Zaeng

Characters: Joe, Arthur, Darrurz
NPC: Mazun, Commander Thaedznou, Captain Azafaghur, Vuksaerz, Aerrak
Location: Orruengoerr
System: Zaeng

1202.21.7 - 8:05 IST

The Orruengoerr emerges from jump space around the outermost gas giant. Passive scans fail to turn up anything, so the ship descends the gravity well to skim.

14:15 IST: Skimming.
14:45 IST: Skimming completed. Climb out of gravity well. Purify fuel.
18:00 IST: With the new fuel fully purified and nothing registering on the scanners, the captain gives the order to mini-jump to the mainworld.
18:10 IST: Exit jumpspace around Zaeng.

Sensors aren't picking up anything in orbit, so the captain gives the order to alter course to get captured by Zaeng's gravitational pull and fall into orbit around it.

Further passive scans of the world below show no hot spots whatsoever.

The captain tells Darrurz to hold position over the downport and get the best sensor data he can get.

After an hour of scanning, everything indicates that the place is dead. The main entrance to the downport is wide open, and its interior is as cold as the surrounding landscape. There are no energy signatures of any kind. The place looks dead.

"I've seen enough," the captain says.

Mazun says, "Begging your pardon, Captain, but shouldn't we send a landing party down there to assess the tech?"

"That vakh Joe spoke with on Dueks told him that it had infected Zaeng. The sensors are telling me the world is dead. I believe that we can log this world as something for 'cautious salvage' for future missions."

Mazun is chomping at the bit to speak up. When he senses an opening, he goes for it. "Yes, but your library records indicate that the inhabitants live underground around the starport. There's a chance that they survived and that the natural rock is shielding them from our sensors. The open hangar door could be a deception, to make invaders think that the world is dead."

"Or a trap," counters Thaedznou, "to lure would be looters in to their doom."

"But shouldn't we be sure?" pleads Mazun.

"I am sure," Thaedznou says with confidence. "It was a corsair lair. Like the lot of them, they were greedy and took in infected equipment. The vakh got into their life support system and vented their atmosphere. End of story. We should move on to Gungaerrg as the good people of Gvoksaedo told us we'd find survivors there."

Captain Azafagur says, "I'm inclined to agree with Commander Thaedznou. I'd rather spend the time investigating a more promising world." He turns to face Joe, Darrurz, and Arthur. "What say you, gentlemen? Can any of you make the case for staying?"

Mazun looks to the rest of his group for signs that someone agrees with him.

Joe says, "I'm with the capt'n on this. We only came here cos our SOP was jump-1 and keep our tanks half-filled whenever possible. We're on a short timeline to find out what we can, and the most promising planets are the next one and the last one on our itinerary. Let's not forget that."

Mazun is decidedly crestfallen by Joe's response, but he doesn't vocalize it.

Joe continues, "We've established that Zaeng is 'safe' enough for an immediate retreat should Gungaerrg prove to be a viper's nest and we can't get anywhere near the gas giant. It's possible from a resources point of view that we missed something, but sometimes you got to leave some glory for the follow up team."

Arthur says, "I ain't goin' into a vakh trap if I can help it."

Darrurz says, "It's a dead world. No one to trade with, and the salvage will almost certainly be infected with vakh. Gungaerrg is much better use of our time."

"That settles it then," the Captain says. "On to Gungaerrg."

Arrival in Gungaerrg System

Characters: Joe, Arthur, Darrurz
NPC: Mazun, Commander Thaedznou, Captain Azafaghur, Vuksaerz, Aerrak
Location: Orruengoerr
System: Gungaerrg

1202.22.4 - 14:15 IST

The Orruengoerr emerges from jump space around the outermost gas giant. Passive scans fail to turn up anything, so the ship descends the gravity well to skim.

17:20 IST: Skimming.
18:55 IST: Skimming completed. Climb out of gravity well. Purify fuel.
22:00 IST: With the new fuel fully purified and nothing registering on the scanners, the captain gives the order to mini-jump to the mainworld.
22:10 IST: Exit jumpspace around Gungaerrg.

