Misha is the only one to notice someone quietly leaving
the room. This person didn't seem into the party much, looked around
quietly, and slipped out the door. Misha quickly finds Helia (she's
easy to notice) and tells her, "It's time to go." She in turn makes
her excuses and tells the rest of the group -- Mich is not at all happy
about the idea of leaving so soon.
Misha meanwhile slips through the crowd and out of the door after the suspicious person. As he steps out of the door, the guy is standing there, leaning up against the wall. He seems to be muttering quietly into a commdot.
Misha walks up to him and says, "Did you see a small good-looking woman here?"
"Yes, she was in there, I think I saw her. Let's go back in, I'll show you."
"I think she left."
"No, I don't think she did. Come on, let's go back in." He seems very keen on getting Misha back in the room -- too keen.
Misha pins the guy's throat against the wall with a forearm. "Who's on the other end of the commdot?" he asks.
Misha pulls an object off the guy's head, "This commdot." Suddenly he feels something against his chest. The last thing he hears is a dull pop...
Back on the H.M.S. Third Eye, the Marquis Marcus Crestworthy and his communications officer, Robert Morris, are on the bridge. Marc has been running a database search to find out about the commanding officer of the Imperial Navy operation here, Admiral David Timson. It seems the officers in charge are middle-aged, middle-career kind of guys -- they're not being set up to deliberately succeed or fail, as far as he can tell.
Edward "Shark" Teeth has made his way from the bar
at one end of the Oz's accommodation module to the other bar, where
the rest of the shore party had been earlier. They're clearly no
longer here. He buys a round, and starts watching the watchers.
It definitely seems to him that there is the group watching the civilians,
and the group watching them, and no other factions.
Shark has also realized that the Oz was originally built as a prison ship, and they're currently in the prison module. The two bars are centrally spaced, each a third of the way from the ends of the cylindrical unit.
He calls the Marquis: "Where are the rest of the crew?"
Robert locates them. They seem to be in the ship somewhere, probably at that party. At that point he hears Misha ask about the guy's commdot, and tells him "Hold it up to yours, and I'll tell you who's on the other end." There's no response, just a sharp exhalation of breath and a thud.
Quickly Robert hails the other crew commdots and tells them that the Marquis requests their presence back on the ship.
Only Shark responds.
Robert repeats the message. Still no response from the others.
Shark starts heading back towards the ship -- to
his surprise, none of the watchers from the bar follow him. Robert
calls him and starts vectoring him towards the others, to find out what's
wrong. Their dots are now moving together, in the general direction
of the ship.
Walking briskly along the corridor, Shark comes across someone obviously waiting for him in a corridor.
"Excuse me, sir?" the man says as he approaches Shark. He shows Shark an official badge -- long enough to determine that it's probably genuine. "Naval Intelligence. Would you please allow me to escort you back to your ship."
It was not a question, but Shark nods, trying to think of anyone he knows from this sector in Naval Intelligence. "How's Bob Cratchett doing these days?"
"I have no idea, sir," replies the agent. "I'm sorry about this, it's just a routine matter, for your own safety."
"Ah. Prisoners are dangerous, I understand," observes Shark, watching the agent for reactions.
"Not around here. But maybe, yes. Your friends, by the way, are out of danger."
"I wasn't aware they were in danger."
"Neither were they, until the last minute. They may not even have been aware of it then."
"Well what sort of danger were they in?"
"They were mixed up in a little gang dispute. But you needn't worry, nobody's hurt."
"You and your friends took care of it."
"Yes, it's all taken care of."
"I hope there were no casualties?"
"None that need concern you."
"Should I alert my ship that there's a medical need?"
"Oh no, there's no medical problems. And of course for your own safety you'll be restricted to the starport area. As you know, we don't have much of a starport here -- it's basically just the lounge. Again, I'm sorry this was such a difficult stop for you."
Shark tries to ease the agent's name out of him, but is unsuccessful. They walk back to the starport area -- Shark enters, while the agent thanks him and doesn't go in with him. Since there's only one entrance to the starport, he waits there patiently.
Helia is the first to recover. The last she
remembers was getting the group together to leave the party. Now
they're waking up in a sitting room of sorts. No-one seems hurt,
and nothing seems to be missing.
Helia walks to the door and opens it. It reveals a reception area, with a man in Naval uniform sitting at a desk. "Am I under arrest?" she asks.
