Once again, Jie does an excellent job of driving the ATV. As dawn starts to rise, they have travelled 350km and are due east of P239. As agreed, Arvor makes a call to Karolina to give her their coordinates.
“OK,” Karolina says. “Stay where you are and try and stay out of trouble. I’ll go to Sternmetal Horizons and tell them that you were part of a training exercise. I should be with you in a few hours.”
Grim tries to camouflage the ATV as well as he can. The ATVs are all painted brightly though to make it as easy as possible for them to be spotted from the air. He tries to cover it with sand, but it blows off just as soon as he covers it.
It takes just 90 minutes before Arvor, who is on watch shouts, “Incoming!” as he sees one of the Sternmetal Horizons fighters on an approach run. No sooner has he said it than the fighter unleashes its laser which burns up the ground a few metres from the ATV.
Everyone immediately evacuates the ATV as the fighter wheels around to make a second attack. Jie gets it moving while the others scatter. Once she has it aimed in a straight direction, she puts a rock on the gas pedal and then bails out just in time as the ATV erupts in a mighty fireball as the fighter hits.
Arvor calls Karolina again to tell her to get them to call off the attack. She tells him to hold tight and says she will get on it straight away. As it happens, she needn’t have bothered as the fighter disengages, heading back towards Circle City, it’s job now done as the party members aren’t going to be going too far without transport.
There is nothing more that the party members can do but to try and keep out of the scorching hot sun and wait for Karolina to arrive.
It’s 10.45 when Arvor spots a shuttle heading towards them, coming in to land next to the wreckage of the ATV. As the shuttle lands, everyone takes cover and cover the entrance in case it’s a trap. However, it is Karolina who comes down the gangway, beckoning them to come and join her. Cautiously the party members do as they are bid.
Upon entering the shuttle, they see that apart from Karolina and the pilot, there is just one other man, a smartly dressed middle-aged executive. He doesn’t look too happy, but he is not armed or armored.
“Take a seat,” Karolina says to the party members.
“Circle City starport, please, pilot.”
Karolina doesn’t say a word during the short thirty minute flight back to the starport and nor does the executive. He is quietly seething with anger.
“Not the Sternmetal Horizons terminal please, pilot,” Karolina says sweetly. “Please drop us at the regular starport.”
“Yes, ma’am,” the pilot replies. The executive seethes some more.
The shuttle lands not far from Unguin’s Princess and everyone heads off.
“Thank you for your kind assistance in this matter, Malcolm,” Karolina says as she shakes hands with the executive. “I will make a complete debriefing of my team and we will then send you a full report together with recommendations as to how you can improve security in future to ensure that there can never be a repeat of such an escape attempt.”
“They still wouldn’t have succeeded,” the executive says venomously. “They’d never have made it to Circle City alive.”
He then turns on his heels and marches stiffly away.
Everyone quickly heads back to the Princess.
They find Max and Autumn with their feet up in the Passenger Common Room playing cards.
“Nice to see you back, gang,” Max says, genuinely pleased to see them. “It was a really shit New Year’s Eve wiv just the three of us here.”
“Are we all ready to depart immediately?” Will asks.
“Yes,” Autumn replies. “Staterooms are all recharged, we’re fully fuelled with unleaded and landing fees are paid up for a few more days.”
“Hold is full,” says Max. “I sold the silicates and the workable alloys and made Cr.100k altogether. I’ve kept the whisky and biodiesel as I couldn’t get enough for them. I also bought 30 tons of venison as well in refrigerated containers as they were a third off wholesale. Can’t find a buyer for the fighter parts still although I was trying like hell. We need to go somewhere with a big starport and a lower law level to move them. Weiss should be better.”
“I owe you 200k for your colleagues’ success in locating the mystery operation,” Karolina says. “I would also like to buy a high ticket to your next destination. I presume you’re heading for Weiss next?”
Grim nurses his wounded shoulder:
“I’m for leaving this place as fast as possible, let’s get somewhere civilized where there’s more than Cons, Screws, and Suits.”
“Weiss – Aki – Glisten seems like the best route to me.”
The others agree, with everyone wanting to get away from the planet as soon as possible.
Without even stopping to shower away the filth from the desert, Will, Arvor and Jie head for the bridge and Will asks the Port Authority for the next available departure slot. Unfortunately, Will is told that the next available slot is in a couple of hours. This strikes him as being a little odd, as there are just a handful of ships in port. There is nothing that they can do, however, not wanting to be in breach of making an unregulated departure.
