Vincent arrives in the cargo hold to access the log buoy's memory. Slade
returns to Engineering. Chuck stays on to assist Vincent. Meanwhile Darrurz
shadows the drifting ship that lies 300 km away.
Vincent powers up his laptop. "This shouldn't take long."
And he's right. He removes the access panel and, using the codes from Miisha's holocube, he's able to access the buoy's memory.
There's a whole lot of logs, telemetry and a rough draft of a report the captain intended to send back to Sharusharid. In summary, here's what you learn: After arriving in-system and recalibrating the sensors, the Fitzpatrick proceeded to Site One. The ship remained grounded for several days while the captain and his officers conducted their investigation. The executive officer reported finding a shuttle pilot who saw the Qa Livk (the original missing ship) parked along the inner edge of the asteroid belt. Upon questioning this man, the captain felt that his report bore investigation.
The captain's log and the draft of his report state that he believed the Touzagh corsair band captured the Qa Livk and were preparing her to be taken deep into the Vargr Extents. According to his research, he has narrowed the possible destinations down to three worlds in the Windhorn sector (the sector immediately coreward of Vland): Gengfok (1440), Ngirae (1539) or Ikhog (1640).
When the Fitzpatrick left Site One, she began to follow the course described in the Qa Livk's flight plan. With just over half the journey completed, the Fitzpatrick was attacked by two corsair ships which were hiding in the asteroid belt. One was a Ueknou class corsair (400 ton disp.) and the other was a Kagho class Vargr Courier (200 ton disp.) which is similar to the Type VX. There were no transponder codes. Both ships were outfitted with pulse lasers and bore the yellow and orange flaming eye emblem of the Touzagh band. After a protracted battle in which the Fitzpatrick's drives were damaged, the corsairs were able to breach her hull. At that point the Fitzpatrick's captain jettisoned the buoy.
Darrurz asks Vincent to pull up the cargo and crew manifests. The cargo manifest is empty. The crew manifest matches the information from Sharusharid.
Vlad says, "We should probably pass this info along. If nothing else, it'll show we've actually be doing something useful."
Chuck replies, "Yeah, but how? There's been a communications blackout ever since the vargr took over. Hell, that's part of the reason why Sharusharid sent us here. I guess we could tell the bartender but he doesn't have any means of forwarding it along."
Gvarokh asks, "Does anyone know the salvage laws for the Ngath Confederation?"
He gets a consistent run of negative replies.
He replies, "We should find out and see if we can put a claim on it to prevent anyone else from looting it, assuming no one has already, and salvaging it for Sharusharid."
Vlad rolls his head around and bites his paw. "Oh yeah, duh. Why didn't I think of that?"
Darrurz laughs. "Salvage laws? This is the Extents, and the Ngath Confederation is a bunch of corsairs who made it big." He laughs again. "If we can salvage it, it's ours. If we make a claim and put a beacon on it, someone else will 'salvage' it for us and we won't see a penny." Still laughing, he finishes with, "Better that we just mark it's location and trajectory and pass that information to Sharusharid, unless we can actually jump it out system."
Chuck says, "I'm inclined to agree with Darrurz. What little I know of corsair behavior from my Scout days, we should probably board her now and see if there's anything we can grab, assuming the bastards that did this to her haven't already looted her."
"Sounds reasonable," Vlad says.
"Let's approach cautiously." Slade says from Engineering. "If we're convinced it's not bait for a trap, let's go in."
Simrii speaks up, a change from his typical silence, "We should keep a close eye outward while we're at it," a thin smirk comes across his face. "A few of the guys I used to work with used to put beacons on wrecked vehicles to draw recovery crews in so they could get the recovery vehicles as well."
"Right," Gvarokh replies. "We'll approach her, scanning all the while and then board her. The boarding party will consist of Vincent, Vlad and Chuck. After Vlad checks for booby traps, Vincent will give Engineering and the main computer the once over. I want to know if she can be piloted away under her own power and I also want to get any remaining data left on board after the buoy was jettisoned. If she hasn't been picked clean, I want to know if there's any equipment left behind." He pauses to examine the faces of the crew present or reply to any questions. Satisfied, he says, "Ok, let's do this."
Location: Miishakaal and Fitzgerald
Miisha closes in on the Fitzgerald while Vlad, Chuck and
Vincent prepare for their mission. Scans of the Fitzgerald reveal it to
be cold and dark. It's temperature matches that of the local rocks, only its
radar and densitometer signature reveal it to be something more. Visual
enhancements reveal hull breaches but it isn't until the external floodlights
come on that the extent of the damage is understood.
