Monday, November 13, 2017

Blind Ambition, Part I                                   

Bella Torres
            Mine, I thought as I gazed upon her.  A functional ugliness was in her design, born of the demands of spaceflight and economy in the mind of a long forgotten naval architect some two centuries ago and a hundred parsecs from here.  I know it isn’t a law degree, father, but your little girl has a ship just like the ones you helped build before…
            I blinked back a sudden tear at the memory.  My memories of father were still tainted with seeing his blood-soaked body and the snide expression on the face of his killer, the knife in his hand covered in glistening crimson.  It took over a decade of plotting and planning to orchestrate my revenge as I learned the business of interstellar trade.  And then, in a whirlwind of flashing steel and bile-tinged adrenaline, it was over.  My father’s killer lay beaten on the deck, bleeding from a gash in his face that would mar that perfect expression for the rest of his life, reminding him daily of his defeat at my hands.
            I sighed and used the mental discipline I’d developed over the years to box it up and put it on the shelf of my memories.  One day, papa, we will walk hand in hand in the sun and smile at one another.  One day, perhaps, my memories won’t be so traumatic.
            Work, I thought as finished my musings, always so much work to do.

Wardy Foste
            Every day that I wake up in my three meters cubed, I have to face the memory.  The realization that the dreams I’d had are now lost to me.  I crawled into this hole to sulk after they handed me a pittance and said good riddance to my back as the door slammed shut behind me.  One man’s mistake cost a dozen people their lives and he’d seamlessly made it all look like it was my fault.  He lied so well, he almost made me believe it, too.  Instead, all I could do was seethe in silence as the tribunal legitimized the lie and condemned me, granting me the “mercy” of my freedom while ripping out my heart along with the dreams I’d had since childhood.
            It hasn’t been all bad, though.  I’ve learned a bit about hydroponic farming while I’ve been here.  It’s been good therapy, I guess, to help things grow and reap the harvest of one’s toil.  But if I stay here any longer, I’m the one who’s going to grow roots.  I’ll get used to living in an arcology and live out the rest of my life in a single building and forget about the reason why I left home in the first place.
            One of my friends woke me up this morning, letting me know that a position had finally opened.  And so I headed to the starport with my few meager belongings and what was left of the small wad of Imperial currency the Navy had bestowed upon me as they kicked me out.  I’m heading back out into the black – if I can only remember the oddball name of the freighter…

Tornado Hansen
            How long have I been running?  It seems like forever.  I thought I’d run far enough when I arrived here and merged with the teeming masses of this megalopolis.  Like so many things I thought I knew, I was wrong about this one, too.  I’ve been rolling the dice for too long now – it’s the only life I know.  But the dice have no memory, no sympathy and have never played any favorites.  You’re always one roll away from crapping out, leaving someone else to cash in your chips.
            The kid gave me away.  I thought he was some young punk too amped up on jazz or splinter to actually do the deed – too nervous or scared or intimidated to actually carry out the mugging he owned up to when I confronted him with the business end of my snub pistol.  But the kid was playing his part perfectly, marking me for unfriendly eyes to follow.  The punk retreated to the shadows and collected his fee – another hit or two of his favorite candy, no doubt – while I walked about thinking I was safe.
            Now I know different.  Chapman had my back and he’s got eyes in places I can’t see.  He let me know of my danger and finally paid up on his debts to me, knowing that we probably weren’t going to see each other again.  It’s good to have friends, even casual ones – the kind of friends who are even more desperate than you are and won’t ask questions if you waive a few Imperial cools under their nose.  I gave that friend my false ID and he left a trail of kibble crumbs that the bounty hunter will follow to a place three parsecs from here, giving me some breathing space and the opportunity to shake him loose from me.
            Belladonna Paradox – the name of the ship gave me a chuckle, the first one I’d had in weeks.  Yeah, this gamble might actually pay off.  It would be a refreshing change…

