Sunday, June 17, 2018

Loose Ends, Part I (Coda)       


044-1109, Narmada, Red Sun City, Arcology Juliette Amber Eight Three, Sub-level Twenty-Eight

And so it’s come to this, thought Rand as ran down the corridor.  Another explosion rocked the hallway and he could see a cloud of dust roiling some thirty meters ahead of him.

He staggered to a stop, panting.  The troopers of Autonomy Defense Force had been systematically sealing off all exits to this level with demolition charges for the past fifteen minutes.  There hadn’t been any signs of pursuit, but he knew that there wouldn’t be until the guest of honor showed up in person.

Rand knew he’d overstayed his welcome when he’d garroted Martel Teichmann in his prison cell, but it had to be done.  Teichmann knew too much about the attempt on Duke Wymark’s and Countess Dyota’s lives.  Most importantly, he knew the names of nobles who were still going to be of use in the coming cycles to aid the Solomani push into Wayhaven Sector.  He had to be silenced before one of the nobles slipped into his cell and shot him full of Truth Drug, or forced him into the embrace of a verdicator.

Rand had underestimated Duke Darius’ fury in the matter, though – plus General Mutabe’s dogged determination to root out every conspirator who’d been supporting Rand’s efforts for the past few cycles.  And then, of course, there was Marquis Toyama, who was never afraid to get his hands dirty in the name of the Imperium.

Rand pulled the auto pistol from its shoulder rig holster, making sure the safety was off and it had a round chambered.  It won’t be much longer, he thought as he backtracked to the last intersection and began walking toward what must be the only exit remaining.

He was only twenty meters from the door when he smelled ozone and molten metal.  He drew up short in recognition.  They've arc-welded the door shut!  He staggered back away from it, placing a hand upon the wall of the corridor to steady himself.  He looked back behind him as his wetware computer mounted in the base of his skull brought up the map of the level on his optic nerve.  Rand closed his eyes and studied the image.

The ADP had shut down the data network for this arcology an hour ago.  That was his first clue they were coming.  Fortunately, he’d been hiding out in these sub-levels for weeks, so he had time to make extensive maps.  He had the computer bring up the service crawlspaces and voids.  They probably have closed off the ventilation ducts and shafts already.  He allowed himself a grim smile.  But, the service conduits may have been overlooked.

He jogged back to a utilities room door, still panting slightly.  He made quick work of the keypad lock and stepped inside.  It was one of many pump stations that brought water processed from biological wastes back up to the agricultural levels’ hydroponics systems.  After a moment of looking, he found what he was looking for – an access door to the main water lines heading upward.

He rummaged through storage lockers in the pump room until he found a set of safety coveralls.  They didn’t quite fit, but they were stained and worn, which would help sell the bluff that he’d been working in the bowels of the arcology and hadn’t heard the security alert.

It took him precious moments to defeat the door’s primitive mechanical lock and then he was into the darkness beyond.  There was a rechargeable electric torch mounted on the wall just inside the door, which he switched on and took, hooking its end clip to a utility loop on the coveralls.  The metal maintenance ladder seemingly stretched upward into the infinite darkness above him.  He ignored the warning signs about safety tethers and harnesses and began to climb.

Hand over hand, step by step he rose up from the depths of the arcology’s sub-levels.  By the time he reached sub-level twenty-two, he suspected something was wrong.  His breathing was labored – far more than it should be under the conditions.  He was sweating freely and the air felt unnaturally warm and close, even though he was ascending alongside the water main.

At sub-level fifteen, he saw the pipe had a kink that brought it further away than his arm’s reach.  The light of torch allowed him to see the area above him opened up into a somewhat larger space.  He saw the iris valve just above him as well.  It seemed to take all of his will to get his arms and legs to move, his hands to grip the ladder.  He was gasping now.  Sweat had soaked through his clothes and coveralls as well.  Somehow, he managed to clear the iris valve before it closed beneath him.

Dimly, it registered that there was another iris valve two more levels up.  His world had shrunk to the effort of breathing and actuating his limbs and hands.  His lungs were burning now – that meant… something.  His sluggish mind was losing the fight to stay focused.

And then the iris valve above him closed, trapping him within the space.  He couldn’t hold onto the ladder anymore and fell almost six feet to the surface of the valve below him.  He had no breath to articulate his pain.  His head swam now.  His vision was narrowing down to a tunnel and what colors he could see were fading out.

Light.  Noise.  Hands grasped him and pulled him into the light.  Something cold was pressed to the back of his head.  A plastic mask found his face and the world suddenly came into painfully into focus.

“…and that’s got it,” a muffled voice was saying from somewhere behind him.  “Download’s complete, your excellency.”

“…no…” murmured Rand.

Rand saw the face – Toyama’s.  He was wearing a respirator mask.  “Yes,” he said from behind the mask.  He looked away from Rand toward the people behind his head.  “You may take him away, now.  And please give my regards to His Excellency, Marquis Julius.  I’ll look in on him later to thank him properly for his assistance in this matter.”

