Sunday, April 1, 2018

Wynds of Change          


083-1108, Belaya, Crodo Landing Starport, Spacefarers’ Cathedral

The crew of the Golden Dawn sat in the front pews of the small church.  Tabitha had her arms around Olivia who was only just holding back her tears.  John cut a particularly grim figure, fingering the plastic handle of a walking cane while wearing the practiced scowl of a professional soldier.  Valo sat next to him, his expressionless features revealing the emptiness he felt.  The rest sat waiting as the church’s clergyman recited the words of the preamble of a speech nobody wanted to hear.

“We are gathered here this day to pay our last respects to a comrade and dear friend…”

072-1108, aboard the Golden Dawn, in hyperspace between Belaya and Kennet

There was a knock at the doorway to Atopia’s office.  Atopia looked up from her financial reports to see Kim standing there.  “Got a minute, captain?” asked the former colonist.

Atopia nodded and gestured to the chair opposite her on the other side of her desk.  Kim stepped through the doorway, pausing just long enough to touch the panel beside it.  The door slid shut as she took her seat.

“What’s on your mind?” asked Atopia as she shut down her computer terminal.

“Right to the point,” said Kim with a slight smile, “I like that.”  The smile faded.  “I’ve decided I’m not accompanying you to the Grand Imperial Moot on Capital next year.  If it’s all the same to you, I think I’ll be going my own way when you join His Grace Duke Wymark.”

Atopia nodded.  “Not what you had in mind when you signed on?”

“Not really,” Kim replied.  “I’m honestly thinking that the life a gypsy merchant isn’t for me.”

“Is there anything I can do to make things better for you?” asked Atopia. “I mean, if it’s just one or two things that are the problem –“

Kim smiled and shook her head.  “Not just one or two things,” she explained, “it’s everything.  I’ve tried to fit in around here, but there’s just too much down time between ports of call.  I’m used to keeping busy doing things.”

“Well, I am glad I hired you, all the same,” replied Atopia, “if for nothing else than your help getting us through the crash on Modra last year.  But, I understand.  Valo and Tabitha have also expressed an interest in moving on when I depart for the Core with His Grace.”

Kim nodded.  “Yeah, I got that ‘leaving’ vibe from them both.  When I was a Project Coordinator back at the colony, I got a good feel for detecting it from people.”

“I’ll be sorry to see you go,” Atopia said as she rose, “but thank you for giving me some advance warning.”  She extended her hand.  Kim shook it.

083-1108, Belaya, Crodo Landing Starport, Spacefarers’ Cathedral

The clergyman was finished with the preamble and nodded to Atopia.  She fought off the urge to stare at the simple spun aluminum cylinder on a pedestal table beside the podium, since she knew it would bring her to tears.  She focused on her daughter who had managed to keep it together through the preamble as Atopia took her place and faced what was left of her crew.

“We know why we’re here,” said Atopia to the eight who remained.  “Someone who should be here, isn’t anymore.  We are used to seeing people pass through our lives in this line of work – passengers, crewmates, even worlds, cycle in and cycle out of our routines with a certain regularity as we do our tiny part to keep the lifeblood of commerce flowing through the Imperium.  We are even used to the idea that we may never see a certain someone again.”

Atopia had to pause to swallow, to fight back the tide tears that lurked behind the mask of authority she wore for them.  “But,” she said at last, “Just because we are used to the idea, it’s not any easier when it happens, and certainly not when it is someone we shared our lives with.”

073-1108, aboard the Golden Dawn, approximately 14.3 million kilometers from Kennet

Atopia blew out the breath she was holding as the stars reappeared in Dawn’s bridge viewports.  Her fingers flew over the control board, bringing up displays from the ship’s passive sensors.  Valo was already using the ship’s attitude thrusters to begin a slow tumble to assist her scan of surrounding space.  The curve of the gas giant that the small terrestrial moon named Kennet orbited loomed large in the viewports as Dawn finished her survey of the space around her.

