Sunday, November 26, 2017

Where the Ill Winds Blow       

342-1106, Sok, Wahi Ho’ano Main Starport

“Wheee!” cried out Olivia as she glided through the air.  Atopia smiled at her adopted daughter as the child sailed past her with arms outstretched.  The rest of the crew was only slightly less enthusiastic as they also tumbled, twisted and floated about in the microgravity playground.

The specially padded space was originally intended for the children of the workers who assembled the initial superstructure members of the cylindrical space habitat.  Hard to imagine living in microgravity for any longer than a jaunt in a vacc suit, thought Atopia as she corralled a stray lock of her hair and pulled it back behind her head.  The builders of this place spent the bulk of their years here, unable to return to their home worlds due to calcium loss from their bones.

Wahi Ho’ano was a cylinder fifty kilometers long with a diameter of sixteen.  A hole just over two kilometers across ran the length of the station at its rotational axis, allowing for the starport, even though it was little more than docking cradles and servicing bays exposed to the vacuum of space.  Since there was no artificial gravity system, only centrifugal force could simulate it.  The habitation levels of the station were approximately six-tenths of standard gravity, while the starport remained in perpetual freefall.

The people of Sok lived in dozens of space habitats in geosynchronous orbit about the hellish world.  No one, even with the best environmental protection gear, could survive the conditions at the surface where the pressure approaches 116 bar and temperatures are hot enough to melt zinc.  Constant volcanic activity caused by its gravitationally tortured orbit about its primary mixing with the chemical soup that passes for its atmosphere creates a wealth of exotic compounds that brave and foolhardy small craft pilots and crews skim from eddies that well up from the depths.  The profits from this activity and the exploitation of the system’s three planetoid belts, rich in type M and S bodies, has supported an extended community of over four hundred million people for generations.

Atopia’s pocket computer beeped.  She stopped her idle drifting by grabbing a nearby pole and wrapping her legs around it.  She fished the computer from a zippered pocket and looked at the digital message she’d received.  After reading it and sending a reply, the baronet whistled loudly, grabbing everyone’s attention.

“Let’s wrap it up,” she called to the group.  “The Longshore Union is done unloading the ship and I have a dinner date with the Imperial Liaison coming up.”

“Aww!” said Olivia as she glided over.  Atopia kicked off from the pole, gently tackling the girl, sending them both into a collective giggling tumble.

Two hours later, Ka Makani Kai Terrace Restaurant

The perspective was dizzying.  Reminds me of the first time I visited Marquis Toyama’s digs on Narmada, she thought, but the inverse horizon will take some getting used to!  The habitat level of the station was nearly two kilometers high with an artificial sky and light from the system’s primary to illuminate it.  But the light wasn’t quite up to the full daylight of many worlds she’d visited, and conventional lighting was used at street level, since most were in perpetual night with only a slice of sky to see between the towering buildings.

The terrace was remarkably open compared to the street some one hundred stories below.  The irregular five-sided space had the kitchen service in the middle and three sides exposed the intensely urban vista surrounding it.  Atopia noticed the slight drop in gravity as she crossed the floor toward the table where Sok’s Imperial Liaison was sitting.

Baronet Leigh Denali was all of nineteen standard years of age, but looked more like a stern governess in the ivory archaic blouse with puff sleeves and feminine ruffled trim and a long black pencil skirt.  The young woman’s raven tresses were drawn into a bun on the back of her head.  Atopia noticed that the garments seemed excessively bulky before realizing they concealed mesh armor underneath.

Baronet Leigh curtseyed and Atopia returned it before clasping her outstretched hand in greeting.  “Good evening, your grace,” said Atopia as she waited for the liaison to be seated.

“A pleasure,” Leigh replied.  “I must admit that I was somewhat surprised when you contacted me.  Given what I know about your recent history, I worried that something was dreadfully wrong here.”  They both chuckled at that.

“I’m on a tour of the subsector,” said Atopia, “and doing business along the way to pay off my new starship.  Your father was kind enough to send me and my crew your way from Narmada with one hundred d-tons of synthetic foodstuffs.  While I was happy for the money up front, I really am relieved I have more available cargo space now.”

