Sunday, March 25, 2018

Honeymoon Cruise      

059-1108, aboard Golden Dawn, in hyperspace between Kupa and Belaya

--from the personal journal of Baronet Atopia Kesslering

I miss Olivia.  I’ve grown used to having my little one sleeping beside me over the past couple of years, but she’s in a temporary tutelage with His Grace, Sector Duke Wymark Gascoyne, while I run a few loads of cargo between Belaya and Kupa.  I keep telling myself that it will be good for her to focus on her studies in a stable environment that affords her the opportunities to meet and socialize with children her own age.  She shouldn’t only be around adults all the time.  She should have time to be a child before the responsibilities of adulthood and nobility are thrust upon her.

She seemed happy enough the last time I was on Belaya – bubbling with enthusiasm about her new friends and all the wonders of the Duke’s contragravity habitat.  She even seemed genuinely excited about her studies – or was that because she actually had a real, live teacher?  No matter; the experience is good for her.

And here I am, still wishing she was here in this claustrophobic cabin, curled up on my arm, snoring softly in the carefree dreams of youth while I gently stroke her hair and smile.

It’s been a while since I last wrote in this journal.  Life’s been busy for me and mine.

Sir Winston and I are to be married later this year.  It was funny – we sat down to have a serious talk on Emperor’s Day while the Dawn was bound from Leven to Belaya, and wound up trying to propose to one another.  We’ve agreed that the ceremony will happen right after the Sector Moot.  Since we’re both from the Imperial Navy, we’ve decided to have a Navy Captain preside over the nuptials.

After handing over both Kitara and the ring to Imperial Naval Intelligence, I had an audience with His Grace and his wife, Her Excellency Countess Dyota Effernelli.  It was at that meeting it was decided that I might have to do something about the Ine Givar activity in this subsector.  That’s how Oliva wound up being in tutelage.  I’m glad she’s enjoying it, at least.

When the opportunity comes up, I may be asked to take leave of Belaya on short notice and barrel straight into harm’s way.  It is better that Olivia not be here when I have to make the tough decisions and do the dirty work of the Imperium.  She’s seen too much blood and death already.

I spent the first couple of weeks ferrying a honeymoon couple out to Xerxes, the ringed gas giant in Belaya’s star system.  Carla and Charles Howell were suitably impressed with the majesty of the cosmos and the awesome beauty of that stately giant, and were wonderful guests.  The rest of their entourage was considerably less so.

Belaya is ruled by the Church of the Instruments of Divine Will, which means that all of its citizens – all 23.8 billion of them – are parishioners, bound by its doctrines and rituals.  Therefore, the best man Daniel Newcomb, and maid of honor Sandra Fisher, along with a chaperoning couple – Ruth and Clint Blackwell – were required to come along on the newlyweds’ honeymoon to ensure that all of the proper ceremonies and rituals were followed at their appointed hours.

From what I understand, the marriage was a daylong event where every participant was required to engage in a ceremony of ritual purification before the main event could take place.  Once the vows were exchanged, there was a lengthy post-ceremony where the families were “bonded” to one another in an additional ritual that united the families’ resolve to keep the couple’s matrimony pure.

There were no less than fifteen rituals that had to be performed to sanctify the crew, starship and cabins before the happy couple could finally board the ship.  And while Ruth and Clint were polite and friendly, after three days of their gentle, nagging reminders about what needed to happen next, I was ready to toss both of them into low berths for the duration of the flight.

Meanwhile, the best man and maid of honor were about ready to pitch one another out the nearest airlock.  It was fairly obvious that neither one of them particularly liked each other very much.  It boiled over shortly after we hit hyperspace on the microjump that carried us out to the fringes of the star system.  John and Kim walked the pair gently but firmly back to their cabins and let the rest of the group deal with them.  Fortunately, I didn’t have to get involved.

The fun started in earnest on the third night of our visit to Xerxes, when Valo called me up to the bridge in the wee hours.  “Distress beacon,” he said while gesturing to a display screen, “from the INS Virtuous.  She dropped out of hyperspace about thirty minutes ago.  Tachyon readings from her are fluctuating, so her fusion reactor’s screwed.”

“Lay in a course to rendezvous with her,” I replied as I turned to leave the bridge, “I’ll wake up the rest of the crew.”

It took over four hours to get to visual range.  All attempts to raise her on the comms had failed.  In desperation, I sent John outside with a laser beacon to signal them.  “Got their attention,” he commented after several long minutes.  “They’ve suffered burnout damage from an ion storm in hyperspace.  Their sensors and comms are out and their fusion reactor regulators are out of synch.  The engineering crew has suffered electrical arc injuries and they’re requesting we send them a repair crew.”

“Let them know that help is here,” I replied.  “Everybody suit up and grab a toolkit.”

I’ll give Samantha credit; she knows how to keep passengers entertained.  She tied into our suit video feeds and ran commentary for the entourage while we worked to repair the ailing Navy Tanker and heal the injuries of her crew.  Fortunately, I hadn’t forgotten much about how Navy ships were laid out, so I helped coordinate the repair effort with the ship’s commander, Captain Clayton Molander.  I had sympathy for him – this was his first command and first mission, a convoy training exercise.

I got him to focus on solving problems rather than worrying about the future and who was going to catch the blame.  I took some time later on and wrote an endorsement of his decisions and lauded his actions to save both his ship and crew during and after the incident.  There’s no sense having one bit of misfortune haunting a career, after all.

