Monday, April 30, 2018

Mission to Zezere                


214-1108, Belaya, Crodo Landing, House Gascoyne Estate Habitat

It was easy to forget that the House Gascoyne arboretum was actually an enclosed space about the size of a basketball arena aboard an immense saucer-shaped contragravity platform nearly eight thousand meters in diameter.  Baronet Atopia, Sir Winston, Baron Harper and Sir Tony sipped refreshments and nibbled on canapes on the bank of an artificial stream next to a small grove of ornamental flowering trees.  The artificial breeze was warm and occasionally would blow a soft petal from the trees into their midst.  The hologram sky of crystal blue hid the banks of fiber optics that brought natural sunlight into the space.

His Grace, Duke Wymark, had been a cordial host, exchanging pleasantries with both Baron Harper and Sir Tony, as neither of them had formally met Wayhaven Sector’s head noble before.  The visit was all too brief, for there was scant time for more civil diversions now that war had broken out in earnest.

“While you were away,” said Wymark, “news reached us that the Solomani Confederation has launched at least four major attacks across the border of the Rim.  It appears they are attempting to retake Terra and nearby systems.  Imperial Naval Intelligence has been kept busy by the actions of Insurgency forces in that volume of space for the past three years, allowing the buildup of Confederation forces to go relatively unnoticed.”

“And what of the Aslan Heirate, Your Grace?” asked Sir Winston.  “Have they taken any action?”

“Unfortunately, yes,” replied Wymark, “reports are that Aslan forces have been attacking Imperial Naval bases established on Imperial Client State worlds near their borders as well.  It is only reasonable to assume that the Zho, Solomani and Aslan have been conspiring against us for the better part of a decade, if not longer.  It would also seem to confirm the existence of the Aslan jump route through the Great Rift, since it would take regular communication between all three to coordinate their actions.

“However,” continued Wymark as he rose from the picnic throw on the soft turf, “those battles are a long way from here, and we have more than enough to worry about in our own backyard for now.  I have someone you need to meet.  I’ll send him in shortly.”  The rest of them rose, bowing or curtseying as appropriate as he nodded his head and then strode away toward the exit.

They waited for a few moments before Atopia heard the approach of footsteps across the grass behind her.  She looked up at a man in a somewhat faded IISS service uniform, his nylon and suede service jacket draped across his arm.  He appeared ordinary, but she had the nagging feeling she should know him.  It was only when he smiled and bowed that she recognized him.

“Leif!” she exclaimed as she hastily got to her feet.

“Your Ladyship,” he said as he removed his service cap revealing a head devoid of hair and a telltale pattern of skin grafts that were mostly healed.

Atopia’s smile faded.  That’s why I didn’t recognize him, she thought.  “Are you all right?” she blurted out.

Leif nearly laughed.  “Much better than I have been,” he replied.  “I had a run-in with the Yellow Sail Syndicate on Nullica last year that ended badly.  Losing the hair I didn’t mind so much, but losing the skin that went with it was… problematic – especially on a tech level five world.  Fortunately, Prahova was just one jump away for Urutu, so after the IISS medics on Nullica stabilized me, I flew to the Naval Base there for advanced regenerative treatments.”

Atopia nodded and then made the introductions.  Leif and Atopia had travelled from Narmada to Nan shortly after she’d been acclaimed three years ago.  They’d traveled there at the urging of someone the newly-minted noble knew from her childhood and thought had been killed during the Great Conflict on that world.  The trip had nearly cost Atopia her life at the hands of a wanted war criminal, if not for the extraordinary efforts Leif and Marquis Renard Solono-Deleon, the Imperial Liaison to Nan at that time, had made on her behalf.

Sir Winston shook Leif’s hand after the introductions.  “Thank you for saving my wife’s life,” he said.

Leif smiled.  “Congratulations on your recent marriage, milord,” he replied.  “I regret I was unable to attend.”  His smile faded.  “I also regret that I have to risk her life once again, along with the lives of the rest of you and the crew of the Silver Starlight.”

“Well,” said Baron Harper with a sardonic half-smile, “isn’t that convenient?”

“Not really,” replied Leif as he replaced the cap on his bald head.  “You see, I’ll be right there with you.”

218-1108, aboard Silver Starlight, in hyperspace between Belaya and Zezere

--from the personal journal of Baronet Atopia Kesslering

We’re heading to Zezere at the behest of His Grace, Duke Wymark, bearing Leif Grenfeld on a mission to root out the Ine Givar operatives who Leif suspects are inflaming the locals to the brink of civil war.  Leif has been briefing me and the rest of the nobles aboard on the situation awaiting us at our destination.

According to Leif, he’d been on Zezere going on three weeks ago, at the request of the Imperial Liaison there, Sir Alvin Fernald.  Sir Alvin had noticed some oddities with the rapidly deteriorating political situation between the Zezere Agricultural Cooperative and the Independent Landowners Association.  Despite the names, the ZAC is the government and the ILA is the only political entity that has openly challenged its policies and regulations.

The rhetoric between the two camps ramped up considerably following an incident a few cycles ago.  ZAC law enforcers went in to break up a rally by ILA members and supporters in Port Starboard, the planet’s capital city.  The riot squad was using baton rounds to disperse the crowd which had turned ugly and violent, when one of the rounds struck a twelve-year-old boy in the head, inflicting mortal head trauma.

The boy was Amos Fairchild, the youngest son of Aubrey Fairchild, perhaps the most famous of the ILA’s advocates.  After a brief period of mourning, Aubrey returned to giving speeches, but their tone had changed from negotiation to militant action.  Violence became a commonplace occurrence at the ILA rallies where she spoke; the audience’s rage mounting minute by minute until it became a frothing, screaming mob, hungry for destruction and bloodshed.  The battles in the streets became deadly as desperately outnumbered law enforcers were forced to use increasingly dangerous weapons to restore order and force the mobs to disperse.  ZAC supporters began to supplement their ranks, adding more fuel to an already raging inferno.

