A Murder Made in Moksha
215-1105 Narmada, Red Sun City, Arcology Delta Scarlet One Three
I should have known something was wrong. I should have known. Nobody asks you out to lunch so late in the afternoon. Nobody. But I cheerfully accepted and went to meet him.
The commercial level food court was upscale enough to not notice the urgency of the request. The multi-deck patio arranged in its center even had a trickling decorative waterfall and bamboo wind chimes with natural light brought down via fiber optics from the roof. One could graze from their pick of two dozen different cultures there. But the baron wasn’t interested in food.
The week following my return from Nan, Marquis Toyama introduced me to Baron Alton Richards – a seemingly very ordinary man who had inherited his family title without much fanfare nearly two decades ago. But Alton was a good teacher when it came to firearms, and we’d spent a couple of hours each day practicing with pistols and shotguns. Along the way, I grew to like his depreciating humor and genuine insights into the life of an Imperial noble.
He was striding when I caught sight of him. His face should have been flush with exertion from that, but it was pale as he cast his gaze anxiously from side to side. His right hand was clenched tightly, as if he was holding something small and precious, terrified he might drop it.
I was about to ask him what was wrong when I saw them. Blurred, twisting shapes, like bubbles in a holograph left too long in the sun. There were two of them. They were moving, rushing towards us across the plaza. I saw one pause just as the baron drew even with me.
The baron slammed into me, his weight and momentum driving me to the floor as the world exploded behind him. The staccato thunder of an automatic rifle raged off the plaster walls of the food court as the baron and I landed near a brick planter filled with decorative ferns.
The shapes were advancing now – moving in for the kill. I rolled out from under Alton pulling my body pistol from its holster in my waistband and fired at the nearest one. I couldn’t tell if I wounded whatever – whoever – it was, but it hesitated, giving me enough time to take cover behind the planter. I reached around it and fired blind, even as the shape’s weapon sprayed the planter with bullets, covering me in a shower of clay fragments.
I could hear one of them yelling it was time to go, but the other one was advancing, the muzzle flare of his weapon strobing, giving me a target. I panic-fired at it, emptying my pistol, realizing that the shape was a man in a chameleon suit – mimetic polycarbon plastic over neoprene, micro-cameras in the suit providing images of the background on the opposite side to the one facing me.
I recoiled as a bullet snapped past my ear, seeing a member of the local security force leveling a riot gun at the shape behind me. The weapon roared once and the rifle went silent. The guard spun and followed the other shape as it fled the area.
I looked back at the shape and gaped at the nightmare images playing out across the contours of the man beneath it. Blood was soaking through a large, ragged hole in the body’s chest. Alton lay nearby, staring at me. As I watched, the light in his eyes went out.
Three hours later, Arcology Whiskey Amber Oh Seven
The Marquis’ whiskey was mellow and strong, burning sweetly as it spread throughout me. To his credit, Toyama didn’t say anything for several minutes. My eyes were closed, but I could hear him at his desk, paging through electronic forms and reports – accounts of the murder, I guessed.
When I opened my eyes again, he was sitting across from me, his face a study of concern – a mask he’d put on for me to hide the cold rage of losing yet another friend. “How are you doing?” he asked.
“Better,” I said as I sat up in the lounge chair and set my empty glass on the coffee table between us, “but not good.”
Baron Alton Richards had been a friend Marquis Doctor Toyama Weston had made early in the year. Toyama had seconded Alton in a duel that Viscount Trager Duvalier had instigated by insulting Alton’s grandfather. The grandfather had been accused of cowardice during the Solomani War, though he’d been absolved two decades ago by new evidence. But that hadn’t stopped the viscount from insulting the young baron and bringing about the duel. Toyama – an expert swordsman who liked to go about with a katana strapped to his back – had given Alton a quick lesson in swordplay that helped the baron disarm and wound the viscount, bringing about a non-lethal ending to a duel to the death.
“I imagine not,” said the marquis. “The attacker has been identified as Petrov Telosky – a professional mercenary, if his docket is to be believed. At the time of the last update of his status in 1104, he was a member of the Gray Twilight mercenary outfit on Moksha.”
