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A Month-Long Afternoon

Tremous Dex
Slim Steel Prayers
     In a moment of crisis, Emkir, Fesic and Mikah found themselves prisoner of the pirates, being ordered back aboard their own cutter with the 200 dTon Xefe and 500 dTon Cedna circling above them.  With weapons hot.  Emkir had gotten a last messages out from the cutter, so the others knew they were being taken.  Jocelynn, in her vacc suit, had met the spokespersons for the Nedyal.  Terin was with her, wearing combat armor and playing the role of her body guard.  Aboard the port, Aiden and Zimzod had been helping Aali, in the bay they'd rented, take apart and work on fixing the ship's airlock.  That had been damaged when pirates blew a separation charge at the end of their boarding corridor, to get away from the Upgrade after a failed boarding action the day before.

Now in charge, Zimzod stood in the bay considering the situation.  It was obvious Smiljan had set a trap for Mikah's team.  And, if Smiljan wasn't with the ground team or the ships above them, he'd also sent the Xefe and Cedna to "enforce" the trap.  That meant Smiljan's remaining ship, the Rumen was 'still out there somewhere', having long-since finished towing the wreck of the Dueqaza back to the pirate base.  The Upgrade had slagged that ship at close quarters.  Making things worse, the factions that had seen the fight with the Dueqaza knew only what their sensors told them.  That suggested the crew of the Upgrade had invited the Dueqaza in before somehow defeating the pirate boarders.  Added to that, the Upgrade had then opened fire on the raider ship.  Doing that, the Upgrade had stirred up the pirate nest only to now lose half their crew to Smiljan's trap.  So, once the word got out, the only factions in-system who wouldn't get involved were those who couldn't, or couldn't profit!

On the planet, Terin and Jocelynn had gotten into an even more unstable situation.  They couldn't just wait while the Nedyal spokespersons returned with what the information they had.  They'd quickly learned the mercenaries had no idea their Order, or anyone from the Imperium, had worked with the group.  Because their housing was only secure thanks to the guns the mercs held to the heads of the Nedyal, they now wondered what connections Jocelynn and Terin represented?  And what guns those connections could bring in?  At the same time, the Nedyal had to have realized that some of their secrets had been spilled to the mercenaries, and they had no way to guess how the mercs would react?

Because their hold on the Nedyal might be threatened, it could be seen as best for the mercs to make common cause with the pirates.  When word got out that Mikah and her team had been trapped by the pirates, the mercs could just capture Jocelynn and Terin, then offer them as prisoners.  Even more dangerous, there were a number of mercenary units on-world, and only one unit, or some of them, might decide to act.  So, the pair would be at risk.  Of course, after they stripped the two of all their gear.  No sense handing serviceable equipment over when the prize were the prisoners.  So, the questions facing Jocelynn and Terin were, "How soon would the news get out?"  And, when it did, what options did they have?

On the barren plain, Mikah, Fesic and Emkir were held at gunpoint with hands raised.  One by one, they were each forced to keep their hands visible as they dropped their weapons.  After each did that, that person was told to move to the cutter's hatch where one of the pirates waited.  The other stood in a place where they could cover all the prisoners.  After they stepped up, the waiting pirate turned them, bound their hands behind their backs with zip-ties, and led them into the cutter before doing the same with the next.  Inside, the prisoners were sat down in a seat before the pirate used a second zip-tie to secure them to one of the seat's rails.

Cutter Seating chart In the cutter, Mikah had been seated (Seat C) by herself behind Fesic(Seat B) and Emkir(Seat A).  With the three of them settled, one of the pirates sat to watch them while the other went to the cutter's flight deck.  Apparently, that person had the skills to fly the boat off the world.  Fesic didn't much care about that because he had a secret sewn into the back hem of his slacks.  And Emkir quietly waited because the pirates hadn't noticed his boot, where he had a plastic dagger sheathed.

The pilot left open the valve leading to the craft's after-section as he called the Cedna saying they were lifting off for the rendezvous point.  With that, they felt the craft lifting from the planet.  While that was happening, Fesic thought back and trying to recall if they'd put any surveillance cameras in the cutter?  They hadn't, and neither had the pirates brought any devices, so there was just the one pirate watching them.  Not being watched very closely, Fesic did his best to make it look like he was uncomfortable with how he'd been tied to the seat.  What he was really doing was working to try getting some of his fingers close enough to the hem of his slacks.

At the back, center of his pants, sewn into the waist band, was a metal washer.  Before it had been sewn in, Fesic had one edge cut down and had epoxied a nearly-two-centimeter-long ceramic hacksaw blade to that edge.  It wouldn't even show up on magnetic scans.  Fesic watched the pirate 'guarding them as he worked, seeing how the guard mostly watched them two thirds of the time.  The rest of that time, the guard seemed to be reacting to the comments of their pilot.  So he knew when he could work more vigorously and when he had to slow things down.  Still, Fesic had to work hard, because he knew they couldn't be more than ten minutes out from docking with the rest of the pirates.

Emkir had his own mission, and knew it would be harder for him to pull off because he was the closest to their guard.  That meant what he did would be more visible to the pirate.  But, they'd not checked his boot and he had to work to draw his leg up to a point where he could reach the hilt of the plastic weapon.  Not understanding the actions of both men in front of her, Mikah decided a diversion was her best chance to find out what they were up to, or help them.  Having decided that, Mikah launched into the most annoying song she could recall the words to, in the loudest and most annoying voice and tone she could use.

Mikah was really happy when her singing received an almost immediate reaction from the pirate.  The pirate put a hand up, as if to cover the vacc suit's audio pickup while also turning their head towards the cockpit, apparently trying to reduce the sound of Mikah's singing.  That bought both Emkir and Fesic more cover for whatever their antics were leading to.  If it worked out, she'd be pleased and if it didn't...Mikah figured she'd eventually see both men killed for whatever they were trying to pull off.  So, Mikah sang on and was happy either way.  Nearly five minutes into the flight, Fesic was pleased when he felt the first hint of metal touch his fingertips.  That meant he was making good headway, and only hoped he had the time to finish working the washer out of the fabric.

Choosing A Leap Of Faith
     On the port, in the rented bay and just outside the Upgrade, Zimzod heard the message Emkir had gotten out and considered his assets.  With the ship's airlock damaged, they could void the Upgrade and take her into battle, but would be fighting three ships to one.  They'd also be putting their 400 tons up against 900 tons in a fight where they were outgunned more than two to one.  That wasn't a plan.  It was suicide.  So, Zimzod came up with something the pirates wouldn't even guess at, giving him surprise and shock.  Deciding on a course of action, Zimzod told Aali he needed her to get into her armor and prep for combat.  Zimzod, already in his battledress to help with the airlock work, also moved to arm himself.

While he got ready, Zimzod activated his comms and called for Jocelynn.  Not sure who was listening to overhear where she and Terin waited, Jocelynn answered the comms but kept her voice low.  When she asked, "What's up?" Zimzod said, "Bad news.  The cutter has been captured.  If you could do anything, hire mercenaries to get back to the ship immediately."  Listening in, Terin gave a short laugh before saying, "That might be difficult." and Zimzod asked, "Why?  What's going on at your end?" Jocelynn told him she and Terin were waiting "in the middle of the mercenaries" for information from the people she'd asked to meet, and then explained the situation between the mercenaries and the Nedyal.  She told him the mercenaries might be worried about what Nedyal leaders were planning with "outside contacts"?

Jocelynn then said that could push the mercs into grabbing her and Terin, to turn over to the pirates.  Seeing the pair were at risk, Zimzod said it didn't sound fun and Terin said they were likely miles from the port.  Jocelynn agreed and said they would then have to find a transport back into orbit.  Nodding, Zimzod saw how things sat with them and said, "Well, be prepared to fight your way out if you have to."  Jocelynn muted the comms and looked at Terin saying, "You've got to be kidding me!"  Still holding out some hope, Zimzod asked if they thought they could try to hire any mercenaries?  Terin said he thought any contacts with the mercenaries would end badly and Jocelynn said they had nothing to pay with.  And, no way to guarantee that the ship would be in any condition to pay them after any fighting happened.

Jocelynn again pointed to the building issue, now the mercenaries were asking questions about the loyalty of the Nedyal?  She explained that isolating the Nedyal might be good for the mercs, which would be served by handing her and Terin over the pirates to form an alliance.  So, Jocelynn said, their best move might be to disappear into the city, and try to get back to the port that way.  Zimzod nodded and told them to do what they had to do.  Jocelynn said she'd do her best to get back to the port to help the rest of the crew.  With that, the call ended.

Now knowing they'd get no help from planetside, Zimzod told Aiden and Aali that he planned to bring the engineer with him as he made an EVA transit to attack the Cedna.  He told Aiden to button up the ship and be prepared to launch at any moment.  Even if Aiden had to activate the ship's weapon systems and blow the bay doors out of the way.  Nodding, Aiden asked Zimzod if he wanted the ship to become a distraction when he and Aali got close to the Cedna?  Zimzod said he didn't want that, and felt the ship would only become a target if Aiden launched

When Aiden asked about options if someone tried to invade the bay and take the ship, Zimzod told him to just get the ship out of there.  Accepting that, Aiden then asked how Zimzod planned to launch himself and Aali in their EVA leap?  Zimzod planned to use the airlock that formed a smaller part of their bay hatch, then use the attitude thrusters in his armor.  When Aiden warned that the lock facing might not have the best angle to launch from, they realized they had to find out where the pirate ships would lift from?  Then, where the lock was facing?  It could have been facing deeper out into space rather than at the planet below.

Checking with the port, whose technicians were cooperative if not actively helpful, they learned the facing of the lock's exterior would be in line with the planet below and angled at two-hundred nineteen degrees while the pirates could expect to lift at an angle of two-hundred sixty-three degrees if they meant to approach the station.  The answer was given in terms that clearly suggested the port thought Zimzod was worried the pirates might come to attack them.  Zimzod was happy to let them keep thinking that because he knew there had to be spies within the port staff, and he didn't want them guessing at and reporting on his plans.  He wanted them to think he was scared.

Another thing Zimzod recognized was that he wouldn't be able to over-pressurize the airlock and "launch" himself at the intercept point, because he wouldn't have a direct-line shot at it.  That meant he'd have to use more of the fuel in his suit's maneuvering system to turn and accelerate, leaving less fuel to 'fine tune' his course.  Also seeing that, Aiden suggested they try to reach out to someone else to help with that.  He specifically mentioned the Scarlet Tree and asked if Zimzod wanted to ask for help?  Zimzod shot that down because he didn't know anyone's politics, so it was too late to start digging into that to see who was safe and who wasn't?

Checking their gear, Zimzod had grabbed four frag grenades after deciding flash-bangs wouldn't work.  He took one of their breaching charges because that was key to his plan.  Then, Zimzod loaded two doses of combat drug into his battledress med-systems.  He had Aali to find them any material they could use to tether themselves together as he explained his plan.  He wanted to make the EVA jump to the Cedna, use the breaching charge to take the bridge and wreck the ship before seeing what further actions they could take?

When Aiden heard Zimzod's plan, he joked that Aali should grab some motion-sickness pills "just in case".  But Aali had already done tethered EVA operations with the crew, and had enjoyed the atmospheric re-entry jumps in Regina enough to want to do it multiple times.  So, she knew she wouldn't have any issues with motion sickness during the operation and ignored Aiden's comment.  She didn't have time to comment on how thoughtless it was and start a fight.  Aali also didn't take Zimzod up on his offer of a dose of combat drugs when it came up.

Organized at the airlock, Zimzod explained he planned to blow the bridge of the Cedna open and clear it.  Then, he wanted Aali to take control of the space, cut off comms and other services the ship provided the pirates and get him as much information as she could on what was happening aboard?  Finally, he wanted her to take control of the ship's gravity and be ready to follow his commands when he needed her to.

Aali accepted that, but also knew she had one major issue she'd have to deal with.  While she wasn't a flight officer or trained pilot, there wasn't a control on any ship's bridge she didn't understand.  Still, there was also no control on the bridge the Cedna's engineers couldn't take over.  That would block her from using them if they figured out what was happening.  So, while Zimzod was doing his thing, Aali had to prevent Cedna's engineers from locking her out of the bridge systems.  In her mind, that made them 'Target Number 1'.

Adding details, Zimzod said they'd get into the airlock and he'd tightly tether Aali to his armor.  Then, he'd open the outer lock hatch and spider-walk them out onto the outer hull of the station.  That done, he would make his best guess and begin the EVA with a leap from the station's surface.  Next, it would be up to the sensors in his battledress to detect where the pirate ships would be, and burns with his attitude thrusters to get him to his target.  The last thing they would do before entering the airlock was to make sure the commdot network was working and Aiden got the feed from Zimzod.  A side-effect of that would be that Terin would start getting a feed from Aiden, Aali and Zimzod, though he could have no effect on those events.

Escaping The Box
     Aboard the cutter, Mikah was still singing as loudly and annoyingly as possible while Fesic and Emkir struggled with their missions.  On the planet below, Jocelynn and Terin had been waiting ten minutes since the Nedyal spokespeople left them.  Jocelynn was angry and frustrated with the situation, and asked if they should wait another five minutes?  She said she thought they had to think seriously about disappearing into the city before the mercenaries heard Mikah's team had been taken.  Annoying her further, Terin complained they had no idea where to go to get out into the city proper.  But all he did was complain.  His words offered neither advice to leave or to stay.  As she listened, it was nothing at all but a long spat of whining complaints.

When Terin finally bit the bullet and he only said they'd need a guide from the Nedyal to led them out.  But, even that "decision" said nothing, because he neither recommended waiting or going to look for other Nedyal to guide them.  So, he'd just been wasting time and pushing air.  Jocelynn wanted nothing more in that moment than to shoot Terin and move on without him.  Mostly, she hated that she'd made contact with one of the groups she'd been told might be able to help.  And now, she faced having to run out on them before they could give her any answers.

When Terin pointed to the three exits in the compartment they were in, Jocelynn suggested, "Should we follow out the door the Nedyal used?"  Terin shrugged, saying he guessed they should and the pair left the room, hoping to find the spokespeople, more Nedyal or a path to the outer city.  The first thing they noticed, as they moved, was that the companionway they followed had gotten warmer.  Listening carefully as they walked, they still didn't hear sounds of other beings.  Roughly, they could tell they were moving away from the port as they walked, but that couldn't be helped.

Terin mentioned that and Jocelynn grimly told him, "I don't think it matters if we try to run for the port.  We're not gonna get there."  Jocelynn reminded him they only had to get out into the city proper, and they both looked for signs of less industrialized bulkheads.  That might help lead them to the best path because the mercenaries had selected the industrial city section for its thickened bulkheads.  So, reductions in the industrial nature of the passages could be a sign they were getting out of that city section.

Both looked into open portals or those passage turnoffs without doors, and saw some opened into chambers large and small.  Some even showed signs people had recently used them or been there.  But they hadn't come to any with people currently in them.  The one thing they knew was that a turn into any passage which continued to the right would eventually be leading them into the closest access to the open city.  After considering turning into one of the passages, they decided to keep moving forward in search of any Nedyal.

