Saturday, June 23, 2018

Loose Ends, Part II (Coda)      


048-1109, Narmada, Red Sun City, Arcology Delta Emerald Six Nine

“He’s here?” asked Baron Ian Richards, “And he’s still alive?”

Leif Grenfeld bit his lower lip and turned his head away for a moment.  No, the chided himself, this is not going to be easy at all.  “I realize,” said Leif as he turned back to face the young noble, “that the death of your father is still a painful subject, your lordship, but I need to ask you some questions –“

“You need to answer mine first!” said Ian stepping forward.  “Where is he?  Where is Rand Tyler?”

While Leif had never met Baron Alton Richards, he had learned a great deal about the man in his initial hunt for Rand Tyler.  According to Baronet Atopia Kesslering, Baron Alton been a kind, humble man with a keen yet gentle wit.  And while Baron Ian shared some of his father’s physical characteristics – soft brown eyes under heavy, dark eyebrows – the pain of his father’s murder had poisoned his psyche.  That much was evident etched in the frown lines around his mouth, the lines of pain around the eyes, and the fire of the rage that still burned after four years.

“In detention under heavy guard at a secret location, you lordship,” said Leif in a forced but even tone.  “Even the people who helped apprehend him are being detained to prevent word from getting out about this.”

Ian relaxed a bit at that.  “And why is the man responsible for my father’s murder still alive?”

“Mister Tyler has a wetware computer implanted in the base of his skull,” explained Leif, “which could contain information that will be invaluable in Duke Darius’ efforts to root out Ine Givar and Solomani sympathizers throughout this volume of space.  However, the data has military grade encryption, which is proving difficult to crack.  While Imperial Naval Intelligence is working on that, I’m working on who assisted Mister Tyler in hiding out on Narmada for the past three cycles.”

“He’s been here for three cycles?!” Ian shouted.  “And his grace didn’t see fit to tell me?!”  The young man whirled and stormed to the wall of his study that held a dueling cutlass and body pistol.

“Please calm yourself, your lordship,” said Leif.  “The matter is being handled in the manner his grace thinks is best.”

Ian turned to Leif while he was attaching the scabbard of the cutlass to his belt.  “And how long have you known about it?”

“I got the full measure of the situation with Mister Tyler the day before yesterday, your lordship,” said Leif.  “It has been nearly two years since I’ve actually been on Narmada.”

“More than I’ve been told, apparently,” said Ian as he sheathed the sword and began to slide into the gun holster rig.

“You were kept out of the loop for a reason, your lordship,” said Leif.  “There are other concerns in play with this situation – concerns that will affect many members of the Peerage adversely if this comes to light.  Most notably, Marquis Toyama Weston’s and Baronet Atopia Kesslering’s actions will be called into question – two people who have done much on yours and your father’s behalf.”

That gave Ian pause, so Leif pressed the advantage.  “Your father gave his life to expose SuSAG’s association with the Ine Givar,” said the scout.  “Baronet Atopia, Marquis Toyama and I have broken interstellar traditions and laws to follow the evidence he exposed to bring the guilty to justice – all with the approval and complicity of his grace Duke Darius and Sector Duke Wymark as well.

“Your father knew what was at stake when he pursued his line of investigation,” Leif continued.  “To be honest, following up his work has been the focus of my activities with the IISS ever since he died.  The Imperium is and will continue to be in your father’s debt for years to come – just as you are in the debt of the Houses Weston, Ingersoll, Gascoyne, and soon House Kesslering as well.”

Ian offered a shadow of a smile at the last.  “If anyone deserves a permanent title of late,” said the noble, “it is Atopia.”  He took a breath, letting the tension in his shoulders ebb.  As he did so, they started to shake.  Ian brought his hands to his face and began to sob.  “Father…” he moaned as some of the sadness of the past five years poured out of him.

Leif gently guided Ian to a couch and gently gripped the man’s shoulders while he cried.  The reports said that Ian and Alton were very close, thought Leif as the young noble’s emotions played out.  How long has it been since I have cried over the loss of someone – years, perhaps?  Not even Atopia, when she lay lifeless in my arms on Nan going on four years ago, brought a single tear.  There was sadness, certainly, but there was no time for tears then, nor is there time now.

