Mustered Out on Mertactor

322: 1107
Amber Zone

“Bring me a stout ale to quaff with these fine yeoman, Squire” said Richard Von Wolffe, Marquis of Ian. A long trial of misadventure and ill -fortune had brought him to Bowman, encompassing loss of his ship, imprisonment and escape from an Imperial Prison (and associated wanted status), misadventures in the Vargr Extents and, the final indignity, abandonment by a treacherous crew who refused to follow him back into the Imperium to refute the charges that had been made against them.

Even as he pondered the countenance of the arch villain Duncan – how could he have welcomed such a Viper into his crew – appeared before him and spoke to him in that annoyingly pedantic manner.

“It doesn’t matter if we were innocent of trespassing on an Imperial Reserve (and we were anyway). Breaking out of an Imperial prison is ILLEGAL, and they’ll just put us back in. Best if we keep running, and outside the Imperium.”

The knave clearly cared nothing about his greatness -his Family Honour. He and the others -even Dev – preferred their freedom to their duty to their Captain and his good name.

As he thought of his former ship even the title Captain grated- as with their ships – the last time he knew a large Vargr merchant vessel – he was no longer acknowledged as Captain. They were run as a sort of committee with Duncan and Dev as the chief ringleaders. Traitors!!! He was well rid of them.

At least Arpad had remained loyal; Arpad, the vile psychic head ripper who had escaped from the prison with them. He had awarded him for his loyalty by making him his Squire.

Arpad looked on dubiously as Richard turned red and fumed internally.

“He’s off again” thought Arpad, “Fuming at the others for not following his every preference. He is very handsome though”

Arpad sighed, and went off and bought two beers and a Vermouth Shirley: he knew that with Richard the beer was only for show, and he would likely end up drinking it anyway.

Richard stirred as the newcomers came in, some of them with maroon crew jackets which read ‘Unguin Princess’. One of them – their leader possibly – guffawed like a vulgar loudmouth and smoked expensive cigars, one looked a portly shoe salesman, and the other had ‘grease monkey’ written all over him.

The three ladies -they were another matter. Richard preened his moustache, not noticing Arpad shaking his head slightly

The trim blonde and the little asian girl were clearly stewardesses -.both very pretty but as likely as not not on a par with his own exceptional mental capacity.

The other he wasn’t sure about -stunning auburn hair trimmed at the shoulders, and dressed in a practical outfit which he recognised as superior cloth, in various shades of charcoal and dark grey. He spotted the hilts of various knives, and most of the group seemed to be armed with gauss pistols. He sniffed slightly as he patted his hidden snub. She was an odd one -the Captain’s girlfriend perhaps? This might be interesting.

“See? Unguin Princess, Captain?” Arpad generally referred to Richard as Captain, as clearly this massaged his ego slightly. Occasionally he had started to substitute ‘Commodore’ to see how that would go down. He had secretly pondered as to whether ‘Admiral’ might work even better.

“They don’t look much like in the film do they?” he continued. “And I don’t see the Wookie at all.”

“FIlm?” asked Richard. “You mean to say these people with the pink ship have had a film made about them?”

297: 1107
Local Heroes

There was an air of celebration among the people of Walston. They had survived a disaster in better shape than might have been expected and the crew of the ShakenVacc were, for now, heroes. The previous night had been a riot of celebration.

Paddy had taken the ship in hand, and was utilising the resources of Walston’s tiny starport to bear on making the scout ship flyable.

Although the town of Salbarii might have to be abandoned in the long term, at present it looked like this might not be necessary. The volcano was 20km away and the center of the eruption zone pointed away from the town. Lava was likely to flow south and west, down to the sea rather than northwards to Salbarii. Ash and dust was blowing across the island but the prevailing wind was taking it mainly out into the ocean. The eruption itself was winding down now that the pressure had been released, but it seemed likely that the mountain would remain active and if so, living so close was not really desirable.

Over lunch they spoke to Paddy, who seemed to have fixed it in his head that the group would fly the ShakenVacc to the scout base at Flamarrion. Max and Taeva looked at one another.

" ‘Old on there Paddy mate" said Max, " A favour is one ’fing but we got a bleedin’ ship to run. We can’t afford to spend months running errands for you: we ain’t in the IISS."