“This is a perfect situation for the Ine Givar to exploit,” said Leif at today’s meeting.  “With the political situation coming apart at the seams, we’ve got to locate and neutralize whoever is responsible for making it worse.  It is fairly common for their operatives to play both sides of a potential conflict, employing agitation propaganda, spreading believable lies, engineering incidents designed to inflame the passions of the people, and so on.

“If we allow this situation to get to a war footing, it’ll mean yet another trouble spot that Imperial forces will have to deal with, tying them up when they should be moving against The Insurgency.  So we’re going to dive in and keep digging until we identify the people responsible and bring them to His Grace’s justice.”

Zezere is an amber zone world because of the violence, even with a law level of eleven, and that has left me with few passengers, though Baron Harper has managed to work some magic in finding a mix of speculative cargo to fill Starlight’s hold.  So, for the time being, he’s going to be our broker – leaving me time to deal with our other more pressing matters…

221-1108, Zezere, Port Starboard Starport

Atopia, Harper, Winston and John stood to one side while the Portmaster fumbled with a set of mechanical lock keys.  The Imperial Liaison’s office and residence was a small two-story building in the starport extrality, just outside the duty-free zone.  Atopia had already been here while Harper had conducted business during the morning hours.  All of the shades were drawn on both the ground floor and the one above as the Portmaster finally selected one of the keys and slotted it in the door of the main entrance.

The sign on the door was still there, indicating that Sir Alvin Fernald was off-world on Imperial business.  Unfortunately, both Atopia and the Portmaster now knew that was a lie. There was no record of Sir Alvin’s departure from the starport, save a note in the starport checkpoint log from over two weeks ago, indicating that he’d left in the company of Larry Thompson, for whom Tabitha was now searching via the planetary data networks.

When the door opened, John went in first, his body pistol drawn as he quickly swept the office level.  “Clear,” he called from inside the building.  “The door to the upper level is unlocked.”

As the rest of them entered, Atopia noticed that the offices were pristine though a bit dusty.  So whatever Thompson’s people were looking for wasn’t down here, she thought.  “John,” she said, “let’s go upstairs.  You lead the way.”

The residence was in shambles.  “Somebody took some time to toss this place over thoroughly,” commented John, “but that was over a week ago, I’d guess.  Somebody helped themselves to Sir Alvin’s wine cabinet in the process – there are a couple of open bottles by the sink in the kitchen.”

“Do you see any glasses near those?” asked Atopia.

“No,” replied John.

Harper nodded.  “I’ll check the rest of the place for them,” he said as he headed toward the bedroom.  “Maybe our searcher liked to mix business and pleasure.”

“I’ll see if I can lift a fingerprint or some DNA from those bottles, then,” said Sir Winston as he unslung his medical bag from his shoulder.

“It’s too bad Leif couldn’t join us,” commented John as he holstered his pistol, “He might at least have some idea of what Thompson was looking for.  Sir Alvin and he were working together, after all.”

“Leif knows what he’s doing,” she said.  “From what I understand, he’s checking in with a contact in the local law enforcement bureau.  Plus, Sir Alvin is a member of the Peerage, so this matter is clearly in my court.”

Harper returned from the bedroom.  “I may have found something,” he said, “The door to the master bathroom has new screws on the middle hinge.”

Atopia cocked an eyebrow.  “I don’t understand,” she said.

“A slick,” said John suddenly and Harper nodded.  “I’ll find a screwdriver.”

It took just a moment to remove the new screws.  Atopia’s eyes widened when she saw that a slot had been cut through the doorframe into the wall behind it.  Harper took hold of a thin piece of wire which was connected to a small plastic bag and extracted it.  There was a thin pocket computer inside the bag.  “So now Tabitha has some more work to do,” said Atopia as John pocketed the computer.

Sir Winston came in from the kitchen.  “No fingerprints, curse the luck,” he said, “but I got some trace DNA from the lips of both bottles.  I’ll have to get back to the Starlight to analyze it.”

“Okay,” said Atopia, “John go with him.  Harper and I will accompany the Portmaster back to his office.”  She looked over at the man.  “Undoubtedly, there will be some forms that need filling out in this matter?”  The Portmaster nodded.

222-1108, Zezere, Port Starboard Starport

Somebody was knocking on Atopia and Winston’s cabin door.  Atopia groaned sleepily and brought the lights on low while she slipped on a robe and tied it before opening the door.  Leif was standing there looking like he hadn’t slept at all.  The baronet also noted that the knees and shins of his service pants were dirty.

“My apologies for waking you at such an early hour, your ladyship,” he said.

Atopia glanced at the room’s wall-mounted chronometer, which indicated it would be a few hours until dawn.  “What’s wrong?” she asked.

“Plenty,” he said, “because Sir Alvin Fernald is dead.  He was garroted with a piece of small gauge wire.  It crushed his larynx.”

Atopia sighed.  Everywhere I go, death follows me, she thought.  “How long ago?” she asked.

“Couple of weeks,” Leif said.  “I’m guessing he was killed somewhere else and dumped where Detective Ortiz and I found him – about twenty kilometers north of the city limits.  Clem brought me here right away so I could tell you the news.  He’s waiting in the passenger commons.”

Atopia nodded.  “All right,” she said, “tell him I’ll be there in a few minutes.  While you’re waiting, use the ultrasonic sanitizer in one of the passenger staterooms to clean up.  If Samantha catches you traipsing around leaving dirt everywhere, she’ll have kittens.”

Detective Clem Ortiz was a serious-featured man with deep blue eyes and wispy pale blonde hair.  He bowed as she entered the commons.  “Your Ladyship,” he said, “my sincerest condolences.”

“Unnecessary,” she said as her husband handed her a fresh cup of coffee.  “I didn’t know him.”  She took a sip before continuing.  “But he is – was – a member of the Peerage which just officially made this matter Imperial business.  So who else knows about this?”

“Just everybody in this room,” said Tabitha as she entered, bearing the pocket computer from the slick in Sir Alvin’s residence.  She held up the computer and waggled it.  “It had military-grade security on it, but it finally gave up its secrets about an hour ago.  I’ve been plumbing its depths ever since.”