The ship is coasting at 165,000 kph (99,000 mph) with the intent of doing a close flyby before committing to a decel burn.

As the ship draws closer to the world, passive sensors are pick up a smattering of debris in orbit: the remnants of a space station and a few destroyed ships.

The world itself shows signs of life: the organized patterns of agriculture, the occasional stray radio broadcast, the grid pattern of large towns/small cities with thermal emissions indicative of activity.

Radiation detectors note that there's a low level hot spot on the world's moon.

Joe replays the sensor scans on his display, taking a closer look at the radio transmissions. He looks for any sign of a satellite network or other orbital infrastructure, but is unable to make that determination. The amount of debris makes it difficult to determine what's a functional satellite and what's junk.

22.5 - 3:15 IST

When the ship is 330,000 km (198,000 mi) from the surface, it is hailed. A middle-aged vargr woman's voice says, "Attention unidentified vessel, we see you and have plotted your course. We are prepared to defend ourselves should you prove to be hostile. You can either identify yourself, or be on your way."

Captain Azafaghur smiles and replies, "This is Captain Azafaghur of the Tsougak Trade Federation vessel Orruengoerr. We are on a reconnaissance mission, looking for survivors and future trade partners."

There's a pause of several seconds. "The Tsougak Trade Federation surrendered to the 17th Disjuncture almost a century ago."

"Yes, that is true. But in the aftermath of their demise, we were able to re-establish ourselves. Will you permit us to land so that we may talk face to face?"

Several more seconds pass by. "Yes, if your library data is intact, you may land at the downport. Its coordinates have not changed."

Azafaghur consults a terminal. "Yes, we have them. So—"

"Any unreasonable deviation from a proper flight plan will be considered a hostile act, and we will open fire. Understood?"

Understood."

"Good. Gungaerrg out."

The captain scratches his muzzle. "Hmmmm. Not exactly the warmest welcome. I hope Mayor Dhozaedh of Gvoksaedo didn't lie to us about them being willing to trade with anyone."

"Probably just a precaution, Captain," Thaedznou replies.

Azafaghur nods. "Let's land then."

"Shouldn't we send the boat down instead?" Thaedznou asks.

Azafaghur shakes his head. "No. Could be perceived as a hostile act. We'll take our chances that Mayor Dhozaedh wasn't lying and these people are just playing it safe."

Arthur interrupts, "Cap'n, that's a bad call, riskin our ride home 'stead of the boat. However, have we been painted with any targeting signals? They may be bluffin', if that's all they have left. Might also speak to how we'll be received on the surface."

"No, we haven't received any indication that they've targeted us."

Joe says, "Without any orbital hardware, we're going to be limited to short range tactical communications. It doesn't look like there is an organized planetary comms grid."

"Either way, we have to start our decel burn." Captain Azafaghur nods to Darrurz, who initiates the decel burn. "Judging by the looks on your faces, you want me to play it safe. Very well. Who wants to join Mazun on the boat?"

Joe blinks a few times. "Cap'n, we were approved for a 'proper flight plan' and to land at the downport. Entering a stationary orbit above the downport and sending down a ship's boat is a standard approach according..." Joe blinks again "...to Imperial naval flight regulation NA-27#B." Joe blinks again. "Nothing we are doing breaks what we were told to do. Although I doubt it is what they expect."

Captain Azafaghur tilts his head to the side for a moment. Once back upright, he replies, "Well Joe, we are long way from the Imperium in both space and time. Those rules don't necessarily apply here. But we can hope for the best."

Joe continues, "With that said, I'll join Mazun on the boat. After all, it's been about a week since I've pushed my luck." He smiles and waves his hand in a simulation of a wagging tail.

"Very good."

"I'll fly the boat," Darrurz barks enthusiastically as he aligns the trajectory of the decel burn. "Where do you want me to park the Orruengoerr?"

