(15) Chocolate is People!

The Regency Campaign (258-1123 to 259-1123)

258-1123 : Nakege / Jewell / Spinward Marches

    It is approaching lunchtime in the Great Hall in Crow.  Kalida Siena, Marchioness of Nakege, and her entourage have come up with not just a plan, but a plan of action to solve all the problems of her world.
    The first step is to talk with the Gravella, so Kalida pulls the bellrope and asks for lunch with him.  The servant asks where she wants that to take place.  Since the hall was so massive and public, Kalida says she wants it to happen in her rooms.  She has no specific requests for lunch itself.

    It's still raining outside, a light rain that filters the light from the two suns.  The secondary will be setting soon.  Nightshade is parked well up above the clouds, not making a shadow in the rainfall.

    After a short while, the Gravella turns up at Kalida's suite.  He is accompanied by a servant with a cart of bottles and pitchers.  There's no sign of food yet, but drinks seem to be here.
    They take seats at the table.  The drinks are bourbon, beer, wine of some sort (the pictured fruit is not familiar to them) and a pitcher of something light golden in color.  Kalida selects the bourbon -- a known quantity -- as does the Gravella.
    The Gravella apologizes for the rain, but explains they get a fair amount of rain here.
    Kalida says it is probably good for the trees, which gets an enthusiastic nod from the Gravella.  She says she would like to visit her holdings at some time.  She can just take her ship out there, she says.
    The Gravella considers that best too.  If her boat is small enough, it can land in the courtyard here if she wants.  He recommends she first stop at the Forest Lodge, a few hundred kilometers to the west.  She has a staff there who can make further recommendations.  They have a gcarrier there they use for cargo runs.  He again offers to put in a rail link if she takes up residence and desires them to do so.
    She says that at least some of her entourage would like to go hunting.  What might be available?
    The forest is available, he says, but he doesn't know much about the rest of the world.  No doubt the Forest Lodge staff will be able to help her further.

    Lunch arrives.  Roast meat, breads and cheeses, vegetables of some sort.
    The Gravella switches to wine with the meal.
    Out of politeness, Kalida does too.  The wine is a lurid shade of purple, and the flavor is... well, Kalida could call it wine.  It's definitely fermented fruit, on the sweet side and not with much complexity.  A first time amateur wine-maker might produce something like this, in fact.  It's not something that Geoff would appreciate, certainly.  After a moment, though, she thinks he would appreciate it as a gag gift.  She asks the Gravella for a case to take with her off planet, as she has a friend who will appreciate it, and he gladly agrees to send their best wine with her.
    Mich tries the wine too, and even he isn't too fond of it.  Nevertheless, he hides his distaste very well.
    While most of the group are up to the social occasion, Teri lets loose on the roast meat in a manner that indicates her background is in some Marines or other.  The Gravella doesn't seem to notice.
    The Gravella asks Kalida if she would like him to inform her Forest Lodge, or if she wants to make it a surprise visit.
    Kalida doesn't really want to make it too difficult for her staff, so agrees that they can be informed.
    Lunch moves on to dessert, mostly varies pastries, mostly involving unidentified fruit.
    Kalida asks him about what kind of fruit they grow here.
    The Gravella says that they are fairly obscure.  Rather than engineer plants to suit this climate, they grow fruits which are already suitable for Nakege's unusual year cycle, but yet still get on with the flora and fauna they have introduced.  They have come to like them.  After all, fruit is fruit to a certain extent.  Mostly they are bushes, so there is no danger of them competing with the forest.  He offers to provide Kalida with a guide to the local plants, and says it will be delivered later.

    With a gesture, the Gravella dismisses the servant, who leaves the drinks cart.  He passes another bottle of wine around, but reaches for the bourbon himself and then offers that too.  He asks, now in private, if there is anything else he can do for the Marchioness.
    Kalida says they have a proposal of sorts to resolve the issue of whether they can get bourbon out of the system safely.  They would like to take him, or a representative of his choice, off planet to a destination of his choice.  Somewhere close would be best, of course, so it doesn't take too long.  They would then bring him back without any interference from Tukera.
    The Gravella says enthusiastically that it is perfectly acceptable.  He will be glad to make the journey himself.
    That is settled, then.  They will make arrangements for that when Kalida returns from her visit to her holdings.  Perhaps within the next week?
    The Gravella will make arrangements for his absence.  They can go to any place of their choice -- Kalida's suggestion of Mongo or Jewell are fine, although he certainly does not want to visit the Bank of Mongo.  This is an excellent solution.
    There are no further questions from the Gravella, and so they finish off their lunch meeting.  Kalida will move out to the Forest Lodge later that afternoon, and the Gravella will make sure they are expecting her.

