142-1105, Narmada, Red Sun City, Estate of Subsector Duke Darius Ingersoll
“I, Retired Imperial Navy Captain Atopia Kesslering, give my most solemn oath to uphold the traditions of the Imperium, protect its citizens and their interests to the best of my ability, to defend the Imperium from all threats both from without and within, and to conduct myself in a manner that upholds the highest moral standards. From this day forward, I shall place the needs of the Imperium above my own, gladly accept the responsibilities and consequences of leadership until I die, am not longer able or until I prove I am no longer worthy of it. May all the assembled members of the Narmada Subsector Moot bear witness to my oath and acclaim it.”
Whew, thought Atopia, I can’t believe I got that right! She stood on the fifth step of the grand staircase of Duke Darius Ingersoll’s mansion, sweating under her perfectly adorned and pressed Imperial Navy dress uniform. She looked out across reception hall and saw over a hundred members of the Peerage looking back at her. Some of them were smiling, perhaps reliving the moment when they had said those words. Others were simply bored, their faces impassive. The rest had their attention elsewhere, whispering to others or casting knowing looks to one another through the throng.
Duke Darius cleared his throat. “If there are any among you who believe this citizen of the Imperium does not deserve to stand among us, step forward and make your claim.” The room went silent. Atopia heard ice rattling musically in leaded crystal glasses, blending with the hammering of her heart. If someone did step forward, the end result would most likely be a duel to the death.
The moment passed. “Seeing no challenge,” continued the Duke as he turned to face her, “I, Narmada Subsector Duke Darius Ingersoll do hereby decree before the honored members of the Subsector Moot that by the powers granted to me by His Majesty, Emperor Strephon the First; Her Grace, Archduke Adair of the Domain of Sol; and His Grace Wayhaven Sector Duke Wymark Gascoyne; that Retired Imperial Navy Captain Atopia Kesslering is now vested with the rank of Baronet.”
The room erupted in applause and cheers. “Long live the Emperor!” cried Duke Darius.
“LONG LIVE THE EMPEROR! LONG MAY HE REIGN!” The applause quickly faded as the nobility broke up into knots of conversation and spread out across the hall.
The Duke turned to Atopia again offering her his arm. “Congratulations, Captain,” he said as he guided her down the steps. “I hope you’ll pardon my old-fashioned ways, but many a newly-minted noble has been victimized by weak knees on the descent.”
Atopia smiled broadly at that. “I would never so dishonor the Imperial Navy,” she said. “But I thank you, all the same.”
“I would like to see you for tea tomorrow, if your schedule allows,” said the Duke as he released her arm. “It’s more for my wife than me, of course. Most of the assembled Peerage will be departing Narmada for their homes tomorrow, now that the Subsector Moot is ended, and she always comments that the mansion seems so dreadfully quiet the day after.”
“How can I refuse a member of the Peerage in need?” said Atopia. “I would be delighted, of course.”
“Splendid!” said Darius. “Tea is served at 1830 precisely – don’t forget we have twenty-eight hour days here on Narmada.”
“Perhaps that’s why I’ve been so tired these past couple of weeks,” commented Atopia. Her smile faded. “Your Grace, I really don’t think I’m ready for an Imperial Liaison posting just yet. Perhaps after a few more years, when I’m ready to settle down somewhere…”
“I understand completely,” he said with a nod, “please don’t be concerned. There are easily a half-dozen others who have been looking to put that feather in their cap as a way to earning a fief of their own. There will be others, Baronet.”
“Thank you, Your Grace,” she replied. “This is all so sudden – I’ll need some time to adjust.”
“Then may I suggest you talk with Marquis Doctor Toyama Weston?” said the Duke. “If you’re looking for a more adventurous retirement, I’m sure he can accommodate you.”
“Um…” replied Atopia, “which one is he again?”
The Duke laughed. “Keeping track of nobility can be a bit overwhelming, I admit! Here, I will introduce you.”
The Marquis acknowledged her with nod of his head, waiting until the Duke had left them before speaking. “Congratulations on your elevation to the Peerage,” he said. “After perusing your file, I would say it is a few years overdue.”
“My file?” asked Atopia. “My military personnel file? How did you - ?”
“Rank has its privileges,” he replied, “and after my exploits earlier this year, I have considerable pull with His Grace. When he mentioned last week that he was considering giving you a title in light of the Navy’s full disclosure of the INS Polaris Incident in 1098, I decided you might be of some use to me.”
“In what regard?” asked Atopia.
