(20) Dining With Dukes

The Nightshade Campaign (244-1122)

244-1122 : Rhylanor / Rhylanor / Spinward Marches

    Edward "Shark" Teeth has been released and is back on board Nightshade.  There really doesn't seem to be much they can do now until Kalida Siena, Marchioness of Nakege, has dinner tonight with the Dukes of Rhylanor and Trin.
    The woman who kidnapped Shark uses the name Darya Krelft.  Supposedly she's age 22, a junior investigator with Gerry Medford's agency.  Everyone is pretty sure that's an assumed identity, but Robert Morris hasn't been able to track down anything behind it.  They've collected some intelligence from Shark's experience with her, but nothing that helps find out who she is.  She has a plausible enough background, but only the bare minimum of records to establish her identity -- no club memberships, no library card, nothing outside the required records.
    On the other hand, Robert's monitoring of the Imperial Navy alert has revealed a good bit about the military operations here.  There are no new codes, however, and nothing that shows any communications with unexpected groups -- the Imperial FarSpace Service in particular is what Robert has in mind, but there's been no evidence of them at all here.
    They have a brief discussion about the "Library of the Ancients" of which they have a part.  Of course it means nothing until it is complete, and they can't even tell how many parts it will take to complete.  They could discuss it with the Arden Society, or with Lap'da on Digitis, but it's not clear what that would get them. The other distraction they have from their current issues is they're supposed to meet Marquis Marcus Crestworthy on 185-1123 to sort out their mission as representatives of the University of Mora to the ancient site on the red zone world of Victoria / Lanth.  Anyway, Marquis Marc should send them more details via TAS before then.
    Then there's Professor Willi Marsh's books.  The interesting thing is that he's put together some of the basic principles of the script language, as well as the philosophical and cognitive implications of such a language.  In addition to that, there was a side reference in another book to his work on the "talking plants of Valhalla."
    Mich Saginaw goes through the ship carefully to perform a full diagnostic check.  It's been a while since he's done one, and he's always more comfortable knowing the ship is perfect.  The ship is indeed perfect.  With that done, he goes back to the training regimen that Grand Admiral Baron Bridgehead has laid out for him, so he has the endurance to stay in sparkly pink mode for longer during jump.  As for automating the process, he and Robert have already done as much as they can with the data that's available so far.

    Time approaches for dinner.  After a short discussion, it's decided that Kalida will take Misha Ravanos with her; it would be rude to take too many people to this kind of occasion.
    Kalida briefs Misha on who they'll be meeting.  Harlo Erghal, Duke of Rhylanor, is in charge of Rhylanor subsector, with Artur Milhelm, Duke of Trin, being in charge of Trin's Veil.  They are both trailing subsectors in the Spinward Marches, which makes them powerful in terms of economics and military.  In the Domain of Deneb, Archduke Norris maintains a close relationship with the Dukes under him; since he was and is still Duke of Regina, he tends to be closer to Spinward Marches nobility than the other sectors in his domain.  Darya Krelft doesn't fit into this structure -- Kalida says that she is clearly working on a different type of "outrank", as the Duke of Rhylanor is only outranked only by the Archdukes and Emperor.
    Kalida knows Rhylanor personally during her social butterfly days here, but has never met Trin.  The area they're here to discuss is on the Trin's Veil - Mora border.  The Count of Nexine reports to the Duchess of Mora, and so the world in Trin's Veil -- Tussinian -- that is under his jurisdiction would report to Mora from the nobility point of view, but for Imperial administration and taxation purposes are covered by the Trin's Veil civil service and would be protected by the Trin's Veil fleets.

