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Prologue

Captain to the Bridge !” The announcement on the ship’s speaker system sounded loud and clear through the mess hall. Captain Jenkins quickly glanced at the window; the ship must be passing the final jumpgate before reaching its destination. He looked at the man in the expensive suit sitting on the other side of the table. “I’m sorry, Mister Albrecht, but we can not pick up the cargo you mentioned. That sector is ridden with pirates, and I am not going to risk this ship just for a quick profit for Omni Consumer Products.” The man looked him straight in the eye. “Are you sure, captain ? As you are probably aware, I am able to compensate you very generously for any inconveniences, damages or losses sustained. Actually, I’ve heard that the ship did not make a lot of money on the previous trip … ”

Jenkins was tempted; the bribe was very obvious. And the ship’s weapon systems urgently needed an upgrade. The new plasma torpedoes developed by UAC were quickly spreading around the solar system, and the ship’s torpedo tube was not equipped to fire them. But the risk was too great. Among the current passengers was a trade delegation from the Mars Union, consisting of important diplomats and CEO’s; if something were to happen to them, Jenkins’ career in space travel would be over. But it was always good to keep some options open. “Not on this trip, Mr. Albrecht. Come and speak to me again after we have finished this mission.”

Jenkins rose and walked to the long central corridor leading to the bridge. He nodded to Nelson, the security officer, who was sitting alone in a corner of the mess room, sipping a mug of coffee, observing the other passengers. Nelson had tough job on this trip. Their current cargo of state-of-the-art electronics was worth an enormous amount of credits, and it was trivially easy to slip a circuit board or microchip in one’s pocket. There were enough shady passengers on board who wouldn’t mind to supplement their income a little bit.

Walking through the corridor he passed the engine room. The engineers were still arguing over some technical problem that had plagued the ship since departure. “What if we plug it in the auxiliary power, and rerout it via the side conduits ?” “Already tried that; the load on the capacitators is too high. We had to shut down sections A till E because it was getting too hot.” “According to the specifications, using power channel 3 should work; I don’t understand why we can’t switch the thing to autonomous mode on that channel. We should check for interference on the control frequencies.” Jenkins hoped they would figure out how to get the equipment working. Of course, he could hire some specialised engineers when they got back to SevCol Station, but they would cost an awfull lot of money.

In the next compartment, the detached marine platoon was training with their guns. Because of their precious cargo, the company that hired the ship had sent the platoon for extra protection. It consisted of only eight men, so Jenkins wondered if they would be able to stop a fullblown boarding attack, but is was better then nothing, of course.

The ship left the jumpgate just as he was entering the bridge. Diepenhorst, his second in command, was giving orders to the bridge crew. “Radiation shielding down, Impulse engines to half power. Navigation, we need a course to the rendezvous. Tactical, any traffic in the neighbourhood ?” The crew was busy with their stations, checking the status of the ship after the jump, and scanning space around them. “Thank you, Mr. Diepenhorst, I’ll take it from here”, said Jenkins.

Akuri, the Tactical Officer, reported: “We have three ships at eleven o’clock, captain, not identified yet. Furthermore, I see a Luna cargo hauler about 5000 km. in front of us. No sign of the Bakunin, though.” The navigation officer, Von Darmstadt, responded: “The Bakunin would be too far for our sensors at the moment. Intercept course is 39 degrees. He should be in range in 4 minutes, ETA is 13 minutes at full impulse. ”

“Helm, set course 39, but throttle down to low impulse. Engineering, all remaing power to the sensors; I want to know what those three ships are. Put the tactical view onscreen, please.”

The big screen that spanned the front wall of the bridge changed from a view of outside space to a grid containing 5 symbols. Three circles for the unidentified ships, a Lunar logo for the cargo hauler, and a arrow for the jumpgate they had just passed. Jenkins saw the three circles slowly moving to the top of the grid; at least, they were flying away from them, not towards them. “I am getting some data on the ships, Captain. It seems like their transponders are not working, but we may have enough to identify them. I am querying the Lloyd database now.”

A sixth symbol appeared on the screen, on the very top side of the grid. It was the well-known symbol of the Saturn Collective; most likely the Bakunin, the destination of their mission, where they would transfer their precious cargo. “Comm, try to contact the Bakunin. Do we have more on the other three ships, yet ?”

“Looks like one of the three ships is an old cruise liner, the LFSSS Shangri-La. According to Lloyds, it is owned by a Lunar Travel Agency. The other ships are also looking like cruise liners. ”

Next to the new symbol on the screen the words “SCSS Mihail Bakunin” appeared, together with some numbers indicating course and speed. “The Bakunin is closer then I estimated. New ETA is 7 minutes at full impulse.”, Von Darmstadt said.

Jenkins felt a little relieved; it seemed this rendez-vous mission was going well after all. “Okay, full impulse, please. Time to get rid of that cargo.”

The sound of the impulse engines got stronger as they powered up to their maximum capacity. On the grid, the symbols started moving more quickly. Suddenly, one of the circles on the grid changed course and started moving down the grid, in the general direction of the ship. It accelerated strongly, getting closer very quickly.

“Captain, I have been doing some checking on the Shangri-La in the news archives. Seems that is was hijacked three months ago, and has not been seen since.” Jenkins froze for just a short moment. Then, he hit the red button next to his command chair, and grabbed his safety mask, while the alert echoed throughout the ship: “Red Alert ! All crew to battle stations !”

 Next: Introduction