(Note: This was the final session for the player running Bella Torres. The players who controlled Tornado Hanson and Wardy Foste made new characters the next session to remain with the group.)
Wardy Foste was not a morning person. This much his friends and neighbors knew from the short time he’d been living in his cubical apartment in the Whiskey Amber Oh Seven arcology. Admittedly, he’d been away for a couple of weeks with the Marquis and the merry band of misfits that was the ad hoc crew complement of the Belladonna Paradox, but certainly that wasn’t long enough for them to forget this most basic cornerstone of his lifestyle?
But, somebody was knocking on his apartment door at just an hour after sunrise.
“Lights,” he said to the housekeeper program, “low.” The program pinged in response and the single overhead panel gently lit the cubical’s confines with a gentle, early morning glow reminiscent of twilight mixed with the warmth of a fireplace hearth – two things that Wardy wasn’t very familiar with, but adequate to the task. Wardy rolled off the slab of smartfoam that was his bed and checked the video pickup of the surveillance camera mounted above the door.
The man knocking on his door was young, maybe even a year or two younger than himself. He had the traditional features born of the selective breeding of Imperial nobility and was dressed in business attire that was decidedly too expensive for this part of the arcology. Wardy yawned and rubbed his eyes.
“Who are you and what do you want with me at this miserable hour of the morning?”
The young man started a bit before recovering. “You are addressing Sir Charles Barlow,” said the young man, “and it is my understanding from Marquis Toyama Weston that you are employed as a pilot aboard a free trader?”
Wardy suppressed the urge to growl in frustration. “Correct,” he replied. “So how may I serve the Empire and can’t it wait until this afternoon?”
The young knight smiled. “Unfortunately,” he replied, “my business cannot wait. I need to speak with the captain of your ship. I have a business proposition for him that is of some urgency.”
“Her,” corrected Wardy. “Captain Bella Torres is a woman.” He yawned again without muting the pickup on the monitor. “But I’ll take you to the ship, since I was going to be heading that way about six hours from now, anyway.”
The knight nodded. “I appreciate you altering your schedule to accommodate my situation,” he said.
“Not half as much as I would appreciate the reverse,” replied Wardy before hastily adding, “Sir. I’ll be out in a moment.”
It took about that long for Wardy to dress and pack up his meager belongings that included a fat wad of fresh Imperial credits from his previous exploits on Ussan. Wardy introduced himself on the way as the pair rode the maglev loop train out to the Red Sun City starport. Sir Charles peppered Wardy with questions about the structures and locations the train passed along the way.
What Wardy didn’t know, he made up, watching the reactions of the passengers around him as they participated in the joke by suppressing their mirth.
The thunder of departing and arriving spacecraft assaulted their ears as they made their way through the security checkpoints of the starport’s main entrance and found their way across the terminal to the gate that lead to the independent liners and freighters. The morning sun was already hot as they walked across the expanse of formacrete to the Belladonna Paradox. The main hatch opened before Wardy could operate the access panel and soon the pair arrived in the crew lounge.
Wardy gratefully accepted a cup of hot coffee and fresh cinnamon roll from George, who stopped and cocked his head. “Charles?” he asked.
“Sir Charles Barlow,” said the young knight with a slight bow. “Have we been introduced?”
George shook hands with the knight. “Well, you were a little too young to remember me when it happened,” replied the ship’s steward. “I was there when your mother went into labor with you, aboard the late Duke Rian Ingersoll’s personal yacht. He had an excellent physician then, but the good doctor hadn’t delivered a child before, so he got to learn from me while I delivered you. Your mother was most appreciative for that.”
“Then so am I,” replied Sir Charles. “Allow me to offer a much belated thank you, as well.”
George nodded as I hid a smile behind another bite of cinnamon roll. George was considerably older than he looked, of course, thanks to a combination of anagathics and long intervals of cryonic hibernation. Wardy wasn’t sure he bought the whole story, though – that George was actually the youngest son of the one Empress to survive the Emperors of the Flag era over 400 years ago.
George made the introductions. Tornado Hansen was looking decidedly worse for wear. Given what Wardy knew about the man’s personal habits, there must have been a very hot game of cards late last night. Wardy shrugged inwardly because everyone has their vices and Tornado’s kept him pretty flush.
Bella Torres hadn’t quite put on her business face as she sipped coffee and doted upon Jonesy, her large, gray tomcat. Bella had every reason to be concerned about dealings with Imperial nobles. The last one with Marquis Weston had put the crew in harm’s way, though Wardy knew that she’d turned a nice profit with the ship charter and everyone else had earned a few months’ pay for doing the dirty work and keeping their mouths shut about it.
Wardy had just finished his roll and first cup of coffee when he noticed the preliminaries were wrapping up. “Sir Charles,” said Bella as she gently shooed Jonesy off the table, “may I ask what brings you here this morning?”
