Monday, November 13, 2017

A Death in Transit                               

295-1105, Narmada, Red Sun City Starport, aboard Far Trader Silver Dawn

Atopia heaved a sigh as she looked about the emptiness of the cargo hold.  Five tons of mail certainly helped the bottom line, along with four tons on the tab of the Guardians of Public Service of Paquin that one of her low berth passengers was bringing along.  Seven tons of tools that Baron Harper had wrangled off the open market for ten grand a ton was speculative cargo, meaning that it had to sell for at least eleven grand a ton on Paquin just to break even.

Seven tons of medical supplies from Doctors Without Borders wasn’t providing anything more than a tax write-off and public relations, but none of the crew had grumbled about it when they hand-loaded the boxes into the cargo containers that morning.  And there was seven tons of humanitarian aid, courtesy of her cordial relationship with Baroness Selene, the wife of Duke Darius, though at least that lot was paid for.

Nobody said this was going to be easy, she reminded herself.  At least we have a full complement of passengers to pad the bottom line.  Much as I like this place, it’s time to leave it behind for a while – maybe longer.  She smiled at the thought.  Putting a few parsecs of distance on Duke Darius would certainly improve Harper’s spirits, at least.

Her comm’s earbud warbled.  “Pre-flight is complete,” it said.  “We are at t-minus seven minutes to our launch window, and counting.”

“Thank you, Valo,” she said as she strode to the front of the bay and touched the control panel.  The ship’s cargo ramp began to retract as the hold’s hatches slid closed.  “I’m closing up the hold now and will be on the bridge shortly.”

As she strapped into the co-pilot’s acceleration couch, Valo was cursing softly.  “Spaceflight control just issued a flare advisory, Your Ladyship,” he explained.  “There’s a sixty percent chance of upper M-class and twenty percent chance of lower X-class flares from Narmada’s primary in the next six hours.”

Atopia frowned.  M-class flares were bothersome but not overly dangerous as long as the ship was within a planet’s magnetosphere, but once Silver Dawn cleared that, the radiation from them could play havoc on both the instrumentation and their bodies – especially if they bumped up into X-class.  “Do you think we should delay our departure?” she asked.

“Well, transit to one hundred diameters shouldn’t take more than two-and-a-half hours,” he said as he brought the ship’s gravitic lifters online.  “Keep one eye on the ship’s sensors for me, and the other on ship-to-ship digital traffic, just in case.”

297-1105, in hyperspace between Narmada and Paquin

Atopia was late in joining the impromptu meeting at the ship’s portside cargo airlock.  Hawk, Tabitha and Valo were clustered around the control panel that operated the iris valve that accessed it from the direction of the portside turret.  Hawk and Tabitha had dismantled the panel and were carefully examining the electronics hidden behind it.  Valo looked up from the work and sighed.  “I hate being right,” he said.

“What’s the problem?” asked Atopia

“The anomalous readouts on the outbound leg weren’t just X-ray scatter from the flares,” said Tabitha as she shined a light on the wires connected to the back of the control panel.  “I’ve seen these sorts of scratches on wire connections before.  Somebody rigged a lockout override of this valve.”

“Whoever did it was in a hurry,” commented Hawk.  “They stripped out the Allen screws of the panel when they put it back on.”

“Does the valve still work?” asked Atopia.

Tabitha activated the panel and the valve obediently opened to full width.  “I can’t figure out why anyone would go to the trouble, though,” she said.  “There isn’t anything of value in an airlock.”

“I want the rest of the iris valves in this area checked,” said Atopia, “especially any that give a direct line back to the passenger deck.  If you even suspect any have been tampered with, come and find me straight away.  DON’T call me on the link, understand?”  They nodded.

“I’ll be on the bridge,” Atopia said as she turned to leave, “pulling up the passenger manifest.”