"Above the downport will be sufficient. Thaedznou can make any adjustments from there."

"Captain?" Thaedznou asks. "I thought that you'd want me to join the landing party."

"Can't have both of my pilots on the surface." Azafaghur replies, chomping at the air. "After Arthur has given the 'all clear', maybe he'll give us permission to land. Besides, I'd like Darrurz to assess their trading potential."

"Understood, Captain."

Addressing the landing party, Azafaghur says, "You're to make contact with whomever they send to greet you, assess their technological status, economic potential, and friend/foe status. Any intel they're willing to share with you about the region would obviously a succulent prize. If they share, then you share in kind. If they could be allies, then I want them to look upon the next TTF ship as packmates. I imagine that your Captain Nokh would want the same regarding the Tagan Pack.

"Any questions?"

There not being any, the landing party prepares for departure.

Descent to Gungaerrg

Characters: Joe, Arthur, Darrurz
NPC: Mazun, Commander Thaedznou, Captain Azafaghur, Vuksaerz, Aerrak
Location: Orruengoerr
System: Gungaerrg

1202.22.5 - 6:05 IST

Joe, Arthur, Darrurz, and Mazun have boarded the ship's boat and strapped in. Darrurz deftly backs the boat out of the Orruengoerr and puts some space between them and the ship.

A warning light flashes.

Mazun, who is sitting next to Darrurz in the bridge, says, "We've just been pinged by radar."

"We have too," Captain Azafaghur says over the comm. "I'm sure they just want to monitor our approach."

The vargr woman's voice comes on the line again. "Orruengoerr, we've detected a sub-craft undocking with you. We consider this a deviation from the flight plan."

"Negative, Gungaerrg," Azafaghur replies. "This is not a deviation. Sending a sub-craft down to the surface is really a common enough procedure. If you—"

"Orruengoerr, this is a tactic that's been used against us in the past."

Azafaghur lets the statement hang before replying, "Gungaerrg, if you switch to a video feed, I can assure you that we're real people and not corrupted machines."

"Orruengoerr, the last ship that attacked us said the same thing. It turned out that the crew were slaves to the corrupted ship."

"I'm sorry to hear that, Gungaerrg. It would seem that we're in a predicament. I don't want to risk my entire crew and our only means of warning our pack back home, and you're worried about a repeat attack."

Azafaghur mutes the channel and says over ship-to-ship, "Any suggestions?"

Joe says, "They seem threatened by having an 'un-trusted' ship in orbit—don't blame them much for that. Cap'n, it's not ideal, but see if they will accept you moving the ship to one of the Lagrange points instead of staying in orbit. I can't believe that they don't have a protocol for non-streamlined ships. Landing can't be the only option. We'll just have to be extra careful down there till we broker some trust."

Darrurz says, "I have an idea. How about something that we both know that a Vakh wouldn't bother with, something a captured crew wouldn't know."

Azafaghur replies, "Sure, what did you have in mind?"

Darrurz opens an external channel, "Darrurz here; pilot of the ship's boat. Your trade mission to Gvoksaedo; my guess is that you met the Mayor and that he took you to lunch. How did the beef taste?"

There's a pause of a few seconds. "Gvoksaedo doesn't have beef; they have fish. And it's quite good."

Mazun says on the ship-to-ship line, "I don't think I'll speak ill of fish ever again."

Laughter comes over the line from the Orruengoerr.

Azafaghur says over the external line, "Are we good now, Gungaerrg?"

"Yes, yes. Come on down."

Sensors are no longer picking up radar.

The Orruengoerr's ship's boat descends to the surface without incident.

Gungaerrg Down

Characters: Joe, Arthur, Darrurz
NPC: Mazun (Thaedznou, Captain Azafaghur, Vuksaerz, Aerrak in orbit)
Location: Gungaerrg Down
System: Gungaerrg

1202.22.5 - 6:45 IST, 14:40 Local Time (36 hour day)

The ship's boat has come to rest on the downport's tarmac. Looking out the windows, the group can see that the starport looks intact. There are even a couple Engzagir class traders (1G J2) parked at the terminal. Sensors indicate that the temperature outside is a comfortable 16°C (61°F) and sunny.

