(24) Underworld

The Regency Campaign (29/1573)

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29/1573 (277+278-1123) (cont.) : Nakege / Jewell / Spinward Marches

   Back on board Nightshade, the crew is discussing what the revelation about they found underneath the Forest Lodge while the Seneschals were asleep on the ship.
   They've seen black tech, silver tech, and the other tech they found on Victoria, but there is none of that here. For one thing, as Shark points out, if they did then they wouldn't be using meson guns – unless they're like Nightshade's lasers, just to locate the target. This has all seemed entirely Imperial, except for the building material, that is.
   Shark runs scans around and below the Forest Lodge. He sees nothing as far down as he can see, except for the elevator shaft. Their technology is not reaching down very far, which is most unusual. There is something about the rock, or the soil, or something, that's limiting their penetration to around 200m. He says that he could see putting a mining facility on this planet, if only for the white ceramic building material, but this is clearly more than that. His next move is to triangulate the black tech flashlight, which with Mich's help indicates that they were around a kilometer underground. That gives them an idea of the layout. The railroad heads directly east-west, while the elevator room is oriented north-south, which corresponds to its orientation in the Forest Lodge. Straight ahead to the north is the warehouse area, while the offices are to the south.
   On the surface, there is nothing much to the north of the Lodge. The forest continues for some time, as the mountain range to the east runs north-south. So there is a huge warehouse facility. Large objects must be able to get into this area, since they obviously aren't loading them through the Forest Lodge itself. There must be, as Shark says, some facility on this side of the mountain that they don't know about. There has to be a door to the surface, probably north of here.
   The palace is to the west of the Lodge, a couple of thousand kilometers. Shark says all they probably need to do to get the train running – which they need to do, obviously – is flip the switch. But do they really want to do that?
   Misha wants to give the Seneschals a chance to tell them about the underground complex. If not, they can just go in again themselves, of course. They've been asleep overnight, about 12 hours since they invited them on-board. It's now late morning. He says they should wait until it's been 14 hours, and then wake them for lunch. Then they'll let them go.
   Shark advises Misha that they don't want them walking around the ship, and the Captain changes his mind. First the crew will eat lunch, then they'll take them down, put them on the ground, and only then will they wake them up. Then they'll talk to them.

