Sunday, May 20, 2018

Emperor's Day                          


001-1109, Belaya, Crodo Landing Starport Extrality, aboard Silver Starlight

--from the personal journal of Lady Olivia Verne

Things are quiet this morning.  After we left Athabasca, mom put the figurative whip to the ship and crew to get us back to the sector capital in time for Emperor’s Day.  Somehow, Bob managed to plot a successful 140-hour transit from Prohova to Belaya that even allowed us to engage in some commerce before the starport’s non-essential services shut down for the Imperial Holiday marking the first day of the new year.

Of course, I didn't mean the figurative “us” when it came to commerce.  I’ve been working on a research document for my studies for the past couple of weeks, and chose to write from the perspective of a participant in interstellar commerce.  Mom was in favor of the idea once I proposed it to her – I would purchase a small cargo lot, pay for its transit aboard Starlight and then attempt to sell it at the next port of call.

This whole thing came about during the Athabasca to Prohova run.  I bragged to Tabitha about my prowess at a computer sim of interstellar trade I’d picked up on our last visit to Belaya.  Yeah, that was a bad move, I know.  Tabitha is the ship’s resident computer expert, but she also spent over a decade working for the Naasirka Lines all over the sector.  She spent nearly an hour explaining to me why the simplified trade system in the sim wasn’t realistic, supplying counter-examples for each and every one of my merchant corporation’s accomplishments in the game.

“Don’t delude yourself about doing this thing for real,” Tabitha said.  “Your mom took big risks when she was just starting out, and she’ll be the first to admit she got lucky more than a few times both back then and nowadays.  I was there when she hired her first crew for the Silver Dawn, and I remember how tight credits were for her back then…”

There was more, but I’d stopped listening by then.  I mean, it’s not like I don’t respect Tabitha; I do – a lot.  But I had already decided what I should do – put my money where my mouth is.

“What if,” I said interrupting Tabitha’s soapbox sermon, “I actually tried it out for real?  That would be the way for me to really get a feel for what mom does, right?”

That brought the sermon to an end.  Tabitha considered it for a moment before slowly nodding.  “We’ll have to make it part of your education plan,” she said, “but if her ladyship says okay, I’ll work out something.”

I thought mom would balk when I asked for five-thousand credits from my personal funds, but she didn’t, as long as I understood that I could lose it all.  I told her that it was strictly for my research document and that any profit from the project would be tithed to His Grace Duke Wymark for Emperor’s Day.  She liked that and approved it.

Of course, I didn’t expect to get thrown in to sink or swim – or torn to pieces by the sharks, either – and mom made sure that didn’t happen.  “I won’t tell you what decision you should make,” she said while she was between selling cargo lots in the Prohova marketplace, “but if you hit a snag, I’ll help you.”

Mom’s help turned out to be a visit from Clariandra Fromme, a retired merchant captain who is an import/export agent at the Opportunity Station Starport.  Mom has done some business with her before, so she introduced me.  Honestly, Captain Fromme didn’t sound in the best of health as she made a curtsy and then shook my hand.  She coughed sometimes – like a chest cold, but worse.  We had to stop a few times so she could breathe from a supplemental oxygen bottle.

Mom told me later on that Clariandra had only just survived an explosive decompression toward the end of her career, and that her lungs had been permanently damaged.  I asked dad why she couldn’t get a transplant and he shrugged.  Mom said that she probably took the settlement from the injury to start her business and was counting on being able to pay for a replacement at a later date.

Ugh.  I’m beginning to understand why Tabitha got on the soapbox.  But she should remember I’ve had it rough, too.  Back on Alagon, I was on my own with no money and no home for nearly a year after my birth mother was kidnapped and murdered.  And if I hadn’t tried stowing away aboard the Silver Dawn nearly three years ago, I’d still be there – dead or alive – alone.

Clariandra explained to me that there are three rules for any merchant when it comes to speculative trade.  One, never buy anything sight-unseen; you inspect the goods in the lot you’re buying, and if you don’t know anything about what you’re buying, bring in an expert you trust who does.  Two, don’t pay more for a lot than what it costs you to ship it, since there’s virtually no way you’ll make any profit on it, no matter how good the deal is.  Finally, no matter how good a deal you made on it, a pile of thargo filth is still worthless.

