--from the personal journal of Baronet Atopia Kesslering
And so another year has passed – a crazy, frantic, exciting, dangerous and ultimately profitable year. To celebrate this, I fulfilled my obligation to the Imperium by tithing a tenth of my personal assets to His Grace, Duke Darius Ingersoll. Nobles are also supposed to use this day to give back to the citizenry of the Imperium, so I made a hefty donation from both my own finances and the ship’s operating funds to the Kiewa Humanitarian Effort. Since Baron Harper is a landed noble, I assume whoever is running things at his fief on Kolan is doing the same on his behalf.
I realize I haven’t been diligent in keeping this journal up to date, so I will take some time to do just that today. Upa is a good place to do such things – there are barely a dozen residents on this tiny rock, all of whom maintain the starport facilities with the help of an army of robots. Most of the services are automated, with sophisticated robotic vending machine kiosks lining the walls of the main terminal of the starport, maintained and restocked by other robots. But there are none of the other distractions normally found at a starport, leaving one time to think and reflect while waiting for the plodding robot porters to offload the cargo from the hold, and then wait for them to return with another series of pallets and shipping containers to fill it up again.
After making sure the Silver Dawn was completely purged of nanites, Hawk spent much of our time on Paquin replacing and upgrading the affected subsystems. Fortunately, I made a tidy profit on the remaining lots we’d picked up from the auction on Bandalor, so at least I had the funds to cover the unexpected costs.
We departed Paquin on 336-1105, transiting back to Belgran in just six days, but that was the end of the good news. Baron Harper forgot to read the fine print on one of our freight contracts, and suddenly we were stuck with delivering ten displacement tons of scrap metal to a location eight hundred kilometers outside the starport extrality. Fortunately, there was a truck rental place that had a flatbed that could handle the load, but the rent was steep – Cr 1000 per day. I guess when you’re the only game in port, you can charge what you like, right?
It got worse from there. First, none of my crew had any experience driving a wheeled vehicle on a paved parking lot, much less an articulated heavy commercial hauler over gravel and dirt roads meant for horses and wagons. Second, once we realized our problem, I posted up some job ads on the local boards – literally, since Belgran is a TL 3 world, which meant writing them in chalk on a slate slab mounted on a wall in the starport terminal. A day later, nobody had responded.
With the meter ticking on our rental truck, I thought we’d finally caught a break in the form of a drifter by the name of Reynard Adolfo. He had an Imperium-certified Class II license with wheeled vehicles and was willing to run the load for the price of a low berth ticket to wherever we were going next. Then he told me the other part.
It turns out that Belgran’s government has most of its services done by independent contractors. Then Reynard tells me that most of those contractors are fronts for one of two criminal syndicates vying for the lucrative government contracts, who then subcontract out to locals for a fraction of the bid and pocket the rest. I guess that’s why a bunch of locals offloaded the rest of our cargo for us, instead of members of the Imperial Longshoreman’s Union. I should have known.
Reynard explained that independent operators are dissuaded from breaking with the fine tradition of kicking back some of their money to the syndicates by the breaking of their heads and limbs. Recently, the opposing syndicates had begun attacking subcontractors who were working for the other guys – nothing that would grab the attention of the rent-a-cops that pass for a police force here, since most of them are on the take as well.
Armed with that bad news, I had Reynard introduce me to representatives of both sides in the hope I could grease both sides and slip through the middle. Tofono Gonfalon was a traditional gangster in mind, but not so much in experience. Instead of taking the lead on the matter, he decided to confer with his capo on a price and said he would get back to me. Bennie Emilio was just a thirdman, and didn’t mind letting me know it, but since he dispensed with the gangster trappings, he was the more pleasant one of the pair.
I wasn’t kind to Baron Harper after my meetings that day. I wasn’t in the mood for an apology – I wanted to take out my frustrations, and he bore the brunt of my wrath. He made himself scarce for the rest of that night and drowned his sorrows in a bar-hopping run of truly epic proportions.
Early the next morning, I got a visit from Tofono with Officer Friendly in tow who had an enormous mongrel beast on a leash that could fuel a few nightmares. The Gonfalon family’s capo had apparently punted on putting the screws to a member of the Peerage, and low-balled the kickback at fifteen-hundred credits – provided Officer Friendly’s mutt didn’t find any funny stuff in the load. The mutt didn’t and I paid the money, happy to be rid of one of my problems.
The Emilio Brothers syndicate wasn’t so easy. Bennie showed up just after lunchtime with a flashy jalopy complete with running boards and a rumble seat. One of his superiors, a gal by the name of Charlie, wanted to meet me to hash out the terms of the deal in her fifth floor penthouse downtown – alone.
Charlie had some very nice digs, but I’ve been in the true halls of power back on Narmada, so they didn’t impress me as much as they would the locals, I’m sure. Charlie’s people wanted Imperial trouble even less than their rivals, and she asked me how much the other guys had asked. I lied and told her twelve-hundred.
She nodded and said she would take just as much, to keep everybody even. I couldn’t pay her fast enough, but resolved on the way back to the ship that I would also send her a couple of fifths of Marquis Toyama’s whiskey for showing considerably more class than the Gonfalon boys did. Unfortunately, it was too late in the day to head out in the truck, so I contented myself on purchasing nineteen displacement tons of domestic animal meat so we’d be ready to go as soon as Reynard and I got back from the delivery.