The Marquis clandestinely held up a hand as a waiter with a tray of drinks paused beside him. He took a lowball glass filled with ice and three fingers of amber spirit while Atopia selected a wineglass of port. The Marquis said nothing until the waiter was out of earshot, savoring a small mouthful of his whiskey with a smile before continuing.
“In whatever regard that’s in the best interests of the Imperium,” he said. “I’ve killed a dozen people this year to protect the Duke, this world and the Empire. The people who work with me aren’t all killers, but they’re all equally dedicated in what they do to serve me because they trust my judgement.
“In my judgement, you have talents and skills that I need to fulfill my oath to the Emperor and the Imperium,” he continued around another sip from his glass. “You despise idleness and stagnation, plus you get results when you take action. Such abilities are invaluable to me and I’m willing to give you a generous retainer for your fealty to me.”
“I’ll need to sleep on it,” said Atopia as she took a generous swallow of the wine.
“If that’s what you’re drinking tonight,” said the Marquis with feral smile, “you most certainly will.”
* * *
143-1105, Narmada, Red Sun City, Arcology Whiskey Amber Oh Seven
The view was simply amazing. The Marquis’ penthouse was a dizzying two kilometers above street level, and the building was taller than all of the other arcologies in the district. She clutched the rail of the balcony as she watched ornithoptery enthusiasts launching themselves into the air nearly a kilometer below her. She was so entranced by their daring dances on the air, that it was some time before she noticed that Toyama was standing next to her.
“If you like,” he said, “you may join me for the Roundabout Air Races later this year. The final turn of the course is that tan arco over there. They fly back to the platform from there and the first one to land wins the race.”
“I’m sorry I was so distracted, Your Grace,” she said as she tore her gaze away from scene.
“Think nothing of it,” he said. “I hope you have an appetite, though. I told my aide Philip to prepare a meal for two.”
The luncheon was superb. After years of shipboard fare in the Imperial Navy, the assortment of fresh fruits and vegetables from the arcology’s hydroponic farm was heavenly. “No ill effects from last night’s wine, I hope?” he asked.
“I honestly don’t remember how I got home,” said Atopia. “Apparently I slept in my dress uniform.”
“Sonophim Robosi,” said the Marquis with a smile that faded quickly. “One of my associates had a bad time with it earlier this year. The fermentation process produces a neurotransmitter inhibitor that causes short term memory loss. I am shocked that His Grace would actually serve it at an official function.”
“Regardless,” she said, “I’ve decided to take you up on your offer. I’ve spent the last fortnight filling out paperwork, attending meetings and running from one appointment to another. I can hardly see any difference between work and retirement. Any sort of assignment would be a break.”
“Excellent,” he said as he stood. “I’ll have Philip help you get settled. The initial arrangement will be temporary, but I should have more permanent and appropriate accommodations for you in a few days. After you get settled, you can get to work on your first assignment.”
“So soon?” she asked. “What is it?”
“A simple but important delivery,” he said. “It is some private correspondence and a package that’s going to Baroness Orlena Lefevre on Ussan. Some of the correspondence is of a sensitive nature and should be protected. The package is an air/raft and recharging cradle – a thank you gift for her efforts on my behalf to stop an epidemic here.”
He handed her two high passage tickets and four thousand credits in cash. “That should cover your travel to and from Ussan along with the freight fees. I’ll leave it to you to arrange transportation – Ussan isn’t a high priority destination right now as they’re just getting started with the second harvest of the year there, so it’ll be catch as catch can for transport.”
“I’ll get right on it, Your Grace,” she said.
“Easy, Captain,” replied Toyama. “You don’t have to impress me with this one – it’s not life or death. I’d let you use my star yacht but I promised to ferry some of the off-world nobles home, so it’s not available. Ussan is a very pretty planet, unless you’re agoraphobic. You might even take a day or two just for yourself when the work is done. So, get moved in here and then work on finding some passage, okay?”
Atopia quickly discovered that finding commercial passage to Ussan was next to impossible, despite the fact that it was only one parsec away. She’d about given up when one of the nobles from the reception linked in.
Baron Eldon von Haas of Teleajen was a portly, jovial gentleman with a prominent graying moustache and a monocle. “I was checking back in with you to see if you’d decided on the offer I made you at the reception,” he said.
Atopia sighed in frustration as she explained the effects of Sonophim Robosi. “So you see,” she concluded, “I really don’t remember meeting you or what we discussed.”
