Sunday, December 24, 2017

Addressing Nobility in the Third Imperium   

Tom Chlebus (on Facebook) has made a point about the manner in which nobility should be addressed by others in a comment to one of my Wayhaven Traveller posts. So, here's the way (I think) it will go from this point forward IMTU:
Forms of Address for Nobility in the Third Imperium
Emperor / Empress – Your Majesty
    Prince / Princess – Your Majesty
Archduke / Archduchess (Domain) – Your Highness
    Duke / Duchess (Sector) – Your Grace
    Duke / Duchess (Subsector) – Your Grace
Count / Contessa – Your Excellency
Viscount / Viscountess – Your Excellency
Marquis / Marquesa – Your Excellency
Baron / Baroness – Your Lordship / Ladyship
    Baronet – Your Lordship / Ladyship
Knight / Dame – Milord / Milady
At some point (ugh, I say that far too much) I intend to correct the forms of address presented in these blog posts; it is far more likely that things will simply change from this point forward...
Merry Yule to you and yours!  :)

Ghost Town   

044-1107, Nive, Sengris Docks Starport

Atopia’s smile seemed to radiate through the filter mask she was wearing.  Commerce had been very good the past few transits, especially so on the run from Damas to Nive.  It took all the discipline she had not to laugh when she saw the bank clerk’s expression at the amount she put toward paying off the loan on the Golden Dawn.

I could skip a couple years’ payments, she thought, and nobody at Omni Financial would bat an eye in concern!  She was working out just how to celebrate her good fortune when her communicator warbled.  “Baronet Atopia,” she said, her voice slightly muffled by her mask.

“How soon are you coming back to the ship, your grace?” asked Tabitha.

Atopia frowned under the mask at Tabitha’s tone.  “About ten minutes if I hurry,” she said, “less if I grab a robocab.”

“We just received a priority message from the Imperial Liaison,” replied Tabitha.  “She’s on her way over here and wants to speak with you post-haste.”

Atopia had only met Baronet Dr. Grace Fulda the previous evening.  The woman had seemed pleasant enough at the time, but there was something about her that had been bothering Atopia ever since her impromptu after-dinner party broke up.  Baronet Grace was worried about something and her concerns had eroded the veneer of her social grace enough that even Olivia had noticed.  Perhaps whatever it is has bubbled to the surface, thought Atopia as she flagged down one of the diminutive automated ground vehicles.

“I’m grabbing a lift now,” she said to Tabitha.  “Assemble the crew and pull up this planet’s profile for us to review when Baronet Grace gets there, please.”

“Already on it, your grace,” replied Tabitha, “Dawn out.”

Atopia arrived at the ship’s airlock just as Baronet Grace’s speeder was landing.  Her chauffeur held the door for her as she exited the vehicle and strode across the formacrete landing pad toward her.  The liaison bore a stern expression as her silver-blonde hair was tossed by the wind.  She wore a functional business suit in subdued earth tones with slacks instead of a skirt and functional walking shoes instead of pumps or flats.  She also carried a brass-tipped hardwood cane, the handle of which left no doubt that a slender sword was sheathed within.

“We’re pressed for time,” said the liaison as she offered Atopia a hand to shake, which she did.

“Come aboard then,” said Atopia, “my crew should be assembled by now.”

Grace offered her a shadow of a smile as the cargo deck airlock cycled.  “You certainly live up to your reputation,” she said.

“It’s a bad habit, I admit,” replied Atopia as she gratefully removed her mask and inhaled the thicker atmosphere of the ship, “but we’re all working on it.”  The inner hatch opened and they stepped through.  “I’ve been meaning to ask, your grace,” she continued as they made their way past cargo and freight containers, “but you don’t wear a filter mask.”

Grace shook her head.  “I’m a native of Nive.  The initial colonization groups a few centuries back were bioengineered to tolerate both the thin air and the trace amounts of nitrous oxide in it.”  She steadied herself on the railing for the stairs leading up to the middle deck.  “Whoa.  Been a while since I’ve breathed a standard atmosphere,” she explained before following Atopia up, “have to be careful of hyperoxia.”

“I’m sure our medic can supply you with a reducer, your grace,” Atopia offered.

“No need,” replied the liaison, “I won’t be here that long.  But thank you all the same.”

The crew had indeed assembled as the noble pair entered the crew commons on the upper deck.  The group bowed or curtseyed as appropriate, since they’d all been formally introduced the night before.  Everyone quickly settled into chairs or leaned against a bulkhead as Baronet Grace took center stage.

“I’m here at the request of the Nive Corporate Council,” she said, “which is what passes for the planetary government here.  Last week, a group of four off-world visitors went on an adventure safari with a local guide to a location on the far side of the planet.  They’re now officially sixteen hours overdue.”

“Your grace,” said Valo, the ship’s pilot and navigator, “That’s a little quick to declare them missing, isn’t it?”

“Not in this case,” Grace replied.  “The group had a government permit to camp at and explore an abandoned mining facility.  They were accompanied by an experienced guide who should have checked in last night, and should have returned in the early morning hours today.”

“Why would anyone be interested in an abandoned mine?” asked Samantha.  Atopia shot her a look.  Samantha caught it and hastily added, “um, your grace.”

“In the previous century, this planet was actively exploited for its raw resources by numerous off-world concerns,” the liaison explained.  “Those concerns paid local officials and politicians significant bribes and kickbacks to have the mining regulators look the other way while they plundered the landscape of the most easily accessible lodes and pocketed the profits.  They withdrew from Nive before public outcry finally forced the hands of local officials to investigate.”

“Which is why parts of the planet look like it was subjected to an orbital bombardment,” said Tabitha.  “It’s due to unregulated strip mining, toxic waste dumps, collapsed subterranean mine structures and so on.  I imagine that makes parts of this world uninhabitable, your grace?”

Grace nodded.  “Unfortunately, yes.  However, a recent fad has developed – adventure safaris – where tourists living in urban environments get a chance to rough it for a few days in a strange place and do things they wouldn’t ordinarily do.  The Council has cleared a number of sites and issues permits – for a substantial fee, of course – for small groups of tourists to visit them.”

“Kind of like what I used to do on Alagon, your grace!” exclaimed Olivia.  Olivia went on to tell the liaison about her forays into the air vents there until the girl felt Atopia’s hand on her shoulder and quickly wrapped up her description.

Grace favored the child with a smile.  “Quite a bit like that, actually,” she said, “though the Council will only permit fit adults that can pass a medical inspection to go.  Their guide is a local man, Augustus Gorman, who’s in his fourth year doing this sort of thing.  He was recertified with high marks by the Council just a few cycles ago.”

“Sounds like a rescue mission, your grace,” said Cassandra.  “So why is Nive’s government requesting off-worlders to do this job instead using of their own people?”

“That’s the other part,” said Grace around a sigh.  “Even though there’s an Imperial Navy base in orbit, the old sites and boon towns offer smugglers, pirates, outlaws and fugitives places to hide and operate.  It’s entirely possible the tourist group has run afoul of some unsavory elements.  But there is any number of possibilities in this situation.  When the Council first brought this to my attention this morning, I remembered our conversation last night about your recent exploits, and suggested employing your crew for the rescue.”

Lisa spoke up.  “The Dawn has a launch.  I could get a rescue team to the site aboard Daybreak inside of an hour, your grace.”

“You would have the Council’s gratitude,” said Grace.

“Baron Harper always says that it’s good to have friends in high places,” said Atopia.  “Please inform the Council we’ll be underway within the hour, your grace.”

