Sunday, December 10, 2017

The Cost of Intelligence      


028-1107, Aboard the Golden Dawn, in hyperspace between Dubna and Damas

Baronet Atopia Kesslering and Tabitha Nole were discussing profit/expenditure ratios from Year 1106 in an attempt to model them digitally when there was a tentative knock at the door to the computer control room.  “Come on in, Olivia,” said Atopia with smile.

Olivia stood in the doorway as the pocket door slid open.  “Mommy?” she said while looking nervously down at the floor, “I think I may have said something I shouldn’t.”

Atopia’s brow knit as she rose from the console and walked to the doorway, hazarding a peek into the bridge compartment where Valo Arenson sat in the pilot’s couch.  The middle-aged former Scout was monitoring the ship’s hyperspace flight dynamics while sipping a cup of coffee, oblivious to both her adopted daughter and his captain’s subtle intrusion.  The door behind the young girl that lead to the crew commons was closed.

Atopia squatted down until her eyes and Olivia’s were at the same level.  “Okay,” she said, “why don’t you come in here and tell me about it – right after you give me a hug.”  The little girl clung to her neck a moment as she returned the hug. 

Olivia climbed into the chair that Atopia had been using while Tabitha excused herself from the room.  The girl waited until the door slid shut behind the ship’s missile gunner and computer expert before speaking.  “I was talking with Mrs. Khan in Cabin Five,” she began.

Lady Reena is her proper form of address, honey,” Atopia gently corrected.  “Remember that she’s not a noble, but is married to one.  We accord a spouse of a noble the same courtesy we would for a member of the Peerage, right?”

Olivia nodded.  “She and I were talking in the lower commons.  She asked me about my family, and I told her about my first mom getting sick and dying before you became my second mom.”

“Oh dear,” said Atopia.

“I only told her what you said was okay to say,” she added hastily, “I didn’t say anything about Gerard and nothing about Yantra at all!”

“Okay, okay,” Atopia soothed, “So far, so good.  Keep going.  What else happened?”

“It was right after I said that you’re a Baronet,” said the child, “Mrs., uh, Lady Reena – she got all shut off and quiet.  She wants you to come to her cabin, like, now.”

Atopia nodded.  “Well, that doesn’t sound like something you shouldn’t have said, honey.  There’s nothing wrong with people knowing I’m an Imperial Noble, after all.  Actually, I’m surprised that anybody in the subsector doesn’t know that by now.”

“Then why would she suddenly want to see you like that?” asked Olivia.  “Does she want to hurt you?”

“I don’t think so,” said Atopia as she rose from her chair.  “Why don’t we go find out?”

Cabin Five was one of the two passenger staterooms on Dawn’s lower deck designed specifically for high passage fares, though it could be converted to a middle passage for two with only a little work by Samantha, the ship’s steward.  The woman occupying it was a true beauty, born of good breeding, better grooming and excellent fashion sense with the necessary capital to afford it.  There was a hint of Villani heritage in her features, including the amber hue that highlighted her brown eyes.

Reena Khan stood at the doorway to the cabin, offering a curtsey as Atopia strode across the passenger commons with Olivia at her side.  “Forgive me for not properly introducing myself earlier, your grace,” said the lady, “but I have been overly preoccupied with personal matters.”

“I try to respect my passengers’ privacy,” Atopia replied with a nod.  “My thinking was that if you wanted to introduce yourself, you would in your own time, if at all.  Given you and your husband’s fame, I thought you might appreciate some time alone.”

“My husband is far more famous than I,” said the lady.  “He is an actor, entertainer, philanthropist and nobility.  I am merely lucky enough to be the woman he loves with all his heart.”

Atopia raised an eyebrow at that.  Sir Aamir Khan was indeed all that, using his fame, handsome features and personal fortune to front a number of sophontarian causes throughout Wayhaven Sector.  It was for the last, rather than the others, that Sector Duke Wymark Gascoyne had knighted him several years ago.  Atopia was fairly sure that Dawn’s entertainment database harbored at least three of his dramatic holovids – all of which were critically acclaimed.

Atopia was startled out of her musings at the sight of Lady Reena dropping to her knees and bowing deeply to her, placing her forearms together on the deck while fixing her gaze upon the floor.  Distantly, Atopia’s ears registered the startled exclamations from the other passengers in the commons who witnessed it as well.

“Your grace,” said Lady Reena, “I, Lady Reena Khan, wife of Sir Aamir Khan and citizen of the Empire, beseech you to aid me in my time of need.”

Atopia’s mind reeled at this turn of events.  The Rite of Supplication finally registered in her mind.  The act of a citizen formally requesting the aid of a member of the Peerage to act on his or her behalf, she thought quickly.  In the elder days, the supplicant would become a servant to the noble in appreciation for the noble’s aid.  In modern times, the practice is hardly used and no noble has added a servant to the staff by this method for over three hundred years.

Atopia regained her equilibrium with some effort.  “Rise and be heard, Lady Reena,” the noble heard herself say, “But let’s hear it out in the privacy of your cabin, hmm?”  She turned to Olivia.  “Please pass the word to the rest of the crew to meet in the crew commons in one-half hour.”

Thirty Minutes Later…

Atopia arrived in the commons with red cheeks from hustling up two flights of stairs and negotiating the long passageway on the middle deck between them at a trot.  She looked over at Cassandra, the ship’s medic.  “Your next project is to recommend an exercise plan for all crew members, including me.”

That drew some smiles as she did a quick head count.  Besides Cassandra, Samantha, Valo, Tabitha and Olivia, Hawk and Lisa were up from engineering.  Hawk looked like he wanted to say something but was holding his tongue for the moment.  That accounted for everyone.

“For those of you who haven’t heard,” Atopia continued, “Lady Reena Khan is aboard and has enacted The Rite of Supplication for my assistance in a problem she has.  Her husband, Sir Aamir Khan, is presumed missing after arriving on Damas two cycles ago, which just happens to be our next destination.”

Tabitha brought up some graphics on Damas on the main holovid screen.  Atopia glanced her way and nodded.  “Damas is a small world without artificial gravity systems,” said Tabitha.  “Surface gravity is Oh-dot-Two-Five G’s.  While the natural atmosphere is unbreathable without a combination mask, the population centers are located in a series of craters ringed with local tech atmosphere processors that bring up the rating to thin and untainted, which means yes Olivia, you can play outside.”