“Mercenaries aren’t permitted to carry out assassinations of civilians,” I said.
“Especially if they’re members of the Peerage,” replied Toyama. “Duke Darius has locked down the entire district looking for Telosky’s accomplice. Not much chance that dragnet will catch anyone, though – Red Sun City has far too many places to hide when nobody knows your name or face.”
“He probably came in on a false identicard,” I said dully. “I tried to save Baron Alton, Your Grace, but there wasn’t any time –“
“I know,” he said with a nod. “You did the only thing you could under the circumstances. One thing that troubles me, though – your statement says that Alton deliberately ran into you before he was shot?”
“Or as he was being shot,” I replied with a nod. “Why?”
The Marquis rose from the chair and went to his desk again, making an entry into its control touchscreen. The doors to the room slid closed and locked, the windows polarized to black and the room’s lighting took on a blue hue. “Check your pockets,” he said as he turned to me again.
My hand closed upon a small rectangular object in my left jacket pocket. I pulled it out slowly, holding it up so we both could see.
It was a datachip with the Richards family crest imprinted on it.
“And now we know why he was killed,” said the Marquis. “You were an afterthought. They couldn’t risk having you talk to the authorities, but they didn’t have time because local security showed up early. According to the reports, an old army vet on that floor saw the chameleon suits and called emergency services.”
“He saved my life, then,” I replied. “I’ll have to thank him.”
The desk chimed softly. “Yes, Philip?” asked Toyama.
“Sorry to interrupt, Your Grace,” said the filtered voice, “but Duke Darius is signaling for you.”
“Put him through,” said the Marquis.
A large holographic of the Duke’s head and shoulders appeared at the far end of the room. “Greetings, Toyama,” he said, “and to you as well, Baronet Atopia. I offer my sincerest condolences to you both concerning Baron Alton. He was a good member of the Peerage and we are lessened by his passing.”
“Thank you, Your Grace,” said Toyama as I nodded in affirmation. It was not my place to speak. I clutched the datachip in my hand.
“Atopia,” said the Duke, “how soon can you be packed to travel?”
“No more than an hour, Your Grace,” I replied.
“Then do so,” he replied. “I have a special task for you. I am sending a team of my personal guard there in a G-carrier to escort you to my residence. I’ll give you the details when you arrive.”
“Yes, Your Grace,” I said as the image faded out.
The Marquis offered a hand to help me up. “Don’t access the chip on a networked computer,” he said as he pulled me to my feet. “And tell the Duke alone about that chip under security protocol.”
I nodded. He gave me a hug which I gratefully returned. “You take care of yourself,” he said in my ear.
“I will,” I replied.
218-1105, aboard the Klenova, in hyperspace between Narmada and Moksha
I knocked on Captain Granger’s cabin door. It slid aside, so I stepped through, letting it slide closed beside me. The captain was lounging on his bunk with a dataslab in his hands. “Yes, Your Grace?” he asked without rising.
“Call me Atopia,” I said. “I need a favor and people who need favors can’t ask for them from a superior position.”
He moved his legs aside and gestured at the end of his bunk. “Have a seat in my office,” he said, “but I thought I and the rest of my crew was already doing you a favor by turning our science ship into an interstellar taxi service.”
“I am trying to help solve the murder of a member of the Peerage,” I said as I fished the datachip from my pocket. “Baron Alton died getting this into my hands. The data on it is encrypted and is vital to the investigation. Duke Darius couldn’t risk trying to crack it on Narmada, not when he didn’t know who to trust.”
“So you want my computer expert to give it a go,” he said. I nodded. He contemplated it for a moment. “Well, we do have the excess computer power available. We could do it.”
“Please,” I said as my vision began to swim. “He died right next to me and there wasn’t anything I could do –.“ My voice faltered as tears spilled down my cheeks.
I felt a strong hand grip my shoulder. “I’ve seen the security holovid,” he said. “And I’ll wager that I’ve lost more friends than you have, so I know the pain.” He gently pried the datachip from my fingers. “Let my crew take this burden from you, so you can deal with the burden of your loss.”
It was only after he’d left the cabin and the door had closed that I permitted myself to cry in earnest.
