In the morning, Jie has one last practice session with Black Betty before she gets down to what is sure to be a long day on the sensors. She press-gangs Max into helping her out, asking him to endless toss a half credit coin up into the air from the safety of an open iris valve at the opposite end of the corridor.
Max sighs as he performs the task over and over again – he must have performed this exercise a thousand times over the past twelve months and she’s never managed to hit it yet. He continues to toss the coins for the best part of half an hour, not even looking at the results until an almighty cry of victory goes up from Jie.
“I DID IT!” she cries. “I FINALLY DID IT!”
Max goes over to give her a celebratory hug (trying to cop a feel in the process like he always does)and then the pair of them go up to meet the others. Unfortunately there is no alcohol onboard and so they are only able to toast her success with tea.
The celebrations are rather short-lived, however, as Will sensibly informs the others that they are getting within the jump diameter of Gugh in a couple of hours and so it is time to make a decision as to whether they should proceed closer to the planet or stop in a position where they could safely jump away if the Veng comes after them.
The Patroller has been advancing on passive sensors for the last twelve hours, but it is not picking up any sign of activity either from the Veng or any base on the planet. The party members decide to move in closer in order to find the Veng, even if it means that they aren’t going to be able to jump away from any danger.
A couple of hours later and they are getting close to the planet now, but the passive sensors are still not picking up any readings. Realizing that they are losing valuable time, they decide to switch on the active sensors. For the first ten minutes, the sensors are still not picking up any signs of activity – the Veng presumably still being indistinguishable from the surface of the planet. But then Jie sees that the Veng is starting to take off, heading towards the Patroller at maximum velocity.
“We’re doomed!” Will cries. “We’re doomed I tell you! That Veng out-guns us and can out-run us too. We’re doomed!”
“I’m not so sure,” Grim says calmly. “This Patroller is built like a tank. She should be able to soak up a lot of damage.”
“We’ll find out soon enough,” Will says. “We can’t jump out now and so it’s going to have to be a fight to the death. Battle stations everyone.”
Everyone rushes to the ship’s locker and gets suited up. As soon as everyone is in their vacc suits and at their posts, Will de-pressurizes the hull and waits to see what the Veng will do. They don’t have to wait long as six beams of pure energy flash from the Veng, followed by a launch of six missiles. As Grim predicted, however, the lasers simply bounce off the Patroller’s thick titanium armor – apart from one which, much to Grim’s annoyance, hits the M-Drive that he spent a week patching up. Taeva quickly runs to the rear of the ship where she helps Grim to successfully keep it fully functioning.
The party members’ response is immediate as Stian and Jie immediately let loose with their own laser turrets while Will unleashes a volley of missiles from the bay. The beams rake the Veng. They definitely give out more punishment than they gave, although the damage caused at this stage is not too significant.
The Veng counterattacks, but they are even less successful than on their first strike, with the titanium protecting them from all the corsair’s damage, including that coming from the first volley of missiles.
Jie and Stian have found their range now and their next volleys cause a major amount of damage to the Veng, shaving off crystaliron like hot knives through butter. Damage is already starting to overwhelm the Veng – their damage control has no chance to patch up their ship at the rate at which they are sustaining it as large chunks of the hull are now exposed and one of their turrets plus their M-Drive are hit once again.
The crew of the Veng aren’t ready to give up just yet and, once again, their lasers rake the armor of the Patroller. They cause a little more damage this time around, but still nothing that Taeva is unable to handle.
Another strike from the turrets of Stian and Jie really puts the Veng into trouble now. Most of their hull has gone now, the majority of their armor together with serious hits upon their sensors and their M-Drives. The crew of the Veng realize now that they are fighting a losing battle and so decide to head down to the relative safety of the planet surface. They make one last attempt at causing some serious damage to the Patroller before they are out of action and this time they manage to get through the armor, raking the Patroller’s M-Drive once again plus hitting the armor, sensors, fuel tank and Stian’s turret – from which just an almighty leap at the last minute saved him from serious injury.