Baron Alton Richards
            I checked my outfit one last time before paging her.  The midday heat was only amplified by the formacrete expanse that was the starport’s spacecraft parking area. Fortunately, modern materials technology was keeping me cool enough – for the moment.  I didn’t envy my escorts, though.  The two Imperial Marines were wearing milspec body armor and carried their service rifles at the ready, as if expecting an attack at any moment.  That’s the discipline, I thought as I waited for an answer to the page, they don’t dare be caught slacking off when being bodyguards to a noble.
            The woman who opened the airlock hatch was not what I expected.  There was a simplicity of purpose about her.  Her femininity was a thin veneer over it all – a veil that could easily be removed to reveal the steel core of purpose and determination.  She’d walked a hard road to this meeting.  I could tell tolls she’d paid on that road by the deep, abiding pain hidden in the depths of her eyes.
            She gave me the barest hint of a curtsey as she spoke.  “Your Lordship.”
            I nodded in return, touching the brim of my hat.  “Ms. Torres,” I replied and told her my name and title.  “I come on urgent business from His Grace, Duke Darius Ingersoll. I apologize for not sending advance word of my visit.”
            She favored me with a slight smile.  “Nature of the business, baron.  Welcome aboard the Belladonna Paradox.  Your honor guard is welcome to come aboard as well.  No sense standing out in that heat if there’s no reason.”
            The marines lingered in the main crew lounge as Ms. Torres and I sat in the computer control room that doubled for her business office.   “So, my lord, how may I serve the Imperium?”
            I cleared my throat.  “His Grace wishes to charter your starship for one of his other nobles, Marquis Toyama Weston, to travel as soon as possible to Ussan.  You and your crew would assist the Marquis in whatever tasks he requires to complete his mission there and then return him here to Narmada with all due speed.”
            She smiled wryly.  “That’s a tall order, considering the starport authority just granted me the access codes to this starship this morning.”  She shrugged.  “I don’t even have a crew, yet – except for the pilot, of course.”
            I nodded.  “I can help in that regard.  The Marquis is also a doctor, so that position is filled, at least for now.  There is also a member of my personal staff who tendered his resignation recently.  I can personally vouch for his abilities as a ship’s steward.”
            “Thank you,” she said.  “Not to come straight to the point of business, but how much is His Grace offering for chartering my ship and hiring my, um… future crew?”
            I smiled as I pulled out my pocket computer and showed her the amount.  “This amount is for the charter,” I said watching her reaction, which was minimal.  “In addition, each member of your crew will be paid twenty-five thousand credits for their services in this matter, with a bonus of ten thousand more should the matter be resolved with speed and discretion.”
            “His Grace is quite generous,” she said.  “And if I may ask - ?”
            I held up a hand.  “Unfortunately, I am not privy to the details of the mission, but I am sure that Marquis Weston will be able to fill you in once the ship is underway.”
            She nodded.  “Then I’d better hedge my bets when I hire the rest of my crew.”  She offered her hand.  “We have a deal, your lordship.”
            I shook it gingerly and stood.  “Marquis Weston will bring the payment when he arrives later this afternoon.  I understand that he will be bringing some equipment he’ll need access to during the transit.”
            “I’ll see to that,” she said as she stood as well.  “If you can show yourself out, you will excuse me.  I have a lot of work to do and not a lot of time to do it.”
            I smiled again.  “Nature of the business, Ms. Torres.  Clear skies to you.”

Bella Torres
            “So what exactly are you qualified to do, Mr. Hanson?” I asked.
            Business has taught me not to judge a book by its cover, but this man’s appearance spoke volumes.  He looked like he’d slept in the clothes he was wearing, perhaps more than once.  He was sporting several days of stubble, and the bulge in his right hip pocket spoke of a flask with Great Maker knows what inside.  But it was his haggard expression, that tiredness of the soul that wears a person down that spoke the loudest.  He’d been on the run for so long that he’d forgotten what it was like to stand still.
            “I know my way around starships,” he said, “enough to know that you’ll be clearing port in a hurry. And since you don’t have anyone from the Longshore Union hanging around, I’d say you’re deadheading this run.  Considering this vessel doesn’t have any registration codes painted on the hull, I’d also say you only just got it financed, too.”
            He bore his gaze into me.  “I also saw that fancy blade on your hip when I came in.  They only make them like that on Godavari, and we both know that it’s seen some use.  Mine isn’t as fancy, but I’m willing to bet it’s seen just as much use as yours.  All the signs I see indicate you’re heading into harm’s way, possibly blind and definitely in a hurry.  So you’re going to need somebody who knows how to handle himself and can improvise in changing conditions – someone like me.  Plus, you don’t have a lot of time to be picky.
            “Let me make this easy for you,” he continued, “try me out for a cycle.  See if I’m pulling my weight or not.  If not, we’ll part ways, no hard feelings.  But if I am, you make me an offer.”
            I nodded.  “On one condition,” I said.  “Grab a vibe shower and run your clothes through the ultrasonic sanitizer before you start.”
            He chuckled as he stood.  “My belter stereotype precedes me, I see,” he said.  “I also have one condition: call me Tornado.”
            “All right,” I replied.  “And you can call me Bella.”

