047-1117 – Kupakii – Tlianke/Hinterworlds

Kupakii – Tlianke/Hinterworlds 0101 C654352-A S 905 Cs K4 IV M8 D

Today was… interesting.

We made orbit about 1700 yesterday, with both the Skellis’ Eye and the PS11 flanking us. As promised, the Eye almost immediately sent a boat over with a repair crew on board. They took several hours, but in the end, Jami assured me the hull was as good as new. I thanked them, they left, and Kupakii STC almost immediately asked us to land.

I guessed it was time to answer a few questions.

Kupakii is cold. Really cold. Officially there are five major continents and a handful of island clusters. In reality, there are enormous icecaps that cover the northern and southern poles, a narrow equatorial sea which represents the only open ocean, and a single continent that crosses it and isn’t covered by ice. A single isthmus of actual land on a frozen world. That’s where the starport is.

We came in, flanked by the PS11 the entire way. There were a number of landing pads; far more than one would expect on a planet this small but a reasonable number based on its location on a main trade route. Several were occupied but we settled on the one closest to the main colony. Our escort hovered nearby until we were down, then boosted up and back to orbit.

I signaled we were down then flipped the internals off. I immediately felt lighter; with everything else that had been going on I had forgotten to set the internal gravity to adjust during the jump. I sighed and climbed out of the Captain’s seat.

Saahna was standing up from the Navigator console as well. “I’m not looking forward to this,” she said with some trepidation.

I shrugged, having resigned myself some time ago. “Just tell them the truth. Minus a few details. If they push, let them what we know about the bug in the Uptown Downport and its possible connection. Once they find one conspiracy maybe they’ll lock onto it and not look further for another.”

She nodded and sighed. “Yeah, I guess that’s the best we can do.”

I nodded in return. “Yeah. Let’s hope this works.” I held my gaze a bit longer. “I do love you, you know.”

She looked around in surprise. “Derek!” She glanced at Do’rex, who was intently staring at his console. “Yeah… you too.”

I smiled. “Let’s go then.”

Varan was already in the crew lounge, along with Minister Trakon and Dr. Korvusar. Minister Trakon must have seen something in my expression and came over.

“Do not worry, Captain,” he said, placing his hand on my shoulder. “You have all the support Dr. Korvusar and myself can provide. With your records clearly showing that ‘Sir’ Gortor and his ‘family’ were attempting hostile action to the ship. You behaved as should be expected.”

I sighed. “Thank you, Minister. I appreciate your support.” I paused. “And we won’t be much of an asset to you if we all get arrested and executed here.”

He frowned. “Captain! Surely you don’t believe we would abandon you! Not after what you have done for us!”

“I’m just more worried than the rest of you. Well… Saahna may be more worried than me.”

He shook his head. “Everything will be fine.”

I sighed again. “I hope so.” I looked around. Do’rex had entered the lounge so it looked like all of us were here. “Well… Let’s do this.”

We wound up going out through the cargo bay. The airlock could only let a few of us out at a time but I could open the iris and the external door to the cargo bay at the same time. The cargobots immediately started unloading and we walked past them and into the pad.

It was cold, but I hit the heating coils on my jumpsuit and saw most everyone else doing the same. A couple of Kupakii officials were already in the landing pad. I noticed that a pair of guards in full battle dress were standing by the airlock to the colony, but focused my attention on the quartet of officials waiting for us.

One was standing a bit ahead of the others, so I walked up to her. “Captain Kodai of the Grayswandir,” I said, pulling up my comp. I flicked a set of files to her. “And I suspect you’ll want these as well.” I flicked a second set, this one the recordings we had of what had transpired in the passenger lounge several days ago. It felt like weeks.

She glanced down at her own comp and nodded, then looked back at me. “Thank you, Captain.” She hesitated a bit and a slight frown appeared. “Gone through this before, have you?”

I raised my hands. “No, thankfully. I’m just providing what the regulations tell me that I need to turn over.”

She shrugged slightly. “Usually we have to ask for the information.”

It was my turn to frown. “So you’ve gone through this before too?”

She glared slightly. “I’m Commander Patricia Winters, the senior Imperial officer on this facility. This…” she gestured at a short man standing a bit behind her, “is Mayor Jefry Moraz; he is in charge of the civilian population here. But hijackings, and anything outside the atmosphere, fall under my purview. Mayor Moraz is here as an observer in case anything we discover affects the local population.”

Mayor Moraz stepped forward and extended a hand. “Welcome to Kupakii, Captain… Kodai was it? I’m sorry your arrival is under circumstances such as these.”

“So am I,” I said, trying to smile. “I hope we have not caused any problems.”

“Actually… you may have prevented a few. I understand that Minister Trakon of the Boilingbrook High Council is on board?”

I nodded turning back towards the ship and gestured to where Minister Trakon and the other passengers were still standing beside the cargo ramp. “Yes,” I said, turning back. “I’m sure he will be more than happy to speak with you as soon as we have this… other business out of the way.”

“Yes,” said Commander Winters, a bit sharply while turning to look at him. “And you will be able to meet with him. But first, there has been an incident we need to investigate. I’m sure you understand, Mayor.”

He nodded while stepping back, nodding. “Yes… Yes of course Commander Winters. Please, continue with your investigation.”

She turned back to me. “Of course you understand that we will have to investigate this incident, Captain. Ordinarily this would be a simple investigation but, you admit, your alleged hijacker was an Imperial Knight. We must take this seriously.”