One of the displays was bordered in yellow, a point centered in a flashing amber circle.  “Tachyon source,” she said to Valo, “bearing relative zero-four-eight by negative-six-one at range eight-zero-kay.”

“Run it against known reactor profiles,” he replied to her as he keyed open the tactical microphone in his spacesuit.  “Hawk, charge the laser capacitors and load the sandcaster and missile racks.”

“We got trouble, boss?” asked Hawk.

“Don’t know yet,” he replied, “but we do have company.”

“Reactor profiles as a Type B, commercial,” Atopia said, “No change in posture or position, though.”

“Check their transponder code,” said Valo.  “Lisa, I need you on the bridge.  Tabitha, get to the laser turret.  Samantha, John and Kim – make sure our passengers stay strapped into their acceleration couches then lock down their cabins.”

“Transponder code isn’t on the registry,” said Atopia.  “They could have recently reflagged the ship, though.”

“Light them up with the active sensors,” said Valo, “then hail them.  Maybe their navigator misplaced a decimal point or the engineer is jury-rigging the jump drive one more time.”

“You’re not at all convincing,” said Atopia as she brought up communications display.

083-1108, Belaya, Crodo Landing Starport, Spacefarers’ Cathedral

Atopia was shaking as she sat back down next to her daughter.  My fault, she thought as she hugged her daughter.  We wouldn’t be here if I’d played it smart!  Great Maker damn them all to the Nine Hells – at least I’ll have some company when it’s my turn to pay for getting one of my own killed…

Olivia shook, desperate to muffle the sobs that were rising in her throat.  Atopia cradled her daughter’s head against her chest.  “Shhh, little one,” she whispered, “It’ll be over soon.”

Thank The Maker I left her here on Belaya, she thought as Olivia regained her composure.

073-1108, aboard the Golden Dawn, approximately 14.3 million kilometers from Kennet

“This is the Ebongale Vengeance to Golden Dawn,” said a voice distorted by electronics and g-stress.  “Neutralize your vector and prepare to be boarded.  Comply and none of the passengers or crew will be harmed.  This is your only warning.”

Atopia keyed open the mike and uttered a vulgarity having to do with poor parentage and fornication.  “This is Baronet Atopia Kesslering, Defender of the Imperium!  You will stand down immediately or we will fire upon you!  And if any of my passengers or crew is harmed by your non-compliance, I’ll personally send every one of your thrice-damned souls straight to the Nine Hells!  Dawn out!”

Atopia hit the quick release on her restraint harness to allow Lisa to take over the navigator’s position.  Lisa paused just long enough to tap Atopia on her spacesuit helmet while pantomiming lowering her helmet’s visor.  Atopia cursed as she headed for the missile turret, slapping the visor down and checking the suit’s diagnostic display as she ran for the stairs to the engineering deck.

“Mark Alpha now at fifty-five-kay,” said Lisa over the link, “Targeting systems are active… Missile launch detected!  Two birds inbound, running hot!”

Atopia reached the hatch for the missile turret and clambered through it, fighting the bulk of her combat armor as she did so.  “Initiating electronic countermeasures,” said Tabitha over the link.  “Cap, your turret will be offline for a few seconds.”

“Just as well,” Atopia grunted as she secured her restraint harness.  “Give ‘em the nines, girl!”

“Bird Two has lost lock-on,” said Lisa, “optimizing attitude for counter-battery fire on Bird One.”

Atopia felt rather than heard the laser turret traverse as she brought the targeting system for her own turret online.  “Missile turret online,” she said, “Loading both tubes with proximity warheads; sandcaster on standby.”

Tabitha swore as Lisa called out, “Proximity alarm!  Brace for impact!”

083-1108, Belaya, Crodo Landing Starport, Spacefarers’ Cathedral

The clergyman gently cradled Atopia’s hand in both of his as he bowed to her.  “My sincerest condolences, your ladyship,” he said.  “It is my honor to have served you in your hour of need.”

