Tionisla Rising Part 2
12th June, 3265

  I gently lowered the ship onto Bay 2 of Manchester Starport in Tionisla as the rain poured off the hull. As the landing gear touched, I ran the shutdown checklist, and we were ready to disembark.

  Our destination was Manchester Jail. It was visiting time, and it was time to pay a visit to a certain "friend" of mine, now rotting somewhere in the cells. Damon followed me as we opened the hatch, and strode out into the pelting rain. We dashed quickly across the concrete to the main starport buildings.

  I was quite relieved to find that Manchester had a shuttle system - I really didn't fancy going to the other side of the town on foot. We strapped in, and the autoshuttle took Damon and myself to the prison.

"Thank you for using Manchester Taxis", said the autoshuttle. "The cost is 4.5 credits. Have a nice day". It sounded rather too cheerful on this damp afternoon.

  We walked into the visitor's building, and we were greeted by the prison guard.

"Greetings gentlemen, who are you here to see?"
"I'm here to see Martin Nguyen"
"Aaah, lets see..." said the guard, consulting his computer. "OK, number 47783... I'll just get him. Ident here for me"

  We gave the officer our idents, and he checked them. With the security test satisfactory, we followed him into the secure visiting area. It was a drab, grey concrete room. A small amount of natural light was allowed in via a couple of high windows. The rain lashing against them and the overcast sky added to the generally depressing feeling of the place.

"So, I'm going to meet the guy who nearly bumped you off then?" said Damon, casually.
"Well, I hope so. That's assuming the Templar haven't seen him already"
"I'm surprised you let him live"
"You know, I do have some compassion! I thought he deserved a second chance, I think he was just duped into joining them, he's just a kid"
"Do they really use the electric chair here?"
"'Fraid so. Still doesn't seem to deter the pirates though"

  We sat in the room for a few minutes. It was very quiet. The visitor's building was separate from the main jail. After a while, I could hear some shouts in the distance.

"Sounds like someone's trying to escape," I said.

The shouts resolved into intelligible speech as they got closer.

"They'll kill me for sure! I'm not going!"
"They will not hurt you, the area is secure"

  Finally the sound of feet scrabbling around on the floor approached the room we were in, plus a great deal more shouting. I could now hear two other voices. Suddenly the door flew open and two prison guards burst in, almost falling over. They were dragging Martin along. A third prison guard was making sure he didn't escape back down the corridor.

"Martin, you can relax, it's me and I'm not here to hurt you", I said calmly.

   Martin spun around, and stopped resisting. He looked at Damon and myself in slight disbelief. He was sweating a lot, and had the look of sheer fright and panic to him. The guards firmly held onto him, just in case he tried to make a run for it.

"Come on, sit down over here, meet my brother Damon, and let's have a little chat," I said, hoping to not alarm him and also introduce him to the stranger I had brought. I didn't want him to think Damon was going to smack him one. Damon's about twice my size and sometimes has a bit of a mean look about him.

"Martin, I've got a little proposition to put to you," I began.

  He sat there whilst I made my request. It was quite simple - he clues me in about Sirius Templar recruiting, and he'd be safe when he got out of prison. Plus he might get to own a Sidewinder for his troubles.

"I can't" he said.
"Oh come on, let's not start this again. You've got a choice - in five years time, you get out of jail. Should the Templar find out where you are..." I let the words hang in the air.
"I just can't risk it. I don't think you can take them out...no one can take them out, I've seen their defences", he replied.
"Ooohh-kay, let's put it this way. You're obviously worried about them finding you, aren't you?"
"Not really," he lied.

   I have no idea how he thought he could get away with such a blatant lie. Such is the ignorance of youth. I remember trying to worm my way out of trouble like that when I was his age. I learned it never worked, especially a lie as blatant as that one.

"So, if you're not worried about them finding you, why the struggle with the guards?"

He didn't really have an answer for that one. He looked at the two guards sheepishly.

"You know, I could always help the Templar find you too. Or maybe I can have the pleasure myself of waiting outside the gates with a fully loaded Asp when you get out". I knew he would crack fairly soon - it hadn't been very hard to get him to spill his guts last time.
"And you know, I did save you from the electric chair, I think it's only reasonable that you help us now", I added.

  He shifted nervously, and flashed a look at the guards again. I think he was desperately hoping that visiting time was over. No such luck, we still had half an hour to burn. The prison guards didn't seem to be minding our full and frank conversation either.

"If you do help us", I continued, "we will help you when you get out. As you know, I keep my word"

   He looked around at the guards once more. Nobody spoke for a couple of moments. He looked panic stricken - I don't know why, even if we didn't succeed, it probably wouldn't make a scrap of difference to him. I'm fairly sure that the Templar already knew about his sentence length and would be waiting for him, regardless of whether they found out that he spilled his guts to us or not. Damon had started drumming his thick fingers on the table. I knew this was not a good sign - when I was just a kid, this usually preceeded a beating of some sort. I didn't want Damon to lose his temper - the guards looked as if they would have an instant sense of humour failure if he did. Martin looked at Damon and caught a wicked look. If looks could kill, as the old cliche went.

Finally, Martin decided that he had less to lose by giving us the information we wanted.

"It's like this", he said. "I was recruited in Sol. There's a listing on something called The Underground Bulletin at Mars High. Make initial contact there. Then they interview you."
"Go on..."
"They make you ident. They only take people who haven't been in space, they don't want infiltrators"
"I see..."
"Well, then if they find you acceptable, they ask you to call back when you find someone looking for crew. Then they check the guy you're going to crew for. See if his ident is known to them, if it is, they tell you not to go with him because they might be infiltrating. If the guy checks out OK, they let you go. Then they warn you about what they will do to you should you fail to carry out their orders. Once you're on your way, it's your job to make sure that the commander doesn't see them following. They tell you exactly when they will attack. It's then your job to incapacitate the commander"
"You mean, like smack him over the head with a piece of wood?"
"Yeah, that's one method."
"Pity for you it didn't work then", I replied. "Is there anything else you can tell us?"
"Yes - they only want Asp class or bigger"
"Well thank you. You're free to go. I'm sure you'll hear of our success."

