the east of the port.
Captain Thrush puts Father Gabriel in command, as the priest clearly has the advantage in experience of tight situations. The first action is to get out of the hut, which is far too small and bare of useful items; one by one, they cross the street to get into a five-storey building across the road. As the first person leaves the hut, there's the sound of a hunting horn in the distance...
The building proves to be a hollow shell, with scaffolding up the inside of the front wall supporting ladders and platforms by the windows. The group gets to work loosening the scaffolding grid to form a deadfall trap, and taking some of the poles to use as crude spears. Father Gabriel ties himself to the scaffolding just inside a top-floor window to keep a lookout. Scholes decides to strip, on the basis that any extra distraction might be useful.
When the first armoured figure approaches, he throws his spears to get its attention (not coming anywhere near actually hitting), then ducks back inside before the return volley of blaster fire. The hunter comes in through the door, and part of the scaffolding is collapsed on top of him. As the others pin him down and Scholes conducts what seems to be some sort of psionic attack, de Konick climbs up the back of his suit, finding and activating the emergency release catches. He gets the helmet off and knocks out the hunter with a few hard blows, then continues punching until he's stopped.
The suits are fitted to individuals, but Piper can just about squeeze into this one (while nobody in the party is trained in battle suits, they're all competent with vacc suits, and they aren't all that different). He uses the thermograph and other sensors to track the locations of the other hunters: two are fairly close by, and the other two are further away apparently hunting other targets. Father Gabriel takes the blast rifle, since he's the best shot.
The second hunter comes in fast, with the third giving him cover from the street. This doesn't help when several of the crew lay into him with scaffolding poles and bear him to the ground; as before, de Konick gets the suit open. Before they can strip him, the third hunter comes in, firing randomly; Scholes is hit in the leg and badly wounded.
Note: The bad guy rolled 5d6 for damage and got 6. Various comments were made then and later when the trend continued about the power-pack-leeching field obviously in operation on this planet...
Father Gabriel uses the blast rifle to collapse the rest of the scaffolding on him, and his suit is also stripped off.
Quote: (Bond) Blaster rifles don't have a stun setting, do they?
(de Konick) They do - it's at the other end from the barrel.
Scholes and Father Gabriel interrogate the third hunter, but he doesn't have much useful to say - "it's just harmless entertainment". When all the arrangements have been made, Scholes and Father Gabriel are wearing the newly-acquired suits (Scholes taking full advantage of the pain-suppressing drugs with which her suit is loaded), and Bond, Piper and Thrush are armed with blast rifles (Father Gabriel takes the third hunter's backup pistol). Piper is growing very concerned about the ongoing slaughter elsewhere in the arena, so while Scholes and the captain guard the one conscious hunter the others hurry over there.
The fourth hunter is creative: he's using a flamethrower. Piper and Father Gabriel knock him down and de Konick strips his suit as before, but before they can see whether it'll fit anyone the suited members of the party notice a 30-second countdown starting in their helmet displays. They rapidly remove the suits, though Piper stays clad for long enough to tear a hole in the thirty-foot fence that surrounds the arena; some sort of shrapnel charge goes off when the timer reaches zero. Whoever's organising this doesn't seem to care much about the health of their hunters...
The crew gets back together, leaving the bound prisoner behind, and heads for the hole. Several of the other "prey" seem to be doing the same thing. There's a sound of thrusters, and a single VTOL gunship comes over the horizon as the victims take cover. It hovers, then unleashes a salvo of plasma fire into bushes where some of the other survivors were lurking. Father Gabriel and Bond shoot at the pilot with their captured weapons; Father Gabriel misses, but Bond nails him. The inside of the canopy is obscured, and the vehicle settles to the ground.
The group heads for the troop compartment hatch, and Bond hauls the gunner out of his seat. As they leave, they toss the gunner to some of the other survivors, with a shout of "it's just harmless entertainment".
There are six surface-to-air laser turrets at the starport, a standard defensive arrangement, and engaging them with the Hebi doesn't look like a survivable option. They stay low and manage to take out two of the three turrets that can cover a low-level departure to the east, but the VTOL is shot down as they attempt to deal with the last one. The port is largely empty; they take an abandoned ground vehicle and head back for the ship.
Father Gabriel points out that his guns are presumably still in the control tower, and he is not prepared to leave without them. Bond goes along to cover his back, while Piper and de Konick jump-start the fusion plant and get the ship ready for flight as quickly as possible. (Scholes tries to patch up her crippled leg, and Thrush starts to work out just how to fly the ship out of an enclosed blast-proof docking area on its fusion rams without melting or crashing the ship.)
Father Gabriel and Bond exchange shots with someone near the control tower, and Bond takes a severe hit. He goes berserk, emptying his weapon and grabbing up his fallen target's laser pistol to go after more enemies. Father Gabriel keeps up, with rather more control; as Bond empties his second gun, he comes back to reality, notices his wound, and falls over. Father Gabriel picks him up and keeps going.
Quote: (GM) He still has a pulse. It's very obvious, in fact.
Finding the captured equipment doesn't take long, and Father Gabriel heads up the control tower to disable the sensors, thus forcing the lasers onto local tracking. Once that's done, he calls to Thrush in the ship, who gets out of the docking bay with minimal damage, flies between the port buildings so as not to be shot at by the remaining lasers, and hovers by the upper deck of the tower to pick them up.
Unfortunately, Father Gabriel is thrown off balance by Bond's weight and falls some thirty feet to the ground. Thrush lands very fast, so as to avoid roasting them with the drive exhaust, and the other crew members pull them in. Father Gabriel's just about conscious enough to man his turret; Bond is put into the sick bay, where Scholes does her best to stabilise him.
The departure path, coincidentally, involves a low-altitude pass over the Viceregal palace; unfortunately there isn't enough space to pick up airspeed for a transition into conventional flight mode, and so the fusion rams are still active in lift mode when this happens. A terrible accident.
The ship heads for orbit and out to the jump limit. On the way, they hear Tatiana von Ivanov, daughter of the late Viceroy, broadcasting her shock at the terrible actions of her father (of which she was entirely ignorant) and her promise to ensure that nothing of this sort happens again. The crew does not take her terribly seriously, but it looks at least as though there won't be any major complaint made about them.
Note: At this point the campaign is going on hold for a few months to give someone else a chance to run a game.