The rest of the convoy started dropping out of hyperspace as we were wrapping up our repairs.  Admiral Sabrina Vierling was in charge of it, aboard the INS Victorious, a battlewagon displacing over forty thousand tons.  It took a bit of explaining what a civilian ship was doing this far out, but things were quickly sorted out after that.

The Admiral invited us aboard by allowing Dawn into her main docking bay and then took our passengers in hand so all of my crew could get some much needed rest. Later, we all gathered for a formal dinner aboard Victorious and Sabrina really laid out a spread for us all, in honor of the newlyweds.

The rest of the trip went splendidly and we returned to Belaya aboard the battleship and received a plaque from the grateful crew of Virtuous.  We also got a full round of complements from the newlyweds and their guests on an unforgettable experience.

I’ve spent the cycle since then running back and forth between Kupa and Belaya.  I purchased enough speculative cargo at a discount on Belaya that I had to rent out warehouse space to hold what wouldn’t fit aboard the Dawn on one trip, and then made a killing on Kupa and brought back a hold full of cargo and made another killing back on Belaya.

When I get this current load sold, I’ll have the ship’s mortgage over 90% paid off in less than two years!  I couldn’t have dreamed things could go so well!  But then, I’ve been aggressive and shrewd – driven to achieve my goals by necessity and opportunity.

Still, I miss my little one when she’s not around.

Oh well, perhaps I can trouble my fiancee for a little company, tonight...

Sunday, March 18, 2018

A Band of Gold                        

356-1107, aboard Golden Dawn, in hyperspace between Kedron and Leven

--from the personal journal of Baronet Atopia Kesslering

Well, I figured that Commander Greene of Imperial Naval Intelligence wasn’t going to be happy with the outcome of my mission to Sebou.  I was right.  In fact, he seemed downright disappointed with the performance of both my crew and me.  I want to think that it was the news about Lt. Turner that had soured his mood, but I can’t quite convince myself of that.  So, I’ll just tell myself that I was handed a busted mission and did the best I could with it.

Kedron was quiet but pleasant.  It’s an automated refueling station situated on an airless rock that cracks hydrogen and oxygen from the crust to supply fuel for scout ships and gypsy merchants like Dawn in the name of interstellar communication and commerce.  Dorian Clark runs the operation there with his wife Tina and two children, Nora and Wyatt.  With two playmates nearly her own age, Olivia made the most of our layover.  The quiet time was a welcome relief from the tension of the mission.

We caught two freighters in port and convinced them to delay their departures until the Dawn could dock, as we had passengers who were eager to find quick passage off an otherwise deserted starport.  The other ships didn’t waste any time clearing port once our former passengers were aboard, leaving me to cope with a lack of financial opportunities.

We have one passenger for this trip – a drifter by the name of Kiara Atari.  She paid for a low passage ticket with a wad of small denomination Imperial currency, some of which looked like it had been in circulation since His Majesty Emperor Gavin had sat the Iridium Throne.  But, she’d been good company on Kedron, so I offered to let her sleep in one of the middle cabins so long as she was willing to eat what the crew was having.  Having already sampled Samantha’s cooking, she accepted.

One thing I will say about Kiara, the young lady can saw a log with the best of them.  She went to bed right after dinner last night and didn’t get up until nearly lunchtime today.  I guess it’s been a while since she’s had a decent and secure place to sleep…

358-1107, aboard Golden Dawn, in hyperspace between Kedron and Leven

Atopia was pouring over her financial programs in her office just off the bridge when an intercom call by her daughter brought her back to the real world.  “Mom and Sir Winston, Samantha wants you both to come to the passenger commons immediately.  She thinks there’s something wrong with Kiara.”

Atopia was less than three steps behind Winston as they both hustled down the stairs from the crew cabins, then through the central passageway on the middle deck to the other stairwell down to the lower deck.  The former Navy doctor was wearing suede slippers, scrub pants and a bathrobe that would have had the ship’s captain thinking much more pleasant thoughts under other circumstances.  More importantly, he was carrying his black medical bag.

Winston wore a serious expression as he read the display of his medical analyzer.  Kiara lay quietly bundled up in a comforter on the bunk of the cabin.  She was still wearing her clothes.  Her breathing was slow and slightly irregular, occasionally not taking a breath for a span of a dozen seconds or more.  He took a penlight from his bag and peeled open Kiara’s eyelids.  The irises reacted, but sluggishly.

He traded the penlight for an auto-injector, altering its setting to draw blood and inserting an empty ampule before pressing it to a vein near Kiara’s elbow.  When the ampule was full, he sealed it.  “I’ll need to run some tests,” he said, “but she might be having some form of seizure.  Until I know more, quarantine this cabin.  Olivia, go tell Tabitha to monitor Kiara with the security camera.  If my patient stirs or starts convulsing before I get back, come running.”

An hour later, Winston stopped by the computer room where Tabitha, Atopia and Olivia were watching Kiara.  “She hasn’t moved a micron since I started watching her,” Tabitha said as he stepped in.  Atopia glanced meaningfully at Olivia then back at Tabitha.  Tabitha nodded as she rose from the computer terminal.  “Come on, kiddo,” she said as she took Olivia’s hand, “Since there’s so much open space in the cargo hold, let’s spar for a bit.”