222-1105, Moksha, Fools’ Landing Starport
The distant sounds of gunfire reached my ears as I crossed the formacrete from the landing pad to the port terminal. The marine marching next to me nodded. “The natives are only a little restless today, Your Grace,” he said through a grim smile.
Behind me, the thrusters of the Klenova’s modular cutter roared to life as Captain Granger moved it over to the scout base to begin the first of four round trips to refill the mothership’s tanks with dihydrous. After taking in the view of Moksha from ground level, I began to envy his job. I steeled myself to mine and kept walking.
The terminal building was two stories of crumbling, soot-stained brick with cracked windows caked with grime. The entry doors needed a fresh coat of paint and the chain-link boundary fences were covered in rust. Beyond the fences, what I could see of the city was in even worse shape – shantytowns built of scrap and shipping containers, along with poorly constructed brick buildings, many of which seemed to have no glass in the window frames.
Moksha, I thought, the cesspool of the subsector. And I thought things were bad on Nan!
The marine guided me through the terminal, past a que of merchants who were patiently waiting to file flight plans with paper forms, and on to the residence of the Imperial Liaison – a squat, two-story slate-colored fortress of bullet-scarred formacrete with heavy metal shutters protecting its windows. A pair of automated phalanx guns adorned the roof of the building. One of them tracked the marine and me for a moment before returning to its ready position.
The marine led me to an office whose plain walls were adorned with maps, charts and printed two-dimensional pictures of dozens of people. None of them were smiling. All of them had monetary rewards offered for their apprehension. Several of the pictures had an X drawn through them with the word “deceased” and a date handwritten upon them.
The marine turned to me. “Your Grace,” he said, “Dame Olivia will be here shortly. She is attending to an official matter at this time.” He bowed, which is a tricky thing to do in full combat armor, and then left.
I fussed with a lower-tech coffee brewer until it started producing a fresh pot of its brew, then sat in an office chair until it was finished. I had just poured myself a serving in a disposable cup when Moksha’s Imperial Liaison strode into the room while cursing softly. She stepped past me and tore open a wall-mounted first aid kit that was adorned with dents, chipped paint and a couple of small blood smears.
I had reviewed Dame Olivia Servantes’ file while the Klenova made her way in from one hundred diameters. She was a highly-decorated combat veteran of the Imperial Army, with six combat ribbons and four awards for Meritorious Conduct under Fire. Despite the rigors of twenty years of service, it was apparent that five years on this assignment had only tempered the steel of her soul. She was thin and muscular, with her dark hair worn in military cut – to accommodate donning combat armor. She wore a surplus paramilitary uniform without decoration, save a black Imperial Sunburst on the shoulder and her last name on a sewn tag above her short-sleeved uniform’s right breast pocket.
She mopped blood from the knuckles of her left hand with a gauze patch as she spoke. “Sorry I wasn’t here to greet you. I had to render a verdict and sentence in a theft case.” She tossed the bloody gauze aside and applied antiseptic to the ragged cut on her hand from a spray bottle. “Mister Willoughby Faulk will think twice about becoming a repeat offender around here,” she added as she sprayed synthetic skin on the cut to close it. “I cut my knuckles on one of his teeth when I knocked it out of his ugly face, the stupid prat.”
She turned and saw my expression. “I take it Your Grace doesn’t approve of my methods,” she said as she turned and poured herself a cup from the steaming carafe.
“No,” I said as she took a sip, “and I can hardly believe that Duke Darius does, either.”
I saw a shadow of a smile play across her face as she turned to me. “You make pretty good coffee for a noble, Your Grace. But you must be pretty new to the game to say that about Dari-boy.”
She set it aside and sat on the desk, regarding me with her dark eyes. “Every noble in the Peerage is one kind of son-of-a-bitch or another,” she said. “Most of them slap on a thin veneer of civility in public while they make life-and-death decisions on a daily basis that will potentially affect the welfare, futures and lives of billions of people. They have to decide who lives, who dies or who isn’t worth the effort of saving. You can guess which one of the three his grace chose when it came to this miserable crap-hole of a world.”
“So he chose you to be the representative of the Imperium here,” I replied. “I’m assuming it was a pretty short list.”
