Sunday, April 24, 2016

Here Be Monsters - Chapter 38

     Petrona Hamasaki was reviewing the final paperwork for her current cases, while simultaneously wondering if she couldn't just finish it tomorrow, and spend the rest of the day at her favorite bowling alley.  She had always disliked doing paperwork, and the UniSys Police Force - by its nature - generated a lot of it.  It had to be done, however, and she knew that it wouldn't get any better if she put it off.
     Her boss suddenly burst into the office with some serious speed, startling her, since he'd been gone for less than twenty minutes after being summoned upstairs for an unscheduled meeting, and she had assumed he would be tied up for at least an hour.
     "Get your kit, Pet."  He said, urgently, as he rushed to his desk, grabbing up his badge folder and holstered pistol from the top drawer.  "Whatever you're doing is officially on hold until further notice; we've got ourselves a massive situation, and it needs to be handled before it gets uglier."  He finished, waiting for her to get her own ID, and service weapon, as well as her wristcomp, which she strapped on while he led the way to the lift that accessed the VTA landing pad on the roof of the building.
     "What the hell's going on JB?  I've never seen you this wound up before."  She asked, as the elevator doors closed behind them.
     "There was a shootout in a local watering hole last night,"  he grinned at her uncomprehending look, "and the initial report has one of the victims wearing a medalert tag issued exclusively to members of the Darkaellan Imperial House itself."  His grin took on an ominous tone as he finished speaking.  "Sorry, Pet."
     There was sudden silence in the lift as Petrona found herself unable to respond.  She suddenly felt like something had coiled itself around her chest and started squeezing the air out of her lungs.  If there was one group of people she never wanted to get involved with ever again, it was the Imperium; the idea itself was enough to make her feel sick.  She took long deep breaths as she leaned forward to brace herself against the lift's mirrored wall before speaking.
     "Why us?  They're not signatories to the Interstellar Judicial Agreement, and they won't cooperate with any request we make, so why bother?  More to the point, the locals know it, so again:  Why us?"  She asked, in a voice that bordered on petulant.
     "You're assuming that the request came from the locals, but it's not."  He told her.  "The call came from Ambassador Stirling himself."
     For a split second, Petrona Hamasaki laughed, because she genuinely thought that JB had been playing a practical joke, but the look on his face was completely devoid of amusement.
     "That makes even less sense!"  She exclaimed, incredulously.  "And it just brings me back to my original question: Why us?"
     JB fidgeted with the cuffs of his shirt, obviously trying to find an answer to the question that would make any sense.  "I wish I could say, Pet, but we are both going to have the chance to find out."
     Petrona was on the verge of demanding clarification when the lift doors opened, and they stepped out onto the walkway to the rooftop landing pad.  The sight that met her eyes was not one calculated to make her feel better.  There was a military VTA painted in the unmistakable flat charcoal black of the Darkaellan Imperial Guard detachment here on Minotaur sitting on the pad.  The only other person visible was a woman wearing the standard working uniform of an officer of the embassy's guard detachment.  As they got closer, Petrona saw a that the officer was wearing the rank insignia of a Guard Commander.
     The Commander was, to put not too fine a point on things, extremely attractive, and Petrona felt a subliminal pull of desire.  She spent a moment trying to figure out what her background might be; the eyes were large and expressive, her face triangular, with high prominent cheekbones, and richly colored, full lips.  Her hair was cut short, in a style common to people who had to wear sealed helmets.  The commander's name tag read: S. Turlington.  The name rang a bell, and within a few seconds she remembered why; the Turlingtons were an extremely wealthy mercantile family, and members of the lower nobility on Darkael itself.
     JB was the first to extend an olive branch.
     "Good morning, Commander, I am Julius Benedict Harlow, UniSys' SAIC here in Níngjìng Bay; I'm given to understand that we have been invited to meet your Ambassador Stirling."  He introduced himself, in his native Oxford accent.  "This is my assistant, Agent Hamasaki." He continued, gesturing in her direction.
     The Commander regarded each of them in turn before speaking in a very businesslike manner.  "Commander Shevaughn Turlington, Darkaellan Imperial Guard.  I have been instructed to convey you to the embassy.  If you'll follow me?"  She said, waving them to the insectile aircraft a few meters away.
     Petrona forced herself to move forward with JB to the VTA, although the idea had her sweating.  It wasn't that she was afraid of flying, but rather the four heavily armed Imperial soldiers who were standing guard around the aircraft; they weren't overtly hostile, but they radiated a sort of barely restrained aggression, as if they fully expected to be attacked at all times.  Decked out as they were in full combat uniform, armor, including full face helmet, their compact assault rifles at the ready, she had to admit that if anyone was stupid enough to make trouble, it likely wouldn't last long.
     The smooth, angular slab exterior of the aircraft gave no indication of how surprisingly comfortable an interior it possessed, as Petrona was guided to one of four comfortable seats in the rear of the troop compartment by one of the flight crew.  He stopped to say something to the Commander, but it was impossible to make out over the engine noise from outside; well, that, and the fact that he said it in a language she couldn't understand.
     Now seated across from Commander Turlington, she took the time to think over what JB had said when he'd burst into their office to collect his badge and sidearm.  The latter of which their hosts had not yet bothered to confiscate, which suggested that either the Imperial Guard didn't consider them a threat, or they just didn't care.  She decided that it was probably the fact that there were at least a half dozen heavily armed, and armored, soldiers in the cabin with them, and there was no one for the Commander to protect.
     A feeling that she'd missed something, which had been nagging at her since JB had dragged her out from behind her desk, popped up from her subconscious.
     "You don't know who it is, do you?"  She blurted out, impulsively.
     "Sorry?"  Turlington replied, looking confused.
     "I've been trying to figure out who it might have been; whoever got hit last night, but I can't, and neither can you.  Can you?  JB said that they had a medalert tag belonging to the Imperial family, but it wasn't.  Was it?"  She said, watching Turlington intently, looking for any indication that she had hit a nerve.
     There wasn't one.  The look she got back was so bland that it was, in its own right, as good as a scream in the face.
     "The ambassador no doubt hopes that you can help to determine the facts surrounding recent events, certainly."  Commander Turlington replied noncommittally.
     "This may come as something of a surprise to you, Commander, but we do have some passing experience with the local police, and I can just imagine that they were thrilled with the idea of having to deal with your people.  Then imagine their delight when they discover that there's no need to involve you at all, and this all starts to make a twisted sort of sense."  Petrona expounded, with a more sarcastic tone than the Commander probably deserved.
     She sat back in her seat triumphantly, and caught JB's expression from where he was, seated across from her.  He looked as though he was choking on something, and his face was a mask of martyred patience.
     She would remember the trip to the embassy later, and readily admit that, if she'd known at the time what the future held, she might just have jumped out of the VTA then and there.