Ian eventually recovered enough to wipe his eyes with a pocket handkerchief.  “How may I be of service to the Empire?” he asked as he looked up at Leif.

“I have questions I have to ask about your father,” said Leif, “and the members of his personal staff.”

“You think -?” said Ian.

“Somebody had to help Tyler set up your father’s murder,” said Leif.  “Tyler may have used that knowledge to coerce their assistance when he returned to Narmada.”

049-1109, Narmada, Red Sun City, Arcology Juliette Amber Eight Three, Sub-level Twenty-Eight

Leif allowed himself a sigh of relief when he reached the maintenance room at the bottom of the metal ladder he’d spent nearly fifteen minutes descending.  He wore a respirator mask and had an air tank slung over one shoulder.  The Autonomy Defense Force had sealed off all the exits and pumped carbon dioxide into the sub-levels to flush Tyler out five days earlier.  The arcology’s maintenance crews were busy fixing what the ADF had wrecked in their haste to catch the fugitive, so the possibility of pockets of the unbreathable gas was real enough for the precaution.

That final hour down here must have been fun for Tyler, thought Leif as he exited the maintenance room.  He knew he was caught, but he still insisted on playing the game until they actually did catch him.  What did he hope to gain?  The answer had to be down here somewhere.

His questioning of Baron Ian had produced some interesting possibilities for the investigation, though none of them could be followed up right away.  I can only hope I find something down here to tie one of them to Tyler, he thought.  The operatives the Ine Givar brought to Narmada were first-rate, curse the luck – they’ve been very good at covering their tracks while causing havoc around here.

Getting access to this part of the arcology took all the legal weight Duke Darius’ edict could muster.  Marquis Julius Denali was increasingly dependent on life support equipment and seeing His Excellency without an appointment wasn’t just an inconvenience; it had to be authorized by his personal physician as well.  Leif had been gentle but firm about his need to be down here, about how much he already knew despite the Marquis’ claims of ignorance, and that time was of the essence in this matter.

From start to finish, it had taken just over three hours.  It could have just as easily taken three days, under the conditions.  Leif promised to relay the Marquis’ regards to his daughter, Baronet Leigh, the Imperial liaison to Sok, the next time he headed that way.  Given His Excellency’s deteriorating condition, thought Leif as he surveyed the sub-level’s maze of hallways, I’ll probably be conveying news of his death before then.

Leif pulled up short at a large ventilator grill.  Its vent holes were free of the usual collection of dust and grime one might expect to build up over years of substandard maintenance or neglect, plus the captive screws weren’t locked down to the wall.  Leif hesitated to pull out his explosives sniffer, given that several charges had been set off by the ADF to block routes of escape from the sub-level, so he gambled that Tyler didn’t have time to set a booby-trap on a trip wire.

Leif lifted the panel clear and set it aside, revealing a space that was roughly two meters deep and high and nearly four meters long, with another screen in the far end with a large duct running back into darkness.  The floor of the space had a simple sleeping pad and thermal wrap, plus a worn canvas courier bag in one corner.

This has been here five days, he thought as he gave the space a thorough once over, and nobody’s thought to look for this?

Leif emptied the bag’s contents onto the sleeping pad.  There were five separate identification cards bearing Rand’s holograph with a false name; four Imperial credit vouchers, one of which was gold with the logo of SuSAG in black; three access card keys for the arcology’s maintenance areas; enough ration bars to sustain someone for four days, bottled water for two days, and a collection of toiletries in travel sizes that were all nearly used up.  Leif pulled out a box cutter from one of the coveralls’ pockets, carefully slashing the bag to ribbons before giving it a good shake over the sleeping pad. 

He heard something hit the pad, but it took him several seconds to locate it – a datachip.  He double-checked the bag’s internal spaces before he tossed it aside.  He tore the wrapper off one of the ration bars and studied the datachip while he chewed, letting the air feed from his mask flow across his face while he ate.  The chip had no markings, not even a manufacturer’s logo. He carefully placed the chip in one of the coveralls’ breast pockets.  The rest of the ID cards and credit vouchers went into other pockets.