“Then I suggest we compare notes,” said Leif.

They all found couches and sat, except Sir Winston, who made refreshments for them all.

“Well, the DNA on the wine bottle was from a guy named Larry Thompson,” said Winston as he finally took a seat, “He’s a transient from off-world who arrived at Port Starboard nearly two years ago, according to the Port Authority’s records.”

“The name is familiar to me, milord,” said the detective, “he’s been in and out of jail ever since he arrived here – misdemeanor offenses, such as simple battery, disorderly conduct, public intoxication and public urination are the highlights.  He’d kept his nose clean for the past few cycles, though.”

“Sir Alvin’s files mentioned him a few times,” said Tabitha.  “One of the last entries into his investigation log was he was going to meet Thompson on the night of 208-1108.”

“Investigation log?” asked Atopia.

“Sir Alvin had been keeping track of the civil unrest here for several cycles,” said Leif.  “He’d been very quietly collecting information on what he believed were Ine Givar operatives.  He’d mentioned before I left for Belaya that he’d gained a new lead on the insurgents and was going to cultivate it.”

“And instead, he walked into a trap,” said Atopia.

“Unfortunately, yes,” said Leif as he turned toward Tabitha.  “What else have you learned from Sir Alvin’s files?”

“He’d singled out a total of four people,” she said as her fingers danced across the touchscreen of her own pocket computer.  A wall-mounted flat screen display came to life as she continued, “Meet Iris Long and Solomon Gray – the pair behind Sunset Media.  That’s the firm creates and schedules agitation propaganda and attack advertising against the Independent Landowners Association.” The screen showed an example of their work, ridiculing some of the more prominent people of the ILA.

“According to the files,” Tabitha continued, “Iris and Sol are getting funneled money through a third party so it won’t look like the government is associated with Sunset Media when there’s a backlash against some of the more… strident offerings.”

The video was replaced with still images of another man and woman.  “These two are Juniper Wilkes and Zebadiah Yates.  The files indicate that they came to Zezere shortly after Thompson arrived and have been working with the Independent Landowners Association as media wranglers and event planners about the same time Aubrey Fairchild’s son was killed.”

The screen displayed a video that was recorded at one of the rallies.  The crowd of a few thousand was being whipped into a frenzy to welcome Aubrey to the podium.  Juniper and Zebadiah could clearly be seen at the far edge of the shot, standing next to a large panel van next to the stand of amplifiers and speakers for the public address system.

“Ugh,” said Detective Ortiz, “why is the sound so ratty?”

Tabitha shook her head.  “I don’t know,” she replied, “Sir Alvin may have been standing near something that caused all the low frequency interference when he recorded it.”

“Do you have any idea what could cause that?” asked Atopia.

Tabitha shook her head, but Baron Harper’s brow furrowed.  “I might,” he said suddenly.  “I remember seeing a wildlife documentary holovid a while back.  There were scientists in the wild experimenting with infrasound to see if a certain species believed to be mute communicated that way.  Turns out they did, because a herd of a couple dozen of these two-hundred-plus kilos quadrupeds charged the massive speakers the scientists were using and destroyed them.”

The detective looked confused but Leif was nodding.  “I’ve heard of that,” he said, “Solomani psychological warfare units employed a version of that during the ground campaigns in the Rim War a century ago.  They were called 'agitators,' if memory serves.  By themselves, agitators don’t do much; but if you have a group in a strong emotional state, the agitators put them over the edge – blind, incoherent rage; suicidal depression; raving paranoia and so on.  People used to believe in haunted houses until it was proven they were just echo chambers for the infrasound that was creeping people out.”

“I’m no engineer,” said Sir Winston, “but I would think it would take a large speaker unit with an unusual design for such a device.”  He turned toward Baron Harper.  “Do you remember anything about the design of those speakers?”

“They were big,” said Harper after a moment, “the cabinet had to be big because the speakers moved so much when they were broadcasting the infrasound – the sound came out the small ends rather than the front.”

Atopia was still looking at the video.  “Hey,” she said suddenly, “were those speakers bigger than a delivery van?”  She pointed at the view screen and everyone turned to look.  Juniper and Zeb were opening the roll-up door at the back of the van and then covering their ears as they hustled away.

“If I remember correctly,” said Atopia, “there is another rally scheduled for tomorrow night in Port Starboard’s main square.  I need options that will both net us those jackals and prevent another riot.”

223-1108, Zezere, Port Starboard, Tumbledown District

The late afternoon sun was a molten gold orb that burned through the haze of another sultry day in Port Starboard.  A ground car rolled up in the alley behind a dilapidated three-story apartment building.  Baron Harper and Leif exited the vehicle, Harper pausing just long enough to snag his medical kit, and then they were striding, casting nervous glances about them as they descended a flight of crumbling concrete steps to a metal fire door.

A pair of portable lights cast a viciously bright glare upon a man handcuffed through the arms of a metal straight chair, preventing him from seeing anything in the darkness behind them.  “He got unruly, so I had to use a shock stave on him,” said Detective Ortiz, “He’s a bit quieter now.”

Harper’s eyes widened as he recognized the prisoner.  The man in the chair was Larry Thompson.

“You’re sure nobody else knows you have him?” asked Leif.

“Except for you two, yeah,” replied Ortiz.  “You realize what sort of risk I’m taking here, right?  If we get caught, the best I can hope for is losing my badge and being exiled, and that’s just wishful thinking.”

Harper went to work by extracting his auto-injector from the medical kit and carefully inserting a single use cartridge.  “So how did you catch him?” he asked as a green indicator on the injector lit.

“Waited for him to come up for air,” said Ortiz.  “He’d gone to ground for nearly two weeks, so it was just a matter of time before he’d get back to his old game of drinking and talking too much.  I’m guessing that his Ine Givar pals are throwing him under the bus, now that he’s done their dirty work for them.  I’m just surprised they didn’t kill him and toss him in the same hole with Sir Alvin.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about!” yelled Thompson as he struggled in the chair.  “I didn’t do anything!”