After the hatch slid shut behind them, Winston, who had traded the bathrobe for a scrub shirt and a lab coat, pulled a datachip from a pocket and slotted it in the computer console.  A display screen lit up next to them and Winston referred to it as he spoke.  “Our passenger has been poisoned,” he said with a dour expression.  “It’s some kind of neurotoxin, but I can’t find a match in my dataslab’s medical database.”

Atopia touched the screen, enlarging a section.  An object clung to a corpuscle – artificially angular with jagged projections from a central mass.  “A nanite?” she asked.

“Microsurgical,” he replied with a nod.  He scrolled the image to the right until he found another one like the first with an odd, cradle-like structure on one side.  “They use nanites like these to fight aggressive cancers,” he added.  “That structure on the back of it usually carries a micro-ampule of medication directly to the cancerous cells.  The nanite grabs a cancer cell and drives the ampule in the cradle into the cell membrane.  Body heat or the act of implantation fractures the ampule and the cancer cell dies.”

“So somebody’s repurposed these nanites?” asked Atopia.

“Yeah,” said Winston, “the ampule carries the toxin.  Each nanite delivers a quarter-microliter to a nerve cell, killing it.  Get enough of them into someone’s body, they’ll do the job – slow but steady.  I’m guessing that’s what’s happening to Kiara right now.”

Atopia’s brow furrowed.  “Is there anything you can do for her?”

Winston nodded as he handed her another datachip.  “I need you and Valo to build me an adjustable micro-pump and micronic filter unit.  If we’re lucky, there will be nanites that haven’t delivered their ampules yet in her spinal column.  When it’s ready, I’ll tap it into her spinal fluid and circulate it.  Once we get enough of the nanites that still are carrying the toxin, I should be able to concoct a targeted anti-toxin to counter any that’s left in her system.”

“That’s not going to cure her, though,” said Atopia.  “The nerve damage she’s already suffered, I mean.”

“No,” he said, “but once we get her stable, we’ll put her in a low berth and get her to Belaya.  It is tech level fourteen there, so they should be able to do neuro-regenerative treatments.  She won’t be as good as she was, but she should be functional and productive again.”

“But how did she get poisoned in the first place?” asked Atopia.  “Who would want to do it to her?

“No clue,” said Winston with a shake of his head, “but we need to find out.  Before you get started on your project, I want you to print up and physically sign an authorization for Samantha to go through Kiara’s personal effects.  While you’re doing that, I’ll get our steward properly attired for a potential Level 4 biohazard situation.”

An hour later, Samantha was in the cargo hold, unloading a caustic stream of vitriol as Winston helped strip off the hazmat gear she’d donned for the search of Kiara’s belongings.  “Little bitch would’ve put me to shame in my youth,” she said as Atopia handed her a shooter of whiskey.  Samantha tossed it down and made a face.  “Definitely not the Marquis’ brand,” she commented as she handed the shooter back.

“What are you talking about?” asked Winston as he worked on removing barrier tape from the tops of her boots.

“I grew up on the Streets Without Pity,” replied Samantha, “which is one of the worst and poorest slums on Oya.  You steal to survive there and fight to keep others from taking it away.  Kiara’s bag is filled with things that she stole from other people, including a few things from this ship.  I was keeping an eye on her because she’s got the look, you know?  And she still scored enough junk from us to pay for a low passage ticket!”

Samantha paused to shake her head.  “I used to think I was good back in the day; but not anymore.”  She looked at Atopia.  “This is on me, your ladyship.  I dropped the ball.”

“I was the one who invited her in to live among us,” said Atopia as she steadied the steward while Winston peeled a hazmat boot off her foot.  “The fault is mine.  Did you find anything else?”

Samantha looked over at a diminutive foam-wrapped package on a work table nearby.  “It’s cold to the touch,” she said, “like it has dry ice in it or something.”

“Thermo-stabilizer overwrap,” said Winston as he pulled off Samantha’s other hazmat boot with a grunt.  “It’s high-tech stuff used to package organs and highly perishable medicines for transport.”

“How does it manage to stay so cold?” asked Samantha as she sat down on a work stool.

Winston was about to say something, but stopped with his mouth open and then made a face and swore.  He threw the boot he was holding into the waste container.  “The packaging is impregnated with nanites,” he said at last.  “Sonofabitch!”

“So Kiara was either the mule for it or stole it from another mule,” said Samantha.

“Yeah,” said Atopia through a frown.  “Winston, the pump and filter are ready and we need Kiara alive to find out who she stole this from.  These nanites are an assassination weapon and the Ine Givar have a track record of targeting nobility just before a meeting of the Moot.”

“Right,” he said.  “I’ll meet up with Valo on the way and get to work.”

361-1107, aboard Golden Dawn, in hyperspace between Kedron and Leven

] Secure Connect
] Create Secure Text File – Label “SECTEX361-1107.01”

TO: His Grace Sector Duke Wymark Gascoyne, Ruler of Wayhaven Sector
       Gascoyne Hold, Belaya

FROM: Baronet Atopia Kesslering, Defender of the Imperium

Your Grace:

Attached to this file are data files from Sir Winston Blakely, M.D., to support my initial findings in this urgent matter that I bring to your attention.  I believe that you and your wife, Countess Dyota Effernelli have been targeted for assassination by a terrorist cell of the Ine Givar.