044-1107, Nive, Orvantis

Daybreak shuttered and creaked as Lisa brought the launch down at a steep angle.  Valo rode shotgun in the copilot position while Atopia, Hawk, Samantha and Cassandra were strapped somewhat awkwardly into passenger seats while wearing suits of combat armor.  Tabitha was monitoring their mission from the Dawn back at the starport while keeping an eye on Olivia.

Orvantis was a sprawling expanse of crumbling shacks and utility buildings in the fading light of the planetary sunset.  The hills around the site were all alluvial, having been formed from tailings from the mine complex.  The dominant features of the complex were the elevator building around the primary mineshaft and a dried up circular lagoon nearly two hundred meters across.

Daybreak was approaching an unpaved airstrip just west of the complex.  At one end was parked a small propeller plane with overly large wings to compensate for the thin atmosphere.  Nearby was a campsite with three tents, a freshly dug latrine trench and a central fire pit.  Nobody was visible at the site or anywhere in the complex.  Cassandra had vetoed Valo’s suggestion to signal the camp as they got within range.  “If there are enemies down there,” she explained, “I don’t want to tip them off until we’re right on top of them.”

Atopia had deferred to Cassandra’s tactical experience and let her lead the mission.  The army veteran had accepted the responsibility for their lives with a nod and had taken charge after that.  Atopia reflected that if she was any more than an honor noble, she might feel somewhat uncomfortable with the arrangement, as she might have an ego.  Might have to deal with a real title and fief after the Subsector Moot later this year, she thought as the launch’s braking thrusters roared to life, increasing the craft’s shuddering flight fivefold.

“Thirty seconds to touchdown!” Lisa called out over their tactical comlinks.

“Close your visors and turn on suit life support,” said Cassandra.  “Team red will be me, Samantha and Valo.  As soon as we’re down, head out the starboard hatch, disperse to twenty meters and hold until team blue – Lisa, Atopia and Hawk – gets the launch shut down and disembarks.”

Daybreak threw up a cloud of dust as it finished its braking maneuver and settled on its landing gear.  Cassandra was out the hatch with her submachine gun at the ready, followed closely by Samantha and then Valo.  It took Lisa about a half-minute to secure her station then she followed Hawk and Atopia out the hatch.

The group made a quick sweep of the area, finding no bodies.  They took some time to search the plane and the tents.  Atopia found Augustus’ log book in one of the tents.  The last entry had been made the day before.

“It says that the group was heading into the mine to try their luck on something called the ‘Green Path,’” said Atopia over her headset.

“Got it,” said Valo, “There’s a spelunking map of the mine in this tent.  If I’m reading this right, it looks like the Green Path follows an out-and-back route through the uppermost level of the mine.”

“Great,” said Hawk, “only how do we get to it?”

“By the mine elevator,” said Valo, “it’s been wired to accept a portable power cell, which Augustus should have brought along.”

“Do we honestly think they’re in there?” asked Atopia.  “I don’t see any weapons here.”

“No weapons here, either.  Unfortunately, that’s the only lead we have,” replied Cassandra.  “Gather up any extra filter masks you can find then give me a skirmish line.  We’re heading into the mine so switch to infrared.”

The group made their way carefully through the ruins of the boon town.  Samantha pulled up short when she found several spent rifle cartridges.  A quick check of the area found two more clusters of spent cartridges.  Cassandra determined that the tourists had spent part of their safari shooting at targets after finding several empty food containers with bullet holes in them a hundred meters away.

Hawk found the remains of another campsite inside of one of the buildings that was still reasonably intact.  Cassandra and Atopia looked it over, finding a few kibble pouches that came from off-world.  “Baronet Grace did say they have smugglers and outlaws hiding out here,” said Atopia.

“Yeah,” said Cassandra, “and this camp don’t look too old – maybe a few days at most.”

“I hate worst case scenarios,” said Hawk as he double-checked his submachine gun, “but I hate recovering corpses even more.  Let’s find these people, fast.”

“Agreed,” said Cassandra, “Reform the line and let’s keep moving, people.  The mine is about three hundred meters to the east.  Keep an eye out for booby traps and remote sensors.”

They reached the entrance to the mine a few minutes later.  Valo took a look at the elevator.  Somebody had connected a power pack to some exposed electrical wiring.  “The pack has about seventy percent of its charge remaining,” he said.  “I’d estimate the car is down at the first level of the mine.”

“Can we get it back up here without an operator in the car?” asked Cassandra.

It took some jury-rigging by the combined effort of Hawk and Lisa, but the car did return to the top of the shaft.  Atopia and Cassandra kept a nervous watch of the surrounding buildings while the engineers worked.  They quickly finagled the gates open and entered the car.  Atopia fought down a sudden wave of claustrophobia as the car started downward in total darkness.  The walls of the shaft barely showed in her armor’s IR snoopers as they descended.

Cassandra put a hand on her shoulder.  “You all right?” she asked.

“Yeah,” she said after taking a breath.  “The hardest part is stepping over the threshold, I guess.”

“Me too,” said Cassandra as she patted Atopia’s shoulder.

Soon, a series of graffiti messages in luminescent spray paint appeared on the walls of the shaft.  GREEN PATH THIS LEVEL was repeated three times before the opening appeared.  Valo slowed the car and brought it to a stop with a jerk.  Cassandra and Samantha took the lead, Lisa and Valo were behind them, leaving Hawk and Atopia to cover the rear.

The mine’s walls and ceiling were buttressed at intervals with gridwork metal reinforcements.  The ceiling was just over two meters high.  The floor was covered in a thin layer of sand and silt.  There were numerous boot and shoe prints in it – too many to determine any recent activity.  The group found three rifles carefully stacked in military fashion near elevator shaft.

“Why would they bring their rifles into the mine?” asked Atopia.

“Probably so they’d have them when they came out,” said Valo, “I read in the planetary profile that there are a number of nocturnal scavengers and small predators out here in the sticks, and these are small-caliber target rifles.  It’s a safe bet to say the tourists are still down here.”

Samantha stooped and picked up an object from the floor near the rifles.  “Chemlight stick,” she said as she shook it, “but it’s spent.  They last for what – about twelve hours?”

“Yeah,” said Valo, “that could be from our wayward group of tourists.  Most spelunkers are pretty good at cleaning up after themselves.  It keeps the experience fresh for everyone who follows.”

“Let’s hope this group is lousy at housekeeping,” said Cassandra, “It might be the only way we’ll find them down here.  Is your atmosphere sniffer on, Valo?”

“Yes,” he replied, “the atmo is still breathable down here.  Somebody must have rigged the ventilators to run with another power pack.  I’m picking up a slight breeze that’s blowing toward the elevator shaft.”

“That’s good news,” said Hawk.

“Keep your suits sealed,” said Cassandra, “There’s no telling when we might hit a gas pocket around here, or a booby trap for that matter.  Let’s keep it moving.”

The path took a turn to the right after a few hundred meters, then suddenly turned back to the left and ascended up a fifty-five degree incline of loose stone and broken supports – the aftermath of a collapse, perhaps.  They had to squeeze through some of the debris to reach another worked passage.  Along the way, they found a resting area littered with other items – a food wrapper, a button from a shirt, an empty pouch of nutria drink – which indicated the tourists had stayed on the green path.

The path met a four-way intersection.  The luminescent green path arrows pointed ahead.  “I’ve got light to the left,” said Cassandra, “But it’s a couple of hundred meters down the hall, coming from a side passage down there.”

“The air temperature is up a few degrees, too,” said Valo, “I’d say we have at least a few warm bodies about.”

“Okay, combat spacing, people,” said Cassandra.  “Walk soft and make sure your target is hostile before you shoot.”