“You’ll have to hold him still,” said Harper as he gripped the auto-injector firmly, “I’ve got to hit a very specific place on his lower spine for the drug to be completely effective.”

“You can’t use that stuff on me!” yelled Thompson as both Leif and Ortiz grabbed his arms and shoulders.  “You can’t!”  Harper reached through the gap between the chair’s horizontal slats, peeling the man’s sweat-soaked shirt away from his back.  “NO!” Thompson screamed as the auto-injector hissed, emptying the contents of the truth drug vial.

Thompson struggled ferociously but futilely as Leif and Ortiz turned him to face the lights.  Harper pocketed the injector and cracked his knuckles.  It’s really too bad I didn’t have some Truth Drug when Dame Diana interrogated that mercenary back on Tarn, he thought, suppressing a shudder at the memory.  He shook it off with effort as Thompson’s struggles started to subside.  Focus now, he thought, two minutes isn’t a lot of time.

Harper leaned in toward Thompson’s face, knowing the psychoactive effects of the drug would distort the man’s vision.  “Okay, Larry,” he said softly, “it’s time to tell me all about your Ine Givar friends.”

Larry talked.  He had no choice.  Harper stood clear when the vomiting came on after the effects of the drug faded.  He was about to turn away when he saw bright red blood in the mess on the floor.  Thompson was convulsing.  “ORTIZ!” he yelled.  “Bring the key for the cuffs!  NOW!”

223-1108, Zezere, Port Starboard Starport, aboard Silver Starlight

--from the personal journal of Lady Olivia Verne

It’s finally quiet here.  Baron Harper got into his cups tonight so I let him have the cabin we’ve been sharing.  That leaves me out on the crew commons couch with a pillow and a blanket and my journal.  But it’s okay.  He was shaking while he was drinking.  Dad told me to leave him alone tonight.

John, Leif and Tabitha are all under arrest tonight.  Mom is trying to get them released which is why she isn’t back in her cabin right now.  I’ve seen the vids of what happened.  I know why mom told them to do what they did, but it still looks so very wrong.

Baron Harper called on the radio before it all started.  I was on the communications board on the bridge with Lisa, so I know.  He calls for dad, saying that Thompson, the guy who murdered Sir Alvin, is dying and he doesn’t know why.  Dad went out to where Harper, Leif and Detective Ortiz were and after a little while tells me to get Hawk on the line.

Dad talked with Hawk for a bit, and soon Hawk said he needed to make a coffin with a fake bottom so they could smuggle Thompson into the extrality, under the body of Sir Alvin.  Dad said later that the Ine Givar people Thompson was working with slipped him a bicameral poison that was harmless until the Truth Drug got into his body.  I guess the poison was supposed to kill him before he could talk, but it didn’t.

Fortunately, the coffin arrangement worked and dad and Harper got Thompson into a low berth.  Dad says if Thompson survives the trip to Belaya, he’ll have a better chance of recovering with their advanced medical facilities.  I don’t understand why dad wants to keep him alive – Duke Wymark will just sentence Thompson to twenty years on Golgotha for killing a noble, which is more or less the same as killing him, right?

Anyway, while all that is going on, the rally in the square at Port Starboard was starting.  There were fifteen thousand people there to hear Aubrey Fairchild speak, which is a lot on a world that only has a million or so residents.  I was only half listening to the vid feed from the planetary media, because I was supposed to be monitoring the chatter between mom and the crew members she brought with her to the event.

First I heard that Tabitha had spotted Juniper and Zeb near that van, except the van wasn’t near the amplifier stand like it was in the other videos.  Leif caught up with Tabitha and approached the van from the rear, where Zeb was standing, while John angled for the front of the van where Juniper was standing.  Karen warned everyone that Zezere had brought in several trucks of riot police and that a bunch of uglies chanting Zezere Agricultural Cooperative slogans was approaching as well.  Amy chimed in that she had eyes on both Iris and Solomon, and they were mingling with the riot police.

That’s when I got scared.  Mom was right in the middle of all that, calmly giving orders to people, trying to keep a handle on things.  When Aubrey took the stage, the crowd started pushing toward the podium.  I saw people screaming her name with tear tracks streaking their cheeks, fists pumping in the air, as if her very name could be a weapon.  Even over the din of Aubrey’s supporters, I could hear the ZAC supporters’ chants growing louder with each passing second as the throng approached.

“They’re opening up the van,” called Tabitha over the commlink.

“Leif, John,” said my mom, “Shut it down – now.”

It wouldn’t be until much later, hours after it all had happened, that the planetary news had vid of what actually happened from a security pickup nearby.  Initially, all I knew was there was gunfire and then people screaming and trying to stampede away from the firefight.  At one point, John reported that he’d been wounded, but the rest was garbled and distorted as people were yelling and screaming whenever one of ours keyed open a tactical headset microphone.

When it all was over, both Juniper and Zeb were dead, the van had been impounded, and Tabitha, John and Leif were in the custody of planetary law enforcement.  In all the confusion, Iris and Solomon escaped but will be arrested by the Port Authority if they tried to enter the starport extrality – apparently mom and the Port Master have some sort of understanding going on.

Mom left several hours ago and we haven’t heard anything from her since.  I’m starting to get worried, and that means I won’t be able to sleep…

“Still up, little one?” asked Sir Winston from behind her.

Olivia shut her journal and turned her head toward him.  “Yeah,” she said.

“Well, come on and curl up on your mom’s side of the bed,” he said.  “We’ll wait up for her together.”

Olivia smiled and nodded.  “Thanks, dad,” she said.

He returned the smile with a shake of his head.  “I’m still getting used to you calling me that,” he said, “but I like it.”

Tuesday, April 24, 2018

The Storm Breaks                        


134-1108, aboard INS Atopia Kesslering, in geosynchronous orbit above Belaya

As the ceremony wound down to its conclusion, the young Lady Olivia Verne reflected that Narmada Fleet Admiral Bernard Alpengrist had surprisingly gentle features for a career military man.  She wondered if he was married and had been on the receiving end of this sort of pomp and circumstance long before she’d been born.