I laughed at that one.  Mom laughed too, though she shot a look at Clariandra.  Captain Fromme explained that last one meant a cargo you can’t sell somewhere isn’t worth buying no matter how cheap a seller makes it.  It’s like paying someone to haul away their trash and dispose of it for them.

With that in mind, we all put on respirator-filter masks and took the air/raft over to Clariandra’s warehouse.  It was an ugly, weathered cube of prefabricated formacrete slabs with airtight roll-up doors of sectional steel on three sides.  The place was busy with cargo lifters going here and there with bundles and cargo sacks; grav vehicles laden with crates, boxes and pallets lumbering away from the loading docks while the pilots in empty ones waited their turn; and everywhere people in high-visibility jumpsuits hustled to and fro, directing the actions of others.

We landed away from the docks, entering the building through the office, pausing just long enough to don high visibility vests and hardhats before entering the warehouse proper.  Clariandra led us to a somewhat dusty and seemingly forgotten corner of the building where five piles were covered with plastic sheets.  Dad and I peeled the grimy sheets back to reveal what lay beneath them.

“I haven’t been able to move these items because their lots are too small for most of my customers and clients to touch,” explained Clariandra.  “I was doing business with a retired Scout flying a Type-S who would pick a small cargo or two like this whenever he hit port.  But after the war started, but he and his ship were recalled to duty and nobody else has stepped up to fill the void – until now, I hope.”  She said the last with a wink.

After looking over what was available, I decided to buy four pallets stacked high with cases of glass jars filled with a reddish-purple liquid.  The cases said the stuff was Rooga juice from Zezere.  I recognized the brand from our last visit, and the expiration dates gave me plenty of time to sell them again.  Also, I happen to like Rooga juice, so at least I could drink some of my losses if my sales pitch on Belaya fell just a flat as my “savvy buyer” shtick did on Prohova.

Clariandra didn’t cut me any favors on the price, despite her claims of just wanting to make room for something that would sell.  After going a few rounds of negotiation, I purchased all four pallets for three thousand credits.  I gave the remainder of my stake to mom to cover transportation for the jump to Belaya.  Mom bought the remaining piles – rolls of silk from Devi, ingots of locally reclaimed copper, cut bamboo from Vicha and cases of canned blackfin from Vaigai – to fill up the corners of the cargo hold.

I was feeling pretty proud of myself on the way home.  But only until mom said that instead of making a good deal, I’d pretty much bought the juice at market value.  Yeah, that deflated my ego real quick – just about as fast as being reminded that I needed to clean out the cargo bay before the stuff we bought started being delivered to the ship.

Mom wanted to leave Prohova as quickly as possible, but she did agree to take on two late-arriving passengers with high passage tickets.  The port authority brought them over to us in an air/raft and Samantha was still getting them settled in their cabins when Captain Mom gave the order to lift.

Simon Braddock and Dietrich Hochländer were a couple of planetary branch managers of SuSAG who’d received orders via X-boat message the night before from the sector headquarters to come in for a consultation with their higher-ups, post-haste.  Their original transport developed a glitch in its power plant, so they jumped that one to board ours.  Honestly, I was worried that mom might have a problem with their parent company, given what I’d heard happened on Narmada about a year before mom and I met.

She did, but that didn’t stop her from taking their tickets.  Twenty-thousand credits may be pocket change to her these days, but it adds up.  I found out mom also kept tabs on them throughout the entire trip, even monitoring their computer usage.  I made the mistake of engaging Dietrich in a conversation about interstellar commerce a few days later without asking her first and got chewed out for it – gently, as she usually does, for which I’m grateful.

Still, I don’t regret the conversation.  It filled in a lot of holes in the process for my research document.  I had even asked Dietrich about how SuSAG was doing in the wake of Countess Gretl Schunamann’s treason.

“The whole organization has been doing damage control since the news broke,” he said.  “It’s important to understand that while she owned nearly thirteen percent of the corporation, she never had any say over its operation, other than to help elect members to the board of directors.  She did use some SuSAG assets to pass private messages and intelligence data to the mercenary outfits she’d hired around the subsector, but it was common practice to do small favors for major shareholders.  One of the reasons I’m going to Belaya is to meet with Her Grace, Subsector Duchess Evantia Selmani, to explain that fact and what steps Schunamann und Sohn, A-G is going to take to prevent it from happening again.”

