Sunday, March 11, 2018

A Sinister Situation on Sebou   

349-1107, aboard Golden Dawn, in hyperspace between Sebou and Kedron

--from the personal journal of Baronet Atopia Kesslering

All of us veterans of Imperial military service talk about the kinds of sacrifices we’ve made over our careers for the good of the Imperium.  Some of us, I think, proclaim them just a little too loudly and a little too often – until we come face to face with someone who has literally given everything they had.  It’s a punch in the gut when you see somebody who’ll never recover from their injuries, may never regain consciousness, never get any recognition, never even get thanked for their efforts.  And all your pride just falls away, knowing that some of them gave far more than you ever did.

I should be in bed.  But that image haunts me tonight – a young man whose broken body is being kept alive by medical technology in a hospital’s intensive care unit on a world dozens of parsecs from his home – a young man who cannot even lay claim to his own name for the good of the Imperium.

How many drinks does this make tonight – four or five?  It doesn’t seem to matter.  I had to shed crocodile tears for him to maintain my cover story, but tonight I do feel like crying.  Every time the image appears in my head, I feel sick.  I feel like all the accolades that have been heaped upon me are empty, meaningless things in comparison to what that young man has lost.

I still have a report to write, of course – that’s what I’m dreading doing.  Somehow, I have to dispassionately relate the events of the past few days to the man’s superior so that he can take swift action to bring those responsible for his condition to justice and end their schemes.  I want to be there when these terrorist sympathizers and collaborators are brought before the Moot and make them answer for their crimes, make them answer for what they did to him.

This all started two long, strange weeks ago when one of my passengers on our transit from Sespe to Cahabon asked to see me privately on an urgent matter.  Commander Oliver Greene of Imperial Naval Intelligence presented his credentials and apologized for imposing upon a Defender of the Imperium.

“We’ve lost contact with one of our agents on Sebou, Lieutenant Milo Turner,” he told me.  “He is now three weeks overdue with his latest progress report and that probably means trouble.  Lt. Turner was investigating whether arms from one of Count Abdeslam Sebou’s factories were somehow making their way into the hands of Ine Givar operatives in this subsector.  Evidence from a recent attack claimed by the group supports this notion, but Milo was looking for concrete evidence of it.

“In broad strokes, Imperial Naval Intelligence needs you to find Lt. Turner, assess the situation as to whether he can be extracted without exposing the investigation, extract him or recover and extract the information he’s collected during the investigation.  Discretion in this matter is paramount – if you or the mission is compromised we’ll have nothing to show for over a year’s worth of work.

“Turner was operating under the alias Winfred Owens, a buyer for an import/export firm on Logone – the mercenary market being what it is there, and all.  I’ll be waiting for you on Kedron with a team of operatives in case there’s anything else that needs doing.  I thank you in advance and good luck to you.”

Commander Greene didn’t bother with goodbye when he left the ship, leaving me and my crew scrambling to get our commerce on Cahabon done and dusting off again in less than twenty hours.  It would have been sooner, but Kim ran afoul of the local authorities for dumping out her drink somewhere other than an authorized water reclamation station.  The upside was that other than spending four hours in a holding cell and being issued a warning citation, she got to chatting with one of the other law-breakers about Sebou.  During the transit, she went over it all with me so I wouldn’t be jumping into the situation completely blind.

Sebou is a marvel of environmental engineering with its domed cities situated in craters on the planet’s surface.  Olivia commented that it reminded her of Yantra, where they use a similar arrangement.  All semblance to that world ended when we stepped into Abdeslamdome for the first time.  Minarets and walls covered in brightly colored mosaics of ceramic tiles met our gaze as modern architecture merged with a culture brought by the first Solomani settlers.  Turbans may be out of style in the rest of Imperial space – owing to the unpopularity of the Zhodani – but those and fezzes with golden and silver tassels and brightly colored headscarves for the women were all the rage with the locals.

