Tuesday, November 14, 2017

The Orphan                                     

128-1106, aboard the Silver Dawn, in hyperspace between Yantra and Narmada

-- from the personal journal of Baronet Atopia Kesslering

Baron Harper is quick to remind me about an old merchant adage – “Late-arriving cargo always adds trouble to the bottom line.”  It’s true, but I’m happy to say that sometimes trouble leads to other unexpected treasures.

Our current situation arose during the Dawn’s layover on Alagon – a small, airless rock inhabited by about a thousand miners and prospectors.  I freely admit I took advantage of hard times there and picked up some speculative cargo for a song and nearly all of my shipping company’s available funds.  The locals were very happy to have the influx of Imperial script, regardless of the discount – with only two other ships in port and an average of twelve arrivals a cycle, hard currency can get very short indeed.

The locals were in a celebratory mood, so the crew and I took the night off, spending the evening at a place called “Annie’s Caterwaul Corner” – a restaurant, bar and local haunt just off Airlock Row in the main terminal.  The evening’s entertainers were locals, and what they lacked in artistry they made up in enthusiasm, so singing along with the standards of the star lanes was actually quite enjoyable, though a bit rowdy at times.  I noticed that while Tabitha did flirt a bit with a couple of the locals, she refrained from her usual extracurricular activities.  Can’t say I blame her after what happened on Karakesh – there’s nothing like a night or two in a planetary jail to make anybody a little gun-shy.

They roll up the streets fairly early on Alagon, so we retired to our cabins still humming off-key and off-color songs on our way to our bunks.  I figured we would get an early start for Yantra.  We did at that, though not the way I’d expected.

I awoke to the sound of the comm system blaring alert tones and somebody leaning on the door pager of the main airlock.  Long story short: Alagon’s stellar primary had unleashed an X5-class flare that was due to saturate the planet in less than twenty minutes.  On a geologically-inactive airless rock with no magnetosphere to shield it, that meant lethal doses of X-rays for anybody not in one of the underground shelters – along with kissing goodbye to any unshielded electronics or electrical systems.

The crew managed to isolate and shield our ship’s vital components while Hawk quickly shut down the ship’s power plant.  We only just made it to our shelter before the shelter warden locked down the isolation hatch.  We waited out the flare for three-and-a-half hours by the glow of cold light lanterns and chemical light rods.  A few people needed Harper’s tranquilizers to keep their wits in the claustrophobic confines of the windowless shelter some fifteen meters underground, but for the most part, everyone held up quite well.  Dame Diana managed to grab a seat in a corner and slept sitting up for the duration.  Hopefully she’ll teach me how to do that some time.

The ship suffered no serious damage from the flares, though the starport’s connecting airlock had suffered electrical burnout damage, leaving us to open it manually to get back aboard the Dawn.  Several of the ship’s light fixtures were also out, but could wait until we hit hyperspace.  Tabitha also informed me that the internal sensors were going to be glitchy until they could be recalibrated.  Armed with that happy news, I scrapped the early departure plans and settled down to assisting the crew through the diagnostics needed to assure us that the Dawn was indeed space-worthy.

It was just as we were finishing up that I got a message that someone had some freight heading for Yantra.  With sixteen tons of cargo space left to fill and only a few paid passengers to haul, I didn’t pass up the chance for more revenue.  We took on a load of ferrous-magnetic ore and spent the early afternoon installing the faraday baffles needed to keep the ship’s jump drive fields from interacting with it.  So, that’s how my early morning departure plans got pushed back to mid-afternoon.  On the bright side, the trip out to the jump point and the transition to hyperspace was smooth as glass.

Once we got settled into our hyperspace operations routine, I helped Hawk replace light fixtures and coordinated with Tabitha to get the internal sensors recalibrated.  I have to admit, keeping the Dawn shipshape sometimes is drudgery, but she’s been fat on the bottom line so far – after selling the speculative cargo on Yantra, I’m nearly three full years ahead on the mortgage payments.  But, I’m getting ahead myself.

