Quite what time Autumn and Will rolled back in is not known, but they do not emerge for breakfast.
Max seems back to his old self, the events of jump seemingly now completely forgotten as he gets straight down to work, calling the shipping department of the company which ordered the 30 tons of polymers asking them to make the collection as soon as possible.
A large grav/truck arrives a couple of hours later. Jie helps unload the ship and load up the truck while Max takes care of the paperwork. Once the cargo has been taken care of, they return to the passenger lounge to see that Autumn and Will are now awake and with them.
“Let me see if I can get ‘old o’ them Aslan,” Max says, flicking on his handcomp to do some searching.
He quickly manages to find the number and flicks on the voice-to-voice translator as he gives them a call. He spends several minutes on the commo before switching it off and relaying the conversation.
“Star and the crew of the Open Path are back out on a run at the moment,” he explains. “But Sunny is still wiv ’em ’ere.”
“The Chief Buyer is interested in the gear that I got and says we should come over to their place so she can take a look at it.”
“So do we all fancy a quick down to the meet back up with Sunny an’ see ‘ow ’e’s gettin’ on wiv ’is new pride?”
“Oh, that’d be swell!” Will replies, still feeling loved-up.
“Sounds good to me too,” agrees Jie. “It would be a great time for Grim and I to try to finagle the Aslan out of some custom made cutlasses. That would be cooler than a light saber.”
“If you offer to deal in blades with Aslan that might be a major Faux Pas,” warns Taeva. "You’d be insinuating that their dewclaws were so ineffectual that they needed to resort to blade weapons. They don’t use cutlasses. I know Sunny had that Battleaxe thing but I have a feeling that those sorts of weapons are a bit ritualistic with Aslan. "
Jie’s cheeks blush red and she silently curses being born on such a low-class world where she never came into contact with any alien races.
“It’s a good think that I have friends better travelled than me,” Jie says sheepishly. “I’d hate if I accidentally got one of them challenging me to a duel … well, unless they allowed me to bring Black Betty along to it.”
None of the others have any objections against heading over to meet with the Aslan and so Max gives them a call back, requesting navigation information to get to their plot on the surface. Jie heads to her astrogation console and calls over the Tannoy when she has it.
Will and Arvor come to the bridge to join her and then Will asks for a departure slot as soon as possible after they have performed the pre-flight checks. An hour later and they pull away from the dock at the Heaven’s Gate station and follow Jie’s route down to the Aslan plot on the surface of Dallia.
After half an hour, the Princess is making its way through the noxious gray clouds that cover much of the surface of the planet. Grim’s eyes are on the cams that show the exterior of the Princess, knowing that the corrosive atmosphere is no good for the ship’s hull at all.
“Mind you, if it got rid of that hideous pink paint job, it might not all be bad,” he says to the others with a shrug.
They pass through the clouds and see the barren landscape of Dallia. The corrosive elements have long since eaten away any jagged edges, leaving the landscape a series of smooth, rounded contours of rock.
Looking at the lifeless planetary surface, the bridge crew wonder to themselves why land such as inhospitable as this is so valuable to the Aslan – a question that only an Aslan could answer.
Ten minutes later and the Princess is travelling over the smooth surface of the planet, with all eyes on the viewscreen. Then they see the Aslan base, consisting of a series of low concrete domes clustered around a strip of runway. Arvor hails the base on the the radio and their tower gives permission for them to land, telling them to head immediately for Dome 8 once they have landed.
Will lands on the strip and follows the directions given. They see the huge doors to Dome 8 opening before them and the Princess enters. Control tells them to stay onboard the ship until it has been thoroughly cleaned.
The doors close behind them and they wait while the corrosive atmosphere is sucked out of the dome by the huge extractor fans and fresh air blown in. Once the atmosphere has been replaced, water jets appear from recesses all around the ship and start blasting away at it with streams of pressurized water. The whole procedure takes half an hour before the jets stop and the control tower tells the crew that it is now safe for them to disembark.
The party members head out and make their way to a large freight elevator which brings takes them down maybe 50 meters into the bedrock.
Upon opening the doors, they see a familiar face before them. It’s Sunny and he’s obviously delighted to see them all again. He gives each of them an almighty hug which threatens to crunch the life out of them.
Max wants to get straight down to business. Wearing the ‘Friend of Aslan’ talismans around his neck on a leather thong, he asks if Sunny can introduce him to the main buyer. Sunny is happy to oblige and the others tag along as Sunny leads them through a warren of corridors to commercial offices. Sunny introduces the party to an elderly female Aslan.
Max whispers to the others:
“Knowin’ ‘ow the Aslan works, these negotiations are gonna take quite a while. You might as well leave it to me an’ go an’ chat with Sunny while I do the business.”