Marquis Toyama Weston
            The sun was setting as my transport reached the spacecraft parking area.  It had been a while since I’d been off world, nearly a year.  Managing affairs at my arcology always seemed to take up my free time.  It would be good to get away, even if the matters at hand were not so urgent.
            My brow knit as I saw the activity around the starship.  The Longshore Union was loading cargo containers via the ship’s rear ramp as someone conferred with the cargo master.  As I strode toward them, the cargo bot lumbered along behind me.  The foreman of the loading crew bowed and excused himself, leaving me with a man I would have mistaken for a low-life, if I only paid attention to appearances.
            “You must be the Marquis,” he said with a broad smile.  “Don’t worry, your excellency, I left plenty of room for your luggage and gear.”
            “It was my understanding,” I replied at a shout over the roar of a departing spacecraft, “that cargo space had already been paid for by His Grace, the Duke.”  I gestured with the satchel I was carrying for emphasis.
            “Space which he wasn’t going to use, was my understanding,” the man replied.  “Want not, waste not, I always say – especially when it’s lining my pockets.”
            I learned early on there is no point arguing with an underling.  “Where may I find the owner of this vessel?”
            “She’s on the engineering deck,” the man said, “but you should put on something you don’t mind getting dirty, first.”
            I nodded tightly.  “See to my belongings,” I said as I brushed past him and strode up the ramp.  I know my way around starships and rode the cargo lift to the middle deck and stepped through the open iris hatch into the engineering section. 
            A woman on the cusp of middle age was studying the readout of a techscanner as I approached.  I stopped short and let her finish the delicate adjustments she was making to a subsystem of the jump drive.  She closed up the control panel she’d been working on and started slightly as seeing me standing there.
            “Your Excellency?” she asked and I nodded.  She smiled nervously.  “Welcome aboard, then.  I’d offer my hand, but as you can see – “
            “I can see,” I said with a comforting smile.  “There will be plenty of time for formal introductions later on.  But since time is of the essence, perhaps there is something I can assist you with?”
            She looked suitably surprised.  “I was told that you’re a doctor, your excellency.”
            “Among other things,” I said as I put down the satchel and started rolling up my sleeves.  “I was part of a starship crew that ran medical supplies and personnel to refugee camps during the most recent world war on Nan.”
            Realization spread across her face as she spoke.  “You were part of Doctors Without Orbits?”
            “I still am,” I replied as I started walking past her.  “Have you started on the maneuver drive yet?”