    The team packs up and heads out to the courtyard, where the Marchioness's carriage is waiting.  The Gravella has provided them with a bearing and distance from the starport beacon, and the Field Guide to Farming Nakege has been delivered too.  Apparently they raise regular terran cows here, of a black and white variety.  For fabric, they have an animal they don't recognize that they shear in spring.
    They board the Launch at the railway station, and Mich takes off and flies them towards the Forest Lodge, staying fairly low over the forest.  Nightshade follows them from above the clouds.

    It's late afternoon when they arrive at the Forest Lodge.  The secondary has already set by now, leaving just the main star to illuminate the scene.
    There is a large clearing in the forest, with a hard surface landing pad in front of the house.  A gcarrier and air/raft are parked at one end of it.  There is plenty of room to land the Launch, but it's not big enough for Nightshade.  A squatter confirguration ship of 400 std, or a little larger, could land here however.
    The house is a substantial mansion.  Three stories high, the brilliant white building reflects the red sun in a spectacular fashion.  Each storey is surrounded by a five meter porch extending from the living areas, giving a rather pagoda-like architecture.  The layout is a flattened T-shaped, with a central area and large west and east wings, with a smaller wing extending to the north.  Landscaping is limited to grass lawns.

    Mich brings the launch down to land on the pad.  Two people walk out to meet them.
    The person clearly in charge is a short man, with blond hair in a crewcut, wearing a very smart suit.  Behind him is a taller servant.  Kalida is surprised to notice that the suit is smart by modern Imperial standards; she'd estimate it would be the height of fashion at Regina just three years ago.

    The short man greets the Marchioness as she and her entourage disembark.  He says, very politely, "Your Ladyship, before we proceed I hope you will excuse some formalities.  I will require some identification.  Now, let me simply say that your identification will be subject to the verification one would expect for an audience with the Emperor.  We have all the appropriate procedures here.  Should this be an inconvenience for you, you are welcome to leave right now and we will not pursue the matter."
    The man's accent is, Kalida believes, from near Core.  She had been wondering when someone was going to ask for ID, and she gladly hands it over.  She neither offers, nor is asked for, the ID of anyone else in her entourage.
    He hands the ID to the servant, who jogs off towards the mansion.  He says, "Assuming that everything checks out, of course, I am glad you have chosen to make a visit here.  I am certainly glad you checked in with us here first, although it would have been better had you told us when you first came into the system.  We could have helped advise you and made sure there were no difficulties."
    "I prefer to move quietly," says Kalida.
    "I understand.  Sometimes it helps to have all the information first, however."
    "I am sure everything will be adequate."
    "Of course, of course.  I understand you have been visiting the town for a while."
    "Yes.  It's a very interesting place."
    "It is, isn't it?  Yes."  It seems like man's tone indicates he means more than he is saying, but his expression remains that of a polite staff member.  "Yes, very interesting.  They have definitely built their own little world there."
    "That they have."  Kalida changes the subject, "What facilities do you have for hunting here?  I have some of my crew members who are interested."
    "The woods here should be excellent hunting."
    "What kind of game is there?"
    "When they set these woods up, they introduced fauna that they thought would go with it.  There are real terran deer here."  He pauses while Kalida and Mich exchange a few comments, then says, "By the way, have you heard of a food called chocolate?  I am curious, I have heard stories that it tastes so good people would do anything to taste it.  I've even heard that a man would sacrifice his own life so his brother could taste but a crumb.  Is that true?"
    "Perhaps out here, where you can't get it."
    "Ah, I see your ID is all in order.  If you would like to come over to your lodge... do you have much luggage?"
    Kalida indicates their minimal luggage.
    "I hope this small lodge will be of satisfaction to you."
    "It looks like there will be enough room for us."
    "It is the best we could do under the circumstances.  You should probably think of this as your main residence.  It is the most pleasant atmosphere here, the hunting, the trees, the weather, most convenient."
    Kalida looks around at the grass, contemplating a golf course.  It looks superbly suitable.  She might be able to make something of this place.