  He looked a little worried as the guards led him away. I don't think he's aware of the sort of resources that the bounty hunting community has, especially my friends at Riedquat. It seemed all rather simple. Of course, the idents would be a problem - I was rather hoping they'd hire one of us, but it would be difficult to forge a Sol ident. Maybe we can find another method for obtaining one. The interview could also be a tricky spot. Maybe one of my friends has someone in the Sol system who owes them a favour.

  We left the prison, and returned to our ship as darkness began to fall. The rain still hadn't let up, and the odd flash of lightning surged across the sky. It was going to be a rough launch.

18th June, 3265

  We had an uneventful trip back to La Soeur du Dan Ham. A handful of pirates had attacked us on the way in, and none of them were a particular challenge. The canister of Gem Stones we picked up from one of them helped the bank balance a bit. I went back to World's End Bar, and found it quite lively. World's End is kind of the main bounty-hunter hangout - pirates know to stay clear. I saw Mischa, DuGalle, LaRoche and Baxter sitting at a table, having a bit of a joke. Damon and myself arrived on the scene loudly.

"Hey, good to see you back Jimmy. Hi Damon!" said Joan Mischa loudly.

  I made a wild lunge for the bar, and bought a round of drinks. Damon and I collapsed thankfully into the easy chairs. It was good to be back at what I considered my second home. Pint in hand, I reported the news of our meeting with Martin in the prison. We sat down mulling it over.

"We can get fake id quite easily" said Mike Baxter.
"Go on..."
"Well, Sol's a safe system. Security within the station isn't high - between the five of us, we can easily take an id-station hostage for a few minutes while they make us up an id of my choice."

  The others looked interested.

"So, Michael...how do you propose to get weapons onto Mars High? They've got good screens...", said Joan.
"I was just coming to that."

  Mike looked at me. The others swivelled around to look at me. Oh no, I had a bad feeling about this. I could guess what they had all just thought of.

"Oh no, not the shotgun! I nearly got killed the last time! Isn't there a better way of coercing them?" I asked. Joan grinned at me.
"Sorry, this one's up to you Jimmy. The Sol authorities are well known for refusing bribes, they're absolutely incorruptible", she replied.
"OK, OK, we'll do the shotgun thing"
"What shotgun thing?" asked Damon.
"What, I haven't told you?"

  I then had to tell the whole story about the nasty meeting a certain Phekdan pseudo-ruler had with my shotgun, and the ensuing chase through the station's ventilation system. I had never told Damon about it, and was hoping I never had to. But now I had - in fact, I had been surprised that no bounty hunters had been after me for a while - perhaps I had finally shaken off the last remnants of that little episode in my life. Damon looked at me in awed horror, just like he did when I had to admit to him I was a bounty hunter on one visit home. This time instead of lecturing me on the dangers of bounty hunting, he just shook his head in shock. He still doesn't realise that he was just scratching at the surface of the near misses I had when I first started in this game. Finally we got back onto the topic of conversation - how to get a false Sol ident.

"Right, well who is going to masquerade as the newbie copilot then?" asked Wes. Wes LaRoche was the most combat hardened of all of us.
"We have a small problem there," I replied.
"Oh? Go on..."
"We're all...well, to put it mildly...to old for the job. I'm the youngest of all of us, and I'm in my late twenties. They are looking for kids - naive teenagers they can quickly blind with greed. They won't even go near one of us," I looked around at my audience. "We are going to have to find someone to help us out here."

I gave Joan a sideways glance. Her brother was just about to turn nineteen years old and had every bit of cunning required to survive out on the Edge.

"No, I can't let you do that", said Joan, sensing what I was going to ask. "He'll just get himself killed. I'm trying to stop him from getting into this game until he's done some copiloting and learned the rules"
"Well - "
"Sorry, I know this is important, but he's not doing it. He'll screw up, believe me"
"Anyone got any suggestions then?" I asked.

  We all took a collective pull at our pints while trying to think of somebody who could help us. Plasic surgery? No, that never works. It's something they'd been messing with for thousands of years, but it never did any good. Perhaps we could find someone at Sol who could help us. However, I didn't trust Earthlings. I think we all wanted someone who was at least our kind - someone we could have a reasonable degree of trust in. Someone who knew what life was like on the edge - people of Sol were too insulated from the harsh realities.

  I watched some people leave the bar whilst I contemplated what we could do to solve the problem. Then something happened that made me think that maybe...just maybe, the Deists could be right about some sort of divine being. In walked a fresh-faced youth. He was dressed like a typical bounty hunter - black clothes, a black leather jacket and short cropped hair. All he lacked was the slightly worn look the rest of us had. He walked up to the bar. I could see the rest of the group had seen him too. We watched intently as he tried to figure out which beer to buy. It was quite obvious that this was his first trip to Riedquat. The other bounty hunters in the bar were paying no attention to him, so it must have looked very strange the way our group was staring. He hadn't noticed us though. We watched as he carried his pint to a table. He proceeded to wearily collapse into an easy-chair. It looked as though he might have had a bit of a tough run in.

"OK guys," I said quietly, "I'll talk to him. Surround the table and make sure he doesn't take flight".

  I remembered being his age, just starting out. I was always quite nervous of groups of people, especially once I had a price on my head. I didn't want to scare this guy off. I stood up, picked up my pint and walked towards his table in what I hoped was a casual and non-threatening manner. He looked up as I put my pint down on the opposite side of the table and turned a chair around, and settled down. At least he didn't look like he was going to run.

