Monday, May 14, 2018

Christofori's Nightmare   

339-1108, aboard Silver Starlight, in hyperspace between Zezere and Athabasca

--from the personal journal of Baronet Atopia Kesslering

Out of a Moot trial and into a criminal one – that’s my life these days.  Iris Long and Solomon Gray – the pair of Ine Givar operatives that had tried to destabilize the Zezere government – will soon be on their way to the Golgotha Penal Colony to serve a twenty-year sentence.  They fought every step of the way, but their guilt was a foregone conclusion after the preponderance of evidence that brought against them.

Funny thing about a verdicator: it can tell everyone in the room that you’re lying but it can’t make you speak the truth if you refuse to speak at all.  Iris and Solomon knew there was no mercy for them among the gathering of thirty nobles for their Moot trial, and they knew that news of their actions in the Assembly Hall would reach across the sector.  So they stayed silent, even when forced to sit under that globe that flared red as Duke Wymark himself made a series of statements about the case that everyone knew were false – including Iris and Solomon.

They didn’t need to answer.  “You both are innocent of all charges,” said His Grace, and the globe flared red.  “You have no idea what it sounds like when someone is strangled to death with a garrote,” he continued while the globe lit Iris’ features with its crimson glow.  “You love the Imperium with all your heart and soul and would do anything to see it continue.”  Only the hate in Solomon’s eyes burned as brightly as the globe.  “You have no experience in making or using terrorist explosive devices.”  Red and red again a dozen more times as His Grace systematically made them sit there while the verdicator called them liars, murderers and traitors in their silence.

The assembled Peerage damned them both, unanimously.  Duke Wymark rescinded the option of euthanasia, forcing the convicted to suffer the full measure of the Moot’s judgement.  At some point, Larry Thompson will undergo similar treatment – assuming he survives being poisoned by his associates.

I needed a few drinks after it was all over.  My husband and Sir Tony joined me, as did the rest of the crew, except my daughter, of course.  And we all drank a toast to Baron Harper’s memory.  He’d been there, of course.  His cremains lay in state on the other side of the hall, lit by a single spotlight but plainly visible from the verdicator.

The next day, I had a long meeting with His Grace at his residence – just him and me.  We talked about the future – mine, especially.  I have decided that I will petition Narmada Subsector Duke Darius for the title of baroness and permission to establish a fief on Moksha – with Baroness Olivia Servantes’ permission, of course.  I don’t have any love for that world, but after losing the life of yet another friend, it’s time to look for a different way to earn a living.  Moksha has plenty of opportunities for income and is a place where someone can build a legacy that will last for many generations to come.

I hope it is a place where my daughter won’t have to watch people die on a regular basis.  She has changed so much in the past couple of years – and I’m not sure it all has been for her benefit.  I’ll keep my hand in, of course – the gypsy merchant lifestyle gets into the blood, after all.

In the meantime, I have more work to do.  A person from my past has surfaced on Athabasca, apparently up to his old ways.  Harlow Christofori and I crossed paths back on Xiang nearly two years ago, when an Artifact of the Ancients he’d stolen nearly killed him and everyone else on that tiny refueling station.  In the aftermath, I declined to press charges on the condition that he not return to Xiang and he not delve into the black market of antiquities and artifacts again.

Agents of the IISS and the Imperial Science Bureau arrested him while he allegedly was engaged in wildcat prospecting on a restricted asteroid on the fringes of the Outer Athabasca Belt.  Strangely enough, he’s asked me to represent him in the legal proceedings to be held there in a variation of the Rite of Supplication.  However, since Harlow was a problem I thought I’d solved, it’s only fair that I clean up this mess I’ve made.

His Grace, Duke Wymark, says that Harlow has also promised to turn over the names of his entire network of fences, buyers and sellers if I become his advocate.  Such information, if factual, would go a long way toward shutting down the illegal trade in archaeological relics and Artifacts of the Ancients in the Narmada Subsector.  So, of course, I said yes.

