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A Short Field Trip

Deliveries And Decisions

     Regina By lunch-time, Mikah was returning to the suite for lunch with the two new bathing suits she'd bought.  Zimzod was returning to the suite too, after weapon shopping and to wait until his new toys were delivered.  There, they'd find Terin digging into the White Star Order data from Aali's fob.  Terin wouldn't finish up until dinner time that evening.  Rol, Jocelynn and Aiden were on the road, stopping at military historic sites after having spent some hours hiking.  A "highlight" of their adventure was to be the "Palace of the Marquis", which they'd visit last as they got closer to Atora.  Emkir, Fesic and Aali were in the ship, in port in Credo, where they worked on the ship's engineering and the new software download.

Getting back to the suite by 1pm, Mikah put her new suits away and thought about what she wanted to do for the rest of the day?  After considering her options, Mikah sparked up a terminal and started looking for hospitals she could volunteer with.  As she was finishing up her search and making her decision, Zimzod returned from his shopping.  When Mikah told him she'd planned to volunteer, Zimzod decided to do some PT.  A buzz came at the suite's door not long later, while Zimzod was exercising and Mikah checking data on hospitals.  Shortly after that, the butler came to tell Zimzod he had a delivery.

Thinking it was his weapons order, Zimzod was surprised to see a delivery man waiting with an "android porter".  On that android's carry-pallet, there was a fairly large box which was marked for Fesic.  Zimzod's first thought was to wonder why Fesic had ordered a dead guy?  Still, Zimzod shrugged and accepted the order.  He moved the box into the living room before calling Fesic.  After Zimzod told him of the box, Fesic said it was his lock picking order.  Shaking his head, Zimzod said the box was much larger than a simple lock picking set.  Fesic laughed and told Zimzod the box contained more than just that.  He said the box had all the materials needed to set up a locksmith shop.  Nodding, Zimzod asked what Fesic wanted done with the box and was told to just have it put in Fesic's bedroom.

After that, Zimzod went back to his workout until the door again buzzed and the butler announced another delivery.  This delivery was from the War House, and Zimzod was glad to see it.  He brought the packet into the suite's living room to open.  After he'd removed and checked all the weapons and ammunition, he began to detail strip and clean the weapons.  Looking over and ignoring the shotgun, Mikah asked, "Is that a sniper rifle?"  When Zimzod said it was, Mikah said she'd never seen him use one of them and Zimzod said he felt others in the crew could use it.  Mikah nodded and said, "OK.  It's for the ship then."

Because of that, Mikah said Aiden and Emkir were the two members of the crew most skilled with rifles.  Because they knew Aiden to be more skilled than Emkir, both were leaning toward having Aiden play the role of sniper when it was needed.  They joked that they wouldn't have to worry about Emkir dropping the rifle.  There were also jokes about Aiden not fleeing so quickly if he was behind the battle line too.  After those laughs, Mikah started calling hospitals to volunteer.  Soon, Mikah set up to work a six-hour shift and a hospital sent a car for her.

Once Mikah left, Zimzod finished working on the weapons over the next hour and then returned to PT.  Finishing his workouts, Zimzod then checked the time and saw it was a few more hours to dinner.  Coming to a decision, Zimzod cleaned up, put on his order uniform and then went to the Order House to mingle.  After he and Mikah had left, Rol, Jocelynn and Aiden got back to the suite.  While they discussed who would be in the suite for dinner and Rol started to cook, Emkir, Aali and Fesic started to talk about their schedule.

While Aali had made good progress, Emkir and Fesic were only just started on what was turning into a long road.  Or, perhaps a "Very" long road.  So, the two wanted to keep working that evening, especially before having to make the hour-long ride back to the suite.  That got them talking about their schedule and the commute that would eat two hours from each day.  Fesic said they could stay on the ship to save the time and effort of the drive.  After the discussion that followed, they decided it would make sense to go back to the suite that night and move their gear into the ship to live there while the work continued.

With that agreed, Aali cleaned up in engineering while the 'droids worked on and Emkir and Fesic worked late on the computer.  Finally, they decided to return to the suite and have a late dinner while telling the others of their plans.  Knowing Fesic and Jocelynn had gone out looking for shady contacts the night before, Emkir suggested it would be better to look for that kind of contact in the Credo-downport startown.  That was a place where the laws were sometimes more lax than anywhere else on Regina.  Emkir suggested the ship would be a better base for Jocelynn and Fesic to work from because it would be easy to slip into the bars of startown from there.

When the three got back to the suite, they found Rol, Jocelynn, Terin and Aiden there and were told Mikah was volunteering for a hospital and Zimzod was at the Order house.  Aali, Emkir and Fesic settled for having Rol heat up and add some stock to the leftovers for dinner as they talked about their plans.  As they talked, Rol asked if Jocelynn and Fesic would like him to come along hunting shady contacts.  There were jokes and comments but in the end, they said they wouldn't mind.  So, he could come if he wanted.  That decided, Terin joked about having to tell Mikah and Zimzod their cook was leaving them when they got back to the suite.

Relaxing and eating, Aali and Emkir discussed the differences in time required for their projects.  Aali knew she'd be done with the engineering resets in a week if not less.  At the same time, Emkir and Fesic were looking at the possibility of months of work to get the software done.  While the men would be spending their time on the ship now, the free time Aali would have would let her go and visit her parents.  With that agreed, Aali called her folks and spent some time making plans.  That call ended with the promise to have a "dinner with the crew" where they could meet Jocelynn, and that Aali would call before she came to visit.

Rumors And Relationships

     After driving to the Order House in the rental, Zimzod spent some time milling about in the common spaces meeting people and chatting.  It was looking like another boring evening until he stepped up to a small group of men.  As he did, he overheard one man quietly say, "...and we are certain he will be in place in four hours."  Not sure if they'd noticed his accidental eavesdropping, Zimzod decided to take the bull by the horns and learn what he could.  Stepping more completely up to the group, Zimzod looked around conspiratorially and asked, "Who's going to be in place in four hours?"  As he looked around, the men all looked him up and down as one of them asked, "I'm sorry.  Do we know who you are?"

In for a credit, Zimzod offered his hand around and introduced himself as the men more cautiously nodded and greeted him.  Most were Knights but one was a Baron, and one of the men asked Zimzod what his business was in-system?  When Zimzod said he was on Regina to try and get a meeting with the Arch Duke, the others all laughed and said that was something he had in common with many of the nobility arriving in-system.  And, added one of the other Knights, the Arch-Duke would have precious little time to spare anyone.  Still, the laughs were not insulting and Zimzod agreed, though he also said, "Well, he kinda likes me."

Nodding at that, the Baron and most of the Knights bowed out saying they 'had to be about something' while another of the Knights shifted himself between them and Zimzod and asked, "He kinda likes you?  Why is that?"  The man's tone seemed genuinely interested and Zimzod joked, "Because of my good looks and sparkling conversation."  As he said that, he tried to keep an eye on the other men but they soon stepped out of the room and Zimzod saw he'd not get past this Knight without making a scene.  And if that happened, he'd spend too much time explaining himself to the powers that be in the Order House to catch up to the Baron and his men.  The Knight still with him laughed and offered, "Perhaps we should share a drink."  With that, the man raised an arm to direct Zimzod toward a bar on the opposite wall from the door the others have left through.

Accepting the situation, and the Knight's offer of a drink, Zimzod was considering the other men and realized there was "something" familiar about the Baron.  Try as he might, Zimzod couldn't remember what it was and making a drink order and conversation didn't help much.  Stepping up to the bar, the man asked what Zimzod was drinking and he answered, "Kickin' Chicken!"  Looking Zimzod over again, the man sad, "OooooK", very slowly, as if Zimzod should regret the choice.  Still, he ordered for Zimzod and got himself a glass of white wine from a local label.

Tit-for-tat, Zimzod asked the man what brought him to Regina and the man told him, in a disinterested tone, "Like everyone else.  We're here for the ceremonies and everyone has to come visit and play nice."  Hoping for more, Zimzod asked, "So, what kind of action is going on around here besides that?"  Appearing to consider his words before he spoke, the Knight said, "Right now, this is a stew pot.  We'll see if the pressure cooks off or if it doesn't.  Any time this many members of the nobility with differing agendas gather in one place, something is bound to happen."

When Zimzod fished, "Really?" the man answered, "It's just the nature of the beach."  Zimzod was ready to ask if the man had mis-spoke when the man continued, "You can either lie on the beach and enjoy yourself or make a mistake and get sunburned."  Nodding, Zimzod answered "OK" as he noted the man had the sort of tanned complexion that suggested he lived in the sun.  When Zimzod asked where he was from, the man said he was from the Alell system.  That made sense to Zimzod because Alell was a smaller world with a surprisingly standard atmosphere and oceans covering seventy percent of the planet.  While it wasn't a tropical world, it was noted for being a planet for the rich, set up as a series of huge hotel complexes next to Alell's warm shallow seas.

Digging a bit deeper, Zimzod asked the man what he did in Alell and the Knight said he was a bureaucrat in a government agency, which was why he was on Regina.  He added he was part of that government's delegation to the ceremonies.  When Zimzod took a sip of his drink, the man asked "What do you do for work?"  Pausing to think before answering, Zimzod said, "Moving cargo and trouble shooting."  When the man asked "Trouble shooting" with a raised eyebrow, Zimzod nodded and said, "Yeah.  If we find any local trouble wherever we wind up, we look into it and find out what's happening."

When the man smiled and joked, "And, if there isn't any local trouble, you make some.  Right?" Zimzod waved that off and just said "Nah." as he took another sip.  When the man pushed and asked if he might've heard of their work, Zimzod mentioned the pandemic in the Risek system.  Having heard of that, the Knight was impressed and admitted he remembered it after Zimzod mentioned it.  He then asked Zimzod if he'd been a member of the group on the naval station or one of the people who entered the infection zone?  When Zimzod said he'd been part of Lady Mikah's team aboard the infected station the man was even more impressed, raising a toast to Zimzod, saying, "To you and your big balls."

It was no surprise, as they talked, that others had overheard and were moving in on the conversation.  Almost as if the Knight had planned it.  The "Risek Plague" had been major interstellar news and was still a topic of discussion even a year and a half later.  The government and people of the nation Podesta were still recovering.  Not surprisingly, as the wave of others approached with their questions and interest, the Knight Zimzod had been talking to faded into the crowd and disappeared.  Again, Zimzod found himself unable to pursue without creating a scene and being grabbed by those who ran the Order House to explain himself.  Almost as if the Knight had planned it.

Swamped by the many people who now found him "worthy of interest", Zimzod was talking when a tall and beefy negroid man with close copped hair stepped up.  Stepping into the conversation with an air of privilege and authority, the man said, "I understand that when you were in the Risek system, you took issue with a number of our SuSAG affiliations there?"  The sentence was more of a statement than a question, though his posture did suggest he was open to any answer Zimzod would offer.  And Zimzod had to admit that Mikah had "decided" SuSAG had been behind the plague very early on.  She never backed off, and had them ransack a number of SuSAG offices until they found and caught one of the actual terrorists behind the attack.  And she still wouldn't admit she thought the virus was genegeneered by SuSAG.