Hawk and I were working on a light fixture in the aft port corner of the bay when something on the deck caught my eye – an empty kibble wrapper with a nutria-drink pouch in similar condition.  I stayed with Hawk until he finished and had him lock down the cargo hold.  I went around to all of the crew and passengers to make sure nobody had been having a private snack back there, but nobody owned up to it.  The only other possibility was a stowaway.

Rather than getting confrontational, I had Tabitha and Diana monitor the security feeds of the cargo hold.  It took a few hours, but they eventually spotted the criminal mastermind who’d managed to bypass our security systems – a young girl.

I decided to handle the problem on my own.  It turned out to be a good decision as it took nearly an hour to coax the waif from her hiding place among the ferrous-magnetic ore containers.  She was terrified, filthy and wore a summer dress that had more holes in it than a block of aged Swiss.  She also had a garbage bag that held a well-worn and stained synthetic blanket, an emergency Mylar thermal wrap, eight bags of kibble, ten pouches of nutria-drink, a stuffed toy tree rat whose collar identified him as “Percy,” a holograph of boy in his early teens and a seal stamp bearing a royal crest that I couldn’t immediately identify.

She would answer yes and no questions with a nod or a shake of her head.  I managed to get her into my cabin, got her showered, her possessions sanitized, and kept her busy until dinner was ready.  She ate, gave me a hug and a smile, then curled up on my bunk with Percy and was fast asleep in less than ten minutes.

She started talking the next morning.  Olivia didn’t know her last name and was sure she was seven years old.  “I lived with mommy until a while ago,” she explained, “but she got sick and some men took her away.  They put me with another mommy and daddy, but they had to work all the time.  I got bored waiting for them and started climbing through the air vents for fun.

“One time, I came back and all the stuff was gone from their place,” she continued.  “I stayed there for a few days until some men came and threw me out.  After that, I stayed in the starport.  Mommy said this man –“ indicating the boy in the holograph “– is my daddy and that he lives on Yantra.  She said he would come for us some day, but he never did.  So I looked and looked for a ship that was going there, and I found yours!”

Tabitha told me later that evening that the seal was for the Verne family on Yantra.  It was a kick in the gut.  I’d put a couple of bullets in Francois Verne on Nan before he nearly killed me.  Leif Grenfeld finished him off and only just got me to advanced medical facilities in time.  Tabitha hazarded a guess that the boy in the holograph was Francois’ only son, Gerard, taken several years ago.  He’s sixteen going on seventeen now – way too young to be Olivia’s father.

The rest of the transit was interesting, to say the least.  None of our three middle passengers recognized Olivia, but they were contract workers for the Alagon starport, finishing a five year stint and looking forward to their severance vouchers.  Fortunately, she warmed to the rest of the crew fairly quickly and they shared baby-sitting duties while I worked out what to do when we hit port on Yantra.

While she hadn’t seen much formal schooling, she was a quick study when it came to what was okay and not okay to play with aboard ship.  I determined that she could read and had a basic grasp of how to use computers.  Growing up on Alagon had also given her a healthy respect for safety when it came to airlocks and what to do in depressurization emergencies, as it only took her a day to memorize where all the rescue ball lockers were aboard ship.  Honestly, I’d forgotten about a couple of them.  Oops.

When we transitioned back to normal space, we were hailed almost immediately by one of the planetary navy’s system defense boats.  It was to be a routine customs inspection, but Olivia’s presence made it anything but.  What should have been a two-hour delay became a six-hour exercise in bureaucratic red tape as Olivia had no identification and no way to confirm her story.  Finally, I managed to convince Commander Garrett Babineaux to process a temporary ID for her and designate me as her legal guardian until her status could be worked out planetside.

