Sunday, December 24, 2017

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…

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