Finally, they heard voices and followed those sounds into a room off the passage.  There, they found a group of men, women and children.  Walking in, both Jocelynn and Terin were stopped by the wide-eyed looks of surprise as everything stopped.  There were concern and fear in the eyes as everyone in the room turned to look at them.  The feeling they got from the room was the unspoken demand, 'What are you doing here?'  Jocelynn started by smiling and saying, "Hi!"  When she stumbled over what she wanted to say, Terin picked up, saying, "We were waiting for your elders to..."

Jocelynn cut him off, snapping, "We don't know who they were." and reminded Terin they'd been told the people had been spokespersons for the Nedyal.  What she didn't admit was the nagging fear the "spokespersons" they had spoken to had been nothing more than mercenary spies dressed as the Nedyal would, to find out what Jocelynn and Terin really wanted?  Still, there wasn't anything she could do now if that had been the case.  Terin explained that they'd wanted to talk to the spokespeople but had to get moving to leave the city very quickly.

Comedically, after Terin said his piece, one of the men said "Wait here" while one of the women left the room.  Jocelynn had to stifle a curse at being told to stand and wait every time they asked for something or asked for help.  Looking to reassure those now watching her and Terin, Jocelynn raised her hands and told them she wasn't there to hurt anyone and they just needed a way out into the city and back to the port.  When one of the adults only nodded and said, "Well, hold on a bit." Jocelynn had to decide how long she and Terin could wait?  Terin advised ten minutes, especially since they were now being watched and couldn't wander freely.  They admitted that moving deeper into the space used by the Nedyal could make it a bit more difficult for the mercenaries to find them.

In orbit, Zimzod and Aali had made their leap and were crossing the gap down towards the planet from the port.  Zimzod's battle computer had used the armor sensors, locate a disturbance that likely was the ascending pirate ships, even though they'd not yet broke atmo.  If he couldn't find them, he and Aali would have just continued into the atmosphere.  Seeing the disturbance, Zimzod finished his acceleration burn and was now able to plan a first corrective burn.  That would bring him and Aali into the path of the rising ships, to intercept after they reached space.  Still, Zimzod couldn't fine tune his transit because the ships hadn't yet left the planet's sparce atmosphere.

Back with the Nedyal, the woman who'd left the room soon came back with one of the spokespeople following.  The man's face was a mask of annoyance and he harshly accused, "We told you to wait in the other compartment."  Jocelynn was about to explain what had happened when Terin cut her off.  Terin first admitted, "We know our presence here is causing problems for you."  At that point, Jocelynn started saying, "The situation has changed and..."  Terin again cut her off, telling her, "Don't worry about that.  We'll deal with that."  Terin then continued to the Nedyal spokesman, "We know you told us to wait in the other room, but we have a time-limit and things we really need to take care of in a hurry."

Letting that sink in, Terin continued, "And, we weren't comfortable in that compartment.  We need to get out into the city as soon as possible.  Still, we also wanted to wait for the information you were going to bring us."  Stuck following Terin's lead, Jocelynn also asked for a quick way to get back to the port, if they knew of a route?  When the man said he thought they wanted to get to Borislav Orti, Jocelynn admitted, "That too."  Nodding, the man says that was what he'd brought with him at the moment.

When Jocelynn accepted that, the man drew out a new piece of paper and began to explain.  The page had a number of icons which the man said would be found on the walls at various intersections.  As he talked, he gave Jocelynn a general description of the paths to take between finding each of the icons or markings as they moved.  Following that, he said they should get to the outer rings of Borislav Orti's security, so they could ask to meet with the man.  When Terin asked about the markings on the armor of Orti's security, the Nedyal man said the units shifted often enough he couldn't say what markings were currently used?

Before Terin and Jocelynn could act on that, the man turned to lock eyes with Jocelynn.  He then said, "Tell your Order we are now square with them." with no hint of uncertainty in his eyes.  Nodding back, Jocelynn said, "Thank you.  I will bring them that message." in a calm and open tone.  Then, offering to shake the man's hand, Jocelynn asked, "Is there anything we can do for you?" in a tone which she hoped conveyed her honest intent to help them.  He only told her, "Leave as quickly as you can and don't make it worse.

With that, Terin asked if they could show them the quickest way out into the city proper?  The man said he could, but warned them he could not get them beyond the areas patrolled by the mercenaries.  So, they'd have to be on the alert and prepared in case they ran into one of those.  When Jocelynn asked if they had cloaks or clothes with hoods that might help them fit in, the man said he didn't have anything like that.  He added that anyone out in the city either belonged where they were or were intruding based on who's territory it was and who should be there.  Appearances didn't matter so there was no way to 'fit in'.

With that, the man started moving and they followed out and into the companionway they'd been in.  Then, after some turns, they moved into a larger commonway.  Finally moving along a larger well-trafficked corridor, they heard a cry from behind as they walked.  The call came, "Hold on.  We have some questions for you."  Turning to see who was calling, Jocelynn saw two mercenaries in cloth-armor uniforms.  One was an officer and the other an enlisted man.  From what she could see, they appeared to have been moving at a jog as they came up almost 100 meters behind them.

Hearing the call, Terin asked the Nedyal man where the nearest exit was that would lead out into the city?  For that man, things had just gone seriously wrong.  The look Terin saw on his face was one of stark terror.  When Terin asked again, the man only pointed ahead in the corridor continuing ahead and said, "Run" before he took off in a different direction.  Terin could only say, "OK, let's go." to Jocelynn as they started to move, but as they did, they heard the call, "Stop or we'll shoot!"  Terin checked the corridor ahead of them, and saw there were no curves or cover ahead of them, except the doors to either side.

Terin took that as a hint to start running, and added in a zig zag move to confuse the aim of the mercs.  He also called to Jocelynn to do the same.  She was moving forward and apart from Terin at the same time.  Shots rang out as they ran, and Terin actually felt a hit ricochet off the armor on his right calf!  Seeing that running wasn't the answer, he accepted that it was time to stop and shoot back!  Jocelynn dodged into the open space of a doorway, to use it as cover, instead of standing in the middle of the corridor like it seemed Terin was.  What Jocelynn didn't see was that Terin had not only turned, but dropped to the passage floor to go prone as he brought his weapon up.

Terin had two clips of ball ammo, one loaded and one in a pocket because he didn't have any HE rounds for the weapon.  So, he simply brought his weapon up and started to return fire.  So, Jocelynn was still establishing her position as the next rounds of fire rang out.  Still, because of the range on Terin's weapon and fact the mercs hadn't expected Terin to drop prone, none of the shots hit anyone.  Jocelynn now had her weapon ready as Terin continued firing and the officer stopped to work on an aimed shot.  The enlisted man continued charging with his weapon-raised.

Drawing her semi-automatic snub, loaded with ball ammo, Jocelynn drew a bead on the charging enlisted man before she fired.  Terin tried to target the officer, despite the range, because he was standing still.  The fire sent rounds everywhere, with one bouncing along the floor near Terin.  Jocelynn's shot took the charging man dead-center of his chest.  She was very satisfied as she saw the force of the round hit the man and knock him down.  There was no immediate way to tell if the cloth armor of his uniform had saved the man's life but it was gonna leave a bruise if he survived.

With no one else hit, the officer suddenly turned and began to flee the shootout.  Jocelynn decided to take one more shot at the officer, with little hope of hitting the man.  At the same time, Terin pushed himself back upright and turned to run in the other direction, calling to Jocelynn, "Let's GO!"  As she expected, Jocelynn's shot missed the man but certainly encouraged him to keep going as she turned to join Terin in.  Casting a "Feets-Don't-Fail-Me-Now" spell, they got moving.  When Jocelynn caught up, Terin chided her, "We're not here to get the mercenaries any more pissed off at us than they need to be." which was a stupid comment and waste of breath.  Jocelynn only answered, "They shot first asshole!"

Back In Space...
     In orbit, the passive sensors on Zimzod's battledress had enough data to acquire targets lifting from the planet's atmosphere.  Using his zoom view, the data indicated two craft flying in close formation as they prepared to break atmo into sub-orbital space.  Using that, Zimzod had to make a second corrective burn which his computer now told him was more or less accurate.  Still, it meant there would likely be a need for a third corrective burn.  He was burning enough fuel to limit what Zimzod could do after his planned attack on the Cedna, so a second attack on Xefe was more and more unlikely.

Coasting along between corrective burns, the battledress HUD pushed a countdown timer to the upper left of his view.  That warned him how long he had until he'd make that third burn.  As he monitored the data and maintained situational awareness, his HUD updated and he showed the "blip" he expected was the ship separate into three hits.  Two were ship-sized and one was much smaller.  Since the data was being pushed through the commdots to Aiden, the pilot was able to confirm the third "hit" was the cutter.  He also said the data suggested the cutter intended to dock with the Cedna.

In the cutter, Fesic had now worked the washer free of the fabric of his waist band and started using it to cut at the tie binding his hands to the best he could.  Seeing a bit of metal and the activity, Mikah put two and two together and started singing even louder with a new sense of enthusiasm.  While Emkir continued trying to get his leg up high enough so his fingers could grab the flat hilt of the plastic dagger, he joined Mikah, launching into a chorus of a song including the lyrics, "I'll bring you home again Kathleen..."  He worked to make his rendition both very loud and somewhat drunken in manner.

Adding to Mikah's enthusiasm, the pirate guarding them popped her vacc suit helmet.  That showed them that she was the woman from the pirate boarding party.  The one who'd panicked, fired and shot her own boss in the airlock passage.  Mikah had wondered what happened to her since Smiljan had obviously lied about executing her.  In the back of her mind, Mikah had hoped Smiljan hadn't killed the woman already because Mikah wanted to handle that job.  With both Emkir and Fesic working on getting themselves loose, Mikah hoped they'd be able to act once the cutter landed wherever they were going.  No sense in starting a fight with the flight crew "while" the cutter was in flight unless they were in open space.  And she had no idea how close to the planet they were?

Close Brushes With Fate
     Back in the city, Terin had the data from orbit on his HUD and kept Jocelynn updated.  As they ran, she spotted the first graphic icon from the paper she'd been given and pointed it out to Terin.  After that, they started making the turns and followed the route they'd been told.  With no idea if the man Jocelynn had shot had died or not, they could be certain the fleeing officer was now busy raising the alarm.  That could mean there were patrolling mercenaries ahead of them who were being alerted.  Something that wouldn't have happened if Jocelynn and Terin had managed to shoot him too.

Because of that, they realized they had to slow down a bit, and take precautions instead of just rushing headlong into the sights of any patrols.  When that was decided, Jocelynn told Terin he would be the point man because he was the one in armor.  So, he could take a hit.  It was some time into their movement when Terin leaned his head just into an intersection and saw the back of a mercenary patrol moving away from them.  Quickly ducking back, Terin signaled Jocelynn with his hands while he waited a bit.  When he eventually checked again, the spaces he could see looked empty.

Now more concerned about the patrols, Terin suggested that she watch out for bolt-holes while he checked intersections, in case someone spotted him and shooting started.  As they moved on, Jocelynn didn't comment that the best place for "her" to hide was directly behind him while he absorbed any fire.  Still, the thought made her smile.  Moving on, they passed through that intersection without noticeable signs they had been spotted.  Happy about that, the pair moved on toward the cityscape.

Up in orbit, Emkir experienced a thrill as he felt his fingers catching on both sides of the dagger's hilt!  Manipulating his grip, Emkir firmed his hold on the hilt and lowered his leg again.  This action had the result of leaving the dagger in his hold as the leg-movement pulled the blade from its scabbard.  With full control of the dagger, despite not being able to see what he was doing, Emkir began moving the blade by feel so he could get it up against one of the ties and start shaving away at it.

In his seat, Fesic had been alternatively working to cut the tie with his mini-blade while also stopping to strain against it.  Still, he worked to moderate the energy with which he strained, so his arms didn't suddenly shoot up and out in motions which the pirate couldn't help but notice.  During his most recent attempt, he suddenly had to swallow his panic as his hands came loose and his arms flew up just above his lap!  The movement certainly surprised Emkir, though he didn't see Fesic's hands.  He'd been concentrating on his own efforts.  Fesic looked up to see if the pirate had noticed?  Lucky for him, she had her head turned towards the flight deck and missed the show.

Just as he realized he was free, they all heard a voice from the flight deck call out, "Check the prisoners.  We're docking."  Realizing the pirate would turn in the next second or two, Fesic snapped his hands back behind him to give the appearance he was still bound.  Emkir had no way of knowing how thin he'd shaved the zip tie down, and didn't want to stop.  But he resolved to be more careful as he worked and be ready to flip the dagger and blade up flat with the bottom of the chair if she turned, or came to inspect their bonds.  Mikah continued singing, perhaps even louder.  Lucky for them, the pirate woman only casually swept them with a glance before shouting back, "We're all good."

Now, as she watched, and especially after seeing Fesic break free, Mikah changed some of the words in her song to say "Remember who has a broken jaw".  It wasn't subtle but Mikah hoped the woman had tuned her out as much as she could.  Considering he was in a seat row in front of Mikah and her hands were bound to the back of her seat, Fesic knew there was no way he could pass her the washer.  Next to him, Fesic had noticed Emkir struggling and wondered if he'd loosened up his bonds so he could shift his hands from one side of the seat to the other?  Needing to know, Fesic waited until the pirate had her face turned away in hopes of getting Emkir's attention.  Then, he planned to whisper to Emkir and see if he could pass off the washer?

Not Killing Terin For Some Reason
     Aiden continued to keep an eye on the data from Zimzod while Zimzod and Aali closed with the rising pirate ships.  At almost the same time, Aiden and the battledress computer told Zimzod it appeared the smaller blip had docked with the largest of the two ship icons.  The battledress also warned that Zimzod would have to make one more corrective burn to center on the larger ship's blip.

Indicating what he wanted and letting the suit do the math, Zimzod then accepted the settlement and triggered the burn.  After the burn, the computer confirmed he'd targeted the center mass of the large ship.  He was, still, too far out to choose a specific part of the ship to target for his landing.  That meant he would have to make another burn to target the bridge of the ship once he was close enough. 

On the planet, Jocelynn and Terin had come to yet another intersection and Terin prepared to lean out and check it while Jocelynn looked for bolt holes, just in case.  Terin silently counted down from three before leaning out and leaned just as far out as he had to.  And found himself looking directly into the eyes of a young private or corporal in a cloth-armored vacc suit uniform.  And the kid was looking directly back, into his visor!  More details came to Terin in that moment of shock, like the rifle slung over the trooper's shoulder, before he saw the soldier's eyes widen.

That popped the bubble of Terin's own shock as he pulled back behind the blocking corner of the intersection.  Moving back, Terin told Jocelynn, "We've been spotted." in an amazingly casual tone.  Still, he gave her no details at all of what he'd seen?  Of course, that left the trooper to his own reactions because Terin did nothing to him.  Like, rushing or shooting the man to prevent him reporting the sighting.  And, of course, both Terin and Jocelynn suddenly heard the trooper calling out, "Contact!  Contact at checkpoint Visor Reco Seven Zero!  Response teams respond to positive sighting!"