            I could feel myself smiling as Narmada’s setting sun was boiling away on the horizon.  It had been two fat years working as Baron Alton’s personal valet, but it was time to take the money and run.  It’s only three more years, give or take, before I lay back down to sleep again, and it is a long, strange trip back to the worlds of the Imperial Core.
            As I crossed the formacrete expanse to the Belladonna Paradox, I considered that perhaps this time I would have the courage to say ‘enough’ to myself and resolve to live out what is left of my life in this time and age.  There will be plenty of time to consider that in hyperspace, I thought as I pressed the paging toggle at the starship’s main airlock.
            A filtered female voice responded to the page.  “Good evening.  Identify yourself, please.”
            “My name is George,” I replied pleasantly.  “His Lordship Baron Alton Richards informs me that you are seeking a ship’s steward?  I’ve prepared a picnic dinner of sorts for five.”  I held up the basket I was carrying to the video aperture and whisked back the folded picnic blanket.
            “You’re just in time,” the voice replied as the airlock hatch opened.  “We’re in the crew lounge.”
            A half-hour later, introductions had been made all around and everyone was in a jovial mood.  I was under the impression that everyone had been so busy that they’d skipped lunch.
            The young man of the group had retreated with his sandwich to the bridge earlier, but returned just as the meal was ending.  “Our flight plan is filed,” said Wardy as snagged a couple of cookies from the dwindling pile.  “We have a three-minute departure window at 2730 local tonight.”
            I smiled.  “Half an hour before midnight,” I commented.  “It’s a good thing I remembered to pack coffee.”
            Bella stood and cleared her throat.  “We’ll start running our preflight checklists at 2430 – an hour early, I know.  This will be the ship’s first run since it was repossessed and I want to make sure we have time to fix any minor issues as they come up.”  She turned toward Marquis Weston.  “And now I believe it is time for His Excellency to tell us what this is all about.”
            The Marquis looked decidedly uneasy but drew himself upright and put on the mantle of authority like anyone else would don a coat.  “Two weeks ago, His Grace, Duke Darius, asked me to examine several members of his staff who were experiencing vision problems.  After working up their histories, I discovered they all had contracted the same strain of a virus that causes Acute Zonal Occult Outer Retinopathy – AZOOR, for short.  It is a degenerative eye disease that leads to tunnel vision and then eventually total blindness as retinal tissue is destroyed.
            “Normally, it takes AZOOR years to claim a patient’s sight.  It is a notoriously difficult virus to eradicate once it has infected someone, but with the long time frame, usually a personalized pharmaceutical and surgical regiment can be found to restore the patient’s sight.  But the strain infecting His Grace’s personnel is one that hasn’t been reported before now.  Three of the sixteen patients are exhibiting a vision degradation that is consistent with what would normally take two years.”
            “Great Maker!” I heard myself blurt out.  “Pardons, My Lord,” I hastily added.
            “None necessary,” he said to me.  “I felt the same way during my diagnosis.”
            “Okay,” said Tornado, “so why are we in such a hurry to get to Ussan?”
            “There is a plant that grows there,” replied the Marquis, “a wildflower, actually – that has medicinal compounds in its petals and leaves.  They call it the Blue-Eyed Angel.  The locals make an herbal tea from it when children and the elderly are feeling a little under the weather.  I studied homeopathic remedies as part of my medical training and remembered that a similar eye disease had been treated on Ussan by dripping small amounts of the prepared tea in the eyes of patients for several days in a row.”
            Wardy spoke up.  “So this important mission of yours is we’re going to pick flowers on Ussan?”
            The Marquis ignored the pilot’s sarcasm.  “I have brought a number of cultured samples of the virus with me.  I will need around 500 grams of the flower’s petals and leaves so I can kiln-dry them and make a concentrated batch of tea to test it and its effects on the samples.”
            Bella’s brows knit.  “There wouldn’t be a need for secrecy if it was just sixteen cases out of 68-odd million residents of the Imperial Autonomy District.”  She looked pointedly at him.  “But there are more, aren’t there?”
            The Marquis sighed in resignation.  “Yes,” he said quietly.  “The latest count before I boarded this ship was nearly two thousand patients who either are experiencing the virus’ initial flu-like symptoms, or have within the last month and are now reporting vision problems.
            “His Grace has experienced the chaos of an epidemic first-hand when he led relief efforts for the Ebonscale Plague on Kiewa in 1077.  That is why the mission is so secretive and so urgent.  I only hope that my test results are encouraging.  If this doesn’t work, I don’t know what else can be tried in time to save the sight of all those people.  At the rate of progression with this strain, the first patients have perhaps two cycles before they’ll be completely blind, and there’s no telling how many more will be infected by the time we get back.”
            “Not to be pulling down the shade in a dark room, your excellency,” I added, “but is there any evidence that this is an enhanced biological weapon?”
            The Marquis shook his head.  “No direct evidence,” he said, sounding unconvinced, “but given the accelerated pace of its symptoms, it’s certainly a possibility.  However, that doesn’t concern us now –“
            “The Nine Hells, it doesn’t!” exclaimed Tornado.  “If that virus was released deliberately, whoever did it might be anticipating this move.  We could very well have a very unfriendly reception waiting for us!”
            Bella nodded in agreement.  “We’ll plan for the worst and hope for the best,” she said.  “We have a couple of hours before we start preflight.  I suggest everyone grab a catnap before then.  It’ll be three hours of pre-launch work and another three hours out to a hundred diameters once we lift.  We’ll get some regular sleep rotations worked out after transition.”
            Oh my, I thought to myself, this is shaping up to be very interesting!

