Monday, June 4, 2018

The Funeral Procession                  

011-1109, Cahabon, Wellspring Downs Starport Extrality

The man was thin and muscular with a set of forgettable features.  Dark-haired but going gray and brown-eyed with the first set of permanent lines entrenched in his middle-aged face, the man would fit in almost anywhere without raising an eyebrow.  It was a trait that had kept him alive for nearly a year on this low-tech backwater agricultural world, safe from the agents of the Imperium who’d been sent to arrest him and the operatives of the Ine Givar who’d been sent to silence him, permanently.

The man was quietly stripping the high-visibility coveralls from the limp form of another man at his feet – the standard uniform for the ground crews of this starport that refueled and serviced the starships visiting Cahabon.  He worked quickly in the confines of the storage room, hoping not to be noticed during the time it took to don the coveralls and take the passcode badge from his victim.  The victim murmured softly in pain and then was still again as the man attached the badge to the coveralls he'd stolen.  The man kicked his victim in the head with a steel-toed boot one last time before taking his leave, locking the closet as he closed it behind him.

The man stopped another worker as he was heading toward the starport terminal.  “Hey,” he said, “I just started last week and I’m trying to catch up with my servicing crew.  Which landing pad is the funeral ship on?”

The Silver Starlight bore the traditional black bands on its nose and tail signifying its status as a funeral vessel, transporting the remains of an Imperial noble.  The man didn’t recognize the crest of House Willow, but didn’t care, either.  The rising red sun emblem of Dawn Transport, LLC drew his eye, along with the words below it: Owner – Baronet Atopia Kesslering, Defender of the Imperium.

The ground crew was in the process of hooking up the fuel lines when one of them looked up at him.  “Where’s Davies?” the worker asked.

“Not a clue,” the man replied, “Control just told me to get over here and help you out.”  The answer seemed to satisfy the worker and the man approached one of the starship’s servicing panels.  He quickly removed the access door and eyed the terminal box behind it.  He reached inside his coveralls and drew out a pocket computer, connecting a lead from it to a specific connection.

He continued to glance around as the hacking software in his pocket comp interfaced with the starship’s computer system.  Once, one of the other ground crew looked at him and pointed to a cable on the ground next to him.  He nodded, picking it up and pretending to attach it to the vessel’s external power coupling until the crew member had found something else to focus his attention on.

The pocket computer vibrated once in his hand.  The man smiled as he glanced at the screen for a moment, touching the screen in a specific combination before detaching the lead and returning the device to an interior coverall pocket.

“Haven’t you got that umbilical connected yet?” shouted one of the ground crew members as he pointed to the cable near the man’s feet.  The man shook his head, making sure the worker couldn’t get a good look at his face.  “Well, hurry it up!  We’ve got three more ships waiting when we’re done here!” the worker shouted.

The man nodded.  As soon as the worker turned away, the man quickly walked in the other direction, placing the bulk of the starship between them.  He hopped on the back of a utility truck as it pulled away from the ship and was halfway across the starport proper before anyone noticed that the umbilical still hadn’t been connected…

015-1109, aboard Silver Starlight, in hyperspace between Cahabon and Deua

Atopia was in her office on the flight deck when a knock at the door interrupted her contemplation of Starlight’s financial situation.  She looked up from her dataslab’s screen and set the unit aside on her desk.  “Enter,” she called toward the door.

Tabitha stepped into the room, closing the door behind her.  “Got a minute, your ladyship?” she asked, “Because we may have a problem.”

Atopia gestured for the ship’s gunner, cybernetics expert and part-time educator and nanny to young Lady Olivia to have a seat on the other side of her desk.  “What’s wrong?” the baronet asked.

Tabitha sat and blew out a breath.  “I’m not certain, yet,” she said, “but I suspect that somebody may have hacked the ship’s computer system.  The ship’s security system has been glitchy ever since we left Cahabon, even after I took it offline and ran it through a short diagnostic.  I’ve got other, non-essential systems offline now to check for problems in their data systems.”  

Atopia nodded.  “All right,” she said, “stay on top of it and pass the word I want Akino and John up here, tout suite.  If it is just the security system affected, we may have either a stowaway or potential hijackers aboard.  If it’s more than that, we may have a suicidal terrorist aboard.  I’ll let the rest of the crew know, personally.  Not a word of this gets to the passengers without my say-so.”   As she spoke, Atopia opened one of the desk drawers and drew out the holster rig for her body pistol.