He froze at the sound of a door being opened.  The live acoustics of bare walls and formacrete floors brought the sounds of two sets of footsteps from somewhere in one of the connecting corridors.  Leif picked up the ventilator grate and quietly covered the cubbyhole with himself inside it.  Working quickly, Leif used the box cutter to turn the screws of the screen at the far end of the space.  It was hinged on one side and Leif quickly entered the duct and pulled the screen shut behind him.

He laid the box cutter on the curving floor of the circular duct and drew his body pistol.  He eased its safety off and turned off the gas feed on his respirator’s air tank to silence its operation.  In the dusty darkness, Leif watched for shadows on the exterior grate for several slow moments, his ears straining for the slightest sound.

The footsteps came closer, stopping outside the vent.  Leif could see their shadows playing across the grate, one of them held an object in his hand – but it didn’t look like a firearm.  Suddenly, the grate was pulled upward a fraction of a meter and the object was tossed inside.  As the grate was forced back down, Leif scrabbled backwards in the vent, heedless of the noise he was making.  The cylindrical object hissed acrid smoke before spewing its white-hot contents across the bedding and floor of the space, which caught fire instantly.

The space quickly filled with smoke and fire.  Leif turned on the gas feed for his respirator again and continued crawling further into the duct.  Distantly, he could hear alarms sounding.  Fortunately, the air flow in the duct was keeping the worst of the smoke away from him, which he supposed was toxic by the way his eyes were burning.  Still the relatively fresh air from the duct was helping them clear, even though there was very little light in the confines of the duct.

It took him two minutes to crawl through the duct to a maintenance access and open it.  The body pistol was in his hand as he got to his feet and ran toward the source of the alarms.  He found the source, but his quarry was gone.  Smoke was still rising from the grate and the corridor was hazed with it.  The incendiary probably burned through the floor of the duct, he thought as he pulled out his explosives sniffer and set it to detect the incendiary’s residue.

Security and firefighters were showing up at the scene, but he managed to evade them.  The sniffer strobed softly at a door and Leif eased his way through it, guiding it closed behind him.  He went slowly as he ascended the stairwell past the first two sub-levels, but the sniffer continued to strobe.  He began to take the stairs two at a time at a dead run after that.

The stairs ended on the landing for Sub-level Three.  Leif discarded the respirator rig and the coveralls on the landing, panting softly until his racing heart slowed its pace somewhat.  He transferred Rand’s items and his own equipment and devices from the coveralls to his IISS uniform pockets.  The datachip went into a concealed space behind his uniform’s belt buckle.  The body pistol, which had been set aside for the rest, was clutched in his right hand while the cylindrical sniffer remained in his left.

The sniffer was still detecting trace amounts of the incendiary from the grenade, but the trail was getting spotty.  Leif opened the door and cast about in the hallways until he hit a strong trail.  He hurried along until the familiar smell of death hit his nostrils.  He scowled and shook his head as he turned a corner.

The blood smears on the floor and the small spatters of it across a nearby wall told the tale to Leif’s eyes – of shots fired at nearly point-blank range into the unsuspecting victims.  Their bodies had collapsed to the floor, of course, and then had been dragged into an adjacent room.  No subtlety, thought Leif as he took in the scene, so why hide the bodies at all?

He knew he didn’t have much time.  The incendiary grenade had brought emergency services to the scene, but the arcology’s security people would fan out and search.  They would notice his recent egress from the connecting air duct, and then they would reason out the trail since Leif hadn’t taken time to conceal it.  The murderer would have known that, too.  He or she would have had to work quickly, doing only what was needed to delay any search and pursuit to affect their escape from the potential dragnet.

“The murderer,” said Leif aloud, “needed to hide the route of escape.  THAT’S why the bodies are in there.”  He turned and saw a door to another maintenance space about ten meters away that was slightly ajar.  And then he was moving, nearly tearing the door of the room off its hinges in his eagerness to renew the pursuit.

The space behind the door was a storeroom for parts and expendable supplies.  The murderer had hurried the job of bypassing the electronic lock – which is why the door wouldn’t close completely now.  Leif cast about hurriedly.  The sniffer brought him to another door behind a rack of free-standing shelving, which had been opened with brute force – pieces of the latch mechanism lay strewn across the floor.  Something among them caught his eye and he stooped to have a look.

