Radetsky had only returned from the cargo bay a short while when Ryddoth asked the two scouts to join him on the bridge.  Admiral Meshrumiikiim asked Ms. Vik if she'd be OK alone with the knights?  She comfortably said she would, so they left for the bridge.  The men arrived to the sounds of urgent and confused voices coming from the ships comms!  As Ryddoth worked the controls, they could plainly see he'd checked the system schematic and focused the sensors on a ship further in-system, and just off their vector of travel.  They read the sensor data while Ryddoth said it was a ship signaling "GK".(Vilani: "Gashimeku Kaalariin" for "Vessel in Distress")
That answered all their questions.  The system scan showed that Equus and Horizon were the closest ships.  And the Equus didn't have the maneuverability to turn and help the distressed ship.  That meant that, by law, it was up to the Dawnstar Horizon to provide help.  With the other two present, Ryddoth contacted the Starport Authority again, looking for a way out of being roped into the rescue operation.  Making matters worse, the ship's transponder identified the distressed ship, a 400-ton freighter, as being owned by the country of Stepozhevac.  That country had been ruled by a council since a coup by Junior Military officers in 1105(~7 years ago), and declared itself a "Private Ownership" Bloc nation.
Once, the world of Porozlo had been open to Imperial mega-corporations, who mined great wealth from the world while supporting the many local governments and fueling the almost constant wars for territorial gain.  Eventually, many of the country's leaders realized they were being underpaid for their raw materials and mineral wealth in weapons exchanges.  When one of the nations fought to nationalize their resources and was essentially invaded by mercenaries, that nearly unified the nations of Porozlo.  A wave of so called "Private Ownership" swept the governments as they nationalized resources and ousted corporate operations  Some of them securing millions in megacredits of machinery too.
But a single 'common cause' could only unify those whose main fight was territorial control for so long, and the world fell back to warfare.  And, as often happened, the pendulum swung as some countries realized they still needed the corporations, and made a peace with them.  Then, at more agreeable trade rates, they regained access to the technology to defeat their enemies.  That meant the world was now divided both by border claims as well as philosophy, between "Private Ownership" and "Free Trade".  What made things even worse for the Horizon was that Rol had been told the Stepozhevac ship had at least one VIP from that nation aboard.  Of course, the VIP's name and condition were unknown.  Because of this, the Marquis of Porozlo, Insadshiir Manerdagur, and his people had requested the Horizon attempt the rescue.
And, they asked Rol to have the Horizon's crew and the Knights work together in the process!  The three on the bridge knew that meant giving the knights access to their gear and putting themselves into the path of potentially rogue nobility.  Given the situation, Kyle Van Ryddoth asked Aidan Radetsky to push the schematic showing the distressed ship and Horizon onto the lounge screens and take the helm while he and the Admiral went back to the lounge to "talk things over".  In the lounge, the Knights got annoyed when the vid, "K'Kree - Hiver Wars" was cut off and replaced by a schematic of local space showing the two ships.
Ms. Vik was the only one to comment with interest on the schematic, as all attention suddenly turned to Ryddoth and the Admiral.  Ryddoth began to explain the situation when both Zimzod and Mikah sighed, "Here it comes..." in tones almost weary from experience.  Ryddoth said they did try to get special permission to bypass while other ships responded.  But special circumstances meant their ship was preferred by Marquis Insadshiir's people.  Sir Zimzod interrupted and said that meant they had to have their gear, so they could be ready for (and protected from) any possible issues.  In the meantime, on the bridge, Aidan was:         1) piloting the ship,         2) working a nav-plot to the distressed ship,         3) working the sensors to get everyone a better idea of what was going on and         4) working the comms to try to get someone coherent from the distressed ship.
Ryddoth said gear access was a given, and they'd get around to that.  But, they first had to decide what each person would do in the effort?  Then, Sir Brian firmly said he wouldn't be boarding the distressed vessel or taking part in any efforts off the Horizon, Period.  Talking about that and issues like the "cause" of the explosion aboard the ship broke out for a short bit, and things got confused.  But several needs were soon nailed down.  First, they had to decide who was doing what?  And second, they needed to investigate what caused the explosion before they docked with the ship?
