Monday, November 13, 2017

One of our Nobles is Missing                    

240-1105, Narmada, Red Sun City, Arcology Juliette Azure Oh Nine

Inspect the plant. Measure the melon. Cradle the melon when you cut the stem. Place the melon gently into the sorting crate. Write the melon’s size in grease pencil on the rind. Move to the next plant.  Repeat ad infinitum.

Valo Arenson paused to stretch and windmill his arms to get some feeling back into his shoulders.  He’d been working in the arcology’s hydroponics farm every day for nearly four months.  He’d left the Imperial Interstellar Scout Service with dreams of making big money as a corporate merchant pilot or navigator.  Instead, he was living hand to mouth on his share of the harvest.  Nine hours a day of physical labor in exchange for rent in a three-meters-cubed, utilities and a small share of the harvest that he could sell and/or eat.

There were far worse ways to make a living, of course – but most of those paid better.  He couldn’t remember the last time his feet had touched the streets of Red Sun City.

Life on the streets was tough here, but better than most places that he’d seen in his travels across the Imperium and beyond.  It was certainly better than Moksha, his homeworld.  Here, the downtrodden looked after each other; they helped each other when they were down.  One was expected to return the favor, of course, but even if you didn’t, somebody else would.

“You doin’ okay, Valo?”  He started at the sound of the voice.  He turned and saw the team supervisor looking back at him with a concerned expression.  Valo nodded.  “Looked like you spaced off there for a minute,” the supervisor said.

“I suppose I did,” he replied.  “Sorry.”

“It’s okay,” said the supervisor with a smile.  “The shift is ending for today.  Finish up this row and then line up for your share, all right?”  Valo nodded and turned back to the work.  Inspect the plant. Measure the melon. Cradle the melon when you cut the stem…

Narmada, Red Sun City, Duke Darius Ingersoll’s Residence

“…I was simply floored by the announcement, my dear.  Marquis Toyama getting married?  I had thought he would remain single for the rest of his life!”  Baroness Selene Fairfax chuckled a bit at the thought and took a sip of her tea.

Atopia smiled at the thought as well.  She’d recently met her benefactor’s fiancée, Baronet Kogura Yani, and thought her a very good match for the dashing Marquis.

From what Toyama had said about her, they’d met while he was dealing with a murder investigation on the property of his arcology earlier in the year that had carried him to Olt and then on to Kiewa with her in tow.  After that business had been concluded, she’d remained on Narmada and the two had grown quite close in the short time they’d known each other.  The wedding was still more than a year away – interstellar communications being limited to the speed of the X-boat network meant that the wedding invitations had to get out early – but she was certainly looking forward to being invited to the ceremony.

A side door to the room opened and His Grace Duke Darius Ingersoll, Selene’s husband, entered the room.  “I do hate to break up the party, your ladyship,” he said, “but a matter has come up and I’m afraid I must call Baronet Atopia away.”

“Another one of your cryptic emergencies, my lord?” asked Baronet Selene.  The Duke nodded while he extended a hand to help Atopia to her feet.  “You do realize that’s twice, now, you’ve kept me from having a proper tea with our newly minted noble?”

“Yes, my dear,” said Darius as he guided Atopia toward the door.  “And I will make it up to you, I promise.”

“You had better,” said Selene with a pout.

The Duke escorted Atopia to a small office across the hall from the tea room and gestured that she should sit in one of the overstuffed leather-covered chairs.  He sat upon its match across from her.  “Do you know Baronet Deidre Brogan at all?” he asked.

“I know of her,” replied Atopia.  “I’ve been studying up on all the nobility in the subsector of late.  She’s the Imperial Liaison for Dnieper, if memory serves, which is a two-parsec jump from here.  She was an Imperial Marine trooper before that… gravely injured in a raid on a pirate base, I believe.”

“Quite so,” replied His Grace.  “One of the duties a liaison has is to file regular reports about matters that might require Imperial – my – attention.  For the past ten years, she’s filed those reports, regular as an atomic clock; military discipline and all that.  Her most recent report due is now three weeks late.”