The hands dragged Rand to his feet and hustled him away.  Rand managed to turn his head and catch a glimpse behind him.  One of the ADP troopers was handing the noble a datachip from the microchip scanner rig that had been pressed to the back of his skull.

Rand faced forward again as the troopers marching him away turned a corner.  Inwardly, he smiled.  Good luck decrypting the data from my wetware, your excellency, he thought.


045-1109, Narmada, Red Sun City, Arcology Whiskey Amber Oh Seven

Marquis Toyama Weston sat upon a couch and watched his wife Baronet Kogura Yuni dote upon their two children on the floor nearby.  Akira Weston was the older child of the pair at just over 20 cycles and had discovered walking and running within the same cycle.  Kogura Kasumi, at just 8 cycles loved to crawl and discover things, which had led to a serious rearrangement of the lounge where Toyama was used to holding court with visiting nobles.

Yuni saw him watching and smiled.  Toyama returned the smile, admiring her beauty.  She’d been a beautiful woman when he’d met her nearly four years ago, but marriage and motherhood had added new dimensions to her that made even more so.  As her husband, I’ll admit that I’m biased about that, he thought.

However, it had been her mind that had convinced him that he couldn’t live without her in his life.  She was an accomplished field medic who could work under changing, even dangerous, conditions and maintain a professional demeanor.  She also had that singular ability to find workable, if unorthodox, solutions to problems and implement them quickly and successfully.  Her assistance had proven invaluable on Kiewa in 1105, and despite his deception about the real reason they were there, she stayed by his side and supported his actions.

A page from his aide interrupted his revere.  “Yes, Philip?” he said toward the intercom system’s audio pickup.

“His lordship, Sir Yael would like to link with you at once,” said Philip’s filtered voice.  “It’s regarding the datachip, your excellency.”

“Put him through, please,” replied Toyama.  Baronet Yuni quickly gathered up the children and retreated to the other side of spacious lounge as the two-dimensional wall screen lit.  Toyama quickly read his security chief’s expression and sighed.  “I take it you’ve had no luck with our project?” he asked.

The knight shook his head.  “I didn’t expect to, your excellency,” Sir Yael replied.  “The good news is that the Imperial Navy’s code breakers and I-T people have put this on the front burner – courtesy of some of Duke Darius’ ‘gentle persuading.’  Honestly, I’ve never seen His Grace this hot before.  He’s terrifying in close quarters right now, even if you’re not the object of his attention.”

Toyama nodded.  “No less than I am,” replied the marquis.  “I was sorely tempted to take more extreme measures with Rand than I did, but the Duke made it plain that he would deal with Rand personally after he was captured.”

“Well,” said Sir Yael, “he may be afraid of just how much influence the Solomani have had on the nobles under his jurisdiction, and how many have been working for them under his very nose.”

“And how many he can count on in this year’s Subsector Moot, yes,” replied Toyama.  “I have no doubt he’s feeling the heat from Sector Duke Wymark to get these problems under control quickly, so they will quit serving as a means to undermine Peerage authority in the sector.  So yes, Darius needs information to act upon – the sooner, the better.”

“I see,” said Sir Yael.  “Well, I wish everybody luck in that regard, your Excellency, but I have other matters I must attend to.  I just wanted to give you an update.”

“I appreciate that,” replied Toyama.  “Keep me in the loop.”

After Sir Yael’s face disappeared from the screen, Toyama saw the lights in the room fade slightly, taking on a bluish tone.  The harsh afternoon sunlight faded as the exterior windows polarized to black.  The marquis looked toward his desk and saw wife manipulating the security controls console.  Her face was uncharacteristically stern.

“So, who exactly knows where Mr. Tyler is right now besides you?” she asked.

“It’s a short list,” he replied as he rose and walked over to her.  “As of right now, it is Sir Yael Smethwyk, ADF General Cassandra Mutabe, my aide Philip and you.  Oh, and the troopers who brought Tyler here.  They’re in a security cell of their own, for now.  That’s all.”

“Considering he escaped from Golgotha after only one year there,” she said as she put her arms around him, “I don’t have a lot of confidence that his presence here will remain secret for very much longer.”

“Our children are safe,” Toyama said, “and so are you.”

“And what about you?” she asked while hugging him.  “Until we know who Tyler’s allies are, we can’t really trust anyone.”

His arms wrapped around her shoulders and he held her, gently kissing the midnight bangs that veiled her forehead.  “I know,” he said at last.

046-1109, Narmada, Imperial Autonomy District, House Ingersoll Residence

Duke Darius stormed into the room and went straight to the wet bar, ignoring the man in the worn IISS uniform who bowed to him as he brushed past.  His Grace poured three fingers of whiskey into a lowball glass.  Darius turned with the glass in his hand, starting slightly when he saw Leif Grenfeld bowing to him.

Darius blew out a breath and took a mouthful of the whiskey, letting its mellow burn spread through him before speaking.  “My apologies, Mister Grenfeld,” he said, “I was preoccupied.  And what has happened to your hair?”

“An unfortunate incident on Nullica in Year 1107, your grace,” Leif explained.  “I had a run-in with the Yellow Sail Syndicate that ended badly.  Aside from the hair loss, I’m doing quite well.”