The waiter was young, lean and tall in comparison to the two baronets, wearing an outfit that consisted of a single large piece of brightly patterned cloth that was meticulously pleated and folded into a stylish robe.  He set two nearly spherical glasses of water on their table, while Leigh ordered for them both.

“So,” resumed Leigh around a sip from her glass, “how is my old man?”

“Unwell but stable when I saw him just over three weeks ago,” Atopia replied.

“I suppose he asked you to check up on me,” Leigh said with a tired sigh.

“He did,” said Atopia.  “I suppose he misses you.  From what I understand, you’re the only living family he has left.”

Leigh favored her with a bitter smile.  “That is a fact he never ceased reminding me of during my first eighteen years of life.  My mother took the risk of bearing a child at the age of 61 and died producing an heir for the man she loved – this after their first four children all died so nobly in the service of the Empire, trying to uphold the family’s reputation.”

Leigh saw Atopia’s shocked expression and nearly laughed.  “I’m the replacement child for Marquis Julian, so that his legacy will live on,” said Leigh.  “My birth should never have happened and the fact that I gained life at the expense of my mother’s just so my father could rest in peace…”  She bit her lip and looked away instead of finishing the thought.

It was a long moment before Atopia spoke.  “My condolences for your loss, your grace,” she said.  “I am trying to be a mother to a young girl whose birth mother was murdered about a year ago.  I’ve had to deal with her pain, so in some small way, I think, I can understand yours.”

Leigh found her composure with some difficulty.  “I heard about your situation from the last noble to come checking up on me,” she said at last.  “You would be number four that my old man has sent in the year and a half since he sent me away.”

“Then please accept my humble apology, your grace,” Atopia said.  “I had no idea.”

Their food arrived, giving both of them a very welcome distraction.  Atopia delighted in the simple dishes presented with such style.  Soon, the cuisine became their topic of conversation, allowing them both enough distraction to smile and engage in small talk once again.

Eventually, Atopia turned the conversation back to more serious matters.  “Excuse me for noticing,” she said, “but I couldn’t help noticing your outfit.”

Leigh smiled.  “There is a reason for that,” she said.  “Even though there is still upward and downward mobility in Sok society, it is essentially a caste system.  Since the Imperium represents an authority outside that of the Na Alaka’i – the planetary government caste – the easiest way to tip off those around me that I’m important is resemble someone that all of them have had to pay respect to early on – a teacher.”

“So the clothes make the liaison, then?” asked Atopia.

Leigh nodded.  “Given my youth,” she said, “it’s a necessity.”  She paused to look at a middle-aged man at another table.  He nodded politely and smiled, and she returned it.

“See?” she said as she turned back to Atopia.  “The good news is that since there is upward and downward mobility here, everyone works very hard to be polite to everyone else.”

“Because,” continued Atopia, “the person who is below you today may be your boss tomorrow?”

“Precisely,” replied Leigh.  Atopia noticed that Leigh was actually looking past her right shoulder as she’d said the last.  Atopia turned and saw a tall, gaunt man in an expensive business suit with closely-cropped gray hair nodding back at her.

Leigh excused herself and strode over to the gentleman who ushered her into a shadowy corner of the terrace.  Atopia took out her pocket computer and used its camera function to take a few holographs of the man as they talked.  She quickly tagged the clearest image with a message for Tabitha and sent it.

Even as she sent it, Atopia could tell the conversation was less than cordial.  “I know you’re responsible, Spencer!” said Leigh in a strident tone that was becoming shrill.  “So don’t you dare offer me platitudes when I know you’re lying to my face!”  The man started saying something in reply which only seemed to infuriate her.

“My proper form of address is ‘your grace!’” she shouted loud enough for the entire terrace to hear.  “If you ever forget that again, I will haul you out on a field of honor!  Is that clear?!”  Spencer bowed stiffly after that, then spun on his heel and strode toward the terrace’s exit.  The rest of the patrons of the terrace turned their attention back to their meals, speaking softly among themselves.