I nodded while trying to maintain my composure. I gestured towards her comp. “The records we sent you will clearly show what happened.”

“Yes, but will your full records?”

I frowned. “Those are our full records.”

“Well, that’s what you are telling me. But I still need to have full access to your ship’s computer.”

“What!”

She smiled slightly. “Why not, Captain? Is there something there that you don’t want us to see?”

I looked around helplessly. I saw Saahna grimace, then nod. But then I happened to glance closer to the ship and saw Dr. Korvusar nodding as she started walking towards us.

I turned back to Commander Winters. “Sure. No problem.” I pulled up my comm. “Gray? Commander Winters, and anyone she designates, has full access to your records. Read-only.” I glanced at her as I said that. “Confirm?”

“Confirmed, Captain.” I turned back to Winters. “That what you need?”

She frowned. “Unhappy, Captain?”

I frowned back. “I’m not a smuggler if that is what you are thinking. I just don’t like having our operations made public.”

She smiled, fading into a smirk. “I’m sure you’ve done nothing of interest to us, Captain.”

“He hasn’t.” I turned, slightly in surprise, to see Dr. Korvusar standing next to us. “I assure you that Captain Kodai here has done nothing outside of the limits of proprietary or Imperial law.”

“I’m sure of that, Ms….” she stopped, looking at the ident that Dr. Korvusar was holding out towards her. She frowned, then pulled out her own comp and scanned it. She frowned further, looking from it to Dr. Korvusar then back to me.

“Wait here, please,” she said. She immediately retreated to talk to the other officials with her, then then the entire group went to talk to the guards near the exit.

“What did you show her?” I asked Dr. Korvusar.

“Just trying to cut through some red tape,” she said with a smile.

“With what?”

She turned to me, smiling politely. “I’ve taken ‘Dr.’ as an honorific, but I’ll occasionally admit to ‘Baroness’.”

“What?!”

Her smile turned genuine. “Sometimes nobility has it’s perks. No reason not to deny them.” She tilted her head. “Not everyone is like you, you know!”

I felt my face flush. “What! How did you…”

“Shh…” she said, tilting her head towards the entrance. “They’re back.”

I turned in time to see Commander Winters and two escorts returning. “Very well, um… Captain Kodai. We will have to look into your report. In the meantime, we will have to ask you to remain in the docking bay.”

“What?” I asked. I looked around. “How about we just go back on board?”

Commander Winters was obviously uncomfortable and glanced towards Dr. Korvusar before replying. “Um… yes. That will be fine.” She paused, thinking. “Um… Ag… Baroness… Dr. Korvusar. Would you mind accompanying me? There are a few questions I have that… that would be best answered by an independent passenger.

“Certainly,” she replied, glancing towards me.

I nodded, “OK? I guess?”

Commander Winters turned to me, anger written on her face. “I didn’t ask you, Captain.” She emphasized the last word a bit too much. “All of you will remain here.” She glanced around the landing bay. “All of you. I will return in what I hope will be a brief time.” She glanced at Dr. Korvusar as she said that.

Dr. Korvusar smiled. “I have no secrets. Shall we?” She gestured towards the access to the bay.

Commander Winters frowned more deeply. “Yes… A… Baroness. Of course.” She turned to the people with her. “We will resume this in my office.” She turned back to me. “And you, and your passengers, will stay here. Understand?”

I raised my hands. “Yeah. Got it.”

She nodded, then motioned to the others with her. “Then we will be back. After we determine what is really going on here.” She turned to Dr. Korvusar. “Baroness?”

Dr. Korvusar raised an eyebrow. “You are expecting Minister Gorter to stay out here as well?”

By this point, Commander Winters was visibly choking back on anger. “Of course not. Minister Gorter, please join us.” He nodded politely, both to her and me then stepped forward.

The Commander turned back to me. “Stay here!” she spat. “You. And… all of you.” Without another word she turned and left. The two officials with her immediately followed, as did Dr. Korvusar and Minister Trakon. Mayor Moraz looked at us, shrugged, and then followed as well.

The two guards by the door remained as the others exited. As soon as it had slid shut I walked back to the others.

“Well… That could have gone better.”

Varan was looking around in confusion. “What just happened?”

“Someone pulled rank,” said Saahna, crossing her arms while continuing to look at the closed door. “We’ve got a highly-ranked foreign official and a highly-ranked Imperial noble both wanting an investigation to come to a quick conclusion. On the other side, we’ve got an Imperial planetary governor who is having to deal with investigating an attempted hijacking and the death of an Imperial Knight, both of which seem to be connected to a firefight that wound up involving a naval vessel answering to said foreign official that had been running silent in her system. That’s gotta be a lot of paperwork.”

Jami shook her head. “No… that was something more than that. Boss lady there was scared. Not intimidated or overruled… scared. Whatever our doctor showed her scared her.”

I nodded in agreement. “Yeah; whatever she showed on that comp really rattled her. She wasn’t just annoyed at seeing it. She was pissed.”

Saahna nodded slowly. “Yeah. I figured she would be upset with getting this dumped on her, but… that’s a bit odd.”

Before anyone could respond the door slid open again and two people came though and came up to us.

“Captain Kodai?” the first one said to me. “Commander Denan? Will you come with us, please?”

I glanced at Saahna and shrugged. “Certainly. Whatever you need.”

She frowned. “Scout Commander Winters wishes to speak with both of you. Personally.” She glanced between us. “If you will follow me…”

I shrugged. “Yeah, let’s get this over with.” Saahna nodded as well and we followed them back into the base.