“Yes.” agreed Taeva. “We’re not bankrupting ourselves to do you any more favours Paddy. Time is money for us, and we can’t afford to spend months with our ship sitting idle. No dice.”

“Your scout ship, your responsibility mate” said Max. Will diplomatically went to the bar.

“Of course” said Max, “once we’ve collected the Princess we’ll be stopping off back ’ere again. If you want to make it worth our while we might consider operating your tub in tandam with ours. We will probably head for Flammarion anyway.”

296: 1107; late morning
Up and Away?

The falling ash was now moving horizontally. In the thin air of Walston there was a strong wind picking up, driven before a 75kph cloud of superheated steam and volcanic debris. The cloud would bury the scout ship easily if it was caught on the ground, and the heat would overload its systems and broil the occupants alive. The only chance was to run for it. But with only a minute to impact Will realised that his options were limited.

He could try to climb above the cloud, attempt to outrun it or, oddly enough, fly straight into it. This was not as insane as it seemed. He doubted that he could either reach above the cloud or outrun it, but heading into it might lessen impact due to the ship’s aerodynamics, and it would at least have its strongest axis pointing at the threat.

“Hold tight!” he yelled, as the black wall rose above him.

The wall hit the ship, and WIll struggled to hold control. The wailing of their passengers, mingled with the cries of a very distressed wolf provided a background cacophony.

Will realised that the ship was being flung upwards and backwards, out towards the sea. His geological training informed him that the base of the cloud would be superheated steam, and as long as they sat above that the ship would survive the high temperatures. The biggest risk came from the shockwave . As it hit he gritted his teeth, and the ship tumbled upwards and backwards. And then the lights cut out.

“The power systems !” screamed Grim over the intercom, as the ship tumbled powerless towards the top of its arc. Then it would start to spin, Will knew.

“We’re in an unpowered, tumbling, spinning deathtrap that used to be a space vessel. " thought Will. They had been flung out of the cloud but would soon fall back through it into the ocean. People and objects were flying about inside the ship.

Grim and Taeva scrabbled frantically in their webbing to reboot the power systems, and after what seemed an age Will realised that some of the controls were operational again.

“You should have power !” yelled Grim, “I’ve overridden the safety cutouts!”

As the scout ship is neared the apex of its crazy tumble through the sky it was spinning wildly, though Will did his best to bring the ship back under some sort of control. The ship did seem to stabilise somewhat, but Will realised that this was partly due to aerodynamic effect as it turned into a flat spin. But he had power now and he fought push the nose down and build up airspeed.

Just as he had almost given up hope The ShakenVacc pulled upwards and lifted her nose, scant hundreds of feet from the ocean. Moving at a terrific speed now the ship accelerated across the surface of the ocean, and climbed unsteadily to a safe altitude. They were safe.

296: 1107; even later, and a few minutes more
Brutal Descisions

Ten minutes later they were again contacted by the Prince from his temporary command post at Salbarii.

“There’s a train approaching Barvinn now. Hopefully it should get clear in time.” reported the Prince. " However, there are people still trying to get to the station, who will not be there by the time the train leaves. The submarine Ocean’s Bounty is in Barvinn, and will take aboard anyone who can be crammed in before heading out to sea and submerging. It should be safe, though nobody really knows how bad things are about to get."

“However, there are two groups that cannot reach safety in time. One is from an agricultural settlement, a farming hamlet well to the south. Ironically they might have been safe if they had stayed put or headed south, but then maybe not. In any case, they are now well within the threat zone and cannot be reached by anyone except your ship: eleven people in total. Can you rescue them?”

“What about the other group?” asked Will.

“Sadly I doubt you can do anything for them” said the Prince. “A stubborn old pair, I doubt they’d agree to move. It’s a question of priorities unfortunately.”

“Fine. We’ll do what we can” said Taeva interrupting, and mouthing the words ‘Brownie Points’ to Will. Will shrugged.

From the ship they could now see an ever-increasing flow of black smoke or ash-filled gas pouring from the mountainside. Their sensors now showed massive stress in the rock , before finally going offline.

“it’s time to choose what to do, and quickly” said Will.