Once we had taken care of business in port – and no, none of the low passengers recognized Olivia either, curse the luck – Diana, Harper and I got an invite to a formal dinner with Viscount Trager Duvalier that night.  Tabitha and Hawk stayed aboard ship to babysit Olivia and supervise fuel loading while Valo decided to air out his cabin and grab accommodations elsewhere for the night.

We arrived a little early for the affair, which gave me time to run the details of Olivia’s situation by Viscount Trager.  Judging by his reaction, the subject of Francois is still a sensitive subject on Yantra.  Considering the former baron had been associating with Ine Givar terrorists and had tried to assassinate three members of the Peerage with a ten-kiloton nuke before Leif and I killed him, I could see why.  Still, he agreed to help us determine Olivia’s true identity and come up with some way for me to contact Gerard Verne to express my apologies and condolences.

The rumors that Viscount Trager sets a fine table are woefully lacking in expressive adjectives that encompass the true magnitude and grandeur of one of his dinners.  Needless to say, I was well and truly stuffed by the time all NINE courses were served and only just managed to waddle back to the ship with the aid of my companions, who were both in a similar state.

Olivia came half-awake as I eased myself under the covers beside her.  She murmured contentedly as I quietly told her about the meal and the clothes people wore until she had drifted off to sleep again.  I ran my fingers through her hair for a while I mused on what might happen to her when she was off the ship.  I began to realize I was actually hoping she wouldn’t have to leave.  I was still making a mental checklist of what I had to do in case that actually happened when I decided that first of all, I was going to get her some new clothes.

The Viscount’s personal physician had a lot of experience in dealing with children.  Olivia warmed right up to him as he gave her an exam and took a DNA sample.  He estimated her age at seven years and eight cycles, give or take a cycle.  She had some vitamin and mineral deficiencies which were likely due to her living off of vending machine fare for an extended time, possibly several cycles.  He added that Olivia has many of the more common Yantran facial features and anatomic quirks, so he felt it likely that at least one, if not both, parents were from Yantra.

That afternoon, Olivia and I went shopping in the duty-free zone of the starport.  She selected a few dresses and more functional garb, while I picked out something she could wear when meeting both Trager and Gerard, along with a few pairs of shoes.  While I got her backpack for her things, I had to say no to fashion jewelry and a tailored spacesuit – at least for now, I told myself.

That evening, I got word from the Viscount that the DNA test result was in and that he wanted Olivia and me to call upon him right away.  I was glad he was so accommodating.  Given what I’d heard about his reputation before from the late Baron Alton, who’d fought a duel with Trager last year, I was expecting someone more formal and stuffy.  It was a pleasant surprise, to say the least.

The verdict was disheartening.  There is an 87% chance that Olivia is the daughter of the late Francois Verne.  Trager had compiled holographs of all the women who’d worked for the Verne family and departed around the time that Olivia had been conceived.  To his credit, or perhaps his physician’s, the pictures were presented as a kind of matching game.  It took nearly a half-hour, but Olivia suddenly cried out at one face, screaming “Mommy!  Mommy!”

Mommy was Saffron Marteau, a lab assistant for the now vaporized Helix BioTech research facility on Yantra.  She worked in the microbiology wing of the facility, but departed in 1098 as a passenger aboard the surplus scout/courier Midnight Vagabond.  Its destination was listed as Penna in the next subsector rimward of Narmada, via a frontier refueling at a gas giant in the 553-088 system.  Trager recognized the woman, too.  She and Francois starting appearing together for official functions less than a year after the former baron’s wife – Gerard’s mother – had passed away.

Seeing her mother’s face broke Olivia, though.  I held her while she cried – all the comfort I could offer her.  Trager left the two of us alone for some time.  It took a long time before the girl could speak.  “Do you think she’s dead?” she asked.  I hadn’t the heart to answer.