"Oh no, not at all!" he replies. "I'm glad you've woken up. Are the others up yet? Excuse me, I'll call for somebody." He keys an intercom. "Sir, they're awake now."
Helia asks, "Can you tell me what you used on me?"
"The officer is arriving, he'll be able to explain what happened."
"Got any water? A little salt, maybe? Tea?"
"Coffee? I'll bring some right in!"
Helia returns to the room. The others are waking
up now, and Helia updates them.
Misha calls the Third Eye on the commdot, and tells Robert that it seems they've been detained, probably by Imperial Navy. Robert notes that it's only been a couple of minutes since they stopped moving. They're apparently in a room in the starport administration area -- Robert tells Misha that.
At this point the receptionist comes in with a tray -- there's coffee, snacks, water, Zurta, and so on.
Misha asks, "Why are we being detained?"
"You're not being detained at all. The officer is on his way, he'll be able to explain it all. You can leave now if you want, but it might be easier if you let him explain." He leaves the room again.
Sagan starts to wake up. The hiver was the last to recover, but like the others, sie seems to be fine.
An officer, a Lieutenant in perfect Imperial Navy
uniform comes in. He has no branch insignia.
"Lady, gentlemen, I'm sorry for the inconvenience. You're probably wondering what happened."
"Oh yeah," says Helia, with a hint of sarcasm.
"Unfortunately you walking into an area right about the time of a gang dispute. A team from one gang came in, opened the door, and hit the room with gas grenades. We were expecting this to happen and were on hand, but we hadn't anticipated that innocent bystanders such as yourselves would be caught up in it. I really apologize for the situation."
"They seemed such nice people, too," says Helia.
"In general, yes. The people in the party are not under arrest. The ones who attacked it are. But we do think that for your own safety you should probably return to your ship, or at least stick to the starport area. I don't know if there may be reprisals, so it would be safest if you would remain in the starport."
"Is that required?" asks Misha.
"Yes. Do you have any questions?"
Helia wants to know what chemical was used on them, especially since the hiver took a lot longer to recover. The officer says they're looking into it, but that it was a broad spectrum knockout with no lasting effect. He agrees to make sure that their doctor will have a report on the chemicals as soon as possible. Helia also asks how long they've been out -- about ten minutes.
"How did you distinguish us from the gang members?" asks Misha.
"We keep track of out-of-system arrivals as a matter of course, just in case of such an eventuality as this."
The officer tells them that they're welcome to relax here as long as they like, and that the receptionist will direct them out. They won't need to be escorted -- they're in the administrative offices. He apologizes again for the inconvenience, wishes them a nice trip, and leaves.
Once he's gone, Helia spreads out her wings and checks that they're OK. They are.
"Come on home, guys," calls the Marquis.
Following directions, they walk out through the receptionist's
office, take a left, and the corridor takes them directly to the starport
Shark meets them there. Everyone boards the ship, Shark bringing up the rear.
Misha immediately reports to Marquis Marc.
"Captain, I have failed miserably. Normally I would return whatever
I owe you as far as payment, but since we're not working it that way, I'll
accept whatever punishment I deserve."
Marc defers the issue. He checks the ship's readiness -- they have indeed finished refueling. "As soon as we're ready," he orders, "We'll detach and continue slowly -- one g -- to the jump point."
Grand Admiral Baron Bridgehead checks the shore party for traces of the chemicals used on them -- he can find none.
Shark addresses the crew. "They got you out
of there. They got us out of there. A Naval Intelligence officer
escorted me off the ship. I don't know what happened to you guys
other than you were unconscious for a while -- they claimed there were
no casualties we need worry ourselves about, so if you had any friends
in there I'm not sure if they're still there. Sorry."
Misha says, "I guess that the gang story was a cover to get us out of there."
"So what happened?" asks Marc. "Did any of you see anything?"
"What tipped me off was someone at the party didn't look like he was having a good time, and was looking more official than he should. He suddenly left the party, which gave me a clue we should get out of there. But as I stepped out he was waiting in ambush and didn't want me to leave, which would lead me to believe that what was going on was..."
"...Precisely what they didn't want you to be in."
"You, Misha, were outside the room. You guys were inside the room. So what happened next?"
Helia starts, "We were getting ready to leave the party like we were told to, and..."
Misha says he was shot by something. He checks his abdomen for a mark from the gun, and finds a small red mark.
Helia tells the Marquis that they were supposed to send them the composition of whatever was used on them. He, in turn, asks the doctor to check Misha to see if there was any residual chemicals at the mark on Misha's body -- but he finds nothing.