“We should still get clear if we pick up the larger group” suggested Jie looking at the map, but if we rescue the two holdouts we’ll be caught for sure."

“Wait!” interrupted Will, “Radar is picking up an object coming in from the north, moving at well over 300kph.”

“Hmm, It’s transponder indicates that it is a grav car with call sign Walston One – the Prince’s own personal transport. "

“Probably flying blind now given it’s location” said Jie, “Must be ash everywhere.”

A breathless, growly voice – obviously a Vargr – wass broadcasting on the emergency channel.

“Scout ship, get the big group. I’m going after mum and dad. I can get there before you can. Good luck.”

“Female” said Jie, before going red. Taeva gave a wicked smile.

Will contacted the Prince, who confirmed that his chauffeur was out picking up some refugees and had taken it into her head to try a rescue.

“Her chances are nil, but the couple are her parents I suppose.” He shrugged. "It’s just the sort of idiotic, stubborn, half-crazy stunt you’d expect… " he paused. “Anyway it solves the dilemma. If you pick up the refugees at Barvinn, there is a half-decent chance of saving everyone.”

Minutes later they approached Barvinn, which proved to be very small, just three dwelling complexes and a rail platform where trains down the single line terminated. There was also a concrete dock with a semi-underground warehouse and a small crane for unloading boats and submersibles.

The area between the dock and the station was flat and concreted over to make transfer of cargoes (mainly fish) from dock to railroad car as easy as possible.

There were two civilian ground vehicles, typical 4×4 pickups as used on the local farms, parked on the concreted area. People were rushing around in a state of shock and panic. Some were pointing at a train which was disappearing northwards, some at a fishing sub. which was just visible out in the bay. Others were trying to break into a dwelling complex while still others were calling the rest back to the cars. These people were clearly desperate and had no idea what to do for the best.

“Jie come with me” said Taeva, “And bring Black Betty.”

When the scout ship appeared, people began to run towards it, waving, which of course was interfering with the landing. The two cars on the concreted area were an additional obstacle, and landing without crushing them would be tricky.

“Attention refugees!” called Taeva over the loudspeakers. “We are now landing and you need to clear the area for us to land. We have a short window of opportunity only for a rescue. Anyone who doesn’t move out of the landing area will likely be killed. Anyone who rushes the ship after landing will be shot. That is all.”

“Take her down Will” she said deadpan. Muttering something under his breath Will shrugged and landed the ship. Refugees scattered out of the way.

As the hatch opened Taeva and Jie, fully armed stood on the loading ramp. Immediately the crowd started to surge, and one unlucky local started to rush forward, egging the others on. Taeva shot him through the head.

The crowd paused and drew back, and Jie fired several bolts of visible light into the ground for emphasis.

“We have a window of two minutes” said Taeva. “You will file in an orderly fashion now and attach yourselves to the cargo netting in the bunkrooms. Don’t give us any trouble.”

Immediately she faced a cacophony of complaints and tales of woe.

“Listen” she said. “I don’t give a fuck. You’ve lost twenty seconds. Follow the instructions or stay and die.”

Some of the refugees, their numbers now swollen somewhat from eleven, started to file aboard. Some others started to rush for vehicles to gather possessions. Jie moved back inside the ship to keep the newcomers in the bunkrooms without any opportunity to cause mischief.

“Thirty seconds” called Taeva. Clearly some people were not listening. Behind she could see a vast pyroclastic cloud of dust and ash rising in the distance. A massive lava flow would lie behind it, from what Will had said.

“Time’s up.” called Taeva. “Will, take off now.” She stepped back and closed the ramp, ignoring the wails of those still outside. She looked into the cabins as they took off.

“Hang on, shut up and don’t give us any trouble. Or else.” Terrified the refugees eagerly shook their heads. Max also shook his head, marveling at Taeva’s public relations skills.

Back on the bridge Will was picking up another distress call from the dictator’s limo. The Vargr’s voice was even more breathless and there was a roaring sound that suggested that the windshield or another window had been shattered. There was also a hideous whining sound in the background.

“It’s the lift units” interjected Grim, “It’s in serious trouble.” The content of the call was plaintive and desperate.