"Let me guess," I started, grinning at him like a madman "you've got a loan shark on your trail and you're trying to figure out how to pay him back before he breaks bits off of you"

  I think I had hit the nail right on the head. He looked distinctly nervous. I think he was about to try and make a run for it, but Damon's heavy hand suddenly fell on his shoulder. Damon's grin looked rather mirthless, but Damon always grins like that. The rest of the group pulled up their chairs and beers. We now had the poor kid surrounded. I was sort of enjoying myself, but I felt rather cruel.

"I've got the money! It's OK! Just let me go to my ship - "
"Don't worry, we're not coming to collect," I said. He looked at us nervously.
"Well what gives?" he asked.

  It was time to put him out of his misery. We introduced ourselves. As a show of good faith, I offered to buy him the next beer.

"So, anyway, you know who we are, so who are you?"
"I am Maxwell Jackson, of Planet Lave", he said. It sounded a bit pompous.
"OK, Maxwell. We have a deal for you which will not only pay off the loan shark, who is even now cruising through Riedquat system space to meet you, and then more on top. If you join our group on this mission, you'll get a start in life you'd never otherwise get" I explained.

  He seemed receptive. Actually, he didn't really have much choice (even though I had made up the bit about the loan shark being on his way). I found out a bit more about our new friend. It kind of brought me back to my teenage years. Seventeen years old, sick of life at home, looking to the stars. Except he got a Krait instead of a Saker. This was his first successful run into Riedquat, and it was successful only because he didn't get attacked much. I thought I'd let him out of his misery, and told him that I had been making up the bit about the loan shark. We drained our beers, and as I promised, I got the next one in.

"So, what's your rating? You must be doing well to come to Riedquat," said Wes. Maxwell sat a little taller. We were all ears.
"Yes, I'm Mostly Harmless"

  I nearly choked on my beer. Mostly Harmless! He had survived Riedquat in a Krait, with a Mostly Harmless rating!

"Mostly Harmless?" said Wes in a highly surprised tone.
"Well, I got that rating just now", said Maxwell, positively buzzing with pride. We all looked on aghast. Even Damon realized the gravity of the situation.
"What's wrong...?" said Maxwell, looking at our disbelieving stares.

I simply smiled gleefully and chewed on the end of a drinking straw I had picked up.

"You know, you'll be ideal for this mission. Welcome to the team", I said.

"...but he's a complete nutter!" exclaimed Wes. I shrugged.
"So? Aren't we all?" I replied slightly insolently
"But he obviously doesn't think! Everyone knows you don't just jump into Riedquat space with no combat experience!"
"We don't need him to think, so long as he can follow instructions, he'll go a long way. The military has loads of people like that who do well", I replied.

  I couldn't quite see Wes's problem. It was well after closing time, and just Wes LaRoche, Paul Mitterand, and myself sat at the bar discussing our plans. Wes was getting a case of cold feet over the eighteen-year-old Maxwell Jackson who we had chosen to be our infiltrator. As far as I saw it, anyone who had the guts to make his first jump Riedquat would be perfect for the job. It was insanely dangerous for all of us. We had been arguing about it for about fifteen minutes.

"Paul, you be the arbiter of this. Am I right or not?" I said, hoping to break the deadlock that seemed to be forming.
"Hey, don't pull me into this, I just serve beer!"

  Usually, Paul was always very eager to give advice to any bounty hunter that crossed his bar. It looked like he was getting cold feet about the whole thing too.

"Look - we should do it. How about this: it's going to take us some time to get to Sol anyway. We'll have plenty of opportunity to see how the kid gets on along the way, and we can abort if it looks like it won't work out. Deal?"

Wes's jaw jutted out. We sat in silence for a few minutes. He knew that none of the others had objected. However, he was undoubtedly the most experienced out of all of our group, and the others would probably go with his advice, especially after having a night to sleep on the idea.

"Where's your brother?" he said.
"Went back to the ship, I think he had one too many beers"
"OK, well...we'll talk to him in the morning. I'm in on one condition. The kid rides as your copilot so he can learn something on the way. Damon takes his Krait."

  That didn't sound like a great deal to me! Damon was just getting the hang of combat, and we were suprisingly working well as a team. I thought about it briefly. I guess we'd all be in formation anyway, so between four ships we could shake off any pirate attack without any difficulty. It could be worse.

"OK, you've got a deal."
"I'm still not very happy about it...any sign of trouble with this kid of yours, and I'm bailing." Wes seemed to be trying to slightly disassociate himself from the whole plan. Kid of yours, indeed!
"OK. Well, let's meet in the tap room tomorrow and discuss strategy," I said.
"I'll have the tap room ready for you tomorrow then - it'll be all yours. Just drop in when you're ready", said Paul.
"Thank you."

  At least we would get some privacy to discuss our plans. Hopefully Wes would become less skeptical. I felt confident I could at least guide Maxwell onto the right track with this one.

19th June, 3265

  We managed to come up with a plan today which I think has a very good chance of succeeding...should we get our way. There are some high risks involved, but with a little thought and good execution, we should be able to overcome these. However, the day didn't start very smoothly. It started about an hour before we were going to discuss our plans. I was sitting in the observation lounge having a cup of Ridgeback's Ultra Coffee. I had successfully talked Damon into going in the Krait. I was idly talking to Damon about life in general, when I spotted Maxwell entering the far corner of the observation lounge. The lounge is pretty much the biggest room in the station - the entrance was around 50 meters from where we were sitting. Maxwell hadn't got more than three or four paces into the room when...

"There he is! Get him!" shouted a burly looking man who was sitting at a table. He and the rather well-built woman he was sitting with suddenly jumped up, and started running in Maxwell's direction. Maxwell stopped briefly, and saw what was happening. He didn't waste any more time, and turned on his heel and bolted out of the room.
"Shit! Don't let them catch him!" I yelled. Both Damon and myself sprinted after Maxwell's pursuers.