“Do we know anything more than that?” asked Atopia.

“Other than an official request I sent for an explanation two weeks ago which has not been answered,” he said, “no.  That’s why I want you to travel to Dnieper at once, and on the Q-T.  Find out what’s going on with her, and if necessary, relieve her of her duties there until I can send a replacement.”

“I’ll book transportation at once,” Atopia began, but Darius held up a hand.

“I have recently acquired a Suleiman-class Scout/Courier,” he said.  “Like I said, I want this done on the Q-T.  Since I know you’re an excellent engineer, all you’ll need is a pilot and navigator.  However, given recent events, I don’t want somebody hired by SuSAG taking getting another easy shot at you.  I have another noble in mind to accompany you.  I feel he will be of some use besides just a bodyguard, and it is high time he make himself useful to the Imperium, whether he likes it or not.”

The Duke pulled a credit voucher from the breast pocket of his suit and handed it to her.  “Fifty thousand credits for expenses,” he said as he stood.  “Now get moving – I want you in hyperspace before planetary sunset.”

Narmada, Red Sun City, Arcology Delta Emerald Seven Nine

The door page sounded shrilly in the semi-darkness of Baron Harper Willow’s apartment.  Harper was sprawled across his bed trying to survive the initial nausea of his hangover.  Someone – a very annoying someone – had attempted to link-in at least a half-dozen times an hour ago.  He made a groggy note to himself that he would have to upgrade his service to block incoming calls when he didn’t feel like answering them.

He’d been on Narmada for nearly three months, enjoying an extended break from the tedium of managing the family’s agricultural concerns on Kolan.  His uncle, Baronet Fletcher, had agreed to manage things for a while, since Harper was having a hard time adjusting to regular life after twenty years with the Merchants.  His nights here were filled with entertainment of all sorts and drinking – quite a bit of drinking, actually – and sleeping off his hangovers in this modest efficiency unit a hundred stories above the street.

The door pager sounded again, cutting painfully through the semi-conscious fog he’d nearly lulled himself back into.  “Your Lordship,” said a voice over the intercom, “this is security.  If you do not come to the door immediately, I will override its security code and enter.”

Harper threw the pillow that had been covering his head aside.  “All right, all right!” he shouted as he lurched out of his bed.  “I’m coming!”  As he stomped across the floor to the door, he growled under his breath that whoever was responsible was going to answer for this.

He opened the door to see a pair of the arcology’s security officers standing there, along with two Imperial Army Military Police officers as well.  He opened his mouth and then closed it.  “Whatever it is,” he said at last, “I didn’t do it.”

“You most certainly didn’t, Your Lordship,” replied one of the security officers.  “His Grace, Duke Darius, has been attempting to contact you by the link for over an hour.  He’s sent these two gentlemen from the 3749th I.A.M.P. to escort you to his residence at once.”

“Then let’s go,” replied Harper, as he attempted to step through the doorway.

The security officers both held up halting hands to him.  “Your Lordship, you’re not properly dressed to be in public,” said the one who had spoken before.  “And quite frankly,” he added as he wrinkled his nose, “you should probably shower before getting dressed.”

Harper heaved a sigh of defeat.  “Very well,” he said.  “I’ll need ten minutes or so.”

Twenty minutes after that, he was standing in a semi-circular library study in the Duke’s residence.  He went over to the small wet bar in one corner of the room next to the expanse of transparisteel that made the room’s single straight wall, fishing out a detox tab from a dispenser and knocking it down with a bottle of spring water.  It took effect one minute before His Grace stormed in.

“Your Grace,” Harper began, but got no further.

“Shut up,” said Duke Darius as he forcefully pointed to a wooden straight chair in the center of the room, “and sit down.”

Harper did both.  “Do you have any idea how many wonderful reports I’ve had to read about your exploits of drunken debauchery over the past three months?” asked the Duke.  “Go on, take a wild guess.”

“Um…” replied Harper, “perhaps one for every night I’ve been here, Your Grace?”

