Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Moving Target, Part II                             

089-1106, Tarn, Elanapolis, The Victorious Hotel

Atopia cradled her head, gently breathing in the vapors of the freshly brewed coffee in her cup.  “Fifteen hundred credits,” she whispered to herself.  “I never paid that much for dinner in my life.”

The night before, she’d drank at least part of eight magnums of the best wine that Tarn had to offer, while watching in horrified fascination as her dinner date tore through two appetizers, three entrees, a main course and two desserts while gulping down that hideously expensive wine like so much water.  “Part of me hopes he didn’t survive the night,” she murmured.  “I’ll settle for him feeling as awful as I am right now, that miserable little pig of a bureaucrat.”

Mercifully, both Baron Harper and Dame Diana had been ghosting around her, hardly making a sound in their shared hotel suite.  Harper’s coffee-brewing skills were still exemplary, but his detox pills were no help in shaking off the misery of Atopia’s epic hangover.  The baronet took a sip of her coffee, grateful for the familiarity of it and the hope that perhaps the suffering might soon be ending.

“What time is it?” Atopia groaned.

“It speaks!” said Harper.  Atopia shot him a murderous look from her bloodshot eyes.  “Mid-afternoon, Your Ladyship,” he added with a slight smile.

Atopia nodded and turned back to her coffee.  “Does seeing me like this make you reminisce about your nights of drunken debauchery on Narmada?” she asked.

“Frankly, I don’t remember most of those,” he replied.  “Have to admit, though; I never had one bad enough that two detox pills wouldn’t sober me up.  I’d give you a third one, but that would be unethical of me.”

“That’s not what’s important,” said Dame Diana as she plopped down on Atopia’s unmade bed.  “Do you think you’ve made progress in getting to our target?”

“Some,” replied Atopia around another sip from her cup.  “The twenty-five hundred credits I palmed Clayton Leets under the table probably helped more.”  She shook her head, instantly regretting it.  “Great Maker!  That man can drink!”

Diana’s comlink warbled and bleeped.  She pulled it from her vest pocket and looked at it.  “It’s a scrambled video squirt from the rest of the crew aboard the Silver Dawn,” she said as she rose from the bed and placed the unit where Atopia could see it.

The diminutive screen filled with Tabitha’s features.  “Greetings from the forgotten trio!” she said with a smile.  “First, a status update – Hawk is nearly finished with the guidance gyros for our fake company’s ‘prototype’ in case anybody outside the starport perimeter asks to see our ‘product.’  Also, Valo is faking a bugaboo in Dawn’s power systems to explain why we’re sitting empty on the starport tarmac.”

Tabitha’s cheerfulness faded as she continued.  “It took me a while to dig through the starport’s entry records, but I found Rand Tyler’s new alias.  His new moniker is Stannis Romanov.  The bad news is that he didn’t come to Tarn all by his lonesome.  There were four other ugly mugs that went through customs with him.  I ran those by our friends in Naval Intelligence at the orbital base. Their facial recognition software pegs those mugs as being the four mercenaries that escaped the dragnet on Narmada along with Tyler.  I’ll send you a file on all of them at the next contact time later tonight.”

Atopia swore, instantly regretting it as what was a receding headache flared across her temples anew.  She held her head until the pain faded again.  The playback had paused automatically at her outburst.  “Resume playback,” said Dame Diana, who placed a comforting hand on Atopia’s shoulder.

Tabitha looked almost apologetic.  “And before you get upset, it gets worse.  No less than four people from the Matriarch’s court, possibly more, have disappeared over the last three cycles.  After doing some crosschecking with the local newsprint outlets, all of the people who disappeared could have been potential rivals to our target – including two higher-ups in the Matriarch’s personal security force.  Maybe we’re just paranoid, but it is our belief that Mr. Tyler is in the process of organizing a coup against Elana.  Do us all a favor and watch your asses – Silver Dawn, out.”

“Great,” said Harper, “this just keeps getting better.”

“Doesn’t change what we came here to do,” said Atopia.  “It’s now imperative we get Tyler off this planet as quickly as possible.  I will be damned if I’ll let Tyler thumb his nose at the Imperium as a head of state.  For now, we’ll stick to the plan.”

“We’ll need some insurance against four mercenaries,” said Diana.  “Can you spare five thousand credits in cash, Your Ladyship?”

“Weapons?” asked Atopia and Diana nodded.  “Get it out of my bag.  Don’t take too many chances, though.  If you get arrested or killed, you’ll expose the rest of us here.”

091-1106, Tarn, Elanapolis, Club Morando (Private)

Atopia touched the pocket that held a loaded body pistol and a spare clip of ammunition.  That earned her a none-too-gentle poke in the ribs from Diana’s elbow.  Atopia grunted and nodded, knowing that her hand had strayed to it far too many times in the past hour.  Harper caught the exchange and smiled, then tossed his head in the direction of the buffet.