    Meanwhile Robert has checked to see if this Forest Lodge is in communication with anyone off-planet.  There is nothing he can detect, and he informs the away team by commdot.  He continues to monitor it.

    The mansion looks like it has been moulded out of some white satin finish material, the columns, the roofs, everything seems to be the same material.  There is no veining or inconsistencies in the finish.  Kalida says to herself, "That doesn't look natural."
    Her attendant overhears her and says, "No, it's not.  It's a ceramic we make from local materials.  We use fusion torches and gravitic fields to mould it.  You can build up entire buildings, or entire cities out of it.  It's a fantastic material.  It's very strong and very effective, but is not practical for anything but buildings.  It's too heavy for anything that leaves the ground."
    The sun is one its way down, casting a red glow through the light rain.  Mich looks closely at the building as they enter, and the construction looks solid and without flaws.  This would be a very expensive method of manufacture, but low maintenance and would last a long time.
    Inside, the building is white too, but decorated with luxurious carpeting and wall hangings.  This is definitely not of local origin.  It looks Imperial, mostly from the Spinward Marches.
    Kalida asks the man, "How long have you personally been out here?"
    "Me personally?  I've been here for twenty years, give or take a few.  I'm your Assistant Seneschal, by the way.  I am in charge of this lodge, and I am your senior staff on this world."
    "How big is the staff?"
    The Assistant Seneschal considers this before speaking.  "We have about a dozen."
    "Mostly local?"
    "Everyone is from offworld.  There are no locals working here."  He pauses, then says, "May I ask the purpose of your visit?"
    "I thought it was time I visited my holdings here."
    "Well, since you are here, I should probably give you a briefing.  Just for a moment, I should show you the view out of this window here."  He takes Kalida aside to where the window shows a soft lawn extending to the edge of the forest.  Very quietly he says to her, "For this briefing, just your most trusted people.  I will give you an opening to allow you to exclude anyone as appropriate.  They must be absolutely trustworthy."
    "My whole crew is trustworthy.  That's why I have them."
    "Absolutely trustworthy," he emphasises, "But it is of course your choice."  Louder, he says, "Doesn't it look nice from here, the view across the lawn to the trees?  We think it is a particularly good aspect at this time of day."  As they return to the group, he says, "Ah yes, the briefing.  I'm afraid the briefing room is really rather small, so I'm not sure if you want to include only yourself or if you want to squeeze anyone else in?  I think we should probably start with that."
    Kalida agrees.  She indicates that Misha and Mich should go in with her, while Teri remains outside.  That should make her Assistant Seneschal more comfortable as she at least appears to have selected the most trustworthy.