I hadn’t realized how cold it was outside until I entered the base. I immediately tapped the thermals on my jumpsuit to turn them off. Our escort had continued walking and stopped at a customs office down the corridor. The door slid open and she gestured Saahna through. I caught up and was about to follow when the other Scout stopped me.

“Sorry, Captain; we need to talk to everyone separately.” He nodded to his colleague who followed Saahna into the office and let the door slide shut behind them. My escort pointed further down the corridor. “We’ll take that one.”

I followed him on down to the next door. As ship’s crew, we rarely had to deal with customs. Well, we did, but it was usually just the paperwork we filed and the cargo and passenger manifests we transferred to them. We were all licensed and registered. They knew who we were and the fact that we were all registered to a ship meant that they could find us if we did anything. So I didn’t normally have to worry about it.

Today, I did.

I stepped into the room. There was a single table with a pair of chairs on both sides and a full wall screen displaying a beach scene from somewhere. I appreciated the irony. I sighed and pulled out a chair.

“That side,” my escort said, pointing to the far side of the table. I shrugged and went around the table. As I sat, I glanced up at the array of imagers hanging from the center of the ceiling.

“All right,” he said, sitting down in the chair I had pulled out. “I’m Scout Lieutenant Karver Payton; I’ll be conducting this interview.” He pulled out his comp and started looking at it.

“Scout?” I said. “You aren’t Kupakii customs?”

He shook his head, still looking at the comp. “The planet is theirs; the starport and this base are ours. Which means you are currently in Imperial jurisdiction. So I get to talk to you.”

He continued looking at something on his comp for several seconds, then sat it down. “What caused you to return to your passenger lounge at the time you did?”

I was a bit confused at the sudden question but answered as best I could. “We were having a crew meeting in the crew lounge. I checked with Gray… our ship’s computer… for the status of the passengers just in case something had come up. When I found Sir Gorter was out of his cabin I went up to see what was going on.”

He nodded. “And your Lieutenant Denan followed?”

I nodded in return. “Yes.”

“Does your Lieutenant Denan normally carry her gauss rifle to crew meetings?”

I frowned. “It was a preparedness drill. She’s our security, so she had it with her.”

“I thought you said it was a meeting.”

I sighed. “It was both. We were discussing possible scenarios and that sort of thing. And we wanted to be able to discuss things openly without having a passenger wander down.”

“You didn’t trust your passengers?”

I closed my eyes for a moment. “I never completely trust my passengers. Not that I think they are all out to hijack my ship or something, but I’ve had enough passengers who have never been off-planet before wondering why they can’t open the airlock while in Jump or something. I just wanted to check on them.”

He frowned slightly. “So Sir Gortor shouldn’t have been in the lounge?”

I shook my head. “I had asked all passengers to stay in their cabins. When I saw he was outside I went up to see what was going on.”

“Why were you worried about Sir Gortor?”

“He had already had a run-in or two with our other passengers; most specifically with Ms. Tharis. He had quite clearly expressed his displeasure with her. I just wanted to break up anything in case she was out of her cabin as well.”

“I thought you said that only Sir Gortor was out of his cabin.”

“I said that Gray had told me that Sir Gortor was out of his cabin. If I thought the Grayswandir could handle everything on its own, I would sleep in every day. So yeah, I had to check.”

He tapped something on his comp. “So… why did you shoot him?”

I almost asked who he was asking about, but decided it wasn’t worth the effort. We both knew the answer. “He pointed a gun at me. I’m a Free Trader, not a Marine, but even I know that you don’t point a gun at anything unless you plan to shoot it. My security officer responded accordingly. I fully support her action.”

He nodded slowly. “You knew she was shooting at an Imperial Knight. And he had told you he was performing his duties.”

I was slowly becoming angry. “If he had talked to me about said duties then… maybe. I’m a Free Trader Captain. My responsibility is to my crew, my ship, and my passengers. In that order. He doesn’t get to take it upon himself to alienate himself from me by threatening one passenger then attempting to break into the cabin of another. And, after the welcoming committee we met when we arrived, I’m not sure I would have survived supporting him anyway.”

I heard him sigh, then he busied himself looking at his comp. He was flicking through displays but I could tell he wasn’t really looking at anything; he was just using it as cover while he thought.

“Did you believe that you, or your ship and crew, were in danger?”

“Yes!” I said, a bit too emphatically.

“Did you feel that Sir Gortor’s death was the only option at that moment?”

I sighed. “I really didn’t have any way to influence that but… yeah, if I had had my snub pistol with me I would have taken the shot. Yes.”

He nodded, sighed, then tapped on his comp. “Thank you, Captain. Scout Commander Winters will be here to speak with you shortly.” Without another word he stood up and exited the room.

I sighed and pulled up my comp. Anything external was blocked; probably because of the room I was in. I sighed and leaned back. We were committed now. I leaned even further back and tried to relax.

I may have fallen asleep, I’m not sure, but I snapped back to awareness when someone entered the room. I tilted the chair back forwards in time to see an obviously unhappy Scout Commander Winters enter the room and drop into the chair in front of me.

“You have brought a problem to me, Captain,” she said without preamble; her face tightened in a scowl.

I leaned forward. “Why? What have we possibly done that we shouldn’t have?”

She sighed and leaned back, staring at the ceiling for a long moment, then leaned back forwards.

