Saturday, June 23, 2018

Loose Ends, Part II (Coda)      

048-1109, Narmada, Red Sun City, Arcology Delta Emerald Six Nine

“He’s here?” asked Baron Ian Richards, “And he’s still alive?”

Leif Grenfeld bit his lower lip and turned his head away for a moment.  No, the chided himself, this is not going to be easy at all.  “I realize,” said Leif as he turned back to face the young noble, “that the death of your father is still a painful subject, your lordship, but I need to ask you some questions –“

“You need to answer mine first!” said Ian stepping forward.  “Where is he?  Where is Rand Tyler?”

While Leif had never met Baron Alton Richards, he had learned a great deal about the man in his initial hunt for Rand Tyler.  According to Baronet Atopia Kesslering, Baron Alton been a kind, humble man with a keen yet gentle wit.  And while Baron Ian shared some of his father’s physical characteristics – soft brown eyes under heavy, dark eyebrows – the pain of his father’s murder had poisoned his psyche.  That much was evident etched in the frown lines around his mouth, the lines of pain around the eyes, and the fire of the rage that still burned after four years.

“In detention under heavy guard at a secret location, you lordship,” said Leif in a forced but even tone.  “Even the people who helped apprehend him are being detained to prevent word from getting out about this.”

Ian relaxed a bit at that.  “And why is the man responsible for my father’s murder still alive?”

“Mister Tyler has a wetware computer implanted in the base of his skull,” explained Leif, “which could contain information that will be invaluable in Duke Darius’ efforts to root out Ine Givar and Solomani sympathizers throughout this volume of space.  However, the data has military grade encryption, which is proving difficult to crack.  While Imperial Naval Intelligence is working on that, I’m working on who assisted Mister Tyler in hiding out on Narmada for the past three cycles.”

“He’s been here for three cycles?!” Ian shouted.  “And his grace didn’t see fit to tell me?!”  The young man whirled and stormed to the wall of his study that held a dueling cutlass and body pistol.

“Please calm yourself, your lordship,” said Leif.  “The matter is being handled in the manner his grace thinks is best.”

Ian turned to Leif while he was attaching the scabbard of the cutlass to his belt.  “And how long have you known about it?”

“I got the full measure of the situation with Mister Tyler the day before yesterday, your lordship,” said Leif.  “It has been nearly two years since I’ve actually been on Narmada.”

“More than I’ve been told, apparently,” said Ian as he sheathed the sword and began to slide into the gun holster rig.

“You were kept out of the loop for a reason, your lordship,” said Leif.  “There are other concerns in play with this situation – concerns that will affect many members of the Peerage adversely if this comes to light.  Most notably, Marquis Toyama Weston’s and Baronet Atopia Kesslering’s actions will be called into question – two people who have done much on yours and your father’s behalf.”

That gave Ian pause, so Leif pressed the advantage.  “Your father gave his life to expose SuSAG’s association with the Ine Givar,” said the scout.  “Baronet Atopia, Marquis Toyama and I have broken interstellar traditions and laws to follow the evidence he exposed to bring the guilty to justice – all with the approval and complicity of his grace Duke Darius and Sector Duke Wymark as well.

“Your father knew what was at stake when he pursued his line of investigation,” Leif continued.  “To be honest, following up his work has been the focus of my activities with the IISS ever since he died.  The Imperium is and will continue to be in your father’s debt for years to come – just as you are in the debt of the Houses Weston, Ingersoll, Gascoyne, and soon House Kesslering as well.”

Ian offered a shadow of a smile at the last.  “If anyone deserves a permanent title of late,” said the noble, “it is Atopia.”  He took a breath, letting the tension in his shoulders ebb.  As he did so, they started to shake.  Ian brought his hands to his face and began to sob.  “Father…” he moaned as some of the sadness of the past five years poured out of him.

Leif gently guided Ian to a couch and gently gripped the man’s shoulders while he cried.  The reports said that Ian and Alton were very close, thought Leif as the young noble’s emotions played out.  How long has it been since I have cried over the loss of someone – years, perhaps?  Not even Atopia, when she lay lifeless in my arms on Nan going on four years ago, brought a single tear.  There was sadness, certainly, but there was no time for tears then, nor is there time now.

Ian eventually recovered enough to wipe his eyes with a pocket handkerchief.  “How may I be of service to the Empire?” he asked as he looked up at Leif.

“I have questions I have to ask about your father,” said Leif, “and the members of his personal staff.”

“You think -?” said Ian.

“Somebody had to help Tyler set up your father’s murder,” said Leif.  “Tyler may have used that knowledge to coerce their assistance when he returned to Narmada.”

049-1109, Narmada, Red Sun City, Arcology Juliette Amber Eight Three, Sub-level Twenty-Eight

Leif allowed himself a sigh of relief when he reached the maintenance room at the bottom of the metal ladder he’d spent nearly fifteen minutes descending.  He wore a respirator mask and had an air tank slung over one shoulder.  The Autonomy Defense Force had sealed off all the exits and pumped carbon dioxide into the sub-levels to flush Tyler out five days earlier.  The arcology’s maintenance crews were busy fixing what the ADF had wrecked in their haste to catch the fugitive, so the possibility of pockets of the unbreathable gas was real enough for the precaution.

That final hour down here must have been fun for Tyler, thought Leif as he exited the maintenance room.  He knew he was caught, but he still insisted on playing the game until they actually did catch him.  What did he hope to gain?  The answer had to be down here somewhere.

His questioning of Baron Ian had produced some interesting possibilities for the investigation, though none of them could be followed up right away.  I can only hope I find something down here to tie one of them to Tyler, he thought.  The operatives the Ine Givar brought to Narmada were first-rate, curse the luck – they’ve been very good at covering their tracks while causing havoc around here.

Getting access to this part of the arcology took all the legal weight Duke Darius’ edict could muster.  Marquis Julius Denali was increasingly dependent on life support equipment and seeing His Excellency without an appointment wasn’t just an inconvenience; it had to be authorized by his personal physician as well.  Leif had been gentle but firm about his need to be down here, about how much he already knew despite the Marquis’ claims of ignorance, and that time was of the essence in this matter.