It was precisely twenty minutes later when Valo poked his head through the bridge hatchway.  “It’s all of them – every iris valve between the lift and the low berths was bypassed,” he said.  “And you need to get Harper down here ASAP because one of the panels on one of the low berths has been replaced upside down.”

It took a total of three minutes to get the Baron down to the low berths and crack open the cryonic capsule.  The woman inside was contorted, her face twisted into a horrific parody of humanity.  The dead eyes stared at a point a few light-years past the hull, the irises fixed and dilated.  “Hard to say without doing a full autopsy,” he said around a sigh, “but I’d guess it was a grand mal seizure, or something similar.  I’d say she’s been dead for nearly two days.”

“Somebody attached jumper wires from the biometrics regulator to the neurological monitoring unit,” said Tabitha as she extracted herself from the guts of the berth.  “That would set up one hell of a feedback loop.”

She stood and handed a small piece of electronics to Harper.  “They plugged that into the data feed cables between the berth’s CPU and the main computer, so I’m guessing it kept the monitoring software from knowing anything was amiss while the feedback loop murdered her.”

“So we have a killer on board,” said Atopia, “possibly more.”  A sudden thought struck her.  “Hawk, how often do we purge rubbish and biosolids from the ship while we’re in hyperspace?”

He shook his head.  “Every twelve hours, I’m afraid,” he said.

“Dammit,” said Atopia.  “That means anything the murderer might have used will be long gone.”

Tabitha looked nervous.  “So what are we going to do?” she asked.

“All passengers are restricted to their quarters or the commons,” said Atopia.  “Nobody on this crew goes into any compartment alone with any passenger from this point forward.  Baron, I’ll team up with you to look after the passengers.  Nobody says that anything is wrong unless I authorize it.  Is that clear?”  They nodded.

“We have someone on board who might give us some more insight as to how the low berth was sabotaged,” said Harper, “Sir Jasper Fulcra.  He’s a medical scientist who greatly improved cryonic hibernation survival rates with his research.  We couldn’t ask for a better expert on the subject.”

“You realize,” said Valo, “that also makes him the number one suspect, right?”

“Hardly,” said Harper, “I met him a decade ago.  His research led to several basic patents in cryonic berth design and software.  He’s got nearly as much money as the Duke and takes his Hippocratic Oath so seriously that he’s a vegetarian.”

“Just the same,” said Atopia as she pulled out her body pistol and checked it before placing it back in her pocket, “we’ll both go get him.”

Atopia turned to Tabitha.  “I need your computer skills,” she said.  “See what you can do to tighten up our security software.  Make sure you lock yourself inside of computer control while you work.”  Tabitha nodded, her blue eyes wide.  Atopia put a hand on her shoulder.  “Harper and I will go with you, just to be safe.”

298-1105, Ship owner’s log entry, Silver Dawn

Following Harper’s suggestion, we’re keeping the victim’s body in the cryonic capsule so the authorities on Paquin can conduct a formal autopsy.  Harper’s scan for DNA on the berth and iris valves came up empty.  He didn’t detect the residue of cleansing agents, either, though he says most, by their very nature, are volatile and forty-eight to seventy-two hours is a lot of time to evaporate.

For now, Harper’s assessment of Sir Jasper seems quite accurate, both professionally and personally.  He is a charming man with a very sharp mind – so much so that there’s even a library data entry about him in the ship’s computer.  I sincerely doubt he has anything to do with this.  His analysis of the low berth fell pretty much in line with Tabitha’s, though he actually wrote up a full report on the details to hand over to the authorities when we reach Paquin.

Our victim turned out to be somebody important on Paquin, too.  52-year-old Zantra Dailiarc was the head planetary comptroller for the Guardians of Public Service of Paquin.  Her primary duties were overseeing the finances of the planetary elite as well as that of the government agencies and subcontractors.  I can’t see how a bureaucrat like her could have somebody that wanted her dead, but then, somebody in SuSAG wants me on a slab, too.  At least I know why, in that regard.