Only then realizing how completely Terin had screwed the pooch, Jocelynn forced down her desire to shoot Terin herself and pushed him out of her way with one hand.  With the other hand, she grabbed her snub pistol as she advanced past the blocking corner.  Now past his own shock, as Jocelynn leaned around the corner with her pistol, the private dove for cover while she simply fired.  Because he wasn't right in front of her any longer, the round ricochet off a number of surfaces but hit no one.  Not even Terin, who deserved it.

The man was still talking as he hit the passage floor, calling out, "Visor Reco 70, shots fired!  Shots fired!"  While he did this, Jocelynn rushed over and dove on him to pin the man down.  Terin then decided it might be good for him to advance into the intersection with his weapon ready and look to see if there were any other troopers in the checkpoint?  If he'd actually "use" his weapon would be saved for an action-packed and exciting sequel.  After hitting the man, Jocelynn confirmed she had positive control even as she wondered why the trooper only had a rifle in an enclosed space?  It bothered her because it suggested an NCO or officer was nearby toting a pistol.

While Terin worked to check all approaches to the intersection and gain a situational awareness, the kid Jocelynn had pinned kept screaming and she then noticed he was wearing a boom microphone.  So, everything he said was going out live to the mercenaries.  A small part of Jocelynn wanted to drag the man's body up off the floor and kill him by using the trooper's body to beat Terin to death.  Wanting to shut the man up, Jocelynn slammed her forearm into the back of his head, bouncing it hard against the surface of the flooring.  She then put her pistol barrel to his head and demanded, "You're gonna call them off right now!" in a menacing growl.

While she threatened the man, Terin kept switching from passage to passage to passage like a vid-watching couch potato switching channels.  He paid no attention to Jocelynn and the kid because he "knew" Jocelynn had him under control.  So, he didn't check or even ask if she needed assistance.  Or, if the trooper had any gear he could get hold of and use, like a grenade or something.  Under Jocelynn, the man went limp and quiet without responding to Jocelynn's demands.  While Terin couldn't see anyone coming, they could hear the responses from the man's comms in the sudden silence.  What they heard were direct answers such as "We're coming!" and commands ordering units to action.

They listened to hear an officer ordering units to various points by designation.  That was bad because they didn't have a list of any of the designations.  So, they had no idea where a "Point Xray" or "Point Ultra" were?  The communications gave them no clue how close or far away the responding teams were?  Deciding that simply hearing what they were doing was of value, Jocelynn worked to strip the man of the comms unit.  That turned out to be a box hung off his belt, with cables connecting to a headset and boom mic.  An "over-ear" piece(which really didn't secure high-volume sound, explaining why they heard it at all) also had a cable connected.  Jocelynn grabbed the unit and jacked it into her vacc suit as Terin stepped up to remove the man's rifle from him.

After taking the comms, Jocelynn lifted herself up from the man, who lay there dazed at the very least and drew her snub pistol.  Realizing she planned to kill the trooper, Terin suddenly started urgently saying, "No!  No!  No!  Don't kill him!  Don't kill him!" but Jocelynn had already drawn her weapon and fired before he was halfway through his protest.  The coup de grâce had been delivered clean to the head and the trooper's blood and brains had splattered the area.

As Terin stood there in the moment, Jocelynn snatched the man's rifle from the navigator and slung it cross-wise across her back.  Considering the calls she was hearing on the mercenary comms, Jocelynn looked for any markings in the passage which equaled the "Visor Reco" the trooper had been using.  She hoped there would be a visible reference to the designations that would give her a chance to understand the references.  Sadly, there wasn't any marking of that kind.  Going for the ridiculous 'hail mary', Jocelynn keyed the mic on the merc-comms and said, "This is point Visor Reco Seven Zero, Intersection at this location is clear."

Almost as soon as she finished speaking, a voice came back over the comms demanding she identify herself.  Terin only stood there shaking his head and complained that had been a mistake.  Like he had any right to complain after his own failures that day.  Still, he was right when he said the mercenaries now knew they had one of the unit's comms.  Jocelynn knew from her own military experience that they'd only speak in code from then on, making the comms useless.  They'd only get disinformation.  With no information on where the mercenaries might be coming from, they chose to get moving using the original guidance they'd been given.

A Loss Of Containment
     Aboard the cutter, Mikah, Fesic and Emkir could hear the sounds of the craft settling down somewhere or on something.  Because the pirate was still watching them, Fesic hadn't been able to act on his plans and Emkir was still holding the dagger blade flat against the bottom of the seat he was in.  Despite the new sounds and realization they were landing, Mikah was still secured and could do nothing.  Even though Fesic was free and could have made a sudden assault to try and take down the pirate, he decided to take no actions.  This despite the fact he should have realized that, when they landed, the pirate...perhaps with reinforcements...would come to unload them and see he was free.  And then, again perhaps with reinforcements, they would potentially beat him or even decide Mikah was "the valuable one" and kill him.  But, at the very least, he would be re-secured and the saw blade would be taken away.

For Emkir, things were different.  He knew he had the dagger in his hands and couldn't hide it when they came to unload the captives.  And, he knew he wouldn't be able to use the dagger to defend himself if he was still bound to the chair.  So, Emkir realized he "had" to get free or he - and they - were all screwed.  because of that, Emkir decided to very very carefully start shaving the zip tie again, and hope he got loose before they came to unload the prisoners.  And, he prayed the pirate guarding them didn't notice what he was doing.  Unfortunately, it wasn't long before the woman stood up, looking in Emkir's direction, and demanded, "What the fuck?"

When that happened, both Mikah and Fesic realized Emkir had been doing "something".  And, whatever that something had been, he was about to be caught.  And possibly shot.  Still, Fesic was concerned because she had a gun.  So, he turned his head and did his best to make sure she wasn't looking in his direction at all.  In those microseconds of delay, he very deliberately figured out that he was on the edge of her peripheral vision, but not the point she was concentrating on.  And, that was the best he was going to get.  With that, he decided to go.

As the pirate started moving towards Emkir, Fesic sprang up and towards her.  He then attacked her using one of the very few standard tools in his tool kit.  An upper cut.  Because she was convinced all the prisoners were secured down, the pirate never even considered it possible she could be attacked.  There was actually a moment of surprise where she stood stunned and immobile as Fesic came on.  Despite unlocking before his fist struck, she wasn't able to move before Fesic hit her.  She barely registered the fist before she was hit.  As the fist connected, the woman crumpled and went down.  Watching that from behind Emkir, Mikah asked, "So, Fesic.  How does it feel to be on the other side of that for once?"

As the pirate crumpled to the deck of the cutter, Fesic grabbed the carbine she had been carrying and checked to make sure the safety was off.  When Emkir urged him to use it to go and club the pilot, Fesic asked, "Why not just shoot her?"  Emkir pointed out that shooting might do damage to the flight controls.  Nodding, Fesic agreed and put the safety back on before charging forward, onto the flight deck.  As he did that, Emkir put even more effort into cutting at his bonds with the dagger.

Finally, as Emkir worked, pulled and struggled, the zip tie holding him to the seat snapped and he was free.  This happened as he heard a cry from the flight deck, where Fesic had taken a wider swing than he should have with the butt of the carbine.  Because of the wide arc, he first hit a number of surfaces before hitting the pilot, who cried out in surprise and fear.  Reacting defensively, the pilot did his best to turn towards Fesic while being strapped in.  Behind Emkir, Mikah was calling for the Admiral to cut her loose too.

Before he did anything else, Emkir moved to kneel next to the unconscious pirate who'd been guarding them.  He then jammed his dagger into her throat in an angle that drove it up into her skull.  After he'd driven it in as far as he could, he twisted it to further devastate all the invaded tissues.  Reacting angrily, Mikah cried out and then snarled at Emkir, "I Wanted to kill her!"  Emkir could only shrug because events had played out and were done.  Mikah next demanded he cut her loose.

On the flight deck, Fesic controlled the arc of his swings more as he attacked, using the carbine's butt as a club.  Thanks to the fact the pilot had turned towards him more fully, and was sitting in front of Fesic, the man's head was directly in the path of a swing as the butt made contact.  It took Fesic a few seconds to realize he'd managed to whack the man in his left temple, and the pilot had gone limp and collapsed.  Checking the man, Fesic could even see blood where he broke the man's flesh.  At that point, Fesic looked out the forward view screen to realize the cutter was still moving!

Almost as soon as Fesic realized that, the moving cutter hit the bottom of the bay and bounced back up off the surface.  This was both because there was no pilot completing the landing and because the man Fesic had hit had fallen across the controls and activated some of them!  Out the forward viewer, Fesic realized some of what he was seeing were the scattering of vacc suited figures trying to get out of the cutter's way!  Fesic called out, "Brace for impact!" as he realized the craft was apparently accelerating towards the far side of the cargo bay.  Fesic then realized he couldn't act fast enough to stop the collision.

In the back of the cutter, Mikah heard Fesic's warning and demanded, "Untie me!"  Not able to get to the command deck, Emkir turned and moved towards Mikah, to free her.  Just then, Fesic gave one last yell of, "Collision imminent!".  As the cutter hit the wall, Mikah was yelling "Don't untie me" because she realized she was, at least, secured in place.  Then, they all heard the crunch of crushing materials and the squeal of dragging metal edges.

On the control deck, Fesic and the body of the dead pirate pilot were thrown around like balls in a plastic sphere.  While Fesic wasn't hurt in the significant bouncing, he did pick up a small collection of bruises.  In the rear of the craft, Emkir had heard the warning and done two things at the same time.  With his free hand, he grabbed the seat behind him.  Using the hand he held the dagger in, he stabbed out to the seat in front of him, on which Mikah was sitting, and used the dagger as an anchor to hold himself in place.

Still secured and entirely unaware Emkir had stabbed her seat, Mikah was thrown about and shaken violently.  With all the force and torque put on her wrists, it was a miracle she didn't suffer a break or other tissue injury.  Beyond that, the bonds held her in the seat and kept her from bouncing around the compartment.  After all the shaking, the craft seemed suddenly to be "at rest" or not moving at the least.  Waiting a few beats for the next shoe to drop, Mikah then said, "OK.  Emkir, untie me."  After he righted himself, Fesic made certain the cutter wasn't moving any longer before he began searching the pilot and command deck for weapons.

Throughout the ship, the pirate crew felt the ship shuddering slightly in ways it shouldn't, and wondered if there'd be an alert?  Still, this wouldn't be the first time there was a sudden course correction or something, and they were dealing with new-caught prisoners.  As far as they knew, the boss changed his mind where he wanted to go now he was talking to the losers they'd captured.  When no alarm came, they went about their business.  In the Cedna's cargo bay, Smiljan and his troopers were scrambling to get out of the way of an apparently out-of-control cutter.  None of them called for an alarm because no one could help them even if they did.

When the scrambling and cries came to an end, Smiljan had killed the gravity in the bay.  Then, they saw the cutter had squished and killed Lumkesli.  That got Smiljan cursing and swearing because he was one of the group's ground combat leaders.  He'd been in charge of the troops and gunners aboard the Cedna.  Still, he started calling out orders and expected people to get it done.  He wanted that cutter opened up so he could go in and find out what the hell had been up with that landing?  He knew he'd sent screw ups on the mission because they were people he didn't care about losing.  But, that landing was beyond an excuse.  Still, he ordered one of the troopers to lead the way and make sure things inside the can were OK.

Outside the cutter and the ship, Zimzod watched his readouts and alerts as the smallest blip seemed to "crash into" the largest blip.  This meant someone docked up and the two blips had become one on his screen.  Still, he was now close enough to set up a burn to target the bridge of the larger ship.  Using the in-built systems to set up his targeting reticule, he then switched the targeting system from 'weapons' to 'maneuvering'.  After the suit's computer made its calculations, Zimzod warned Aali and made what would be the final course correction.  From there, he'd only need to use his thrusters for local movement on or very near the target ship.

Time passed as they closed and Zimzod started making fine-tuning maneuvers as he warned Aali they were getting ready to land on the Cedna.  After he did the fine tuning, Zimzod readied the breaching charge to be placed.  He planned to stick it on a point in the sphere in which the bridge was located just above the forward view ports from the bridge itself.  That guaranteed not only that he'd violate and void the bridge, but that he'd scatter shrapnel all over those manning the compartment.  That would make it easier for him to clear the space, and for Aali to get inside and get to work.

In the cutter, Fesic searched the pilot and found a snub pistol along with a second magazine of ball ammunition.  After that, he glanced around the rest of the flight deck as he thought back to where the pirates had thrown their gear?  At the same time, Emkir started searching the aft section of the cutter for gear because they needed to find their armor helmets if they wanted to be able to open the cutter hatch aboard this ship.  Or, to survive if the pirates opened the hatch.  Because they certainly wouldn't wait until their prisoners felt it was the right time to make an appearance.

As soon as Mikah was free, she got out of her chair and swung a kick at the face of the dead pirate who'd guarded them.  Still, since she'd wanted to be the one to kill the woman, Mikah snarled, "Thanks Emkir."  Mikah then headed for the fresher because she remembered that was the area in which their gear disappeared.  So it was on the command deck, in the fresher or in one of the storage lockers near there.  On the control deck, Fesic had the carbine he'd taken from the guard, a snub pistol he'd taken from the pilot and he'd seen an accelerator rifle in the corner of the flight deck.  Collecting those, he called out, "I've got a few weapons up here." so the others heard.

Emkir heard that and stopped checking the passenger section of the craft as he moved forward.  Mikah heard but paused to open the fresher because she'd planned to check that space for their gear before Fesic made his shout.  And, when she opened the fresher, she could see all their gear thrown into the space.  The gear had also been liberally mixed thanks to the gymnastics of the crash landing.  As Mikah said she'd found their stuff and Fesic stepped closer, and Mikah took the accelerator rifle from him.  Moving in to grab her gear, Mikah said, "Just grab your shit, seal your helmets and suits and be ready to start blasting as soon as we open the hatch.

True to Mikah's warning, they were gathering their gear and not sealed up when they heard the hatch begin to open.  Closest to the hatch at the moment, having grabbed her gear, Mikah raised the accelerator rifle she already knew was ready and started firing as soon as she any hint of light coming in the hatch.  Ironically, at the same moment Mikah opened up with the rifle, Zimzod was placing a breaching charge on the hull of the ship just above the view of the flight crew.  Aali was scrambling to get clear because even small amounts of shrapnel could tear armor.  The flight crew of the Cedna were busy trying to figure out what had just caused their ship to wobble in space and just exactly what was happening in their cargo bay?

The Rise To Crescendo
     Sadly, Mikah's shot went into the airlock and hit no one.  She was lucky the round didn't ricochet back out, but the hatch was still widening.  What she wasn't ready for, since the grav-plates in the cutter were still working, was that her target would be floating outside the airlock.  That was because someone had turned off the grav-plates in the cargo bay.  So, she could firmly stand in place and shoot any floating targets visible out the tunnel that was the airlock.

