A bright sun shines down on a cold, dusty landscape, populated only with patches of grey scrub. A cluster of prefabricated buildings lies nestled between low hillocks for warmth, each distinguished by an elaborately painted wooden frontage (not unlike the classic image of a Wild West town).
A battered, but solid-looking, tramp freighter (the Empress of Marava) swoops in and lands in a field about a kilometre out of town, its landing pads sinking deep into the soil. The loading ramp is lowered and two grav sleds slide out, carrying several armed figures. A smartly-dressed woman, obviously the leader, shouts something back into the hold, before the sleds head off over the horizon.
Aboard the Empress, Allumiya is trying to fix a problem with the GI drive, while Charles is performing maintenance on the sewage reclamation system. Dex is in the shower, but something goes horribly wrong when Blake accidentally cross-connects the water supply to the reclamation system…
Marcus decides to head out to the local bar and try to check out what’s going on. As the supercargo, he’s very interested in what the ship may be carrying; as is happening more and more of late, the owner is not telling him. Dex decides to tag along in the hope of chatting up one of the local women. They enter what appears to be a very functional basic drinking establishment and, after Marcus makes several attempts to make himself understood, Dex manages to acquire some of the local rotgut in Russian (the local dialect is very thick and difficult to understand). Marcus finds the local populace to be very unhelpful, but it may be that his lack of knowledge of the language is hindering things. Dex has similar difficulties but, in his case, it may be the lingering odour from his shower that is causing problems…
Meanwhile, Rob is in the bar, having finished his sojourn on Novyye Nigde and journeyed across the continent in the desperate hope of getting a berth offworld. He intervenes in Marcus’ attempts to gain information and begins to negotiate passage, when the supercargo’s radio squawks. He pulls it out in time to hear a desperate call for help, followed by the sound of automatic gunfire. Dex and Marcus both run for the ship, closely followed by Rob.
As they arrive, they hear the buzz of approaching grav sleds; turning to see what’s happening, Marcus realises that they approaching sleds are not the ones that left earlier. Dex cold-starts the Empress into flight as Marcus hits the door control and a missile slams into its side, puncturing the hull and knocking Allumiya over. She desperately tries to get the power system fully online while Charles races to patch the hole on the upper deck.
Marcus directs Dex towards the boss’s rendezvous point. Flying over it, they come under fire and just have time to see a number of familiar dead bodies lying around the ship’s sleds and their cargo. The crew decide discretion is the better part of valour and head for safety. Rob, having managed to scramble aboard during the chaos, demonstrates his knowledge of the planet by suggesting they head west: a number of uninhabited rocky islands lie off the coast and many of them have caves or craters big enough to hold a small ship.