As much of a distraction as the local color was, I hardly paid attention to it while conducting my business, waiting for Tabitha to wade through the local news archives, looking for any mention of Winfred Owens.  It took a few hours of digging, but she finally pulled up a report of a public transportation accident in Erminadome, a city nearly four hundred kilometers away from the starport.

I took Samantha, Kim, Tabitha and Winston with me to visit the young lieutenant at the city’s central medical facility.  I’ll give Count Abdeslam credit; he doesn’t skimp when it comes to medical services because Milo was getting the best that tech level eight could muster.  I was in my Fiona Paxton identity, playing the part of a shocked and saddened sister of the unfortunate Mr. Owens.  I played Winston as my husband, hiding my face against his chest until I could bring tears to my eyes.  The rest of the group, mutual friends, looked suitably saddened to allay Dr. Kamal Udan’s suspicions.

The act continued as we visited the office of Police Detective Sallah Yawani, the man who’d investigated the accident.  He expressed sincere condolences that while he considered the incident a homicide, he had no proof that would stand up in court and no suspects.  He’d grilled Occala Dar, the tram driver, for nearly six hours, but ultimately got no information that brought him any closer to any suspects.

“The forensic evidence supports that somebody either bumped into him or pushed him onto the maglev track,” said the detective, “but there is no case to be made beyond that.  Mr. Owens was on a part of the transfer platform that was out of direct view of any of the other people waiting there and nobody was seen leaving the vicinity after the tram hit him.  I am very sorry that I do not know more.”

I thanked Detective Yawani for his efforts as he produced Milo’s effects from the hotel room in which he’d been staying.  I had to make another show of grief upon seeing the few things he’d brought to this world.  We had to wait until we could get back to the privacy of the Golden Dawn to give them a thorough going-over.

Tabitha swore vehemently as she probed the memories of Milo’s pocket computer and dataslab.  “Their memories have been wiped with a targeted virus program,” she spat as she tossed both units aside.  “I don’t even have fragmental data in either one of them to work with.  Whoever we’re up against knows how to hide their digital fingerprints.”

Samantha had better luck going through Milo’s luggage and toiletries – finding a set of instructions regarding maintenance and operation of a wetware system, even if she didn’t immediately understand what it was.  “It means Milo’s got a microcomputer implanted in the base of his skull,” said Winston, “interfaced to his brain.  It’s amazing what they can do with nanotech these days.”

Winston had reviewed Milo’s medical records and said there was a very good chance the chip was intact.  Given that Milo was working for INI, it was probably mounted flush to the inside of the back of his skull – where tech level eight diagnostic and imaging systems wouldn’t find it.  “We’ll need a microchip scanner to access its data,” said Winston, “as well as a security code.”

Olivia had been helping Samantha search Milo’s belongings, but had been distracted by a multi-function utility knife.  I was about to tell her to put it down before she cut herself when she showed me the back of the main knife blade.  Carefully scribed into the metal was a tiny sixteen digit alphanumeric that I had to hold just so to read.

Tabitha pulled an all-nighter to put together the microchip scanner and make it small enough for it and her pocket computer to ride in a specialty clutch purse.  “It has a network of copper wire and metal-impregnated plastic between the shell and interior sleeve,” she explained as we headed out the next morning.  “It’ll fool just about any scanner or imaging device they have here on Sebou.”

John went with us and kept an eye on the hallway as Tabitha went to work, gently sliding the scanner blade under Milo’s head while I made another show of weeping to keep the curious at bay.  It took a couple of minutes to download the contents of its memory, but it worked.  I should have known it was a bit too easy.

As we were leaving the hospital, I happened to glance to the side in the lobby and saw a man looking back at me.  His eyes widened and he bolted for a side exit.  “John!” I yelled and pointed in the direction of the other’s flight.  John vaulted a couch and bowled over three people in his haste to catch our watcher.  Tabitha and I shouted apologies in his wake as we struggled to keep up.