I spent most of the rest of the trip holed up in my room finishing and polishing the document.  Mom and Tabitha both said it’s very good, so tomorrow I’ll borrow John and submit it to the TAS News Service office.  They have a standing offer for features and entertainment articles related to travel, so I’ll see if my document is worth more than a grade on a study module.

I am pleased to announce that I did make a handsome profit on my Rooga juice, since I sold it for six-thousand credits – twice what I paid for it – meaning I’ll be making a thousand-credit tithe to His Grace this evening!

Wow.  Samantha’s finally awake, so I guess that means breakfast isn’t far away!  Yay!  It’s going to be a good day – I can just feel it!

Oh!  Long live Strephon!  Long may he reign!

002-1109, Belaya, Cordo Landing Starport Extrality, aboard Silver Starlight

--from the personal journal of Baronet Atopia Kesslering

Happy New Year, I think.  It’s been nothing but long days since we arrived here.  Tomorrow might give me a chance to catch my breath, but we’ll have to see.  So much is happening right now, and it’s all a jumble.  Perhaps the easiest way to sort it out is to go through what’s happened in chronological order and do the explaining on each point as I go.

My daughter has done well in her first, admittedly guided, steps into the realm of interstellar commerce.  She beamed so brightly when she handed the money to His Grace at the Emperor’s Day Mixer and told him how she’d earned it, that I was sincerely concerned for the Duke’s eyesight.  Fortunately, he was well accustomed to the ways of my daughter and congratulated her quite warmly.

Wow.  My little girl is growing up so very quickly these days.

The mixer was last night at the Emperor’s hovering estate.  I’ll come back to that, though.  Earlier on Emperor’s Day the crew of my ship got together for the merchant tradition of Grievance Day.  Fortunately, my crew and I get along exceptionally well, so it was more of a party than anything else.

Traditionally, Grievance Day is the day where each member of a starship crew calmly and openly states any problem he or she is having with the owner / captain or any other member of the crew without fear of retribution or retaliation.  The people involved are then supposed to settle the matter in a rational manner and it is never spoken of again.  Usually, this is a chance for crew members to exchange friendly insults with one another over a round of drinks.  Anyone who has no criticisms is roundly denounced as a suck-up and is required to down the remainder of his or her drink before the next person takes their turn.

The first serious “complaint” came from Bob, our navigator, but it was more of a request for help from Tabitha to reconfigure his displays and control interfaces at his station.  Hawk echoed his request for the engineering displays as well, so Tabitha now has a hobby for the rest of the time we’ll be here.  Hopefully, she didn’t have anything else planned.

The only other “complaint” was a request from Karen, our missile gunner, that we carry the cremains of the late Baron Harper from the Grand Assembly Hall here, where they’ve been lying in state, and take him home to Kolan to lay him to rest.

Great Maker, it was all I could do to not cry at that!  Olivia did.  As I held my daughter, I could see the rest of the crew felt the same way.  I promised them all that I would speak to his Grace on the matter as soon as possible.  We drank a toast to his memory as soon as my daughter could keep it together.

The mood brightened considerably after that as I handed out the crew’s pay for the cycle, which included a hundred-thousand credit year-end bonus.  Most of them simply handed back their bonus credit vouchers to me to place into the ship’s safe.  I imagine much of that money is going to be invested in their retirement plans before we leave port.

After our celebration was over, I had to sober up for the next one.  I already knew I was going to tie one on at His Grace’s residence, because the mixer was being held where Baron Harper was still waiting to go home.  I met with His Grace briefly, submitting my tithe – nearly three million credits – and a request to meet with him as soon as convenient to discuss a number of matters.  Aside from that and my daughter’s tithe, the rest of the night was a big, sloppy blur.  My husband, my daughter and I took our leave a little early so I could sleep off my drunk.  Sir Tony apparently found someone more interesting than the rest of us to spend the night with, and didn’t return home until late this morning.