Three ground cars are parked about 50 meters away, two jeeps and one pick-up truck. The pick-up has a machine gun mounted in the back. It looks like .30 caliber. It's manned, but not pointed at the boat. Several vargr are standing around the two jeeps. They're armed with assault rifles. They're at the ready but not pointed at the boat.

Mazun says, "I guess that's the welcoming committee. What is it about people these days? Are we going to meet security forces on every world we visit?"

"Yes, probably. Let's gooo." Darrurz jumps up and heads towards the airlock. "Last one out lock the door."

Joe follows up with, "Its comforting. Last time there was no welcome committee, and they shot rockets at us."

Joe grabs his kit and makes his way to the airlock, stopping before the inner door he quips, "Lets not keep them waiting too long. Their trigger fingers might get tired!"

"That is an excellent point," Mazun replies. He gets up and heads out with Arthur bringing up the rear.

The landing party get out, lock up, and start walking towards the "welcoming committee." Four vargr from that group meets them halfway. They consist of the leader and three escorts. The leader is a female, the others male.

The leader sniffs the air and then introduces herself. "I'm Colonel Ghanaedzue of the Planetary Defense Force."

Darrurz introduces himself and the rest of the group.

The colonel apologizes for the rough greeting and invites the group to join her back at the starport to "sniff each other out." She promises food and drink. The group accepts her invitation, and they walk to the starport terminal, the vehicles providing escort.

From what the group sees of the starport, it's in good shape. If it had been damaged, repairs have long been made.

Along the way, the colonel explains that there was an incident recently where a ship entered orbit over the planet and pretended to be manned by vargr. "While we engaged in conversation, it launched a boat towards the surface. When confronted, it lied about launching the craft. We shot it down. Upon examination of the wreckage, we discovered the remains of several robots and a tactical nuke. It was unarmed, so we concluded that the ship didn't have any missiles to launch it."

As she finishes telling the story, the group arrives in the conference room. There are two vargr and one human, all male, in the room. The vargr are dressed in brightly colored suit jackets, while the human wears clothing obviously influenced by vilani fashion—asymmetric patterns and ostentatious sleeves. But maybe in a nod to the vargr, the colors are bright, and his hair is full and long.

Ghanaedzue says, "Allow me to introduce Girkarzaagar, Minister of Commerce," the human nods, "Ukharzangoksoe, Minister of Transportation," an old vargr nods, "and Loengzaerr, Minister of Health," the last vargr, who appears to be middle-aged, nods. She gestures to the chairs. "Please, have a seat."

The long table has a plate full of sandwiches with various smoked meats and cheeses. There's a bowl of fruit, rolls, and pitchers of water and tea.

Joe takes a glass of the tea and some fruit that resembles an apple. It tastes quite similar to the Gala variety.

While everyone is digging through the food, Ghanaedzue asks for the background of the Tsougak Trade Federation.

Darrurz explains what he knows about it and then goes on to state that this group was originally from the Tagan Pack. He finishes explaining how the relationship between the two states came to be.

Girkarzaagar asks if any trade deals exist between the two states. Darrurz replies that those negotiations were under way when he and the others left.

Ukharzangoksoe asks about shipyards and repair facilities. Darrurz defers the question to Mazun. He explains that there are indeed repair facilities and that there is a shipyard under construction in the Tagan Pack.

Loengzaerr asks about the public health and living conditions in the two states.

Darrurz looks to Mazun before replying, "We weren't in the TTF long enough to accurately gauge their living conditions, but they seemed ok." Mazun nods in agreement. "But the Pack seemed robust, even going so far as to accept and treat refugees."