The cartridge was a ten-millimeter low-velocity round with the familiar bright green tip that indicated it was an explosive tipped round.  Must have fallen from the murderer’s pocket, Leif mused as he studied it, as snub pistols are generally revolvers.  He froze when looked at the back end of the round.

It bore the initials “PMI” inside of a stylized square and a lot number.  Leif nodded grimly as he fished his pocket comp’ out and aimed its camera to bring the end of the round clearly into focus.  Phalanx Military Industries, he thought as he snapped the picture, imported from Nullica after being smuggled to there from Sebou, no doubt.  That means our murderer has ties to the Ine Givar.

Leif could hear activity outside the door – distantly, but closing.  Behind the door, a short corridor led to a small service contra-gravity lift shaft.  Leif quietly closed the door before returning to the lift shaft.

The three-meter diameter shaft was lit, stretching upwards and downwards for a great distance in both directions.  Moving handholds ascended and descended at regular intervals.  Leif peered upward and saw a figure ascending, nearly a dozen levels above him.  He grabbed the ascending handhold with his left and drew his body pistol with his right.

His body was weightless in that shaft as he started to ascend.  He kept his eyes on the figure above him as he used his legs and arms to clamber upwards as quickly as he dared, desperate to keep silent but also not wanting to lose sight of the figure.

He had gained several levels on the figure when the man must have heard him, for he looked downward.  Leif counted his lucky stars as he saw the man fumbling in his jacket for a weapon.  “STOCK STILL!” Leif bellowed in the confines of the shaft, “Release the handhold and show me your hands!  Do it now!”

The figure wasn’t having any, but was unfamiliar with being in zero-gravity, taking a precious second to plant a foot on the side of the shaft as he fought to pull the weapon free.  Leif didn’t hesitate, his IISS-mandated zero-g training giving him the advantage.  He kicked off the side of the tube to throw off the figure’s aim.

The snub pistol issued a soft popping sound as the low velocity round whistled past Leif.  It detonated several levels below him.  But in his haste, the attacker missed the next handhold passing on the wall and began flailing as he started to tumble.  Leif bracketed the helpless target and fired.

The diminutive body pistol cracked three times in rapid succession within the confines of the shaft.  The man above him convulsed and cried out, the snub pistol caroming off the side of the shaft and tumbling upwards, away from his grasping fingers.  “Desist!” Leif yelled as he planted a foot on one of the handholds and pushed off.

The man was semi-conscious by the time Leif reached him.  The scout pushed the man out of the shaft at the next access and tumbled out with him.  The figure moaned and stirred weakly.  One of the body pistol’s bullets had pancaked on the victim’s armored coat.  Another had carved a furrow up his inner left thigh while the third had buried itself in the man’s lower’s right abdomen, which was bleeding heavily.

Leif dug an autoinjector from the cargo pocket of his left pant leg.  “You need to live for me,” Leif said to the man beside him, “at least long enough to tell me what I need to know.”  Leif rolled the man onto his face, tossing the coat to one side and pulling his shirt up to expose the base of his spine.

The man cried out as Leif injected the Truth Drug into his spinal column.  Leif had to sit on him to keep him still.  After a moment the man went limp, quivering as the drug took hold.  Leif rolled him back over.  The man’s eyes were dilated wide open.  “No… no…” whimpered the man.

“Welcome to the longest two minutes of your life, you murdering, traitorous son of a bitch,” said Leif as he felt his expression harden as he tossed the autoinjector aside and picked up the body pistol again.  “They’re also going to be your last.”

050-1109, Narmada, Red Sun City Starport, Narmada Subsector Navy Headquarters

Narmada Fleet Admiral Bernard Alpengrist cast a sidelong look at Leif as the Naval cybernetics technician slotted the datachip into the computer.  The computer was isolated from all outside connections and the small room they were in was designed like a great Faraday cage to prevent any extraneous signals from getting in or out.

The technician turned toward the admiral.  “Ready, sir,” was all he said.

