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.