It was decided Admiral Meshrumiikiim would lead the "away team", followed by Dame Mikah for medical needs.  Sir Zimzod would follow, for both medical and security needs.  And then, Ms. Vik, for diplomatic needs and as "extra hands".  Aidan Radetsky would pilot the Horizon and Ryddoth would hold a "command post" in the Horizon's lounge, to handle comms and observe Sir Brian.  Sir Brian was tapped to use his engineering expertise to help Radetsky, with his sensor skills, investigate the explosion from the Horizon.
When Sir Brian said he'd be arming himself, Ryddoth said he wouldn't let Brian be armed on the bridge.  After some argument, it was decided Aidan would pipe his data to the screens in the lounge and work with Sir brian via comms.  After that, Ryddoth ordered everyone in the lounge to the cargo bay while having Aiden repressurize that compartment.  Ryddoth lagged behind as they moved, hitting the ship's locker and pulling a handful of rounds for his shotgun before getting into his vacc suit and joining the rest down in the hold.  In the staterooms where their gear had been moved, Ms. Vik and the Admiral began getting what they needed before grabbing their vacc suit bags.  They then joined Ryddoth, to pull a personal weapon each, for "safety reasons".
The knights went to the cargo container holding their gear, but found it was actually welded shut!  In an extra security effort, the crew of the Equus had apparently welded it closed to prevent any attempt to use their gear to take over the scout and attack the liner.  Sir Brian began searching the cargo bay, bins and storage for tools while Sir Zimzod and Dame Mikah examined the container.  As Ryddoth and the others joined them, he told Sir Brian, "You won't find what you are looking for in those".  Sir Brian snapped, "You don't know what I am looking for" and Ryddoth replied, "Something to cut the welds, I am sure."
Sir Brian said, "No.  I'm just interested in what you have in here."  Seeing that everything was proceeding, and not wanting to let Sir Brian get into mischief, Ryddoth told the others he'd be right back.  He then told Sir Brian to follow him.  The two went up to engineering, for gear to cut the weld.  While Sir Zimzod examined the container, Dame Mikah waited and the Admiral and Ms. Vik got into their vacc suits and checked each other's seals.  After Ryddoth and Brian got back, the weld cutting began and those in vacc suits synced their suit comms with Radetsky on the bridge.  The others either got into their own suits, geared up or watched/helped with the cutting.
Soon, Radetsky told them he'd improved the sensor data from the distressed ship, and could confirm significant damage.  He'd also identified large internal compartments vented to space and predicted significant crew and passenger deaths.  Radetsky had also identified frozen volumes of hydrogen and other fluid materials that had been vented after the blast.  That was on top of significant debris, and a few visible "crew-cicles".  The Knights continued working to open the cargo pod and the rest were more or less done gearing up.  Talking about how to board the ship, Sir Zimzod said he'd be wearing his battledress combat armor!  That surprise raised a lot of chatter, because even 'having' a battledress suit was extremely rare.  On the heels of Zimzod's words, Dame Mikah said she intended to wear her combat armor.  What followed was Ryddoth's attempt to talk them out of using the "hard-core gear", interspaced with Sir Brian repeating that he wouldn't be leaving the Horizon.  In the end, neither knight budged, and the others gave up and put their minds on the mission.
While the knights geared up, Radetsky brought the ship in close to the freighter and hit it hard with a full spectrum of every sensor at his disposal.  He told the crew that significant areas of the damaged vessel were depressurized, and they should still expect heavy loss of life.  He'd also reached the ship's crew on comms and been told the VIP, a national leader named Councilor Helmik, had been aboard and was badly injured.  They were literally screaming for rescue on one hand while making accusations of Imperial responsability on the other.  Definitely, not a fun crew.  The Stepozhevaci were not necessarily anti-Imperial, but their nationalization of significant foreign investments had made them some mega-enemies.  And their policies continued to increase tension and conflict on an already unstable balkanized planet.  They were also obviously a bit paranoid about Imperial power being used against them.  The good news was that all the survivors, numbering seven total, were either gathered in the compartment just aft of the bridge or in the engineering spaces.
