Firebrand Tours To The Galaxy Now Boarding


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Firebrand tours to the Galaxy

 Steven Firebrand was sitting waiting in his office contemplating life in general while he waited for the arrival of his new toy. People often had a problem relating to him. Lately, he had put it down to having Asperger's Syndrome. Before that a reluctance to drink alcohol when he was in the armed services where they viewed non-drinkers with suspicion.

 Steve Firebrand's nonchalant attitude to life revolved around the Ground Hog Day principle, where having lived his life vicariously with his other selves supplying pre-warning of problems and the remedies of the task well before it happened. The protagonist of the GHD movie had a multitude of tries to eventually work out the smooth way to live the day successfully ending up with the girl and the job of hosting the best comedy/news segment. With a myriad of others selves forging the way and forwarding the fix to the 'younger' versions it made life easy and complicated simultaneously. Steve was a slightly above average in most pursuits; not outstanding except for imagination which his peers viewed as a negative.

  The impending arrival of the foundation of his new enterprise, a training shuttle to prepare the fleet of tourist ships engendered the current train of thought.

  A whistle sounded as the red disc made a pass and barrel roll before slowing to a stop above the athletic oval at the Firebrand factory; as everyone had been waiting for this to happen, they dashed out to see the new addition to the company.

The red shuttle drifted in to land in the car park; the ramp dropped, and Captain Mike Cox stepped out to hand over the virtual keys to Steven Firebrand. Mike, a tall, lanky country boy, seemed out of place in flight overalls, while Steve was a shorter stocky man wearing work shirt and trousers despite being the Chairman of Firebrand industries.

 “There you go, all nice and shiny,” Mike advised, “I am available to train you up so that you can fly it yourself.”

“Sounds good, I will give the reins to Anne and get busy with the task,” Steve accepted, “For now would you like a brew, and we can rough out the programme.”

“Feeling a bit dry after the flight from the Moon and there are a few things to settle first,” Mike agreed.

“Okay come to my office while we work the bugs out,” Steve invited, on the way waved Anne Strothers, who ran the place, to accompany them.

Once settled into seats with their brew they started the discussion, “Here are the technical specs to register the shuttles and main ship with CASA,” Mike handed over the data stick which was no drama as the Firebrand computers were well advanced.

“Since the inventions we share are now protected, I have been training for my commercial pilot's licence and re-establishing my aircraft tech status, with this I should be able to tell CASA what to ask me to qualify as a Licenced Aircraft Maintenance Engineer,' Steve said.

“Sounds like fun, when I did the deal with the Air Force, they fell over backwards helping, if only to make sure they had a toy for themselves,” Mike said, “But the CASA bureaucrats won’t be so keen as they see it just another bother. This shuttle is carrying a RAAF ID for now as I have conned them into using it as the prototype for their trails, the only catch is that we will have to do a few demos for the brass.”

“I can get my hands-on experience and if someone else is paying the tab even better,” Steve said.

“There is a need to set up a fuel supply, can you swing a water distillery and centrifuge on the coast to get heavy water which is the fuel we need rather than have to ship it in from Grnatz?”  Mike suggested.

'Give me the specifications, and I will put my bright guys onto it, the state government should be delighted for a new resource industry. I also need it for my power generators.'

 Steve finished loading the data onto his computer and viewed the information, “Hmm this will cure my insomnia no problem,” Steve grimaced then having a bright idea suggested, “How about we go for a spin and see how it runs?”

 “Sounds like a plan, if you pass the ball to your bright young guns so that it will make them earn their keep,” Mike laughed.

“Done,” Steve agreed, “Anne since you are now the boss of all you survey; would you organise 'Alpha'  team to handle the shuttle and ship registrations. Then have the 'Beta' team set up an ample DO2 supply.”

“Thanks, Senior, you are always so kind, I don’t know why people say such nasty things behind your back,” Anne retorted.

“How about I put up a new sign such as CEO in charge of everything and a key to the Executive restroom,” Steve suggested going along with the joke.

  "Everyone knows who runs the lunatic asylum." She quipped, “I have a key already; it is the only way it is kept clean,”

“Okay, I will leave it in your capable hands, I am off to fly the wild blue yonder,” Steve ended.

“Break a leg, Senior,” She returned.

 “I see you get on well with the staff?” Mike observed, "Why does she call you Senior?"

“I always allocate responsibility to those who can handle it, besides she gets paid more than I do,” Steve laughed, "We have quite a few Stevens visiting, and I am the Senior one, hence the name."

“I thought you were the head of the corporation?” Mike asked, "and the name is as clear as mud."

 “If I were to pay myself more, I might as well just write the cheque directly to the tax man,” Steve returned.

“Okay the blue yonder is waiting, let’s away,” Mike suggested, “Since we intend to play as civilians we start with a preflight inspection.”

“Wouldn't do it any other way,” Steve replied, “I will just put my flight suit on, and I will be right with you.”

“See you out there,” Mike said as he returned to the shuttle.

 It wasn’t long; Steve joined him to commence the preflight, as they did the walk around Mike pointed out the changes to the Humph's design. As it was the first inspection, they took their time and ensured that all was secure after which they climbed into the cockpit and commenced the instrument checks.

 Having received clearance from local air traffic control, they started up and lifted off without disturbing the grass. Senior updated the local clearance with the Toowoomba Airport, the shuttle ascended vertically out of controlled airspace, and the factory complex disappeared from their view.

“Nice ride feels like we are still on the ground, I have been getting my hours up out of Wellcamp, the training loop is a bit bumpy in a light aircraft,” Steve noted, “How’s the traffic above us?”

“Mostly clear as we are well away from the busy orbits, just bring our speed up to merge, there will be no problems,” Mike advised, “Once clear of the rubbish we will head off to the Moon factory, and you can see the progress of the new ship.”

 With Mike in control, after the shuttle passed the local orbits, they travelled to the Moon, arriving at Humph's factory, parking the shuttle the pair assumed their spacesuits with verbal commands as Humph was off doing his ‘milk run’ with Su Lin. Lined up in neat lines were several ship frames, from two of Humph's standard size, another couple with a short straight extension midships and another two with half straight with curved ends. A dozen shuttle frames were well advanced in construction as each large ship had a complement of two.

“Well, what do you think?” Mike asked pointing at the mid-sized vessel as they surveyed the centre of activity, “Another couple of months and you will be touring to your heart’s content.”

“Seems a little bigger than the Terra?” Steve noted.

“Yep it is the prototype larger model; it has a 10 metre stretch in the middle; this nearly doubles the capacity without making it unwieldy.”

“Sounds good can’t wait for the test flight,” Senior agreed already feeling the glow of ownership.

 “Humph will do that then deliver it to your factory where you can complete the fit out, saves the bother of bringing air to the Moon when you have a whole planet full,” Mike explained.

Surveying the work areas where the other frames were being laid down, “And those?”

“Two standard models for Humph's latest children scheduled to be complete in about a year or two. Another one for yourself and the two extended versions for the Grnatz and Elysium fleets. Then the new assembly line at Grnatz will be underway, and this one will be all yours to do what you need.”  

 “I have had inquiries for a dozen, once the interested parties identified my factory as a potential supplier,” Senior said.

“Probably need a habitat and crew to continue as Humph will probably want most of his construction androids for the other facility, but he has found a source where there are several robots available when needed.”

“We will see, that sounds like a bridge that we will cross when we get to it,” Senior said, “Where to next?”

 “Just cruise around the system while you get the hang of steering,” Mike said.

 So setting off again the shuttle and Senior was put through the paces until Senior was confident of his capability and started to explore with Mike taking a back seat just observing.

 Having filled the day in Senior piloted the shuttle back to the base and hopped out allowing Mike to fly home and visit his family near Gympie.

 Back in his office, Senior checked in with the teams and noted that they were making progress, sourcing government paperwork that would be required to start the ball rolling. The Beta team in the process of surveying a location for the heavy-water plant; they found that the Tugun desalination plant was in maintenance mode running at a loss. Jim suggested that if the company were to buy in and install the distillery and centrifuge equipment together with a new power generator, the State Government would be delighted. The same water output would be delivered with the centrifuge process only diverting a couple of hundred tonnes a day, which would hardly make any difference and have the running costs cut down to a sustainable level.

 Alpha Team reported that the initial prognosis was correct as manufactured in a non-signatory country of origin it would be a tedious process. This status despite having several of the same design circulating from extraterrestrial origin. Those, of course, were the spacecraft given special dispensation by the Federal Government.

 Seeing that was underway, Senior retired for the night and planned the tasks for the morning, perhaps a system tour and check out Mars.

 It seemed that his head had barely hit the pillow when he heard the whistle of his shuttle arriving for the day’s effort, grabbing a quick breakfast, Senior dressed ready for the day and trying to restrain his enthusiasm reached the ramp almost before Mike had dropped it.

 “If I knew you were that keen I would have arrived earlier,” Mike laughed.

 “I suppose I could have slept a little longer,” Senior replied following up with a question, "How’s the family?"

 "They are happy, this job will allow them to see me a bit longer than the one day a month I have been able to visit,” Mike said, “So any place you would like to visit?”

“What sort of preparation to visit Alpha Centauri?” Senior asked, “Could start the reconnaissance for a possible tourist destination.”

 “Each direction is a day to jump point, day in hyperspace then another day into the system, so we are looking at a week and about 5 tonnes of fuel,”  Mike calculated, “The last being the ration for the training task.”

“I suppose we can put that off until we get the fuel supply happening,” Senior conceded.

  "Humph does have a small outfit running near my farm. It is automated and is a handy backup if he runs low on a visit,” Mike suggested, “Next time I am home I will see how much is available, last time there was a stack as we haven’t needed to touch it.”

“I suppose I should just take each day as it comes so what do you suggest we do?”

“I think that the low and slow techniques can be practised for a while as that is where most of the panel damage occur,” Mike advised.

 “I will call up the Airport website and see what is necessary to do touch and go approaches. The training school usually handles that,” Senior said as he looked up the screen, “Ah here’s the answer, free if I don’t land or $60 an hour if I touch, probably explains why my training fees are so high.”

 “Okay let’s make a few approaches then see if the Army Airfield wants a look at your toy?”

“Yeah last time I was there, I was a civilian mechanic on helicopters,” Senior reminisced.

 So the shuttle headed off and radioed ahead with several windows of approach completed without dramas. Then they radioed Oakey and received permission to park using their RAAF call sign. The base was made aware that there were civilian pilots in control and that it was a shakedown flight. The pilots and techs all wanted a look as they had heard about the new toys, but that had always happened at the RAAF bases, they had been listening to the radio transmissions as the shuttle made its’ way around the area.

 As the shuttle drifted in and made a helicopter landing, it stood out with its bright red trim amongst the drab green and sand-camouflaged Army aircraft. Once on the ground, interested spectators surrounded the shuttle trying to get a close look at workings. Mike and Senior were soon answering questions and fending off joy flight requests.

“Once we have the spaceship ready perhaps I will be able to show the performance off especially if I can do landing practice with my new astronauts,” Senior suggested, "Then I suppose we can fit in a few back-seat drivers."

The spectators had to be content with that as the shuttle was re-manned and continued with a training run across the Downs seeking out abandoned landing strips to obtain more slow speed maneuverings. After several hours practice, Senior suggested, “How about visiting your home and checking on the fuel stockpile?”

