Location: Miishakaal crew lounge
Darrurz, Lakir, Vincent and Chuck return to the ship and remove their vacc
suits. Gvarokh can tell right away that something's up. "What?"
Darrurz informs him that they had an escort on the way back to the ship. "Two pups from Khalidurton followed us back to the airlock. They were checking to see that we weren't Touzagh spies. They backed down and scurried home when we confronted them."
Gvarokh rubs his chin. "And here I was thinking that we needed to just risk signing up with Khalidurton and start making some supply runs."
Darrurz replies, "They were just doing what they were told.Khalidurton protects its territory and its own and the pack was just making sure we weren't a threat." Darrurz considers the encounter a moment before continuing. "They were quick though. We walked straight out of the bar after I talked to a guy called Kfaerrgngag, and the pups that followed us knew we were looking to subcontract from that conversation. If we sign up I don't think there will be any issues from Kfaerrgngag once we are in. They might give us a different reception in the Lovestruck Rock if we do though." He considers some more, but all he says is "Hmm".
Lakir offers his support, "This is the way to go. Darrurz played it just right, after I fumbled the ball on the counterintel. I doubt we'll have a better opportunity to get in good with an org in the know. Sign the deal, let it perk, then go for it again, on the local info front."
Gvarokh says, "Ok, let's have a look at the contract and, if it checks out, we'll fill out an application."
"On it," Darrurz says. After he downloads it and begins reading, he looks up to find everyone staring at him. "This will take some time," he says. "Give me an hour or two. I want to make sure that we're signing our-r-r-r lives away and that the contract only applies to the Gamgilebo system."
The crew leave Darrurz alone to read the contract. He takes his time with it as it's been a while since he had to deal with a Vargr contract so he wants to make sure he gets it right. Two hours later he's confident he understands the ins and outs of the contract.
"It's not as bad as I thought it was going to be. The contract is only for Gamgilebo. But once we're approved, it makes the application in other systems go that much easier.
"There's other stuff worth noting. For example, if, for any reason, we leave this system without notifying Khalidurton, the contract is automatically nullified. If we want to leave on good terms with them, we need to give notice, otherwise we'll be blacklisted as a potential threat. Even if it's a misunderstanding, there's a 200 day waiting period before we can re-apply.
"If we leave this system while carrying their cargo and we don't have permission from them to do so, we'll be considered in breach of contract and a bounty will be placed on our heads. We don't have to be alive for the bounty to be paid out.
"We're required to insure our cargoes. If we don't have insurance, Khalidurton will take out a policy in our name and deduct the fees from our paycheck. I did some research on this and it seems to be a fairly common practice.
"I didn't see anything cheeky in the contract. It's pretty solid as far as Extents contracts go.
Vlad shakes his head.
Gvarokh asks, "What, exactly, constitutes 'leaving on good terms'?"
"Having a clean r-r-r-record f-f-for one. No complaints about our-r-r per-r-r-f-f-formance. No damage claims with our-r-r-r cargo. Prompt deliveries. We have to be considered an asset to the operation.
"When we leave the system, we need to give them notice. Two weeks is ideal but they understand the transient nature of contract shippers. The mor-r-r-re we give, the better-r-r because they're going to have to adjust their-r-r sc-c-c-chedules. But anything is better than nothing. And it had better be after-r-r-r a supply r-r-r-run is completed. Abandoning a cargo, or taking it with us, will be a major-r-r-r mistake.
"But they might not have a lot of work for us at f-f-first. So if we haven't been around long enough for them to rely on us-s-s-s, we won't be missed as much as if they were depending on us-s-s-s."
Gvarokh is satisfied. "Well, if the contract is on the up and up, for the most part, then I can't see a reason not to stick with the plan."
Location: Miishakaal crew lounge
Filling out the Khalidurtion Supply Courier sub-contractor application had
gone relatively well. Two sections gave the group pause.
The first part was what to list for the group's background. Obviously mentioning the current job for Sharusharid would be out of the question. The group listed it's work experience around the Gagzoe Cluster and journey from Lishun sector towards Vhodan.
When asked why they left the Imperium, "diminished profit potential due to ongoing war" was the reason given.
When asked why they left the Gagzoe Cluster, "the continued success of the Vargr states along the Imperial border had better profit potential than the economic stagnation which was characteristic of the Vlani state" was the reason given.
The second part that caused some concern was the request to list references. The application states that the company prefers to have at least one local, meaning Gamgilebo, reference. The group doesn't have any.
"How about our contact down at the Lovestruck Rock?" Chucks asks.