Fesic moved up next to Mikah as she fired again, and only just then noticed the man target she was shooting at was in a vacc suit which had some kind of cloth-armor "covering" draped over much of it.  But, the armor certainly wasn't 'all covering'.  Now on the line of fire, Fesic opened up with the snub pistol he'd taken from the pilot.  because Fesic had just spun and was shooting by instinct, he shot the airlock while the vacc suited figure hit the wall near Mikah.  Mikah returned the favor by hitting the figure in the torso!

On the hull outside of, and above, the Cedna's bridge, Zimzod had set the charge and spidered away before setting it off.  While there had been a lot of debris and it was all moving very fast, both Zimzod and Aali saw at least one body ejected out into space.  Aali then watched as Zimzod quickly pulled himself over to the breach and swung his gauss rifle around and into the hull puncture.  As he played the rifle around to cover the space, it was a mess.

The blast had obviously blown away a section of controls and displays the flight crew would have reached up to read or use.  The place was peppered with shrapnel hits and the remains of a body were strapped into the left-side flight couch.  The body which exited the bridge must have come from the only other flight couch in the space.  The bridge was voided and Zimzod gave Aali the 'all clear' to move in and create what disruption she could.  As Aali moved in, Zimzod begin moving after, looking for an airlock he could have Aali open for him to use to attack the ship's crew.

Carefully avoiding the shredded metal, Aali inserted herself in the unoccupied chair and ignored the corpse as she did a survey of the damage from the breaching charge.  She needed to know what controls had been damaged and what she could still access before she could do anything else.  Next, Aali got moving on making life difficult to unsurvivable for the Cedna's engineers, so they couldn't cut her off.  While she did that, Aali was also able to cut the in-ship communications.  This wouldn't stop the pirates from resetting their comms to broadcast openly, but it would make life more difficult for them, even to just talk.

Instead of simply targeting the ship's engineering section, Aali decided to share the wealth.  She tied circuits together to affect all of the ship except the bridge and cargo bay.  In spaces where crew were secured down, like the gun turrets, they'd wonder what was happening, but be safe.  Where they were moving freely or unsecured, everyone would be slammed back and forth between the deck ceiling and floors.  It could kill some of them but would beat them all up and keep them from investigating what was happening aboard the ship or responding.

Done with that, Aali killed all computer access, lighting and anything else she could turn off to make life and reactions difficult for the pirate crew.  The last thing Aali heard from the pirates comms was Smiljan snarling out commands to get people to the bridge and find out what was going on?  So, she reported to Zimzod that the pirate leader was aboard the ship.  She also said that he was not being bounced around, so he wasn't in a section of the ship where she was flipping gravity.  That let her guess he was in the cargo bay.

In the cutter, in the cargo bay, Mikah had shot a vacc suited figure in the torso and that person had drifted off thanks to the force of the round and other factors.  Despite the fact she knew they couldn't hear her, Mikah called out, "Next!", inviting someone new to be a target.  Fesic told Emkir and Mikah that he'd seal his armor helmet and then relieve one of them so he could cover the airlock while they sealed up.

Eventually, when no one else moved into the airlock to attack, they all got their armor sealed and all their gear on.  That done, Mikah decided she'd slide along the bottom of the airlock out to the edge, to try and see what was happening outside the cutter?  Fesic said he'd get on comms and update everyone on their status.  When Fesic started his update, Aali asked if the three were in sealed suits?  Fesic said they were and Aali immediately began voiding the ship entirely.  Zimzod demanded a report on their situation.

Fesic said they were in the cargo bay of an unknown ship, and they'd retaken the cutter, recovered their gear and were ready to fight and escape.  Overhearing the conversation, Aali pointed out that they'd seen which ship the cutter had docked on during the EVA.  Agreeing, Zimzod told Fesic they were on the same ship he was attacking.  That he was causing havoc in the forward sections and planned to cause havoc in the ship's after sections.  Fesic laughed and said, "Well, we're certainly causing havoc in the rear."

Mikah joined in, saying, "For now, we're in the cargo bay and causing one hell of a distraction but there are a lot of pirates in the cargo bay with us."  Mikah then said the cutter's gravity plates were working so they had gravity in the cutter while the pirates in the cargo bay didn't.  Following that, Mikah ordered them to void the cargo bay entirely even as she hit the controls to seal the cutter's airlock.  Hearing that, Aali went to work.

Zimzod was making his way across the hull of the ship to an airlock as Aali worked and he got to watch as the bay hatch shot open and a number of flailing bodies were swept out of the bay into open space along with the cutter and all the atmosphere from the bay.  While that happened, Fesic went to take the cutter's controls while Emkir helped him move out the body of the last pilot.  Not before Emkir dealt him a dagger to the throat with a twist.

Expecting Fesic to spark up the cutter's controls, Mikah told Zimzod he needed to man one of the ship's gun turrets and start firing on any other pirate ships in the area.  Zimzod told her the Xefe wasn't far off and some of the flailing bodies had drifted in that direction.  It was possible they could recover some of their vacc suited people including Smiljan, if he was still alive.  Hearing that, Aali started checking for weapons controls on the bridge.  She eventually found the turrets they had aboard were all laser-based weapons.  Those were outside her skill set.

At the cutter's controls, it took Fesic no time to get back into control.  Still, he knew he needed to get the craft back into the cargo bay of the Cedna.  Especially when Aali said she thought she could use the larger ship's thrusters to ram the nearby, active and armed Xefe with Cedna!  The last place they wanted to be was caught in between the two ships as the larger one came on.  Hearing that, Mikah ordered Aali and Zimzod to get to the cargo bay and aboard the cutter before the collision.  That was an easy order for Zimzod to follow, because he'd had a front row seat to the opening cargo bay and could just slip back in.

Aali argued that she wanted to stay on Cedna's bridge so she could control the ship to do as much more damage as possible to Xefe.  Perhaps, put her completely out of action.  When Zimzod agreed that Aali should stay on the bridge, there was a short argument between the three.  But, since Mikah thought it likely the collision could destroy the Cedna, she insisted.  And, she won out.  When Aali eventually agreed with Mikah and said she'd leave the bridge, she first made certain the ship was entirely voided and all gravity was powered off.

Finally, Aali checked the settings she'd programmed into the ship's flight computer and activated the flight plan before unlocking the hatch and started off to the cargo bay.  Zimzod simply climbed into the bay through the open hatch, which would remain open until they got the cutter inside.  Aali moved aft from the bridge hatch, through a passage which led to an intersection.  Reaching that point, she turned to her right and came face to face with a figure in a vacc suit!  Unfortunately for the pirate, Aali moving and watching over the sights of her snub pistol.  Her weapon ready, the look of "Who the fuck is this" Aali saw through the man's suit visor didn't last long after she fired.

After Aali pulled the trigger, she moved on to where the intersection allowed her to turn aft again, towards the cargo hold.  Behind her, the bleeding, dying pirate was desperately trying to find a patch for his vacc suit.  As she was about to turn the corner round, Aali looked back at the dying man and fired a second, aimed shot which hit him in the head and put him out of his misery.  She then moved aft until she reached the valve to the cargo bay.

In the cutter, Fesic got the craft to answer helm and was able to turn her and fire a light burn to drift her into the cargo bay.  Having beat them inside, Zimzod quickly thrust over to the cutter and made his way inside the airlock.  Not long after that, Aali came through the forward valve on the upper deck and reached the railing along the bay-facing side of the catwalk leading to stairs which would take her down to the floor of the cargo bay.  Ignoring that, Aali took a risk and made a leap for the cutter's airlock!

Gliding across the space, Aali managed to grab on and hold as Zimzod leaned out the airlock and grabbed her to pull her inside.  Even as he did, Fesic warned everyone the cutter's sensors were going nutz!  The systems could barely see the outside universe through the open bay hatch, but what the data warned of was something coming at them which looked "very large", based on what little the sensors could see.  In fact, it was simply a bulkhead on the Xefe, covering all the visible space the sensors could detect, so it artificially appeared gigantic.

They all agreed the sensor hit had to be the hull of the Xefe as they closed on the other ship.  What they couldn't see was the effort being mounted by that ship's crew to evade the ship once they realized the Cedna truly intended to ram them!  Sadly, they'd been certain it was a docking maneuver until far too late.  Now, the ships would smash together regardless of the other crew's efforts.  Even worse, the crew realized the Xefe was too close for them to escape the cargo bay!  Having returned to get Aali and Zimzod aboard, they were now trapped.

At the controls, Fesic was dealing with realities he really didn't like!  The cutter was currently floating inside a cargo bay within a ship that was about to ram another ship.  That meant all the bulkheads would suddenly be in motion!  If he tried to cozy himself up to one or more of the bulkheads, they would not only slam them as the larger ship around them struck the Xefe but would also likely launch the cutter with kinetic force passed over.  Then, they would fly across the cargo bay to smash into the far side of the chamber.

Another option was to remain free floating in the bay until the collision happened.  When that happened, Fesic would have to try to avoid all the suddenly swinging bulkheads of the bay.  Fesic knew the gamble was desperate, but there was no other hope of escape.  The odds for that were slim to none as well, and Fesic realized that he'd likely be crushed to death if he were on the control deck when a bulkhead slammed into the nose of the cutter.  Past that, the third option was for everyone to secure themselves in the center-mass of the cutter and ride the storm out.  Then, if they survived, see what was left?

They were all finally strapped in and waiting when the hit came.  Everyone was shaken like a rag-doll many times as the cutter became a stone in the middle of a shaken bottle.  The experience lasted minutes at most, but those seemed like hours as the craft was slammed by bulkhead after bulkhead.  Alarms rang out from the cutter's control deck and then gave out, leaving the crashing, shrieking of metal and other sounds of collision the only thing keeping them from complete silence.  And then, the silence returned.

Restoring Order
     In the end, in the silence and dark, with emergency lighting the only thing keeping the dark at bay, no one had been injured.  Still, they were certain that hadn't been the case for the cutter.  Unstrapping, Emkir and Fesic moved to the control deck to find the left side of it had been crushed in by an impact with one of the bulkheads.  That side of the cockpit was dead and useless, and the right-side control station was filled with red lights where the only lights were not dead black.

Getting into the seat that was still available, Fesic began trying to test systems to see if anything responded?  They still had gravity in the cutter, so some systems were working.  Sadly, Fesic couldn't get the cutters controls to respond at all.  Despite having a seat on the control deck undamaged, the actual control systems seemed to have been crushed.  That told them they were not getting back to the port in the small craft.  It had done its job keeping them alive, but had been too badly damaged in the work.

Realizing that, they figured they had to move to the bridge of the Cedna and check the condition of that ship, to see what their options were?  Checking with Aali, she told them the ship had only a small bridge with two seats.  Nodding, Zimzod said they should send Emkir and Fesic to the ship's bridge while he went looking for a gun turret to man.  They all agreed they'd move to the bridge first, to deliver the pilots safely before he went looking for a gun turret.

When Zimzod also considered searching for breaching charges, he was reminded they were still in combat.  Any time he spent fishing for things like a breaching charge was time where the other ship could recover and start shooting at them.  Especially when he only had an idea where the turrets were but still had to find one and get control of it.  They also didn't know how badly damaged Cedna was, and what turrets might have been crushed or damaged in the collision?

When Aali asked if it might make more sense for her to go to engineering, Mikah said she'd prefer to get to the bridge and see what the conditions there were?  Especially when Aali was the only person who'd been through the ship's passage between the cargo bay and bridge.  Adding to that, they had no idea how many crew survived aboard Cedna and how much shooting they might face.  So, that begged the question if Aali wanted to go off on her own to engineering, risking encounters with pirate survivors?

Seeing the logic in avoiding further risk, Aali agreed to lead the crew to Cedna's Bridge.  So, Zimzod would be their pointman, moving as Aali directed, while the rest of the crew surrounded Fesic and Emkir to protect them.  Zimzod would get them to the bridge before breaking off on his own, to search for access to a gunnery couch on the ship's upper deck.  With hope they'd be able to reach the bridge without issues.  They left the cutter and made the transit to the same hatch Aali used to enter the cargo bay from the ship's upper deck earlier.

Opening the valve, Zimzod immediately saw a group of vacc suit clad figures ahead of them in the intersection where Aali had reported killing a pirate.  Those in the group he could see were gesturing wildly while holding on to anchoring points and were clearly arguing about something on an alternate comms channel.  Since they weren't paying attention to the valve, Zimzod had time to level his gauss rifle and set the selector to "4-shot" and ask Mikah to step up with a weapon and "add to the mayhem".

Both Zimzod and Mikah opened fire on what they could see of the group.  Still, they knew there could be more pirates to either side of the intersection, outside their view, and this could turn into a shootout.  While Mikah fired a bolt for each pull on the trigger, Zimzod's shots each released a stream of four needles.  And as they did, the group down-range reacted, presumably in surprise and terror.  Of course, that was not counting those the shooters had killed right off, and the wounds were even more fatal because the ship had been voided by Aali.  So, any suit which was punctured would be voided if the wearer couldn't patch the hole or holes quickly enough.

Seeing the effects of their fire begin to clear the intersection of all but floating bodies or flailing wounded, Mikah and Zimzod began to advance while firing.  They told the others to follow behind and had Aali cover the group's rear.  As they reached the intersection, both Zimzod and Mikah adjusted their aim to scope around the corners looking for further survivors.  By that time, the wounded pirates had died as the air in their suits leaked out.  Not moving entirely into the intersection, Zimzod handed Mikah a grenade which she threw to the right while Zimzod threw another to the left.

After the pretty pretty light show, Zimzod stepped out with his rifle raised to cover the left corridor while Mikah advanced to the right with her laser carbine raised.  In spite of all the mayhem they'd cause, Mikah turned to see a surviving pirate in a vacc suit he'd obviously patched, after being wounded.  And he was holding a snub pistol in her direction.  Both were surprised, but Mikah more so because the pirate had expected someone to follow up the first attack soon enough.  Because of that, he got a shot off first.  Mikah was hit in the right hip even as she fired.

Mikah's shot hit her target and sent the figure spinning slowly back into the passage even as Zimzod had cleared his side of the passage and turned to back Mikah up.  Zimzod also tracked the movement as Mikah was pushed back a bit, and into a slow spin, by the round that hit her.  Lucky for Mikah, her armor was self-sealing so she didn't need to scramble for a suit patch.  Scanning all approaches, Zimzod called the intersection and new corridor cleared and moved forward.

Mikah could no longer lead the team because she'd been shot and became one of the protected crew while they moved up to the second intersection.  Zimzod peaked around that corner and saw the next passage empty.  He could also see the hatch leading to the bridge, which Aali said she'd left open.  It was still open and he saw no one in their way.  Letting the others know that, he slowly moved up and then reached and cleared the bridge.  The dead former pilot's shredded and desiccated body was still strapped in next to the seat Aali had used.  The compartment was blasted by shrapnel from the breaching charge Zimzod had used to begin the assault.