Not willing to step into that, Zimzod explained the events during their entry into the Risek system.  With that mainworld close in to a red dwarf sun, the jump shadow was just under two days.  As they had burned in-system, they had caught communications between a ship filled with refugees from the plague and ships defending a SuSAG-owned portion of the outer system.  While the refugees claimed to be uninfected, the local SuSAG authorities weren't willing to let them risk infecting the SuSAG stations.  What started as warnings to the refugees to turn back ended with the SuSAG ships engaging the fleeing ship.

Mikah and the crew had been horrified at the cold-blooded attack not only because the fleeing people had claimed to be clean of the disease, but because the attackers did not destroy the ship outright.  They simply attacked the ship's engines causing unrepairable damage, and let the refugees die slowly as they ran out of air and power.  That was one of the kinds of death most feared by spacers.  From that point on, Zimzod admitted the entire crew at the time had to ask themselves how cold-blooded the local SuSAG affiliates were and what they were capable of?

Nodding, the SuSAG man seemed to shrug off the event Zimzod described and said, "Well, that is also rather ironic because I have it on good authority that the warning some of the mercenaries we'd hired to liberate the Gougeste system planned to loot our facilities came from Lady Mikah."  Nodding, Zimzod knew Aiden had originally heard that in the Duchess' court and been too afraid to act on it.  When he'd told Mikah, she'd called the Seneschalate and passed it on.  He didn't know what had happened after that?  Still, Zimzod said, "Well, then you should he happy about that." in a tone that quietly challenged the SuSAG man to make something of it.

The SuSAG man just shrugged and asked, in a conversational tone, "Is your crew going to be a continuing concern for us, or can we work together?"  Zimzod smiled and said, "Being that we uncovered those behind events in Risek, I don't see us having any trouble trying to get along."  It wasn't a ringing endorsement for working together but it certainly opened the door.  The SuSAG man smiled, nodded and said, "That's very good to hear because our corporation can be very friendly when we're not forced to look over our shoulders."  Zimzod nodded and said, "Well, we have no problems with you."

Around them, the crowd had gotten quiet as if they were waiting for a fight to break out.  That or for something to be said which could be of value or suggest a widening rift they could use or sell word of.  When things smoothed out, some of those watching moved on while others ordered drinks or went back to enjoying the evening.  The SuSAG man asked Zimzod what his plans were after the ceremonies and Zimzod said he'd like to go visit his homeworld.  When the man asked where that was, Zimzod told him about Pimane, which was eight jumps away from Regina at jump-4.

When the man said he'd never heard of the world, Zimzod told him about the largely airless backwater world which had been left behind after the mines played out and jump tech improved.  Rumor was there were possibly valleys and even possible life deep within the craigs and deep valleys of the world but none had been found and no one was looking.  The current population were more than a bit distrusting of outsiders because they had no defense against pirates and raiders.  Because of that, the population were distrustful of anyone, making it harder even for honest traders to call there.

Hearing what Zimzod had to say, the SuSAG man nodded and said it sounded like an unfortunate corner of space and told Zimzod he was lucky to have gotten out.  Zimzod nodded and said he'd gotten out by signing up with the Imperial Navy when a patrol came through the system.  The man nodded and admitted that was one way out and Zimzod hammered it down by saying it had been the only way out.  When the man asked if Zimzod had heard from his family or friends, Zimzod had to admit he hadn't really.  But, he also reminded the man how hard it was to get messages on and off world there.  The SuSAG man agreed it would be difficult.  After that, the man raised his glass, wished Zimzod luck in the future and moved on.

Covering The Technical Details

     Having spent much of the day researching the White Star order data, Terin had found references to the use of diamagnets and rare-earth materials in their construction to save on the cost of contra-grav tech where needed.  That suggested that it might be easier to scan for clusters of materials like that when searching for any remnant facilities hidden on any of the worlds in the Sonthert system.  The bad news was that most of the worlds they'd be looking at were frozen.  That meant anything they might be looking for could be under layers of snow and ice.  And, neither the snow or ice were water-based.  Theories the crew already had included sheets of frozen chlorine or other elements.

Terin realized just how "fun" the search they planned might be.  Because Solid (sometimes called "metallic") oxygen could form at normal pressures in temperatures below 54.36 deg K( -218.79 deg C).  That meant Mynbou, with a likely average temperature of -266 deg C, could create all sorts of issues with their sensors.  When Rol, Jocelynn and Aiden got back, Terin decided to mention it to Aiden as Rol cooked dinner.  As they ate, the four talked about both the diamagnets and rare-earths, the likely ice compositions and sensor capabilities.  One question that came up was ground penetration capabilities of their sensors.

When Terin and Aiden started talking about penetration values, they admitted the passive EMS arrays would be useless for that.  Covering the electromagnetic spectrum from low to high frequency, the EMS frequency bands were:
      Longwave Radio (Power line networks or the lower end of the broadcast radio bands)
      Shortwave Radio (Broadcast radio, television, radar)
      Microwave Radio (Microwave/Maser communications, all-weather radar)
      Heat/IR (Any heat source, such as starship hull radiators or lifeforms)
      Vis-Light (Any visible light source, such as low-tech lasers [under TL 13] or stars
      Ultraviolet (Special artificial light, stars, some special-purpose lasers and lidar [tight-beam laser])
      X-ray (High-tech lasers and lidar [under TL 13], some stars or gas giants)
      Gamma (Nuclear explosions and stars)
At the same time, their active EMS array would create signals to bounce off materials to get reflected signals back from objects they detected.  Any data they got from those systems depended on what materials and structures(natural or not) the signals passed through.  Like detecting vessels under an ocean, even temperature layers could affect the signals.  As Terin had pointed out, layers of solid elements such as oxygen and other "normally aerosol" elements could create barriers.

That meant that in his expert opinion, Aiden could not predict the performance of their sensors until they knew what they were dealing with on-site.

Other sensors would be "neutrino sensor" packages, which detected modern power systems based on fusion or fission.  While it would not detect petrochemical-burning or more primitive power systems, those would easily be spotted by active EMS.  Finally, they had a military densometer array and Neural Activity Scanner.  Based on gravitic technology, a densometer was a passive sensor detecting the natural gravitic energy all matter had.  Because a densitometer dealt with very weak gravitational fields, it would be very sensitive.

Artificial gravitic fields would disrupt and distort sensor readings.  Especially if the densitometer itself was in an artificial gravity field, like the "Upgrade".  Because they had a military grade densitometer, their systems were "gravity shielded" against that.  The Neural Activity Sensor(NAS) suite was another device that wanted time and "fine tuning" to work.  It could be used to estimate where any sentient beings might be in a scanned object.  But, like the densometer, it could be overwhelmed by massive data from large target regions or mass populations.

So, the Active EMS "might" see something but it could also be blocked by ice or other densely-frozen materials.  The Neutrino sensors would only pick up high-tech energy systems while they were operating.  And the densometer and NAS would both be nearly useless on such a large scale.  This was because it would be receiving energy from the area of an entire planetary surface, which was so much energy that it would all become a wash in the end.  Another understanding they came to was that this was going to take a good amount of time.

With no less than three full planets they were interested in and as many as eight worlds(excluding Sonthert itself) and over a dozen moons, they had a lot of territory to cover.  Given they might spend more than a week scanning each world or moon, they'd also need to refresh their fuel and consumables regularly.  That meant using the jump drive to micro-jump to each target world as well as the gas giant to refuel.  While they could recover some oxygen while cracking fuel from the ship's purification plant, they'd also need stockpiles of consumables.

That meant than in addition to hyper-arctic search supplies and other needs, they'd have to fill their cargo bay with pressurized tanks of water, Oxygen and other consumables as well as compressed food pastes and rations.  Any "fresh" supplies would depend on anything they might get from the one licensed mining colony in-system, and that would risk rumors getting out about 'what they were doing'.  Of course, they didn't comment on that because Jocelynn was sitting at the table wondering why this trip to the Sonthert system mattered at all and what it was all about?

Turning to Terin, Aiden asked if there were any other pieces of information they could use to narrow the field of target worlds?  Both Rol and Terin had answered, because they'd done the most research on the data from the fob.  They reminded him they'd only selected the worlds they did because there were ports marked on them but they had no listed populations.  That was a mystery, and it had been their only clue.  Outside of that, they had nothing else to go on.

Having heard enough about Sonthert with no explanation why, Jocelynn finally asked, "Sonthert is an interdicted system.  How do you suppose we get into the system?"  Terin looked uneasily at Jocelynn and told her, "Um.  Lady Mikah will bring you up to speed on that." in a tone that was, itself, uncomfortable.  Worse yet, it left Jocelynn with the distinct feeling she'd just been blown off, so she was even more annoyed.

Swallowing her anger, Jocelynn complained, "Well, you're talking about Sonthert like you can just wander in there but it's an interdicted system.  Isn't it?  When Terin said, "We have a writ letting us enter the system." Jocelynn asked, "How'd you get that?"  Terin started to say, "I can't..."  He then reconsidered and continued, "I'm not authorized to go into detail about it but I'm sure Lady Mikah will let you know what you need to know."  Jocelynn simply nodded and made a mental note to ask Mikah about it when she could, then maim Terin.  For fun.

The Marquis' Palace Not the only one who'd decided it was time for a new topic, Rol asked if Terin wanted to hear about their road trip?  At first, Jocelynn had to be reminded "which" road trip, because she'd been focused on the Sonthert question.  When she was reminded about their trip earlier that day, most of her comments focused on the palace which had been the home of Marquis Caranda Aledon before he was elevated to become the first Duke of Regina.  Built in a style called "Neo-Terran" at the time, the palace certainly looked the part of an old Earth castle.  Thanks to zero-g technology, from off-world at the time, the towers soared into the sky.  Additions after Duke Caranda's elevation and before a new Ducal palace was completed, were also done to conform to the style completing a truly stylish structure.

As Jocelynn gushed about the palace, Terin asked questions both for interest and to keep her on safer topics than Sonthert.  Her admiration for the estate was divided between architectural grandeur she'd rarely seen and the collections of antiques and weapons maintained there.  One specific display both Jocelynn and Aiden had enjoyed was the "brag wall" display of weapons removed from Menorb during the 623 TI invasion of that system.  With comments from Aiden and Rol, they also talked about other sites they'd visited as well as the hike they'd gone on.  Everyone agreed Fesic would have liked being with them for that leg of the trip.

While they talked in the suite, Emkir and Fesic said they'd been working most of the day on an initial assessment of the software.  What they'd been finding was that the package had been exactly as advertised.  It appeared to be a raw copy of all the needed directories and files to run the training package.  That meant they had to figure out how it worked, so they could integrate it into the ship's gunnery systems correctly.  The agreement was that no changes would be made until they knew what they wanted to do and had a plan to do it correctly.  The "easy part" would be to manually build out the structure of directories and storage needed to copy in the software elements.