“I suppose we can do that; I have spoken about you to Mum and Dad, who are keen to meet you,” Mike agreed, “So I will organise the flight path and head off to there,” as he did so.

  Tracking up the mountain range enjoying the scenery as it passed by, arriving at the farm and then descended into the paddock that Mike used for this purpose.

 After exchanging greetings, Mike borrowed the farm ute and ran Senior over to the cache site where that there were several tonnes piled up ready for use in 20-litre containers.

 “What we will do when we need this is to land the shuttle next to it and just pour the water into the tanks, the setup can then refill them until the next time,” Mike suggested.

 “Makes sense rather than double handling the containers,” Senior agreed.

 While they were heading back to the house; Mike suggested, “If you feel confident enough to solo back to your base and return in the morning.”

“Sounds like a plan I need a few more solo cross-country hours, see you in the morning,” Senior replied as he climbed back aboard the shuttle, lifted off and headed south.

As the return flight was registered, there were no dramas as Senior guided the craft back to Charlton and landed on the helipad adjacent to the factory.

 Getting an early start in the morning, Senior registered a flight plan and then headed off to Goombooria a little town nears Mike’s farm. After only half an hour’s slow flight, Senior lowered the shuttle to a gentle landing ready to start the days training.

 As he alighted, Mike came out with toast in hand and quipped, “Who’s the keen one today I have only had just enough time to feed the chooks and plough the back paddock.”

“Pull the other one, it has bells on it; your Mum dobbed you in that you lost all the habits of early rising since you have been swanning around the cosmos,” Senior replied.

“It is easy for you to lose track of time doing that,” Mike said then glancing at his watch, “It is beer o'clock on half a dozen worlds give or take a million.”

 “Well you can take the boy out of the country but you can't the country out of the boy,  so what’s the go for today?” Senior asked.

“Just general cross country and approaches we are already in the experience logging phase,” Mike said, “So wherever you haven’t been, it is up to you.”

 “Okay we can show the flag by making a trip to Perth then Darwin then if it gets too tame, the South Pole,” Senior suggested.

 “Any further and you need to go orbital, or it would take a month of Sundays. Did you pack some sandwiches?” Mike laughed.

“Might have a couple in the tucker box, overseas you have the complication of visas etcetera,” Senior said, “I suppose we first plan then lodge the flight route and get clearance.”

“In space, there is no-one to ask until you enter a populated system. Your ship makes a big door knock with the hyper pulse, if anyone is at home they soon are checking you,” Mike said, “While I think that you are ready now the Terra should be back in another couple of weeks. Since I haven’t had a chance to explore Earth let alone Australia, so I‘m up for it.”

 With that in mind, a trip was arranged to touch all the interesting parts, and because they were using RAAF ID, it also had to be cleared with them. So ringing Amberley Airbase, Mike talked to one of his contacts and permission was gained on the proviso that a couple of pilots and mechanics joined the crew. That way would turn it into a training exercise for the flyboys; it had the side benefit of using the RAAF facilities and planning departments.

 “I have a couple of mates in Canberra who fill that job description; they have experience with this model, I will give them a buzz and see if they are available,” Mike suggested and rang through to Bill Talbert at Fairburn.

 "Bill,  I am here in Queensland with a new toy registered as A78-010, a Humph's shuttle. Can you organise a trip circumnavigating Australia?" Mike asked after exchanging greetings.

“Yes, I received a heads up because I am supposed to be involved,” Bill replied, “I have been waiting for this call, can you pick me up on the way, Kev is available to complete the team if that is suitable?”

“Ticks all the boxes, can be there within a couple of hours,” Mike said, “Have to keep it at donkey pace, so we don't ruffle any hair.”

“See you then I will have an itinerary on paper by the time you arrive,” Bill advised as he rang off.

  Mike hung up and said to Steve, “That’s settled we can top up the tanks before heading off.”

 Steve lifted off then settled into Humph's grotto next to the fuel stash; together they spent half an hour loading a tonne of Heavy water, by the time they were finished Steve commented, “Now I know why it is called Heavy water, perhaps we can rig a pump and hose next time?”

“Now that’s a good idea,” Mike said, “Never mind we needed the exercise, so let’s away.”

 Having got their breath back, Little Red lifted off and headed south towards Canberra to pick up Bill and Kev. Cruising at 600 knots, this took a little over an hour including slowing for the approach to Fairburn. Following the control towers instructions, they were soon parked on a helipad waiting for the two new crewmen to join them. As they would be away for a few days, two men soon were delivered with their kit to the bottom of the ramp, together with a team of mechanics.

“Steve meet Bill and Kev; we have had a little tour together, so they are conversant with the controls and handling capabilities,” Mike introduced them.

“I have heard about you, Steve,” Bill said, “You run that Firebrand factory, I believe you intend to build some spacecraft for my mob,” Shaking hands as he did so.

“Only good things I hope,” Steve replied, “I have spread some new toys lately to your compatriots, the aim is to make this a safer world.”

 “Proper cat amongst the pigeons,” Kev agreed, “The brass hats are still working out what to do with half of it, now both Mike and you are stirring the pot. These techs are here to install IFF gear to make the ship all legit; it won't take them long as Humph has fitted the racks and antennae to suit.”

 “Nice paint job, it would be a shame if our toys go camouflage,” Bill commented pretending to shade his eyes.

“This will be the livery for my fleet, I don't doubt that you guys will paint them in camouflage," Steve said, "I have a bucket list of projects that I want to do.” 

“Well if you climb aboard, and we will follow the course that you have laid out for us,” Mike suggested, "The racks are behind that panel," Guiding the techs towards the rear bulkhead and opening a hatch.

  Once everyone had settled, and the techs had completed their task departed. The tower gave clearance, and they lifted off to stop at Tullamarine to show the flag this being only a short hop. Barely warmed up before sliding in for a vertical landing and parked at the rostered parking area. Soon they were surrounded by people eagerly checking it out.

 After waiting an hour, the crew settled down again and lifted off to head for Edinburgh near Adelaide. They went through the same process before crossing the Nullarbor to land at Pierce Air Force Base near Perth. Mike suggested, “Let’s stay the night and have a sightseeing run. Otherwise, it could get boring."

“I will arrange a staff car, and then we can do a tour; the word will get around that we are in town.” Bill offered.

“Sounds like a plan, go for it,” Mike said.

 So the team set off and hit all the high spots as well as several schools to have a quick chat about space travel; by the time that the day was over, there were dozens of hopefuls ready to join anything that meant getting into space.

“What do you reckon, a recruitment drive on the side?” Bill observed, “Just how many ships do you intend to make for us?”

“I am making the power, drive, shields and armament modules. Once all the factory lines are up and running I expect that my company can supply the market,” Steve said, “One stumbling block is training the workforce to take the repetitive jobs from me. Another point is the navigation computers which are sourced at the other end of the Galaxy until someone designs them here.

  "We will just have to have a bit of patience besides we have a lot of new conventional aircraft that we need to work the shine off,” Kev suggested, “When Humph arrived, all of it is now obsolescent.”

“I suppose I can subcontract out to CAC for assembly in the future and spread the work around,” Steve said.  “They are set up to do just that, and once overseas show an interest, it will boom.”

“Shame to lose the new toys so soon,” Bill grimaced.

“Some gear can be retrofitted giving VTOL capabilities together with advanced weapons and power to existing airframes, I will consult with Humph, and he may have a few ideas on that, he is always looking for new projects.”

“We will put that on the wish list,” Bill said, “Tonight we sleep on it and then head up the coast to Broome.”

 Following the itinerary, it wasn’t long before they had completed the circuit and were ready to explore a bit further afield, “How about Hobart then onto the South Pole?” Steve suggested, “While I have been to Tassie, we can’t upset them by leaving them out of the tour, then go suborbital to cut the time down to the pole.”

“Steve has new spacesuits which will double as winter woollies,” Mike added, “Going sub-orbital it will reduce it from 5 hours down to one.”

“Sounds good I have done the flight in a Hercules. Watched eight and a half hours of empty ocean, which wasn’t my most exciting time,” Bill advised, “How’s the juice holding out? Most aircraft would need a couple of top ups by now.”

“Still on the three-quarter point of the tank gauge, might need a drop by the time we are back in Queensland,” Mike calculated.

“Sounds economical what fuel do you use; it hasn't come up in conversation though now that I think of it ‘heavy water’?” Bill said.

“That’s correct, the extraction is slow and expensive but still cheaper per mile than kerosene,” Mike said, “We can use just about any of the light elements, but the residue from  DO2 is minimal, that saves cleaning the tailpipes every week or so.”

“Hell, buying heavy water could be expensive, I have heard it starts at $300 a litre up to near $700 depending on purity,” Kev calculated, “This shuttle holds about 5000 litres.”

“Distilled water at dollar fifty would do, with a ten percent performance penalty and the by-product not quite as useful,” Mike said.

“Preliminary costing for a new plant I am trying to organise should come in at a few hundred dollars a tonne with quantity savings,” Steve said, “It delivers a thousand tonne miles per litre.”

“The going rate for Galactic supply runs from fifty to a hundred credits per tonne which would make it economical,” Mike provided, “The principal suppliers draw their supply from a source that is nearly pure D2O with freight the main expense. When you are off the beaten track so to speak, it is easier to mine it yourself from an asteroid; Humph has a little kit  behind my farm which produces a couple of tonne per year using solar power.”

“I suppose so; I remember reading that the top of the George Washington Spire has the rarest metal of the day, it used half the world’s supply of Aluminium,” Kev said, 'Now they stick soft drink in it, and best price for recycled is $2 a kilo.'

“The market drives the price, a hundred million dollar plant wouldn’t be viable with the output less than a thousand tonnes a week. The total market for Heavy water is currently seventeen thousand tonnes a year,” Steve assessed, “My proposed plant is to be attached to a desalination plant that is producing twenty-five megalitres of water per day, so taking the one percent would mean about 250 tonnes of D2O per day. The main running cost being for a dozen workers supervising the output, this can be quadrupled with the reverse osmosis plant running at full capacity.”

“We can leave it to white man’s magic; let’s plan the trip to Hobart and the South Pole,” Bill suggested, “We are in Darwin so with a three-hour flight to there, wave the flag then off to the frozen south.”

 “Sounds like a plan let’s do it,” Mike said.

 Crossing the centre from north to south, this time, each taking command watching the airspace as the land passed underneath. At the two and a half mark, Bill called Hobart airport and requested descent path for helicopter landing of a twenty-ton aircraft. The controllers approved, despite struggling to maintain their professional cool. It was planned to stay overnight and leave early for Antarctica so that the flight could be completed in daylight by the shuttle, not too much of a problem as being near summer most of the day it was light.

Departing from the Hobart aerodrome, the shuttle pointed the nose up and ascended to flight level 100. Then increasing to a ground speed of Mach 5, the high altitude increases the flight length by a factor. After an hour or so the coast of Antarctica appeared ahead and with that in view descent, and the crew initiated deceleration;  Kevin called ahead McMurdo to advise of the intention to overfly, and the air traffic controller informed, though there was some query about how high and fast they were still going.

“RAAF shuttle A78-010 descending from suborbital flight path over your position in 5 minutes mark,” Bill advised, “Inbound for landing at the South Pole; do you wish a visit over.”