Everyone chuckled a bit while Olivia uttered a whoop of celebration.  Tabitha waited for things to settle before continuing.  “She and anybody else heading out there will need a winter jacket, though.  Damas is currently in an ice age with over sixty percent of the surface covered by an ice sheet over a thousand meters thick.”

“What’s that matter?” asked Valo, “Did he go on a skiing expedition or something?”

“According to Lady Reena,” replied Atopia, “he went there to consult with the Lords of Knowledge on finding low tech solutions for some humanitarian problems around the sector.”

“Lords of Knowledge?” asked Samantha.

“The Lords of Knowledge,” answered Tabitha, “are the leaders of the techno-oligarchy that governs and manages the three hundred and thirty thousand people of Damas.  It’s only tech level six, but the technical and science people run the place by maintaining a hammerlock on technologies available to the masses – like those homebuilt air processors they use.”

“Anachronistic technology,” said Lisa.  “I’ve heard a lot about this place.  Went for Tesla in a big way and found out how to make a lot of it actually work – quite a few other fun things like computer memory systems employing synthetic DNA strands, too.”

“Which is all fascinating,” said Cassandra, “but I’m with Valo – what does this have to do with finding Sir Aamir?”

“As it turns out, he is not the only celebrity who’s disappeared on Damas,” replied Atopia. “Six others have come up missing since the beginning of 1106 – a retired professional athlete, a painter, a virtuoso vocalist, a mathematician, a dancer and a poet.  I’m betting all of this is related, so this has become an Imperial matter that we’re going to solve.”

“I hate to pour cold water on all this enthusiasm,” said Hawk, the chief engineer, “but we’ve got a problem that may complicate matters.”  Atopia thought he’d been holding a tool in his hand by habit, but the item resembled a metal rod about half a meter long and perhaps five centimeters in diameter.  “Sensors started registering degenerative changes in three of these guys – power transfer contacts between the power plant and jump drive.”

“This is a brand-new ship!” exclaimed Atopia.  “Just how in the Nine Hells are things BREAKING in it already?!”

Hawk held up his hands defensively.  “Just because it’s new doesn’t mean things aren’t going to break, your grace.  The good news is that this is a fairly common problem and we have a complete set of spares for just such a problem.”

Atopia blew out a breath before responding.  “Sorry, Hawk.  So what’s the bad news?”

“To keep the same thing from happening to the spares,” he said, “I’ll need to take the power plant offline for about seventy-two hours so I can safely install the spares and retune the power cycles between the power plant and jump drive.  It can wait until we get on the ground, but once we’re down, we’ll have to stay that way for at least four days; if you want refined dihydrous, that is.  Damas is a Class C port, so no refined fuel is sold there.”

Atopia nodded.  “We’ll be busy anyway,” she said.  “Will the crew need to leave the ship?”

Hawk shook his head.  “We’ll take power from the port authority to keep the life support running while Lisa and I get this done.”

“All right,” said Atopia, “let’s get back to work.”

031-1107, Damas, Grand Basin Starport

Official Report, Incident #WG78346-11-3A427G – Filed by Port Master Seraphim Wastrel, Damas Starport Authority – 031-1107 – Grand Basin Starport

Incident Type: Attempted Piracy of an Imperial Interstellar Trade Vessel

Time of Incident (local): 0425 hours, 031-1107

Location of Incident:  Approximately 452,000 kilometers from Damas

Vessels Involved:
Aggressor(s) – One. Crimson Saber (Type-A2 Far Trader, Imperial Empress Marava-class, original designation Lady Shirelle, Registry – Laur)
Victim(s) – One.  Golden Dawn (Type-L Independent Merchant, Imperial Silk Road-class, Registry – Narmada)

Description of Events:
Golden Dawn emerged from jump space at approximately 0420 hours local time.  Initial scans of the surrounding area by Dawn indicated a 200 d-ton spacecraft loitering at approximately 67,000 kilometers that began approaching them on an attack vector.  Captain Baronet Atopia Kesslering hailed the inbound ship and warned it off.  Captain Roscoe Griswold responded that his intentions were to intercept and board, ordering Baronet Atopia to cut engines and heave to.  It was at that point that Baronet Atopia declared an emergency and ordered her crew to rig Dawn for combat.

Dawn pilot Valo Arenson maneuvered to make a preliminary intercept at the edge of missile range, which he accomplished at 0443 hours, employing his experience in piloting an Empress Marava-class vessel in 1106.  At intercept, missile gunner Tabitha Nole achieved intermittent missile lock with Saber, which was employing a home-built jamming device.  The Dawn launched a total of 14 missiles (7 battery-rounds) at the Saber, two of which struck the vessel during the engagement.  Saber pilot Destiny Reese was unable to close to effective laser range during the engagement, forcing the use of both twin laser batteries in a point defense mode against Dawn’s missiles.

With two IISS Type-S Suleiman-class Scout/Couriers inbound to the battle area, Saber attempted to disengage from the combat.  Baronet Atopia ordered Arenson to pursue and disable the Saber if possible.  A final missile hit knocked out the Saber’s computer system, reduced its acceleration and vented most of its remaining fuel to space.  Faced with no possibility of escape, several crew casualties, as well as two additional combatants, Captain Griswold signaled Saber’s surrender at 0624 hours.  The IISS ships ordered the Dawn to proceed to port while they handled rescue and recovery of the Saber.  Dawn proceeded to port without further incident, arriving safely at 0903 hours.  The Dawn suffered no damage and reported no casualties.

Aftermath of Incident:
The Crimson Saber was taken under tow to a parking orbit to await the final outcome of the legal proceedings from the incident.  Captain Roscoe Griswold is currently in detention at the IISS orbital base, awaiting transport back to Narmada for trial on piracy charges.  The other four members of the crew died either during the incident or before they could be rescued afterward.  Materials found aboard the vessel implicate it in at least four other piracy incidents in Yamuna Subsector within the past year.  If proven, it is highly likely Captain Griswold will face capital punishment.