Both had access to pressurized passages connecting to a commonly available air-lock that was directly aft of the bridge, on the starboard bulkhead.  That meant the wounded, engineers and flight crew could gather in a single compartment just in-board of the air-lock.  When things were ready, Radetsky lined them up, air-lock to air-lock, with Ryddoth and Sir Brian in the lounge communicating, coordinating and scanning respectively.  The rest were lined up, "Admiral first", at the hatch.  After the docking passage was extended and pressurized, and the indicator went green, those in-board looked at each other thinking, 'who opens the hatch?'  Finally, Sir Zimzod broke the silence, looking at the Admiral, saying, "Your in command of the mission.  Sir." in an accusatory tone.  Meshrumiikiim let out an exasperated laugh, saying "By your command, Sir" as an ironic comment on how his earlier words had come back to bite his ass before he grabbed the hatch release.
Checking again, to verify the atmo-discrete was green, Emkir turned the wheel and pulled, swinging the hatch up and open.  As soon as Sir Zimzod's battledress HUD signaled no pressure change, he acted as expected under normal "threat ops" conditions.  Not knowing what they faced and concerned fighting could have caused the explosion, standard Marine ops dictated moving forward and securing each compartment or engaging any opposition.  Sir Zimzod almost shoved Admiral Meshrumiikiim out of the way and moved into the compartment.  There, he assumed a guard position with his auto-pistol in a two-arm assault ready stance.  This 'just happened' make him appear to be an "Imperial Storm Trooper in assault mode" to the battered crewman who'd opened the hatch on the other side.  The result of Sir Zimzod's actions was a look of instant shock and fear on the Stepozhevaci crewman's face as he suddenly tried to slam the hatch closed!  Fortunately for the boarding party, Zimzod's battledress enhanced his speed, letting him catch and force open the hatch with one hand.  Sudden panic among the survivors froze most of them in place.
Sadly, that didn't freeze the bridge crew, who slammed the panic button to secure and lock the bridge access.  When Zimzod decided all was secure, ignoring the cowering crew white with fear and those using their bodies to cover the wounded, he stepped aside from the hatch letting the quickly following Admiral enter.  He was followed by the combat armored Dame Mikah and Ms. Vik in her vacc suit.  The boarding party started assessing the situation while Dame Mikah looked for the injured VIP.  Seeing nothing obvious, she moved to those covering two bloody bodies in an aft corner of the compartment.  Unarmed, unarmored and not even in vacc suits, the two who'd been tending the wounded showed every sign of preparing to defend them with their lives.  Seeing this, Dame Mikah held up her medical bag and produced an auto-hypo to hold in front of them.  That convinced them the combat armored figure might actually be there to help, and they grudgingly moved aside.  Though not far.
As Dame Mikah moved to begin diagnosing her now obvious patient, she saw a crew member had also been injured very badly.  But she had orders saying Councilor Helmik was the only one anyone cared about.  At the same time, Sir Zimzod maintained his "relaxed security" stance while Admiral Meshrumiikiim assessed the situation and the closed and locked bridge access.  Stepping over to the comm panel, Meshrumiikiim tried to buzz the bridge but got back a garbled shout exclaiming the Imperial Navy may have crippled and invaded the ship but they would never take the bridge!  The Admiral sighed and let his shoulders sag, shaking his head at the futility of idiots...  At the same moment, a comms from the Dawnstar Horizon asked what was going on aboard the crippled ship?  They'd begun getting reports from the Stepozhevac bridge crew that Imperial Marines were storming the still intact compartments of the vessel!
Over on the Dawnstar Horizon, things had escalated ridiculously.  In addition to the Starport Authority and those Imperial Naval teams who automatically responded to any Signal GK in-system, they had picked up teams of governmental figures working for both Marquis Insadshiir and the national government of Stepozhevac.  Claims from the bridge crew, along with one in-ship vid clip of a battledressed figure rushing the hatch, had convinced Stepozhevac officials the claims an Imperial Navy ship had fired on the vessel were true!  As the gist of this was fed to the Horizon for explanations, Admiral Meshrumiikiim shook his head again before glaring at Zimzod and saying, "Great!  This is becoming an international incident!"  From where she was finishing diagnosis on her patient, Dame Mikah looked up saying, "Another one!?!" as she spared a moment to glare at Zimzod.  Then she looked towards the Admiral saying, "He does this all the time", obviously referring to something in their shared past.  Zimzod had pulled out his medical kit and shown the time honored red cross to the crew so they'd let him examine and diagnose the other wounded man.