Athabasca is the hub of asteroid mining in Belaya Subsector – a small, airless rock orbiting a Jovian world between two great planetoid belts.  The government Athabasca consists of a plutocratic, self-perpetuating oligarchy where those in power are rich and nearly everyone else wants to be one of them.  The planetary economy is geared almost exclusively toward supporting those who take the lonely voyages into the dark places of that star system to find either riches or death.  Olivia has spent the journey out delving into the subject of planetoid mining and is genuinely looking forward to our arrival.  I wish I could share her enthusiasm, because once we get there, I have a feeling there’ll be a lot of work for me to do…

345-1108, Athabasca, Hammer’s Hole Habitat, Police Headquarters

Bron Stanowitz looked up from his computer workstation’s display and rapidly stood as he saw Atopia approach his desk.  Atopia took in the man’s painfully plain features, noting they perfectly matched the utilitarian outfit of work shirt, slacks and mag boots.  The only thing breaking the monotony of his visage was the dual weapon holster rig he wore across his shoulders, bearing a pair of snub pistols and a gleaming law enforcement badge.

Bron bowed.  “Your Ladyship,” he said as he straightened up again, “I am Marshal Bron Stanowitz, Athabasca Planetary Police Force.  I have been expecting you.”  He stepped around the desk and held her chair while she sat.  Atopia felt her opinion of the man tick upward a notch.

“Thank you, Marshal,” Atopia replied.  “Mr. Christofori has invoked the Rite of Supplication so that I might represent him in his current legal case.”

Bron showed her a grim smile.  “It was about the only way for him to have any legal representation at all,” he said.  “Athabasca law has no provision for public defenders, and no amount of money would coax any sane lawyer into the folly of attempting to defend him in court.  If you really want to help him, convince him to throw himself upon the mercy of the court.”

“I thank you for your advice,” replied Atopia, “but I will do what I think best for my client after I take the full measure of his situation myself, if you don’t mind.”

Bron stiffened in his chair for the briefest moment.  Atopia cocked her head.  Been awhile since you’ve been rebuked, she thought.  “Of course,” said Bron at last.

“Perhaps we can begin with you telling me about the arrest of Mr. Christofori?” she asked.  “I’ve read the reports, of course, but I would appreciate hearing about it from a first-hand witness.”

Bron nodded.  “The matter first came to my attention ten weeks ago, when ISB Field Agent Margo Pasco asked me for assistance in shadowing Mr. Christofori.  He’s been on an Imperial Science Bureau watch list as a possible trafficker in illegally obtained archaeological artifacts for over a year, and Agent Pasco was hoping to catch him red-handed as there are a number of suspected buyers of such items here.”

“I see,” said Atopia as she took notes with a stylus on her pocket computer.  “How did that go?”

“Not as well as Agent Pasco had hoped,” he replied as he pulled up the habitat monitoring interface.  “The government here operates on a belief of personal responsibility and privacy.  To wit, there’s no need to constantly monitor its citizens and visitors other than a select few who might cause more trouble than the local citizens can handle.  So, I assigned a few of my limited staff to keep an eye on Mr. Christofori and coordinated with Agent Pasco.  After a week, she brought in the ISS Base Commander, Frieda Volante, in the hopes of doing a better job of it.”

“How long did you monitor Mr. Christofori?” asked Atopia.

“Well, the manpower and overtime issues forced me to pull my people out of the investigation after three weeks,” said Bron.  “Much as I like helping out Imperial authorities, I have other priorities to attend to if I want to keep my job.  A week after that, the first of the three belters disappeared.”

“Disappeared?” echoed Atopia.

Bron pulled up a still image on his workstation and showed it to her.  “Albion ‘Uncle Albert’ Clavell,” he said, “age fifty-six.  He was a walking belter sob story that everyone sees around here from time to time – been rock-mining since he was eighteen and never found the motherlode.  He’d been scraping by in a third-hand boat working solo for a couple of years, but health issues were piling up the way they do when you spend too much time in microgravity with a minimum of radiation shielding and ingesting nothing but synthetic food and rotgut whiskey.  That’s why, despite his experience, no boat or company would touch him.”

“But Mr. Christofori did?” Atopia asked.  “Do you have proof of this?”

“Proof, no,” said Bron, “but plenty of evidence that something was amiss.  Uncle Albert was reported missing by the company that loaned him the money for the boat and supplies when he got to six cycles past due for a payment, which got the APPF back into the investigation, if grudgingly.”

“I don’t understand,” said Atopia.  “Are disappearances around here normally treated so lightly?”