The Golden Dawn arrived undamaged with no casualties, but a pre-existing repair condition is forcing it to remain grounded for the next four days.  The Damas Starport Authority has waived berthing fees for this visit as a small gesture of appreciation for Baronet Atopia’s efforts to bring suspected pirates to justice.

038-1107, aboard the Golden Dawn, in hyperspace between Damas and Nive

-- from the personal journal of Baronet Atopia Kesselring

It’s been difficult to put into words all that occurred on Damas while we were there.  Surreal would seem to be the most appropriate.  Initially, I had nothing but ire for the perceived ineptitude of Sir Harmon Naicker, the Imperial Liaison, but I had to change my tune once I’d had my own taste of the bureaucratic stonewalling the government machine there generates.  I gave him an abject apology when we departed the day before yesterday.

It was all I could do to keep Lady Reena from throttling the life out of him when they first met.  She’d been out of touch with her beloved husband for two cycles and had been forced to entertain the darkest of possibilities during that time, so of course she needed to vent.  Fortunately, her rage quickly collapsed into tears as her fears welled up to the surface.  Cassandra led her back to her stateroom with a mild sedative to calm her.

Once her nerve had steadied, Lady Reena was able to procure her husband’s possessions left at the starport hostel.  His portable workstation’s last entry indicated Sir Aamir had a meeting with Five-Roan Leland, the Director of Technological Development, on the day after the noble’s arrival on Damas

Fortunately, Sir Harmon managed to locate a lower level member of the Lords of Knowledge who was free for a short meeting that afternoon.  Seven-Joan Marisan was a petite woman who was still fighting a number of birth defects, including a withered left arm and pronounced facial droop on the left side of her slightly larger than normal head.

Still, there was certainly nothing wrong with her brain.  She immediately grasped the problem of Sir Aamir and instructed her technicians in a highly technical language laced with acronyms and slang that I simply couldn’t follow.  After a few minutes, they had determined that Sir Aamir had never reached his appointed meeting place with Five-Roan on the day he disappeared.  It also discovered that Five-Roan had been out of the office for over three hours at that time.

It didn’t take a genius to suspect that the insular Lords of Knowledge were suffering from ten generations of inbreeding which had produced their astounding intelligence in comparison of the masses they ruled over, but had left their bodies wanting.  The answer seemed painfully clear: either the Lords or someone among them was taking it upon themselves to improve the breed at any cost.

At dinner that night, Lady Reena went missing.  I hesitated from sending any of the crew after her, having no idea where to start looking.  Fortunately, she returned to the ship three hours later, severely drunk and sick on low class rotgut.  I thought she just needed to drown her sorrows, but it quickly became clear she’d been pumping the masses for rumors and information.

Turns out that there were more people missing than a few celebrities – over twenty local women had disappeared as well.  She also got a dead-on description of Five-Roan going in and out of building in a crater dedicated to light and medium manufacturing – including medical equipment.

The next morning found Cassandra and me arranging a tour of Crater Alpha Four, which turned out to be easy when plying Dane Blevin, a marketing and public relations man for Damas’ business consortium, for a tour of the facilities.  Eventually, we managed to get close enough to one building to glimpse Five-Roan through a window.  We ditched Dane and worked our way into the building by bluffing our way through the front door.

Some more bluffing gave us access to the floor where Five-Roan was doing his dirty work.  How he’d managed to rig up hot sleep units with technology level that was just discovering the wonders of semi-conductors was beyond me.  But there were all of the missing people, most of them with a hasty patchwork of bandages to cover their tissue sampling sites.  Over a dozen of the local women were pregnant as well – surrogate mothers to whatever genetic freaks had been cooked up by the monsters responsible for this.

Five-Roan got the drop on us while we stared at all the nightmare technology, wondering how to extract the celebrities from it all.  He pointed a small energy pistol at the both of us asked us to disarm each other, which we did.  Once we were safely removed from our weapons, he told us what he was doing – combining DNA from the best unwilling victims to impregnate unwilling foster mothers.  The Lords would become stronger and better from the influx of fresh genetic material – fewer deformed freaks and even better mental capacity.

I suppose a villain longs to monologue.  I kept giving him my “rapt” attention while Cassandra edged around him.  When he finally paused for breath, Cassandra tackled him.  The gun tumbled free and discharged, the energy beam from it shattered a cart loaded with beakers and other glassware.  I managed to snag the weapon while my ship’s medic made Five-Roan a candidate for the ICU with the blunt end of an oxygen cylinder.

In the end, the planetary government thanked me for exposing the problem, sending me and my crew onward with the people we rescued.  Lady Reena’s darkest days had come to an end, and there wasn’t a dry eye on deck when they had their reunion at long last.  We’ve taken the other off-world victims on as passengers on the way to better starport facilities on Nive.  I hope the wait for their reunions with home and loved ones will be short and worth it in the end.

And me – well, I’ve got a problem.  In all the confusion at Crater Alpha Four, I wound up pocketing the energy pistol, forgetting all about it until Olivia pulled the weapon from my jacket’s pocket yesterday while tidying up our stateroom!  Thankfully, Cassandra managed to keep Olivia from discharging the weapon and now has it safely secured out of sight and out of mind in the ship’s locker.  But now, what do I do with my inadvertent (and potentially lethal) souvenir?

Sunday, December 3, 2017

War Gems                                  


364-1106, Moksha, approximately 300 km north of Fool’s Landing

The bullet slammed into my chest with a deep burning sensation.  I was already crouching, so I went over onto my face, my limbs disconnected.  The faceplate of my combat armor ground against the gravel beneath me as the rest of my body succumbed to gravity.

“Man down!” rang shrilly in my tactical headset.  The fact that it was a woman’s voice took a moment to register.  It hurt to move.  It hurt to breathe.  The searing agony in my chest made it hard to focus on anything else.  Great Maker, I thought, I’ve bought it this time.

Time plays tricks with you when you’re badly wounded.  I know because I’ve been through it more than once.  None of those times were quite as bad as this, though.  I could dimly perceive the fight going on around me – the staccato hammering of a submachine gun; the roar of a battle rifle on full automatic; the dull thump of a riot gun; the garbled and distorted chatter on the tactical headset – all of it mingling with the palpable pain in my chest keeping time with the beats of my savaged heart.