Thursday, February 25, 2016

Here Be Monsters - Chapter 37

     Dirk was sitting in the pilot's seat of the NAC-Hyundai Aero' that he'd stolen, after shooting the driver of the second one outside the bar before he could report back to his employer or escape.  He had been running on pure instinct - if it could be called that; he had figured that if he took one of the killers' vehicles, then it would make him harder to find.  Logically, a professional killer would have found a way to identify and disable any tracking devices or software embedded in the Aerodyne's flight computer that could potentially be used by the authorities.  His personal background and early training had made such tactical thinking a sort of second nature.
     It was raining steadily across most of the Bay area, and the windows were beginning to fog up, but Dirk wasn't paying attention.  His mind was replaying the sight of Alex, starting to run, only to be shot in the back, her body tumbling to the floor, like a ragdoll thrown by a petulant child.  He looked up at the street outside, but tears blurred his vision.  Shame for abandoning her, when he should have stayed, and helped to try and save her poisoned his thoughts, and it was followed by an instant of mind-bending rage.  It passed quickly, but it was harder to set aside the shame.  He had fled the scene out of fear.  Fear of the consequences of trying to save her life by sacrificing the freedom he'd so carefully worked to achieve.  The medalert tag he had used had been given to him by his grandparents, before leaving home for the last time.  It wouldn't be long before the Imperium's agents figured out that he had been in the bar, and had shot four people.  When they did, they would begin searching for him in earnest. It seemed as though the lie that his life had been was about to be exposed.  Looking back, he should have stayed, and simply faced the consequences, but the die was cast.
     He hadn't given a destination any real thought, so he was a bit confused when he realized that he had landed the air car in front of The Hyperwave Club.  His mind, it seemed, had been making decisions subconsciously, without any of the rational thought processes needing to get involved.  He suddenly realized why he had come to this particular place:  Thorne.
     He'd spoken with him the last time he was on-planet; before the trip out to the colony ship.  Dirk had barely recognized him from the images and video clips he had seen as a child, but although his facial features had been altered, the way he walked, and moved, the way he kept scanning his surroundings, looking for any possible sign of trouble, were like a beacon of light in the dark for anyone who had been trained to notice such things.
     And he had been trained; from early childhood.
     He drew his pistol from its holster, checking to make certain that it was loaded, and that a round was chambered before getting out of the 'Aero.  There was little to no traffic in this area, which was something to be thankful for, since it meant that if he had to get away quickly, he wouldn't be dodging other vehicles.  The low clouds were reflecting the city lights, giving good visibility in spite of the rain that was coming down, soaking him as he ran to the club's entrance.
     Although it was after hours, the club's sign was still lit, and he was willing to bet that if he knocked hard enough, then someone would answer the door.  They would probably be annoyed with him, but if they answered, then it wouldn't matter if they hated him with a passion.  He needed to find Thorne, and this was the only place he had seen him, so it was the best place to start.  He decided on a direct approach, and simply hammered his fist on the door continuously until a loud, distorted voice came through the comm panel next to the door.
     "FUCK OFF!  We're closed!  Now beat it, shǎzi!"  Someone shouted at him from somewhere on the other side of the door.
     He suddenly realized that if anyone inside decided to call the local police to report a disturbance, then he was well and truly screwed, so he decided to try reasoning with whoever was inside instead.
     "I'm looking for someone, and this is the only place I ever recall seeing him.  I just want to talk to anyone working here who might be able to ID him."  He said, standing in the dark, rain drenched street, and pounded on the door a couple more times for emphasis.
     There was no immediate reply, and he felt like an idiot for thinking that there would be.  He suddenly felt as though the planet's gravity had become as heavy as his homeworld's, and he slumped forward resting his forehead on the door.  He stood there in the rain, nearly leached of all ambition, considering the various consequences of simply turning himself over to the local authorities, when the sound of the door's locks being disengaged nearly caused him to jump out of his skin.
     He backed up, and kept his right hand across his abdomen, close to the weapon on his left hip as the door opened up to reveal the hulking shape of the club's cyborg doorman, partially occluded by shadow in the unlit foyer beyond.  The FBR didn't say anything, but held the door open, while standing just enough out of the way to let him by.
     The problem with full body replacement cyborgs was that you could never tell what kind of a mood they were in until it was too late.  The cyborg had no sooner closed an locked the door, when he rounded on Dirk, pinned him face first against the wall with one hand, and systematically relieved him of his handgun, spare magazines, two knives, his ID folder, billfold, titanium pen, motorcycle keys, and his private comlink.  Dirk knew that resisting would be less than futile, so he waited until the doorman was finished.  The cyborg was extremely thorough, and didn't miss anything, including the 25mm ring claw concealed by his right hip, behind his belt.  It occurred to him that most bouncers didn't get this thorough, and began to wonder if he'd made a serious mistake coming here.  His intuition told him that more was happening here, but he needed help, and Thorne was the best way to get it.
     The cybernetic hand was pulled away so quickly, that he nearly fell over backwards.
     "Saints' wet dick!  Should I just be thankful you let me keep my clothes?"  Dirk exclaimed, looking into the impassive mechanical face looming over him.
     "Yeah, you should."  Said Thorne from the end of the foyer.  "In fact, you should be thankful that you're still breathing.  Come on."  He made a come along gesture and turned into the club proper.
     Dirk followed him for want of any real options.