“Thank you,” replied Atopia as she looked past him.  John was carrying Olivia out of the church as she sobbed quietly on his shoulder.  “If you’ll excuse me, I have to get a letter written if it’s going to make the next X-boat transmission deadline.”

“A word of advice, your ladyship?” said the clergyman, “If the right words won’t come, it’s better to wait until they do.”

“No offense,” said Atopia as she stepped past him for the exit, “but if I don’t do it now, I might not do it later.”

073-1108, aboard the Golden Dawn, approximately 14.3 million kilometers from Kennet

“Birds are away!” called Atopia over the link as she triggered the missile racks in her turret.  “Birds are running hot, straight and normal!”

“We’ve got compartment breaches in the cargo hold and passenger commons,” commented Hawk over the link.  “Pressure in the passenger cabins and all fuel tanks is holding steady.  Maneuver thrusters and powerplant temperatures are on the high side of nominal, but holding.”

“Copy that,” said Valo.  “Minimizing aspect to Target Alpha; attitude shift in ten.”

“Point defense fire from Alpha ineffective!” shouted Lisa, “Two direct hits!”

Lisa scored two more hits with her lasers while Atopia’s missile racks slotted two more rounds in the launch tubes.  “Gunners stand down,” said Lisa, “Alpha’s targeting systems are offline and she’s venting fuel and plasma.  It looks like she’s trying to turn while under full thrust.”

“Then scratch her engineer,” said Hawk.  “What’s her heading now?”

“They’ve pointed her nose at the gas giant,” said Valo.  “Lisa, can you identify the class of ship?”

It took precious seconds.  “Got it,” she replied at last, “Type-Y2 Chinook-class Imperial Yacht – two-hundred d-tons, jump two, two-gee maneuver drive –“

“Does the class have any support craft?” interrupted Valo.

Lisa blew out a breath in realization.  “A launch,” she said, “and it’s separating from the mothership now.”

“Lisa,” said Atopia, “track that small craft and get Valo an intercept vector on the yacht, ASAP.”

“You’re not going after the pirates?” asked Tabitha.

“They’re in a one-gee launch,” replied Atopia as she unbuckled from her gunner’s couch, “we’ll run them down after we get that yacht vectored into temporary orbit.”

084-1108, Belaya, Crodo Landing Starport, Main Terminal

“Valo, you old jump hound! How goes the retirement?”

Valo turned and saw a woman Scout wearing an IISS standard-issue vacc suit.  “Hey, Raleigh; it’s good to see you.  How long have you been working this part of the empire?”

“Going on ten cycles now,” the woman said with a smile as she ran her hand through her short salt-and-pepper hair.  “Had to put in for the Belaya – Oban route after Eric and me got hitched last year.”

Valo smiled as he extended his hand.  “Congratulations to you both!”

They shook hands but hugged right afterward.  “So,” said Raleigh as they parted, “what’s the situation?”

“I’ve got to call in a favor,” he said, his smile fading away.  “I hope this isn’t a bad time.”

“If it’s a favor for you,” Raleigh replied, “there is no bad time.  I owe you for introducing me to my blushing groom, after all.  So what’s the favor?”

Valo gestured to a small shipping case on a lounge seat nearby.  “That needs to get to the specified address on Dumas in the Narmada Subsector as quickly as the X-boats can get it there.”

Raleigh looked it over.  “So what’s inside there that can’t go standard freight?”

Valo caught himself staring at the case.  He tore his gaze away.  “Personal effects,” he said at last.

Raleigh’s eyes widened with recognition.  “So, that used to be somebody you knew, I take it?”

Valo nodded, hung his head and wiped his eyes.  “Yeah,” he managed, “Going home to the parents.”

Raleigh put her arms around him again.  “Hey,” she said after a moment, “Let me take this burden from you.  I’ll see that your friend makes it home.”

Valo couldn’t hold back his tears any longer.  Raleigh held him as he cried.  “You’re welcome,” she said while gently patting his quaking shoulders.