“Mayday…mayday, this is Walston One. The car is damaged, drives are failing… windows are cracked and I can’t see properly… I think I’m heading for the sea but we’re losing speed and altitude. I don’t think we’re going to make it. Is there anyone? Please?” The voice sounded weaker, and then suddenly cut off.

“Radar shows the limo still limping towards the coast,” said Jie, “It’s maybe a few minutes ahead of the cloud.”

“It’ll be faster” said Grim, “Till it gives out of course.”

“It’s only a minute away” said Jie.

“I’m going for it” said Will.

The ship intercepted the cars course. It suddenly dropped of the radar, but they were still able to pinpoint its transponder beacon. With only a few minutes to spare, Will set down to a sky black with falling ash.

The downed limo was in a terrible state, much of the damage having taken place before the crash, it would appear. Someone was firing flares from an emergency kit, but the radio seemed to be out.

Jie and Taeva rushed out, and helped the three Vargr aboard. The female chauffeur had been hit in the face by fragments of the windshield when it shattered and was blinded by blood coming from a great many small cuts. They raised the ramp and with little time to spare, the tiny ship once again took off.

296: 1107 ;even later
The Scale of the Problem

A flyby revealed that Barvinn would be consumed by lava, and the overland route would be cut before anyone can use it. The railroad would likely manage to stay open almost to the end, however.

The lava was following ground contours and flowing much like a river, and flying parallel allowed them to estimate the rate of advance. They determined that Barvinn had two hours before the flow reached it.

There was still some doubt as to whether Salbarii was in imminent danger or would need to be evacuated in the longer term. Will realised that the only way to determine this was to get more data.

“So what you’re saying WIll is that Grim and I have to hop off, drill in more sensors, and hopefully not be burned alive?” said Taeva with a certain edge to her voice.

“It should be perfectly safe” said Will reasonably, “It’s not as though we’ll be doing this on the most active parts.”

Against their better judgements, they agreed to go along with Will’s plan. Fortunately the locations they used were currently quite undisturbed, and with the help of rebreathers they had planted half a dozen additional sensors within an hour or so. The additional data from the new sensors started to contribute to the larger picture.

" Well" said Will, " The flow rate has dropped because a plug has built up in the mountain somewhere. Now, sometimes this is a good thing as it can block the route to the surface and thus cause the eruption to end."

“I feel there’s a But coming” said Max.

“Um, yes” continued Will, “In cases like this where there is a lot of pressure underneath, a plug of this sort tends to be short-lived. When it breaks, it will be like a dam bursting; the lava flow will massively increase and a chink of the mountain may be quite literally blasted off.”

“And that’s bad is it?”

“According to the sensors and the model, Mount Salbarii is under rapidly increasing stress. Within a few minutes the plug is going to fail and a massive eruption will take place. Worse, a huge cloud of super-hot ash and gas will be ejected from the mountain and will hurtle out across the coastal plain. The town of Barvinn will be destroyed and anyone in it will die.”

“On a positive note the town of Salbarii will probably not be too badly affected, though a lot of ash is going to fall on it. In the long term the town may end up being abandoned.”

“I’m sure they’ll all be really pleased at that Will” said Grim sarcastically.

“Don’t shoot the messenger” snapped Will, reddening.

296-1107: a few minutes later
Mercy Mission

As the scout ship lifted clear of the hellzone that had become the crater, bushes begin to catch fire and the air outside filled with dust and ash. The radio became suddenly active, with two transmissions on similar bands.

The first transmission was coming in from the capital at Central Lake by way of the starport orbital beacon. Chamberlain Melzhett was demanding to know what was happening.

“We have garbled reports of smoke from the mountain and a tremor.” he barked, “What the hell is going on? What is the situation?”

As Will relayed the information he knew the Chamberlain became more and more frantic. As Will struggled to calm him Taeva opened up the second transmission.

“Hmm it’s the mayor’s office at Salbarii” she said to WIll. “He’s a little worried about the tremors and the the clouds of ash coming from the mountain. Frankly I don’t blame him”

“Well we could run now” suggested Will, “We will be ok at least.”

“I doubt that would win us many brownie points with these Vargr” said Grim, “And this ship just isn’t safe enough to refuel and try a sneaky jump out system.”

