Sunday, November 26, 2017

Where the Ill Winds Blow       


342-1106, Sok, Wahi Ho’ano Main Starport

“Wheee!” cried out Olivia as she glided through the air.  Atopia smiled at her adopted daughter as the child sailed past her with arms outstretched.  The rest of the crew was only slightly less enthusiastic as they also tumbled, twisted and floated about in the microgravity playground.

The specially padded space was originally intended for the children of the workers who assembled the initial superstructure members of the cylindrical space habitat.  Hard to imagine living in microgravity for any longer than a jaunt in a vacc suit, thought Atopia as she corralled a stray lock of her hair and pulled it back behind her head.  The builders of this place spent the bulk of their years here, unable to return to their home worlds due to calcium loss from their bones.

Wahi Ho’ano was a cylinder fifty kilometers long with a diameter of sixteen.  A hole just over two kilometers across ran the length of the station at its rotational axis, allowing for the starport, even though it was little more than docking cradles and servicing bays exposed to the vacuum of space.  Since there was no artificial gravity system, only centrifugal force could simulate it.  The habitation levels of the station were approximately six-tenths of standard gravity, while the starport remained in perpetual freefall.

The people of Sok lived in dozens of space habitats in geosynchronous orbit about the hellish world.  No one, even with the best environmental protection gear, could survive the conditions at the surface where the pressure approaches 116 bar and temperatures are hot enough to melt zinc.  Constant volcanic activity caused by its gravitationally tortured orbit about its primary mixing with the chemical soup that passes for its atmosphere creates a wealth of exotic compounds that brave and foolhardy small craft pilots and crews skim from eddies that well up from the depths.  The profits from this activity and the exploitation of the system’s three planetoid belts, rich in type M and S bodies, has supported an extended community of over four hundred million people for generations.

Atopia’s pocket computer beeped.  She stopped her idle drifting by grabbing a nearby pole and wrapping her legs around it.  She fished the computer from a zippered pocket and looked at the digital message she’d received.  After reading it and sending a reply, the baronet whistled loudly, grabbing everyone’s attention.

“Let’s wrap it up,” she called to the group.  “The Longshore Union is done unloading the ship and I have a dinner date with the Imperial Liaison coming up.”

“Aww!” said Olivia as she glided over.  Atopia kicked off from the pole, gently tackling the girl, sending them both into a collective giggling tumble.

Two hours later, Ka Makani Kai Terrace Restaurant

The perspective was dizzying.  Reminds me of the first time I visited Marquis Toyama’s digs on Narmada, she thought, but the inverse horizon will take some getting used to!  The habitat level of the station was nearly two kilometers high with an artificial sky and light from the system’s primary to illuminate it.  But the light wasn’t quite up to the full daylight of many worlds she’d visited, and conventional lighting was used at street level, since most were in perpetual night with only a slice of sky to see between the towering buildings.

The terrace was remarkably open compared to the street some one hundred stories below.  The irregular five-sided space had the kitchen service in the middle and three sides exposed the intensely urban vista surrounding it.  Atopia noticed the slight drop in gravity as she crossed the floor toward the table where Sok’s Imperial Liaison was sitting.

Baronet Leigh Denali was all of nineteen standard years of age, but looked more like a stern governess in the ivory archaic blouse with puff sleeves and feminine ruffled trim and a long black pencil skirt.  The young woman’s raven tresses were drawn into a bun on the back of her head.  Atopia noticed that the garments seemed excessively bulky before realizing they concealed mesh armor underneath.

Baronet Leigh curtseyed and Atopia returned it before clasping her outstretched hand in greeting.  “Good evening, your grace,” said Atopia as she waited for the liaison to be seated.

“A pleasure,” Leigh replied.  “I must admit that I was somewhat surprised when you contacted me.  Given what I know about your recent history, I worried that something was dreadfully wrong here.”  They both chuckled at that.

“I’m on a tour of the subsector,” said Atopia, “and doing business along the way to pay off my new starship.  Your father was kind enough to send me and my crew your way from Narmada with one hundred d-tons of synthetic foodstuffs.  While I was happy for the money up front, I really am relieved I have more available cargo space now.”

The waiter was young, lean and tall in comparison to the two baronets, wearing an outfit that consisted of a single large piece of brightly patterned cloth that was meticulously pleated and folded into a stylish robe.  He set two nearly spherical glasses of water on their table, while Leigh ordered for them both.

“So,” resumed Leigh around a sip from her glass, “how is my old man?”

“Unwell but stable when I saw him just over three weeks ago,” Atopia replied.

“I suppose he asked you to check up on me,” Leigh said with a tired sigh.

“He did,” said Atopia.  “I suppose he misses you.  From what I understand, you’re the only living family he has left.”

Leigh favored her with a bitter smile.  “That is a fact he never ceased reminding me of during my first eighteen years of life.  My mother took the risk of bearing a child at the age of 61 and died producing an heir for the man she loved – this after their first four children all died so nobly in the service of the Empire, trying to uphold the family’s reputation.”

Leigh saw Atopia’s shocked expression and nearly laughed.  “I’m the replacement child for Marquis Julian, so that his legacy will live on,” said Leigh.  “My birth should never have happened and the fact that I gained life at the expense of my mother’s just so my father could rest in peace…”  She bit her lip and looked away instead of finishing the thought.

It was a long moment before Atopia spoke.  “My condolences for your loss, your grace,” she said.  “I am trying to be a mother to a young girl whose birth mother was murdered about a year ago.  I’ve had to deal with her pain, so in some small way, I think, I can understand yours.”

Leigh found her composure with some difficulty.  “I heard about your situation from the last noble to come checking up on me,” she said at last.  “You would be number four that my old man has sent in the year and a half since he sent me away.”

“Then please accept my humble apology, your grace,” Atopia said.  “I had no idea.”

Their food arrived, giving both of them a very welcome distraction.  Atopia delighted in the simple dishes presented with such style.  Soon, the cuisine became their topic of conversation, allowing them both enough distraction to smile and engage in small talk once again.

Eventually, Atopia turned the conversation back to more serious matters.  “Excuse me for noticing,” she said, “but I couldn’t help noticing your outfit.”