  The man pulled out a weapon of some sort, and fired it at Maxwell, who promptly collapsed. I had got quite close to the man, and I dived for his legs. My tackle was successful, and we both crashed to the floor. The man kicked me viciously, and I had to let go. Suddenly, I twisted around to see Damon catch the woman. The man aimed the weapon he had used on Maxwell at me! Before I could move, searing pain flooded through my body. I was knocked senseless, and flailed hopelessly on the floor. I dimly recall the sounds of struggle, and something heavy falling on me before cool darkness passed over my body. In my semi concious state, I could perceive shouts, and I could feel dull jerks as I was dragged away. Finally, I settled into a deep sleep.

  I awoke with a splitting headache. I looked up blearily, fearing the worst. Instead, I saw Joan Mischa's concerned face looking at me. The rest of the room started to resolve into the familiarity of the World's End bar.

"You were lucky, he just stunned you", she said.
"Where's Maxwell?" was all I could ask. I hoped they hadn't done worse to him, it would sink the mission before it was even started.
"He's over there", said Joan, and nodded her head in his direction. "He hasn't come around yet, but he'll live".

I looked up to take in my surroundings. I saw Wes. He looked at me disapprovingly. Maxwell was laid on the floor. Damon gave me a mug of coffee. I thanked him for the thought. It might make my head stop hurting, anyway. That was the first time anyone had successfully stunned me with one of those weapons. It was an experience I could have done without.

"I'm getting a sinking feeling about this whole thing you know", Wes said slowly.
"You're not going to bail, are you?"
"No, but you better have a damned good plan"
"Who were those guys anyway?"
"Oh, some two-bit loan shark's heavies. Your brother did an admirable job of beating them up."

  That figured. I looked at Damon, who grinned at me. I guess I owed him one now. Perhaps I shouldn't have made that joke last night about the loan sharks being in Riedquat. It obviously turned out to be true. Well, Maxwell would have no right to complain - if it wasn't for us, he'd be having bits broken off him by now.

  Eventually he came to, and we went into the tap room to discuss our plans. We had quite a long discussion, and I put my idea of a plan to the rest of the group. We'd go to Sol, and spend a bit of time on Earth to find out how the Earthlings live and behave, so at least Maxwell could be reasonably convincing. We then hold up an ident station, and get the operator to forge a Sol ident. This was obviously quite a big risk. Maxwell then gets in touch with the Templar, behaves like a naive kid with a deathwish (which he seems to be doing admirably anyway without any help from us), and gets on the payroll. He then picks some unsuspecting commander who is looking for a copilot. Just like Martin Nguyen had done with me. Using a portable secure communicator, he'll tell us who he's got, where he's going and any other information and we'll follow. And once he gets the order to jump the commander, he radios us, and we pounce on the Templar's Clipper once they've emptied it of the Sidewinders. I will go after the Sidewinders since I have the best equipped ship (with Damon once again as my co-pilot), whilst Joan, Wes and Mike go after the Clipper, board it and deal with the crew. In the meantime, Yves LaRoche will be stealing nukes from the Feds at Eta Cassiopeia. We all meet up again at Tionisla, and turn the Clipper into a giant bomb. Yves knows someone who is rather adept at bomb-making who lives in Manchester, Tionisla. We then make our way to the base in Edurce. Once in Edurce, we get the Clipper in a good position, make ourselves scarce in the Asp, and boom! No more Templar. Of course, we've got to get photo evidence, so we'll have to stick around long enough to see the fireworks before leaving.

  It looked all very neat in principal. In reality we all knew it was risk-laden from the moment we got the Sol id forged. It wouldn't be long before the alarm was raised, and then the Feds would be after us. Yves has a reasonable rank with the Feds, and will take on a few bombing runs to obtain the nukes. This will of course mean that the Federal Military will demote her, but she doesn't intend to work for them again so it's a tradeoff she's willing to make. Of course, the other big risk is Maxwell. We have to make absolutely sure that he won't betray us to the Templar. I'm fairly confident he won't - in many respects he's just like I was a few years ago.

15th July, 3265

  We had a very uneventful journey to the Sol system, so I didn't keep much of a journal. Maxwell seems to be turning out alright - with a little careful instruction, he got the hang of handling the Asp. He even got a kill or two to his credit with the Asp's fighters. Wes is still rather concerned though - he made a point to grumble at any opportunity. We spent about a week on Earth, trying to see how the average person there lived. It was rather an interesting visit.

  Earth is an odd place. They insist that all visitors have something called a "visa" on their ident. I've never heard of these. As you land, they add it to your ident. If you don't leave the surface within three months of landing, firstly, they fine you, then order you off the planet and never let you back on again. I think the Earth authorities are worried that too many people will come and live there for good if they don't. I'm not sure why they think that - to be honest, I prefer Newtown (but maybe I'm biased). We flew down towards the George Bush Intercontinental Spaceport in a place called Houston. I kind of insisted that we go here, because this is one of the places that was involved in the human population of space. We came down during the late afternoon, dodging thunderclouds that rivalled the ones that would soak Newtown from time to time. We all landed in formation like some sort of rag-tag mob: there was my Asp, Maxwell's Krait, Wes's Cobra Mk.3 and Joan and Mike's Constrictor. Control had us all touch down on the same pad, since we were all in formation. The Earth authorities are very picky. Not only did they have to issue a visa, but they also searched our ships. It was a good job we all jettisoned our radioactives in deep space...they are illegal in Sol. Finally, after half an hour of questioning about what we were all doing on Earth, they finally let us go. Stepping out into the festering, humid air made me feel at home. Just like Newtown with a bit more gravity.