Sunday, October 4, 2015

Here Be Monsters - Chapter 36

     Shevaughn was being lectured, and it was becoming an irritation.
     "I case you weren't aware, 'Commander', you and your 'people' might be able to wave around your diplomatic immunity, but everyone else gets investigated to the hilt.  Whoever you say that woman is, she's not on your embassy's list, and that puts her squarely in our jurisdiction.  So you can suck it."  Said the NBPD Special Investigator, Alfred Burke, with obvious hostility.
     "And as I've patiently explained, twice now, Miss Chase was wearing an Imperial medalert tag, and those are only issued to members of the Imperial House.  It would seem that, jurisdiction notwithstanding, she's my responsibility -"
     "Along with the rest of this mess too, I bet!"  Burke cut her off.  "This whole incident has a disgusting reek of typical Darkie criminality, and -"
     Chevy's hand snapped out, grabbed him by the neck, and lifted him several centimetres off the floor.  He clawed at his belt in an attempt to reach his service weapon, but her other hand clamped around his wrist with the titanic strength of muscles accustomed to far more gravity than his world produced.  His fellow officers rushed to intervene, but suddenly found themselves at the business end of three magrifles, and half a dozen Imperial Army D-68A1 assault rifles.  The resulting stalemate gave her a chance to speak.
     "Mr. Burke, I will only warn you once that I consider the term 'Darkie' insufferably offensive; regardless, you will consider Miss Chase to be under the protection of the Darkaellan Imperium, so any assault on her will have disastrous consequences.  Now, fuck off.  I have better things to do."  She let go of the Special Investigator, and turned her back on his gasping form in an attempt to rein in her still seething anger.
     The term Darkie was as racist an epithet as one could level at a native Darkaellan.  It had originated on Jefferson, where a deplorably large number of people used it to denote anyone who was not descended from the dominant, Caucasian, phenotype.  The unbelievable irony was that the original colonists of Darkael had been carefully selected from applicants whose ancestry was almost exclusively Anglo-Saxon.  The second wave was almost entirely North and Western European, with a minority of Slavic and Balkan émigrés as well.  Subsequently, there had been accusations (not unfounded, Chevy well knew) of racial discrimination in the Imperium's immigration policies, but the third wave of immigrants, all from Japan, had effectively silenced its critics.  The Imperium had shortly after begun using the Jovian moon Cerberus as a primary debarkation point for anyone wanting to emigrate.  Which had allowed the government to screen potential colonists in its own backyard, and out of sight of Terran busybodies.
     Needless to say, eighty percent of Darkael's population was of European Caucasian origin, and most of the rest were ethnic Japanese.  Yet the term 'Darkie' had traveled out into the Known Sphere and taken root, even on Minotaur; a world that was home to more combinations of ethnicities than anyone would have believed possible before the Great Exodus.  Like most Darkaellans, she knew that a person's ethnicity had no bearing on their value to society, and as a matter of principle eschewed the use of derogatory language in general.  Unfortunately, the Imperium had made decisions in its own self-interest that had earned it the enmity of a number of political, corporate, and military entities, and as a result, she heard the word Darkie with a certain regularity.
     She turned to speak with Kenjirō.
     "What do you think, Kenjirō-san?  Was this a local problem, or something else?"  She asked him in Darkaellan Gaelic, a language little known outside of the Imperium, as she gestured around the bar; now brightly lit by the forensic team's floodlights.  "The gunmen seem to have been very well equipped, QBZ-803 carbines aren't exactly rare, but it's unlikely that local criminal elements would use them; not when a 'back alley special' can be had for a fifth of what they cost."
     Kenjirō stepped in closer and held up a small object.  Taking it from him, she saw that it was a shell casing, 11mm caliber; turning it around she saw that the base of the cartridge had the letters IOF stamped on the rim next to the caliber.  An Imperial Ordinance Factory stamp meant that the ammunition had been manufactured on Darkael, which didn't necessarily prove anything, since large quantities of those had found their way onto the black market when the Imperium had pulled its advisors out of the Draconis system.
     "If you look closely, Commander, the marks from the firing pin and ejector are consistent with those made by a Hollis Mk21, standard military issue."  Kenjirō said, only adding to the incredible confusion she was experiencing.  How a military issue Mk21 had gotten on-planet was impossible to say, since their workmanship and expense limited their exportability to a few wealthy collectors, willing to pay for the sake of novelty.
     "We need to find a way to talk to the witnesses, it's the only way we're ever going to figure out what happened here."  Chevy declared.  "But I doubt the local constabulary will oblige."
     "Indeed, they will no doubt be even less inclined, after the throttling you just meted out to the good Inspector over there."  He said in mild reproach, bobbing his head in Burke's direction.
     "Yeah, well, he pissed me off with that 'Darkie' crack of his, so we'll just have to find a way around him."  She said, and signaled the rest of her team.  "We're done here, move out."

-----

     By the time she and her people were back at the embassy, she had the beginning of a plan, and quickly set about putting it in motion.  Her plan required a meeting with the ambassador, which was easy enough to arrange, since he'd already sent word while her flight was inbound that he would see her as soon as she landed.  She was going to get the Honorable Bruce Addison Stirling to contact the UniSys Police Force, and get them involved in the investigation, which would effectively sideline the local law enforcement people.  If she moved quickly enough, then she could talk to the survivors before the USPF was able to make it impossible to get to them.
     Her window of action was going to be vanishingly small, and Satoshi Hayashi was going to have to work fast to make the best of it.  If they were successful, she would be able to identify where some seemingly insignificant young woman had gotten her hands on that tag she'd been wearing.  If anything went wrong, however, she'd be lucky to be wrangling cliffcats on Cerberus.
     Actually getting the ambassador and their resident counterespionage agent on board took some effort.
     "You realize, don't you, Commander, that if our actions are discovered, then we will all be looking for new jobs?  Myself included."  Asked the ambassador, as she sat in his office, along with Hayashi.
     "Actually, Ambassador, I think it's highly probable that unemployment will be the best thing to happen to us if we fail."  She replied, much more candidly than she would have normally, but she felt that brutal honesty was best.
     "You've been quiet thus far, Agent Hayashi, What's your opinion on all of this?"  The ambassador asked, somewhat testily.
     The man seated next to Chevy, his hands neatly folded in his lap, was the Darkaellan Imperium's chief intelligence officer here on Minotaur, and his various assets would be needed to bring the plan being discussed to fruition.  If he didn't approve of the plan, then she was stuck.
     "I believe that the Commander has a good idea, but, as she herself pointed out, the timing would be critical.  If we can convince the USPF that the attack on those people constitutes a felonious act involving a Darkaellan subject, then they would be almost obligated to intervene.  There is a problem, however.  The local USPF office is the best staffed of any outside of the Terran solar system, and they have the resources available to commit themselves to a real investigation."  Satoshi told them, choosing his words with care as he continued.  "I have established a mutually beneficial arrangement with a member of the NBPD, who has been providing me with seemingly inconsequential gossip from the inside.  Most people, even intelligence agents, have no appreciation for just how useful such knowledge can be; without realizing it, he has accidentally given me some fairly confidential information. We may be able to leverage that to get him to act on our behalf, but this time a significant 'douceur' will be needed."
     Ambassador Stirling sat behind his desk of Minotauran spiderwood with his elbows propped on the arms of his office chair, and steepled his fingers beneath his nose, obviously deep in thought.  He regarded them each in turn before speaking.
     "Just so that we're all clear on this; we are going to deliberately involve an organization that has, historically, had an antithetical attitude towards the Imperium, in an effort to ascertain whether or not a member of the Imperial House itself was involved in this fracas, and then bribe a local officer of the law to provide us with a window of opportunity wherein we can snatch - or, at the very least, question - the relevant witnesses, before the USPF can sequester them out of our reach.  Does that about do it?"  The ambassador concluded somewhat acidly.
     Chevy thought that he had pretty well hit the nail on the head, but left out a critical ramification; if they failed, or got caught, then the whole situation could easily spiral out of control.  She decided not to point out the obvious.
     "In broad terms, that summary is essentially accurate, Ambassador."  She replied.
     "I can't say that the potential for grievous consequences if you fail thrills me, but I want answers as badly as either one of you, therefore I see no reason not to give you the permission, and resources, to proceed."  Ambassador Stirling told them.
     Chevy and Hayashi accepted the very subtle dismissal.
     "Thank you, sir."  They said, more or less in unison.
     As they left the ambassador's office, Chevy felt optimistic about their chances of success.  They would have to wait until UniSys got off its backside, and displaced the locals in investigating what had happened in the gambling den, but when they did, Hayashi would need to work fast.
     Thankfully, there was no such thing as a slow Darkaellan.