Olivia was arrayed in a pastel pink satin gown with lace trim that reminded her of the delicate leaves of the ferns she’d seen in Duke Wymark’s private arboretum during her brief tutelage in House Gascoyne.  She gave a sidelong glance to His Grace and Countess Dyota, both of whom were wearing their formals like a comfortable second skin.  His Grace happened to glance her way and gave her a smile and a wink.

Olivia smiled back and then turned her attention back to her adopted mother and soon to be adopted father.  Atopia wore an elegantly simple gown of ivory satin with a hem that brushed the deck of the Hazard-class frigate that bore her name.  Sir Winston was adorned in a crisply pressed Navy dress uniform.  While his left breast was adorned with far fewer service ribbons than Admiral Alpengrist’s, all of them gleamed in the stark lighting of the frigate’s small craft bay.

The bay was a necessary concession to the sheer number of nobles who desired to attend the ceremony.  Olivia knew that her mother had a fair share of fame, but with the Sector Moot in progress, her wedding was doubling as a social event for Duke Wymark and Countess Dyota to rally support for measures that were coming up for debate and voting in the Assembly.  For many of the lower-ranking nobles in the throng, it might be the only chance they had to bend His Grace’s ear during the proceedings.

Olivia couldn’t decide if her mother was happy or angry with being on the sidelines for the Sector Moot.  She’d played a pivotal role in determining the outcome of the Narmada Subsector Moot last year, but this time around, the Duke only needed her testimony to sway the more recalcitrant members of The Peerage into supporting his efforts against those supporting the terrorists in the Ine Givar.  Maybe mom’s just been preoccupied with other things, like the new starship and crew… or getting married, she thought as her wandering mind returned to present events.

“Then, Your Ladyship,” the admiral was saying, “as you place this ring on Sir Winston’s finger, please say with me, ‘With this ring, I thee wed, and join my life to yours.’”

Atopia’s trembled as she slipped the band of gold in place on the knight’s finger.  “With this ring, I thee wed, and join my life to yours,” she said as she looked up at his smiling face.

Duke Wymark and Duke Darius had conspired to keep Atopia guessing about which ship she was to be married aboard.  Olivia got to share the joke when an honor guard of Imperial Marines escorted the crew to the naval orbital facility to watch the newly commissioned frigate dock, its pilot intentionally delaying the final turn until the very last moment so that Atopia could clearly see its name through the viewing port.

“And, milord,” continued the admiral, “as you place this ring on Her Ladyship’s finger, please say with me, ‘With this ring, I thee wed, and join my life to yours.’"

Sir Winston placed the matching band upon Atopia’s finger.  “With this ring,” he repeated, “I thee wed, and join my life to yours.”  He reached up to her face, gently brushing away a joyous tear from her cheek before turning to face the admiral again.

“May these rings,” the admiral continued, “stand as a sign to you of your desire to live, to love, to create, and to build in your lives and the lives of those whom you touch, that ideal of perfection which is humanity.  To use an analogy from our ancient maritime past, when the tide is low, and the rocks are painfully visible, may your love be the waters of the new tide. And, when the tide is high, give thanks to the spirit of life itself, and celebrate it.

“So, having openly declared yourselves in accordance with the laws and traditions of the Third Imperium, before everyone here, before the community of man, and most of all, before your own inner selves, I now pronounce that you are husband and wife. You may kiss the bride.”

Olivia beamed as her mother and newly-minted father embraced amidst the cheers and applause of the gathered throng of nobles and crew.  But after a moment, her smile faded somewhat.  I wish the others could have been here to see this – especially Kim and Danforth.  She shuddered as the images of their bloodied corpses flooded her mind.  Great Maker, grant serenity to them, and my birth mother too, for I miss them all.

Suddenly, her mother and Sir Winston were there.  Olivia hugged them both.  “I love you both so very much!” she shouted over the din.

160-1108, aboard the Silver Starlight, approaching emergence to normal space near Logone

“Ninety seconds,” Robert Lane said as Atopia sat in the acceleration couch next to his and began strapping in.  The navigator’s gloved fingers danced across the control interfaces, trimming the ship’s hyperspace vector ever so slightly as its normal space bubble began to contract.

“Rig for silent running,” said Atopia into her vacc suit’s helmet microphone as she attached her suit umbilical hoses and cables to her couch, “Tabitha, execute the override on the ship’s transponder and log it on my authority.”

The navigator glanced at her as Tabitha acknowledged Atopia’s order, but decided not to say anything.  Atopia nodded at his caution.  I know it’s a felony offense with the ITCC, Bob, she thought, but we’re about to step into the enemy’s camp.

“All sections report ready for emergence,” said Lisa Dudley, who’d moved up from assistant engineer aboard the Golden Dawn to Starlight’s pilot.  “Umbilicals are active – secure helmet visors.”

“Thirty seconds on my mark,” said Bob, “…mark.”

The remaining seconds dragged by as Atopia mulled over the possible scenarios that could play out in what might be the final moments of their lives.  I should have left Olivia back on Belaya, she thought suddenly as the transition to normal space began.

With a shift like a giant’s gentle sigh, the Starlight fell out of hyperspace as the carefully warped gravitational fields generated by her jump drive collapsed in a specific sequence.  An outside observer would see the remnants of those fields as faintly blue phosphorescence, like the St. Elmo’s fire of the days of ancient mariners, fading away on the solar wind.

Bob had intentionally aimed for a transition at the inner edge of the planetoid belt closest to Logone, the lurid clouds of the world’s turbulent atmosphere was just a glowing yellow dot against the background of stars.  Much closer loomed the jagged outline of an asteroid – close, but not close enough to mask the energies of their emergence from hyperspace.  Running silent had the ship mostly operating on battery power, its fusion power plant generating just enough power to maintain life support and sensor operations, for now.

Atopia fought down the urge to gag as microgravity took hold.  It took more power to maintain the grav plates – and stealth was the order of the day.

“Passive sensors are online,” said Bob as several displays came to life at Atopia’s station on the bridge.