She was as beautiful as the last time that I saw her.  The Baronet Atopia Kesslering stood at the top of her starship’s cargo ramp looking down at me.  She was smiling, remembering perhaps, the misadventure we shared when I was her bodyguard and chauffer on Moksha.  I’d told her then why I remained on this miserable world of mercenaries, villainy and desperation.  She understood, or at least pretended to so very well.

“On your left, Valo!  ON YOUR LEFT, DAMNIT!”  The sound of an explosion – a hand grenade – thundered some distance away but I couldn’t turn my head to look.  It hurts so badly now.  Great Maker, it hurts so much.

I’m aboard her ship, Golden Dawn, surrounded by faces I haven’t seen before – the people of her crew.  I’m watching myself explaining what we have to do.  I see her face study mine as I recount the events of the past five cycles.  She’s intent on me, but her gaze strays to the young girl at her side, who clings to her.  The child is fearful, aware of the tension of the rest of the adults, trying to understand.

Dame Olivia Servantes, the Imperial Liaison to this world, was given permission to claim it for her fief along with the title Baroness by the Subsector Duke – provided she could end the practice of slave labor and bring the mercenary units that based there to heel.  She was an Imperial Army Major and had the cooperation of Gray Twilight, the mercenary company led by the fierce Colonel Orem Kerimov.  Orem had been tamed by one of my former lovers, Olga Belovol, when he shot my right earlobe off instead of giving me an extra nostril in my forehead.

The past few cycles, Dame Olivia had been waging a quiet campaign of negotiation, surgical strikes and assassinations to bring the mercenary outfits into her fold, one by one.  She was doing it.  The little fish welcomed the opportunity for legitimacy, but the big fish resisted until it became clear that Dame Olivia was just as willing to blow peoples’ heads off as she was to negotiate.

But there’s always one holdout – some stubborn sonofabitch who has always had it his way.  In this case it was Colonel Hassan Kimani, the head of the Thunderball Lancers, the largest and best armed unit on the planet.  He told the noble lady where to shove her offer in very specific and obscene detail.  Slave labor in the gem fields of the Glaurung Mountains had made him very rich and powerful, so he had no intentions of giving it up.  With a light battalion of mechanized infantry and a company of grav cavalry to back him up, he was confident he would force this latest upstart to back down.

“Get some covering fire on that automatic on your right!”  Another burst from a submachine gun tore through the air – but my ears, muffled as they were by the helmet, told me it was too long and wild a burst to be effective.  The pain had subsided some, but it was still impossible to move.  My chest felt wet and was getting cold.  My heart was slowing its pace.

Dame Olivia’s forces had taken out three of Colonel Kimani’s slave labor camps before he responded with a surgical strike on the starport, targeting her residence and anything else in the vicinity.  Fortunately, the Imperial Marines stationed there were seasoned fighters, taking out an entire fire platoon of grav tanks before the rest of the mercenary company beat a hasty retreat.  Still, there were dozens of civilian casualties in and around the starport.

That’s when I got involved.  I’d been content to sit the fight out and continue minding my business up until then.  But Fool’s Landing is my home.  I know most of the people here by name and, more importantly, they know mine and the reputation that goes along with it.  And I knew Colonel Kimani, too.  I gave Dame Olivia the means to destroy him – the location of his richest war gem labor camp.

It’s hard to breathe now.  I cough – the act is an exquisite agony that rivals the pain in my chest – and I see bloody phlegm on my helmet's faceplate.  The bullet wasn’t satisfied with savaging my heart, but went on to penetrate a lung.  I wish someone would come now.  But the battle is still raging, even though the sounds are getting less distinct and further away.

She led a team of black operatives on a night strike on the camp.  And that was the last I heard or saw of her and the five mercs who had gone in with her.  Two days after that, Baronet Atopia arrived at the starport.  I’d heard of her reputation from Orem and Olga.  Orem liked her, said she had steel in her soul – very high praise from a dangerous man.  If he’d had the time and manpower, he would have gone after Dame Olivia.  But he could not.  The Gray Twilight was leading a combined assault on the Lancer’s compound and needed every man and woman to fight.

So I asked Baronet Atopia to mount the rescue mission.  She never paused to consider the matter.  She waded right in.  Within two hours, the Golden Dawn was in geosynchronous orbit over the site, providing up to the minute intelligence and communications security while the armed launch Daybreak flew nape of the planet through the mountain valleys to avoid the camp’s early warning sensors.  As the launch skimmed that last range of hills to the west of the camp, the computer and electronics expert aboard the Dawn blinded the early warning sensors with a hurricane of static and interference.

We knew we were outnumbered as the launch set down at the base of a low hill where tents and shacks served as shelter for the slaves, overseers and guards.  But nobody hesitated as the hatches popped open and they spilled out onto the coarse gravel and pumice sands of the camp.  Guards from the oval flat ringed in concertina wire charged toward the launch as the team’s least experienced members began spraying them with automatic fire.  The rest of us sprinted for the shack at the top of the hill, hoping we could get the drop on the rest before they could respond.

Daybreak to Dawn,” sounded in my tactical headset, “the show’s over.  The target is safe.  We count eleven enemies down, one captured.  We have four casualties – one minor, two moderate and one critical.  Tell the little one that her mommy’s okay.”

“Confirmed,” came the reply.  “I’m bringing Dawn back to Fool’s Landing.  My ETA is 2015 local.  Dawn out.”

There’s light in my eyes – bright, blinding.  My helmet is off.  I’m on my back.  The people around me are a blur now.  I’m moving.  They’re carrying me.  The light is cut off.  They’ve taken me inside… inside… what?  A plastic mask is placed on my face.  The air is cold and metallic but it lights the fire anew in my chest.

Something near me emits a high-pitched whine which drops and mingles with a ripping, tearing sound.  I smell scorched fabric.  Someone is cutting my combat armor off of my chest.  A dark-skinned woman curses as she leans in and starts barking orders at the others.  “Danforth?” asks a voice near my ear.  “If you hear me, squeeze my hand.”

I can’t breathe.  Great maker, I can’t breathe!  The pain is fading, though.  Maybe dying won’t be so bad, after all.

I want to squeeze her hand, try to get her to understand, but nothing’s happening.  Something is being forced down my throat.  There’s a sucking sound and suddenly I can breathe again – and the pain flares white hot in my chest again.