“We need to do the minimum possible to appear helpful” said Taeva, “Without risking our own necks overmuch.”

“I’ll relay the data through for now” said Will, “That should shut them up for a bit.”

For now they circled the area, allowing the sensors to update and relay new information. As they did so they learned that the world’s handful of grav vehicles were en route to Mount Salbarii, and a special train full of security personnel, fire and rescue workers, and the like, was being hurredly assembled. But for now it seemed that the ShakenVacc was the only effective rescue resource in the area.

Under instruction from the Chamberlain the ship made another flyby of the whole mountain and the surrounding region, and a direct video feed via the starport beacon was relayed to the capital.

There was a lot of thick haze caused by smoke and ash from the mountain, and the odd rock flung into the air made the trip exciting if nothing else. The ship’s radar and sensors made it possible to map the ground easily enough through the haze even though visual range was very short. A circuit of the mountain revealed that there was a small amount of lava in the crater itself, and some leaking from outlets on the higher slopes. Will realised that this was not a significant hazard beyond the immediate area.

There was also a major eruption much lower down, where part of the mountainside had collapsed. A veritable river of lava was pouring out of the southwestern side of the volcano. Here the land sloped generally down to the sea from the erupting side of the volcano, offering the lava flow a direct path to the sea.

At present it seemed that the town of Salbarii, some 20km north, was not in any real danger at present or in the foreseeable future. There were however some small settlements, mainly just farms and a couple of hamlets, in the path of the lava flow. Within hours at most these would be swamped. The only settlement of any size in the danger zone had a population of about 60 people and was on the coast.

Another transmission from Chamberlain Melzhett reported that the fishing submarine Ocean’s Bounty had surfaced and was transmitting her intent to run into the coastal hamlet of Barvinn where she would take off as many people as she could. The mayor’s office at Salbarii was also broadcasting instructions for all inhabitants of threatened settlements to make for Salbarii where they would be looked after unless the town was in danger, in which case they would be evacuated by rail.

After a while the a general broadcast from Prince Agzzrgh came on the air; from the poor quality of the transmission it seemed that he was aboard a fast-moving vehicle. His instructions to the people repeated those of the mayor of Salbarii – head for the town where a rescue plan was being put in place. Those that could not get to Salbarii should make a run for Barvinn on the coast and await rescue.

Minutes later a direct communication also arrived from the Prince.

“I’m on a grav car heading for Salbarii, one of only three we have.” said the Prince. “There is a road – more of a dirt track really – up to Salbarii but it runs close to the mountain and may already be cut. There is also a singletrack rail link down the coast to Barvinn which will stay open for a while. A train has already been sent to pick up the town’s population. However, it is likely that some people will arrive after the train has departed. The sub can take a handful off; the remainder will have to wait for a second run by the same train.”

“I’m setting up a command post at Salbarii and sending the grav vehicles to pick up anyone who is stranded. Our scientists are asking you to get an estimate of the lava flow rate. Then we’ll know how long Barvinn has before it is endangered. Ideally we’d also like to know if the road is still open”.

“Ok” replied Will, “Will do.” Once more the ShakenVacc headed back towards the disaster area.

The Test Flight

Just after dawn they were almost ready. While Grim and Taeva snatched a few hours of sleep the others packed up their gear and prepared breakfast.

“Not everything will be perfect” said Grim, “So we should make a dry run using the onboard training-mode simulators, and run some low and then full power tests on the ground. It will take a few hours but it’ll iron out the worst of the faults before takeoff.”

“Fine” sighed Max, “Bloody hop to it then”

The next hour or so was spent as they ran a few initial tests. Max had little to do and so he was the first to notice a gentle pinging from the sensor data processing suite.

“’Ere Will!” he called, “What’s going on?”

“Um listen everyone” called Will over the intercom, "The suite has revised it’s eruption prediction based on new data. To the computer. It’s…ah…. showing some new tables and models which, err, seem to be showing a 3D model of the mountain with a lava plume smashing through the plug " There was a moments total silence.

“How long Will?” asked Taeva finally.

“About 6 minutes”. A brief panic ensued as the crew cleared for immediate takeoff. Four minutes later they were ready. Will didn’t share his information that he didn’t think they had sufficient time to get clear of the eruption anyway. And then the sensor started pinging again.