    Kalida and Misha take a limo to the ducal palace.  Robert has everyone hooked up for communication; they all assume that if anything sensitive is to be discussed, it will happen in a secure environment and the commdots won't work.  Mich could build a black tech device to transmit (only), but it would not be very small -- he would love to convert all their commdots to use black tech transmission, but the smallest he could do right now would be about 15 x 10 x 2 cm.  Now they do have miniaturized recording devices that transmit only on receiving a triggering signal, like the ones they used on Wonstar, but Kalida considers that would be a breach of protocol and Misha doesn't see a need for it either.  Robert does insist on giving them a flashlight, and tells them that if they get into trouble they should turn it on, and the ship will know.
    The meeting starts out in a thoroughly social fashion, just the usual small talk.  Attending are the Duke and Duchess of Rhylanor, the Duke of Trin, and one other man who's introduced simply as Admiral Rikk Bainoi.  None of Rhylanor's children are here, but that's not a surprise as all of them are still under age.  The Marquis of Aramis isn't here -- he still hasn't arrived onworld -- and the Count and Countess of Nexine are not at this occasion.
    Kalida and Misha hold their own in the conversations.  They discuss fashion and mild gossip, and Admiral Bainoi updates Kalida on some of the Marine and Navy people she used to know.  No-one asks any awkward questions, not even about Misha's background and origins.  If something isn't volunteered, it's not a topic of conversation.
    Trin is drinking cosmopolitans.  The Rhylanors are drinking a light red local wine.  Kalida sticks with the good bourbon (although not Blockade Bourbon, it is still excellent).  No doubt the Grand Am would have loved to have been here, but he's not relevant to the discussions and it would have been a gaffe to bring him.
    Small talk continues through dinner.  It's a very good meal indeed, thoroughly enjoyable to all.  There is a little discussion about the absence of the Marquis of Aramis, who is now a little more than fashionably late.  There is a definite undercurrent that he might be harming his case by his delayed arrival -- there's a comment that in light of the Ianic affair, that it is unwise for him to risk offending anyone.
    With dinner over, Rhylanor suggests that they might all wish to retire to the drawing room.  Duchess Sarah makes her excuses and leaves, and the five remaining go on.  The decor is heavy wood, thick leather, and one large panoramic window looking out over the city in the direction of the starport.  Ships taking off and landing provide a light show in the distant sky.
    Robert loses the signal from the commdots.  This is not unexpected, of course.
    Trin settles himself into an armchair with a large glass of brandy and lets Rhylanor do the talking.
    Rhylanor says, "Well, that was quite some excitement, wasn't it?"
    Nakege replies, "I've never seen anything quite like that before."
    "Well, not in peacetime I haven't."
    "And during other times it's usually... administrated differently."
    "Yes, that was a... quite a strange circumstance," nods Rhylanor.  "You said your First Officer might have been... involved in it?  What happened?"
    Nakege pauses.  She plans to tell him the story, but has reservations because telling him about the script language will make him a target.  She says that her First Officer had come across some papers by a professor of Plankwell University that had mysteriously disappeared.  He was doing some research to see if he could find them, and at that point he was kidnapped, apparently over those papers.
    "You say kidnapped?  Kidnapped or arrested?"
    "I guess that depends on your perspective.  There was no mention of an arrest being made.  This woman simply forcibly took him with her."
    Rhylanor ponders this for a moment, then says, "And at some point during this... process... somebody pulled a full military alert."
    "Exactly," Nakege confirms.  "She took him to the Naval Base.  I don't know what the alert was about, except to make sure that nobody interfered with what she was doing."
    "Rikk" -- Rhylanor indicates the Admiral -- "tells me a strike cruiser was standing by over their location too, with scrambled marines ready to drop.  It seems like a very large over-reaction to me."
    "It surprised us!"
    "So who did this kidnapping, and what chain of command do you think this involved?"
    "She seems to think she outranks absolutely everybody.  We think perhaps she's connected with INI in some way, but it goes a lot further.  Where exactly it goes, I don't know."
    "So what we've got is somebody who's pulling the resources of Imperial Navy Intelligence, commandeering a subsector capital's Imperial military forces for her own... jollies, and claims to outrank everybody.  Now when you say she outranks everybody, what exactly does she mean by that?  Do you have a feel for that?"