“Unfortunately, yes,” replied Bron.  “Most of the independent belters around here are only a step or two ahead of the debit collectors, loan sharks and repo men, so when they feel the heat coming on, they get out of the kitchen, fast.  Most of them keep a low passage ticket on them so they can catch the first flight out when someone unpleasant comes calling.

“I gave the boat the once over before releasing it to the company’s custody.  All of Clavell’s possessions were gone – even his vacc suit.  All of the people I questioned on the matter mentioned that they’d last seen Uncle Albert in the company of your client and members of his crew.  Christofori’s Dream was already out of port by the time I could get around to asking them any questions, so I assumed that she was outbound with Clavell and his things already aboard.”

“That sounds reasonable to me as well,” commented Atopia.  “What happened next?”

“Seeing as there was no evidence of foul play,” Bron said, “I closed the investigation two days later.  A fortnight after that, a second belter was reported missing; and then a third a week after that.  The common thread was that Mr. Christofori and members of his crew were last seen with other two as well before they disappeared.  I checked the port over and couldn’t find either of their seeker ships docked anywhere, nor could I find Mr. Christofori’s ship.  I notified the IISS to keep an eye out for the ships, since none of them filed a flight plan before leaving port.”

“None of them?” asked Atopia.  “That’s highly unusual.”

“If any of those ships were above-board merchant vessels, I’d agree with you,” said Bron with a nod.  “However, there are a number of reasons why a belter might not advertise a destination.  There’s that whole one step ahead of the skip-tracer thing, for one.  Also, there are other belters who are claim-jumpers rather than miners.  They wait for a belter to do all the work, and then take the ore or the ship or both to an unscrupulous buyer, leaving the belter behind to air out where nobody will ever find the vacuum-mummified corpse.

“Other claim jumpers will note if an independent belter is visiting the same rock multiple times and wait for him or her to get back to port.  They hire some thugs to bust him or her up while they run out to the rock and mine a load or two of the good stuff while the belter is recovering at the medical center.  A lot of belters mask or counterfeit their docking codes and ship ID’s as well, for a lot of the same reasons.  Since all of that helps keep the ore and credits flowing around here, the starport authority doesn’t prosecute anyone for those sorts of violations.”

“But apparently planetoid mining without proper certification or a license does get somebody arrested at least,” said Atopia, “which is why my client and his crew are in jail right now.”

Bron nodded.  “They’re also in there for improper transfer of claim deeds, attempted mining of a planetoid quarantined by the IISS – which is the most severe charge they’re facing, currently – plus conspiracy in the disappearance of the three belters.  If any of the seeker ships of the other two belters are found within the system, then Mr. Christofori and his crew could also be charged with piracy, which will get them a mandatory sentence of death by exposure to hard vacuum, if they are found guilty.”

Atopia nodded as she clipped the stylus to her pocket computer and put it away.  “Then it is high time I speak with my client directly,” she said.

Bron rose and took Atopia chair as she stood.  “This way, Your Ladyship,” he said as he gestured toward the back of the office area.

*         *         *

An hour later, Atopia was back aboard Silver Starlight in its computer room.  She reflected that the two years since she’d last seen Harlow hadn’t done the man any favors.  He’d been running lean and mean during that time – his clothes hung off his spare frame as she reviewed the fact of the case against him.  She also took some time to ask him why he wanted her to defend him.

“Your Ladyship, you gave me a fair shake after that business on Xiang nearly got me, my crew and everybody else there killed,” he explained.  “You understand what it’s like running a merchant ship.  I won’t say I’ve been doing completely honest business since we parted ways, but when it comes to alien technology, I said I was out and I’ve stayed out.  It’s one of the few promises I’ve been able to keep during the past couple of years, you know?  And you kept yours – none of the authorities came looking for me after Xiang.  That’s how I knew that if you could, you would come here to defend me.”

Harlow claimed that the missing belters all left the system after he paid for their claims.  The titles to their planetoids had been signed over and paid for in cash, though he’d neglected to file the proper forms and pay the fees needed to make the transfers official.  In all, he’d bought the claims to two dozen rocks, all of them on the outbound fringes of the Outer Athabasca Belt – three from Uncle Albert, six from Weldon Lomax and fifteen from Carson Ethridge – for a total of just over a hundred thousand credits, according to him.