073-1108, aboard the Golden Dawn, approximately 10.6 million kilometers from Kennet

“Small craft launch, small craft launch, this is Baronet Atopia Kesslering, Defender of the Imperium.  By the authority vested in me by His Grace, Sector Duke Wymark Gascoyne, I order you to shut down your thrusters immediately.  The Golden Dawn is now in lasing range of your vessel and will open fire if you continue to run or attempt to evade or attack.”

Atopia stood behind the navigator’s couch where Lisa sat.  Several seconds ticked by.  There was no change in the small craft’s vector.  “I guess I shouldn’t have said I was going to personally hang all of them,” she said through a frown.

A quick search of the yacht had produced ship identification numbers that matched Wynds of Change.  The ship had been stolen from Count Lars Wyndham on Narmada back in 1105, and had been associated with the traitor François Verne’s attempt to infect that world with a weaponized strain of the AZOOR virus.  That had made it doubly important to capture any survivors; so they could be interrogated as to their association with Ine Givar, if any.

Only problem was, they weren’t having any.  The launch was on full burn and hadn’t altered its vector for nearly two hours.  Dawn’s sensors marked five people aboard the craft, though one of them had fading life signs – probably the engineer.

“Okay,” said Atopia at last, “we’ll do it the hard way.  Tabitha, light them up.”

The lasers hit the drive section and penetrated the cabin as well.  The launch began a slow tumble as its drives burned out.  “Tabitha, Hawk, Kim and John – meet me in the main airlock and come loaded for Benuen Spider-Bear,” said Atopia.  “I have a feeling none of them are going to surrender peacefully.”

108-1108, aboard Golden Dawn, in hyperspace between Nagavalli and Belaya

--from the personal journal of Baronet Atopia Kesslering

It’s hard to believe that it’s been five weeks already – five weeks since the hail of gunfire that took the life of one of my crew.  I’d hired Kim and John to go in on the pointy end for me, and neither one of them hesitated when we forced the airlock of that launch.  Hawk and I were right behind them.

I thought I’d provided adequately for their defense, but combat armor is no match for a riot gun loaded with SLAP-T rounds – which stands for Saboted, Light Armor-Piercing – Teflon-coated.  John informed me that it’s a high-velocity penetrator round that can give an Imperial Marine in Battle Dress pause.  Kim took one right to the chest as she forced her way aboard the launch.  Tabitha’s photon cannons had vented the craft’s atmo to space, so it was a race to see if Kim would die of shock and blood loss from a ruined left atrium or exposure to vacuum.

The other bastards paid in full for what they’d done.  One of them was still alive when I sealed the hatch and jettisoned the launch.  Tabitha drained both laser capacitors burning holes through it and I watched the wreckage tumble away until it was out of visual range.  Lisa said it would burn up in the upper layers of the gas giant’s atmosphere.

As soon as I got back to Belaya, Duke Wymark dispatched an Imperial Navy warship to Kennet to salvage Count Lars’ yacht.  I imagine Imperial Naval Intelligence will want to give the ship the once over before returning it to the noble’s possession.  I imagine Baron Baldwin von Kennet – the noble who rules over the world that bears his family name – will have some things to answer for, as well

But all this rambling is just me avoiding the point – I am responsible for Kim’s death.  I was all gung-ho to capture these pirates and subject them to a Moot trial after I had learned they might be part of the group that had been responsible for the death of my daughter’s birth mother, Saffron Marteau.  I wanted a trophy to put on my wall, justice for my daughter’s birth mother’s murderers.  Instead, my trophy is the sick feeling in the pit of my stomach whenever I remember her, knowing it was me who ultimately cost her everything she had – and for what?

Pride.

I really shouldn’t get drunk tonight.  It’ll set a bad example.  Instead, I’ll curl up with Winston and hope that his gentle words and loving arms can keep the recurring nightmare of Kim’s death at bay for another night.

For what it’s worth, Kim, I’m sorry.  But I know that’s not enough.


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