Tabitha nodded as she stood.  “One last thing,” she said, “if this isn’t something I can fix, I’ll need your authorization to unseal the ship’s backup software cassettes.  If I do that, you’ll have to either replace the backups to the tune of about six-hundred and fifty thousand credits when we reach Deua, or get a waiver from the portmaster of each starport we visit until you do.”

“Noted,” said Atopia as she stood and shrugged her way into the rig.  “Computer,” she said toward the ceiling.  The computer beeped in response.  “Log my authorization for Tabitha Nole to unseal the ship’s backup software cassettes.  After that’s done, I need a hard copy of our current passenger manifest.”  The computer beeped again as the document printer whirred to life behind her.

Atopia opened another desk drawer and pulled out her customized body pistol, checking its magazine and safety selector setting before placing it in the holster under her left armpit.  And so it begins again, she thought as she slipped her jacket on to cover up the rig.

019-1109, Deua, Araluen Starport Extrality, aboard Silver Starlight

--from the personal journal of Lady Olivia Verne

Another port, another somber ceremony, and another time I am reminded of somebody I cared about being gone and never coming back.  Great Maker, it is so very hard to see all the people coming here to view Baron Harper’s urn and not just break down and cry.  Most of these people never knew him and his cremains lying in state are just a curiosity for them!

I want to scream at them that he was a real person, somebody who cared about what he was doing and took great risks on behalf of the Empire, including the one that ended his life!  It’s not fair that he should be taken from the people who cared about him!

It’s not fair that my wish to see him again cost him his life, either.  Great Maker, forgive me, please.  Please take this pain away and help me be strong, because I know it’s hurting mom, too.  I feel like I’m just pretending, putting on a brave face when I’m dying inside…

And yet, I know this has to be done and we should be the ones doing it.  We are his friends, unto death and beyond.  This is our duty and our honor.  And that’s how you do it, I guess, no matter how badly you feel.  That’s how you be strong and get through the hard parts in life.

I spent some time with him tonight, after they put his urn back inside the cabin, on its special pedestal with the magnetic base.  I talked to him.  I broke down after a bit because he wasn’t talking back.  It made me think of the times I spent in the air vents on Alagon, after my mother was taken away, when I talked to Percy, my stuffed tree-rat toy and squeezed him tight in the comforting darkness where no one could hear me cry…

020-1109, Belaya, Araluen Starport Extrality, Duty-Free District

She’s not doing very well, thought Atopia for what must have been the twelfth time as she watched her daughter look over items in the store’s display.  She was pretty close to Harper, after all.  As was I.

Winston could sense it, too.  He held Olivia’s hand as they walked down the shopping mall.  Her daughter looked up at her and smiled.  Atopia smiled back as she ran her fingers through the young girl’s dark, curly locks.  This might be the delayed grief for her birth mother, too, she speculated as they paused in front of another store display.  She might have been too young back then to understand what death really means.

She caught the reflection of Akino in the display’s transparent barrier.  Her bodyguard was watching the mall behind them, his arms folded across his broad, muscular chest.  Even though this was supposed to be a family outing, Atopia had insisted on the protection, if only to gain some badly needed space from the crush of humanity that inhabited this tiny world.

Tabitha had spent the previous day checking up on their passengers while Atopia had been busy dealing with the business of running a starship.  The ship’s cybernetics expert worked with the starport authority for a few hours before finding one of their low berth passengers – Derrick Leeds – didn’t seem to have much history before Imperial Year 1107.

Her own daughter had come up with another piece of the puzzle when she found a broken pocket computer clogging up a pipe in the ship’s septic system – one that came from the low berths’ toilets.  After cleaning it and her daughter, Tabitha had managed to pull enough data from the unit to learn that it contain fairly advanced hacking software – the kind used by military and government agencies inside the Solomani Federation.

Atopia had alerted both the starport authority and planetary government about Leeds, but she hadn’t heard anything back from the agencies she’d contacted.  And now, she was out in public with her husband and daughter, making them all potential targets.  Brilliant move, she berated herself, but Olivia had to get off the ship for a while.  And honestly, so did I.

Atopia happened to glance up at a walkway that was a level above them in the shopping complex.  People everywhere, she thought as her gaze settled on a man standing along the rail, gazing down at the crowd.  He was a man with plain, painfully average features and a lithe, yet muscular build.  Her eyes widened in sudden recognition.