    "She came out and said clearly that she outranked you," says Nakege.
    Admiral Bainoi nods.
    Misha says quietly, "We have a recording of it, if you would like to hear it."
    Rhylanor raises his eyebrows.  He says, "I would be very interested in hearing it, yes!"
    Misha says, "This may be of no concern to you, but some of the conversation that was recorded talks about the contents of the papers, and it was the contents that caused this over-reaction.  So you will become privy to some of the nature of the contents of these papers."
    Nakege adds, "That knowledge could be hazardous to your health."
    Rhylanor says, "I'll take that risk."  He looks around and says, "Anyone here is quite welcome to leave this room before the recording starts."
    No-one moves.  Misha plays the recording of the entire conversation with Darya Krelft.  All listen in silence.  When it reaches the part about "vanishing" the Duke of Rhylanor, Misha watches him closely, trying to judge something about his character.  He's not frightened, not angry, not annoyed even -- interested, curious, definitely challenged.
    Rhylanor speaks first.  He says, "So, we're now all targets, are we?  So what is this linguistics?  Why is it so valuable?"
    Nakege says, "It's an extremely old language.  We believe it dates from the Ancients.  It seems to combine communications and philosophy in one all encompassing way of being, really.  We don't know much about the spoken portion of it, all we have is the written portion which is sort of a script.  We believe that the papers that have gone missing were about the script language."
    "What about the person who wrote the papers?"
    "He's dead, about 120 years ago.  No heirs on Rhylanor, his son and wife left a long time ago."
    "So what's so important about this that people can't know about it?  That is worth making a duke vanish over it?"
    "We'd kind of like to know that," says Nakege.
    Misha says, "Certainly frightened somebody."
    "We'd also like to know exactly who's involved," Nakege continues.
    At this point Admiral Bainoi says, "She's Imperial Navy Intelligence Special Operations.  Apparently this group is capable of taking charge.  Legally they appear to have the right to do pretty much whatever they want to.  This was described to me, and her office presented me with documentary evidence as soon as it became necessary, that she was entirely entitled to commandeer the Imperial Navy of however much she wanted."
    Misha asks, "So what is the stated function of the INISO?"
    "There is no stated function.  They simply have the authority to do what they want.  As far as I can tell from what I was presented with, there is some obscure legal basis for considering them capable of taking whatever action is necessary for the security of the Imperium.  It's quite clear that the security of the Imperium need not include the security of anyone in particular within it."
    Nakege says, "And it's the security of the Imperium as they define it."
    The Admiral nods.  "They don't need to present any justification or obvious threat, they can just take action.  As an Imperial Navy officer obviously I was under her command and not able to repeat any of this.  Obviously it would be very unwise to repeat it outside this room's company.  As an ex-Naval officer, however, I am no longer bound by her authority.  Now in theory, as I read it, they can pretty much do what they want.  Those of us here think this is highly undesirable.  We think they are a threat to the Imperium."
    "I completely agree with you," says Nakege.
    It is obvious that the three of them have already discussed this among themselves and agree with Admiral Bainoi's position.
    The Admiral continues, "I would love to have any idea of who might be in this organization, what their resources might be, what they're doing.  The Duke has appointed me as leading a subtle investigation into this.  We will be trying to look into it, but it will be very difficult, obviously."
    Nakege says, "I wonder how large this organization is."
    "So do we," says Trin.  "I'm assuming they have operatives everywhere, but there can't be that many of them -- you can't have a secret organization if it's too big.  So, we know so far that they've commandeered the Imperial Navy at a subsector capital, they've grabbed somebody off the street, they've essentially threatened to assassinate a duke... We were wondering what else they've done?"
    Misha says, "We are aware of an incident on Mora, in which they were able in short order to commandeer the planetary defenses."
    "The meson gun incident?  I never thought the news story quite sounded right."