“Do you know why I’m out here?” she asked, anger obvious in both her voice and on her face. “I didn’t want to have to deal with all the bullshit politics back in the Imperium. Out here I only had a few things to take care of. Make sure the spice farms on Kupakii have enough technology and trade keep functioning without any kind of local manufacturing to keep them alive. Oh, and make sure that we know what is going on with all these independent polities in the Hinterworlds; just to make sure they aren’t getting too friendly with someone we don’t like.”

She leaned further forward towards me. “And you know what? I hit that window. I gave everyone what they thought they wanted to hear. And then you showed up.”

She sighed and looked up at the light panels on the ceiling. “And then you show up and bring me every problem I was hoping to get away from.”

She looked back down and leaned forward towards me. “First, an Imperial Knight gets killed on your ship.” She held up a hand as I started to protest. “Yes, he should have known better than to point a gun at you, but you know what? The Imperium kinda has its own problems right now; the ones who know what they’re doing are busy with other things.”

I started to speak again but she once more waved me off. “So why is he here? He’s trying to stop Boilingbrook from starting a new multi-world alliance out here. Don’t look so surprised; Kupakii is hardly the only planet they’ve been talking to. I knew they were working on it. In fact, I was asked to try to dissuade it from happening.”

I finally got a word out. “What!”

She leaned back and glared at me. “You’re an Imperial. You’re from the Glimmerdrift. You were from a client state. You know how this works.” The glare turned into a smirk. “By the way, have you ever told your crew why you haven’t been back to your home planet in almost 30 years?”

I half stood up at that. “That is none of your, or their, business!”

Her expression didn’t change. “Sit back down, Captain.” She waited until I did, then sighed. “I was supposed to prevent Boilingbrook from forming an alliance out here. Sir Gortor had the same orders. His methods may have left something to be desired, but he was following orders from someone further up the line from us. Much further up the line. Got it?”

I didn’t say anything, but I felt my stomach tighten. “Then maybe he should have mentioned that to me in advance…”

“Or maybe he had some reason not to trust you?” She paused, looking at me carefully. I recognized the gambit well enough to keep my expression neutral. Negotiations are the same no matter what they are; even if the result is getting a good deal on some power converters in one case and not getting executed in another.

She held the gaze a bit, then sighed slightly. “Oh don’t worry, Captain. You obviously briefed your crew well. And you have too many friends now to change the way things are obviously have to go.”

I frowned. “What the hells is that supposed to mean.”

She sighed and looked at the ceiling again. There was a long pause; long enough that I was wondering if I should say something, before she looked back down.

“I was supposed to block the kind of deal your friend Minister Trakon is here to make with Mayor Moraz. Gods know how they managed their negotiations behind my back. I’ll have to have a few very long conversations with some of my staff after this.”

That seemed out-of-character. “Why are you telling me this?”

She grimaced. “Because you have friends. Friends that I can’t go up against no matter what my orders are. Boilingbrook? I can’t go against the ruling council of one of the most powerful planets on this end of the sector. Your “passenger” Baroness Korvusar?” She grimaced again. “Let’s just say that ‘Baroness’ is the least of her titles. She wants something from you? I suggest you do what she asks.”

“She’s on-board because she’s a guaranteed…”

She waved me off. “Trust me. If she doesn’t want you to know who she is or what she has… I won’t tell you. But… don’t trust her.”

I frowned. “She’s never told me that she was anything but a retired Naval doctor. I didn’t even know she was a Baroness until today. What has she…”

She waved me off again. “Look… If she isn’t demanding anything of you? I’d be thankful. The only reason I’m talking to you instead of having you and your entire crew executed is because of her.”

“What the hells!” I jumped up out of my seat.

“Sit down, Captain,” she said sternly, almost yelling. “I’d almost think it worth it to take someone down with me.”

I was still standing. “I was about to be killed! Did you expect me…”

“No. I’m blaming Sir Gortor instead of you.” She sighed. “He obviously didn’t know what else you knew. Someone should have told him you had planted a sensor for him.” She raised an eyebrow at my surprise. “Not everyone on your crew is as good of a negotiator as you, Captain.”

I sighed. “Yeah, obviously. What do you know.”

She raised an eyebrow. “What should I know, Captain?”

“Nothing more than you do.” I sighed again, then sat back down. “So… why execution.”

It was her turn to look away. “Because I have orders. Because Sir Gortor had orders. Because I talked to his wife and our orders match each other’s. And because what you have done completely contradicts those orders. Interfering with an Imperial Knight in performance of his duties would normally be a death penalty anyway, but you were fortunate enough to do it both in front of one of the highest-ranked individuals of an independent world and in front an Imperial noble with an even higher rank who has a… different perspective on things. And she seems to have different orders than my own. So… get out of here.”

“What?

“Get out of my station!” she said, her voice raising. “Do whatever you want with the locals. Make whatever deals you want. And when you’re done? Leave. And don’t come back. I have to put up with you now and until you finish your normal starport operations. After that? Don’t come back. Or I will have you and your entire crew executed for landing on my planet.”

I stared at her, stunned. “It isn’t your planet.”

She glared back. “Try me.”

I held her gaze for a few moments, then nodded. “Got it. Where are my crew?”

She shrugged as she stood up. “I don’t know. In the city, somewhere. They’re your crew, not mine.”

“OK. As I said, got it.” I stood up myself. “Just tell me which way is out.”

She nodded. “Just down the corridor to the end.” She paused. “We will treat you as any normal Free Trader that has landed here for the next week. After that…? Don’t come here again.”

“Again, got it.” I hesitated. “Thank you, Scout Commander.”