“Amazingly, no,” replied the Duke, “but it is so many that I lost count a few weeks ago.  And then, to add insult to injury, you refuse to answer a vid-call from your rightful Lord?!”

Harper decided on the smart play and said nothing in reply.

“I’ve kept my very busy schedule open for nearly two hours because of you, Harper!  A situation has come up and I need you to back up one of my more reliable members of the Peerage in a matter of some urgency.  You will accompany Baronet Atopia Kesslering to Dnieper and you will be subordinate to her for the duration of this task.  Here’s her comm-code – you can get the details from her, as I have already wasted too much time on you today.  You are dismissed.  Go.”

Harper stood and walked to the door.  “And Harper,” the Duke added, “the next time I have to send somebody for you when I want to see you, I’ll strip you of your rank and bodily drop kick you out of the Moot.  Is that clear?”

“Crystal clear, Your Grace,” he said as he turned and bowed.

Narmada, Red Sun City, Arcology Juliette Azure Oh Nine

Valo was feeling pretty good, all things considered.  He’d traded the two melons that were his part of the harvest for noodles, beans, tofu and a nice assortment of vegetables in vacuum packs from the head chef at Armando’s.  As he was leaving the restaurant for his sleeping room, his hand computer pinged and vibrated in his pocket.

] Display
>>NEEDED IMMEDIATELY: Short Term Pilot/Navigator who can get a Type S to Dnieper and back in one piece.  Flat fee of Cr8000 for the trip, but must be able to lift tonight!  Respond ASAP – First qualified applicant gets the job!
] Reply
] I’ve been around the ‘Verse in a Type S for 16 years!  I’m a Class II Pilot and Navigator from the IISS looking to go up the country and ready to fly when you are!  Have carbine, will travel!  Got questions? My ComCode is 9A73.C188.EA26.44DB.
] Sleep

He was just finishing his dinner when his communicator warbled.  He smiled as he pulled it from his pocket.

241-1105 Aboard the Makarya in hyperspace between Narmada and Dnieper

Atopia watched their expressions as she gave them the details of the mission.  Valo seemed genuinely interested, but Harper looked simply looked tired and bored.  “Any questions?” she asked.

“Just one,” said Harper around a yawn.  “Do you really enjoy getting jerked around by the Duke, or are you foolish enough to believe this is actually going to get you something later on?”

“I serve the Imperium,” she said, “which means getting jerked around by His Grace and putting up with the likes of you, occasionally.  I honestly hope that you prove to be of some use on this mission, because it’s six more days to Dnieper in a very small starship, and you’re already getting on my nerves.”

“Well, excuse me for not showing a proper amount of enthusiasm for your mission,” Harper said, “but I got shanghaied by His Grace into coming with you, so why don’t you give me a little down time to sulk about that before getting in my face with all that gung-ho for the Imperium stuff?  Will that work?”

Before Atopia could reply, Valo spoke up.  “Yeah, that’ll work.  Your stateroom is the first one on the left.”  Harper rose and left the commons.  Valo held up a hand until Harper’s stateroom door had closed.  “You may be in charge of the mission, Your Ladyship, but I’m in charge of this ship for the duration.  And I am not going to listen to the two of you snipe at each other, is that understood?”

Atopia blew out a breath and nodded.  “You’re right,” she said.  “I’ll give him some time to cool off.  It’s been a busy day for me, too.”

Valo nodded.  “I do want to thank you for hiring me for this job,” he said.  “I really appreciate getting half of the money up front.  Things have been seriously tight for me for a while now.”

“Don’t thank me yet,” she said as she headed toward her own stateroom.  “The ways my past missions have gone, things are only going to get worse from here.”

247-1105, Dnieper, Orsha Starport Extrality

Baronet Deidre Brogan’s residence was a quaint two-story townhouse nestled among a number of low office buildings.  The front had a large, paved courtyard adorned with several planters of flowering flora lining a low wall with a wrought iron pedestrian gate and a larger vehicle gate.  The pedestrian gate was unlocked as the trio stepped through it and up the short flight of steps to the front door.