Gvarokh dismisses him. "Considering that he's a spy for Sharusharid and friendly with the corsairs, that probably wouldn't be a bright idea. If they know about him, which is a distinct possibility, we'd be shooting ourselves in the foot."
Darrurz suggests they leave it blank and when they're interviewed explain they are new in system and have no references to give.
"That's what I was thinking," Gvarokh says.
Vincent says, "We could just write down 'no past work experience in subsector to have a referral from.' This way it's not a line of questioning they can go with during the interview, not to say they won't anyway but it might avert it." He adds with a shrug, "Just a thought."
Vlad chimes in, "Honesty may actually be the best policy, for a change."
"That settles it," Gvarokh concludes.
No references are given and the form is submitted. A message appears on screen. "Thank you for submitting your sub-contractor application to Khalidurton. A representative will contact you over the next 64 hours to discuss your application."
Location: Miishakaal crew lounge
You receive a call (full video) from Aeng Konakskang (vargr), a sentient
resources (SR) representative from Khalidurton and her associate, Mir Bimpuurush
(human). After introductions, Aeng explains that there's a short interview to
conduct as part of the sub-contractor application process.
Gvarokh has briefed the crew beforehand to let him answer the questions, since he's the captain. However, he has also indicated that he would be willing to redirect questions to others as he saw fit.
Aeng states, "We found your work experience to be quite satisfactory, though your reasoning for leaving the safety of the Gagzoe Cluster for work along the volatile Extents - Imperial border surprising. Would you care to elaborate?" The group notes that Aeng's Galanglic is as close to perfect as a vargr can get.
Gvarokh replies, "We left the 'safety' of the Gagzoe Cluster because that safety was quite relative. And sometimes selective. The measures taken to provide that level of safety could be quite restrictive. Granted the Extents can be more volatile, but the structure is also much looser. It many ways it is more dangerous. But it also provides more freedoms that are in the process of being lost on the other side of the border.
"Besides, we are now on the growing side of the border. However safe the Gagzoe Cluster seems now, who knows how long that can last."
Aeng nods and then moves on to the next question. "As you're new to Gamgilebo, you don't list any local references. Do you have any non-local references we can refer to?"
"Sure, but I don't know how you will get in contact with them."
Mir replies, "You'd be surprised at the extent of our network."
Gvarokh provides the names of three people that they worked with in the Gagzoe Cluster.
Aeng asks one other question, "Also, since you don't have any local references, we'll need a copy of your navigation log for the past fifty weeks as a means of verifying your past work experience."
"OK. That seems reasonable." Confident that there's nothing there to worry about, Gvarokh accesses the navigation log, selects the date range and sends it over.
"Do you have any questions for us?" Mir asks.
Gvarokh glances to both Darrurz and Lakir to see if they have any questions.
Since they don't, he finishes up and says, "No, we don't have any further questions." Considering how culturally Imperial the interview has been conducted, he adds, "Thank you for considering our application."
Aeng concludes the interview. "Thank you for taking the time to interview with us. We'll process this information and get back to you sometime in the next 32 to 96 hours with the company's answer."
Location: Miishakaal crew lounge
Everyone seems generally pleased with how the interview went. Everyone goes to
find something to do, except for Gvarokh and Vincent. Gvarokh has roped him into
helping him with forming some kind of search pattern for the missing ships.
With Vincent's help he downloads the system chart data. Unfortunately, it's
incomplete. While the major bodies like stars, planets and major asteroids are
listed, only nebulous information is provided about the belts themselves. The
mass of the belts are approximated and distributed evenly. This whittles down
the accuracy of the model. While the movement of the major bodies isn't a
problem, individual asteroids are impossible to track unless they're of major
significance: i.e. Site One, Site Two, etc.
Tired after banging away at this problem, they decide to start fresh in the morning.
Refreshed, Gvarokh and Vincent take the data they have and rewind their
system model back to the times of each ship's disappearance. The flight plans of
both ships are plugged into the model as well. But since their velocities at
the times of their respective disappearances is unknown, it's hard to get an
idea on drift. The ships could still be drifting in the outer belt (the one the
party is in) or they could be in orbit around Getes, the gas giant threatening
to turn into a star. They could've been swallowed up by Getes or one of the
stars. They could've even been slingshot out of the system altogether.
Luck would seem to be a major player in determining if they're going to find these missing ships. Hopefully, Miishakaal will be able to pick up the buoy transponders without spending a lifetime looking for them.
The call finally comes in. You're instructed to be ready in one hour for the
arrival of a cargo that's supposed to be delivered to Site 2. Pronto.