The watcher darted through the crowded pedestrian walkways, ducking and avoiding collisions, while John bulled along behind, knocking people to the ground who didn’t move fast enough.  The watcher was extending his lead as he reached an arched bridge, but stumbled and fell as he got tangled up in a leashed pet and its owner.  John put his head down and leapt over the tangle of owner and pet, nearly within reach of the man…

And then it all went wrong.

The watcher dodged aside as John tried to grab him, whirled to double back when he saw me rushing toward him.  Somehow, I’d conjured my body pistol into my hand and I had his face perfectly framed in its plastic sights.  John was turning, pushing off from the rail of the bridge he’d caught himself on after the watcher had ducked him.  The watcher didn’t hesitate.  He vaulted the rail.

“NO!” I screamed as he fell from view.  John grabbed the rail and looked down for just a moment until I reached him.

He held up an arm to bar my way.  “Another ten centimeters and I could have caught him,” said John as he turned to face me.  “Forty meters to the pavement below,” he added with a toss of his head toward the railing, “dead on arrival.”

“Find us a way down there before the authorities get to him,” I said as I quickly holstered my pistol under my jacket.  “I want to know who he was.”

The watcher was Occala Dar, the tram driver that had run over Milo four weeks ago.  Mr. Dar also had worker passcards for both the public transit system in Erminadome and as a shipping department worker for Phalanx Military Industries – an arms manufacturer owned by Lady Aya Sebou, a niece of Count Abdeslam.  We got clear before the police arrived and started asking questions we didn’t want to answer.

Back at the ship, the data we’d pulled from Milo’s head was all images, so the chip was interfaced to the optical cortex of his brain.  Most of the images were of computer displays.  On these I found myself on very familiar ground – they were shipping manifests.  Somebody at Phalanx was slipping additional lots of weapons into shipments being made to Redlane Import/Export House on Nullica, and had been doing so for at least three years.

The remaining few images were of faces, blurred with rage and determination – two men and a woman.  The uniforms fell in line with the corporate togs worn by working types at Phalanx.  After processing the images with the enhancement program she’d obtained from the Imperial Navy, Tabitha hacked the government’s worker registration database and put names to the faces.  All of them worked in the shipping department of Phalanx as well.

The final image on the chip was the onrushing tram, barely three meters away.  Milo had seen his death coming and had recorded it, so there would be no doubt – loyal to the end.

As soon as we had that, I made the decision to get off Sebou as quickly as possible.  They had found us and we had no idea how many more were involved.  With Occala dead, they probably are already in the process of sanitizing the operation.  Commander Greene may not have anything to clean up by the time my report gets to him…

*         *         *

“Hey,” said a voice behind her.  Atopia closed her journal book and set the stylus down beside her on the lounge couch.  Winston sat down on the other side of her, sliding his arm around her shoulders.  She gratefully laid her head upon his chest.  “Can’t sleep?” he asked.

She shook her head.  “I keep seeing him in that hospital bed,” she said.

“Yeah,” he replied, “It got to me, too.  I hate saying it, but there were more than a few people I couldn’t save.  The injuries were too great or the disease too far advanced, etcetera, etcetera.  Their death masques visit me occasionally.”

“But they go away, right?” Atopia asked.

“They do,” he said with a sigh.  “Sweetheart, Milo was dead as soon as that tram ran over him.  I reviewed his case files while we were at the hospital.  He’s got brain trauma that not even the best neuro-regenerative treatments on Narmada can fix.  They might get him functional, but that’s about all they would manage.  Milo – that part of him that makes him a unique human being, his thoughts, his memories, his feelings and everything else that made him special – are gone.  All that’s left is the biology with enough brain to keep it running.”

“What do you do,” she asked as she pulled him a tighter to her, “when a face won’t go away?”

He gently kissed her forehead.  “Have a drink or two and find somebody to hold until it finally does go away.”

“Let’s go to bed,” Atopia said after a moment, “in one of the high passage cabins.”

He eased her to her feet as he stood, guiding her along.  “Samantha will complain about the mess in the morning,” he said with a smile.

“Killjoy," she said.

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