“Are we nearly there yet?” sighs Max over another of Miranda’s lavish breakfast. “It’s been four bleedin’ days already. We got another bleedin’ mortgage payment due in a week. Time is money.”
“Well if we could upgrade the M-drive, we’d have saved ourselves a day or two,” grumbles Grim.
Jie flicks open her handcomp.
“Relax everyone,” she says. “A few more hours and we will be in sensor range at least.”
Sure enough, by lunchtime, Jie’s sensors are starting to pick up radio traffic coming from the belt.
Everyone crowds around the bridge listening to the radio traffic. Most of it is in Aslan.
“So what can you understand, Sunny?” she asks the Aslan.
“I think I can hear Wu-Tang accents among the traffic,” he replies. “But I can’t say without a shadow of a doubt. And they are speaking in code so I don’t know exactly what they are saying. It’s certainly not going to be enough to prove one way or another what is going on here.”
“So what do you suggest?” asks Will.
“We need to get within visual distance,” he replies. “If I can produce video evidence showing Wu-Tang ships here, then that might be enough.”
Jie brings up the holoscreen and flags up the location of all the data transmissions.
“So there’s a major cluster of them over here,” she says, pointing.
“Yes, that’s the location of the main Cu Clux base from what we learned from chatting to the belters back on Heaven’s Gate,” interrupts Grim.
“But there seem to be a few solitary ships dotted around the cluster,” Jie continues. “The closest one is this one here.”
“Has anyone taken any interest in us so far?” asks Will.
“Not yet,” replies Jie. “There are several other human ships in the region, supplying the human belters I guess.”
“So let’s see if we can creep up on the closest vessel to see if we can bring them up on visual without them spotting us,” Will says.
“If we switch to passive sensors, I can set a course that takes us through the asteroid belt without them picking us up unless they are actively making a visual search for us to,” Jie says. “But you’ll need to fly on manual. Do you think you can handle it, Will?”
“Why, of course I can,” Will replies. “Have I ever let you down before with my flying?”
“Not yet,” Max replies. “But there’s a first time for everything. And, in this instance, the first time could be the last time.”
On that happy thought, the others leave Jie and Will to get down to business and retire to join Miranda in the passenger lounge so that they can watch the journey through the belt.
It takes a couple of hours until they reach the fringes of the belt and then the white knuckle ride starts at Will skilfully maneuvers the Princess through the belt.
Jie continues to monitor the passive sensors to keep track of the Aslan vessel. A couple more hours later and she announces, “We should be within visual within the next 10-15 minutes.”
Will starts to decelerate as the other party members rejoin them on the bridge. Sure enough, some ten minutes later and they have managed to pick up the Aslan ship on video. Will sets the vidscreen on maximum zoom and Sunny studies it intently.
“It’s a 400-ton Ehatau Trader,” he says. “The most common class of Aslan ship you’ll find outside the Hierate. And it’s completely unmarked. The Wu-Tang have many and the Cu-Clux have many. It could belong to either.”
There is a collective sigh that the job is not going to be solved so easily.
“So what would you suggest that we do now, Sunny?” Taeva asks.
Sunny thinks for a moment and then his eyes grow wide as if he has a ‘Eureka!’ moment:
“Let’s board the ship, take out all the crew, steal the ship and bring it back to the Aokholkhtyeilik as a prize!” he roars in triumph. “Then I will be a hero, my honor will be restored and I can go home.”
“Steal a ship twice the size of the Princess??!!” Grim exclaims. “Are you MAD??!!”
“No, chimp boy, I am not mad. I am BRAVE.”
Discussions between Sunny and the humans are split. The humans are all of the opinion that Sunny’s plan is ‘A Very Bad Idea’. Sunny thinks that they are all weak cowards. The debate drags on for what seems like hours.
“So how do you propose that we get onboard in the first place?” Jie asks.
“Such trivial matters are for women to decide upon,” he replies, folding his arms in disgust.
The humans discuss ideas among themselves before Jie comes up with a plan to come up with a fake find of a mineral rich asteroid that they are willing to sell to the Cu-Clux. The plan meets with everyone’s approval.
“Let’s fake up a geological report showing an asteroid that is mostly carbon with a rich veining of platinum,” Will suggests. “I could run up one of those in my sleep.”
“Brilliant!” Sunny exclaims. “They’ll have enough carbon to totally corner the Aslan market for pencils for the next thousand years!”
Will sighs and gets to work on some realistic looking computer-generated geological analysis.
“Now all we need is someone who is really good at bullshitting to get us onboard,” Taeva says.
