The Black Mark
262-1105, Narmada, Red Sun City Starport
“Isn’t she a beauty?” asked the salesman. He didn’t wait for an answer as he plunged into his sales pitch, touting the features of the Far Trader in glowing terms. Atopia tuned him out as they walked around the starship.
I’ve been grounded on this little rock for nearly four cycles, she thought as she looked over the ship’s maneuver and jump drives. I’m amazed that it’s taken me this long to realize that I miss being out there; wandering the ‘Verse like I did for twenty years in the Navy. I guess I did need a bit of a vacation, after all.
Coming back toward the front, she reviewed the selling points in her mind. Silver Dawn was a 32 years old Empress Marava-class Type A2 Far Trader that had been forfeited by her former owner after he fell behind on the payments. It was a Jump-2, 2-G acceleration starship that was armed with two twin laser turrets and could hold ten middle class and four low berth passengers along with 46 displacement tons of cargo. She could see that the ship had been lovingly maintained – perhaps part of the reason its owner couldn’t make the payments?
“Now if you’ll step this way,” continued the salesman, “we’ll head up the cargo ramp and take a look at her insides! This is the cargo hold, so get a good look around! Once this baby gets to work, you’ll almost never see it this empty!”
“Enough sales pitch,” she said to the salesman suddenly. “Go take a coffee break or something, would you? I want to look her over in private.”
The salesman smiled and nodded. “Of course, Your Grace,” he said as he bowed and left.
“Silver Dawn,” she said after he left. “That’s a very nice name. I don’t think I’ll change it.”
264-1105, Narmada, Red Sun City, Arcology Whiskey Amber Oh Seven
“So you want to give up being a local noble and head back out to the stars? Was it something I said?” Marquis Toyama’s face broke into a large grin. Atopia chuckled with him at the joke. “Actually, I think it’s a wonderful idea that you forge ahead with being on your own,” he added as he refreshed each of their glasses with a couple of fingers of whiskey.
“When I first got here,” she said around a sip, “I was under the impression I would be working for you exclusively, and I was fine with that. But after the last trip out, I began to understand that I need to be out there – rootless and free.”
“Rootless, certainly,” replied the Marquis, “but free? With a forty-year mortgage to pay off, I’d hardly say ‘free.’ Still, I was happy to issue a letter of credit to the seller on your behalf, though I believe the Duke’s carried more weight.”
“I appreciate it, nonetheless,” she said. “I also have one other thing to ask of you.”
“Oh?” he asked as he cocked his head to the side. “And what might that be?”
“I know you were the instigator of the Imperial intervention on Kiewa earlier this year,” she said. “Would Doctors Without Orbits happen to need any humanitarian relief supplies brought there? I do have a cargo hold to fill, after all.”
The Marquis laughed. “I’ll see what I can do,” he said, “seeing as we’re old friends and all.”
“No hurry, though,” she added as she smiled in return, “as the Silver Dawn is in spacedock for another two weeks getting her annual maintenance service.”
“So have Valo Arenson and Baron Harper Willow agreed to accompany you on this mad venture?” he asked.
“For now, at least,” replied Atopia, “though they each have reserved the right to jump ship at their discretion. I’ll still need an engineer and a gunner.”
“I thought you were an engineer?” he asked.
“I’m a ship owner and I intend to be her captain,” said Atopia, “and you can’t do that from the engineering section.”
270-1105, Narmada, Red Sun City Starport
“So, Mr. Smith, is it?” Atopia looked up from his virtual resume and met his gaze, his quiet brown eyes staring back at her.
“Call me Hawk,” he said with a nod. “And I’d like to be your ship’s engineer.”
“And why should I select you, Mr. Sm-, Hawk?” she asked. “Sell me on the idea.”
“I just spent twelve years in the Scout Service running X-boats on the subsector network,” he said, “which means I’ve a lot of jump transits under my belt. I may only be a Class II engineer, but I’m also a Class II pilot and a Class I navigator to boot. You get into problems out in the black, I’m the one that’ll get you back safe, Your Grace.”
“You’ll be happy to know that the local scout base commander agrees with that assessment,” she said. “In fact, he said I would be a damn fool for not hiring you. So, faced with that, I see no choice but to hire you on.” She smiled and extended her hand.
He took it and shook it. “So when do we begin?” he asked.
“Seven days,” she said, “when the ship gets out of the spacedock.”
274-1105, Narmada, Red Sun City Starport
She’s good, thought Atopia as she watched the younger woman burn her way through the starship gunnery simulation; very tight, very precise, no wasted movement or hesitation.
“End simulation,” said Atopia, “I’ve seen enough.” The computer seemed to hesitate for the barest moment before complying with her order. The technician next to her grumbled something under his breath. “Is there a problem?” she asked.
“Glitch in the system, Your Grace,” said the technician. “The former owner replaced some of the network nodes with non-standard models from a lower tech world. They’re fast enough to do the job, but they don’t immediately synchronize with the rest of the system. That’s what’s causing the lag.”