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Here Be Monsters - Chapter 35

     When the medics found him, Rollie was huddled behind an overturned table, arms wrapped around his knees, covered in someone else's blood, with his eyes squeezed shut.  He was unsuccessfully trying to forget the last ten minutes of his life, but the images kept replaying over and over, no matter how much he willed them to stop.
     About a dozen members of the crew, including DJ, Alex, Hicks, Bao-Jian, Jinx, himself and a few others, had decided to spend some of their impending bonuses having a good time, while the Captain arranged the sale of their salvage claim.
     They had unanimously agreed that it was a good idea to maintain a low profile, so they'd decided to go to a semi private bar and gambling den in the Old Quarter.  Housed in a decrepit looking building without windows on the lower level, it catered strictly to spacers, and a few locals with dubious reputations.  For those who were interested, it offered dice, cards, mahjong, and a few games he'd never even heard of.
     The gaming tables were right at the front as one came through the beaded curtain, with tables and booths near the back separated by the oval bar area in the middle.
     The crew had taken over a corner at the back, and they were all looking forward to seeing how much Cameron would be able to wring out of their discovery.  Rollie had suspected that DJ had some kind of inside information on what the Captain was going to get for the colony ship, because he was engaging in some pretty serious public displays of affection with Alex, and he was still sober.
     Somewhere between the first and second round of drinks, Alex and Bao-Jian had gotten up to go get another round at the bar, when all Hell had let out for payday.  There was no doubt in his mind, that the sound of automatic gunfire in an enclosed space was going to stay with him for years to come.  It wasn't just deafeningly loud, it was concussive; something that could be felt, as well as heard.
     What became evident later on, was that the three gunmen had split up, with one covering the front and the other two moving around the bar, allowing them to - theoretically - use their overlapping fields of fire to herd their victims into a lethal barrage.
     There was no warning, the two men in dark coats had simply reached into them, pulled out their weapons and begun firing.  Rollie had seen them, and had frozen in shock as they began firing.
     Bao and Alex had been midway between the bar and their tables, and directly in the path of the first shots, and then Rollie's shock had turned to horror.  Bao was hit with two bursts of three rounds each, one high, one low, and he was dead before his body had begun to fall.
     Alex, showered with Bao-Jian's blood and brains, sprinted for their table.  As DJ screamed at her to get down, he grabbed the edge of the table, ripped it off the stand to which it had been bolted, just in time to push Rollie down, as one of the killers put a burst through Alex's back.  His aim was thrown off by her sudden acceleration, but three bullets struck her in the upper torso, and punched her to the floor in a writhing heap, coughing blood bubbles from a perforated lung.
     The second gunman had been walking his own fire along the wall into crewmates who were sitting at tables in the open, and most of them were to shocked to do more than scream incoherently.  Hicks was right next to Rollie behind the table, but he could only watch with horror as she did the unthinkable, and tried to surrender.  He was sprayed with gore as she was slammed into the wall behind them by long bursts of automatic fire.
     DJ saw Alex get hit, and his scream of pure, animal rage drowned out everything around him.  He popped up with a speed that seemed impossible, and his hands were a blur as he pulled his jacket back, and drew his personal weapon from the cross-draw holster on his left hip, punching it out in front of himself like a striking snake.  To Rollie, it seemed as though everyone else was moving in slow motion except for DJ.
     He watched as his friend put two rounds through the face of the man who had just gunned down the most important person in his life, and with as little effort as possible, put two into the second man's chest, with another through his head for good measure.  The third gunman had finished with the front half of the bar, and came around just in time to see DJ put down his second target, and he hesitated for just a split second.
     Dirk didn't.  He fired twice, striking his target in the lower abdomen, incapacitating him.  Dirk slowly walked over to where the man was lying, mortally wounded, and asked him one thing.
     "Who sent you?  If you tell me, then I give you my word that I won't let you die gutshot."  He said, in a voice cloaked in incredible serenity.
     Rollie hadn't heard what answer the man had given, but Dirk had stood back a step, said "Thank you", and then shot the man in the forehead without warning.
     When he turned around, his face was a mask of cold, raw, naked hatred, the like of which Rollie had never seen before, on anyone.  He'd calmly walked back to where Alex lay dying, he took the Medalert tag off from around his neck, and placed it carefully around hers, then he pulled the tag off of the chain, activating it.  He looked around and saw Rollie.
     "Rollie.  When they come, don't interfere, just tell them that she has to live, OK?"  He said, in a voice aching with sadness, mingled with inconsolable rage.
     Rollie could only nod his head furiously, he didn't trust himself to speak without screaming in horror at all he'd witnessed.
     Dirk looked directly at him and said: "Thanks Rollie, tell Alex that I'm sorry I won't get to meet her parents."  Then he stood up and walked out of the room, leaving Rollie to the horrors of his own memory.  He backed himself into a corner behind the table, curled himself up, and shut his eyes.
     He knew a monster when he saw one, and it had just walked out.