During our voyage from Kedron to Leven, we took aboard a passenger, Kiara Atari, a drifter and petty thief.  She was subjected to a type of weaponized nanite that employs a synthetic slow-acting neurotoxin that nearly claimed her life.  According to her account, she and a fellow drifter called Vaughn worked together on Cahabon to steal a pair of small packages that were wrapped with a thermo-stabilizer material from a traveler at the starport there.

The pair opened one of the packages and found a woman’s ring made of white-gold with rubies and diamonds that bears the emblem of House Effernelli.  In a celebratory tryst, Kiara placed the ring upon her hand and wore it for the night she and Vaughn had together before removing it and fencing it the next day to split the spoils.

Kiara then used part of the money to purchase immediate low passage from Cahabon to Kedron, hoping to elude Vaughn while claiming the other package for herself.  In the hopes of finding a better margin of profit by fencing the other item on Belaya, she purchased passage on my ship, since in previous conversations I had indicated to her that was my intended destination.

On my authority, my crew opened the other package.  It contained a masculine white-gold ring with the emblem of House Gascoyne surrounded by rubies and diamonds.  Further examination revealed it to be an assassination weapon containing more of the nanites that bear the neurotoxin that afflicted Ms. Atari.

Given their relative beauty, I can only assume the rings were intended as a gift for you and your wife with the intent of either assassination or as a scare tactic to cloud your judgement in other matters.  I have seen to securing the ring I have here to neutralize its danger.  The other ring should be located, if possible, as it may have the potential to inflict more harm upon the populace of Cahabon or other worlds of the Imperium.

After a brief layover on Leven to refuel, I intend to make haste to Belaya.  Ms. Atari has been placed in cryonic hibernation until such time as your planet’s advanced medical facilities can effectively treat her condition, as I suspect you will wish to debrief her at length regarding this matter.  I and my crew will be at your disposal and are prepared to aid you in whatever ways we can in this matter.

Long live the Emperor!  Long may He reign!

] End of Text
] Send Secure File to Outbound Que
] Belaya: 1012 Belaya/Wayhaven; 0101.AED3.0033.1011; GASCOYNE, Urgent
] Disconnect
] Off

Sunday, March 11, 2018

A Sinister Situation on Sebou   

349-1107, aboard Golden Dawn, in hyperspace between Sebou and Kedron

--from the personal journal of Baronet Atopia Kesslering

All of us veterans of Imperial military service talk about the kinds of sacrifices we’ve made over our careers for the good of the Imperium.  Some of us, I think, proclaim them just a little too loudly and a little too often – until we come face to face with someone who has literally given everything they had.  It’s a punch in the gut when you see somebody who’ll never recover from their injuries, may never regain consciousness, never get any recognition, never even get thanked for their efforts.  And all your pride just falls away, knowing that some of them gave far more than you ever did.

I should be in bed.  But that image haunts me tonight – a young man whose broken body is being kept alive by medical technology in a hospital’s intensive care unit on a world dozens of parsecs from his home – a young man who cannot even lay claim to his own name for the good of the Imperium.

How many drinks does this make tonight – four or five?  It doesn’t seem to matter.  I had to shed crocodile tears for him to maintain my cover story, but tonight I do feel like crying.  Every time the image appears in my head, I feel sick.  I feel like all the accolades that have been heaped upon me are empty, meaningless things in comparison to what that young man has lost.

I still have a report to write, of course – that’s what I’m dreading doing.  Somehow, I have to dispassionately relate the events of the past few days to the man’s superior so that he can take swift action to bring those responsible for his condition to justice and end their schemes.  I want to be there when these terrorist sympathizers and collaborators are brought before the Moot and make them answer for their crimes, make them answer for what they did to him.

This all started two long, strange weeks ago when one of my passengers on our transit from Sespe to Cahabon asked to see me privately on an urgent matter.  Commander Oliver Greene of Imperial Naval Intelligence presented his credentials and apologized for imposing upon a Defender of the Imperium.

“We’ve lost contact with one of our agents on Sebou, Lieutenant Milo Turner,” he told me.  “He is now three weeks overdue with his latest progress report and that probably means trouble.  Lt. Turner was investigating whether arms from one of Count Abdeslam Sebou’s factories were somehow making their way into the hands of Ine Givar operatives in this subsector.  Evidence from a recent attack claimed by the group supports this notion, but Milo was looking for concrete evidence of it.

“In broad strokes, Imperial Naval Intelligence needs you to find Lt. Turner, assess the situation as to whether he can be extracted without exposing the investigation, extract him or recover and extract the information he’s collected during the investigation.  Discretion in this matter is paramount – if you or the mission is compromised we’ll have nothing to show for over a year’s worth of work.

“Turner was operating under the alias Winfred Owens, a buyer for an import/export firm on Logone – the mercenary market being what it is there, and all.  I’ll be waiting for you on Kedron with a team of operatives in case there’s anything else that needs doing.  I thank you in advance and good luck to you.”

Commander Greene didn’t bother with goodbye when he left the ship, leaving me and my crew scrambling to get our commerce on Cahabon done and dusting off again in less than twenty hours.  It would have been sooner, but Kim ran afoul of the local authorities for dumping out her drink somewhere other than an authorized water reclamation station.  The upside was that other than spending four hours in a holding cell and being issued a warning citation, she got to chatting with one of the other law-breakers about Sebou.  During the transit, she went over it all with me so I wouldn’t be jumping into the situation completely blind.