  We rented a planetary shuttle so we could get around easily. The first port of call was to check out the town. We went to somewhere near the centre of town, and took a look around. Quickly we discovered that there was no way any of us could afford to live there. Prices for everything seemed extortionate. It was also extremely crowded too - our shuttle got bogged down in traffic - something I've never seen. We had to park in a large, multilevel building devoted solely to parking shuttles. We also started feeling out of place. It turns out that the people of Earth have a rather bright dress sense. We were all in our typical bounty-hunter attire where black was an important colour.

  I also had a look around the bulletin board during the nights, which we all spent on board our ships since lodging on Earth was ridiculously expensive. After a little searching I found what we were looking for.

"Here it is!", I said.
"What?" said Maxwell, who had been sitting at the table in the Asp's small living room.
"The Underground Bulletin. Martin told me about it. It's where the Templar recruit."

  Maxwell came over and looked over my shoulder at the display. I looked through the listings. It was some kind of black market trade centre by the looks of it. There were a large number of listings. Half of them seemed to be from people offering to forge Earth permanent visas. There were more for illegal radioactives processing, and yet more still for a variety of other goods and services which would otherwise have the Police Vipers chasing you out of the system. I called the others, and told them the location of the Underground Bulletin, so they could join the search for the Sirius Templar's advertisment. There was rather a lot to wade through, and I had a feeling that the Templar's advertisment wouldn't be all that conspicuous. Indeed, a search for their name brought no results. We spent the next day searching - it was time well spent. An unlikely looking ad for "scrap metal in exchange for a ship" took us to the Sirius Templar's recruiting information. It didn't really tell you what they wanted you to do...only that if you were interested in their offer, contact their office at M.Gorbachev Station in Earth orbit. We all got together in my ship that evening.

"OK, it's clear what we need to do." I said. I glanced at Wes, who at least looked relatively relaxed today. I think a holiday did him some good.
"We will go to Columbus first. It's only a small station, so we shouldn't have too much trouble getting them to fake an ident for us. Then we head on for Gorby Station, get Maxwell looking like one of these people we met on Earth, send him to the Templar's office and wait. Any questions?"
"Well - won't they come looking for us after we hold up the ident station?" asked Joan. It was a perfectly reasonable question. Wes broke in before I could answer. It was clear that he's been doing some very careful research.
"No. Information I've read on the rather interesting Underground Bulletin suggests that a little cash in the right place can keep them quiet. We might not even need to use force," he said.
"Right. In that case, we should all show up there, and offer payment. I'd rather not have to dodge the police while we wait for Maxwell to get in with a commander," I said.

  We left that day. Our flight of four took off, headed out over the Gulf of Mexico then climbed up into space. The trip to Columbus was uneventful, as you'd expect in somewhere as safe as Sol. The view of Io and Jupiter was awesome as we docked with Columbus. Io is highly volcanic, and glowed strangely in the darkness. We all settled down for a few beers. This would be the last night before everthing started getting rather exciting and unpredictable. From the next day on, danger would be lurking.

16th July, 3265

"What can I do for you folks?" asked the ID station attendant.
"Well, what can you do for us for a couple of K?" I asked quietly.

  The young man attending the id station looked around furtively. The fact he was doing a minimum wage job and could do with any additional credits weighed heavy on his mind. The couple of thousand credits were calling to his normally incorruptible Federal mind.

"Look, let's talk inside", he said quietly.

  We all went in. It was quite crowded with the six of us plus the attendant. A secure ident terminal and issuing system was prominent in one corner. They obviously didn't get a great deal of use out here. We also looked a bit bizarre - there was Joan, Mike, Wes, Damon and myself looking pretty much like your standard moth-eaten bounty hunters, and then Maxwell, outfitted like a typical Earth teenager. The colour clash was rather startling.

"OK, we just want a Sol id for this nice man here," I said, indicating Maxwell.
"Are you out of your mind? Do you know what the penalty for forging idents is here?" came the attendant's rhetorical question
"I don't really care. I don't normally live in Federation space. Besides, you have to get caught to be fined", I answered evenly
"But I do! I have to live here! These things have an audit trail!"
"OK, well how about you say we coerced you if they ask? Will four thousand credits be enough?"

  I could see that old, ugly, but very useful human emotion stirring in him. Greed. If I could wheedle his lust for money, he would crumble. His inexperience was working against him. If I were in his position, I'd certainly not accept...but I had experience of how greed gets one in trouble. It was obvious that he did not have this experience to fall back on. There was a pregnant pause while the attendant fought an internal battle between Greed and Conscience. If I could just tip him over the edge...

"You drive a hard bargain. How about five K?" I asked.

  The attendant looked around furtively. The station was very quiet at this time of the day - the station's artificial morning had only just begun. He licked his dry lips.

"OK, I'll do it. Just be quiet. Don't hang around the station"
"Thank you very much. OK, Maxwell, give him your details"

  Maxwell went forward, and gave his details for the fake ID. His new name was Robert Austin. His new birthplace, San Marcos, Earth, Sol. He kept his date of birth. Within minutes, he had a shiny new ident, and the ident station attendant was five thousand credits better off.

"It was good doing business with you Sir," I said to the attendant.
"Good luck, wherever you're going" he replied.

  We left the ident station and made our way to the station's bar. We found a quiet corner away from prying ears. I pulled out the case I had been carrying and opened it. Inside were five secure communicators, which I had bought from a black market trader in Eta Cassiopiea some years earlier on the hope they would be useful some day. I had configured them on our trip out and made sure they could talk to each other. I handed them out to everyone in our party.

"OK, here's the plan. Maxwell, be very discreet and keep us updated. Let us know every move that your commander is going to make so we can follow. Try and dig up as much as possible about what the Templar are going to do. The rest of us will just have to do our best to keep up", I said.
"OK," said Maxwell. He was looking a bit daunted. He looked at his communicator.
"You can no longer travel with us either. Catch a ride with a freighter down the Gorby, and we'll follow at a discreet distance. Good luck Commander Maxwell Jackson. May your mission be successful. Call us when you get a ride."