Here Be Monsters - Chapter 34

     Chevy was fast asleep when the emergency call came through on her comm implant.  Normally she was a light sleeper, but a day that had started with meetings, then proceeded to training, followed by surfing, and then dinner, drinks at a private club, and finally a couple of hours of decent quality sex, had wiped her out, and full consciousness was slow in coming.
     All that changed the instant she recognized the emergency code.
     She sat bolt upright so fast (and for someone operating in two thirds of their normal gravity, that was very fast indeed), that she nearly dragged her surfing instructor out of bed with her.  There was no time to apologize, and she started grabbing her clothing from the floor where it had ended up earlier, and dressed herself with indecent haste as he came to and asked her the most obvious question.
     "Where're you going, hái'ér?"  He asked, sleepily, using a word that she now understood as a term of endearment, which translated literally as 'babe'.
     "Emergency call, I have to go.  Fast."  She paused as a person to person call came in, and she scrambled to get her personal headset jacked into place behind her ear.  The jack wasn't really needed, but it encrypted her communications, making them indecipherable to anyone not on her unit's network.  Once she had it connected, she opened the connection, and spoke quickly.
     "Turlington.  IG identification number 211768.  Give me a SitRep."  She said tersely; identifying herself, and demanding information in the same breath, without any wasted effort.
     Kenjirō answered in a similarly clipped tone.
     "Commander, about two-point-six minutes ago, our monitoring station here at the embassy began receiving a Class Five emergency code from a broken Medalert beacon.  I had the signal traced, it originated from a commercial building in the Old Quarter.  Luckily, the call came in as the ready teams were switching shifts, so I've loaded them all up.  I have a fix on your location, we will pick you up en route; we are less than two minutes out, don't be late."  He informed her, as she ran out of the studio apartment without so much as a backward glance, ignoring the lift, and headed to the stairwell.
     The relatively low gravity allowed her to jump from one landing to the next without touching the stairs, and she was outside on the walkway fronting the apartment building with no other desire but to get to work. 
     She had enrolled at the Imperial Academy when she was eight, or about 12 Terran standard years old.  Her induction into the ranks of the Imperial Guard had taken place the week after her 12th birthday, where she had pledged her life to the service of the Imperial House, and now she found herself in the unenviable position of being called to action on behalf of that oath.  A Class Five emergency was reserved for members of the Imperial House itself, and there were no members of the MacMullen clan known to be on-planet.
     Her thoughts were interrupted by the sound of vectored thrust engines, specifically those of a Tsuji-Gibson VH-71A 'Spider Wasp', a variable geometry VTOL attack transport, that resembled an unholy union of Russian attack helicopter and jump jet.  She could see it coming in at a speed and altitude guaranteed to infuriate the local air traffic controllers, police, and a host of corporate security services, but in that moment she couldn't have cared less if they'd shattered windows all along their path.  The pilot didn't bother to deploy the landing gear, but instead cut power to the engines, while simultaneously boosting power to the antigrav, which put the machine down right in front of her, about one meter off the ground.  She was running for the door before it even opened, and she simply jumped in without slowing down as it did.
     She didn't have to tell them to take off, because the pilot had applied power to the VT, and extended the stub wings for additional lift and maneuverability, before she could even yell "Go!"  In the close confines of the highly urban and incredibly built-up area in which they were operating, the pilot purposely selected a flight path at low altitude, which was illegal, but made it easier to avoid other air traffic.  Thankfully, there was little traffic along their route, and nothing she could do about it anyway, so she put the thought aside and focused on getting herself ready.
     Looking around the interior of the vectored thrust aircraft, she saw that the combat team was made up of a mix of personnel; Kenjirō and two other Imperial Guards, plus a squad of regular army for backup.  The Guardsmen were wearing Hollis-DTI's K7 'Guardian' late generation exoarmor; consisting of an outer shell of metaceramic, laminated with carbon nanotube impregnated polycarbonate, over an ultralight metaplast 'skeleton'.  Articulated with synthetic muscles, the K7 would allow the user to perform feats of strength that would be impossible otherwise, and its armor was proof against virtually all high velocity AP rifle rounds.  It was possible that a glancing shot from a light anti-material rifle might be deflected, but large anti-armor rounds from 14.5mm on up likely would not.  The squad of Darkaellan Imperial Army were wearing B4/6 'Interceptor' body armor, which, although it was moderately bulky and somewhat heavy, covered them from just below the chin down to the groin, plus the upper part of the arms, and would stop ordinary rifle fire cold, in addition to shell fragments and pistol bullets.
     "Kenjirō-san," she said, once she'd tied her comm into the combat team's network, "did you bring my gear?  Or weapons?"
     "I didn't have time to grab much, but there's a set of HEX armor, combat fatigues, boots and your personal weapons:  Rifle, pistol, plus HE and stun grenades.  I figured you would want to be airborne sooner rather than later.  If I have erred, I apologise."  He told her over the noise inside the cabin.
     She was less than pleased to hear that her own K7 had been left behind, but HEX armor was the next best thing, and she quickly began changing.  HEX was an abbreviation for High Energy eXchange, although the armor's appearance of being made up of small hexagonal plates led people to assume that the name was descriptive.  It occupied a niche between the Interceptor armor of the DIA and powered exoarmor; it was extremely light, and would stop almost any small arms fire, including high velocity armor piercing rounds.  It was also proof against the hypervelocity flechettes used by the HIA Marine Corps in their Colt-Armacon M-125A1 rifles, which was the primary threat against which it had been designed.
     Kenjirō had, however, brought her rifle, which she was very glad to see.  The Imperial Guard were issued the best weapons of any military unit in the Known Sphere, the crown jewel of which was the Hollis-MacNeil 6th generation magrifle.  Consisting of a slab-sided, flat charcoal metaplast shell, with an integral electronic sight, the 6Gen magrifles were capable of incredible accuracy on their own, but when linked to a user's cranial interface, they reached a peak of lethal efficiency that was completely without precedent.  The magrifle was essentially a man-portable railgun, capable of accelerating a 7mm prefragmented metaceramic bullet with a steel driving band to velocities of up to 2150 meters per second.  When a round struck a hard surface it would either punch through and fragment, or it would liquify, causing spalling and thermal damage.  In a soft target of heterogeneous organic matter like a human body, the round would destabilize and fragment explosively, creating dozens of razor like fragments. 
     Naturally, they had been declared illegal in every system outside of the Imperium, and even there, they were restricted to military service.
     "Commander, I have at least four local law enforcement VTOLs and air EMS units en route to our primary LZ, and one military VTA, a Kuàisù Jīngshén JS5-1 from its power output, set to intercept us; however, we should have time to drop your team off before that happens."  The pilot, Captain Ackles, said over the vehicle's interior comm.
     "Thank you, Captain.  Unless that military flight begins targeting us with fire control radar, ignore it and put us down as close to the beacon as possible."  Chevy instructed, as she secured her personal weapons for rapid deployment.
     "Understood, Commander."  He acknowledged.  "We'll be dropping into the primary LZ in 90 seconds."
     "90 seconds.  Got it."  She acknowledged in return.
     She began to feel the adrenaline and dopamine rush that preceded combat, and even the moderate weight of her weapons and armor became unnoticeable, while every sense became crystal clear.  She wanted to get in there and kick some ass, even if, intellectually, she knew the time for that was likely over, and there was probably going to be little more for her to do than pick up the pieces.  One thing was certain:  If it turned out that there was a member of the Imperial House injured, or dead, at their destination, then there was going to be hell to pay.
     Her thoughts were cut short for the second time in less than five minutes when the interior lights went red, alerting the occupants of the fact that they would be landing in ten seconds.
     She checked her rifle's power and ammunition levels, then let it hang on its sling while she made certain once more that her sidearm had a round chambered and the safety was on.  The cabin lights went out as she finished securing her helmet's chin strap, and she grabbed a support bar, just as the pilot cut the VT and pushed the antigrav to the limit, causing everyone to experience a brief moment of weightlessness.
     The side doors of the VTA slammed open, and Kenjirō's team jumped the last three meters.  They hit the ground running, weapons up and sweeping across the dimly lit street in both directions.  Shevaughn remained with the Army unit until the aircraft was closer to the ground, and she was the last one out.  She could hear the sound of incoming sirens, and the noise of both rotor and vectored thrust aircraft.
     "Captain Ackles, get airborne, and stay overhead, but under no circumstances are you to fire on anyone, unless you are fired upon first.  Understood?"  She said, immediately upon hitting the ground.
     "Aye, Commander.  Understood."  He replied, already underway before she'd finished speaking.  With their transport away, Chevy retracted her helmet's light enhancing visor, and took a look around.
     There wasn't much to see.  The street itself was poured concrete, and in desperate need of resurfacing; some areas had ruts so worn that major fractures had formed.  Buildings of a commercial or light industrial nature - one of which, she noticed, was a local manufacturer of sex toys - fronted the street in both directions, this area of Níngjìng Bay being part of the city's original industrial park.  There were vehicles parked along the sidewalks on both sides of the street, most of them locally made wheeled cars, and a few light cargo vans clearly belonging to businesses in the area.  A few were wildly out of place; there was a Ducati Vetrano 1098 Superleggera, which was only available on Earth, and rare enough there to almost certainly make it unique on Minotaur.  The late model NAC-Hyundai Aerodyne was also out of place; while not uncommon, it tended to be most popular with private security firms, and was definitely out of place in a neighborhood like this.  That, and it was still running, its front windshield perforated from several well placed gunshots, and the driver slumped over, clearly dead.
     She and the backup team secured the street while the Guardsmen, having pinpointed the structure from which the beacon was being sent, kicked in the front door.  Each second that passed while she waited for them to give the 'all clear' felt like a lifetime, but she willed herself to be patient; when she finally heard Kenjiro make the call, she led the way for the rest of the team.
     She could hear the sounds of multiple voices, and sounds of people in varying degrees of distress, as her team swept through a short hallway between the outer door and a beaded curtain at the far end.  The inside of the nondescript building turned out to be a bar; one that looked like a small, probably unregistered, gambling den.  The place was dimly lit, and a miasma of stale tobacco, spilled alcohol, and the brassy odor of fresh blood hung in the air, causing her nose to wrinkle involuntarily.  The floor was littered with bodies, blood, broken furniture, bottles, and glass.  Some of the bodies were still alive, although she doubted for long; even if the EMS units on the way showed up right now, it would be touch and go.  Nevertheless, she turned to the backup squad's leader, and gave orders.
     "Fan out, identify any wounded who are critical, and be prepared to assist the incoming emergency medical personnel.  If anyone who is uninjured can be persuaded to help, use them, but don't get too aggressive.  Go."  She ordered, and turned to where Kenjiro had stopped with the other two Guardsmen.
     She saw three men in identical Armorweave trenchcoats lying dead on the floor as she made her way across the room, each one had a Norinco QBZ-803 compact assault rifle on a tactical sling.  They had all been killed with a weapon of fairly large caliber, and by someone skilled in its use from the placement of the shots.  Her helmet's forward camera would record the faces of the gunmen, and she would run them past the embassy's intelligence section later, to see if they were known to the Imperium.
     "Commander, we found the Medalert tag, but there's something you should see."  Kenjiro told her, as she came to where he was standing, the other two down on their knees working furiously to keep one of the shooting victims alive.  "This one," he gestured at the young woman being worked on, "had an Imperial House issued Medalert tag around her neck, but I don't recognize her, and her identification seems to be genuine."  He concluded, handing her the woman's identification packet.
     Chevy looked at the ID in her hands, and found herself with more questions than answers.  She knew that the person on the floor was no member of the Imperial House, and yet the tag she was handed by one of her subordinates was one of those issued to direct relatives of the Emperor.  How had she acquired it, and from whom?  She examined the holo image on the ID card once more, looking for a clue when the locals started pouring in, yelling like a pack of cliffcats in a rut.  She ignored the noise, and stared at the image in front of her.
     Who the hell was Alexandra G.J. Chase?