This pissed Stian off majorly and, although the Veng is going down anyway, he is determined to get his revenge. This he achieves(with the assistance of Jie’s lasers and Will’s missiles) by raking the remains of the Veng, killing its M-Drive and sensors and ripping even more crystaliron from its chassis. The Veng’s three engineers work frantically at trying to get some life back into the M-Drive to stop it careering into the surface, just managing to stop it in the nick of time (although it still lands with a major jolt).
With the Veng definitely out of action now, Will follows it down in the Patroller. As Will slows for a final landing, they see that the Veng has come down next to a small base on the surface of Gugh consisting of an ancient 300-ton trader which forms the living quarters next to a landing pad and what appears to be a long-range sensor array which is under construction. The party members can see a pitched battle going on around the base, with a few brave defenders totally outnumbered by attackers – who are presumably the Vargr corsairs.
The party members realize that they need to act fast if they are going to be able to stop the Vargr from taking over the base and so Will lands the Patroller immediately behind the base as the others lock and load their arms and set off through the airlock onto the surface of Gugh. Will brings up the rear while Max stays onboard the Patroller in case of a sneak attack by the Vargr.
The party members can pick up the defenders roaring instructions to one another – they’re more Aslan. Two Aslan are bravely trying to defend the entrance to their base, but are hopelessly outnumbered by the oncoming corsairs. One of them sensibly heads for the airlock inside but, unfortunately, this leaves his colleague to draw all of the fire from the four Vargr assaulting the entrance and he is gunned down.
The InterSol members quickly throw themselves into the defense, trying to draw the Vargr away from entering the base. Jie and Grim take the right flank while Will, Stian and Taeva advance on the left flank. Having seen the Patroller land, the Vargr come towards them in order to try and stop them from getting around to the front of the ship.
Jie leads two of the Aslan around the right flank, taking out a couple of Aslan with her new-found skill with Black Betty, but getting hit a couple of times in response. The two Aslan with her draw their axes and are locked in combat with one of the Vargr who fights them off with a mighty curved sword. As usual, Grim takes a less foolhardy approach to the combat, hanging back at the flank, keeping to cover and sniping at targets as they present themselves, carefully avoiding getting hit in the process.
On the opposite flank, Stian and Taeva advance cautiously, keeping to cover, grouping with the last of the Aslan defenders. The superior numbers of Vargr are also keeping to cover as they leapfrog positions coming towards the defenders. They manage to take out several of the approaching Vargr, but the Aslan gets taken down in the process and Taeva gets hit a couple of times. Stian and Taeva are locked down in a position that offers them good cover, but their firing arcs are limited. Tiring of the deadlock, Will bravely/recklessly runs forwards. Unfortunately, however, he made the mistake of bringing a pistol to an autorifle fight and so his heroic/mad actions have little effect other than drawing the Vargr’s fire from the others. Bullets ricochet off his vacc suit but eventually a burst finds its mark which knocks the stuffing out of him.
“Goddammit, Will! You’re a medic, not a commando!” Stian calls over the radio. “Get to cover and let Taeva and I finish it.”
As the pain from the gunshot wounds bite, Will agrees and hurls himself into a crater and starts to heal himself while Taeva and Stian together finish off the remaining two Vargr on the flank.
Meanwhile, onboard the base, the last remaining Aslan retreats through the corridor and goes up to the second level where he throw himself prone and unleashes a volley at the four Vargr attempting to get in. Unfortunately he does not manage to drop any of them and is shot up badly in the process. He has just enough strength left to disable the lift to stop the Vargr following him before crawling to the ship’s Med Bay to try and patch himself up.
Both flanks are clear now and so InterSol and the two remaining Aslan swarm around the outside of the base to get inside. Jie is the first in and gets into a firefight with one of the last two remaining Vargr. She gets hit once again during the confrontation, but manages to drop the corsair. There is just one Vargr remaining now inside the base. Seeing how badly outnumbered he is, the Vargr very sensibly decides to surrender.
