(16) Visiting the Palace

The Regency Campaign (259-1123)

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259-1123 : Nakege / Jewell / Spinward Marches

    Kalida Siena, Marchioness of Nakege is at her Forest Lodge, with Sir Misha Ravanos, Mich Saginaw, and Teri Cralla.  It's still quite early in the morning.

    Shark, meanwhile, hovering over the Forest Lodge in Nightshade, has been trying to figure out the white material that was used to build the mansion.  He gets a good scan of it, but it doesn't match anything in their database.  All he can really tell is that it's some kind of ceramic.  He does plan to compare a centipede carapace sample to it -- he's wondering if the creatures are mad because the building is made out of them.  He notes that Nakege is actually very similar to his own homeworld of Romar.
    He also distrusts worlds with strange conditions.  The lack of water in this system, the dense atmosphere in the relatively light world, his job as Paranoia Officer leads him to want to check that everything here seems natural.  It would take a massive scan for complete coverage, of course, but he checks every scan they have and then collects everything else he can with Nightshade's sensors.
    The forest here is about a thousand kilometers across, while the Forest Lodge is about a hundred kilometers from the forest edge.  That, to Shark, means they can drop Chuck here to hunt without worrying about him leaving the forest.
    He calls down to Kalida and suggests that she take a flyabout with her Launch and disappear into the air, then they can all investigate the palace directly.  There's no communications they've found to the palace, but if necessary they could perhaps land on the roof and find a data port to plug into.
    Shark's next question is about the staff.  If they're only here for a few years, where do they come from?  How are they rotated in?  Where are they snatched from?  Kalida didn't choose them, after all.
    Kalida doesn't know that yet.  She had hoped that Robert would find it, but that information wasn't there.  She also points out that what the Assistant Seneschal says might be more important than the actual truth.
    There have still been no transmissions from here.  Even so, Shark certainly doesn't trust the A. S., even if what he seems to have said so far seems at least somewhat accurate.
    Now as for the matter of the palace itself, Shark says they need to drop sensors out there.  They need to records sounds, movements, and so on.  They can drop those out there today.
    Shark then considers what they know about the overwhelming of the palace complex.  Defensive towers were taken out around an arc facing to the southwest.  There is no difference in the terrain cover in any of the directions.  If this was a military assault, there would be no tactical advantage to this particular approach.  There is no gate anywhere in the 20m wall, but this arc is, however, adjacent to the town section.  The town of Crow is to the east of the palace, as is the forest.  The palace is across a lot of desert to the west.  It was attacked from the southwest, away from the forest.
    The towers are about 50m high.  The tower columns themselves were intact, but the laser turrets on top and their associated sensors were not operational.  They'd need a closer look to see what the actual damage was.
    As for inside the wall, something is corralling the cattle.  Something built that wall of debris.  Now, there are insects that farm other insects, but Shark suspects very strongly that it's the result of intelligence.
    One other thing Shark wants to try is to hail the palace as if the Marchioness had arrived in the system.  Perhaps there's an automated system that will respond to that.
    From the tactical point of view, the towers that were taken out left a large path that did not have sensor or defensive coverage.  Less could have been taken out and achieve a similar result -- four would have been enough, while ten were taken out.  If the sensors were capable of perfect long range, eight would have been plenty to guarantee a path.  Ten is still more than needed.

    Kalida calls to request breakfast.  She is told politely that it will be ready in the dining room shortly.  Of course she doesn't know where the dining room is, but it's a fair guess it's on the first ground floor.  She collects her entourage and emerges from her suite, and immediately she exits there is a servant to accompany her to the dining room.
    The dining room is in the east wing near the central part of the mansion.  It faces north across the lawns.  They can see the smaller north wing on the left.
    Breakfast is conventional Imperial, although using local ingredients, and is accompanied by very good coffee.
    During breakfast, she requests a meeting with her Assistant Seneschal.  Arrangements are made for her to meet him at her business office.