This morning began with a miserably manageable hangover that had mostly faded by the time Samantha had brunch on the table in the crew commons.  Hot coffee, cherry scones, SCOP eggs with thin slices of maple-glazed bacon-flavored slab and a glass of cold Rooga juice made me realize how hungry I was.  By the way, Rooga juice tastes like a cocktail of prune and pineapple juices, only just a touch less sweet – I can see why Olivia likes the stuff.  It is better than that Somaak juice I sampled on Tarn a few years back, when… Getting ahead of myself, sorry.

I was in much better shape when His Grace’s aide linked in to inform me that Duke Wymark would receive me after his fencing match that afternoon and could give me about thirty minutes of his time.  The aide apologized for the brief meeting, but apparently a number of other nobles who’d attended the mixer last night wanted a piece of the Duke’s time as well.

Olivia needed to step out with John to submit her article to the Travellers’ Aid Society about the same time I was meeting with His Grace, so I curled up with my husband for a while before we started getting ready to go.  It was very pleasant to have someone else to nap on, and even more pleasant to wake up to my sweet, sexy man afterward and share a few private moments before getting back to being respectable members of the Peerage once again.

While we were on Prohova, the Imperial Liaison paid us a visit.  Sir Erlantz Pohl is a former Imperial Army captain who wound up on the business end of an automatic grenade launcher in some brush fire war on a backwater world of the Imperium and somehow managed to live to tell the tale.  He has wound and burn scars that not even the best plastic surgery can completely conceal, and his left eye doesn’t quite open completely.  He also uses a cane to walk, but had managed to cross the starport grounds in a combination respirator-filter mask.  Whether it was due to pride or desperation, I could not say.

After sitting down in the passenger commons and gratefully accepting a cup of coffee, he got to the point of his visit.  “Nearly everything organic here is tainted with a wicked cocktail of contaminants from all the toxic waste they store or otherwise ignore here,” Sir Erlantz said.

“The planetary government has been in the recycling and waste management business for decades,” he continued, “It’s been very profitable for both the government and the people.  A lot of the structures inside the habitats are made from reclaimed materials that other worlds couldn’t manage, so there is an upside.  The downside is that the toxins are leaching into the ground water and the concentrations are starting to approach Imperial Science Bureau advisory levels.  Since they use that water in food production, washing, bathing and drinking, it’s everywhere.

“There’s been an uptick in birth defects over the past decade, as well as an increase in neurological diseases in the general population.  It’s no surprise; there are all kinds of toxins out there in the dumps – tetrachloroethylene, arsenic, lead, mercury, toluene – plus a bunch I can’t pronounce without a phonetic guide.  The locals are starting to notice the detrimental health effects, which is why the people are starting to ask questions – the kind that the Council of Directors would rather not answer.”

“That’s why I’m coming to you to ask a favor.  It’s no secret that you have connections to Sector Duke Wymark.  I’d like you to present a few reports I’ve compiled to him.  Belaya’s Subsector Duchess, Her Grace Evantia Selmani, has turned a deaf ear on my concerns and actively led the resistance to my attempts to bring the matter before the subsector and sector Moots.”

Sir Erlantz offered me a datachip as he continued.  “This datachip contains the reports I have assembled with the help of Imperial Science Bureau field agents over the past few years.  Could you look them over and compile an executive summary for His Grace, then present it to him?  I feel that my actions to date have been blocked by agencies of the planetary government, operatives of the megacorps here and several members of the Peerage.  Anything you could do would be substantially more than I’ve been able to accomplish.”

Of course, I said I would.  I also did some quick research in the Prohova economy while I was writing the executive summary.  A number of off-world corporations have facilities on Prohova which receive thousands of d-tons of waste from their operations on other worlds for processing and disposal every year.

And yes, SuSAG was one of them.

The fact I had two of their local “business men” go out of their way to get aboard my ship before I left that world gave me a perfect fit of paranoia for the entire trip – which explains why I was a bit upset with my daughter when she started talking to one of them.  While Marquis Toyama Weston dealt with the ones in Narmada Subsector who’d conspired to assassinate Baron Alton Richards, I can’t quite shake my distrust of the rest of the organization no matter how far removed they are from the towering arcologies of Red Sun City.

