Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Moving Target, Part I                                

070-1106, Narmada, Red Sun City Starport

She was lean – the hard kind of lean born of the rigors of a highly demanding profession.  Her pale blonde hair was cut short; the functional cut of someone who spent much of her life getting into and out of combat armor.  And yet, she still had some of the feminine grace of her gender as she glided easily into the padded chair across the table from Atopia.  The baronet fought down the urge to slide her hand into the pocket that held her body pistol.

Her visitor glanced at flicker of motion of Atopia’s hand and gave her a steely stare in return.  “Do I frighten you?” the woman asked.

Atopia blew out a breath of irritation.  “No,” she said, “but the last time I was on Narmada, someone tried to kill me.  Call it caution and respect for what you’re capable of doing.”

“You’ve checked my background and service record, then,” said the woman with a nod.

“Yes,” replied Atopia, “and I must say, I’m surprised that you were only promoted to captain in sixteen standard years of service in the Imperial Marines.”

“I spent some time recuperating from battle wounds during my second term,” replied the woman.  “I had an allergic reaction to the regenerative drugs that were in use then.  It complicated and extended my recovery.  By the time I was fully recovered, the service assignments were limited.  I spent a lot of time in cryo on the cold watch.”

Atopia nodded.  She remembered seeing the cryonic berths filled with marines aboard the INS Polaris when she was in Imperial Navy.  They would hibernate until they were needed or until their watch was done a year later.  “Do you think they were concerned you might get wounded again?” Atopia asked.

The woman nodded.  “It’s possible,” she said.  “I’ll admit that I did little to endear myself to my commanders at that time.  Call it noblesse oblige – I joined the marines to serve, not sleep.”

“Understandable,” said Atopia.  “But you understand that this position that I’m offering will have considerable down time as well?  You’re more or less going to be a glorified bodyguard aboard a far trader.”

“The rate you’re offering for the position would indicate otherwise,” replied the woman.  “It’s fully two-and-a-half times what one would expect.  I have the feeling that you’re expecting trouble – sooner rather than later.  Given your recent past, I would say you’ve been sent into peril and left to reap the whirlwind by those who sent you.”

Atopia considered that for a moment.  “I can see now why you rubbed some of your commanders the wrong way,” she said with a smile.  “And it’s just the quality I’m looking for.”  Atopia stood and offered her hand.  “The position will be probationary for six cycles.  We’ll revisit that afterwards, though I’m sure you’ll be kept on.”

The woman stood and shook her hand.  The handshake was firm but friendly.  “Thank you, Your Ladyship.”

Atopia nodded.  “Welcome aboard the Silver Dawn, Dame Diana Sabatini.”

078-1106, Narmada, Duke Ingersoll’s Private Residence

The servant bowed to both Atopia and Baroness Selene.  “His Grace sends his apologies for his tardiness,” said the servant.  “I am told that he will join you shortly.”  The servant bowed and left.

The Mologan tea service set Atopia had picked up in her travels had Selene positively beaming with delight.  Atopia smiled in return as her hostess heaped compliments upon her and her gift.  The main topic of conversation besides the gift was the upcoming wedding of Marquis Toyama and Baronet Kogura. 

“You really must make sure you travels bring you back here in time for the ceremony,” said Baroness Selene.  “It will be held on the first Biday of Cycle Kappa, the 255th of this year – my husband’s sixty-fourth birthday!  Please tell me you’ll make it.”

Before Atopia could answer, the door to the tea room opened to admit Duke Darius, who wore a serious expression.  The Baroness rose quickly and they embraced.  “What’s wrong?” she asked.

“I’m making a dreadful habit of this,” he said to her, “but I need to take your guest away, again.”

“Is it that urgent?” she asked, casting a glance at Atopia.

“Yes,” he said, “and I’m sorry, my love, but this concerns some unfinished business from last year.  It will not wait.  I won’t let it.”

Atopia saw the Baroness blanch slightly and then nod.  The Duke offered Atopia his arm and they strode from the room.

