background: url(images/nightsky.jpg) no-repeat center center fixed; background-size: cover; height: 200%; overflow: hidden;
Welcome to the

Last Updated     April 24 2022
The Characters
The Ship
Campaign History Page
Granted Rights
The Frontier Wars
The Spinward Marches
About Legends
Artist's Credits
House Rules
Recent Updates
Email Me
Verbal Fencing And
      Cultural Anthropology

Tremous Dex
All Filled With Booze
     Just after lunch, the crew were closer to half-strength than they'd been since Zach died, 469 days before.  Then, half the crew had been hospitalized or killed.  Now, with Rol being cloned and Terin dead, Zimzod was in the autodoc for at least the next few days!  Mikah was also recovering from a wound received two days before, and would have to stay on light duty for the next two weeks herself.  While Aali had given command back to Mikah, Jocelynn was still their ground-combat commander.  And Zimzod's survival wasn't even nearly assured.  While putting Terin's frozen body into a low berth, Aali remembered a mental image backup for the navigator had been created on Regina.

Of course, they had to finish things in Tremous Dex, get to Arden and complete their mission before returning to the Imperium.  Then, they could go back to Regina to finish their mission before deciding what to do about Terin?  Since he didn't have cloning insurance, they had to decide "if" they wanted to check on cloning Terin?  And if they wanted to clone Terin, they'd have to decide "where" to go to do that?  Variables like the base tech of any system and the population size would affect the cost to have him cloned.  They then had to jump to whatever system they chose, to see how much the process would cost?  Only then would they be able to decide if they wanted to pay that much?  Past that, they also had to find out what happened with the book auction on Rhylanor?

And before any of that, they had to get the engineering resets done.  Those wouldn't be finished until the next day at best.  Aali also needed Jocelynn's help finishing work on the ship's airlock, which she could get done by the end of the day.  Mikah was also just starting the first day of two weeks on light duty.  So, she hoped they were done with excitement in the Tremous Dex system.  Rol was fifteen and a half weeks into gestation.  And no one knew if Zimzod would survive in the autodoc?  Or, if he did, how much permanent damage would remain?  Talking about their losses, Jocelynn leaned towards Mikah and joked, "Three down, four to go."  Her dark humor got some laughs.

Cutting the laughs short, Jocelynn was reminded Zimzod's incapacitation moved her up to the ship's combat commander in his place.  And, where Zimzod could count on her, Rol and Mikah to back her up, Rol and Zimzod were dead and Mikah wounded.  So, Jocelynn could only count on Fesic, Aiden and Aali.  When Jocelynn said that, Mikah announced she was doomed and got more laughs.  After that, Aali said she confirmed the 'droids were making good progress on the engineering resets.  So, she said she needed the others to help her get done with repairs on the airlock.  That included Jocelynn in her battledress.  Fesic, Aiden and Mikah also said they'd help.

Mikah and Fesic were helpful thanks to their electronics skills.  Jocelynn not only had her mechanical repair skills, but was also the muscle while in her battledress.  Inside the ship, they'd need Emkir to run commands in the ship's systems from time to time and recover and manage errors from the system logs.  He'd pass that data back to Aali during the work.  While tied to the ship's systems for that, Emkir could also spare the time to deploy the house-keeping 'droids again, using them to watch the berth the ship was in.  So, he was delegated their "security team".  Finally, benefitting from being the closest team member to the ship's comm's, Emkir's skills made him the ship's official Diplomat.

Making Emkir's security job easier, the port decided to keep a team of security personnel posted at the hatch to their berth.  The port master also hadn't commented on how long the crew were taking to repair their airlock?  Before they broke up the crew meeting at lunch, Jocelynn joked that they were rapidly running low on spare crew members.  Because of that. she said they should do their best to stay in the berth, or even in the ship, and keep their heads down.  She also very seriously reminded them, "People want us dead."  Nodding, Aali only said, "Yeah.  Remember what happened to the last guy who left the berth alone", referring to Terin.  Others nodded and Jocelynn said, "Let's get our ship fixed and get the hell out of here."

Before following the others out to work on the airlock, Aiden asked Mikah if she felt it was a good idea to contact the Imperial traders and get their details in order?  Mikah said yes and told him to do that.  Making the call, Aiden reached the lead trader aboard their ship, the IMS Ashidi Ke, and asked if they wanted to plan in advance how they planned to make their run for the 100 diameter limit?  The trader reminded Aiden the run would be a race.  He pointed out there were very few "obstructions" and altering course to swing near or around them would only take more time and slow them down.  So, if someone were chasing them, slowing down would only make it easier for them to capture the ship.

It would be a race from the point they left the port until they reached the jump limit.  And, if those chasing were in faster ships, they "would" catch up to the small convoy.  Aiden wasn't real happy with that, even if it was the truth.  Especially since they would have to burn for nearly twenty hours to reach the "real" jump limit.  They had only had an hour's burn-in when they arrived because Terin had been able to plot an arrival to a La Grange point in-system.  With Terin dead, they didn't have that option anymore.

Because of that, Aiden had to admit the only choice they had was what direction they wanted to burn out on?  After they started burning, they had to run in a straight line, so their selected jump point would be obvious.  After that, anyone who decided to chase them would either be fast enough to catch them or not.  And, if anyone chasing caught up, there would be a fight.  There were no other options.  Done talking about the obvious, Aiden and the officer of the Ashidi Ke broke the line and they went on with their days.

After getting into her battledress, Jocelynn admitted she was being paranoid, but asked about further securing the loot taken from the Cedna?  She was reminded those were in the ship's locker after filling the captain's safe with what they could.  So, anyone trying to get at that loot would have to get into their berth, board their ship, get to the bridge and then get into the locker from there.  That would be a lot of obstacles to get past, if they wanted just loot.  And the currency piles were heavy, and hard to move if they did get that far.  Nodding, Jocelynn admitted the loot was secure enough.

It was hours into the work when the port alerted the crew the delivery from the Maakham Zuuker brewery was arriving on station.  It was even more odd when the port told them the cargo was arriving aboard the pirate ship MV Eki Kagii!  The port followed that up with a short reminder factions worked together when it suited all sides.  So the Eki Kagii was being paid by the brewery, and had agreed to strict security limits and controls before they were allowed to dock.  The process they were held to meant the ship, which had landed down-well to load the cargo, would return to orbit and dock with a hatch on the station.  When the cargo was offloaded via that dock, the hatch would be sealed and the ship would leave.

After that, the cargo would be moved into the Upgrade's berth and released there.  When Mikah signed off on the cargo, they'd check each of the container boxes in each cargo pod.  Those were delivered open, and it was up to the crew to close and seal them before closing and sealing each pod.  Delivered that way, Jocelynn could step away from her work with Aali and scan the bottles in each box and pod.  Behind her, Fesic scanned each item with the ship's portable densometer, just to be sure.  Then, they sealed up the boxes and pods before grabbing the ship's gravLoaders and using them to move the pods into the cargo bay.  Fesic was pleased when Jocelynn's cargo handling skills made that job easier.  After that, they went back to work on the airlock.

Dispatches And Shifts

While working, they all agreed to push and get the airlock done before taking a break for a late dinner.  By seven thirty that evening, Emkir got a report from Aali that she was getting close to finishing up.  With that, he called Mikah to tell her he was stepping away from his post watching the 'droid scans so he could start cooking dinner.  He did put a wireless headset on, so he could hear and respond to any comms calls or calls from the crew.  Around eight in the evening, Aali tested the lock and announced she was satisfied and they were done.  With a muted cheer, they went into the ship for dinner.

They had a muted but happier dinner, and Mikah decided to relax and play some video games to work on her finger dexterity.  Something very important to surgeons.  Since Aali decided to take Emkir's place watching the 'droids, she transferred the video and relaxed, watching screens in the ship's lounge.  Emkir offered to give Mikah a challenge, playing the games against her.  When Aiden offered to "take a shift" watching the 'droids after Aali, she agreed and said none of them should take over-long shifts.  Especially since she had to finish the engineering resets the next day.  They agreed on three-hour shifts and Aiden planned to take over at eleven that night.  Fesic agreed to take over at two the next morning, and Mikah at five.  She'd be relieved by Emkir when he took up the day shift again.

Done with dinner, Fesic worked on his lock picking classes.  Jocelynn did stent work in the ship's lounge, and followed that up watching "Armorer" training vids from the ship's library.  While everyone worked at their interests, a call came into the ship and Emkir answered to find it was an officer from the Ashidi Ke.  She told Emkir that their ship had word from a ship which had transited the system but not come to the mainworld.  It had done frontier refueling at the gas giant.  While in system, it had sent them news from the Arden system, which Ashidi Ke's Captain decided to share with them, since they were bound there.

The news said there had been a fight of sorts in the Arden system before that ship had jumped to Tremous Dex.  That would put the date of the fight around the 355th day of the year.  The ships involved were said to be 'of independent registry' and had fired on each other well outside Arden's control zone.  So, that area of space wasn't patrolled, and there were few details available at all.  The officer had said they were uncertain how well Mikah's crew knew the region of space.  They just wanted to let the crew know Arden was involved in an economic war of sorts with the Halot Corporation, based on Frond.  Despite their well-known xenophobia, Arden were working to build up a regional presence and fighting Halot for customers and resources.

Thanking the officer, Emkir broke the call and updated everyone else in the lounge.  Mikah nodded and said not to worry about it.  Jocelynn snarked, "Because shit can't get any worse, right?" in a less than pleased tone.  Aiden decided to check the astrographic location of the Frond system and found it was two parsecs spinward of the Arden system.  He also learned forty percent of the world's surface was covered by oceans while the system had no gas giants.  That meant all their hydrogen fuel had to come from the world's oceans.  Forgetting the world's Imperial history, Aiden decided someone had given them fusion and orbital tech.  Then, they'd built out a fuel-retrieval industry and then gotten hold of interstellar ships sometime afterward.  He assumed they built out their industries from there.

The "good news", if there was any, was that the struggle was economic.  There wasn't a literal fight for territory which could break out in all-out warfare.  Jokes were made about Fesic being the only one interested in a ship battle and he raised both his thumbs while saying he'd love to add another notch to his belt!  Jocelynn turned the joke back on Fesic, asking where those successes were when they'd been out at the bars?  Even Fesic chuckled at that with the others.  Still, he tried to turn the joke back on her, asking, "What did you say?  You want to try fisting with me??"  That got even more laughs.  When the crew settled in to sleep, only those with over-night shifts were up.  During his shift, Fesic studied his lock picking while Aiden read during his.

Chores And Preparations

Everyone's day began at eight in the morning because Mikah mandated they all set their alarms ship-wide.  While they shared breakfast, they went over plans for the coming day.  Jocelynn was happy when they talked about the plans to have an armorer from the port work on their damaged gear.  Especially since the tech would also be installing the certifications into her battledress to match the cert's the port would add to her Ident.  The suit would legally belong to her, listed as "purchased in Tremous Dex".  Since the airlock repairs had been finished the day before, she could divide her time between working with the Armorer and port security.

Organizing what they needed worked on, they got the damaged sections of Zimzod's armor out, along with Terin's vacc suit.  They also brought Terin's combat armor, damaged when he and Jocelynn had "dealt with" the mercenaries, and Mikah's armor, holed when she'd been gut shot aboard Cedna.  Jocelynn's gear hadn't been damaged because she'd been lucky when facing the mercenaries and Zimzod had eaten all the fire fighting the pirates.  So, she still had to bring out her battledress and Ident, but only for the certification.  To be certain, everyone did a bit of gear checking and maintenance, looking for anything else needing fixing.

Past that, Aali had to go back to engineering and work with the androids to get their resets done if they wanted to leave the system the next day?  The rest of the crew did personal work until nearly ten thirty that morning.  Then, they got a buzz from their berth hatch, meaning station security let someone approach.  Being free at the moment, Emkir answered and got an introduction from a "Mr. Munisama Cibe" who said he was a starship architect.  After some confusion, because Mikah had had the discussion with the port, Emkir had him wait while he called Aali to ask her about the man?  They talked and Aali remembered Mikah telling them about measuring the cutter berth in the ship so they could get a replacement cutter from the port.

Aali told Emkir to let the man into the berth and tell Mikah he'd arrived.  Emkir switched back to the man at the berth and told the port security people to let him in.  Emkir then called Mikah to tell her the architect was there.  Fesic also left the ship to meet the man and check his credentials.  While they talked, the man stepped into a layman's explanation of what he needed to get done.  The man brought several palm-sized ball-shaped 'droids which used grav-levitation and light ports.  Those would take up positions in the space he planned to measure and then fire measuring lasers to make a 3D model of the ship's cutter bay.  Doing that, he could determine which of the cutters the port had which might fit the space, so they could give it to the Upgrade, as agreed.  He said that would take about an hour.

Emkir asked if the man needed any help or support and was told he just needed people to keep out of the cutter bay while he worked.  Nodding, Emkir picked up his comms and opened an "all-crew" call to tell them all to keep clear of that compartment until the work was done.  While he'd been giving his explanation to Emkir, Mikah joined the architect and decided to stick to his side.  Just in case.  So, she spent her time with the architect while Emkir went back to the bridge to play security and communications.  Aali was in engineering and Jocelynn was working with the armorer.  Aiden spent some time on the bridge pre-setting his stations for the planned departure the next day.

Aiden also decided to clean up the sensor systems and 'zero' them to make sure everything was clear and he saw what he needed to when they were ready to leave the port.  Next, Aiden started collecting some of the early data he'd need when he was ready to start plotting the jump to Arden.  While he did that, Aiden also saw Fesic working on something at his station.  Asking what that was, Fesic said he'd started devoting some hours each day to reading the operations manuals for the sensor drone.  Aiden thought that was a great idea and Fesic sent him a copy of the files when Aiden asked.  So, Aiden also decided to devote a few hours each day to reading the manuals.

While doing his reading, Fesic had heard the back and forth about security and wondered if they had gear aboard the ship to set up video to secure the bay outside the ship?  When he asked, he was told the crew had bought a "surveillance box" of spy toys back on the 134th day of 1112.  That had adhesive remote mikes, "flying eyes" mini-drones, room bugs, remote listening devices, 30 micro-cameras and a base unit collecting all the data on a central computerized recorder system for Cr 10,000.  They'd also bought an extra bug sensor for Cr 1,000.  Ten each had been used in the original and replacement Hotel California while Fesic didn't know about the two ships.  He only knew they now had the remaining ten in use for internal security aboard the Upgrade.