“Copy A78-010 are you rocket powered?”

“Confirm guess, helicopter landing capable, footprint equal to Chinook with no heat stress to the pad.”

“Visit appreciated carry on 010,”

“Roger, McMurdo, see you in a couple of hours.”

“As these blokes are scientists should be no drama letting them have a look and not making a fuss about being foreigners,” Bill assured.

 “They have plenty of Aussie visitors so there should be no dramas to land if there is any we just stay on board in Australian sovereign territory,” Kev added.

“Okay if my calculations are correct we descend to ten thousand feet using a radar altimeter then we should see the permanent station and then request landing at minimal speed,” Bill suggested.

 As the base radar spotted them, they were challenged and with responses from a surprised air traffic controller, given permission to land and visit the site of the geographical South Pole.

“Minus 20 Celsius so rug up, so we can have a look round,” Mike advised assuming the gel spacesuit. The overall effect was wearing another flight suit with a visor covering the face, “The suit will keep you warm and comfortable for as long as you are here.”

 The party exited the shuttle and greeted by the admin head who was busting at the seams restraining himself from asking too many questions as while rumours and stories abounded about the spacecraft; this was the last place he expected to see one.

 They were invited over to the new dome building recently completed after doing the obligatory happy snaps at the flagpole and marker.

 “Well as you have seen one ice planet you have seen them all,” Mike quipped, “Much the same as Hoth which is about as good as it gets at the equator.”

 After spending a couple of hours with the admin staff conducting a tour through the facilities; this was down with the expectation of the return favour seeing the inside of the shuttle the team wished their hosts farewell and headed back to McMurdo to pay a visit.

 Arriving there, they parked as directed and a bus was waiting to take them to the main base to talk to the commanding officer, Major Chris Felton, who greeted them making an effort to show them around the base also with the expectation of a tour of the shuttle.

“What sort of power plant do you have?” Chris asked, “If this is orbitally capable it should be gigantic.”

“Field stimulated room temperature fusion using heavy water,” Mike provided, “Fits in the back of a Kombi van.”

“I am near the production of ground-based reactors big enough to run this place,” Steve advised.

“We have just shut down and removed a nuclear reactor as it could have contaminated the area, so now we run on diesel and perhaps that is not much better,” Chris said.

 "I have a design for an extractor for D2O. which can be attached to the desalination plant and cut transport costs. The reactor should be on the market in a couple of years,” Steve said, “The emissions from this reactor would be non-radioactive helium and nitrogen. If you use ice water for the extractor, there should be little saline requiring disposal.”

“Sounds good to me I will put an order in for a set of those,” Chris enthused.

 “Always willing to sell to the needy is my motto, I noticed a few of my sidearms amongst your police,” Steve said.

“Are you that Firebrand character? Those guns are handy as no one gets hurt if they used,” Chris asked.

“Just doing my bit for peace,”  Steve said.

“Well, it has been great meeting you,” Chris said, “Happy travels.”

 “Thank you; it has certainly ticked off one of my bucket list items. Though I will send the boys for the installation,” Steve said.

The visit over, the team boarded the shuttle lifted off and made a straight run to Canberra delivering Bill and Kev to their base, after which onto Gympie to drop off Mike at his farm.

 Over the next week or so morning runs to Gympie with general practice, racking up the hours to qualify for a commercial licence and with the maintenance experience building up as well, Steve was ready to sit type exams as available. By then Humph's ship the Yella Terra arrived and picked up Mike for him to resume his employment.

 Becoming bored with circuit training Senior suggested to Bill and Kev that they make an interstellar trip.

“Great idea but how long would that take?” Bill asked.

“About a week there and back so if we carry provisions for a month it should be sweet,” Senior advised, “Need to drop into Mike’s house and pick up some fuel from the stash there.”

“So when do we start?” Bill asked.

“If we get all our gear together, then go in two days time?” Senior suggested, “Take about an hour to drop into Gympie load up then we are away.”

“Sounds good, I can tell the brass that we off to plant the kangaroo flag on a new planet,” Kev suggested.

“Perhaps not that but suggesting Mars may stop them asking too many questions,” Senior laughed, “I have practised the hyperdrive locally which is harder than a longer distance.”

“Okay I will ring back in half an hour with the yea or nay,” Bill said, “So pick us up the night before, we then camp at your place overnight then away first thing in the morning.”

“Sounds like a good plan, I had that in mind, great minds think alike,” Senior said as he rang off.

 Hardly had he done so when Bill rang back. “The boss is getting a bit bored with our comings and goings, just said file the flight plan and no need to bother him,”  Bill said, “So as long I write a report, which is my job description.”

“Boring is good, excitement usually leads to extra laundry bills,” Senior laughed, “I will drop in at 1500 hours Friday and then we are off.”

“I will see you then,” Bill replied.

Friday arrived, and Little Red settled into Fairburn where Bill and Kev were waiting to load their gear, this was done fairly quickly as they were travelling light.

The crew loaded the equipment aboard; Senior then received clearance and headed back to Charlton to stay the night. Loading a little extra gear the preparation was complete, so the shuttle was ready to leave in the morning. The evening was used to brief the two on the programme they would follow; Humph had supplied navigation data and what to expect. Senior’s son Tom was joining for the trip; he had dropped in earlier and Steve had told him about the tour, as there was not much happening at UQ, was keen to experience the exercise.

 “He‘s coming because we need the extra muscle to shift the fuel,” Steve advised, “And balances the load up.”

“Ha, ha Dad; Bill, Kev glad to meet you,” Tom said with a wry glance at Steve, “I brought my computer and a heap of games if it gets too tedious.”

 “Just to give you something to do you can be the flight deck supervisor and go space-walking if we have little green men wanting to land,” Steve quipped.

 “Hey you promised no old dad jokes on the trip,” Tom protested.

“Ah but we haven’t started yet,” Steve returned, “Promise cuts-in once we are away.”

 “So when do we go? And what do we take?” Tom asked.

 So Steve laid out the expected programme with first the refuelling stop, then off to Alpha Centauri to say they had been there as that was the closest neighbour and distant destinations would be in Big Red.

 The morning rolled around, and Little Red lifted off and headed to Gympie for the fuel load where they formed a chain and soon filled the tank returning the empties to the feed rack. Task completed, the crew boarded and strapped in, then headed out over the Tasman Sea to commence the climb through the atmosphere.

 Breaking through the clouds and accelerating towards escape velocity with the radar looking ahead for satellites.  Apart from the displays, there wasn’t much scenery to watch, except New Zealand rolling up the horizon far below to the starboard side.

“Good thing there is a gravity damper,” Steve said, “Under your seats, you will find your space suits, and it is a good enough time as any to wear them. Once in space, the off-duty crew can just have them close though there should be no danger. There are shields to divert any debris from striking. Note the red switch turns this off so please fingers off.”

“Thank you, hostess,” Tom offered, “So when do the bikkies and cuppas come round?”

“Anytime you feel like it, you may do the honours, please remember I make the jokes around here,” Steve retorted.

 As they headed out of the earth plane, there wasn’t much to see except bright pinpoints of light except for the sun in the rear cameras a glare even with the filters in use. The earth dwindled in size as they accelerated to interplanetary speed achieving mass clearance before engaging the hyperdrive.

“Well despite exceeding previous speed records for an Australian vessel it will still be another ten hours to jump point, so who takes the first shift, Bill, Tom?” Steve asked, “I will check if everything is where it is supposed to be and put the kettle on, any takers?”

“Yep, NATO with a sandwich,” Bill acknowledged with a brew order, “I have the con heading 010 Sol centre.”

“Okay, coffee two sugars I will warm the other seat,” Tom accepted.

“That’s two NATO since you are hanging around with service types best you learn the jargon,” Steve advised.

 “I will tie down the luggage and set the bunks; it is going to be a long trip if the lame jokes have started,” Kev stated.

 As they set about their assigned tasks it wasn’t long before cups in hand they were back observing the cosmos unfolding before them.

 “This Hyperdrive how does it work besides damn fine?” Kev asked.

“It is a slight variation of my parallel universe doors where there is one which has very close star systems. The ship then travels at near light speed to your target system and then step out again nearby,” Steve paraphrased, “A mass bigger than 10 metres at 10 kilometres pops the bubble, and then you drop back to interplanetary drive to arrive at your destination.”

“That’s a bit close if you are high C velocity?” Kev noted.

“The shields would bounce you off unless you were square on, the chances of that are remote. Earth-size or bigger mass you bounce out at one AU, so even at light speed, you have roughly eight minutes to duck,” Steve calculated, “So we approach the exit on the brakes with hands on the controls. In Humph's case because he is faster than any computer he can cut the fudge factor to a minimum.”

 “So when do you expect to train up one of these Droman?” Kev asked only slightly reassured.

“When we have the big ship, I nip over to Droma and ask if someone is interested,” Steve related, “According to Mike an adult may be curious or because there is a shortage of home territories you can offer a home for a meld of 21 juveniles making one adult Droman. Then you have the training task ahead not long because some are older than us.”

“Oh something to work out in a corner when you have some spare time on your hands,” Kev said sceptically.

“The bigger ship will have navigation computers which can’t fit in this one,” Steve assured, “Actually if you look in that cupboard you will see something familiar.”

 So with a wry face thinking that Steve was taking the Mickey went over and looked to find a dome-headed barrel with sensor and lens arrays. “Bugger me dead an R2 robot.”

“Not even alive, that cute little beastie I have dubbed Gizmo, he doubles as a short-range nav computer as well as a repairman if the shuttle needs fixing,” Steve smiled, “Makes us a little standby but he is a useful crew member.”

“He hasn't been steering?” Kev looked bemused as he was a pilot and not keen on autopilots.

“No just monitors the ship serviceability, assess the navigation maths and sets the exit points. The drawback is that Gizmo is programmed not to endanger anyone, so is very cautious. You have to switch him out of the system when someone like Humph is steering, or he gets the conniptions and freaks out,” Steve explained, “For now it means he scans ahead and before we even approach one AU he pulls the switch and drops us out well clear. The early dropout gives us an extra few hours planetary cruising; safety first is the go.”

 That left Kev plenty to ponder about so when it was his turn to command he was quite happy to do so. The time estimate to drop out was running down on a small clock beside the control panel and still read in high twenty hours.

 Still, after a sleep time, the readout counted down to zero, and the stars returned to normal with a new system in view ahead only blurred in the middle where the filter cut the glare. This view would be for another day as they cruised in closer.

As they did a light started blinking on the panel, Steve tapped the readout; it displayed that there was a distress beacon transmitting. “That’s odd; Humph reckoned no one visits here as there are no habitable planets nearby,” Steve mused, “Still we must investigate though with caution as it is apparently an old pirate trick to bring you close.”

“Gizmo, would you plot a course to take us close to that beacon. Now we all don the suits with stunners at the hip, and we sidle up nervously until we can assess the situation,” Steve decreed, “The ship doesn't have the resources to do much, I suppose we can holler to Grnatz for help.”

“If there are Bogies, be ready to stick your foot on the accelerator,” Kev agreed.

 "We slow down on our tail ready to apply full power if something is on the nose,” Steve assured him, “Normally that would be considered bad manners as the rocket flare can blister the paintwork. I will be speaking in Galbasic.”