They were strung out along thirty meters in the passage between two intersections when a spray of bullets heralded the attack.  The projectiles snapped and ricocheted around them as the group instinctively threw themselves to the ground or against the walls.  “I’ve got two in our six!” Atopia yelled into her link as rock chips from the walls and ceiling rained down on her.

“Team blue, cover our backs!” barked Cassandra, “Team red, on your feet with me!”

Atopia’s shotgun thundered in the narrow space while Hawk’s submachine gun slewed back and forth across the intersection behind them.  Lisa cowered behind Hawk, gripping her cutlass while glancing behind her to see how team red was doing.

Cassandra, Samantha and Valo charged headlong at their attackers, their combat armors sloughing off a few glancing bullets as they advanced.  Cassandra tackled the nearest of the pair while Samantha and Valo pulled up short and put multiple rounds into the other attacker.

Atopia lurched to her feet and took aim at one attacker as she advanced.  She fired, shredding his cloth armor with a hail of buckshot.  He sank to the floor of the passage, dropping his assault rifle in the process.  The other attacker cut and ran.  “Hawk! Lisa!” yelled Atopia, “Run him down!”  Her engineers hustled off in pursuit while she tended to the other attacker.

Hawk and Lisa radioed back they’d brought down the runner and were bringing his body back.  There was nothing to do for the one Atopia took down.  He died while Hawk and Lisa reported in.  Cassandra had blackened an eye and bloodied the nose of the one attacker who still lived.  Subdued, he led the group to the where the four tourists and the guide had been held.  The chamber held a couple of hundred thousand credits worth of contraband in addition to the prisoners.  After giving the tourists fresh filter masks and tending some minor wounds, they were ready to travel.

The surviving smuggler, who called himself Vaughn, led the group to a nearer exit to the mine – a collapsed passage to the surface the smugglers had cleared with hand tools and determination.  Once they reached the launch, Atopia called the Imperial Navy base to assist.  An hour later, there were two squads of Marines on the ground in full battle dress to take the smuggler and his contraband into custody.

Dawn was breaking over Orvantis when the crew of the Golden Dawn took their leave aboard the Daybreak.  “Well,” said Samantha, “that was surprisingly easy!”  She had to duck as a hail of half-empty water bottles were hurled in her direction.

Atopia smiled.  Yeah, she thought, we did get lucky this time around.  The sky in the viewports was fading from purple to black as the launch raced back to the starport when Atopia closed her eyes, her thoughts lingering upon Olivia before she drifted off to sleep…

046-1107, TAS News Service Release

046-1107, Nive (2212 Narmada/Wayhaven): Baronet Atopia Kesslering and a tactical team made up of crewmembers from her ship Golden Dawn broke a smuggling ring here yesterday that had evaded capture by Imperial authorities for over two years.

37-year-old Igor Steinhoff faces charges of smuggling, kidnapping and attempted murder for his role in the kidnapping of a group of tourists and a local guide who were visiting an abandoned mine complex in a remote area of this world.  Three of his alleged accomplices were killed when Baronet Atopia’s team raided the smuggler’s hideout in the mines to rescue the hostages.  None of the hostages or their rescuers were seriously injured.

Authorities believe Steinhoff is part of the Diamante Negro crime syndicate which has been linked to pirate activity in both the Narmada and Volga subsectors.  He is currently being held by the Imperial Navy for questioning and eventual transport to Narmada to be arraigned on all charges.

062-1107, Kerepets, Divine Bliss Resort

-- from the personal journal of Baronet Atopia Kesslering

After a wonderful couple of days of shore leave for myself and the crew, it’ll be back to business tomorrow.  Olivia truly appreciated spending most of these two days outdoors.  She got to experience a rain shower for the first time in her life yesterday.  I am so very glad I could make that happen for her and be around to see it, as well.

We’re running fat and happy right now, but I know that all can change in no more than a transit.  That’s why I’ve worked so hard to pay off the ship as quickly as possible – I can sense there’s trouble brewing on the other end of the empire.  The news from there has been increasingly bad, even if it is nearly a year old by the time it reaches us here.  I sincerely hope that we’re not already at war once again.

Tomorrow, the Dawn heads out to Xiang and then on to Wekiva as I continue on my plan to visit every one of the forty-five worlds of Narmada Subsector.  However, I’ll have to probably put the quest on hold after Wekiva and start working back toward Narmada to attend the Subsector Moot which begins on 125-1107.  His Grace Duke Darius was insistent that I attend.  If that’s the way I must go, then I’ll be sure to stop by Rauma to see how Dame Diana is settling into her role as Imperial Liaison.  Of course, we’ll also have to stop on Kolan to check up on Baron Harper and his rural fief as well.

So many places now have acquaintances and friends; I can see it will be difficult to leave it all behind as I originally planned to do.  Olivia and I spent part of last night looking at the swath of the Milky Way.  I could see her shivering in the dim starlight – not with the chill of the evening, but with anticipation, longing and wonder.  She is like me, I think.  It’s a big galaxy and she and I both want to see as much of it as we can…

Friday, December 22, 2017

Omega 6537 (interlude)   

042-1107, Golgotha

Rand Tyler shivered as he stood by the spacecraft’s hatchway.  Frigid air was spilling through the opening as he took in the vista beyond.  Golgotha was not a dead world, by far.  It had a breathable atmosphere and there was a surprising amount of heavy metals at its molten core, giving it substantially more gravity than the small world should have, and (more importantly) a strong magnetosphere.

But the landscape was forbidding, nonetheless.  Tan rocks stained by dark lichens with pale green moss hugging their bases were the dominant feature.  Gravel, sand and small clumps of scrub vegetation were the rest.  The vista extended as far as he could see, over a series of low, rolling hills stretching away to a horizon that seem too close for comfort.  The sky was cloudless and deep blue with a sun that seemed smaller and dimmer than it should be.  Even at what passed for midday, it seemed no brighter than a cloudy day anywhere else.

There was a stinging sensation at his neck accompanied with the hiss of an autoinjector.  He turned to look at the medic with the question in his eyes.  “Subcutaneous marker tag,” said the man with a nod.  “It’ll itch for a while, but try not to scratch it.  It’s the only proof of identity you’ll have while you’re here, so it’s the only way you’ll get off this rock when your sentence is up.”

“You honestly think I’ll live that long?” Rand asked with a note of sarcasm.

“Not really,” said the medic with a shrug, “but there have been a few who’ve made it twenty years here.”

“What happened to them?” Rand asked.

“They were put aboard a starship making the jump for Limpopo,” replied the medic as he drew a large caliber auto pistol from inside his service jacket and chambered a round, “after that, exile from Imperium space, under pain of death.”

The medic pointed the weapon at Rand and touched a control on the belt he wore.  The shackles on his wrists and ankles sprung open.  Rand shook them loose and let them fall to the deck.  He rubbed his wrists as he looked outside and then back at the medic.  “Where’s the prison?”

“Beneath your feet,” the medic replied.  “You’ve got three seconds to disembark.  After that, I start shooting.”

Rand stepped out and watched the hatch slide shut.  The medic kept the weapon trained on him until the hatch sealed.  Rand walked away from the ship’s boat as its lifters roared to life and carried it into the dark blue sky until it was a dark cigar shape, receding.

When it was gone, there was nothing but the cold that was making quick work of his orange prison jumpsuit’s thin material and the sound of the wind.  Rand shivered and drew his arms about him.  “So is this it?” he asked aloud, “freezing to death on a barren planet in the middle of nowhere?”

The answer came from a whirring, ratcheting sound behind him.  Rand turned and saw that part of the ground had sunk down, revealing a ramp leading under the surface.  Cautiously he approached it and saw a woman at the bottom of the ramp, who was wearing a long coat.  “Done sight-seeing now?” she mocked.  Rand nodded.  “Then get down here already, unless you want to freeze to death.”

