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.
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…