The others are happy to oblige and so head off again with Sunny for a chat. He leads them to a large canteen area where there are several Aslan present in groups.
Jie asks if she can get an introduction to any trader crews that have been through Pagaton or close by over the past few months and so Sunny asks around, before finding a crew that has returned via Binges during the past couple of weeks.
She asks the crew if they know anything about recent space pirate activity in the Pagaton system. She learns that the Aokholkhtyeilik clan don’t stop off at Pagaton, preferring to route via neighboring Binges instead where they find the Droyne operating the starport there easier to deal with. In addition, the only goods worth buying on Pagaton are usually stolen goods from elsewhere which the Aslan find dishonorable to deal in.
They say, however, that Pagaton is not particularly dangerous for merchant ships. The pirates coming through the system usually operate a ’don’t shit where you eat’ policy and most of the merchants coming through usually have important contacts on the world which makes pirate attacks. It tends to be the lightly populated systems within a couple of jumps of the world such as Noctocol, Milagro, Talos, Judice and Melior which are the dangerous ones.
She also asks whether they have heard of any large lots of valuable artwork being offered on the market, but the Aslan have not heard of anything.
While Jie is chatting with the Trader crew, the others are chatting with Sunny. Over the course of half an hour, Sunny’s initial delight at seeing his friends once again wears off and he starts to grow sullen and withdrawn. It’s quite obvious from his silence and body language that Sunny is not a happy Aslan.
“So Sunny: a lot has happened to us since we departed on Glisten,” Taeva says. "Has your time been eventful?”
“Not really,” he says morosely. “Mostly I’ve just been lion around.”
He smiles at his weak attempt at human humor.
“I don’t really know what to do next,” he sighs. “And it was all because of that ea’yaairl micro-meteorite that came from nowhere and wrecked my ship.”
“The Aokholkhtyeilik have been honorable hosts during my stay, but I am not part of their pride and so will never become anything here while I stay with them. They have offered me passage back to my homeworld, but I can’t go back now. It would bring great dishonor to my pride that I returned with no ship and only through the charity of a different pride.”
“I need to do something heroic to restore my honor,” he continues. “I know what I need to do, but the Aokholkhtyeilik will not support me as they believe that it is too dangerous and they don’t want to risk any of their clan or their ships. And so I am stuck here with no options available to me.”
He sighs another forlorn sigh.
“I know I’m going to regret this,” Taeva says as she swallows her drink down. “What plan do you have? It might tie in with our journey to Pagaton.”
After the three rounds of champagne she drank with the trader crews, Jie overhears Sunny’s woes.
“Danger? Risk? Low to no profit? Sounds like a sounds like a job for InterSol!"
Grim shakes his head, pauses, then laughs.
“Well…” Sunny replies with a little hesitation. “It’s like this …”
“The Wahtoi clan, of which the Aokholkhtyeilik are vassals, are currently involved in a clan war with the Wu’kihiykhiy’tang Clan – most commonly known to humans as the Wu-Tang Clan. The Wahtoi managed to take some territory from the Wu-Tang Clan a while back on Nora’a. The Wu-Tang did not take such a loss of their lands lightly and have been looking to seize territory elsewhere to use as a bargaining chip in their negotiations to get it back.”
“According to rumours that our traders have picked up on their travels, the territory that they are looking to take is the base here on Dallia. It is far removed from most Aslan territory and is quite lightly defended and so is a much softer target than any of the worlds in the Hierate or close to it where the Wahtoi is well-prepared for an attack. More rumours say that the Wu-Tang Clan has already started to amass forces to make an attack.”
“The Wahtoi has informers on all of the surrounding systems within striking distance of Dallia, but none of them have reported any sign of any build up of Aslan ships.”
“There is one other clan which has holdings in the Dallia system, the Cu’eakhtawa’clux Clan – most commonly known to human as the Cu-Clux Clan. They have holdings in Dallia’s asteroid belt. The Cu-Clux Clan is supposed to be neutral in this and, as members of the Twenty-Nine Clans who control the Hierate, the Wahtoi cannot afford to antagonize them by making incorrect allegations.”
Sunny looks at each of the party members in turn.
“If I could get proof that the Wu-Tang Clan is really building up forces in this area and that the Cu-Clux Clan are supporting them, then I would be a hero,” he continues. “I could not go there in a Wahtoi ship though or else it would be too dangerous. With a good cover story though, a human trader might be able to get into the belt without arousing too many suspicions.”
“What sort of cover story?" Taeva replies. "Our experience is that Aslan are unwilling to trade with us-except when we displayed the Runes we were given. And obviously we wouldn’t be able to do that in this instance.”