All eyes fall upon Max.
- – - -
“So, I’m tellin’ yer mates, yer goin’ to be minted once you start drillin’ this little lot out,” Max is saying over the radio. “Just think of all the ‘onor yer goin’ to bring for yer clan when they’re pullin’ the platinum out of the rock like it’s never gonna end.”
Max rabbits on for a while longer until he flicks the radio off.
“Sorted,” Max reports. “They’re up for it. Now we just need to work out the fine points.”
Taeva and Grim work out the fine points.
Will then fires up the M-drive again and heads to dock with the Aslan Trader.
Taeva and Grim vacc up and head for the cargo bay, while the others stay on the bridge. As Will brings the Princess to dock with the much larger vessel, he opens the cargo doors to allow Grim and Taeva to exit. They quickly make their way towards the ship, towards the exit points for the escape pods.
Jie and Max comprise the delegation. Jie decides that taking Black Betty with her would look a little confrontational and so just takes a dagger.
“Bollocks to that,” Max says. “I’m takin’ me friggin’ gun.”
He checks there’s a fresh mag in his seldomly used gauss pistol and waits for the airlock to cycle.
Upon seeing what greets them, Jie thinks that Max might have made the best decision. Facing them are four large males. Theyhave assault rifles slung over their shoulders and are holding large axes.
“They don’t look like normal traders to me,” whispers Max to Jie.
“Come,” one of the female Aslan says leading them upwards to the bridge.
“I’m Max and this is Jie,” Max says, “And who may you be.”
“I am Htekhearliy,” says one of the males. “Or, in your tongue, Ghostface Killah.”
“I am Ea’ihwaorl,” says the other male. “Or, in your tongue, Ol’ Dirty Bastard.”
“Hmmmmm,” says Sunny, listening in from the bridge. “Those names mean they are definitely member of the Wu-Tang Clan.”
Meanwhile, Grim is hot-wiring the electronic override to the escape pods. He manages it with ease and then opens it up in order to allow Taeva entry. He then follows her by opening up the next one. By the time Max and Jie have started their negotiations in the office with the pilot and navigator, both Taeva and Grim are inside the ship.
Taeva switches on the Stealth Mode on her suit and then carefully opens the iris valve into the ship. Unfortunately, the iris valve opens with a grating sound and, in front of it, guarding the bridge are two large males. They both roar out in alarm before they are quickly taken down in a hail of gauss pistol fire.
In the cramped confines of the office, all hell lets loose. Jie finds that she has brought a knife to a sharpened dew claw fight. She lunges at one, but only inflicts a slight cut. In return, she gets slashed by a dew claw. Max draws his gauss pistol and just fires in panic at anything in the room which is large and furry, managing to drop the navigator in the process. Fortunately most of the Aslan in the room are still in a state of shock and its too cramped inside for them to bring their axes to bear.
Sunny roars as he sees the fight breaking out, grabs his assault rifle and heads to join the fray, with Will and Autumn following right behind him.
Up at the bridge, Taeva and Grim arrive and even out what is a rather one-sided fight in the office. Together they quickly manage to take out the opposition together with the ship’s medic, which is the only other Aslan on the bridge.
At the airlock, Sunny locks dew claws with the first of the two guards the Aslan placed, with each of them getting wounded. Autumn manages to finish the first and then the second off allowing the three to get inside the ship.
They head for the zero-G shaft that connects the five levels of the ship and Sunny leads the way up.
On the bridge deck, gunners and engineers start to appear, but Grim and Taeva are covering the entrance to the bridge and drop them as they appear.
Marines are coming down from the top deck though now. Sunny rushes up towards them to take them on, two at a time. While Will stays at the bottom covering the shaft, Autumn heads up in order to hand Black Betty to Jie so that she can lend a hand to keeping the Aslan on this deck at bay.
Sunny has the hardest job though as he lashes out at the descending marines. He gets wounded, takes one of the marines down, but is then slashed in the throat by another.
From down below, Will see Sunny fall:
“Oh my God, they killed Sunny! YOU BASTARDS!” Will shouts before reaping vengeance on Sunny’s killer.
Autumn takes out another one, but there are still a fair few more Aslan up there who pounce upon them. Autumn lets out a scream as two of them fall upon her, slashing her badly and dropping her to the ground before Jie and Taeva quickly fry and perforate them respectively.
One last Aslan tries to make his way down the shaft, but Will takes him down with another volley from his gauss pistol.
All is still on the ship.
Taeva lowers her pistol and reloads.