 This plan was carried out, and they arrived within radio hailing distance, ready to run if required.

 In Galbasic, the distress frequency was used to call, “Occupants of distressed vessel this is Solterra Little Red do you copy over,” Steve announced and with no response, “Gizmo data screech.”

 This time, they received a return signal, “This is Rambling Gambler, require assistance, Hyper disabled.”

“Gambler what can we do? We are limited as this is a small ship.” Steve replied then aside “Gizmo display specifications.”

 On the main screen appeared an outline with size, mass and power emissions, with side notes as to the origin and possible crew. “Gambler, Captain Firebrand in command, who are your crew?” Steve asked.

 “Captain Roos, Sucos and Ruckos race Goosos air oxygen-nitrogen 25 75,” Roos replied.

“Wait out, I will confer with my crew,” Senior said then asked away from the radio, “What do you reckon, Gizmo race readout?”

The screen lit up with a question sign and further data on ship origin regarding air specification which was consistent with a remote planet this with a flashing orange line reading caution 'that race is unreliable'.

“That means take it steady,' Steve considered, “Gambler what help do you require, we have limited resources.”

“Could you tow us to Sigma Epsilon there is a repair facility there,” Roos replied.

“Gizmo do we have the capability and what do you know about the requested destination?” Steve asked away from the radio.

 The screen lit up with a YES for the ship's capability, and a red CAUTION for the indicated destination with a recommend for Grnatz, as being closer.

Steve made a decision, “I don't have the capability, perhaps I should contact Grnatz for rescue.”

“Negative Red, Oxzen are antagonistic to us, have weapons sighted will fire if a transmission or the drive detected,” Roos sent.

 “Gizmo do you detect radiation?” Steve asked  the screen lit up POSITIVE, so he flicked two switches, twisted the controls and aimed a reticule centred on the offending ship, “Full shields, Fire sleep gun.” At the same time, a blaze of light flicked through the last position and continued; Steve had spun the shuttle out of range. The gun ran out of energy and faded to glow.

“Asleep at the switch, we should return the favour and tie these blokes up, while we do that keep an eye on the detectors in case he has company,” Steve announced, “Who feels up to coming over?”

“I have done a little zero gravity training during service exchange to the USA,” Kev offered.

Bill and Tom both shook their heads, “Pass; I don’t like roller coasters,” Tom said.

 “Gizmo could come, but we shouldn’t use him as he is our ticket home,” Steve decided, and as they were already in their suits, the pair headed towards the airlock as Bill slipped the Red over towards the other craft. Exiting the airlock, Steve threw a magnetic line and hooked a ladder loop. Hauling on that Steve was propelled over the gap and then finding the airlock operated the controls, the door swung inwards entering and re-closing the hatch behind Kev and himself.

 The inside hatch swung open as the pressure automatically equalised. So Steve drew his sidearm, he then cautiously moved into the cockpit in time to see a figure in a space suit arise from sleep. Covering this entity with his stun pistol, Steve announced, “Keep your hands where I can see them, and then you can tell us, why the aggression?”

“I thought you were Oxzen by your accent, our races don’t get on too well, but you look like Corellian?” Roos replied.

“Related but we are from Earth next door, on a shakedown cruise with a shuttle,” Steve explained, “So what can we do, despite you firing on us?”

“The Hyperdrive is unserviceable, repairable with a couple of modules which I don’t have,” Roos reported.

“I will have a quick look and see if with we have the parts as we are carrying plenty for our toy,” Steve offered, then whispered, “Camera on, Gizmo please analyse.” Then aloud, “Show me the equipment, and I will see what I can do.”

 Roos walked over to the rear and opened a hatch residing inside was a rack of equipment which looked familiar, then on the heads-up display writing Gizmo confirmed that it was a standard Corellian drive assembly. The spare modules were on the shuttle only requiring installation.

 “Can you power the drive?” Steve asked, “Just on standby will do, I can analyse which modules need replacing.” Roos went over to the controls and selected switches. Some arcing and carry on occurred, and Steve placed his glove near those modules; he then received a readout that A and D modules were not operable.

 “If I give you a couple of modules are you able to install them yourself?” Steve asked.

“Of course, send them over,” Roos stated bluntly.

“The rest of your crew are where?” Kev asked.

“Dead, a beast broke in and killed them, so I burnt it to ash,” Roos admitted.

“How did that happen?” Kev asked.

“I was trying to salvage a derelict vessel, and when we boarded to examine, the beast attacked my crew,” Roos admitted, “Then it attempted to board my ship, killing another one before I was able to stop it.”

“Sounds like the Zombie beast that Mike has been dealing with,” Steve suggested, “Grey slime which eats beings from the inside out.”

 "Grey Ooze describes what little I saw.” Roos admitted, “A spaceship came into the system afterwards but as it ID as Oxzen, I kept quiet.” 

“That would have been the Terra. My stun gun and most flamers deal with it,” Steve said, “So if I give you the modules you will be on your way?”

“I need to return home to recover and replace my crew,” Roos advised.

“It would be better to stick to salvage and keep the aggro under control, what is your problem with the Oxzen mob?” Steve asked.

“Their merchants are competitive, and there have been clashes over territory,” Roos explained, “Since then there has been an ongoing vendetta.”

“From what I know about Oxzen their philosophy is that you can’t sell to dead people or slaves,” Steve advised, “But I believe they don’t step back from a stoush if someone pushes.”

“I just keep away from them,” Roos said.

“Okay I will be back shortly with an A and a D-module then stand by while you get mobile,” Steve offered, "Kev can keep you company."

 When Roos did not comment, Steve shrugged and went back into Little Red to pick up the items that Gizmo had retrieved, returning with these in hand and placing them adjacent to the hatch waved at Kev and both returned to Red. Once aboard the hatches were closed and the shuttle moved away to a safe distance to observe.

 After a while, the Rambling Gambler hummed to activity and vectored off to the jump point, rapidly disappearing into the distance.

 “Well thanks very much, if that is the way they treat good Samaritans I am not surprised that the Oxzen have a problem with them,” Steve observed.

“Karma will bite them on the bum, what comes around goes around, remember that his first thought was to hijack us,” Tom commented, “I am surprised that you didn’t just lock him up and throw away the key.”

“Crossed my mind; however we are on a fun trip?” Steve replied, “So let’s get this rock show on the road.”

 With that in mind, the shuttle was set in motion to explore the system, at cruising speed as there was no intention to land on a planet. As Red approached inwards, the sensors detected a couple of mass readings consistent with small planets, and these noted. Having mapped as much as a single orbit could achieve, it was decided to return to Earth when the orbit approached the jump point back.

 “So Gizmo where do you think that one came from ?” Steve asked, and the answer ‘Epsilon Major’ appeared on the screen, 'race Fornoon humanoid AAAGA' together with slightly green tinged photos of male and female.

 “Okay will file that away for future reference. So Home we go, I will consult with Humphs as to approach techniques,” Steve decided,  "Roos fitted the shape of the female.”

The shuttle returned to Earth with no further dramas, and Bill and Kev were dropped off at Fairburn to contemplate the reports they would have to generate. Then the shuttle returned to Charlton for Tom and Steve to stretch their legs and recover.


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The New Liner arrives

  Humph called into Senior’s factory to announce that the new spaceship was nearly ready for delivery. The plan was to have Steve accompany the Terra up to the Moon facility where Humph would start the initial flight tests then pilot it back to Earth and assist Steve in the task of preparing it for the human crew.

 Steve readied Little Red with a couple of budding astronauts climbed in and rendezvoused with the Terra at the Moonbase, this had been a regular trip as the Big Red approached completion and the assembly team were achieving hands-on training, by helping on the assembly line.

 The Firebrand team watched from their vantage point as Humph took control of the ship and put it through its paces lifting and settling several times. The ship then headed for the exit and drifted away from the Moon, the rocket motors lit up propelling it outwards to clear the planetary plane where Humphs initiated a couple of short hyperjumps. Then the ship headed back and descended onto the hard standing that had been prepared to receive the ship. Landing gently the freight holds were lowered to ventilate the interior, by then, Terra and Little Red had caught up and landed as well.

 Steve practically ran over to his new toy to survey the completed ship, now ready to be outfitted to suit its new role.

 For the passageways hydroponic plantings along the halls for aesthetics and fresh air was installed by Humph and his crew while the Firebrand team installed hardware and utilities elsewhere within the ship, this had all been programmed ready to go once Big Red had landed.

 In the rear hold area would be luggage, supplies and within the extended area catering and dining facilities in a module to allow for freight. Crew accommodation was as with Humph's ships contained forward in the staterooms behind the flight deck.

  Previously the two passenger modules had been ferried down by the crew in spacesuits and were standing ready to be slid into position, each of these was self-contained having drives and plant for remote human habitation. Humph had designed these so that when Steve installed the modules; access doors matched the upper and lower passageways to provide discrete exercise pathways. With a length of 35 metres,  six metres width and height, these modules provided twenty-four twin share cabins with four attendants who were trained to navigate the module independently if required, when in freight mode eight long and two short containers could replace each one. The passenger modules could serve as escape vessels if an emergency required the passengers to abandon the ship. The two shuttles could act as escorts in a system and then able to carry them through hyperspace.

 Fit out went to plan Humph finishing first, being experienced with the procedure, then after completion departed to continue his circuit of merchant deliveries. Steve's team continued and soon had the ship operational, so it was time to inform CASA of the completion so that they could examine and perhaps authorise test flights despite it having flown in from the Moon. The Firebrand team had given CASA the drawings and engineering data to familiarise themselves. When it came to the actual inspections they had to be shown everything by Firebrand engineers, because the old chicken and egg syndrome was in effect, it was an interesting exercise. The upshot was that the inspectors gave an interim prototype approval, while the pilots and technicians conducted atmosphere test flights. The aim was to determine if the ship was safe to operate within Australian airspace. Overseas authorities were keen to put their stamp on it before they would give their approval. The B team was still resolving the problem of fuel supply; while it was in operation, bureaucracy was slowing production asking for the justification of a product associated with nuclear production. In the meantime, Firebrand substituted distilled water despite compromising the ship's performance.

 Bureaucracies have bosses who were keen to have their entry into space, balancing the lobbyists of interested parties who were working on their versions so they could regain the market, with others with a vested interest in maintaining the status quo.

 Eventually,  the holdout country ticked the last box, and Firebrand was ready to commence advertising for the first System cruise. By then the second ship Red Kangaroo was delivered and undergoing certification, this was no drama as only the local inspectors were involved and were now fully experienced with the model. The Firebrand crew certified as approved manufacturers with several including Steve certified as licensed inspectors.

 Steve readied an extra skeletonised Module for training, and freight delivery as the assembly line shifted to the two aircraft factories in Australia, flight crews delivered the airframe components from the Moon facility using the module; this technique was killing several birds with one stone while giving control experience and employing more in the process. 

 Steve decided that it was time to take tourist agents for a quick cruise first to the solar system, then to Alpha Centauri with film crews following their progress in the shuttles when in-system.

 This program proved a great hit and was advertising for the cruises and shipbuilding. The submarine factory was also skilled at this type of assembly as keeping air in and everything else out be it water or vacuum. Enclosed space in limited areas was their forte as well.