Checking the box further, Fesic found a set of six "proximity trackers".  When attached to an item, these couldn't tell "where" it was, but could show how close they were to it, within three miles.  There were four adhesive remote mikes which could be worn by someone for remote listening.  There were four "flying eyes" mini-drones which could return audiovisual input from a short-range, ten room bugs and remote listening devices as well as 30 micro-cameras.  The kit included four devices which could be attached to comms to record data from conversations.  A base unit came with the box, for collecting data from all the devices into a central computerized recorder system.  They had also bought a "bug detector" to add to the collection, which was also in the box.

After finishing up with the architect, Mikah went to the medbay to check on Zimzod.  She was happy because the readout said the unit had finished a full diagnostic and it projected an almost certain patient survival.  So, she was certain he'd live.  Checking the readings even more, the unit only projected a twenty-four percent chance Zimzod would recover completely.  Failing that, the unit suggested his "best" recovery would be eighty-two percent, but there were small chances of that too.  The odds for his survival rose while the percentage of recovery dropped.  So, Zimzod would recover but the odds of him permanently loosing strength, dexterity or endurance were very high.

Mikah wasn't surprised, but also wasn't pleased by that result.  She also knew the only chance of a "full recovery" lay in cybernetic or cloned-organ replacement or reconstruction.  So, Zimzod could end up a cripple until they could have him "rebuilt" later.  She was not long done checking on Zimzod when they got a call from port central.  Mikah answered and was told they'd received a shipment from planet-side for the Upgrade.  When she asked, Mikah was told it was the cargo sealer from the Imperial trading group.  Pleased, Mikah told them to move it to the berth.

Calling Fesic, who was in the ship's locker going through the electronics, Mikah told him the sealer was arriving.  Happy, Fesic secured what he was doing and came out into the berth to be available when the device was delivered.  There, he met with Mikah and they let the others know the port was delivering the sealer.  Soon enough, the delivery was made and they had to move things around in the cargo bay to install it.  Lucky for them, they still had the old device, which they pulled out and turfed before putting the new unit in its place.  Then, they re-set the cargo and Fesic spent some time testing the sealer, trying it out.  He saw the unit worked but had fewer bells and whistles.

Most disappointing, Fesic saw the unit didn't have an educational module, to help him learn to use it.  The good news was that the unit could create encrypted seals like the old one.  So, if they could learn how to use it, it could embed specialized trade data.  Fesic only shrugged because it was just another thing he had to learn.  Fesic did call the Imperials and ask if there was a manual for the device, and was told there wasn't.  They did tell Fesic they would begin investigating the sealer the smuggler had sent to the port, and see what "hidden features" he might've added to that system?

Spending her time with the Armorer while he was in the berth, Jocelynn watched and was also assigned basic tasks.  While there was little she could learn outright, he had her working with the composite cutter during repairs on the battledress and combat armor composite strikes.  So, she got to see and try a bit of "smoothing and shaping" with the device.  He also talked with her, telling her about various compounds to weld the composite pieces together, or seal punctures in a vaccsuit.  While Jocelynn knew she wasn't 'hard learning' the what he said, she did take notes when she could.  The most important moments had been when he burned in the port sale of the battledress, making it legal for her to own.  Even without Imperial Naval permission.

Nearing time for dinner, the ship got a ping on comms and Emkir answered on the bridge.  Emkir found himself speaking to a member of the ZMV Chatstoshe.  The Zhodani man was obviously an officer, and he was calling to follow up on his Captain's request for his crew to meet with theirs.  Asking the officer to hold, Emkir then called Mikah and reminded her of the Zhodani.  Mikah first said they'd be wearing their psi helmets if they did meet with the other crew.  After thinking about it, Mikah said, "Sure.  Why not?  They can bring dinner." with a laugh.  Thanking Mikah, Emkir cut the line with her and then got back on with the Zhodani man to tell them they could visit that evening if they could bring dinner to share?

When Mikah started spreading word the Zhodani were coming for dinner, Jocelynn asked if Mikah wanted her to be in her battledress?  Mikah said that wouldn't be needed but did tell everyone she would be sharing out the ship's psi-shields.  She was also firm they would all wear the devices while the Zhodani were aboard.  Instead of the full-out psi shields, Mikah pulled out the jeweled head-dresses for the women, but only had full psi-shields for the men.  After getting off the comms with the Zhodani officer, Emkir went back to his stateroom to change so he was wearing executive armor under his clothes.  Emkir also holstered his 9mm and made sure his plastic knife was hidden.  He then got a set of Aali's executive armor out for her.  Aali wore her cloth armor shipsuit and holstered her semi-auto snub pistol and tranqs.

Mikah also went to her stateroom and got executive armor on under her clothes, but made it clear she wasn't dressing up for the Zhodani.  She was just going to wear a ship's suit.  She didn't want the Zhodani thinking they were that welcomed in their berth or ship.  Mikah also didn't hide the laser pistol holster on her hip.  Fesic also wore nothing special, but didn't put on executive armor.  While he hoped to hide the psi-shield, he was disappointed they couldn't.  Fesic did swap out his ammo for tranq rounds in his snub pistol.  Jocelynn wore casual clothes over executive armor and thought about the situation.  This would be the first time outside of a special ceremony where she'd be mixing with Zhodani while not fighting them and trying to save hers while killing theirs.  She wasn't sure how she felt about that?  Aiden had on a shipsuit made of ballistic cloth, so he simply belted the holster for his snub pistol.

Before the Zhodani arrived, Mikah told the others about Zimzod's situation and the odds he'd come out one hundred percent.  No one was pleased about that, but it happened in combat, and it beat the alternative.  They were all gathered in the lounge when the Zhodani arrived.  That crew appeared to be a group of four Humans and two service androids.  The 'droids carried a large cooler between them, and the crew gave their creds to the station team before stepping to the berth hatch.  Before they could step up, the port team held them in place and called into the ship to ask some questions.  Taking the call, Mikah said she'd be right out and apologized for not telling them the Zhodani crew were coming to visit.

When Jocelynn asked if Mikah wanted her to come with, Mikah said she should stay and would be right back.  Mikah soon stepped out of a lock and the Zhodani appeared almost honored that she would come out to greet them herself.  Of course, when she got close, enough of her feelings should have been bleeding out that she could tell when they shifted from "almost honored" to "glad she had let them come at the very least".  That told her at least one of them could feel the shield.  Still, Mikah didn't feel any buzzing in her head, so she knew the shield was working and they weren't scanning her or pulling any other tricks that could bypass her shield.  Seeing the shift in their faces, Mikah just smiled and asked, "What's wrong?"

An Interesting Dinner Party
     Zhodani Robot The Zhodani Captain smiled and answered, "Nothing's wrong Lady Mikah.  We're just very pleased to have this chance to meet you and your crew.  We're hoping we can set this cooler down and get to the business of meeting everyone.  Nodding, Mikah did ask them to have the 'droids set the cooler down and open it so she could inspect what was inside?  They were OK with that and Mikah saw the contents were food stuffs and bottles separated into heated and cooled sections.  After her inspection, she thanked the security team and led the Zhodani in.  She could only guess the change in attitude had come from realizing she had a psi-shield on.

Following Mikah into the ship, the Captain said he hoped they would enjoy the meal, since they'd brought some cultural delicacies.  Mikah waved that off, saying, "That's OK.  We'll eat anything."  Saying so casually, Mikah reflected on the emergency rations after the misjump, the food on Extolay and what passed for food in this system and realized she wasn't lying.  She led them to the lounge and introductions were made, while Jocelynn was very much on edge.  Fesic was border-line angry they'd been invited onto the ship and the others had varied emotional attitudes.  While the Zhodani crew were not scanning, they knew those with the talent couldn't fail to see the "feel of the room."

Not trained, the others in the compartment weren't controlling their emotions and, despite her training, Mikah didn't try.  She was curious why they wanted to meet up, and that was really the only reason she let them come aboard.  She wanted answers to that, and would then decide on any 'next step'.  The Zhodani seemed to be ready for the reaction as if they were used to it.  So, they shrugged it off and stepped into the introductions.  During that, the two 'droids stood back as service equipment was be expected to, and Emkir spent some time satisfying himself they didn't appear to have any specialized combat capabilities.  That was ironic since Mikah was the only one in the compartment who'd faced one in combat, but Emkir felt that much less on edge when he saw that.  He remembered hearing about how things played out on the infected station in Risek system when Zimzod, Mikah and Zach had been attacked.

The Zhodani crew introduced themselves as the ship's Captain, Pilot/Navigator, Engineer and "Technical advisor".  They seemed to be surprised when no one on Mikah's crew asked about that title and what it meant?  When asked about the androids, the Zhodani said they were multifunctional, handling roles from helping in engineering to acting as the crew's stewards and carrying out all custodial work aboard.  They also, as could be seen, did the carrying, moving and skut work that didn't have to be handled by a sophont.  So, despite being a smaller crew, they had the perks of 'droid servants to care for their environment and some needs.  Aali thought back on the steward 'droid she'd seen and not bought some systems back.

Despite the fact they'd been invited aboard Upgrade, the Zhodani crew showed themselves very comfortable "playing host".  Outside the Captain, who relaxed with the others, his crew happily laid out the spread of food and drinks while also handing out plates and cutlery.  While that happened, Fesic joked, "Next time, tell them to bring a bucket of chicken."  Some laughed or snickered, but Mikah made a face and said, "I hate that stuff" with a level emotion no one could miss.  That led to small talk while they all dug in to eat, in the case of the Zhodani, or cautiously tested the new tastes in the case of Mikah and her crew.

Aiden wasn't impressed, pleased, disappointed or disgusted.  It was food.  He didn't "like" or "not like" it, and found he'd prefer stuff he was used to more than this.  Still, he could and did eat it, if only just to be polite.  He wondered if someone in the crew should have made an excuse not to not the stuff, 'just in case?  But that thought came much too late, and would have to have been planned before the Zhodani had arrived. and no one had mentioned or planned for it.  So, it didn't happen because he wasn't about to speak out right in front of their guests, and suggest the move despite the very obvious and intense insult his actions would create.

Despite his upbringing, Emkir wasn't above insulting the Zhodani, and the food tasted bad enough to him that he said so.  He then went into the ship's kitchenette and heated up something else to eat.  The Zhodani seemed to accept that their food wouldn't be to everyone's tastes.  Aali was also less enthusiastic about the tastes, but she could get it down as easily as the food the station served them and called 'edible'.  Still, the Zhodani chow did make her think back more favorably on the "food" she'd suffered through on Extolay.  To soften the blow of his actions, Emkir also heated up enough to share with the Zhodani.  He shared it, saying, "This is what we enjoy eating", in the spirit of sharing cultures.  Seeing that, Aali was also not above grabbing bits from that plate too.

To Mikah, it wasn't as bad as Aali felt it was, but it wasn't as good as the 'lack of any endorsement' from Aiden either.  So, that wasn't at all a recommendation of any kind.  Had they openly and honestly discussed the food, Jocelynn would have agreed with Aali 100%.  Fesic's reaction was, 'if none of the rest of his crew were tucking in and eating the Zhodani stuff, it was More For Him!'  Despite a hate the Zhodani couldn't miss in his mannerisms and choice of words, Fesic ironically LOVED the taste of the Zhodani food.  He was having a hearty meal while his crewmates welcomed him to it.  Fesic had first intentionally sat back, waiting until members of the Zhodani crew ate before trying any dish or condiment.  Only after he'd seen each item being eaten by one of "them" would he try it, and he loved it all in general!

Setting aside the Imperial attitudes, the Zhodani crew were clear they'd brought their delicacies.  They not only ate with the expected gusto, but were very happy to show the Imperials what dips and condiments they brought.  Which dips to use for which foods and how specific condiments favorably changed the flavor of some food items.  In their opinion, of course.  There was no hesitation to eat any of the items they brought, and made it clear Mikah's crew were invited to share as they preferred.  The leftovers would happily be taken back to their ship to finish.

Despite his other feelings about the Zhodani, Fesic would end up talking about how to find some of the items in Imperial markets, and where to search for trade chances?  He would also asked about known Imperial substitutes, or other methods of making due when an item or flavor couldn't be found?  Fesic even collected notes to give to Rol when the cook was returned to the crew.  While the Zhodani Captain was pleased they could break at least that cultural barrier down, the rest of the Upgrade crew were happy to have Fesic 'Sit Over There With The Rest Of The Aliens'.  At least, as far as his food opinions went.  It was certain that any time Fesic recommended anything in the future, he could expect someone to say, "Of course you'd say that.  You like Zhodani food!"

Beyond the eating and small talk, Mikah and her crew had things they wanted to see if they could get to know?  Mikah wanted to know if the crew really were merchants?  And, if they were, what had brought them to Tremous Dex?  She also wanted to know why the crew wanted to meet them?  When asked, they said they certainly were merchants, despite the small amounts of cargo their ship design could transport.  And, as they talked and she probed, every answer she got seemed to back that up.  Nothing they said, and no answer they made to any questions gave Mikah any hint they weren't merchanters.

To the question "Why are you here", the technical advisor asked, "Do you mean, why did we come to Tremous Dex?"  Mikah nodded and their Captain answered, "Just like Imperial merchants, Zhodani ships trade with independent systems as well as Zhodani worlds.  For their ship, Tremous Dex was a regular stop because they knew they could sometimes get extraordinary deals.  And, they knew that most goods they brought in were desperately wanted.  So they could sell them for a good profit.  They also sometimes found Imperial goods and devices which were much harder to buy in Imperial ports, thanks to attitudes and paperwork."

Another advantage was that they could stop at the in-system ship yards and get modifications to their ship easier than in the Consulate.  So, they came to Dex sometimes to get around their own government's limitations.  From time to time, they also made contact with other factions, to gain advantages when visiting the system.  When it came to why they wanted to meet the crew, the Captain admitted they'd heard of the crew's fame and never expected to have the chance to meet.  So, when the Upgrade and Mikah's crew arrived, they figured they'd ask, and see what happened?