Sebou is a marvel of environmental engineering with its domed cities situated in craters on the planet’s surface.  Olivia commented that it reminded her of Yantra, where they use a similar arrangement.  All semblance to that world ended when we stepped into Abdeslamdome for the first time.  Minarets and walls covered in brightly colored mosaics of ceramic tiles met our gaze as modern architecture merged with a culture brought by the first Solomani settlers.  Turbans may be out of style in the rest of Imperial space – owing to the unpopularity of the Zhodani – but those and fezzes with golden and silver tassels and brightly colored headscarves for the women were all the rage with the locals.

As much of a distraction as the local color was, I hardly paid attention to it while conducting my business, waiting for Tabitha to wade through the local news archives, looking for any mention of Winfred Owens.  It took a few hours of digging, but she finally pulled up a report of a public transportation accident in Erminadome, a city nearly four hundred kilometers away from the starport.

I took Samantha, Kim, Tabitha and Winston with me to visit the young lieutenant at the city’s central medical facility.  I’ll give Count Abdeslam credit; he doesn’t skimp when it comes to medical services because Milo was getting the best that tech level eight could muster.  I was in my Fiona Paxton identity, playing the part of a shocked and saddened sister of the unfortunate Mr. Owens.  I played Winston as my husband, hiding my face against his chest until I could bring tears to my eyes.  The rest of the group, mutual friends, looked suitably saddened to allay Dr. Kamal Udan’s suspicions.

The act continued as we visited the office of Police Detective Sallah Yawani, the man who’d investigated the accident.  He expressed sincere condolences that while he considered the incident a homicide, he had no proof that would stand up in court and no suspects.  He’d grilled Occala Dar, the tram driver, for nearly six hours, but ultimately got no information that brought him any closer to any suspects.

“The forensic evidence supports that somebody either bumped into him or pushed him onto the maglev track,” said the detective, “but there is no case to be made beyond that.  Mr. Owens was on a part of the transfer platform that was out of direct view of any of the other people waiting there and nobody was seen leaving the vicinity after the tram hit him.  I am very sorry that I do not know more.”

I thanked Detective Yawani for his efforts as he produced Milo’s effects from the hotel room in which he’d been staying.  I had to make another show of grief upon seeing the few things he’d brought to this world.  We had to wait until we could get back to the privacy of the Golden Dawn to give them a thorough going-over.

Tabitha swore vehemently as she probed the memories of Milo’s pocket computer and dataslab.  “Their memories have been wiped with a targeted virus program,” she spat as she tossed both units aside.  “I don’t even have fragmental data in either one of them to work with.  Whoever we’re up against knows how to hide their digital fingerprints.”

Samantha had better luck going through Milo’s luggage and toiletries – finding a set of instructions regarding maintenance and operation of a wetware system, even if she didn’t immediately understand what it was.  “It means Milo’s got a microcomputer implanted in the base of his skull,” said Winston, “interfaced to his brain.  It’s amazing what they can do with nanotech these days.”

Winston had reviewed Milo’s medical records and said there was a very good chance the chip was intact.  Given that Milo was working for INI, it was probably mounted flush to the inside of the back of his skull – where tech level eight diagnostic and imaging systems wouldn’t find it.  “We’ll need a microchip scanner to access its data,” said Winston, “as well as a security code.”

Olivia had been helping Samantha search Milo’s belongings, but had been distracted by a multi-function utility knife.  I was about to tell her to put it down before she cut herself when she showed me the back of the main knife blade.  Carefully scribed into the metal was a tiny sixteen digit alphanumeric that I had to hold just so to read.

Tabitha pulled an all-nighter to put together the microchip scanner and make it small enough for it and her pocket computer to ride in a specialty clutch purse.  “It has a network of copper wire and metal-impregnated plastic between the shell and interior sleeve,” she explained as we headed out the next morning.  “It’ll fool just about any scanner or imaging device they have here on Sebou.”

John went with us and kept an eye on the hallway as Tabitha went to work, gently sliding the scanner blade under Milo’s head while I made another show of weeping to keep the curious at bay.  It took a couple of minutes to download the contents of its memory, but it worked.  I should have known it was a bit too easy.

As we were leaving the hospital, I happened to glance to the side in the lobby and saw a man looking back at me.  His eyes widened and he bolted for a side exit.  “John!” I yelled and pointed in the direction of the other’s flight.  John vaulted a couch and bowled over three people in his haste to catch our watcher.  Tabitha and I shouted apologies in his wake as we struggled to keep up.

The watcher darted through the crowded pedestrian walkways, ducking and avoiding collisions, while John bulled along behind, knocking people to the ground who didn’t move fast enough.  The watcher was extending his lead as he reached an arched bridge, but stumbled and fell as he got tangled up in a leashed pet and its owner.  John put his head down and leapt over the tangle of owner and pet, nearly within reach of the man…

And then it all went wrong.

The watcher dodged aside as John tried to grab him, whirled to double back when he saw me rushing toward him.  Somehow, I’d conjured my body pistol into my hand and I had his face perfectly framed in its plastic sights.  John was turning, pushing off from the rail of the bridge he’d caught himself on after the watcher had ducked him.  The watcher didn’t hesitate.  He vaulted the rail.

“NO!” I screamed as he fell from view.  John grabbed the rail and looked down for just a moment until I reached him.