   So, after lunch, they direct the servants out of the way, carry the Seneschals to comfy chairs in the Forest Lodge, and then wake them up for an interview by Misha, Shark, and Kalida.
   Misha starts by apologizing to them for the inconvenience, then the Marchioness takes over the questioning. She speaks to Beatrice, although it's clear she's addressing both of the Seneschals. She says that Beatrice had said that a reason she was there was to ensure the facilities here were used for their original intention. What were they originally intended to do?
   Beatrice apologizes, and says that she is not at liberty to answer that question.
   Kalida says, “You did seem to indicate that whatever the original intention was, it was more or less in line with what you believe my intentions would be.”
   “I believe so,” says the Seneschal.
   “What exactly do you believe my intentions are?”
   “I think we have discussed this. You appear to be a supporter of the Imperium, it's continued existence.”
   Shark can barely suppress a chuckle, thinking that was also true of Santanocheev. No-one seems to have noticed his reaction.
   That was Kalida's thought too. On reflection, however, she admits to herself that she actually has quite a lot in common with Santanocheev. It was still a non-answer on Beatrice's part, however. The Seneschals look around as there is a definite pause in the conversation.
   Misha says, “Are there Imperial facilities on this planet that you are not allowed to show us?”
   Beatrice says brightly, “Yes, absolutely!”
   “Why are they here, or why am I not allowed to show you them?” Misha's glare clearly indicates he means both. She continues, “Well, if I was allowed to show you, I could tell you why they are here. And I don't actually have access to most of them myself, I believe.”
   “Most of them?” asks Misha. “There are more than one?”
   “Well, there are Imperial facilities here, but you know, we can't get into the Palace.”
   “Are we forbidden from entering the Palace?” As Beatrice shakes her head, Misha clarifies, “I meant strictly 'may', not 'can'.”
   “Ah,” says Beatrice, “Well it's certainly true that we can't get into the Palace.”
   “I'm sure there are ways,” says Kalida quietly.
   Misha again emphasizes he wants to know if there are places she isn't allowed to show them.
   Beatrice says, “I expect Mr. Teeth here might be able to speculate on why I'm not allowed to show you everything that happens to be here.”
   Kalida says, “But we can speculate on our own. We are more interested in what you might say.”
   “That is pretty much all I have to say. I'm sure there are clues around here somewhere. I'm sure the place hasn't been cleaned up that absolutely thoroughly.”
   Misha says, “So which of you are required to prevent us from entering?”
   Beatrice says, “That's a grey area. I certainly have no reason to make it easy – that's not strictly true, I probably have reasons to make it easy, but I shouldn't. My duty says I shouldn't.”
   “To who?”
   “We are all on the same side here, right?”
   Misha leans back and says, “As a foreigner to your wonderful land, it this not a Marchioness's lodge? And the Palace? Is this her planet?”
   “It's under her jurisdiction. She is the noble with authority in this system.”
   “And yet there are facilities which she would not be allowed to enter. Is this typical?”
   Even Kalida nods at that. She says, “There is more than one hierarchy. Every one has different interests.”
   Beatrice adds, “Although a lot of the time, different interests do align.”
   This time the pause drags on, and the Nightshade crew exchange glances. They seem to be done with questions for the time.
   Shark is not quite done, however. He says, “On a purely personal note, would you personally be disappointed if we failed to follow your misdirections?”
   “I am finding your adventures fascinating. I would be very interested to hear what happened while we were out of commission.”
   Shark grins. “Are we at liberty to tell?” he asks Kalida, who simply smiles.
   Misha says, “I believe we were officially travelling to and from destinations unknown.” He looks around, then says, “Well, let's get everybody in here, and go answer those questions.”

   By “everybody”, he means Robert, maybe Mich, and definitely Teri, who will be equipped in full battledress with her choice of load-out. Lucas and Chuck can look after Nightshade. Shark wants it set up so that Lucas can follow a beacon, since he is expecting them to travel some distance, but there are major technical difficulties that will prevent that. The Seneschals will not be invited, but if they ask, they will be allowed to come.

   On seeing the rest of the team arrive, Beatrice has a question of her own for the Marchioness. “Why is there a marine in unmarked battledress entering the Lodge?”
   “Because I asked her,” replies Kalida brightly.
   “Where are you taking her?”
   “I don't really know. That remains to be seen. However, every time I go into some place where I'm not really sure where I'm going to go, I find it very useful to have a marine in battledress.”
   “How can you not know where to go in here?”
   “We are not at liberty to say,” replies Misha.
   “Would you mind if I come with you?” asks Beatrice.
   “That would be up to the Captain,” says Kalida, “He's in charge of the away team.”
   “With some caveats,” says Misha. “If you get in our way, I'll kill you.”
   “That's fair,” says Beatrice.
   The Assistant Seneschal is just standing aside, letting them get on with it. He just seems to be accepting whatever is going on, and will get on with his job and make sure the place is nice when they get back. The Marchioness can do what she likes.

   Robert walks up to the locked door and walks through the door, not without breaking his stride but with only a slight pause. The rest of the team follow him. Shark is at the back, watching Beatrice, as Robert leads them into the connecting room. Beatrice does not look surprised, but perhaps there is the slight hint of a smile.