Next, they'd have to verify they understood how the software operated in order to insure all the structures and files had the correct permissions to connect and use other system resources.  After that, came the monster task of locating all the individual configuration files, which could number in the millions, and confirm that each was pointing to the correct application nodes, data sources, sub-application and third-party connector software.  And that included the ship's computer operating system.  One bad pointer to the incorrect data or application port could knock other critical systems off line.  That meant the project Emkir and Fesic had was gonna take a LOT of time.

Suddenly Moonlighting

     At the Order House, Zimzod had dinner and planned to stay until 9pm that evening.  While he hung out and relaxed, Zimzod kept up a casual watch for the Knights and Baron he'd seen earlier.  While he never saw any of the Knights again, he did eventually see the Baron return to the common rooms.  At that point, it struck him that was the "Baron Zander" who Terin had met nights before at a bar.  Deciding to try and connect with the man, Zimzod moved to approach the Baron.  Appearing to spot his approach, Baron Zander seemed to suddenly dodge into a crowd and then out a door from the room, as if evading.  Deciding it would be best not to try and chase him, and make a scene, Zimzod gave up the chase.

The rest of Zimzod's evening passed with less excitement and he eventually got back to the suite to be told half the crew was planning to move back to the ship, including Rol.  So, he, Mikah and those staying behind would be without a cook!  Shrugging, Zimzod called the butler over and started asking about getting information to hire a chef to come in and cover for Rol.  After figuring Rol would only be living on the ship for the next week, Zimzod told the butler to look into hiring someone for that time.

Volunteering at a hospital, Mikah was helping in the emergency department and was mostly seeing the normal spectrum of patients from a significant city.  The worst of the wounds she saw were stabbings or slashes, because of the strict laws on-world, or the result of vehicle accidents.  That was why her attention was caught near the "end of her shift" when the department was warned three gunshot victims were being brought in!  Because she felt she would be needed, Mikah stayed around and pitched in, finding herself working on a wounded Knight!

Because the wound wasn't critical, Mikah decided to put her patient more at ease by asking how he'd gotten shot?  The man said he'd been shot during an attempted robbery, and he could identify one of the other wounded brought to the hospital as one of the thieves.  When Mikah stepped away from her patient, as tests and scans were taken, she was able to check with the central nurse station to see what she could about the others.  To her surprise, another of the "victims" was a Knight and the third man came from a very high political level.  On top of that, all three claimed they'd been part of the party being robbed and one of the others brought in was one of the criminals!

So they were all socially important, and they were each pointing the finger at one of the other two!  Going back to her patient, Mikah asked the man what Chivalric order he was with and was told he was a member of her order.  The Knight Defenders of the Marches.  While dealing with what turned out to be a relatively minor wound, Mikah asked if the others were also members of their Order?  The man said that all those who'd been in his group were but he couldn't speak to the other group.  He said they had been staying at the Order House and left to "find some fun." and Mikah joked, "I guess you found it!"  By the time Mikah was done with her patient, the others were anesthetized and prepared for surgery so she could ask them no questions.

Not yet leaving the hospital, Mikah called the suite to find out if anyone had visited the Order House that evening, or if they could call and ask about any incidents the staff there might know about?  By the time she made her call, Zimzod was already back at the suite and Mikah told him there'd been a shooting involving Knights of the order.  Hearing that, Zimzod told her, "Um...  I suspected something was going on with that Baron."  Mikah told Zimzod about the Knights, shootings and claims of attempted robbery.

Zimzod nodded and told Mikah that he'd overheard the Baron and his people saying "someone" would be in position in four hours.  And that was easily three and a half to four hours earlier, before Zimzod had eaten dinner.  Mikah then told Zimzod to check on things with the Order house while she did some checking at the hospital.  Moving to the nurse's station after the call, Mikah checked on the Emergency department copies of the patient's records because the originals had been moved with them.  What she found there were names and a correction.  The correction was that the third man had, in fact, also been a Knight.  And a member of their order too!  So, why had no one known it when she asked?  Who was hiding what?

There were still Atora police hanging around because of the case so Mikah was able to ask.  She was told the shooting happened in an open public space, near a mass-transit station.  Hitting a computer and checking on the station, Mikah saw it wouldn't be hard to reach from the Order House.  Finding at least one talkative officer, Mikah learned that there'd been two separate groups, each claiming to be nobility, reacting to criminal activity.  And both groups claimed the other were the criminal aggressors.

Mikah was also told that investigators found no evidence of any "third group" which may have triggered the event and then fled.  So authorities were mostly certain the two groups were the only involved parties.  That also depended on investigation of security tapes of the public spaces surrounding the event.  Returning to the patient's charts, Mikah checked them for anything of interest and noticed one more oddity.  While two were registered as having rented rooms with the Order House, the third was listed as crew aboard the yacht, IMV Khasha Raadizan.  Wondering who might be the Senior Officer of the Order in-system, Mikah decided to go back to the suite instead of calling the Order house, just yet.

When Mikah got back to the suite, the chatter was about half the crew moving back to live on the ship.  They said the move made sense for Aali, Emkir and Fesic.  Why Jocelynn and Rol were going was less clear.  At the same time, the butler came back to tell them they could hire a cook for the coming week for Cr 2,000.  Zimzod said that worked and decided to make the hire, from ship's funds.  The deal was done and they were told the cook would come first the next morning for breakfast.

After grabbing a snack and finding Zimzod had little more information on the Knights and shootings, Mikah decided to try and contact the Senior Knight of the Order on-world.  She planned to let that person know what happened and that all those she knew to be involved had been members of the Order.  When she got through to the Order House's administrative team, Mikah was told the Administrator was Knight Commander Igidake Kipukha.  She was also told he was quite busy due to the influx of nobility thanks to the planned visit of the Prince and Arch-Duke.  When Mikah was asked if she'd like to get an appointment with the man, she said yes.

As they started checking the Commander's calendar, Mikah said she also wanted to leave a message for the man.  Told to go ahead and dictate that, Mikah said she wanted to give the man information on a number of members of the order who had ended up in the hospital that evening with gunshot wounds.  When she finished, Mikah was satisfied at the silence her comments created.  After that sudden stop, the Knight on the line with her told Mikah to hold on while he tried to reach "His Excellency" and see if he could come to the line?  Hearing 'His Excellency', when Mikah was expecting a Knight, Mikah asked and was told it was Commander Sir Kipukha, who was also a Baron of the Court.

Shortly after that, a much older, though very obviously alert, man came on the line and asked Mikah to give him the details of the incident she mentioned.  After Mikah explained what she'd learned, she also suggested they look into the shooting because it would be "big news" the next morning if not that night.  When asked, Mikah gave the man the names of the men and the elder Knight sat back contemplating.  He then said her information was interesting because two of them had been placed in housing the Order recommended while the third was crew on a yacht.  That only confirmed what Mikah already knew so she asked if the Order knew who owned the yacht?  But she wasn't expecting the answer to be "Baron Zander"!

That was a name Mikah knew.  As Mikah considered that, another person moved up to whisper something into Sir Kipukha's ear and he responded by off-handedly saying, "Ah.  That is interesting."  Turning back to the comms, Sir Kipukha said, "Lady Mikah, I will have to talk to you further at a later time."  With that, he cut the comms leaving Mikah looking at a blank screen.  Before Mikah could react, Zimzod said one of the Knights who had been with the Baron had commented that things often happen when this many nobility are gathered in one place.

Nodding at Zimzod, Mikah decided it was time to check up on this Baron Zander because he'd been popping up a lot on their radar recently.  Checking recent news items, Mikah did find a little read note that the Baron had arrived in-system aboard his yacht five days before.  Nodding at that, Mikah considered that it might be a good idea to go visit the Baron, despite the hour and that she and the crew had been up all day.  But when Mikah called up the port information on the ship, it indicated the Baron had filed a flight plan and the ship had just cleared its berth!

That was a shock because they appeared to be leaving the crewman in the hospital behind!  Hearing about that, Rol snarked, "I guess he feels unwelcomed here for some reason."  With that information, Mikah called the city law enforcement line, identified herself, gave a brief explanation of events and then said the crewman in-hospital should be watched because it appeared his ship was abandoning him to flee the system.  The desk officer wasn't pleased with the news and escalated her call to one of the detectives on the shooting case.  That officer was also not pleased at the news and directed her to the Seneschalate because the city police had no authority over the ports.

When Mikah said she would next make that call, the officer said he would be very thankful because he had no authority there.  Like the police, the junior seneschalate operator who took the call quickly booted Mikah's call up the chain of command.  The officer who took the call started taking notes and calling in other agents to take part in the call.  Despite the amount of information Mikah had, it was easy to put in a quick report and it was also easy for the officers on the line to check their resources.  Sadly, most official vessels in-system which would be operational were out on customs and arrival duty thanks to the huge amount of arriving traffic.

A check determined that no official ships in space could react quickly enough.  Checking where Mikah's ship was berthed showed that what was, to Aali, an hours' drive by ground car was fifteen minutes by high-speed gravCar.  So, they asked Mikah if she thought she could get her ship in space fast enough to at least track and keep tabs on the departing yacht?  Mikah considered that and knew Aali could have the 'droids warm up the ship.  So, with the paperwork cleared by the Seneschalate, they could be in space in under an hour.  Then, she could follow the trail mapped by the port.  Past that, Mikah asked what class of ship the yacht was?  When she was told it was a 'Lady of Shalott'-class, Mikah knew they had twice the maneuver drives that ship did and said she felt she and her crew could handle the job.

The Chase Begins!

     Despite the level of exhaustion of her crew, people jumped up and got moving as Mikah gave the word.  At nearly 10pm in the evening, Mikah had the Seneschalate reaching out to the port to get them a comms channel to call the Baron's ship.  While they worked on that, Mikah was getting everyone into the airCar, and another seneschalate officer was reaching out to the police, to clear them a lane for high-speed movement.  Mikah also told Emkir to call the port and try to stop or delay the ship.

While Emkir was quickly able to get through to port administration, they said they couldn't slow or stop the ship.  It was already outside port facilities and rising to orbit, and could only be slowed or stopped by weapons fire.  That was something the port had no authority to use and would have to be handed to the Imperial Navy.  The seneschalate didn't want to engage naval and marine ground batteries because they had no real evidence of a crime and also didn't want to create a panic in Atora and Credo cities.

Overhearing what was going on as Emkir confirmed the port was tracking the ship for them, Rol suggested Emkir ask the port to set up a relay and continuously broadcast Emkir's request to speak to the Baron.  When he made that request, Emkir was told they would do that and asked how he wanted to be identified in the broadcast?  Emkir said he wanted the call to be from "Sir Emkir, on behalf of the port as a member of the Order of the Knight Defenders of the Marches."  As the port reported the yacht appeared to be ignoring all attempts to contact them, Emkir updated Mikah.  At the same time, Aali was reaching out to the androids on the ship to get their power plant and engineering systems up and running.