Atopia knocked on the front door, revealing it was both unlocked and slightly ajar.  After calling out for Deidre several times, the group entered the house, shutting the door behind them.  Inside, all of them drew weapons – Atopia with her custom body pistol, Harper with an SMG and Valo with his well-worn carbine.  With nods and gestures, Atopia sent Valo upstairs and Harper to the basement, leaving the ground floor for her.

“Clear upstairs,” said Valo over his comm.  “It looks like she packed up for a long trip, actually.”

“Clear on the ground floor, too,” said Atopia.  “I’d say she cleaned out the fridge for the trip.”

“Clear in the basement,” said Harper, “though I’ve found some interesting things down here.  You should come down and take a look.”

Harper was in the process of hacking into a desktop computer when Atopia and Valo made it to the basement.  The walls of room at the bottom of the stairs were covered in maps – the kind one finds at a planetary geological service rather than the tourist varieties.  Several of them were marked with circles, arrows, X’s, and cryptic scribbled notes.

On a shelf at the end of the room were three… things.  Each of them was about the size of a large apple and appeared to be a time-worn device of some kind.  “By the Maker!” exclaimed Valo in hushed tones.  “Those appear to be artifacts of the Ancients!  I’m no expert, of course, but I’ve seen holos of some that the IISS found.  These look to be a similar style.”

“And I’m in,” said Harper as he opened a number of file folders on the computer’s screen.  “You’re welcome, by the way.  Can we go home now?”

Atopia made a face but said nothing.

Valo stepped over to Harper.  “See if you can find a dig journal in there,” he said.  “Deidre seems to be an amateur archeologist, after all.”

“Got it,” said Harper after a moment.  “Her last entry is dated nine days ago.  Looks like she was returning to the site where she found those things,” he said as he waved in the direction of the shelf.  “There are several references to something called ‘Chirpers’ but I’ve got nothing to reference it to.”

“Hmm,” said Atopia.  “So the best guess is that she’s out there somewhere and may be in trouble?  Do we agree on that?”

“Occam’s Razor,” said Valo with a nod.  “We’ll need a vehicle and supplies.”

“Doesn’t the Makarya have an air/raft aboard her?” asked Harper.

Valo shook his head.  “The ship’s been in private service for a while,” he said.  “The former owner must have sold the air/raft so he or she could have four more tons of cargo or storage space.”

Harper fussed with the computer for a couple of minutes.  “Got a match on the maps,” he said at last.  “There’s a ridge about six hundred clicks to the southwest from here that fits the topography.”

“We’ll need our own ATV to get there,” said Valo.  “Do either of you know how to drive one?”

“It’s a ground vehicle,” said Harper with a shrug.  “How hard can it be?”

249-1105, Dneiper, approximately 600 km southwest of Orsha

The ATV lurched to a sudden stop as it made the all-too-familiar sound of impact with an object – a tree.  Harper swore quietly as he urged the vehicle into its reverse gear once again and spun the steering wheel to clear the obstacle.

“I forget,” said Valo in a voice loud enough for Harper to hear, “what was the over/under on struck obstacles with Harper in the driver’s seat this trip?”

“Whatever it was,” replied Atopia, “whoever chose ‘over’ won sometime yesterday afternoon, I think.”

“Hardy-har-har,” said Harper as he plowed the vehicle forward through some more brush.  “Both of you can eat a bowl of –“

The ATV broke into a meadow where the ridge was clearly visible less than a kilometer away.

“Okay,” said Harper, “we’re here.  Now what?”

“We find her ATV,” said Atopia.  “Everybody armor up.  I want weapons at the ready, just in case.”

The baronet’s ATV was hard to find, initially.  Deidre had taken the time to hide it under a camouflage net while nestled in a grove a trees.  The smell of rotting food gave it away, though, as the group found a large gash in the netting.  The ATV’s main hatch had been ripped off its hinges and its interior had been shredded by something very large, very strong and armed with dagger-like claws or talons.