LEEDS! her mind screamed as she stared at him.  She flailed behind her with her left hand, brushing the arm of Akino.  With her right, she was clawing the body pistol free of its holster under her jacket.  Akino whirled, his hand instinctively grasping the hilt of his katana.

Leeds’ gaze was drawn to the sudden motion below him.  He recognized the situation almost instantly and bolted from the rail.  “Akino!” yelled Atopia, but the former Imperial Marine was already moving, cutting through the crowd to the set of stairs across the way.  Atopia yelled at Winston and Olivia to grab cover as she raced to catch up in Akino’s wake.

Akino bounded up the stairs, taking them three at a time, heedlessly pounding people aside with his shoulders and arms.  “MAKE A HOLE!” he bellowed as reached the level of the walkway, his speed increasing now that he had cleared the crush on the stairs.  Atopia was hard-pressed to keep up, though her open brandishing of the pistol did get a lot of people to move clear of her diminutive form as she ran.

Akino was gaining on Leeds but the fugitive had his sights set on the escalator looming ahead of them.  Just as it seemed Leeds would reach the base of the moving stairwell, Akino closed the gap and tackled Leeds, driving the man to the floor, hard.

Atopia arrived just as Leeds was struggling to pull free from Akino’s grasp.  She dropped to the floor and pressed the muzzle of her body pistol against the man’s temple as she thumbed back weapon’s hammer.  “Knock it off!” she shouted, “Or by the Great Maker I will end you right now!”

Leeds paused for a few agonizing seconds before going limp in Akino’s grasp.  They both dragged the man to his feet.  She looked over at Akino, but he was looking at an information display screen on a nearby wall.  He gave it toss of his head, since both of his hands were busy with Leeds.

Atopia looked that way.  A fugitive posting was displayed for someone named Martel Teichmann.  Atopia recognized the man from the transcripts of Kiara Atari’s description of him on Belaya, where she’d been treated.

Atari was a drifter Atopia had picked up on Kedron at the end of Imperial Year 1107, who became severely ill during the transit to Leven.  It turned out that she and another drifter named Vaughn had lifted a pair of small packages from a courier on Cahabon.  Both of those packages were rings, destined for the fingers of Sector Duke Wymark and his wife Countess Dyota.  The rings had a specialized compartment that would open after being exposed to body heat for several hours, releasing weaponized microsurgical nanites that would penetrate the skin and target their nervous system with neurotoxins – assassination weapons.

Atopia glanced back at Leeds and recognized the features of Teichmann’s face.  “Son of a bitch,” she whispered as she brought her pistol to bear on his head once again.

Before she could pull the trigger, Atopia heard the running footsteps of the starport’s security officers approaching.  “I am Baronet Atopia Kesslering,” she announced as she held her own weapon steady, “By my authority as a Defender of the Imperium, I arrest this man on the crime of conspiracy to murder members of the Peerage – Sector Duke Wymark Gascoyne and his wife, Countess Dyota Effernelli.”

The pair of security officers seemed uncertain.  “You and you!” Atopia barked at them, “Secure my prisoner – now!  And if he offers even the slightest resistance, kill him!”

They needed no further prodding.  Atopia didn’t lower her pistol a single millimeter until Teichmann was being led away.

038-1109, aboard Silver Starlight, between Kolan and Narmada

--from the personal journal of Baronet Atopia Kesslering

The funeral seems to have done my daughter some good.  Honestly, she was a mess on the day of the ceremony, but (with a little help) she and I got through it together, and I’m seeing the first signs of her starting to move past her grief for Baron Harper.  I’ll arrange for her to have a long talk with Marquis Toyama’s wife, Baronet Yani, while we’re on Narmada, just to be on the safe side.

The ceremony was a simple one, but it was drawn out over two days as the funeral procession on Kolan was by train, stopping at each station along the way so that local people could view the remains of one of their own.  And they did turn out in surprising numbers, some of them straight from the farms and fields, their machinery parked in neat rows at each and every stop.  And they all had kind words for us – offers of assistance, memories and anecdotes of his life, or a simple word or prayer of sympathy for us.

Olivia’s half-brother Gentleman Gerard Verne was waiting for us at the Willow River Ranch, and he’d picked up Baronet Deidre Brogan and her Chirper friend Fred from Dnieper along the way.  Dame Diana Sabatini had taken time off from her duties as the Imperial Liaison to Rauma to be there as well.  Baron Eldon von Haas of Teleajen also just made it to the ceremony, the thunder from the lifters of his safari ship’s launch waking up everyone at the ranch as dawn was breaking.

