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.”

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