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?

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