Once Baron Harper’s cremains were interred in the family mausoleum at last, a fairly lively reception was held by the owners of the ranch.  Harper had sold shares of the ranch to its current staff, keeping about one-quarter of them for himself, so they would actually be in charge of running it.  He’d willed his shares to me, surprisingly, as there were no heirs of House Willow remaining – even his uncle, Baronet Fletcher, had passed away quietly on Olt in the first half of 1108.

I’ve decided to keep the shares for now, though they might make a great reward for someone who serves me well in the future.  I let the rest of the staff know that I would be a silent partner in the ranch, and trusted all of them to do what was necessary to keep the business going.  There were many toasts to the memory of their former boss and to my continued health as well.

The reception / party continued well into the night, until my husband gently pried me away from it and upstairs to the master bedroom to sleep off the after-effects of the night’s libations.  It only struck me after I’d awakened around noon that the bed had been Harper’s, which didn’t bring any tears at all.

In fact, the only person I could think of who didn’t have any fun was Martel Teichmann, who was still in his low berth aboard the Starlight.  I’d made the arrangements with the authorities on Deua to haul him to Narmada to face a Moot Trial, as well as interrogate him with the verdicator there.  He’s agreed to cooperate with Imperial authorities for protection from the Ine Givar, who he says have tried to kill him twice in the past year – the reason he’d been laying low on Cahabon.

Of course, there’s still the matter of his hack of my ship’s computer system and what he was really trying to accomplish, too.  I’m very interested in his motivations for that, quite frankly…

040-1109, Narmada, Red Sun City, Whiskey Amber Oh Seven Arcology

Marquis Toyama was looking as fit and as handsome as ever when he pulled Atopia aside from the impromptu party he was hosting in his penthouse atop the dizzying heights of his arcology.  Without a word, he guided her into a small office and closed the door.  He tapped a sequence on the touchscreen next to the door, which locked it and initiated the room’s security measures.  The room’s lights took on a bluish hue to signify the new condition as he pulled back an office-style chair that was one of a dozen lining the sides of a large meeting table for Atopia to sit upon.  He then took a seat next to her.

“I hate being the bearer of bad news,” he said, “but I feel it is likely that one of your old friends has returned to Narmada.”

“Rand Tyler,” Atopia said with a nod.  “His Grace, Sector Duke Wymark warned me about the possibility.”

“You can make that a high order of probability now,” said the marquis.  “Sir Yael, my security chief, believes that Tyler has been on Narmada for at least two or three cycles.  Rand’s probably getting his ducks in order before the Narmada Subsector Moot later this year.”

“Which he knows I’ll be attending, if he’s been here that long,” replied Atopia.

“He will definitely be gunning for both you and me,” Toyama said, “though I’m sure some people in SuSAG will be gunning for him as well.  He’s a liability to them now and loose ends are something no self-respecting business can afford.”

“We need to find him,” Atopia said, but the marquis was shaking his head.

I need to find him,” said the marquis.  “You should do your business here and get things squared away on Moksha before the social season starts later this year.  That’ll keep you and your crew out of the crosshairs of that maniac while my people hunt him down.”

Atopia opened her mouth to object, but the Marquis held up a hand.  “I’ve already discussed the matter with His Grace, Subsector Duke Darius, and he agrees with me.  However, if you have any other objections or concerns, feel free to take them up with him.”

“Should I consider those my marching orders, your excellency?” Atopia asked.

“They’re more of a guideline, your ladyship,” Toyama said in a softer tone than before, “but the sooner you head for Moksha, the better, in my opinion.  Plus, I’m sure that Baroness Olivia and her staff would appreciate catching a lift back to Narmada when you return.”

Atopia nodded.  “I’ll take it under serious consideration,” she said, "but Teichmann's Moot Trial comes first.  I'm not leaving until I get some answers."

It was the Marquis’ turn to nod.  “Agreed,” he said, "and thank you."

Ex-Rogue Martel Teichmann, 557C84, 7 Terms, Age 48
Jack of All Trades-3, Blade-1, Body Pistol-1, Carousing-1, Computer-1, Electronics-1, Forgery-1, Mechanical-1, Streetwise-1, Tactics-1
2 Low Passages, Cr50,000

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