She nodded as she took another drink from her cup. “Considering that the last three nobles sent to do the job got their brains blown out before they celebrated their second anniversaries here,” she said, “yeah, it was a pretty short list.” She opened one of the drawers of the desk and tossed something in it at me. I only barely managed to catch it without spilling my coffee.
It was a gold medallion on a ceremonial ribbon. I’d seen several nobles at my declaration ceremony wearing something similar. “For five years of service and dedication to the Imperium,” I read aloud. She held out her hand and I gave it back to her.
She tossed it into the desk drawer and slammed it shut. She clenched her fist so tightly it shook for a moment before she finally relaxed it. “I’ve done my time here,” she said, “but nobody is standing in line to take over, so here I stay.”
“He offered it to me,” I said, “but I told him I wasn’t ready to settle down, yet.”
She nodded. “Smart call,” she said. “And yet, Darius sends you here on a sensitive diplomatic mission to talk with the most dangerous man on the planet. Go figure.”
“Did you get my message?” I asked and she nodded. “What did he say?”
“He didn’t,” said Dame Olivia. “I spoke to one of his subordinates over the radio. Colonel Orem Kerimov of Gray Twilight will contact me with his answer tomorrow, which makes you my guest in the interim.” She stood and headed out into the hallway.
I followed. “Why didn’t you talk to him directly?”
She stopped and turned to face me. “Because that’s the way he is,” she said. “He has to demonstrate to everyone that he’s the most important person on the planet, so nobody gets to see him right away, including you.” She spun on her heel and started up a flight of stairs to the upper level. “If you want to sleep in a bed tonight,” she added, “get up here and help me clean out the guest room.”
223-1105, Moksha, 45 km northeast of Fools’ Landing
As the ATV lumbered up the low ridge, I got a good view of the native flora of Moksha. “Pretty country out here,” I said to the man in the driver’s seat.
Danforth nodded as he down-shifted the vehicle’s transmission. “Don’t let it lull you into a false sense of safety, Your Grace,” he replied. “There’s just as much chance of getting ambushed out here in the sticks as there is back in town.”
I regarded him as he drove. He was a tall, lean man whose lines were hidden under the hard angles of a set of ballistic cloth armor augmented with ferro-graphite plates. His right ear was missing its earlobe and a bullet scar along his jawline told the story of how he’d lost it. Unlike most of the people I’d seen at the starport’s market, his armor and clothing wasn’t of a strictly paramilitary design, suggesting civilian service – perhaps in law enforcement.
His pale blue eyes caught mine for a moment before turning back to the trail. “You’re supposed to be keeping an eye out for an attack,” he said. “If you want to ogle me, I’ll have to double my fee.”
I smiled at that and directed my gaze back out the windshield. Danforth was playing the part of my chauffer and bodyguard for one-hundred and fifty credits a day, plus expenses. I’d seen him shadowing me in the starport’s open-air market the day before. Apparently, Dame Olivia wanted to ensure my safety, despite the gruff and uncaring mask she wore for me and the rest of the world.
The high-powered body pistol I’d purchased there was riding in custom holster strapped across the left chest of my cloth and reflec armor, along with two disposable magazines of hot-loaded ammunition for it. Considering how heavily armored most of the other people I’d seen there were, it was mostly there for show than serious protection. My shotgun rode across my lap loaded with anti-personnel flechette rounds, designed to penetrate soft armors, which were common on Moksha.
Dame Olivia had recommended Danforth accompany me for the trip instead of the Imperial Marines guarding the starport. “They’d just draw fire beyond the extrality,” she’d said. “Better to keep a low profile with somebody the locals will recognize as a tough customer.”
The ATV finally crested the ridge and I beheld the compound of the mercenary unit in the valley below. Gray Twilight was company-sized mechanized infantry unit with serious credentials and a long and bloody history of taking on the tough jobs around Wayhaven Sector, and the sprawling compound below reflected that. The central building was easily the tallest structure on the planet, being five stories of armorcrete crowned with radio antennae, a radar unit, heavy phalanx guns, a communications laser rig and an orbital communications array. I could see troops in training on its dusty parade ground we began to roll down the back side of the ridge.