Clayton Leets was there, filling his plate to overflowing with hors d'oeuvres.  Clayton was short, obese and myopic, with a pair of thick spectacles perched upon the bridge of his bulbous, red nose.  “That’s the guy who drunk you under the table the other night?” asked Harper.

“Book and its cover, Harper,” said Atopia.  “I need you and Diana to mingle while I get my big introduction to Clayton’s boss.  That’s why we’re at this little shindig, remember.”

Clayton broke into a broad smile when Atopia approached, easily palming and pocketing a bundle of three thousand in Imperial script without disturbing his plate or wineglass.  “Ms. Paxton!” he exclaimed, “so very good of you to come!  I hope you have adequately recovered from our last meeting?”

“Most certainly,” she replied behind the mask of a friendly smile, “though you notice I’m sticking to fruit juice and seltzer water for tonight.”

“Ah, that is a shame,” he replied, “for there are some heavenly vintages being offered tonight.  I do have good news for you, though.  My supervisor is in attendance tonight, though it might take me a bit to get you introduced – he is a very important man, you understand.”

“Of course,” Atopia replied.  “But I’m sure he’ll be both grateful and rewarding to the man who opened up the way to the sorts of opportunities that I can present to your government.”

“Oh, I’m sure he will,” said Clayton.  “Please wait here while I get into the queue.”

After five minutes, it was painfully obvious that Clayton was fairly low in the pecking order, giving Atopia time to look around the room.  She found Harper in conversation with a positively enchanting young lady in a pink pearlescent cocktail dress who was at least fifteen standard years his junior.

Diana was nowhere in view, so Atopia used her comlink to ping the lady knight’s unit.  Diana’s response was a terse digital response.  “Indisposed,” was the reply, “Give me five minutes.”

Atopia shook her head at that.  “When you gotta go, I suppose,” she said to herself.  And then she saw that Clayton was waiving her over to meet his boss.  It took all of her Navy discipline to keep her hand from straying to pistol in her pocket once again as she strode across the room.

When she got there, Clayton handled the formal introduction.  “Fiona Paxton, meet the Matriarch’s advisor on Interstellar Affairs, Stannis Romanov.”  She shook his hand, fighting down visions of Baron Alton face down on the floor, bleeding out from the bullet wounds in his back.

He smiled and nodded to her.  “Ms. Paxton,” he said, “on behalf of Matriarch Elana, welcome to Tarn.  Clayton has been eager for me to meet you, but I must say his reports neglected to mention that you are beautiful as well as ambitious.”

“You are too kind,” Atopia said from behind the cordial mask she wore for him.  Tyler had made a few cosmetic changes during his flight from Narmada, but she still recognized the face beneath his Romanov identity.  “I am surprised that a fellow off-worlder could be a trusted adviser to a planetary head of state,” she added.

“She appreciates having my perspective on extra-planetary affairs,” he replied as he took a pair of glasses from a passing waiter.  “The key to my success in that regard is being able to back up my claims with proof that I’m right.  And, not to brag, but I always am,” he added as he handed her one.

She nodded to him and raised her glass.  “To the health of the Matriarch,” she said.  He nodded in return and touched his glass to hers before taking a generous swallow.  She did likewise, savoring the fact there was no alcohol in the beverage.

“I am curious why you are choosing to set up operations here on Tarn,” said Tyler, “when there are so many other opportunities around the subsector.  Many other worlds are not subject to the kinds of trade restrictions the Imperium imposes here.”

“Tarn has many benefits when it comes to freedom from the usual regulations,” she replied, “especially those who can forge and maintain strong links to certain members of the Matriarch’s court.  My company would also have the benefit of a lack of competition, assuming we can curry favor with the right people.  My strength is being able to deal face-to-face with people of power rather than run gauntlets of bureaucracy.”

Tyler swirled his drink in his glass for a moment.  “The sort of relationship you seek is certainly possible,” he said at last, “but it would require frequent… maintenance, of course.”

“The price of doing business,” said Atopia giving her mask a feral smile.  “Dealing with people is generally easier than trying to understand tax codes, after all.”

“Is this from personal experience?” he asked.  “Or watching others you worked for fail?”

“A mix of both,” she replied around another sip of her drink.  She made a face and looked at her glass.

Tyler smiled.  “Somaak juice goes bitter when it gets tepid,” he said as he reached for her glass.  She let him take it.  He quickly waived down one of the waiters and he sent the man to fetch a cold one.

He turned back to her, but looked past her right shoulder and sighed.  “One of the drawbacks of being in a position of power,” he said.  “There’s always a queue of people who want a piece of your time.”

“Then I won’t keep you any longer,” she replied, “but I do look forward to seeing you again, in the near future, I hope.”