“Well, we could pretend to be scouting on behalf of prospective miners," Grim suggests. "Will’s backround in Planetology and my heritage from the Pluvis Belt give us some credibility. This would set up an inherent conflict with the Cu Clux Clan but would also give us a ‘legitimate’ reason to be out there. Perhaps we could make contact with the Clan and offer to mislead our clients into thinking the belt depleted for a price? That would lead them to thinking we’re in their debt, and thus in their power, making it easier to pump them for information about the Wu Tang?” says Grim in an uncharacteristic display of nonjuvenile verbiage.
“And I wonder if Trexalon is involved? Sunny, do you know if either Collace or Trexalon have any ties to Wu Tang or Cu Clux?”
“I doubt that there is any involvement from any human power blocks,” Sunny replies. “Aslan are not popular with any of you shaved monkey men. This subsector is far enough away from the Hierate today that humans are more involved with their own petty squabbles for the moment. However, there will come a day when the Hierate has expanded its borders to the edges of this subsector. And when that day comes, the petty powers of Collace and Trexalon will put aside their petty differences to fight against the bigger threat.”
Sunny says all this in a matter-of-fact fashion. It’s impossible to tell whether he relishes this day or sympathizes with the plight of Humaniti.
“Grim’s idea sounds like the bare bones of a decent plan to me,” he continues. “The asteroid belt is vast and the Cu Clux only have rights to a small proportion of it. There are many human companies also exploiting other parts of it. Other parts are still in the process of being researched to determine whether they have mineral deposit worth exploiting or not.”
“So we could get fairly close to the Cu Clux holdings before it would arouse any suspicions.”
While listening to Sunny, Arvor’s handcomp pings and he flips it open to read the new message that has arrived. He reads it carefully and then closes it down again. He is silent for a while and then speaks:
“Unfortunately I am not going to be able to accompany you on this mission,” he says with a hint of disappointment evident in his voice. “It’s a message from Baroness Anya. Relations between Collace and Trexalon have taken a turn for the worse. The message didn’t say what and – even if it did – I would not be allowed to divulge that information.”
“But the situation is severe enough that the service has called up all its reservists. As part of my mustering out agreement, I am contractually obliged to return to active service if required.”
“So I am afraid that I am going to need to leave you and head straight to Collace on the ship out.”
The party members pass on their commiserations before continuing to discuss the plan of posing as prospectors in order to get closer to the Aslan holdings in the asteroid belt. This continues until Max arrives, grinning from ear to ear.
“’Appy days” he shouts. “We’re millionaires again! Well not individually we ain’t, but as InterSol we are. Always nice to ’ave a spare mill in the bank for a rainy day.”
Autumn gives him a high five.
“They’re just unloading the gear now.”
The others fill him in on Sunny’s mercy mission.
“Fack – that sounds dangerous,” Max says rubbing his stubbly chin. “An’ ’ighly unprofitable too.”
“Still, with the 400k we just made by being matey with the Aslan, they’re a more deservin’ cause for our charity than most of the wasters we meet.”
“If it all goes tits up, I can see that we might have to jump out of there to save our asses. And while I don’t really give a rat’s ass about missin’ out on some passenger revenue – sometimes I think that they’re more trouble than they’re worth anyway – I don’t want to miss out on shippin’ a cargo to Pagaton. It’s a rich low-tech world where they should pay top credit for whatever we bring in. So I reckon we should get back to the Heaven’s Gate highport again, drop off Arvor, pick up Miranda and some freight and then do the job.”
“That will give us the opportunity to learn a little more about what is going on in the belt,” he says. “Is that OK with you, Sunny, if we take another couple of days to get started?”
“I don’t think it will make too much difference. And I am indebted to you for your help with this.”
So the plan is agreed. Sunny heads off to pack his gear, which mainly consists of his yeheal autorifle plus several clips.
By the time Sunny is ready, the Princess has been unloaded and so the party members are able to board. The airlock door is secured and then all of the Aslan evacuate the landing bay. The crew go through their pre-flight routines – for the last time in Arvor’s case and then tell control that they are ready to depart.
The large cover above them slides open and the bay starts to fill with the noxious clouds of gas. As soon as the bay is fully open, Will pulls back hard on the throttle, launching the Princess into the skies, wanting to be out of the clouds as soon as possible in order to protect the Princess’s paintwork. It takes only 15 minutes until they are above the clouds and, another fifteen minutes later, the ship is coming into dock with the highport.
As soon as they have docked, Grim orders a clean up job and a swarm of drones are summoned to spray down the ship’s hull with neutralizing chemicals.
The party members say their final farewells to Arvor as he packs his many belongings and heads off to book himself passage to Collace.
The others head out to find out where the local belters hang out. They spend the evening buying drinks for various belters, subtly trying to find out as much as they can about who is doing what out there in the belt. By the end of the evening, everyone is pretty drunk, but have a fair idea of what is happening out there.