Darius poured two fingers of Toyama’s whiskey brand into both lowball glasses before handing one to her.  “To Baron Alton Richards,” he said as a toast, “a dear friend and a fine member of the peerage.  We are lessened by his absence.”  Atopia touched her glass to his and took a swallow of the amber fire, feeling its familiar burn spreading through her as she sat down opposite the Duke.

“I received a message from our mutual friend, Leif Grenfeld, this morning,” he said as he reached into the breast pocket of his ornately embroidered vest.  “He sent it seven days ago from Tarn, an agricultural world two parsecs from here.”  He pulled out a slim pocket computer, tapped its surface a few times and then handed it over to Atopia.

“I spotted Rand Tyler in the capital city here this morning,” it read.  “I cannot go into details as I am otherwise engaged with an IISS errand here.  I am convinced he will not be leaving soon.  Good hunting.”

When Atopia raised her eyes from the message, she caught the Duke’s expression – cold, hard rage.  “I’ll make arrangements so you’ll have cargo in your hold within the hour,” he said.  “If Mr. Tyler is still there, I want him.  I want him brought back to me so he can face my justice for orchestrating the death of a good friend.  I trust you to do this for me.  Be careful, but get it done.”

Atopia handed the pocket computer back to him, then raised her glass again.  “To justice,” she said.

His glass trembled slightly as he brought it to meet hers.  “To justice,” he said.  Both glasses were empty before either of them set the vessels down.

087-1106, Tarn, Elanapolis

-- from the personal journal of Baronet Atopia Kesslering

The plan is in motion now.  We’re starting to make the rounds of the bureaucracy here.  I’ve put on my Fiona Paxton identity again to facilitate our cover story as entrepreneurial consultants for a start-up firm that didn’t exist until Tabitha used her computer skills a few hours ago.  Hawk is fabricating the product – advanced gyroscopic guidance units for lower-tech ballistic missiles.  Now, there’s nothing to do but wait for morning – maybe try to get some sleep.

But sleep just won’t come to me, tonight.  Every time I close my eyes, I see him.  He looks at me with those same dying eyes he showed me at the food court on Narmada eight cycles ago, blood pouring from the bullet wounds in his back.  I hear the burst of the assault rifle that brought him down, echoing down the corridors of memory forever.  Then, the light in his eyes goes out.

The Duke was as good as his word – forty displacement tons of supplies arrived at the ship less than three minutes after I got there.  Word went round to the Longshore Union, because loading stopped on every other merchant ship around the Silver Dawn as the workers hustled the cargo containers aboard her.  Other workers loaded her fuel tanks with refined dihydrous while space traffic control informed us that we would have clear space as soon as we were ready to depart.

Five Imperial Navy personnel marched up to my cargo ramp and presented four low passage tickets and one high passage ticket to me, along with an Imperial credit voucher for forty thousand credits and a single-use navigation cassette for the jump to Tarn.  The lieutenant (the high passenger) helped Harper bed down the other four enlisted in the ship’s low berths before retiring to his cabin.

Sometimes, it’s good to have friends in high places.

After Harper got done fuming about getting jerked around by the Duke yet again, the transit was uneventful.  I spent what free time I had reviewing the files on Mr. Tyler.  Navy Lieutenant Uther Lowe had served at the Naval Base on Tarn before, and filled us in on the peculiarities of that world’s government.

The previous monarch on Tarn had been a true despot, much like the Czars of Russia back on Terra during the 19th Century CE, old calendar.  Around Imperial Year 1081, the current monarch, Matriarch Elana, helped inspire and then lead the long and bloody revolution to depose the old order.  She got one of her fingers shot off during one battle, and was hobbled by shrapnel damage from a landmine that killed three others with her in another.

But she kept on fighting, inspiring hundreds of thousands of others to take up arms and to keep fighting when the odds were heavily against them.  Her photogenic features were plastered on propaganda everywhere during the five brutal years it took to finally beat the government into submission.  On a planet of three-and-a-half million people, nearly a sixth of them died in the fighting and the horrific retribution that followed as loyalists were rooted out and executed by the thousands.

