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

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