She frowned, then turned and left. “Thank my by getting the hells off my station.”

I waited a few minutes to make sure she was gone, then left the room. The corridor was empty. I continued on to the end where I found an iris and passed through.

I found myself outside again, but a paved path led from the dome I had just left to another about a hundred meters away. I just turned on the thermals in my jumpsuit again until I reached the colony.

This iris was a full airlock and, once inside, I found myself in a dome a few kilometers across. I immediately pinged my comms.

“Well, they finally let me out. Where is everyone?”

Varan responded almost immediately. “We’re at the Frozen Dawn. It’s just down the main road. You can’t miss it.”

“Thanks,” I replied. “See you in a few.”

There were a number of other people wandering around, mostly wearing heavier, but brightly colored clothing and with breather masks slung around their necks. The temperature inside the dome was warmer than outside but would still be considered chilly by most standards. I just left my thermals up.

The area I was in seemed to be mostly open parkland with grass, flowers and small trees and shrubs. Probably one of the few places on the planet where they grew. There didn’t seem to be any actually defined streets. Instead buildings were scattered at random. Actually, more “open-air” pavilions. With the dome apparently they didn’t see any need to subdivide it any further.

A gravel walkway led directly inwards from the airlock so I continued to follow it. I passed a few of the pavilions before coming across a set of tables arranged around a large open fire pit. A hologram of a melting sun hung over it. I decided this was where I was going even before I saw Jami waving at me.

I wandered through the tables and sat down. The crew was at a large, circular table that would have looked more at home on a beach than a frozen planet. Jami, Shelly, and Varan were seated there and had been looking at something on a remote when I came up.

“Where’s everyone else?” I asked as I stepped over the bench and sat down. “And I guess they let all of you in early?”

Varan snorted. “Let us in? They made no secret that they didn’t want us dirtying up their starport. I’d suggest we go over the ship with a fine-toothed sensor when we get back. We are not exactly their favorite crew here.”

I nodded in agreement. “Yeah; I was basically told to go away and stay away. Works for me. But again, where is everyone else?”

I was at the bar,” came Saahna’s voice from behind me. I looked back to see her standing behind me, holding a glass in my direction. “I figured you would be out after they were done with me. And I figured you would need one of these.”

“Probably more than ‘one’.” I took the glass and drained half of it before she managed to sit down. She looked at me and frowned.

“You’re getting the next round.”

I nodded. “No problem. We’ll just make this the debrief and I’ll get the others too.” I took another huge gulp. “So… where’s Do’rex?”

“At a hotel. Somewhere.” Jami shrugged. “He told me he just wanted to be by himself for a while and left.”

I shrugged. “Can’t say I blame him, but…” I looked around. “Where’s a hotel around here.”

“Somewhere below us,” said Varan, taking another glass that Saahna was passing to him. “Apparently there are several levels of colony below us. This dome is just here so they can come upstairs every now and then.”

I paused, trying to remember what I had researched on Kupakii. “Yeah, half their population lives here. They couldn’t fit in this dome.”

He nodded. “There’s apparently a lot down there, but this was the first bar we came to. Sorry.”

I shook my head. “I’d have made a beeline for it myself. Don’t apologize.”

He smiled. “Remember that when you see the bill.”

I grimaced slightly. “That bad?”

“Yeah,” said Saahna, putting another glass in front of me. “I know you well enough…”

I finished my first beer then picked up then new one. “Thanks.”

“You’re welcome.”

“So…” I said, looking around. “What did I miss?”

Varan shrugged. “They mostly seemed interested in the two of you. And our logs. A couple of them went on-board after they took you and Saahna away, but they only stayed about 15 minutes. Then they told us to leave and we came here.” He took a drink. “So… how did it go with you?”

I took another drink myself. “We aren’t exactly popular here.”

“I gathered that.”

“Yeah. Scout Commander Winters is apparently on Sir Gortor’s side. She flat out told me she would have executed us if Minister Trakon and Dr. Korvusar were not here. Baroness Korvusar.” I frowned. “Apparently that’s real, not one of those ceremonial titles the Navy likes to give out.”

Saahna nodded, taking another long pull from her own glass. “The first thing Winters said to me was an accusation of murder. No… assassination.” She snorted. “Normally I’d take it as a compliment, but Dulinor had kinda soured me on that lifestyle.”

“Anyway…” she looked around but didn’t see anything except the tray she had brought the drinks back on; still hovering a few feet behind her. She sighed and stood up. “Anyway, she didn’t do much except to say that if we hadn’t been lucky enough to ‘just happen’ to have a decorated Baroness on-board she wouldn’t have hesitated to hang us in the landing bay.”

I frowned, shaking my head. “This doesn’t make sense. She may have been told to keep Kupakii independent and a client state, but she has to know that nothing excuses an attempted hijacking. If Sir Gortor had wanted our assistance then he would have approached us first. The fact that he didn’t pretty much means that he would have gotten rid of us as soon as he was done with Minister Trakon. The Fesarius would have met us at jump-in, he and his family would have transferred over, and they would be long gone before Kupakii got a ship out there to see what was going on.” I sighed. “We didn’t have a choice.”

“No, we didn’t,” said Jami, standing up. She walked around the table and took the tray from Saahna, tapping the disable to let her carry it. It immediately dropped to her side. “I’ll go get another round, especially now that the Captain has agreed to pay for it.” She smiled in my direction. “I think you need to stay here.”

Saahna glanced at her briefly, then nodded and sat back down. Jami headed back for the bar.