    "Well, we were investigating another aspect of this language, and that triggered the planetary defenses.  They are well entrenched," says Misha.
    Rhylanor says, "Well, Fulacin here tells me that they could have ordered an orbital bombardment of this world and the Navy would have complied.  Oh, um, by the way, the ex-Admiral is to be the Count of Fulacin.  It'll be official in about a week's time.  Someone with the integrity to accept his orders not to tell me, and then the courage of convictions to resign so he could, is certainly a man I want on my side.  I hope you two will be cooperating closely, as obviously you have found these people more than once."  He indicates Nakege and Fulacin.
    Nakege says, "I wouldn't say we found them as much as they have found us."
    "But if they are rare, then the incidents where they have found you have been pretty spectacular.  Compared with just getting rid of a professor and erasing his works, they seem quite significant."
    Misha says to Fulacin, "How might a small ship of highly talented individuals be of service?"
    Fulacin replies, "Well, you obviously know something about what they're interested in.  That alone gives you an edge in investigating them."
    "We could keep poking our noses around until they finally hit us with a meson gun.  Not exactly the wise thing to do."
    "What I'd really like to know is where they're operating, what they've got, and what the chain of command might be.  All we've got so far is we have two operations, which could be two people.  Could be one person on Mora and one person here.  It's probably more than one on Mora.  A minimum of three people so far, and nothing that makes any sort of organization."  Fulacin pauses, then continues, "Except for one other thing.  Given what they're interested in, do you have any idea why a flagship battle group from Five Sisters would be headed into Foreven?"
    This item was of course in the news.  Fulacin continues, "What we've got is, at this point we're pretty certain that the deployment of the Five Sisters Tigress battle group was not ordered through the Imperial Navy chain of command.  We know it moved into Foreven, from reports we know it was moving with whatever force was necessary, in that it got into a battle of sorts with some pocket empire in Foreven.  So it was headed to spinward from Five Sisters.  Let me bring up a map here..."
    The path he shows heads from Iderati through Hinay, in the general direction of both Professor Farol's base on Karma and where they found Nightshade at Zett.
    Fulacin asks, "Is there anything out here they might be headed for?  This is not just a battle group, this is a Happy Fun Ball battle group.  It has to be very important.  Any ideas?"
    Nakege and Misha exchange glances.  Misha says slowly, "We information that the INISO has some connection or relationship with the Imperial FarSpace Service..."
    Fulacin clearly hasn't heard of the IFSS.
    Misha explains, "The Imperial FarSpace Service is a bit like the INI, except that its area of expertise is Foreven.  They had a base on Karma in the Brod system which was destroyed."
    "Would that be the Imperial Research Station in the news item?" asks Trin.  "A natural disaster, it said."
    Nakege says, "It wasn't as natural as news reports would lead you to believe."
    Misha says, "It was natural in the same sense as a nuclear explosion is natural."
    "It sounded a lot more devastating than that," says Fulacin.  "Why would they be moving a battle fleet to a destroyed base?  Did they think that something's still there, or are they going for something else?  Anyway, so it seems INISO has reason to be going that way.  So it is distinctly likely that they have commandeered this battle fleet.  Which is an awful lot more of a public move than causing an alert or firing off planetary defenses."
    "Yes," agrees Nakege, "That's really noticeable."
    MIsha asks innocently, "Moving a battle fleet, that's a big deal?"
    "Yes," says Fulacin.  "You don't deploy Happy Fun Ball unless it's serious.  They said the meson gun firing was to counter an act of piracy.  The alert here can be explained as a drill.  Those two have plausible reasons.  But to move all those capital ships and escorts and support vessels..."
    "So what's down there?"
    "There's not a damn thing down there that's worth it.  There's nothing that justifies this amount of force.  This fleet could wipe its way through the entire Foreven sector and not even blink."
    Nakege nods, "This is not subtle."
    Misha says, "So, could this be yet another over-reaction?"