Leigh smiled.  “There is a reason for that,” she said.  “Even though there is still upward and downward mobility in Sok society, it is essentially a caste system.  Since the Imperium represents an authority outside that of the Na Alaka’i – the planetary government caste – the easiest way to tip off those around me that I’m important is resemble someone that all of them have had to pay respect to early on – a teacher.”

“So the clothes make the liaison, then?” asked Atopia.

Leigh nodded.  “Given my youth,” she said, “it’s a necessity.”  She paused to look at a middle-aged man at another table.  He nodded politely and smiled, and she returned it.

“See?” she said as she turned back to Atopia.  “The good news is that since there is upward and downward mobility here, everyone works very hard to be polite to everyone else.”

“Because,” continued Atopia, “the person who is below you today may be your boss tomorrow?”

“Precisely,” replied Leigh.  Atopia noticed that Leigh was actually looking past her right shoulder as she’d said the last.  Atopia turned and saw a tall, gaunt man in an expensive business suit with closely-cropped gray hair nodding back at her.

Leigh excused herself and strode over to the gentleman who ushered her into a shadowy corner of the terrace.  Atopia took out her pocket computer and used its camera function to take a few holographs of the man as they talked.  She quickly tagged the clearest image with a message for Tabitha and sent it.

Even as she sent it, Atopia could tell the conversation was less than cordial.  “I know you’re responsible, Spencer!” said Leigh in a strident tone that was becoming shrill.  “So don’t you dare offer me platitudes when I know you’re lying to my face!”  The man started saying something in reply which only seemed to infuriate her.

“My proper form of address is ‘your grace!’” she shouted loud enough for the entire terrace to hear.  “If you ever forget that again, I will haul you out on a field of honor!  Is that clear?!”  Spencer bowed stiffly after that, then spun on his heel and strode toward the terrace’s exit.  The rest of the patrons of the terrace turned their attention back to their meals, speaking softly among themselves.

It took the liaison a few moments to compose herself before returning to the table.  “I’m sorry for that outburst,” Leigh said.  “Spencer has a knack of bringing out my worst, especially when he’s not being honest with me.”

“Not to pour salt in the wound,” said Atopia, “but I’d say Spencer bears a passing resemblance to your father.  Do you think that might have something to do with it?”

“Possibly,” she said, “but we need to go someplace private to discuss the rest.  I’ve run into a problem here and your reputation is that you’re pretty good at solving problems.”

343-1106, Sok Legal Notice

License to Conduct Business approved for Conch Data Expediters, LLC.  CDE will provide IT services on freelance contracts.  Initial investment is Cr500,000.  All taxes and licensing fees paid in advance.

344-1106, Sok, Elua Ulaula Small Business District

Atopia entered the tiny office, having to turn around just past the entrance so she could shut the door.  Inside the claustrophobic confines of the space, sat Tabitha, Lisa and Samantha at holographic computer terminals.  Atopia wrinkled her nose as the smell of sweat and dust assailed her sinuses.

“Ugh,” said the baronet, “I don’t suppose air conditioning or an air freshener was in the budget.”

“Don’t be wimpy, your grace,” said Tabitha without turning away from her displays.  “Your money has gone into state-of-the-art terminal hardware to run the best hacking program I could write in less than twelve hours.  My subordinates here are sifting data with a critical eye while I ride shotgun on my program to stay two steps ahead of this station’s database police – which isn’t easy, I might add.  They might be lower tech, but they’re good.”

“So what do we know?” asked Atopia.

“Spencer Kalakaua is one slick, shady individual,” said Lisa with a shake of her head.  “He’s head of Okapolio, one of the firms that purchases and processes the compounds they’re skimming off that hellish atmosphere of Sok’s.  Everything appears to be on the up and up with him and his company, and yet…”

“What?” asked Atopia.

“He’s living above his means,” said Samantha playing a holovid.  “This vid is from some ‘lifestyles of the rich and famous’ show they did on him last year.  We’re paying about eighty credits a square meter per month for this office space, but Spence has personal digs around a thousand square meters.  That’d be over a million credits a year to rent, but his company is barely pulling in eight figures.”

Atopia nodded while watching the vid.  “He has wood furniture, too,” she said.  “The only way he could have wood furniture around here is by importing it.  They have to import plastic too, so even if they’re fakes, they’re still pricey fakes.”

“So Baronet Leigh was on to something with her off-world financing theory?” asked Lisa.

“Occam’s Razor,” replied Atopia.  “Spencer’s been running a public-relations campaign the past year or so to get the public to pressure the Na Alaka’i to reconsider their position against granting off-world concerns mining and skimming rights.  I saw one of his extended advertisements on the station’s vid network on lift down from the starport.”

“Sternmetal Horizons, I’ll bet,” growled Tabitha.  “Sok has a lot of prime planetoids to mine.  The skimming would just be icing on the cake for them.”

“Okay,” said Atopia as she turned to go, “make sure each one of you catch a nap this evening.  Hammer the off-world connection idea until you strike gold or it breaks.  I need something actionable, ladies, and I need it sooner rather than later.”

After Atopia took her leave of the office, Samantha shook her head.  “’Take a nap,’ she says…”

346-1106, Sok, aboard Daybreak, the Golden Dawn’s launch

Atopia wiped beads of sweat on her forehead against the vacc suit’s absorbent band.  Lisa, Tabitha and her had been shadowing one of the local skimmer craft, the Maranga, for nearly five hours.  The craft hadn’t engaged in the usual behavior of searching for eddies in the upper edges of Sok’s turbulent atmosphere.  It had loitered at a prime location, waiting.

When the eddy formed, a least a dozen skimmers dove into it, their fusion rockets flaring for the braking maneuver that would plunge them into the heart of the region, the craft then pivoting so their scoops could gather as much of the chemical booty as possible before gravity and the drag of the corrosive atmosphere forced them assume an escape attitude and thrust for the relative safety of space.

The Maranga bided its time, though.  Finally, a straggler, a skimmer late to the party set up for its run as the eddy was starting to collapse.  In the graphics of her sensor readout, Atopia saw the thrusters of the hunter flare to begin the pursuit.