“Understood,” replied Lisa as she nudged the ship’s control stick, “starting three-axis tumble for spherical scan – reaction thrusters only.”  The ship jerked unnaturally as the thrusters spewed pressurized gas into space, overcoming the ship’s inertia to start the tumble.

“Lisa,” said Atopia as she watched her displays, “as soon as the scan is done, nudge us into the shadow of that rock before kicking the power back on.”

“Got it,” Lisa replied easily.  “We are at three degrees’ rotation per second.”

“That’s damned odd,” said Bob.  “The planetary orbital navigation beacons are active, but I’m not getting anything from either the Scout or the Naval base.  Even their identification and navigation beacons are dark.  But I thought those were automatic?”

Atopia’s eyes widened as she looked at one of her displays.  “Heat source,” she said tightly, “relative one-six-four by positive three-eight.  Distance is seventy-five thousand clicks.”

“That’s pretty tight to another rock that way,” said Bob.  “I’ve also got a low level of tachyon emissions – like a power plant in idle mode.  Could it be a belter’s ship?”

Lisa brought up the sensor display at her station.  “No,” she said after a moment.  “Seeker ships are converted Scout/Courier ships, but they have the same reactor profile – I should know since I spent sixteen years in the IISS.  This one looks… military, I think.”

“Modulated photon emission from Target Alpha,” said Bob.  “It’s a tight-beam laser communication.”

“That means they’ve seen us,” said Atopia with a sigh.  “Let’s find out what’s going on.”

]: TO UNIDENTIFIED STARSHIP – THIS IS IMPERIAL NAVY S-D-B SIGMA 49. IDENTIFY YOURSELF AND YOUR INTENTIONS.

“It’s a System Defense Boat,” said Atopia.  “I’ll answer them.”

]: TO SDB SIGMA 49 – THIS IS THE SILVER STARLIGHT, AN INDEPENDENT LINER; CAPTAIN ATOPIA KESSLERING IN COMMAND.  WE ARE INBOUND FROM MENGRENEL WITH CARGO AND PASSENGERS, BUT HAVE EXPERIENCED A NAVIGATION ERROR.  WHAT ARE YOUR INTENTIONS?

“There goes my professional reputation,” said Bob as Atopia sent the message.

]: THIS IS CAPTAIN T’KARO DERGAN IN COMMAND - CONTINUE TO RUN SILENT. NAVY AND IISS FACILITIES ON LOGONE HAVE BEEN COMPROMISED BY INE GIVAR INSURGENTS AND MERCENARIES FOR PAST FOUR WEEKS. HOSTILES ARE PATROLLING THE SYSTEM. WE HAVE INJURED CREWMEMBERS AND CIVILIAN REFUGEES ABOARD. LIFE SUPPORT DAMAGED AND FAILING. DO YOU HAVE ROOM TO TAKE ON 24 SOULS?

Atopia swore.  “Countess Gretl Schunamamm has already made her move!” she exclaimed at last.  “We’re too damn late!”

Atopia stewed for a moment longer before Lisa spoke.  “In the Imperial Interstellar Scout Service,” she said, “we have a saying: Focus on what you can do now; not on what you should have done or could have done earlier.  What you do now is what gets things done.”

Atopia looked over at her pilot, who was half-turned in her acceleration couch despite the bulk of her vacc suit and restraint harness.  “There are twenty-four Imperial citizens aboard that boat who are running out of heat, light and air, your ladyship,” Lisa continued in a firm but even tone.  “Whatever your mission was here, it’s busted.  Rescuing these people and getting them safely out of here is something we can do now.  How about you focus on that?”

The baronet bit back her response to that and took a breath.  “You’re right, of course,” she said as she tapped out a response on her station’s control interface.  “But I’m going to give you some new bruises the next time we spar, just the same.”

]: WE HAVE ROOM FOR ALL OF YOU AND A SHIP’S DOCTOR ABOARD, BUT WE DO NOT HAVE ENOUGH FUEL TO JUMP FROM THE SYSTEM.  PLEASE ADVISE US.

It took a few moments before the boat replied.  Atopia took the opportunity to inform the rest of the crew as to their situation.

]: MANEUVER YOUR SHIP INTO THE SHADOW OF THE ASTEROID NEAREST YOUR POSITION; WE WILL COME TO YOU. SUIT UP TWO OF YOUR CREW TO PERFORM FUEL TRANSLOADING AT RENDEZVOUS. ADDITIONAL FUEL SOURCE NEARBY – SHOULD BE ENOUGH TO TOP OFF FOR TRANSIT TO LOING. MORE DETAILS WHEN WE ARE ABOARD. REMAIN VIGILANT FOR OTHER CONTACTS.

Atopia acknowledged the message.  “So I guess I’d better tell our quartet of passengers that we’re not going to Logone,” she said as she began to undo her harness.

“Your Ladyship!” interjected Lisa, “Don’t you think you’d better wait until we have gravity to do that?”

Atopia stopped as she watched the one strap she’d unbuckled float lazily beside her.  She corralled it.  “Um, yeah,” she said as she secured it once again, “That would be a good idea, wouldn’t it?”

162-1108, Logone Inner Planetoid Belt, Imperial Navy Refueling Platform Alpha-Six-Eight

Atopia was gazing through her office’s viewport at the bulk of the refueling platform and the small asteroid it had been anchored to when she heard the knock at her door.  She made a face, knowing who it was.  Just like clockwork, she thought as she keyed the door open.  “Come in, captain,” she said.

Navy Captain Dergan was lean, muscular and irritable.  “The longer we wait on your ship’s fuel processors, the more likely it is we’ll be discovered,” he said for the twelfth time since they’d docked.

“And the longer we wait,” replied Atopia, “the more likely it is we’ll make it to Loing in one piece, captain.”

“You did see as well as I that civilian ships have been docking here, yes?” he asked.  “There are a number of mercenary cruisers and pirate corsairs on the prowl in this system, now that Countess Gretl has revealed herself as a traitor to the Empire and launched this insurgency.”