    Misha and Nakege silently consider that they may realize one of their ships is missing.  Of course, there's no local records at the base to say what was supposed to be there.  It would have taken someone who actually personally knew what was there to know that something was missing.  Like retired Admiral Lord Santanocheev, perhaps?
    Misha says aloud, "Do any of you have contacts in INI that you trust well enough?  On the theory that INISO use INI for communication, is there a way to track her patterns of communication?"
    Trin says, "The INI does not encourage the tracking of its transmissions from its own people.  It's a matter of policy.  If anyone in the INI can track it, a Zhodani spy can track it.  I have some contacts in INI and... a little background in that agency myself.  Here's another question for you: the Archduke, whose side is he on?  Just something to think about.  I know that we can trust everybody in this room.  That's about it at the moment.  Given what's been going on here, I have no confidence that this commandeered fleet isn't going to come back through the Marches, pick up another couple of fleets on its way, march on Capital and depose the Emperor.  I don't know who we can trust here."  Trin addresses Nakege, "You know Adabicci.  He's traditionally the Archduke's man."
    "Very much so," agrees Nakege.
    "Whose side is he on?" continues Trin.  "That might be somewhere you could help.  Figure out if there's somebody in the family who is not on the right side."
    "I could try to find that out.  I have some contacts there.  Who was in command of that battle group before it set off?"
    Fulacin says, "That would be Admiral West.  He's just a hair short of making Grand Admiral.  He wouldn't do anything to jeopardize his career unless it was a serious thing.  If he's moving the fleet, then he has good reason to do it.  Like we had good reason to call this alert."
    "So you think that it isn't that he took out the battle group himself but was directed to by..."
    "Absolutely.  He would not have moved it without orders through the chain of command.  In fact, his orders are to sit there and defend Five Sisters, not to move that fleet out of the subsector."
    Misha says, "So you think someone turned up at his doorstep with papers like they did here?"
    "It's certainly possible.  He would not of his own initiative take the fleet somewhere, and we believe that no orders came through the Imperial Navy chain of command."
    "So it's likely that if the orders came through INISO, they went to him directly?"
    "Yes.  It would be the same pattern as here, they came directly to me for the alert."
    "So once we can contact him we can find out who the orders came from."
    "If you can.  He'll have been ordered not to say."  Fulacin pauses, then says, "By the way, my presence here is not public knowledge.  As far as anybody is concerned, I resigned my post and have left on my own private yacht already.  I am not here on this world."
    Rhylanor says, "That's basically what we have.  If you need any resources from us -- a faster ship, one with better armaments..."
    "We'll think about it," smiles Misha.  "We are pretty attached to our ship."
    Nakege adds, "It's served us well so far."
    Rhylanor says, "Well, you dodged planetary defenses, right?  In a way I'd love to know how you did that.."
    "A ship full of highly talented individuals," says Misha.
    "Do you have any questions for us?"
    "How do we contact you?"
    "In the days to come, I hope you'll stay around here for a while, while we sort out the aftermath of all this and see what options we have.  I'll have some trusted staff look into it and see if we can get anything out of the data.  And there is the matter of the trade disputes -- we are having constant dinner parties and receptions.  Nakege, you and your entourage are always welcome at all of them."
    Nakege smiles.
    Rhylanor continues, "You can talk to any of us.  I hope we'll expand the list of trusted people soon, but as of the moment, this is it.  And if I may say so, it's a pleasure to have you back.  The circumstances are strange, but it will be good to have you back on the social circuit again."
    "I will certainly try to come back a little more often," says Nakege.  She and Misha say their good-byes and return to the ship.

    Of course no-one said anything about Sir Arken Hauther.  He himself never said who he was working for, of course, even though Shark clearly considered him the Archduke's man.  He was another person with a theory that there was a separate chain of command.  They will probably want to mention him to Admiral Bainoi, although Kalida suggests that they not tell Sir Arken about these other people here.