“That’s our cue,” said Atopia to Lisa.  “Get us into missile range.”

Without being told to, the trio locked down their vacc suit visors and disconnected their umbilicals.  The Daybreak pumped the air from the launch’s cabin as its thrusters flared to life in pursuit.

The Maranga was one of a dozen skimmers with close ties to Spencer’s company.  Of course, the association was informal – but all of the skimmers in the group were armed and rarely made successful skimming runs.  They would go out, they would come back and another skimmer would be reported missing with no mayday calls, no disaster beacons and no traces.

Spencer made a big point of how skimming is a very dangerous profession.  “Why should our people continue to die when off-world professionals with advanced equipment can accomplish better results with less risk?” he asked in one of his public-relations advertisements.  It was Samantha who found that skimmer fleet fatalities had doubled from last year, which had doubled from the year before – the time when Spencer began lobbying for the Na Alaka’i to reconsider their position.

“We’re in range,” said Tabitha.  “Weapon scanners on Maranga are active, attempting to achieve a lock on the vessel below.”

Atopia keyed open the comm system.  “This is Baronet Atopia Kesslering,” she announced, “Small craft Maranga, by the authority vested in me by Subsector Duke Darius Ingersoll, I order you to turn off your weapon scanners, heave to and prepare to be boarded!”

They weren’t having any.  “They have missile lock on the vessel!” said Tabitha.

“Fire as target bears,” said Atopia.

The launch’s missile rack cycled and its ordinance screamed silently away.  Maranga, seemingly indifferent to its own fate, launched a missile of its own.  The vessel below immediately broke and burned for orbit once again, its thruster wash confusing the more primitive missile, sending it wide.  Seconds later, the Daybreak’s missile detonated on target, tearing through Maranga amidships.

“Her vector’s changed,” said Lisa, “I think her drive system is damaged.”

“Confirmed,” said Atopia as she looked at her scope.  “I see a debris field forming around it and I’m reading hard radiation from a reactor breach.”  She looked over at her pilot.  “Do we have a chance of rescuing the crew?”

Lisa chewed her lip while she quickly mulled it over.  “Only just,” she said at last.

“Do it,” said Atopia.  “Maybe we can get them to talk.”

“Assuming we aren’t all glowing in the dark from exposure to that hard radiation,” added Tabitha as Lisa coaxed extra acceleration from the tiny craft.

359-1106, aboard Golden Dawn, in hyperspace between Nan and Moksha

-- from the personal journal of Baronet Atopia Kesslering

Finally, I have some down time to get my journal caught up!  It’s been a very hectic couple of weeks since we left Sok in such a hurry.  The evidence my trio of cybernetic sleuths uncovered along with the testimony of the crew of the Maranga was enough to get the Na Alaka’i to take action against Spencer.  As soon as we were cleared of charges in the small craft fight, we cleared port and were in hyperspace before Baronet Leigh presented the data we pilfered from various sources.

Hopefully, nobody will look too closely into Conch Data Expediters in the coming days.  They won’t find much – just some stray data connection cables and maybe a battery backup or two.  The rest found its way aboard the Dawn shortly before our departure.  Tabitha is in the process of dismantling the computer systems and erasing their data storage.  She should be done before we hit normal space once again.

I had to explain to Olivia what we did and why it won’t be wise to talk about it to anybody other than crew.  She accepted it, though I have no idea if she actually understands the why of it all.  In the end, all that matters is that she was able to keep the secret while we were on Nan.  Not that we stayed very long there, mind you – my last trip there nearly got me killed and horked off at least one government there.

And now we’re heading back to Moksha, yet another world that all I’m interested in is commerce.  Is this really the best sort of life for Olivia?  Am I doing the right thing?  What lessons is she really learning out here?  Or am I just being overly critical of myself?

As Baron Harper likes to say, “Time will tell.”  I hope he’s right.

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Crew Manifest for Golden Dawn & Silk Road-class Type-L Independent Merchant

Crew Manifest for the Golden Dawn   
(Updated 310-1106)
Operated by Dawn Transport, LLC (incorporated 263-1105 on Narmada)
Cyclic Payments of Cr208,000 – Cycle Kappa is the designated maintenance cycle of each year

Owner/Captain/Gunner
Baronet Atopia Kesslering         788ABC        Retired Navy Captain (Cr4000/yr)
     5 Terms        Rank 5         Age 39
Admin-2, Engineering-2, Jack of All Trades-2, Body Pistol-1, Forward Observer-1, Gunnery-1, Mechanical-1, Streetwise-1, Vacc Suit-1, Air/Raft-0, Cutlass-0, Gambling-0, Shotgun-0

Pilot/Navigator
Valo Arenson                               66CDC5        Ex-Scout
     4 Terms                            Age 36
Navigation-2, Pilot-2, Vacc Suit-2, Carbine-1, Jack of All Trades-1, Mechanical-1, Electronics-0, Shotgun-0, Streetwise-0

Chief Engineer
Hawk Smith                                 866D86         Ex-Scout
     3 Terms                           Age 32
Engineering-2, Pilot-2, Computer-1, Jack of All Trades-1, Navigation-1, Brawling-0, Dagger-0, Grav Veh.-0, Mechanical-0, SMG-0, Vacc Suit-0

Assistant Engineer
Lisa Dudley                                 88A7B6         Ex-Scout 
     4 Terms                          Age 34
Pilot-3, Navigation-3, Computer-2, Engineering-1, Cutlass-1, Vacc Suit-0

Gunner/Cybernetics
Tabitha Nole                                686B86         Ex-Merchant 1st Officer
      3 Terms    Rank 4       Age 32
Computer-3, Gunnery-2, Admin-1, Electronics-1, Mechanical-1, Navigation-1, Pilot-1,
Jack of All Trades-0, Vacc Suit-0, Wheeled Veh.-0

Doctor/Security
Cassandra Mutabe                     6A77D4        Army Colonel (ADF)
     4 Terms   Rank 5         Age 34
Tactics-4, SMG-3, Computer-1, Cutlass-1, Gambling-1, Ground Car-1, Leader-1, Medical-1, Revolver-1, Rifle-1, Vacc Suit-0