“Looks like the work of a Dnieper Ursoid,” said Valo.  “They’re voracious omnivores massing about four hundred kilos and can reach nearly two and a half meters tall when they’re on their hind legs.  They’re hairless, but the hide is tough enough to turn a blade.  They’re also very territorial.  The good news is that if we get one on our tail, it’ll stop chasing us when we reach the edge of its territory.”

“No wonder the authorities didn’t raise a fuss about our weapons when we told them we were heading out into the wilderness,” said Harper.

“Get your medscanner out and check for blood inside the ATV,” said Atopia as she cast her gaze about the surrounding terrain.  Valo was doing the same.  “Hurry, please.”

The scan was negative.  Harper emerged with the news and a satchel bag.  “Found this among the debris,” he said.  “Lucky for us, it didn’t get abused like the rest of her stuff.”  Inside the satchel was a leather-bound journal and a larger sketchbook.

“The last entry inside the journal is from five days ago,” said Atopia as she skimmed the book.  “Deidre said she was heading for a cave mouth about two-thirds of the way up the ridge.  She was looking to find more artifacts and more of these ‘chirper’ things.  Wish I knew what they were.”

Valo opened up the sketchbook to show the others a page.  The sketch showed a vaguely reptilian humanoid with avian features, including a beak-shaped snout, a tail and membrane wings like a bat’s.  The sketch was labeled “Chirper.”

(GM Note:  The whole business about Chirpers, Droyne and The Ancients isn't really common knowledge across the Imperium yet.  Even Valo, recently parted from the IISS, doesn't know about them...)

The climb up the ridge was easier than any of them had guessed.  The cave mouth was hidden in an eroded cut that hadn’t been visible from the meadow.  “Somebody’s done some home improvements,” said Valo when they reached it.  The opening had been thatched with woven twigs and mud to reduce its height and width to just over a meter.

The opening didn’t lead to a cave, but rather a hexagonal hallway cut through the stone of the ridge.  The thatching ended about three meters into the hall and the trio was able to stand again.  “No markings or inscriptions,” said Valo as he snapped and shook a pair of chemical light sticks to life.  “Whoever made this was very utilitarian.”

Atopia took one of the sticks from Valo.  “I don’t see any machining or chisel marks in the walls,” she said.  “That would mean a fairly advanced civilization made this.”

“It opens up into a larger space ahead,” said Harper as he unlimbered his submachinegun from his combat armor.  “Let’s go.”

The space beyond seemed immense, filled with small huts at regular intervals.  “A town?” asked Valo aloud.  “Or is it a barracks?”

Atopia held her light stick next to the wall of one of the huts.  It was decorated with charcoal and chalk patterns and designs.  “Whatever it was before,” she said moving on, “it’s been home to somebody in the years since.”

Distantly, they heard murmuring echoes punctuated with high-pitched chirping noises.  “Kill the lights for a moment,” said Harper.  Valo and Atopia complied.  It took a moment for their eyes to adjust, but ahead they could see a faint light, though the light source wasn’t obvious.  They cautiously edged toward it.

Baronet Deidre Brogan lay on the floor of one of the huts.  One of the small humanoids from the sketch interposed itself between them and her, brandishing a crudely-fashioned spear while chittering angrily at them.

“Easy there, Fred,” said the baronet.  The chirper turned its head toward her.  “Friend,” she said carefully while pointing at the trio.

Fred wasn’t having any.  It turned and hissed at them, standing its ground.

“Put the guns away,” said Deidre.  “I think he’s seen them before – somebody may have taken pot shots at his people in past.”  They complied and Fred put down his spear, returning to Deidre’s side.

Atopia handled the introductions.  “Pleased to meet all of you,” said Deidre.  “I’d stand up, but as you can see, I have a broken leg.  Had one of those damned ursoids get the drop on me a few days ago,” she explained as Harper hunkered down next to her while unpacking his medical kit.

“Yeah,” said Valo, “it also did a number on your ATV.  If it’s a rental, you’re not going to get your deposit back.”

Deidre smiled at that, but it quickly faded.  “It bore me down before I could get a shot off, but I gave it a knuckle sandwich with my cybernetic hand.  After that, it contented itself with the food in my pack, dragging it off into the woods.”