The vehicle’s tactical radio crackled to life with a filtered female voice. “ATV on ridge southwest of compound, you have ten seconds to identify yourself.”
Danforth grabbed the handset microphone and keyed it open. “Is that you, Olga? You’re still with that insufferable lug of a mercenary?”
“Comrade Danforth,” came the reply. “I take it you have the Colonel’s guest with you?”
“Affirmative,” he said, “bright-eyed and bushy-tailed.” That earned him a look from me which he didn’t acknowledge. “My ETA is ten minutes, assuming you took my advice and cleared some of those axle-breakers off the trail.”
“You should drive more carefully, tovarich,” said Olga. “Compound out.”
“Olga?” I asked.
“She and I used to work together,” he said, “until she set her sights on marrying Orem. She moved in with the Colonel going on a year ago. She’s been good for him.”
“So why are you here?” I asked. “On Narmada you could be making ten times what I’m paying you with considerably less risk.”
“Because Olga’s here, and so is Orem,” he said while gesturing to the scar on his jawline. “That’s how I lost my earlobe, you know. He was trying to kill me and Olga spoiled his aim. Then she talked him out of murdering me, which is something nobody had ever been able to do to Orem before.”
“I’m surprised you’re still on speaking terms with either of them,” I said.
“Along with Olivia, they’re the closest things I have to family these days,” he replied.
The Colonel’s office was a large assembly room on the fifth floor of the complex. The walls held racks of weaponry – firearms to the left and melee weapons to the right. The wall opposite the double doors was an expanse of clear plastisteel that had a half-dozen bullet craters spackling its outside surface. The vista was of forested hills stretching away to a jagged horizon line that suggested a mountain range in the distance.
All the furniture in the chamber consisted of a single folding table with two straight chairs centered on the transparent wall. I stood there, composing myself for the meeting while taking in the view. After a few minutes, I heard a door open behind me and the hollow, booming steps of a single pair of combat boots striding across the floor. I didn’t turn around as whoever it was dragged one of the chairs aside from the table and sat in it.
“I know you are not deaf,” said thickly accented male voice behind me. “And I do not waste time with small talk, little baronet from nobody cares.”
I whirled on him. He was sitting on the chair backwards resting his arms and chin on its high back, his legs straddling the seat with both feet flat on the floor. He wore faded fatigues with a pock-marked flak vest over them. Although his pants were bloused in his boots, the footwear was in serious need of cleaning and polishing.
“Colonel Kerimov, when you address me, you will say ‘Your Grace,’” I said slowly as I stepped toward him.
“Will I now?” he mocked. In an action too quick to follow, he produced an automatic pistol and aimed it at my head. “You are nobody and nothing to me, little baronet from nobody cares. I could decorate my window with your blood and brains and there is nothing anyone could do to stop me. If I thought you might survive more than a week, I would put you in chains right now and drag you kicking and screaming to the gemstone fields north of here, where you would work until you die.”
He put the pistol away. “So I will call you whatever I wish,” he said. “But you will still call me ‘Colonel’ little baronet. And you will smile when I insult you because the only reason you are here is because I have something you want.” He gestured to the other chair. “So sit down and tell me what it is.”
I continued to stand. “One of your men killed Baron Alton Richards on Narmada eight standard days ago in cold blood in front of me. Duke Darius Ingersoll, head of this subsector of the Imperium, was preparing to send a task force here to conduct an orbital bombardment in retribution for the killing of a member of the Peerage who also happened to be a close personal friend. I talked him out of it and came here aboard an unarmed scout survey ship to talk with you about it.”
“Hmmph,” snorted the Colonel around a grim smile. “That is an impressive lie, little baronet. At the very least, you are entertaining.” He stood, towering over me while offering me a calloused hand. “And you did not flinch when I had you in the sights of my pistol. That means you are someone I can respect.” I shook his offered hand. He went over to the empty chair and held it for me with a slight bow. “Please be seated, Your Grace. We do have much to discuss.”