I spent the rest of yesterday reviewing the passenger manifest of thirteen potential murderers.  Now that Harper has confirmed that our three low passage riders have been in hibernation without interruption since departing Narmada, I can focus on the remaining ten middle passengers.

Sir Jasper, while he certainly has the expertise, is just not a suspect to my mind.  He has no reason to do such a thing.  He entertained the passengers and crew tonight by regaling us with humorous tales and anecdotes from the symposium he attended at Red Sun City Technical University just before he boarded the Silver Dawn.  My eyes glazed over when he started in on the technical items of low berth and cryonic hibernation technology he spoke about there, but Tabitha and Hawk were enrapt.

Yolanda Hebro, a recently graduated electrical engineer from RSCTU was also at that symposium.  Her story is that she received a corporate incentive payment from SuSAG based on her graduation project and is using it to take a vacation on Bandalor before she settles down to the world of work.  I can honestly say I’ve never heard of such a thing, but Harper and Jasper say it’s not unusual when it comes to highly desirable recruits when they’re trying to pitch long term contracts.

Army Colonel Will Carson doesn’t impress me as someone with either the subtleness or technical prowess needed for a caper like this.  He’s been six terms fighting the Imperium’s police actions and he’s ready to get back to his family on Vazuza.

Zebulon “Call me Zeb” Telamarc is a Travellers’ Aid Society member who is riding his high passage benefits toward the Imperial border.  I get the impression there’s much about his personal history he doesn’t tell, but this business about wanting to see the edge of Imperial authority rings a bit hollow.

Iliri and Sabastian Klein are a delightful older couple from Narmada taking a second honeymoon to the planet they first met – Belgran.  They’re both former colonists and have fascinating stories from their professional lives.  I can’t bring myself to suspect them, though I’d bet both of them do have the chops to pull off both the bypasses and sabotage.

Achilles Bolivar is as straightforward as a saint and boring as library paste.  He’s a civil engineer in his forties who’s been hired to work for the Paquin government, and he’s eager to get to work.  His ticket was paid for by the Paquin government, courtesy of the victim.  Several other passengers have commented that he’s all thumbs when using the ship’s public computer terminal, so I’m guessing he’s not a prime suspect.

Hondo Wright is a one-term Scout – seems like there are a lot of those – who is heading home to Moksha after spending a couple of cycles on an extended bender in Red Sun City.  I can understand wanting to get blasted after spending 19 straight cycles inside an X-boat, but that seems a little much.  Like most twenty-something kids, he’s probably exaggerating.  Still, he’s got a Class II electronics certification from the IISS, which means he could easily have done the deed, plus he has plenty of motive potential, given the kind of pit Moksha is these days.

Finally, there’s Galadriel and Jonathan Dulcimer – a young married couple returning to Dubna after spending a short vacation on Narmada.  Truth to tell, it looks like the lady of the family went on an extended shopping spree, though I deferred charging them an excess baggage fee for their bulging luggage being thirty-five kilograms over limit.  Anybody who can pack a set of suitcases that tight has my respect.  Unfortunately, neither one of them is remotely technical, so I’ll assume they’re innocent, for now.

So that narrows the list down to three possible murderers – Yolanda, Zeb and Hondo.  That assumes, of course, that I’m not completely wrong.

302-1105, Paquin, Sulphur Hole Starport

Atopia wrinkled her nose at the faint aroma of rotten eggs in the processed air of the portmaster’s office.  The portmaster had excused himself, leaving her with Imperial Navy Lieutenant Lake Callus, the Master-at-Arms for the local Naval base.  She measured him up while he was engrossed with the reports she’d filed electronically when the ship emerged from hyperspace.

He was a bulldog of a man, with blunt, inelegant features dominated by a nose that had been broken more times than she wanted to guess.  After a quick assessment, she decided that anyone foolish enough to so with a closed fist came off worse for the attempt than Callus had.