From start to finish, it had taken just over three hours.  It could have just as easily taken three days, under the conditions.  Leif promised to relay the Marquis’ regards to his daughter, Baronet Leigh, the Imperial liaison to Sok, the next time he headed that way.  Given His Excellency’s deteriorating condition, thought Leif as he surveyed the sub-level’s maze of hallways, I’ll probably be conveying news of his death before then.

Leif pulled up short at a large ventilator grill.  Its vent holes were free of the usual collection of dust and grime one might expect to build up over years of substandard maintenance or neglect, plus the captive screws weren’t locked down to the wall.  Leif hesitated to pull out his explosives sniffer, given that several charges had been set off by the ADF to block routes of escape from the sub-level, so he gambled that Tyler didn’t have time to set a booby-trap on a trip wire.

Leif lifted the panel clear and set it aside, revealing a space that was roughly two meters deep and high and nearly four meters long, with another screen in the far end with a large duct running back into darkness.  The floor of the space had a simple sleeping pad and thermal wrap, plus a worn canvas courier bag in one corner.

This has been here five days, he thought as he gave the space a thorough once over, and nobody’s thought to look for this?

Leif emptied the bag’s contents onto the sleeping pad.  There were five separate identification cards bearing Rand’s holograph with a false name; four Imperial credit vouchers, one of which was gold with the logo of SuSAG in black; three access card keys for the arcology’s maintenance areas; enough ration bars to sustain someone for four days, bottled water for two days, and a collection of toiletries in travel sizes that were all nearly used up.  Leif pulled out a box cutter from one of the coveralls’ pockets, carefully slashing the bag to ribbons before giving it a good shake over the sleeping pad. 

He heard something hit the pad, but it took him several seconds to locate it – a datachip.  He double-checked the bag’s internal spaces before he tossed it aside.  He tore the wrapper off one of the ration bars and studied the datachip while he chewed, letting the air feed from his mask flow across his face while he ate.  The chip had no markings, not even a manufacturer’s logo. He carefully placed the chip in one of the coveralls’ breast pockets.  The rest of the ID cards and credit vouchers went into other pockets.

He froze at the sound of a door being opened.  The live acoustics of bare walls and formacrete floors brought the sounds of two sets of footsteps from somewhere in one of the connecting corridors.  Leif picked up the ventilator grate and quietly covered the cubbyhole with himself inside it.  Working quickly, Leif used the box cutter to turn the screws of the screen at the far end of the space.  It was hinged on one side and Leif quickly entered the duct and pulled the screen shut behind him.

He laid the box cutter on the curving floor of the circular duct and drew his body pistol.  He eased its safety off and turned off the gas feed on his respirator’s air tank to silence its operation.  In the dusty darkness, Leif watched for shadows on the exterior grate for several slow moments, his ears straining for the slightest sound.

The footsteps came closer, stopping outside the vent.  Leif could see their shadows playing across the grate, one of them held an object in his hand – but it didn’t look like a firearm.  Suddenly, the grate was pulled upward a fraction of a meter and the object was tossed inside.  As the grate was forced back down, Leif scrabbled backwards in the vent, heedless of the noise he was making.  The cylindrical object hissed acrid smoke before spewing its white-hot contents across the bedding and floor of the space, which caught fire instantly.

The space quickly filled with smoke and fire.  Leif turned on the gas feed for his respirator again and continued crawling further into the duct.  Distantly, he could hear alarms sounding.  Fortunately, the air flow in the duct was keeping the worst of the smoke away from him, which he supposed was toxic by the way his eyes were burning.  Still the relatively fresh air from the duct was helping them clear, even though there was very little light in the confines of the duct.

It took him two minutes to crawl through the duct to a maintenance access and open it.  The body pistol was in his hand as he got to his feet and ran toward the source of the alarms.  He found the source, but his quarry was gone.  Smoke was still rising from the grate and the corridor was hazed with it.  The incendiary probably burned through the floor of the duct, he thought as he pulled out his explosives sniffer and set it to detect the incendiary’s residue.

Security and firefighters were showing up at the scene, but he managed to evade them.  The sniffer strobed softly at a door and Leif eased his way through it, guiding it closed behind him.  He went slowly as he ascended the stairwell past the first two sub-levels, but the sniffer continued to strobe.  He began to take the stairs two at a time at a dead run after that.

The stairs ended on the landing for Sub-level Three.  Leif discarded the respirator rig and the coveralls on the landing, panting softly until his racing heart slowed its pace somewhat.  He transferred Rand’s items and his own equipment and devices from the coveralls to his IISS uniform pockets.  The datachip went into a concealed space behind his uniform’s belt buckle.  The body pistol, which had been set aside for the rest, was clutched in his right hand while the cylindrical sniffer remained in his left.

The sniffer was still detecting trace amounts of the incendiary from the grenade, but the trail was getting spotty.  Leif opened the door and cast about in the hallways until he hit a strong trail.  He hurried along until the familiar smell of death hit his nostrils.  He scowled and shook his head as he turned a corner.

The blood smears on the floor and the small spatters of it across a nearby wall told the tale to Leif’s eyes – of shots fired at nearly point-blank range into the unsuspecting victims.  Their bodies had collapsed to the floor, of course, and then had been dragged into an adjacent room.  No subtlety, thought Leif as he took in the scene, so why hide the bodies at all?

He knew he didn’t have much time.  The incendiary grenade had brought emergency services to the scene, but the arcology’s security people would fan out and search.  They would notice his recent egress from the connecting air duct, and then they would reason out the trail since Leif hadn’t taken time to conceal it.  The murderer would have known that, too.  He or she would have had to work quickly, doing only what was needed to delay any search and pursuit to affect their escape from the potential dragnet.

“The murderer,” said Leif aloud, “needed to hide the route of escape.  THAT’S why the bodies are in there.”  He turned and saw a door to another maintenance space about ten meters away that was slightly ajar.  And then he was moving, nearly tearing the door of the room off its hinges in his eagerness to renew the pursuit.