On her comms with the seneschalate, Mikah relayed the news from Emkir as Aiden asked if there were any naval ships in near orbit that could help with tracking or interception?  Mikah relayed that and was told they had notified the Imperial Navy and were waiting on word of any assets available.  When Mikah growled about the presence of a Tigress-class Dreadnaught in-system, she was reminded that ship and its entire flotilla were in Regina's L-5 position, which was easily millions of kilometers out of place.  They didn't mention the mission of that flotilla was nowhere near law enforcement.

Not getting to the yacht, Emkir called the Scout base to see if they could help and they told him they would take his information to their commanders and see what actions would be appropriate?  Emkir thanked them for that and moved back to his attempts to reach the yacht as Mikah burned hydrogen and all the air-traffic beacons broadcasted a clear corridor for them.  Thanks to the seneschalate, all traffic beacons had given them green passage and they were even out-flying medical transports.  Arriving at the port, Mikah found a valet standing by to take their gravCar while port officials had a cart to move them to their ship.  And the ship was already warmed up and ready.

Before hitting stations, people started talking about armoring up in case things led to combat.  Those who hadn't thought about it saw it was a smart move because there would be no time to do that once they hit sky.  By the time Aiden his flight couch as command pilot, the port already had a clear flight vector, lift clearance and target and tracking data on the fleeing yacht.  She had made and broken orbit and cut a vector along the halo of Assiniboia's atmosphere.  For some reason, she was not burning for deep space and a jump point.

Emkir was Aiden's second seat, with Terin told to call the port and get more data on the yacht.  Fesic took his post on the bridge and started stepping through pre-activation of their laser battery.  He would warm everything up except the targeting system but he'd also light the EMS sensor array up because that was "technically" not threatening.  So long as he did not connect the sensors to any weapons systems.  At the same time, Zimzod got into the sandcaster turret after getting into his battledress.  Aali shot right down to engineering after armoring up herself.

Rol and Jocelynn had armored and geared up and moved into the ship's lounge to be ready for any boarding actions.  On the bridge, Terin confirmed the yacht they were chasing, the Khasha Raadizan, was a "Lady of Shalott-class yacht similar to the IMV Shidaarshaap, which they'd dealt with nearly a year before.  At that time, they had played pirates to help the Duke of Lunion determine the quality of a man he eventually named Baronette of Sharrip.  Mikah was happy because she first remembered that ship being unarmed.  But Terin reminded her the yacht had guns which were deactivated for the test.  When Terin asked the port, they couldn't say if the Khasha Raadizan was armed?

When Fesic asked for weapons control protocols, Mikah reminded him they'd been asked to track and monitor the yacht.  Nothing more.  She confirmed they'd return fire if fired on.  The port confirmed the Upgrade's 4g maneuver system outclassed the Khasha Raadizan's 2g systems.  That meant they had a very good chance to overtake the fleeing ship.  While Aiden lifted them out of the port, Emkir handled his controls and kept trying to reach the yacht on comms.  They continued to ignore any attempts to talk while Mikah reminded Emkir to also keep them linked to the port.  Emkir confirmed they were on with the port on a second channel.

Burning to break atmo, they could see the Khasha Raadizan's had broken orbit and was burning a tangent along but above the atmosphere of Assiniboia.  That meant the ship was playing a hard game fighting to keep their course while the gas giant's gravity fought to pull them off it.  While Zimzod and Mikah were fans of over-flying the yacht and taking a position above them, Aiden knew that the stresses on the ship would be pretty intense.  He also knew that if things shifted to a shooting event, any damage to someone's drives could be unexpectedly fatal thanks to that gravity.

The game plan Aiden decided on was to split the ship's thrust to get above the plane the yacht was transiting and then over-take them.  When Aali chimed in and said they had the thrust to do that, Aiden had to remind her they only out-thrusted the yacht two to one.  "And"...the yacht had a lead on them too.  So any thrust they were venting to maintain altitude was thrust they were not using to catch up to the yacht.  When Aali pointed out the Yacht was also splitting thrust to keep out of the gas giant's atmo, Aiden reminded her they didn't just have to out-run them, they had to catch up to them first.  And they didn't know what games the fleeing ship's crew were playing.  So, they couldn't be arrogant in their actions.  That might just be what the fleeing spacers wanted.


Making A Side Trip

     After more than an hour, Aiden had the Upgrade directly over the fleeing Khasha Raadizan.  Once he'd gotten them just above and behind the yacht, Aiden asked for someone to open a laser-comms to the yacht below, even if they didn't answer.  When that was done, Aiden sent the message, "You're casting quite the shadow.  Thanks for the air conditioning!"  That was a reference to any light from the gas giant which was not hitting the Upgrade because it was blocked by the Khasha Raadizan.  Everyone around Aiden laughed at the use of an old 'spacer's insult'.

After tying in the tight-beam comms, Terin moved back to the sensors he'd been manning, to see if he could get better readings on the yacht.  At the same time, Mikah called the seneschalate, because their "request" had been to track the ship.  So, Mikah wanted further details on what was wanted of her crew?  Terin's data told him the yacht had two turrets installed, meaning they had up to six mounted barrels.  Beyond that, they couldn't tell what kind of weapons were mounted.  Terin did suggest the turrets would carry some type of laser weapon because ships that small didn't usually have room for a missile magazine.

When Mikah got her answer, it was a mixed bag of news.  Confirming the Upgrade was to follow and track, they also said the closest Imperial or Regina Planetary Naval ships was two hours out.  That meant they had to keep tracking the ship until they could hand off to arriving military ships.  When Mikah asked about use of force, she was reminded there were no legal charges filed.  So, as long as no one started shooting, they were to track the ship and try to convince its crew to return to the port.  Of course, if the yacht started firing, self-defense was certainly permitted.  But, Mikah was reminded that her ship's sensor logs would be ripped into if that happened, to prove the yacht had fired first.

At the helm, Aiden was first to report an aspect change from the yacht as she altered course.  And as he prepared to react, the ship dropped down into the gas giant's upper atmosphere.  The move wasn't the shallow drop a crew might use to skim fuel to purify, but it wasn't a dive into the crushing depths either.  What it was, was an attempt to use the atmosphere of the gas giant to hide them from the Upgrade's sensors so they could change course and escape any pursuit.  Aiden did his best to keep close while Terin also did his best on their sensors, but they lost any sign or signal within the next half hour.

While Aiden and Emkir switched roles and Aiden searched for the yacht, Mikah updated both the seneschalate and port on their progress.  Terin took over as co-pilot.  Aiden's best efforts came back with a positive identification of Assiniboia as a gas giant, but nothing more.  The seneschalate asked Mikah to have the ship pull up and away from the gas giant to be able to track anything trying to pull out of and away from Assiniboia.  As they shifted course, Aiden did his best to test and map out the upper layers of atmosphere facing them, hoping to separate the layers of temperature and better understand where the yacht might be hiding.

While Aiden did his best to test and probe Assiniboia's atmosphere, Mikah asked the port and seneschalate about Baron Zander?  She told them that any information they could get her might help her and her crew guess what his next move might be?  They told Mikah they didn't have that information directly at hand, but said they'd get what they could provide her soon.  All that while Emkir drove the ship above the planet and prepared to fly circles that would give them the best view of the gas giant they could hope for.  In the ship's lounge, Jocelynn and Rol sat in armor waiting for any sign they'd be needed to board or counter any boarding.

An hour and half later, Aiden still could find no sign of the yacht as they circled above Assiniboia.  Tracking told them the nearest Imperial Navy ship was still half an hour out and closing.  While the authorities said they could return to port, Mikah said she'd stay until the navy got there.  And the whole time, they had been, and continued to, broadcast messages to the yacht trying to make contact and updating them on the approach of military ships.  It was another half hour before they were contacted by a Lieutenant Commander Risemn Karkhem, who commanded the Destroyer INS Dasaduli Dirk.

After trading credentials and compliments, the Commander asked for a sensor and log handoff before the Upgrade left the situation to the navy.  Mikah agreed and had Emkir send the data and they waited while the transactions were completed.  That done, and before Mikah gave the order to withdraw, the Commander wondered if they could take on one more task before returning to port?  When Mikah said she would, the officer told her there was a gas mining station not far outside their sensor limits which had gone silent.  They wanted her to check on the station and make sure nothing was amiss there.  As he spoke, they sent Mikah the files on the station.

Gas Mining Station Looking at the schematics for the station, Mikah could see it was largely broken down into four main "sections".  The "upper" section served operations and housing, with a bay large enough for a 20 or 30 ton cutter.  That bay drove vertically down through the center of the station's top four decks.  If it were vacant, they could even use their own cutter to fly into the bay and dock.  "Below" that were the "Power" decks which were above the storage and refinery decks.  Finally, there were the decks housing the pipelines and venting.  Looking over the map of twenty decks, Mikah asked the Commander if they could get any backup?  The man shrugged and said there were no back up forces to be shared as yet.

When Mikah called the port asking for backup to be sent, she was told the closest ship to them was another Imperial ship closing on them, but it would take an hour to arrive.  Mikah then asked how long it would take them to get to the station and Emkir reported it would take them roughly half an hour or so at full acceleration.  Accepting the situation, Mikah gave the orders to burn for the station.  She also gave the orders for those who could to get rest, because their long night wasn't over yet.  Mikah also gave orders to begin hailing the station with messages warning they were coming, and would be forced to take action if they arrived and didn't receive a reply by then.

As she gave that order, Mikah was reminded the station was an asset of Regina's fuel collection and refining system and they'd prefer she not knock it into the gas giant.  When she asked how much damage the bridge or control deck could likely take, she was told anything that knocked the computer off line or damaged internal communications would likely cause the station to fall into the gas giant's atmosphere.  That meant a manned boarding instead of ship's guns if they were forced to act.  Hearing that, Mikah shared out the files sent to her so everyone could look at the deck plans they had.  While this happened, Aiden resumed his piloting as Emkir moved back to number two and Terin began working to learn what they could from the sensors as they approached the station.

By nearly three in the morning, the ship was coming in towards the region of the station and had gotten nothing from station or yacht.  The port continued to hold out hope there was nothing more than a communications problem aboard the station but Mikah and the crew were less optimistic.  Riding in, their sensors only suggested everything about the station was normal except the silence.  Used to the Imperial Navy "layered assault tactics", where technical teams would try to jump to the surface of a ship or station and "jack" the computer, Jocelynn asked if they could hack into the station's computers and was told they would need a physical connection to their computer for that.

The best news they had was that there were no other ships in the area.  While the station's cutter bay wasn't visible from their approach, they'd be able to respond to that if anyone tried to launch it well before it could be used as a platform against them.  To that end, she had Fesic on guns with their weapons hot and their targeting "off line but ready".  Since the EMS array was active, they could connect the guns and come live almost immediately, if Mikah gave the command.  making their approach on the station Aiden and Mikah both called in their status and announced no change in the condition of the station.