The young woman emerged from the turret compartment. “I’ve run across that before,” she said. “You can either rip out all the non-standard stuff and install factory replacements, or you can add a few lines of code to the mainframe operating system to update the clock cycles regularly so the whole system remains synchronized.”
“I’d have to check with our software engineer about that,” said the technician with a shrug.
“You just did,” the young woman said with a smile. “I have a Class III cybernetics certification from Tukera Lines. All I’ll need is about five minutes on the primary interface and a system reboot and the problem will be solved.”
Atopia turned to the technician. “How much would it cost and how long would it take to replace the non-standard nodes?”
The technician blew out a breath. “I estimate thirty thousand credits and an extra week in spacedock, Your Grace – if there are enough factory units in stock.”
Atopia turned to the young woman. “If you can do what you say,” she said, “I’ll not only hire you as my primary gunner, I’ll double your salary, Ms.?”
“Former First Officer Tabitha Nole, Your Grace,” replied the young woman with a smile. “I assume that there will be regular bonuses for additional work outside my assigned position description?”
Atopia smiled. “This is a free trader, not a megacorp liner, Officer Nole. We all wear more than one hat, here.” Tabitha nodded. “However,” Atopia added with a smile, “I am a firm believer in financial incentive programs for my crew – under the table, of course.”
Tabitha flashed a wide grin. “I’m going to like working for you,” she said. “I’ll warn everyone before I start the reboot.”
277-1105, Narmada, Red Sun City Starport Authority Complex, Ship Licensing Bureau
“Aside from one small item,” said the official behind the desk, “I’d say your ship is ready to fly.” He looked up at Atopia. “You don’t seem to have a certified Steward on the crew manifest.”
“That’s because there isn’t one,” said Atopia. “We’ll be up to speed on that with time and practice and we’ll get somebody certified for the position by the end of next year.”
“Not like I haven’t heard that one before,” said the official, “but you seem earnest enough about it.” The official paused to modify a line on the ship’s papers. “I’ll let it slide with a condition; the Silver Dawn can only carry Middle Passage and Low Berth passengers until you rectify the situation.”
“I accept,” said Atopia, as she applied her thumbprint to the touchscreen.
“Do you wish to file an initial flight plan at this time?” asked the official.
Before she could respond, her comlink warbled. “Hold that thought,” she said as she linked in. “Yes?” she said to the unit.
“This is Terrance, His Grace Duke Darius’ aide,” came the reply. “You are to come to his residence immediately. Something has come up.”
“Understood,” she said. “Please inform His Grace that I’m on my way.”
“I take it that means ‘no’,” replied the official.
“It does,” she said, “and my proper form of address is ‘Your Grace.’ I’ll be back here in less than an hour, and you will be here, waiting for me. Is that clear?”
“Yes, Your Grace,” said the official, but Atopia was already out the door.
277-1105, Narmada, Red Sun City Starport, Departure Notification Board
SILVER DAWN (Type A2, Independent): New owner and crew. Departing for Kiewa tonight at 2640 hours. Thru service to be determined at destination. Ten middle passage bunks and four low berths available. No cargo space available. No working passage available.
279-1105, Aboard Silver Dawn, in hyperspace between Narmada and Kiewa
Harper sat down on her bunk with a thump. He pulled a short-range scrambler from his pocket and activated it, setting it next to him on the bunk’s mattress. “So,” he said, “now that we’re all cloak and dagger, what is this all about?”
“I’ve been tasked by Duke Darius –“ she began.
“Oh, Nine Hells!” Harper exclaimed. “Is there no end to him jerking us around? I got on this ship to get away from him, you know.”
“As I was saying,” she continued, “I’ve been tasked to determine if Baron Glen Forbes, the Imperial Liaison to Kiewa, is being compromised by a criminal syndicate. If he is, then I am to use clandestine means to leverage its ending. Failing that, I am to report back to His Grace so that an official response can be implemented.”
“You make it sound so easy,” said Harper, “but you realize they play for keeps on Kiewa, right? If you screw this up, the syndicate in question will not only kill you, they’ll kill everyone aboard this ship.”
“That’s why I have you along,” she said with a smile.
He heaved a frustrated sigh before continuing. “So what makes Daddy Darius think our boy Glen has been compromised?”
Atopia showed him a flat image. Harper whistled. “That is a 2-D rendering of the Lady Nephele Irianda,” she said, “whose upstanding family in the Republic of Berthold is suspected of laundering around sixty megacredits of Toromandi crime syndicate money each year. Baron Glen has been seen with her fairly regularly in recent days, along with several members of the Toromandi syndicate. Rumor has it that Glen proposed to her in private and is waiting until his term as Imperial Liaison is nearly up before announcing the betrothal.”
“If the Toromandi boys are criminals, why doesn’t one of the other countries on Kiewa arrest them?” asked Harper.
“The Repubic of Berthold is sheltering them,” she said, “and has extended limited diplomatic immunity to them as well. Why is anybody’s guess, but I’ll bet it has something to do with our boy Glen and Lady Nephele. We’ll find out more when we contact the Duke’s agent on Kiewa.”
“And who would that be?” he asked.