  Normally I wouldn't use such pompous, flowery language, but I thought it would make Maxwell feel a little bit better. I certainly wouldn't like to be going alone at this point. We watched Maxwell leave the bar. I think we all felt a little bit guilty sending him to his fate like this. Joan looked at me. She had that "I don't like this one bit" that I recognised so well.

"What are we going to do with the Krait?" asked Wes.
"Heck, I hadn't thought about that! How about we land it rough on Pluto and come back when the mission's done?" I said, panicking slightly
"Why not just leave it here? A month of landing fees will pick up much less suspicion than someone leaving a ship on Pluto. They monitor this system pretty good you know" said Joan.
"Sorry, I wasn't thinking. I need a coffee to wake me up"

  We spent a few hours hanging around Columbus. I watched the awesome view of Jupiter and Io from the observation lounge, trying to quell my feeling of discomfort over the whole mission. The others were sitting around at a table in the lounge, quietly discussing the weeks trivia from Random Intergalactic Gossip. I normally enjoyed the stories in RIG, but somehow I couldn't get into it today. I was longing for a nice cool beer in the comfort of World's End Bar. This was no good I thought - I have to snap out of it. I walked over to the table. Maybe being sociable would help stop me from worrying about the mission. Then all of a sudden, the communicator came online.

"Hello, this is Maxwell. I'm on my way to Gorby on a Python with the Barnard's Star registration VR-823"

  The message was simple and to the point. The others had seen it on their communicators.

"OK, let's go", said Damon.
"Right, keep your distance from this ship - we don't want to arouse any suspicions" I reminded everyone. "Leave the station, separated by at least an hour. We'll go to Apollonius City - Wes, you go to Abraham Lincoln, and Joan, go to Li Qing Jao" I said.

   With everyone briefed, Damon and myself boarded the Asp. We would leave ahead of the Python, hopefully. The others would be following behind. We wasted no time exiting the station, and travelling at our best speed to Apollonius City on the Moon. It was going to be a tense wait. I know why I felt uneasy - none of us were in control of the situation any more. We just had to hope that the Templar wouldn't reject Maxwell. We also had to hope that the Sol authorities wouldn't find out about the faked ident until it was too late.

17th July, 3265

  Things have happened rather quickly today. The Templar don't hang around. Just before midnight standard time, after a day of exploring the Human Spaceflight Museum on Apollonius City (a fascinating exhibit containing the first vehicles and equipment put on another planet by mankind), we got a message on the secure comm from Maxwell. He sent us a brief video message. He's already been interviewed and placed! He had been there less than a day. His act obviously must have been convincing to the Templar (lucky for us, and even luckier for him).

  Like the old cliche goes, there was good news and bad news. The good news was of course that he's leaving tomorrow with his new (unsuspecting) commander. The ship he's in is an Imperial Courier - quite a nice ship. He pointed the comm's camera around his new quarters. The commander is obviously really kind to his crew: the quarters were better than anything I'd had even as a commander myself!

  The bad news? You may know that a Courier is a three-crew ship. This wouldn't normally be a problem, except that he's been paired with another of the Templar's willing gang. Another Earth teenager who has already done two jobs. This could well mean that Maxwell's mission recieves some inteference to put it mildly. To top it all, Maxwell already doesn't get on with the kid - a crotchety 19 year old female, it turns out. Notwithstanding empirical evidence that says the male of the species is usually the most likely to be the violent one, apparently this young lady is likely to go a long way in piracy circles. Hopefully Maxwell can find a way of dealing with her. Apparently she's all sweetness and smiles whilst the Captain is about, but starts abusing Maxwell as soon as the hapless commander is out of earshot. I think Maxwell already wants to do something nasty to her by the tone of his voice.

  The other information is that the Courier will be headed for Delta Pavonis. They are going to York City on Reagan's Legacy. This is in range of all of our ships with one jump, so we'll have no trouble following. Where the Templar's Panther Clipper will catch up with all of us is something we'll just have to try and anticipate. However, something that big should be easy to spot (especially its hyperspace entry cloud). I had a long-range scanner fitted at great expense for tracking pirates: it may just pay off extremely well here.

MAXWELL JONES recalls, in conversation with the editors:

  James Winston was certainly not exaggerating with what he reports. The Templar interview was actually quite easy - I was only in there ten minutes. The false ident worked fine, and they were convinced. I think they do the interview to check they weren't getting an infiltrator. Although I didn't realize it at the time, I think they were an incredibly naive organization. They were all off-worlders, so they couldn't see through my horrible attempt at doing the regional accent of where I was supposed to come from.

  The nightmare began of course when I met Alice Lee. She was rather good looking, and I was actually quite strongly attracted to her. I thought it was my lucky day as I met her and Commander Vlad Jensen. However, as soon as Jensen had left us alone, she started giving me orders. She had already got two confirmed kills for the Templar, and she made it quite clear that if I stepped out of line, I would be the third. This made me more nervous. I would now have to dispatch her to complete the mission, and even I could tell she had a rapier sharp nerve. It would be like trying to sneak up on a pack of hungry lions whilst wearing hobnail boots.

Winston's journal continues...

  The others had got Maxwell's message too. We had a brief discussion about what we'd do next. Wes had already taken the initiative and was in orbit within easy range of Gorby station. As soon as we saw Courier QV-322 leave the station and hyperspace, we'd do the same. Wes would check with his hyperspace analyser that the Courier was going where expected. We'd beat the Courier into the system, so the plan was to hang around at a discreet distance and wait for him to come through.

24th July, 3265

  After spending a couple of rather dull days, punctuated only by a minor attempted pirate attack (they turned tail and ran as soon as Damon launched the fighters) we had a great deal of excitement. We did not expect so much to happen so quickly.