 Swinging first past the Moon having a close look at the astronaut's footprints, the Red next headed out to Mars. Then arcing high over the asteroid belt orbited Jupiter and its’ moons then as each of the outer planets was treated the same way then headed for the hyperjump point. Once there the Red travelled to Alpha Centauri for a quick look, as it was better to return while the excitement was still high and before boredom set in by being away too long. So the return journey was completed by jumping to the nearest point out of the planetary plane to Earth well clear of gravity wells, so the Red covered only the shortest distance.

 Once landed at Wellcamp and offloading the passengers Steve decided to return to Charlton and restock for the trip to Droma; Steve intended to recruit a Droman as a navigator. By now Mike and Humph had trained the crew in most languages that would be required for interstellar travel and Steve was confident that he would achieve this task.

 This job to prepare the Big Red took a couple of days for servicing and replenishment to be carried out. Preparation complete and with the support crew aboard; the Red lifted off and headed towards the Bootes sector stopping first at Elysium to show the flag. The next system to be visited afterwards was Grnatz to arrange for permission to visit Droma.

 Entering orbit over Elysium and being ordered to remain in a set orbit while a shuttle was dispatched to carry out border examinations. As Elysium was a quasi-military establishment, this was done efficiently by a team of military personnel comprising customs, immigration and quarantine specialists. Senior had advised the inspectors that all crew were Galbasic speakers enabling the interviews. All the crew had all their identification viewed and stored on a single smart card which could be used at all Oxzen ports and accepted in most other entry points. Each person was scanned by a monitor to determine that biological and toxic hazards were not present. Customs officers commenced checking the contents to match these against manifests and engineering data; lastly, safety inspectors surveyed fire and escape services.  The technicians achieved this quickly as was a standard design which was already part approved by the port this section, and another data stick was handed over to load into the ID transmitter. Once the Oxzen inspectors had completed their task, they cleared the ship to land with all personnel restricted to the spaceport precinct.

 After exchanging a minimal interview with the port officials, Big Red lifted off to travel to Grnatz and having arrived in the parking orbit. The credentials newly issued confined the process body and data scans, then as the data showed that no articles had entered or left the vessel the clearance for Elysium was still current. The officials cleared the ship for landing at Grnatz spaceport where an officer issued a card which gave access to the port precinct only. Steve inquired about the possible visit to Loxz. The official raised his eyebrow and rang a number. Once he had received approval, issued Steve with a map showing the route, with the map in hand, Steve proceeded to Loxz' warehouse and asked for an interview, to be granted with some curiosity, advised the manager after a short wait, a blue visaged man walked out to meet Steve.

 'Welcome, I believe you arrived in one of Humph's ships from Captain Cox’s home planet?' Loxz greeted, 'How may I help you, as long as you are not a merchant?'  The last delivered with a laugh.

 'I am pleased to meet you, sir. I am Steve Firebrand, Mike Cox has told me about you,' Steve replied, 'At the moment I am interested in setting up a passenger cruise line and would like to explore hiring one of Humph's compatriots to navigate.'

'Certainly, we can talk, I hope Mike said only the nice things about me. Though I don’t want the idea that I am an old softy to get around, that would be bad for business,' Loxz laughed, 'Come into my office, and I will see what I can do for you.'

 'Thank you that would be helpful, as I deal with other worlds via a different method I am well versed in negotiations,' Steve accepted and followed Loxz into his office.

'Sit down, so what do you know about Droma?' Loxz asked to start the conversation, 'Admiral Rham was very confused as to their characters but with Mike’s help was able to recruit several for his fleet and the ones I have working for me are Humph's wife and children, so I have had no hand in selection.'

 'I had read the accounts from Mike about that. I had contacted Humph in several fields when my son was involved in redesigning some power modules which Humph was keen on acquiring.  I now build these modules myself for the domestic market and to supply his customers,' Steve explained, 'Humph is famous or notorious for his navigation skills. Dromans have a natural computer quality ability in that area.' 

 'True enough, well as long as you are not a competitor, I suppose we can cooperate. I have had some inquiries for that sort of tourist service, but all my ships are tied up with merchant freight. Goods don’t complain all the time about comfort,' Loxz accepted, 'Passengers while profitable are a real pain with their demands.'

'I was planning on including your system on the cruise routes with intentions that a hundred in cabins or as the level of comfort decreases for shorter trips, up to a few hundred,' Steve described his program, 'And I have many excellent people adept at listening to passenger moans.'

 “When would you like to try your luck?” Loxz asked,” I wouldn’t mind helping and take a break from my desk.”

“I can be away within the hour or whenever it is convenient for you,” Steve commented.

“Now never let customers know that you are desperate or you will cut into your profit,” Loxz grinned, “I will clear it with my wife Sartz who may join us as she loves visiting Droma.”

“The more, the merrier, plenty of room as it the next size up from Humph and I have nearly fifty empty cabins.” Steve accepted.

“Had a little meeting with a Fornoon pilot who apparently doesn’t like your people?” Steve asked.

“Oh, the greenies reckoned they owned exclusive rights to trade with a planet roughly halfway between our two sectors. The Fornoon monstered a couple of our smaller merchants, so we sent a bigger one, so they sent two even bigger.  Lately, it started getting unprofitable until Rham paid a friendly visit to their home planet and removed some asteroids which could become navigation hazards. He didn’t have to say anything, but now they are talking a bit of sense,” Loxz grinned, “No profit if there are no buyers I always say.”

 “Or people wanting a trip,” Steve agreed, “Yes, I have seen Rham’s ship up close, and I wouldn’t want to annoy him.”

 Loxz then picked up his phone and selected a number. When it rang greeted, “Hi dear, I have a visitor, one of Mike’s friends who would like to go to Droma and hire one of Humph's people,” Loxz waited for a reply, “Right then I will see you in a while.” Then to Steve, as he hung up, “She sounds interested and is coming over to have a chat.”

 It wasn’t long before an elegant blue lady walked through the door and greeted her husband with a peck on the cheek. Loxz then introduced them, “Steven Firebrand, please allow me to introduce my lovely wife, El Ali Sartz.”

“Pleasure to meet you, Ma’am,” Steve responded.

“Please call me Sartz. You would be the one with the new equipment that everyone is talking about?” Sartz asked.

“My son Tom and his friend Stan designed them with help from Humph, plus the older stuff came from other sources,” Steve said.

 “So you would like a Droman for your ship? Perhaps I can help as I have had dealings with the Dromans, generally, once they get the idea of what you need they just take it and run with it, then you have to catch up,”  Sartz said, “Can be frustrating, though we can do it with a little patience.”

 “Indeed I received that data from Mike who suggested approaching the seagoing Dromans for advice and let them do the groundwork for you,” Steve said.

“Well since there are no dramas on the horizon would you like to leave in the morning,” Sartz suggested.

 “That would be fine I have heaps of accommodation as it is set up to carry Tourists,” Steve advised.

“Fine then I will see you in the morning, pleased to meet you,” Sartz decided, “I will pack a bag for you Loxz?”

“Indeed thank you I believe that a short holiday would refresh me,” Loxz responded as Sartz smiled and left.

“It seems you have permission and willing assistance for your task, mind you, it doesn’t guarantee success, but we can try,” Loxz advised.

“Thank you, all should be ready in the morning,” Steve said, “Well I certainly don’t know what the greenies’ problem is, you have been most helpful.”

“Ask nicely, and you get what you need, for me a little holiday and not having to deal with tourists is reward enough,” Loxz smiled and shook his hand, “See I know all sorts of strange customs.”

“If you would like to know it is supposed to indicate that I don’t have a knife in my hand,” Steve explained, “A Left-hander is suspect because they can use the other hand for stabbing.”

“Very amusing,” Loxz replied as he escorted Steve to the door, “Mike loves his sayings and springs them on me all the time.”

“I will try to restrict myself, though Mike has complained about me,” Steve laughed.

 Loxz and Sartz arrived in the morning with a small retinue to help them.

 “I hope you don’t mind I have my chef so that he can learn Terran style cooking and the Council require that I have some security personnel,” Sartz explained. Then added, “I feel they are not necessary, but since I insisted with my daughter, she wouldn’t let me hear the end of it if I refused.”

“No problem at all they are welcome, plenty of room,” Steve assured them, “They even have my sidearms, which is a compliment.”

 With his guests settled in and then they joined him on the flight deck.

“Nice ship, New?” Loxz asked, “Colour a bit bright but better than grey or yellow.”

“Yep I like it, they tell me that red cars go faster, and you can spot them easier in the carpark,” Steve solemnly agreed.

“Ah, another of your sayings, the flight deck is familiar as Humph built it,” Loxz commented, “I would appreciate having a turn at the controls as both of us are senior pilots and don’t get enough hands-on.”

“Certainly you are most welcome, Mike has briefed me on your career as a captain,” Steve said, “I have only started flying myself after many years fixing aircraft.”

“We also had to start somewhere, but for now it is your toy to enjoy,” Sartz offered.

 So having made the small talk preparations for liftoff were completed and Big Red rose quietly and headed off to the sky and the jump point for Droma, by now navigation was routine once the navigator entered the coordinates. Loxz and Sartz looked on politely without comment as they had learnt to allow beginners to make their fumbles without being tempted to jump in and do it in half the time.

 Steve noticed and retold an old story about learner navigators, When the new midshipman had finished his calculations, the shipmaster asked, "Where you think the ship is?”

“51.30.26 North 0.7.39 West, sir,” The boy beamed.

 “If your calculations are correct we are in the middle of London,” The master looked around to see the ocean receding to the horizon, “Perhaps you should have another try.”

“So I do my guess and compare it with the computer; then use the best result that matches what I see outside,” Steve related.

“Good as any method, perhaps if I notice you are about to fly through the sun, I may make a polite comment,” Loxz offered.

“I believe I would bow to experience in such a case, thank you for offering,” Steve smiled back.

 As there was no danger of that occurring, the Big Red continued towards the jump point without drama. After handing over the controls to the other flight crew; Steve escorted his guests around the ship and indicated such changes needed to convert this from freighter to small liner.

“So this is a mid-size extension of the one we have on order from Humph?” Sartz asked.

“Yes, the extra ten metres allow a catering deck and accommodation for the additional crew a required as well as the freight lifts hold self-propelled modules which can double as escape capsules if needed. With them off the ship, it quickly becomes a freighter with about half again capacity compared to Humphs basic design. The catering deck is also a self-contained and powered module for the passenger support crew,” Steve described the layout, “Your new ship is nearing completion and is looking much larger being another forty metres longer again. I may build one of those if the demand arises but for now am content with this size.”

 “Humph's Yella Terra is pleasant, but if you make a good deal, you have to call in another ship to help carry it,” Loxz said, “I had meant to ask how the new ship was coming along but didn’t want to sound too eager.”

“Apparently along with yours, a second is for Admiral Rham with two smaller for Humph's latest children. Once Humph has completed these, he is moving the factory to Grnatz and setting up an automated assembly line,” Steve added, “From then my company takes over the Moon facilities to build a number for my world.”

“Ah, a competitor in the making, I will have to keep an eye on you Terrans,” Loxz commented.

 “I am sure that given a finite market the merchants eventually will have to share. If Humph is to be believed, there are many unexplored worlds just waiting for us to supply what they didn’t know they needed,” Steve reasoned, “When it is a saturated market we will be pushing up daisies, and it will be our grandchildren’s problem.”