Once again the suite was issuing revised data. The models were showing a much reduced lava plume pouring out into the crater and down the sides of the mountain, accompanied by a cloud of hot gas and ash. As they started to rise the first wisps of smoke could be seen coiling up from the lava tubes and the lake bed fissure. What water remained was beginning to boil. An eruption was obviously imminent, and the ground began to shake to confirm this.

As the call finally came through from Grim the powerplant rose to full power, as a plume of smoke started to rise from the southwestern side of the mountain, well outside the crater. The ground shuddered and the ship’s radar began warning of incoming missiles. Outside chunks of rock started to rain down on the ship.

Will realised that the lava plume had found a way out, through a path that was too far down the mountain to appear on their survey.

“Well at least we won’t be incinerated then” was his first thought. Even so the air in the crater would be becoming too hot and too laden with volcanic gases to breathe. As the ship finally lifted off, lava began to boil out of the lake bed fissures.

Taeva cursed intermittantly as minor electronic systems failed, and she ran about the ship replacing panels. Clearly this wasn’t going to be easy.

Minor Blips

While the others continued with repairs and tidying of the ShakenVacc, Will and Taeva looked at a map and discussed placing of the seismic charges. Will looked on nervously as Taeva fiddled with the timers and electronics of the devices.

The survey would take a full day of their time, and would involve emplacing a series of seismic charges and detonating them. The charges were on board the ship, and most of the morning was spent ferrying them to various points along the shore.

In addition they needed to place a number of ground sensor units all over the crater and in some of the lava tubes running off it. Charges would need to be set off in some of the tubes
as well. The effects of the charge detonations could then be used by the (now functioning) scout ship’s computer to create a 3D model of the volcano. When matched up with readings taken by more sophisticated sensors like the vessel’s high-penetration densitometer, this would allow the computer to predict if and when an eruption was likely. Other indicators included measurements of the lake temperature and samples of the gas mix around the crater area, and Will happily set off doing these while Taeva placed the charges.

As Taeva blew the last of the charges she headed back to the boat; in the distance she could see Will still taking water samples from around the edge of the lake. And then the ground started to shake.

The tremors were not particularly violent, but it was still going on ten minutes later as Taeva reached the dinghy. On the island she could see Grim and the others racing around in panic.

“Will, what the Fuck is happening?” screamed Taeva. Will grinned.

“Oh don’t worry, " shouted WIll, It’s likely nothing at all to do with the charges. These things happen on volcanos; we’d best wait for the computer analysis."

Oddly enough Taeva didn’t find that reassuring.

As they rowed back across Taeva noticed something else.

“Will, the lake level is dropping” she said. Looking over the side they could see bubbles arising from one corner of the lake, and also venting of smoke from the southeast side of the mountain. As they disembarked the tremors subsided, and the bubbling ceased.

By the time the ship’s computer had analysed the results the lake had drained completely, leaving only a few forlorn pools of sulphurous water.

Will looked serious as he read over the results.

“Hmmmmm. nothing is certain but it seems likely that the mountain is indeed becoming active. It would appear that the lava plug deep in the volcano’s innards has been breached and magma is seeking a way to the surface: nothing to do with our explosions by the way”

“It’s pretty likely that there will be an eruption of some kind within the next few months. However, I doubt that the scale will be very large. Chances are good that there will be very little lava actually reaching the surface, and what does escape will cool long before it reaches the base of the mountain. Gas and ash clouds may be more of a problem, but again it is likely that the eruption will take the form of a steady release of pressure, with a plume of ash-laden gas escaping from the mountain top to be blown downwind (which means to the west, across the island and out to sea). This might look alarming but should not seriously threaten even the nearest town. I’m sure the authorities will be pleased.”

“Well luckily the ship is nearly flyable anyway” said Grim. “If Taeva and I put in a late shift we should be ok by morning.”

“I’m with you” said Taeva.

New Brooms Sweep Clean

Gaining entry to the ship had not proven very difficult. Its reactor was powered down and the batteries were all but drained but there was sufficient power left to accept an entry code for
the airlocks, although the doors had to be manually opened. Inside, the ship was a terrible mess. It was clear that the crew never took proper care of the ship when it was their home, and in the process of leaving it they were not gentle.