“All right,” he said, “we’ll have to wait for the autopsy results, Your Ladyship.  Until the investigation is over, your ship will be landlocked at the port and your crew confined to the ship.  It’s my understanding you have cargo that needs to be offloaded?”  Atopia nodded and he continued.  “Set it up on the cargo ramp and I’ll get some longshore workers to take it away.  You understand, all of that cargo will be thoroughly searched?”  He didn’t wait for her to nod.  “Good.  Do you have any questions?”

“You don’t seem to have any staff to assist you,” she said.  “Would you like some help?”

He considered it for a moment before nodding.  “I would appreciate that, Your Ladyship,” he said with a shadow of a smile.  “I’ll let you know after the results of the autopsy.”

The lieutenant paged her from the starboard cargo airlock less than thirty minutes later.  “The verdict matches Baron Harper’s assessment,” he said as he strode aboard.  “Cause of death was a grand mal seizure induced electronically through a feedback in the neurological monitoring system.  Given Sir Jasper’s report on the state of the low berth and the expertise of the sabotage, I officially have a murder investigation on my hands.”

Atopia realized he was heading for the bridge as she struggled to keep up.  “I and my crew are at your disposal,” she said.  “That is provided you don’t leave me in your wake, of course.”

He pulled up short and turned to face her.  “My apologies, Your Ladyship,” he said with a bow.  “I’m used to dealing with military matters, where efficiency and speed are high priorities.  Unfortunately, I’ve already fielded three calls from various members of the Guardians of Public Service.  They expect results – quickly and definitively – and they’re already hounding the base commander as well.”

“Then you need all the help you can get,” she said with a gentle smile.  She gestured toward the lift.  “Why don’t we sit down in the passenger commons and share what we know.  I have some absolutely wonderful tea brewing that the Baroness Selene Fairfax gave me just before I departed Narmada a week ago.  You really should try it.”

303-1105, TAS News Service Release

]: PAQUIN [NARMADA/WAYHAVEN] (2118 B9C57CA-7) Date 303-1105
      >New information is complicating the investigation into the murder of the  Head Planetary Comptroller of Paquin, 52-year-old Zantra Dailiarc, while she was a low berth passenger aboard the Far Trader Silver Dawn.  Deputy Comptroller Somara Lissini revealed that Dailiarc sent information ahead of her arrival on Paquin indicating that 250 million credits of government funds has turned up missing.  The discovery was made after Dailiarc used new accounting techniques she learned while attending a planetary government financial conference on Narmada (1918 Narmada/Wayhaven).
     >Authorities say that one or more of the passengers aboard the starship managed to defeat security systems and sabotage the low berth, causing Dailiarc’s death.  All thirteen passengers along with the five crewmembers have been detained until the investigation is complete.  Several senior members of the Guardians of Public Service have publicly derided both the manner of the investigation and the lack of security aboard the merchant starship.
     >“The Imperial Navy’s Master-at-Arms here on Paquin is focused on finding the person or persons responsible for murdering Comptroller Dailiarc,” said Captain Roman Becklund during a media conference held late yesterday.  “While I understand the impatience and trepidation expressed by certain members of the Guardians of Public Service, I have every confidence that justice will be served upon the guilty party or parties at the conclusion of the process.”
     >The report issued by Dailiarc on the missing funds did not name anyone who might be responsible.  However, a search of local records by the TAS News Service did reveal there is currently only one member of the Guardians of Public Service who is off-world – 46-year-old Kailin Tormos, a lower level official in the Planetary Health Department.  According to starport records, she boarded a ship bound for Narmada on 281-1105 to attend a symposium at Red Sun City Technical University on 289-1105.  Records indicate that she used a high passage ticket and was carrying an extra displacement ton of cargo with her at that time.

305-1105, Paquin, Naval Detention Center

Yolanda had held up well for being three days in military confinement.  Although she wasn’t handcuffed to either the chair she sat in or the table in front of her, she was flanked on either side by Imperial Marines.  She sighed and sipped from a plastic cup of coffee.