    The door to the North Wing opens to a short corridor, with doors on either side.  Once the Marchioness's party is inside (leaving Teri outside), a servant closes the door behind them and opens the one in front to the briefing room.
    The Briefing Room is large and spacious, with excellent views across the lawns from the windows on either side.  Mich notes that the windows appear Imperial, high tech, presumably bullet resistant and safe from spying.
    The Assistant Seneschal offers the Marchioness and her advisers seats, and asks if he can get them anything.
    Kalida says, "I don't suppose you have actual coffee?"
    "Why yes, we do!"
    "Excellent!  Bring a nice large pot!"
    The A. S. calls for it with the intercom, and says that as soon as it arrives, they can start.
    Mich muses that they certainly have chocolate on board Nightshade, whether it's in Helia's stash left over or in Vonish's supplies.
    Coffee arrives.  Excellent coffee, in fact, although Mich would have preferred his Engineer Style rather than Officer Style.
    The A. S. begins the briefing.  "This is your first visit here, I understand?  I'm afraid things are not quite as they seem here.  This is your only practical residence, I am afraid."  He glances at the Marchioness, who acknowledges his statement.  He continues, "There is a problem with Nakege.  It is not habitable by humans."
    "Then who exactly is living here?" asks Kalida.
    "Here?  In the forest, it is fine.  Everything is fine here.  But elsewhere it is... there is no intelligent race here, but there is an apex predator that...  Humans are made of chocolate."
    "Tell me more about this."
    "We have -- you have, technically, and it still appears to be running -- a large palace out in the middle of your lands.  The predators... have it now.  You had a staff of several hundred at one point.  These people here are... well the main point is that no-one has been there and no-one is told about it.  I have done some extensive research, and I probably know as much as anyone here, but all the records are at your palace.  Of course, that is not accessible."
    "So no-one has actually been there since..."
    "No.  Well, that's not strictly true.  Around 50 years ago now, we came to an arrangement with the blockade and brought in independent mercenaries with a mercenary cruiser, to go in and attempt to drive out the animals.  What was left of their team aborted their mission.  They returned to their ship, and around half an hour later, their ship did an uncontrolled entry into the atmosphere and crashed around the far side of the world.  Those were the last people to visit your palace complex."
    "How unfortunate."
    "Yes.  The forest is an anomaly here.  This world does not have a lot of water.  What water there is, is mostly here.  There is a mountain range to the east of us.  The prevailing winds drop rain on those mountains, which is then sucked up by the forest around here, fed back into the air, and this has created essentially a pocket of moisture in this area.  It really doesn't rain anywhere else.  It seems to be sucking the moisture from the rest of the world into this little spot of terraforming.  What makes this practical is that the local fauna do not get on well with water, with moisture.
    "You have heard the theory that humans originally came from one world?  Well, if there was a world where centipedes came from, this is it.  The moisture in the air softens their shells, whatever severely hard stuff it is made of, and they don't come near.  My own personal theory is that the expansion of the forest drove them westward towards the palace.  That is why we had... so... many.  Some of the defences are still active... but not all of them."
    "So the palace is filled with giant centipedes?"
    "Yes.  We think.  At least, it was last time that we knew.  This predator is... very dangerous.  It is derived from the centipedes -- the large vegetarian centipedes are their prey, although they will eat almost anything including humans if they can get it.  They are about the size of an air/raft, and they only have four or five segments in the main body, but have others tucked underneath as a segmented tail.  They have some very vicious fangs, enough to grab hold of a gcarrier.  They jump, and they jump very accurately.  And... far."  The A. S. concludes, "The best way to reclaim your palace would be to sterilize the planet and start again."
    "That sounds a bit drastic," says Kalida.
    "It does.  That would be justified."
    "We could just make it rain around the palace," says Mich.
    "Yes, that would work.  There isn't enough water.  Now, given time and enough chunks of... well, we don't have an asteroid belt, but... icy objects raining down, we could possibly put enough water here to solve the problem.  Of course the people in the town know nothing of this.  They have never seen the rest of this world, which is basically desert."
    Mich asks, "Why did you build a palace in the desert?"
    "It was in the center of the land.  It was the area picked out by the Imperial Commission, designated the holdings associated with the title."
    Mich says, "So we just need a sprinkler system, soaker hoses..."
    "And to get close enough to use them.  That is your catch.  We had an effective defensive system, for a while at least.  Your holdings are surrounded by a 20 meter wall out of this ceramic, outside that at several kilometer intervals, we have a starship triple laser turret that takes down anything that might approach."
    "That went wrong?" says Kalida.
    "You needed a moat," observes Mich.
    "Yes, but we did not have enough water, and we didn't know that at the time."
    Mich jokes that 400 years of bourbon might fill it, aside from the evaporation of course.
    The A. S. continues, "We occasionally have sandstorms in the desert.  During one sandstorm our sensors were out, and for some reason these predators... they came over the walls.  We lost a sector of defensive towers, we are still not quite sure how that happened."
    "That was 50 years ago?" asks Kalida.