After Zimzod stepped aside and let them into the compartment, Emkir and Fesic scanned the space and saw a large number of red or amber glowing lights.  Some few were darkened and not working and a part of the above-head consoles were just gone or devastated by the charge.  Their first task was to unstrap the body and push it out the hole in the hull to clear space for both the men to work.  They then got to work while Aali took up a security position and Zimzod turned to see what medical help he could give to Mikah's wound?

Emkir's first task was to see if he could get any of the systems working to move the ship?  Especially after the collision with Xefe.  Fesic had to figure out what guns they still had left after the same crash?  It was entirely possible whole turrets had been crushed and destroyed along with engineering systems.  They also both needed what sensors still worked, to see what they needed to move the ship or fire weapons.  What Emkir saw was bad.  Very bad.  But, he thought he could still access fifty to sixty percent of the ship's maneuvering systems and get them working.  The fun part would be maneuver control.

Exploring what he could use, Emkir set up a few test burns from the remaining engines and started making some burns.  The ship moved, but initially listed off course badly and Emkir had to play with the attitude thrusters and SMS to turn the ship back where he wanted it.  That had the effect of starting a spin along the ship's roll axis.  Because of this, he was driving the ship into a wobbly and uncertain corkscrew path that would bring them closer to the port.  Still, the effort would be both uncertain and difficult.  Another issue Emkir fought was the fact that there was literally nothing he could use to manage the flight from the ship's starboard side because that had all been smashed.

What few sensors they had said the Xefe had been savaged and was visible off their hull.  They could see the ship still had running lights and showed other signs of visible power.  Still, they couldn't see if the ship was under power or simply drifting.  Problems with the sensors were only the tip of Fesic's problems while he worked to "find" a connection with one of the gunnery turrets.  Reacting to that, Fesic began switching circuits, changing settings and re-routing everything he could think of as he worked to connect with any of the installed turrets.  Because, if anything was happening aboard Xefe , he was sure it was repairs.

About the time Emkir figured out how he wanted to fire the engines, ready to move the ship, Fesic got lucky and managed to get back a connection from one of the turrets.  He sent several test signals to the turret to make sure things were working as he also re-routed more dead circuits.  He finally got a full green light on the weapons board for that one turret, and started bringing it around on the data from the iffy sensors.  The test read came back to tell Fesic the turret was armed with three beam laser cannons, which were the most barrels any turret would carry.  So, Fesic began working to line up the Xefe as best the sensors let him.

Fesic then called out to the others, "I have a hot turret and am engaging the Xefe!  He got cheers from the others as he decided the best way to kill the other pirate would be to blast their engineering section.  Without engineering, they would have nothing but emergency batteries and they'd be adrift unless rescued.  Making his decision, the only issue Fesic faced with his aim was to compensate as Emkir started to burn for the port, to get them home.  When Fesic bragged that he'd write his name across the Xefe with the lasers, Emkir joked that he was doing a lousy job making letters.  They could hear Mikah ordering Zimzod, "I wanna see it explode!  Don't dope me until I see it explode." even though she was not anywhere near a view portal.

Even as he watched his fire striking Xefe, Fesic looked at what little he could see from the remaining sensors and realized that Rumen could be out there preparing to fire and they'd never know until it was too late.  When he told Aali they needed sensors, Zimzod mistook the comments and snapped, "Just blow the damn thing up!" meaning the Xefe.  A few comments later, they'd straightened things out and realized they had few options.  They did joke they could call the port and announce the Cedna was under new management.  They were sure the port would protect them if they could only get close enough.

After Zimzod finished doing what he could for Mikah, she decided to call the port while Fesic continued firing on Xefe's engineering spaces.  Making the connection, she announced, "This is Captain Mikah Kirlim calling from the IMS Cedna.  My crew and I have added to our fleet and we are requesting immediate assistance returning to the port and docking."  She was certain no one would miss the "I" in IMS, because she'd just labeled the ship as now having Imperial registry.  Waiting for an answer from the port, Mikah switched to try the ship's "all hands" comms to warn all surviving pirates aboard that it was time to surrender.

About that time, events were happening which the port command were not passing on to Mikah's people.  Early in the day, they had tracked traffic from and to the pirate station before the crew of the Upgrade started launching their cutter to the planet.  Not long after that started, they had stations reporting "a mass" had left the pirate station at a speed that was almost a drift.  Fearing this was prelude to an attack on the port itself, the port officers ordered steps taken which eventually identified the mass as the pirate ship Rumen.

The pirate ship eventually came to a stop, powered down and drifted not far off the station and mirroring any movements the station made above the planet.  The ship was trickling power from their plant and doing their best to sit doggo for reasons the port staff couldn't guess.  The one guess the data supported was setting a watch for the Upgrade.  If that ship launched, the bets were good there would be shooting and the port would be forced to get involved.  So, they decided not to warn Mikah or her crew to prevent them from doing something "to cause the fight to happen".

It suddenly appeared the pirate craft was powering up!  Now watching closely, the station sensors didn't suggest the power up was 'sudden' or threatening, and simply appeared to be a normal increase in power.  Finally, port command came to a decision and called Rumen to ask their intentions?  The Pirate commander simply said they'd launched to test some engineering and were returning to station.  With a sigh of relief, the port watched as the ship then did as it said and turned back to dock with the pirate port.  Realizing they couldn't tell Mikah the ship returned to port without admitting they knew the ship had been out there, they kept Mikah in the dark.

At the moment, though, port command granted Mikah permission to approach and dock but said they couldn't assist with recovery.  They didn't say they needed every ship at the moment, to be ready to react if the pirate ship did attack because it hadn't turned back home just yet.  The internal message had been more blunt.  Mikah told anyone hearing her that she had to hear from them and be told where they were or she'd blow up the ship with them inside!

Checking his own work, Fesic took a read on the Xefe and could see most of the running lights were gone.  There were some lights but, as far as he knew, those could have been emergency lights.  Despite that, Fesic knew he'd learned the answer to that ancient question, 'How many laser strikes does it take to get to the center of a Xefe-engineering?'  Even if there were lights and power in some compartments, that ship was dead.  At the same time, Mikah got a beleaguered call from someone who said they had three men in the engineering compartments who wanted to surrender.  From their tone, as they said they'd love to surrender to Mikah, they sounded very badly beaten.

About the same time, Zimzod had moved back into the ship, looking for a gunnery couch and turret he could man just in case they had to fight the Rumen or some other surprise popped up.  He heard the call from Mikah and a response from the engineering section as he moved.  Chuckling as he moved, Zimzod was moving into a place where he thought he might find a couch when he noticed movement ahead of him.  Bringing his weapon up, Zimzod saw the pirate was in a vacc suit which was covered by some kind of cloth patchwork armor.  The man quickly and thoughtlessly raised his hands and Zimzod managed not to fire on instinct.

Zimzod couldn't stop himself giving the command to surrender even as it was obvious the pirate already had hands raised.  Zimzod accepted the man's surrender as the pirate said he was just moving to the cargo bay as Lady Mikah had ordered.  Before Zimzod led the man off, he asked where the nearest weapons turret was and the man said he'd been in it.  When Zimzod told him to, the man led him to the gunnery couch and Zimzod could see the turret was operational.  The gunner told him it was no longer talking to the bridge or computer, but he said it would work if needed.

Eventually, Zimzod trailed the prisoner as they moved to the cargo bay.  There, Zimzod found there were three more pirates to surrender.  After checking all of them to make sure there were no weapons, Zimzod checked to see if he could lock them in and found he couldn't.  Because of that, and knowing they'd have cover from the port soon enough, Zimzod decided he was gonna stand guard.  After deciding that, he called Mikah and let her know he had four prisoners under guard and was going to stay in the cargo bay with them.

Urban Sprawl
     Jocelynn and Terin had bugged out from their last location, choosing to follow the route they had, because they had no idea where the mercenary patrols were?  More or less certain they'd been running for their lives at that point, there was a bit less caution and more speed.  Jocelynn wanted it that way, especially after Terin had proved how useless he could be in any defensive role.  The whole while, they could hear the mercenary patrols communicating in unit-speak which was meaningless to them.

An advantage they didn't know about was that the various mercenaries deployed their patrols in council.  The current council preferred to vary patrol activities from once place to another, to prevent predictability.  So, while there were patrols in the area they fled through, most of the patrols were deployed in other sections of the border at that time.  So, there was a much smaller chance of them running into a patrol in general.  And, when patrols had been called in, they moved in direct lines in towards where the pair had been spotted instead of cutting lines of march across the area.  Cross-marches might have cut across the path Jocelynn and Terin had used.

Finally, they came on an icon which the paper Jocelynn had said was outside mercenary control!  They had reached the city proper, such as it was.  And the avenues and structural faces of the buildings were wrecks.  It was obvious no one lived here comfortably and those who did were hiding and not likely even safe in the place they slept.  Pausing at that point, Terin asked Jocelynn where she wanted to go?  Did she want to look for Borislav Orti or to try and make it to the port?

Terin said he expected the mercs to think they were running for the port and concentrate search teams in that line.  Jocelynn didn't want to drag mercenary teams behind them into the port and put them in danger while their crew mates were still fighting for their lives in space.  Since she had her gear on and that let her contact Aiden, she called him and gave him an update on their situation.  Aiden was both pleased they had not been killed or captured, and distressed they were moving into the ruins of the city alone.  At that moment, things had just gone to trash on the Cedna as Zimzod blew the bridge open, and he had no idea if anyone was going to live?

Jocelynn did say she would try to get back in orbit if she and Terin were desperately needed, but admitted it wouldn't be in time to help with the current fight.  She assured Aiden she and Terin were uninjured and OK, and mostly worried about the Nedyal and what would happen to them?  Finally, she told Aiden they would contact him as they could and keep him up to date on their situation.  After that contact, they prepared to move on looking for Orti.

One issue they still faced was that they'd only been given a general verbal description of the route.  They'd been given drawings of images they should look for along the way, which almost seemed to be guild glyphs which members would draw as apparent graffiti along routes.  So, they had to stick to what they understood was the path and search every surface for images as they moved.  It was at those images where they'd have to turn or change their path somehow.

Thanks to the relative open spaces of some concourses, they could move quickly while others had enough wreck and ruin they had to climb over debris.  It was a short while before either of them spoke, and when it happened, it was Terin, who said in surprise, "Looks like we have a new ship!"  Caught entirely by surprise, Jocelynn suddenly stopped in place, turned towards him and demanded, "What?"  Terin then began explaining that it appeared the others had actually captured the Cedna!  And that surprised Jocelynn even more!

In truth, Jocelynn was worried about the body count more than anything else.  And, while she still didn't know who was dead, shot or otherwise wounded, she was surprised they'd managed to capture the ship.  The best outcome anyone expected was to destroy the ship, not capture it.  As she let the relief wash over her, Terin said the others were working to bring the ship into the port.  Eventually, they got back at the business of moving on.

Soon, they came to what looked like an open circular plaza which widened out to thirty or forty feet from the concourse's twenty feet.  The space was bordered by shops and broken into groups by the openings of various concourses leading away from the plaza.  The "roof" over the plaza was a domed structure which suggested a decorative rise of some sort on the structural level above the plaza.  Granted, they were still an unknown number of levels below the upper level of the city in that area.  So, they had no real idea what they were under?  Beyond the layout and wreck, what bothered them the most was what looked like an empty animal lying on the edge of the plaza!

Looking closer, it almost looked like an animal's skin, left behind after the animal slipped out of it and left.  Even more disturbing, it appeared to be somewhere between twenty and twenty-five feet long!  It was Jocelynn who first suggested it could be a shed skin, and Terin had to agree that was exactly what it reminded him of.  Jocelynn had only heard of the phenomenon as no creatures from her frozen home world evolved to do that.  Neither could be certain how such a creature had evolved to do that on Tremous Dex, where there was little to no atmosphere?  Looking at Terin with an unhappy expression, Jocelynn only said "Oh Boy" unenthusiastically.

The constant, and still continuing background chatter from the mercenary comms had Jocelynn so fixated on them, she'd not considered other life forms.  Of course, the lack of a real atmosphere around the planet encouraged that too.  Even if a creature had been brought to the system during its Imperial period, for a zoo or something, this part of the city was voided.  It would have died unless it could breath locally.  And that had been more than a century ago, while this thing was recent.  So, there was a living community of these things and the two humans had just been put on notice this was giant lizard territory.

Jocelynn decided it would be good to check out the skin and get more information on what they could end of facing but Terin erupted with objections as soon as she started moving toward it.  While she thought it just might be smart to learn what they could before they had to face one, or more, of the creatures, Terin seemed to prefer running scared and clueless.  It would have been less surprising if he'd suddenly announced he was one of the historic clergy who used to say 'pray so your life can be better after you die' than a member of a starship crew.

Terin argued that he'd rather not take the risk whatever they could learn if the creature was still in the area.  He preferred they edge their way around the plaza's perimeter.  Of course, with a complete lack of information, he did invite Jocelynn to get closer and check the skin out if she wanted.  Not needing to listen to more of the universe according to Terin, Jocelynn didn't push but she still got closer to the skin as they started passing it by.  From what they could see, the creature was some sort of megafauna multi-legged lizard with a tail that extended to form nearly a third of the creature's overall length.  The payoff was that they were looking at the old skin and the creature which left it there had done so because it had grown too large.  So it wasn't only 'out there', but was even larger!

Despite the range he kept from the skin, Terin did zoom in the telescopic view on his HUD to see what he could learn?  One thing he noted was that the "paws" were burst out in a star-like pattern, which suggested the beast which had worn the skin also had claws.  Outside of that, he learned nothing new as he urged Jocelynn to join him at the plaza's perimeter.  Doing that, Terin also switched through the visual modes on his HUD to see if he could make any sense of where the creature had gone?

All he could tell was, by the way debris had been moved about, that the 'trail' led down the direction they were headed in.  Which was not encouraging at all.  In the most cheerful tone he could, Terin said, "Jocelynn!  Good news!  We're going in the same direction that it went in."  Of course, Terin had no idea how long ago that creature had left its skin behind.  So, much of what he had to say was based on pure assumption.  Jocelynn just barked out a short laugh and suggested they make it a pet for the new starship they'd just captured.  Terin heard that and shared the laugh.

Jocelynn was scanning the space, looking for signs of bones or remains which suggested what the creature had been eating when it was last nearby?  When she couldn't see any signs, she speculated it might be an herbivore but Terin said he didn't think that was the case.  When Jocelynn grunted, Terin only said, "Well, let's keep going and let's really pay attention." as if Jocelynn needed any urging on that score.  Still, they moved past the plaza and into one of the concourses as they followed their instructions.

While they moved, Jocelynn checked the map she had of the city to see if she could track where they were?  Both she and Terin watched the spaces around them as they moved and neither saw any sign of life around them.  This area was definitely no man's land, and there wasn't any information if the creatures came after people had left or if they'd caused them to leave?  About then, a message came over the team's comms that Zimzod's team had fully secured the Cedna.