Steward
Samantha O’Connor                  783F2A         Ex-Merchant 2nd Officer
      4 Terms  Rank 3         Age 34
Steward-2, Navigation-1, SMG-1, Streetwise-1, Vacc Suit-0

Apprentice Deckhand
Olivia Miller                                466658         Child  Age 8
Computer-0, Jack of All Trades-0, Vacc Suit-0

Silk Road-class Type-L Independent Merchant
Item
Dtons
Remain
Cost (MCr)
400 dton Standard Hull with Atmospheric Streamlining
- - -
400
20.000
Power Plant D
13
387
32.000
Maneuver Drive D (Acceleration 2-G)
7
380
16.000
Jump Drive D (Jump-2)
25
355
40.000
Bridge (Standard)
20
335
2.000
Computer Model/3
3
332
18.000
12 Staterooms
48
284
6.000
10 Low Berths
5
279
0.500
Fuel Tankage (Two Weeks’ Operation & One Jump-2)
120
159
- - -
Two Hardpoints
4
155
0.200
Two Triple Turrets
- - -
- - -
2.000
1) Two Beam Lasers
- - -
- - -
2.000
    One Sandcaster
- - -
- - -
0.250
    Sandcaster Magazine with 20 rounds
1
154
0.008
2) Two Missile Racks
- - -
- - -
1.500
    Missile Magazines with 40 rounds (20 battery rounds)
2
152
0.200
    One Sandcaster
- - -
- - -
0.250
    Sandcaster Magazine with 20 rounds
1
151
0.008
Air/Raft
4
147
0.600
Launch (Lifepod)
20
127
14.000
Secure Storage
5
122
0.500
Excess Space (Engineering Section)
5
117
- - -
Cargo Hold
117
0
- - -
Components Subtotal


156.016
Architects’ Fees (+ 1%)


1.560
Base Cost


157.576
Standard Design Discount (- 10%)


- 15.758
Final Cost (New)


141.818

The Silk Road-class Independent Merchant is a common sight on the fringes of the Imperium, running speculative cargos and freight to worlds that are traditionally off the major trade routes.  With increased cargo capacity, passengers space, acceleration, jump capability and defensive capacity, this ship represents the next step up from a free or far trader.  With the increased potential for profit comes the increased operations costs, but it is assumed that an owner has learned how to manage these problems by the time he or she can afford this ship.

The ship requires eight crew: pilot, navigator, two engineers, medic, steward and two gunners.  Many ships have crew members doubling up on some jobs to make room for more passengers.  The ship typically runs with ten low berth passengers and up to sixteen middle passengers.  While accommodations can be made for high passengers, such passengers are rare on the lesser-traveled routes this ship flies.

While the Type L is no match for a typical pirate corsair, its defensive armament and increased acceleration makes it a more challenging target for smaller craft.  The ship’s increased computer capacity allows it to go on offense with missile attacks, giving the ship a limited stand-off capacity.  The ship’s large cargo hold is also an attractive feature, as is its expanded secure storage capacity and available space for upgrades in the engineering section.





For the Good of the Imperium (interlude)   



309-1106, Narmada, Imperial Autonomy District, Duke Darius Ingersoll’s Residence

-- from the personal journal of Dame Diana Sabatini

Well, I figured something like this would happen sooner or later.  It’s a hazard of being given responsibility, I suppose.  But, that doesn’t mean I’m particularly thrilled by this particular turn of events.

His Grace has made me part of the Imperial bureaucracy.  I’m to be aboard an Imperial Navy frigate in the morning with a full company of Marines heading for Rauma, where I will become the new Imperial Liaison for that world for the next five years.

I’m working through my third cocktail as I write this.  There will be time during the jump space transit to work on what I’ll need to do to clean house in the wake of Sir Richard’s scandalous term there.  Right now, though, I need something to kill the pain of the parting of ways.

Baronet Atopia was nervous when she and I were visited by one of Duke Darius’ aides shortly after the Moot Trial of Brice Caldwell was over.  The meeting wasn’t the usual sort of thing with the Duke, which are typically informal and quite pleasant.  I could tell from his demeanor that he was very upset from the revelations that had come out in the Moot – both Sir Richard’s corruption and the fact that members of the Peerage under His Grace were also part of the problem that had festered there.  I imagine he will get quite the earful when the reports on it all reach Duke Wymark’s desk on Belaya.

As for my part, if I can successfully complete this assignment, I should get a promotion and possibly a fief to go with it.  Given the Duke’s recent demeanor, I might inherit one in the District from one of the nobles implicated in the scandal.  But that’s one possible future, of course.

The present had me dealing with explaining to an eight-year-old girl why another one of her friends has to go away.  Olivia has already been forced to deal with the loss of her birth mother last year, and then Baron Harper’s departure just recently.  However, the idea that the Golden Dawn may be able to drop by for a visit in its travels made things a bit easier for everyone involved – but only a bit.

The good news for Atopia is that the Duke has promised to replace me with someone from his personal guard, so that the ship isn’t short a medic and tactical expert in my abrupt departure.  Whoever he assigns to the job had better be at least as good as me, which will be a difficult task considering all of his people are Army vets instead of Marines.

Okay, three cocktails are enough.  Time to hit the rack because Marine dawns tend to break earlier than most…

310-1106, Narmada, Red Sun City Starport

The dark-skinned woman saluted and bowed when Atopia stepped down the main cargo ramp to greet her.  “Your Grace,” said the woman as she extended her hand, “I am Colonel Cassandra Mutabe of the Autonomy Defense Force.  I have the pleasure of being assigned to your vessel at the request of His Grace, Duke Darius Ingersoll.”

Atopia shook the Colonel’s hand.  She noted that the woman had a strong, but controlled grip.  “With all due respect, Colonel, we don’t use ranks aboard the Golden Dawn.”  Atopia gestured for the woman to accompany her back up the ramp into the cargo hold.  “His Grace was kind enough to send a copy of your personnel file to me this morning.  As the ship’s medic, you’ll be rooming with Tabitha Nole, our missile turret gunner and information technologies expert.”