The next day found Reynard and me winding our way across the agrarian landscape of Belgran heading for the isolated sculpture studio of Alonzo Cortez – a highly-regarded artist and renowned eccentric. I only remembered him after Reynard mentioned his name. Cortez is one of the few people in Wayhaven Sector who’d ever turned down an honorary title from Sector Duke Wymark Gascoyne, saying that the recognition would only cheapen his work, making it collectible to the masses who would never understand or truly appreciate it.
Still, Cortez’s animated sculptures were incredibly complex things designed to interact with people viewing them in ways that were subtle and beautiful. Many of them incorporated chimes and wind-flutes, so they would make eerie music when they moved. He made small pieces barely thirty centimeters tall up to gargantuan sentinels nearly twenty meters high that could be set into motion with the slightest touch of a finger.
It was something to think about as the farms fell behind us and the relatively smooth gravel road transitioned abruptly to rutted dirt and mud. We wound along the bank of a river for nearly an hour before reaching a ford, jostling over rocks that had been deposited there in a recent flood. As the truck rounded the base of a hill, our destination lay ahead of us up a long, gentle slope. Reynard stopped the truck before we began the ascent and I slowly stepped down from the truck’s cab as I stared up at the crest of the hill.
A dozen metal sentinels crowned that hill, the wind pipes in them keening softly in the gentle breeze. The afternoon sunlight caught mirrored chrome and crystal highlights, dazzling us with refracted, fleeting rainbows that flitted and shimmered as the elements of them were caught and slowly shifted by the wind – sometimes humanoid, sometimes tree-like, sometimes like a specter from a half-remembered dream – dancing to the music from an artist’s vision.
I don’t know how long I stood there, transfixed in wonder at these things so strangely familiar yet completely alien to all I had seen and done before. Finally, Reynard touched my shoulder and I came back to reality with a start. I felt tears on my cheeks. He smiled and nodded before heading back to the driver’s seat. I wiped my eyes and cheeks, then climbed back aboard as well.
Cortez was waiting for us as the truck crested the hill, giving the statue sentinels a wide berth. He was a thin man with bright blue eyes, his dark hair and beard cropped close, much younger than I had expected. His clothing had numerous holes, the mark of an impassioned welder who rarely wore his protective gear. As he talked, he would gesture expansively, each move born of a thought or concept. I began to see how he related to his art.
Reynard and I used the gravitic clamps from the Silver Dawn to wrestle the pallets of stacked and bundled metal to places from the flatbed trailer into his expansive studio. He apparently worked on several pieces at once, waiting for inspiration to add to or modify one until it played itself out or another took its place.
He spoke of feelings, impressions and thoughts, rarely touching on the harder aspects of reality as the sun set. He spoke of concepts that were ephemeral and yet still relatable to even the most mundane existence. Sometimes, I was forced to simply relate to the rapture of his passion rather than the words he used. Fortunately, I had the reality of physical labor to keep me grounded, even as my soul longed to fly off into the stratospheric realms that were the architecture of his mind.
Dinner in his home was surreal. He continued the conversation, but would break off at odd moments to ask very mundane questions such as what sort of protein should be in the entrée, or if I was allergic to any spices. The culinary mingled with his ideas about what his art really tried to encompass as we sat down and dined on battered and pan-fried fillets of a local game animal with vegetable hash and fruit salad.
“I would continue,” Cortez said suddenly, “but I can see you are very tired, Your Ladyship. Let me show you to the guest room so you may rest.” Before I could say anything, he led me upstairs, placed a folded comforter in my arms and wished me good night. I got another surprise as I settled into the bed. It was another one of his pieces of art. It slowly swayed as muted chimes softly sounded – a cradle of sorts that had soon lulled me to sleep in spite of all the thoughts spinning through my mind.
I awoke to a knocking at the guest room door. I put on a robe and opened the door. Cortez smiled and averted his eyes. “I beg your pardon, Your Ladyship,” he said. “Your driver said that you should get up now if you are to return your truck today.” He held a wooden box in his hands. “A token of appreciation for being such an attentive listener to my ramblings yesterday,” he said as he placed the box in my hands. It was heavy. “Do not open it now, Your Ladyship, please. Savor the anticipation; hold onto the wonder; let your imagination fly.”
I didn’t open the box until my ship was in hyperspace, heading for the desert world of Karakesh. The box contained one of Cortez’s creations, barely twenty-five centimeters tall – a shimmering formless shape that evoked butterflies and fairy dreams accented with sparkling polished crystals and strips of veined stone whose colors would shift as the sculpture moved. The sculpture was fitted with tiny metal and glass chimes that played magical glissandos as it moved. I placed it so that air currents from my cabin’s ventilator would keep it in constant motion.
I have no idea of its value. I have no intention of selling it. No amount of money could express its true worth.
After selling most of the meat at Karakesh, we ran freight to Upa, arriving here on 364-1105. I gave the crew a few days off to celebrate Emperor’s Day – not that this is the best place to do that...
I just answered a page from the rest of the crew, asking me to join them in a toast to the Emperor. This is as good a place to close. I hope I will be a better chronicler in this new year.
Long live Emperor Strephon! Long may he reign!