    "Oh, no.  This is was several hundred years ago."
    "When, exactly?" asks Kalida.
    "You have lost all the records?" asks Mich.
    "No," replies the A. S., "I have some records of what I could piece together from the few survivors... we don't have a lot of records.  A lot of this is guessing."
    Mich says, "Do you have any scans showing the centipedes from the tactical team?"
    "No.  We know about them from the descriptions of the survivors, and from the various people who lived here before the problem started."  He continues, "There are various forms of centipede here.  There are the large herbivores, there are the small scavengers, the whole scale, up through to flying ones.  On top of all that are the..."
    Mich asks, "Did you try any ultrasonic to keep the bugs at bay?"
    "I don't know.  They tried all sorts of things, and for a while everything was fine.  Once we learned that we needed a wall and defenses... well, I am sure the Imperial Navy budget did not miss the money that was diverted to it."
    "How long ago did you say that was? The overwhelming of the palace?" asks Kalida.
    "That was back in the early 800's, three hundred years ago."
    Mich says, "And it's been four hundred years under..."
    "Yes.  Originally this was set up... my predecessors figured they could work out a really good deal.  They managed to find some creative accounting, and you have a small ceramic town built out there.  The enclosed lands are a fabulous place, from the early pictures I've seen.  But it's not ours now.  Not yours, excuse me, Your Ladyship.  So this is why your senior staff is called the Assistant Seneschal, because your Seneschal would be your senior staff at your palace.  We don't have staff at your palace.  Although it appears that some of the infrastructure still runs.  Lights come on at night, and some of the systems designed to keep the town warm in winter may still be running.  We built a good system there."
    "Can you tell us if the communications line is still working?" asks Kalida.
    "There is no-one to communicate with.  There are systems there that appear still to be working, just there is no-one on the other end of them."
    "Anything else?"
    "It is comfortable here.  It is safe here.  I'm afraid you don't have much in the way of commercial operations, although this building material -- aside from the expense -- could be an interesting export.  I strongly advise not flying over anything but forest.  Do not underestimate what these creatures can do."
    "How big are the flying ones?"
    "Mostly quite small, with exceptions.  I'm sure the dense atmosphere helps.  The early settlers called the larger ones dragons.  They fly, and are long.  Of course with the blockade no-one goes or looks at the place."
    "Speaking of which, what kind of arrangement do you have to bring in the technology I see here?"
    The A. S. looks uncomfortable.  He says, "Ah... I have a... friend, shall we say, on one of the ships on rotation through here every six months, who is not paid nearly enough by Tukera.  We have... plenty left of that loophole in the Imperial budget, and we appreciate his monetary worth more than Tukera does.  We get stuff coming in when his shift starts."
    That is certainly believable, but Kalida wonders if he is not being truthful, or omitting something important.  Still, as far as she can tell he's being straightforward with her.  Obviously some details have been left out, but the story is honest.
    The A. S. says, "So, do you have any questions?  I have not had anyone to explain this to before, I'm sure I have left something out."
    Kalida says, "You say you've been here about 20 years.  How long has the rest of the staff been here?"
    "They vary.  The longest is ten years.  Most of them stay here about three to five."
    "It must be dead boring out here.  What do you do?"
    "I study old records to find out what happened on this world.  Stay warm in the winter, and stay cool in the summer.  This place opens out nicely in the summer, we get a good breeze through.  Not in the full heat, of course, but aside from that... the trees moderate it nicely.  You'll have noticed it's pretty easy to breathe here compared with the rest of the world... which you haven't been to, of course.  The air there is a lot rougher on people elsewhere.  The trees help remove the taint.  If we just add water and wait a few thousand years, we could have a nice place here.  I would however advise thinking of this as your residence.  We don't like to admit what happened here.  It would attract unwelcome attention, particularly to how this was financed, and the taxpayers of the Spinward Marches might... not be very understanding."
    Mich asks about the power sytstem of the palace complex.
    The A. S. explains that it's a fusion plant, designed to be very low maintenance.  They did at least pick a location that has an underground aquifer, enough to fuel the plant and maintain a small lake... or pond, as they would probably call it on any other world, big enough to take a few minutes to swim from one side to the other.  The oxygen from the water splitting facility is used to help purify the air systems for the buildings.  He says, "It would surprise me if these creatures had managed to get inside the palace.  The air in there is probably very pleasant... for us.  Horrible for them.  Probably not enough to be put off the taste of humans, but enough that they would not wander in otherwise."
    Kalida says, "I take it that there are plenty of plants that grow out in the desert?"
    "Yes.  We have things that resemble cactus, some twigs and branches -- sticks really.  There are even small scrub areas that you could almost call woods.  The predators hide very well in that.  Their legs blend in with the stalks... they are very effective at hiding in there and jumping on prey."
    "Well, I think the Forest Lodge looks perfectly lovely, so if you would escort us to our rooms, we would like that."
    The A. S. is glad to do that, as well as to answer any questions she might have.