At first, Emkir's feelings had the better of him and he wasn't sure he could ask what he really wanted to know?  He was having issues wrapping his brain around the fact they seemed ordinary spacers, like him and the crew.  He finally got out a question, asking what Zhodani courtship was like, and wasn't really sure he wanted to know?  That, perhaps, assumed more Zhodani were psionic than not.  When they reacted to the question, no one had to be psionic to know they thought it a very odd thing to ask in the setting.  Not sure what Emkir wanted to learn, they started with basic biology.  They said, "We're not like the Vilani, so we don't pair in threes."  This referred to the Vilani need for a shugilii, for a couple to become pregnant.  So, in that, the Zhodani were more like the Solomani.

Beyond that, they felt their courting customs were perhaps more honest than Imperial or even Solomani courting.  When that got looks, the man reminded them the Zhodani society was one where either of the two in the encounter could be a talent.  It made no sense to try and lie or manuver in a society where either or both the participants, or their parents or companions, might be able to sense the other's honesty.  That meant honesty was an enforced trait of social engagement.  It also blocked motives of pure lust, selfishness and other negative traits.  So, as they understood it, their relationships were likely much more honest and open than those of non-Zhodani.

The completely unexpected comparison of cultures didn't comfort those harboring hate for the Zhodani, nor did it do anything but cool their hate somewhat.  The Captain continued, saying that didn't mean there weren't relationships of pure passion, social equivalence or simple social need.  But, even those happened as a course of social need, and conformed to social growth.  He compared that to Imperial vice, where relationships were often based on the implied force of economic need or even social slavery.  Where those on opposite sides of a relationship were often involved for their own separate, and often opposing, reasons.  While the Imperials listened, they could only admit he was correct where many relationships were concerned.

Emkir was rattled and could only ask if they sold cargo for profit?  The technical advisor leaned in and asked, "Why?  Are you interested in buying?"  Still a bit rattled from the earlier question, Emkir could only stutter out that he wasn't looking to buy at the moment.  The Zhodani Captain said they had cargo to sell and Emkir said he'd have to discuss it with his Captain.  That ignored the fact "his Captain" was sitting not far from him in the same compartment and listening to the conversation.  Trying to turn the tables a bit, they asked if Mikah's crew knew what was up with the Ardeni ship in port?  Mikah risked upping the tension even more, and quickly said, "Nope!  Aren't you the ones who read minds?"

The Imperials in the room froze hard for a split-second before the Zhodani Captain smoothly answered, "Well, At the moment?  No."  He then continued, "To be honest, we can tell you're all wearing psionic helmets though we're all having a polite dinner anyway.  So, we wouldn't attempt to read your minds without your permission."  Mikah missed fact he'd said he knew they were "all" wearing psi-helmets, which admitted that some of them were psi talents.  She then suggested they might still use their talents to fish the answers from the minds of the Ardeni crew.

Smiling at the comment, the Captain told Mikah that those raised in a society with psi talents quickly learned mental manners as a child.  Mikah could tell the Captain was giving her a friendly and disarming smile even while handing her a direct verbal block, smacking down her comment.  He continued, "Unfortunately, you Imperials don't learn this, nor is it explained to you.  Nor do you learn to be as mentally polite as you pretend to be outwardly.  So, where Imperial society is all too often not polite in their outward mannerisms, words or actions, we feel not reading minds can only protect us from the true horrors hidden in some thoughts."  So, those of us with talents do not generally go about reading minds.

Still a bit rattled, Emkir could only ask what their crew's feelings were on the Imperium?  They knew they'd started getting an unvarnished view of how the Captain felt already.  The points the man made in his answers weren't anything Mikah's people could say were wrong.  And they softened Jocelynn's opinions a good bit but did nothing to Fesic's internal thoughts.  Despite his obvious enjoyment of their cuisine, the gunner was looking forward to the Zhodani leaving.  Soon.  To Emkir's question, they answered that there'd be much less of a reason to lie, cheat or act in any criminal manner with a chance they were dealing with one or more people with talents.

So, they felt the level of honesty and open commerce were much greater and beneficial in the Consulate then in the Imperium.  They also felt that being forced to live in a society as criminally broken as that of the Imperium drove every citizen of the nation into some level of corruption.  That meant, to them, that the whole of Imperial society were corrupt from the top down.  At the same time, they understood that the average Imperial citizen hated the idea of anyone being psionic, and admitted not knowing "why" that was?

Still, the Zhodani admitted they felt this deprived Imperial society of the tools to see what they in the Consulate saw plainly.  The result was that the Imperium perpetuated its issues as a very corrupt, very broken and highly criminal society.  Every Imperial citizen seemed to be trying to rip the next person down for gain, if not just to barely keep themselves alive.  What was perhaps the most outstanding of the points made was that everything had been delivered in as non-confrontational a manner as it could be.  The Zhodani had offered up as honest assessment as they could in answer to Emkir's question.  Nor could Mikah's crew counter many of the points made.

Turning almost on a credit, the Zhodani crew admitted that they'd prefer to remain in Zhodani space if they could, but there were needs the Consulate couldn't supply.  And, there were benefits to interacting with those outside the Consulate, and even within the Imperium.  So, they didn't see Imperials as beyond value or redemption, and did see a firm and open need to join and share with Imperials.  Especially regarding trading.  Emkir himself had to admit that so much of Imperial culture was based on bluffs or lies and manipulations.  The Zhodani Captain also used the word "exterminated" referring to the massive number of psions killed during the Imperial Psionic Suppression Wars.  A large percentage of those he felt horrifically so.

When Emkir muttered a bit about wondering how the Zhodani could even have mental competitions or games of chance, the Zhodani answered him.  Largely, the answer came from the Captain and technical advisor.  They both explained that competitors could and did willingly suppress their talents to take part in these things.  How they gathered with friends and were assured of the honestly of all those at the table, to compete on a level field.  So, bluff and counter had their place in games of both skill and chance.  Sadly, they admitted they wouldn't be able to trust any Imperial who turned out to have a talent when that person promised to suppress their talents.  The Zhodani would simply expect that person to cheat because that was the culture from which they came.  Emkir nodded at that, saying they'd probably be right about that.

While listening and participating in small parts of the other conversations, Aali mostly asked the Zhodani engineer about his role on the ship and about their tech?  She did so from an interstellar high ground, because Imperial technology was openly known to be more advanced than Zhodani.  The Consulate had won the wars they had was because the bulk of their nation were much closer to the Marches.  That let them build up larger fleets and armies in the region, deploying them faster.  With other regions of the Imperium in a calm spell over the past fifty years, that had to make strategists on both sides wonder how that balance of production and supply would be affected?  Not to mention what a change in that balance meant for the future of the Zhodani Consulate?  Nor did it suggest what methods Zhodani strategists would go to if their clairvoyants saw destruction on the horizon?

Despite the tech differences, Aali was surprised to hear that their lives sounded much the same.  The lone advantage the Zhodani officer had was that the Consulate relied a lot more on androids than the Imperials did.  While many Imperial ships bought androids, like the Upgrade had, the Zhodani recognized an innate operational need for automation in starships.  So, all government and many civilian ships came off the manufacturing lines with general classes of androids, from engineering and mechanical to service bots and care takers.  The fact was that androids were one of the few areas where the Consulate out-performed the markets of the Imperium.  Because of their greater understanding of intellect and thought processing/management, they were comfortable building more intelligent and thought-capable androids, that could out-perform their Imperial counterparts.  This was another thing the Zhodani didn't understand about their Imperial cousins?

Of course, the Zhodani engineer kept things general just like Aali had, because he knew how the social game was played in the Imperium.  He admitted the needs of his crew were much less than those of the Upgrade, because that ship was nearly half again the Zhodani ship's size.  Beyond that, jump space was jump space and no one had figured out how to enter a stable seven parsec jump envelope.  Exactly like Aali, he couldn't get his work done without the androids available to him and he only had the two.  Aali had Wall-e, Marvin, and Thing-2(Thing-1 had been crushed on Wypoc).  She also had the five house-keeping 'droids.  So, from his point of view, Aali had a wealth of riches available to her.  Of course, she was also an Imperial noblewoman on a noblewoman's yacht where he was just a service member.  This was to be expected of their culture.

Aiden asked about their experiences, being independent traders in Zhodani space instead of being corporate traders.  Shrugging, the Zhodani admitted their status led to both positive and negative issues.  They pointed to the fact the Upgrade was bound for Arden.  Mikah and the others leaned in and the Zhodani Captain said when they arrived, their ship would have to call the port and see if they had berths or docking spaces available?  "But", he reminded them the Oberlindes Lines corporation had just signed an agreement with Arden to create a jump-3 trade route from Regina.  So, while the crew of the Upgrade waited to see if there was docking space in the port for them, any Oberlindes ship arriving at the same time would just glide into one of the berths reserved for their corporate liners.  And, those berths would sit empty and unused if no Oberlindes ship arrived, except in an emergency.  So, there were certainly down-sides to being independent.

In the comments, Mikah's crew learned Arden had a high and down port, and separate spaceport "only" for Oberlindes ships.  So, they were still learning bits in the chat, even if those were small.  The Zhodani also threw in commentary how it could be much more difficult for them in Imperial systems.  There, all Imperial traffic were often given a higher docking priority than any Zhodani trader.  Even when carrying time-sensitive or date-contracted cargoes.  It was too often time and money lost hanging in space, waiting for someone to let your ship just dock and begin to carry out business.

On the other side of the coin, any corporate ship had to stick to that ship's orders and schedules.  The crews of those ships "had to" follow corporate rules and procedures.  If a ship needed a repair or upgrade which wasn't "cost-effective" in the eyes of the accountants and management, they had to both jury rig a repair and hide that from inspectors and management!  Captains of corporate ships with schedules couldn't simply turn their ship to a different port if they heard of a possible financial killing in a nearby system.  If Arden announced today that the system had over-produced and would be dropping the price of the tech goods produced there "tomorrow", a Captain with orders to leave today couldn't simply wait the extra day to earn the corporation profits.  Nor could that Captain cut back on some supplies to create cargo space.  So, independent ships had that advantage.

Of course, the final word had to be put on repairs.  Where the corporation was willing to recognize the need, any corporate ship was backed up by Mega-Credit vouchers and accounts.  So, those ships would always have the advantage over an independent Captain, who had to have large savings aboard or risk being stranded in a distant port without the means to pay for a repair.  Or even raise the funds to do that.  Such ships were too often sold for much less than their value, even damaged, for the cost of passage home for the crew.  It was too often they had to do that or lose everything else while starving aboard the derelict.  Returning home as beggars if they couldn't get working berths on someone else's ship.  Again, the crew had to stop and think, "So, just like us."  And no one mentioned that ships carrying that much cash in a safe were pirate bait...

Fesic stuck to chatting about food, and wasn't pleased with the Zhodani.  He spent much of the time hoping they would leave.  Still, he did listen in to see what he could learn?  Fesic was also careful because he didn't want to accidentally end up agreeing to work with them or even help them.  Like him, only more reserved, Jocelynn simply listened in and kept to herself.  She also came to the dinner with her past experiences pressing on her attitudes.  Like Fesic, Aali chatted with the Zhodani engineer but kept her ears open.  Those three were really there to hear and learn what they could before diving into any conversation.

Having been mostly silent, Jocelynn suddenly spoke up to say she wasn't being quiet to be rude, and said she was sorry if it seemed that way.  She also said she'd spent part of her military service fighting Zhodani forces and realized now that her people had been fed propaganda which wasn't perhaps correct.  She said, "It's a pleasure to have met you today" and Aali jumped in to agree with Jocelynn.  Mikah spoke up then, defensively saying the Zhodani had been fed and acted on bad information too.  And they were the ones who'd invaded to start the wars.  So, she felt they had to find a way to meet half-way.  She also said she wasn't taking off her psi shield either.  That despite the fact that none of the Zhodani had suggested anyone remove their shields.

In the end, they agreed war was often ninety percent propaganda on all sides"  The Zhodani Captain nodded but pointed out the most important thing that point of view missed.  He said, "I pointed out that when governments send their military forces to war, they send their troops.  Not the people left behind running stores and businesses, or the parent raising their child.  And it's not the merchanter crews carrying goods from place to place.  Sadly, it is often the case that the merchanters out hauling cargoes near the war zone sometimes get caught up in events and become victims."

And it wasn't 'just' governments, but the people who devoutly chose to believe in hate, that led the way to war.  It was also not everyone in a population who should be blamed for the hatred and destruction.  The problem preventing healing was when those on both sides blamed "all" of the people on the other side for the decisions and actions of a government or military unit.  There was a pause after that, in which all of them considered the words from their emotional positions.  Trying to cut across it, because he had no interest in forgiving, Fesic jumped on Mikah's question about why they wanted to meet the crew?  He smiled and asked how much they thought the crew's autographs might be worth?

Answering that, the Captain surprised them all and openly told them both he and his pilot were psi-talented, and trained in the telepathic arts.  Because of that, they were "collecting the experience" for themselves.  But They'd be able to share the mental image of it with others.  Since the experience itself could be shared, until death or brain disease took it away, a simple signature wouldn't be of value at all.  Fesic nodded at the answer he'd gotten though it didn't really make him happy.  Jumping in, Aiden pointed out that psychometry would make an autograph valuable because of the data stored in the energy inherent in the object signed.  The Captain nodded but reminded Aiden that would only be of value if the object came from the crew.  If it were a port datapad, it would have little to no signature of the crew's brief touch.  He was also certain the crew wouldn't want to give them an item containing energy and emanations from their long association, because of the tales the item could tell.

With much to think about from his earlier question, Emkir decided to stick to more enjoyable topics as the meal and conversation continued.  Following up an earlier answer, Emkir asked if the Zhodani preferred games of chance in organized casinos or at home with friends?  Aali jerked a thumb at Emkir and joked, "He's our gaming officer."  He was first told that the Zhodani enjoyed dressing up and going out on the town just like the Imperials.  So, there were certainly casinos and other resorts all over the Consulate.  The pleasures to be found in an actual casino included being able to relax and not work to suppress your talents.  When Emkir gave him a look, the man said those with talents had to suppress their abilities when playing at home.  At any casinos, except in designated locations, there were installed suppression systems.  You just relaxed and the suppressers did the work.

When he was asked how comfortable that was, the Captain said people got used to the buzz there, just like he was ignoring it here on the Upgrade, due to the equipment Mikah's crew were using.  After ignoring that, he could just relax and enjoy himself.  The Captain admitted there were things one couldn't control.  If a player in close proximity was dealt an amazing hand and couldn't control their emotions, "something" would leak and those talents might just pick up on so strong an emotion.  But, that was just like any other tell a person might have.  He also said there were tables for those without talents and "unsuppressed tables" where talents could play freely.