The space behind the door was a storeroom for parts and expendable supplies.  The murderer had hurried the job of bypassing the electronic lock – which is why the door wouldn’t close completely now.  Leif cast about hurriedly.  The sniffer brought him to another door behind a rack of free-standing shelving, which had been opened with brute force – pieces of the latch mechanism lay strewn across the floor.  Something among them caught his eye and he stooped to have a look.

The cartridge was a ten-millimeter low-velocity round with the familiar bright green tip that indicated it was an explosive tipped round.  Must have fallen from the murderer’s pocket, Leif mused as he studied it, as snub pistols are generally revolvers.  He froze when looked at the back end of the round.

It bore the initials “PMI” inside of a stylized square and a lot number.  Leif nodded grimly as he fished his pocket comp’ out and aimed its camera to bring the end of the round clearly into focus.  Phalanx Military Industries, he thought as he snapped the picture, imported from Nullica after being smuggled to there from Sebou, no doubt.  That means our murderer has ties to the Ine Givar.

Leif could hear activity outside the door – distantly, but closing.  Behind the door, a short corridor led to a small service contra-gravity lift shaft.  Leif quietly closed the door before returning to the lift shaft.

The three-meter diameter shaft was lit, stretching upwards and downwards for a great distance in both directions.  Moving handholds ascended and descended at regular intervals.  Leif peered upward and saw a figure ascending, nearly a dozen levels above him.  He grabbed the ascending handhold with his left and drew his body pistol with his right.

His body was weightless in that shaft as he started to ascend.  He kept his eyes on the figure above him as he used his legs and arms to clamber upwards as quickly as he dared, desperate to keep silent but also not wanting to lose sight of the figure.

He had gained several levels on the figure when the man must have heard him, for he looked downward.  Leif counted his lucky stars as he saw the man fumbling in his jacket for a weapon.  “STOCK STILL!” Leif bellowed in the confines of the shaft, “Release the handhold and show me your hands!  Do it now!”

The figure wasn’t having any, but was unfamiliar with being in zero-gravity, taking a precious second to plant a foot on the side of the shaft as he fought to pull the weapon free.  Leif didn’t hesitate, his IISS-mandated zero-g training giving him the advantage.  He kicked off the side of the tube to throw off the figure’s aim.

The snub pistol issued a soft popping sound as the low velocity round whistled past Leif.  It detonated several levels below him.  But in his haste, the attacker missed the next handhold passing on the wall and began flailing as he started to tumble.  Leif bracketed the helpless target and fired.

The diminutive body pistol cracked three times in rapid succession within the confines of the shaft.  The man above him convulsed and cried out, the snub pistol caroming off the side of the shaft and tumbling upwards, away from his grasping fingers.  “Desist!” Leif yelled as he planted a foot on one of the handholds and pushed off.

The man was semi-conscious by the time Leif reached him.  The scout pushed the man out of the shaft at the next access and tumbled out with him.  The figure moaned and stirred weakly.  One of the body pistol’s bullets had pancaked on the victim’s armored coat.  Another had carved a furrow up his inner left thigh while the third had buried itself in the man’s lower’s right abdomen, which was bleeding heavily.

Leif dug an autoinjector from the cargo pocket of his left pant leg.  “You need to live for me,” Leif said to the man beside him, “at least long enough to tell me what I need to know.”  Leif rolled the man onto his face, tossing the coat to one side and pulling his shirt up to expose the base of his spine.

The man cried out as Leif injected the Truth Drug into his spinal column.  Leif had to sit on him to keep him still.  After a moment the man went limp, quivering as the drug took hold.  Leif rolled him back over.  The man’s eyes were dilated wide open.  “No… no…” whimpered the man.

“Welcome to the longest two minutes of your life, you murdering, traitorous son of a bitch,” said Leif as he felt his expression harden as he tossed the autoinjector aside and picked up the body pistol again.  “They’re also going to be your last.”

050-1109, Narmada, Red Sun City Starport, Narmada Subsector Navy Headquarters

Narmada Fleet Admiral Bernard Alpengrist cast a sidelong look at Leif as the Naval cybernetics technician slotted the datachip into the computer.  The computer was isolated from all outside connections and the small room they were in was designed like a great Faraday cage to prevent any extraneous signals from getting in or out.

The technician turned toward the admiral.  “Ready, sir,” was all he said.

“I still don’t see why we can’t copy the decryption program on this chip,” said the Admiral.

“It’s a security feature common with Solomani military software,” said Leif as he stared past the technician at the computer.  “Use a copy or another version of the software used originally and the program hopelessly corrupts the data.  Any attempt to preserve the program anywhere other than its original storage device causes it to disable key functions.  We get one shot to decrypt this data, as the program erases itself after the job is finished.”

Bernard looked at the technician, who nodded to affirm what Leif had said.  The admiral pursed his lips for just a moment before nodding.  “You may proceed, Ensign,” he said.

“Aye, sir.”  The technician turned back to the computer and keyed up the sequence to launch the decryption program.  There was the span of five rapid beats of Leif’s heart before the large screen on the opposite wall began displaying datafile icons – clean and uncorrupted.  Leif blew out the breath he hadn’t noticed he was holding.

Bernard turned toward Leif and extended a hand.  “Thank you,” he said, “Imperial Naval Intelligence will take it from here.”

“On the contrary,” said Leif, “I’m staying here until I get a copy of the uncorrupted data.”

“Now see here –“ the admiral balked.

“Admiral, I don’t need to remind you of the authority vested in me by his grace, do I?” asked Leif.  “This data is vital to finishing the task given to me by Duke Darius.”

“This is sensitive and vital intelligence information!” exclaimed Bernard, “I can’t let a… civilian just walk out of here with it!  We have rules for this sort of thing, Mister Grenfeld!”

Leif smiled.  “The old inter-branch rivalries aside, Admiral, we are playing for the same team.  And I still have some work left to do before I can wrap this up, for which Tyler’s data will be essential.”