“Has it really been that long since I’ve seen you?” asked Darius, shaking his head.  “Please accept my sincerest apologies, then.  Time gets away from me, it seems.  And where are my manners today?  Care for a drink?”

“I have a soft spot for coffee, your grace,” he said as he straightened up, “if any is available.”  Leif looked pointedly at the security panel on the desk in the study before returning his gaze to Darius.

The duke got the hint and stepped over to activate the room’s security gear.  “Is pre-brewed concentrate sufficient?” he asked.  “If so, please serve yourself.”

“Thank you, your grace,” he said as he stepped over and fiddled with the machinery behind the bar.  As he did so, the windows in the room polarized to black and the lights took on a bluish hue.

“So what brings you to Narmada?” asked Darius as he sat on one of the room overstuffed chairs.

“News from Logone, your grace,” Leif said as he carried a steaming mug to a chair across from the duke.  “You’re about to have a very large scandal on your hands and it involves His Excellency, Marquis Toyama Weston.”

“The business on Teleajen a few years back?” asked Darius around a sip from his glass as Leif nodded.

Inwardly, Darius winced at the memory - Toyama had obtained a list of names from Tyler via Truth Drug and then had beheaded three people on that list on Teleajen to get the fourth on the list to talk.  It had taken expert political maneuvering by Baronet Atopia in the 1107 Subsector Moot to keep the marquis' name and reputation clear of it.

“I thought you had handled the cleanup of that matter, personally,” said Darius.

“I thought I had as well,” replied Leif.  “Unfortunately, that is not the case.  Imperial Naval Intelligence managed to decrypt the data files that Ms. Schunamann left behind on her estate on Logone during the Insurgency – by accident or design is still unclear.  The Imperial Navy base commander on Logone has done an excellent job of keeping this information under wraps from the general public, but if Gretl had that information, then it is almost certain to have made its way to other members of the nobility as well – including those with aspirations of greater power at your expense.”

“Contesa Chantal Dasani, perhaps,” said Darius.

Leif was shaking his head.  “With all due respect, your grace, she is an unlikely candidate – especially in light of actions taken by Baronet Atopia Kesslering going on three years ago.  Her excellency owes much to our Defender of the Imperium and knows the sort of leverage Atopia has over her, even if our favorite Baronet hasn’t been motivated to employ it, as yet.  The contesa certainly has aspirations, but she has been paying closer attention to the problems in Belaya Subsector of late, rather than Narmada’s – specifically Logone.”

Darius had taken the last swallow of whiskey from his glass while Leif spoke.  “Well,” he said, “perhaps we’ll have some additional insight into the matter when we crack the data files Rand Tyler was carrying.”

Leif raised an eyebrow in surprise.  “Your grace?”

Darius smiled.  “Excuse me if I savor your expression for a moment, Leif,” he said around a chuckle, “In the few years I’ve known you, I believe this is the very first time I’ve said something you didn’t already seem to know.”  Darius took a moment to summarize the events of the past few days while Leif took it all in with rapt attention.

Leif sat for a moment in silence after Darius finished before responding.  “Sad to say, Mister Tyler and I have one thing in common,” Leif said at last while tapping the back of his own skull, “but it is the only thing.  That’s how I’ve managed to keep all my information and facts straight for so long, your grace.  Thank you for the update, but I don’t think you should place too much significance on the information you’ve pulled from Mister Tyler’s skull.”

“Oh?” asked Darius, “Why do you say that?”

“By all accounts, Tyler is a very intelligent man,” said Leif.  “He would certainly know that coming back to Narmada would get him killed eventually, no matter how well he concealed himself.  It is conceivable that he made contact with the Ine Givar on the way here, possibly more than once – that could also explain the high-grade data encryption on the data files the ADF technicians extracted when he was captured.”

“So you’re saying he’s sacrificing himself for the cause?” asked Darius.  “That seems out of character for the man – of what little I know of him, of course.”

“If you will allow me,” said Leif, “I can look into the matter while I’m here.  I imagine it will take a few days to crack the encryption on those files.”

“That’s what I was angry about when I came in,” said the duke.  “By all rights, I should have had that traitorous bastard put against a wall and shot by now.  But I can’t be sure of anyone right now – especially since it is obvious that he’s been receiving help from more than one person for at least the last two cycles he’s been here.”

Leif nodded.  “I’ll need an Imperial edict for this mission, your grace.  It will have to expressly state that I have your permission to use force and unorthodox methods to accomplish it.”

Darius nodded.  “You’ll get it,” he said, “and thank you – for everything.  If there’s anything else you need –“

Leif nodded.  “It’s my understanding you came into possession of a Suleiman-class Type-S starship a few years back,” he said.  Darius cocked an eyebrow as Leif continued.  “The Urutu is a grand old lady, but the IISS won’t foot the bill for replacement parts and spares anymore.  There are too few sources left in this part of the galaxy.”

Darius smiled as he rose, forcing Leif to do the same.  “I’ll make the arrangements,” he said.  He offered his hand and Leif shook it.  “Good hunting,” Darius added.

To be continued…


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