And, just the same, the Captain told them there were some reasons why playing at home, or at the homes of others was as much or more fun.  Or, even playing with friends at private clubs.  Despite the extra effort to suppress a talent, there was something nice about just being among friends.  Beyond that, in the casinos or at home, there were mental competitions that those with talents could compete in while others made bets.  Everything from "telepathic wrestling" to telekinetic "item throwing" competitions for distance, "aim" or both.  Those games escalated to the Psionic Games, held every three years on major worlds within the Consulate.  The games were open to all, with the most famous or notable competing on the homeworld, Zhodane.  And, where anyone could compete on the regional capital worlds, those who performed above a given level could even be elevated within the Aristocracy.  Those winners were announced on the holiday of "Thequzastial".

Jocelynn said it might be fun to watch those competitions but was told many are often a set of competitors locked in concentration while meters read off the invisible forces being unleashed during the struggle.  He admitted there were things like "distance teleporting" or "telekinetic shot put throws".  But this wasn't usually very exciting for those who didn't have talents and so, couldn't sense the action.  Those competitions were obviously not sports-based, but were competitions of both raw psychic strength and intense mental control.  So, a direct competition could essentially be two competitors sitting and intently concentrating on each other while they used their mental powers to compete.  And, injuries in those cases were potentially more deadly because a failure could lead to massive and uncorrectable brain damage.

When Emkir commented on the concerns of a failure, the Captain nodded.  He also pointed out that a competitor who couldn't compete, due to a broken bone or damage was often swept aside in the Imperium.  They often ended up in a menial job or on the dole.  In the Consulate, such an injured competitor would be supported in the economic status they had been earning.  Even if the injury burned out significant parts of their brain.  And that was the most usual injury in the Psionic Games.  So, even here, it seemed the Zhodani could claim the high ground.  When Emkir said, "That's generous" the Captain answered, "No.  That's Human."

When Mikah asked what the Zhodani had heard about them, they admitted they'd heard a lot about Mikah's crew.  And, a number of those things were actually contradictory.  Proving no one was immune to rumors, they even said they'd heard stories Mikah's crew worked directly for the Imperial Emperor, and wondered if that could be true?  Some members of Mikah's crew couldn't help but laugh as they said that wasn't true at all.  They admitted one reason for wanting to meet Mikah's crew was to separate truth from propaganda.

Nodding, Mikah simply and glumly said, "It's all true and it's all false." and was asked if she could clarify her answer?  Mikah asked them for specific questions and was asked who they were working for?  Mikah admitted they took side jobs for Arch Duke Norris.  But, after that answer, she also admitted she had a suspicion he was only trying to get them killed.  Cocking his head, the Zhodani Captain asked, "Why would you say that?"  His tone showed he was truly confused.  Not wanting to give up too much information, Mikah waved the comment off with her hands and said, "I don't know.  Just a feeling."  Aali followed that up, saying, "Because...every freaking planet!"  The Zhodani let that comment go because they had no understanding of the crew's inside jokes or subtext.

After members of Mikah's crew stopped giggling at Aali's comment, they asked if Mikah could explain any of that?  Mikah just said "no" and asked them what else they'd like to know?  The Captain said they'd heard about the horrific plague in the Risek system, and asked if Mikah had in fact truly happened on the cure?  Mikah emphatically said, "Yes.  I discovered it" and the Captain followed up, asking, "Did you actually happen on it, or were there things that led you to it?  To answer that question, Mikah said they were lucky they could find a cure so quickly.  Not to mention one that didn't also kill the patient too.  Letting some of her guard down, Mikah explained some of the events on the Podesta station while they struggled with the disease.

The Captain nodded and accepted her answers.  He said that could be something the Zhodani media could claim was a move by the Imperial government to deal with over-crowding.  Only giving some member of the Imperial nobility access to the cure after the desired effects were reached.  To the side, Emkir was taken aback as he said, "Wow!  That would have been ruthless."  Emkir's words were drowned out as Fesic burst out, "The Imperium would never do that!" in an insistent and firm tone.  The Captain nodded at Fesic and said, "I'm sure there are many things the Zhodani Consulate has been accused of that we would never actually do too.  So, that works both ways."  Getting things back to learning about each other, Mikah asked, "So, were any of your suspicions of us confirmed by the events of the past few days?"

The Captain admitted they didn't really know a lot about what had happened, which was understandable since little was documented or broadcast.  What he could tell them, from what he had learned, was that Mikah's crew seemed to have very aggressively taken on threats in a way that proved their crew were an aggressive and intractable foe he wouldn't want to face.  But, he also pointed out the "regrettable flaw" in how they operated, given the members of Mikah's crew who had died or been severely wounded.  So, fighting the way they did was very expensive indeed.

Despite nodding, Mikah said, "Well, one's dead but he was just a stupid moron."  To the surprise of the Zhodani for disrespect to her own crew, Mikah continued, "If you want to visit his body, we have him frozen in a low berth."  Seeing how they stared at Mikah for her disrespect, Mikah said, "Terin just went off on his own.  He was a dumbass and got himself killed for it.  Zimzod tried to rescue him and was, unfortunately, seriously wounded.  But he's going to recover.  Zimzod's in our autodoc right now.  And, Rol was killed by the terrorist from Menorb who was trying to kill Duchess Seldrian."

Nodding, the Captain said, "Now, what if there were organizations and people within your society who volunteered their time and talents to preventing these people from attempting assassinations.  Or stop others carrying out greedy or damaging actions which led others to unfortunate situations or ends.  Especially for the innocents.  Wouldn't that be a benefit to your people?"  Mikah answered, "Sure, but you can't stop everything."  Nodding, the Captain said, "And we don't.  We try our best but some things still happen."  Not quite defensively, Mikah said, "So do we."  While Aali backed her up, saying "Nothing can stop everything." Mikah continued, "You can't protect against everything.  You do what you can." in an almost angry tone.

The Captain agreed he wasn't saying they could protect against everything.  "But", he continued, "if you had Tavrchedl in your society, perhaps you would prevent more things from happening."  Mikah had heard that term before, just like anyone else who'd watched even part of any vid about "the evil Zhodani".  That so-called branch of Zhodani "law enforcement" were the evil bad guys in every vid!  The Tavrchedl were presented as the Zhodani Consulate's psionic secret police!  Still, playing coy, Mikah claimed, "I have no idea what that is?" just to see how he would explain the group?

Considering before he spoke, the Captain said, "The Tavrchedl are a branch within our government who take the measure of dropping their mental shields entirely.  This lets them hear, feel and sense all the pain and emotion surrounding them.  When they encounter anyone who is inordinately angry, depressed or projecting violent thoughts, they then make a report on those people.  Councilors and social workers then visit the persons and help them understand why they're so angry or depressed?  They then try to help those people understand the choices and decisions they'd made, or actions they were taking, which led them into that state.  They would then hope to council the person to change the path of their lives and be more happy."

The idea of the Tavrchedl horrified Mikah, even if it was lightyears different than what she'd seen in vids.  She only said, "It still sounds like complete authoritarianism and government control of your thoughts."  Before the Captain could answer, she continued, "Yes, it would be great if you could intercede against people like that.  But, to go through communities, secretly listening to other's thoughts...  That's abhorrent!  That's a complete and total invasion of privacy!  You're violating people without their knowledge."  After Mikah finished, the Captain only shrugged and said, "Well, we see that differently then."  Emkir dramatically added in, "In our society, we can think the most violent, most horrendous thoughts.  The most sado-masochistic or depraved thoughts.  As long as we don't act on those thoughts", stressing the word "act".

Others in the compartment were surprised Emkir didn't add in, 'So long as he could write them down, publish them and make a profit.'  Still, the Captain nodded and said, "Exactly.  You can "think" these thoughts, but there are also triggering mechanisms in your thoughts.  There is a difference between thinking them for some level of self-pleasure or potentially planning to act on them.  And, there are certainly differences in being willing to actually act them out.  These triggers are the things the Tavrchedl are trained to detect."

There are also people who have constantly chased the wrong dream and let 'want' blind them to the damage they do to themselves, and have for years.  So, there are councilors who can go in with evidence of past actions to make a graphic case that they are only hurting themselves more.  Then, once a person is interviewed, the councilors and case workers can show the person a better path.  Help them change their plans to become happier and achieve goals that will lead to happiness."  When Emkir was stuck on actual imminent crime, asking if they can stop a store robbery, the Captain confirmed there was an element of 'intent' or a 'flavor of emotion' that could trigger instant reaction to stop an immediate crime.  But, the larger mission was to find people who were destructively angry or despondent.  Then find ways to improve their future, even if government assistance was needed.

Mikah waved that away, saying, "Well, we don't have psions.  We're the ones who brought the assassin down.  We're the ones who found the Risek cure.  And, we're the ones who took out the pirates here.  Not all of them, but certainly a major player."  The Captain nodded and agreed they had done well without any talents to help, and said, "Unfortunately, we will have our disagreements, but we can hope to greet each other, at least, on common terms of acceptance rather than falling for the propaganda."  Mikah nodded in agreement while joking, "We could, but I'm still not taking off my psi-shield."  That got laughs from everyone including the Zhodani.

With the tension coming down from a high-point, Emkir announced he had a bottle of chambord that he thought the Zhodani would like, and knew his crew would like it too.  There was more chatter while Emkir got out the bottle and deployed the ship's finest plastic drinkware to pour out servings.  When he did, the Zhodani were happy to try the drink, but wanted to be careful, knowing they had to return to their ship.  In the end, only the Zhodani engineer really liked the stuff.  Mikah got laughs joking that he and Fesic could start a cross-cultural cuisine and alcohol channel.

The evening continued and the chambord bottle was emptied while they talked.  During the chatter, Aali said her minor in college had been cultural anthropology, so she enjoyed hearing about their culture from primary sources.  They also talked about the Arden system because Mikah wanted to see what they could tell her about the place?  Especially since they'd jumped to Tremous Dex from there.  In port five days themselves, and having spent a day burning in from the 100d limit, the math said they'd last been in the Arden system fourteen days before.

They told Mikah that, like Tremous Dex, the jump shadow to get to the mainworld was nearly twenty hours.  All the Captain could say about Arden was that it was a paradox.  Much of the population were highly xenophobic.  The leadership were split between mild xenophobia and an extreme desire to expand their little empire.  Added to that, they were working feverishly to build out economic ties which demanded they open their world to outsiders.  The pilot said the port generally maintained a level of business that kept things moving.  By and large it was an average small-world port.

The Captain said the Zhodani let their crews out on liberty in the port and generally have no issues.  One thing the pilot warned them of was something he said they'd notice if they used their sensors while landing at the downport.  His scans showed they maintained deep-emplacement nuclear charges under the port harbor, presumably for 'contact sterilization' in case they saw a need.  Hearing that, Emkir quipped, "Forewarned is forearmed."  They also said the government was so eager to develop their gravitics and interstellar drive industries that they were very forward in trying to hire away any truly skilled crew.  So, where junior engineers were safe, they might put the push on anyone with what they saw as real skills to jump ship and hire on with them.

Hearing that, Aiden used his most authoritative voice to say, "Yeah, Aali.  You stay on the ship" despite the fact he had no rank, right or bone of contention except his own raging paranoia.  Considering she was a big girl and not an idiot, Aali ignored the comment because she and Emkir could likely handle any threat and Mikah was her back up.  Not some coward pilot who would hide in the ship and not do anything to react unless forced.  In fact, the only people who seemed to take Aiden's comments seriously were the Zhodani.  Their Captain told him he was certain they'd not resort to kidnapping because they wanted to build out their contacts.  Not become interstellar pariahs.  Still, they might offer their engineer a great deal of compensation to lure her.

One of the Zhodani crew suggested, "When they call you to that table to dine, you can be certain they will have it laden to near collapse with every favorite thing of yours in the Universe.  And they will sell hard to get you to sign on the line and leave your ship behind to join their effort."  Beyond that, they said Arden had become a hotbed of black markets.  Nearly anything you wanted could be found there if it could be found at all.  And, if you were willing to dig deep enough.  They were certain Zhodani, Imperial, Sword Worlds and Darrian ships were sneaking off cargoes along with crafts from a host of independent worlds.  Some novelties could also be found there from independent worlds that don't trust or trade with the larger powers.

Seeming to be entirely honest, the Zhodani said they'd not really explored outside Arden's downport districts.  That was because of the extreme controls on moving between districts.  Even for their own citizens, travel was highly controlled.  Everywhere you went, you have to present your papers and explain your destination and reasons for travel?  Visiting the world, they'd found it easier to simply stay within the port environs and avoid the headaches.  Several in the crew considered their missions on the world and wondered how that would affect those efforts?

Despite what information they were getting, and how much he'd enjoyed their cuisine, Fesic was still looking forward to seeing the Zhodani crew leave.  Comedically, when the evening started drawing to a close, Fesic asked about buying some food stocks from them.  The Zhodani considered their supplies and intended itinerary before telling Fesic they were a small ship and didn't have large stocks of spare food.  But, they still offered to sell him three pre-prepared meals and asked how much he was willing to pay?  Considering they'd have to cook and prepare the meals before sealing them in preserving containers, Fesic offered Cr 90 for the three meals and the Zhodani agreed.  So, they'd have one of their crew deliver the meals the next day.

After that, Mikah said the evening had been interesting and even thanked them for visiting.  The Zhodani Captain thanked her and the others for letting them visit and meet with them.  After that, the Zhodani organized themselves and got their androids and cooler together before they got moving.  Soon, they were out the airlock and the berth hatch and the crew could add "waiting for Fesic's food delivery" to the next day's schedule.  During the day, the port's armorer had done his work and Jocelynn's battledress was legal.  The next day, they'd get their replacement cutter and be able to leave the system, since Aali was done with the drive resets.

Still, it was just past nine in the evening when Aiden asked if they were again setting up watches to keep an eye on video from the housekeeping 'droids overnight?  When Mikah said yes, he volunteered to take the first shift and settled in to watch the videos until midnight.  When both Aali and Fesic tried to volunteer for the shift from midnight to three, Aali was reminded she'd have to be sharp the next day because they planned to leave the system.