“Cut that sleeve off!” says the dark-skinned woman again.  She points to someone I can’t see.  “I need the synthetic blood packs from over there.  Hurry up or I’m going to lose him!”  The cutter whines and snarls.  “Danforth, squeeze my hand,” says the voice again.

There’s a rumble coming from beneath me – the launch is airborne, its lifters howling on full power as the pilot punches the thrusters and emergency boosters.  It’s a valiant effort – kudos for the concern on my behalf.  I should try to hold on a little while longer.

The scene fades, the colors fade to gray, but I can still hear them.  They’re trying to save me.  They really are trying.  They hardly know me, but they’re doing everything they can.

In the darkness now I can still hear one voice.  “Danforth, please.  Please squeeze my hand.”  I want to say I’m sorry Dame Olivia, but I can’t.  I hope she makes a good ruler, because I’m not going to be there.  The voice is far away now, like drops of water in a cave.  I like the sound.  It carries me over the threshold…

“Nine Hells,” says Cassandra as she shakes her head.  Her forearms and hands are covered in blood, her face wet with sweat.  “Somebody tell Lisa to spare the horses; Danforth’s dead.”  She looks over at Dame Olivia, who is clutching Danforth’s hand, her dirty face streaked with tears.  “I’m sorry,” she says and then slumps into one of the launch’s passenger seats.

Dame Olivia shakes, sobbing silently for a few moments.  Finally, the shaking stops and she wipes her eyes.  “Great Maker as my witness,” she says softly to Danforth’s cooling corpse, “you will be avenged.”

Emperor’s Day, 001-1107, Moksha, Fool’s Landing Starport, aboard the Golden Dawn

-- from the personal journal of Baronet Atopia Kesselering

Another Emperor’s Day is here, though I don’t feel much like celebrating.  The good news is that Valo, Hawk and Cassandra will make full recoveries from their wounds in a couple more days.  The bad news is that all of this has hit my adopted daughter pretty hard.  She’s been my constant shadow both yesterday and today.  I’ve done what I can to console her fears, but I coming to regret my decision to accompany the crew on this one.  My little Olivia may be tough, but she’s only a child, after all.

Danforth's funeral is set for tomorrow.  The crew is down about that.  We don't like to lose anybody, even the ones we barely know.

The good news for Moksha’s residents is that the Moksha Mercenary War has ended.  After returning to Fool’s Landing, Dame Olivia ordered the Marines in the starport guard to join the mercenaries of Gray Twilight in the final assault on the compound of the Thunderball Lancers.  The Marines returned this morning, grim and stoic.  Dame Olivia was even more so, retiring to her temporary quarters in the Marines’ barracks – probably the first time an old Army Trooper has ever done so.  While the details are sketchy, there has been no word of any prisoners being brought back to the starport, and what was left of the Lancers’ compound has been put to the torch.

I like to think that Dame Olivia is waking up this morning to the realization of the price of power.  There is so much that needs to be done on Moksha, and much of it will take the hand of a stateswoman rather than a soldier.  That’s what it will take to hold together the fractious bands of professional soldiers that have handed her the keys to the castle – for now.  Soon, she will have to come to grips with what they want for their assistance and complicity, which is certain not to be an easy road to walk.

As for me, when my crew is back to full health I’m going to do what I came here to do: sell my speculative cargo, find passengers, invest in new cargo, find freight to fill up the corners and find a new market.  There are still so many worlds in the Narmada Subsector to visit, and my little one deserves to see ones that are far better than this one.

Long live Emperor Strephon.  Long may he reign.

Sunday, November 26, 2017

Where the Ill Winds Blow       


342-1106, Sok, Wahi Ho’ano Main Starport

“Wheee!” cried out Olivia as she glided through the air.  Atopia smiled at her adopted daughter as the child sailed past her with arms outstretched.  The rest of the crew was only slightly less enthusiastic as they also tumbled, twisted and floated about in the microgravity playground.

The specially padded space was originally intended for the children of the workers who assembled the initial superstructure members of the cylindrical space habitat.  Hard to imagine living in microgravity for any longer than a jaunt in a vacc suit, thought Atopia as she corralled a stray lock of her hair and pulled it back behind her head.  The builders of this place spent the bulk of their years here, unable to return to their home worlds due to calcium loss from their bones.

Wahi Ho’ano was a cylinder fifty kilometers long with a diameter of sixteen.  A hole just over two kilometers across ran the length of the station at its rotational axis, allowing for the starport, even though it was little more than docking cradles and servicing bays exposed to the vacuum of space.  Since there was no artificial gravity system, only centrifugal force could simulate it.  The habitation levels of the station were approximately six-tenths of standard gravity, while the starport remained in perpetual freefall.

The people of Sok lived in dozens of space habitats in geosynchronous orbit about the hellish world.  No one, even with the best environmental protection gear, could survive the conditions at the surface where the pressure approaches 116 bar and temperatures are hot enough to melt zinc.  Constant volcanic activity caused by its gravitationally tortured orbit about its primary mixing with the chemical soup that passes for its atmosphere creates a wealth of exotic compounds that brave and foolhardy small craft pilots and crews skim from eddies that well up from the depths.  The profits from this activity and the exploitation of the system’s three planetoid belts, rich in type M and S bodies, has supported an extended community of over four hundred million people for generations.

Atopia’s pocket computer beeped.  She stopped her idle drifting by grabbing a nearby pole and wrapping her legs around it.  She fished the computer from a zippered pocket and looked at the digital message she’d received.  After reading it and sending a reply, the baronet whistled loudly, grabbing everyone’s attention.

“Let’s wrap it up,” she called to the group.  “The Longshore Union is done unloading the ship and I have a dinner date with the Imperial Liaison coming up.”

“Aww!” said Olivia as she glided over.  Atopia kicked off from the pole, gently tackling the girl, sending them both into a collective giggling tumble.

Two hours later, Ka Makani Kai Terrace Restaurant

The perspective was dizzying.  Reminds me of the first time I visited Marquis Toyama’s digs on Narmada, she thought, but the inverse horizon will take some getting used to!  The habitat level of the station was nearly two kilometers high with an artificial sky and light from the system’s primary to illuminate it.  But the light wasn’t quite up to the full daylight of many worlds she’d visited, and conventional lighting was used at street level, since most were in perpetual night with only a slice of sky to see between the towering buildings.