She asked why the sudden career change.  “Gaido Scalfaro, my engineer, has been keeping the Dream going on salvage parts and bailing wire for a long time now,” Harlow explained.  “Too long, in fact – Dream’s jump drive finally crapped out when we arrived here.  But, the maneuver drive and power plant still work, so we’ve got a ship with a hold big enough to make killing if we find the right rock, so we’ve been scratching.

“Then, just as we’re about to get started climbing out of the hole we’re in, there’s two scout ships with weapons lock on the Dream telling us to surrender.  I didn’t know we needed certification and a license to mine asteroids – nobody mentioned it.  And it’s the same for the whole business with the deeds – not a clue.”

Atopia was still shaking her head at the notes on her pocket computer when Tabitha walked in.  “How goes the detective work?” she asked while handing Atopia a fresh cup of coffee.

The noble put her pocket computer aside and took a grateful sip from the cup.  “A lot of circumstantial evidence that looks bad for Harlow’s crew on the surface,” she replied, “but the ISB’s case against them has a lot of holes.  Given his past, however, I don’t entirely trust Harlow to be telling me the truth, either.”

“Sounds like you need some facts, then,” said Tabitha.  “Is there anything I can do to help?”

Atopia looked at the ship’s main computer for a moment.  “Can our navigation program model a planetoid’s orbit with and without certain variables?” she asked.

Tabitha nodded.  “Oh yeah,” replied Tabitha as she seated herself at the main console.  “What did your ladyship have in mind?”

“Orbital paths with and without the mass of a one-hundred d-ton seeker ship parked on them,” she said.

Tabitha blew out a breath and looked at the noble.  “I thought you were defending Christofori?” she asked.

“Technically, I am,” Atopia said.  “How soon can you get at it?”

Tabitha was linking the ship’s computer to the planetary data network.  “It won’t take long to pull up the information I need,” she said.  “The modeling will take a bit longer.  I assume you want these orbits plotted from the days the belters were reported missing?”

Atopia nodded slowly as she keyed open the intercom.  “Hawk,” she said into the handset microphone.  “How long will it take to prep Little Argent for flight?”

There was a pause while the chief engineer mulled over his answer.  “Where are you heading, if you don’t mind me asking?”

Atopia looked at Tabitha who took the handset away.  “Outbound fringe of the Outer Athabasca Planetoid Belt,” she said as she keyed open the microphone, “about point-seven AU’s from here.”

“About an hour,” said Hawk, “I’ll need time to install some fuel bladders in the boat’s cargo space for that kind of distance.”

“Hold off on the fuel bladders until I know for sure that we’re going,” said Atopia as she took the handset back.”

“Copy that,” replied the engineer.

“Even cooking at six-gees,” said Tabitha, “that’ll still be twenty-two hours each way in a ship’s boat.”

Atopia nodded.  “Let me know if you find anything,” she said as she rose to leave. “I’m going to let Agent Pasco and Marshal Stanowitz in on my suspicions.”

347-1108, aboard Little Argent, nearing asteroid 71896 Nebe

Atopia looked at the small planetoid in the heads-up display in her vacc suit helmet.  Lisa had Little Argent standing on its tail as the last of its considerable midpoint vector was being slowed to match the orbital mechanics of the cold and lonely rock.

Lisa was piloting the boat with Tabitha riding shotgun and manning the boat’s single beam laser.  Sir Tony was in the back, monitoring the ship’s engines, while her husband and John rode beside her in the passenger seats.

Tabitha looked back at the noble from the co-pilot’s couch.  “Just got an update from the IISS boat,” she said, “they’re about forty minutes from rendezvous with Lomax’s rock and still doing well.”

“Acknowledge it,” Atopia replied with a nod, “and let them know we’ll give them an update on Ethridge’s rock before they arrive.”

Ethridge’s rock wasn’t very big – perhaps three hundred meters long by a hundred at its thickest point.  It was potato-shaped with a big chunk of one end sheared off by some ancient collision.  “You’d think with that kind of impact it would have some sort of rotational component,” Atopia said aloud.  But it didn’t – in fact, the rock wasn’t rotating at all.

Lisa muttered a curse.  “My astrogation’s getting rusty in my old age,” she said. “We’re going to overshoot the target by about a dozen clicks, your ladyship.”