Leif’s smile evaporated.  “The reason you now have this data is because of the actions I have taken – most of which fall well outside the rules and laws the rest of polite society follows.  So yes, admiral, I am taking a copy of this data with me.  Now.”

Leif turned to the technician.  “Ensign,” he said, “Does that computer have a microlead I/O port?”  The technician nodded.  “Good,” continued Leif as he turned to Bernard, “Admiral, in my bag outside there’s a microchip scanner; please have someone bring it in here immediately.”

Four hours later, Red Sun City, Arcology Whiskey Amber Oh Nine,

The door to the cell slid shut behind Leif as he entered.  Rand Tyler sat on his bunk and regarded him for a moment without speaking.  Leif regarded Tyler in return as he stood with his arms folded across his chest.  “You look pretty good for a dead man,” said Leif at last.

Tyler nearly laughed.  “Rumors of my demise have been greatly exaggerated,” he said.  “But we’ve crossed paths before, I believe, even though I remember you having considerably more hair.”

Leif nodded.  “Logone,” he said, “in year 1104.  You paid me to fly you to Yantra.  If I had known then what kind of trouble that transit was going to cause me and the Imperium over the next five years, I would have spaced you.”

Tyler did laugh this time.  “Hindsight is twenty-twenty, after all,” he said around a chuckle.  His features became more serious.  “I take it the data the ADF stole from my wetware has been decrypted?”

Leif nodded.  “General Mutabe’s troopers are rounding up the last few of your Ine Givar associates as we speak.”  Leif paused as he fished the datachip from behind his belt buckle and tossed it to the prisoner, who caught it easily.

Tyler regarded it for a moment before his eyes widened.  “You didn’t slot this one,” he said.

Leif shook his head.  “What kind of organization would allow the data and decryption software to be in the same place at the same time?” he asked.  “And how could they possibly overlook reacquiring that essential software for five days?  They wanted the Imperium to find that datachip and use it.  And that meant that the program on that datachip was either meant to destroy or corrupt the data the ADF took from your wetware computer.

“Your people had to make a play to make it look like it was important,” Leif continued, “but they waited until they were sure I had found it to sell the lie.  Fortunately, I managed to track the operative in charge of the deception down, which, in due course, brought the actual decryption program into my possession.”

Tyler gave Leif a nod.  “Well done,” he said, “I salute you.”

“Not yet,” said Leif.  “There’s still one thing I haven’t been able to figure out.  I was hoping you’d tell me, now that the Ine Givar’s house of cards has fallen.”

“I might,” said Tyler.

“Why did you come back here?” asked Leif.  “You knew staying in Imperial space would get you killed once you escaped from Golgotha, so why come back to Narmada?  Why not run to the Solomani or disappear in the Periphery rather come here where your friends were few and your death was certain?”

“Vengeance,” said Tyler.  “You’ve reviewed the information in the files, of course.”

Leif nodded.  All of the information that he had found in Gretl Schunamamm’s personal computers on Logone was there, along with details of the financial swindle perpetuated by the Yellow Sail Syndicate against members of the Narmada nobility.  Dirt on several other members of the Peerage was there as well – Baroness Barlow’s syndicate dealings, Baronet Fletcher Willow’s criminal ties, and more.

“Just imagine if some of the nobles at the upcoming subsector Moot had presented that,” said Tyler.  “It would have thrown the Peerage into chaos and cast serious doubts on Duke Darius’ ability to lead – probably to the point of Duke Wymark replacing him.”

“You still didn’t have to be here for that to happen,” said Leif.

“Yes, I did,” said Tyler with a feral smile.  “I wanted a front-row seat to watch Darius Ingersoll and his ardent supporters fall from grace – especially Marquis Toyama and Baronet Atopia.”  The smile vanished.  “But it wasn’t meant to be, it seems.”

Leif nodded.  “Don’t take this the wrong way,” he said, “but I am glad I could be an instrument of your downfall.  It gives the whole business a bit of symmetry.”

“I’ve answered your question,” said Tyler. “So answer mine: what did you get out of all this – besides a permanent haircut, that is?”

Leif smiled at the joke.  “The satisfaction of overcoming a challenge worthy of my talents, mostly,” said Leif as he turned toward the door of the cell.  The door opened as he continued and turned back toward Tyler, “along with a fringe benefit or two.”

Tyler looked past Leif at the young man standing in the cell’s doorway.  Baron Ian Richards entered with his body pistol in his hand.  Tyler had just enough time to cry out as Ian took aim and started firing.  The young noble didn’t stop until the weapon’s six-round magazine was empty and Tyler was a bloody, quivering heap on the floor at his feet.  “For my father,” Ian said.

“And for the Empire,” said Leif as he gently laid a hand on Ian’s shoulder.  “It’s time to go, your lordship.”

They left the cell.  The door closed silently behind them.  On the floor, Tyler coughed once, wetly, his eyes focused on something that only the dead ever see.

And then he was gone.

053-1109, aboard the Makarya, approximately 320,000 kilometers from Narmada

]: Starship Makarya >>> Narmada Deep Space Traffic Control - have achieved zero relative vector.  Request permission to initiate jump sequence for flight plan 1109.053.S019 – destination: Olt.

Leif could clearly see the golden tan crescent of Narmada, slightly below and to the right of Orgus, the gas giant it orbits.  At this distance, both were nearly the same visual size though he knew Orgus was considerably larger.  The brightness of the pair kept him from seeing all but a scattering of the brightest stars behind them.


Leif initiated a slight yaw to starboard, pointing the scout ship’s nose away from Narmada until the familiar yet majestic swath of the Milky Way filled the bridge’s viewports.  He contemplated it as he initiated the jump grid’s initial charging sequence on his flight dynamics interface.  He dimmed the bridge lights and smiled.

This is why I became a scout all those years ago, he thought as he gazed upon the universe and smiled.  There is so much of the galaxy I have yet to see.  There are more challenges to test me – out there.  This is why I am a traveller.