    Again, she is escorted to the right place.  Her business office is on the second floor, above and to the east of the dining room.  This time it's on the south side of the wing, looking out towards the landing pad.
    This office is well equipped.  There is a full holodisplay pit, computer support facilities, nice wooden furniture presumably of local manufacture, and a well stocked drinks cabinet.  Bourbon in quantity, of course, sherry, and in a refrigerator there is beer, and a couple of token bottles of local wine.  Perhaps the wine is more tolerable when cold.
    After about ten minutes, the Assistant Seneschal arrives.
    Polite greetings out of the way, Kalida turns to a few more questions she had for him.  Now, he has been here about 20 years, and the rest of the staff for shorter periods.  Was he hired for this position, brought here from somewhere else, did he select it?  How does the rest of the staff get selected?
    The A. S. says he was offered this position by the offices of the County of Jewell.  When Kalida asks, he says that at the time he had a positon more towards the heart of the Imperium.  The rest of the people here are all hired through the offices on Jewell.  Contract periods vary, with options to extend.  Five year contracts are normal, sometimes three.  A five year contract could be extended to ten if it is advantageous to the smooth running of the Marquisate.  Five years is usually plenty here, but if they fit in very well and are an asset to her holdings, the contract may be extended to ten.
    Kalida says that if he's been here twenty years, he must like the area.
    He does, he says.  He adds that he is on a different kind of contract, and he knew this would be a long term position.
    Shark's unspoken assumption is that he would have been arrested had he not taken this position, but that's his job to think of angles like that.
    Kalida asks how the transport is arranged.
    The A. S. says it is arranged through Tukera, to allow transport of people but not property.
    She then informs him that she plans taking her ship's boat out for a while, but will be back later.
    He again suggests strongly she remain over the forest, and again apologizes for the weather.

    Kalida and her entourage take off on the Launch, fly well out of sight of the Forest Lodge or anyone else, and rendezvous with Nightshade.  They immediately head out towards the palace complex at around 5000m altitude.  Mich will have a dozen 20cm sphere sensor units ready a while after they get there, that they can just drop out of the ship.  Shark would like a flying pig -- or at least, the functional parts -- but that would take too long to put together.
    Shark wants to cover the farm area, which extends out from the town to the remainder of the 100km circular 20m wall.  The barrier is between the town and the open land -- to keep the predators, who are in the town (but not in buildings) safe from the herbivores?
    The 5m wall is about a kilometer in diameter, and has a gate to the town area and another to the open land.  There is no sign of creatures inside that wall.
    A light wind blows from the southwest.  The atmosphere is more tainted here than back at the forest area.
    Nakege is, during the day, pointed away from the gas giant in the system.  A destroyer escort is orbiting the world, which does give them a couple of hours window every now and again to do a limited active scan.
    The first thing Shark determines is the location of the fusion plant here.  The palace itself, some places in the town, and several places within the 5m wall such as outbuildings or some appliances, all those are using power.  The towers that are active are using power; the others are not.
    Now they examine one of the disabled towers.  On top of it was definitely a starship turret, but it's been torn up, physically attacked from the outside apparently.  There are no marks on the white tower material itself.  Another tower shows very similar (but not identical) damage.
    Nightshade descends to 250m, still in stealth mode, to examine the hunters to see if they match the damage.  Oddly enough, they seem to be attracting attention -- they are gathering a group of hunters following them around.  The footballs aren't registering anything, so what is it they are following?  They ascend to 500m, and when they move on, at that altitude the hunters are still gathered around the place they were last at the lower height.
    Staying at 500m, they look for a hunter that seems to be resting, staying still, to get a very detailed scan.  With the destroyer escort at the far side of the world, Shark adds active scans to make a 3D model of the creature.
    In resting state, the body rests on or very near the ground, so nothing is visible of the underside.  The model will show the rest of it, however.
    The front segment of the hunter does have a very impressive pair of jaws.  They are consistent with the damage to the heavy steel turrets on the towers.  It looks to Shark, from the damage to the turrets, that it was a coordinated attack by the hunters on the towers.  There are no laser marks on the turrets, so either they were all taken out at the same time, or couldn't defend each other through the sandstorm, or both of course.  Shark still wonders whether the centipedes are just window dressing and someone else did the attack.
    Nightshade really doesn't leave a wake in the air, although it's possible that in this dense atmosphere there might be enough turbulence at slow speed to be detectable by the hunters.  It's designed to leave no wake at high airspeeds, but the system doesn't work at slow speeds.  It doesn't come into effect until at least 80kph.  Still, it's not likely that they can detect the disturbance, although Imperial military sensors that were looking for it could possibly find it.  Shark notes that to himself that is another way they can be found in stealth mode.
    Shark asks them to descend to 100m near one of them, and try to find out what they're following.  Kalida suggests it might be sonar.  They are invisible to EM, but they are still physically there.
    Immediately Shark finds what he was looking for.  It is indeed ultrasonic sonar.  A quick call to Mich reveals that he doesn't have a countermeasure for that; he adds that the sensors will be ready in about 20 minutes, if Shark would stop interrupting him.
    Shark wonders why they only attacked that once, and haven't attacked any of the other towers in the 300 years since that attack.
    Kalida points out they don't need to attack them.
    Shark's attention then goes to the active towers, to see if they have killed anything.  They have indeed.  Herbivores are more common than hunters, but there are some dead hunters too.  Those that are all at the extreme range of the towers.  There are some live creatures around, but the ones they see alive are all under about two meters.  One of the larger flying creatures is around there too, ignoring them.  This creature is harder to get a good reading, but it's clear it doesn't have anything like the same kind of mandibles.  The "dragon" is long and thin, alternating wing and leg segments, with much smaller jaws in proportion than the hunters.