“Yes,” he said, “I believe you can count on that.”  He took her hand and pressed it to his cheek – a common gesture of parting she’d seen on Tarn’s video entertainment services.  She returned the gesture and then she was standing alone.

“I’m here,” said Diana from behind her left shoulder in a tightly controlled voice.  “You need to round up Harper and meet me outside.  Now.”

092-1106, Tarn, Elanapolis, The Victorious Hotel

“What’s the prognosis, Your Lordship?” asked Diana.  She was holding a piece of gauze to the outer knuckles of her right hand.

“Not to get in a fistfight with you,” Harper said as he looked over his patient.  “Other than losing a couple of teeth and having a hell of headache when he wakes up, he should recover everything but his pride.”  He looked up at her.  “Somebody mind telling me who he is?”

“According to the files we got from Tabitha,” said Atopia, “he’s Paul Sanduski, one of the four mercenaries that arrived with Tyler.”

“I had to take him down,” said Diana.  “He recognized me.”

“A temporary solution at best,” said Atopia.  “I'm pretty sure he’ll be missed.”

“It gets worse,” said Diana.  “The waiter that took your glass when you were talking to Tyler was one of his as well – Rokonovich, I think.”

“Which means,” said Harper, “if he can lift one clean fingerprint from the glass, he’ll find out who you really are.”

Atopia’s features hardened.  “Harper, get this man awake – now.  Diana, we need to know where Tyler is.”  She looked at the young man lying motionless on the bed before looking back at the former Marine.  “I don’t care what you have to do to him to find out.”

Diana nodded slowly as she tossed the bloody gauze into a trashcan.  “Wait outside,” she said to Atopia.  “Make up a story for anyone who gets curious about the noise.  Harper, help me get him into the bathroom.”

096-1106, aboard the Silver Dawn, in hyperspace between Tarn and Narmada

-- from the personal journal of Baronet Atopia Kesslering

It’s all over but the shouting now.  I intend to take full responsibility for causing an interstellar incident.  I get the feeling that Duke Darius will say the ends justify the means in this matter, but the crew and I all have blood on our hands now.

It took Dame Diana just under three hours to break Sanduski.  Tyler had a personal residence in an affluent northern district of Elanapolis.  After some of his actions against members of the royal court, it wasn’t safe for him to remain in the palace.  Diana got some final details and then she ended his suffering.  She told me that what was left of him wouldn’t have lived for much longer, anyway. 

Harper’s locked in his cabin right now, trying to drink away the memories of what happened in that bathroom.  I gave him a couple of bottles of the Ussan Saramani I bought back on Narmada.  I hope it helps.

My comlink warbled on the way over to Tyler’s place.  It was Tyler.  He’d lifted a fingerprint from the glass, called me by my real name.  Told me he was calling in the Matriarch’s security forces.  I called his bluff, saying I knew he’d already murdered two of their number, possibly more.  He countered that he still had three mercenaries and they were loaded for bear.  I replied that I had a fully armed starship that could blow that house to pieces and incinerate the debris with its thruster wash.

One of his mercenaries overheard that last bit, and decided he’d had enough.  I heard a grenade go off somewhere in the house, then two shotgun blasts.  It was at that point Tyler dropped his comm and went for a weapon.  I heard a door get kicked off its hinges and somebody panic-firing a pistol.  There was another shotgun blast, the sound somebody falling over a piece of furniture with a gurgling moan and then an eerie silence.

“My name is Dimitri Petrovski,” said a thickly accented voice that reminded me of Colonel Kerimov’s of the Gray Twilight back on Moksha.  “If you want Tyler alive, you’d better hurry.  The other two mercs – Odom and Rokonovich – are dead.  I am now a murderer here on Tarn.  If you will take me from this world, I will testify against Tyler for clemency.”

I agreed.  It wasn’t until after he was disarmed and restrained that I told him what we’d done to Sanduski.  He bore us no ill will, strange to say.  That’s the life a mercenary, I suppose.

Valo violated several planetary and Imperium laws in bringing the Dawn from the starport to Tyler’s place.  The ship’s thruster wash shattered windows and tore shingles from the residences as our pilot stood the ship on its tail and beat a hasty retreat into space.  Tabitha’s connection with the local Navy base kept misunderstandings to a minimum as we made our way to one-hundred diameters and jumped for Narmada.

Tyler took full load of double-aught buckshot to the abdomen.  Harper got him stable enough to put into a low berth, but says it’s fifty-fifty if he’ll survive revival long enough for a medical slow drug treatment on Narmada.  I freed Petrovski from restraints after we hit hyperspace.  He’s still locked in his cabin, though, under full security surveillance.  My trust has limits, after all.

Now we’re all waiting for the transition back to normal space, about eighty-five hours from now.  Nobody’s talked much since we hit space.  We’re going to have to at some point.  I’m probably going to have to be the one to start.

I’m just not sure how.

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