Monday, January 1, 2018

Nobody Home   


070-1107, Normal Space, approximately 480,000 km from Xiang

“This is Golden Dawn calling Xiang Space Traffic Control,” said Atopia into her headset microphone, “We have arrived in system and are requesting clearance to vector to the outer markers, over.”  Atopia waited ten seconds, but there was no response.  She looked over at Valo in the pilot’s acceleration couch.

“It’s a small port,” he said.  “There may not be anybody available to respond right now.  Send a digital hail to them.  If they’ve got power, that’ll get us a response.”

Xiang was indeed a small port.  The planet had only two full time residents, Thomas and Janis Vincennes, who bought the airless rock and convinced the Interstellar Trade and Commerce Commission to build a small but high quality starport there over forty years ago.  The two were belters who’d struck a motherlode of lanthanum and hoped to extend their gains by fostering a jump-2 trade hub between a half-dozen worlds.

Unfortunately, it hadn’t panned out quite as well as they’d expected.  The facility was a first-rate Class B starport with exceptional repair facilities and the ability to fabricate spacecraft up to fifty displacement tons; but the boon in traffic never really materialized.  Even though it had 24 landing bays that could handle ships up to 400 d-tons, there was never more than a handful in port.  Five years ago, a group of travelers got stranded there for nine days before another ship arrived that could take them away.

And nobody else came there to live, forcing the IISS to regularly shuttle a score of personnel from their base on Damas to operate the port.  Instead of being a hub of trade, Starport Vincennes had become a simple refueling station where crews and passengers could take a break from the confines of their vessels while topping of their dihydrous tanks.

Atopia’s comm board beeped and displayed the digital response from the starport.  “It’s an automated response,” said Atopia as she read the message, “but we’re clear to approach and it suggests we continue to attempt to establish voice contact every ten minutes.”

“All right,” said Valo, “passive sensors say we’re clear out to fifty thousand clicks.”  He keyed open his headset microphone.  “Hawk, Lisa; bring the maneuver drive online.  We’re going in.”

Atopia’s hails continued to go unanswered as the ship made the two hour run to high orbit.  She switched to a clear channel and did an open hail, both voice and digital.  The space traffic control didn’t respond.  Neither did the three ships in port.  Atopia checked the transponder signatures.

Delta-Alpha Five-One-Five,” she read from the display.

“That’ll be a Scout ship,” replied Valo, “probably from Damas.  It must be time to rotate some starport crew down there.”

Christofori’s Dream must be the free trader parked down there,” she said, “so that would make Lady Ataraxia the far trader.  So why is nobody answering?”

Atopia craned her neck as she looked out the viewport, she could just make out the facility on the surface – a central circular hub with three concentric rings of concourses around it.  The twenty-four landing bays were nestled inside the first two concourse rings.  The outer ring had four large modules connected outside of the high-tech bullseye – a hydroponics dome, the space traffic control center, the spaceyard fabrication facility and the starship repair facility.

“Try the automated system on digital again,” said Valo.  “Maybe everybody’s asleep.”

Atopia complied.  “I might expect something like that from a Class E starport,” she said as she tapped out the message.  “You know as well as I do that if nobody’s home in the space traffic control center, something’s wrong down there.”

“Your Ladyship, all I know is that we don’t have enough dihydrous to turn and burn for the nearest gas giant,” replied Valo, “so we can either sit up here and hope, or we can go down there and find out what’s wrong.”

The communications board beeped again.  “The automation has cleared us to land in Bay 21,” Atopia said as she read the message.  She heaved a sigh and looked back at Valo.  “Take us down.”  She keyed open her microphone.  “Cassandra, looks like you’ll have to break out the combat armor again.  Make sure the life support packs are filled and charged.”

Forty minutes later, Xiang, Starport Vincennes

The starport’s automatic systems had already hard-docked and sealed the airlock connection by the time Atopia had donned her combat armor and locked the helmet in place.  Her body pistol was riding her right hip and she cradled a shotgun as she and Cassandra cycled the lock.  The ADF Colonel had her submachine gun at the ready as the inner door pivoted on its upper hinges, swinging up and away.