Monday, September 21, 2015

Here Be Monsters - Chapter 33

* My many thanks got to Joe MacDonald for much of the background on The Cartel, it was his brainchild 20 years ago, and it seemed like a shame for it to go to waste. *

     "It looks as though I was worried for nothing, Gandu.  Offers are still coming in."  Said Cameron, as they sat in his private office on the Jester watching the bids roll in; his ship having safely returned through the Vulcanfall-Minotaur locus only four days ago, transmitting the limited details of their discovery of a derelict colony ship to the Space Enforcement Agency.
     The Agency was a system wide organization whose duties included local offplanet law enforcement, and inspections for compliance with Alliance and UniSys regulations in space.  They were generally considered to be one of the most trustworthy organizations with which to file a salvage claim, and they maintained it with considerable effort.  They tended to give salvage operators the best possible assessments it could, and its personnel did their jobs without a hand under the table, reaching for graft; some places, like Jefferson, for instance, would stiff you at every turn, and charge you for the inconvenience, all the while giving preference to anyone who was willing to pay for the privilege.  As a result, virtually all legitimate salvage operators working in Alliance territory, both private and corporate, used the Agency to file their claims.
     "No offers from Resodyne, though; I thought they would be first in line.  After all, we published the registry number along with the high resolution rendering of the ship's exterior.  Someone has to know about its omission from ARA Corporation's records by now, and the fact that they have been silent worries me."  Gandu commented pensively rotating his tumbler of Scotch whisky back and forth between large, spatulate fingers.
     "It's been less than a dozen hours since the SEA's Salvage Title Adjudication Board allowed us to put our find up for bids; maybe they were slow getting out of bed this morning, or they just don't understand what we've found.  Either way, when they get in touch - and they almost certainly will - the higher the standing offer at the time, the more they'll have to pay to get it."  Cameron pontificated, with a smirk of triumph.
     Gandu took a contemplative sip of the smoky, amber liquid before speaking again.
     "I am, admittedly, probably worried about nothing, but SEA-STAB probably has at least one person within its ranks who sells information to the Multisolars."  The XO countered, once again playing the devil's advocate.
     The Captain of the Jester considered what he had just heard for all of two seconds, and said, "Maybe, but probably only to the Cartel", grinning maniacally.
     Cameron would have been the first person to admit that having to pick between the highest bid on the salvage title, and any bid made by the Cartel, would be a decision fraught with uncertainty at best, but chances were that the Cartel's bid would likely be made by one of their proxies, and no one would be the wiser.
     Well, no one who wasn't as thick as lard, like grandma used to say.  Cameron thought.
     Gandu was less than appreciative of his Captain's attempt at humor.
     "Thank you, I hadn't actually thought of that."  He said, in a dry tone which suggested he would have much preferred not to have heard his Captain's attempt at humor.
     "Sorry, XO, I know it's not funny, but you know as well as I do there's a good chance that their factors and proxies are already bidding as we sit here."  He explained, somewhat unnecessarily.
     Like most people who'd had any dealings with a Multisolar corporation, Cameron was aware of the Cartel as a pervasive element of the Known Sphere's political and economic climate.  They had a reach that extended well beyond Sol and the Humanist Interstellar Alliance, into the Free Systems League, and the other Independent Systems; their influence extended right up to the edge of the Darkaellan Imperium, where it more or less stopped.
     The Cartel had evolved from a loose conglomeration of Earth-based multinationals into the first true Multisolar.  Over the course of a generation, they had embedded themselves into virtually every major company in the Sol system, and a majority of those in the Alliance, which had been an early benefactor of the Cartel's desire for greater autonomy.  Their only objective, as Cameron saw it, was power; their pursuit of that gave them access to the capital and economic resources to support their agenda, whatever that might be.  If, however, the Cartel discovered an impediment to its goals, then it was generally considered to be a good idea to stay home, if possible.
     There had been rumors circulating for decades, about people who had gotten on the wrong side of the Cartel in a bad way, and the rumors had a certain consistency; someone finds themselves on the Cartel's radar, and they suddenly disappear, die, or end up taking an unscheduled vacation very far away.  There's never any evidence, and no one will testify to anything, either on or off the record.
     To say that those who knew of - or just suspected - the Cartel's existence feared its attentions would be a massive understatement, but the vast majority of people had no clue that such an organization existed, and that suited the Cartel just fine.  Anonymity made it virtually impossible to target the leadership legally, to say nothing of how it frustrated occasional attempts made by some very brave, determined, and incredibly stupid journalists, who clearly had more ambition than good sense, to try and expose Cartel malfeasance in the Known Sphere.
     Yet, for all of that, exposure was something - perhaps the only thing - that it seemed to fear.  It was obvious that the leadership went to great lengths to hide their identities, and keep their activities from being publicized, which, to a number of people, meant that if you had incontrovertible evidence of something that would be impossible to ignore, then you had something to bargain with.  The Cartel would negotiate when it mattered, but you'd be looking over your shoulder for the rest of your days.  It was whispered to Cameron once that a particularly intrepid young reporter had really gotten the goods on the Cartel a couple of decades ago, and had used it as leverage to fastrack her career at InterStar Media Group, arguably the largest media company ever to exist, and now that woman sat at the head of the table in the executive boardroom, newest CEO of InterStar.
     If he suspected that one of the bidders was working sub  rosa for the Cartel, then there were worse things than feigning ignorance, and hoping that he was wrong.  If, on the other hand, they decided to let him know that a third party bidder was acting as their agent, then he would have to try and work out the best deal possible, and pray he didn't push so hard that they pushed back.
     "Captain, the fact that they are probably using a half a dozen proxies and third party buyers doesn't worry me, its the total silence of the one group that has the most to lose if word about what's on that ship was to be made public."  Gandu said, reiterating his initial point regarding Resodyne's absolute silence.  "They should have at least tried for an injunction against our claim by now, or something, and they're not doing a thing.  Do you suppose that they plan to just use the fact that it wasn't listed as an asset as an excuse to let it go, then pretend to be shocked when it turns up?"
     Cameron took a slow, pensive sip of his own drink and considered the question.  On the one hand, there were some advantages to Resodyne doing just that, since they had no reason to believe that ARA Corporation had kept a mobile black R&D lab in a backwater system.  They could quite easily shrug their shoulders and say:  'We are shocked, shocked I say, at the news that the company, which we purchased in good faith, was engaged in such terrible activities, but it has nothing to do with us.'
     On the other hand, it was entirely possible that there was a boardroom catfight going on right now at Resodyne, and when the dust settled they would simply offer more money than anyone else would want to put up, or try to cut a long-term deal that amounted to the same, and he'd be set for life; with enough left over that the crew's bonuses would make them insanely happy.
     "I can't say with any certainty that would be their plan, but it makes sense.  Really, though, there's not a lot they can do to prevent the sale from going through; they never knew it existed, so what's the basis of their complaint?  Any marginally competent lawyer would laugh himself sick before telling them to go home; as it stands, we can plead ignorance, and they can plead ignorance.  Trust me, Gandu, we're covered, and we are gonna make out like bandits."  He grinned like an urchin, and finished the remainder of his drink in a single swallow.
     His executive officer still didn't seem convinced, but he sat back in his Captain's very comfortable sofa, and took another sip of his drink in order to marshal his thoughts.
     "Shall I authorize shore leave for the crew?  I'd say that they've earned some real vacation time for a change, but I would like to rotate them through a third at a time, and maybe give an extra day to the last rotation.  As sort of a compensation for being last."  Gandu asked him, moving on to more immediate, practical concerns.
     "Yeah, go ahead; after six months aboard, and all we've been through, even Rollie is gonna want to get off the ship for a few days."  Cameron answered, reflecting on the fact that even his bosun had been climbing the walls of late, Saints knew they all deserved some R&R.
     He sincerely hoped they would have fun.