It took the liaison a few moments to compose herself before returning to the table.  “I’m sorry for that outburst,” Leigh said.  “Spencer has a knack of bringing out my worst, especially when he’s not being honest with me.”

“Not to pour salt in the wound,” said Atopia, “but I’d say Spencer bears a passing resemblance to your father.  Do you think that might have something to do with it?”

“Possibly,” she said, “but we need to go someplace private to discuss the rest.  I’ve run into a problem here and your reputation is that you’re pretty good at solving problems.”

343-1106, Sok Legal Notice

License to Conduct Business approved for Conch Data Expediters, LLC.  CDE will provide IT services on freelance contracts.  Initial investment is Cr500,000.  All taxes and licensing fees paid in advance.

344-1106, Sok, Elua Ulaula Small Business District

Atopia entered the tiny office, having to turn around just past the entrance so she could shut the door.  Inside the claustrophobic confines of the space, sat Tabitha, Lisa and Samantha at holographic computer terminals.  Atopia wrinkled her nose as the smell of sweat and dust assailed her sinuses.

“Ugh,” said the baronet, “I don’t suppose air conditioning or an air freshener was in the budget.”

“Don’t be wimpy, your grace,” said Tabitha without turning away from her displays.  “Your money has gone into state-of-the-art terminal hardware to run the best hacking program I could write in less than twelve hours.  My subordinates here are sifting data with a critical eye while I ride shotgun on my program to stay two steps ahead of this station’s database police – which isn’t easy, I might add.  They might be lower tech, but they’re good.”

“So what do we know?” asked Atopia.

“Spencer Kalakaua is one slick, shady individual,” said Lisa with a shake of her head.  “He’s head of Okapolio, one of the firms that purchases and processes the compounds they’re skimming off that hellish atmosphere of Sok’s.  Everything appears to be on the up and up with him and his company, and yet…”

“What?” asked Atopia.

“He’s living above his means,” said Samantha playing a holovid.  “This vid is from some ‘lifestyles of the rich and famous’ show they did on him last year.  We’re paying about eighty credits a square meter per month for this office space, but Spence has personal digs around a thousand square meters.  That’d be over a million credits a year to rent, but his company is barely pulling in eight figures.”

Atopia nodded while watching the vid.  “He has wood furniture, too,” she said.  “The only way he could have wood furniture around here is by importing it.  They have to import plastic too, so even if they’re fakes, they’re still pricey fakes.”

“So Baronet Leigh was on to something with her off-world financing theory?” asked Lisa.

“Occam’s Razor,” replied Atopia.  “Spencer’s been running a public-relations campaign the past year or so to get the public to pressure the Na Alaka’i to reconsider their position against granting off-world concerns mining and skimming rights.  I saw one of his extended advertisements on the station’s vid network on lift down from the starport.”

“Sternmetal Horizons, I’ll bet,” growled Tabitha.  “Sok has a lot of prime planetoids to mine.  The skimming would just be icing on the cake for them.”

“Okay,” said Atopia as she turned to go, “make sure each one of you catch a nap this evening.  Hammer the off-world connection idea until you strike gold or it breaks.  I need something actionable, ladies, and I need it sooner rather than later.”

After Atopia took her leave of the office, Samantha shook her head.  “’Take a nap,’ she says…”

346-1106, Sok, aboard Daybreak, the Golden Dawn’s launch

Atopia wiped beads of sweat on her forehead against the vacc suit’s absorbent band.  Lisa, Tabitha and her had been shadowing one of the local skimmer craft, the Maranga, for nearly five hours.  The craft hadn’t engaged in the usual behavior of searching for eddies in the upper edges of Sok’s turbulent atmosphere.  It had loitered at a prime location, waiting.

When the eddy formed, a least a dozen skimmers dove into it, their fusion rockets flaring for the braking maneuver that would plunge them into the heart of the region, the craft then pivoting so their scoops could gather as much of the chemical booty as possible before gravity and the drag of the corrosive atmosphere forced them assume an escape attitude and thrust for the relative safety of space.