“Will, check out Sunny and then Autumn. Grim – with Sunny down you’ll have to do the best you can with the Hard Drive. We should ransack the Captain’s Cabin for documentation. Film it all. Jie, come with me to the Engine Room.”
“Wait – hang on a moment Jie.”
She looks down the shaft, and clambers down toward Sunny where she can see Will bent over him.
Will checks his vital signs and then shakes his head:
“He’s dead,” he confirms. “But he died with honor. He died a hero. He died fighting like a .. an errm … lion. And not like a … an errm … cowardly lion.”
“Great,” Max says with his usual dark humour. “So now we just need to find a heart for the robodog and a brain for Jie and that’s the Wizard of Oz adventure finished at least.”
“Shit. Like I said I knew I’d regret this,” Taeva says as she closes Sunny’s eyes and removes his Honour Pouch.
“I’m not sure what their rituals are but I imagine we should get this back to his Clan.”
She sighs. "Aslan are strange. I suppose this is what he wanted. "
“Look can we possibly fly this thing? Or at least set it on a course where it will fly close to the Aslan Base? Sunny seemed to think these were Wu Tang. I suggest we send a message to the Aslan on Dallia with some of the footage-including their shrine that will be the giveaway. I’m hoping Sunny was right – presumably he was capable of recognising the Wu Tang. If we do that we fulfil Sunny’s mission and hopefully our friends will be able to pick up the ship."
“I count sixteen heavily armed and armored Aslan in addition to the crew,” Max says. “There’s no way a normal Aslan trader would need that much muscle. I’d bet that Sunny was right and that it’s proof that there really is a Wu-Tang build up here.”
“We should check the Hold and Low Berths too-there may be more evidence,” Taeva continues. “We might also ask what to do with poor Sunny.”
“Ask who?” Max replies. “Which reminds me – what are we gonna do with all these unconscious and seriously wounded Aslan? Only a few of them are complete gonners – a lot of them are gonna be wakin’ up soon. An’ they ain’t gonna be ’appy little kitties neither.”
“Duh Max, the Aslan on Dallia-our pals. As regards our bills are there any valaubles in the cargo hold or ship safe?” Taeva asks.
“I’ll go an’ check what they have in the ’old,” Max says. “It looks like it was full of containers. But whether they are empty or full is another matter.”
“Jie, I think you should get back on the sensors to see if we’ve caused any disturbance,” says Taeva.
“I’m on it,” Jie says heading for the bridge.
Will has just about finished bandaging up Autumn now, but she is still in a pretty bad way. As soon as he sees that she is in a stable condition, he then starts on seeing to the injured Aslan.
“Can you help me to the Med Bay?” Autumn asks, stifling the pain. “Miranda can look after me once I get there.”
Jie gently lifts Autumn’s bleeding form in a fireman’s lift and takes her back to the ship.
Miranda gasps as she sees the extent of Autumn’s wounds as she helps Jie to lay her out in the Med Bay. She then proceeds to fuss over her like a mother hen while Jie checks out the sensors.
“Seems we got away with it,” Jie reports over the commos. “I’m not picking up any unusual radio activity and there are no ships on a trajectory that would bring them on an intercept course with us.”
The rest of the crew search the ship.
“I’ve got 16 low berths here in the room behind the bridge,” Grim reports. “All of them are empty. With those plus our five on the Princess, we’ve plenty of space for all the surviving Aslan. Want me to start loading them in for now?”
Taeva checks the Purser’s Office. Her eyes light up as she finds a safe – naturally it is locked. It is electronic in nature, which seems to require a key code and retina scan to open.
Max continues to investigate the hold.
“It’s a right treasure trove down ’ere,” Max says. “Although I can’t figure out what most of it is because I can’t read the labels.”
“There’s 40 tons of some chemicals, 20 tons containing some kind of fuel in barrels, 15 tons of medical supplies, a couple of tons of what looks like replacement parts for cybernetics, five tons of some kind of pharmaceuticals, and then there’s some nasty stuff as well. There are four tons of slaving gear and five tons of what looks like bombs.”
“So about 90 tons of gear all in.”
“So what are we gonna do wiv it all?”
Will has now finished attending to the injured Aslan. Of the 25 Aslan who were onboard, five of them are dead, eight seriously wounded while twelve were just knocked unconscious.
Leaving the others to attend to the Aslan, Will puts his mind to other matters:
“I’ll go to the bridge and see if there’s any way that I can figure out to fly this thing,” Will says.