The next day, we met with Gerard.  His family crest had what I thought was the black band of mourning, though I would find out later that it was actually for Francois’ dishonor to his lord, Viscount Trager.  All of the staff and his personal guard wore black armbands, acknowledging me but refusing to meet my gaze as they escorted me into den lined with cases of trophies and awards that were all banded in black ribbons or shrouded in black coverlets.

Gerard entered the room without the announcement or fanfare I’d come to expect from Imperial Nobles.  The doors opened silently in front of him and closed silently behind him.  He approached me and bowed deeply.  “My apologies that you must bear being in my shameful presence,” he said.

After that formality was observed, he sat and we talked.  I apologized for being the agent of his father’s death.  “He was either trying to murder you,” he said, “or was trying to defend his own dishonored life.  Either way, you are blameless in his ending.  He chose a dark path to tread – a path of betrayal and death.”  His eyes brimmed with tears as he met my gaze for the first time.  “And I still do not know why.”

Olivia had quietly stepped over to him and held his hand.  It seemed to help him steady his emotions.  “Are you my daddy?” she asked.  He gently explained that his own father was hers as well, making them half-brother and half-sister.  She hugged him and he held her for some time.

“I knew your mother when I was about your age,” he said to her.  “We were very close.  I had just lost my own mother, and she helped me through the grief.  You know, I gave your mother something very special just before she left Yantra.  Do you know what it is?”

I produced the seal and handed it to him.  He carefully twisted the handle which unscrewed apart with some difficulty.  There was a hollow space within it, from which he carefully extracted a dusty datachip and handed it to me.  “Saffron,” he said to me, “became very close to my father.  Close enough that she learned things he didn’t want her to find out about his dealings.  When she realized what my father was doing and what he was planning, she copied several of his personal files onto that datachip.

“She confided in me and I showed her the secret compartment in the seal’s handle.  It is designed so that not even a densometer can tell it is hollow.  She said we would never see one another again until my father was punished or had died.  I couldn’t cry without giving away my complicity in Saffron’s flight, my betrayal of my father’s trust.  That is why this is so very hard for me.  My grief is for both my shameful father and for the woman we both loved.”

Still, seeing Olivia gave Gerard a great deal of comfort.  He commented on the features she’d garnered from both his father and her mother.  He turned at last to me.  “You must get off Yantra with that datachip as quickly as possible.  I went through my father’s papers and journals recently.  There may still be people loyal to his memory and the shameful causes he supported.  They would seek the means to destroy the evidence and will not care who they have to kill to get it.”

I suggested leaving Olivia at his estate but he shook his head.  “It would be dangerous for her here,” he explained, “and she would also bear my father’s shame.  On Yantra, that is far more than a formality.  I would shirk the weight, the responsibility of it, but for the people who placed their trust in my father – the staff, servants, aides and bodyguards.  They are now my responsibility, my duty.  I will see they are provided for, cared for, supported, so they will only bear this shame lightly.  With you, she would be free of this.”

He would not brook any further discussion, though I officially outranked him.  “Allow Viscount Trager to copy the files on the chip, and get it to Duke Darius on Narmada as soon as you can.  He will take great interest in them, I’m sure.  My personal bodyguards will escort you back to Ville du Duvalier.”  He hugged Olivia one more time and summoned the guards.

He handed me an Imperial credit voucher on the way out.  “For her,” was all he said as we left.

Viscount Trager copied the chip and gave me an armed escort to the ship.  He also paid me enough credits to cover a full load of freight and a full complement of passengers as well.  He said nothing in the company of others and Olivia seemed to pick on the vibe of desperate and urgent secrecy, too.  He nodded to me as I boarded the ship and waved at Olivia who nodded in return.

So now I have a great responsibility – the care of a child.  I’ve been making a list of things she’ll need, the things I need to buy for her when we get to Narmada.  Tabitha has already been teaching her how to look things up from the ship’s library database while Diana has been giving her self-defense lessons.

What if Saffron is dead?  Or worse yet, what if she is still alive?  And am I ready for this in either case?  I simply don’t have any answers – yet.

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