   Once at the lower level, Misha takes them into the office area first. He asks Robert if there is anything more that he can get off the computers; Robert shakes his head. He then asks Robert to look for any control over the trains.
   There are perhaps a dozen office suites back here. Shark goes to investigate them, and looks in each one. None of them are locked, and all look the same. One down at the end has the tactical display like this one, a mirror to this, but none of the others are special in any way. He was looking for a facilities maintenance unit, but that doesn't seem to be present.
   Kalida goes to the tactical system and looks for the railway. That's a little trickier to work on, since it's logistic rather than tactical, but everything is here. The railway is marked as not operational, but it is in the system. In fact, all the railway systems are not operational. The seven railway lines systems are listed by codes.
   By now, Shark has come in from his search for a facilities unit, and has been watching Kalida. He seems lost in thought, no doubt speculating how the lines might connect the deep meson sites, the Palace, and the Forest Lodge.
   “Can I help?” asks Beatrice. “You understand I've only had a fairly brief look at this myself.”
   “What's this facility for?” asks Misha.
   “This is to brief non-military people on the state of the systems.”
   “No, I mean the whole area.”
   “Right now, they don't seem to be for anything much. They don't seem to be operational yet. They probably could be put into effect fast enough to make a difference, but...”
   “And that effect would be?”
   “Pretty much doing nothing for a while.”
   Shark says, “Difference to what?”
   Beatrice says, “I told you what this is for. To do nothing.” Her wave seems to encompass the whole underground facility.
   Misha says he'd like a map of the facility.
   Beatrice says that they don't have one – it's in the Palace, like everything else.
   In the absence of that, Misha asks if she can give a rough layout or description of this facility.
   She points out that in order to answer their questions, they have to demonstrate that they themselves know enough about it already. Being fairly specific, and hinting that they know something about it, that's enough for her to be able to help them.
   Beatrice continues, “In this facility here, there are a number of warehouses for storing supplies decentralized from the Palace. It is assumed that the Forest Lodge would not be much of a target, and being also well away from any possible military target. So if necessary, it would be possible to hole up here for a good long time. Warehouses, administrative facilities, there is a small power plant capable of running this area on standby if needed. Living quarters as well, on the other side of the tracks.”
   Shark says, “And the control systems for the trains?”
   “On board the trains. It wasn't designed for a lot of rail traffic.”
   Kalida asks, “Can we make them operational from here?”
   “They can run back and forth along this section. Within the limitations of the completion of the system.”
   Shark says, “They're completed to the Palace.”
   “No. There is a small amount to be completed at the far end. The Palace end of the railway was one of the last facilities to be put in place on this particular line. There are other operational lines, and lines that could be made operational.”
   Kalida asks, “How many of them are complete?”
   “I'm not sure. That information is at the Palace.”
   Misha asks, “Is there a train line that is complete to the Palace?”
   “Yes. It's not connected to here. There are lines connected to meson gun installations. There are lines connected to alternate entrances, and no, I don't know where they are. They are not on this display, and the plans would be at the Palace. This place has an alternate entrance, but it hasn't been completed either. The Forest Lodge was kind of an afterthought.”
   “Where does the other direction go from here?” asks Misha.
   “I'm not sure. It goes east. I'm guessing there's probably an alternate entrance in the mountains.”

   Kalida thinks there should be a way of figuring out from the tactical display what is connected to what. She starts with the rail lines, but there is no connection listed here. The meson gun locations are marked, but there is no correlation to the railways.
   To cross to the residential area is about a kilometer to the east from here along the platform. There are two train lines to cross, each somewhat semicircular and about 5m in diameter. The train itself is dropped down into the hollow.
   Misha checks his communicator. There is definitely no way to communicate with Nightshade from here. He suggests they go ahead and check the train now. It's essentially a gravcraft, surely, which means they can probably operate it. Not having to steer would reduce their chances of crashing it.