  Wes saw the Courier leave, and confirmed he was indeed going to Delta Pavonis. We left early on the 18th July, arriving late on the 21st July. We started by forming up about 100 km from the hyperspace clouds. The hyperspace analyser showed our cloud remnants, and a cloud with the mass signature of a Courier. However, to our surprise, it also showed a nearby cloud from Sol with the mass signature of a Panther Clipper!

  None of us had seen a Clipper in the vicinity of Gorby, so they must have just been loitering about somewhere in Earth orbit, assuming that this was the Templar. The long range scan showed a few other hyperspace entry clouds scattered about the system which of course were from places other than Sol. There was the odd exit cloud too, but not much more of interest. The Courier was due to arrive on the 23rd at 21:30 standard time. The Clipper was due to arrive just over two hours afterwards. It would be interesting to see what happened. They followed me all the way to Tionisla, so in all probability, we would just be tagging along for now. It was now time to just wait for them to arrive.

"OK, I'll follow the Courier, you follow the Clipper", I said over the comm. "Copy" came the terse reply from both Joan and Wes.

The Courier's emergence was only a minute or so away. I looked over at Joan's bright purple Constrictor to the left of me, and further left, Wes's grey Cobra Mk.3. Blue light flickered over their hulls from the two hyperspace entry clouds. It was an eerily beautiful sight against the backdrop of the stars. I thought back to Apollonius City on Earth's Moon and thought of the wonder that the first space travellers would have thought about the scene I was now witnessing. Of course, in those days, the mere mention of hyperspace in scientific circles would have had you laughed out of the room. Twelve hundred years later, it was all a matter of course. The Courier hurtling from one of the clouds interrupted my musings. It appeared as a tiny dot, heading towards Reagan's Legacy.

"See you folks later, good luck", I said on the comm as Damon and I started to trail the Courier.

  It was trivially easy to keep up with the Courier. The Asp is a much faster ship. We kept a distance of a couple of hundred km - I didn't want to spook the commander. Hopefully Maxwell noticed us, and hopefully the other two on the Courier had not. After two hours of trailing the Courier, the secure comm came online. It was Joan.

"Sweet mother of Zeus, the Clipper came through and immediately launched four Sidewinders! They are heading on an intercept with the Courier!" she yelled excitedly.
"OK, copy that. We will strike today in that case"
"What's your plan?" came Wes's voice.
"When the Sidewinders catch me up, we'll attack them. Hopefully we just look like another trader to them and we'll get them by surprise. On my word, you try and take the Clipper. In the meantime, tail the Clipper at a comfortable distance."
"Understood. We will be waiting for your call", said Wes.

  We dropped back a bit further from the Courier, and Damon pulled up the long-range scan. Sure enough, we could see four Sidewinders in close formation accelerating on a direct intercept course with the Courier. About 45 minutes later, they were getting close enough to show up on the main scanner - about 100 km away.

"OK, Damon, ready the fighters"
"They are fully charged and ready for launch. Pity we've only got three left"

  We hadn't managed to find a replacement for the one we lost a few battles back. But three plus the Asp should easily be enough, especially since we would have the element of surprise on our side. Tension grew in the cabin as the four Sidewinders closed up on us, and started passing about a km over the ship. I zoomed in on them, and watched them as they passed directly overhead.

I keyed up the secure comm to the other ships...
"OK, NOW!" I yelled unecessarily loudly.
"Copy!" came the reply.

  The ship vibrated as the three fighters hurtled out of their bays and wheeled around to intercept the Sidewinders. At the same time, I violently rotated the Asp and twisted on full power. I opened fire with the 4MW beam laser and quickly melted one of the Sidewinders before they could figure out what was happening. I targeted another Sidewinder and launched the Asp's only NN-550 missile. Damon was concentrating on one Sidewinder, myself on the other, whilst the missile chased the third. The third Sidewinder desperately tried to ECM the missile, but the weapon kept tracking. I saw the explosion as the missile detonated. The Sidewinder didn't explode, but the radar mapper showed its prime mover had been destroyed. It was now powerless and unable to help the remaining Sidewinders.

"Mayday, we've been energy bombed", came Wes's frantic voice over the secure comm.
"What's your status?"
"Joan and Mike ejected, my ship is badly damaged, but I can still fight", came the reply.

  This was not good news. We absolutely had to take the Clipper. The Sidewinders were now bearing down on us, and we were being hit quite hard.

"Caution, shields depleted," came the computer's calm voice.

  I continued to fire on one of the Sidewinders, whilst Damon's interceptors wheeled around in formation and started firing on the other. Both enemies were however firing on us, and we were taking hull damage. I managed to get the laser zeroed in on the one Sidewinder, and it quickly exploded. However, the other one was still bearing down on us, with the interceptors in hot pursuit.

  Suicide run! He was headed straight for us! Our rate of closure was now enormous. The Sidewinder was still firing.

"Caution, hull breach, equipment section three. Laser cooling booster inoperative"

  The laser overheated. I tried to avoid the Sidewinder, but suddenly there was a deafening crash as the small ship collided with the bow of our ship. The power went out, and we were momentarily plunged into darkness until the emergency electrical supply kicked in. There was a loud screaming sound coming from somewhere. I looked over at Damon, who was about to return the interceptors to their bay.

"Kill the disabled Sidewinder first! If he gets back, we'll be rumbled!"
"I'm on it!"

  I always feel very guilty about having a disabled ship bumped off - I never think it's particularly fair. But in the case of the Templar, it's vital that it doesn't get back to them that they've lost a ship. This was rather far from my mind at this point, there was something desperately wrong with the ship.

"Caution, cabin pressure falling"

  I pushed the emergency flight deck isolate. Nothing happened. I got out of my seat and pulled the manual lever. I heard the airtight hatch slam closed outside of the flight deck, but we were still losing air.