Across from her sat Lt. Callus, Baronet Atopia, Sir Jasper and Tabitha.  Suddenly the door to the colorless and featureless room opened.  A marine stepped smartly in the room with a piece of luggage, opening it and dumping its contents unceremoniously upon the floor.  Several bundles of Imperial currency tumbled free from the scattering cosmetics and fluttering underwear that fell from the bag.

“Okay,” Yolanda said as she watched the last bottle of nail polish skitter to a stop in the far corner of the room.  “Is that supposed to mean something?”

“There are four-hundred thousand Imperial credits in cash there,” said Lt. Callus, “along with over a thousand credits worth of cosmetics and lingerie.  I’m going to give you a chance to tell me the real story of how you got it.”

Yolanda rolled her eyes.  “You want me to tell you again?” she asked.  “How many times does this make now, seven or eight?  Honestly, I’ve lost track.”

“That story is a load of steaming biomass,” said Atopia.  “That money didn’t come from SuSAG or any other megacorporation.”

“Quite so,” said Sir Jasper.  “When I was paid by Ling Standard Products for my contribution to their bottom line, I received an corporate Imperial credit voucher.”  He reached into his jacket’s vest pocket and produced one.  The plastic card shone dully in the glare of the harsh overhead light.  “I kept it as a souvenir after I’d spent its funds.  You can see that it’s embossed with the company logo and that it is gold in color, not black like a common voucher.  All of the megacorporations do this, including SuSAG.  It’s been a common practice in the Imperium for over three centuries to help identify V.I.P’s.”

“So, Ms. Hebro,” said Lt. Callus, “why would SuSAG break with such a long standing tradition in your case?  What makes you so special?”

Yolanda shrugged.  “That’s how the representative paid me,” she said.  “I had no idea why he didn’t give me a voucher.”

“You have no idea because there was no representative,” said Tabitha as she pulled out a pocket computer and brought up an image on its display.  “This is a picture that was taken using Sir Jasper’s commlink during the symposium at RSCTU.  Do you see anyone familiar there in the background over Sir Jasper’s left shoulder?”

Yolanda squinted at the small image.  “Not really,” she said after a moment.  She grabbed up the computer, intending to smash it against the wall behind the quartet opposite her.  Her move was checked by the unforgiving grip of one of the marines behind her, who grabbed her wrist so tightly, Atopia heard one of the bones break.

Yolanda cried out as the marine plucked the computer from her grasp and handed it back to Tabitha.  He forced her to sit back in the chair, but she was wilting, sobbing, curling up into a fetal ball.

Tabitha paged to another image.  “The original image is a bit dark, I admit,” she said, “but with some help from Navy’s image analysis lab I was able to produce this, which clearly shows you talking to Kailin Tormos, the wayward bureaucrat from Paquin’s Health Department.  I can’t really resolve the other person who’s standing there with you, but you can make out that he’s wearing an IISS service jacket and cap.”

“Hondo Wright was a one-termer in the Scouts,” said Atopia, “with both the technical expertise to assist you – Class II electronics certification – along with practical experience in defeating security measures that he picked up while growing up on Moksha.  He could get you in there, and you could do the job, right?  Was that the arrangement?”

“I want a lawyer!” she sobbed.

“I can’t give you one,” said Lt. Callus with a sigh as he nodded to the marines.  “But one will be provided when the Navy turns you and Mr. Wright over to the authorities on Narmada.”

306-1105, Paquin, Sulphur Hole Starport, Departure Notification Board

SILVER DAWN (Type A2, Independent): Improved shipboard security!  Departing for Bandalor on 307-1105.  Thru service to be determined at destination.  Ten middle passage bunks and four low berths available.  Up to 40 displacement tons cargo is available. Sorry, not accepting working passage at this time.  Contact Baronet Atopia at docking bay 26 by mid-morning, latest.

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