Why the short notice? Apparently the ship that was supposed to handle this job went missing after making its last delivery to Delibo (small world 6 AU closer to the primary than Site 1).
What's the cargo? Replacement parts for food processing and water filtration equipment.
How soon does it have to be there? Yesterday.
The delivery truck arrives.
The cargo is loaded and the ship is ready to head out.
Location: Miishakaal crew lounge
While the crew was busy preparing to leave, Gvarokh and Darrurz worked up a
flight plan. With Site 2 over 8 AU away, the trip could be a long one. Driving
through the asteroid belt in a line of sight course would take over eight days,
even with constant acceleration to the midpoint.
An alternate route would be to maneuver out of the asteroid belt by flying perpendicular to the plane of the solar system, then mini-jumping to an equivalent point over Site 2. At which point the ship would re-enter the asteroid belt. The only drawback to this short cut plan is that they wouldn't be able to listen for the buoy beacons of either ship.
The choice comes down to a fast trip that avoids the risk of pirates lurking in the belt but no searching for the missing ships or traveling slow and risking attack from pirates but getting time to possibly locate the buoy beacons, which, after all, is the reason why they're here.
Vincent voices his opinion, "Any reason we can't mini-jump most of the way there, come out of jump and drive say a day or two? You know, the best of both worlds? I know we're here to find the ships but it would save us almost a week. And if we coast when we enter jump, there would be no reason to hit the engines once we exit cutting down the chance of the pirates seeing us unless they are actively scanning us at which point we would know where they are, and while I know it will not eliminate all possibilities of them still being able to see us through passive scans, I think it cuts down the chances, no?"
Lakir shoots him down. "The whole fuckin' reason we came all this way, was to look for the lost ships. Micro jumpin' ain't gonna cut it. If we want to bail on the deal, we bail on the deal and go rogue. It's put up or shut up with our real employer, 'less we want to go with the new pack in town."
Vlad adds good-naturedly, "Welp, my vote is for the long slow route. We get to drink more that way."
Gvarokh adds the decisive vote, "Lakir is right. The whole reason for our-r-r being here is to find those missing ships. Like it or not, we take the risk and travel through the belt. The cargo delivery job is just to provide a cover story to explain to anyone who comes by to check our-r-r scent.
"Darrurz will pilot while I play with the sensors to offset the EM interference. If we get attacked, we'll switch. I want Simrii and Vincent rotating shifts in the turrets. Link them up so that if we get attacked, one gunner can fire both turrets until the off duty gunner can get to his turret.
"I know Slade will be in Engineering. Lakir and Vlad, I'll want you ready to repel boarders. I have no intention of letting it come down to that but we should be prepared anyway. Ok, let's get to it."
With that, everyone gets ready for take off.
Darrurz found a low density path through the belt to get to Site 2, thus
making the journey a relatively safe one. Gvarokh managed to tweak the sensors
to compensate for Getes' EM interference. The trip has been a quiet one.
Traffic has been all but non-existent. A modular cutter carrying a Khalidurton
transponder was observed three days ago heading in the opposite direction. There
was no chatter between the two ships.
The ship is on its decel burn with only 7 hours and 40 minutes left when the sensors pick up the steady repeating signal of a buoy transponder. According to the instruments, the signal matches what's on file for the Fitzpatrick, the missing rescue ship. It appears to be coming from the heart of the M-Zone of the belt.
Gamgilebo's M-Zone is denser than the N-Zone, which is where Miishakaal has been journeying for the past 8 days. It is characterized by stony, low value asteroids.
Unable to alter course, the position of the buoy is noted for later.
Miishakaal has arrived at Site 2 unharmed. The ship docks at the
designated landing facilities for Khalidurton ships. Cargo is unloaded. Fuel
and air is also provided at no charge. In actuality, fuel and air are forms of
payment when working for Khalidurton. These are "paid" to ships upon delivery
of cargo. Actual money is paid two weeks later.
The Freight Traffic Manager drops a line asking what you've got planned next. He wants to know if he should put you on the list of ships waiting for outbound freight or if you're headed back to Site 1.
Gvarokh writes back, "Huh. I thought we were supposed to just return to Site 1. What are the other possible destinations for your cargo?"
Darrurz tells Gvarokh to add, "What have you got? When do you need it moved?" After Gvarokh sends the message, he says to him, "We'll need to stick around to get paid and hold our cover, but it might be an idea to see if there is freight we could move outsystem."