Trained with paramedic skill, Zimzod could see the man would lose his right arm entirely, along with other issues.  But he was able to give the crewman an injection for the pain, at least, before protecting him from shock and stabilizing him enough to move.  Councilor Helmik, on the other hand, had been hit in the chest by shrapnel.  Lucky for Dame Mikah and her patient, the crew hadn't tried to remove what they could see.  So Mikah looked under the first aid dressing and examined the wounds.  She could tell, through her medical scanners, that there was significant lesser vein damage as well as an extreme danger of shock.  That meant Mikah had much more work to do to stabilize her patient than Zimzod had, despite the significantly reduced level of damage.  Ms. Vik first looked to help the Admiral with the bridge crew but that was something now far beyond her presence.  She then looked to help the medics, but they weren't ready to move or seriously work as yet.  So, extra hands were not needed there.  Ms. Vik finally examined the compartment they were in and noticed a slight hiss!"
Sure enough, her investigation soon proved there was a small fissure located in a beveled fitting on the edge of the inboard iris valve!  While there hadn't been any noticeable pressure drops, there was definitely a loss of atmo going on.  Zimzod was finishing up his diagnosis when she raised the alarm.  He was certain it was safe to inject some drugs into the crewman, on top of those injected by the his crew after the explosion.  Dame Mikah reached the same conclusion with her patient, but had to be very careful because more drugs could help her patient's slide into shock.
At that point in relations with Stepozhevac, this was the last thing she, her team and the Marquis needed.  Zimzod injected his patient while he also checked his HUD for the pressure discrete.  That still read as nominal.  So he wasn't too worried, but was thinking ahead too.  Once ready, he set his plan in motion, telling Ms. Vik to help the still groggy and ambulatory crew man into the Dawnstar Horizon, along with the rest of the able-bodied crew, who'd been ordered over by the Admiral.
As Mikah treated her patient and Zimzod stood by to help her transport the unconscious man, Admiral Meshrumiikiim continued trying to get the bridge crew to unbutton so they could be saved.  Sadly, as everything in space, except in the freighter bridge, was straightening out, things down-well were getting worse.  Stepozhevac officials were adamant that freighters didn't just suddenly suffer unexplained explosions in transit.  And small, random civilian traffic were not just packed to the gills with battledress-clad Imperial knights ready to storm survivors.  No matter what the Marquis or Imperial authorities said, there was nothing that they could provide which the Stepozhevac could not claim was doctored with Imperial "High Technology."  Emkir slowly realized this was coming to a standoff.  Complicating things, the Stepozhevac authorities down-well ordered that, with the Councilor's team all dead in the explosion, the only person they cared about was the Councilor.  They demanded the bridge crew be left behind, to die, in order to save the Councilor's life.
As the boarding team and crew of the Dawnstar Horizon heard, the strident voice of a Marine Major joined the link.  The officer identified himself as Major Kellic, commander of the Marquis' personal Marine detachment.  As he spoke, he asked to speak to Sir Zimzod.  Zimzod heard, and calmly asked what he could do to help?  The Major told everyone on the link he'd have Zimzod to activate the "play and broadcast" built into the POV-data recorder in his battledress.  While Zimzod, and any battledress-trained Marine, knew the camera was there, and could broadcast, he hadn't had the training to activate it in the field.  Following Major Kellic's instructions, Zimzod activated the playback and broadcast all the data from the 'power on-self test' to the present.  While Stepozhevac officials could have claimed a fix, they'd be hard pressed to explain how the video fit the time line exactly?  And, it included a bit of obvious healing work done by Sir Zimzod, which was "not" footage for the squeamish.
