The Empress flies west, Dex desperately fighting the aerodynamic instabilities caused by the torn metal on her side. At Rob’s direction, the ship heads across an open plain towards a distant mountain range, beyond which lies the sea and temporary safety.
Unfortunately, their attackers also have flying assets and the Empress is pursued by two armed aircraft. A hotly contested chases ensues: Dex has the edge on skill, but the enemy have an advantage in manoeuvrability and armaments – as becomes clear when projectiles begin to rattle off the hull.
About half-way across the plain, Alumiya contacts the cockpit, suggesting dumping a small amount of lubricant into the exhaust from the vessel’s manoeuvring thrusters. Dex approves the plan and, working quickly with Charles’ aid, Alumiya performs the necessary actions. The lubricant reacts with the exhaust, forming a huge cloud of smoke that blinds the pilot of one of the planes. The other craft just manages to dodge out of the way as the out-of-control aircraft runs straight into the hottest part of the Empress’s thruster exhaust and explodes. Dex takes advantage of the chaos to get out of weapons range and is able to put the larger vessel’s powerful drive to better use, leaving the solitary aircraft behind.
Dodging through the mountain range, the ship emerges over the western seas and heads straight towards a small cluster of volcanic islands. Landing in the bowl of an extinct volcano, the crew emerge to examine the damage… It’s minor, but difficult to repair: an explosion has punched a hole on the upper hull and one of the main fuselage spars is cracked. While the former is already half-fixed, the spar will need replacing at a shipyard, although the vessel could manage for a while if it handled carefully. Charles returns to work on the hole while Alumiya finishes her interrupted maintenance work on the gravitational inducer.
During a break in the repairs, Max calls everyone together for a conference, although he shocks them all by appearing clean, in a suit, with his hair in a pony tail, though he has still not shaved. A second shock is the amount of money, gems, platinum, bonds, records of captain’s stashes and whatever else he has been able to find, laid out on the table with the beginnings of a set of accounts detailing where it all comes from.
The first thing he explains is what he has found out about the captain and the woman who funded the operation which was:
1. The captain appeared to have had no family other than Max the blond haired willowy guy (“and I think we know the nature of that relationship but each to their own and they are both dead now anyway cough”). He only had a small stake in the ship: the main owner was the financier.
2. The financier, Ingrid Sorrenson, was not the independent merchant that she appeared to be, but a high-to-mid level manager from one of the big corporations. Worryingly enough he has never been able to ascertain precisely her position or responsibilities.
He then presents two options:
1. The right thing to do: return the ship to the corporation that, via Ingrid, probably owns this ship.
Pros: It will be legal, the crew might get a good bonus and a job with the corp, they will sleep better at night.
Cons: If Ingrid has been playing fast and loose they will probably be arrested as co-conspirators, else, if she has been obeying orders and this is some sort of black ops, they will be detained to find out what they know about what went wrong. In either case, a very bright light would be shone on their pasts and the odds of never being seen again are good.
“If we decide on this option could you put me off in the first decent port you come to and number me among the dead.”
2. The good short term option: take the ship and contents to one of the shady ports and sell it and its contents.
Pros: The ship is worth a lot of money and even though the crew will get nothing like the actual value, it will make a big difference to them, enough that when they retire it will be in comfort.
Cons: Since they would have sold the ship they will be stuck in a very shady port with a lot of money and the chances are good that they will never make it of the planet alive. Also selling a ship garners a lot of attention and even if they make it off, the corporation may notice what they have done and track them down, especially if it was black ops.
3. Go Trading: His favoured suggestion is the crew simply keeps the ship and goes trading. “I am sure that I can get her new papers with documented proof that we own her and I can generate several years accounts etc.”
Pros: They get their own trading company and will hopefully become wealthy, they can travel to avoid attention, there are several caches mentioned in the captain’s papers they might be able to get hold of for starting trade items, etc.
Cons: It’s expensive, a lot of the resources they see on the table will go on getting solid legal papers that will withstand normal scrutiny – they cannot trade without those – and re-fitting the ship, buying and finding cargo. There is a risk that the corp will come after them if it finds out they survived, at the moment the _Empress* has vanished with all hands. Trading is dangerous: there are always opportunists after the ship/cargo and the dangers of deep space.
“So what will it be? As I have said my vote is for option 3 what about you Cap… er Pilot?” He smiles.
He also points out that he: “forgot to mention: one of the big changes that needs doing to the ship, the encrypted beacon, we need a new one. Getting a new one is not a problem, that just takes quite a bit of money. Loading it with information that confirms the ship’s papers, once we have some nice ones, is quite another. To put it simply getting hold of a government single use encrypting loader for one of these things is going to be a little difficult.”
Ultimately, the group decide to try option 3. A brief discussion heralds the new name of the Emrpess, the Beowulf, and Charles decides to paint it on the outside of the ship as soon as he’s finished patching the hole.
Meanwhile, as conversation turns to the subject of potential cargoes, Rob, who has been sitting in on this without anyone commenting, asks “what’s in the space between the reclamation vats and the engine rooms?”
This throws them – Marcus has always assumed that space was part of the reclamation system, but Charles is able to confirm that it’s not. The crew begins a thorough investigation of the space in question and is able to confirm that it appears to be a sealed volume about 3×4×2 metres in size. Eventually, they locate a concealed entrance in the floor of Charles’ workshop – under the still – Charles says he knows nothing about it. Opening it up, they find a hidden hold, outside the influence of the gravity generators, containing some jump-proof crates. Opening one up, they find it full of heavy weapons control systems – of the type that would have been needed to control the kind of weapons briefly seen lying in the broken crates at the scene of the massacre.
Suddenly, the reason for the conflict becomes clear: Ingrid had withheld the control systems in the hope of getting a higher price for the weapons. The local warlord had come up with a different solution.
Realising that these items are extremely dangerous to have around, they decide to hide them away for future reference, hiding them in at least two locations in the local asteroid field for security and redundancy.
Other searching turns up two jump-proof cases in Ingrid’s quarters, one containing an encrypted portable computer (nobody has any idea how to get into this) and another larger case containing storage spaces for high-tech weapons and other kit – it’s currently empty, but may be of use for other purposes.
The new owners of the Beowulf decide that their first task has to be to fix the ship and acquire a new beacon.
“Ah!” says Marcus, “Lando!”
“Lando? I don’t think I’ve heard of that world”
“It’s the central station in an asteroid field quite close to here…”