“So…” I started. “That’s where we are.” I looked across the table to where Shelly was sitting, arms wrapped around herself as she sat in a jacket that was probably adequate back on Boilingbrook but less-than-so here. Her imager rig was sitting on the bench next to her, disabled.

I frowned. “Whoa! Sorry. You need another jacket or something?”

She grimaced. “I’ll be fine. We’re always in a controlled environment back home. I never expected someone to have an area under life support this cold.”

I nodded. “Yeah, sorry. I need to get you a jumpsuit.” I pointed at mine. “Temperature controlled with an internal skin-tight that can hold against vacuum and with about an hour recycle. Don’t leave your ship without it!”

She frowned further. “Yeah, and I don’t have one.”

I held up a hand. “Yeah, got it.” I pulled up my comp and tapped, then frowned at what I saw.”

Varan seemed to find my reaction amusing. “Yeah, they aren’t big on robotics here. That’s why Jami’s at the bar instead of having a waitbot bring something to us. You want something? You need to go get it.”

I frowned, tapped a bit more, and then smiled a bit. “Which just means that they have an entire local career involving delivering things. ’Postmen’ they call them.” I shrugged. “Whatever.” I tapped a bit more then looked back at Shelly. “Something is on the way. We’ll get you a proper suit later.”

“Thanks,” she said, giving an exaggerated shiver. “When I thought about what you Travellers did I never thought of mundane things like this.”

“It’s all mundane things,” said Jami, arriving back with another tray of drinks and food. She left the tray hovering over the table as she handed out drinks, including another for both me and Saahna. She also dropped a bowl of Tama leaves in the center of the table, then shoved the tray to hover behind her as she sat down.

Shelly was shaking her head. “My first trip. And people want to kill us? What is going on?”

Jami smiled, taking a handful of Tama leaves and crunching on them. “Welcome to the life of a Free Trader.”

I held up my hand while shaking my head. “No… No. This is not how things normally go.” I sighed. “This isn’t my idea of how this should have gone.”

“Well you should have thought things through earlier, shouldn’t you?” I turned to stare at Saahna, but she was smiling. “Oh, don’t get like that. You were right; none of us could have known things would go this way, and I’m pretty sure none of us would have turned down a guaranteed High Passage.” She glanced towards Shelly. “No offence. I’m sure you had no idea what you were getting into.”

Shelly shook her head slowly then lowered her head to her hands. Saahna and I glanced at each other awkwardly.

“OK!” I said, a little too enthusiastically. “We can’t change the situation we’re in so let’s look forward. Next stop on the main is Gimisapum. Anyone have any ideas?”

Varan tilted his head, looking at me. “Aren’t you the Broker on this ship?”

I sighed. “Yeah, yeah… but you’ve been out here a bit longer than me.”

He shrugged. “Not long enough to get anything more than that they really don’t like robots here. They really aren’t even that big on fabricators. So expect everything to be expensive.”

I nodded. “So the goods we brought in should sell for a good price then. Every nebula has a silver lining.”

“I hope so.”

I shrugged. “We’ll find out.” I glanced at my comp and frowned. “They haven’t released the cargo yet.”

Varan grimaced at that. “Yeah, I suspect they’ll be giving us the minimal service they can. The Scout Service runs the port here.”

I nodded. “Yeah. Bad luck for us. I would have thought with the situation back home they would have their attention focused elsewhere, but they’re apparently doubling-down here.”

Saahna finished her first drink and started on a second. “But why? Sure, IBIS is under the Scout Service; that’s an open secret. But shouldn’t they be more worried about Margaret, Lucan and Dulinor than what is going on out here? Hells, if we were on the other end of the sector I’d figure they were worried about the the Sols, but this far out?”

I shook my head. “Yeah. And the Spoilsports, if Sir Gortor really was with them, sure seem intent on keeping this end of the Hinterworlds from being too organized. I’m not sure that here is where I’d be putting my effort right now.”

“We’re out here,” pointed out Jami.

“We’re out here for profit,” I said. “We aren’t trying to hold the Imperium together.”

“What makes you think the Spoilsports are?” asked Saahna.

“Huh?” I turned to her. “What… what are they doing then?”

She hesitated slightly. “Maybe… they’re working on a coup of their own.”

“A what?”

She sighed. “I’ve been thinking about it. The focus here doesn’t make sense. Unless…”

She took a long gulp of her beer then continued. “Look… the Hinterworlds here have always been a bit of a free-for-all. And the Glimmerdrift and even the Old Expanses to some extent. People do what they want and everyone else basically stays out of your way as long as the status quo doesn’t get disrupted too much.”

“But then then Imperium, the 500 kilogram garien in the area, suddenly has its own problems and can’t pay as much attention to the area. So… if you wanted to set yourself up with your own pocket empire… where would you go?”

I frowned at that. “But… why would the Imperium go through the effort to set up an entire covert operation that wasn’t going to support the Imperium?”

She looked at me with one of those “are you an idiot” expressions I knew too well. “You’re assuming that whoever is in charge is following their original orders. Maybe they see the way things are going. Maybe their models are now showing the same ‘long night’ predictions that Dr. Korvusar said her people were getting. Would you fight for a lost cause? Or, would you try to set yourself up in a position of authority for the foreseeable future?”

I thought, then sighed. “Well, hells…” I said finally.

She shrugged. “Welcome to the Hinterworlds.”