The computer chimed softly, indicating the charging sequence was complete.  He could see the soft blue-white glow of the grid imbedded in the ship’s hull, distorted by the geometry of its triangular nose.  He touched the icon on the flight dynamics interface’s touchscreen that read “Initiate.”

Three seconds later, the Makarya’s jump grid flared white for a brief moment, and when it faded away, only empty space remained, amid the majesty of the stars.


Sunday, June 17, 2018

Loose Ends, Part I (Coda)       

044-1109, Narmada, Red Sun City, Arcology Juliette Amber Eight Three, Sub-level Twenty-Eight

And so it’s come to this, thought Rand as ran down the corridor.  Another explosion rocked the hallway and he could see a cloud of dust roiling some thirty meters ahead of him.

He staggered to a stop, panting.  The troopers of Autonomy Defense Force had been systematically sealing off all exits to this level with demolition charges for the past fifteen minutes.  There hadn’t been any signs of pursuit, but he knew that there wouldn’t be until the guest of honor showed up in person.

Rand knew he’d overstayed his welcome when he’d garroted Martel Teichmann in his prison cell, but it had to be done.  Teichmann knew too much about the attempt on Duke Wymark’s and Countess Dyota’s lives.  Most importantly, he knew the names of nobles who were still going to be of use in the coming cycles to aid the Solomani push into Wayhaven Sector.  He had to be silenced before one of the nobles slipped into his cell and shot him full of Truth Drug, or forced him into the embrace of a verdicator.

Rand had underestimated Duke Darius’ fury in the matter, though – plus General Mutabe’s dogged determination to root out every conspirator who’d been supporting Rand’s efforts for the past few cycles.  And then, of course, there was Marquis Toyama, who was never afraid to get his hands dirty in the name of the Imperium.

Rand pulled the auto pistol from its shoulder rig holster, making sure the safety was off and it had a round chambered.  It won’t be much longer, he thought as he backtracked to the last intersection and began walking toward what must be the only exit remaining.

He was only twenty meters from the door when he smelled ozone and molten metal.  He drew up short in recognition.  They've arc-welded the door shut!  He staggered back away from it, placing a hand upon the wall of the corridor to steady himself.  He looked back behind him as his wetware computer mounted in the base of his skull brought up the map of the level on his optic nerve.  Rand closed his eyes and studied the image.

The ADP had shut down the data network for this arcology an hour ago.  That was his first clue they were coming.  Fortunately, he’d been hiding out in these sub-levels for weeks, so he had time to make extensive maps.  He had the computer bring up the service crawlspaces and voids.  They probably have closed off the ventilation ducts and shafts already.  He allowed himself a grim smile.  But, the service conduits may have been overlooked.

He jogged back to a utilities room door, still panting slightly.  He made quick work of the keypad lock and stepped inside.  It was one of many pump stations that brought water processed from biological wastes back up to the agricultural levels’ hydroponics systems.  After a moment of looking, he found what he was looking for – an access door to the main water lines heading upward.

He rummaged through storage lockers in the pump room until he found a set of safety coveralls.  They didn’t quite fit, but they were stained and worn, which would help sell the bluff that he’d been working in the bowels of the arcology and hadn’t heard the security alert.

It took him precious moments to defeat the door’s primitive mechanical lock and then he was into the darkness beyond.  There was a rechargeable electric torch mounted on the wall just inside the door, which he switched on and took, hooking its end clip to a utility loop on the coveralls.  The metal maintenance ladder seemingly stretched upward into the infinite darkness above him.  He ignored the warning signs about safety tethers and harnesses and began to climb.

Hand over hand, step by step he rose up from the depths of the arcology’s sub-levels.  By the time he reached sub-level twenty-two, he suspected something was wrong.  His breathing was labored – far more than it should be under the conditions.  He was sweating freely and the air felt unnaturally warm and close, even though he was ascending alongside the water main.

At sub-level fifteen, he saw the pipe had a kink that brought it further away than his arm’s reach.  The light of torch allowed him to see the area above him opened up into a somewhat larger space.  He saw the iris valve just above him as well.  It seemed to take all of his will to get his arms and legs to move, his hands to grip the ladder.  He was gasping now.  Sweat had soaked through his clothes and coveralls as well.  Somehow, he managed to clear the iris valve before it closed beneath him.

Dimly, it registered that there was another iris valve two more levels up.  His world had shrunk to the effort of breathing and actuating his limbs and hands.  His lungs were burning now – that meant… something.  His sluggish mind was losing the fight to stay focused.

And then the iris valve above him closed, trapping him within the space.  He couldn’t hold onto the ladder anymore and fell almost six feet to the surface of the valve below him.  He had no breath to articulate his pain.  His head swam now.  His vision was narrowing down to a tunnel and what colors he could see were fading out.

Light.  Noise.  Hands grasped him and pulled him into the light.  Something cold was pressed to the back of his head.  A plastic mask found his face and the world suddenly came into painfully into focus.

“…and that’s got it,” a muffled voice was saying from somewhere behind him.  “Download’s complete, your excellency.”

“…no…” murmured Rand.

Rand saw the face – Toyama’s.  He was wearing a respirator mask.  “Yes,” he said from behind the mask.  He looked away from Rand toward the people behind his head.  “You may take him away, now.  And please give my regards to His Excellency, Marquis Julius.  I’ll look in on him later to thank him properly for his assistance in this matter.”

The hands dragged Rand to his feet and hustled him away.  Rand managed to turn his head and catch a glimpse behind him.  One of the ADP troopers was handing the noble a datachip from the microchip scanner rig that had been pressed to the back of his skull.

Rand faced forward again as the troopers marching him away turned a corner.  Inwardly, he smiled.  Good luck decrypting the data from my wetware, your excellency, he thought.

045-1109, Narmada, Red Sun City, Arcology Whiskey Amber Oh Seven

Marquis Toyama Weston sat upon a couch and watched his wife Baronet Kogura Yuni dote upon their two children on the floor nearby.  Akira Weston was the older child of the pair at just over 20 cycles and had discovered walking and running within the same cycle.  Kogura Kasumi, at just 8 cycles loved to crawl and discover things, which had led to a serious rearrangement of the lounge where Toyama was used to holding court with visiting nobles.