He held up an arm to bar my way.  “Another ten centimeters and I could have caught him,” said John as he turned to face me.  “Forty meters to the pavement below,” he added with a toss of his head toward the railing, “dead on arrival.”

“Find us a way down there before the authorities get to him,” I said as I quickly holstered my pistol under my jacket.  “I want to know who he was.”

The watcher was Occala Dar, the tram driver that had run over Milo four weeks ago.  Mr. Dar also had worker passcards for both the public transit system in Erminadome and as a shipping department worker for Phalanx Military Industries – an arms manufacturer owned by Lady Aya Sebou, a niece of Count Abdeslam.  We got clear before the police arrived and started asking questions we didn’t want to answer.

Back at the ship, the data we’d pulled from Milo’s head was all images, so the chip was interfaced to the optical cortex of his brain.  Most of the images were of computer displays.  On these I found myself on very familiar ground – they were shipping manifests.  Somebody at Phalanx was slipping additional lots of weapons into shipments being made to Redlane Import/Export House on Nullica, and had been doing so for at least three years.

The remaining few images were of faces, blurred with rage and determination – two men and a woman.  The uniforms fell in line with the corporate togs worn by working types at Phalanx.  After processing the images with the enhancement program she’d obtained from the Imperial Navy, Tabitha hacked the government’s worker registration database and put names to the faces.  All of them worked in the shipping department of Phalanx as well.

The final image on the chip was the onrushing tram, barely three meters away.  Milo had seen his death coming and had recorded it, so there would be no doubt – loyal to the end.

As soon as we had that, I made the decision to get off Sebou as quickly as possible.  They had found us and we had no idea how many more were involved.  With Occala dead, they probably are already in the process of sanitizing the operation.  Commander Greene may not have anything to clean up by the time my report gets to him…

*         *         *

“Hey,” said a voice behind her.  Atopia closed her journal book and set the stylus down beside her on the lounge couch.  Winston sat down on the other side of her, sliding his arm around her shoulders.  She gratefully laid her head upon his chest.  “Can’t sleep?” he asked.

She shook her head.  “I keep seeing him in that hospital bed,” she said.

“Yeah,” he replied, “It got to me, too.  I hate saying it, but there were more than a few people I couldn’t save.  The injuries were too great or the disease too far advanced, etcetera, etcetera.  Their death masques visit me occasionally.”

“But they go away, right?” Atopia asked.

“They do,” he said with a sigh.  “Sweetheart, Milo was dead as soon as that tram ran over him.  I reviewed his case files while we were at the hospital.  He’s got brain trauma that not even the best neuro-regenerative treatments on Narmada can fix.  They might get him functional, but that’s about all they would manage.  Milo – that part of him that makes him a unique human being, his thoughts, his memories, his feelings and everything else that made him special – are gone.  All that’s left is the biology with enough brain to keep it running.”

“What do you do,” she asked as she pulled him a tighter to her, “when a face won’t go away?”

He gently kissed her forehead.  “Have a drink or two and find somebody to hold until it finally does go away.”

“Let’s go to bed,” Atopia said after a moment, “in one of the high passage cabins.”

He eased her to her feet as he stood, guiding her along.  “Samantha will complain about the mess in the morning,” he said with a smile.

“Killjoy," she said.

Sunday, March 4, 2018

A Traveller's Guide to the Belaya Subsector   

            The Belaya Subsector is the crossroads of the Wayhaven Sector – a dense cluster of star systems along the trailing edge of the Third Imperium.  Dominated by the Wayward Main – a string of star systems that are only one parsec apart – the Belaya Subsector is often referred to as a merchant’s paradise.  Being the only high technology industrial world in the subsector, the subsector capital world does very brisk business indeed.
            There are thirty-nine worlds in the subsector and all but two can be reached with Jump-1 technology.  The highest population world is Belaya (1012) with a staggering 23.8 billion residents.  There are two other worlds with populations over twenty billion as well – Deua (1515) and Kennet (0914).  Total population for the subsector is estimated at 73.6 billion residents.
            The highest technological level is TL 14 on Belaya. There is one world that is classified as a Red Travel Zone by our organization - 408‑822 (1413) – which is interdicted by the Imperial Navy for reasons that are classified.  There are also four worlds classified as Amber Travel Zones – Kagera (1019), Kupa (0913), Nullica (1315) and Zezera (1015).
            There are seven worlds that serve as hubs on the Imperial X-boat routes in the subsector – Belaya (1012), Boros (1419), Lim (1218), Loing (1516), Prahova (1115), Vicha (1117) and Warnow (1018).
            There are eight naval bases in the subsector as well as fourteen scout bases, so pirate activity is minimal at best, allowing for the grand tradition of adventure and discovery through travel!  So pack your luggage and prepare to be dazzled by the splendors of the galaxy, just a few jumps away as we tour the Belaya Subsector!