Clearly it's a short-acting material. Shark knows several things that could have been used for such an effect.
The conversation stops as the report comes in.
It was a single active chemical, a broad spectrum temporary nerve agent.
Shark recognizes it -- it works on almost everything. It has binary
components for delivery, and the effect is short-acting.
Robert tells them that the report came through from the Naval offices. Through his multi-hop link, he then looks for video records from that area -- downloading them quickly to watch later. He's been using a tight beam connection to the free trader to exchange news, and piggybacking that to poke into the systems.
Misha questions the story about it being a gang related
incident. It seems very unlikely to him, unless the guy who shot
him was a gang member too. If he was a gang member, they had a very
Vonish does confirm that there were indeed gangs on Pimane, which makes the story a little more plausible.
Shark points out that making it less plausible is that he was met by a Naval Intelligence person -- or supposedly Naval Intelligence, since he didn't seem to recognize the name of the instructor from the sector training camp, Bob Cratchett.
Meanwhile Helia has pulled away from the docking
port and started to bring the Third Eye around to leave the Naval
The Marquis tells Mich and Helia to be ready to jump insystem to the mainworld in an hour.
The Marquis asks Robert to follow up on his query,
whether there was anything in common among the personnel on this operation
-- did they all work under the same person at some point, or anything to
relate them like that? Or were they just a random selection, as he
Robert finds that it is an Imperial Navy operation, all part of the 248th Squadron. The squadron's place in the order of service is not public: it is, in fact, a special unit under the direct command of Archduke Norris.
Marc turns to Mich. "How do you know your ship
"We don't know," replies Mich. "We know the ship was damaged and crashed."
"So who reported it blew up?"
"The archduke. We had messages from his emissary that said our ship had been destroyed."
The Marquis states his take on the situation.
"There is no activity going on on the planet. News reports say they're
rebuilding the city. They're holding these people here until they
rebuild the city. But they're not rebuilding. They're holding
people here until they can have a convenient accident and they all die,
or that there's another storm and they have to take them somewhere else."
Misha asks, "If they're going to take them somewhere else, why didn't they already do that?"
"They need some period of time before they can declare the sun too unstable. Then they can close the system entirely and have all the time they want to study the ship on a secret Navy base on the planet. If they want the ship that badly -- but if they wanted the ship that badly, they probably could have just asked you. Right? So Archduke Norris has no need to do that."
Marc turns to Misha. "No, you didn't do badly.
It was an impossible situation."
Misha insists otherwise. "I failed. Not only did I leave Mich unguarded, people then got to him."
Helia pops the Third Eye into jump for the mainworld.
While in jumpspace, Mich manages to contrive a shield for the transponder. Also, they check the ship for any sort of transponder that might have come aboard, either with the crew or in the fuel or something. The ship's skin will be colored for minimum visibility, and power generation will be kept ot a minimum.
Robert also has checked the data he downloaded from
the Imperial Navy computers. The personnel think they're a special
squadron attached to Archduke Norris; the Marquis, ever ready for noble
intrigue, suspects they are otherwise.
Time to examine the video. Robert plays it for the whole crew.
From inside the rooms, they see a normal party. Suddenly everyone flops over. The door opens and a dozen guys in business suits with respirators burst in. They carry the ship's crew out and they leave. Nothing else happens before the time expires.
Out the hallway, the tape shows the discussion between Misha and the other guy. You can just about tell that the guy pulled a gun on him and stunned him. The guy then reached out, reclaimed his commdot, and made a call. A dozen guys in suits run down the corridor, burst the door open and emerge carrying the crew. The one who shot Misha engages in a quiet but agitated conversation with one of the others as they walk off.
There's no sign of a gang, and no indication as to the fate of the others in the party suite. Marquis Marc is sure there were probably casualties among those; people who were perhaps a particular concern to security might have been "allergic" to the stun gas used by "the other gang."
Shark uses the time to work out with Misha and Teri, working on Brawling. Helia watches -- at Marc's insistence, from the Bridge -- so they'll be ready to jump. Helia insists jumping is easy, you just have to know the mathematics. Mich points out that the drives would need to be warmed up anyway, so she'd have plenty of time to work out the astrogation. Mich and Helia both agree that their own role in jumping is easy, it's the other's that is difficult.