The Maranga bided its time, though.  Finally, a straggler, a skimmer late to the party set up for its run as the eddy was starting to collapse.  In the graphics of her sensor readout, Atopia saw the thrusters of the hunter flare to begin the pursuit.

“That’s our cue,” said Atopia to Lisa.  “Get us into missile range.”

Without being told to, the trio locked down their vacc suit visors and disconnected their umbilicals.  The Daybreak pumped the air from the launch’s cabin as its thrusters flared to life in pursuit.

The Maranga was one of a dozen skimmers with close ties to Spencer’s company.  Of course, the association was informal – but all of the skimmers in the group were armed and rarely made successful skimming runs.  They would go out, they would come back and another skimmer would be reported missing with no mayday calls, no disaster beacons and no traces.

Spencer made a big point of how skimming is a very dangerous profession.  “Why should our people continue to die when off-world professionals with advanced equipment can accomplish better results with less risk?” he asked in one of his public-relations advertisements.  It was Samantha who found that skimmer fleet fatalities had doubled from last year, which had doubled from the year before – the time when Spencer began lobbying for the Na Alaka’i to reconsider their position.

“We’re in range,” said Tabitha.  “Weapon scanners on Maranga are active, attempting to achieve a lock on the vessel below.”

Atopia keyed open the comm system.  “This is Baronet Atopia Kesslering,” she announced, “Small craft Maranga, by the authority vested in me by Subsector Duke Darius Ingersoll, I order you to turn off your weapon scanners, heave to and prepare to be boarded!”

They weren’t having any.  “They have missile lock on the vessel!” said Tabitha.

“Fire as target bears,” said Atopia.

The launch’s missile rack cycled and its ordinance screamed silently away.  Maranga, seemingly indifferent to its own fate, launched a missile of its own.  The vessel below immediately broke and burned for orbit once again, its thruster wash confusing the more primitive missile, sending it wide.  Seconds later, the Daybreak’s missile detonated on target, tearing through Maranga amidships.

“Her vector’s changed,” said Lisa, “I think her drive system is damaged.”

“Confirmed,” said Atopia as she looked at her scope.  “I see a debris field forming around it and I’m reading hard radiation from a reactor breach.”  She looked over at her pilot.  “Do we have a chance of rescuing the crew?”

Lisa chewed her lip while she quickly mulled it over.  “Only just,” she said at last.

“Do it,” said Atopia.  “Maybe we can get them to talk.”

“Assuming we aren’t all glowing in the dark from exposure to that hard radiation,” added Tabitha as Lisa coaxed extra acceleration from the tiny craft.

359-1106, aboard Golden Dawn, in hyperspace between Nan and Moksha

-- from the personal journal of Baronet Atopia Kesslering

Finally, I have some down time to get my journal caught up!  It’s been a very hectic couple of weeks since we left Sok in such a hurry.  The evidence my trio of cybernetic sleuths uncovered along with the testimony of the crew of the Maranga was enough to get the Na Alaka’i to take action against Spencer.  As soon as we were cleared of charges in the small craft fight, we cleared port and were in hyperspace before Baronet Leigh presented the data we pilfered from various sources.

Hopefully, nobody will look too closely into Conch Data Expediters in the coming days.  They won’t find much – just some stray data connection cables and maybe a battery backup or two.  The rest found its way aboard the Dawn shortly before our departure.  Tabitha is in the process of dismantling the computer systems and erasing their data storage.  She should be done before we hit normal space once again.

I had to explain to Olivia what we did and why it won’t be wise to talk about it to anybody other than crew.  She accepted it, though I have no idea if she actually understands the why of it all.  In the end, all that matters is that she was able to keep the secret while we were on Nan.  Not that we stayed very long there, mind you – my last trip there nearly got me killed and horked off at least one government there.

And now we’re heading back to Moksha, yet another world that all I’m interested in is commerce.  Is this really the best sort of life for Olivia?  Am I doing the right thing?  What lessons is she really learning out here?  Or am I just being overly critical of myself?

As Baron Harper likes to say, “Time will tell.”  I hope he’s right.

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