“I have eyes, captain,” Atopia said with some irritation in her voice, “and functioning brain cells to go with them.”  She turned to face him.  “I also am in command of this vessel and I grow weary of having the same argument with you.  Up until now, I haven’t thrown my title around.  I sincerely hope I don’t have to start.”

T’karo blew out the breath he was going to use for a retort, taking the moment to compose himself.  “My apologies, your ladyship,” he said at last.  “I meant no offense.”

“If you had,” said Atopia, “we’d be in the passenger commons right now discussing your lack of respect with naked steel in our hands.  As it is, I have the welfare of over forty people on my mind right now, you among them.  And since we’re going to be spending another week together, Maker willing, we’re going to have to get along, understood?”

Captain Dergan nodded.  “Understood, your ladyship,” he said.

“Good,” said Atopia as the tactical comm in her ear chirped.  “Go ahead.”

“Contact,” said Bob, “one-hundred kilo-clicks out and closing fast with active sensors – no transponder.  Drive emission profile is consistent with a standard Type M power plant.”

“That’d make it a mercenary cruiser,” said T’karo, who had his own tactical comm.

“Disengage from the platform and rig us for combat,” Atopia said as she strode toward the bridge.

“Your ladyship,” said T’karo as he followed in her wake, “if you can get that platform to start spewing fuel that might give us a small amount of concealment – plus deny the enemy any further use of it.”

“Karen,” said Atopia over the link, “did you copy that?

“I did,” said Starlight’s missile turret gunner, “I’ll lay a spread of three birds with contact fuses in there as soon as we’re clear.”

“Copy that,” replied Atopia.  “Lisa, as soon as Karen lights up the platform, get the bulk of the asteroid between us and the inbound ship.  Everybody suit up – now.  Bob, how long will it be until that ship reaches missile range?”

“Twenty minutes,” said Bob, “she’s retro-thrusting but she’ll overshoot us.”

“That won’t stop her from dropping a spread of missiles on us,” said T’karo as they entered the bridge.

“Bob,” asked Atopia, “can we get far enough away from the mass of this asteroid to execute a safe jump before the contact gets inside of missile range?”

“Negative,” he said, “but they’ll only have time to get off one volley of missiles if we start a hard burn right now.”

“Do it,” she said as she opened her vacc suit locker.  “Can you plot a transit to Loing in that amount of time?”

“I’ve had that one on the board since yesterday,” Bob said, “so yeah, I’ll be ready.”

T’karo was helping her into her suit.  “It’s too bad I didn’t think of salvaging our wild weasels from Sigma Four-Nine before I scuttled her,” he said.  “We could really use them right now.”

“Tabitha!” Atopia said suddenly, “Did you copy that?”

“I did,” Tabitha replied.  “Captain T’karo, get anybody you’ve got with electronics certification up to the flight deck right away; Sir Winston, John, Amy – come a-runnin’!  We don’t have much time!”

The minutes passed too quickly.  The ruptured dihydrous tanks of the platform behind them produced a rapidly expanding cloud of ice crystals that caught the light of Logone’s stellar primary, turning the cloud into a nimbus of glare behind them.  Suited up and strapped into her acceleration couch, Atopia found her gaze shifting from the tactical display to the estimated time that the cruiser pursuing them would come into missile range.  She listened to the tense technical chatter of the people behind her on the flight deck as they extracted the warheads of three missiles and quickly assembled electronic jamming units to replace them.  Thank The Maker for modular electronic assemblies, she thought, or there never would have been enough time to do this!

The border of the tactical display started flashing, bringing her musings to an abrupt halt.  “The cruiser will clear the asteroid and the debris field from the platform in sixty seconds,” said Bob as he viewed the same display.

“Tabitha,” said Atopia, “ready or not, we have to load and fire those weasels if they’re going to do us any good.”

“Understood,” she replied, “John is helping Karen manually load the first one now.”

“Unidentified starship,” said a masculine voice over the communications board, “this is the mercenary cruiser Stormbringer.  You will cut your engines and prepare to be boarded or we will destroy you.  This is your only warning.”

“Thirty seconds,” said Bob, “Stormbringer is attempting to achieve missile lock.”

“Initiating counter-measures,” said T’karo as he occupied the spare couch on the bridge, “but I don’t know how long they’ll last.”

“Two missiles loaded,” said Tabitha, “third one’s going in the rack now.”

“Will they have visual before they fire?” asked Atopia.

“Negative,” said T’karo, “they’re still too far away.”

“Three wild weasels are loaded and ready for launch!” crowed Karen.

“Set missile thrust limit to three-g’s,” said T’karo, “with a ten degree spread on the flight path – port, dorsal and starboard.”

“Copy that,” replied Karen, “and… missiles away!”

Stormbringer is in range!” shouted Atopia.  “I have multiple missile launches… nine birds inbound.  Impact in… one-hundred seconds.”

“Stacy,” Lisa said to the portside laser turret gunner, “don’t be too quick to engage those missiles.  Let’s see if any of them diverge.”

“Understood,” Stacy replied, “But I need about twenty degrees of positive roll to get a good shot.”

“You got it,” said Lisa as she manipulated the ship’s control stick.

The seconds dragged by while Atopia watched the symbols and arcs representing the inbound missiles streaking toward the symbol representing the Starlight.

“Thirty seconds to impact,” said Atopia, “Multiple missiles are diverging, but we’ve still got two inbound and entering lasing range.”

“Copy that,” replied Stacy, “targeting the lead bird.”

The lead missile needed two shots before it broke up.  “Proximity alarm,” Atopia said as she read the displays.  Ten seconds to impact.

Stacy bracketed the last missile and it broke up just four seconds from impact.  Starlight was peppered by debris from it, but nothing serious.  The relief was short-lived, though, as Stormbringer fired another full spread of missiles.

“Safe jump distance!” called Bob.  “Astrogation calculations locked in and on the board!”

“Hawk!” called Lisa, “Initiate jump sequence!”

Ten seconds later, the Silver Starlight was in hyperspace.