“I still don’t see why we can’t copy the decryption program on this chip,” said the Admiral.

“It’s a security feature common with Solomani military software,” said Leif as he stared past the technician at the computer.  “Use a copy or another version of the software used originally and the program hopelessly corrupts the data.  Any attempt to preserve the program anywhere other than its original storage device causes it to disable key functions.  We get one shot to decrypt this data, as the program erases itself after the job is finished.”

Bernard looked at the technician, who nodded to affirm what Leif had said.  The admiral pursed his lips for just a moment before nodding.  “You may proceed, Ensign,” he said.

“Aye, sir.”  The technician turned back to the computer and keyed up the sequence to launch the decryption program.  There was the span of five rapid beats of Leif’s heart before the large screen on the opposite wall began displaying datafile icons – clean and uncorrupted.  Leif blew out the breath he hadn’t noticed he was holding.

Bernard turned toward Leif and extended a hand.  “Thank you,” he said, “Imperial Naval Intelligence will take it from here.”

“On the contrary,” said Leif, “I’m staying here until I get a copy of the uncorrupted data.”

“Now see here –“ the admiral balked.

“Admiral, I don’t need to remind you of the authority vested in me by his grace, do I?” asked Leif.  “This data is vital to finishing the task given to me by Duke Darius.”

“This is sensitive and vital intelligence information!” exclaimed Bernard, “I can’t let a… civilian just walk out of here with it!  We have rules for this sort of thing, Mister Grenfeld!”

Leif smiled.  “The old inter-branch rivalries aside, Admiral, we are playing for the same team.  And I still have some work left to do before I can wrap this up, for which Tyler’s data will be essential.”

Leif’s smile evaporated.  “The reason you now have this data is because of the actions I have taken – most of which fall well outside the rules and laws the rest of polite society follows.  So yes, admiral, I am taking a copy of this data with me.  Now.”

Leif turned to the technician.  “Ensign,” he said, “Does that computer have a microlead I/O port?”  The technician nodded.  “Good,” continued Leif as he turned to Bernard, “Admiral, in my bag outside there’s a microchip scanner; please have someone bring it in here immediately.”

Four hours later, Red Sun City, Arcology Whiskey Amber Oh Nine,

The door to the cell slid shut behind Leif as he entered.  Rand Tyler sat on his bunk and regarded him for a moment without speaking.  Leif regarded Tyler in return as he stood with his arms folded across his chest.  “You look pretty good for a dead man,” said Leif at last.

Tyler nearly laughed.  “Rumors of my demise have been greatly exaggerated,” he said.  “But we’ve crossed paths before, I believe, even though I remember you having considerably more hair.”

Leif nodded.  “Logone,” he said, “in year 1104.  You paid me to fly you to Yantra.  If I had known then what kind of trouble that transit was going to cause me and the Imperium over the next five years, I would have spaced you.”

Tyler did laugh this time.  “Hindsight is twenty-twenty, after all,” he said around a chuckle.  His features became more serious.  “I take it the data the ADF stole from my wetware has been decrypted?”

Leif nodded.  “General Mutabe’s troopers are rounding up the last few of your Ine Givar associates as we speak.”  Leif paused as he fished the datachip from behind his belt buckle and tossed it to the prisoner, who caught it easily.

Tyler regarded it for a moment before his eyes widened.  “You didn’t slot this one,” he said.

Leif shook his head.  “What kind of organization would allow the data and decryption software to be in the same place at the same time?” he asked.  “And how could they possibly overlook reacquiring that essential software for five days?  They wanted the Imperium to find that datachip and use it.  And that meant that the program on that datachip was either meant to destroy or corrupt the data the ADF took from your wetware computer.

“Your people had to make a play to make it look like it was important,” Leif continued, “but they waited until they were sure I had found it to sell the lie.  Fortunately, I managed to track the operative in charge of the deception down, which, in due course, brought the actual decryption program into my possession.”

Tyler gave Leif a nod.  “Well done,” he said, “I salute you.”

“Not yet,” said Leif.  “There’s still one thing I haven’t been able to figure out.  I was hoping you’d tell me, now that the Ine Givar’s house of cards has fallen.”