   The team pass back through the elevator into the warehouse, and straight through there to the platform. There is a train waiting there, clearly not powered up in any way. Beatrice expresses doubt that this train has ever run before, but the team laugh that they have experience with vehicles that have never run before.
   There has to be an access ladder somewhere to reach the top of the train for a hatch. Mich looks around, and notices a small hut at the back of the platform. Misha fetches a wheeled ladder from there and they deploy it.
   Once Mich locates the hatch, Misha and Robert climb up to get it. Misha unlocks it and opens the door, and Robert immediately slides off it and falls off the top of the train, landing awkwardly with a thump. He's jammed where the train meets the hollow, and obviously in need of medical attention.
   Misha shouts an explicative and looks meaningfully at Shark.
   Shark is lowered down on a rope and checks Robert's condition. He has a broken ankle. It will be safe to pull Robert straight out, but it will hurt. Shark numbs his leg, climbs up, and Teri pulls Robert out to the platform. It's not long before Shark has him splinted and mobile, if rather awkwardly.
   Meanwhile, Mich joins Misha at the top of the train. They climb down inside. Mich quickly identifies the basics, and powers up the train. None of them have any experience with gravtrains, of course, but to an all around engineer like Mich it presents no problem. The train lifts up to perfect alignment with the platform.
   Opening the doors is harder, though, and when Mich tries to do so the train starts accelerating rapidly towards the west instead. He stops it and backs it up slowly, stopping back where it was originally.
   This time Misha opens the doors. Ramps extend to the platform.

   The team all board the train, including Beatrice and the walking wounded. They take their seats, and Mich starts the train moving west towards the Palace. Inertial compensators leave no sensation of movement. Mich turns on the lights, hoping there is a collision avoidance system; he can't find one.
   The platform continues for a while, but all they see are large doors which presumably lead to warehouses. The train accelerates. The tunnel is not lit, but the headlights illuminate the way ahead for a fair distance. The tunnel does not seem to curve.
   Mich experiments with the controls. The “Express Enabled” indicator light comes on. He cranks it up to about 400kph. He applies the brakes hard, but the train doesn't slow down as quickly as he'd hoped. That seems like the fastest they'll want to go to give them a chance of stopping before any obstruction.
   It would take about 7-1/2 hours to get to the Palace at this speed. Mich suggests setting up a laser rangefinder through the window, but Teri is not happy with this – it's the equivalent of aiming a spaceship blindly at the ground and hoping you can stop. She wants a human watching ahead, and she's not the only one who thinks that. The plan is to go for as long as it takes.
   They set up a rotation of watches for the train controls. To stop involves coming out of Express first – Express is required for speeds over 120 – then operating the slowdown sequence.
   The refreshment station looks like it was restocked only about 60 years ago, not 400 as Shark had feared. He thinks that's odd.
   Misha takes the first hour, followed by Shark, Kalida, and Mich. Misha then takes his second shift, and that's when they see the wall. Misha starts the sequence and brings the train to a halt. Mich takes over and takes them slowly up to the barrier.
   It's just a wall. The tunnel simply stops, with no machinery or equipment, or terminal landing, in sight. They're well over the halfway point, but about a thousand kilometers away still from the Palace.
   Shark clambers out of the train and walks up to the wall. The wall looks genuine and perfectly normal, rough with machining marks. The whole tunnel is white ceramic. The sides have been finished, but look too well finished to be native rock; either it's been coated, or a coating has been formed from native rock. Mich suggests the wall being ceramic is a side effect of the process.

   They move to the other end of the train. None of the doors are locked except the one into the engineer's station, and that doesn't stay locked for long. Mich transfers control to this end, then starts on the way back. At least now they know how far to go, so they can go much faster. The plan is to reach the Lodge station quickly, then proceed slowly through the area they haven't seen yet. Mich programs the train to do that.
   The bottle of Blockade Bourbon in the refreshment cart was bottled 80 years ago. It was unopened, but Kalida fixes that quickly. Beatrice joins in the appreciation of Nakege's most significant product.

   It takes a lot less time to get back. They're at the Lodge station in a mere two hours. The train drops out of Express, slips into the platform area at 120, slows down and comes to a stop about 300 meters past where they started.
   Mich starts them moving again, travelling another 700m to where a bridge crosses the tracks. There are two tracks here all along the platform, although they merged into one after leaving the platform area. Two trains could have passed only at the station. It would have been physically possible to change tracks on the way back, but they had not explored how to do that.
   At the bridge, the roof of the tunnel is cut away to allow a lot of clearance for that bridge. The bridge itself is 6m wide, with a smooth surface that could be driven over.