    Nightshade parks a couple of kilometers up for lunch.  Mich's sensors will be ready soon after.
    During lunch, Shark postulates that the hunters acquired this area as a lair.  They only have to defend that arc.  They should check to see if there are signs of them having defended it, scenes of pitched battles with other tribes or something.  It's pretty clear that they actively knocked out a minimal set of towers and left the rest to defend their lair.  Unless, of course, those ten towers buzzed and annoyed them.  That implies some level of organization.
    Shark isn't clear what they're going to do with the volleyball sensors, but it should be interesting.  They should drop some near the herbivores so they can catch them hunting if they see them.  They need to look for the trash heap, skeletons, along with signs of warfare.  In addition look for nesting or birthing grounds, and to see if they enter any buildings or avoid them.
    He notes that the terrain around the wall doesn't differ significantly from this arc to any other.  There is a little blown sand up against the wall on this side, as well as a little inside the town.  There isn't much -- this is a fairly rocky area.

    With lunch out of the way, they head out to look again at the arc of dead towers.  There are a couple of skeletons in the area that would have been inside the defense area.  It's not clear from here what might have killed them.
    This area is sparsely scattered with small cactus about a meter tall.  There are no other living creatures in view.

    While waiting for a clear window in the destroyer escort's orbit, they return to the town and look for a trash heap.  There isn't a heap as such, but there are herbivore-sized segments incorporated in the barrier around the town, just dumped and piled.  It's hard to tell whether it accounts for hundreds of years of trash, but the wall is long.  The main thing is that there aren't any scattered around randomly.  They might still be just insect-like, but they do have some kind of organization.
    Shark would love to trap one of the skeletons inside the shield, but he doesn't know what will happen if they turn it on with an object in the way.  They know it moved water aside on Goose, but he wants to test it on a solid object.  They move back outside The answer is that the cactus they try it out on goes splat, the soft plant smashed away by the shield rather than being cut by it.
    The danger is that to pick up a body from out here they will have to expose themselves to possible attack.  They have a laser to defend against them, but that doesn't sound quite safe enough.  The cargo lift only extends about 5 meters from the hull, not far enough to get good separation.
    From a distance, Shark's scans indicate the skeleton material is related to the ceramic that's used in the buildings.  He really needs a physical sample to get anything more.
    The hunters are acoustic hunters.  They didn't see any obvious eyes or other sense organs.
    Shark at first volunteers to go down to take the sample, but when Kalida asks if he can do it in battledress, Teri is the obvious candidate.  She isn't too keen on the idea, even with Chuck covering her with his rifle.
    Chuck isn't sure what kind of round to use on these.  A sample of a dead one to fire at would help.  He'd much prefer to be at 500m altitude, however.
    Shark says he could shoot them from 500m, sparking Chuck into a challenging stance and suggesting they see who's the better shot.  Shark backs down quickly and diplomatically, which Chuck acknowledges, saying that trying out some shots on the material would help.  Even then, it won't tell what a live one would be like to shoot, or where to target.
    There are no articulated segments out here.  Everything looks like it's been cleaned.  At least they can pick up a piece of one.  Picking it up remotely isn't going to be easy, and the grapple hooks they have don't look like they're work easily.