“I might,” said Tyler.

“Why did you come back here?” asked Leif.  “You knew staying in Imperial space would get you killed once you escaped from Golgotha, so why come back to Narmada?  Why not run to the Solomani or disappear in the Periphery rather come here where your friends were few and your death was certain?”

“Vengeance,” said Tyler.  “You’ve reviewed the information in the files, of course.”

Leif nodded.  All of the information that he had found in Gretl Schunamamm’s personal computers on Logone was there, along with details of the financial swindle perpetuated by the Yellow Sail Syndicate against members of the Narmada nobility.  Dirt on several other members of the Peerage was there as well – Baroness Barlow’s syndicate dealings, Baronet Fletcher Willow’s criminal ties, and more.

“Just imagine if some of the nobles at the upcoming subsector Moot had presented that,” said Tyler.  “It would have thrown the Peerage into chaos and cast serious doubts on Duke Darius’ ability to lead – probably to the point of Duke Wymark replacing him.”

“You still didn’t have to be here for that to happen,” said Leif.

“Yes, I did,” said Tyler with a feral smile.  “I wanted a front-row seat to watch Darius Ingersoll and his ardent supporters fall from grace – especially Marquis Toyama and Baronet Atopia.”  The smile vanished.  “But it wasn’t meant to be, it seems.”

Leif nodded.  “Don’t take this the wrong way,” he said, “but I am glad I could be an instrument of your downfall.  It gives the whole business a bit of symmetry.”

“I’ve answered your question,” said Tyler. “So answer mine: what did you get out of all this – besides a permanent haircut, that is?”

Leif smiled at the joke.  “The satisfaction of overcoming a challenge worthy of my talents, mostly,” said Leif as he turned toward the door of the cell.  The door opened as he continued and turned back toward Tyler, “along with a fringe benefit or two.”

Tyler looked past Leif at the young man standing in the cell’s doorway.  Baron Ian Richards entered with his body pistol in his hand.  Tyler had just enough time to cry out as Ian took aim and started firing.  The young noble didn’t stop until the weapon’s six-round magazine was empty and Tyler was a bloody, quivering heap on the floor at his feet.  “For my father,” Ian said.

“And for the Empire,” said Leif as he gently laid a hand on Ian’s shoulder.  “It’s time to go, your lordship.”

They left the cell.  The door closed silently behind them.  On the floor, Tyler coughed once, wetly, his eyes focused on something that only the dead ever see.

And then he was gone.

053-1109, aboard the Makarya, approximately 320,000 kilometers from Narmada

]: Starship Makarya >>> Narmada Deep Space Traffic Control - have achieved zero relative vector.  Request permission to initiate jump sequence for flight plan 1109.053.S019 – destination: Olt.

Leif could clearly see the golden tan crescent of Narmada, slightly below and to the right of Orgus, the gas giant it orbits.  At this distance, both were nearly the same visual size though he knew Orgus was considerably larger.  The brightness of the pair kept him from seeing all but a scattering of the brightest stars behind them.

]: NDSTC >>> MAKARYA – PERMISSION GRANTED FOR JUMPSPACE INSERTION. HAVE A SAFE TRANSIT AND CLEAR SKIES TO YOU.

Leif initiated a slight yaw to starboard, pointing the scout ship’s nose away from Narmada until the familiar yet majestic swath of the Milky Way filled the bridge’s viewports.  He contemplated it as he initiated the jump grid’s initial charging sequence on his flight dynamics interface.  He dimmed the bridge lights and smiled.

This is why I became a scout all those years ago, he thought as he gazed upon the universe and smiled.  There is so much of the galaxy I have yet to see.  There are more challenges to test me – out there.  This is why I am a traveller.

The computer chimed softly, indicating the charging sequence was complete.  He could see the soft blue-white glow of the grid imbedded in the ship’s hull, distorted by the geometry of its triangular nose.  He touched the icon on the flight dynamics interface’s touchscreen that read “Initiate.”

Three seconds later, the Makarya’s jump grid flared white for a brief moment, and when it faded away, only empty space remained, amid the majesty of the stars.


THE END OF THE NARMADA CHRONICLES, VOLUME TWO 

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