Gvarokh replies, "There's a two week lag between job completion and cash payment. I don't want to wait two weeks. It's not about the money, it's about the mission. I figure if one of those other destinations can give us a better cover than just going back, why not just go?"
The text reply from the Freight Traffic Manager comes in. "You're definitely new. On any given day, 95% of our stuff goes to Site 1. We occasionally ship to places further insystem, almost never to any other belt stop."
Darrurz says to Gvarokh, "No point in wasting cargo space. Ask him how long until the next freight to Site 1. We've got to go back so we can check out that buoy transponder signal anyway."
Gvarokh texts the question to the FTM. "About 90 hours" is the reply.
Vlad pipes in over the comm, "Could we spend the two weeks 'prospecting' as cover for looking for the missing ship? Granted we'd need to buy a permit, the necessary equipment and probably make some minimal effort to find ore of some kind, but it would be a cover."
Darrurz pipes up, "It's a bit of a waste not filling the hold but I suggest that we just say we are going back to Site 1 and then just check out the buoy. That way we don't have to invent anything for us to be popping in and out of Site 2 for no apparent reason. If we can get in and back in 90 hours then all's good and well, if not, no worries."
Gvarokh announces his decision, "We'll go check it out and come back here for the cargo. Since you don't need a license to sample asteroids, we'll use that as our excuse to wander. Unless someone has a better idea."
Lakir puts in his two credits. "Good cover plan, but we better have the hardware for samplin' on board, and sensor logs to back up any 'searchin' we do, in case we have to justify it to our new employers, seein' as how they seem intent on keepin' their op secure.
"You goin' ta be the one to explain where we were, after another of their ships get hit? Maybe 'honest, Mr. enforcer, we weren't doin' an info drop to the local pirates.' will work, if you don't smile too broad."
Gvarokh disagrees. "We don't need the right hardware. We are amateurs. In fact, that is one of the things we are checking: What hardware do we need? What are the holes in our sensors? What will help us find a good rock?
"If push comes to shove, I will simply admit that we were looking for pirates: to kill them. Being reduced to an in-system courier is pretty humbling. Bagging a decent kill would significantly boost our status. We are not giving drops; we are hunting.
"But that is only the cover story if the first one fails. I don't think they can argue with that story, as it is pure Vargr, no matter how stupid."
Lakir throws up his hands. "Hey, as long as we don't get shopped as informants, it don't matter."
After a good night's rest, the crew sets off to find the buoy from the
Fitzpatrick. Gvarokh has alerted the Freight Traffic Manager that they're
going to sample some asteroids but will be back in time for the next cargo
shipment back to Site 1. The FTM seems fine with it.
Gvarokh is on the sensors and Darrurz is flying the ship.
Arrival in the vicinity of the signal. Search begins.
The Fitzpatrick's buoy signal is still strong and after a short search it's located. Darrurz maneuvers the ship in closer, taking extra care as the density of asteroids in this part of the belt is higher. It's the most difficult flying Darrurz has had to do in some time, but his skills are still sharp. He matches the buoy's vector, outbound at a slow speed, and pulls within 25 meters. "That's as close as I dar-r-r-re get. I'd hate to bump the thing after-r-r coming all this way."
"I'll go get it," Slade volunteers.
"I'll assist," Chuck pipes in.
Since everyone is already suited up (just in case there's an immediate need), Slade and Chuck just have to put on their helmets. Chuck picks up the hand thrusters from the storage locker along with the TL-15 rope. He meets Slade in the cargo hold and they depressurize it.
It's been a while since Slade has done a spacewalk so he takes it slow. He takes the cable and attaches it to the buoy. He holds onto the buoy and gives Chuck the signal to reel it in.
While he's out there, Gvarokh's sensors pick up something dense and metallic (but isn't an asteroid) roughly 300 kilometers away with an outbound vector that is similar to that of the buoy. In other words, adrift. Analysis indicates that it's a 100 ton ship with a configuration pretty close to that of a Type S Scout Ship. Thermal scans indicate that it is cold and unpowered.
Once Slade is safely aboard, the main cargo hatch is closed and the hold is repressurized.
"Ar-r-ren't we going after-r-r that ship?" Vlad asks.
Darrurz adds, "It could be bait. The Miish should be alert and ready when you check it out."
Gvarokh says, "We're going to check the buoy's log first."
Vlad counters, "Can't we do both in the interest of saving time?"
Gvarokh replies, "I would rather have as much information as possible before jumping on the ship. It could be a trap as Darrurz stated. However, we'll track the ship while we check the log. 300 km is not far and it's vector is easy enough for even us to overcome."
Next: The Fate of the Fitzpatrick