Shelly had been nodding. “Yeah… We never really worried about what you were doing over in the Imperium; you had your own interests elsewhere and we were happy to do our own things because you seemed to like it that way. I mean, we weren’t Imperials… we aren’t. But… all of you seemed to like things the way they were so that worked for us.”

She looked around. “But when your Emperor got assassinated that changed a lot. We used to get Imperial patrols coming though. Not enough to make anyone worried, but just enough to let us know you were there and to dissuade some of the more extremist factions from getting too many ideas. We haven’t seen them in a while.” She hugged herself and shivered again.

“There may be someone who wants to set up their own control in the area. We don’t want that. We like our independence, and apparently Minister Trakon does too. If we can set up our own polity…”

I nodded. “Then Boilingbrook gets to keep its independence even without the Imperium. Got it.” I sighed. “So… now what do we do.”

Varan shrugged. “What we’ve always done? We trade. No matter who is in charge, people will still need things.”

“Yeah,” I replied. “But now one side seems to want us dead since we interfered with their deal.”

He shrugged again. “We can’t do anything about that now. We’ll just make our way as best we can.”

I hesitated, then nodded. “Yeah sure.” I felt my eyes stinging. “Thanks for all of you sticking with me.”

There was an awkward silence as everyone looked around. An uncomfortable silence to me. Fortunately, I was spared from having to say anything when someone came up to our table.

It was a local ‘postman’, delivering the jumpsuit I had ordered. I handed it over to Shelly. It was oversized compared to ours, which had the skin-tights inside, but it had thermals. She pulled it own, tapped the settings, and sighed.

“Thank you, Derek! I mean, Captain!”

I shrugged. “Can’t have my crew getting cold and sick. I’ll get you your ship’s uniforms before we leave.”

I looked and saw the postman still standing behind me. “Um…” I patted my jumpsuit. “I just got off the ship… I don’t…”

“I got it!” I heard Jami say. I looked over to see her pulling a handful of credits out of her pocket, counting out a few, and handing them over to the postman. He nodded and left.

She smiled. “When I realized they didn’t have robots here I figured that they were doing everything manually and anyone who did anything for you would expect something for their effort.”

I grimaced. I should have thought the same thing. “Yeah, right. Thanks.” I sighed. “I’ve been a bit too distracted lately to worry about the details.”

She smiled even wider. “Sure, no problem.” The smile turned to a smirk. “Just remember that you owe me one.”

I sighed. “Yeah, I will.”

“OK,” I said, turning back to the group. “Let’s start then.”

Everyone nodded except Shelly. “Start?”

“Crew meeting,” Jami said, sitting back down. “We have one the evening after we land and another the evening before launch. Other than that we’re on our own while down.”

Shelly frowned. “So… what do I do?”

“Whatever you want.”

She shook her head. “But… where do I stay? How do I pay for it?”

I frowned, remembering that she had never been away from Boilingbrook before. I was about to say something but Jami patted her on her shoulder.

“Don’t worry, I’ll show you the ropes.” She smiled. “Us Hinterworlders have to stick together, right?”

Shelly still didn’t look convinced. “But… how do I pay for things?” She looked around. “Do we get paid? Or… whatever?”

A few of us laughed. Varan spoke. “Yeah, we all get a share of what we make. Why do you think we stick around with this guy?” He gestured towards me with his head. “He makes a lot!”

I smiled. “Yeah, and with Boilingbrook paying a chuck of the ship’s financing now… we should do pretty good.”

Varan’s smile changed to a frown. “So yeah… how many shares does she get?”

I hesitated. I had been thinking about that and had come up with an idea. Some of them wouldn’t like it, some of them would. It was a wash. But… after the last couple of weeks I thought it was the best thing to do.

“We aren’t doing shares anymore,” I said.

Varan looked shocked, half-standing. “What?”

I shook my head. “I’ve been taking a larger share than any of you. Since before I bought the ship even; only Captain Anna had higher shares then.”

“You had more shares than Jacob?”

I smiled. “Since sometime in 1114.” I hesitated. “But… I got us involved in all of this. And now we’re stuck. So… as long as we’re sharing the same risks we may as well share the same rewards.”

There was a brief silence. Jami was smiling, Varan was frowning, and Saahna was nodding slowly.

“Makes sense,” she said.

“Right,” I said. “We should make a few good deals here. And, with Boilingbrook covering about a quarter of our operating expenses, we should start making some even better profits. You can get your share every month, or you can leave and stay safe. But with less credits.”

There was a brief silence.

Varan finally sighed. “Yeah, sure. I guess. So… OK.”

He didn’t sound quite happy. “You sure?”

He glanced around, then nodded. “I said OK. Yeah.”

I frowned. “Is this going to be a problem?”

He sighed loudly and turned to me. “I said ‘fine’. So it’s fine. OK?”

I leaned back. “OK. Just wanting to make sure. Talk to me later if you want.”

He looked away. “It’s fine. Just… so much is changing.”

I nodded. “Yeah. I got that.”

I looked around and no one else seemed to have anything else. Jami was engaged in something on her comp, Shelly still had that ‘garran in the floodlights’ look, and Saahna gave me a slight shrug when I looked in her direction.

“All right then.” I pulled out my remote and tossed it on the table, then flicked the sector map onto it for everyone to see. “I’m looking at taking us to Gimisapum next.” I tapped it, then flicked its info out. “Next stop on the Alike Run. A-level starport, good tech. Belt, so lots of raw materials for sale.” I paused. “Don’t look too closely at the population.”