   The team disembarks and walks over the bridge. It has a curious feature in that the gravity is maintained normal to the surface all the way across. The curve is not drastic, but would be fairly steep in places.
   Across the other side is a large ornate arch meant to look like large doors carved from white ceramic. While everyone else is looking for the lock, Misha simply walks up to the door. It slides aside.
   The area beyond is like a road. If there was a sky, this would be a main street. The “sky” is 12m above them. Ahead, the main road extends about a kilometer. Either side are living quarters, two stories tall. The upper story is connected with catwalks and ornate bridges. Further down the road is what looks like a commercial district. Side streets go off at intervals.
   Shark leads them to one of the residential suites. It's not locked. It's a two bedroom apartment, more spacious than a space station, less than on a normal world. It's similar to what one would find in a large city on a world like Jewell. Not spacious, but comfortable.
   He steps back outside, and quickly estimates that this could house about 5000 people. That accounts for the commercial district, and of course there is no-one living in that park down there. It seems to be designed not to look cramped, but the construction is only on the outside edges of the streets – it appears that there is nothing in the solid block behind the apartments between the streets.
   Beatrice looks surprised. Shark asks her if it's because it's large, or because it's small.
   She says, “I expected living quarters, but I did not expect this. Although I could certainly live here for an extended period.”
   Shark wonders where aristocrats would live in a place like this? It would probably be near, but not too near, the central area.
   Kalida says it would probably be at the far end of the park.
   A short walk takes them there. That indeed looks like a noble residence, with a large ornate door and many windows. It looks like it's probably larger than the Forest Lodge. The question is, when was it stocked? They go to find out.
   The door is locked. Robert has no trouble with it, although he isn't exactly in a state to walk through without breaking his limp. The door slides aside.
   This would be an ornate entrance hall, except that it is completely unfurnished. That probably means, Shark points out, that it is not stocked either. It's likely that this is where the leader of the base would live, and there is probably a secret control section accessible from it somewhere.
   Kalida says this would be an official residence, quite possibly her own emergency shelter. She says that a backup tactical center would not be here. This looks to be very much a civilian residence, and anything military would be elsewhere. She asks Beatrice if all those warehouses would be exactly that, or if they could be military installations.
   Beatrice says that she doesn't believe there was much of a military contingent here. There would be an alternate command center somewhere, but not here, that's what the Assistant Seneschal had lead her to understand. Assistant Seneschal tradition says it's not here, but the records of course would be at the Palace. He hasn't personally investigated this area much himself, just the tactical display, keeping an eye on the Tukera ships and making sure they're doing their job.
   Shark does a double-take. “He's making sure they're doing their job?” he says. He turns to Kalida and says, “Why is your Assistant Seneschal making sure they are doing their job?”
   Kalida says, “The answer to that has to be, to keep the system isolated.”
   “Right. Which means that un-isolating it might be far more difficult than we expected.”
   “As long as the place stays isolated, which we intended anyway, I don't see that the method of isolation really matters.”
   Beatrice says, “No, but this one's in place.”
   Shark says, “It is a thorn in the social side of the Marchioness.”
   “Well, yes, but you know, such is the cost of making the system worthless.”
   “To whose benefit?”
   “The Imperium, of course.”
   Shark rephrases the question. “To what benefit?”
   “You'll have to be more specific,” says Beatrice. “I can only tell you what you partly already know.”
   “You sound like a certain AI,” smiles Shark.
   “You just have to ask the right questions.”
   Kalida says, “The question isn't so much how it benefits the Imperium, but who is deciding?”
   Shark disagrees, “Who is deciding, yes, but what do they get out of that is still the important question. There is a reason behind the secret. If there's a secret refitting base...”
   “There isn't,” interjects Beatrice. “It would show up.”
   “You can't see through more than a few meters of this rock, so it wouldn't have showed up.”
   “Well, it would have showed up on the tactical display.”
   “Only if the owners of the tactical display had wanted it to show up. You don't control the display, you see what is shown.”
   “True. That is a very good point. I still don't believe there to be a refitting area here, because of course this shouldn't be a base of Naval operations, not primarily. That would make it a target.”
   “Why is it so important not to be a target?” muses Shark to himself quietly.
   It's now getting on towards evening, and Kalida brings up the more immediate question of how much exploring they want to do.
   None of the living areas are stocked, but the train is, and they're only 20 minutes from the Forest Lodge itself. Robert wants somewhere with better medical attention, clearly meaning the facilities on Nightshade. They start to head back, continuing the discussion on the way.