Taking in the report, including the loss of the cutter, Jocelynn was happy enough the crew in orbit were OK.  Still, things had still gone completely to shit for her and Terin dirtside.  And, no one was coming to help them at the moment because they couldn't.  So, it was time to push on and see how far they could get and what they'd find as they moved.  And as they moved, they soon came to a bit of a mall where the concourse widened slightly and the path was lined with shops to either side.

The ceiling of the level they were in had also collapsed, and was open to the level above them.  But that didn't catch their attention as completely as the small pile of bones they noticed as they moved up.  Not wanting to trigger another rant from Terin, Jocelynn kept her distance but did ask Terin to zoom in with his HUD and check them out.  When Terin did, he could certainly see the pile of bones were old, so they'd been there for some time.  Still, he couldn't get more details right off.

Zooming in even more, Terin still couldn't get a shape from any of the bones that suggested a creature they had come from.  What he did get was the hint there might actually be some kind of devices or equipment buried within the pile.  Scanning the area more carefully, Terin searched for any signs of the presence of a living creature.  As he did, Jocelynn asked if there were any piles of droppings and Terin pointed to the bones saying, "We're looking at it."  Still, now that he was looking closer, Terin could see the paths which had been pushed through the debris.  He just couldn't tell how long ago any creature had done that?

What Terin could tell was that the creature that had made that trail was another large one.  When Jocelynn asked, Terin said he didn't know if that was their lair.  Even though no one saw any real evidence of habitation.  What Terin did see was a trail that led into one of the shops not more than thirty feet away from them.  When Terin suggested they go back and try to find a path around the shops, Jocelynn reminded him they had no map with details of the local city or know the layout.  That meant they could easily step off the path they were on and lose it entirely.  Then, they'd be lost in the city and have to give up on finding Borislav.

Since the trail led into the right side building, Terin suggested they edge along the left side buildings and try to sneak past what might be the creature's lair.  Sadly, as they moved slowly and as quietly as they could, they heard a crash not far distant from them.  Stopping to listen and see if they could tell where the crash had come from, they could only tell that it came from somewhere up the corridor from them.  Moving again, they made it two thirds of the way past the shops when something else fell and crashed.  Only, that crash came from the area of shops Terin had seen the trail lead into.

Stopping to look, Terin noted the doors available along the left side of the row of shops and considered them options.  Unfortunately, he knew they had front doors but had no information on if they had back doors or where those would lead?  Or, what might be waiting on the other side?  When Terin started to speak, Jocelynn cut him off, asking, "Do you think we should move into one of the shops?"  When Terin was uncertain of the idea, Jocelynn reconsidered and admitted, "I don't want to get us trapped."  He then told her to hold still as he started to search intently into the shop from his current point of view.

As he scanned and shifted through the visual modes on his HUD, Terin was able to make out the fact there were shadows moving among the lighter shadows in the shop.  Leaning a bit closer to Jocelynn, he whispered, "There's something over there." and she whispered back, "What do you wanna do?"  They decided to keep moving slowly while being careful not to step on anything that would make noise.  As they moved, Jocelynn heard some more chatter from the merc-comms.  It sounded like they'd decided the pair were no longer in the facility and had decided to shift to an operation they were calling "Advanced Examination".

Jocelynn couldn't tell if that was something real or intentional disinformation?  Still, she did whisper it over the comms to Terin, who also had no idea what it meant, if anything?  Terin then joked about getting past the lizards only to have any mercs following them get eaten by them.  Moving again, they continued to edge along the shops when Terin looked back and saw a creature separate itself from the shops shadows!  Examining it, the lizard seemed to be about four feet long with an additional two feet of tail.  It had four legs and waddled as it moved.

Whispering into his comms, Terin said, "It's a toddler" and Jocelynn answered, "Perhaps its name is Grendel", which meant she really didn't want to meet the thing's mother.  When Terin suggested they move into one of the shops on the left, Jocelynn agreed.  Still, Terin activated the chameleon skin on his armor, just in case.  Looking for the closest door, the two saw a deserted shop which had been called 'Life Among The Spheres'.  Opening the door as quietly as possible, they slipped in and closed themselves in, not that a shop door was much protection.  Inside, they looked around to see the shop sold everything anyone could possibly need, engineered into the shape of a sphere.

Looking around, Jocelynn simply said, "Balls." in a neutral tone.  Terin didn't want to go far into the shop though he did scan it before taking cover behind displays so he could keep watch on what was happening out on the concourse.  At first, Jocelynn also stayed close to the shop-front and watched as the lizard waddled about.  If she had to guess, it seemed to be searching and she wondered how a lizard searched because she'd grown up on an iceball without such creatures.

Now behind a window and displays in a shop, Terin tried to look back to the shop from which he felt the lizard came from as he looked for more creatures or shadows.  Sadly, he couldn't see anything more than the darkness from where he now was.  When Terin asked, "What do you think?" Jocelynn suggested looking for a ball, because the shop name included 'Spheres', and throwing it to see if that lured the creature off to follow the sound?  What neither knew was that lizards tended to sense things mostly by 'tasting the air' with their tongues.  So, the more scent they gave off, the easier they'd be to find.  They did hear sound, but reactions to that were not as high as scent on a lizard's list.

Still working their plan, both looked quickly around them and saw a great many spheres set all about and on display.  Terin said it would be easy to throw one of the right size a good distance and give them a needed distraction.  Despite his instant optimism of a long-distance throw, the upper height of any throw was limited by the ceiling above the level.  Also, they realized that getting the best throw would mean stepping entirely outside the shop and perhaps becoming a visual beacon too.  So, they had to scale the plan back to opening the door and half stepping out to throw with the revealed hand.  Added to that, it would have to be the left hand, to throw the ball back the way they came instead of ahead of them to draw the creature further into their path.

Sure Jocelynn was on board with the idea, Terin then suggested she throw the sphere they chose, because she was stronger than he was.  The comment was so comedically cowardly she almost had to laugh.  The suggestion did make sense because Jocelynn was ambidextrous and he wasn't, but this would be a test of accuracy more than brute strength.  And that told her where Terin's mind was.  Still, for Terin's reasons or not, Jocelynn decided the plan was sound and she started looking around for something handy to throw.

What she eventually selected was a hand-sized sphere that was actually a complex puzzle of folded and interconnected items.  Disassembled and unfolded, they became a full set of table utensils with stylish flaring handles.  But they folded and snapped together to form a ball that fit Jocelynn's hand well.  After he was sure she selected the ball, Terin stepped up saying, "Hold on" and broke out his first aid kit.  From that, he pulled out the roll of medical tape and wrapped it around the ball a few times.  He wanted it to keep rolling once it hit instead of falling apart where it landed.

While Terin did that, Jocelynn looked about the shop for rubber balls and saw none.  She did notice the various decorative spheres which included crystal balls and such.  She even considered looking intently into one of the crystal balls before telling Terin, "I see your future.  In it, you look...tasty."  She enjoyed the thought as she considered that she could likely pick up and throw Terin.  Then, she'd get away while the lizard was munching on him.  Jocelynn was certain Mikah would consider it an acceptable loss.  after Terin was done, Jocelynn took the sphere and moved to look out the shop window before stepping to the door.

After looking outside to see what was happening and make sure the lizard wasn't right there, Jocelynn tossed the ball up and caught it in her hand to get the heft of the thing.  She then moved to the door and quietly opened it to half-step out of the shop and prepare herself to throw the thing.  Jocelynn's plan was to throw the thing like a 'slightly rising' hard ball so it wouldn't go ballistic and hit the ceiling within ten feet of her.  Then, she would pull the door closed as quickly and quietly as she could before ducking for cover among the 'front of the store' stock displays.  When she finally wound up and threw it, she made a good fifty to sixty feet before it dropped and clattered down the concourse.

Terin had also moved to a place where he could watch from cover as Jocelynn threw the ball, and they both looked to see what the creature would do?  When the ball hit the ground and started to clatter, the creature did turn, but not much more and very slowly.  As they watched, they saw the lizard was moving very lethargically, be that a trait of the species or the alertness of that particular lizard.  Even worse, once it stopped moving, it started to let out a sound they could only describe as keening!

When the thing didn't start moving, Jocelynn was first all for sitting and waiting, but knew if they waited long enough that another creature would come along, if not more.  As they whispered about the odds another creature, or even that creature's mother, would come along staying put didn't feel as good an idea as it had.  But, trying to sneak past the creature also didn't feel like a fun idea.  When Terin suggested the creature looked slow, Jocelynn agreed at first, but then they considered that it might have just been slow because it didn't have a target to attack.  They wondered if it would move much faster once it was riled or sensed food?

They finished up a brief debate between staying or running when Terin told Jocelynn, "It's your call."  Jocelynn snorted and derisively asked back, "It's my call?"  She almost let loose on him for all the decisions she'd try to make throughout the day where he'd argued against all her plans, sometimes tooth and claw.  But 'now' it was her call when things could possibly go wrong.  Again, Jocelynn considered that she could lift up Terin and throw him at the lizard while she yelled, "Here Fido!"  Then, she was certain she could escape before Terin either recovered to chase her or got eaten.  If she, or they, got out of this, Jocelynn was considering getting a shirt that read, "I only have to be faster than Terin".

Considering that strategies depend on options, Jocelynn decided to see if they had more options than they'd considered.  To that end, she scanned the back area of the shop and saw a back door.  That could lead to a stock room or out a service entrance, or both.  Either way, it was a new option.  Pointing it out to Terin, they then moved slowly until they reached the back door.  Opening it carefully, they checked inside and saw a stock and service room with a door on the far side.  But the LED on the panel next to that door had a red glow, which meant it was either locked or sealed.

In the store room, they close the door to the shop, which insured they'd not know a creature was coming until it broke that door down.  They then moved to the locked door to see what they could do there?  The panel next to the door with the red light had a number of buttons on it which controlled the door.  So, it could have been a question of choosing the correct pattern or entering in the right command code.  Or, the door could be sealed by safety systems because the space they were in was voided and the other side of the door was pressurized.  They simply had no way to know.

If the issue was a pressurization-safety situation, the panel had no controls for equalizing the pressure with the other side of the wall, so forcing it could cause explosive decompression as the far compartment was voided.  The door very obviously opened into the room they were in, so they did not have to fight pressure like he'd been told some of the crew had when Aiden had been killed, before the pilot was cloned.  Looking around the space to see if there might be a paper with the code on it, Terin saw a wealth of debris which had been left in the space for decades.

When he suggested someone might have written it down for others, they talked and agreed this was a secure door which was likely regularly used by the staff, who would know the code by heart.  And, they would certainly not write the code down for people who didn't work there. 

Meteors And Monsters
     Zimzod had done what he could for Mikah's wound using the ports in her armor to give her injections and taking what steps he could.  He now guarded the surviving pirates while Emkir and Fesic struggled with moving the Cedna to the port.  Because the ship's sensors were mostly toast, they estimated they were three quarters of the way to the port when they started receiving signals from the survivors aboard Xefe.  And that ship was signaling GQ!  In the Imperium, that would have triggered a legal mandate to lend assistance.  Here in Tremous Dex, none of the crew had a problem with Mikah's order to ignore the call.  When asked about the ship, Fesic said they had no power and never reached an orbit, so they were being dragged down to fall onto the planet.

Hearing him say that, Mikah laughed and said, "Not our problem."  Helping Emkir fly while watching the sensors in case he needed to resume using the turret he could control, Fesic said they couldn't respond if they wanted.  The tone he used was as if he were trying to convince someone he was right even though none of the crew were even thinking about helping out.  Reacting to the situation, Mikah told the flight crew to get her on ship to ship comms.  When that was done, Mikah sent her compliments and invited Xefe's survivors to have fun storming the planet!  The message wasn't received well even though there was some pleading for Mikah's crew to come help.

Intruding on that, as Zimzod taunted them even more, a comms message came from the port in the clear.  In that message, the port administrator hailed Mikah.  Looking over the vid of the man, the administrator seemed to have an amused look on his face and they wondered what he had to be amused about?  When Mikah answered, asking "What?" the man asked, "I think I already know the answer to this but, are you and your crew even able to mount a rescue?"  Despite the words he used, they couldn't miss the fact his tone was so tongue-in-cheek they knew he wasn't seriously asking.

Ignoring questions of "why" he was asking, Mikah said, "Fuck No!  There is nothing redeemable about any of them."  The man's smile got larger as he answered, "I didn't think so."  Shifting his focus, while still broadcasting to everyone in-system, the Administrator sent to Xefe, "There is, unfortunately, no craft in the system in a reasonable position to provide assistance.  We recommend your crew do everything in your power to evacuate your crippled vessel and seek other means of escape."  Those aboard Cedna were uncertain if the survivors on Xefe had video comms left, but knew they'd see how much the Administrator was enjoying himself at the moment.

As a parting shot, Aiden opened a comms to Xefe.  When a desperate survivor answered the hail, Aiden said, "Hello.  We have been trying to reach you about your starship's extended warrantee, and this is your last chance.  Please Press or say 'one' to speak to an operator about your warrantee or you will be removed from our list."  As he cut the comms, Fesic and the others who heard him almost doubled over laughing.  Still, Fesic had spent more effort examining the port administrator's message than others and suddenly noticed something odd.  He suddenly spoke up, pointing out that there was a crewman from the Ardeni trader present in port control during the administrator's broadcasts.

When Fesic mentioned the crewman to Mikah and the others, Aiden wondered if there was a connection between the pirates and the Ardeni?  He was told that, given the pleasure the port Administrator had in "wishing the dying pirates well", it was doubtful he'd let the Arden crew into port control if they supported the pirates.  On top of that, no port craft had tried to move to help, even though some of them certainly could reach the Xefe in time to rescue the pirates.  Nor had the Arden done or said anything suggesting they supported the pirates.

Countering that argument, it was pointed out the captain of the ship from Arden could have sent a crewperson to port control to ask what was happening?  That crewman could have been present during the broadcast by coincidence, or could have been allowed to witness the event so he could report back on it to his captain.  Fesic said, outright, that he didn't believe the Arden were involved.  When it was pushed that reducing this pirate fleet opened a door and the Port Administrator might have been acting on the chance, they were reminded the Port had been trying to take over the system themselves and wouldn't simply hand it over to Arden.

Others in the crew pointed out this was just one pirate fleet, and they had no idea how many pirate groups used the system as a base?  They also didn't know how many other pirate ships were in-system or might arrive in the next days or weeks?  So, they couldn't really predict what might or might not be happening behind the scenes.  As well, they were certain that any power Smiljan had held in the pirate hierarchy was now "up for grabs" and there would be a power struggle.  Perhaps, a pirate war could even break out in the system.  Most telling of all, they had not heard from, or learned anything of the Rumen because even port administration hadn't told them what they knew.