“As long as we don’t run over it,” Atopia said with a smile, “that’s good enough.  Probably my fault anyway – those cookies that Tabitha and I got from Samantha before we departed probably threw off the mass estimate.”

“If that’s the case,” said Sir Winston, “we’re all probably guilty.”  They all chuckled at that.

To her credit, Lisa managed to slew Little Argent as they slid past the rock so they all could view it through the forward ports.  Tabitha activated the boat’s landing lights as they passed.  Her brow wrinkled as some sort of structure was revealed in their glare.  “Lisa,” she said.

“I see it,” Lisa replied as she activated the attitude control jets, enticing a slight amount of clockwise roll to keep the lights on the anomaly.

“That’s a camouflage net,” said John suddenly.  “A hundred credits says it’s radar reflective, too.”

“No bet,” said Lisa.  “According to the sensors, that’s not down there.  Give me a minute or two to bring us around and I’ll have us on the surface.”

“Button up, everybody,” said Atopia.  “Tony, depressurize the cabin and arm the landing gear anchors.  Tabitha, let the scout boat know we’ve found something and were going down to take a look.”

348-1108, Athabasca, Hammer’s Hole Habitat, Police Headquarters

“You murderous, lying sack of filth!”  Even though the transparent partition between them was supposed to be bulletproof, Harlow flinched as Atopia’s fist slammed into it.  “Lomax and Ethridge are dead aboard their seeker ships that you parked and camouflaged!  This whole ‘mining to earn your keep’ business was just a ruse to hide the fact you stole jump drive parts from their ships to fix yours!”

Harlow sighed.  “Yes,” he said, “but it turns out that a paramilitary jump drive has some subtle differences from the commercial version, even if they have the same type designation.  We couldn’t fix our jump drive with parts from a seeker ship, but then I hit on the idea of replacement.

Atopia’s rage hit a speed bump.  “That would take a long time without proper drydock facilities,” she said.

“Belters are away from port for weeks at a time,” said Harlow, “sometimes three or four cycles if they’re ranging out to the fringes of the belts.  I thought that would be enough time to pull it off before suspicions were raised.”

Atopia looked at him, shaking her head.  “You dragged me into this,” she said, “and then lied to my face – “

Harlow almost laughed.  “Piracy is still a death sentence whether you plead guilty or not,” he said.  “And I ‘dragged’ you into this because I asked you to defend me, not finish the investigation that’s going to condemn me and the rest of my crew.”

“Your actions are indefensible,” replied Atopia, “however, I am prepared to do what I can for your crew.  I’m confident I can keep them from getting spaced with you, but you’re going to have to own up to what you’ve done and plead guilty to all charges.”  She turned to go.  “You’ll also have to give me your network of black market contacts, as per the arrangement you proposed when you summoned me here – if you want me to help your crew at all.”

“If you think –“ Harlow began.

She whirled on him, catching herself on the partition and causing him to flinch again.  You’d better think about it,” she snarled, “because I’m going to be giving testimony at your formal arraignment the day after tomorrow!  And that’s going to go a long way with the judge deciding just how many of your crew are going to be chewing vacuum with you on execution day!  You think about that!”

She pushed off from the partition and stormed from the room.

]: ATHABASCA [BELAYA/WAYHAVEN] (1215-C400534-A)  Date 351-1108
          ¶ In a surprising turn of events, Harlow Christofori pled guilty to multiple counts including piracy and murder in regards to the disappearance of three belters from this world over the past several weeks.  Mr. Christofori took full responsibility for his actions and those of his four crew members.  The captain and crew of the Free Trader Christofori’s Dream were originally arrested for mining on a restricted planetoid as part of an Imperial Science Bureau investigation into black market trade of artifacts and antiquities.
          ¶ Testimony from Baronet Atopia Kesslering and several members of the crew of her Independent Liner Silver Starlight placed the blame squarely upon Mr. Christofori’s shoulders, demonstrating that he kept his illegal actions secret from his crew.  The rest of Mr. Christofori’s crew – Sokori Yakana, Gaidro Scalfaro, Basina Orati and Xuban Kalvos – will plead on multiple lesser charges at a later date, as Judge Macar Groebe dropped the most serious charges against them in light of yesterday’s testimony.
          ¶ The crime of piracy carries a mandatory death sentence.  No date for the execution of Mr. Christofori was announced at the time of this dispatch.

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