Closing in, Zimzod realized the sandcasters would be useless at that range and the station showed every sign of being unarmed.  On top of that, the yacht hadn't given any sign it might rise from the gas giant's atmo, and the navy was waiting for that with drooling guns.  Not in the neighborhood of the station, the destroyer's weapons and sensors were hot and ready.  So, he joined Rol and Jocelynn, who were pouring over the schematics and trying to find the best ingress points.  Outside of the upper decks, the sixth deck was the only other part of the station which had external access.  That meant they had to use the hatches on decks one, three and four from the cutter bay or from deck six.

If they made ingress on deck six, there was a lot of territory to cover before they could get to the station's control center.  And all that while a potentially hostile force had control of the station and all its systems.  They all remembered events where voiding compartments or gravitic controls could be used against them.  So, "shorter was better".  On the positive side of things, they also had two breaching charges so they could make their own door if they really felt they had to.  When the breaching charges were mentioned, Rol wasn't happy with the idea of using them to breach compartments on a fueling station, even though there were many points on the station's hull distinctly separate from any storage or refinery spaces.  The big question was, 'what was the status of the station's cutter bay?'

Rol's "preferred" attack route hit one of the upper-deck hatches, that was accessible from the cutter bay.  Making her decisions, Mikah said the boarding team would be made of herself, Rol, Jocelynn and Zimzod.  Mikah also told Aiden to bring the ship in as close as possible to a point over the cutter bay, so they could get a good look inside it.  Zimzod announced he was looking forward to trying out his new shotgun, along with his gauss pistol and paired .45 caliber autopistols.  Mikah took her laser carbine and pistol while Rol grabbed his gauss rifle and gauss pistol.  Jocelynn had her gauss rifle, snub pistol and laser pistol.  Except for Zimzod in his battledress, they were all in their combat armor.

As he geared up, Zimzod told Terin to do his best to enhance their sensors and see if they could find out where all the people aboard the station might be?  Or, if the place was empty and abandoned?  Heating up the NAS, Terin promised he'd do what he could in the short time given him.  When he finally got some data back, it suggested a large group of beings on decks 17, 18 and 19 near the bottom of the station.  When asked if he was getting any other life signs at all, Terin said he wasn't.  Fesic said he could cut a hole in one of the decks for them and was tartly reminded that blowing a hole in the station might void it and kill everyone not wearing a vacc suit.  Innocent civilian or not.

Following that up, Terin misread the schematics and told everyone there appeared to be docking points on deck six, only to be told he was wrong and those were technical ingress/egress hatches.  Rol made it very clear he felt the best plan of attack would be to force one of the hatches on deck one, so they could quickly get to the control center.  What annoyed him was that they had deck plans for the station, but no legend telling them what each compartment was?  So, they were forced to hunt the compartments looking for the right one.

When Rol asked if the station's cutter bay doors were open or closed, he was told they were open but they couldn't see into the bay yet.  Hearing that, Emkir suggested they check the bay to see if it were empty or not?  He continued that using their own cutter would be an easier way to get them all onto the station.  At that, Mikah said the "whole crew" wasn't going.  About that time, they crossed the lip of the station's cutter bay and saw the bay was empty and most missed Mikah's comment.  Emkir suggested that if the station had been attacked, they either made an EVA to hold the station or they disabled it as a waste of time while they made their moves.  As cunning as he thought his idea was, Emkir missed the fact it never covered what happened to the station's cutter?  As the others nodded, no one poked at the obvious holes in Emkir's theory.

Rol matter of factly said, "Well, we were tasked by the Navy to check the station out.  If it's a decoy then it's a decoy.  We're still doing what we were asked to do."  The one thing the empty bay gave them was the ability to man and fly the Probe over and use it to make their boarding easier.  When Emkir ignored what Mikah had said earlier and asked, "Who do you want to have fly the cutter?  Me or Aiden?"  Mikah said she would fly the cutter.  Mikah then firmly said, "I want Emkir, Aiden, Aali, Fesic and Terin to stay on the ship because you guys are useless in combat."  Mikah then reconsidered and added, "Well, not so much Aali.  But you're our engineer and we need you on the ship."

Zimzod added, "We need Fesic on the ship in case this is an ambush because we need someone on the lasers."  Rol said Fesic should also keep an eye on the station's hull because it might not be a ship they get attacked by.  Fesic nodded and agreed with that.  Again, ignoring Mikah's words, Emkir asked, "Who do you want at the ship's controls and who do you want piloting the cutter?"  Mikah turned to Emkir and repeated, "I'm flying the cutter."  After that, Aiden said, "I'm flying the ship."  Mikah countermanded that, saying she wanted Aiden on their sensors.  Nodding, Emkir said, "So I'm flying the ship." and that put an end to that.

That decided, Mikah also dictated that Zimzod should be first onto the station because of his battledress.  Following him would be Rol and then Jocelynn.  Mikah would shut down her controls and move to join them at the back of the line.  She also made it clear she'd be carrying the breaching charges.  By the time they'd boarded the cutter and started on their way, Emkir was flying and Aiden had taken over the sensors.  The first data Aiden got suggested there "may" possibly be some kind of life signs on the station's command deck.  Signs Terin hadn't picked up for any reasons.

Hearing that, Mikah warned him to keep her updated on anything he comes up with as soon as it happened.  Past that, the crossing to the station was a simple one.  Releasing a short blast of gas to push their cutter out of the Upgrade's cutter bay, she fired her SMS thrusters to spin the Probe in place.  Then, she used the SMS thrusters to push the cutter out over the station's cutter bay access port.  Next, she used the SMS thrusters to push her down the throat of the station's bay and brought the cutter hatch to hatch with the air-lock instead of one of the single-layer hatches.  Extending the cutter's docking arm, Mikah made the connection secure and let the others know it was party time.

As soon as the pressure sensors came green, Zimzod led the way through their air-lock and across the docking bridge to come face to face with the station's air-lock.  Zimzod considered the lock while Mikah caught up and considered handing him the breaching charge.  But it was Rol who asked if Zimzod had simply tried opening the lock's outer hatch?  Shrugging, Zimzod decided to try it and found the air-lock, at least, was not secured.  Exchanging glances between each other, they continued into the air-lock and closed it to open the inner seal.


Anticlimactic Combat

     As the inner seal opened, Mikah admitted she was just a little disappointed not blowing up something to board the station.  Still, she was pleased because they only had two breaching charges.  With three hatches to choose from, they'd selected a hatch based on Rol's guesses about the deck plans.  The air-lock let them out into a corridor which led away from the lock for six meters.  There were three iris valves out of the passage with one to each side of where Zimzod stood and the last at the passage's far end.

Zimzod first checked the valve to his right, and then the one to his left.  Both were locked, and he said it looked like they'd have to use their breaching charges, or spend time burning through them with lasers.  Zimzod didn't have a laser weapon with him, so he stepped aside when Jocelynn and Mikah move up to start blasting.  Jocelynn had her laser pistol and Mikah had both her laser carbine and pistol.  While the carbine was shorter and lighter than a laser rifle, it would still be unsteady in one hand.  So, Mikah wouldn't be able to focus her fire on one spot or even on the same spot as Jocelynn's fire if she tried to use both at the same time.

While the ladies took position to fire on the hatch, Rol moved past them to check the valve at the far end of the passage.  Getting there, he found that valve too was locked.  After firing and letting their weapons recycle three times, the hatch metal started to glow and Mikah laughed, "Who brought the hot dogs?"  After another round, the metal started to blister.  By the sixth shot, the blisters had started melting away and the metal seemed weak enough they could let it cool and then Zimzod could try to kick it through.  A full two minutes and more after they started firing, Zimzod had not only kicked a few foot holes through but managed to kick the metal facing clear so they could pass through.

Leading the way through the valve, Zimzod was happy they'd saved the breaching charges because the schematic showed the only compartment accessed by the passage he'd entered was also closed off by two valves.  The new passage ran away from the breached valve 7.5 meters.  At that point, the passage turned right and ran an additional 7.5 meters more, to end at yet another iris valve.  Six meters down the passage, Zimzod could see the first iris valve which would open into the compartment he hoped was the station's "main control".  Around the corner, the second valve connecting the passage to that compartment was two meters away from the end of the passage.

The corner of the passage also had two doors leading to a lift that allowed elevator-movement to lower decks.  Zimzod didn't want to try that because it'd be the easiest place to set a booby trap.  Having the others hold up after stepping through the blasted valve, Zimzod moved forward and checked each of the other valves while ignoring the lift.  While he did that, Mikah had Jocelynn join her as they took positions and started firing on the iris valve closest to the valve they'd blasted through.  It took the women four blasts to melt blisters on this valve.  Mikah then called Zimzod over, but it was still no less than two minutes from the first shot until they could pass through that valve.

The first passage and compartment Finally inside a compartment proper, the three started looking around a space that looked like a technical operations center, filled with control panels, workstations and instrumentation.  The compartment was rectangular, 4.5 meters deep and nine long.  At the far-left end, the space led to a 1.5-meter-wide passage wrapping around the bulkhead that separated the space from the corridor they had been in.  Beyond that two-meter-long passage was another compartment which looked exactly the same as the first except that it was a six-meter square.  Also contained in that space was a smaller triangular compartment accessible by an unlocked sliding door which was six meters long by 4.5 wide at its widest point.

While Rol stayed outside the compartment, covering the corridor, the other three went in and looked around.  With a large number of different workstations, instrumentation and computer consoles, Jocelynn started going station by station to see if she could figure out what station they needed?  Zimzod and Mikah had started doing that too, but Mikah decided it would be easier to broadcast video to Aali and have her direct them.  After spending some time working with Zimzod and his battledress broadcast, Aali and those on the ship were able to see what he was seeing and hear what he said.

Investigating the compartment, Mikah recognized a number of the stations and, with Aali's help, they realized the space would have been the station's main environmental control compartment.  So, this was not the station's command center.  After discussing that, and looking at the schematic, they realized they'd have to get through as many as five more iris valves before they could reach the other major compartment on that deck.  At the same time, Mikah had drained two of her laser pistol magazines and the power pack on Jocelynn's laser pistol was one fifth drained.

Before leaving the space, Mikah found a set of sensors which would allow her to scan the station internally for life signs.  Sitting down and working her way through the screens with help from Aiden, Mikah found a mass of life signs from the station's lower decks.  At the same time, she detected another group of life signs in the other major compartment on their deck!  According to Aiden, as Zimzod moved his view, that data suggested a fire team, which meant four or five team members.  Aiden also told them the signature came from a point in the compartment where team members should be able to see both iris valves entering the space.  Learning that, Mikah moved to see if she could shut down all life support to the compartment?

When Zimzod told her to hold off on voiding the compartment until he could get to one of the iris valves entering the space, she told him she wasn't voiding it.  She also looked for ways to flood the compartment with some kind of hazardous gas, but couldn't figure the controls for that out.  When Zimzod said shutting the air down would take too long to have an effect, Mikah agreed and then found the controls to void the compartment.  As she did that, they checked the schematics and figured there were four more iris valves keeping them out of that compartment.  And no one mentioned they'd have to use breaching charges for the last or risk breaching it under fire.