“Devilish!” he exclaimed. “But it’s no great matter. I asked you to accompany me on a hunting trip to Ussan. I don’t really have a crew for my safari ship, but I’ve had a devil of a time finding a short-term engineer. I can handle the rest, of course, but I can’t be on the bridge and in engineering at the same time.”
“If you’ve got room for four tons of cargo,” she replied, “I will be happy to accompany you.”
“Four tons?” exclaimed the Baron. “You should really learn to pack light, young lady!”
* * *
150-1105, Ussan, Belle Plain Starport
The exterior post-landing inspection of the Baron’s starship was surprisingly problem-free. If you can call what he did getting it on the ground a landing, that is, she thought. But I’ll bite my tongue since beggars can’t be choosers.
The port was a large formacrete hexagon with two aircraft runways marked out and two dozen spacecraft landing areas. Just beyond a four-meters-tall chain link fence, she could see harvesting machines plodding their way through rows of grain. She paused to breathe in the smell of wildflowers in bloom, drinking in the moisture in the air as well. Two weeks of Narmada air was forgotten in a single deep breath.
The Ussan Portmaster’s name was Claude and his uniform was sun-bleached and well worn. Despite his appearance, he was very efficient, quickly escorting the two of them to his office to place a call to Baroness Orlena on an archaic analog hardline audio comm.
It took Orlena a few hours to arrive as she was helping to bring in the harvest at her farm as well. Atopia was taken back a bit by her appearance – a wide brimmed hat, T-shirt with an unbuttoned flannel shirt over it, dusty dungarees and dirty workboots. “Farm help is at a premium during the harvest,” said the Baroness as they climbed into her truck and wheeled over to Eldon’s ship. “Can’t own a farm around here if you mind doing the work – it’s against the Traditions.”
Orlena expertly piloted the air/raft out of the ship’s cargo hold and took it for a spin around the starport while her workers manhandled the recharging cradle into the bed of the farm truck. Atopia and Eldon stepped aboard the air/raft as the truck pulled away. “So how is the farm coming along since the recent… eh, troubles?” asked Baron Eldon.
“Let me show you,” she said. “Buckle up! I’m going to see what this baby can do!”
After the aerial tour of her farm, the group joined her workers for a plain but hardy meal that included Blue-Eyed Angel tea and bottles of beer from the local brewery. The workers retired early as tomorrow promised to be another long day of toil. Atopia took a moment to present her host with the courier bag she’d been carrying, and then Orlena was heading for bed, too. She made up the guest rooms before wishing them good night.
It was some time before both Eldon and Atopia were ready to sleep, though both quietly sipped tea on the veranda and marveled at the expanse of the Milky Way, as countless races have done over hundreds of thousands of years. Finally, they both retired to their rooms and slept with the sounds of crickets, night birds and the gentle sighing of the wind through open windows in their ears.
* * *
153-1105, Ussan, Island Gamma 103
They’d spent the past two nights living in a prefab cabin after flying out aboard the ship’s boat. Atopia was relieved that Baron Eldon was a better small craft pilot than he was a starship pilot as he expertly guided the boat to a gentle landing. Since then, he’d been on the trail of a particularly nasty brute of a game animal.
The Sanglier Noir was a porcine omnivore grazer that was solitary, aggressive, very territorial and somewhat larger than human size. Although Atopia had never fired a rifle before, Baron Eldon had given her one to use as he tracked a fairly large specimen through the underbrush of a subtropical forest.
They were pausing for a rest when the hairs on the back of Atopia’s neck. She barely had time to unsling her rifle as the beast burst from dense cover, baring its wickedly sharp tusks while issuing a hideous snarl. Both them fired and hit the creature, but it hardly slowed down as it crashed into Atopia, sending her tumbling through the brush.
She sucked in a breath, feeling a searing agony across the left side of her chest. One of the boar’s tusks had broken a rib. Without her cloth armor, it probably would have disemboweled her. Eldon screamed at the monster, distracting it just long enough for Atopia to pick up her rifle from where she’d dropped it.
She only had time for one poorly-aimed shot which went wide. The boar gored her again and she clipped a tree as she pin-wheeled backwards once again, knocking her senseless. The creature’s bloodlust gave Eldon the opportunity for the killing shot as it prepared to maul Atopia. The bullet tore through the boar’s heart and it collapsed with a scream and then lay still.
While the hospital in Belle Plain wasn’t high tech, its doctors were well-versed in treating injuries caused by wildlife. With her chest wrapped in a compression bandage, Atopia managed to help Eldon get the safari ship back into hyperspace and took the remainder of the transit to rest under the doting care of the Baron.