404-822 (1413 X356000-0) *Red Zone*
This nameless world suffered through a cataclysmic collision with another body roughly half its own size late in its development, displacing materials from the planetary core.  The result is significant amounts of radioactivity at surface level, which will prevent any human habitation for at least a thousand years.
Amur (1517 D596303-3)
The four thousand residents of Amur are typically counting the days until they can return to their home worlds. The Imperium makes contracts with people to occupy this world – operating the starport and scout base, along with all the businesses that cater to merchants from off world.
Athabasca (1215 C400534-A)
This airless moon of one of the system’s two gas giants serves as a base of operations for extensive asteroid mining of the two planetoid belts found here.  A true “Belter’s Paradise,” the residents here are rugged independents who work and play hard, so casual visitors had best be on their guard when in public.
Belaya (1012 A412AED-E)
Most people would think that a religious autocracy would be oppressive and inflexible. Belaya proves that it doesn’t have to be, though it does take some serious adaptation to get used to the fact that EVERYONE is not only concerned  about one’s welfare, but actively motivated to improve it for them whether they want it or not…
Boros (1419 B662533-B)
“Follow the water and you’ll find the people,” is a local proverb stemming from the scarcity of liquid water here.  The plutocratic government in place here makes most of its money selling dihydrous at the starport and to the IISS base located here.
Cahabon (1313 C664657-4)
Water conservation and its judicious use made this dry world green and productive.  Wasting water is a very serious offense here, as is the highly profitable practice of smuggling water for private use to avoid the government’s exorbitant usage fees…
Devi (1119 C868957-9)
The Society of Guilds rules this idyllic, earthlike world.  This is not surprising since the vast majority of the original colonists were pureblood Villani.  As such, synchronicity is the keyword for both the government and daily life here – with very little room for non-conformists…
Driva (0917 B764321-9)
This pleasant but sparsely-populated world is home to the descendants of a colonization effort from Terra that misjumped here nearly a thousand years ago.  There are rumors that another indigenous race lived here before the colonists arrived, but what happened to them remains a mystery.
Deua (1515 D330AEC-A)
With just over twenty billion residents, this small world has literally been made a desert by urban sprawl.  Water importation isn’t legal, but the money it can bring to a bootlegger often tempts merchants who are behind on their payments to give it a try…
Epte (1318 D11079C-7)
The subterranean complexes that are home to the ten million residents of this world are situated in mined out areas that were excavated hundreds of years ago.  The carefully managed environments are a marvel of this planet’s limited technology, as is its ability to continuing mining nearly twenty kilometers below the surface…
Gara (1320 C448565-6)
This world is the personal fief of Baroness Odelina von Gara, who is spending much of her family’s and her personal fortune on terraforming her namesake world’s atmosphere into a more breathable condition.  It has become something of an obsession and she has entertained a number of crackpots over the years who have promised results faster than Imperial planetary engineers – and have all failed to deliver.
Gers (1011 B200840-7)
This small, airless world’s population lives underground in mines that were excavated over one-hundred thousand years ago and still maintain a viable biosphere to this day.  This has attracted biologists and archaeologists from all over the sector for decades. Of course, there are rumors of more than one species of mega-predator living in the unexplored depths…
Glomma (1014 B692412-7)
The Chartered Glomma Corporation (an Imperium-funded enterprise) is both the primary employer and government of this dry, dusty world.  The CGC supports the operation of the scout base here by providing raw supplies and ground support personnel, but also manages the rest of the planetary economy.  Charges of widespread corruption are largely dismissed.
Jabal (1518 A8A7510-D)
This inhospitable world only recently became such after a massive volcanic eruption.  A vast majority of the population has moved to space habitats orbiting Jabal to wait out the aftermath.  Many of these habitats have run out of room, leading to several taking multiple round trips to nearby star systems, waiting for the skies to clear.
Kagera (1019 B43089D-7) *Amber Zone*
“Better to have one friend than a thousand credits” are words to live by when dealing the multiple and often conflicting levels of bureaucracy here.  The Kagera underworld is not so much about contraband as it is about expediting solutions to problems that can tie up people and businesses in red tape for years…
Kalgan (1417 B8A6554-7)
Planetary engineers are working to increase the overall breathable oxygen content of this world’s atmosphere.  While the world’s oceans are mildly acidic, they are also richer in deuterium making unrefined fuel from here less dangerous to use than usual.  The planet has extensive hydrocarbon reserves as well, allowing it produce mass quantities of plastics and petroleum products.
Kama (1611 E311A9B-7)
The bureaucratic government here prevents untold billions of its population from emigrating to other worlds by insisting that anyone leaving must pay up what the government could tax them over their lifetime.  Needless to say, there is a highly profitable market here for smuggling people off this rock, with suitably draconian penalties for getting caught…
Kedron (1311 C220100-7)
This world is home to an automated refueling station that serves IISS starships and civilian craft with the ability to pay for unrefined fuel produced by chemical treatments of this planet’s crust.  Only four people live here on a permanent basis – the station caretaker and his wife, and their two children – who occasionally invite starship crews to join them for dinner.
Kennet (0914 E383A65-7)
This small moon of a gas giant is the personal fief of Baron Baldwin von Kennet, whose family has spent the previous seven generations ruthlessly mining out its valuable raw materials.  Now left with only common industrial minerals to mine, the Baron has turned to other, less-than-legal means to carry on his family’s estate…
Kupa (0913 B536474-A) *Amber Zone*
The factionalized clans of Kupa have broken out into open warfare three times over the past decade, however this isn’t anything new.  The clans all have long-standing grievances with each other ranging from trivial to financial to reasons so old they’ve been lost to antiquity.