Sunday, August 30, 2015

Here Be Monsters - Chapter 32


     Shevaughn brought her leg up at her attacker's lunge, snapping it out at the last moment, connecting with the leg carrying virtually all of his weight.  He responded by using the impact to shift his momentum, and spun into a tight roundhouse kick that, had she not used the impact to achieve a slight separation, would have landed with enough force to knock her down, likely for good.  His foot was so close that she felt the skin of his heel brush against her left eyebrow.  His inability to connect gave her the opening she needed; she forced her muscles, now pushed nearly to the breaking point, to move her back in close proximity to her opponent, and she thrust her right arm under his passing leg, while simultaneously snap kicking the back of his opposite knee.  He went down hard, instinctively putting out his hands to protect against slamming his face into the floor, and she added her own weight; rolling up to put her padded elbow up to the back of his head.
     "You're dead, Kenjirō-san."  She said, as she bounced back to her feet, and held out her hand to help him up.  "The fancy roundhouse was a bit much.  Although I will admit, if it had landed, you'd be peeling me off the floor."  She added, bowing to him in return for his own, slightly deeper, bow before she took a small step back and strode off the tatami.
     He regarded the woman who had recently taken over the post of senior commander of the Darkaellan Imperial Guard detachment assigned to the embassy on Minotaur.
     "Indeed."  Was his only reply.  There seemed to be little point in debating the obvious.
     She walked over to the bench along the dojo wall, and reached for her towel and water bottle.  She rinsed the gumminess out of her mouth and then drank, pausing to pour some of the cool water on her head, quickly wiping it away with her towel.
     She could feel the subliminal pressure of Kenjirō watching her as she took off the tunic of her gi to inspect the spectacular bruise forming on her left upper arm.  She was accustomed to people staring at her behind her back, so long as he didn't do it to her face.  The memory of what had precipitated those stares suddenly rose to the forefront of her thoughts with a clarity sharp as a freshly stropped razor.  If only she had been as quick witted dealing with the Emperor's eldest son, as she was in the dojo.
     She decided that the injury didn't warrant a trip to the embassy's infirmary; it would be uncomfortable, but not debilitating, and her duties today were limited to organizational matters, so she had plenty of time to get it checked out later.  She put her tunic back on, threw the damp towel into a basket along the wall for eventual collection by the domestic servants, and grabbed her gym bag, turning to her sparring partner and second in command.
     "Kenjirō-san, get the other unit leaders and their seconds together for an operational briefing," she quickly consulted her optical implant's chronometer, "at thirteen hundred hours, and have the stewards set up tea and biscuits.  I'm going see if Satoshi Hayashi can be convinced to give an intel report on the newly installed director of the Space Enforcement Agency.  First, however, I am going to have a well deserved bath."
     Kenjirō seemed to consider her words for a moment, then offered a short bow of acknowledgement.
     "An excellent idea, Commander.  A good soak should put you in a much better frame of mind to deal with that eta, although I, personally, would wait until after."  He said, in an acid tone.
     "Just remember, Kenjirō, that man wallows through the abundance of mongrelized burakumin beyond these walls so that we don't have to.  He is, by that metric, a far better person than either of us, and his commitment to the security of the Imperium is ironclad."  She admonished him gently, before leaving the dojo.
     She stepped out of the building in which the dojo was located, and into the sweltering heat and humidity of Níngjìng Bay's late summer.  As always, she couldn't understand why anyone would voluntarily emigrate to a world like Minotaur; Darkael was cooler at the equator than the Bay was in its - so called - warm temperate zone.  Minotaur's tropical and equatorial regions were almost completely uninhabited, due to the fact that the average daytime temperature at this time of year was in the high 40s to low 50s Celsius, with around ninety-five percent humidity.  Darkael's equator rarely got above 35°C, and then only in the lowlands near the coast, the seasons were less extreme as well, due to the planet's shallower axial tilt.
     There were, however, some aspects of life here that were unexpectedly pleasant.  The gravity was about seventy percent of what she was used to, which was a good thing, because the air, although it had a slightly higher percentage of oxygen, was still much thinner than that to which she was accustomed.  She had endured about a month of acclimation before the embassy's doctor had cleared her for light duty, and another two before she was allowed to take on her regular duties.  As a result, she had done a fair amount of sightseeing after she'd landed.
     The southern tip of Níngjìng Bay had a white sand beach nearly five kilometers long, with what someone had described as "...firing the sickest, glassy right-handers in the universe!", which apparently was a reference to the waves upon which people went 'surfing'.  The idea of immersing herself in open water was terrifying at a level very near instinct, and she had been horrified by the sight of dozens of people sitting on their surfboards waiting for a wave.  For someone raised on Darkael, the notion was quite simply suicidal; the marine life on her birth world was incredibly dangerous, and found humans to be very much to its liking.  As food.
     One species of sauropod, called a Dracūl, which resembled a two to three meter long cross between a komodo and a giant horned lizard, was always found in or very near lakes and rivers, and had been known to kill people and Terran livestock, even when there was local prey closer and more accessible.  Dracūl (the same for plural and singular) were solitary and extremely territorial, and on the island of Acarsaid Mòr, where the Capital was located, they had been hunted to near extinction.  Needless to say, swimming was not a very popular recreational activity back home.
     Here, on the other hand, the planet's oceans, while teeming with life, were actually less dangerous than Earth's, and she found that she had a knack for surfing.  She had also discovered that there was no shortage of willing instructors from which to choose (although she was ultimately forced to admit that they were less driven by a desire to teach, than to get her in bed).  Their interest was more due to novelty than anything else, since there were probably less than a thousand Darkaellan subjects on-planet, and virtually all of them were employees of the embassy and their dependents.
     The embassy itself was large enough to accommodate all Imperial subjects in an emergency, but most took advantage of the Imperium's very generous housing allowance for embassy staff, and found private residences in the city itself.  Even so, the embassy covered a roughly square area of approximately 24 hectares, with three main buildings, and five smaller buildings for support services.  The buildings' exteriors had been constructed of locally sourced materials, and the work had been done by local contractors.  The interiors, however, had been made of both local materials, and others imported from the homeworld.  Most of the embassy's internal communications and data network had been built on Darkael and shipped here, but some of the most sophisticated components had to be brought from Earth.  As a result, the embassy had some of the best communications security on the planet.
     The grounds had the well manicured look of a Japanese garden, complete with an ornamental rock garden with its typical raked gravel, and bonsai trees.  The design of the building that housed the Honorable Bruce Addison Stirling, ambassador to the HIA, combined aspects of highland Scottish and Japanese architecture, and it blended in well with the other buildings.
     The confluence of Scottish Highland and traditional Japanese culture was no accident.  Darkael had been settled by a curious mix of Scots, Northern Europeans and Japanese, all of whom had a shared history.  They were all descendants, relatives, or associates of the seven families who had served as retainers and partners of the MacMullen clan.  Some of those relationships went back to the sixteenth century, but more than a century of relative isolation since the Exodus had caused some cultural dividing lines to blur into nonexistence, and others had ossified into impenetrability.