Yuni saw him watching and smiled.  Toyama returned the smile, admiring her beauty.  She’d been a beautiful woman when he’d met her nearly four years ago, but marriage and motherhood had added new dimensions to her that made even more so.  As her husband, I’ll admit that I’m biased about that, he thought.

However, it had been her mind that had convinced him that he couldn’t live without her in his life.  She was an accomplished field medic who could work under changing, even dangerous, conditions and maintain a professional demeanor.  She also had that singular ability to find workable, if unorthodox, solutions to problems and implement them quickly and successfully.  Her assistance had proven invaluable on Kiewa in 1105, and despite his deception about the real reason they were there, she stayed by his side and supported his actions.

A page from his aide interrupted his revere.  “Yes, Philip?” he said toward the intercom system’s audio pickup.

“His lordship, Sir Yael would like to link with you at once,” said Philip’s filtered voice.  “It’s regarding the datachip, your excellency.”

“Put him through, please,” replied Toyama.  Baronet Yuni quickly gathered up the children and retreated to the other side of spacious lounge as the two-dimensional wall screen lit.  Toyama quickly read his security chief’s expression and sighed.  “I take it you’ve had no luck with our project?” he asked.

The knight shook his head.  “I didn’t expect to, your excellency,” Sir Yael replied.  “The good news is that the Imperial Navy’s code breakers and I-T people have put this on the front burner – courtesy of some of Duke Darius’ ‘gentle persuading.’  Honestly, I’ve never seen His Grace this hot before.  He’s terrifying in close quarters right now, even if you’re not the object of his attention.”

Toyama nodded.  “No less than I am,” replied the marquis.  “I was sorely tempted to take more extreme measures with Rand than I did, but the Duke made it plain that he would deal with Rand personally after he was captured.”

“Well,” said Sir Yael, “he may be afraid of just how much influence the Solomani have had on the nobles under his jurisdiction, and how many have been working for them under his very nose.”

“And how many he can count on in this year’s Subsector Moot, yes,” replied Toyama.  “I have no doubt he’s feeling the heat from Sector Duke Wymark to get these problems under control quickly, so they will quit serving as a means to undermine Peerage authority in the sector.  So yes, Darius needs information to act upon – the sooner, the better.”

“I see,” said Sir Yael.  “Well, I wish everybody luck in that regard, your Excellency, but I have other matters I must attend to.  I just wanted to give you an update.”

“I appreciate that,” replied Toyama.  “Keep me in the loop.”

After Sir Yael’s face disappeared from the screen, Toyama saw the lights in the room fade slightly, taking on a bluish tone.  The harsh afternoon sunlight faded as the exterior windows polarized to black.  The marquis looked toward his desk and saw wife manipulating the security controls console.  Her face was uncharacteristically stern.

“So, who exactly knows where Mr. Tyler is right now besides you?” she asked.

“It’s a short list,” he replied as he rose and walked over to her.  “As of right now, it is Sir Yael Smethwyk, ADF General Cassandra Mutabe, my aide Philip and you.  Oh, and the troopers who brought Tyler here.  They’re in a security cell of their own, for now.  That’s all.”

“Considering he escaped from Golgotha after only one year there,” she said as she put her arms around him, “I don’t have a lot of confidence that his presence here will remain secret for very much longer.”

“Our children are safe,” Toyama said, “and so are you.”

“And what about you?” she asked while hugging him.  “Until we know who Tyler’s allies are, we can’t really trust anyone.”

His arms wrapped around her shoulders and he held her, gently kissing the midnight bangs that veiled her forehead.  “I know,” he said at last.

046-1109, Narmada, Imperial Autonomy District, House Ingersoll Residence

Duke Darius stormed into the room and went straight to the wet bar, ignoring the man in the worn IISS uniform who bowed to him as he brushed past.  His Grace poured three fingers of whiskey into a lowball glass.  Darius turned with the glass in his hand, starting slightly when he saw Leif Grenfeld bowing to him.

Darius blew out a breath and took a mouthful of the whiskey, letting its mellow burn spread through him before speaking.  “My apologies, Mister Grenfeld,” he said, “I was preoccupied.  And what has happened to your hair?”

“An unfortunate incident on Nullica in Year 1107, your grace,” Leif explained.  “I had a run-in with the Yellow Sail Syndicate that ended badly.  Aside from the hair loss, I’m doing quite well.”

“Has it really been that long since I’ve seen you?” asked Darius, shaking his head.  “Please accept my sincerest apologies, then.  Time gets away from me, it seems.  And where are my manners today?  Care for a drink?”

“I have a soft spot for coffee, your grace,” he said as he straightened up, “if any is available.”  Leif looked pointedly at the security panel on the desk in the study before returning his gaze to Darius.

The duke got the hint and stepped over to activate the room’s security gear.  “Is pre-brewed concentrate sufficient?” he asked.  “If so, please serve yourself.”

“Thank you, your grace,” he said as he stepped over and fiddled with the machinery behind the bar.  As he did so, the windows in the room polarized to black and the lights took on a bluish hue.

“So what brings you to Narmada?” asked Darius as he sat on one of the room overstuffed chairs.

“News from Logone, your grace,” Leif said as he carried a steaming mug to a chair across from the duke.  “You’re about to have a very large scandal on your hands and it involves His Excellency, Marquis Toyama Weston.”

“The business on Teleajen a few years back?” asked Darius around a sip from his glass as Leif nodded.

Inwardly, Darius winced at the memory - Toyama had obtained a list of names from Tyler via Truth Drug and then had beheaded three people on that list on Teleajen to get the fourth on the list to talk.  It had taken expert political maneuvering by Baronet Atopia in the 1107 Subsector Moot to keep the marquis' name and reputation clear of it.

“I thought you had handled the cleanup of that matter, personally,” said Darius.