 They continued their tour pointing out interesting details and suggesting improvements that the factory could incorporate at refits or new constructions. By the time they had finished and returned to the flight deck progress the ship had made the trip to the jump off point. They parted and settled in to wait for the next change of direction because this was unique breaking in tour all trainees were aboard to gain firsthand experience. A flight crew of four was required without a Droman just to run the bridge.

 The ship was fitted with laser weapons mainly for debris removal and sleep cannon to deter hostile vessels with the standard type shielding with the Firebrand shield as a backup.

 The jump point was reached, hyperdrive selected and they entered the grey mist as the gap between Grnatz and Droma was covered, as it was a relatively short jump the duration was only hours instead of days that the jump from Elysium to Grnatz had been.

 The ship emerged from hyper into the Droma system and commenced the plotting to bring them into orbit above the planet.  At this time Sartz took the con and delivered them into orbit on an equatorial plane to view their best landing point. “This ship will work fine as a boat, so if we slide into that bay over there we should be able to commence our task of recruitment,” Sartz suggested pointing at the screen which had zoomed into the desired position.

 The ship was gently guided to a standstill hovering over the bay while they looked for a suitable area. In the bay were several round barges which were the usual configuration of Droman Seagoing ships.

“If we land about a thousand or so meters clear of one of them, the owner will probably send a boat over to talk,” Sartz suggested, “If that doesn’t work we can launch the upper shuttle and tour around.”

 The Red was lowered into the water and came to a rest slowly rolling in the slight swell. As suggested a boat soon left the closest vessel and made its way towards the Red, and as the boat approached the midpoint it slowed down, before tentatively coming forward again until the side of the ship was reached. Steve opened an upper hatch, and the three negotiators stood on the top dressed in spacesuits in case they slipped.

 The boatman spotted them and worked his way adjacent to them and hailed them in Galbasic, “Hail the ship; you don’t have a person aboard?” An average looking woman asked, “I am Drift with the tide.”

“This is Big Red, I am Steven Firebrand with me is Sartz and Loxz,” Steve introduced, “I am a friend of Humph and seek a companion person to roam the galaxy with me.”

 “It seems we are popular again after millennia of neglect. I suppose that is our calling,” Drift stated, “For myself, I have no desire to do so. I don’t have the resources to build a  ship for my child who is becoming too old to stay with me. To help her, perhaps we can discuss a territory for her?”

"If we move to your ship, we could ask her what she thinks of the idea,” Sartz suggested.

 Drift looked puzzled having just become comfortable with the notion that a person wasn’t on the ship, so was taken aback, “Let me think,” and after a short pause, “Come aboard my boat, and I will take you over there,” Drift offered at last.

 The crew scrambled down the side and boarded; Drift set a course back towards her ship, “I call it the Tide Drifter, not very original but suits me; I mostly do just that around this bay, anchoring when it is a bit rough and avoiding the shallows.”

“Sounds idyllic,” Sartz commented thinking perhaps boring would be closer, “I suppose others come into the bay and you can talk?”

“Oh yes, that keeps the mind working. Do you have discussions like that?” Drift asked.

“Yes we do,” Sartz said, “Is that your little girl?” pointing at a small figure watching from the Tide.

“Yes that’s Pippin who lately has the urge to roam, she is nearly a hundred years old you see, and she will be my last child as I can’t bear the thought of another century looking after a child,” Drift said.

 They climbed aboard the Tide and went over to the little girl, “Hullo Pippin; I am Sartz would you like to fly in the sky?” Sartz asked baffled that such a young looking child could be so ancient but aware of the likely outcome if she were to do the final search.

“Yes please, it sounds very nice I have often looked at the skies and wondered where Humph the explorer was going,” Pippin said seriously.

“I will see what I can do,” Sartz promised, “Well I believe it is up to you as you can send a signal saying there is a territory available?”

“Yes if that’s acceptable to you; it has been about three centuries since I did so, but I still remember,” Drift said nonchalantly.

“May I discuss this with my companions?” Sartz asked bemused with the ages blithely thrown around.

Still coming to grips that these people were, in fact, separate entities Drift said, “By all means do.’

“Well, I can hardly let such a cute child die could you?” Sartz asked Steve.

“Put me over the barrel won’t you, having children of my own I could hardly abandon her even though she is nearly older than the three of us added together,” Steve answered uncomfortably then addressing Drift, “She has been taught the fundamentals of navigating?”

“Naturally her education is complete, I have nothing else to do except to prepare her for the world,” Drift asserted.

“Well under the circumstances, I will provide a place for her, so what steps do I take to set up her territory?” Steve asked.

“We take her to the ship place her in the room where she will stay. We then set this siren off, and other juveniles will come to complete her,” Drift explained handing over a small box, “If you move your ship to that shoreline and place a ramp to the shore the others will come.” She pointed at a spot on the shoreline where a rock ledge formed a wharf and handed over a compact device.

 Having decided this and seeing no point in no further discussion. Drift climbed back aboard her small boat and conveyed them back to the Red. Drift said a quick, “I have trained you well, may the force be with you,” And went back to her ship without a backwards glance.

“Well, talk about motherly love. Welcome to your new home, if you follow me I will show you around, hopefully for a long life,” Steve invited as there was an entity who would pass as a small four-year-old.

“May I see the ship first, I know it will be all mine if all goes well, I would like to have a wander before finally settling in one spot?” Pippin asked now eager.

“It would be my pleasure, would you like to lead or follow,” Steve invited.

“Do you have an education helmet so that I will know what I am seeing?” Pippin asked.

“Of course follow me to the flight deck and I will give it to you,” Steve still working on the ancient child nexus.

 So that was their first stop Pippin took the helmet and soon disappeared under it emerging with the first smile the others had seen. “Oh lovely it is a nice ship, bigger than Humph, he will be jealous,” Pippin crowed, “Okay then I will do a quick run around while you move the ship over to the dock.” And with that scampered off and began her exploration now speaking English with some Oxzen sprinkled through.

 Perplexed as she was moving far too quick to keep up with, Steve said, “Well I suppose I put the siren in the cubicle and she can set it off when ready.” Carrying the little box into the unmarked hatch behind the cabins.

“I will move Red over to the dock as suggested,” Loxz volunteered, “I have examined the depth, and it is sufficient for the ship.”

  The cameras showed a small blur whisking backwards and forwards through all the hatches and spaces. Sometimes as a girl mostly as greyhound shape, always on the move before disappearing into the resident cubicle.

 “I see that the ship is in position and the ramp is down I have set guides to lead here, so I am setting off the siren goodbye for now,” Pippin said over the intercom.

 “Well that was interesting, so now we watch and stay out of the way,” Steve said.

  There was a keening sound just within hearing range, at first nothing happened then soon there was a disturbance at the forest edge. Several small animals burst out of the underbrush then streaked towards the ramp, and from the seaside, dolphin-like figures also headed towards them and as each hit the base of the ramp without hesitation converted to legs, then ran into the hatch and scrambled inside. As the count reached twenty, the keening stopped as did the stream of candidates.

 The crew was left to wait; then a scratchy chorus, “Meld successful you may proceed to Grnatz.”

 Looking at each other they shrugged and began the procedure to depart, it wasn’t long, and Big Red lifted off and rose through the atmosphere and headed out to the jump point to transit to the conversation was limited as they were still bemused with the process.

 Halfway through the hyper passage, there was a knock at the flight deck entrance, and a teenaged girl asked, “May I enter?”

“Of course, it is now your ship,” Steve invited, “It was built with you in mind.”

“Thank you; I am still somewhat confused with twenty others murmuring in the background. My mother said it would fade in time," Pippin said, "I will operate as an individual crew person while I learn what I have received via imprint helmet.”

“Certainly that is what I expected, and look forward to a rewarding career together,” Steve said.

“Welcome to the start of your adulthood,” Sartz said.

 “I look forward to dealing with you,” Loxz offered.

That being settled, the new crew member settled into observing the activity of the flight deck crew occasionally asking pointed questions about obscure adjustments and asking unconnected views on culture and countries.

 Steven talked as much as possible asking questions which Pippin answered absently and immediately followed up with a question of her own.

 Breaking out of hyper at Grnatz, Pippin asked if she could take the con, “Sure perhaps you should start with the co-pilots position?” Steve invited.

“Thank you,” Pippin accepted and sat down at the co-pilot controls and adjusted the course to the indications on the screen at times seeming to be distracted and looking into the distance during which times minute adjustments were made without anyone touching the controls.

At Steve’s lifted eyebrow Pippin grinned and said, “I am testing the rear controls and the data inputs.”

 Arriving at the assigned parking orbit a data burst challenged them, as they had the royal couple aboard, the port cleared the ship to land.

 Arriving at low orbit over Grnatz the ship decelerated and settled slowly down to land gently on the tarmac, Steve had held his hands close to the controls but otherwise left the con to Pippin who after mere hours handled the task like a seasoned veteran.

“Bravo Pippin you have earned your wings,” Steve congratulated her.

 “Indeed thank you I expect you to visit often, goodbye for now,” Sartz commented.

 “Marvellous perhaps we will find such a gem, the force is with you,” Loxz added.

“Thank you; I will look forward to visiting,” Pippin responded.

 After their visitors had departed with their gear, Steve with Pippen did the walk-around preflight to ensure all was well before heading back towards Earth.

 As they were doing this, Steve realised that Pippin didn’t have a data card displayed. In the glow of achievement, he had overlooked the fact that she had no existence without documents.

 “Pippin I have just had a nasty thought,” Steve said, “Without documents, you don’t exist. I think that we had better not depart until we have some to show my people.”

Being logical and literal, Pippin looked at her hands and body and said, “Apparently I do,” Thought a moment, “Oh I understand, bureaucrats can only see the paper.”

“I had forgotten myself as the only foreign countries I had been to, it was on  a Navy ship where the captain signed a form saying everyone had identification and was healthy,” Steve said, “I had better consult with Loxz on how to straighten this out.”

 With this in mind Steve walked over to Loxz office and asked to speak to him, Loxz came out and asked, “Problems?”

“Yes I just realised that Pippin doesn’t have any ID and if you hadn’t been aboard I would be still in orbit with an illegal alien,” Steve explained, “And of course when I arrive back on my planet there is no record that she exists and they are very strict.”

 “Ah I see, perhaps if I talk to the minister, who can arrange the necessary paperwork,” Loxz suggested. “Humph and his family have Oxzen registered vessels and are granted special diplomatic status.”

 He picked up the phone and spoke for a while ending it with, “So if an immigration team goes out to the Big Red it should be fine, thank you.”

Then turning to Steve, Loxz added, “Now it may cost you some credits, but since I am due to pay your company shortly, I will cover it out of that. Since time is money and it may come out of the minister’s pocket, they will probably be waiting by the time you return to your ship.”

“Thank you, I will return the favour,” Steve said as he practically ran out the door to return.

As Steve arrived back at the Red, several officials were waiting at the bottom of the ramp ready to process the new crew member. Steve guided them on board and introduced them to Pippin. “Pippin of Droma is a new melded adult. It has been realised that there are no documents for her existence,” Steve explained.