“Hmmmm, if I stretch my fingers like this, and reach around with my other hand with my thumb just so…got it!" Will says. "Wouldn’t it be easier to program the autopilot? Anybody speak Aslan? I can’t comprehend this chicken scratching – and I’m a doctor! Curse these TL14 shoes – no laces. We could just tie this throttle to this scratching post, and jam a knife into that button-well that looks like it’s sized for a claw.”
He scratches his head and then puts his goggles on and activates the HUD. Selecting Aslan from the menu, he looks once again at the console.
“Aha! So there are the autopilot controls.”
“Jie, come and have a look at the navigation computer through these,” he says.
Jie comes to join him on the bridge and the pair of them study the controls for a while conferring before Jie nods in agreement.
“Yes, seems simple enough,” she agrees. “So do we want to send it into orbit around Dallia?”
Jie nods at Will. She puts the H.U.D. goggles on and begins to use her two stealth daggers as claws while typing in the Astrological coordinates for the Aslan base on Dallia. The task is difficult but with time she eventually muddles through the math.
“I t’ink I gobb it Cabbtain,” Jie sniffles as she removes the goggles. Her eyes are blood red and swollen. Tears and boogers ooze off her face as she breathes in choppy, ragged breaths.
“Oh dear, girl. You must be allergic to something on this ship. But what could it be?” Will wonders as he absent-mindedly swipes a hair ball off his command chair.
Taeva’s diligent work upon the safe is rewarded with a satisfying click as the door opens.
Excitedly she goes through the contents. Inside it she finds Cr.Imp 40,000 plus an amount in Aslan currency. After a little research on her handcomp, she discovers that it is worth around Cr, 100,000, although it will be a little less than this after converting it into CrImps.
In addition to the currency, she also finds a dossier. She doesn’t have time to go through it in detail, but a quick glance through her goggles tells her that this is some kind of a battle plan for an assault upon the Aslan holdings on Dallia.
“We should let our Aslan friends on Dallia know about this,” she tells the others. “After all, the main point of this was to stop them being surprised by a sneak attack.”
“I’m planning on playing up Sunny’s heroic role and the fact that he uncovered the plot in the first place. I will also ask what we should do with Sunny – we don’t really know Aslan Ways. I’ll also ask if its OK to add the ship captain’s insignia to Sunny’s Honour Pouch as his final exploit – and what to do with it: can they or we get it to his nearest Clan Base?”
“We Should also attach video footage.”
“If we claim some of this Aslan cargo, we might be able to sell it to the Aslan on Dallia-in which case it’s worth going back there. As it’s our ship that did the attack that would count as our prize money – after all the ship itself is worth zillions to the Clan. I’m guessing much of the stuff is of use to Aslan only, so it may burn a hole in the hold if we take it with us to Pagaton.”
“Our hold is already full of gear as it is, darlin’” Max replies. “We’d ‘ave to dump most of it and that’d just be pissin’ cash away.”
“It’s about time one of our mercy missions ended in a decent pay-off,” he continues. “My vote is that we get the Aslan ship and ours back to Dallia, sell what we can to the Aslan, keep the most valuable stuff an’ then set off to Pagaton after we’ve maximized profits. Miranda’s Connoisseur will ’ave to wait another four days to get rescued. Money comes first.”
Jie nods in agreement:
“Some of the taken cargo might do well to grease the wheels of of the pirates hanging around Pagaton,” she says. “It may be easier for us to complete Miranda’s mission if we have them on our side.”
“Good point,” Max agrees. “Some of that gear looks pretty dodgy to me – especially those bombs. I wouldn’t want to risk sellin’ them on any civilized planets, but it looks like Pagaton’s a place where anythin’ goes, so the dodgy gear may come in ’andy.”
The others nod in agreement.
“Right, let’s get moving then,” says Will.
The party members put the last of the Aslan into the low berths, filling those both on the Aslan Trader and of the Princess while Taeva empties the safe.
“Grim, if you can start up the engines on the Princess, Jie and I will program the autopilot on this ship,” Will continues.
Grim heads to the engine room, taking himself a Khaihte as a memento on the way out.
As Grim gets the engines going, Jie and Will program in the course on the autopilot, setting it off in the direction of Dallia. Once they are confident that the ship is heading in the right direction, they evacuate the ship and head back to the Princess. Once they are on the bridge of the Princess they disengage from the Aslan ship and set their own course for Dallia.
Will matches velocity with that of the Aslan ship so that, if their calculations were a little out, then they could board again and reset it.
Everyone then settles in for a long and rather dull journey back to Dallia.