They entered a broad, curving concourse about eighty meters wide and perhaps eight meters high.  There were a number empty, dusty shopfronts lining the walls – places reserved for the commerce that never came.  A lane down the center marked with dazzle stripes on the floor indicated where cargo loading vehicles were permitted to operate.  The merchant ships in Bays 20 and 19 were to their right, while the scout ship was across the way.

They went to the scout ship first, their armors’ boots thudding hollowly in the cavernous expanse of the place.  “No signs of trouble,” commented Cassandra into her tactical microphone.  Her eyes swept the area.  “Somebody’s unloaded the ship in Bay 19 – they’ve got cargo containers stacked up over there.  It looks like the next section beyond has been closed off.”

Delta-Alpha Five-One-Five was powered down at some point, drawing from the starport grid to keep the lights and systems on.  Whoever had parked it there hadn’t bothered with security protocols, as the hatches were closed but unlocked.  They boarded her through the rear stowage hatch and made their way forward.

“Kudos to the IISS crew,” said Cassandra as she surveyed the ship’s commons.  “They run a clean ship.  There’s nothing out of place in here.  No signs of a problem at all.”

“Except they’re not here,” said Atopia.  “Watch my back while I check the ship’s log, please.”

The scout ship had made port three days before with two flight crew and four passengers – IISS people cycling in for ten weeks of work at the port.  They had a list of people they were due to leave port with today.  “I’ve got nothing to go on here,” Atopia said to Cassandra after a few moments.  “We’ll search the cabins.  You take the pair on the left.”

After ten minutes, neither of them had found anything other than a few personal belongings in the forward two cabins – probably inhabited by the flight crew.  The passenger cabins were pristine and empty.  “Okay, that was a waste of time,” said Atopia in disgust.

“I suggest we try Bay 19 next, your ladyship,” Cassandra said.  “There’re some signs of activity there, at least.”

A quick inspection of the cargo containers revealed they were supplies and spares for the starport sent from the IISS base at Damas.  “He was running light,” commented Atopia as she paused to inspect the pile.  “Beowulf-class ships can easily haul eighty d-tons; there’s barely forty here.”

Cassandra was already to the airlock.  “The airlock hatch is locked down tight,” she said.  “The ADF uses the same type of electronic locks.  It’s going to take more than a bypass kit to get this one open.”

“Valo,” said Atopia, “you and Tabitha get suited up and get to work on the lock to Bay 19.  Cass and I will see about Bay 20.  Samantha, inform the passengers they may have to wait a while to disembark.”

“I’ll let them both know,” Samantha replied, “Say with a complementary drink from the bar?”

“Might as well make it two,” said Atopia.  “We’re going to be a while, yet.”

Fortunately, the Lady Ataraxia wasn’t locked down.  A quick sweep of the ship indicated she was deadheading this run – no passengers or cargo.  Atopia had to repress a shudder as she made her way through the strangely familiar and yet completely unlike the confines of the Silver Dawn.  “It’s like walking over my own grave,” she said, “The crew cabins look lived in, like whoever was here has just stepped out for minute…”

“I know the feeling,” said Cassandra, “but stay frosty.  We still have no idea what’s going on here, yet.”

“Mom?” asked Olivia.  “Still nobody in the control center is responding to vocal hails.  The automation keeps giving me the ‘all personnel are busy at this time’ message.  Should I keep at it?”

“I know it must be tedious, honey,” Atopia replied, “but yeah, keep at it.  And thank you for doing such a good job so far.”

“Okay,” said Olivia, “Love you; be careful.”

“I love you too, sweetie,” Atopia said with a smile that her daughter couldn’t see.

The Lady’s computer had outdated security protocols.  Tabitha took a break from her efforts on Dream’s hatch lock to talk Atopia through a basic hack of the ship’s computer that gave the baronet access.