He jogged down the ramp to her, grateful to get out of the wind, at least.  “I’m Caretaker Alpha Three-Oh-Seven-Four,” she said when he got to the bottom.  She pointed to a doorway just past the base of the ramp.  “Step in.”

The area beyond the doorway turned out to be a mine elevator.  The woman closed a cage gate across the opening and then another in the car before turning to a simple control level and pulling it down.  The elevator car descended at a dizzying rate.  Rand fought off a wave of nausea as he watched the rock walls of the elevator shaft fly upward by the yellowish light of a single, primitive incandescent bulb suspended above the car in a simple reflecting fixture.

A moment later, the walls fell away and Rand could see a larger cavern, the floor of which was lit with more of the incandescent lights like the one above his head.  The woman gestured to the scene as the elevator descended.  “This is the living area,” she said, “the rest of the facility is spread out among other caverns and mines.”

“So you’re going to show me to my cell?” asked Rand.

“Cells are reserved for inmates who are dangerous to other inmates,” she replied.  “This facility is for people who rebelled against Imperial authority.  We are cut off from Imperial society, stripped of our citizenship and left here to fend for ourselves.”

“You’re a guard, though,” Rand said.

“I’m a caretaker,” she said.  “Twenty-seven years ago, I was just like you – an Omega, the lowest level of inmate – taking this elevator ride into the facility for the first time.”

“You’re serving a life sentence?” asked Rand.

“I served twenty years,” she said, “that’s the maximum sentence permitted by Imperial law.  When my sentence was up, I refused to leave.”  She paused as she lifted the elevator’s control lever.  The car slowed as it reached the floor of the cavern.

“Why in Nine Hells would anyone want to stay here?” asked Rand as the car came to a stop.

The woman opened the gate for the car, gesturing for him to exit.  Rand stepped out and she followed, pausing just long enough to take off her coat and hang it on a wall peg next to the elevator.

Rand gave the woman a glance.  She was a hard woman, her body a product of long years of long days of toil.  Her dishwater blonde hair was cropped short.  Her pale complexion spoke of her time underground, while the crows’ feet around her green eyes spoke of pain she would not voice.  She was dressed in a gray jumpsuit with a white stripe down each sleeve.  Her boots were the same as his, though slightly more worn.

“You done looking at me, now?” she asked, startling Rand from his musings.  “Don’t go having fantasies about me,” she added as she pointed, “I’ve already got a life partner.  Come on, we’re going this way.”

‘This way’ led down a pedestrian street of sorts between rows of low concrete buildings.  Rand saw other people he assumed were inmates.  All of them seemed to be engaged doing something or going from one place to another.  They all wore the same basic prison jumpsuit, though there were many different colors and patterns in evidence.  Few of them gave him more than a glance, but nobody stared.

They approached a group of buildings that were surrounded by a low fence made of scrap sheet metal.  A man dressed the same as Rand’s escort stood next to its gate.  The man was as hard and lean as the woman.  He opened the gate and nodded to her, but didn’t acknowledge Rand at all as they passed through.

“This area is reserved for Omegas,” she said.  “With any luck, you won’t spend much time here.  How long that is depends on your skills set and your attitude.”  She stopped next to a woman in a yellow jumpsuit with black stripes, saying something to her Rand didn’t quite catch.

The other woman nodded and looked Rand over.  Rand noted that she had the same sort of hardness he’d seen in everyone in the facility.  Her dark hair was cut as short as his escort’s – with night-pale skin overly emphasizing her dark eyes.  She stepped over to him.  “I’m Administrator Tau Four-Seven-Two-Six,” she said.  “I’ll be responsible for you while you’re in the Omega enclave.”

“What does that mean,” he asked, “being ‘responsible’ for me?”

“It means that I make sure you’re alive, fed, hydrated, reasonably healthy and have a place to sleep,” she said.  She grabbed him by the front of his jumpsuit, nearly lifting him off the ground.  “It also means that if you piss me off by violating the rules or challenging me in any way, nobody’s going to stop me from doing whatever it takes to get you back in line.  Got it?”

Rand favored her with an expression of forced patience and slight annoyance.  “Got it,” he said.

Tau cocked her head and smiled as she released him.  “That’ll do for now,” she said.  “Walk with me, and I’ll get you processed.”

“So say another inmate jumps me around here,” he said as they started walking toward the two-story at the center of the enclave.  “Will you come to my rescue?  Or am I on my own?”

“Depends on the circumstances,” she replied with a shrug.  “If it’s another Omega, I’ll jump in – not so much to rescue you, but to punish him or her for violating the rules.  If it’s somebody of a higher position than you but lower than or equal to me, I’ll break it up and find out what started it.  If you’re the one at fault, then I’ll finish what they started.”

“And if it’s someone higher than a Tau, I’m on my own?” he asked.

She blew out a breath that showed him what she thought of his chances.  “It was nice to meet you,” she said, “because anyone higher than me has allies lower than them who’ll stomp the crap out of you for being an uppity idiotic prat.  If you’re entertaining, they might let you live with a few broken bones.  If not, they’ll do you and piss on whatever’s left as a warning to everyone else.”

“So I should make friends, then?” he asked.

“In good time,” she said as they reached the steps to the building.  “Right now, you’ve got nothing to offer anyone.  Nobody here does favors for somebody out of the goodness of their hearts.  Favors are our currency here.  You’ll find out who’s word is good and who’s isn’t worth spit.”

They’d finished climbing the short flight of stairs and stepped into the building’s lobby – a large room with support columns at intervals, indirectly lit by the electric lamps with incandescent bulbs in metal reflector shades on several desks.  Tau led Rand to a metal desk, indicating where he should sit by pointing at a metal straight chair.

She rummaged in the drawers of the desk for a moment before producing a paper form and a stylus with a split nib.  Rand noticed the paper has streaks of color in it and had somewhat rough edges.  “Can you print legibly with a fountain pen?” she asked.

He shook his head.  “I’ve only used a keyboard or voice transcriber,” he said.

She nodded.  “No worries,” she said, “but it is something you’ll have to learn.  We’re fairly low tech here, though there are some exceptions.  For example, the electricity we use comes from geothermal steam turbines the original mining colony installed about two hundred years ago.”

“You reserve all your wood for paper?” he asked, “Or do you trade something for it?”

She smiled and pushed the form toward him.  “Touch it,” she said.  He did and his brow furrowed.  “Rag bond,” she added, “we make it from worn out clothing.  Bleach is something we trade for, but sometimes we don’t have enough to remove all the old clothing dyes.  If that’s something you’re interested in, I’ll let one of the Omicrons know.”  She set the form on the desk in front of her and actuated a small lever on the stylus while she dipped the nib in a bottle of black ink.

“Time to get to business, now,” she said.  “Birth name?”

“Rand Tyler,” he replied, watching her write on the form.  It only took a few minutes of questions and writing to fill it out.  She put the pen down and pulled out a bulging drawstring bag that was hand-sewn from the remnants of an Omega’s jumpsuit.  At her urging, he reached into it, pulling out a short triangular rod of metal that was scribed with a four digit number and handed it to her.

“Six-Five-Three-Seven,” she read from its surface, squinting slightly to see the tiny marks.  As she wrote down the numbers, she added “Remember that, because along with your job and rank, that’s your name for as long as you’re here.”

“So what’s your birth name?” he asked.