Agreeing, Aali let Fesic have it but joked he had to get sleep too, in case he needed to aim the next day.  Because of that, Fesic decided to take a nap so he'd be rested.  Mikah decided to assign the three to six shift to Jocelynn, since she was the only person on the crew without a flight role.  If she was needed, Mikah was sure Jocelynn's battledress would hit her with enough uppers to handle what she had to do.  Emkir said he'd get up early and take over at six, while they started getting ready to leave the station and system.  After making those plans, the crew started organizing their personal spaces and gear or relaxed until it was time to grab some sleep.

Catering, Cutters And Departures

At six in the morning, Emkir was up and taking over the bridge, and coverage of video from the housekeeping 'droids, while Jocelynn decided to grab some sleep.  During her stint, she'd reached out to the Imperial traders, asking if they could get a message to Borislav Orti?  They said they'd been surprised to receive the message they gave her, and they'd be launching sooner than the Upgrade.  So they had even less time to try making contact than she did.  She thanked them and cut the comms.  Handing off to Emkir, Jocelynn hit the rack as soon as she could, wanting to be as awake as possible when they got moving.  No one knew if they'd be attacked during their outward burn, or if she'd see combat?  Especially since they had to burn for over twenty hours to get to the 100d mark.

They couldn't simply plot a jump from a La Grange point because Aiden didn't have the training Terin had.  And Terin was dead, with his body frozen, in one of the ship's low berths.  In Emkir and Aali's stateroom, Aali had shrugged off Emkir's alarm and settled back to sleep.  She could afford to, having instructed the androids to get the early tasks done.  In the space between when he took over the bridge and when Aiden joined him at nearly nine, Emkir reached out to the port offices to exchange a fair bit of the data needed to prepare to leave.

One thing the port had to get done, because of their agreement, was to provide the ship a complete refresh of atmospherics and consumables.  The other thing they had to do was deliver the replacement cutter, and the latest news on that was that they would deliver that craft at ten in the morning.  Emkir was also told by the port there had been a request logged by the IMS Ashidi Ke that the crew of the Upgrade be given an encrypted packet of data explaining their plans.  The person who transmitted it said Mikah's flight crew would know how to decrypt it.  Emkir recognized that as the ship they'd be convoying out of the system with, so he accepted the data.

When Emkir checked the packet, he saw it was indeed encrypted, and came with an unencrypted hint phrase.  The hint read, 'S-Class Scout Courier, 1108'.  Emkir was mystified at first, and wondered what the two items had to do with each other?  The year was certainly from a time during the war, and there'd been a lot of S-Class couriers around at that time.  In fact, Emkir remembered he'd served aboard the courier ISS Gim Ka during that year.  Figuring it couldn't hurt, Emkir tried to open the file by entering that ship's name into the decryption request.  And the file decrypted!

While the message unpacked, Emkir had a moment to consider just how much that crew of Imperial traders knew about his crew and himself personally?  How was it they'd known that Emkir had served aboard the Gim Ka in the year 1108?  They had to have known a good deal of his service history and picked something no one else would know, but would be very easy for him to remember.  All he could think was to remember they said they were auxiliaries to Imperial Navy Intelligence.  He thought to himself, 'Intelligence indeed!'  Setting that aside, Emkir opened the file and started to check out the data the traders sent.  That turned out to be all the navigational prep-work their astrogator had done in preparation for the out-system run.

Not skilled in interstellar navigation himself, Emkir could still appreciate the normal-space observations the other officer had made.  He recognized the data came from an officer with both advanced skills in navigation and experience gained having been in and out of the system a good number of times.  Still, Emkir wasn't very happy with the idea of being out in the wide-open gulfs of space while potentially faster ships could figure their course and catch up with them.  Still, the math said that any ships in-system faster than them would likely be smaller too, so it would possibly offer some balance if a fight happened.

The packet also had a list of specialized frequencies which they'd set some of their comms to.  That would let the two ships talk without encrypting their comms while still having very little chance anyone would hear them.  Despite that, they also sent some frequencies to use with some groups of encryptions too.  Along with the encryption values.  Next, the file gave the Upgrade a rundown of Ashidi Ke's officers and crew along with their planned schedule of operations until they were in orbit, waiting to link up with Upgrade.  So, they weren't rushing Mikah's crew either.

Seeing that, Emkir entered the decrypted data from the file into a general knowledge file in the ship's computer and sent an alert note to everyone's private accounts aboard.  Emkir also set the comms encryptions into the ship's comms systems in a savable sub-profile which they could keep stored in case they ever ran into the Ashidi Ke again.  Or, if they felt the need to share the settings with another ship in the future, if it was needed.  When he joined Emkir on the bridge, Aiden was pleased with the data packet.  They had already pre-selected a random point on the 100d sphere that was the jump limit to burn for.  And, they assured him their ship could keep up with the Upgrade, so there would be no issue leaving the system in tight formation.

With all that data, he saw the Ashidi Ke would be hanging off the station fairly soon, and realized he had to ask Mikah when she wanted to cast off?  Since she was in the lounge having chow, he was able to flash comms the lounge and ask her for that?  Emkir could also tell Mikah the port planned to hand over the new cutter at ten.  When Emkir suggested they could set a lift time for ten thirty, Mikah said they still had to wait for Fesic's Zhodani caterers to deliver.  That discussion happened while Aali finished eating and went back to engineering to lead the androids preparing for departure and jump.

At nine forty, the Zhodani technical advisor arrived at their berth with Fesic's food delivery.  They were delivered in a Zhodani variant of the best 'stasis' containers they could spare.  When Mikah told Fesic to go out and pay the man himself, Fesic decided to step into the ship's locker and take ninety credits from the hard currency they'd looted from the Cedna.  That meant he'd get full value for the cash, since exchange rates in the Imperium would likely not be near full Zhodani face value.  Still, the effort had been worth the surprise on the Zhodani officer's face when Fesic paid him in coins from the man's home space.

Looking at the coins, the officer said, "We'd thought you had not visited the Zhodani Consulate" in a surprised tone.  Waving off the man's comments, Fesic joked, "Oh, all the time.  We visit there regularly."  Sadly, he counted on his tone of voice to say he was joking.  But what Fesic hadn't considered was that galanglic wasn't the man's first language.  Despite the fact he and his crew spoke the language very well, their first language was that of their home world.  So, there were nuances they didn't get and he became confused because the fact Fesic had been joking was one of them.  While he knew what Fesic had said wasn't true, he didn't understand why the man would lie to him over the point?  Rather than put himself in conflict with Fesic, the officer took the payment, turned on his heels and left for his ship.

Since it was close to ten, and the delivery of the cutter, Fesic got back into the ship and secured his meals before returning to his post on the bridge.  While they all prepared, ten am came and went, and they began watching the comms waiting for the call from the port.  Someone had woken Jocelynn after nine, so she could be done with her morning preparation, ready and waiting in her battledress.  Finally, they'd swapped messages with the IMS Ashidi Ke, which was hovering off the station at a respectful distance, when the call came in at ten thirty.  At that time, the port confirmed all the connections, cables and umbilicals had been cast off their ship and they were opening the bay so the Upgrade could coast out on her thrusters.  They said the cutter was hovering just outside their bay and ready to be docked with the Upgrade.

Using the ships sms thrusters, Aiden gently drifted the Upgrade out of the bay and into near-station space.  Not far off their position hung a cutter, waiting to dock with the ship.  Seeing that obviously on their sensors, Emkir asked if anyone was going to move into the cutter bay to receive the cutter?  He suggested it be Jocelynn, in her battledress.  Since Jocelynn had no flight control skills, Mikah said she'd manage the handover.  Still, she said she wanted to get into her combat armor and have Jocelynn with her too.  Nodding, Emkir announced, "Nobody goes alone." and heard others echoing, "Terin got himself killed.  Don't be Terin."

While she was getting into her combat armor, Mikah had Aiden contact the pilot in the cutter, to see if they were in a vacc suit?  That would guide them on what steps they wanted to take in the handover?  Jumping in, Emkir got the pilot on comms and learned they were in a vacc suit.  So Mikah and Jocelynn could step into the cutter bay, close the hatch to the ship and then void the bay before they opened the external hatch.  Then, the pilot aboard the cutter could void that craft and open the airlocks to let Mikah and Jocelynn board.  Mikah would let Jocelynn clear the cutter because Mikah was already recovering from a gut wound, and didn't need to get ambushed again.

Soon, they were on the catwalk inside the valve, waiting as the bay hatch opened and the cutter drifted into its new home.  After the craft settled into the bay and the seals locked in place, the bay hatch closed and the airlocks opened so the ladies could enter the cutter.  Being in battledress, Jocelynn boarded first, with her weapon ready if not raised.  Having stood off to the side when the lock opened, Jocelynn first leaned in and saw the inner lock hadn't cycled yet.  Stepping in and cycling that hatch, Jocelynn didn't see anyone while getting a general comms.  It was a man's voice saying, "Come on in.  I'm on the flight deck."  So, Jocelynn had to step out of the airlock and turn to her left to enter the cutter's flight deck.

She first considered sticking her gauss rifle around the corner to see what was waiting with her gunCamera?  But, she then realized what it would look like if the pilot was just an honest spacer.  Jocelynn decided to keep her weapon lowered and ready to raise while stepping around the corner.  The pilot, who had been shutting systems down and preparing to hand off the controls, first glanced up at her.  Then, he flinched and did a doubletake, with the movement almost knocking him out of the flight couch!  The reaction told her he hadn't considered the possibility of meeting an armed and battledressed trooper at all.

Very cautiously, the man fell short of raising his hands and slowly asked, "Did I do something wrong?"  Apologizing, Jocelynn told the man he was good, but their crew had been ambushed a few times and she had to be careful.  The man relaxed a small bit and answered, "So I've heard."  After a brief pause, he asked, "Are you taking control here?  Am I done?"  Like everything else, he was doing a job and wanted to know if he was done?  Jocelynn said the man was done and gave Mikah the all clear to board the cutter.

Jocelynn escorted the man to the ship's personnel airlock while Mikah boarded the cutter and began her tests.  When he was leaving the ship, Aiden comm'd down to see if they had to dock with the station again, to the man leave the ship?  The port worker said there'd be no need for that and cycled through the lock out into local space.  From there, he made the EVA leap to the station's hull and made his way to an entry lock there.  Hearing the port worker was off the ship, Mikah called Jocelynn back into the cutter to go through every section and check for anything that didn't belong.

Customs inspections was a role Jocelynn had played many times in the military, so she knew the drill and tossed everything to be sure they were good.  The major difference was to go at it with a respect for the cutter and its contents, because this craft belonged to them.  She also cleaned up after herself, which she'd usually left for the craft owners to do when she'd been a marine.  While Jocelynn did that, Mikah activated all the systems and ran tests to confirm they were all working.  Working through her tests, Mikah found a section of the controls where the panel looked unfamiliar.

Cutter Deck Investigating that, Mikah examined the various controls in that section before realizing what she was looking at.  This cutter was armed!  Mikah realized the cutter had two laser weapons built into the hull.  They weren't able to be aimed, except that they fired directly ahead of where the cutter was pointing.  So, you had to be "flying at" whatever target you wanted to shoot like most space fighters.  They also weren't as powerful as standard ship-to-ship combat lasers.  But Mikah could guess they were likely more powerful than mining lasers.  Being cautious, Mikah didn't charge the laser systems to see if all the components would green-light or not.  Especially not while parked inside the ship.

What systems she powered up did green-light, but there were many other items that would have to be used in order to be tested properly.  Mikah wasn't surprised to see the craft didn't have a chameleon-hull.  The cutter did have a side hatch, so they could load up to two tons of cargo into the hold-space.  Mikah kept running tests until Jocelynn finished her inspection of the cutter and announced it was clean.  They then secured the craft and Mikah returned to the bridge while Jocelynn relaxed in the ship's lounge.  On the bridge, Mikah said they were free to go.

Saying, "OK!  Let's leave this shit hole" Mikah opened a comms to the Ashidi Ke and let their Captain know they were ready to start burning out-system.  Over the next few minutes, the flight crews of the two ships worked out a course that would bring them together in close formation.  That would create a small "hedgehog" effect with the guns of both craft huddled together as they flew.  Now, speed was their only real defense with nothing but open space between them and their jump point.  During that run, they'd keep their eyes on the sensors.  Anyone trying to chase them down had 19 Hours, 45 minutes to catch them up.  And, if they started seeing the tachyon flood of an arriving ship, blind luck could cut them off by dropping one or more ships in front of them.

With such a long run, Aiden planned to spend the next hours in the seat before handing the bridge off to someone else.  Then, they'd work shifts until Aiden could move in again and prepare to take them into jump.  Still, he didn't have to start working on his jump plot for another seventeen hours.  What he had to know now was who would be manning the bridge when he was getting rack time?  Emkir volunteered, but needed a nap, since he'd worked the six to nine shift that morning.  When Emkir took the seat, he'd do another seven hours which would get them fourteen hours into their transit.  Fesic would take the seat from that point, and fly them to the eighteen hour mark.

Then, Aiden and Emkir would take the bridge again, and fly them to and through the jump point.  Fesic's one concern was that he was their only gunner, and they'd have to set the ship's weapons to operate from their automated weapons controls while he was sleeping.  With Zimzod in the autodoc, he'd be the only gunner they had.  While he was flying the ship, Fesic decided to set the weapons to automatic mode.  Then, even if he went to sleep after, he figured they'd see things on the sensors far enough out to wake everyone up and fully man the bridge.  Then, with others flying the ship, he could man the guns himself.

On the bridge for the ride, Mikah planned to relax and reminded the others she was on her second day of light duty, out of fourteen.  Before he had to do anything else, Fesic was at his post on the bridge.  He planned to study the drone and his lock picking, while watching vids in between, to rest his mind.  With nearly twenty hours as ship's troops, Jocelynn was prepared for her job.  While she waited for anything to happen, she watched armory vids from the ship's library and planned her other activities.  When Jocelynn got on comms and floated the idea of breaking out Terin's hookah, Aali got on the all-ship and said they shouldn't do that until they were in jump.  Mikah heard that and agreed.