After his broadcast to everyone, the port administrator reached out to Mikah's crew and offered any help the port could provide.  This now included dispatching ships out to help them pilot the Cedna in, and giving them flight data and guidance.  This happened as Mikah's crew came to grips with the fact they now owned the 500 dTon Cedna and it was certainly repairable.  So, that begged the question what they wanted to do with the ship?  That meant they now had to ask what they wanted now they had a 500 ton armed ship to trade for it?

Zimzod cut into that saying, "We want a replacement cutter and legitimizing paperwork for Jocelynn's battledress."  That stopped all the others, as they suddenly realized what they could do.  Another realization hit when they were reminded the port did have the electronics to create the certification Jocelynn needed!  They used it regularly to certify the sales of controlled goods.  So, they could very easily do the work.  With the port doing the work for them, they no longer had to bother exploring the city to search for contacts, cooperation and forgers.  Nor would they have to worry that any forged documents might not stand up to inspection.

Following that logic, they only had to get back to the port and get the port to do the work.  And Jocelynn and Terin needed to not become lizard kibble before they could get back to the port.  If the port made the electronic papers for the battledress, they not only didn't need to hunt and search to find anyone else to work with, they also didn't need to stay in the system any longer than the time they needed to get the ship ready to leave.  Especially under circumstance where a pirate war could break out at any time to fill the power void Mikah's crew had created.

All this happened very quickly, while the administrator was still on the comms offering help and Mikah decided she knew what kind of help was needed "Now".  Addressing the port administrator, Mikah said, "We have two people on the planet below and they need to be extracted now."  Pausing to consider that for the moment, the administrator asked Mikah where her people were on the surface?  When Mikah added Aiden to the comms, he said he had no data on where Jocelynn and Terin were.  He did say he could connect to them and see what data they could give?

When they got through to the pair, Terin said he had an integrated inertial locator in his armor.  he said he could upload the data from that to his comms and that would lead them to the two.  Terin was interrupted and told that would only give them a path to them from where they had started moving on the planet.  But the original landing coordinates were needed if they were going to be able to track that to an actual location.  Smiling, Terin said Emkir told them both told to remember where they parked when he'd set them down.  So, they had the landing coordinates.

After the data was handed over, it took just a few minutes to do the computer work and figure out exactly where the two were holed up.  From then, Jocelynn and Terin were asked about their situation and described the shop, concourse and the lizards.  The port administrator was about to act on the data when Jocelynn added in that some of the mercenaries were hunting for them, and they were hiding from them.  That was an issue because the port admin planned to use an owed favor to get one of the mercenary units to help.  Hearing that, Terin snapped at Jocelynn, "I told you not to kill that guy."

Amazed Terin could be so petty about the issue, Jocelynn snapped back "They were shooting at us!"  She continued, "And they were hunting us, and were going to come for us anyway."  What she really wanted to do was shoot Terin and feed him to the lizards.  Not necessarily in that order.  Zimzod chimed in, telling the administrator they'd be open to making reparations if that was needed.  To make sure there wouldn't be complications, Jocelynn and Terin tried to explain the initial attack started by the mercenaries and the encounter with the trooper in the intersection.  To the administrator, that only meant there were two bodies on the deck, which was less than the impression their first comments had given him.

The administrator said to give him some time to work on the issue, and said Mikah's people down on the surface shouldn't become lizard chow.  Hearing that suggested even the port already knew about the lizards, so the presence of the creatures had to be well known.  When the administrator signed off, Jocelynn and Terin were still no better off for the moment, and had no idea if help was coming?  They'd tried to distract the creature and only got it to start keening, which could be worse.  They'd pulled back, then, into the shop's stock room to find a door that was locked, with no reason why.  So, ironically, the ball was back in their court while Emkir and Fesic fought to bring the Cedna to port and looked forward to aid from helper craft.

Shrugging to Jocelynn, Terin announced he was going to try and hack the control panel on the door.  As he bent to his work, Jocelynn searched through the stock room because she couldn't help and didn't want to get in the way.  Time passed and Terin eventually admitted he couldn't hack the thing and the only other options they had were to break the door down or go back out in the shop to see if there was a chance out the front door?  Fesic, who heard them on comms, suggested they break it open with a sphere, in a dry joking tone.  Hearing that, Jocelynn said she'd break "him" open with a sphere when they got back.  Terin snarked that he'd look for a sphere with a crowbar inside it to get the door open with.

While Terin had been working, Jocelynn quietly investigated the stock in the room, looking at what the shop had actually sold when it was populated?  She was surprised to see someone had actually invested in re-engineering all sorts of small appliances and consumer goods into forms that folded up and could be either fit into or be assembled into a ball.  So, each large or small sphere on display was actually a puzzle that broke open into smaller usable items.  Those either came out of the puzzle whole or then unfolded to be used.

Jocelynn wondered out loud, as she looked, if she'd find anything interesting to keep, Terin mentioned the ball wrapped in medical tape out on the concourse.  Jocelynn tartly snapped at him, "Yeah.  Why don't you get the lizard to bring it over." because she felt the comment was stupid, needless and insulting.  Still, Jocelynn found a sphere which broke down into a mini-gardener's tool set.  Small tools for managing a small potted garden like those some stationers and folks on barren worlds kept on their desks or in their homes.  Something like that would have sold well on Tremous Dex before the Imperial pull out, because of the barren world outside the sealed city.  Jocelynn thought that would make a neat set of decorations around her terrarium, even if she shouldn't open that and disturb the controlled environment within.

Pocketing one of those spheres, Jocelynn decided to look for something she thought Mikah might like.  And while a crisis wasn't the sort of time to souvenir hunt, there was no way for her to help Terin with his work.  With nothing else to do, the goods had sat there gathering dust for over a century so Jocelynn thought she'd might as well.  Continuing to browse, Jocelynn happened on a decorative sphere made of a lattice of hexagons, each filled with a different brightly-colored piece of glass or gemstone.  Knowing Mikah was into gemstones, she grabbed one of those for her.

By that time, Jocelynn had explored what there was to see and they'd even checked out from the stock room door to see the lizard was still out in the concourse.  Agreeing the stock room had been a waste of time, Jocelynn and Terin moved back into the shop.  Checking out through the shop's window, they watched the lizard to see if it would move?  Even worse, it wasn't and they even heard more crashes from off in the distance.  Terin again asked if they wanted to stay or try to flee?  Because Terin had complained about every decision Jocelynn made that day, she firmly told him to decide.  That way, she wouldn't have to put up with his rant no matter what she said.

When Terin said, "Let's make a run for it", Jocelynn accepted that and moved up to the shop door, to listen for crashes.  Terin waited until he heard another crash but the news was bad.  From what he could tell, the sound seemed to come from the direction they planned to move in.  That and it didn't sound very far off.  From what he could guess, perhaps the next intersection or two up-corridor.  Turning back to Jocelynn Terin suggested they move back towards the mercenaries instead of away from them.  When Jocelynn said she didn't like that, he said, "Well.  Then we hunker down." and she accepted that.

Commenting that the sounds could be coming from an approaching creature, Jocelynn suggested they wait and see if it moved past the shop.  Perhaps, they could continue the direction they were moving in after it passed.  Despite a lack of data, Terin said it might move faster if it were a larger creature.  Jocelynn shrugged and said they'd have to wait and see.  After a spate of debating in circles with themselves, the two moved back into the stock room to wait things out and hope help arrived before something located them and tried to make them lunch.

Not long after they'd closed themselves into the back storage room, they got a wide-open broadcast on their comms.  The voice on the audio-only signal sounded like an older man's craggy voice as he identified himself as a Lieutenant Colonel form the 'Vinnell Interstellar Company'.  He added that he understood there were persons on-world who had issue with "one of their brother units" but that they were in distress.  He then said the issues with the other unit would be dealt with in time, but his people were arriving to offer assistance.  The Colonel then told them to sing out to help his people locate them.

Understanding they might have questions about how honest he was, the Colonel then said his unit owed the port a favor or two, and this mission seemed a good way to help pay off debts.  Since everyone heard that, Aiden was able to check with port administration to confirm they'd set the rescue up.  A technician on the port said they did, but that the administrator suggested the Colonel was a bit space-happy if he thought this little mission would clear their debts.  Still, Aiden let the others know this was legit.

When Terin asked the man for his personal comms, to not have to broadcast his location to everyone, the Colonel told him to send the data or not.  If he didn't want to, he could get himself out of the city alone.  Shrugging to himself, Terin accepted that and sent the data.  Eventually, Terin and Jocelynn heard comms feed from the mercenaries as someone announced, "OK Boys!  It's barbeque time!" in a grim sort of happy tone as the rescue force got moving.  The colonel then told Jocelynn and Terin to hold tight and not get eaten.

Thirty minutes passed before it seemed all hell broke loose, even though they were in the shop's back stock room.  Not long after it started, the sounds stopped.  Briefly after that, they heard a very civilized knock at the stock room door.  When Terin opened the door, the colonel was waiting outside, smiling in his combat armor.  It took Terin a heartbeat to realize the man still had his helmet on, but the faceplate actually had a feature Terin hadn't encountered before.  The faceplate and HUD could slide up to reveal a clear pane so the man could show his face while he remained sealed inside his armor!

Instead of greeting them or introducing himself, the colon simply said, "Interesting vacation spot you chose.  Let's get moving!"  Terin agreed as he moved forward and answered, "It's vastly over-rated."  Making their way out onto the concourse, Jocelynn and Terin could see the results of an assault and could make out the remains of three critters of varying sizes.  All were under fifteen feet long, so none of them was "mama".  They also saw the remains of two armor suits meaning two of the men in the rescue unit had been munched on.  A group of the mercs were wrapping those bodies to be brought back while the rest provided security and they all prepared to beat feet for safety.

When the group got moving, Jocelynn and Terin found themselves wrapped into the center of the formation because they were "the goods".  Still, they were asked what weapons they had and if they knew how to use them?  That made it clear they weren't past the hard part yet.  They quickly saw the route back out wasn't the same as the route they had taken in.  Some ten minutes into the march, they came to an open atrium they didn't recognize at all.  While the unit was crossing that, a lizard suddenly reared up from where it had been unseen in another corridor.  The thing was easily over thirty feet, and while it moved it had slammed into a monolithic sculpture.  That came crashing down as the creature attacked, crushing two of the troopers as they all opened up with their weapons.

The lizard let out a kind of roar as Jocelynn and Terin joined in with the mayhem.  Regardless if it had first attacked due to hunger, the lizard was now angry at the stream of pain and insult it was receiving.  It would now do its best to kill everything before it because of the pain.  The fire continued as teams of troopers moved about, shifting for better positions for attack or defense.  Soon, Jocelynn and Terin had been separated and she found herself with a handful of troopers who'd become the target of the monster!

While the troopers were literally emptying and swapping magazines into the on-coming beast, Jocelynn and Terin actually ran out of ammo!  Terin was horrified as the unit he was with saw the monster turn on Jocelynn's group.  Jocelynn nearly lost it as the creature finally lunged and she had a "near-nose to nose" view of the clamping jaws closing a the man right in front of her!  He was lifted away screaming and firing his weapon!  Jocelynn literally froze in place, hearing the man's screams as someone grabbed her from behind and pulled her back!  A new line formed in front of her because she was the cargo!

Still resetting as the battle raged around her, Jocelynn suddenly heard a hollow-sounding 'thoonk' and someone pulled her down, yelling 'Duck!'  There was a sudden explosion as the head and front of the lizard reared forward and rose high.  Then, dropped down to the floor of the atrium where it stopped moving at all.  It took them a beat or two to start getting up and realize the back of the monster was gone.  The force of the blast had even divoted the paving and knocked a small crater into the ceiling above the blast point!

After the creature dropped, a team rushed its head and worked to get the man out of its jaws.  Then, after hitting the many rents in his armor with patches, they got him up and helped him to get moving.  It seemed the teeth never got all the way through his armor and he'd be OK.  Still, he'd have a hell of a story to tell the others for a while before they got tired of hearing it.  Over it all, they heard the colonel's voice praising, "Good man!  You'll live to die another day!" as the unit started moving on.  Others in the group now dragging even more bodies home for honors.

When Terin asked what the hell that thing had been, he was given a local name for the creature that Terin didn't hear entirely properly, and would never remember.  The man rambled on, explaining the species had a bladder and internal organs that could draw in huge amounts of what passed for atmosphere, then filter out what it needed to breath.  And, that it certainly evolved on-world.  Of course, the more memorable nickname was the "Dex Dragon", named for Tremous Dex.  That was the name Terin and Jocelynn would remember in the future.

It took twenty minutes of hard hustle for the unit to get back into the more industrialized sector of the city, where the mercenaries had their facilities.  Soon after that, they'd made it back into pressurized compartments and were able to unbutton their gear.  Beyond that, the mercenaries escorting them formed into columns between which they had Jocelynn and Terin protected still.  Not much longer after that, they marched into the merc hall and saw another unit lined up to block their progress to the city exits.  In front of that group stood the young-looking colonel they'd met earlier.

When they got close enough, the younger colonel told the older officer, "There is an issue here."  As the merc's protecting Jocelynn and Terin closed in, there was no chance for the pair to notice the younger colonel's uniform was different than those of the unit blocking them.  That would have told them he was not part of that unit.  The older colonel gruffly answered, "I don't give a flying fuck." in a tone that said he didn't plan to stop for the demonstration.  gesturing with his head, the younger man said, "Well, we do." indicating the larger chamber and troopers and officers gathered there.  The man continued, "And, we agree there are enough questions that there should be an investigation.  The size of the assembly and the number of units there apparently convinced the older officer he couldn't just blow the situation off.  And he wasn't going to order his men to fight through.

Coming to a stop and taking a defiant stance, the older colonel angrily said, "Flaggon's unit are a bunch of idiots and they deserved what they got."  That got an angry growl from the line of troopers blocking the march, but no reaction from the younger officer.  After a pause to let things cool a bit, the younger man answered, "I don't care if Flaggon's unit are idiots or that they deserved what they got.  I believe justice needs to be done and questions need to be asked.  In the seconds before two men turned the words into a stare-off, Jocelynn stepped forward and started talking.

She told them it hadn't been her intention to cause problems between groups.  She said she had only been looking for a contact and information.  She tried to assure them what she wanted was not political, nor was she acting on behalf of any Imperial organizations.  After that, Jocelynn said that was all it was until she and Sir Terin were forced to defend themselves.  Nodding, the younger Colonel stepped up and asked, "So, are you willing to answer several questions?"  Jocelynn considered that.  It was tempting to say her crewmates were locked in combat with the pirates and she had to rejoin them and help out, even if that wasn't true any longer.  But it still could be if a larger pirate coalition formed and attacked.  It was very tempting...

Still, faced with the question, Jocelynn said she would, and then asked them to return Terin to the port while she did.  The colonel crushed that, saying they both had to answer the questions and Jocelynn's agreement seemed to bind Terin in the eyes of the mercenaries.  It seemed he couldn't just leave without them having an issue now she'd agreed.  The two were given seats in an open area as the unit "rescuing them" formed a cordon around them.  The troopers from the unit that had blocked them now seemed less angry.  They separated into groups as they watched and listened to what was happening.