“None of your business,” she said as she filed the form.  “That’s one of the rules – you don’t ask anybody for their birth name and you don’t offer yours, ever.”  She carefully emptied the remaining ink in the fountain pen back into the bottle on the desk.  “If you happen to find out what somebody’s birth name is, keep it to yourself and forget it as fast as you can.  If somebody claims to know yours, you’d better kill them as soon as you can.”

“Why?” he asked.

“Names have power,” she said, “and there are nobles out there who are vindictive enough to bribe inmates here to take out their vengeance upon someone whose name is known.  Do you know anybody like that?”

Rand tried to hide his expression, but the memory of what Marquis Toyama had done to him in the cell on Narmada was too strong and fresh.

“Yeah,” said Tau, reading him perfectly, “me too.”  She stood and gestured for him to do the same.  “We’ll get you marked and then a place to sleep.”

“Marked?” he echoed as she headed for the stairs, “where?”

Tau stopped and rolled up her right sleeve.  Her number was tattooed on the inside of her forearm in large bold digits.  “We use sterilized needles,” she said, “but to answer your question before you ask it – yeah, it hurts and it will bleed a bit, initially.”  She pulled her sleeve back down.  “So let’s get it over with.”

Rand did as he was told.  A male caretaker did the work while wearing protective gloves and face shield.  It hurt.  It bled.  He gritted his teeth and sweated but didn’t complain or whimper.  Tau left the room partway through the process, but she was back before it was over.  “Had to check on some of the other Omegas and give them their lunches,” she said.  She handed him a synthetic ration bar and cup of water.  “Bon appetite,” she said.

He made a face as he chewed the first bite.  Tau nodded.  “Yeah, it’s awful.  Try to consider that some incentive to be useful around here so you can shed that Omega rank.”

“The higher ranks eat real food?” he asked around another mouthful.

Tau nodded again.  “None of us get very much of the real stuff,” she said, “not even the Alphas.  But the synthetic food tastes better.  Omegas get the rejects – just as healthy, but bland, if you’re lucky.”

They headed back downstairs.  “The prison makes its own synthetic food?” he asked.

“Penal colony, not prison,” corrected Tau, “but yeah, we do.  However, the really good stuff is imported from Avoca.  We grow a lot of our own food hydroponically, but we don’t have the technology base here to maximize our yields, so it’s been a lot of trial and error.  Fortunately, our previous master gardeners have kept very extensive records, so we keep getting better at it.”

They were outside by the time she finished.  Tau made an abrupt turn and Rand had to hustle to keep up.  “I’m going to show you something before I take you to your new, albeit temporary, home,” she said.

Tau led Rand to what he took for an amphitheater in the round – a cluster of three circular formacrete tiers descending toward a central dais that was perhaps five meters in diameter.  Set in the very center of the dais, a circular grill of corroded iron just shy of three meters across.  Each of the tiers was only a half-meter below the one outside it – the dais half that height.

Tau made her way toward the center.  Rand was hesitant.  Something under that grill stank with a diseased septic reek.  As Tau reached the edge of the grill, Rand heard something – someone – groan.  Tau looked back at him with a hard expression.  “Get your ass over here,” she said, “now.”

Rand fought his gag reflex and complied.  Below the grill was a featureless circular cell less than two meters high, much like the one he’d occupied on Narmada.  He shuddered in revulsion as he saw a humanoid form move below his feet.  It had been a man, once, but he could see sores on the wretch’s skin, bones that had been broken and improperly set, and a mass of sweat-matted hair and beard to conceal the prisoner’s face.  A single green eye burned through it all, staring back at Rand, sure to fuel nightmares.

“This,” said Tau, “is what happens when someone thinks that they’re big and bad enough to do whatever he or she wants.  I don’t know what he did before the Imperium brought him here, but he’d been worked over several times during the transit, probably by several Imperial Marines.”

Rand backed away until he stumbled off the dais and sat down hard on the unyielding stone of the innermost tier.  “It took three marines to throw him off the boat that brought him here four years ago,” Tau continued, “and it took two strong people and a stretcher to get him to the medical facility.  He was our responsibility, so we did what we could to make him comfortable and mend his hurts.”

The man in the cell roared incoherently at her.  “GO AWAY!” he bellowed.  “GO!”

Tau looked down at the prisoner.  “Shut it, piss-boy,” she said as she pulled a ration bar from her pocket and dangled it where the prisoner could see it, “or you’re going to go without lunch again.”

There was a final growl from the pit, then silence.  Tau crouched down and dropped it through a gap in the bars of the grate.  She remained crouching, watching the wretch in the pit eat but she continued speaking to Rand.

“It took him six weeks of constant care to recover enough to walk,” she said.  “But as soon as he could do that, he beat an aide to death with a food tray, and then attacked a caretaker whom he killed while she was fighting back.  It took four people to pull him off of her while he was sodomizing her corpse.”

Tau stood and walked over to Rand.  “She was an Alpha,” she said as she sat down beside him, “and a caretaker as well – a formally trained and certified medic.  Her kind is very rare here, as you might guess.  Her crew did the damage to him for what he’d done.  Four years mostly neglected and alone in that hole did the rest.”

Tau looked back toward the grill in the dais.  “He’s still got sixteen years to go, you know.  He’s going to spend them all right there.  If he lives, they’ll escort him out chained to a gurney and let the Imperial Navy deal with him.”

Rand just managed to turn his head away before he threw up his lunch in the gutter between the tier and the dais.  Tau laid a hand on his shoulder to steady him.  It was several minutes before he felt like sitting up again.  He couldn’t meet her gaze.  “Can we go now?” he finally said.  “Please.”

“Sure,” said Tau.  She helped him up the tiers to street level and guided him through the pedestrian streets to a featureless one-story shack constructed from slabs of concrete that were bolted together.  He stopped at the doorway of the place, seeing it was a barren room with an exposed toilet and sink in one corner and a pile of bedding in the other corner.  It had no lights inside, no windows, but barred openings in the ceiling to allow the cave’s ambient lights to dimly illuminate the interior.  He turned to look at the only door to the place, a slab of solid metal on hinges.  His eyes widened when he realized it opened outward.

Tau placed the palm of her hand firmly on the base of his spine and shoved him, hard.  Rand stumbled over the threshold and went sprawling on unforgiving stone floor.  The door slammed shut behind him and he heard someone throw a pair of sliding bolts before he could regain his footing.

He threw himself at the door, hammering it with his fists and shoulder while hurling obscenities and curses for a full minute before the futility of it finally sank in.  “Calm down,” came Tau’s voice from above him.  He could see her through the barred openings in the ceiling.  “This is standard procedure.  You’ll spend five days in there so you’ll know what happens when you screw up around here.  Every Omega gets it when they first get here, and everybody here was an Omega once.”

Rand sighed.  “I did that long waiting for my transport,” he said, “so, piece of cake.”

“Good,” replied Tau.  “While you’re in there, you think about what you can offer to the colony.  As soon as you’re out, you’ll start meeting with supervisors to find work and a place for you.  If you behave, I’ll see about wrangling an extra ration for dinner for you.”

And then she was gone.  The live acoustics of the cave brought the indistinct sounds of the community to his ears.  He laid down on the bedding and listened to it a while.  The wheels in his mind started to turn.  He closed his eyes and smiled.

“Patience,” he said to himself, “I learned quite a bit today.  I’ll need to know more before I act.”

Monday, December 18, 2017

Status Report (interlude)   

040-1107, aboard Golden Dawn, in hyperspace between Damas and Nive

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

Your Grace,

I had serious reservations when you appointed this task to me some ninety-five days ago.  I still feel my talents would be better served in command of a unit of the Autonomy Defense Force.  That being stated, I must grudgingly admit that the current job has grown on me.