Grim had managed to make friends with the starving animal, and the creature seemed to have taken a shine to him. He did his best to keep it out of the way of Taeva, now walking wounded (and fully armed), who from time to time cast dark glances at the creature.

Inside the ship virtually every access panel was open, the covers were off everything that has a cover and there were components strewn all over the deck. Putting it all back together would be a big job. Fortunately, some of the components could be bypassed or replaced with the gear the had carried with them up the mountain. The resulting lashup wouldn’t be pretty or safe for people walking past but would probably suffice to get the ship to the spaceport. Grim and Taeva sighed and set to work.

The first job was to be fix up the power, life support and flight systems and then to run some simulations with the ship’s software. This was a job that really could not be rushed: a
problem with the ship’s control electronics at the wrong time would be disastrous.

Meanwhile the others explored the crater, and sorted out the discarded survey gear the former crew had obviously completely ignored.

In the meantime there were two other jobs that need doing. The first was making the ship habitable. The general electronics systems dispersed throughout the vessel dealt with things like life support, recycling and lighting, but there was also a fair amount of filth and mess that needed to be cleared, and the others set to work on this. A number of filters were also missing and needed to be hunted down, and it was a task to return various scattered objects to their correct places. Setting the ship in order would take 2-3 days.

As they settled around the table for supper they also discussed the matter of the seismic survey which needed to be carried out. They decided that the following day Taeva, with her knowledge of explosives would work with Will, to try to get this additional task out of the way.

Dog Day Afternoon

As the best swimmers, Jie and Taeva volunteered to swim across the small lake. The water was warmish and smelled faintly of sulphur-there were absolutely no signs of anything living within it. Stripping down the two plunged into the water, and swam their way across.

The inside of the crater was made up of three concentric zones. The outer, or lip, zone was characterised by steep slopes, tumbled rocks and a general lack of life. The inner zone extended from the outer zone edge to the shores of the lake, and was an average of 6-800m wide. It had soil of a rather thin sort, covered in scrubby grass and in places a forest of waist-high bushes. It was here that the party had made camp.

The lake itself lay more or less at the center of the crater and was about 500m in diameter, being roughly circular. There was an island about 100m in diameter in the center of the lake, with vegetation of the same sort as around the lake. The water was warmish and drinkable though it had an odd mineral taste as might be expected.

Emerging from the water, Jie and Taeva could see that the Scout’s hatches were all closed but just about everything inside it had been dumped outside in a huge mess made worse by some kind of animal raking through it looking for food. The crew had seemingly attempted a repair then stripped everything of value that they could carry from the ship, dumped the rest and took off in the ship’ air/raft.

“These boys were real slobs” said Taeva shaking her head, and then turned as a flicker of movement hit the corner of her eye.

Drawing her knife and spinning round she was just in time to see a large dog like animal careering into her- she managed to stab once at the thing before its weight knocked her over, and she held her forearm up in an attempt to hold its jaws away from her throat. Fortunately for her, Jie was nearby, and picking up a piece of discarded metal she knocked the beast off her with a stunning blow to the head. The creature growled and whined, and then retreated snarling.

Looking down Jie saw that Taeva was badly hurt. She quickly saw to her wounds, and then secured the line they had brought across with them, which had been secured on a small makeshift raft. Rooting among the discarded supplies she also found a discarded inflatable raft, which made their task that much easier.

The rest of the morning was spent transferring their camp across the lake and examining the ship. WIll made Taeva comfortable and sedated her while she healed.

Among the wreckage was a forlorn metal food bowl licked clean long ago. The name ‘Kimbley’ had been hand-stamped into the metal of the bowl.

“Someone used to care for that hound” said Grim, “Poor Doggy. I wonder if I can make friends with it.”

“I think it’s a Tensher’s Wolf” said Will. "Not native to the Spinward Marches but often used as a guard animal. .

“I guess it was the ship’s dog- it is probably guarding its territory. It was probably domesticated.”

“And those bastards just dumped it huh?” said Grim. “Poor Boy.”

“Poor boy indeed” commented Will. “You know Taeva. She’ll probably poison it or shoot it to death when she regains consciousness.”