-----

     Shevaughn Turlington - her grandfather liked to call her 'Chevy', and the nickname stuck - was trying to organize her thoughts while soaking her tired muscles in the embassy's private spa bath, when an outside call came through to her comm implant, which meant that it was from someone with a lot of authority, and some heavy encryption; Imperial Guard communication implants couldn't normally be used with outside service providers, unless the originator used military grade encryption protocols.
     The call carried a Hyperwave ID code that she recognized instantly; it was a recorded message from an Imperial Guardsman who had been inducted at the same time as she.  It was short and to the point.
     "Hey, Chevy, I thought you might want a heads up:  Three Navy ships are headed out to Novy Sevastopol through the Minotaur locus.  The lead ship is being commanded by none other than Admiral Teiji Sakamoto.  Two of our merchant ships were apparently taken by unregistered privateers, so the Imperial House has decided to enforce the laws against piracy that the Baryshev Industrial Combine clearly won't.  Ki-o-tsukete, Chevy, and good luck."  The recorded message ended abruptly, as FTL communications were insanely expensive, and nobody wanted to spend more on their limited bandwidth than was absolutely necessary, although, since it had been invented by DTI, the Imperium's official business tended to go at a massive discount.
     She decided to share the anxiety of having someone like Admiral Sakamoto on their way.  With any luck he'd just pass through, but she would have to be ready, just in case he decided on a personal visit.  She activated her comm and pinged Kenjirō.
     "Kenjirō-san, I've just received a back channel heads-up from an old friend, letting me know that Admiral Teiji Sakamoto is going to be passing through the system.  Pass the word, I'll elaborate further during our ops briefing."  She said, as soon as he acknowledged her call.
     There was a long pause, which wasn't entirely unexpected.
     "When you say 'passing through', you don't necessarily mean a personal visit, right?"  He said, warily.
     "For my own sake, if nothing else, I hope not."  She replied with feeling.  "There's not much we can do if he does, so quit worrying about it, we still have a job to do."
     "Yes, Commander.  I'll pass the information to the other team leaders.  I'm assuming you will be informing the ambassador?"  He asked with a trace of sly amusement.
     The Right Honourable Bruce Addison Stirling, Ambassador to the HIA, was a grand nephew of Lord Clarence of House Stirling, one of the seven Noble Houses that served as governors of various territories throughout the home system.  She had to admit that the man owed his position more to guts and brains than most of his contemporaries, and that, suave and cultured though he may be, he was a ruthless as a dracūl when it came to protecting the Imperium's interests.  He was also less doctrinaire in his own way than many others who were born to service and privilege.  He was approachable, yet managed to maintain a professional detachment; he treated his subordinates with respect, while never losing sight of the fact that they were subordinates; most importantly, he seemed to know his limitations, and was capable of deferring to another's expertise when it was required.
     In short, Ambassador Stirling was the perfect boss.
     "You may safely make that assumption Kenjirō-san.  Although I'd be surprised if he doesn't already know."  She answered, before cutting the connection.
     The news that Teiji Sakamoto was on his way filled Chevy with a vague sense of apprehension.  The Admiral was an ardent isolationist, and arguably the best flag officer in the Darkaellan Imperial Navy; he had been an instructor at the Naval Academy, but his views had been cause for some concern, so he had been promoted, and given command of the 3rd Fleet.  She wondered why he had suddenly been given a detached squadron and a mission to a technically neutral station system, but the implications, like a Darkaellan winter, were chilling.  She suddenly found herself incapable of relaxing, despite the heat of the water in which she was immersed, so she climbed out of the bath, and reached for her robe.
     Some days, it just didn't pay to get out of bed.