The second passage and compartment Now thinking they had a target, Mikah and Jocelynn moved up to the next iris valve in line.  As they opened fire, Mikah had to pause and load the third of her four magazines into her laser pistol with two drained.  At the same time, they heard alarms cut in from all the station's speakers.  A pre-recorded voice announced the station's orbit was no longer stable!  That meant they had a new time limit to get where they were going and establish control.  After five blasts from each of their weapons, this valve was kicked in and they moved forward.  But they knew they were being watched and those "life signs" in the control center were reacting.  And either, they had a way off the falling station or they were zealots.

While they worked, Mikah called to the ship to see how bad things were?  And while the entire flight crew could see "something" had changed, the station had not been pushed off its orbit.  Whoever was at the controls only stopped the station's thrusters from maintaining it.  So, it would possibly take weeks to fall out of orbit.  That meant this was a threat.  Still, the ship was close enough to the station that Emkir was dealing with "possible collision" alarms.  Aiden was silencing the alarms from his sensors which were also telling him the station was now drifting free.  Following the terse reports they'd given Mikah, Aiden gave a more complete update.

While Aiden gave his report, Terin started doing the math to make sure Mikah's team had the time they thought they did.  And what their options were if something changed that math?  Others in the crew were still failing to make any contact with the crew they supposed were locked in the lower decks.  That silence continued.  Fesic also kept a close eye on the sensors in case of ambush.  Also, they sent Rol back to guard the Probe in case of another team or trick.  The next iris valve ate the last of Mikah's third charged magazine and she was down to four shots on the last of her charged batteries.  Finished with the fourth valve, Mikah had to holster her laser pistol and Jocelynn's laser pistol backpack was down to a handful of shots left in the charge.

After kicking down the fourth valve, all their sensors went into alarm as the space between them and the cutter were suddenly voided.  Zimzod looked through and saw the last iris valve, which led into the compartment, was open!  Making his own decisions, Zimzod decided to dodge past the first iris valve into the compartment and see if he drew any fire?  As he did that, the battle computer inside his armor alerted!  Checking his HUD, Zimzod saw the computer sensors register bioheat which shouldn't have been radiating from the voided compartment beyond.  Taking cover by the open valve and drawing no fire, Zimzod pulled and threw a flash bang into the room.

After throwing the explosive, Zimzod planned to make a bold assault into the compartment and Mikah and Jocelynn got ready to follow him in.  Once the flash bang went off, Zimzod stepped into the valve, ready to charge, and "something", bounced off his chest.  Caught by surprise, Zimzod suddenly reached out to snatch the thing up, but missed.  In fact, his fingers came close enough to the thing that he batted it to send it flying away.  Behind him, Mikah followed Jocelynn as they moved to follow him through the valve.  Ready for battle, Mikah actually pushed Jocelynn at the valve and at Zimzod's back.  As this all came together, Zimzod had one brief flash of recognition as he saw the "thing" he'd batted was a grenade!

Suddenly having shifted into reverse, Zimzod smashed directly into Jocelynn, who was being pushed forward by Mikah!  Jocelynn's blood was up and she was ready for battle as she moved forward.  But then, the "battleship" that was Zimzod's battledressed form reversed course and drove back at her with more power than anyone could face.  And Zimzod might have been drawing fire, but without air or sound, his suit's sensors weren't reading anything.  Jocelynn quickly lost the battle for control of her position as she got pancaked back against Mikah and they all had to scrabble to stay standing.

Mikah barely kept her feet under her, largely because she had more space to maneuver in as she started backing up.  Jocelynn had nothing to grab purchase against and after she bounced off Mikah, she went right down and to the right a bit.  The steamroller Zimzod at least had the power to drive back through the valve before the grenade went off.  Between that and the distance he'd batted it away before it went off, his armor took the brunt of the blast and he suffered no damage.  As Zimzod steadied himself and prepared to meet a counter-charge, the four, Rol included, heard Fesic over their comms.

Having heard the sounds and watched what video Zimzod was still broadcasting, the gunner snarked, "Did somebody say those of us who were left on the ship sucked at combat?"  While they couldn't see the smirk on Fesic's face, the sound of its existence came through in his comment.  Straightening up and preparing to drive back into the valve, Mikah snapped, "Yes!  I did.  Because you DO suck!"  After a breath, she continued, "I think we've proven this time and again in our little practice sessions."  As they heard Aali's voice saying, "Oh, snap!" Fesic challenged, "I've only been in one ground combat with this crew.  And that was in a face-to-face fight and I took a couple of bullets and I gave a couple of bullets."  The only other sound in his voice outside challenge was a firm hint of personal pride.

Ignoring this, Zimzod got a warning notice from his battle computer that there was a seventy percent chance a battle line of troopers were inside the compartment, visually hidden to the right of the view through the iris valve.  Accepting that, Zimzod played tit-for-tat and popped off a grenade of his own.  He then ducked to the side of the valve until it detonated.  Jocelynn was just picking herself off the floor as Mikah saw the throw, but she felt safe enough not to have to take cover.

Soon enough, there was a wave of obvious flying debris from within the compartment telling Zimzod the grenade had gone off.  Instead of charging in as he'd planned, Zimzod gave those in the compartment a chance to recover as he remained in behind the iris valve lip and told Mikah to move to the next iris valve and see if it was open?  He told Jocelynn to move to a point where, back against the wall, she could turn to support either Mikah or himself.  He then told Mikah to hit the valve with a breaching charge if she had to because he wanted to go in from both directions at the same time.  Moving into position, Mikah told them the far valve was also open.  So, it was obviously an invitation to a trap.

After Zimzod described what he knew from his suit's sensors, he wanted to go in blasting on a count of three.  Instead, Mikah wanted to take a barricade position and then lean into the room until she had a line of fire on the enemy.  She knew that essentially "rolling" along the iris valve lip would expose her to fire, but she'd be flat against the wall and be less of a target.  On three, they moved.  Zimzod could feel the 'chug-chug-chug' of rounds being fired by his automatic shotgun as Mikah rolled along the lip, drew a bead on a target and started the cycle of "stroke-release-stroke" on the trigger of her laser carbine.

Despite the relative knowledge of where their targets were before they stepped into the compartment, Zimzod's initial line of fire was off and he only managed to lightly wound one of the targets before he had to correct.  Mikah's more careful move into a line of fire meant she could target the man she saw dead on.  While the wound she dealt was more significant, her target didn't go down.  Beyond those two, there was another figure still standing and two bodies that seemed to have been dropped by the grenade attack.  Still, Mikah wasn't sure if they were just down, out cold or dead?  Zimzod's sensors told him both the bodies were cooling and out of the fight but he didn't have the chance to sing that out as the action continued.

The figure Zimzod shot fired some sort of slug thrower back at him, and officially scarred a section of Zimzod's armor.  Another of the figures shot a wall while the figure firing on Mikah had a gauss rifle.  Feeling a sharp pain on her right hip, Mikah realized she'd been hit but knew she'd felt worse and she didn't drop or lose her aim.  Firing again, Mikah missed and pulled back for the cover of the iris valve lip as Zimzod's rounds corrected back into the two targets he could bracket with his fire.  Much of his fire centered around the man who'd fired on him and Zimzod saw the man lifted off the deck and thrown back.  In that brief split-second, Zimzod also saw a glimmer of the compartment wall through a hole in the man's chest.

Zimzod's other target was lightly wounded and started to dodge.  Zimzod's fire ruined the aim of the man he shot and the other figure shot deck plating because Mikah pulled back into the valve.  On his side of the compartment, Zimzod could see the one figure he was facing off with and a second figure not facing him.  He had no information on Mikah.  Because of that, Zimzod's reaction was to lock the butt of his shotgun against his hip, stand firm and light up the visible targets with automatic fire.  Mikah also leaned out to take a snap shot despite the sharp pain it caused.

Zimzod's primary target caught enough fire to pinwheel his body into the bulkhead without a head.  The figure with the gauss rifle was also forced to turn and react as he took damage, and then was caught by Mikah's shot.  The damage wasn't heavy but the location was critical and the figure dropped.  They would later realize his armor had suffered a lot of damage in the grenade blast that killed his two team-mates and he died when new damage breached it and his suit was voided.  Mikah just thanked the stars her armor was self-sealing.

More Risk And Plans

     After letting the dust settle, and unaware she'd been hit, Zimzod called out, "OK.  We need Mikah to fix whatever they did to the station."  Despite the twinging pain in her hip, Mikah put on her sweetest voice as she gave it a sarcastic 'no shit' twist and said, "I'll get right on that sweety!"  Mikah then limped further into the compartment and started looking for anything like a "flight controls" station.  Qualified as a space craft pilot, she also considered calling Zimzod to scan things with his camera so Aali could help.  Soon enough, Mikah was resetting the station's positioning thrusters.

While that happened, Zimzod realized Mikah was limping and in obvious pain and started working with Aali to figure out where the life support controls were?  He wanted to get the compartment repressurized so he could get her armor off and treat her.  With the station thrusters back on and the automated system correcting the station's orbit again, Mikah found a command couch to relax on and take the pressure off her wound.  She waited there until the compartment was pressurized again.  Jocelynn moved to the passage's corner, outside the compartment and covering both approaches to the compartment.  Guarding the cutter, Rol had heard snippets of commands and was now wondering what was going on as things quieted down so he asked, "Sit-rep?"

Jocelynn updated Rol while Mikah called Aiden to have him scan the station and confirm they were the only life signs on that deck.  As soon as Aiden confirmed that he could only detect the four of them, Mikah called Rol over to rejoin the team.  That was followed by several minutes of Aali and the others on the ship using Zimzod's video to try and figure out where the main environmental controls were?  Identifying those, it was Aiden who talked Zimzod through restarting the environmental systems on that deck.  Lucky for them, they had not had to blast the deck's air-lock, so the station retained integrity and the air pressure soon came up to Human-normal.

Torn between giving Mikah first aid or finding the panel to unlock all the hatches and valves on-station, Mikah waved him off.  She sarcastically said, "It's OK.  It's just a flesh wound.  I'll be fine."  Still, she had her kit out and was already preparing to treat herself so he let her wave him off.  When Jocelynn heard Mikah was wounded, she volunteered to help and Mikah shouted an emphatic, "NO!"  Despite the situation, everyone on the comms network chuckled, remembering Jocelynn's previous "first aid" attempt.  So, while Mikah treated herself, it took Zimzod a few minutes to find the proper control panel and follow the instructions to unlock all portals.

Zimzod also found the panel controlling internal communications on-station and re-enabled that.  He then tried to contact the group he assumed were the station's crew, in the lower decks.  The first answers he got were curses and threats and he had to work through the reactions of those he'd contacted until they realized he was a rescuer and not part of the assault team.  Realizing that, the first question they had was if it were safe to come back out of the lower compartments?