 “Very well, Pippin, we will do some examinations with our instruments,” The medical official stated. He waved a gadget around her figure then read the dial, “Well that confirms you are a Droman, as it only says you have an organic covering.” Laughing at his Faux Pas, “Please place your hands on this one, it should be just little circles and bumps for gripping. Ah yes as expected and of course there will be no vaccinations as the needles wouldn’t penetrate.”

 The next officer stepped up to ask, “Date of birth and meld?”

 “Seventh month 97 BBT, meld would be 15 sixth month 3 ABT,” Pippin said, “I have twenty other birth dates from 47 to 25 BBT.”

“Just the main personality will do,” The official advised, “Mmm you were cutting it fine, young lady.”

“Now captain you are employing this entity with full knowledge of her background?” He asked,” As this is a contract respond ‘I do.’”

“I do,” Steve said smiling at the connotation.

“I declare Pippin Firebrand, a citizen of Oxzen sector and a spacefarer, next we load the data into the computer and produce an ID card, right done, and we send the bill to Loxz?” The Official completed the ceremony, dispensed a card and handed Pippin her ID.

“Loxz was kind enough to forward the credit from what he owes me,” Steve advised, “Thank you for your swift determination. I will try to teach my border people how efficient teams work.”

 The team left leaving Steve and Pippin to consider the new arrangement, “Well that settles your status everywhere except at my home where I will have to do some more research,” Steve said.

“What was so funny about your acceptance?” Pippin asked.

“That’s how you acknowledge a marriage ceremony, but you are either too young or too old for that besides I am already married,” Steve answered confusingly.

 Pippin looked puzzled as she searched the embedded memories from the education helmet, before commenting, “I understand I think, but it is not logical as all you were asked do you accept my employment.” 

 “When we land, and there is a drama; I suppose you can stay on the ship while the pen pushers work out how to arrange a visa,” Steve considered, “As I believe that are an essential crew member and perhaps qualify as a stressed mariner that may tip the scales. The vaccination record could be the choke point as that can’t happen and isn’t necessary. However, they may not be as understanding as the Oxzen team.”

“If I am to stay on the ship for the rest of my life which is several lifetimes of your race. It will have to be settled as my race can’t shift dwellings easily,” Pippin added.

“Worst comes to worst; I will assign my ship to an Oxzen merchant to ensure your safety. I do need to set a precedent for my other ships,” Steve considered, “I am reluctant to register  ships under a ‘flag of convenience’.” 

 “I believe the term is cross the bridge when you come to it,” Pippin said.

 Steve thought for a minute and then suggested, “I wonder if you were to take the form of an Android until we sort out the visa? I have a hologram of Lazarus who is Mike’s associate. They may think you are part of the furniture.”

“While I am not overly keen on that description. I believe that taking any form is only a matter of trying with another part of me observing,” Pippin said.

So the hologram was projected, and another Pippin joined them as a twin while #1 Pippin flowed into a close copy of the Android with #2 watching adjusted details until Pippin was satisfied and she looked a dead ringer for Lazarus.

“Very good, Lazarus would think he has a twin,” Steve laughed, “Though please don’t confuse them by having two of you together.” The extra Pippin giggled and left.

“And if someone wishes to view my room I can mimic a computer installation and have CO2 fumes fogging off which would keep closer inspection away,” Pippin suggested.

“Getting sneaky in your old age, I will apply for the visa, and then you can come out of the closet,” Steve grinned, “So if we are prepared as best as we can, back to face the music in Australia.” After which the ship requested clearance, and they departed for the return journey.

 Breaking out of hyper Steve was surprised when a challenge was issued for his entry, “Please identify ship entering our space.”

 “Earth ship Big Red VH FBA and who the hell are you?” Steve reacted.

 “Fornoon ship Arzkeen standby for border inspection on behalf of the United Earth.” 

“In a pig’s eye you are to leave my system immediately, Captain Firebrand speaking,” Steve radioed back in English.

 “Transmission not understood, you are to cease power, or we will fire on you.”

On the intercom Steve ordered, “Shields up, deploy weapons, fire sleep cannon at the opportunity.”

 A large vessel swam into view and tags alongside the image indicating energy weapons being readied and then the thrum of the Red’s cannon operating. The Bogey didn’t respond continuing on the same course, “Standby to respray, set holding pattern in orbit of bogey, no bastard is going to tell me what to do on my doorstep,” Steve said a little heated.

 After waiting ten minutes, the radio crackled, and another voice said, “Am sending boarding party standby to receive.”

“Negative Arzkeen, the next treatment could send you into hibernation. State authority for invasion of a peaceful system," Steve radioed, "Warning, firing on this ship with energy weapon may trigger reactor explosion in your craft.”

Off radio, “Ready accumulators to receive excess energy,” The Arzkeen fired a small gun, and as Red’s accumulators whined, a blossom of energy erupted from the side of the bogey as the gun, and its power pack exploded.

  “Just as predicted by Humph, bleed excess from the accumulator,” Steve ordered then on the radio, “Arzkeen do you require assistance?”

  Instead of answering, two missiles were launched, and with two thrums Red’s lasers eliminated the threat. 

 “Sleep spray again, they will be out for a while this time. I am going to board and take the crew into custody as pirates. Pippin, John and Paul get into spacesuits carrying stun guns, then meet me at the shuttle. Flight deck crew maintain surveillance for other bogeys; you can use sleep cannon if challenged, our space suits protect us.”

With the party on board, the shuttle slipped out and crossed the gap before attaching to the airlock of Arzkeen, the hatch being a standard design the party soon cycled through, and they made their way to the flight deck. The team found space-suited figures sprawled at the controls.

 “Disarm and bind them, John and Paul search the rest of the vessel for other crew,” Steve ordered, “They should be waking up in another few minutes.”

 Soon after, the first one of the strangers roused to sit up and contemplate their change in circumstances; now they were bound with armed strangers standing on their flight deck.

 “I am arresting you for piracy; you have the right to remain silent and will be assigned legal representation, anything you say may be recorded and presented at your inquiry, do you wish to say anything at this time?” Steve intoned.

“You don’t have the authority to arrest me, get off my ship, I am Captain Roos, and this is a legal police vessel of  United Fornoon Earth,” A spokesman said.

“In a foreign space. I don’t believe that anything has changed since I left last month. So, Roos, we meet again. I thought you kept away from Oxzen; this system is an associate,” Steve advised, “We are also aligned with Elysium who has some very big sticks.”

“We have decided to protect your governments from exploitation from the bluebags. Forno has signed documents from your governing body requesting protection,” Roos said defiantly.

“Then I suppose you have a copy of these articles?” Steve asked.

“If you unbind me I will show them to you,” Roos said.

 “In a moment. Pippin, would you be a dear, and bend that rod over there into a pretzel?” Steve asked pointing at a steel prop supporting a shelf on the wall. Pippin raised her eyebrow at this query but did so, ripping the rod from the brackets and twisting it as requested.

“If you were to offer violence; please be aware that we have enhanced and armoured suits,” Steve advised then reaching over, removed the restraints and allowed Roos to access the computer.

 Nervously eyeing Pippin, Roos selected a document to the screen rendered in Galbasic which read: 'We the people of Earth request assistance against the imperialist forces of Oxzen' and signed in Chinese characters with translation below Kim Jong Un, supreme leader of Earth.

 Laughing out loud and then recovering, “That idiot controls less one percent of the land, and he only does so by force to control his people. He doesn’t even have a say in the United Nations, which possibly may speak for Earth after a couple of years debate and my country doesn’t recognise him as anything other than a congenital idiot.”

 “We have a fleet protecting Earth from Oxzen invaders at his request and have diplomatic envoys installed there,” Roos stated.

“In that case, I had better check with Admiral Rham before trying to land at home. While your toy is no drama, I don’t want to scratch the paint on my new ship,” Steve considered, “Pippin would you check this wreck to see if it is 'jump' serviceable?”

“You will regret this aggressive attack,” Roos sneered thinking Steve was getting worried.

“Apart from the fact that you started the aggression, you are in no position to dictate the situation. I would advise you to remain silent,” Steve said, and when Roos made a dive at a gun on the bench, Steve wrested it from her grip and bent it in half, “Tut tut, restraints will have to be applied again.” Steve used the enhanced capability to refit the handcuffs despite Roos being larger.

 Pippin returned and advised, “Hull has been breached, the ship is not serviceable for Hyper jump.”

“Return prisoners to Red and place them in the brig. We will then jump to Elysium to confer with our allies,” Steve ordered grabbing a couple of Roos’ crew and bundling them into the shuttle with John and Paul bringing the remainder.

“You will regret this act of piracy,” Roos protested.

“I do already, this is bad for business, and I prefer peaceful interactions; still it is my ship that is taking you to justice without loss of life,” Steve said.

 The away team bundled them into an improvised cell.

“If you have any need for medical assistance this is the intercom, otherwise use it only for food and water requests,” Steve advised. Steve then ordered the door locked with a guard outside.

 Steve returned to the bridge and assembled his crew for a conference, “Ladies and gentlemen, apparently Kim Jong Un has given Earth over to the Fornoon; I am now proceeding to Elysium to confer on strategy with Admiral Rham. There is a large force blockading Earth, and we need to tread carefully before approaching home,” Steve stated, “I have copies of documents together with data from the Arzkeen to show them. For now, you know as much as I do.”

 Once this had sunk in Steve ordered, “Prepare for jump to Elysium,”

 Steve warped the course around and headed back towards the jump point which they had so lately left, and once in position, engaged the drive and settled into waiting in the grey void.

 The word came back that the prisoners were playing up and demanding to be released, so Steve said running out of patience, “Warn them once and if that doesn’t work just sleep them and tie them to their bunks.”

 With another flurry of complaints, Pippin went down and settled them; there was no further noise. While the Red transversed, Pippin asked if she could exercise the prisoners and took them one at a time to the gymnasium.

The Red reached the Elysium exit, and the ship emerged into the Elysium system where they were challenged by the patrol, “Identify ship. Oxzen Navy Lt Bourne commanding,”

“Big Red VH FBA, Captain Firebrand commanding,” Steve responded and added data squeal to back it up.

“Thank you Red, welcome back, proceed to Elysium orbit customs will deal with you.”

“A bit politer and this is their system,” Steve remarked, “Thank you Lt, I will proceed, be aware belligerents are active.”

 “Oh indeed, which ones?” Bourne asked.

 “The Fornoon are throwing their weight around trying to monopolise markets,” Steve advised.

 “Well that is what I am here for, thank you Red,” Bourne replied.

 The Red completed the cruise to the assigned orbit, and the border officials boarded and performed their inspection and were happy to certify entry.

“Would you contact Admiral Rham? There is a security hazard I need to brief him on,” Steve asked.

 ‘Will do and what does this involve” Lt Stern asked as he radioed his base.

“My home system is being blockaded by the Fornoon. I have arrested one ship which fired on me without provocation; I am carrying the crew for judgement at your court,” Steve explained.

 “Interesting, I thought the Admiral had a little chat with them,” Stern accepted and added when he had a reply on his radio, “Admiral Rham will join you when you have landed.”

“Thank you for your assistance I will see you next time,” Steve acknowledged as he escorted the team back to their shuttle.

 Once the customs shuttle was clear Red spiralled in and landed on the pad assigned. Once the ramp was down, Admiral Rham and a contingent of soldiers approached and boarded the Red.