Varan leaned forward. “The official population count is 6! They have an A-level starport for 6 people?”

“It’s an anarchy belt,” I said. “No real cities, colonies, or… anything. The Belters live on their own ships so they all count as transients, not part of the total population. Just like we do here. They have to have a decent starport with decent tech to keep themselves flying, but only stay at the starport long enough to repair, refuel, and sell what they’ve mined before heading out again.

Shelly was tilting her head to try to read the display from the far side of the table. “But there’s a city there, right? A… base or something.”

I nodded. “Yeah, of course. Warehouses. Shops. Places for the belters to stay and relax while in for maintenance and trade. But they’re probably all contract workers. They live there, but since there isn’t an official government or anything they’re someone’s employees, and so they don’t count as population either. Those 6 people are probably the officials there to sign off on everything.”

“So how many people are really there?”

“A few hundred, most likely. A few thousand at most.”

“That’s not a lot.”

I shrugged. “Enough for us.”

She leaned back again. “So much to keep track of. So much to think about. How do you do it?”

“Practice. Don’t worry, you’ll pick it up.”

Varan was still frowning at the display. “Any reason we’re not going to Arghikii?”

“That’s the next stop after Gimisapum on the run. From there we’ll head to Utgaard and on into the ATC. Or, we instead head rimward towards Tlianke or Khumukanar. From there we skip down to Shilikhulu and pick up the Bruia Diagonal at Aquiar.”

Saahna was looking at the sector map as well. “Sounds like you’re not as set on heading into Anubian space as you were. Why the change?”

I hesitated and sighed. “Sir Gortor and his people seemed to be interested in the coreward edge of the sector. Rimward may take us more out of their way.”

She grimaced. “I hate that we’re basing our plans on that.”

“Welcome to our new reality,” I said, grimacing in return. “But I haven’t decided for certain yet. I may not until I see what we pick up at Gimisapum. Unless someone else has an idea.”

We all looked at each other but no one said anything.

“OK then,” I said, standing up to get the tray from behind Jami. “One more round then we’ll head out.”

It was actually several rounds later before we started preparing to leave. I had checked the local net and found a couple of hotels. As we got up, I turned to Saahna.

“So…” I asked. “Any preferences?”

She frowned. “For what?”

“For where to stay while we’re down?”

She sighed and glared at me. “I explained that, remember? We’re together on-board. Not on-planet.”

I frowned. “I just thought…”

She sighed again. “You always do.” She started to turn away.

“Wait!” I said, a bit too loudly. The rest of the crew glanced in our directly but she looked back, irritation visible. “What?”

I hesitated, then turned to the others. “All of you may be interested in this too.” I turned back to her. “Jestin gave me a contact here. Some guy named ‘Elijah Green’ over in a place called Coverton. I’m going to go talk to him, since… apparently we need to keep our friends close now. I’d like you to come with me.”

She turned back to face me, a neutral expression on her face. “Just me?”

I sighed and looked around. “Actually… any of you who want to can come along. We’re all in this together now.”

Varan almost immediately waved his hands. “Not me. The less I have to do with this IBIS shit the happier I am.”

“Me too.” said Jami. “You need an engine fixed? I’m your woman. Want to negotiate something sensitive? I’ll remember to tell you that you did a good job later.” She turned to Shelly. “Come on… let’s go find a hotel.”

Shelly shook her head. “No!” She looked at me. “I want to know what is going on! I’ll go with you.”

I nodded. “OK, welcome aboard. Oh… you probably need to leave the imagers behind.”

She nodded. “Yeah, I figured that. And they don’t like Swoopy here anyway. I’ll leave them in our room.”

“OK,” I said. “I’ll ping your comms when I’m getting ready to go. I’ll just grab the air-raft from the ship.”

She nodded again. “OK, sure. Thanks.”

I turned to Saahna in time to see her rolling her eyes. “OK, fine,” she said. “You’re going to go do something stupid. Yeah… I’ll go along. Just… don’t go too early, OK?”

I gave her a slight smile. “Of course! I wouldn’t want to interrupt your on-planet time.”

She sighed. “Yeah, right. I’m gone.” She grabbed her downpack and headed for the exit. Varan followed.

I turned to see Jami and Shelly still looking at me. “Anything else from us?” Jami asked.

I shook my head. “Nope. Have fun. See you in 6. I’ll ping everyone with a place.”

“Why not here again?”

I shrugged. “Probably. But who knows?”

She nodded. “Sure. Where ever.” She turned to Shelly. “Ready to go?”

Shelly nodded and they left as well. I headed back to the bar to close out our tab, winced at the cost, then after paying I pulled up Do’rex’s comm. To my surprise he answered almost immediately.

“How can I help you, Captain?”

I quickly went over what we had discussed. “Sorry you missed it.”

I heard him click. “The temperature at which they maintain their city here is discomforting to me. I wanted to get somewhere that I could control the life support.”

“Yeah, I get it,” I told him. “I’m kinda cold myself and I have my thermals on. You find any place good to stay?”

“I am at the ‘Warm Hearth Hostel’,” he replied. “It is somewhat lacking in amenities but it appears to be a place that is somewhat less popular. That may be an advantage to us at the moment.”

“Or the opposite,” I thought, but I didn’t say anything. “OK, I’ll check it out. Oh, do you want to be involved in my meeting with this Elijah Green tomorrow?”

He clicked again. “I do not believe that I could contribute anything to your meeting, but please keep me informed.”

“Will do,” I said. I signed off, then went in search of a place to stay for the week.

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