Baronet Atopia Kesslering is quite a capable leader and seems eager to tackle problems that, on the surface at least, might be beyond the means and capabilities of both herself and her crew.  However, to date, she has pulled all of us – the crew of the Golden Dawn – through each challenge.  In the short time since my arrival, I have been through a small arms engagement on Moksha in support of Dame (soon to be Baroness, I’m told) Oliva Servantes; plus took action to protect the life and limb of Baronet Atopia while on Damas.  Along with my duties as ship’s medic, I am also instructing the Baronet’s adopted daughter basic physical training and personal defense.

You expressed an interest in my impressions of the others accompanying Baronet Atopia just before I left Narmada with them, and I believe I can render an honest initial assessment of them all at this point.

The Dawn’s pilot and navigator, Valo Arenson, is capable in both roles, owing to his training and experience in the Imperial Interstellar Scout Service.  His childhood on Moksha was a prime motivation to seek better circumstances for himself, which he has found in the Baronet’s employ.  Initially, I thought that Her Grace might be ready to ease him from the job, seeing that the ship’s assistant engineer is actually more capable in both roles, but the baronet apparently views loyalty as a two-way street.  The former scout occasionally challenges her plans and positions, but still is willing to follow where she leads, despite his objections.

Hawk Smith, the Dawn’s chief engineer, is another former IISS member who spent much of his time in the service working feeder routes to the X-boat network.  While his skill set places him firmly in the role of technical support, he has limited (though useful) expertise outside of his primary profession and is remarkably resourceful.  I found him surprisingly well-versed in current events as well as having rudimentary training with combat weaponry.  I wanted to learn more about him, but he is surprisingly aloof to even subtle inquiries about his background and history.

The Dawn’s assistant engineer, Lisa Dudley, could make considerably more money working as a pilot or navigator for another ship, but appears to be happy with her current position along with piloting Daybreak, the ship’s launch.  Like Valo and Hawk, Lisa is a former IISS member, though she originally hails from Narmada and is the first member of her family to enter Imperial service.  While she spent much of her time piloting X-boats, her service was surprisingly confined to just Narmada subsector.  Her abilities have already been well-tested on both Sok and Moksha, though it is difficult to say if her enthusiasm is born of loyalty to the Empire or to the adrenaline high of doing risky missions.

The ship’s missile gunner and computer expert, Tabitha Nole, has been around since Baronet Atopia hired her for the Silver Dawn back in 1105.  Over that time, her grace has relied on the former merchant’s cybernetics talents several times, including the most recent issue with the Peerage on Narmada.  Tabitha’s abilities as a teacher are being tested by her relationship with Olivia Miller, her grace’s adopted daughter.  Given the child’s progress in established remote learning programs, I would say that Ms. Nole is doing quite well in that regard, too.

If any of the crew seems a bit out of place in this merry band of Rubens, it would be the ship’s steward, Samantha O’Connor.  While the rest of the crew are all highly educated, Samantha has little love or patience for education.  That being said, she figures out complex and difficult problems without breaking a sweat.  She has a wealth of street smarts gained on the crowded and desperately poor streets of Oya, along with a painfully keen eye for detail.  Her efforts on Sok were essential to helping Baronet Atopia find the fulcrum point needed to leverage Spencer Kalakaua’s plot into the open.

And then, of course, there’s Olivia Miller, her grace’s eight-year-old adopted daughter, undoubtedly the daughter of the late Fran├žois Verne, formerly a baron on Yantra.  While her grace has been careful not to involve the girl in her more dangerous activities, she is still travelling in harm’s way aboard the Dawn.  As per your instructions, I have been keeping a close eye on the girl.  I find it strange that she is getting along so well in the company of adults with no other child companions.  It is a rare thing to hear a complaint or even a hint of rebellion out of the child.  She has obviously been upset by the amount of danger her adopted mother has faced, but hasn’t voiced any concerns publically.  Still, she spends a lot of time talking to the passengers, none of whom have voiced any troubles with her.  Perhaps her formative years on Alagon and her times alone have given her talents we have yet to see.

All in all, I am amazed at how tight-knit this group of divergent individuals actually is.  They raise few, if any objections, and readily face even mortal dangers while in her grace’s employ.  Nearly all of them have been wounded or injured in some fashion during their service, and none of them complain in the slightest.  It helps that Baronet Atopia shows great concern for her people and is genuinely interested in their lives, situations and activities.

Honestly, Your Grace, I cannot find any fault with the baronet or her methods.  Perhaps I am already too close to her, since I do count her among my friends – or perhaps, that’s just her way.  In any case, I cannot readily see any impediment to her possible ascension to a higher rank and, while it may not be my place, I feel that such advancement is already overdue in light of her actions over the short time I have known her.

Your dedicated servant,

Colonel Cassandra Mutabe
1st Combat Battalion, Autonomy Defense Force, Narmada

GM’s Note:  This past Sunday, I had the pleasure of celebrating Yule a week early with my adopted family (which includes Laura and her husband, her mother, Laura’s children and their significant others, and the most recent addition to the family – Laura’s granddaughter.)  In lieu of our traditional session, we played a game of Crusoe’s Planet and then a game of Ticket To Ride.  The current plan for next week is to game on Christmas Eve, but that’s still somewhat iffy as of this writing, so we’ll see.  Have a very Merry Yule, everyone!  And thank you for your interest in my campaign.

Sunday, December 10, 2017

The Cost of Intelligence      

028-1107, Aboard the Golden Dawn, in hyperspace between Dubna and Damas

Baronet Atopia Kesslering and Tabitha Nole were discussing profit/expenditure ratios from Year 1106 in an attempt to model them digitally when there was a tentative knock at the door to the computer control room.  “Come on in, Olivia,” said Atopia with smile.

Olivia stood in the doorway as the pocket door slid open.  “Mommy?” she said while looking nervously down at the floor, “I think I may have said something I shouldn’t.”

Atopia’s brow knit as she rose from the console and walked to the doorway, hazarding a peek into the bridge compartment where Valo Arenson sat in the pilot’s couch.  The middle-aged former Scout was monitoring the ship’s hyperspace flight dynamics while sipping a cup of coffee, oblivious to both her adopted daughter and his captain’s subtle intrusion.  The door behind the young girl that lead to the crew commons was closed.

Atopia squatted down until her eyes and Olivia’s were at the same level.  “Okay,” she said, “why don’t you come in here and tell me about it – right after you give me a hug.”  The little girl clung to her neck a moment as she returned the hug. 

Olivia climbed into the chair that Atopia had been using while Tabitha excused herself from the room.  The girl waited until the door slid shut behind the ship’s missile gunner and computer expert before speaking.  “I was talking with Mrs. Khan in Cabin Five,” she began.

Lady Reena is her proper form of address, honey,” Atopia gently corrected.  “Remember that she’s not a noble, but is married to one.  We accord a spouse of a noble the same courtesy we would for a member of the Peerage, right?”

Olivia nodded.  “She and I were talking in the lower commons.  She asked me about my family, and I told her about my first mom getting sick and dying before you became my second mom.”

“Oh dear,” said Atopia.

“I only told her what you said was okay to say,” she added hastily, “I didn’t say anything about Gerard and nothing about Yantra at all!”

“Okay, okay,” Atopia soothed, “So far, so good.  Keep going.  What else happened?”

“It was right after I said that you’re a Baronet,” said the child, “Mrs., uh, Lady Reena – she got all shut off and quiet.  She wants you to come to her cabin, like, now.”

Atopia nodded.  “Well, that doesn’t sound like something you shouldn’t have said, honey.  There’s nothing wrong with people knowing I’m an Imperial Noble, after all.  Actually, I’m surprised that anybody in the subsector doesn’t know that by now.”