The terrace was remarkably open compared to the street some one hundred stories below.  The irregular five-sided space had the kitchen service in the middle and three sides exposed the intensely urban vista surrounding it.  Atopia noticed the slight drop in gravity as she crossed the floor toward the table where Sok’s Imperial Liaison was sitting.

Baronet Leigh Denali was all of nineteen standard years of age, but looked more like a stern governess in the ivory archaic blouse with puff sleeves and feminine ruffled trim and a long black pencil skirt.  The young woman’s raven tresses were drawn into a bun on the back of her head.  Atopia noticed that the garments seemed excessively bulky before realizing they concealed mesh armor underneath.

Baronet Leigh curtseyed and Atopia returned it before clasping her outstretched hand in greeting.  “Good evening, your grace,” said Atopia as she waited for the liaison to be seated.

“A pleasure,” Leigh replied.  “I must admit that I was somewhat surprised when you contacted me.  Given what I know about your recent history, I worried that something was dreadfully wrong here.”  They both chuckled at that.

“I’m on a tour of the subsector,” said Atopia, “and doing business along the way to pay off my new starship.  Your father was kind enough to send me and my crew your way from Narmada with one hundred d-tons of synthetic foodstuffs.  While I was happy for the money up front, I really am relieved I have more available cargo space now.”

The waiter was young, lean and tall in comparison to the two baronets, wearing an outfit that consisted of a single large piece of brightly patterned cloth that was meticulously pleated and folded into a stylish robe.  He set two nearly spherical glasses of water on their table, while Leigh ordered for them both.

“So,” resumed Leigh around a sip from her glass, “how is my old man?”

“Unwell but stable when I saw him just over three weeks ago,” Atopia replied.

“I suppose he asked you to check up on me,” Leigh said with a tired sigh.

“He did,” said Atopia.  “I suppose he misses you.  From what I understand, you’re the only living family he has left.”

Leigh favored her with a bitter smile.  “That is a fact he never ceased reminding me of during my first eighteen years of life.  My mother took the risk of bearing a child at the age of 61 and died producing an heir for the man she loved – this after their first four children all died so nobly in the service of the Empire, trying to uphold the family’s reputation.”

Leigh saw Atopia’s shocked expression and nearly laughed.  “I’m the replacement child for Marquis Julian, so that his legacy will live on,” said Leigh.  “My birth should never have happened and the fact that I gained life at the expense of my mother’s just so my father could rest in peace…”  She bit her lip and looked away instead of finishing the thought.

It was a long moment before Atopia spoke.  “My condolences for your loss, your grace,” she said.  “I am trying to be a mother to a young girl whose birth mother was murdered about a year ago.  I’ve had to deal with her pain, so in some small way, I think, I can understand yours.”

Leigh found her composure with some difficulty.  “I heard about your situation from the last noble to come checking up on me,” she said at last.  “You would be number four that my old man has sent in the year and a half since he sent me away.”

“Then please accept my humble apology, your grace,” Atopia said.  “I had no idea.”

Their food arrived, giving both of them a very welcome distraction.  Atopia delighted in the simple dishes presented with such style.  Soon, the cuisine became their topic of conversation, allowing them both enough distraction to smile and engage in small talk once again.

Eventually, Atopia turned the conversation back to more serious matters.  “Excuse me for noticing,” she said, “but I couldn’t help noticing your outfit.”

Leigh smiled.  “There is a reason for that,” she said.  “Even though there is still upward and downward mobility in Sok society, it is essentially a caste system.  Since the Imperium represents an authority outside that of the Na Alaka’i – the planetary government caste – the easiest way to tip off those around me that I’m important is resemble someone that all of them have had to pay respect to early on – a teacher.”

“So the clothes make the liaison, then?” asked Atopia.

Leigh nodded.  “Given my youth,” she said, “it’s a necessity.”  She paused to look at a middle-aged man at another table.  He nodded politely and smiled, and she returned it.

“See?” she said as she turned back to Atopia.  “The good news is that since there is upward and downward mobility here, everyone works very hard to be polite to everyone else.”

“Because,” continued Atopia, “the person who is below you today may be your boss tomorrow?”

“Precisely,” replied Leigh.  Atopia noticed that Leigh was actually looking past her right shoulder as she’d said the last.  Atopia turned and saw a tall, gaunt man in an expensive business suit with closely-cropped gray hair nodding back at her.

Leigh excused herself and strode over to the gentleman who ushered her into a shadowy corner of the terrace.  Atopia took out her pocket computer and used its camera function to take a few holographs of the man as they talked.  She quickly tagged the clearest image with a message for Tabitha and sent it.

Even as she sent it, Atopia could tell the conversation was less than cordial.  “I know you’re responsible, Spencer!” said Leigh in a strident tone that was becoming shrill.  “So don’t you dare offer me platitudes when I know you’re lying to my face!”  The man started saying something in reply which only seemed to infuriate her.

“My proper form of address is ‘your grace!’” she shouted loud enough for the entire terrace to hear.  “If you ever forget that again, I will haul you out on a field of honor!  Is that clear?!”  Spencer bowed stiffly after that, then spun on his heel and strode toward the terrace’s exit.  The rest of the patrons of the terrace turned their attention back to their meals, speaking softly among themselves.

It took the liaison a few moments to compose herself before returning to the table.  “I’m sorry for that outburst,” Leigh said.  “Spencer has a knack of bringing out my worst, especially when he’s not being honest with me.”

“Not to pour salt in the wound,” said Atopia, “but I’d say Spencer bears a passing resemblance to your father.  Do you think that might have something to do with it?”

“Possibly,” she said, “but we need to go someplace private to discuss the rest.  I’ve run into a problem here and your reputation is that you’re pretty good at solving problems.”

343-1106, Sok Legal Notice

License to Conduct Business approved for Conch Data Expediters, LLC.  CDE will provide IT services on freelance contracts.  Initial investment is Cr500,000.  All taxes and licensing fees paid in advance.

344-1106, Sok, Elua Ulaula Small Business District

Atopia entered the tiny office, having to turn around just past the entrance so she could shut the door.  Inside the claustrophobic confines of the space, sat Tabitha, Lisa and Samantha at holographic computer terminals.  Atopia wrinkled her nose as the smell of sweat and dust assailed her sinuses.