“I’m in,” Atopia said.  “According to her last log entry, Lady set down yesterday.  Nobody was responding their hails, either.  The captain got into the ship’s locker to arm everyone and they left the ship to investigate.”

“We’re in,” said Tabitha suddenly.  “Remind me to pass on any B-and-E work offer on Narmada.”

“Get into its computer,” said Atopia, “If the captain doesn’t know any more than we do, then there’ll be no point to searching his ship.  Cassandra and I are heading for the Main Terminal – maybe we can find some clues there.”

The terminal section was a flattened dome about ten meters high and nearly two hundred across, divided into two floors with a stylish metal grid platform that stood on fluted metal girders a dozen meters from the curving wall.  The lower level was the duty-free zone containing a number of automated vending kiosks, a single restaurant which was closed and locked, a nightclub which was also closed and shuttered, an exercise area that included a running track at a sublevel, a Travellers’ Aid Society news and information terminal, a wall map of the facility and a turnkey motel that was completely unoccupied.  The upper level had dormitory housing for the starport staff and a residence apartment for Thomas and Janis Vincennes.

Atopia and Cassandra paused by the TAS terminal.  Cassandra worked with it for a few moments.  “Damn,” she said, “all I can get this thing to display is the calendar of events.  It hasn’t even been updated for two days!”

“Which is at least how long things have been screwy here,” replied Atopia as she kept an eye on the space around them.  “What was on the agenda for 068-1107?”

“A harvest festival,” said Cassandra, “in the hydroponics module.  It says ‘everyone is invited to sample the freshest food you’ve ever tasted!’  The party started at 1830 local.”

“That’s about fifty-two hours ago,” said Atopia, “I’ll see if I can load up a map of this place onto my pocket comp.  There’s an electric cart across the way; you drive and I’ll navigate.”

“You’re going to have to fire me,” sighed Tabitha over the link.  “The captain of this garbage scow spent all of his money on internal and data security.  I’m making headway, but it’s been a slog.”

“Keep at it,” replied Atopia as climbed into the passenger seat of the electric cart.  “I need anything you can give me.”  She pointed toward one of the six radial corridors that interconnected the concourses and Cassandra stomped on the accelerator.

Dream’s crew is either the biggest gaggle of slobs in the universe,” commented Valo, “or it’s been running without a full crew for a while.  This wreck of starship has so many kludge repair jobs that the only things holding it together are bailing wire and duct tape.  The passenger deck is sealed off with a handmade warning sign on the hatch saying there’s no life support on up there.  It also looks like Dream’s been in port long enough for the repair crews to have a go at its maneuver drive.  Looks like they were about finished when whatever happened here, happened.”

“By The Maker!” exclaimed Atopia as Cassandra negotiated a sharp turn that made the cart’s small rubber tires squeal.  “We’re almost there, Valo – anything else?”

“Something odd,” he replied.  “The captain’s cabin has a clear display box for some memento, but it’s empty right now.”

“A memento?” asked Atopia, “How big a memento?”

“The case would hold something about the size of a softball,” he replied, “looks like the base of the thing was cylindrical, though – I’d say about six centimeters in diameter.”

Cassandra skidded the cart through another tight turn, forcing Atopia to hang onto the side of the vehicle to keep her seat.  The dome had a sectional roof nearly three hundred meters across with hundreds of transparasteel panels to allow sunlight to flood the open space some fifteen meters below.  There were row upon row of hydroponic stacks where plants of all descriptions were lined up in small gutters where water and nutrients could circulate around their roots.  Many of the stacks were lit with high-intensity discharge lamps to encourage faster growth.

The cart came to a stop just shy of a large open area in the middle of the dome.  Atopia’s eyes widened in horror.  “Great Maker,” she breathed.  The floor was littered with bodies, including a cluster of five dressed in the same shipboard uniform style directly in front of them.