Helia has calculated the course well. They'll
be landing in daylight, between the sun and the planet. She is told
to land using minimal power. No problem, she rotates the ship backwards,
blips the thrusters, and backs in to a perfect landing. As they come
in, Mich adjusts the grav plates to let the planet's natural gravity take
The ship's outer skin is colored to match the surface. The Third Eye looks much like a flatfish -- manta shaped and adjusted to the color underneath it.
An away team is assembled to take the gcarrier to investigate. Mich has to go to take the readings at the crater, while Shark will fly the gravcraft. Misha will accompany them.
The gcarrier approaches the trench. It's indeed
green at the bottom. Shark dives the gravcraft into the trench, and
almost immediately they can see signs of the scarring that the Anastasia
did on the way in. The craft buffets around a little as they descend
into the atmosphere towards the lake where the ship crash-landed.
As Shark brings the craft into a hover over the lake, he spots some IR signatures off to the side, among the bushes at the shore. It looks like they're animals of some sort, definitely not human.
There is no sign of a 2000td metal object. The Anastasia is clearly not here any more.
The trench mission now complete, Ed "Shark" takes
the gcarrier up to head for the city. Unfortunately he has some trouble
exiting the atmosphere -- he flies up, overcompensates, and throws it into
a hard dive into the trench. He gets it back under control, positions
the craft in a hover, and takes it up slowly and carefully.
Once at altitude, he sets course for Hope's End and lets the autopilot take them to the city. They'll be there in about an hour.
Finally the gcarrier approaches the crater.
All of them can spot large pieces of debris scattered around -- rocks,
chunks of dome, metal, and so on. Mich wants them to land as close
to ground zero as possible.
There's residual radiation here. The explosion was definitely not conventional.
Shark drops the gcarrier to the ground in the center of the crater.
Mich helps Misha suit up -- it's a novel experience for him -- and puts his own suit on. They clamber out onto the surface of Pimane.
It doesn't take Mich long to take the readings he needs, and the two men get back on board the gcarrier. Mich carries out routine decontamination, and helps Misha out of his suit.
Now to check out the debris field... Ed takes
the controls and lifts off, heading towards the edge of the crater.
The terrain is deceptive -- the gcarrier bounces off a ridge on the crater floor. "Let's go home, guys," he says, and tries to pull up out of the crater.
There's trouble -- the craft dips suddenly. Shark manages to get the craft into a hover a mere half a meter over the ground. Taking a deep breath, he lands softly on the surface.
It's a good job Mich is on board. He runs a diagnostic and sees there's a problem with the power running to one of the grav units. Immediately he pulls out a floor panel, and sees a loose connection -- someone didn't secure it properly at the factory, apparently. It takes him about half an hour to fix the error. He slaps the access panel back, and wipes his hands. "It should be fine now," he says.
Shark lifts straight up, lays in a course for the ship, and flies back to the Third Eye.
Back on board, after checking the gcarrier (it's
fine), Mich summarizes for the crew. "They rescued the Anastasia,
as far as we can tell. It's not where we left it."
"Was there life?" asks the Marquis. He is assured there is. They didn't see any jackalopes, but there were animals in that area -- bigger and slower than jackalopes.
Mich tells him they have the data they need.
"Let's not spend any more time on this planet than we have to. Let's take us off-planet, and on our way up we can warm up the drives."
Mich suggests, "Go to the lake and we could take on some more fuel, and do a jump-3 if you want to."
The Marquis asks Helia if there's reason to do a jump-3 instead of jump-2. She says that with full tanks they could make it as far as Sharrip, in Lunion subsector.
Helia takes the controls, and skims the Third
Eye across the surface of the planet towards the canyon. A quick
flip launches the ship into the atmosphere, and as soon as she goes into
she cuts the engines and glides in. A slight touch with the drives,
and she lands the ship in a gentle surfdown on the lake.
The ship settles into the water, and as it stabilizes on the surface, they engage the pumps and start taking on and refining fuel.
For the next three and a half hours they relax.
Marquis Marc runs his new sensors -- three of them are located around the ship, so he can triangulate and measure speed of propagation. He doesn't pick anything up from the planet, so does something himself to test the equipment. The speed is faster than he can measure.
Refueling is now complete. Helia engages the drives, skimming off the water, going into aerolift, and making a good low-power ascent. As they get higher, Mich brings the grav plates back online to keep the gravity up to 0.2. As soon as the Third Eye reaches escape velocity, Helia cuts the engines and starts coasting. Another day of drifting and they'll be in position for a safe jump -- and as far as they can tell from the sensors, nobody's noticed them.