Will has managed to patch himself up now and then sets to work on patching up the badly injured Aslan and his fellow party members. Leaving Will and the Aslan back at the base in case there are any other Vargr still roaming the surface, the others advance upon the Veng. As they get close, they see at first hand the damage that Stian and Jie’s shooting caused upon the ship – gaping holes evident in several places and the nose cone ripped off during the crash landing.
“Well that’s a write-off for sure,” Grim thinks out loud as he approaches the ship with the others. “There’s no shipyard in the ’Verse that could get that ship airborne again.”
Jie leads the others onto the downed ship through one of the gaping holes in the side. As the InterSol members make their way through the stricken craft, they encounter the Vargr crew. The Medic must have survived as the crew are bandaged up. They are in no condition to put up a fight any more though as they each just raise their paws in surrender as the party members approach.
The party members split up to investigate the entire ship. Stian eventually finds the Aslan captives from the Cutter locked up inside the ship’s cargo bay. They too are pretty badly beaten up – firstly as a result of the firefight when the Vargr took over the Cutter and again during the Veng’s crash landing. The Aslan are highly relieved when Stian tells them that he is a member of the crew of the Patroller who were sent to rescue them.
Jie makes her way through to the Ship’s Locker on the Veng and cuts it open with Black Betty. Stian then ushers the formerly captive Aslan through to it so that they can arm themselves and escort the Vargr crew members to their base. Taeva watches over the Vargr medic as she allows him to take most of the stores from the Veng’s Med Bay with him. Such was the blood bath that all know that it’s going to take a lot of supplies to fix everyone up.
The Aslan then frog march the Vargr crew members back to the base. From the rough treatment that the Aslan are meting out on their former captives, there is obviously no love lost between the two races. It’s a half hour exercise to get all of the injured to the Aslan base’s Med Bay and for the remaining ablebodied Vargr to be secured in some of the staterooms – the most ablebodied of the Aslan relishing the fact that the tables are now turned and the jailed have become the jailers. Inside the Med Bay, Will and the Vargr medic have their work cut out in patching everyone up. They first take care of the party members, then the Aslan,then finally the Vargr. It takes another hour and a half before Will is finally able to relax a little and wash the blood from his vacc suit. The Vargr medic takes care of the most badly injured, with a couple of Aslan keeping an eye on him just in case he tries to get up to any funny business.
While the others took care of the casualties and prisoners, the unscathed Grim checks out the damage to the Patroller. Externally it’s not too bad – and they still have plenty of titanium sheets onboard to patch it up. He makes a note to get started on patching up the fuel tank as soon as possible as it is currently leaking. If he gets on it soon, then they will still have enough to get to Walston without having to make a long and tedious trip to the closest gas giant to top up the tanks. Stian’s turret needs patching up and the sensors need a fair amount of work as well. The deepest sighs come when he checks out the M-Drive. It’s completely fragged again.
Leaving the Patroller, he heads over to the Veng to see what parts can be salvaged from there. The answer is ‘not very much’ apart from one of the turrets.
He returns to the base to give his verdict to the others:
“Well the good news is that we shouldn’t be stuck here too long,” he says. “I think that I can patch up everything I can within a couple of days. The bad news is that the sensors have had it. If I scavenge some parts from the sensor array that we have in the hold, then I think that I can MacGyver a rig that will get us to Walston at least, although it won’t look pretty.”
“The M-Drive is more of a problem. I think once I’ve patched her up, I will be able to nurse her through to jump and then from jump to the surface of Walston. But her days of 3G acceleration are over now – not until she can get a completely new drive.”
The others shrug – all realizing that there’s little else that they can do.
“We need to send a message to Flexos telling them what’s gone on here,” Grim continues.
“I’ll take care of it,” nods Jie.
“And I think that we need to sit down with the Aslan and compare notes,” Grim adds.