“Then why would she suddenly want to see you like that?” asked Olivia.  “Does she want to hurt you?”

“I don’t think so,” said Atopia as she rose from her chair.  “Why don’t we go find out?”

Cabin Five was one of the two passenger staterooms on Dawn’s lower deck designed specifically for high passage fares, though it could be converted to a middle passage for two with only a little work by Samantha, the ship’s steward.  The woman occupying it was a true beauty, born of good breeding, better grooming and excellent fashion sense with the necessary capital to afford it.  There was a hint of Villani heritage in her features, including the amber hue that highlighted her brown eyes.

Reena Khan stood at the doorway to the cabin, offering a curtsey as Atopia strode across the passenger commons with Olivia at her side.  “Forgive me for not properly introducing myself earlier, your grace,” said the lady, “but I have been overly preoccupied with personal matters.”

“I try to respect my passengers’ privacy,” Atopia replied with a nod.  “My thinking was that if you wanted to introduce yourself, you would in your own time, if at all.  Given you and your husband’s fame, I thought you might appreciate some time alone.”

“My husband is far more famous than I,” said the lady.  “He is an actor, entertainer, philanthropist and nobility.  I am merely lucky enough to be the woman he loves with all his heart.”

Atopia raised an eyebrow at that.  Sir Aamir Khan was indeed all that, using his fame, handsome features and personal fortune to front a number of sophontarian causes throughout Wayhaven Sector.  It was for the last, rather than the others, that Sector Duke Wymark Gascoyne had knighted him several years ago.  Atopia was fairly sure that Dawn’s entertainment database harbored at least three of his dramatic holovids – all of which were critically acclaimed.

Atopia was startled out of her musings at the sight of Lady Reena dropping to her knees and bowing deeply to her, placing her forearms together on the deck while fixing her gaze upon the floor.  Distantly, Atopia’s ears registered the startled exclamations from the other passengers in the commons who witnessed it as well.

“Your grace,” said Lady Reena, “I, Lady Reena Khan, wife of Sir Aamir Khan and citizen of the Empire, beseech you to aid me in my time of need.”

Atopia’s mind reeled at this turn of events.  The Rite of Supplication finally registered in her mind.  The act of a citizen formally requesting the aid of a member of the Peerage to act on his or her behalf, she thought quickly.  In the elder days, the supplicant would become a servant to the noble in appreciation for the noble’s aid.  In modern times, the practice is hardly used and no noble has added a servant to the staff by this method for over three hundred years.

Atopia regained her equilibrium with some effort.  “Rise and be heard, Lady Reena,” the noble heard herself say, “But let’s hear it out in the privacy of your cabin, hmm?”  She turned to Olivia.  “Please pass the word to the rest of the crew to meet in the crew commons in one-half hour.”

Thirty Minutes Later…

Atopia arrived in the commons with red cheeks from hustling up two flights of stairs and negotiating the long passageway on the middle deck between them at a trot.  She looked over at Cassandra, the ship’s medic.  “Your next project is to recommend an exercise plan for all crew members, including me.”

That drew some smiles as she did a quick head count.  Besides Cassandra, Samantha, Valo, Tabitha and Olivia, Hawk and Lisa were up from engineering.  Hawk looked like he wanted to say something but was holding his tongue for the moment.  That accounted for everyone.

“For those of you who haven’t heard,” Atopia continued, “Lady Reena Khan is aboard and has enacted The Rite of Supplication for my assistance in a problem she has.  Her husband, Sir Aamir Khan, is presumed missing after arriving on Damas two cycles ago, which just happens to be our next destination.”

Tabitha brought up some graphics on Damas on the main holovid screen.  Atopia glanced her way and nodded.  “Damas is a small world without artificial gravity systems,” said Tabitha.  “Surface gravity is Oh-dot-Two-Five G’s.  While the natural atmosphere is unbreathable without a combination mask, the population centers are located in a series of craters ringed with local tech atmosphere processors that bring up the rating to thin and untainted, which means yes Olivia, you can play outside.”

Everyone chuckled a bit while Olivia uttered a whoop of celebration.  Tabitha waited for things to settle before continuing.  “She and anybody else heading out there will need a winter jacket, though.  Damas is currently in an ice age with over sixty percent of the surface covered by an ice sheet over a thousand meters thick.”

“What’s that matter?” asked Valo, “Did he go on a skiing expedition or something?”

“According to Lady Reena,” replied Atopia, “he went there to consult with the Lords of Knowledge on finding low tech solutions for some humanitarian problems around the sector.”

“Lords of Knowledge?” asked Samantha.

“The Lords of Knowledge,” answered Tabitha, “are the leaders of the techno-oligarchy that governs and manages the three hundred and thirty thousand people of Damas.  It’s only tech level six, but the technical and science people run the place by maintaining a hammerlock on technologies available to the masses – like those homebuilt air processors they use.”

“Anachronistic technology,” said Lisa.  “I’ve heard a lot about this place.  Went for Tesla in a big way and found out how to make a lot of it actually work – quite a few other fun things like computer memory systems employing synthetic DNA strands, too.”

“Which is all fascinating,” said Cassandra, “but I’m with Valo – what does this have to do with finding Sir Aamir?”

“As it turns out, he is not the only celebrity who’s disappeared on Damas,” replied Atopia. “Six others have come up missing since the beginning of 1106 – a retired professional athlete, a painter, a virtuoso vocalist, a mathematician, a dancer and a poet.  I’m betting all of this is related, so this has become an Imperial matter that we’re going to solve.”

“I hate to pour cold water on all this enthusiasm,” said Hawk, the chief engineer, “but we’ve got a problem that may complicate matters.”  Atopia thought he’d been holding a tool in his hand by habit, but the item resembled a metal rod about half a meter long and perhaps five centimeters in diameter.  “Sensors started registering degenerative changes in three of these guys – power transfer contacts between the power plant and jump drive.”

“This is a brand-new ship!” exclaimed Atopia.  “Just how in the Nine Hells are things BREAKING in it already?!”

Hawk held up his hands defensively.  “Just because it’s new doesn’t mean things aren’t going to break, your grace.  The good news is that this is a fairly common problem and we have a complete set of spares for just such a problem.”

Atopia blew out a breath before responding.  “Sorry, Hawk.  So what’s the bad news?”

“To keep the same thing from happening to the spares,” he said, “I’ll need to take the power plant offline for about seventy-two hours so I can safely install the spares and retune the power cycles between the power plant and jump drive.  It can wait until we get on the ground, but once we’re down, we’ll have to stay that way for at least four days; if you want refined dihydrous, that is.  Damas is a Class C port, so no refined fuel is sold there.”

Atopia nodded.  “We’ll be busy anyway,” she said.  “Will the crew need to leave the ship?”

Hawk shook his head.  “We’ll take power from the port authority to keep the life support running while Lisa and I get this done.”

“All right,” said Atopia, “let’s get back to work.”

031-1107, Damas, Grand Basin Starport

Official Report, Incident #WG78346-11-3A427G – Filed by Port Master Seraphim Wastrel, Damas Starport Authority – 031-1107 – Grand Basin Starport

Incident Type: Attempted Piracy of an Imperial Interstellar Trade Vessel

Time of Incident (local): 0425 hours, 031-1107

Location of Incident:  Approximately 452,000 kilometers from Damas

Vessels Involved:
Aggressor(s) – One. Crimson Saber (Type-A2 Far Trader, Imperial Empress Marava-class, original designation Lady Shirelle, Registry – Laur)
Victim(s) – One.  Golden Dawn (Type-L Independent Merchant, Imperial Silk Road-class, Registry – Narmada)

Description of Events:
Golden Dawn emerged from jump space at approximately 0420 hours local time.  Initial scans of the surrounding area by Dawn indicated a 200 d-ton spacecraft loitering at approximately 67,000 kilometers that began approaching them on an attack vector.  Captain Baronet Atopia Kesslering hailed the inbound ship and warned it off.  Captain Roscoe Griswold responded that his intentions were to intercept and board, ordering Baronet Atopia to cut engines and heave to.  It was at that point that Baronet Atopia declared an emergency and ordered her crew to rig Dawn for combat.