“Ugh,” said the baronet, “I don’t suppose air conditioning or an air freshener was in the budget.”

“Don’t be wimpy, your grace,” said Tabitha without turning away from her displays.  “Your money has gone into state-of-the-art terminal hardware to run the best hacking program I could write in less than twelve hours.  My subordinates here are sifting data with a critical eye while I ride shotgun on my program to stay two steps ahead of this station’s database police – which isn’t easy, I might add.  They might be lower tech, but they’re good.”

“So what do we know?” asked Atopia.

“Spencer Kalakaua is one slick, shady individual,” said Lisa with a shake of her head.  “He’s head of Okapolio, one of the firms that purchases and processes the compounds they’re skimming off that hellish atmosphere of Sok’s.  Everything appears to be on the up and up with him and his company, and yet…”

“What?” asked Atopia.

“He’s living above his means,” said Samantha playing a holovid.  “This vid is from some ‘lifestyles of the rich and famous’ show they did on him last year.  We’re paying about eighty credits a square meter per month for this office space, but Spence has personal digs around a thousand square meters.  That’d be over a million credits a year to rent, but his company is barely pulling in eight figures.”

Atopia nodded while watching the vid.  “He has wood furniture, too,” she said.  “The only way he could have wood furniture around here is by importing it.  They have to import plastic too, so even if they’re fakes, they’re still pricey fakes.”

“So Baronet Leigh was on to something with her off-world financing theory?” asked Lisa.

“Occam’s Razor,” replied Atopia.  “Spencer’s been running a public-relations campaign the past year or so to get the public to pressure the Na Alaka’i to reconsider their position against granting off-world concerns mining and skimming rights.  I saw one of his extended advertisements on the station’s vid network on lift down from the starport.”

“Sternmetal Horizons, I’ll bet,” growled Tabitha.  “Sok has a lot of prime planetoids to mine.  The skimming would just be icing on the cake for them.”

“Okay,” said Atopia as she turned to go, “make sure each one of you catch a nap this evening.  Hammer the off-world connection idea until you strike gold or it breaks.  I need something actionable, ladies, and I need it sooner rather than later.”

After Atopia took her leave of the office, Samantha shook her head.  “’Take a nap,’ she says…”

346-1106, Sok, aboard Daybreak, the Golden Dawn’s launch

Atopia wiped beads of sweat on her forehead against the vacc suit’s absorbent band.  Lisa, Tabitha and her had been shadowing one of the local skimmer craft, the Maranga, for nearly five hours.  The craft hadn’t engaged in the usual behavior of searching for eddies in the upper edges of Sok’s turbulent atmosphere.  It had loitered at a prime location, waiting.

When the eddy formed, a least a dozen skimmers dove into it, their fusion rockets flaring for the braking maneuver that would plunge them into the heart of the region, the craft then pivoting so their scoops could gather as much of the chemical booty as possible before gravity and the drag of the corrosive atmosphere forced them assume an escape attitude and thrust for the relative safety of space.

The Maranga bided its time, though.  Finally, a straggler, a skimmer late to the party set up for its run as the eddy was starting to collapse.  In the graphics of her sensor readout, Atopia saw the thrusters of the hunter flare to begin the pursuit.

“That’s our cue,” said Atopia to Lisa.  “Get us into missile range.”

Without being told to, the trio locked down their vacc suit visors and disconnected their umbilicals.  The Daybreak pumped the air from the launch’s cabin as its thrusters flared to life in pursuit.

The Maranga was one of a dozen skimmers with close ties to Spencer’s company.  Of course, the association was informal – but all of the skimmers in the group were armed and rarely made successful skimming runs.  They would go out, they would come back and another skimmer would be reported missing with no mayday calls, no disaster beacons and no traces.

Spencer made a big point of how skimming is a very dangerous profession.  “Why should our people continue to die when off-world professionals with advanced equipment can accomplish better results with less risk?” he asked in one of his public-relations advertisements.  It was Samantha who found that skimmer fleet fatalities had doubled from last year, which had doubled from the year before – the time when Spencer began lobbying for the Na Alaka’i to reconsider their position.

“We’re in range,” said Tabitha.  “Weapon scanners on Maranga are active, attempting to achieve a lock on the vessel below.”

Atopia keyed open the comm system.  “This is Baronet Atopia Kesslering,” she announced, “Small craft Maranga, by the authority vested in me by Subsector Duke Darius Ingersoll, I order you to turn off your weapon scanners, heave to and prepare to be boarded!”

They weren’t having any.  “They have missile lock on the vessel!” said Tabitha.

“Fire as target bears,” said Atopia.

The launch’s missile rack cycled and its ordinance screamed silently away.  Maranga, seemingly indifferent to its own fate, launched a missile of its own.  The vessel below immediately broke and burned for orbit once again, its thruster wash confusing the more primitive missile, sending it wide.  Seconds later, the Daybreak’s missile detonated on target, tearing through Maranga amidships.

“Her vector’s changed,” said Lisa, “I think her drive system is damaged.”

“Confirmed,” said Atopia as she looked at her scope.  “I see a debris field forming around it and I’m reading hard radiation from a reactor breach.”  She looked over at her pilot.  “Do we have a chance of rescuing the crew?”

Lisa chewed her lip while she quickly mulled it over.  “Only just,” she said at last.

“Do it,” said Atopia.  “Maybe we can get them to talk.”

“Assuming we aren’t all glowing in the dark from exposure to that hard radiation,” added Tabitha as Lisa coaxed extra acceleration from the tiny craft.

359-1106, aboard Golden Dawn, in hyperspace between Nan and Moksha

-- from the personal journal of Baronet Atopia Kesslering

Finally, I have some down time to get my journal caught up!  It’s been a very hectic couple of weeks since we left Sok in such a hurry.  The evidence my trio of cybernetic sleuths uncovered along with the testimony of the crew of the Maranga was enough to get the Na Alaka’i to take action against Spencer.  As soon as we were cleared of charges in the small craft fight, we cleared port and were in hyperspace before Baronet Leigh presented the data we pilfered from various sources.