"Damon, we're losing cabin pressure! The flight deck is breached somewhere! I'll grab the EVA suits!"
"OK, I've got the Sidewinder, and I'm returning the interceptors"

I frantically pulled the supplies cabinet open and pulled out the two EVA suits. They were quite heavy and clumsy. To add to the panic, the ship's gravity system chose that moment to fail and I found myself flailing in mid air, trying to keep a hold on the two EVA suits. I propelled one of them to Damon, and started getting mine on. It was quite a struggle in microgravity, and I was starting to feel euphoric and lightheaded, a sure sign of the onset of hypoxia. The air was leaving the cabin at an alarming rate.

"Danger, cabin pressure falling below safe levels"

  Finally, I clipped my helmet closed, and the suit pressurized. My hypoxic symptoms quickly cleared, and it was obvious Damon was in a lot of trouble. He was still trying to get his arms in his EVA suit. I pushed myself over to his seat, and stuffed his arms in as he lost consciousness. I clipped his helmet on, and saw his suit pressurize. Hypoxia clears relatively rapidly, and he was soon awake again. Finally, the last of the air left the cabin, and we now might as well have been in the vacuum of space. I looked at the chronometer - the whole tumultous event had taken less than ten minutes.

"Damage report," I said on the suit's small radio.
"OK, looks like we've lost the laser cooling booster, and...holy cow!" came Damon's voice from my suit radio.
"The hyperdrive reactor is overrunning! The emergency system hasn't shut it down!"

Damon's hands flew over the console. The suit gloves made the work rather harder.

"It's shut down now, but it's inoperative"
"What about the hull breach?"
"Looks like we've lost a large part of the lower hull pressure bulkhead, that's where all the air escaped. The flight deck leaked through there," said Damon, pointing to a crumpled section on the far left rear of the cabin which had been masked by the 360 degree view system.
"What about the prime-mover? Are we stranded?"
"The prime-mover is fine"
"What about the others!" I suddenly remembered we weren't the only ones fighting! I keyed up the secure comm. "Wes, do you copy?"

  Silence. We were only about a light second away from where the Clipper was, so I didn't wait long before transmitting again.

"Wes, I repeat, do you copy?"

  Still no reply. This was bad. Our ship was now incapable of hyperspace, and we couldn't risk losing the Templar's Clipper now we had revealed ourselves. Of course, Maxwell might not have revealed himself... but without Joan or Wes, the mission was in serious danger of complete disaster. I hoped that Wes was just in the heat of battle and too busy to reply - instead of being charred particles drifting through space. Suddenly the secure comm came to life.

"James, it's me, Maxwell, do you copy?"
"I hear you fine. What's your status?"
"We were ordered to disable the commander. Unfortunately Alice got to him, but I took her out before she could kill him"
"Good job. What did you do with her?"
"Shoved her out of the airlock"
"What's the status of the commander?"
"He's not doing very well at the moment, he's unconscious"

  I was momentarily taken aback. Maxwell obviously had the cold cunning it took to survive as a bounty hunter, and had dispatched his enemy with extreme prejudice. It also meant we now had a Courier at our disposal.

"OK, Maxwell - form up with us, and we'll get the Clipper next. The Clipper energy bombed the others, and Joan and Mike had to eject. Haven't heard from Wes and I'm fearing the worst"
"I'll follow you, but I'm still trying to master this ship. By the way, it's equipped with a 20MW beam laser", he replied.

  Flying a Courier solo was a tricky proposition for a rookie. Hopefully he'd be able to manage enough to survive. A 20MW gun would certainly come in useful though. We had a little time, so I pulled up the long range scan. My fears were confirmed when it only showed the Clipper. Wes's Cobra was nowhere to be seen. The long range scanner couldn't pick up something as small as an escape capsule, but on checking the emergency channel, I couldn't locate any escape capsule beacons. I hoped to at least see Joan's. With the Courier aiding us, hopefully we could still disable the Clipper. We didn't want to destroy it - the mission depended on us capturing it. This could turn out to be rather awkward. All I could do is have Maxwell distract them and deplete their shields, whilst Damon and I rammed open their docking bay with the Asp. The interceptors would be helpful too in the process of keeping the Clipper crew occupied. I was a little surprised that they had not already hyperspaced out, but it quite likely that they didn't have enough fuel to do so. In any case, we had to stop them from docking at all costs - they would inform the Templar of what happened. I watched closely as we drew forward. Suddenly, the regular comm came alive. The commander of the Clipper was about to address us.

"Greetings James Winston" said the voice.
"Er, hello," I said uncertainly. How did they know my name? Suddenly the voice changed. A voice I recognised.
"It's me, Wes."
"Wes? Huh?"
"Had you going for a moment there! The hijacking was successful!"

  Suddenly I felt a weight lift off my shoulders. That explained where Wes's ship was - he must have managed to dock with the Clipper. It still didn't explain what happened to Joan and Mike's escape pod.

"What about Joan and Mike?"
"Unfortunately..." trailed Wes's voice...
"We made it too!" came Joan's excited voice.
"OK, that's enough surprises! We've still got the rest of the mission to go...tell me all about it when we land"

  I was extremely elated that we had all survived, even if our ships had all been heavily damaged in the process. In fact, Joan and Mike's Constrictor had been destroyed and Wes's Cobra Mk.3 was pretty much reduced to scrap. My own ship wasn't very far from being scrap either, judging by the amount of hull damage we had taken. At least we could relax now. Tired of being cooped up in an EVA suit, we carefully guided the Asp into the cavernous hull of the Clipper. The docking port was barely big enough for the Asp, but we could fit. Damon picked up an EVA jetpack and flew over to the Courier to help Maxwell out, and I went to help Joan and Wes with running the Clipper. Just as Maxwell had finished off his contingent of the Templar, Wes and Joan had terminated the entire crew of the Clipper. It was now quite likely that we would be able to get the Clipper into Edurce without the Templar knowing what had happened. Of course the main lesson is... never underestimate the power of surprise.

© 1999 Dylan Smith.

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