At least it gives everyone chance to freshen up a little and to get out of their prison uniforms. It also gives Grim the opportunity of mending the sensors which Karolina completely fried while trying to get a reading on the location of the base. After changing few of the fuses, however, the sensors are working fine again.
Eventually, at 13.30, the Port Authority gives approval to depart and beams over the coordinates for the flight path, which Jie punches into her navigation computer. Once again, it takes them out over the rusty seas so as not to pass over any of the bases.
Will blasts off and follows the path that Jie gave him. To everyone’s great relief, after another half hour, they are free of Mithras’s atmosphere and into the darkness of space. Once they are free, Jie sets a course for jump distance, which Will follows as fast as he can (which unfortunately is not very fast in the case of Unguin’s Princess).
All is going fine for the first three hours of the journey towards jump distance and everyone is starting to relax a little, until Will hears the message that he has been dreading come over the radio:
“Type-A2 Unguin’s Princess, this is Gazelle Mithras Protector II, maintain your course and prepare for boarding.”
“I was worried about something like this,” Will says. “We’re still over three hours away from jump distance. Is there anything you want me to do now, or shall we just let them board us and hope for the best?”
“I don’t much care for the boarding option,” says Arvor. “I suspect that executive wants to take revenge, and needs to prevent word of our discoveries getting out.”
“In a best case, they will probably detain us all on charges of attempted murder, assault, conspiracy and send us to the second camp. He certainly needs to prevent Karolina from making a report to higher ups. We would probably end up at that second camp ourselves.”
“The Gazelle has four hardpoints, and may even carry particle accelerators. I think our best odds are to permit boarding, hide out in various spots and ambush their boarding party. On our own ship, as defenders, with access to the controls incluing grav and life support, we have a decent chance even against far superior numbers.”
“My plan would be something like: Will (if he approves), Autumn and Karolina are on passenger concourse when the boarding party arrives. She can try whatever diplomatic stuff she has at that point. The rest of us are holed up at various strategic points, ready to jump in at the first sign of aggression.”
“Their ship only has staterooms for a crew of four with eight additional. If most of them come aboard, that gives us a decent tactical chance.”
The others agree to the plan. Will stays on the bridge and radios back to the Gazelle telling them that they will stay on course and will happily agree to the boarding party.
The Gazelle stands off at minimum missile range and launches its 20-ton Gig. While the Gig approaches, the rest of the party discuss the optimum positions for them to take in order to defend the ship, in case Karolina’s diplomatic efforts fail.
Half an hour later and the Gig is now very close and slowing down in order to match trajectory with Unguin’s Princess. But then the voice of the Gazelle’s captain come on over the radio again. There is a hint of irritation in his voice.
“Type-A2 Unguin’s Princess, this is Gazelle Mithras Protector II, errm … there’s been a change of plan. You are now free to go on your way. Please carry on.”
A minute or two later and Will can see that the Gig has reversed thrust and is now heading back to the Gazelle. He patches the information through to the rest of the crew members over the tannoy and they all emerge from their hiding places.
Max asks Karolina if she can think why they might have changed their minds:
“Hmmmmmmm,” she ponders. “That is very strange. Even if they had no other agenda, they should have stopped us to search for escaped convicts.”
She shakes her head.
“I don’t know what this is all about.”
The party members are also unsure as to why Sternmetal may have called off the check, but realize that there is little that they can do other than to stay alert.
“Can I suggest we alter course to a different jump exit on a more no predictable route in case there is a surprise waiting for us?” suggests Taeva.
Jie gets on the case and inputs some new coordinates for the jump, plotting so that the Princess will emerge a little further out than being right on the limit and in a less obvious location.
The remainder of the journey to jump radius goes without incident. On radar they see the Gig has now docked with the Gazelle and is heading back for the highport.
Eventually, a little after 20.00, Jie confirms that the A2 has finally reached jump distance and Will hits the big red button, sending the Princess safely into hyperspace.
There are sighs of relief all round once the ship has departed from the Mithras system. Although there are no guarantees that the Mithras situation has been resolved, for the next week at least, there should be no danger.
“You guys must be gagging for a pint after spending New Year’s Eve in the chokey,” Max says. “I reckon that’s a good excuse for us to all get rat-arsed and make up for a lot of lost drinking time.”
There are no complaints at this and finally everyone is able to relax a little as Autumn serves up a good dinner for everyone, and Max serves up the drink. The evening is a long, but highly pleasant one, until the lure of a private stateroom as opposed to the grubby bunks of P239 gets too much and everyone heads off to get a good night’s sleep.