Cassandra cocked her head to the side at that.  “I wasn’t aware that I-T was an official position aboard a merchant ship, your grace,” she said.

“It isn’t, but with the type of work we have to do on behalf of the Imperium occasionally, it is nonetheless essential,” said Atopia as she turned and started ascending the flight of stairs to the middle deck. “I’m pleased you hold a Class IV rating in tactics – that may also be essential, since you are going to be ship’s tactical and security expert.”

They reached the top of the stairs and turned down a long corridor toward the engineering section.  “I will do my best, Your Grace,” replied Cassandra.

“You may have to do better than that,” said Atopia as she stepped into the engineering, pausing to waive at Hawk and Lisa as she made her way to another stairwell.  “You’re going to have pretty big shoes to fill in that department.  Plus, there’s one other small detail.”

Atopia paused at the top of the stairs.  “Whatever it is,” said Cassandra, who was still in the stairwell, “I’m sure I’m up for the task, Your Grace.”

Cassandra suddenly heard a young girl’s voice.  “Mommy!”  Atopia knelt and caught Olivia as she threw herself headlong into her arms.  Atopia smiled at the look on Cassandra’s face as she pivoted with the child in her arms.

“How are you at babysitting?” asked the baronet.

Army Colonel Cassandra Mutabe   6A77D4  Age 34
4 Terms, Rank 5, Cutlass, Cr 30,000
Tactics-4, SMG-3, Computer-1, Cutlass-1, Gambling-1, Ground Car-1, Leader-1, Medical-1, Revolver-1, Rifle-1, Vacc Suit-0

Sunday, November 19, 2017

Friends, Favors and Other Falsehoods   



305-1106, Narmada, Red Sun City Starport

Valo whistled as he looked out the bridge’s viewport.  The Golden Dawn was banking on its final approach into what was its de facto home port on Narmada.  “Cap,” he said to Atopia, “you see what I see?”

Atopia nodded without much expression.  A squad of Imperial Army troopers in bright red combat armor was formed up just beyond the warning stripe for their designated landing pad.  Three others in business attire accompanied them.  One of them wore a silver satin sash with Imperial sunburst emblem embroidered near the shoulder.  “His Grace has come out to welcome us,” she said, “and take charge of Mr. Caldwell.”

“You sure about that?” asked Valo.  “Those troopers are loaded for bear.”

Atopia bit her lower lip for a moment in an attempt to steady her nerves.  The business on Rauma was the second time she’d violated a planet’s sovereignty in a standard year.  She blew out the breath she’d been unconsciously holding.  “That’s my story,” she said at last, “and I’m sticking to it.”

“Over the threshold,” said Valo as he completed the starship’s banking maneuver, “beginning descent at one meter per second and deploying landing gear.”

Atopia keyed open her headset microphone.  “Everybody listen up: we’re going to be boarded as soon as we touchdown.  Disarm yourselves and leave the weapons in plain sight.  Under no circumstances offer any resistance and keep your hands where the troopers can see them at all times.  This is the Duke’s personal bodyguards coming aboard, so let’s make it easy for them.”

The troopers were thorough, cool and professionally polite to everyone as they escorted the crew and the mercenaries to the cavernous cargo hold at the front of the ship.  Olivia clung to Atopia’s hand with a near death-grip, fighting back fearful tears.  The trooper escorting her slung his rifle.  “His Grace will be with you shortly,” he said.  “His personal physician is reviving the accused from his low berth.”

Atopia did her best to calm the child in the long minutes of waiting.  The mercs were taking it well enough – they were used to the “hurry up and wait” routine.  The rest of her crew didn’t look so sure.  Suddenly, two troopers were escorting Caldwell through the cargo bay to the loading ramp at the speed of a parade march with the Duke's physician trotting along behind them.  Caldwell appeared groggy and unsteady from his two weeks in cryonic hibernation, but he managed to shoot Atopia a hateful glare as he passed.

The Duke entered the hold a moment after the other had left, striding up to the group with a stern expression.  “On behalf of the Imperium,” he said to them, “I want to personally thank you all for your actions in bringing this fugitive to face justice.  I apologize for the overt show of force, but these troopers are charged with my safety and security, so they don’t take any chances.  I am going to impose on all of you just a little longer by asking you to remain here while I have a brief conversation with your captain and Dame Diana.”

He turned to Atopia.  “I believe the passenger commons will suffice for our meeting, Your Grace,” she said.  He nodded tightly and gestured for her and Diana to take the lead.

The Duke took a seat on one of the comfortable lounge chairs.  He didn’t invite Atopia or Diana to sit, so they remained standing.  “I read your report,” he said to Atopia without preamble.  “Thank you for sending the report as soon as you transitioned to normal space.”

“I figured you would want it as soon as possible, Your Grace,” replied Atopia.  “I figured there might be a problem with my methods.  I hope I haven’t caused you too much trouble.”

The Duke sighed, looking every one of his sixty-four years of age.  “No more than I would expect at this point,” he said tiredly.  “There will be a meeting of what members of the Subsector Moot are available tomorrow at 1230 hours – a formality before the trial.  If there are no objections or procedural issues, the trial should get underway the day after that.”

“Begging your pardon, Your Grace,” said Dame Diana, “but you seem troubled.”

Darius nodded.  “I don’t go out in public unannounced very often.  When I do, it’s news.  I think we’ll have another two or three hours before the story breaks publicly; so if you or your crew have anything that needs doing, best to get it done sooner rather than later.  Things have been anything but normal around here for the past two years since the AZOOR virus outbreak, and this is the third subsector noble to die by violence in just over a year.”

“And I’ve been involved in every one of them,” said Atopia, “in one fashion or another.”

“Exactly,” said the Duke.  “This is a command to both of you from your Duke: until further notice from me, Baronet Atopia is to be escorted everywhere she goes by Dame Diana and at least two armed guards at all times she is in public.  You are both allowed to talk to the media, if you desire to do so, but you will only confirm or deny whatever suspicions or information they bring to you.  If you are unsure, simply say that you would rather not say until the Moot has rendered a decision.  Understood?”