“Did you sew these lacerations up yourself?” asked Harper.  Deidre nodded.  “You did a pretty good job.  The splint on your biological leg is a different story.  I’m going to have to reset the bone.  Did you break anything else?”

Deidre shook her head.  “That creature must have come into the woods recently,” she said.  “The chirpers are starving to death because they can’t forage for food out there with the ursoid lurking about.  I found the remains of over a dozen of the little guys in the bastard’s spoor.”

“You were bringing these chirpers food?” asked Atopia.  Deidre gritted her teeth but nodded as Harper prepared to reset the broken bone.  “You found them when you found the artifacts?”  Deidre yelped as Harper yanked on her leg.  Fred hissed at Harper for a moment before seeing that Deidre was now resting more comfortably.

“Yeah,” said Deidre.  “Dnieper has a very conservative mindset – caste society backed up with centuries of selective breeding.  I wasn’t sure how they would handle the discovery of a sentient race that’s been living in their backyard all this time.”

“If the chirpers know about guns,” said Valo, “somebody’s seen them.”

“True,” replied Deidre, “but that person probably didn’t tell anybody because chirpers look like big lizards if you don’t get more than a glance.”

“With wings,” added Harper as he injected a localized painkiller into her leg.  “Can they fly?”

“Nope,” said Deidre around a sigh as the painkiller took hold.  “Not that I’ve been able to see, so the wings must be vestigial.”

“That suggests they came from somewhere else,” said Valo.  “Maybe they piggybacked here with the Ancients?”

“That’s a question for Imperial archeologists and anthropologists,” replied Deidre, “provided the Dnieper government lets them work.  I thought there might be a better chance for that if the whole thing was kept under wraps from the general populace.  The Grand Council already keeps a number of secrets, after all.”

“First things first,” said Atopia.  “We need to kill that ursoid so we have a chance of getting you out of here alive, not to mention give the chirpers a fighting chance at survival until they can be studied.”

“I have an idea or two about how we can do that,” said Harper.

260-1105, Narmada, Red Sun City, Duke Darius Ingersoll’s Residence

“…after the ursoid went for the opened food packages we used for bait, the three of us opened up on it.  It took a lot of bullets to bring that monster down, but none of us were hurt in the effort.”  Atopia paused to take a drink from her glass.

Duke Darius nodded.  “I’m glad this hunting expedition went better than your last one,” he said.  “And how did it go with Baron Harper?”

“Oh, he grumbled a bit at first,” said Atopia, “which is understandable, of course.  However, once we were into the thick of things on Dnieper, he proved quite invaluable.  I honestly think we wouldn’t have done so well without him on the team.”

“Hmm,” said the duke, “perhaps I misjudged him, then.  How was Baronet Deidre doing?”

“She’ll make a full recovery,” said Atopia.  “The medical facility at the starport there isn’t first rate, but they’re good.  She’ll just be laid up for a week or so.  A little cosmetic surgery down the road will take care of the scars.”

“That’s very good to hear,” he said.  “I don’t suppose you’d want to replace her as Liaison to Dnieper?”

“Afraid not, Your Grace,” she said.  “Quite frankly, I’m enjoying my retirement, thank you very much.  I was never much of an administrator.”

“For which, I’m grateful,” said the duke as he rose to his feet.  “Divide whatever’s left of the credit voucher between Baron Harper and yourself with my blessing.”

Atopia rose to hers as well.  “Many thanks, Your Grace,” she said.  “I am curious how the Imperium’s Science Bureau is going to handle things there.  Baronet Deidre made it sound pretty delicate so far as the local government was concerned.”

“Time will tell,” said the Duke as he showed her to the door.  “For now, the matter will be in the lap of Duke Wymark Gascoyne – when your report reaches him at the sector capital on Belaya about six weeks from now, which will be getting fairly close to the end of this year.”

“Plenty of time to take tea with your wife, of course,” said Atopia with a smile.  The duke chuckled at that as Atopia left the room.

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