At first, Zimzod wanted to give them the all clear, but then thought better of that and asked how many attackers had been involved in the attack on the station?  The man on the comms admitted he had no idea and just saw a few of them himself.  But, by then, the attackers were both armed and completely in control of the command compartment.  Zimzod eye-balled the station schematics and asked how many compartments they'd been locked into and the man said they were stuck in deck 17 and below.  When Zimzod said his people were on the command deck, the apparent spokesman for the station crew requested they clear the decks between that deck and them before they came out.

When Mikah asked if they could access any of the station's controls from where they were, they said they couldn't, which was why they'd been locked down there to start with.  They did have technicians who said they were sure the station was back to maintaining a stable orbit since the computer programs had been restarted.  Happy about that, Zimzod promised to start working to clear the decks between theirs and deck 17 as quickly as they could.  He said he'd be there sooner if they didn't run into any other opposition.  At the same time, Aiden had learned a trick during the war which involved over-heating the EMS radiators to play "microwave oven" with the sensors.  Having heard where the civilians were and knowing where their team was, Aiden did the math to figure out a "safe zone".

When Aiden hit the button, he knew he'd be baking decks three through fifteen on the station and there wouldn't even be pets left alive unless they were of a species that ignored or mitigated heavy radiation well.  Pouring on the radiation, Aiden watched for any signs of system damage or failure to their sensors.  After that, Aiden worked with Zimzod to do a scan with the station's own internal sensors and the data came back clean that their team and the crew were the only living things left aboard the station.

Mishearing that report, Jocelynn asked if they could be dealing with hidden jump commandoes and Zimzod said they weren't.  Zimzod also joked about her being paranoid after running into one of them just once.  Having heard the chatter, Terin suggested someone get Mikah back to the Upgrade so she could get into the autodoc and begin treatment.  Jocelynn said she planned on working with Rol and Zimzod to clear the decks and get to the station's crew.  When Rol said they should start by getting Mikah back to the cutter, Jocelynn asked if she could fly with her wound?  Finished treating herself, Mikah said she could get the cutter back to the ship.

Rol agreed and said she could fly back while they cleared the decks.  Another bit of good news was that they'd not blown open the air-lock and they could seal the station again.  After they got her into the pilot's flight couch aboard the Probe, Mikah was able enough to ignore the pain and make the transit back to Upgrade without doing more damage than scratched paint.  At the ship's air-lock, Terin boarded the Probe and began helping Mikah to the med-bay.  Along the way, they were met by Aali and she pitched in.  Finally at the autodoc, they helped Mikah make the settings before she stripped down and settled in to be treated.

While Mikah flew back to Upgrade, Rol suggested they move down to the next deck using the descending hatch closest to where they'd entered the station from the cutter bay.  That meant moving to the end of the passage they'd come to while moving Mikah into the cutter.  Zimzod said they should split up and not put all their eggs in one basket.  When they agreed, Rol said he'd wait a bit for the others to get to their hatches and use the one he'd suggested.  Zimzod said he'd use the hatch opposite the one Rol chose.  Jocelynn said she'd use the one descending hatch they'd passed from environmental systems to the control compartment.

Beginning To Explore

     All in their positions, Rol popped his hatch and slid down the rail-ladder into the center of an open recreational space between various different official compartments and an arc of eight stateroom doors.  It was a perfect place to be shot from many vantage points and which offered him no cover of any kind.  Dropping fast and hard, Rol hit the deck and sprinted to a rectangular walled off space which was backed against the core bulkhead of the station's center and found a door to enter.  Inside there, Rol found the space seemed to be some kind of pharmaceutical storage and dispensary.  He chuckled as he thought Mikah might have used those before she left the station.  But, he also recognized they seemed to be liberating this station and not looting it.

Anti-clockwise from where he was, there was a squared off set of walls with an iris valve facing him as Rol came out of the first space.  He moved across to the valve and checked through it to find the interior was a square-shaped space with iris valves to the larger compartment anti-clockwise from the one he was clearing and back the way he came.  There were also hatches leading back up to deck 1 and down to deck 2.  After clearing that space, Rol moved out to hug the circular wall of the compartment he was in and clear stateroom after stateroom carefully.

Rol would carefully approach each stateroom door and slap the sliding portal open before swinging into the portal as he followed his aim.  He would then scan each compartment through his sights with a finger on his trigger.  Step by step and door by door, Rol cleared the space and spoke with the others, hearing their progress in the compartments they were clearing.  Eventually, Jocelynn and Zimzod agreed to hit and clear the remaining parts of second deck, Rol decided to join them, so they could clear the last quarter of the deck as a team.  He'd considered starting to clear deck three but recalled Aiden's having baked it with the ship's sensors.

Jocelynn had cautiously made her way to her chosen hatch and carefully opened it with one hand while bringing her pistol to the ready.  With the tube down empty, Jocelynn made her way down into an L-shaped passage with the bottom of the "L" to her left as she came down the ladder.  The long part of the passage ran from her left to her right at nine meter's length while the short ran three meters away from the corner.  She could see an iris valve behind her from the ladder, and another to her left on the wall.  Raising her gauss rifle, she leaned out again into the passage and could see the inner side of a pressure hatch the schematics said connected directly into the voided cutter bay.

The quarter deck Jocelynn was assigned to was next, anti-clockwise, around the curve of the station from Rol's selected space.  She opened the valve which had been behind her as she came down the ladder.  As she did, Jocelynn took a barricade position against the valve's hub and swept as much of the space as she could with her gauss rifle.  Seeing no targets, Jocelynn stepped through the valve with her rifle directed toward the bulk of the compartment and then slid backwards along the wall until reaching the clear corner she'd spotted.  From there, Jocelynn moved along the curved wall of the compartment, slowly coming to each of the stateroom doors in the space and visually uncovering more of the open recreational space that filled the bulk of the compartment.

Making her way around the curved surface of the wall, Jocelynn stopped at each stateroom door.  Listening for any sounds, Jocelynn carefully slapped the release on each of the sliding doors and waited a two-count.  Then, she reversed the grip on her rifle and lined her body up along each open door in turn and then rolled into a barricade firing position which would allow her to fire as she scanned the interior of each compartment.  As she moved, she found nothing living or dead in the staterooms or the larger space.  Clearing that space, Jocelynn called Zimzod to team up with him and clear the other quarter of the deck.

Zimzod had dropped down into a space matching the one Rol had dropped into.  The only difference was that this space had both staterooms and a set of three "more official" looking doors.  Still, every portal in the space was a sliding door.  Rather than a cautious search, Zimzod crossed directly to the middle door in the cluster of official-looking entrances and opened the portal to look inside.  That was located in a recessed space closed off by the wall with the door and bracketed by the walls of the official spaces to either side.  When he opened the door, Zimzod saw the empty space seemed to be some sort of administrative office.  Closing that door, Zimzod turned back to face the open compartment again.

Ignoring the other central compartments for now, Zimzod crossed the compartment to check out one of the staterooms.  That, too, had no one in it.  Closing that door, Zimzod again crossed the open space as he moved to the official-looking door to the right of the first door he'd opened.  At the same time, Zimzod was sailing across open spaces providing the most inviting of targets if there'd been a shooter.  The space turned out to be, when he reached it and opened the door, a storage closet.  Leaving that space and ignoring the other official-looking door, Zimzod went to the most "clockwise" of the staterooms in the compartment and started travelling the arc of the bulkhead anti-clockwise checking staterooms.  Eventually, he finished checking the space and agreed to meet up with Jocelynn and Rol to clear the last quarter of the deck.


Getting Clear Answers

     After gathering, the three made quick work of clearing the last spaces on deck two.  Done with that, Jocelynn suggested they split up again and each check a deck, deck by deck, as they moved down through the station.  "Just in case."  Rol reminded them Aiden had used the sensors to clear much of the station by killing everything aboard.  When he suggested taking the lift down to the decks Aiden said he couldn't cook, Zimzod again opposed gathering together in a "box of death".

Zimzod then said the lifts would not only be the easiest way to travel, but would also be the easiest to boobie trap.  They also agreed that the deck just above where the crew were locked in could have had a team watching over them to assure they didn't escape.  And Aiden couldn't bake that deck because he'd have had to risk also killing some of the crew.  If they survived, they'd have either shifted to "fortification mode" or scattered to other decks to execute "pop-out" attacks and try to escape.  Accepting that, Jocelynn and Rol admitted they would have to clear each and every deck.

On the ship, Aiden had checked with the Navy, as they'd been feeding constant data while assets had been in motion.  The navy had a larger ship moving in to help secure the area but until they arrived, they expected the Upgrade to watch for attacks and defend the station if needed.  While they confirmed that, the three on the station figured life would be easier if they made their way down to where the station crew were and freed them to get their help clearing the rest of the station.  It took them fifteen minutes to clear each passage they entered and get to the hatch securing the crew in.  And when they did, they found the hatch boobie trapped.

With yet another example of "time spent" by those who attacked the station, the crew had to stop and consider their situation.  There had been no sign of the yacht they'd been chasing since it dropped into the gas giant's atmo.  And finding a minimal number of defenders and a boobie trap on the station meant they'd have to have spent some time on the station before they moved to the downport.  That, or there was more than one ship involved.  But everything they'd found on the station suggested the bad guys were not done using the station yet.  It suggested they meant to come back.

When Rol suggested they should wait for the Navy to provide an EOD team, both Zimzod and Jocelynn said they'd been trained in demolitions.  Accepting that, Rol stepped back and let the other two get to work.  Zimzod and Jocelynn examined the "bomb" and quickly saw it wasn't a complex job at all.  Whoever built it had apparently never considered someone would try to disarm it from topside.  It was just a simplistic pressure-triggered device that went off it the hatch were lifted.  So, there were three separate "single-wire" circuits which all relied on a single battery.  Remove the battery and the bomb was inert.

Still, they spent a few more minutes testing the "what if that was what the bomb maker wanted me to think" theory.  A truly sadistic bombmaker would have set up a second trigger that used a micro-pressure-trigger connected to a second "micro-battery".  So that if you lift off the obvious battery, the trigger hidden under the main battery dead-man's and the bomb goes off.  Lucky for Jocelynn and Zimzod, that wasn't the case.  All they had to do was cut the connections and pull the battery and the bomb was turned into spare parts.  Accepting that, Zimzod had Jocelynn stand back while he did the work.

With the bomb disabled, they could release the crew and brief them on what came next.  Zimzod explained they were fairly certain the station was clear of bad guys but not clear of booby traps.  So, they were on-station to help until the Navy arrived.  If they ran into anyone armed, they were to scream "I surrender" and the compartment they were in.  That would let Zimzod, Rol and Jocelynn move in to react.  If they encountered any boobie traps or anything that wasn't supposed to be there, they were to scream and it would either be dealt with or tagged for the Navy to deal with.  After that briefing, he let the crew of the station get to work clearing their station.