“Business, I’m afraid,” said the knight as he sat down across from her. The rest of us settled in chairs on her side of the table as he continued. “I have a slightly unusual business proposition that is completely legal, but nevertheless has complications.”
Tornado was just getting to the table after fetching another cup of coffee.
“That’s nothing new,” he said as he sat down. “I got to try my hand as an amateur field botanist and entomologist on our last job – in between shooting and knifing perfect strangers, of course.” Sir Charles blanched slightly.
Bella shot Tornado a look. “What Mr. Hansen means,” she said, “is that we’re very flexible with job conditions. Perhaps you could tell us more about what you would like us to do?”
Sir Charles cleared his throat and most of his color returned. “Yes. The first part of the job is the easiest – I have 50 displacement tons of containerized environmental control equipment and myself as a high passage passenger that needs to be delivered to Barlow promptly.”
“Barlow?” Wardy blurted out. “I’ve never heard of the place.”
“My home planet and namesake does tend to be overlooked,” Sir Charles said with a smile. “Barlow is a small mining colony that has been in my family for one-hundred-sixteen years, ever since my great-grandfather, Baron Wilhelm Barlow was granted the planet for his family’s fief in year 989. He’d done a bang-up job handling battle area logistics during the Third Frontier War, you see.”
“It also happens to be one parsec from here,” added George. “I remember it being a bit short on atmosphere, though.”
“Not quite as short as it once was,” replied Sir Charles. “The Barlows owe much of the family fortune to our profits from radio-isotope mining, with particularly rich veins of uranium. Quite profitable if you happen to have the connections we do – so it finds its way into Imperial nuclear weaponry and the fuel rods used in reactors on lower tech worlds. The Imperial Bureau of Planetary Development has been frustratingly reluctant to finance terraforming efforts on Barlow, due to its limited resources and population, so much of the family profits have been invested in terraforming equipment and freelance environmental engineers. The planet has gone from a vacuum world to a very thin and tainted atmosphere in the past century. Of course, Barlow produces a number of other industrial metals and minerals, plus some of the finest opals in the sector.”
He removed his ring and slid it across the table toward Bella. To her credit, she kept most of her reaction hidden, but she did bite her lip for just a moment as she studied the stone set into the ring – cobalt blue with veins of bright silver threading through it and expertly polished to a fine gloss. She handed the ring back to him across the table.
“Sounds like everything is copacetic,” replied Tornado. “But I’m guessing your world has an immigrant problem.”
“Oh,” exclaimed Sir Charles, “so you’ve been to Barlow?”
“Been on enough mining colonies to know it’s the same song with a different melody,” Tornado said sourly. “Miners and greenhorns flock to worlds with dreams of striking it rich, and then don’t.”
“Then you know enough to know the problem,” Sir Charles said. “We have just over sixty-one thousand residents and another eight thousand transients. With the lack of a breathable atmosphere, there are parts of the main habitat that they’ve taken over. They don’t have enough money to leave, so they stay, engaging in begging, theft, con artistry and so forth. Most of them were good people once and could be again if they could just catch a break.”
“Not that anybody can afford eight mega-credits to give them all low passages and have them take transport as it becomes available,” said George.
“My mother,” said Sir Charles, “Baroness Danielle Barlow, is dead set against that option. She’s even forbidden me from attempting it on even a small scale, reasoning that if it such practice became common knowledge, everyone there would be clamoring for it. It hasn’t stopped me, of course, since I can help a few, at least. That is where all of you come in.
“Once the cargo has been off-loaded, I will get as much outbound freight as I can to you. The people loading that freight then need to be secreted somewhere aboard your ship until after the Port Authority does the final inspection. Once that’s done, and you’ve cleared port, you can shuffle them into your ship’s low berths. I have twenty low passage tickets here, so they’ll be paid for. And, of course, there’s also this.” He drew out what Wardy mistook to be a cigarette case initially, and slid it across the table to Bella again.
When Bella opened the case’s lid, she caught her breath. I caught a glimpse of more opals inside. She shut the case again. “I believe we have a deal, milord,” was all she said.
It didn’t take long to load up with cargo and passengers with Tornado handling the job – his gambling vices aside, he knew how to wheel and deal when it came to cargo contracts and wrangling up passengers. In less than sixteen hours, Wardy was guiding the Belladonna Paradox to one-hundred diameters. Tornado was in the ventral laser turret, watching Narmada recede to a tan dot.
“Did anyone think to leave his Lordship, the Marquis, a note saying good-bye?” asked Tornado over the comlink.
“We said that when the last of his cargo left the bay,” said Bella over the link. “It’s a little late to be sentimental. There’s business to be done and I’ve got a starship to pay off, so let’s burn a hole in jump space.”