After a short pause for consideration, communications resumed among the diplomatic parties at a much more civil level.  Soon after that, and just as Mikah was finishing perparing her patient to move, the bridge crew unbuttoned.  After a brief, frightened glance at the still present armored figure of Zimzod, they agreed to follow Admiral Meshrumiikiim to the Dawnstar Horizon.  While preparing to move the Councilor, Mikah saw a personal palm computer about to fall from the councilor's pocket.  Grabbing it, she put it in one of the pouches in her armor before anyone noticed.  Following them, Zimzod used the enhanced strength and support in his battledress to gently lift the injured Councilor and they carefully transferred him into the lounge of the Horizon with Aidan lowering the effects of the grav-plates along the way.  That let Mikah protect the councilor's injuries just in case.  In the lounge, they found the two bridge crew being directed into one of the Horizon's staterooms to join the other three uninjured survivors.  The wounded crewman had been set up where he could relax and be comforted as sedation did its job.  Sir Brian was also working from the coordinated screens and workstations in the lounge, with data linked back from Aidan on the bridge.
To this point, they had found the explosion had come from within the forward-lower cargo deck and blasted through into the upper decks.  That had instantly killed all the unprotected crew in the bay, the upper staterooms and the forward corridors crossing from the starboard to port sides of the ship.  It was luck that the Councilor and wounded crewman were at the starboard end of the passage.  They were thrown back into the surviving compartment as the iris valve slammed shut.  It was also lucky for the Councilor that the crewman was apparently between him and the blast, taking most of the damage.  As the down-well chatter continued, Mikah started setting up for serious surgery, to be assisted by Zimzod.  Zimzod realized that, as she setup her tools, should the patient die, Mikah would be responsible as the attending surgeon.  Sir Brian complained bitterly about having to watch the grisley work as he worked under the main screen, delivering his data.  The others did their best to ignore him.
Time passed while the medics worked and the diplomats talked, until they finally came to a solution that was acceptable to all sides.  First, the crew of the Dawnstar Horizon would work with the surviving engineers and bridge crew to decide the best way to put the damaged freighter into an orbit that would not decay or cross into traffic lanes.  They'd board the ship and prepare it to self-initiate the course change and burn after confirming the flight systems would still work as planned.  Then, they'd place a beacon on it stating the ship was interdicted and not to be approached on order of The Imperial Navy.  The Marquis would send ships to tow it back to the highport as they became available.  After that, the Dawnstar Horizon would burn the remaining hour in-system and pass through Porozlo prime orbit to re-enter.  They would land at an airfield in Stepozhevac national territory.  The crew would be questioned on the incident by Stepozhevaci authorities before lifting to return to Imperial space.  That last part wasn't what those aboard the Horizon wanted, but what they were being forced to do after a fight that included the Marquis, the Stepozhevaci and others.
Medical authorities had wanted the Horizon to dock at the highport.  Imperial authorities wanted the ship to land at the downport.  Tukera representatives 'demanded' the ship land anywhere but the highport while Equus was in-port.  And Stepozhevaci authorities demanded the ship land in their territory.  The final agreement called for Imperial Marines to deploy to create an "Imperial Exclusion Zone" at the landing field.  The ship would land inside that.  Once there, a Stepozhevaci team would board the ship and interview each member of the crew.  The Councilor and other injured man would be moved to a Stepozhevaci hospital for further care and the other survivors allowed to return to their home country to be debriefed.  A last remaining issue came up when Zimzod announced his intention to be "interviewed" by the Stepozhevaci in his battledress!  All those present saw this would create a huge issue, but it was Ms. Vik who acted first, reaching out to the Marquis' people.
Again, Marine Major Kellic called, this time for "Imperial Marine Sergeant Zimzod Egosion".  Zimzod reminded the Major he was no longer enlisted in the Imperial Marines, but wondered how he could help the Major?  The Major responded to that by reading orders present, backed by the authority of The Marquis as the Imperial Governor of the Porozlo system.  Those ordered re-activated "Sergeant Egosion" into the IMC.  He then issued the Sergeant a direct order to appear in his choice of Marine Class 'A's or a ship's Jumpsuit.  Sir Zimzod said he would wear class A's if they could get him a uniform to wear.  Otherwise, the battledress was the only proper Marine uniform he had.
_________________________________________________________________________ Next: The Destroyer Mission