“He is the guy we’re delivering the humanitarian aid cargo we got from Marquis Toyama’s friends in Doctors Without Borders – Waldo Hobson, head of the Ebonscale Aid Task Force,” said Atopia.
“Pretty neat and tidy,” said Harper, “if everything goes to plan.”
Atopia sighed and nodded. “If.”
290-1105, Aboard Silver Dawn, in hyperspace between Kiewa and Narmada
To His Grace, Duke Darius Ingersoll,
Protector of the Narmada Subsector of Wayhaven Sector, Domain of Sol of the Third Imperium,
Ruler of the Imperial Autonomy District of the world of Narmada, and
Defender of Imperial Citizenry throughout Known Space and Beyond
Ingersoll Holdings, Imperial Autonomy District, Narmada
I regret to inform you that your agent, Waldo Hobson, was murdered – presumably by one or more members of the Toromandi crime syndicate. This was done to prevent him from revealing information he had collected on the Lady Nephele Iridana; the woman of interest in the investigation of Baron Glen Forbes. Local law enforcement is being aided by Imperial forces in apprehending those responsible, though I hold out little hope that the persons responsible will be found alive, if ever. Crime syndicates are extremely capable of cleaning up their own messes on Kiewa.
With the aid of Valo Arenson and Tabitha Nole – two members of my ship’s crew – I managed to obtain a datachip that Waldo left behind in his apartment, hidden inside of a bust of your likeness, before the local authorities arrived. We had to wait out a pair of what we assumed were members of the Toromandi syndicate who had arrived first and were searching the place to no avail.
With the aid of Ms. Nole, we managed to crack the chip’s encryption and access the information Mr. Hobson had gathered. The data suggests that Lady Naphele may actually be the youngest daughter of Don Sigan Toromandi, the head of the syndicate. Other data on the chip follows the money trail between the Toromandi syndicate and the Iridana family.
Armed with this information, Baron Harper Willow and I decided to confront Baron Glen to gain further insight into the situation. During our interview, Baron Glen stated that early on in his tenure, he was moved by the plight of the infected Ebonscale survivors to the point that he approached the Iridana family to meet up with the Toromandi’s don. Since the syndicate is famous for smuggling contraband across national borders, Baron Glen felt it the only sure way to deliver relief supplies, medicines and foodstuffs to those people in the quarantine zones.
A deal was struck between Don Sigan Toromandi and Baron Glen. The supplies would be moved into the quarantine zones as quickly as possible and distributed in exchange for a favor. The favor was that Baron Glen marry Lady Niphele and take her off-world when his stint as Imperial Liaison comes to an end late next year. While Baron Glen had heard rumors to the effect that Lady Niphele might indeed be a member of the Toromandi family, he adamantly denied them.
We arranged to meet with the Lady Niphele after that. I found her to be sociable, pleasant, witty – in every measure a member of the planetary nobility of Kiewa. Pictures and holographs do not do the woman’s beauty justice in the slightest, for she appears flawless from every angle. I found it easy to like the woman and can understand why Baron Glen is so very protective of her.
When Baron Harper and I confronted her with our evidence, she immediately confirmed our suspicions. She is indeed Clio Toromandi, the youngest daughter of Don Sigan. According to her, Baron Glen was unaware of that fact or had chosen to disbelieve it. The story of how it came about is both fascinating and heart-rending.
According to Lady Niphele/Clio, the real Niphele, the only daughter of Lord Embrico Iridana, contracted Ebonscale from a secondary outbreak in 1089 and succumbed to the disease along with her mother. At roughly the same time, Don Sigan Toromandi lost one of his sons in a retribution attack from a rival crime syndicate. The two men helped each other through their respective losses and hatched a plan to produce an heir to the Iridana family line and protect the youngest daughter from the dangers of her biological father’s crime syndicate.
Clio was forced into seclusion and subjected to a number of cosmetic surgeries over the next few years so that she could better play the role of Lord Embrico’s daughter grown up into womanhood. The cover story of Niphele being in a reclusive boarding school was used to deflect public scrutiny. The mystery of Clio’s disappearance was left open, though a kidnapping by a rival syndicate was the most common rumor.
When Baron Glen approached Don Sigan with his proposal, the head of the Toromandi family saw his chance to finally get his daughter to safety and avoid further scrutiny of her by other locals who were beginning to question her legitimacy. I agreed with her that this matter is complicated and she would need to reveal all of it to Baron Glen. We took a cheek swab for a DNA test from Niphele/Clio, which is being submitted along with Waldo Hobson’s datachip with this report. The death of Mr. Hobson certainly further complicates this matter, leaving me without a clear way forward as to its resolution.
Therefore, I must return the information I have discovered to you in the hopes that your wisdom in dealing with such delicate matters can find a proper solution to the problem. I regret that I lack the faculties in this regard. It is my personal opinion that Lady Niphele is faultless in this matter, but Baron Glen has clearly put himself into a situation that may compromise the legitimacy of both the Imperial relief efforts on Kiewa and the Peerage in general. Given the other events of this year, you can see my reluctance in causing yet another scandal.
Long live the Emperor! Long may He reign!
Your humble servant, Baronet Atopia Hesslering