    The easiest thing to do is to go down and pick it up.  Chuck points out that they're not sure what they're bringing back in with it.  His suggestion is to take a sample in a sample container, and sterilize the outside before coming back on board.
    Scans indication nothing of consequence alive nearby.  They'll drop Teri down in battledress on a tether, and if anything appears near they'll lift the ship (with Teri dangling) as quickly as possible.  It'll hurt to lift that fast, but they do have a harness to handle it and Lucas promises to try to minimize the damage.
    The segment is about the size of half a cow.  Mich has a clamp that should work to pull it up.  While Teri drops from the cargo lift, Shark and Chuck will be on the deck above it.  This again triggers Chuck standing up to Shark and insisting that it would be better to be on the lift.  Shark's opinion is that would make them vulnerable to ground level attack; Chuck agrees, but says they would have a longer view and a much better shot.  Chuck is the more aggressive, but in this case Shark is the more stubborn: they will take up position on the deck, not the lift.  Chuck continues to mouth off objections, but loads his rifle for "space buffalo" as he puts it, setting up with his long muzzle-loading rifle.
    Oddly enough, the operation is flawless, and conducted with less drama than the setup.  The segment is brought on board, decontaminated, and taken for study.

    The segment is clearly an exoskeleton, not just armor on an otherwise supported creature.  Four channels that could have been major nerve canals run down at the box-corners of the shell.
    The only sign of damage is a neat 10cm hole drilled into the shell.  There is no corresponding exit wound, no signs of heat damage -- it was definitely not a laser shot.  On a closer examination it looks like it was drilled in, with slight marks that could be back and forth saw blades or teeth.  The shell shows no fractures, and there is no sign of the disc.
    Next is material examination.  Yet again, Chuck and Shark face off -- Chuck would like to use the whole segment, structurally intact, as a target.  Shark insists that material samples take priority, enough to take a fusion torch to it with gravitic molding.  This time both think they've won the argument -- Mich simply takes what samples he needs and leaves the rest.
    Mich says he isn't really the person to examine animal remains, but does what he can.  It does seem to be almost some kind of ceramic, a fairly amorphous material which doesn't show any layering.  It is about 2cm thick, smooth like the building material, but with a light brown or beige color rather than white.  It is opaque, and extremely hard.  The uniform color would blend fairly well with the desert.  It is silicon based, but with a very strange composition involving a lot of trace elements and an unclear structure.  It's definitely not crystalline at the microscopic level, almost a glass, a single amorphous unit.
    The hole was definitely bored, like by a hole saw moving back and forth rather than in circles.  Whatever teeth did this were certainly very hard.  Shark says there are analogies among sea creatures on certain worlds that bore through the shell of others, it's certainly plausible.
    Kalida wonders if the creatures are actually organic.
    Shark says it's likely they are not robots in any sense he knows.  They look to be in various sizes, so he assumes they grow.  But when they drop the balls, they'll find out more details.

    The balls are designed to survive a fall from several kilometers, and will not broadcast until pinged.  Shark would like to place some on the flat top of the wall, but they haven't seen these creatures jump or even hunt yet.  They'll start by dropping balls.
    Shark again brings up something that doesn't seem right about this world.  He doesn't think it's right that it rains at the forest.  So he'll want to do a full scan of the world to try to figure this out.