Cassandra stepped off of the cart, putting down her submachine gun in the seat and slinging her medical bag over her shoulder.  She dug inside of it for a moment, pulling out a medical analyzer.  She made a slow sweep around her with it.

“Finally!” exclaimed Tabitha, “I’m into Dream’s computer now – going straight for the ship’s log.  The captain’s name is Harlow Christofori.  His ship landed five days ago with maneuver drive problems.  His last entry was from two days ago, saying he was giving the crew liberty for the festival.”

Cassandra looked back at Atopia as she put the medical analyzer away.  “I’m not reading any atmospheric contaminants – no biological or chemical agents, no harmful gasses and oxygen is plentiful in here.”  She turned back to the bodies.  “There’s no reason for this that I can see.  None of these people are wounded…”  She trailed off as looked at one of the closest ones.

“Atopia!” she yelled suddenly, “They’re still alive!”

She moved toward one of them and suddenly collapsed.

“Cassandra!” cried out Atopia.  “Cassandra’s down!  I’m going after her!”

“ATOPIA!” yelled Tabitha over the link, “STOCK STILL!”

Atopia froze and got a hold on her emotions.  “Tell me you found something,” she said at last.

“Yeah,” Tabitha replied, “Without getting any closer to the festival, can you see something cylindrical, about the size of a large man’s closed fist?  It’ll be metallic, like shiny pewter, convoluted like it’s made of tubes on the surface, with a number of rounded studs, like the ornate shirt buttons on a military dress uniform, only smaller.”

“Harlow’s memento?” asked Atopia.

“Yeah,” replied Valo, “like the three mementos that Baronet Deidre Brogan found on Dnieper.”

“Artifact of the Ancients,” Atopia breathed.  “Great Maker!  What in Nine Hells was he doing with one of those?”

“Trying to find a buyer, I think,” said Tabitha.  “He couldn’t get the thing to work.  He’s apparently been playing with it for over a year since he found it.  Do you see it?  I’m willing to bet it is dead center of that area.”

“Got it in my sight,” Atopia replied.  “It’s lying next to a child near Harlow.  Some of those rounded studs on it are glowing, too.”

Tabitha swore.  “Valo,” she said at last, “you didn’t see a weird kind of a helmet in Harlow’s cabin, did you?  Looks like it is made of plastic with a transparent faceplate that goes all the way back to the crown of the head?”

Atopia could visualize Valo shake his head.  “I don’t think so,” he said at last, “but I’ll go check again.”

“Hurry,” said Tabitha.  “Lisa, in case Valo comes up empty, I need you over here with Samantha and your electronics kit – if the helmet isn’t in the captain’s cabin, it’ll be in the ship’s locker.”

It took nearly an hour for the trio of ladies to defeat the security mechanism on the ship’s locker.  At Atopia’s urging, Valo grabbed another cart and loaded it down with bottled water and ration bars from the Dawn’s emergency supplies, and drove it over to the hydroponics module.

Tabitha and Samantha arrived shortly after that aboard a third cart.  Samantha didn’t have on combat armor, but she was wearing the strange helmet.  Several indicators were lit on its surface, indicating it was active.  Tabitha removed her suit helmet.  “You see it?” she asked.

“Pretty as a picture,” Samantha said while moving into the area with the motionless bodies.  She kept on going, slowed only by the need to place her feet where the bodies weren’t.  She reached down and picked it up, examining it carefully.  Finally, she tentatively touched a few of the studs.  The lights went out on the artifact and the people around her started to stir.

“Valo, grab Harlow and put him in a cart,” said Atopia tightly.  “If he gives you any grief, shoot him, on my authority.  The rest of you, grab some water bottles and start helping these people.”

100-1107, aboard Golden Dawn, in hyperspace between Rauma and Kolan

-- from the personal journal of Baronet Atopia Kesslering

A lot has happened since the incident on Xiang, and naturally enough I’m just catching my journal up now, over a cycle after it’s happened.  Such is the life of a gypsy merchant, after all.