“I thought I had as well,” replied Leif.  “Unfortunately, that is not the case.  Imperial Naval Intelligence managed to decrypt the data files that Ms. Schunamann left behind on her estate on Logone during the Insurgency – by accident or design is still unclear.  The Imperial Navy base commander on Logone has done an excellent job of keeping this information under wraps from the general public, but if Gretl had that information, then it is almost certain to have made its way to other members of the nobility as well – including those with aspirations of greater power at your expense.”

“Contesa Chantal Dasani, perhaps,” said Darius.

Leif was shaking his head.  “With all due respect, your grace, she is an unlikely candidate – especially in light of actions taken by Baronet Atopia Kesslering going on three years ago.  Her excellency owes much to our Defender of the Imperium and knows the sort of leverage Atopia has over her, even if our favorite Baronet hasn’t been motivated to employ it, as yet.  The contesa certainly has aspirations, but she has been paying closer attention to the problems in Belaya Subsector of late, rather than Narmada’s – specifically Logone.”

Darius had taken the last swallow of whiskey from his glass while Leif spoke.  “Well,” he said, “perhaps we’ll have some additional insight into the matter when we crack the data files Rand Tyler was carrying.”

Leif raised an eyebrow in surprise.  “Your grace?”

Darius smiled.  “Excuse me if I savor your expression for a moment, Leif,” he said around a chuckle, “In the few years I’ve known you, I believe this is the very first time I’ve said something you didn’t already seem to know.”  Darius took a moment to summarize the events of the past few days while Leif took it all in with rapt attention.

Leif sat for a moment in silence after Darius finished before responding.  “Sad to say, Mister Tyler and I have one thing in common,” Leif said at last while tapping the back of his own skull, “but it is the only thing.  That’s how I’ve managed to keep all my information and facts straight for so long, your grace.  Thank you for the update, but I don’t think you should place too much significance on the information you’ve pulled from Mister Tyler’s skull.”

“Oh?” asked Darius, “Why do you say that?”

“By all accounts, Tyler is a very intelligent man,” said Leif.  “He would certainly know that coming back to Narmada would get him killed eventually, no matter how well he concealed himself.  It is conceivable that he made contact with the Ine Givar on the way here, possibly more than once – that could also explain the high-grade data encryption on the data files the ADF technicians extracted when he was captured.”

“So you’re saying he’s sacrificing himself for the cause?” asked Darius.  “That seems out of character for the man – of what little I know of him, of course.”

“If you will allow me,” said Leif, “I can look into the matter while I’m here.  I imagine it will take a few days to crack the encryption on those files.”

“That’s what I was angry about when I came in,” said the duke.  “By all rights, I should have had that traitorous bastard put against a wall and shot by now.  But I can’t be sure of anyone right now – especially since it is obvious that he’s been receiving help from more than one person for at least the last two cycles he’s been here.”

Leif nodded.  “I’ll need an Imperial edict for this mission, your grace.  It will have to expressly state that I have your permission to use force and unorthodox methods to accomplish it.”

Darius nodded.  “You’ll get it,” he said, “and thank you – for everything.  If there’s anything else you need –“

Leif nodded.  “It’s my understanding you came into possession of a Suleiman-class Type-S starship a few years back,” he said.  Darius cocked an eyebrow as Leif continued.  “The Urutu is a grand old lady, but the IISS won’t foot the bill for replacement parts and spares anymore.  There are too few sources left in this part of the galaxy.”

Darius smiled as he rose, forcing Leif to do the same.  “I’ll make the arrangements,” he said.  He offered his hand and Leif shook it.  “Good hunting,” Darius added.

To be continued…

Sunday, June 10, 2018

A Place to Call Home (Campaign Finale)    

041-1109, Narmada, Red Sun City, Arcology Whiskey Amber Oh Seven

Philip quickly keyed in the sequence of characters that would page Marquis Toyama’s bedroom.  The link sounded its paging tone three times before there was a response.  “Yes, Philip?”

“I am sorry to wake you at this hour, Your Excellency,” said Philip, “but Baronet Atopia says she needs to link with you at once.  She’s at the detention center building now.  It concerns the prisoner, Mr. Teichmann.

“I’ll link in from here,” was the reply amid the rustling of bed covers and the sleepy murmur of the Marquis’ wife, Baronet Yuni.  “Thank you, Philip.”

Toyama groaned inwardly as he connected to Atopia’s inbound link.  This had better not be what I think it is, crossed his mind and the display screen filled with the Baronet’s face.  Her expression said it all.  It is.

“Somebody got to him?” asked Toyama without preamble.

Atopia nodded tightly.  “About an hour ago,” she said, “somebody hit the building’s computer systems with a milspec cyberweapon as a prelude.  The security stack crashed for nearly a half-hour.  The assassin used a garrote and wasn’t subtle – damn near cut Teichmann’s head off with it.  I’ve got Tabitha here with me and she says it’s the same cyberweapon as what Teichmann used on my ship’s computers.”

“Tyler,” said Toyama and Atopia nodded.  “I’ll roust Sir Yael and send him that way,” he continued.  “Anybody else get hurt?”

Atopia nodded.  “Three Autonomy Defense Force troopers are in the infirmary with busted eardrums and other minor injuries,” she said.  “Somebody tossed a concussion grenade down the hallway.  The combination of enclosed space with reinforced walls magnified the grenade’s effects.”

“Damn,” he said.  “How soon can you lift off?”

“I should be here,” she said with a shake of her head, “I can help.”

“Not for what I’m going to do to that sonofabitch,” he growled.  “Plus, I’ll have plenty of help if I know how General Mutabe and Duke Darius are going to react to this.  Right now, you’re another potential target for Tyler.  Now tell me how soon.”

“Tomorrow at dawn,” she said.  “Tabitha is still in the process of making sure there are no traces of Teichmann’s handiwork left in the ship’s systems.”

“It’ll do,” he said.  “Get yourself and your crew to the starport extrality as quickly as possible and stay there until it’s time to lift.  I’ll have the ADF bring yours and their personal effects to your ship.”  Atopia opened her mouth to speak but Toyama held up a hand for silence.