The early hours started to pass and, after two hours, Aiden raised the tension when he announced they had some shadows.  Three ships seemed to be following their vector, but didn't seem to be catching up much at all.  Still, this was now a race to see if they could catch up, or would even try?  They were far enough distant that Aiden couldn't tell anything decent about them on the sensors.  The math said they were much less than a quarter the distance to the limit, and those coming from behind had the time to burn harder gees and catch up.  They knew it would likely take their followers a few hours to catch them up.  So they'd have a warning if that happened.

Other math said Upgrade could burn at four gees per second-per second, as she was.  That meant a ship that wanted to catch up to them would either have to burn five or six gees to even get in range.  Added to that, they had to do the math to not over-burn, or they'd end up making a "fire while passing" attack.  That was a combat tactic where you expected to disable your prey while you made your first pass, before you slowed, turned and came back to finish them.  And, even if they wanted to do that, they'd have to be burning at least three gees constantly to pull off the latter tactic.  That would let them guess at the percentages of ship-mass they'd be facing, since engineering space had to be larger for each gee they could burn.  And each gees' worth of engines meant fewer weapons.

Calling over the to the IMS Ashidi Ke, the flight and command crews discussed the three blips.  The other crew said they weren't worried but were aware.  They reminded Mikah's crew that nothing would happen for many hours, even if it was going to.  So, they rode out the hours until it was time for Aiden to hand the controls off to Emkir.  When Emkir took things over, he again called over to the Ashidi Ke for a status update.  Not surprisingly, he got their alter-day crew, since that ship was already making plans to shift to the expected local-clock of their destination world.  That would keep them from having to lose time and sharpness while diving into the merchant markets there.

Bells, Flares And Explosions
     That remained the situation for the next hours, while the ships cruised out-system with their distant tails.  Then, things started to change rapidly.  Emkir saw the sensors start to wig out.  Checking his readings, the first thing he "knew" came when he realized they were getting a tachyon-flare ahead of them!  A tachyon-flare meant someone was coming out of jump so close to them, and insanely deep inside Tremous Dex's jump shadow!  And not in anything like a La Grange point!  Emkir knew this couldn't be intentional but still started calling out to everyone and making enough noise to wake those sleeping.

Comfortably out cold in his stateroom, Aiden was jarred awake when Emkir started raising the alarm on all-ship.  Emkir had started with a lot of jargon before steadying out to the words, "Incoming ship emerging from jump!"  Even while he started to react, Aiden knew what he was hearing couldn't be right!  Slapping his vision across his stateroom wall-cron, Aiden knew they were just too damn deep in the grav-well for anyone to come in this close.  Because he'd known the alarm might be raised, Aiden had slept half-dressed, and could easily grab his combat armor off the rack and snap into it.  All the same, Emkir continued to call out numbers.  The energy he was talking about meant "large" or "explosive" if not both.  This wasn't an arrival any pilot would want answer for...if they survived.

In their staterooms, Mikah and Aali had been getting ready for bed when Emkir began raising the alarm.  Both women got into their combat armor and Aali went back to engineering while Mikah returned to the bridge.  Fesic had been preparing to end his shift and relax or nap when things started up.  So, for the moment, he was wide awake at his post.  Realizing this was much more immediate than he'd expected, Fesic still bolted for his stateroom to armor up before returning to man the guns.  Unfortunately for Jocelynn, she had just removed her battledress and set it on the rack to refresh!  But, Emkir's wild-man screaming from the bridge meant it might just be time to earn her pay.  She geared up while listening in to see if anything changed?  She then made her way to the aft hatch from the bridge to listen in.

While armoring up, Aali connected to her stent and queried a report from Marvin on the status of things in engineering.  Marvin bounced her a report produced by the collation software it had, and included the data from Thing-2 and Wall-e.  Considering the report data she could figure out, one thing was very obvious.  The 'droids were reporting the sort of energy distortion which happened when heavy gravitics were involved!  Aali wondered if it was possible the incoming ship was large enough to, or had the electronics to, distort the local gravity well and "create" a stable jump point?  In school, every engineer had been taught about early jump-theory experiments and the many failed attempts to do that.  She had to wonder if they were gonna die because someone had finally succeeded?

Getting on all-ship herself, Aali told the others their ship's drive systems were being affected by the arrival of this on-coming ship.  Aiden was rushing to the bridge while Aali let them know whatever was arriving was having a gravitational effect on their own engineering.  Hearing that, he had to think to himself, "What the fuck?!"  Normal transitions for any ship, even a very large one, didn't have gravitational effects.  Neither did stations unless they were immense.  And those didn't have jump drives.  Or, at least, he'd never heard of any with interstellar engines and the ability to tank up enough to use them.  Still, there could always be a first, though Aiden had no idea who could afford it?  Certainly not the Imperium, despite its size.

When Aiden got to the bridge, he could hear comms between Emkir and the Ashidi Ke.  That ship's Captain was willing to put good money on a bet someone had misjumped and was coming out of it here by coincidence.  Despite being in hearing range of the bridge, Aiden couldn't see the readings Emkir did when he looked up and saw the beginning of emergence!  What he saw coming out of jump space was very big and wasn't pretty at all!  Emkir could see erupting balls of flame as compartments exploded out from the arriving ship's hull into local space!  Hitting the all-ship as Aiden joined him, Emkir announced, "This bogey's on fire and erupting!"  He then repeated it for good measure.

Liner In Flames Finished gearing up and moving to their stations, everyone was horrified by Emkir's words while taking their places.  Having run back to his stateroom, Fesic was the last to reach his station and get a look at the sensors for himself.  He arrived while Emkir and Aiden got an update from the ship's computer.  It identified the distressed ship as the IMS King Henry, a five thousand ton luxury liner of the King Richard Class!  At the same, the crew aboard the liner either realized they were out of jump or got to a comms device.  Or, got one working.  That was because Upgrade started receiving the first signal GQ and calls for help.

The message, from a man literally in tears, read 'Signal GQ!  Have misjumped.  No idea where we are?  Ship in distress.  Multiple systems down.  Need assistance, command crew dead."  That last part shocked Emkir and he started to reply to the comms.  Emkir sent, "Attention King Henry, you are in the Tremous Dex system and we are tracking you on scan."  Emkir then connected to Ashidi Ke to confirm they were monitoring too, and ask if they could figure out a way to help the liner?  With officers aboard Ashidi Ke calling him, they recommended creating a common comms channel so they could all share data.

Emkir agreed and they went about working that out with Ashidi Ke doing most of the config work so those aboard the liner wouldn't have to do anything.  Aboard Upgrade, this would have been something Rol would specialize in if he were available.  Getting the panicked man on the line again, he asked them to identify themselves and say again the system identity?  That told them the man was some kind of military professional, because he'd used terms like 'say again' rather than 'repeat', which in combat-trained circles meant to 'repeat the last fire order' and could lead to very bad results.

Now on a common line, Mikah decided it was time to give the man the bad news.  So, Mikah hit the stud and said, "Hello King Henry, we are the IMS Upgrade and this is Lady Mikah Kirlim.  We are traveling in close escort with the IMS Ashidi Ke, outward bound from the Tremous Dex mainworld, to leave the system.  You appear to have emerged from jump-space deep within the hundred diameter limit and we are preparing to assist you as we can."  They got comms from the unidentified officer when he simply cursed, "Well, fuck!"  Mikah agreed with him for different reasons than he had.  After a pause, Mikah advised, "You should have stayed in misjump.  This place sucks!"  That confused the man because he'd been responding to the distance from their start point and wasn't aware Mikah was making editorial comments on the local system.

Ignoring Mikah's comment, the officer thanked her for any help they could give and said they had three hundred passengers aboard.  When Aiden and Emkir checked the file, that appeared to be a full load of passengers.  There would also be nearly two hundred crew aboard that class of ship, so there could be five hundred in distress less the unknown numbers of dead.  When Emkir asked the man about the ship's itinerary, he was told they had jumped out of the Lanth system, and were ultimately bound for the Jewell system.  Their next scheduled stop would have been the Ghandi system.  That meant, they had misjumped ten parsecs!  Completing a more detailed scan of the ship as he listened, Aiden could see parts of the ship's superstructure were beginning to fail in areas!

Mikah asked about moving the passengers to safe areas aboard the liner but the man told her he didn't even have contact with many sections of his ship.  Emkir got on another comms while Mikah was doing that, and called the port to update them, though what he expected them to do was questionable.  On his board, Aiden had two status changes.  Checking the sensors, he saw the three bogeys roughly two hours back on their track had started burning harder even while he'd done his best to slow down, giving them give as much time to help to the liner as possible before passing them by.  The other seemed to be a comms ping from the Ashidi Ke.  Checking his sensors, Aiden also noticed heavy damage to one of the liner's two boat hangers, meaning it was unusable.  So, the liner had lost half its inter-ship capabilities not to mention the ship's boats docked there.

With the report from sensors, Fesic decided to heat up the Upgrade's weapons, even though it would be hours before the ships chasing them could possibly get close enough to be of concern.  Aiden answered the Ashidi Ke and saw the ship's Captain was calling them asking for a line directly to Mikah.  When Mikah got on the line, the Captain said he knew someone had to get closer in to the liner to help them at all.  What he hoped for was that his ship could move in while the Upgrade held off and played "gunboat" to protect their aft.  Mikah agreed to that, and they and Aiden, who had stayed on to listen, knew this was going to be an interesting piece of work.

Both Upgrade and Ashidi Ke had been in the 'acceleration' part of their out-system burn.  The liner had come out of jump space ahead of them, but seemed to be drifting in-system now.  To help the liner as much as they could, they had to stop accelerating, slowing down the rate at which they passed the liner.  Then, they could launch their boats to send aid and rescue the injured.  So, now the Ashidi Ke would use thrusters and slight course changes to force their ship's flight path in closer to the liner while they actively wanted Upgrade to be prepared to help the Imperials break away if they had to.  In the back of his mind, Aiden knew that would force them to spend more time in the system before they could make an escape jump themselves.

The math was still against them doing anything major unless they counter-burned their current velocity.  That would let them swing past and then return back again.  Of course, slowing down also made it easier for the three ships behind them to catch up on them if that was what they planned?  Stopping to turn back and help the liner would make that encounter all but certain.  So the math both ship's pilots had to work out was key to keeping things from going bad, at the moment and down the line to the jump point.  Mikah was good with the plan, but asked the other Captain to see if he could contact the three on-coming ships and confirm their intentions?

The Ashidi Ke's Captain told Mikah those ships were two hours out, and not a consideration at the moment.  They were also far enough away that nothing could really be determined.  They could say what they wanted, but the ships had been following their small convoy since before the liner appeared.  He also pointed out that they didn't know what the liner's status was when they began to accelerate, so they might not know, even now, that this was a rescue operation.  All they knew about the three was when the ship's began to accelerate.  He didn't say that suggested they were pirates but his words suggested it heavily.  While Mikah spoke to their Captain, Aiden and Fesic both noticed the Ashidi Ke's crew were opening every cargo hatch on the ship for some reason.

Aiden had already begun making changes in the ship's attitude, while also slowing their acceleration so they could be in a good position.  At the same time, he looked for any way he could think of to make the ship's movements less predictable.  Sadly, given the speed they'd already built up while leaving the system, there was really almost nothing he could do in that regard.  While Aiden worked on that, Mikah finished her call with the Ashidi Ke and called the liner to ask if they had space for their cutter or other small craft in any undamaged compartment?  The Ashidi Ke's Captain cut her off, saying they didn't want anyone boarding the liner until they had a better status on the ship.  He didn't want anyone caught in a compartment explosion, or in a collapse as that ship section suddenly broke up or broke away.

With the ships altering their courses, both Aiden and Fesic watched their sensors as the Ashidi Ke began moving into the debris field scattered from the crippled liner.  What surprised both the men was that they could determine the trader's crew were using cable and "harpoon-like" devices to snag what appeared to be cargo containers and pods scattered within the debris.  Without consideration, the appearance was that the traders were looting the debris field!  Seeing that, Emkir raised the alarm to his crew and Mikah called the other ship to ask what they were doing?

Answering her, their Captain said they were hauling in debris to see if they could figure out what was happening aboard the liner.  While getting closer to the liner, they weren't ready to board her yet, nor did they have the information they felt they'd need.  Still curious, Mikah asked what the devices the traders were using were?  She was told the devices were boarding lines!  Those would be used by boarding troops when ships closed on each other and could be used from further out because ships were very large.  A boarder would fire it at the target ship's hull and, after it connected, use a reel-in the device to drag them to the far ship as the reel pulled in the line.  In rare cases, a large number of crew on one ship connected to an enemy ship and dragged it into contact with their own for boarding.  That surprised Mikah and her crew because it was a very odd thing for traders to have aboard!

Trying to listen to what Mikah was learning, Aiden got a comms buzz on his board and checked to see it was a very low-powered transmission.  Opening a line that was weak enough the Ashidi Ke may not have received it, Aiden found it was the voice of an adult male calling anyone for help!  Working to see if he could lock onto the site sending the call, he could only tell it could even be from within the debris field!  Whoever the person was, he was urgently asking for help but wasn't panicking.  Aiden responded, asking the man to identify himself and got back, "I am Baron Aluu Murema, and my daughter and I are in an escape bubble drifting free from the ship.  Our segment of staterooms started to burn and, as we fled, small explosions started to happen along the concourse.  So, we got into a space ball and rolled out into a section where decompression pulled us into space.

After that, the Baron asked who Aiden was?  Aiden said, "This is the IMS Upgrade, flying in close formation with the IMS Ashidi Ke.  Let me get my Captain."  Turning around, Aiden caught Mikah after she'd cut the call with the other Captain.  When he'd updated her, she asked if Aiden could locate them, and if they had a beacon?  If so, she wanted them to activate it.  Aiden called back and checked to see they had activated the device while he also checked and adjusted their sensors.  After making his changes, Aiden was able to see the beacon and the reason their signal was so bad.  They were drifting in a thick wave of debris which likely refracted signals and reduced any message power coming in their direction.  But, now he knew to look for them, Aiden easily found them.

More annoying, they were nowhere near the path the Ashidi Ke would cut, so that wasn't the easy answer.  His report suggested there might be a large amount of jaggedly sharp and damaging bits, so those in the pressurized fabric ball were in very real danger.  Considering her options, Mikah said they should launch the new cutter and see if they could rescue the Baron's party, which now apparently included himself, his daughter and the daughter's care taker.  Mikah said she'd be on the cutter with Emkir flying and Jocelynn aboard for security.  When Emkir asked who to transfer comms to, Mikah said that would be Fesic.  She left Aali in command while she was off-ship.