Wardy reflected that it was business as usual during the transit. George made the most of the hydroponic foodstuffs he’d procured from several of Narmada’s arcologies and told stories about his many travels; Tornado kept things spic and span in between rounds of cards with the passengers; Bella fretted over various subsystems throughout the ship, tweaking and tuning them constantly; and Wardy spent much of the time seated on the bridge drinking coffee with Jonesy on his lap as he kept tabs on Belladonna’s status. Even transition to normal space was smooth as glass.
And then it all promptly went to hell.
Bella was sitting in computer control with George camped in Engineering. Tornado was seated in the copilot position, monitoring the passenger deck and the low berths. Something pinged on Bella’s board and she dumped the rest of her paperwork on the floor. “Bogie,” she said tersely over the link, “Bearing is relative three-oh-seven by negative six-four; distance is seventy-kilo-clicks.”
“Does it have a vector?” asked Wardy.
“Negative,” replied Bella. “Wait. Yes, dammit, we woke them up. I’m getting a neutrino and graviton surge from it now. They’re heading our way. They’re managing about two g’s right now.”
She stepped onto the bridge, barking orders. “Wardy, I’ll take over – you get to the dorsal turret and tell Sir Charles to get the passengers up there strapped into the acceleration couches in their cabins. Have him flag me when he’s strapped in. Tornado, see what you can do in the ventral turret. George, I’m going to talk you through how to rig the Belladonna for combat.”
The ship groaned as her maneuver drive flared to life and pointed her nose toward her attacker. Just as the free trader began to close the distance, her sensors were snowed over in static. “They’ve got a jamming rig aboard that tub,” commented Bella, “and I’m flying blind here. Gunners, do either of you still have the bogie?”
“I got him on the low band,” commented Tornado. “Nothing more than a blip on the screen, though. It’s still out of range of these pulse lasers, though.”
“I got him,” growled Wardy. “I’ve got a full charge on the laser capacitors, Captain.”
“Light him up, Wardy,” replied Bella.
Twin beams of light ripped through the void to find their marks. Bella noted that her sensors were clear again. The attacker returned fire striking a glancing blow to Belladonna’s port side. “Crap!” exclaimed Tornado. “We’re venting dihydrous!”
“I think I have a handle on it,” replied George coolly. The plume of water vapor stopped. “That did it, I think,” he said.
The two ships continued to exchange fire, and as the ranges closed, Tornado brought his battery to bear as well. In the end, Wardy fired a salvo that caused nearly all power output from their attacker to cease. But their parting shot tore through the engineering section. Bella saw the jump drive indicators flicker red before they went black. That section was also losing atmosphere. “George,” she said tersely, “get in a rescue bubble, now.”
There wasn’t any response.
“Wardy,” she said, “get your vacc suit on. Hurry! Tornado, get up to the bridge.”
It took precious minutes to don their suits and set up the temporary airlock that would allow them to access the depressurized engineering section. But soon, but Wardy and Bella entered the damage section. The rescue ball was inflated and George waved weakly from inside. Wardy shined his suit’s work lights into the bubble and saw that George hadn’t gotten into it fast enough. There were three separate areas of ruptured capillaries in his neck and cheeks, and the whites of his eyes were blood red as well.
Bella gave George the thumbs up and then had Wardy get George out of there.
She gave the savaged jump drive the once over. It was badly damaged, but still repairable, but Belladonna Paradox was going to need a bunch of parts she simply didn’t have on hand. Wardy re-entered the compartment with temporary hull patches and started slapping them into place.
“How’s he doing?” Bella asked.
“He didn’t get the bends,” Wardy replied. “He’s sucking on pure oxygen right now trying to get it together.”
“How about the passengers?” she asked.
“Sir Charles says they’re all shaken, but nobody’s injured,” Wardy said. “That’s good, considering the current condition of our medic and steward.”
“Better condition than the jump drive,” said Bella. “We need to replace the power regulator and three jump capacitor cells, plus about twenty meters of high-energy conduit. On top of that, we vented damn near all of our dihydrous into space. I’m not sure we’ll even be able to limp into a parking orbit with what we have left.”
“Hmmm,” said Wardy, “Do you think that wannabe pirate ship might have what we need?”
Bella thought about it for a moment. “It’s a gamble,” she said, “but what choice do we have?”
It took an hour to pull alongside the other ship. It was a seeker ship – a scout-courier ship that had been converted for asteroid mining – that had been christened Lady Crimson. Wardy’s handiwork with the beam laser turret had burned several holes in the old ship and had destroyed both its sensor suite and its only weapon turret, though the engineering section appeared to be intact.
Their hails were answered by the only surviving crew member, a guy named Spence who was on the last hour of life support in his vacc suit. The other two crew members were dead.
