Suddenly, the comm-net chirped into life as it picked up a priority message. As usual, the message had been encrypted into the carrier signal of an otherwise innocuous broadcast; in this instance, it was a propaganda message from the Church of the Stellar Flame. Curling his lip in disgust, Bonto killed the strident voice of a church orator to reveal the message hidden beneath. The reason for the message’s urgency soon became clear. Javierra Gallia, the xeno-archaeologist they’d extracted from Shimaya, had been taken along with her artifact from a Sahi’ir facility in the system. The crew regarded each other with some concern; the kidnappers were reported to be an Ashen Knives strike team, and they’d already got a bad rep with the powerful criminal faction, well-known for their brutality. Perhaps they’d better give this one a miss…but the next part of the message sealed the deal for them. If the kidnappers could be stopped and Gallia and the artifact returned to the Sahi’ir before leaving the system, a huge amount of credits were on offer; enough to refit the Susan from the ground up if needed!
That in itself was enough to have Vapour and Bonto moving for the door, but Dar was a little less enthusiastic. He knew the Knives’ way of doing business, and knew that a team sent to do a job like this would be well-trained, well-equipped and completely ruthless. If they were to stand a chance, they’d need to slow them down and put them off balance. Catching Bonto’s arm, he asked if it was possible to make contact with the Church battle-cruiser they’d fallen foul of whilst inbound to Amerath, whilst masking their own identity. Bonto considered a moment; the Church had powerful AI systems that would be a challenge to fool, but he was nothing if not confident in his own abilities. Within an hour, Dar was speaking to an officer on the Church cruiser. It wasn’t the same officer he’d previously dazzled with his knowledge of obscure scripture, but news of Mendicant heretics attempting to sneak through the jump-gate had the desired effect. No doubt Church cruisers were even now tightening their security sweeps, hopefully forcing the Ashen Knives team to change their plans.
Whilst this went on, Vapour consulted local system maps in the form of complex holograms hanging in the air above the Susan’s astro-nav console. As he considered their quarry’s likely response to unwelcome additional security sweeps, he noted an opaque patch hanging in space relatively near to the system’s gate. This was a region of space known as the Halvari Span, a vast dust cloud that interfered with navigation and was a known haunt of smugglers and others wishing to keep a low profile. It was far enough from the gate that the Church and its Legion allies preferred to keep it under surveillance, although the risks to shipping meant that it was rarely patrolled. If he was the Knives pilot, that’s where he would go…
So it was that the Susan found itself spiralling lazily through the Halvari Span, broadcasting a low-power mayday signal. Vapour carefully vented plasma from the ship’s thrusters as it spiralled, doing a creditable impression of a vessel with critical thrust failure. With Bonto manufacturing false comms traffic, the Susan appeared to be a smuggling vessel with engine problems, attempting to meet its contact whilst not drawing any unwanted attention; not an easy sell, but the crew were short of options. Dar stood slightly apart and considered his crew-mates as they worked, impressed by their ability to work together despite their differences. His own strengths would only come into play once he came face to face with the Knives, and his warrior’s soul relished the chance to test himself against some of the best in the system.
As Dar considered the forthcoming conflict, a loud chime sounded within the Susan’s cramped flight-deck. The ship’ sensors had picked up a small ship, lying astonishingly close in astronomical terms. It had proved to be so difficult to detect as it was largely running on auxiliary power only; effectively ‘running silent’ to avoid notice. However, the tempting bait being put out by the Susan had proved too much. As Vapour maintained the ship’s spiral and watched the sensors to see what the other ship would do, Bonto called out abruptly, hiking the tension even further. The other ship had reached out with its onboard AI and was attempting to access the Susan’s subsystems, attempting to determine its identity and cargo. Bonto had anticipated this and had set up false outer shell outer shell around the Susan’s critical systems. The mystery ship would see what Bonto wanted it to see and with luck, that would be enough.
The opposing ship’s drive suddenly flared into life. This was the moment of truth; if they’d fallen for their ruse, it would move closer. If not, it would run for the gate and they’d have a chase on their hands. As the other ship moved towards them, the whole crew let go a breath that they didn’t know they were holding in. They’d taken the bait!
Dar immediately sprung into action, grabbing a box of detonators from his bunk as he ran to the cargo hold. The ship had two entrances; the cargo ramp and an airlock that lay midway along its spine. He knew the cargo ramp would not be the favoured route, so he set about placing his detonators around the airlock to give the Knives what he hoped would be a nasty surprise. Meanwhile, the enemy ship had hailed the Susan and demanded it heave to; Vapour gave a creditable impression of a fearful smuggler caught off guard, whilst inside he felt a rising excitement. Bonto was too engrossed in his hacking rig to pay much attention, lost as he was in the virtual space generated by his rig. He’d taken advantage of the link between the Knives’ computer and theirs to do a bit of digging of his own. Gallia and the artifact appeared to be in confined to the cargo hold in the Knives’ ship. Unlike their own ship, their opponent’s was built for speed, and held only three crew. Therefore, it was likely that the ‘cargo hold’ would prove to be no more than a space large enough to hold the woman (who’d probably been sedated) and the artefact. Bonto had also been able to download some tantalising data packets, although he’d have to wait to decrypt them as his rig suddenly short-circuited and sent an agonizing pulse through his cerebral cortex; the Ashen Knife AI had noticed his presence after all…
As Bonto spasmed in agony, biting off some of his tongue in the process, the Ashen Knife ship completed its docking process and two vac-suited Knives stepped warily into the darkened cargo hold, weapons at the ready. Suddenly, Dar dropped down from his perch high amongst the stanchions that reinforced the outer hull of the Susan. Growling menacingly, he activated the detonators around where the interlopers stood and commanded them to drop their weapons. The sense of being outflanked was increased as Vapour came to the door leading from the flight deck to the hold, carrying a blaster in a way that he hoped looked suitably threatening. One dropped his weapon, but the other was made of sterner stuff. Firing off a blast wildly, the Knife caught Dar in mid-leap and blasted him backwards into a darkened corner of the hold, where he lay still. Vapour gaped open mouthed at the apparently dead Dar, but jumped back into the cabin when blaster fire peppered the wall nearby. Quickly, he sealed the cargo hold and ran back to a bloody-mouthed Bonto. A plan forming in his mind, Vapour asked if Bonto could access the life support in the flight deck of the enemy ship. Nodding mutely, Bonto shut off the oxygen supply to the enemy pilot’s cabin at Vapour’s command as Vapour himself raced to through the umbilical to the Ashen Knives vessel. He planned to get to the pilot before he recovered from hypoxia and subdue him…if he was fast enough. Unfortunately, the pilot was made of sterner stuff and fought back groggily when Vapour appeared on his flight deck.
Meanwhile, the mercenaries on board the Susan were attempting to burn their way out of the hold to the rest of the ship, modulating their blasters to act like cutting torches. However, they were so engrossed that they didn’t see a silently enraged Dar rising to his feet behind them. He’d been stunned by the earlier lucky shot, and now he was out for blood.
Bonto had recovered somewhat from his cerebral shock by this time, and had headed for the hold to try to help Dar. However, as he released the blast door he was treated to the sight of an enraged Dar exercising all of his capacity for concentrated violence on the surprised Knives. As he heard a succession of snapping sounds, wet gurgles and pained whimpers, Bonto felt almost sorry for the Knives. Almost.
There was no time for self-congratulation, however. As Dar stood over the recumbent forms of his opponents, Vapour voice called out for help over the ship’s intercom. Without pausing, Dar and Bonto raced for the umbilical to rescue their comrade…