When the fighting ended and all the scores were settled, it was Elana who motivated the people of Tarn to rebuild their shattered lives and world – as their new absolute ruler.  Five years of conflict got the people of Tarn exactly what they had before.  The only difference between the old despot and the new one was a highly effective public relations campaign that kept the people feeling good about what they had “accomplished.”

The honeymoon between the Matriarch and the Imperium soured less than five years after Elana came to power.  The Imperium helped ease the humanitarian crisis after the war was over, as well as provided technological support to get its industries back up and running.  But, Darius’ grandfather was not going to help rebuild the Tarn’s defense forces after reading the reports of the atrocities committed by Elana and her followers.

Thus began the Era of the Cold Shoulder.  Elana began placing taxations on the Imperial Naval Base on her world, which were ignored, and began a propaganda war against the personnel stationed there, which was initially ignored.  However, when Imperial Starmen and Marines began being assaulted, injured and killed by the enraged masses on Tarn for fabricated offenses, the Imperium decided to withdraw its facilities to orbit, leaving the starport to be operated by civilian authorities.

It was shortly after that when the Matriarch suggested a way for the Imperium to apologize for what it had “done” to the people of Tarn.  Elana wanted the flagship of the subsector fleet to be renamed after her – to instill trust in the Imperium with her people, of course.  The Subsector Moot flatly rejected the “request” in short order.  Shortly after that, the Matriarch began taking “tribute” from visitors to Tarn, as they would have "gladly" given her what she wanted in the first place.

Yeah.  She lost it some point.  But, as an absolute monarch with no checks to her power, it will take yet another revolution to remove her.  And how this all relates to my mission to find Rand Tyler became apparent after we got here.  Rand is part of that entourage of sycophants who are enforcing the many decrees of Matriarch Elana – in other words, he’s part of the royal court.

Rand is the silver-tongued devil who managed to sweet talk six members of the Twilight Dawn mercenary company on Moksha to quit their day jobs and moonlight as corporate troubleshooters for SuSAG; the reason why I hired Dame Diana on.  Baron Alton had uncovered information that tied the megacorp to an association with an Ine Givar terrorist who dispersed a weaponized virus that would have blinded the population of Narmada had Marquis Toyama not intervened.

One of the men Rand hired, Petrov Telosky, was the man who murdered Alton in front of me, presumably to get the information he carried and managed to pass to me as he died.  Another one of his mercenaries, Dre Argus, tried to kill me using monomolecular wire whipped from the wing of an human-powered ornithopter.  Luckily, I managed to bring his flying rig down.  He opted to be euthanized rather than serve out twenty years on Golgotha, the coward.

Meanwhile, Rand came here, ingratiated himself with the Matriarch and gained sanctuary from the Imperial authorities and the gaggle of very dead bounty hunters who’d been foolish enough to come here to look for him.  He has a cozy position as Her Majesty’s Interstellar Affairs Advisor and thinks he can thumb his nose at the Imperium.

But I’m not going to let him do that for much longer.

After locating him and taking a tour of the Matriarch’s Royal Palace here in Elanapolis, Harper, Diana and I have holed up in a respectable suite of rooms in a centrally-located hotel.  It took some brainstorming, but we have decided that the only way to get to Rand will be through legitimate channels.  That means we’re now posing as business people looking for the Tarn government to invest in something it desperately wants – advanced (for their tech level, anyway) weapons components.

The only fly in the ointment right now is the fact that latest in the string of bounty hunters looking to collect on Rand got captured yesterday.  The law enforcers have shut down the starport customs checkpoints on the assumption he wasn’t operating alone.  Fortunately, Diana and Tabitha had arranged for secure squirt communication before we arrived, so we’ve been coordinating our actions with theirs so we can all sing the same song if any of us gets arrested.

We went to the main administration building yesterday wearing newly purchased business attire and convinced the somewhat bored official there that we were worth the time and effort of a meeting for one of Rand’s underlings in Interstellar Affairs.  Hopefully, we’ll be able to work our way up.

Well, damn.  I can see the first fingers of twilight in the eastern sky.  Maybe I still have time for a nap…

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