230-1105, aboard the Klenova, in hyperspace between Moksha and Narmada
Duke Darius Ingersoll
Duke of Narmada Subsector of Wayhaven Sector of the Third Imperium
Ingersoll Hold, Imperial Autonomous District, Narmada
The interview I conducted with Colonel Orem Kerimov on 223-1105 on Moksha confirms much of the information on the datachip given to me by the late Baron Alton Richards. According to the Colonel, Rand Tyler, a recruiting agent with a history of hiring individuals for clandestine projects conducted by corporate entities, lured six Gray Twilight mercenaries into his employ two cycles ago. Although Tyler offered to buy out the rest of their contracts, the Colonel took the punitive step of blacklisting them, which would make it unlikely they will ever work for a registered mercenary outfit again.
Petrov Telosky, the murderer of Baron Alton, was one of those six. The others are Dre Argus, Silva Odom, Danislav Petrovski, Dimitri Rokonovich and Paul Sanduski – all of whom are registered in the Imperial Mercenary Database. Given that Telosky was travelling under falsified identification, it is reasonable to assume the rest, as well as Tyler, are doing the same.
The data strongly suggests that a unit of Schunamann und Sohn AG, LIC (SuSAG) knowingly conspired with Francois Verne to produce a weaponized version of the AZOOR virus so that the megacorporation could profit from treating its victims. It is assumed that it would do so under a premium license to the Imperium to keep the story from breaking in the popular media.
The efforts of Marquis Doctor Toyama Weston and his associates prevented SuSAG’s plan from being entirely successful, leading SuSAG to begin an operation to remove all evidence of their involvement that included assassinating Baron Alton and possibly others involved or having knowledge of the plan in whole or in part.
Details on the information contained in the datachip are attached to my report. Many thanks are owed to Captain Diores Granger and the rest of the crew of the Klenova for their work on decrypting the chip’s data in a timely fashion.
I highly recommend that security forces in the district maintain high vigilance for the remaining members of the group who remain at large, as they, along with Rand Tyler, can be considered collaborators in the conspiracy to murder Baron Alton. It would not surprise me to learn they had fled for the Imperial frontier after this report is circulated.
(signed) Baronet Atopia Hesslering
231-1105, Narmada, Red Sun City, near Arcology Juliette Azure Oh Nine
Dinner at Armando’s seemed to be a wonderful way to celebrate a job well done. The food was beyond reproach, the wine heavenly, and the view of the magnificent desolation of the northern fringes of Incineration Solitude was simply divine. It was probably the best three hundred credits I’d ever spent, though the four hundred credits I’d invested in a hand-crafted purse to accommodate my new body pistol was a close second, even it wasn’t going to be ready for at least a week.
I was riding the surge of humanity up the steps from the pedestrian plaza to the main mass transit platform when I heard several people behind me make exclamations of surprise. I turned just in time to see a seemingly unoccupied ornithopter rig plunging toward the crowd in a shallow dive. A glint of reflected metal near the right wingtip caught my eye – a coil of molecular wire with a spiked weight on one end spooling out from the final wing flexor.
“GET DOWN!” I screamed as I dropped the unyielding steps, my hand slipping into my clutch purse for the old body pistol inside it. As the ornithopter rig whooshed by overhead, I caught a glimpse of its pilot, a twisted shadow of nighttime sky and ornithopter wings playing along the lines of lean male form – somebody wearing a chameleon suit. The weight on the wire caromed off the step next to me and it whiplashed upward, shredding the delicate fabric of the wing.
I fired the body pistol over the cowering forms of the people in front of me while I was still half-prone on the steps. The bullet shattered a carbon-fiber strut in the left wing, sending the craft and its rider into a sickening half-barrel roll as the wing crumpled. The exclamations of the people on the platform told me that my attacker had crashed into the grove of ornamental trees just beyond the platform.
Dre Argus survived the crash with several lacerations and a dislocated left shoulder. He was moved to a maximum security cell under constant guard. After an hour of questioning, troopers from the Imperial Army escorted me back to my apartment.
“Another day in the strife,” I said to no one as I examined the torn and dirty formal dress I had worn to dinner that night. I looked at myself in the mirror, haggard and sad, my hair an asymmetrical tangle after looking so very nice at dinner. “You sure this is worth it?” I asked. My reflection had no answer.