Tornado Hansen
            I shuffled the cards and dealt another hand.  George picked up his cards without rearranging them, regarding them with the practiced stone face of an experienced gambler.  I’m glad this is a friendly game for small stakes, I thought as I regarded my own cards.  He’d eat me alive in a serious game.
            “I’ll open for fifty,” George said in the same monotone he’d adopted since the first hand.
            “Fifty it is,” I replied as I tossed currency in the pot at the center of the table.  I tossed another bill in on top what I’d already thrown in.  “And I’ll buy one of yours for fifty more.”
            Tork is a bluffer’s game with a twist – you can put more money into the pot to make select opponents reveal part of their hand.  If the opponent refuses, he must either match your offer or fold.  Most gamblers I’ve confronted in the game would rather pay up than reveal, but George had bucked the trend since the opening hand.
            He held up his cards to me.  “Pick your poison,” he said with a shadow of a smile.  I selected one and placed it face down in front of him – the Baroness of Orbs.  I blew out a breath.  Once a card hits the table, anyone can use it to make their final hand.  “Good pick,” George conceded as he pulled a pair of cards from his hand and set them aside.  “I’ll take two.”
            I picked up the deck and dealt him two from the top.  “Two for the ladies’ man,” I said, “and the dealer takes two as well.”  I looked over my hand after I’d set the deck aside.  I already had two ladies in my hand – but they were the Dames of Stars and Daggers.  My draw had added the Dame of Cups to my collection, so I was feeling brave.  “It’ll cost you a hundred to play,” I said as placed the currency on the pile.
            “My, my,” George replied, “finally got some good cards, did you?”  He tossed in three bills.  “I’ll just have to see some of what you’ve got.  I’ll see your hundred, raise you a hundred, and I’m buying one of yours for another hundred.”
            I grit my teeth but held up my hand.  I groaned inwardly as he revealed the Duchess of Orbs from my collection.  “Well, well,” he said pleasantly.  “Seems I’m not the only ladies’ man at the table tonight,” he chided, “and you certainly are keeping better company than I.  I’m so happy you saw fit to share.”
            I put another bill in the pot.  “Call,” I said.
            “You’re smart to cut your losses,” he remarked as he revealed the rest of his hand.  I groaned outwardly as I saw that my Duchess let him build a Flush of Orbs.  I tossed my trio of Dames on the table and waved for him to take the pot.
            “Take heart, good fellow,” George said as he corralled his winnings.  “I would say we’ve broken even on the night, more or less.  Reminds me of a game I played during the celebration of Her Majesty, Empress Paula the Second’s coronation on Athay.  There were quite a bunch of sharks in the game…”
            George’s narrative continued, but I’d grown used to them in the few short days we’d been in hyperspace together.  They seemed fantastic from the outset, implying George was much older than he looked.  Empress Paula II had ascended the Iridium Throne over three centuries ago at the tender age of sixteen.  He probably meant Paulo III, the one before Strephon, the current Emperor, because even anagathics couldn’t keep somebody alive for that long, could they?  Still, George’s stories held just enough of that first-person credibility to make me wonder…

Bella Torres

Belladonna Paradox log, entry for 046-1105                                           
            We have arrived safely at planetary sunset at the Belle Plain starport on Ussan.  They roll up the streets at night around here, so we’ll get to work tomorrow on the Marquis’ mission, right after we get the cargo off-loaded.  The shakedown cruise has gone smoothly – just a few minor repairs and maintenance during the transit.  Even though the crew was thrown together at the last minute, they’re working together well enough.  I’m hoping it continues through the days ahead.  I’m also hoping that Marquis Weston is right about his guess concerning his wildflower tea remedy for the victims of AZOOR on Narmada.  However, I am also hoping that this is just some freakish strain of the virus and not a bioweapon that’s been loosed on an unsuspecting populace.  I suppose we’ll start getting some answers tomorrow.

***End of Entry***

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