   Beatrice is clearly fascinated. She had no idea this was here. Shark wants to know what is behind those warehouse doors. Beatrice thinks that supplying all these people for a hundred years or so would take a lot of storage space, but does concede that the doors are certainly big.
   Shark and Kalida turn to speculating why, 300 years ago, they would build a place here to hide people. The Zhodani weren't threatening too much at that point, although it wasn't too far off the end of the Second Frontier War.
   Shark says, “You would build a facility on the expectation that you would be overrun, and that it would be pushed back again after some period. Why would someone think they needed to hide out, and not be able to escape?”
   Beatrice says, “Why would you escape?”
   “What is here to stay for?”
   “Nothing. That's the point.”
   “Exactly. So why not escape?”
   “How could you benefit the Imperium if you escaped?”
   “How would you benefit the Imperium by burying yourself in a hole?”
   “There’s burying, and there's burying. You can stick your head out occasionally and cause a little trouble.”
   “My point is that there is no reason for royalty to stay here.”
   “Royalty would retreat before the front line.”
   To the group as a whole, Shark says, “Beatrice's implication is that you're going to put in a covert operations base here. But this isn't a military base, it's a civilian base that's here.”
   Beatrice says, “If you're going to be here for a long time, you'd better have the civilian infrastructure.”
   Shark still doesn't understand why here, what was so volatile about this region at that point.
   Kalida points out that it has a history of being volatile in this area.
   Beatrice agrees: you have to take the long view. “You can't set up something like this unless you do it well in advance. Too many people will remember it.”
   Kalida says, “Right. But what triggered it?”
   Shark smiles, “And which way are the meson guns aimed?”
   “Up,” says Beatrice. “They're not intended to be used except in an emergency.”
   “Right, but if you're discovered you can't protect yourself.”
   “No, but in a backwater a single ship vanishing isn't going to cause much trouble.”

   The return to the Forest Lodge is uneventful. Beatrice asks if her Ladyship will be dining here tonight, and Kalida says they will. Shark and Robert will of course be taking a walk and will be back later.
   Over dinner, Kalida says that while it would be easy to take out any ships they didn't want in the system anymore, Beatrice seems to think that not only would it be easy but that there would be no long-term ramifications.
   Beatrice says that should a circumstance arise where it's necessary, that should be possible. It would have to be a lot higher state of alert than it is right now.
   Kalida agrees that the state of alert is exceedingly low right now.
   Beatrice agrees... kind of. It's not as low as the Marchioness may think it is. Certain interests are acting to stir things up around here, and the Zhodani are a little more active on Jewell than she might think. This is not quite the peaceful border it looks like. There is a lot going on around here – but not in this system. Nothing goes on around here.
   Misha wonders if this is perhaps a safe place for Mongo. He doesn't know enough about how money works in the Imperium. If Mongo were attacked, is there stuff that could be moved here to keep it safe, or does that not apply in the way money works here.
   The Assistant Seneschal fields this one. There are certain assets, certain artworks, certain precious materials, certain paper assets, that could be physically moved around. In general it would take the form of an electronic transfer carried by a ship. If there was any kind of warning at all, the virtual assets would be taken off planet quickly.
   Beatrice says that the last thing they want is anything valuable coming here.
   Except the Bourbon, of course. Mich points out that they have large warehouses where they could store a lot of bourbon.

   Back on Nightshade, Shark has been working on Robert. It will take him some time to get better, but not too long.