    They emerge from the Briefing Room to rejoin with Teri, everyone clutching a recently filled cup of real coffee.
    The Marchioness's rooms are in the East Wing.  The West Wing is where here attendants would normally be housed, but Kalida says her current entourage will join her in the East Wing.
    As they walk, the A. S. apologizes for the understocked kitchens.  They rely mostly on local ingredients, although they do have certain offworld priorities, he says as he glances at the coffee cups.  The local beer is quite acceptable, apparently, and of course there is no shortage of bourbon.
    Kalida's substantial suite occupies all three storeys of the end of the East Wing.  There are grav platforms to transfer between floors, and full TL14 Imperial luxuries, although the entertainment selection is rather outdated.  The others have rooms on either side of the East Wing.

    Now it's time to call back to Nightshade.  Of course they are ready to take a quick trip to scan the palace quickly.  The first thing to do is certainly to check that what they've been told is actually the case.

    Dinner is standard Spinward Marches cuisine adapted to local ingredients.  It's not great by noble residence standards, and it's certainly not as good as Chuck's meals, but it does the job.  The four of them settle down for the night while Nightshade does her run.

    The ship won't be able to keep them in communication during this run.  The building ceramic weakens the signal significantly, which means they'll lose the signal sooner than they would otherwise.
    As soon as Nightshade leaves the forest area, a few hundred kilometers out from the Forest Lodge, the woods end sharply.  The native plants are much shorter, with a bamboo-like stand around the edges of the forest.  The plants nearest the forest look sickly, but improve quickly before tapering off slowly again into the desert.
    The desert itself varies substantially, from vast sand dunes to rocky scrub.  There are certainly animals out there -- not much that can been seen from their altitude, but herds of the herbivores are obvious.  The front two segments together are about the size of a cow, with the whole animal much longer.  They are gathered together in herds of 20 to 30, slowly grazing on cactus and the occasional bamboo grove.

    The palace area itself is obvious from a distance.  It is first visible as a vast 20m high wall, enclosing a circle about a hundred kilometers in diameter.  About half a kilometer outside it, at varying intervals, are 50m high ceramic towers with what is or was a starship turret on the top.
    To the southwest, there is a 20 or 30 kilometer sector where the towers are not operating.  Elsewhere, there is active radar scanning from the towers aimed at the ground.  There is no vegetation near the walls.  In hundreds of years, apparently nothing has grown up to the walls.
    Inside the walls is certainly a palace.  This rivals the archducal palace on Mora, but of all white ceramic.  To the south, it is surrounded by a small town of white ceramic.  Non-ceramic wreckage dots the area occasionally, while sand has piled up against walls at several places.
    Something is living there, certainly.  There are a large number of beings the size of an air/raft, although mostly dormant at night it seems.  To the east in the open areas outside the town (but inside the wall) are herds of the herbivores, grazing on vegetation.  Street lights occasionally illuminate areas of the town.
    Lucas takes Nightshade down to 500m, which Shark thinks is close enough to get a good scan.
    From this close, it looks as if the cattle have been coralled in, or at least separated from the town by a fence of debris.  Metal shards, chunks of metal buildings, every type of debris except ceramic has been piled into a barrier.
    The football sensors show nothing.
    The city area appears only to be occupied by the predators.  They are collected into small groups, presumably asleep.  It's hard to tell, of course, but it doesn't look like there are any in the buildings.
    They are indeed the size of an air/raft.  They are about 5m long, with four pairs of inverted V-shaped legs that could certainly pass for sticks in a scrub grove.  With their flattish bodies close to the ground, there isn't much to see at a quick glance than the stick-like legs.  It looks like they have four segments with a pair of legs each, and a front segment carrying massive jaws with no obvious head features other than that.  The segmented "tail" folds underneath them and is not visible from this height.
    The debris was probably originally buildings or machinery originally, accompanied by larger boulders.  It looks like it's been cleared from the town to this barrier.
    The palace itself is enclosed in a 5m high wall.  There doesn't seem to be any of the creatures inside this wall.  The wall surrounds the palace grounds to the front, and circles around to the back.  There is a pond there, with a bamboo stand all around it.  Shark can't really tell if there's anything in the palace, but there isn't anything outside or at the windows.
    No communications signal is coming up from anywhere in the complex.
    Not much is moving around at the moment.  Both suns are now below the horizon, and except for the street lights there is no illumination except the starlight.
    Robert notes there is a built corral. Either the centipedes built it themselves -- perhaps a sign of intelligence, or at least hive behavior -- or there is a keeper, intelligent creatures that are not being eaten by the creatures.
    The crew is curious at the thought of shooting one of them from the ship, but their gunner is not on board.  Of course Chuck could lean out the side with an FGMP, but they have a bad safety record at hunting out of vehicle windows.
    Anyway, Chuck wants to observe them more closely first.  He wants to figure out what kind of round to use, where to aim, and so on.  He is pretty sure that a rifle from range is the safest, but he doesn't know how fast they move, how they jump, and so on.
    This is about as much as they can get from this scanning run.  Nightshade returns to position over the Forest Lodge.