Before the assembled ministers can ask any more questions, Ghanaedzue says, "I believe it's our turn to share." After a pause, she continues, "After the 17th Disjuncture was no more, the local naval base commander declared a military dictatorship and instituted martial law. The people were already unhappy with the way things turned out with the 17th Disjuncture, so a wolf proclaiming himself alpha, without charisma or the consent of the pack, wasn't received favorably. The people united and rebelled. The war was a stalemate for ten years, but then some vakh ship jumped in and committed suicide into the base.

"A world government was formed from the rebel alliance. Over the years, we've worked hard at recovery, salvaging what we can, wherever we can find it. We have a small fleet of ships which we've sent out on reconnaissance. We've been to every world that you can reach via jump-1 drives from here. All up and down the Vougong Cluster."

Joe asks, "What did you find?"

"A lot of dead worlds." She pauses to let that sink in. "Of the thirteen worlds that our scouts visited, six were lifeless. These were worlds where people relied on life support systems to stay alive. They all failed. Of the rest, populations have plummeted anywhere from 30% to 99%. Four of the seven have fallen into balkanized bickering, as is common for our people, as there are no leaders charismatic enough to lead all. The other three worlds appear to have maintained some semblance of stability.

"Interstellar commerce is just resuming. Most of the starports are destroyed, but a good number are just shut down. They can be restored someday. Besides our own, there are two functioning starports, though they appear to be limited to fuel and minor repairs."

Joe says, "That about aligns with what we have seen so far."

Girkarzaagar adds, "We'd be worried about corsairs if there were any still around. Maybe in another five years or so..."

Ukharzangoksoe follows, "Obviously, we'll be trying to salvage as many ships as we can—"

Ghanaedzue interrupts him with a short, terse growl.

Ukharzangoksoe is unfazed. "Oh Colonel, you can hardly consider that a state secret. I'm sure our guests, and everyone else out there, are trying to do the same. Ship construction is not likely to resume in this part of space anytime soon." Ghanaedzue doesn't say anything further to interrupt, so he continues, "I'm sure that we can work out an agreement with our coreward neighbors to not poach too close to each other's dens."

Joe says, "It makes no sense to fight over the scraps when we have fallen so far. There are much greater threats out there that we need to be uniting against!"

The ears of all the Gungaerrg vargr perk up, and Girkarzaagar's eyebrows raise up, too.

"Please elaborate," Ghanaedzue says. "What 'greater threats' are you referring to?"

Girkarzaagar adds, "Besides the occasional raider and the few remaining vakh ships, that is."

When the others fail to reply, Mazun clears his throat and says, "Our understanding is that there are more than just a few vakh ships remaining."

The assembled hosts exchange glances of surprise.

Ghanaedzue asks, "You have proof of this?"

"Well, I don't, but the Tsougak Trade Federation probably does. I know that the Tagan Pack does." Mazun gestures to Joe. "Joe was liberated from a vakh ship that enslaved people to be its crew. And the ship that rescued him—I briefly served under its captain—came under attack by a squadron of vakh ships. From what I heard they were lucky to escape."

Girkarzaagar replies, "Well one squadron isn't much too worry about. I'm more concerned with how the situation on Vougong plays out."

Mazun's eyes nearly pop out of their socket. "One squadron? I can't believe that there's only one out there and that Captain Nokh was the unlucky one to randomly run into it."

"Unless you have proof of more..."

"You're not going to take our word for it?"

"Well, we did just meet you—"

"Minister," Ghanaedzue interrupts, "I think you've made your point. As our guests are referring to a matter of planetary security, I will confer with them after this meeting. I will then report those findings to my superiors. They will decide whether it warrants bringing to the attention of the prime minister."

Girkarzaagar bows his head to indicate his conceding the argument.

Joe says, "You're right. It's more important to focus on how we can co-operate, for mutual benefit or whatever reasons. Lets focus our discussions on trade. What are your most pressing needs? What can the TTF do to help to meet those needs? What surplus do you have that might help the TTF?"