Taeva removes the ’We’re Best Buddies With The Aslan’ talisman and puts it over her vacc suit. The Aslan are so grateful for InterSol’s coming to their aid that they are extremely grateful. They direct her to the acting base commander, a female called Htaoyukhea.
Taeva flicks open the translator:
“So what can you tell us about the Vargr attack?” Taeva asks.
“It wasn’t random,” Htaoyukhea replies. “Before you came to help us, they were in the process of setting charges to take out the sensor array that is half complete. Obviously this was the purpose of the attack. There’s nothing else up here worth taking.”
“Someone from Flexos must have tipped them off,” the Aslan continues. “This sensor station is a highly secret project – the number of people who know we are here and why we are here are very limited. The fact that they arrived when the shuttle was in flight is another sign to me that this is an inside job as it was one of the few occasions when they could take out all of us at the same time. Normally it would only have been possible to take out half of the team as the other half would be on their downtime on Flexos.”
“Any idea why you were attacked?” Taeva asks.
“I can only guess that pirates operating in the system don’t want this sensor array going up. I’ve no idea why it is so important to them though. Maybe it’s something to do with Leyr – the next planet in the system where they are currently auctioning off mining rights, or it could have something to do with the gas giant, Bagihmeh. It’s common knowledge that it’s a major refueling point for pirates moving from the Bowman Arm heading Rimward. Then there’s the TTC base on Reren, one of Bagimeh’s moons.”
She shrugs again:
“These are all of the possibilities that I can come up with. To be honest though, it’s all just guess work. The strategy is all above my pay grade, I’m afraid.”
“How could the corsairs know that the Flexos Defense Forces were on the opposite side of the system?” Taeva asks.
“Again, it could be the result of inside information,” Htaoyukhea replies. “Or maybe they just took a chance. Pirates aren’t usually found this far out of the core of the system as there’s nothing on Gugh that is of interest to anyone … well before we started to construct the sensor array anyway. So the corsairs would have been very unlucky to have run into the PDF out here.”
Taeva asks Htaoyukhea several more questions, but it’s obvious that she is only able to make guesses and has no solid information.
“Maybe we can find out more from the Veng’s computer?” Grim suggests.
“I’m willing to give it a try,” says Will.
They head over to the battered form of the Veng. Fortunately the bridge was one of the few parts of the ship to have escaped relatively unscathed. Grim is able to activate the ship’s small backup generators so that Will can power up the ship’s computer.
It takes Will around an hour before he manages to get past the password protection into the navigation records.
“They jumped in from Koenig’s Rock in the Bowman system,” he says, scanning the data. “That’s a relief. I was starting to have a funny feeling that they might have come from Walston.”
He continues to investigate the data.
“Looks like the ship was operating solo,” he adds. “There are no signs of any radio communication with any other vessel since they left The Rock.”
Stian is slightly confused. There seems to be numerous interested parties and he hasn’t the gumption to work out how they’re interacting in this latest twist. Normally sharp and on the ball he’s stumped:
“Anyone care to explain what the heck’s going on please?”
“Facked if I know,” Max shrugs. “Not the first time that we’ve ‘ad to leave a system without leavin’ some loose ends danglin’. We can’t run around solvin’ every mystery that we run across. We’ve got quite a backlog as it is.”
“Maybe it will come to us. For now though, if we don’t patch up the fuel tank at least right away, we’re going to get stuck here for a few weeks.”
This airlock rockball on edge of a primitive backwater system is not somewhere anyone wants to be longer than absolutely necessary and so Taeva and Stian head back to the Patroller along with Grim while Will goes back to the base escorted by Jie and Max to see what state the injured are in. Grim, Taeva, and Stian manage to get the fuel tanks patched up in a couple of hours. There is enough fuel left in the tank to get them out to jump distance, jumping to Walston and from jump distance at the other end to Walston with just a little left in reserve.
It’s been a long day and so they decide to leave the rest of the repairs until the following day so that they can get some rest and so their injuries can heal a little.