Leven (1111 C200100-A)
The IISS maintains this automated starport facility which is little more than a refueling stop and trading post along the Wayward Main.  Rumors of Ancients’ artifacts being found here a century ago have failed to inspire more than a few foolhardy souls to brave this system’s treacherous planetoid belt.
Lim (1218 B200497-A)
The inhabitants of Lim City, the only settlement on this small vacuum planet, are here to support the operations of both the IISS and Imperial Navy bases.  This is a favorite port of call for merchants as well, as fees, supplies and taxes are on the low side as well, while there are many diversions for their crews.
Logone (1617 BAC6520-8)
Sulfur gas mining is this world’s primary business.  The one-hundred thousand residents are all members of the Logone Consortium, which is a corporate collective.  However, most residents have side businesses (usually considered less-than-legal elsewhere in the Imperium) to afford some of life’s luxuries…
Loing (1516 B3808A9-9)
This mountainous desert world sees extensive use as a training area for Imperial Marines and Army members, as well as having a number of orbital and aircraft bombing ranges.  The Scout base has a repair and refit facility that services both active and detached duty starships.
Mengrenel (1415 A365445-9)
The starport facilities on Mengrenel are some of the best in the subsector, even if most of the starship and spacecraft components come from elsewhere and are merely assembled here.  The planet is pleasant enough for casual tourists and starship crews, with many independent starship owners registering their ships as a “flag of convenience” due to the low fees here.
Nagavalli (0911 B653434-9)
Nagavalli is a hotbed of archaeological activity, though most of the more interesting sites are over ten-thousand kilometers away from the capital city of this world.  Safaris into the vast wilds of this world are a popular draw for tourists who look for adventure off the beaten path.
Nogoa (0920 B565262-8)
The personal fief of the legendarily reclusive Contessa Leandra Nogoa is home to her and her personal staff, with a skeleton crew to operate and maintain the starport, much of which has been shut down on a nearly permanent basis.
Nullica (1315 C797300-5) *Amber Zone*
It is not that there isn’t a legal system or law enforcement on this world, but rather that the existing system is so corrupt that, for all practical purposes, it doesn’t exist.  Rightly so, this world has been given an Amber Travel Code by the Travellers’ Aid Society – visitors should endeavor to appear less affluent than they are and to pay any “fines” or “fees” levied by local officials promptly, courteously and without the slightest hint of displeasure, sarcasm or objection.
Pigna (1219 B787622-5)
The fiercely independent populace of this world rarely agrees on any subject, save one – agriculture.  The mild climate of this world combined with the nearly unceasing labor of its residents allows for highly impressive harvests despite the planet’s relatively low technological level.  This has led to a number of unscrupulous tactics between rival farms up to and including murder…
Prohova (1115 A32367A-B)
The residents of this world have learned to make do with what little is offered, so when its scientists hit upon the idea of reclaiming materials from the waste of other worlds, the government and its citizens began to profit. However, decades of toxic waste buildup have begun to take its toll on the citizenry and landscape, motivating several political factions to demand action – forcefully, in some cases.
Rahue (1414 C510421-5)
The thirty thousand residents here work together to support themselves against what would otherwise be a hostile environment.  All of this work has made this world a haven for anachronistic technology as unusual applications abound, luring both curious tourists and engineers from across the subsector.
Rance (1612 C7C16A9-3)
To Imperial scientists, it is obvious that the humanoid race that calls this world home was genetically engineered to survive the extreme environmental conditions here.  The questions they’re trying to answer now is who and when, with the most likely answer being The Ancients…
Sebou (1312 D304967-8)
This airless world is the personal fief of Count Abdeslam Sebou who is in the business of supplying lower tech level armies with the weapons and machines of war.  Outside the domed craters of this world’s crowded cities lies a polluted and toxic landscape filled with the industrial waste products of the Count’s ambitions.
Sespe (1314 E444564-3)
This world is the personal fief of Baron Inesno Sespe who has made it his immense hacienda where a number of luxury spices, herbs and delicacies are lovingly nurtured to command the premium prices he demands for them.  The wine and spirits fermented here are highly sought by other members of the Imperial peerage for official and social functions.
Vaigai (1016 B345633-6)
This agricultural world is still mostly wild, with only one of its nine continents currently inhabited.  The ruling body – The Collective – has taken a “nature knows best” approach when it comes to preserving its ecology, but many argue it has also fostered burgeoning wildcat agriculture on the uninhabited continents that cultivates Imperial contraband.
Venta (1220 C676335-5)
The residents of this world are serfs in the service of the Venta family which has made its name in producing anagathic compounds that rival the high-end synthetics produced by the Imperium.  A forty-year contract gives the worker food, shelter and a lifetime supply of the refined anagathics from here upon successful completion of the contract.
Vicha (1117 B541401-C)
This world’s twenty-thousand residents either work for the Vicha Water Works, the starport or one of the businesses that support it – since there is little else here.  Tourists come here to marvel at The Contours, an intricate series of wind-carved canyons and mountains about three hundred kilometers from the main starport.
Warnow (1018 A202833-D)
While it isn’t an industrial powerhouse, this world’s government is looking to make it one by creating very enticing incentives – some of which are both illegal and immoral, according to those who oppose the government.
Zezere (1015 B56667B-8) *Amber Zone*
The Zezere Agricultural Cooperative has seen increasing discord from its members as it has lost citizenry to the Independent Landowners Association Movement.  The differences have been stark and violent enough over the past few years to warrant the Amber Travel Code, due to random acts of terrorism and mass demonstrations that often turn violent.


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