The aft end of the ship has been torn asunder. Watching from Engineering, Slade states with certainty over the comm, "Power plant rupture. There's no way anyone survived that. And there's no way she's flying again."
With the scanners coming up empty for any other ships, Gvarokh gives the ok to the boarding party and makes sure that they're recording everything.
The Fitzgerald is tumbling very slowly with no clear axis of rotation to latch a cable onto. There's only two hand thrusters on board so Vincent tethers himself to Chuck while Vlad flies solo. Lakir offers some coaching on the use of the hand thrusters. He stresses that they take their time and use short bursts. It pays off as the boarding party makes it to the Fitzgerald without a hitch.
Access to the interior is easy. At least a couple of the hull breaches are big enough for the guys to walk right in. After Vlad has checked them for tripwires or trip beams, he gives the all clear. They opt for the large hole between the two thruster nozzles.
It doesn't take Vincent long to confirm Slade's assessment. "Yeah, she's toast. I'm seeing the after effects of a core breach. There's melted metal everywhere. It's so bad I can't tell where power plant ends and the other drives and deck plating begin."
The trio decide to search the rest of the rear compartment. The bulkhead walls immediately surrounding engineering have been punctured and blown out. If there was anything in the rear section it likely got incinerated. The air/raft is a melted pancake. Flashlights pick up several holes in the bulkhead wall that was supposed to shield the fuel tanks and crewed portions of the ship from this sort of thing. On one intact section of engineering wall, Chuck discovers the silhouette of a person, probably the engineer. "At his post until the end," he says with solemn respect.
The hatches leading to the upper deck are melted shut. However, there's a large enough hole leading into the turret and out through the dome for them to see that the gunner's legs are missing.
The hatch leading forward has been completely blown off its hinges and appears to be embedded in the iris valve leading to the bridge. The bulkhead has been breached. The impact of the hatch inflicted fatal blunt force trauma to the upper body of whomever was sitting in the bridge on the starboard side. The port side bridge occupant has nearly been sliced in two from right shoulder to midsection by a slice of iris valve.
While Vincent uses the laser cutter to cut his way through the debris into the bridge. Vlad and Chuck inspect the rest of the ship, including the staterooms. Other than some personal effects, nothing of value is found. It is possible that the ship has been plundered. Considering the carnage inflicted upon the ship, it's hard to say.
Vincent proceeds at a reasonable pace through the debris. Chuck and Vlad return to lend him a hand clearing the debris that he's cut free. He pulls himself through the hole he's cut and makes his way to the computer access panel.
Ignoring the grisly scene behind him, Vincent accesses the computer core and removes the data storage module. It isn't without damage, but Vincent believes that it's still salvageable. He passes it to Chuck before making his way out of the bridge.
With nothing left to examine, the boarding party return to the entrance hole and exits the ship.
Once they're safely aboard, Gvarokh gives the order for Darrurz to back the ship away from the Fitzgerald. He records the ship's astrometric position and outbound vector. He wonders if any living thing will ever see that ship, or its dead crew, again.
"Heading?" Darrurz asks.
"Well, we know that the Qa Livk disappeared somewhere between Site 2 and Site 3 so let's head there. I'll set the comms to the ship's beacon frequency and scan some more rocks along the way to keep up our prospecting r-r-ruse."
The cargo hatch closes and Vincent gets to work on accessing the remaining info from the data core. Vincent has some difficulty at first but he eventually gets it. The final moments of the ship are there to see but it all ends with the power plant explosion. Gvarokh's hopes of putting a face to the pirates who did this are dashed.
Location: Miishakaal, in the outer asteroid belt
Wanting to take advantage of down time, Gvarokh informs the crew that they're going to take four hour naps while there's time. Gvarokh, Darrurz, Vlad and Simrii take the first nap while Chuck, Vincent, Slade and Lakir will nap in the second shift. It goes without saying that if anything happens, the nappers are to be awakened immediately.
Nothing happened during the first shift. Second nap shift underway.
The second nap shift goes by without incident as well.
The buoy signal is finally detected. The ship moves to pick it up. Darrurz
maneuvers the ship in closer, taking extra care as the density of asteroids in
this part of the belt is higher. He tries to match the buoy's vector, spinward
with the rest of the belt at a slow speed, and pull within 25 meters. He cuts it
close, narrowly avoiding a rock the size of an air/raft and pulling within 10
meters of the buoy in order to avoid the rock. He breathes a sigh of relief when
the relative velocity between the ship and the buoy hits zero.
"I'll go out and get this one too," Slade volunteers before Gvarokh can ask.
"I'll assist again," 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 along with the TL-15 rope, which were left in the crew lounge after their last use. He meets Slade in the cargo hold and they depressurize it.