    At this point, they are clear of the orbiting Vemene ship.  Shark runs a quick scan into the ground to try to pick up the aquifer and anything else that might be under there, but he can't really pick it up.  Something about the distance or the ground composition makes it too hard to figure out.
    By now, Lucas has brought them over to the palace itself, about a kilometer up.  There are no antennae visible externally, although there are protuberances that could be internal ones.
    Time to drop balls.  Shark suggests four in the herbivore area, four in the city, and four on top of the wall or buildings.
    The first one that is dropped into the town attracts attention.  The hunters rush over to it, and one of them plucks it out of the air about 10m up and destroys it.  It jumped from about 30m away.
    Kalida suggests dropping something inert and seeing what happens.  There is of course the nose section of Wandering Pearl, but Mich can't really cut a section off it no matter how much Shark wants to see if the hunters can cut hull material.
    Shark bundles his oldest, ugliest suit into a ball and drops that.  This one hits the ground before it gets pounced on, but pounced on it is from about 20m away, jumped straight onto it.  Perhaps if they wrapped a sensor ball in cloth and parachuted it down it might survive, but that would compromise the sensors.  Shark says Mich can make more armored ones for another try.
    One more sensor to try in town, and then they'll move on to the herbivore area.  This one Shark sets to be broadcasting actively on the way down, and he wants to see and hear the whole experience.
    This one gets snagged about 15m up from about 20m away.  There is a green flash, then a closeup of jaws coming in.  Shark plays it back slowly, analyzing the data as it plays.  There is first the echolocation, ultrasonic as they expected.  There is no throat -- there is no mouth where the jaws are.  What they do see are three worm-like appendages that pop up out of door-like openings in the shell before the hunter jumps.  As those pop up, there's a green flash that blinds the camera, and then there's the closeup of the jaws.
    "It emitted light," says Shark.  He pulls up the external sensor log of the event, slowing it down for precise detail.  Yes, the hunter emitted light from the three appendages, lighting up dots on the sensor.
    "Interesting," says Shark.  "It's echolocating, it used a flash of light... and it used laser ranging.  This is wild."
    The appendages are definitely organic, worm-like.  The organic lasers don't have to use reflection, just the distance between the dots to give it a distance -- more accurate and quick than the sonar.  It presumably picks up the target with sonar, then quickly locates it precisely with the laser.  "We need a biologist," says Shark.
    They then drop four of the sensors near the herbivores, which ignore them.  They'll need to come back and ping the sensors in the next three days before they run out of storage.
    The herbivores in this area are more dense than they are outside the palace wall.  Shark runs a cataloging scan of them so they can perhaps see if any are missing later.  He is surprised to find that the creatures differ not just in length, but in number of segments.  There are smaller ones that are presumably juveniles, but the fully grown ones are all about the same thickness, but have different lengths.  Shark suggests that perhaps the hunters aren't eating the whole creature, just segment by segment.

    Next they move over the palace building, up a kilometer or so, and eat dinner while waiting for the Vemene ship to move past them again.

    They come out of stealth and ping the tower with a standard hailing call.  There is no response, but as it starts to get darker below the street lights come on with associated power drains.  Back into stealth, and descend a little to look closely at the buildings.
    There are some buildings with larger open doors, perhaps storage buildings.  There are some creatures inside the building, but all they can see with this limited view are normal sized ones.  They are now certain that none of the creatures are inside the palace section.

    This will do for this trip.  They'll now drop the Forest Lodge group back to the mansion, while Nightshade will move on to do a full orbital scan of the world overnight.  Shark and Lucas will have a long night.

    It's late evening now, around 10pm local time.  The Assistant Seneschal hopes the Marchioness had a pleasant day, which she assures him she did.  Kalida, Sir Misha, Mich, and Teri then settle down with a glass or two of bourbon, then retire for the night.

    The scan does quickly reveal something strange about Nakege.  There is a ridge of high mountains running all the way around the world from pole to pole.  Crow is near this range, and the areas to the west of the mountain ridges are definitely wetter.  The forest extends more to north and south than it does to the west.  That is consistent with the prevailing wind, but Shark is not convinced that this is enough to account for the difference in weather.  Perhaps there are Ancient technology water pumps operating here, for example.