Hopefully, nobody will look too closely into Conch Data Expediters in the coming days.  They won’t find much – just some stray data connection cables and maybe a battery backup or two.  The rest found its way aboard the Dawn shortly before our departure.  Tabitha is in the process of dismantling the computer systems and erasing their data storage.  She should be done before we hit normal space once again.

I had to explain to Olivia what we did and why it won’t be wise to talk about it to anybody other than crew.  She accepted it, though I have no idea if she actually understands the why of it all.  In the end, all that matters is that she was able to keep the secret while we were on Nan.  Not that we stayed very long there, mind you – my last trip there nearly got me killed and horked off at least one government there.

And now we’re heading back to Moksha, yet another world that all I’m interested in is commerce.  Is this really the best sort of life for Olivia?  Am I doing the right thing?  What lessons is she really learning out here?  Or am I just being overly critical of myself?

As Baron Harper likes to say, “Time will tell.”  I hope he’s right.

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Crew Manifest for Golden Dawn & Silk Road-class Type-L Independent Merchant

Crew Manifest for the Golden Dawn   
(Updated 310-1106)
Operated by Dawn Transport, LLC (incorporated 263-1105 on Narmada)
Cyclic Payments of Cr208,000 – Cycle Kappa is the designated maintenance cycle of each year

Owner/Captain/Gunner
Baronet Atopia Kesslering         788ABC        Retired Navy Captain (Cr4000/yr)
     5 Terms        Rank 5         Age 39
Admin-2, Engineering-2, Jack of All Trades-2, Body Pistol-1, Forward Observer-1, Gunnery-1, Mechanical-1, Streetwise-1, Vacc Suit-1, Air/Raft-0, Cutlass-0, Gambling-0, Shotgun-0

Pilot/Navigator
Valo Arenson                               66CDC5        Ex-Scout
     4 Terms                            Age 36
Navigation-2, Pilot-2, Vacc Suit-2, Carbine-1, Jack of All Trades-1, Mechanical-1, Electronics-0, Shotgun-0, Streetwise-0

Chief Engineer
Hawk Smith                                 866D86         Ex-Scout
     3 Terms                           Age 32
Engineering-2, Pilot-2, Computer-1, Jack of All Trades-1, Navigation-1, Brawling-0, Dagger-0, Grav Veh.-0, Mechanical-0, SMG-0, Vacc Suit-0

Assistant Engineer
Lisa Dudley                                 88A7B6         Ex-Scout 
     4 Terms                          Age 34
Pilot-3, Navigation-3, Computer-2, Engineering-1, Cutlass-1, Vacc Suit-0

Gunner/Cybernetics
Tabitha Nole                                686B86         Ex-Merchant 1st Officer
      3 Terms    Rank 4       Age 32
Computer-3, Gunnery-2, Admin-1, Electronics-1, Mechanical-1, Navigation-1, Pilot-1,
Jack of All Trades-0, Vacc Suit-0, Wheeled Veh.-0

Doctor/Security
Cassandra Mutabe                     6A77D4        Army Colonel (ADF)
     4 Terms   Rank 5         Age 34
Tactics-4, SMG-3, Computer-1, Cutlass-1, Gambling-1, Ground Car-1, Leader-1, Medical-1, Revolver-1, Rifle-1, Vacc Suit-0

Steward
Samantha O’Connor                  783F2A         Ex-Merchant 2nd Officer
      4 Terms  Rank 3         Age 34
Steward-2, Navigation-1, SMG-1, Streetwise-1, Vacc Suit-0

Apprentice Deckhand
Olivia Miller                                466658         Child  Age 8
Computer-0, Jack of All Trades-0, Vacc Suit-0

Silk Road-class Type-L Independent Merchant
Item
Dtons
Remain
Cost (MCr)
400 dton Standard Hull with Atmospheric Streamlining
- - -
400
20.000
Power Plant D
13
387
32.000
Maneuver Drive D (Acceleration 2-G)
7
380
16.000
Jump Drive D (Jump-2)
25
355
40.000
Bridge (Standard)
20
335
2.000
Computer Model/3
3
332
18.000
12 Staterooms
48
284
6.000
10 Low Berths
5
279
0.500
Fuel Tankage (Two Weeks’ Operation & One Jump-2)
120
159
- - -
Two Hardpoints
4
155
0.200
Two Triple Turrets
- - -
- - -
2.000
1) Two Beam Lasers
- - -
- - -
2.000
    One Sandcaster
- - -
- - -
0.250
    Sandcaster Magazine with 20 rounds
1
154
0.008
2) Two Missile Racks
- - -
- - -
1.500
    Missile Magazines with 40 rounds (20 battery rounds)
2
152
0.200
    One Sandcaster
- - -
- - -
0.250
    Sandcaster Magazine with 20 rounds
1
151
0.008
Air/Raft
4
147
0.600
Launch (Lifepod)
20
127
14.000
Secure Storage
5
122
0.500
Excess Space (Engineering Section)
5
117
- - -
Cargo Hold
117
0
- - -
Components Subtotal


156.016
Architects’ Fees (+ 1%)


1.560
Base Cost


157.576
Standard Design Discount (- 10%)


- 15.758
Final Cost (New)


141.818

The Silk Road-class Independent Merchant is a common sight on the fringes of the Imperium, running speculative cargos and freight to worlds that are traditionally off the major trade routes.  With increased cargo capacity, passengers space, acceleration, jump capability and defensive capacity, this ship represents the next step up from a free or far trader.  With the increased potential for profit comes the increased operations costs, but it is assumed that an owner has learned how to manage these problems by the time he or she can afford this ship.

The ship requires eight crew: pilot, navigator, two engineers, medic, steward and two gunners.  Many ships have crew members doubling up on some jobs to make room for more passengers.  The ship typically runs with ten low berth passengers and up to sixteen middle passengers.  While accommodations can be made for high passengers, such passengers are rare on the lesser-traveled routes this ship flies.

While the Type L is no match for a typical pirate corsair, its defensive armament and increased acceleration makes it a more challenging target for smaller craft.  The ship’s increased computer capacity allows it to go on offense with missile attacks, giving the ship a limited stand-off capacity.  The ship’s large cargo hold is also an attractive feature, as is its expanded secure storage capacity and available space for upgrades in the engineering section.