Slade is more comfortable this time so retrieving the buoy goes without a hitch. He takes the cable and attaches it to the buoy. He holds onto the buoy and gives Chuck the signal to reel it in.
On the sensors, Gvarokh picks up an increase in EM interference from the gas giant. It's not blocking out the sensors yet but it's growing in intensity.
Once the hold is pressurized, Vincent heads down to the hold to retrieve information from the buoy. In no time at all Vincent has gained access to the buoy's systems and begun to download the information stored within.
Meanwhile, Gvarokh gives the order to fan out in lazy circles away from the position of the buoy.
As Vincent works on extracting the useful information from the clutter of data at his disposal, the EM interference gets worse and worse. Gvarokh tells Darrurz to stop with the circling and make his way back to Site 2. But as he does so, the EM interference climbs to a point where there is nothing Gvarokh can do with the sensors to help Darrurz navigate through the belt. Either they drift along with the asteroids or fly back to Site 2 (in essence "swimming upstream") navigating the belt by staring through the cockpit glass!
Vlad asks, "Are we certain this EM interference is coming from the gas giant?"
"Absolutely certain," Gvarokh answers. "Before we lost the sensors, they all pinpointed the gas giant as the source. And there weren't any ships between us and it. The interference also built up gradually. Jammers are on/off." He mulls his decision further. "We're going to keep going. We've got a heading to where Site 2 is located and we'll just hold that course as best we can while we wait for the EM storm to pass. I know that it means we have to crawl but at least we'll keep moving. I don't like the idea of just sitting here." He turns to Darrurz and says, "We'll keep it to 50 kph. It's not much but it'll be safe. I'm confident you'll be able to do this, but if you don't want the responsibility, just say so."
Location: Miishakaal, in the outer asteroid belt
Darrurz confidently tackles flying at 50 kph with only the visible light
streaming in through the front canopy to navigate by.
However, it's not as easy as he thought it would be and it takes all of his concentration to gauge where to guide the ship.
Meanwhile, Vincent has finished skimming through the Qa Livk's data from the buoy. While the ship was traveling from Site 2 to Site 3 it was attacked by two corsairs. Again, there were no transponder codes but the vessel classes were the same as those that destroyed the Fitzpatrick (a Ueknou class corsair - 400 ton disp.- and the other was a Kagho class Vargr Courier -200 ton disp.- which is similar to the Type VX). The Qa Livk tried to outrun them but didn't make it far. Its power plant was disabled, forcing the captain to surrender. Internal security footage reveals that the pirates, a mix of human and vargr, boarded the ship, imprisoned the crew and began to jury rig repairs to get the Qa Livk underway again. One last video, from one of the science officers, summarizes the situation as he prepares to launch the buoy before the ship goes to jump. He explains that he doesn't have time to look at the coordinates, but they should be included with the data. Vincent confirms that they are.
"Well, where were they headed?" Gvarokh asks.
"Checking," Vincent replies. "Ok, the computer says that they mini-jumped to the outermost moon of Getes, the gas giant that the Qa Livk came to investigate in the first place."
While everyone mulls that over, Gvarokh notices that the EM storm is fading. Sporadic readings are starting to pop in. He decides to play with the sensors again to see if he can filter out the noise.
He's starts to have some measure of luck, but he's confused at first. He's getting too much activity from the radar direction finder. That really shouldn't be active right now. But as he continues to fiddle with the settings, he realizes that it is accurate. Instinct kicks in. "Battle stations!" he yells.
Vincent bolts for the starboard turret while everyone else readies themselves.
As the last of the EM interference clears out, the passive sensors blare their own warnings: an energy spike indicative of laser weapon fire.
Location: Miishakaal, in the outer asteroid belt
The first shot from this as yet unknown assailant hits the dorsal surface of
Miisha and burns through the ship's limited armor and punctures a fuel tank.
Gvarokh notes that the tank that was punctured was full at the time. While
there's still plenty to make it back to Site 2, he hopes that they don't lose
"Evasive maneuvers!" Gvarokh barks as he depressurizes the ship. Darrurz, however, already knows to do this but he's not too confident in the ship's ability to dodge given it's limited maneuverability. The crew don their helmets as iris valves and hatches close and the air is sucked back into storage tanks.