“We’re on an unsecured connection here,” he explained, “so don’t tell me or anyone else where you’re going.  Hand-deliver your flight plan to the Portmaster, don’t take on any passengers that you don’t know personally and have your crew personally load any cargo you’re hauling, just to be safe.”

Atopia blew out a breath in frustration, but finally nodded.  “All right,” she said.  “Good hunting.”

“Clear skies to you,” he replied with a nod.  “Be safe.”

“You too,” she said.

045-1109, aboard Silver Starlight, in hyperspace between Narmada and Moksha

Atopia groaned in the darkness of her cabin as the door pager chimed.  Her husband murmured sleepily beside her as she sat up and pulled on a satin robe, tying it as she stepped over to the door.  Tabitha was standing there, her fists balled and her jaw set.

“You have permission to fire me,” she said.  “Teichmann’s gift just keeps on giving, dammit.  We’re off course.”

Atopia’s eyes widened.  “I’ll get dressed,” she said, “I’ll see you on the bridge.”

Tabitha blew out a breath and nodded as she slowly opened her hands.  “I’ll make coffee,” she said as she turned and left.

Five minutes later, Atopia arrived on the bridge, dressed and steaming cup in hand.  Tabitha and Bob were waiting for her at the co-pilot’s station.  “How bad is it?” Atopia asked.

“It would be a lot worse if we had passengers or time-sensitive cargo,” replied Bob.  “We’re off course by point-zero-zero-three-seven degrees.  And that means we’re going to miss Moksha by about forty AU when we drop out of hyperspace.”

“Ugh,” said Atopia.  “Are there any signs of temporal distortion?”

“No, thank The Maker,” said Tabitha, “but if we wind up that far off the system’s plane of the ecliptic, we’ll have to put the fuel baffles in Little Argent, get everyone aboard, dope the non-essential crew with Fast Drug and spend a week burning for Moksha at six gees.”

“Because we wouldn’t have enough fuel to jump again,” said Atopia with a nod, “or enough life support to survive the trip in normal space.”

“Correct,” said Bob.  “But what I can’t figure is how the virus got back into our systems again.”

“I have,” said Tabitha with a dour expression.  “Did you access the ship’s digital log before we left Narmada, your ladyship?”

Atopia pursed her lips and nodded.  “I recorded the flight plan and our cargo, yes.”

“Then you’ll need to dig up the hard copy log and get it in order,” said Tabitha.  “When Starlight gets to Moksha, we’ll have to file the forms to get permission from the Portmaster there to purge the log and reconstruct a replacement from the hard copy.  Plus, I’ll have to purge the virus from our systems all over again.”

“The virus got into the ship’s log?” asked Bob.  “That’s not supposed to be possible.”

“Not supposed to be,” echoed Tabitha, “but that’s the only way I can see this happening.”

Atopia put a hand on Tabitha’s shoulder and gave it a gentle squeeze.  “I have complete confidence in your abilities to get us out of the mess Teichmann got us into,” she said, “so don’t beat yourself up.  We’ll have plenty of time on Moksha to get Starlight running right again.  You go on to bed now.  See my husband for a sedative, if you need one.  I’ll get to work on the log.”

065-1109, aboard Silver Starlight, in hyperspace within Moksha star system

--from the personal journal of Baronet Atopia Kesslering

I am genuinely happy to say that Silver Starlight should be on the ground at Port Danforth by the end of the day tomorrow.  It has been a genuinely interesting couple of weeks out in the periphery of Moksha’s star system, and it is promising to be very profitable, too.

Fortunately for us, Starlight dropped out of hyperspace just 138 diameters from the outermost of the Moksha system’s four gas giants.  We thanked the Great Maker for our luck and began the transit in to skim for fuel, though it was still a 12-hour haul.  That’s when things got strange.

Olivia was taking her turn on flight watch when she came to wake me up.  The sensors had detected another ship at extreme sensor range that was in a highly elliptical orbit around the gas giant.  I remembered the reports of the rogue starship in the subsector, so I rousted everyone else and got the ship rigged for combat as we moved in.

As we closed in, we could see its genuinely strange design – a cluster of decks lower and forward, some sort of canopy that resembled the bellows from a blacksmith’s forge and two nacelles on slender supports from a cylindrical center section.  When we got into visual range, we could make out markings on the nacelles that resembled Anglic letters – ANNIC NOVA.

(NOTE: Yes, this is the venerable “dungeon crawl – IN SPACE!” adventure from JTAS #1.  Since I am something of a sentimentalist, I’m hoping I can be excused.  Also, since Marc Miller still holds the copyright to this adventure, and there may be people reading this who haven’t played through it yet, I won’t reveal very much about it.)

We spent days going over its systems, figuring out how operate this alien starship and how it came to be at Moksha.  In the end, the IISS sent Valo Arenson out with seven other Scouts aboard his surplus Type-S, Voidrunner.  We briefed them about what we knew and they micro-jumped it back to Moksha, with Valo and the rest of us heading that way a few hours later.

We have been under self-imposed quarantine during our micro-jump, after being exposed to the alien environment aboard the other ship, but Winston hasn’t found any evidence of foreign contamination from the Nova.  After the IISS doctors on Moksha give us a clean bill of health, I’ll be ready to get things in order both aboard ship and on Moksha.

I have decided that while the life of a gypsy merchant is grand, it’s no place to raise a young lady.  I intend to make my case with Baroness Olivia Servantes for land for a fief, plus check in with Olga Belovol to see how Moksha Dawn Mining is doing.  The IISS also wants a day of my and my crew’s time for a proper debriefing on the discovery of the Nova, too.  Considering they will be endorsing a recommended salvage value for the Nova, I will be as helpful as I can.  And, of course, Tabitha will be tearing the guts out of Starlight’s computer system to purge Teichmann’s virus once and for all.

And if that weren’t enough, the 1109 Narmada Subsector Moot is just over two cycles away, when I will seek the blessing of the Moot to become a landed noble and pass on my title to my child.  All in all, things are looking up, despite the war.  But it is best to let the more distant future to attend to itself – it is enough of a task to handle what happens tomorrow, after all.

And tomorrow is another day.