Not having a chance to gear up before, Emkir went to get into is combat armor.  He also grabbed his gauss pistol and 9mm.  In case, he also grabbed his blade and fighting knife.  Emkir then returned to the cutter bay and slotted into the pilot's flight couch.  In her battledress already, Jocelynn was ready in case they faced boarders.  Now, she had her gauss rifle, gauss pistol and laser pistol already, and she wasn't putting any of them back in her stateroom.  She also grabbed four of her grenades, just in case.  Like her crew, Mikah grabbed everything she would have if she was going into a fight, and accepted they didn't know where this trip would end up?  For all she knew, they could end up docking with the liner for some reason and she wanted to be ready.

While he powered up the cutter's systems, Emkir asked Aiden to bounce the data on the rescue ball from the Upgrade's computers to the cutter's system.  Aiden happily did that while still watching the area of space the ball was in, and keeping the Baron and Ashidi Ke updated.  So, it was no surprise to the other ship when Emkir opened the Upgrade's cutter hatch and drifted the cutter out of the bay before nudging her away from the ship so he could safely fire the craft's main engines.  Accepting that Mikah chose to do what she had, the Ashidi Ke advised extreme caution until her pilot understood the debris and hazards situation better.  Emkir was OK with the situation, since he'd flown through worse than this during the war.

While they flew, Emkir was in the command pilot seat with Mikah in the auxiliary seat.  That position could do a number of things from co-piloting to sensors and comms, but especially weapons.  Jocelynn was in the aft cargo section of the craft, ready to open the cargo doors and haul in the rescue ball when they got close enough.  Getting as close as they could to the Ashidi Ke, Mikah had a chance to examine the ship and saw they looked to be recovering cargo pods instead of the debris they said they'd been recovering.  That bothered her even more than learning they had the tools they did and were using them, so Mikah comm'd the traders to ask what kind of forensic data they hoped to get from the cargo pods?  Her tone was more than a bit skeptical.

Their captain only said it had been the luck of the grab and they had to ship what was grabbed before they could target something else.  So, they weren't concentrating on pods but got them in the course of recovery.  He also told Mikah they would be launching two ship's boats soon themselves.  Chewing on that while she cut the line, Mikah watched until they did launch two craft.  That class of ship had both a dorsal-mounted shuttle and a smaller pinnace.  While Mikah watched them move, she realized they were both headed for the burnt-out and devastated shuttle bay rather than the functional one.  That was the straw that broke Mikah's suspension of disbelief!

Still, Mikah had bigger issues at the moment because they'd cut past enough of the debris that the signal from the rescue ball had been growing in strength almost exponentially.  Along with that, the strength of comms signal and calm in the Baron's voice had grown too.  During the chatter, they learned the Baron's wife had been in the casino when all hell had broken loose, and he had no idea of her fate?  While they kept the conversation going, Mikah had gotten off-line to ask how they were going to carry out the rescue?  That turned out to be easy, thanks to Jocelynn's cargo handler training.  She was good with them pulling her alongside the ball with the cutter depressurized. 

She'd then connect herself, by a tether line, to the cutter and open the cargo hatch.  Next, using her battledress maneuvering thrusters, she'd EVA to reach the ball itself.  Then, she'd connect another tether to the ball before grabbing it to haul it into the cutter proper.  She would then connect another tether from the cutter to the ball, to secure it in place.  They could then repressurize the cutter's cargo bay and carefully get them out of the ball.  She'd make sure they kept the ball in operating condition, just in case they had to rescue someone else.  That was because the three in the ball didn't have vacc suits and she'd have to depressurize the cutter to carry out any more rescues.

Aboard Upgrade, Fesic got a message from the MV Mabina Fothua, now under two hours burn behind the Upgrade and Ashidi Ke.  A person identifying himself as 'Lesham Gapeus' said, "We're coming out to take possession of the wreck.  You can have what you want but be sure to clear the space before we arrive.  We out-gun you."  Mikah and those on the cutter heard the message but the cutter's systems wouldn't let her answer ships that far out.  Making an executive decision rather than asking Aali, Fesic decided no answer was needed.  Fesic did privately call Aali and advise her of the data and his actions.  He also told her this confirmed the ill intentions of the three blips chasing them.

Aali considered the situation and pointed out they were nose-forward "now", while they were up-thrusting.  But, if they wanted to come to a stop so they could loot, they'd have to roll 'ass for nose' and fire their thrust to slow down to a stop.  So, they'd be presenting their engines when they arrived, if the Upgrade and Ashidi Ke were still local?  She knew they'd still get raked by any turrets the on-coming ships could bring to bear, but thought about tactics such as blasting a foe's engineering section and leaving them derelict too.  Of course, there were still three on-coming ships and that would be just one of them.  And, they still had no 'size and class' data on the looters?  Fesic doubled down on needing that to make any decision.

When Aali called the cutter, Mikah said they were seeing the way things really work in the system.  She also said she was certain the liner was doomed.  Mikah told them, "If all we can do is rescue this guy and his daughter and servant, we'll just have to call that a win."  Hearing that, Aali agreed and Mikah announced her next decision.  She said that once they had the Baron's party aboard, the cutter would burn for the Upgrade and then, they'd burn for the jump point.  They'd happily leave the Ashidi Ke behind and get out of the system.  When Aiden suggested calling the on-coming ships to negotiate with them to rescue the King Henry's survivors, Mikah shook her head in disbelief.  How had Aiden not learned there was no one they could trust in the system?  Still, she said she'd deal with that after they rescued the Baron's ball.

Aiden asked if they should update the Ashidi Ke and Mikah said she was cutting ties with that ship.  It had bothered her they had first said theirs should be the only ship to get in close to the King George.  Then, they had repeatedly advised against Upgrade launching boats or acting to carry out rescues.  When she had ordered the cutter launched, they saw the Ashidi Ke's crew using boarding and assault tools to recover drifting cargo.  And, when they did launch craft, they flew into the burnt out flight bay, where some cargo might actually still be found!  So, Mikah had decided they were criminals too, and to be avoided.

Hammering the nails in, Aali reminded them the Upgrade wasn't that large a ship and they could take on the three they were rescuing and five more before their systems were taxed.  Mikah also reminded the others that anyone they took on board with them was coming to Arden, which wasn't a very fun system in the first place.  So, if they couldn't dump the people there, those rescued tourists would be in the crew's hair while they tried to carry out their mission, which would make their lives even harder.  Mikah also ordered that they sever all comms with the Ashidi Ke.

Even as they talked about that, Emkir regretted they'd have no chance to even try and find the Baron's wife while guiding the cutter right up to the floating rescue ball.  He warned the others to button up before waiting some beats for that to be done.  Then, he depressurized the craft and let Jocelynn know she could open the cutter's cargo hatch.  When she did, Jocelynn was very pleased how close they were to the ball and tested her tether connection before making her leap.  Free and flying, she quickly reached the ball and hit one of the recovery rings on the ball's structure with another caribiner.  After she was sure she'd secured the ball, she began thrusting back into the cutter while towing the ball behind her.

On the cutter, Mikah started moving to the aft so she could break out her medical kit and start checking the new passengers when they were out of the ball.  It wasn't long before Jocelynn and the ball were aboard the cutter and the hatch closed.  They all had to wait until the craft cabin re-pressurized before they could start working to open the ball and get the Baron's party out to be evaluated.  The whole time, Jocelynn was very careful to preserve the ball in case they had to rescue others and needed the three to seal themselves back in the ball to depressurize again.

When they finally got out of the ball, the Baron was a middle-aged man with a muscular build and tanned skin, standing 5'1" tall.  His oval and unremarkable face was surrounded by short, straight, white hair.  He had piercing blue eyes and the tattoo of a cat on his left hand.  He had the look of someone who was used to being 'stylish' and had well-manicured fingernails.  His daughter, a Lady of their Court, was a 16 year old young woman who seemed light-footed and graceful.  She had short, braided, brown hair, brown eyes and rugged brown skin.  She stood 4'5" tall and had an average build.  Her face was also oval in shape, if a bit common of features.  After she got out of the ball, she nervously fidgeted with her jewelry sporadically.  The last member of their trio turned out to be a humanoid-shaped caretaker android!  So, that was a bit of a surprise but a welcomed one for the crew.

Early on, things were a bit confused while Emkir turned the cutter back toward the Upgrade.  At the same time, Jocelynn began explaining the facts of life to them, including the possible need to put them back in the rescue ball if they had to depressurize to rescue someone else.  Mikah also took that time to step up, provide her medical credentials and take the chances she had to check them out, making sure they were healthy and didn't need treatment.  To his credit, the Baron kept his daughter close and made certain to follow and accept all the instructions they were given.  They could see he was the sort of nobleman who knew that his underlings meant him well.  So he accepted offers of help easily instead of keeping people at arm's reach.

Finally, Mikah got to give a formal greeting saying, "Welcome aboard.  I am Lady Dame Mikah Kirlim and we're returning to our ship, the Upgrade.  I would like to let you know we're in the Tremous Dex system and we were burning to leave the system when your ship emerged from jump."  Mikah also warned them they were dealing with potentially dangerous companions and had threatening forces following them.  When the Baron asked if there was any hope of searching for his wife, Mikah answered, "I'm sorry Excellency.  I don't believe so." in a grim tone of voice.  The daughter started to weep as the Baron simply nodded and accepted Mikah's words.  In that moment, Jocelynn asked, "Do you know where she was?"

Baron Murema said his wife had been in the ship's casino the last he'd heard.  Because of the misjump, that had been turned into a supply and ration distribution point for some of the passengers.  Jocelynn said they could scan the area for more rescue balls, in case anyone else was out there?  Still, Aiden had pushed data to the cutter from Upgrade's sensors, and that showed nothing but bad news.  The casino was on the theater deck, which had many promenades with wide-vista views of space.  Added to that, their sensors had tracked many explosive blasts ripping out through the hull of the liner.  That deck had suffered a number of blasts and it was difficult to see anyone surviving decompression of the deck's wide and open compartments.  Any chance she survived there was extremely minimal.

                                            King George Decks

Adding hydrogen to the flames, Emkir said that any craft docking with the ship risked being overwhelmed by desperate survivors begging and fighting to get off the dying liner.  That would have been a good reason to go into a damaged section of the ship if anyone wanted to dock, but everyone aboard the cutter missed the connection.  While they burned back toward the Upgrade, Mikah had Aiden broadcast live feed from the vis-light.  They could see as compartments continued blowing out into space flaring quickly-doused fireballs.  Putting a nail in the metaphoric coffin, Mikah also reminded them they had wounded crew and a death while in-system before the liner arrived, so she had limited staff.

Despite their concerns that the Baron might make demands, the man only stood firm and accepted the situation.  He also nodded at the kindness provided as Mikah and her crew did their best to educate him while the periodic sounds made it clear floating debris was scraping and gouging their hull, and the local space they'd been rescued from was very dangerous.  While it was obvious he wasn't happy, he was also intelligent enough to not fight what he could see couldn't be changed.  Still, his daughter wept at his side, with the android doing its best to sooth her.  They all knew there was no way to say, 'Mommy might be ok' without it being an obvious lie.

Even as they burned back to the ship, they tracked two cargo pods and Mikah was asked if they wanted to check them out and possibly bring them aboard?  Mikah said no, because she just wanted to get back to the ship and leave the system.  Closing on the Upgrade, they got a vid-enabled call from the Ashidi Ke asking for Mikah.  The vid came from one of the trader ship's officers, who was in the cargo space of a craft.  When she took the call, Mikah could see they had punched a hole through the liner's bulkhead and were bringing evacuees off the liner into their hold.  Mikah asked what he needed and the officer said he was aboard the trading ship's shuttle, and managed to get forty survivors off the liner.  That was more than the shuttle could handle long-term and they wanted to off-load those people before getting more.  He asked Mikah how many survivors she could take aboard the Upgrade?

It was then Mikah realized they'd gone in to the wrecked bay because fewer people could get to their small craft there, letting them could manage the crowd better.  She could see past the officer on the vid, and the evacuees were a mess, being helped by members of the trader's crew.  Considering what Aali had said, Mikah said they could take six more at the most.  Nodding, the officer asked Mikah's preference because his ship's doctor was ready to work on the injured and he knew Mikah already had injured crew to deal with, including herself.  Mikah said they could take minor wounds but nothing serious.

Nodding, the officer said he'd have the shuttle meet with them, to transfer survivors faster, after they cleared the liner.  Cutting the line, Mikah told Emkir to bring the cutter around and look for the shuttle because they were docking.  She then opened a line to the Upgrade and told them all while also explaining the events and decisions.  Rolling the cutter over and firing engines to change their vector, they started getting even deeper into the debris field.  Their backdrop was the giant dying liner, from which flaming explosive events were still erupting.  This told Emkir there had to be massive fires burning inside the ship's still sealed compartments.  Those were hungrily seeking more fuel and caused explosions when they found tanks or stocks of highly-volatile fuel.

Everyone watching knew the liner was losing integrity like steam off a pot, and it wouldn't be long before she started breaking up.  It was very likely there would be few survivors beyond those they got off the ship themselves.  Working his way through the debris field, Emkir concentrated on his controls as the sounds of scraping debris periodically sang through the cutter.  They all knew that no pilot could have avoided all collisions and his job was to make sure what he couldn't miss didn't smash or cut them when they made contact.

Soon, they got a message from the shuttle when it left the liner's bay.  The craft was being flown by Ashidi Ke's Second Officer, a "Mr. Mara Khaguk", who was obviously concentrating on her controls more than her words.  She told them they were coming, and had the cutter on their scopes now they'd left the bay again.  She also said they were getting a list of survivor's names, so both ships would be carrying that data out of the system.  Hearing that, Emkir flashed that news to the others and asked Mikah what the Baron's wife's name was?  She checked and said her name was "Niilere".  Sadly, the woman's name wasn't on the list of people rescued so far.

The only hopeful news was that they were still gathering names, so Mikah asked them to check for the woman.  Shortly after that, they were told she wasn't aboard the shuttle.  Still, they had to admit it would have been a miracle if she'd been rescued given they'd docked in the liner's after-sections and she'd been as forward as she could get on the deck she was known to be on.  It took even more time before the shuttle could match vee with the cutter and find a relatively clear and safe space before extending a sleeve boarding passage.  After securing that and making sure no debris would brush and tear at it, they moved six of the survivors aboard the cutter.