Once his helmet is on, Gvarokh gets to work identifying their attacker. At first, the sensors are sluggish from residual EM garbage, but Gvarokh fine tunes them to get a clear signal. The computer analyzes the sensor data and is 87% certain that the other ship is a Rangongoer class Vargr Scout Ship. It is capable of 2G and Jump 2 and is armed with a pulse laser turret. Armor is light, though more than yours. Plasma turrets will not have any problem with it. The scary thing is that it's right on top of you, astronomically speaking. It's a mere 200 kilometers away (120 miles). If you were to draw a line between you and Site 2, it would be 30 degrees to port of that line with a pitch of 30 degrees. It was just drifting with the current though now it's moving to intercept you. Since it's slightly further away from Getes than you, it's sensors must've cleared up before yours.
While Gvarokh works on the target lock to pass to the gunners, the ship is hailed, audio only. The message is in Galanglic, but it's speaker has an easily identifiable vargr accent. "Attention unidentified ship. You are no match for us. Surrender-r-r-r now and I will spare your-r-r lives-s-s."
Gvarokh's reply is a succinct Gvegh curse that pricks Darrurz's ears up in surprise. But even the non-Gvegh speaking members of the crew get its meaning.
He terminates the comm connection to the pirate and says in-ship, "Vincent, Simrii, you now have your target locks. Fire when ready."
Simrii lights the target up with as much power as the turret's got. "Aye sir, Pittsburg style."
Vincent shouts out, "Hell yeah! Combat!"
It's been so long since he's been in starship combat that Simrii is rusty. Fortunately for him, they're so close that it's hard to miss. His shot gets lucky and hits the turret. Sensors now indicate a gaping hole where it used to be.
"Nice shot!" Vincent cheers over the comm. He takes advantage of the close range to be choosy about his target. With the pirate's turret out of the way, he aims for engineering. His shot burns through the ship's armor and pummels the port maneuver drive.
Stunned by this sudden reversal of fortune, the pirate abruptly changes course. He's now attempting to clear the asteroid belt, but his acceleration has been halved.
"He's trying to get clear of the asteroids to jump back to his lair." Gvarokh smiles in an uncharacteristically vargr manner. The hunt is on and it stirs something primal in him. It's probably fortunate that none of the human crew are on the bridge to see him. "Don't let him get away," he growls.
"Count on it," Vincent says, seemingly matching his captain's tone.
When the capacitors recharge, another volley is fired. Simrii burns a hole in the cargo hold and then, due to the intensity of the plasma turret, the discharge comes out the other side.
Vincent continues to target engineering. This time he burns a gaping hole in the fuel purification plant.
The pirate continues to flee but is unable to shake his pursuer.
Simrii and Vincent fire again. Simrii incapacitates their jump drive while Vincent take out their starboard maneuver drive. The pirates are now hopelessly adrift unless they can affect repairs.
Darrurz shouts, "HOLD YOUR FIRE!" over the ship's intercom. The comm then goes silent for twenty seconds.
Over both internal and external comms. Gvarokh's voice returns with menace, "Stand down immediately or die!"
Darrurz backs up Gvarokh with a low growl and an aggressive bark down the open comm. On both internal and external comms he says something in Gvegh with a threatening tone.
Vincent asks over a sub-internal comm channel, "What? What did he say?"
Simrii responds, "He told us to target engineering and wait for the order to fire."
Vincent grumbles and then turns on the Gvegh translator software. He makes it available for anyone who wants it. He knows he's not the only crewmember who doesn't speak any vargr other than growling.
Meanwhile on the bridge, the pirate captain replies to Gvarokh's threat. There's video. His ears are down and he's wincing. Behind him there's a crewman working on a smoking console. He continues in Gvegh, "Please forgive me. I didn't know that I was dealing with a fellow wolf. Your vessel is the sort that pinkies use and seemed fat and juicy."
"Shut up!" Gvarokh barks.
The pirate captain immediately complies.
"You will do exactly as I say or else I will incinerate you and your ship."
With his ears down and looking rather sheepish, the pirate captain replies, "Yes, sir."
"First, you will open up external access to your computer. Second, you and your crew will get into your vacc suits and exit your ship. You will wait for us to pick you up. If you try to bring any weapons on board, or anything else as stupid, I will have you vaporized on the spot. Understood?"
"Now, do it!"
The pirate captain complies with the request, then you see him and the other vargr on the bridge put on their helmets and leave.
Over the internal comm, Gvarokh says, "Vincent, slave your turret to Simrii's. I want you to hack into their computer and download anything that could be useful to us and, if possible, delete any mention of us. Hit sensor logs, comms, you name it. The rest of you, we're going to have prisoners on board. I want Lakir, Vlad and Chuck to meet me down in the cargo hold and be ready to receive them." To Darrurz he says, "Keep an eye on the sensors. If you see anything, let me know immediately." He then leaves the bridge and heads to the ship's locker to put on his sidearm.
Next: Pirate Interrogation