They nodded.  The Duke said nothing as he rose and left.

306-1106, Narmada, Red Sun City, Moot Grand Assembly Hall

The great domed hall seemed strangely empty to Atopia as she entered.  It was meant to comfortably hold as many as three hundred nobles and their staff during the biennial Subsector Moot, but barely a tenth that many were in attendance.  She looked up at the gallery in the balcony above the main floor and saw it was crowded with onlookers and media reporters.  Two squads of the district’s Autonomy Defense Force troopers adorned in full riot armor and brandishing shock staves were stationed along the railing of the balcony.

“Impressive,” commented Dame Diana at her side.

Atopia looked at her in mild shock.  “You’ve never been here before?”

Diana shook her head.  “This is my first year out of the Imperial Marines.  I got hired by you the cycle I mustered out.”  She smiled as she took the place in.  “I never had time to visit while I was in the service and didn’t have a reason while I’ve worked for you, until now.”

They descended a gently sloped ramp past the empty concentric semi-circular rings of tables and cushioned chairs until she reach the lowest one.  Just over two dozen nobles were here – ones who had fiefs in the district and others who happened to be here from elsewhere in the subsector.  Atopia nodded to a few of them that she’d met in passing at last year’s Moot as she walked down to where Marquis Toyama and Baronet Yuni were sitting.

She and Diana curtsied to them both.  The Marquis stood and bowed, showing the hilt of his katana in its sheath strapped across his back.  Yuni remained seated, but nodded to them both.  “You just can’t stay out of trouble,” he said with a smile, “can you?”

“It’s a bad habit I picked up from your fine example, Your Grace,” replied Atopia as her smile faded.  “Do you have any idea what might be bothering the Duke?”

“Any of a hundred things are possible,” replied Toyama.  “But I would hazard a guess that the most likely candidate is the noble lady in the white satin gown with the black lace shawl.”

They turned and looked.  “Contessa Chantal Dasani,” said Diana.  “I believe she has a fief in the district.”  Atopia noticed the woman’s impossibly straight nose and large dark eyes.  Her alabaster skin was flawless, as was her dark brown hair, graying ever so slightly around the fringe.  A thin platinum tiara adorned with mother-of-pearl and sapphire flowers pulled her flowing locks away from her face.  She looked back at them and nodded slightly in recognition, which they returned.

“One of the arcologies, yes,” replied Toyama.  “She has been a thorn in the side of the Ingersoll family for nearly two decades now.  It’s no secret that she has ambitions to become a Duchess.  I can only imagine how much correspondence that’s critical of His Grace’s rule composed by her hand has reached the office of Duke Wymark on Belaya of late.”

They turned back to face the marquis.  “If that’s nothing new,” asked Atopia, “then what has changed?”

The marquis didn’t get a chance to answer as the Duke’s herald entered the chamber opposite from where Atopia and Diana had come in.  The pair excused themselves and quickly strode over to a table separate from the rest of the nobles, set to one side of a pair of seats on a dais centered opposite the nobles.  Atopia had to repress a shudder when her gaze fell upon the specially designed seat to the other side of the dais – the verdicator.

The herald reached the center of the hall and raised his arms.  The assemblage of nobles and the gallery fell silent.  “Announcing the entrance of His Grace, Duke Darius Ingersoll!” the herald called to the crowd, “Protector of the Narmada Subsector of Wayhaven Sector, Domain of Sol of the Third Imperium; Ruler of the Imperial Autonomy District of the world of Narmada; and defender of Imperial citizenry throughout known space and beyond!”

“HAIL DUKE DARIUS!” responded the throng, “LONG MAY HE REIGN!”

The Duke ascended the dais with his wife, Baroness Selene.  “Be seated, all,” he said as he sat down.  He waited for the murmur of conversation and the shuffling of feet and chairs to die down before continuing.

“We are gathered here this Three-Hundred and Sixth day of the Imperial year One-Thousand, One-Hundred and Six to decide the fate of a man who stands accused of murdering one of our own.  Brice Caldwell of Rauma, Narmada Subsector is accused of the crimes of murder and high treason against Iridium Throne for his actions on or about the Two-Hundred and Eighty-Seventh day of this year on the world of Rauma that resulted in the death of Sir Richard Worthington, the Imperial Liaison to that world.”

There was a bit of a stir at that, both in the gallery and among the gathered nobles.  Apparently, thought Atopia, not everybody is in the loop.

The Duke held his hand aloft and the hall quieted once again.  “Seated to my left are Baronet Atopia Kesslering and Dame Diana Sabatini, who are both members in good standing of the Peerage and both of whom arrived on Rauma shortly after the murder occurred, conducted the investigation and subsequently arrested Mr. Caldwell, returning him to justice in short order.  We shall begin these proceedings with their recounting of the results of the investigation and their subsequent actions in this matter.”

Atopia rose to speak, but saw Contessa Chantal rise to her feet as well.  “Hold!” she said.  Atopia glanced to her right and caught the subtle hand gesture from Baroness Selene to sit, which she did.

“I recognize Contessa Chantal Dasani,” said the Duke as he nodded to her.

“Your Grace,” she said, “I arise out of concern from reports that have reached mine eyes regarding this matter.  Recent history has shown us that Baronet Atopia has been involved in the deaths of two other nobles of the subsector in the short time since her ascension – one caused in part by her own actions and another as a witness and potential victim.”

“This is indeed true,” replied the Duke.  “In fairness, in the former case she was acting as my agent.  In the other, she was a bystander caught up in the event, though she was instrumental in the arrest and prosecution later on of the man who planned and helped orchestrate the murder, again, acting as my agent.  However, I am at a loss to see what relevance these points have with the matter at hand, Contessa.”

“In this case, Your Grace,” she responded, “it would seem that she acted in Your Name without your knowledge or blessing as she violated a planet’s sovereignty.  Reports have reached mine eyes that mercenaries and vehicles bearing the crest of your house were used to apprehend the accused, without due notification of the planetary authorities!  And this is not the first time that the baronet has violated the sovereignty of an Imperial world, as Your Grace well knows!