179-1108, Kolan, Willow Station, Willow River Ranch

Atopia watched her adopted daughter play in the meadow as she relaxed with a glass of sweet red wine while reclining on a blanket spread across the fragrant grass.  Her husband’s lap was her pillow as he poured their host another glass.

Baron Harper Willow accepted the glass from Sir Winston with a courteous nod.  Atopia reflected that a home on the range had been good for her former ship’s medic as he took a sip from the glass.  The suggestion of portliness in his features and frame that she’d come to know when they first met over two years ago were gone.  He was handsomely trim now, perfectly complementing the well-worn work clothes that currently attired him.  “I have to hand it to you,” said Harper at last, “you certainly have a nose for trouble.”

After running the survivors and refugees to Loing, the Naval base commander there issued passages for any refugees needing transport to a safe haven away from the rapidly deteriorating conditions in the combat zone around Logone.  Given that Atopia wasn’t going to be welcomed on Rauma or Tarn, regardless of the conditions, the only other world that qualified as a safe haven within three parsecs of Loing was Kolan.

While on Loing, she’d even managed to sell the speculative cargo she’d intended to use as a cover on Logone.  With several tense weeks of problems behind her, at least temporarily, she’d given her crew two days’ liberty before putting to space again for the four-transit-run back to Belaya.

“I hate asking,” said Atopia, “but has there been any news from Dnieper or Yantra?”

Harper shook his head.  “Logone is the perfect place to stage an insurgency,” he said.  “It’s a chokepoint for tramp merchants on the Wayhaven Main.  All I know is that mercenary units and pirate corsairs attacked the starports of Amur, Dnieper, Jabal and Yantra in a series of hit-and-run raids last cycle.  And we only know that because the commercial ships that were outbound from those worlds relayed the information at their destinations a week after the fact.  I haven’t received any messages from either Baronet Deidre Brogan or Gentleman Gerard Verne since then.”

“Apparently, we aren’t the only part of the sector that’s having this problem,” said Sir Winston.  “There are at least five others we know about in the Olenyok and Tobol Subsectors.  The current theory is that Duchess Penelope Alderson used the resources of the Tarim Concordiat to hire Vargr mercenaries and corsairs from the Mezen Hegemony to spearhead the insurgency in those subsectors.”

“It can only mean one thing,” said Atopia.  “The Solomani Confederation intends to take advantage of the war on the frontier and invade Wayhaven Sector.”

“The only way the Solomani could coordinate with the Zhodani Consulate across that much space would be with the Aslan Hierate acting as an intermediary,” said Harper.  “While that seems unlikely, I wouldn’t say it’s impossible, especially with all that’s going on now.  We all know about the drive the Aslan male has to acquire and hold new territory, after all.  If that’s the case, we’ve got three of the six rival interstellar governments teamed up against us.”

“Probably four,” added Sir Winston, “since we all know how opportunistic the factions of the Vargr Extents are.  However, we can’t fight the whole war by ourselves, so I think we’re going to have to fight whatever part of it we can here in Wayhaven.”  Atopia and Harper nodded in agreement.

Atopia held her glass aloft.  “To the Emperor,” she said, “Long may he reign.”

They touched glasses and drank.  Harper then looked at Atopia.  “So when are you heading out?” he asked.

“The day after tomorrow,” she said as Sir Winston touched up her glass with the last of the wine bottle’s contents.  “Since we’re going to be running fast and loose for Belaya, I want to give Olivia as much fresh air as possible.”

“Well,” said Harper, “I would like to come with you.”

Atopia’s brow knit.  “Don’t you need to be here on the ranch?” she asked.

Harper smiled.  “I’m not a rancher,” he said.  “And while I own a minority share of the Willow River Ranch these days, I am no longer in charge.  I incorporated the ranch right after the Narmada Moot last year – I got the idea from Contessa Chantal Dasani after we, um… spent some time together as the event was winding down.  The guys and gals working the ranch have the majority stake.  So I’m free to roam once again.”

Atopia shook her head and smiled.  “You certainly have changed since the first time I met you,” she said.  “But you understand that we’ll be heading into danger, not away from it?”

“Wouldn’t have it any other way,” he said.  “From this point forward there will only be two types of nobility – the patriots and the traitors.  I want to be numbered among the former, not the latter.”

214-1108, Belaya, Crodo Landing Starport

--from the personal journal of Baronet Atopia Kesslering

It’s been 77 days since I last set foot on Belaya.  It’s surprising how much things can change in that amount of time.  The Insurgency continues to grow and Imperial Navy starships are massing in orbit above me to begin what promises to be a brutal pacification operation.  Countess Gretl’s operatives continue to harass interstellar shipping and making commando raids on starports.

Baron Harper is settled in, even though he has to share a cabin with Olivia.  They get along well enough that I don’t worry about either of them.  I’m not sure if I’ll be bringing my daughter with me when we ship out again.  She would be safe here – His Grace Duke Wymark would see to that.  But I would miss her terribly, like I did the last time I left her behind.

My first credit voucher from Moksha Dawn Mining arrived today.  The company I set up just over a year ago produced nearly a million credits in revenue after investments and expenses.  I haven’t heard anything from Valo, yet, but I keep expecting to see a message from him any day now – assuming he hasn’t been swept up in this Insurgency madness.  However, if Countess Gretl’s lackeys think that Moksha will be a pushover, they’ll be in for a rude surprise, given what I know about Baroness Olivia Servantes.

The nobles aboard ship – myself, my husband, Baron Harper and Sir Tony Sarver (one of our assistant engineers) – are due for a meeting with His Grace Duke Wymark tomorrow.  I imagine we’ll get our marching orders then.

It’s all come so suddenly, this conflict… this chaos.  It can’t have come from nowhere.  Has it really been simmering for a decade or more, just below this veneer we call civility?  Is order and stability really so abhorrent to some members of The Peerage that they’d throw it all away on a pipe dream of establishing a new order, or re-establishing an order that has long since passed?  Does revenge really burn so hot and so long that generations long since dead can inspire the same rage and hatred that their forerunners felt?  Sometimes, I feel as if it is all beyond me.

And yet, here I am, right in the middle of it.