The colonel seemed to be well informed on how things had played out as he started asking about the encounter between them and the two mercenaries when she and Terin had been with the Nedyal man?  In the questions, they learned the officer had been a lieutenant and the trooper had been a private.  They also learned the private had actually survived being shot by Jocelynn, thanks to his armor.  He'd been questioned separately from the officer because he had to be revived and treated before questions could be brought.  Learning they'd been questioned separately pleased both Jocelynn and Terin, because both Knights knew being questioned separately meant they couldn't get away with any lies.

At one point in the questioning, members of the offended unit complained the Knights obviously were sharing information because one could hear the other's answers.  The colonel, who appeared in charge, pointed out to them that the points so far all matched existing testimony from their people.  Without other evidence, the offended moved off and the questions moved on.  While answering questions, both Jocelynn and Terin had the time to notice the many different uniforms.  That said there were members present from many mercenary units.  They also saw the colonel in charge was neither a member of the offended unit or any other unit they could see.  While answering questions, Terin even got the chance to point out the chip blasted from his leg armor as material evidence.

When she was asked about the Nedyal, Jocelynn relaxed herself as much as she could before saying she'd been directed to them by a person who'd visited the system before.  She said, that person suggested they were up on all the whispering and rumors.  And they more willing, without demanding trade value, to speak freely about things not involving the mercenaries.  Everyone else in-system charged for everything.  There were several more questions, some of which got rather pointed, as the colonel dug in deep.  Jocelynn became certain this was the one issue the man really cared about.  As she was questioned, Jocelynn took the chance to point out several members of the Nedyal in the room, and said they were everywhere and heard everything.  She said they could now warn "visitors" about the lizards, since she and Terin had made the creatures a feature event.

She eventually gave the man answers which seemed to satisfy the colonel, and he moved on.  When he asked about meeting the sentry at the second intersection, the questions were much lighter.  They lacked any pushing or appearance of digging.  They worked through the process of the encounter from Jocelynn's brutally abrasive description of Terin's failure to keep the trooper from raising an alarm all the way to fleeing the intersection.  Annoyingly for Jocelynn, this was the one spot where Terin created a gap of daylight between their answers.  Terin did his best to suggest the man had been shot in the struggle while being subdued, as if it were an accident.  Jocelynn cut that down, saying she'd shot the man to stop him calling even more units in on them.  Jocelynn was pleased when even members of the offended unit nodded, because they would have done the same thing themselves.

Ironically, after the questioning came to a close, the younger colonel asked the older officer if he'd had a chance to review the testimony from Flaggon's unit?  The man said he'd reviewed the data and found it to be the same as the story the Knights had told.  He also pushed that some minor variations were to be expected and the younger officer agreed.  The older officer said he was all for letting Jocelynn and Terin go while he'd deal with Flaggon later.  He even suggested they should give the other unit a dragon to play with, meaning the lizards they'd just fought.

Still, Jocelynn did her best to address the officers of Flaggon's unit, based on their uniforms.  She said she truly regretted the events and repeated that she'd not come there to cause havoc or injuries.  The lead officer of the unit simply glared back at her, shrugged and said, "Tourists in a combat zone."  He then turned away and both Jocelynn and Terin knew there'd be no one stopping them from leaving the city once they got moving again.  At the same time, the younger colonel told the older officer he would join the escort for the Knights himself.  Then, the older colonel told them the port would have a ship waiting outside the city and they should get moving.

Getting in gear, they started walking and the younger officer surprised Jocelynn by moving in closer to her, hitting her again with questions about the Nedyal.  Jocelynn stuck to her line of explanations from earlier, and the colonel asked about her Order too.  Jocelynn told him about the Caranda's Sword, but only said she'd been part of that order for "Some time" when he asked.  Eventually, they got out of the city all together and saw the waiting spacecraft not far from where they exited.

A smaller group of the mercenaries escorted them all the way to the ship's airlock, where a crewmember demanded their Idents and checked them aboard.  Jocelynn and Terin thanked the younger colonel, who was standing with the others as they boarded along with the older colonel and one of his junior officers.  After they were clear and the shuttle lifted, Jocelynn and Terin learned a bit more in the small talk.  It turned out there were more than two sides to the deal to return them to the port.

The colonel told them the port master was already expecting to cut a deal with what he referred to as "the five hundred ton lot of 'trade goods' their crew were bringing in".  The colonel was hoping to be "hired" as an inspector to help scope out what had been dropped inside the ship?  And, that way, he could get a share of the man-portable goodies left behind.  When Jocelynn said she'd like to be involved in the talks, the colonel said he expected the port to have cut a deal with her crew before they talked.  So, Jocelynn wouldn't likely get her chance.

The rest of the ride upwell was fairly uneventful, and they arrived on the station to a fairly crowded welcome.  There were administrative people, including the port master.  There were also medical people there to check out Jocelynn and Terin before they were returned to the Upgrade.  They were told the Cedna had been secured and Lady Mikah was "currently unavailable".  There were security people, who were very deferential and said they would not disarm the two Knights so long as neither reached for a weapon.  The bay was full of port workers too.  The administrator welcomed the Knights and greeted the Lieutenant Colonel, handing that man a chit of some kind.

After that, food and drink were brought for the Knights as the medics checked them out and made sure they were healthy.  The port administrator gave Terin a chit which he said would cover repairs on his armor where it had been damaged.  There was also food for the Colonel while he talked with the administrator.  When he mentioned his interest in the Cedna, the administrator told him that talks on that ship and its contents had been delayed.  Again, he said Lady Mikah, captain of the Upgrade and de facto owner of Cedna was unavailable for the next two days.  Finally, with approval from the medics, Jocelynn and Terin were escorted back to the Upgrade.

Mikah's Five N Dime Cleaning Service
     To the relief of Fesic and Emkir, port craft came along side and began to have an effect, helping the crippled ship in towards the port.  While that happened, there had also been a few craft dispatched down closer the planet to film the spectacular fireball as it ripped across what little atmosphere the world had.  The separating flares as the Xefe disintegrated were highlights to the primary fireball that arced around the horizon before slamming into a barren section of the world's surface.  This would be a minor sales item for the port for years to come.  Not to mention a potential tourist excursion from the port in the future.

The sparks from the screen Mikah was watching reminded her of an idea as she called Aali over.  Mikah told Aali to move down to the cargo bay and take over guarding the prisoners while she told Zimzod to come up to talk.  When Zimzod got there, Mikah told him to find the captain's stateroom and rip it apart until he located the captain's safe.  Then, she wanted him to rip it open and loot it for anything valuable.  While Zimzod was off looting, Mikah called Aali and told her she wanted the engineer to cut the nameplate off the Cedna after someone else took the pirates into custody.  Aali said she'd do that.

Zimzod let Mikah know he'd popped the captain's safe and found KCr 290 in hard currency.  Most was Imperial, with just more than a third Ardeni and the rest divided between Zhodani and various Sword world currencies.  Also in the safe, Zimzod had found a small snow globe inside which was a navy-blue cube, which Mikah said she wanted.  There was also what looked like a crimson-glass bead which Mikah also wanted.  Zimzod also reported there was a palm-sized orb which had looked inert until he touched it.  Then, it started to glow and pushed his hand up as it "levitated" off the bottom of the safe.  There were some other sensations Zimzod noticed, but they were not important at the time.  When it was reported, Mikah said she "REALLY" wanted that!

Before the ship docked, Mikah ordered the crew to join her in a tour of the ship seeking whatever items of loot they could find.  Items they found included a hand-held medical scanner, which Mikah took.  Aali took a large collection of electronic parts they'd scrounged from all over the ship as well as a large portable battery pack and an arc welder.  Emkir got a sort of computer diagnostic tool he'd have to investigate and a very high-end chip-fabricator.  That was used for creating chips with embedded code.  They also found odd items, like a control panel from an unidentified device, a fold-out "plasma" riot shield in good condition but with empty batteries and a small portable laser-aimable antenna array.

Along with the individual items, they found nearly a thousand rounds of ball ammo for snub pistols.  Between all the credit chits, hard currency and random jewelry found in the staterooms, they estimated they had about KCr 31 in value.  Again, the hard currency was came from Imperial, Zhodani, Ardeni and Sword Worlds currency.  Past the looting, it took some time for them to get docked.  When they did, the port isolated the ship.  As they tied up to the port, Aali called Zimzod back to help escort the prisoners to an airlock.  There, they handed them over to port authorities.

The port master recommend Mikah they take a break before the meetings would start regarding her crew and the Cedna.  He also said a shuttle had gone downwell to get her two crew members and there would need to be a discussion regarding them too.  Finally, Mikah said she had to get to the Upgrade and spend some time in the autodoc.  When Zimzod said he'd handle the negotiations, Mikah firmly said "No!" and told them no one would negotiate until she was out of the autodoc.  She then called the port and advised them she'd been wounded and needed some med-time before they could meet.

The port administrator accepted that and suggested they meet in two days.  Mikah agreed before she was escorted to their ship by Zimzod.  He helped get her out of her armor, cleaned her wound and got her into the autodoc before programming it.  Once the machine did it's scans and diagnostics, it said the treatment would take between twenty-three and twenty-four hours.  Seeing that, Zimzod updated the rest of the crew and they set aside everything to be divided up once Mikah was done cooking.

Hollow Plans
     After Mikah left, the crew sealed the Cedna and returned to the Upgrade to start cleaning up, doing gear maintenance.  They settled things in and waited for Terin and Jocelynn to return because things could still go wrong.  They moved all the loot items over with them, but anything that wasn't already claimed, and all the cash, were piled in the ship's locker for the time being.  That done, the speculation started while people gathered in the lounge to clean gear.  Fesic was the first to ask if they actually wanted to sell the Cedna or not?  His thought was that it was a larger ship, even though none of them had investigated her capabilities.  So, no one knew the 'down sides' beyond the fact she needed a butt-load of repairs.

Past that question came the reminder they'd only really come to Tremous Dex to get Jocelynn's battledress legitimized.  That, and they'd been told to go to the Arden system by the Arch Duke.  That reminded them that he'd told them they only had four months to do that.  So, if they wanted to sell off the Upgrade for cash to repair the Cedna(and no one knew if the repair bills would be honest?) it would take too damn long to repair that ship.  They'd already burned over three weeks of their time-line.  Added to that, it would be one month in if they stayed to the end of the week they'd planned in this port.

They still had a week's jump to Arden ahead of them before their "real mission" began.  And, however long they spent on Arden, they'd have to make three jumps back to Regina, plus the time spent in systems resetting the drives and such.  So, that added up to three weeks resetting and four weeks in jump before they could get to Regina, assuming no delays.  Where one of those weeks resetting was spent on Arden, that only left them a spare week of time if anything went wrong.  And one week was not much of a buffer at all, when interstellar travel was considered.

Those thoughts scaled back the asks, but they mostly agreed on getting a replacement cutter and the certification for Jocelynn's battledress.  When some of them held out for a cutter that had a chameleon hull, the others laughed at them.  A simple fact was that they had to have serious doubts if anyone in this system even had the tech to a cutter with that system installed, and it had to be built in because it was entirely embedded into every plate in the hull.  So, the bet was they seriously doubted they could even find such a cutter in the system.  Added to that, any replacement cutter they did get would have to fit in their cutter bay, because that class of craft came in all kinds of sizes and shapes.

With that demand ironed out, a number of the crew started suggesting demands for chunks of cash, showing meant they'd forgotten the research done before coming to the system.  All of the research said the system was desperate for hard currency, letting them deal with ships visiting from the Imperium or Zhodani Consulate.  So, there wasn't a lot of money to be had no matter how much they demanded.  Crew members like Terin, who were imagining mega-credit symbols in space were seeing nothing but foolishness.  The port might not have anything near that kind of spendable cash without draining their reserves.  While that didn't stop the crew from imagining, others reminded them of the hard facts.  Getting some laughs mocking those hoping to get rich, Fesic whined that he needed a new pair of pants.  With Mikah in the autodoc, Emkir was the only person who understood that until the story was told.

They talked until someone reminded the others Mikah had made it clear she wanted the airlock to be worked on too.  So, the plan was to keep the GI party going until Jocelynn and Terin returned.  Then, they'd sleep a bit before getting up and getting to work on the ship.  That would mean they'd have progress to report when Mikah was done cooking and ready to visit with the port.  Eventually, Terin and Jocelynn got back from the port offices and they shared short stories with more details promised later while putting up their gear and new toys.  Jocelynn left the glass and jeweled sphere out for Mikah when she was "done cooking".

Before things wound down entirely, they were surprised by a chime coming from the bay's portal.  Not expecting anyone, Terin said he'd check it out and went to the panel by the hatch.  When he asked who it was, he was told it was a port worker with a request.  The screen showed the man's credentials.  Opening the portal, Terin asked how he could help the man and the worker said he was delivering a message for Lady Mikah and the crew.  He said that the Captain of the Zhodani courier Qanzhasti, Aritezhe Ieiesti (Ar-eat-ez-he EE-e-es-tee), wondered if he and some members of his crew could meet with lady Mikah and their crew?  Terin immediately wondered what in space had brought this request on?  What did the Zhodani want from them?  Keeping that under his lid, Terin said they'd answer the Captain the next day because they had a great deal or work to do as well as an injured crew member.

The man said the port would update the Zhodani captain and stand by for any communications their crew wanted to send to that ship.  With that done, there was another piece of business as the man indicated a box next to the door on a small hover-pull.  The three-foot by three-foot "board" floated several inches off the deck.  The hover-pull had a pull rod which the port worker used to move the box on top of the device.  But the "box" was actually a case of booze!  Looking closer, Terin saw it was marked from the Maakham Zuuker breweries!  Terin remembered from his research about how they famously kept their independence.  They'd even come close to bringing all the factions in-system to their knees once in the past century.  So, that case was worth good coin!

The port worker told Terin it was a "delivery for your ship", and asked where Terin wanted him to move it?  Terin had the man move the case into the bay where it could be secured.  Aiden noticed the case and started whining about scanning it as his mind started spinning all manner of conspiracy theories.  They decided to keep it in the bay until they could check it out further.  While that happened, Zimzod got a buzz on his comms.  He checked it to see he'd gotten a message.  Checking that, he saw it read "Kudos and congratulations" and was signed "Commander, Scarlet Tree"!  Zimzod only replied, "Thank you.  I'm glad I could save you some pirate-toll money."

When Zimzod mentioned that to the others, he realized it was time for a few stories since most of them had only heard of the man from stories they'd heard a year before.  Zimzod would have waited until they'd slept, but worried because Shaslu Kishman could be a very dangerous man.  So, it was best the crew be told what had happened before most of them came aboard.  Even Emkir and Aiden had been on the naval station and experienced the events in the smuggler's bay by remote control.


Where everyone is at the end of the session:
     Everyone except Mikah and Rol: In the ship's lounge before grabbing some sleep  
     Mikah: In the autodoc for the next 21 hours
     Rol: In the 6th week of gestation (12 weeks to go)

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Next: Pending