Dawn pilot Valo Arenson maneuvered to make a preliminary intercept at the edge of missile range, which he accomplished at 0443 hours, employing his experience in piloting an Empress Marava-class vessel in 1106.  At intercept, missile gunner Tabitha Nole achieved intermittent missile lock with Saber, which was employing a home-built jamming device.  The Dawn launched a total of 14 missiles (7 battery-rounds) at the Saber, two of which struck the vessel during the engagement.  Saber pilot Destiny Reese was unable to close to effective laser range during the engagement, forcing the use of both twin laser batteries in a point defense mode against Dawn’s missiles.

With two IISS Type-S Suleiman-class Scout/Couriers inbound to the battle area, Saber attempted to disengage from the combat.  Baronet Atopia ordered Arenson to pursue and disable the Saber if possible.  A final missile hit knocked out the Saber’s computer system, reduced its acceleration and vented most of its remaining fuel to space.  Faced with no possibility of escape, several crew casualties, as well as two additional combatants, Captain Griswold signaled Saber’s surrender at 0624 hours.  The IISS ships ordered the Dawn to proceed to port while they handled rescue and recovery of the Saber.  Dawn proceeded to port without further incident, arriving safely at 0903 hours.  The Dawn suffered no damage and reported no casualties.

Aftermath of Incident:
The Crimson Saber was taken under tow to a parking orbit to await the final outcome of the legal proceedings from the incident.  Captain Roscoe Griswold is currently in detention at the IISS orbital base, awaiting transport back to Narmada for trial on piracy charges.  The other four members of the crew died either during the incident or before they could be rescued afterward.  Materials found aboard the vessel implicate it in at least four other piracy incidents in Yamuna Subsector within the past year.  If proven, it is highly likely Captain Griswold will face capital punishment.

The Golden Dawn arrived undamaged with no casualties, but a pre-existing repair condition is forcing it to remain grounded for the next four days.  The Damas Starport Authority has waived berthing fees for this visit as a small gesture of appreciation for Baronet Atopia’s efforts to bring suspected pirates to justice.

038-1107, aboard the Golden Dawn, in hyperspace between Damas and Nive

-- from the personal journal of Baronet Atopia Kesselring

It’s been difficult to put into words all that occurred on Damas while we were there.  Surreal would seem to be the most appropriate.  Initially, I had nothing but ire for the perceived ineptitude of Sir Harmon Naicker, the Imperial Liaison, but I had to change my tune once I’d had my own taste of the bureaucratic stonewalling the government machine there generates.  I gave him an abject apology when we departed the day before yesterday.

It was all I could do to keep Lady Reena from throttling the life out of him when they first met.  She’d been out of touch with her beloved husband for two cycles and had been forced to entertain the darkest of possibilities during that time, so of course she needed to vent.  Fortunately, her rage quickly collapsed into tears as her fears welled up to the surface.  Cassandra led her back to her stateroom with a mild sedative to calm her.

Once her nerve had steadied, Lady Reena was able to procure her husband’s possessions left at the starport hostel.  His portable workstation’s last entry indicated Sir Aamir had a meeting with Five-Roan Leland, the Director of Technological Development, on the day after the noble’s arrival on Damas

Fortunately, Sir Harmon managed to locate a lower level member of the Lords of Knowledge who was free for a short meeting that afternoon.  Seven-Joan Marisan was a petite woman who was still fighting a number of birth defects, including a withered left arm and pronounced facial droop on the left side of her slightly larger than normal head.

Still, there was certainly nothing wrong with her brain.  She immediately grasped the problem of Sir Aamir and instructed her technicians in a highly technical language laced with acronyms and slang that I simply couldn’t follow.  After a few minutes, they had determined that Sir Aamir had never reached his appointed meeting place with Five-Roan on the day he disappeared.  It also discovered that Five-Roan had been out of the office for over three hours at that time.

It didn’t take a genius to suspect that the insular Lords of Knowledge were suffering from ten generations of inbreeding which had produced their astounding intelligence in comparison of the masses they ruled over, but had left their bodies wanting.  The answer seemed painfully clear: either the Lords or someone among them was taking it upon themselves to improve the breed at any cost.

At dinner that night, Lady Reena went missing.  I hesitated from sending any of the crew after her, having no idea where to start looking.  Fortunately, she returned to the ship three hours later, severely drunk and sick on low class rotgut.  I thought she just needed to drown her sorrows, but it quickly became clear she’d been pumping the masses for rumors and information.

Turns out that there were more people missing than a few celebrities – over twenty local women had disappeared as well.  She also got a dead-on description of Five-Roan going in and out of building in a crater dedicated to light and medium manufacturing – including medical equipment.

The next morning found Cassandra and me arranging a tour of Crater Alpha Four, which turned out to be easy when plying Dane Blevin, a marketing and public relations man for Damas’ business consortium, for a tour of the facilities.  Eventually, we managed to get close enough to one building to glimpse Five-Roan through a window.  We ditched Dane and worked our way into the building by bluffing our way through the front door.

Some more bluffing gave us access to the floor where Five-Roan was doing his dirty work.  How he’d managed to rig up hot sleep units with technology level that was just discovering the wonders of semi-conductors was beyond me.  But there were all of the missing people, most of them with a hasty patchwork of bandages to cover their tissue sampling sites.  Over a dozen of the local women were pregnant as well – surrogate mothers to whatever genetic freaks had been cooked up by the monsters responsible for this.

Five-Roan got the drop on us while we stared at all the nightmare technology, wondering how to extract the celebrities from it all.  He pointed a small energy pistol at the both of us asked us to disarm each other, which we did.  Once we were safely removed from our weapons, he told us what he was doing – combining DNA from the best unwilling victims to impregnate unwilling foster mothers.  The Lords would become stronger and better from the influx of fresh genetic material – fewer deformed freaks and even better mental capacity.

I suppose a villain longs to monologue.  I kept giving him my “rapt” attention while Cassandra edged around him.  When he finally paused for breath, Cassandra tackled him.  The gun tumbled free and discharged, the energy beam from it shattered a cart loaded with beakers and other glassware.  I managed to snag the weapon while my ship’s medic made Five-Roan a candidate for the ICU with the blunt end of an oxygen cylinder.

In the end, the planetary government thanked me for exposing the problem, sending me and my crew onward with the people we rescued.  Lady Reena’s darkest days had come to an end, and there wasn’t a dry eye on deck when they had their reunion at long last.  We’ve taken the other off-world victims on as passengers on the way to better starport facilities on Nive.  I hope the wait for their reunions with home and loved ones will be short and worth it in the end.

And me – well, I’ve got a problem.  In all the confusion at Crater Alpha Four, I wound up pocketing the energy pistol, forgetting all about it until Olivia pulled the weapon from my jacket’s pocket yesterday while tidying up our stateroom!  Thankfully, Cassandra managed to keep Olivia from discharging the weapon and now has it safely secured out of sight and out of mind in the ship’s locker.  But now, what do I do with my inadvertent (and potentially lethal) souvenir?