Harlow Christofori got off light for trying to sell the artifact on the black market and nearly getting everyone on Xiang killed.  As it was, several of the victims had to be treated aboard Lady Ataraxia as well as my ship, since the medical facilities at Starport Vincennes were quite limited.  I used my authority to take the artifact and anti-psionic helmet from him, assuring him he and his crew wouldn’t face charges if they could clear port by the end of the next day and swear an oath to never return to Xiang, which they did.

According to Cassandra's and Tabitha's best guess, the artifact is apparently some kind of neurological jamming device - it inhibits higher brain functions but allows autonomous functions to continue unabated - making it a highly effective non-lethal weapon.  How Harlow figured it out enough to get himself an anti-psionic helmet for protection is beyond me.  I figure he picked up both from a hunter or slaver someplace, and I'm willing to bet the former owner isn't alive anymore, either.

I promptly turned the items over to the IISS who also cleared port the next day, along with a computer I’d picked up on Kerepets.  I’m looking forward to reach Kolan so I can cash out the voucher they used to purchase it.

Olivia had a bit of a misadventure on Wekiva while we were there.  I don’t know how a planet with only twenty-three thousand residents can wind up in three bitterly competitive arcologies, but that’s what happened there.  I guess they’re all fighting over mineral and water rights, since both are scarce.  The outcasts and non-conformists wind up living in the starport extrality, but they’re hardly safe from the vindictive arcology elders there, either.

My adopted daughter slipped out while Samantha was getting a passenger settled – I guess my child wanted a treat from one of the vending machines.  I imagine she’s still getting the hang of the weekly allowance thing.  But in her haste, she didn’t tell anyone where she was going.  A half-hour later, Samantha tells me my daughter isn’t aboard ship.

Long story short, my darling daughter had her treat, heard a noise in the men’s bathroom and found a young man bleeding to death from stab wound in the abdomen.  She’d removed her blouse and had jammed it in the wound to try and staunch the bleeding, but couldn’t bring herself to leave him long enough to find help.  The poor boy died before Cassandra and the starport medics could get him on a gurney.

Sadly, she’s already seen enough death that this incident doesn’t seem to have affected her much.  Nevertheless, she and I are going to seek professional consultation about this during the Subsector Moot on Narmada – perhaps talk to Baronet Yanni, the marquis’ wife.  I did notice that she slept pretty close to me on the bunk that night and clutched Percy, her stuffed tree rat toy, tightly all the while.

From Wekiva, we jumped to Skagit, where I made a very tidy sum on a deal and handed out Cr10,000 bonuses to the crew to celebrate – plus thank them for what they’d been through on Xiang.  While they did spend a bit of it that night, I notice most of them are asking me to bank their bonuses.  Maybe my business sense is rubbing off on them.

I also received a message from His Grace, Duke Darius, while we were on Skagit.  It contained an preliminary agenda for the Moot, along with a personal note requesting my presence there.  Apparently, I will be needed to clarify my actions and justify my decisions over the past two years.  Also, I have been confidentially informed that His Grace, Sector Duke Wymark Gascoyne will personally be attending this session of the Moot – so I suppose that Darius wants all the support he can muster!

From Skagit, we made a quiet return to Rauma, where we were met by Dame Diana Sabatini, the newly minted Imperial Liaison for that world.  My paramilitary actions to apprehend Brice Caldwell embarrassed the planetary government so badly, that they’re cleaning house now, which has resulted in a spate of revenge killings by the local syndicates.  She told me to lay low and to not leave the extrality under any circumstances, but did have the entire crew over for dinner that night, which she apparently prepared herself.

I’m happy to say that she has decided to accompany me to the Subsector Moot, and the trip is giving us some time to catch up.  Our next stop is Kolan, where I hope to pick up Baron Harper Willow to join the party as well.  If we’re lucky, we’ll be able to spend a few days on the sun-drenched beaches of Olt before heading to Narmada to do our duty to Emperor and the Imperium…

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