“In light of these facts, Your Grace,” she continued, “I believe that it is only proper that the Moot review the actions of the newly-minted baronet in this particular case.  Without this layer of transparency, questions might arise among the citizenry as to Your Grace’s motives and the baronet’s part in them.  I hope that Your Grace can understand how three deaths among us, all by means of violence, within the span of two years would concern us and the Imperial citizenry – as would the questionable manner that those responsible were brought to justice.”

Atopia had been white-knuckling the edge of her table through the last, but suddenly felt a strong, restraining hand upon her shoulder.  “Lighten up!” hissed Dame Diana.  “She’s within her rights and you’re on the verge of being called out for a duel if you don’t stay seated!”

It took sincere effort for Atopia to compose herself again, but she remained seated.  Diana slowly removed her hand as Duke Darius spoke.

“Contessa Chantal has called for the Moot to review the actions of Baronet Atopia in this matter,” he said with only the slightest hint of irritation in his voice.  “Is there a second to this motion?”

There was – somebody Atopia didn’t recognize.  The vote was called by noble rank and then by name.  Atopia could tell it was going to be close.

The Duke rose after the last vote was recorded.  “Excluding myself, Baroness Selene, Baronet Atopia and Dame Diana,” he said, “twenty-seven votes have been cast.  Fourteen votes are in favor, thirteen against with no abstentions.  The Moot will reconvene at midday tomorrow to review the actions of the Baronet in this matter.  The trial of the accused will be considered following the conclusion of the review.  The Moot stands adjourned.”

Two hours later, Whiskey Amber Oh Seven Arcology

The Marquis’ private stock of whiskey was as smooth and potent as it ever was.  Atopia savored the mellow burn as it spread throughout her. Slowly, the quaking rage within her burned itself out.

“That’s better,” said the Marquis.

“Sorry I lost my temper,” Atopia said as she placed the lowball glass on the end table next to her.

“No apologies necessary,” he replied.  “In fact, I’d say you’ve joined a not-so-exclusive group of nobles she’s managed to piss off over the years.”  He paused to sip from his own glass before continuing.  “This is just another one of her ploys.  She intends to find some weakness in your actions or judgement that she can exploit to embarrass His Grace.  She must have a confidant on his staff who gave her the details of the report you sent.”

Atopia looked crestfallen.  “My report - ?”

“Yes,” said the Marquis.  “Let this be a lesson to you: it is better to sacrifice efficiency in the name of secrecy, especially in sensitive matters.  Next time you have a bombshell to drop, do it face to face under the tightest security you can manage.”

The baronet put her head in her hands.  “No wonder the Duke looked so troubled yesterday,” she said.  “He must have known this was going to happen.”  She looked up at him again.  “Why didn’t he say something to me about it?”

“Probably to hammer home the point,” said Toyama.  “The good news is that this is a minor gaffe.  I have no doubt that the Contessa would have pounced on this during the trial, which would have caused some serious political fireworks for the Duke among the member worlds of the subsector.  It is a distraction at best – perhaps even a good prelude to the trial itself – provided you defend yourself and your actions adequately.”

Atopia nodded in agreement.  “Then instead of feeling sorry for myself,” she said, “I should get off my duff and start working on that.”  Toyama smiled broadly at that as he took another sip from his glass.

307-1106, Narmada, Red Sun City, TAS News Service Office

Noble Accused of Exceeding Authority in Arrest of Murder Suspect
307-1106, Narmada (1918 Narmada/Wayhaven):  The trial of the man accused of murdering Sir Richard Worthington on Rauma (1814 Narmada/Wayhaven) three weeks ago has been postponed as questions have arisen regarding the manner of his arrest by Baronet Atopia Kesslering.  Contessa Chantal Dasani raised the issue during a preliminary meeting of the Narmada Subsector Moot yesterday.  Reports from Rauma indicate that mercenaries adorned in Subsector Duke Darius Ingersoll’s house crest conducted a raid upon the private residence of Brice Caldwell, without obtaining authorization form the planetary government or notifying local authorities.

Contessa Chantal claimed in yesterday’s meeting of the Subsector Moot that Baronet Atopia was not acting on His Grace’s orders or authority at the time of the raid.  The latest reports from Rauma indicate that four people at the residence were killed with another eleven wounded in the raid that resulted in Caldwell’s arrest.  Late word has reached the TAS News Service that the review, originally scheduled for today, has been postponed until tomorrow to allow Baronet Atopia additional time prepare for the defense of her actions in the Moot.

307-1106, Narmada, Red Sun City, Offices of Hortalez et Cie Narmada Subsector Headquarters

Taman Falk rose from his desk workstation and bowed deeply to the man and woman who entered his office.  “Your Grace!” he beamed to the man as he straightened up.  “Congratulations on your recent nuptials!” he continued as he offered Marquis Toyama and Baronet Atopia chairs by his desk.

“Thank you, most kindly,” replied Toyama as he and Atopia sat down.  He gestured to Atopia as he introduced her.  “Unfortunately,” he continued, “this is a business visit, not a social call.”

Taman nodded as he returned to his desk and tapped a few buttons to put security and privacy measures into place.  Atopia was reminded of the measures Toyama used at his office as the windows went opaque and the lights took on the familiar blue hue.  “There,” he said as looked up.  “Now, how may I help you?”

Atopia’s features became stern.  “For starters, you can tell me what Brice Caldwell did when he worked for your financial services megacorp ten years ago, and why he was fired.”

“Ah,” said Taman as he stepped around the desk and leaned against its edge.  “I’m sorry to say, Your Grace, that matters concerning personnel, past and present, are strictly confidential.”

“I’ve had a very talented somebody digging into the matter for the past day or two,” replied Atopia as she pulled out her pocket computer, referencing it as she continued.  “She’s managed to draw a connection between Caldwell and Contessa Chantal Dasani as well as most of the other nobles in the Moot that voted in favor of reviewing my actions.  It seems all of them were granted very low interest loans by your corporation at roughly the same time – far below the standard rates, in fact.  Less than a year later, Caldwell was fired from your corporation.  The loans, however, were not rescinded.”