Ukharzangoksoe replies, "I'm sure the Colonel can offer a number of needs on the planetary defense front, so I'll leave that to her. In the short run, we need starship parts to repair the damaged ships we have. In the long run, we'd like to have the means to manufacture those parts. That way we can devote more cargo space for other commodities and products." He tilts his head towards Girkarzaagar, who nods in acknowledgement.

Loengzaerr follows. "We seem to have passed the worst of our medical supply shortages. Our agricultural sector has recovered to sustainable levels, so no one goes hungry anymore."

Girkarzaagar adds, "Yes, if we can establish export markets, we have the capacity to increase our output accordingly. And since there's an aversion to automated farming, we could establish the necessary immigration protocols to add extra workers, should population pressures prove too much for the TTF or the Tagan Pack.

"Our chip fabrication plants are small, which is fine as we're limiting ourselves to basic computer technology right now. Still, we'd be interested in any anti-viral technology you may have developed so that we can plan for more advanced systems."

Joe asks, "What warnings do you have for us as we explore your neighbors in the cluster? You mentioned Vougong. What's the situation there?"

Ghanaedzue clears her throat. "Vougong's government collapsed after a brutal vakh attack that destroyed its shipyard facilities and lunar starport. There are several regional states competing with one another for dominance. Each seems to have a different perspective on how to restore their lost glory. Some are less xenophobic than others. We're hoping for their sake that it remains a non-nuclear struggle.

"Most of the worlds we've visited in this subsector are dead. If the atmosphere could not support life without technology, then everyone died.

"Besides Vougong, there's Zoghkaerrguekdou. There wasn't much infrastructure there before so the vakh appear to have avoided it. If you go there, beware. There's a fungus that's especially destructive to humans."

"How so?" Mazun asks.

"It infects their brains, turning them violent. Vargr just get debilitating headaches. I don't know if a cure was ever developed. No humans were on the scouting party, so we don't know if it's still active."

"Intriguing." Mazun strokes his chin in thought.

Ghanaedzue continues, "Over in Sunggoe Subsector, there appear to be more worlds with life. You've already been to Gvoksaedo and Dueks, so you know what they're like. Sugutadho has balkanized. Some states are xenophobic. They blame offworld corporate spies for the damage they received, not realizing that the vakh problem started far away.

"Ghudue is promising. We're working out a trade agreement with them. They're looking to get their starport working again. Once they do, trade should pick up.

"Aetosak and Rogkhethala are dead worlds.

"Akofotsidano is chaotic. The world's population was unsustainable without constant food imports." She shakes her head. We estimate that 99% of the populace perished through war and famine. The survivors have gone tribal. The good news is that they were so low tech before that they haven't fallen any further.

"Our scout party says that there were some rumors of relief starships that have taken people away to better worlds where there's plenty to eat. But they were unable to verify if these stories were true.

"I assume that it wasn't the TTF."

The group exchanges puzzled glances. Mazun speaks for the group, "Not that we're aware of. When we left, we were informed that ours was the first TTF ship to visit this region."

"Then we have a mystery on our paws."

Leaving Gungaerrg

Characters: Joe, Arthur, Darrurz
NPC: Mazun (Thaedznou, Captain Azafaghur, Vuksaerz, Aerrak in orbit)
Location: Gungaerrg Down
System: Gungaerrg

1202.22.5 - 12:45 IST, 20:40 Local Time (36 hour day)

The rest of the meeting was spent discussing matters related to individual specialties. Darrurz discussed trade with Girkarzaagar, noting their wants and needs and what they could offer in return. While a trade agreement wasn't signed, the foundations were discussed and recorded for officials to review later. Colonel Ghanaedzue compared vakh defense notes with Arthur and Joe while Mazun discussed infrastructure with Urkarzangoksoe and medical technology with Loengzaerr.

After the rocky start, the two sides part amicably. As a parting gift, the group is given about a half dton of smoked and cured meats and assorted produce.

The ship's boat returns to the Orruengoerr, which then proceeds to the jump point.

[...to be continued...]