The salvage went well, due in part to Tornado’s belter background and his familiarity with seeker ships. After placing an automated marker beacon, they managed to wrangle the parts for their savaged jump drive and transfer enough fuel for the trip down to Barlow. Several passengers chipped in, helping wrestle the parts through the confines of Belladonna Paradox to the freshly re-pressurized engineering section.
Nearly everyone caught a catnap during the flight down to Barlow, with Bella spelling Wardy for his turn. Jonesy took his fair share of them with whoever left their stateroom door open.
Barlow lived up to its advanced billing. The main habitat was three concentric rings around its diminutive starport. There were a number of paved roads leading out to the baker’s dozen of air processors and then to the several dozen mine complexes beyond them. Heavy trucks and gravitics haulers bustled between the mines and the processing facilities and smelters as the Belladonna Paradox settled into her landing bay and the overhead doors slid shut.
Baroness Danielle Barlow was a women in her fifties who had an escort of four very rough looking men along with four members of the starport authority and a female Port Master. She embraced her son and thanked the crew for getting him home safely. Tornado was looking over one of the toughs with a critical eye when the man smiled in a thoroughly unpleasant manner at him.
Bella handled the introductions, but George stole the show. The Baroness fairly beamed at him as he turned on the charm. The Baroness invited the crew to dinner in her habitat to help celebrate her son’s safe return. The pair left the ship with the Baroness on George’s arm. “It seems,” said Sir Charles said in their wake, “that George will be our distraction. I’ll find some people who can help you with your repairs. After they’re done, find someplace to hide them aboard ship until you can depart. The rest will help load your cargo.”
Tornado stepped in front of the knight. “What else does your mother do to make money, Chuck?” he asked. “Because those guys with her have all the hallmarks of being syndicate veterans.”
“That’s ‘Sir Charles’ to you,” said knight, “especially around here. Unfortunately, my mother is shrewd and ruthless when it comes to her business dealings, and isn’t above bending Imperial laws to rake in a profit.”
“You mean - ?” began Wardy.
Sir Charles nodded while making a hushing hand gesture to his mouth. “The Baroness,” he said in a soto voice, “runs her own syndicate here. That’s why she wants a pool of ready labor who are too desperate to ask questions and know how to keep their mouths shut. The people I’m trying to get out of here aren’t that kind of crowd and are going to get themselves killed or worse if they stay here.”
“You realize that we’re land-locked,” Bella said. “It’s a standard procedure after an incident like this, so the Port Authority can conduct a hearing and make sure all the parties will attend.”
“Yes,” replied Sir Charles as he stood aside so that two port authority security men could escort Spence off the ship. “I did say the first part would be the easiest, didn’t I?” The knight offered a bow. “Remember tonight’s dinner date – don’t be late.”
Tornado favored the knight with a withering glare as he left. “Just once,” he said to Bella, “I’d like to have a transit that’s boring and ordinary.”
“Give me a break,” said Bella, “this is only the second job you’ve done with me.”
“True,” he said as he started striding up the cargo ramp. “But I don’t want this sort of thing to become a trend.”
Dinner was noteworthy only because the crew could tell that George had helped out in the Baroness’ kitchen. They traded small talk between George’s stories of the Baroness when the two of them first met. The lady Port Master was also in attendance – Bella and her spent some time comparing notes for the inquiry and what supplies the Belladonna’s repairs would require. Eventually, the dinner broke up with George and the Baroness leaving for her boudoir and the rest heading back to the starport.
Next morning’s inquiry was short and to the point. The information downloaded from Belladonna’s flight recorders corroborated the testimony of the crew and the crew of the Crimson Lady did engage in an act of piracy. Salvage rights on the seeker ship were awarded to Bella, while Spence would be held to await a formal trial. After the inquiry was over, Tornado sold the salvage rights and turned a tidy profit for his captain.
The repairs were numerous but routine. Spence was permitted to leave his detention cell to help out with them, and seemed eager and happy with the work. Bella took the opportunity to create a few priest holes for contraband in selected sections of the ship, and hid many of the departing passengers in them. In all, it took about two days to finish the work, find cargo and load it and take on passengers for Kiewa.
The night before departure, Bella held a crew meeting. “There is a law,” she said, “that permits for indentured servitude in certain cases.”
“You mean Spence?” asked Wardy.
“I do indeed,” the captain replied. “Anybody uncomfortable with that?” Nobody was.
It took a bit of wrangling the next morning, but with the approval of the Baroness, who seemed genuinely sad that George was moving on, Spence entered a three-year period of indentured servitude to the Belladonna Paradox, and her crew was more or less complete. After a light lunch, the Belladonna Paradox and her crew of misfits left Barlow behind and headed out into the void.