Atopia pocketed the computer and favored Taman with a stern look.  “I intend to bring these facts to light at the Moot inquiry tomorrow, unless you can give me a good reason not to.  So I ask again – what did Brice Caldwell do at your company and why did he get fired?”

“You would blackmail this corporation for your own interests?” he asked.

“On the contrary,” said the marquis, “this is a matter involving members of the Imperial Peerage who possibly were manipulated by a former employee whose actions were deliberately covered up by the subsector branch of the corporation you’re in charge of, Mr. Falk.  That former employee has suspected ties to a criminal syndicate and may be personally responsible for the murder of a member of the Peerage.  Given that the information we’ve already obtained is going to be damning of your corporation’s sterling reputation, which side of the story do you wish to be on when it hits the media tomorrow?”

307-1106, Narmada, Red Sun City, Whiskey Amber Oh Seven Arcology

Contessa Chantal took the news fairly well.  Her casual haughtiness slowly evaporated as Atopia laid out what Tabitha had discovered and Taman Falk had confirmed.  As Atopia continued, the Contessa became much more serious and interested.

“Taman Falk of Hortalez et Cie helped me fill in the gaps in the record,” Atopia said, showing the Contessa the display of her dataslab.  “That led my computer expert to the Deepwater project on Rauma – a project nearly all of the nobles who voted with you invested in.  You invested over two hundred megacredits into the project. Once the new deep aquifer was tapped on Rauma, the area you and the other nobles purchased would be developed.  You and they would reap the profits from the water rights for generations and make back your investment by selling the land to local developers.”

The Contessa sighed.  “The only problem,” said Chantal, “was the whole thing was a fraud, set up by the Yellow Sail Syndicate.  They conned investors out of nearly a billion credits which they funneled into their own pockets, laundering it all before the local authorities even got their investigation off the ground.”

Chantal held out her lowball glass.  Atopia added two fingers of Toyama’s whiskey to it from an ornate glass bottle before refreshing her own glass with a small amount of the amber fluid.

The Contessa paused to sip from her glass before continuing.  “We needed a way to cover our losses until we could pull other resources together to compensate.  Appearances are everything in the higher ranks of the nobility.  If one seems to have errant judgement in the eyes of the Duke or those above him, that’s the end of one’s ascension.  And I still mean to go higher than this.”

“And that’s where Brice enters the story,” said Atopia as she swirled the whiskey in her glass.  “He catches wind of the problem through his sources on Rauma – since he happens to have been born there – and uses his financial knowledge to arrange a series very low interest loans; or so you thought.”

Chantal looked like she wanted to spit.  “He wanted me to sponsor an effort to get him a noble title in exchange for his silence on the matter.  I couldn’t do that, but we did agree to pay him hush money once we got our financial houses in order.”

“And that’s when Hortalez et Cie discovered what he’d done,” said Atopia, “and fired him.”

The Contessa downed what was left in her glass and pounded its base into the heel of her other hand.  “So the bastard goes home Rauma and sets up a criminal syndicate there with the money we were paying him!”  Her eyes swam.  “Great Maker!  If this comes out it will ruin me!  It’ll ruin us all!”

Chantal threw the glass.  Atopia heard it bound across the thick carpet of the suite and clatter against a wall in the next room.  “Tough glass,” Atopia commented.  She sighed before continuing.  “It doesn’t have to come out, you know.  You just have to help me put this murdering filth away.  No more hush money means you get your shot at being Duchess Chantal, if you can earn it.”

“That’s all you want?” asked Chantal.

“Believe it or not, yes,” replied Atopia around a sip.  “Understand that I wasn’t born to the nobility – a fact which you saw fit to point out at the Moot the other day.  But, I have a responsibility to the Imperium now. I am raising a young lady who will, some day, be a member of the Peerage – a right she earned by the circumstances of her birth.  I have to make sure she gets the best education and life experiences I can give her, because she’s already had one very good mother taken away from her by the machinations of a corrupt noble who happens to be her late father.”

Chantal nodded and wiped her eyes.  “I see you took offense from my words the other day,” she said at last.  “I also see that they were untrue and unwarranted.  Please accept my humble apologies.”

Atopia smiled and handed the nearly empty whiskey bottle to the Contessa.  “Accepted, Your Grace,” she said and raised her glass.

322-1106, Olt, The Ebonstrand

-- from the personal journal of Baronet Atopia Kesslering

“Got a drink in my hand / and my toes in the sand, / all I need… is the right man, / understand?”

So, here I am on Olt, taking a couple days off to play with Olivia, lounge about and get back to being a gypsy merchant once again.  I have to admit, this tropical paradise makes me very tempted to quit working and settle down to an idle retirement!  But no, I have commerce to do and a ship to pay off and a little girl who deserves to see as much of Imperium as possible before she grows up.

Once the Moot affirmed my actions on Rauma on a unanimous vote, Brice capitulated, pled guilty and threw himself on the Duke’s mercy.  Ten years’ indentured servitude and exile from Narmada Subsector after that isn’t very merciful, but it beats serving time on Golgotha.

The information Tabitha, Toyama and I gathered on the Caldwell Scandal went to the Duke, who promptly incarcerated it in a classified file for use by Imperial Naval Intelligence.  If anyone knows how to keep a secret, it’s those guys.

Once the crew is done lazing around on the beaches here, we’re bound for Oban and then Sok.  I’ve got a hundred d-tons of synthetic food I’m shipping to the Wahi Ho’ano habitat as part of a personal favor to Marquis Julius Denali.  The aged noble on Narmada has a lethal allergy to the compounds in the synthetic anagathics used by most Imperial nobility for life extension, meaning he’s 83 and in fairly poor health.

Marquis Julius managed to pull some strings and get his youngest daughter and only surviving child ascended and acclaimed at the beginning of the Subsector Moot last year, just three weeks after her 18th birthday.  Baronet Leigh Denali is perhaps the youngest Imperial Liaison ever appointed and her father wants an honest, impartial assessment of how she’s doing, considering she may have to take over the family holdings before her five year posting ends.

Ouch.

All I have to say is, after hearing the tragic family history from her dad, it’s going to be very difficult for me to give a completely dispassionate report on the young baronet’s job performance…