First came an older human woman with a broken left arm who was in moderate pain.  She was helped along by one of the passengers.  Next came two able-bodied men who carried a makeshift cot between them.  On that lay a boy of about nine or ten, who had a broken right leg.  Next came a middle aged couple who had been wandering the ship together when jump energies began ripping the ship apart.  They were followed by one of the Ashidi Ke's crew, who asked if they'd picked up any additional cargo while passing through the debris?  Suddenly back on her guard, Mikah simply said, "Nothing."  Nodding, the man said their pinnace had ten survivors aboard, and was returning to their ship.

The crewman also said they'd been grabbing pods to see if they carried supplies from the liner, like foodstuffs or environmentals.  He said that would help them deal with the over-crowding.  The Ashidi Ke was a larger ship with a large cargo bay, but they'd be carrying nearly one hundred extra passengers if they could pull as many people off in the second run as they did during the first.  If it worked, that was around a third of the liner's passengers, held as refugees.  Mikah realized that was yet a second reason why they'd been grabbing pods and had to wonder which answer was true?  When the man asked if they had food or atmospherics to spare, Mikah said they didn't, but she was glad she'd cut a deal to have the port recycle their atmo and consumables before they left.

With Mikah's answer, the man shrugged and was ready to leave when Mikah said the Upgrade would be burning for the jump point to leave immediately.  Still, she got a list of all names aboard the cutter, to send back to Ashidi Ke, because they'd be returning to an Imperial port when they jumped.  That way, accurate news would be spread with as complete a list of survivors as possible.  Nodding in thanks, the officer remembered and told Mikah he had a message from the Ashidi Ke's Captain.  It seemed the three blips following them had begun to decelerate, so they'd flipped and seemed to be slowing to come to a stop.  Likely, in the area of the drifting liner.  Sensors had them about an hour out and closing.  Mikah shrugged and said, "Good luck with them.  I think you should just cut and run at this point."

The man said his Captain planned to do that after the second run with the cutter and shuttle.  He then crossed back to the shuttle as Mikah secured the lock hatch.  When both ship hatches were sealed, they withdrew the boarding sleeve and the two craft turned back to their motherships.  Mikah and the others were surprised when the Baron unstrapped himself aboard the cutter and helped Mikah tend to the devastated survivors.  While burning for the Upgrade, Mikah checked the injured first.  She saw the boy had a simple break of the fibula.  That would be simple to handle with some high-tech hand tools to use gravitics and nudge the bone back in place with the leg under slight traction.  She could then use a plunge-needle to deliver growth enhancers and other treatments directly to the site of the bone break.  He'd have to keep the splint on, to keep up the traction, but the fix was simple.

Mikah had only been able to prepare the older woman for treatment.  Both her ulna and radius had been fractured and Mikah would have to operate to insert biodegradable wrap-sleeves that would hold the recovering bones in the right place.  That demanded surgery to organize the bone breaks, put the bone wrap in place and take the other steps to get her on the mend.  Checking the others, just in case, Mikah found one of the men who'd carried the boy's litter aboard had some slight burns too.  She treated him with burn salves, topical moisturizers and spray on skin.  He'd heal on his own after that.  Worse than the physical injuries, all the survivors were depressed and suffering from the horrific events of their passage if not the loss of companions also.

What had started out as a journey to many ends had become a harrowing disaster.  They'd spent thirteen days in a twisted version of jump, with illnesses and system failures breaking out throughout the ship.  Then, the fires and explosions started when they came out of jump.  Many of the crew and passengers were sick and unable to react to the sudden wave of disasters that started ripping through the liner.  It was likely that more than half those aboard never had a chance to escape the dying ship.  Even the officer who'd been first to call out to the Upgrade had been lucky.  He'd been in one of the ship's offices, and could barely get to the liner's alternate bridge.  All those on the liner's main bridge were killed when system failures caused explosions to rip through the compartment.

After Emkir settled the craft back into Upgrade's cutter bay and started shutting down, Mikah made sure to keep all the uninjured people in place while she moved the injured to the medbay.  With the cutter docked, Mikah ordered Aiden to burn for the jump limit at their best speed.  Aiden acknowledged that while Emkir was still shutting things down, and started the burns to leave the King Henry and Ashidi Ke behind.  Mikah settled the boy and woman in the medbay, while Aiden suggested using Terin's stateroom as a "dormitory" for the female passengers.  Emkir suggested the men would dorm in the cutter, with apologies to the married couple.  They had a spare stateroom, but Mikah wanted to use that as a "recovery space" while dealing with herself, Zimzod, the boy and the woman.

Everyone knew the trip to Arden would be cramped and they'd have to work double duty caring for the survivors too.  If they couldn't put them off the ship in the Arden system, the crew knew doing what the Arch Duke had asked of them would be more difficult too.  Before getting into the work of dealing with the boy's leg and the surgery on the woman, Mikah organized the other survivors.  She then went over the rules of the ship for them.  Mikah impressed on them that the rest of their trip together was going to be cramped and annoying.  So, the passengers all had to follow the rules and it would be her way only.  Mikah was pleased when the Baron backed her up on that.  Especially because it had become known he'd had to leave his wife behind and her fate was unknown.

Mikah spent much of the flight from the wreck working on, or watching the older woman and her broken arm.  After having finished the surgery, Mikah hadn't left the older woman's bedside much because she wanted to see her through recovery from the anesthetic.  While they waited, Mikah handled ship's business and planned with her crew.  It was several hours after the operation that the woman suddenly began experiencing convulsions.  Because she had limited support, Mikah had strapped the woman down and was happy she could grab her scanner and start figuring out what was wrong?  The first answer Mikah saw had been an extreme build-up of pressure in a section of the woman's brain.  Continued and slowly more targeted scanning showed Mikah there was some sort of blockage in one of her cerebral blood vessels.  During this, it turned out one of the men rescued was a fully trained nurse certified in emergency procedures.

Grabbing more of her instruments, Mikah finally determined there had to have been a blood clot somewhere in the woman's vascular system.  A chunk of that must have broken free and traveled through her body until it became lodged in her brain.  Now, Mikah realized, she'd have to open the woman's skull and operate to remove the blockage.  While she prepared the medbay with the nurse's help, she set up a small tight-beamed sonic beam to help pulverize or loosen the blockage.  Not long after that, Mikah started cutting with the nurse assisting.

Unfortunately, Mikah hadn't even gotten a section of the woman's skull opened when instruments said the patient had stopped breathing and her heart had stopped!  Letting Mikah continue what she was doing, the nurse moved to start trying to resuscitate the patient.  With Mikah advising the nurse on the use of medications, like adrenaline or atropine, the man fought hard while Mikah finally got the skull open.  Sadly, the nurse couldn't revive the patient and it turned out continuing with the operation would be meaningless.  Mikah called the time of death and then set about preserving all her data and test results while the man prepared the body for an autopsy.

The autopsy confirmed Mikah's findings and Mikah also saved and stored those data and test results from the procedure.  With the help of the nurse, they cleaned up the body and prepared it to be stored in a low berth.  Mikah then recommended they both relax and recover while the rest of the crew handled the ship.  When Mikah quietly let the crew know what had happened, there were only grim grunts and a reconsideration of the strain on the ship's systems and food supply.

Hopes And Losses
     Just over thirteen hours later, the crew planned to be much closer to the jump limit already.  It was a hell of a way to end the old year.  During the run to the jump point, Mikah worked in the medbay while Emkir rejoined Aiden on the bridge.  Tracking showed the three on-coming ships still slowing to stop just off the wrecked liner.  So, there wouldn't be a chase after all.  They'd get out of the system unmolested, but still mourned for the remaining survivors of the shattered liner.  The IMS Ashidi Ke left, and hadn't been followed.  The traders had sent a message when they'd started the burn, listing names for all the survivors and information on where they'd been on the ship?  One survivor said he'd been in the ship's casino area when things started coming apart.  He said his small band were the few to escape the compartment and felt no one else in the casino could have survived.

Another disturbing item came from the sensors when the three approaching ships had gotten close enough.  Finally getting a reading on the ships, Aiden saw the MV Mabina Fothua, which had literally said they'd be taking control of the liner wreck, was a 750 ton ship!  He passed that to the others and he, Emkir, Fesic and Aali knew that ship alone could have up to seven working turret mounts.  The other two ships were two and three hundred ton vessels.  So, they'd definitely been out-gunned and out-tonned by the on-coming ships.  That ended any thoughts they might've been able to stay with the liner and do more good.  If they'd stayed, they'd likely have been disabled and joined in the spoils and prisoners after any fight.

While burning out of the system, comms between Upgrade and Ashidi Ke reduced with the increasing distances.  Messages from the trader said some of the containers they'd recovered while moving closer to the wreck had ship's supplies, like atmospherics(tanks of pressurized air), consumables(frozen water, etc) and foodstuffs.  Those would be used to improve their ability to keep everyone alive until their next stop.  Still, they'd all be on rations and the Captain was considering ways to keep people asleep as much as possible, preserving oxygen.  Finally, both ships wished each other luck.  Mikah nodded to herself because the use of the damaged docking bay and recovery of cargo pods suggested that crew had been involved in rescues before, and knew things her people didn't.

Now burning out again, they had to redesign their schedule because they still had nearly nine hours before they could jump.  The extra hours were because they'd slowed the ship to rescue people and had to rebuild that speed.  Despite being asleep when the liner emerged, Aiden had kept the bridge while Emkir had gone back to sleep for a few hours.  He'd wake up soon to relieve Aiden on the bridge.  Aiden could then gtrab some sleep and return to the bridge five hours before they made their jump.  Emkir would then take a few hours nap and return so both men would be at their posts until they saw what was on the other side of jump entry?  Being the only gunner, with Zimzod in the autodoc, Fesic had actually set up a cot next to his station on the bridge and slept there, to be available if needed.

The last serious readings they took on the on-coming three ships showed they'd come to a stop near the position of the dying liner.  That confirmed they'd been right when they figured the ships weren't following either Upgrade or Ashidi Ke.  The confirmation gave them a small bit of thankful relaxation.  Still, they couldn't tell if the liner had yet broken up, even though their data suggested it had been going that way.  In the common spaces, the Baron took over ministering to the other suffering and weeping survivors while the crew did their jobs.  The only person free to help him was Jocelynn, who had no flight duties.

A tactic the Baron used while hoping to raise the survivor's spirits was to tell those who didn't know it, that the Oberlindes Lines corporation had opened a transit and trade line between Arden and Regina.  He said that meant they could hope to beg help from the corporation, and possibly get berths on one of their ships to Regina.  That way, they wouldn't have to drain the resources of the Upgrade.  Mikah hoped so, because it would let the crew go about their business.  Over the hours they'd been flying, Mikah had finished up the surgery on the elderly woman's arm and only had to watch her in recovery afterwards.  While doing that, she started planning how to care for the new passengers over the coming week in jump?

When they realized they'd have to dip into the ship's stockpile of emergency rations, Mikah joked, "It's a good thing we have all that extra Zhodani food on board!"  Hearing that, the rest of the crew broke out laughing.  Much talk followed that about eating rationed meals, if they be "reduced food serving sizes" or ration bars, and not complaining.  And, being a good example for their unintended passengers.  But it became clear someone would have to set up a schedule that considered when the ship could serve actual food to all, and when they would have to space out those meals with ration bars instead?  For the moment, Jocelynn broke out ration bars to make sure all those rescued had eaten something before the next meal time.  Lucky for her, many of the traumatized survivors went to sleep after realizing they would get home after all.

Very soon after leaving the liner behind, Emkir racked out as they had planned.  Their passage over the past hours had been quiet though tense.  The opening distances between themselves and anyone else were more and more comforting for the crew.  Aiden continued while they kept distributing ration bars to anyone awake.  Many were still sleeping and more joined them, so there were less bars used while they'd need to eat when they woke.  Eventually, Emkir woke and relieved Aiden.  After his shift sleeping, Aiden would wake, got ready and relieve Emkir.

While they'd both been awake, Jocelynn tried to be friendly with the Baron's daughter and even taken the girl into her stateroom to see the terrarium.  That addressed the girl's depression with friendship by keeping the girl's mind distracted, hoping to help.  Making an odd use of the supplies on hand, Jocelynn had also offered to break out the chocolate fountain so the survivors could dip their ration bars.  When that brought up the food situation again, they saw things weren't as bad as they thought.  With Rol cloning, Terin dead, and Zimzod out for another day, they could actually serve slightly reduced servings of normal food in three of every four meals.  That was yet another small win on a dark day, while the rest of the Imperium were unaware and preparing to celebrate Holiday.

It was nearly ten hours into the morning when the Upgrade reached the system's jump limit.  Aiden had resumed his post on the bridge.  He'd confirmed they hadn't been chased, then worked on his nav plot for the jump to the Arden system.  Arriving at zero vee, Aiden confirmed they were at the location from which he'd plotted their jump.  With his plot loaded in, Aiden announced to everyone aboard that he was preparing to make the jump as he traditionally dimmed all lights aboard.  Aiden then hit the controls which released stored power in the ship's crystals to the lanthanum grid and the ship tumbled into jump space.

Now, it was time to settle in to ship's operations along with the care and feeding of the passengers for the jump.  They then relaxed as 365-1113 burned steadily towards Holiday-1114, there was little spirit aboard the ship to celebrate.  Sometime later that day, Zimzod would be done in the autodoc.  Mikah would have to treat him and could then put the boy with the broken leg into the system for treatment.  That would also let her pick up more of her duties even sooner if Zimzod came out even close to one hundred percent functional.  She still knew he would have a longer period of recovery too.  So, while they were on Arden and even after, Zimzod would be on restricted duty.

Where everyone is at the end of the session:
     Mikah: Recovering before dinner, after performing surgery
     Aali: Working in engineering
     Emkir: Co-piloting the ship
     Aiden: Piloting the ship
     Fesic: At his post on the bridge
     Jocelynn: Assisting Baron Murema in managing the passengers
     Zimzod: Still in the autodoc for another 4 hours
     Terin: Dead: Frozen body in a low berth
     Rol: Cloning Gestation: 12 Weeks left

Next: New Puzzles And Uncertain Allies