His Grace received us in a library filled with old leather-bound tomes, including one that he told me was an Anglic-Hiver Dictionary.  He toweled off after removing his mask and jacket, handing them along with his epee to an aide who took the items from the room, closing the door in his wake.  His Grace donned a robe and took a seat across from my husband and I, allowing us to get to the business at hand.

He felt it was appropriate that we take Baron Harper home and quickly made the arrangements for the transfer ceremony to take place the day after tomorrow.  He also expressed surprise when I summarized Sir Erlantz’s situation on Prohova.  It was the first he’d heard of the matter and promised he would meet with the head of the subsector’s ISB office as soon as possible.

The last item concerned my decision earlier to pursue a formal title.  “I’m not sure I want to pursue that right away, your grace,” I said.  “I’m looking forward to attending the Grand Imperial Moot with you next year, and wouldn’t want to be tied down to establishing an estate at the same time.”

“In truth, I did want to talk to you about that,” the duke replied.  “With the war going on, I might not be able to attend the Moot on Capital.  I am considering sending you to represent the sector’s interests in my stead.”

“You honor me, your grace,” I said.

“Still, it is best not to miss an opportunity,” he added as he tossed the towel across the arm of an empty chair.  “I will put your name in for consideration for acclaim by Duke Darius for this year’s Narmada Subsector Moot.  I’m quite certain he’ll endorse the idea.  I will also send my recommendation to Baroness Olivia Servantes on Moksha, for her blessing in this matter and what she would consider a proper tribute.  Even if you don’t have a chance to develop your fief until you return, at least it will be there waiting for you.

“After you return Baron Harper to his home, you will still need to be on Narmada for this year’s Moot to protect the interests of his legacy, as well as yours and your daughter’s.  I really don’t see any other way around it, do you?”

“No, your grace,” Atopia said.

“Then it is decided,” he said.  “My aide will brief you tomorrow on the transfer ceremony – you will want to get your dress uniforms in order for that.  And do get your ship’s affairs in order before the day after tomorrow – you will be expected to depart as soon as the ceremony is over.”

He was about to rise, when he stopped himself.  “That’s right,” he said, “There is one bit of distressing news I recently received.  Reports from the Imperial Navy Base on Avoca indicate that Rand Tyler has escaped from the Golgotha Penal Colony.”

I swore – loudly.  “How in the Nine Hells did that happen?”  My husband jabbed me in the ribs bringing back the reality of where I was and to whom I was speaking.  “I’m sorry, your grace.”

“Accepted,” he said with a wave of his hand.  “I felt much the same way when I read the dispatch.  Unfortunately, that dispatch arrived shortly before a dispatch from the Naval base on Jayne that a Solomani Confederation battle group had begun an orbital bombardment of Ebro.  And while it has been kept out of the public news feeds, the Mezen Hegemony has taken control of several worlds in the Limpopo Spur.

“The Insurgency tied up Imperial forces in this sector for three cycles and it will take another cycle for our forces to regroup and begin to take the fight to our enemies,” his grace added as he stepped over to Atopia.

“However the war goes, your ladyship, I want you to remember that Rand Tyler is a vindictive man and will be looking for revenge.  He has already conspired to kill one member of the Peerage, so his intent is clear.  If you find him first, kill him.  Is that clear?”

“Yes, your grace,” I replied.

And that was that.  When I got back, Olivia was bubbling over with the news that her article needed the review and approval of an expert, and then a few revisions to meet their professional guidelines before being distributed.  Strangely enough, TAS considers me an expert on interstellar trade, so I now have a hobby to help distract me during our run to Kolan.  After scraping together some cargo, freight and a pitiful few passengers for the first leg to Cahabon, I’m officially turning in early tonight.

Tomorrow, the work continues – like it always does.

Retired Merchant Captain Clariandra Fromme, 542CC7, 5 Terms, Rank 6, Age 41
Administration-3, Broker-2, Cutlass-2, Bribery-1, Gunnery-1, Jack of All Trades-1, Pilot-1, Streetwise-1, Grav Vehicle-0
Cr80,000; Cutlass; Pension of Cr4,000 per year


Monday, May 14, 2018

Christofori's Nightmare   


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

--from the personal journal of Baronet Atopia Kesslering

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Disappeared?” echoed Atopia.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*         *         *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Copy that,” replied the engineer.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“If you think –“ Harlow began.

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

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

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