 “Captain Firebrand, I have been looking forward to meeting you,” Admiral Rham said shaking hands, “Apparently you have had a little excitement?”

 “I am pleased to meet you, I have Fornoon captives who I wish to charge with piracy,” Steve advised, “They attacked me without provocation when I entered my home system. They have a contingent of larger craft blockading my planet, so I retreated to here to request assistance to deal with them.”

 “Interesting perhaps I should interview them?” Rham said.

“I will have their captain brought up here, and as the others are only crew members you can deal with them later,” Steve suggested, “Their ship was damaged when it fired on me.”

“I suppose you have one of those Firebrand screens?” Bengo asked, “Lost a ship when he fired on Humph's ship.”

“That’s the name, and that’s my game, though I didn’t sell him that one,” Steve admitted.

 At this time Roos was escorted onto the bridge, and sighting Rham decided to appeal to him, “I protest that this civilian has abducted me from my lawful duties. I demand you arrest him,” Roos stated.

 Rham raised his eyebrow, “That is a matter for the judge to decide, for now, you have a complaint of armed aggression to defend, perhaps if you explain your presence in a neutral system and threatening a peaceful citizen of that system.”

 'I was carrying out the orders given to me by my commanding officer,' Roos insisted, 'These included protecting the interests of the Government of Earth.'

 Rham turned towards Steve with a questioning look, to which Steve responded, “A tinpot dictator of an impoverished state with no authority or intelligence to sign anything, probably couldn’t read the agreement either as it is in Galbasic. I doubt very much that the UN Security Council would have or could have signed any such document in such a short time and North Korea is not a member of the council.”

 Rham was amused, “Well it seems the judge's time is going to be wasted dealing with this, but I won’t do so, I believe that you and your crew should be handed over to the security department to deal with, men, please arrange to transport them.”

 After the prisoners were removed Rham waved Steve to a seat. “Why didn’t you just finish the job?” Rham asked, “Save all the paperwork.”

“Can’t sell dead people new undies or take them on cruises?” Steve laughed, “I had a run in with Roos before, rescued her from certain death, and this is how she thanked me.”

“Some people regard beings that help as soft and therefore should be exploited,” Rham agreed, “I thought I passed the message to be peaceful when I helped clear some navigation hazards with the Reynar.”

“I had heard about that from Loxz who is a little irritated with the Fornoon behaviour, he reckons they are bad for business,” Steve said, “Perhaps if I sneak back into my country and see just how the situation is then I may ask for your assistance with pest removal.”

“I will loan you a shuttle designed for the task and perhaps if I accompanied you, I can see how the situation is,” Rham offered.

 “That would be helpful, my toys are a little obvious, have any of your merchants become involved?” Steve asked.

“There was some report from one about being custom searched by strange officers and grumbled about the tax they paid.” Rham recalled, “So tomorrow we depart and see what can be seen?”

“Sounds good to me,” Steve agreed.

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Repel the invaders

  Rham’s shuttle lifted off and headed out to the jump point on the opposite side that Big Red had entered with the aim of arriving into the Earth system from another quadrant which was masked by the Oort cloud, then gliding through and arriving near earth behind the Moon to Humph's factory.

 The route they used was a tedious process, ensuring they landed in the dome without detection and then Rham and Steve transferred to the habitat to scout the situation.

 Using the gate phone, Steve rang his factory and spoke to Anne, 'Hi Anne, do you have things under control?'

 'Yes, it's good to hear from you, I had heard through the grapevine that you had a run in with our gallant liberators,' Anne said.

'Big ears listening?' Steve asked.

'I still expect you home for Christmas as you owe me a present,' Anne replied.

'I wouldn’t want to miss out on the party, see you then,' Steve rang off.

 Turning to Rham, Steve explained, 'Seems that she has company, last Christmas I arrived late coming in the back door without a present. So I leave it till after dark and use the Gate to enter the factory. If I am correct, the ‘Greenies’ haven’t been able to penetrate my security but are holding the office under siege.'

'I guess the present she expects is for you to arrive with your gun in hand and remove the pests from the factory office,' Rham suggested.

 'Sounds like the plan I was thinking of, so we have a quick rest until then and walk through the door with sleep pistols in hand,' Steve said, 'The Transworld gate steps from here to the office hallway in a couple of seconds.'

'I have heard something about that but thought it was one of Mike’s tall tales,' Rham sounded sceptical.

 'Long story but we walk through that doorway over there and then step out on Earth in my office,' Steve said, 'Actually we step into another world then transit but let’s not complicate things too much.'

 'Parallel worlds perhaps?' Rham asked.

'Close enough, and some of my doubles are probably a little annoyed at the intrusion,' Steve said.

 At the suggested time Steve led Rham and the party over to the gate door and activated the controls. Stepping into a cubicle, first warning, 'Suits up pistols at the ready,' Operated the controls to arrive at the complex, Senior stepped out into the corridor then stunned the surprised guard dozing by Anne’s office.  The had been disturbed by the lift door suddenly opening without bells or the indicator registering movement. Before he could summon the energy to come to attention he had been bundled up and tied.

The team rapidly deployed each compartment was checked for occupation then clearing the sleepover bedrooms. In the process securing another three guards who were surprised as the first. Steve found one door locked from the outside, he said, 'I believe we may find my missing friend in here.' Senior ripped the door open using the enhanced suit, finding Anne amused by the sudden commotion.

'It is about time, and I do like the present you brought me,' Anne stated, 'Good evening Admiral,' as she recognised Bengo from TV broadcasts.

 'Good evening, madam,' Rham said looking at Steve for an introduction.

'Admiral Bengo Rham, please meet Anne Bartholomew the lady who runs my enterprises,' Steve said then asked, 'So Anne what has been happening, did someone drop the ball?' 

 'Some idiot signed the Greenie's  document, and they came here demanding entry to protect us from the Oxzen merchants. As there has never been any problem, total confusion reigned. I am afraid there was quite a bit of resistance, and because of the risk to the civilian hostages, we had to step back,' Anne explained, 'So far they haven’t penetrated the back room or learnt any secrets,' The last with a smug face.

'We can clear the cockroaches from here. Bengo will bring in his toys to spoil their party upstairs while we spread out and remove them from polite society,' Steve decided, 'Another six months and our forces would have been fully equipped to deal with them, and the civilians would have personal shields to prevent retaliation.'

'Can’t cry over spilt milk, just have to clean up the mess afterwards,' Anne shrugged, 'Once inside the back room I can pick up a couple of toys and kick some green bums,' Anne added grimly.

 So after restraining the Fornoon guards. Steve, Bengo and Anne then stepped through the back room door into the secure area. Here Anne grabbed a set of Dreadnought equipment and dressed in them, equipping herself with the largest sleep gun she could find, 'Now let’s see who pushes whom, they have our action team locked up out back with a dozen guards. Their leaders are having a grand old time living it up at the pub.'

 'First, the team is set free while their guards have a rest. We then evict the unwanted guests; before I do that, I will deliver Bengo back to his shuttle so that he can bring in the fleet to deal with the  threat in space.' Steve said.

 Following Anne, they located the room where the action team was locked up. Anne had a great time teaching lessons to all Forno soldiers that she found, hogging all the action to get the annoyance out of her system. In a short time, the roles were reversed with the Fornoon locked up in the team's accommodation. 

  The first task was taking Bengo back to the shuttle. Once there, he contacted the fleet and ordered them to strike with maximum awe and send the blockading fleet packing.

  'I will slide out quietly and join the fleet while you have fun on the ground,' Bengo said.

 'So long,' Steve said as he stepped back into the door and rejoined the ground forces.

  Back at the factory, Steve assembled the teams, then equipped them with Fearnaught suits and started picking off the Greenies. This task was carried out by setting several doors behind each group stepping through stunning, disarming and handcuffing as they went. By using the gate videos and access via a parallel world, Steve's teams soon disabled the Fornoon soldiers, before they knew what hit them. While this was happening, the skies lit up with flares as the two fleets engaged, the Fornoon fleet soon realising that the jig was up and they started to retreat.

 The last pocket was in Pyongyang, where the leaders were trying to find out what was happening as their plans crumbled around their ears.  they were discussing what was happening as reports started coming in and other signals suddenly ceasing. Deep in a discussion, the doorways opened, the soldiers both Fornoon and North Korean began collapsing like drunkards at the end of a hard night's session. Then dozens of armoured troops poured through, leaving only the leaders sitting aghast at their table.

'You are under arrest for invading a peaceful planet, as are the leaders of this country for fomenting terror worldwide,' Steve announced, 'Take them away.'

  Despite their protests over the rough handling the leaders of the invasion were carted off and deposited in cells in the Hague to await trial.

 Steve then returned to the complex to see what the world was doing, viewing via the gate cameras; he could see that once the removal of the tanks, emplacements and blockading ships was complete; the armed forces worldwide quickly cleaned up the remainder.

   Steve then contacted Elysium to have his ship return to Earth and pick him up. He transferred to the Moon factory; where a shuttle could take him to the Red so his involvement wouldn’t be noted. Rham's men were credited with the advanced equipment to avoid pointing at the Firebrand factory. Senior had been able to remain anonymous because he had used a dreadnought suit with a blanked face screen.

 Within a day Senior had returned to the moon where a shuttle arrived to carry him to Big Red; the ship would then resume the landing schedule into Brisbane airport. While he had still been in the country had made the application for a visa for Pippin to remove impediments to entry. She would stay in seclusion until this was granted; the help that Steve had provided was known together with the facts behind Pippin joining the crew. Immigration issued the visa was issued in time for the landing as a reward for the work done.

 While waiting for his ship, Steve helped Anne restart the factory and hire extra workers to accelerate the shield and weapons production; he received a signal from Admiral Rham outlining the outcomes on the interstellar scene.  The court ruled that Captain Roos and her crew were following orders, so they were to be classified as prisoners of war and detained until repatriated by ships. Steve would not be called to testify, and the counter-complaint dismissed being a reasonable action.  The Elysium fleet paraded their strength in the Fornoon system, and a Concord was signed listing Earth as a protected associate.

 'If they wanted to trade that was not the way to go about it, it would be years before anyone is silly enough to sign any piece of paper they offer,' Admiral Rham had said.

'That was an old trick settlers played on the natives, smart traders pointed to a distant land and offered to buy for a token amount. Since the native being asked didn't own it and he just signed the parchment,' Steve related, 'Of course when the real owners objected they were hunted out.'

'As they destroyed a sizable portion of military aircraft and missiles; our factories will be at maximum output to replace those with space capable craft with advanced shields and weapons,' Steve said, 'Hopefully this doesn’t escalate into an arms race.'

 Senior had time to read the day's paper where the headlines screamed, 'Mysterious benefactor dubbed Captain X restores the world to peace. Overhead the Fornoon fleet had been scattered by our friends from Elysium.' 

 Switching on the television the reports were the same, citing that an unknown soldier had evicted the invaders. Speculation was rife about the leader's identity. 

 'I wonder who he is?' Wendy asked.

 'How would I know?' Steve said, thinking best remain that way.

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Back to business

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The Oxzen run

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Interlude On Grnatz.

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Fun In Omrixz

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Business again.

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Grey nomads

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Battle at the Waypoint

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Return to Elysium

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The Imperial menace

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