    Kalida has been trying to find out about her lands here, like when it was set up, and so on, but she doesn't have access to any of the records about the Marquisate in the local computer system.  She resolves to ask Robert in the morning.

    Overnight the surveillance puters are set up again, although anyone but Robert would probably not be able to do it with the weak signal from inside the building.  The night passes quietly, except for something that sounds suspiciously like wolves in the distance.

259-1123 : Nakege / Jewell / Spinward Marches

    Local and Imperial time are still close today.

    The secondary has been up for hours when Kalida wakes at 6:00, although it's hard to tell in the heavy rain.  She calls Robert on Nightshade and asks him to hack into the computer system here and pull out the records.
    Robert has kept the comm system in contact despite the ceramic and the heavy rain.  He then finds breaking in is extremely hard, better encryption and protection than he's seen anywhere else in the Imperial Spinward Marches.
    Kalida in particular wants to find out about the palace and the area in general -- when it was commissioned, who paid for it, current funding, and so on.
    Robert reports back.  This was commissioned about ten years after the world was orignally settled, by Baron Graun von Hathelet (whoever that might be), for the nobility of the Spinward Marches.  The funding appears to have come through the Imperial Navy, on some very vague contract for "Imperial Crisis Stronghold".  The funding is still there, and the item uses the same kind of language you would use to hide a secret project.  There is no other project associated with this contract -- just the Marquisate of Nakege.
    Robert can't find details of the account, but it looks like maintenance costs and expenses are being drawn on it, without any significant unexplained extras.  It is probably appropriate for this location, perhaps plus a couple of other unoccupied areas.  It's still using the original account number.  There's enough extras being pulled out, but there is no excessive skimming.  The Assistant Seneschal authorizes all the withdrawals.
    The expenses have been fairly constant over the last couple of centuries, with a spike about 50 years ago.  Looking into that transaction reveals a contract with a mercenary group based on Fornice / Mora.  It was to recon the palace area, and if possible reclaim it.  There are notes that the team was to be state-of-the-art equipped, including battledress, FGMPs, the works, and based out of a Broadsword class Mercenary Cruiser.  It was an expensive, well equipped, small but elite team.
    Robert can find very few records from the mercenaries who were here.  There are communications of them checking in, an operational plan with locations and timings, how the operation was supposed to proceed.  The plan was approved by the A. S. at the time.  They went down for a reconnaisance in force mission with the ship's modular cutter.  There was then a communication that the mission was being aborted, and that was the last that was heard from the mercenaries.
    Kalida goes through the plan.  It seems pretty sound.  Observation from orbit, then dropping in on the modular cutter to set up a base camp inside the palace walls, and from there moving out and scouting across the palace wall carefully, shooting down anything that appeared.  The plan lasted about 15 minutes from landing to abort.  About a dozen combat marine-equipped mercenaries were on that team, plus cutter crew.
    Mich thinks these creatures obviously are very sensitive to detecting chocolate.

    Now at least they have some information to work with.  Robert does a search for that Baron on the ship's systems, but finds no information on him.  At Kalida's request, he then looks up the current Assistant Seneschal, trying to find out information like where he came from and so on.  There are no records on Nightshade, which is not surprising, but he reports that he is certain there are no records here at the Forest Lodge either.  Monkeys are so bad at keeping records.