While the stationers got to work, Zimzod and his team could move back to the command deck and relax until they were called for help or someone came to move them back to the ship.  At the same time, Aiden was working his sensor board and watching the local neighborhood.  Still, as the balance went, he was paying just that much more attention to the gas giant because they had no idea where the yacht had gone?  Or, even if there was another ship involved?  So, when Aiden detected a disturbance in the nearby surface of the gas giant's atmosphere, Aiden first looked to see if there was any sign of an approaching navy ship?

Aiden also sang out that he was seeing a disturbance in the atmosphere below them.  While he was on sensors and Zimzod was on the station, Emkir was in over-all command of the ship.  Having experience as a flight officer and skill as a strategic officer, Emkir was somewhat lacking as a tactical officer.  Faced with a possible threat which could be the yacht they out gunned, or another ship or even "that other ship and the yacht", Emkir ordered his crew to stand by to fire.  Emkir also put a larger priority on calling out the situation to the Navy even though they were not "here" and he was.

Aiden was scrambling to work his sensors to give them any more information to act on when he suddenly detected a small spacecraft coming in fast and preparing to pass them from out-system.  Blasting the "ship" with his EMS, Aiden realized he'd missed it because it had been completely inert and moving on an inertial flight path for some time and only seemed to wake up when he locked it up with his sensors.  At that point, it came to life and fired off a corrective burn as Aiden realized it was not a spacecraft at all.  It was a very large missile, and it was targeting the gas giant's atmosphere.  As he watched, Aiden realized someone on the in-coming naval ship had also learned lessons during the war on being sneaky.

Before the Upgrade's crew could reasonably react, the missile fired a final burn and then dove into the top of the gas giant's atmosphere to detonate.  Whatever the warhead on the missile, the reaction the detonation caused was to create a widely propagating reaction wave as the blast fed on some of the gasses in Assiniboia's upper atmosphere.  As soon as it burnt through, the blast was followed by a firm command on all comms bands saying, "To all ships in this grid of the Assiniboia sub-orbital region.  You will activate your location beacons, deactivate all weapon and sensor systems, ascend into orbit and be prepared to be boarded by order of the Imperial Navy."

As that happened, Aiden suddenly saw the flare of a naval transponder and ID'd the suddenly visible ship as an incoming 30,000 dTon cruiser!  While Emkir called out that they could stand down because the cavalry had arrived, the others knew that didn't mean there'd be no shooting so they remained at their stations.  Aiden was annoyed and wondering how he could have missed a huge cruiser sneaking up on them until he realized they'd also boosted to high vee and then drifted into position.  That was obvious because he could read the cruiser's engineering system straining to help the gas giant's gravity "Catch them" and slow them down faster than the cruiser could by itself.

Aiden had to admit, he wasn't the only one who'd learned some tricks during the war.  He also had to recognize that he was not as good as he thought he was.  Just because he was well skilled, it didn't mean he could continue pretending he could see everything.  Still, the pieces of the puzzle were coming into place.  The on-coming cruiser had access to Regina's military sensor network, so they knew and could see a lot more than the Upgrade could.  They knew exactly where the Upgrade and the station were and had a secret weapon.  They had warheads specially designed to interact with the upper atmosphere of their home gas giant.

So, coming in hard and playing gravity games to slow them down faster than they could with just their engines, they'd rolled the dice that they'd have to help the station and Upgrade at some point.  They didn't think the bad guys would act while there was still a chance to control or even use the station.  But once that game was up, the cruiser's Captain must have decided it was time.  So, at that point, they must have begun launching missiles to disrupt the planet's upper atmo and cause anyone hiding there "issues".  It just so happened that the first missile arrived as "someone" was coming up out of the gas giant to play.  Call it luck.

Shortly after that detonation, as Zimzod, Rol and Jocelynn were organizing to possibly defend or evacuate the station, and folks on the Upgrade wondered if they'd still have to fight, a faint and broken message was broadcast.  It said, "We would like to ascend from Assiniboia's atmosphere and surrender."  That was provisionally accepted by the Navy Captain who said he was ordering his still in-bound missiles to "stand by".  He also warned Upgrade not to move around much.  Shortly after that, they saw another missile flash past and dive into the gas giant before the yacht slowly rose up out of Assiniboia's upper atmosphere and burned for orbit a reasonable enough distance from Upgrade and the station that there was no concern of attack.

The cruiser was another 30k dTon Gionetti-class ship, like the one Aali's sister now served aboard.  The cruiser also lit up as more of the systems her captain had ordered powered down came on line, and the ship came into better sensor resolution.  She was still firing her engines hard to work with Assiniboia's gravity to stop her actually sliding deep into the gas giant and everyone aboard Upgrade realized how big a gamble the officer had played in coming to help them.  Still, there was no question that almost all the guns on that cruiser were fixed on the yacht while her sensor officers were scanning for any other ships that might try to crash the party.

Those in control of the yacht not only had their sensors entirely shut down, but had gone so far as to have the ship's running lights flashing to signal surrender.  That was usually only done when a ship had lost communications capabilities, but this ship could still talk.  So they were making it really clear they didn't want to fight.  Once in orbit, they confirmed they were standing by to be boarded and would cooperate with all orders.  Still fighting his own velocity, the commander of the cruiser ordered the yacht to stand by for boarding.

While he wasn't going to have his crew in small craft do the job, he did order some of his fighters into space as security.  It made the folks on the 440 ton Upgrade feel small when they saw the "fighters" were 50 tons each!  When Terin asked Emkir if they should call the Navy and get permission to recover their people from the station, he was reminded they were still waiting to see if the station's crew found any bombs they had to disarm, so they weren't ready for a pick up yet.  Terin was told they'd call when they were ready to be picked up.  And that the navy would let them know when the last missiles were past them.

Still, Emkir called the cruiser, got one of that ship's officers and gave a more complete report of the situation aboard the station.  Having assembled their tactical understanding from listening in to broadcasts, the cruiser had only had a fragmented understanding of the situation so Emkir's report was appreciated.  That officer only asked Emkir to hold his ship ready in case something unexpected happened and they had to defend themselves.  That, and warn them when they wanted to recover their team from the station.

On the station, engineers had checked the lifts first, then used them to start flooding out onto the other decks to search and had yet to find anything threatening.  After getting the lifts running, they moved Zimzod and the team to the station's recreational lounge and were providing the three with drinks and anything else they asked for.  The cruiser was now fully visible, surrounded by its cloud of anti-missile and variable-mission small craft.  An hour and a half later, the senior surviving crewman from the station met with Zimzod in the commander's office.

He confirmed that five of the station's crew had been killed as well as the five aggressors Zimzod's people killed.  Among the five crew killed were the station's commander and second in command.  That left him in charge for the moment and he was the station's chief engineer.  The man said there had certainly been more than five troopers when they'd attacked the station and he had no idea where the other attackers went.  He also told Zimzod the station had been attacked the day before and they'd been cut off without comms or any way to call for help.  He wanted to know how Zimzod's people found out they needed help?  After Zimzod explained the series of events that brought them to the station, the man thanked him and said the station's bar was open unless his people were needed.

When he was asked, the man told them the station had had a cutter in their bay when the attack began, so that was the beginning of an answer to what happened to others from the attack?  There was just no information on where they went?  When Zimzod said their cutter was missing, the man admitted that made sense.  As an engineer, he'd not been on the command deck when the attack came.  He understood whatever ship had come in had seemed to have been a supply run.  Because of that, they'd sent someone out to move the cutter out of the bay and tie it to the side of the station.  When Zimzod forwarded that to Emkir, the Admiral told the navy there might be a hostile cutter somewhere in local space.

The cruiser acknowledged that and told him they'd have an update for him in an hour.  It was 7am when the navy finally called the "all clear", they provided Emkir with a partial update.  When his people took the yacht, the Captain said they'd found two people held as captives aboard.  It turned out they were being kidnapped and taking the station and yacht were parts of the plan.  The boarders had also found the station's cutter secured in the yacht's cargo bay.  So, that tied them to the assault on the station.

At 9 am, the Navy called back and said they had the scene secure and Upgrade could recover her people from the station if they hadn't already.  He said they were now cleared to return to the port.  Zimzod got on the comms to thank the captain for the update.  When Zimzod asked, "What about payment?" the captain just gave him an annoyed look and cut the comms link.  Hearing that, Terin said he'd fly the cutter to recover the away team.  While Terin went to get the others, Zimzod and his team squared away their drinks, grabbed their gear and made their way to a cutter-bay air-lock.

At the same time, Emkir updated the port and seneschalate on how the events had worked out.  The port and seneschalate thanked Emkir for the update and invited him to bring his crew back to port and resume their vacation.  Thanking them for the formality, Emkir had the ship hold station until Terin returned with the others.  After that, he ordered them to turn and burn back to the port.  By 11:30 am, the ship was settled into their berth and the crew waited while Zimzod and Emkir checked on Mikah in the autodoc, where she'd "been cooking" for nearly six hours.


Back To The Real World

     Mikah felt nothing, and knew that was wrong.  She opened her eyes and the universe came back to her again.  There was an autocannon firing "full-bore" as it ripped into Rol.  And no matter the damage done as it destroyed him, his body remained and he continued to suffer new wounds.  Despite having the pleasure and leisure to be able to continue watching and enjoying that, Mikah saw Terin secured and screaming as a machine continuously cut off each of his limbs.  And as that happened, Mikah could see each limb re-appear whole again so it could be cut off again and again.

As her dream continued, Mikah even giggled as she saw each of her crew secured and being slaughtered in a manner most appropriate for that person.  Things could get no better until Mikah felt a slight pinch and the memory of pain in her right hip.  Her vision began to fade at the same time, and she saw nothing but darkness.  After a mental sigh for the fantasy, Mikah opened her eyes for real and saw the autodoc opening to reveal Zimzod waiting for her.  Zimzod leaned in to start checking on her recovery and the results of her treatment and she complained to him, "But...  It was such a good dream!"

The treatment recommendation from the autodoc was that Mikah should stay in a grav-transport or in bed for the coming two or three days and then on light duty for the following week.  Zimzod gave Mikah a stern look and said, "Well, Mikah.  I know you're probably planning to off me in some horrible way..."  Mikah cut him off, asking, "How did you know that was what I was dreaming about?"  Zimzod just smiled and leaned back on his heels as he looked down on her and said, "That's what your dream always is! But you're the only woman who ever shot me that I still have sex with!" with a huge smile.  Hearing that, Mikah had to admit he wasn't wrong.

After Zimzod went over the autodoc's diagnosis with Mikah, he helped her dress and had the rest of the crew pull the gravChair out of storage.  Leaving the ship, they all boarded the gravCar and returned back to the suite.  On the ride back, they started talking about the planned move of much of the crew back to the ship from the suite.  That decision was put on hold as everyone except Mikah had missed a full night's sleep.  Mikah joked about getting to enjoy her lunch as the others returned, cleaned up and all grabbed sleep.

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Next: New Friends And New Fights